Was the T-26 a match for the Panzer II,III, and IV in the early stages of Barbarossa?

The T-34 has been given a lot of credit as the tipping point where Soviet technology created a weapons platform that was as good as if not better than Wehrmacht armor, but how much of the hype is true?

I understand that you can approach this from a purely technical perspective (based on armor, armament, deflective armor, did it have radio communication, etc.) But I'm interested in considering armored doctrine a factor as well.

I want to compare unit for unit parity, let's say at the platoon or company level.

12 Answers 12


I want to compare unit for unit parity, let's say at the platoon or company level.

Let's say the equivalent of a German and Soviet armored company approach each other in 1941, 1943 and 1945. Evaluating the equipment in a vacuum is not interesting. To appreciate why the Germans dominated in 1941, why they lost that dominance, and why the T-34 is considered the best tank of the war requires looking at the whole picture. Here's what I'll consider for who wins...

  • Quantity of tanks they're likely to have
  • Type of tank they're likely to be equipped with
  • Quality of that equipment (scopes, welding, radios, etc...)
  • Readiness (ie. how often they break down)
  • Crew training and tactics
  • Supporting units (air, artillery, infantry)

Here's the break down for summer 1941 at the opening of Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets have vast quantities of tanks, about 13,000 on the western front vs the German's 3,350 for the invasion. But the Soviet tanks are dispersed while the German tanks are concentrated allowing the Germans to gain local superiority in numbers.

Less than half of the German tanks are modern Panzer IIIs or IVs, most were the adequate Pz38 or the less adequate Panzer II or even Panzer Is. The Soviets are fielding mostly T-26 and BT-7s with a 45mm gun (quite adequate for the time) but their armor is a joke. The T-34 and KV series will wipe the floor with most German tanks, but they only exist in small numbers and are unlikely to appear at this point in the war.

In 1941, German armored tactics and training are the best in the world. There is a radio in every tank allowing fine command and control. German optics are fantastic giving them advantages in long range engagements. German planning and logistics ensure a ready supply of fuel, ammunition and intelligence.

The Soviets, in contrast, are the worst. Most crews have received little training and little instruction. Their optics are terrible, if they exist at all. Radios are reserved only for command tanks to speak with upper echelons, individual units must communicate with flags. As a result, their tactics are simple and very slow to change. Their logistics are a mess and many tanks have inadequate ammunition and fuel and often no idea where they are and where the enemy is. Maintenance is poor and breakdowns are common.

The Luftwaffe dominates the skies and can attack at will. The Soviet air force is destroyed in the first week. Unlike most other air forces, the Luftwaffe's mission is to support the army and a German ground commander can count on excellent air support. The world will see nothing like this air-to-ground coordination and dominance until the Allies roll through France in 1944.

In 1941, the Germans wipe the floor with the Soviets. A well trained, well supplied, concentrated German armored unit on the attack is likely to run into packets of confused, surprised, poorly armored T-26s and BT-7s rolling across open fields. Even if a rare T-34 or KV-1 does appear, the Germans have experience with the Allies fighting superior tanks. With their superior training, tactics and communication they can rapidly outflank and destroy it, or use their radios to call in an air strike or artillery.

Fast forward to summer 1943, the Battle of Kursk. Much has changed. The Soviets have learned, and the Germans have lost. Both have bled. The Germans have lost the initiative and Hitler hopes to regain it in one throw of the dice. The Soviets will be ready.

On the Soviet side, 12,000 T-34s poured off the production lines in 1942 and 15,000 more will come in 1943 along with thousands of SU self-propelled guns and hundreds of KV/IS tanks. All previous designs have been dropped as a waste of production, everything is focused on T-34 and KV/IS hulls. The 76mm gun is now considered the minimum with some vehicles carrying 100mm, 122mm and even 152mm guns.

German production is struggling so badly and their needs so desperate that rather than stop production to retool some factories are still producing thousands of obsolete Panzer II, 38t and III hulls. These hulls are used to make self-propelled guns like the Marder, Wespe, Grille and StuG III. Only 3,500 Panzer IVs will come off the production lines, even upgraded they struggle against the T-34. Their salvation is supposed to be the Panther and the Tiger, but only 2,000 and 700 will be produced this year with many teething problems to hamper their effectiveness.

The KV tanks and T-34 proved such a shock to the Germans in 1941 and was so superior to even the Pz III and IV that Heinz Guderian suggested the Germans copy it. Instead the Germans examined captured T-34s and decided to upgun the Panzer III, convert the Stug III and Panzer IV infantry support vehicles into anti-tank vehicles by replacing their main armament with a 75mm anti-tank gun, hurry along the Tiger heavy tank, and incorporate the T-34's sloped armor, firepower, and mobility, but not its simplicity, into what would become the Panther.

Soviet tank production is aimed in one direction, west towards Germany. In contrast the Germans are spread thin fighting the Soviets and the Allies in Italy as well as defending thousands of miles of coastline waiting for the expected Allied invasion. German tanks will be scattered all over Europe further reducing their numbers facing the Soviets.

German quality remains very high, with some slippage due to hurried production, increasing use of slave labor, and harried logistics and transport. Soviet quality has improved greatly. Radios are appearing, optics have improved. The simplicity of the T-34 means poor quality and hurried production does not translate into poor combat performance.

Due to their high losses, German crew training has plummeted. German tanks and tactics are complex and require much training to be done effectively. This is further hampered by the tendency for experienced crews to remain in the fight rather than go home to train.

Soviet training and tactics are... not entirely criminally negligent. Soviet tanks are simple to operate, and Soviet tactics are equally simple. The tendency is still to charge at the enemy and fire on the move closing the distance to negate the German advantages in gunnery and maneuver. The difference between 1941 and 1943 is the T-34 has the armor to survive this tactic, and the Soviets have learned to concentrate their armor.

German commanders have the advantage of a three-man turret (commander, loader and gunner). The commander only has to command greatly raising their situational awareness. The T-34 is hampered by it's inefficient two-man turret (commander/gunner, loader) and overworked commander.

German logistics are strained both by the scale of the war effort and their now very long supply lines. Fuel is becoming scarce, but ammunition is still plentiful. German maintenance remains excellent, but is hampered by the complexity of their designs and their numerous spare parts. While the Panzer IV is a mature design, the Panther and Tiger are as likely to be knocked out by breaking down as by enemy fire.

Soviet logistics have improved, but remain spartan by Western standards. However, short supply lines, enormous production and a limited number of designs means lavish ammunition is available. Maintenance is poor, but sufficient for the simple T-34. Intelligence and planning has improved, tank commanders will now have some idea what's in front of them.

The air is hotly contested and neither side can count on air support. The Luftwaffe has lost air superiority, but the Soviets have hardly gained it. The dearth of radios in Soviet tanks means they cannot call down close-air support. However, the IL-2 can brave conditions that would rip other aircraft to shreds and units are willing to absorb heavy casualties. In contrast, the Ju-87 Stuka is revealed for the lumbering, slow, vulnerable aircraft it always was; without air superiority it is suicidal to fly.

In 1943 our two units are likely to be composed of StuG IIIs and Panzer IVs on the German side and T-34s on the Soviet. The StuG III is an infantry assault gun pressed into service as a tank destroyer. They possess a good gun, good armor and are good at hiding. Best of all, they're cheap. The Panzer IV and T-34 are roughly equal in armor and armament. Given equal numbers, and with their superior tactics, training, radios and optics, the Germans would likely win. But there won't be equal numbers. The Soviets have 2 to 3 times the tanks and tank destroyers on the Eastern Front as the Germans.

Even so, the Soviets took staggering losses. From what research I could find, the Soviets were losing fighting vehicles almost as fast as they could make them. However, it's not clear how much of this was due to tank-on-tank losses, breakdowns, or infantry weapons. The Germans focused much effort on developing and producing the Panzerfaust and equipping tank hunting teams.

In 1943, the German have lost air superiority, most of their technological edge, and are still fighting at a numerical disadvantage. But they retain their edge in tactics and training which proves decisive to at least fight the Soviets to a stand-still until the disaster at Kursk. The T-34 has great numbers and great potential, but it's squandered by poor training, poor tactics, and a poor turret design. The lumbering KV tank is evolving into the eventually terrifying IS tank, but is not available in sufficient numbers. Soviet high command is making great advances, but the Germans are still able to make some sweeping victories. The Germans still have the edge, but it is rapidly diminishing. They put their faith in increasingly heavy, complex and expensive tanks to save them. Their "wonder weapons" will not stem the tide.

It's February 1945. The Battle Of The Bulge has failed and with it goes the cream of the German offensive reserves. The Eastern Front is rapidly crumbling and the Soviets are only 50 miles from Berlin. There is no hope for Germany to win, but they fight on.

Amazingly, the Germans crank out nearly 20,000 AFVs during 1944. 1,700 Jagdpanzer 38s, 4,000 StuG IIIs, 1,000 StuG IVs, 1,700 Jagdpanzer IVs, 3,000 Panzer IVs, 4,000 Panthers and 1,000 Tigers. The supply complexity is further hampered by continuing to produce six hulls.

The Soviets have put out 28,000 AFVs in 1944. They continue their two hull policy, everything is derived from the T-34 or KV/IS. This simplifies production and logistics. 7,000 SU-76s (now barely adequate), 3,500 T-34s, 10,500 T-34/85s, 2,300 SU-85, 100 and 122s, 2,200 IS-2s, and 2,500 ISU-122s.

As before, the near match in numbers does not work out for the Germans. They are now fighting on three fronts (Italy, France and Soviet) and have made some very poor choices about how to allocate their armor. Many heavy tanks, sorely needed in the East, are sent against thin American armor in the West and Italy only to be destroyed by Allied air power. The Soviets field over 12,000 fighting vehicles while the Germans can likely scrape together less than 3,000 on the Eastern front.

The Panther is now being produced in number, and many of the teething problems are solved. Its armor and mobility is excellent, and the 75mm/L70 gun easily penetrate the front armor of a T-34 at range. However, the Tiger will always remain a heavy, fuel hungry, temperamental, expensive waste of resources. The majority of German armor is now cheaper self-propelled guns.

The T-34/85 fixes many of the problems with the T-34, but it remains an early war design. Its 85mm gun could see off most German vehicles, but it struggled against the front armor of a Panther or Tiger. The new turret finally gave it a 3-man crew with more room (by Soviet standards) and allowing the commander to command. Despite some effort to improve the armor, it was now inadequate. This was made up for by numbers, but also the availability of the IS-2 heavy tank and many heavily armored SU tank destroyers.

German training and tactics continued to plummet, Soviet continued to improve. Both sides had to replace staggering loses, but the loss in experience and training would hurt the Germans far more. The Germans had always relied on superior tactics to win battles, while the Soviets did not. The Soviets were making less mistakes, and the Germans were making more. Hitler was interfering more and more, while Stalin and his political officers were interfering less.

Soviet tanks were never particularly reliable, and now they had traveled long distances putting wear on their equipment and were fighting with extended supply lines. Still, the Soviets kept their units supplied. In contrast, the German supply lines were now very short. However, their logistics system was shattered by Allied bombing. Much of what was produced in Germany never reached the front. Fuel was scarce and mobility limited making it difficult for the Germans to concentrate their armor, conduct an offensive or a mobile defense.

The skies were dominated by the Soviets, and the Soviet artillery support was lavish. In a set piece battle with plenty of time to plan, or roving across the countryside in search of targets, it was devastating. Tactically it was still hampered by poor communications.

In 1945 a Soviet unit is equally likely to be equipped with T-34/85s, SU/76s or a more capable tank destroyer. The Germans will likely have tank destroyers. If they do have tanks they will be Panzer IVs or Panthers. The Soviets are on the attack, have superior numbers and have learned to concentrate their forces. The Germans are on the defense, have inferior numbers, are spread thin and no longer have the fuel to concentrate. Our hypothetical battle will likely be a large number of Soviet T-34/85s with a few SU-122s advancing and encountering individual or pairs of German self-propelled guns, well-hidden, at an important bottleneck with good sighting. The Germans will likely get a few kills before being overrun by T-34/85s, knocked out by a massive 122m shell, or smothered by artillery.

At what point did Soviet armored units have qualitative parity with the Germans? Quality is usually taken to mean which is better given equal numbers. Given this definition of quality, I would say they never did. But warfare isn't that simple. Everything is interlocked. So much happens before the battle to determine the outcome. And quantity has a quality all its own.

In 1942 the T-34, with German training, tactics, radios and optics, would have been devastating... but that was impossible with the trade offs the Soviets made. In 1944, the Panther produced in the same numbers as the T-34 may have turned the tide of the war... but that was impossible with the trade offs the Germans made.

From this holistic point of view, Soviet armored units achieved superiority over the Germans at the Battle of Kursk. The Soviets derived the German plan, prepared a trap, kept it hidden and halted a major German offensive before a breakthrough while taking acceptable casualties. The Soviets had stood toe-to-toe against everything the Germans could throw at them. The Germans never regained the initiative on the Western Front. By the time of the D-Day landings, the Soviets had already won the war, the western Allies just sped it up.

Sources, in addition to the usual Wikipedia sources for specific vehicles and battles...

  • Even after Kursk if you took an 'on paper' German tank platoon or tank company, it was probably superior to an 'on paper' Russian platoon or company. It's maybe only right near the end of the war if you compared a unit of IS or IS-2 tanks that you might be able to say they outmatched an ideal equivalent unit of Panthers or King Tigers. Again this is irrelevant as at that time in the war, German tank units were in a shambles - crippled by unreplaceable losses in both crews and vehicles and a lack of fuel, ammo and spare parts.
    – Jasta
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 1:37
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    @Jasta Comparing units by name isn't interesting because every country has a different idea about the paper size of their units and they even change throughout the war. In addition, most German units, particularly Panzer units, were very understrength. The maintenance of paper fictions harmed them by giving top level commanders (particularly amateurs like Hitler) a false sense of strength. Rather than consolidate units to concentrate their waning strength and experience, the Germans made the mistake of keeping understrength units around and made even more underequiped units.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 1:48
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    @Jasta I agree, and I think my answer more than reflects that. Should you be making these comments on the question instead?
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 2:03
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    T-34 wasn't the "best tank of the war", mechanically or in technology. The main reason it was so successful was that, like the Sherman, it could be produced rapidly, in great numbers, relatively cheaply by poorly trained workers. This is also why the Germans had so many vehicles based on the Pz.38 and PzKfW III. Both were easy to build, factories were tooled and ready to go, and they were versatile enough to allow easy adaptation for a multitude of roles.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 14:26
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    As to Soviet tanks being inferior to Germans before the IS, that's not quite true either. The KV-1 was an excellent tank, and came as a massive shock to German commanders that encountered them. The main reason it didn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things (except around Leningrad) was that they were poorly employed (small groups or even singly rather than in mass) and never available in large numbers because they had been deemed to expensive to produce in the pre-war years.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 14:28

You cannot consider quality without considering quantity. The both sides had very powerful designs, but such designs were produced in smaller numbers compared to the most produced models.

For example, a heavy tank will always beat a medium tank. The T-34 is a medium tank, so qualitatively it is inferior to the heavy tanks. On the other hand, it was produced in large numbers.

By the start of the war the USSR had three heavy tank designs: T-35, KV-1 and KV-2. At that point Germany had no heavy tanks at all. So, qualitatively, the USSR had superiority from the start.

There are multiple stories where one KV-2 could stop advance of whole German units for days until the tank had all their ammo spent. At one instance the Germans managed to destroy the tank only by putting an explosive under it at night when the crew was sleeping.

At the time no German tank could do anything to KV-2 and the only ways to combat them were either using anti-air guns or calling the bombers.

It is often claimed that KV-2 with its 152 mm gun was the most power tank of WW2. Its disadvantages were unreliable transmission, large crew of 6 people and the cost of production.

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    At one instance the Germans managed to destroy the tank I know that story, I had a link to an excellent WWII website, but have lost it. Will try to dig it up.
    – astabada
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:34
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    The Char B2 was likewise unbeatable by German armor - but unlike the French, the Russians built a whole bunch of heavy and medium-heavy tanks, and knew how to deploy them for effect. Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 20:13
  • Good answer but needs sources!
    – DVK
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 3:20
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    A heavy tank will always beat a medium tank, this is quite a bit too pat. A medium tank is generally at a disadvantage in armor and it has to close the range or get a flank shot to penetrate, but it's hardly an "always" situation. Mediums tend to be faster and more maneuverable allowing them to get that flank shot. The T-35 was one of the worst tanks of the war. The KV-1 and 2 (a KV-1 with an even worse turret) was great in a fixed position, but it was slow, had a lousy transmission, poor visibility, and was under gunned. Don't let the stories of individual heroics distract you.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 6:40
  • I agree with your central statement (no quality without quantity), but this works other levels, too: 1) T34 is maybe inferior to German tanks, like Tiger, but their design allowed mass production. Quantity was not an independent parameter, but one of the results of lower quality. 2) Quality is nothing without serviceability, reliability and the support line behind (which can compensate unreliability/help service). If a more puritan "inferior" design allows better reliability, then that design is actually superior in practice (see problems with servicing German tanks).
    – Greg
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 10:54

Your question has two parts.

Firstly, to address the issue from a purely equipment point of view.

The short answer is purely on "qualitative parity" the Russians had this in 1941 but once the Panther and then Tiger entered service, they lost it and never regained it. I will elaborate.

I will mainly concentrate on medium tanks as that is largely what decided the war from an armoured point of view.

At the start of the war, the German tanks weren't particularly strong, but the way they were organised was key to early victories. By having large numbers of tanks concentrated together, with support from the Ju 87 Stuka in particular, they were able to use Blitzkrieg tactics to great effect.

However, where they met enemy armour in any numbers they did struggle, the Battle for Arras is a good example.


The Germans had to use Flak guns to counter the Matilda Mark II tanks of the British forces as the Panzer I and II could not penetrate their armour. The French Char I was also more than a match for the Germans in a one-on-one fight but the Germans usually had such a numerical advantage that they were able to quickly defeat France in 1940.

In the early stages of Barbarossa, the Russians had access to a few T-34s that were superior to anything Germany had. The Panzer IV (best available German tank at the time) was a fairly good tank but older in design than the T-34 which had sloped armour, better mobility, more powerful gun etc.

At the start of Barbarossa there were around 1,000 T-34s in service although a lot of these had fairly inexperienced crews as they were a new type and the 3,300 or so German tanks were able to deal with them although they did have some trouble. This is a quote from the 2nd day of Barbarossa from a German battle report:

Half a dozen anti-tank guns fire shells at him [a T-34], which sound like a drumroll. But he drives staunchly through our line like an impregnable prehistoric monster... It is remarkable that lieutenant Steup's tank made hits on a T-34, once at about 20 meters and four times at 50 meters, with Panzergranate 40 (caliber 5 cm),[nb 1] without any noticeable effect.

— German battle report, Finkel [5]

As the T-34 became more numerous and the crews more battle hardened, Germany realised they would need a new type to counter this opponent.

The Panther entered service in 1943 and was intended to counter the T-34. In many ways the Panther was superior to the T-34 but it was less reliable (largely due to being very complex) and also cost a lot more to build - figures vary but it is generally accepted that the Panther cost about 3 times as much as the T-34. For this reason only 6,000 Panthers entered service during the 1943-1945 period compared to 16,000 T-34s in 1943 alone!

On a one on one fight, the Panther was more than a match for the T-34 but the Russians usually outnumbered the German tanks by some margin.

Panther had better armour, up to 120mm compared to 60mm for the T-34, more effective main gun (both had around 75mm but the Germans had better systems), speed was similar but the Panther had better suspension so that made targeting easier. The Panther was also bigger at 44 tonnes compared to just 26 for the T-34 so it's almost a heavy tank versus a medium tank, no competition really especially when you consider the Panther was newer and designed primarily to be a T-34 beater.

The Germans also developed the Tiger (I) tank around the same time to counter the T-34 and the Russian heavy tank the KV I.

Only 1,300 or so were built in the entire war and so its effect was dubious as the quantities were simply nowhere near enough to counter the Russians with their tens of thousands of T-34s and 5,000 or so KV1s.

The Germans repeated the mistakes they made with the Panther and ended up with a very expensive, hard to maintain and comparatively unreliable tank.

The Tiger was more powerful even than the Panther but at 56 tonnes you are entering the realms of heavy tanks and the ground war was decided primarily by medium tanks.

The Battle of Kursk is generally regarded as key to the Eastern Front and the turning point where Russia took the initiative:


Germany only had 200 or so Panther tanks available from a total of 3,000 tanks to the Russians 5,000 total, largely T-34s. The result was a loss of 1,500 tanks to the Germans and 1,800 for Russia. (Edit: utter nonsense. During Operation Citadel Germans lost 326 AFV while Soviet losses were 1 956 combat armor) So, despite losing the battle the German tanks were able to inflict more casualties than they lost, perhaps proving they were stronger on a per tank basis, but superior enemy numbers was decisive.

On to the second part of my answer, organisation.

The Germans organised their tanks into large groups from the start of the war and used Blitzkrieg tactics, using airpower to support the tanks. This allowed for quick victories early in the war as the defenders tended to deploy their armour in more "piecemeal" fashion.

Russia didn't do this however, but the Russian army was in a bad state at the onset of Barbarossa for a variety of reasons including Stalin's purges that had killed off a lot of their best commanders, lack of training, poor supply etc.

It took Russia a while to reorganise themselves on the German model and once they had done this, couple with their plentiful armour, they were able to drive the Germans back, regardless of their inferior (in a one-on-one fight) armour.

To summarise, Russia won the armoured battle due to having more numerous, more reliable equipment, modelled into units along the lines of how the German's had deployed their own forces, ie in large groups with armour of prime importance.

Had Germany built something along the lines of a slimmed down Panther that was simpler, cheaper and more reliable, they may have been able to produce them in sufficient numbers to change the outcome. But that's a slim chance.

Finally, interesting point of view regards the T-34:


Another interesting article:


I haven't referenced everything I've posted as it would be a mess of links to Wikipedia, but feel free to search yourself!


The T-34 tank was far superior to any tank the Germans had on line in 1941. Bigger gun, better armor by far, and so on. The T-26 was inferior, or on a par.

But your question asks about units. German armored units were able to often beat equivalently sized Soviet units even in 1945. Therefore the Soviets created more units, moved them to areas where German armor was missing, and pressed on over wide fronts so that local successes by a Panzer division would be compromised by units on the flanks moving on.

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    This seems a good answer, but I'd rather see some references before upvoting :)
    – astabada
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:35
  • Any history of the East Front is full of references of isolated German armor attacks making headway against large forces, all the way to Budapest in 1945. The difference was that these attacks could no longer restore the initial state before the Soviet offensive, and then the Panzers had to rush off to address another attack elsewhere.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 23:06

This is quite contentious due to the design aims of each tank and, more importantly, doctrine of each country. The T-34 was designed as a cheap, easy-to-make tank which can be mass produced quickly and cheaply. German tanks on the other hand have complex engineering which makes them qualitatively superior but also much harder to produce.

However, if there is any Soviet tank which can stand toe-to-toe against the Germans, it would be the IS-2, which was in many ways superior (and inferior) to the German Panther.

EDIT:: I have no authority on doctrine and a comparison unit-by-unit, but I hope this gives you an overview on the technicals.

  • ?superior and inferior?
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 16:13
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    @MarkC.Wallace for example the Panther is faster, has a better suspension and its gun is easier to load. The IS-2's gun has better armor penetration, and a very effective HE shell, whilst the tank has more armor as well. Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 16:18
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    I think the question is asking about the armored units (divisions, regiments, etc.) in the field, not the individual pieces of equipment they theoretically had access to.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 18:16
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    @T.E.D. that's impossible to measure. One unit can be at 100% readiness while another has all its machines stalled for lack of spare parts or fuel. Look at the Ardennes, German forces started with full combat readiness in their armoured columns, easily beating anything in their path. But after a few days that fuel ran out and they ground to a halt, sitting ducks for anyone with a bazooka or sticky mine. Same on the eastern front. Some Panzer units were very much active up to the bitter end, others were bogged down in mud, ill repair, and out of fuel early on.
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 7:38
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    @Greg: Yes; the hidden costs of having complex manufacture and assembly done exclusively by unwilling, mistreated, slaves. Somehow they always found a way to mix sand in the oil, or notch the dipstick in the wrong place, or fail to tighten bolts all the way. MTBF for the Panther was on the order of 50 km in consequence. Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 0:46

It is very difficult to compare different concepts of the army. Wehrmacht is a Western system (special forces + specialization + logistics). The Red Army is a Soviet system (universal soldier + autonomy).

It is absolutely not correct to compare KV-2 and any German tank. The role of KV-2 is an assault tank against the pillboxes. In the Wehrmacht a Stug was this role.

Absolutely not correct to compare tanks. No separate tanks are fighting. War - this is not separate tanks. War - this is a confrontation of Army structures.

Already in the first days of the war, Soviet KV and T-34 attacked the German infantry. The result: burnt KV and T-34.

You can compare the Soviet and German tank company yourself. The Soviet tank company have a 10 tanks. The Soviet company has no other means of reconnaissance. After the battle, the Soviet tankmen repairing the tanks themselves. The Soviet tankmen themselves are digging tank trenches. Soviet tankmen themselves guard tanks at night.

The German Tank Company had a 2 platoons of tanks and supply units. There are motorcyclists in a German tank company. Excellent scout. There is a repair truck in a German tank company. Crews are resting. There is a separate supply truck and other tanker-soldiers who repair and refuel tanks. As a result, the German tank company is more mobile. The German tank company rebuilds the tanks more quickly. It does not matter what tanks are in the Soviet tank company (T-34 or T-26). The Soviet tank company is slowly rebuilding tanks. Soviet tank company "blind" on the march.

Very often the Soviet tank brigade had one repair truck. You can compare yourself to the German tank battalion.

The Soviet mechanized corps consists of 4-5 types of tanks and 4-5 types of fuel. It is impossible to properly supply this monster.

The main force of the Wehrmacht is not tanks. The main force of the Wehrmacht is the infantry. But the German infantry had the support of artillery, tanks, aircraft and trucks. During the war, the ratio of infantry and tank units changed. In 1942 the Soviet tank brigades received a lot of infantry. Later, the Soviet tank brigades received a lot of artillery and good supplies. As a result, in 1945 the Tigers and Panthers could not stop the outdated T-34.


"figures vary but it is generally accepted that the Panther cost about 3 times as much as the T-34. For this reason only 6,000 Panthers entered service during the 1943-1945 period compared to 16,000 T-34s in 1943 alone!"

Not only did it cost around 3x as much, but it took about 8x as many worker-hours! A very similar design to the Panther, with most of the same strengths, could have been achieved for much less cost/worker hours of production, but one of the hardest things about engineering is "when is 'good enough' good enough?" and German armor - and the Panther in particular - was "overengineered". The German political/war machine was perhaps too chaotic to be successful in a prolonged attritional campaign - oddly enough, both the even-more-totalitarian USSR and the much-less-totalitarian USA came up with much more efficient military manufacturing processes than Germany did (perhaps even more impressive for the USSR since they had less raw industrial power than the USA and had their homeland under serious attack).

As far as the "unit by unit" basis, really even right up until the end of the war, in the midst of utter defeat, the German forces still fought slightly more efficiently than any of the Allies did on a tactical per-unit basis (the same was not even close to true of Japan). Part of this was the advantages of defense, but part of it was the Germans just had a doctrine of small-unit flexibility and local initiative that was better than anyone else had.

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    You've got an unsourced quote in your first line, and a string of unsourced attributions after that. I'm uncomfortable with unsourced assertions about an era where there is so much opinion and propaganda.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 11:31
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    I upvoted but do listen to @MarkC.Wallace please and add some references. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 22:15

Try get the book “Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919-1939” (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2003.

Also, by formal specifications, by 1941 the new Soviet tanks T-34, even quite s were better than any German tanks.

But Soviet tank corps, and, in general, the most of Red Army, had problems wtih:

  1. quality of vehicles themselves, because Soviet industry was quite young and lacked of stable quality (the problem which is still present in Russian industry)

  2. quality of exploitation, repairs because of lack of qualitied tech.personnel

  3. lack of middle and high-level commanders who are able to effectively use tanks in modern (1941) battlefield against high-level opponent in modern mechanized maneurable warfare, while Germans (and only Germans) have had such expertise and experience.

  • 1
    The second paragraph needs an edit.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jul 3 at 16:55

Unit to unit comparisons are extremely difficult and not particularly useful outside of the actual circumstances of a particular engagement. Red Army units had enormous variation in quality and technology as they quite literally threw everything they had at the Germans - later on in the war the Germans were in much the same position. Undoubtedly there were some horrendously one sided battles between vastly outmatched armoured units on both sides.

Is there a point in time you can compare a 'gold standard' Russian armoured company or platoon to an equivalent German one? Does comparing the average effectiveness at a particular point change anything?

Establishing general trends is both reasonably simple and of enormous use. Nailing the tipping point in those trends to a particular date is both extremely difficult and at least in my opinion - not particularly useful.

The exception is when a particular technology becomes widely available or a new tactic fully implemented and completely upsets the balance of future engagements.

Possible examples of this include the Focke Wulf summer of 1942, 'Black May' 1943 for U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and the full introduction of the P-51 as long range bomber escorts in early '44.

I don't believe there is a similar significant change in technology or tactics that affected tank warfare at the platoon or company level so dramatically on the Eastern Front. Most of the huge swings came from economic, logistic and strategic consequences.


German and American tank guns were far better than those of Red Army. Their tanks were much more capable than Soviet tanks. The claim that quantity is more important than quality is one of Soviet myths trying to hide the fact that they couldn't produce better quality. In fact double numbers of tanks means double training, double service, logistics, ammo, fuel, spare parts etc. And when quality is poor the death spiral is ready: exponential need for logistics, crew and training. No wonder why Soviet Union was such a innate colossal failure.

There are die hard myths veiling WW2 still. M4 Sherman tank was much better, reliable and maneuverable than T-34. Then there is that common misunderstanding that tanks generally were some kind of wonder weapons "winning wars". They were not. Without infantry support tank units were in deep trouble. Which nations produced half-tracks. Germany and USA. But then we will arrive in the heart of German problem: lack of oil supplies. American war machine had resources to fuel its vehicles, that of Germany not. America produced annually 220 million tons oil, Germany just some 7 million. Lack of oil sent German war machine very early to drain. Having what ever superb tanks means not much if not having logistics and motorized infantry. Soviet Union couldn't produce decent half-tracks and even its trucks were very poor compared to those send them from America.All that miracle of late 1943 and 1944 Red Army mobility was Made in U.S.A. Even Zhukov admitted. But in Russia it seems to be crime to make these confessions. And so all these Stalinist myths and legends of Great Patriotic War continue to live their wild lifes in mind of modern Russians and fools in west too.

  • 3
    Welcome to History SE. Sources would improve this answer and make it more likely that people will upvote it. Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 10:48
  • Your "double" argument only holds true if the devices are identical in qualities. If e.g. fuel needs is half for one device then twice as much vehicles use the same amount of fuel compared to the other side? If service is one third the time and parts compared to German tanks then SU could service 3 times as much tanks with the same cost in effort? Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 11:15
  • 1
    Soviet tank guns were comparable to German and US guns, in general, but they achieved higher armor penetration by increasing the gun caliber as a rule rather than increasing muzzle velocity. The Soviet 85mm was comparable in power to the German 75mm in the Pz IV, not the 88mm, but Soviet heavy tanks late in the war had 122mm guns. The Sherman was an excellent tank and extremely reliable (by the standards of WWII tanks), but the T-34 was also very good. Also, the historical record doesn't seem to show that the "Soviet Union was such a innate colossal failure". Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 22:15

Intro: This is quite difficult to answer the question since you mention different levels, but there are more to consider. Namely, we could speak about:

  1. Technology of 1v1 (as mentioned, this is not enough)
  2. Platoon level: more interesting to analyze technology, and human factors as well, but this will miss the factor of quantity. However, given how you phrase the question, I understand you don't want to put quality into the debate*
  3. "True" unit level, namely brigades at the beginning of the war and Panzerdivision vs Tank corps at the end. It's important to consider that tanks will not be the only factor there, because support weapons will count a lot

First, a caveat: I speak of Tank corps because a standard 1944 Soviet division was smaller than a German one.

Main answer: The answer below will be about units, and will be separate for each year. This is approximately correct, sometimes rather than a year we should consider spring to spring.

Before the war - Spanish war: During the Spanish war, the indirect confrontation between the two powers showed some results. This could be summarized as:

  1. Italian tanks: too light and poorly armed and armoured
  2. German tanks (Panzer I in their units): Individually inferior to the Soviets and should only be used in interarms warfare, alongside artillery
  3. Soviet tanks: Strong but the use in massive units was not satisfying as often tanks had to fall back because the rest of the units were defeated, so the Soviets decided to disperse their tanks in infantry units

USSR > Germany

Before the war - 1939-1940: Looking at the success of Panzerdivision, the Soviets were like: "oh damn, we made the wrong choice, we should concentrate our tank force". And so they did. But they change their minds too late and the 1937 Great Trials had hampered their officers capabilities, so the Tank corps they created were not good:

  • Too many tanks for not enough logistics, nor support units (too few infantry, artillery)
  • They had no time to train

Germany > USSR

1941 In front of the Panzerdivision, those big heavy Tank Corps were slaughtered by Germans interwarfare in the summer. Too often, tanks attacked without support because the infantry/artillery part had not the time and logistics to follow the tanks, because it was not numerous enough in the unit to act alongside. On the other hand, infantry-only units did not know how to attack with tanks.

In the autumn and winter, the Soviets had to change again and create only small tank units after they had lost their Tank Corps. Moreover, because of the losses, there were few T-34 and KV-1 and a lot of units were made of T-26, BT-7 or"very bad" tanks such as the T-40. The T-26 was a match for Pz-I, the BT-7 for Pz-II and Pz-III nearly, but no more. So the German Panzerdivision had multiple reasons to win:

  • Better training to interarms warfare, communication logistics
  • Tanks were similar
  • Other units of the division were better for the German (in quality and quantity)

Germany > USSR


Until the winter, this is more or less the same as 1942. The only improvement is that the Soviets start to produce great numbers of T-34. They prove efficient when helping infantry to defend, but they are still used as massive Tank Corps when attacking, for example on the Don prior to the battle of Stalingrad.

Germany > USSR

Winter 1942 to Summer 1943: The Soviet tank units, reorganized, also better employed for example in the encirclement of Stalingrad, starts to be truly better than the majority of German tank divisions. They achieve to beat them in the offensive and defensive sometimes, like during the failed German rescue of Stalingrad. Also, there is the factor that German units are partly depleted, so they loose part of their combat efficiency. But some German units like SS-Panzerdivision are better because of fresh equipment and new tanks.

Germany = USSR

Summer 1943 to Summer 1944: With the battle of Kursk and after, Germans tank units gain the upper hand: They have still an overall advantage in organization and thus tactical efficiency, and they have more and more new tanks (Tiger, Panther) and towed antitank guns and self-propelled tank-chasers. In contrast, the Soviets have good towed AT guns, but lack proper self-propelled ones and relied on the T-34/76, which is no more a technological match to the best German tanks. Also, still heavy losses hamper the efforts to improve the tactical quality of their units.

Germany > USSR

Summer 1944 - Spring 1945: This starts before the summer, but really appears with the offensive Bagration: before, the defensive stance of Germans had somehow "hidden" the new situation:

New Soviet hardware, better nearly everywhere (self-propelled guns, AT guns, new tanks) and the better and better officers, NCOs and tank crews, put the Soviet tank units in a better situation: When the Allies are still struggling in Normandy, they are now better than the mean of German tank units.

USSR > Germany

*something along the lines: if the answer is: 1 Soviet platoon = 0.5 German platoon, then you will had quantity (let's say 3 Soviet tanks available for 1 German tank) and say "Ok, this explains why the Soviets won"


Generally speaking mainstream historians are totally lacking some basic facts of German war industry and its numbers during 1939-45. According studies made in Germany during last 20 years and latest fine book of Cambridge-series, Phillips Payson O'Brien the German warfare was not even near what you have thought during your life.

The question here is: what did German munition production really focused during WW2? Here are the characteristic of Nazi German war production:

1) Air War, consisting building aircraft, antiaircraft artillery defense, weapons, vehicles and ammo for air war: 55-58% of all munitions

2) Land war, consisting German army and land war needs: 30-33% of German munition production

3) Sea war, consisting navy vessels, ammo and weapons (and vehicles too) for it: average 12% of production.

According professor O'Brien German figures for air war might have been even much bigger because not even near all development cost was counted. Also V-2 weapons which took some 3 billion RM are not really counted to that share. V-weapons were totally targeting war against Western Allied. Nor is their figures of massive concrete shelter production (value just in 1943 some 4-4.5 billion RM according Todt Organization). And there were so many other developing cost not caunted (Me-262 immense expensive project, wasted money to new XXI generation U-boats).

As we can see above, German war production was not much targeting land war. The air war had priority. It was same with Western Allies and Japanese. Land war was cheap, primitive, slow and backward compared to air-sea warfare. And when facts are here let's finally check where those investments were finally targeting.

1) Air war: 76% of German Luftwaffe aircraft combat losses caused by Western air power (in 1943-45 only 12-14% of German AA-artillery in east)

2) Sea war: more than 90% of losses of Kriegsmarine caused by Western sea power

3) Land war? Do we have to focus bulk infantry horse pulling soldiers (especially in east) or highly mechanized troops (especially in west)?. Butchers bill is suggesting that Eastern Front took slice of 80-85%. But taking captured soldiers the slice goes down to 65-70% or even much lower (Allied took much more German Pows than Red Army). So why not take German combat armor losses? 65% caused by Red Army, 35% caused by Western Allied.

Conclusion:Great majority of German air war and sea war effort focused war against Western Allied. Some 2/3 of land war focusing warfare against Soviet Union. Total effect: majority of German war production was targeting war against Western Allied, not against Soviet Union.

These are the facts very seldom known by mainstream historians. Time to rethink WW2?

  • You seem to be answering a different question to the one that was asked.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 12:29

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