Only Tanks and Women Make Me Hard
Here we have the two most iconic tanks of the the Second World War, side by side, in all their feral, atavistic splendour. In the left corner, we have the Russian T34, arguably the machine which saved the Soviets from total annihilation by the mighty Wehrmacht. On the right, we have the redoubtable Tiger. Even rumours of a single Tiger present on the battlefield could send shivers of cold terror down the spine of any allied tank man.
So which was the better tank.....
On a simple visual inspection there are obvious differences. The T34 is squat and has distinctive sloped armour, especially the front glacis. The Tiger is a larger machine and slab faced.
The T34 was the first modern tank. Many of its innovative features are present in all front line battle tanks of today. The sloped glacis not only deflected high velocity shot but also effectively increased relative armour thickness without additional weight penalty. The Christie suspension enabled the T34 to travel fast on uneven ground without rattling its inhabitants to pieces. The 76mm high velocity gun served as a serviceable anti-tank weapon and could also deliver a respectable high explosive shell. It was fast, mechanically reliable and operated well in the harsh Russian climate. On the downside, it was cramped and not designed for crew comfort. Also, many features were crudely designed and manufactured, such as the gun sighting optics. The turret turning was relatively slow, as was its rate of fire, compared to other tanks operated by the allies and Germans.
The Tiger tank earned a reputation far in excess of the numbers sported on the battlefield. It had thick, well tempered armour and was armed with the 88 mm cannon. This gun was formidable and could leave any tank of its time a mass of jumbled metal at a 1000 metres. The Tiger was typically German and well engineered. The optics were excellent and rate of fire was high and accurate.
If anything the Tiger was too well engineered. It was a slow and expensive machine to manufacture. Only 1,347 Tigers were ever produced. Compare this with 33,805 T34s eventually made and you can see the major disadvantage of the Tiger. It was classed as a heavy tank and had a limited operation range. Due to its weight (57 tonnes) it consumed a lot fuel. This would become a major problem during the last year of the war when the Germans lost oil supplies in the East. Furthermore, the Allies concentrated a good deal of their bombing activity on German oil refineries and supporting infrastructure. Also, it was not really suited for the harsh winters of the Eastern front. The fuel froze and the interlocking bogie wheels became jammed with snow and ice. A situation which the Russians exploited by timing their attacks in the early morning.
To ask the question: 'Which was the better tank?' is not a fair one to ask. The T34 and Tiger were designed for different battlefield roles. The T34 was a fast moving breakthrough tank, to be used en mass to crush and dislocate enemy positions. Its role as a tank killer was secondary. The Tiger, as a heavy tank, was mainly designed as a defensive and static tank killer. It also dominated the immediate battlefield; in this role it had no equal. It excelled during the latter years of the war when the Germans were forced on the defensive. The Normandy battles of June and July, 1944 showed how imposing this tank could be, given the right terrain.
In the final analysis the T34 triumphed, not because it was a better tank, but because it was easy to manufacture, cheap and fulfilled the role of a 'general tank', in all its guises. The Tiger, although a fearsome defensive tank, was never present in enough numbers to make a real battlefield difference, although its psychological impact on the battlefield was never in doubt.