The Germans armed forces made wide use of captured equipment during the Second World War, particularly the ground forces of the Wehrmacht, the Heer. Following the conquests of 1939 to 1942, thousands of armored vehicles were left behind German lines, sometimes lightly damaged or even intact. Efforts would be undertaken to field these vehicles, both by frontline German units seeking to strengthen their numbers and by rear-line security units seeking armor to fight against partisans and resistance movements in Europe. These are known as Beutepanzers (captured/trophy tanks).
As one of the most produced tanks of the war, and one fielded by the Soviets during the great German offensives in 1941-1942, large numbers of T-34s fell into German hands. Designated T-34 747(r) (German Beutepanzer designations used a three-digit system in which the first number would designate the type of vehicle, if starting with 7, a tank; the (r) would indicate the Soviet (Russland) origin of the vehicle), the vehicle would be widely used by German formations. Large number of local field modifications would be undertaken by the Germans, often consisting of fitting German equipment into their T-34s to ease their operations. However, the vehicles would sometimes operate in an entirely different role as to what they were originally intended for. The hull of the T-34 was fairly commonly used without its turret as a Bergepanzer (armored recovery vehicle), with the lack of such vehicles being a chronic issue within the German army. In 1944, it would appear that one of these Bergepanzer T-34s was modified by the field workshop of Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 on the Eastern front, being turned into a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun armed with a Flakvierling quadruple mount for the 2 cm Flak 38 autocannon.
Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 was a heavy tank destroyer battalion, operating mostly the Elefant (formerly known as Ferdinand) tank destroyer. By 1944, two of the battalion’s three companies were deployed on the Eastern Front, around North-Western Ukraine, while the other company was deployed in Italy.
Though the Elefant was the unit’s standard combat vehicle, it appears a number of other armored vehicles were present in the unit’s inventory, including some Bergepanzer T-34(r). One of these would undergo a conversion into a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. This was performed by the maintenance company of the battalion, Werkstattkompanie 653. The conversion appears to have dated from May or June 1944. Interestingly enough, a similar conversion on the hull of a Bergepanther is also reported to have existed within the same unit in the summer of 1944, though there are no known photos of it.
The armament of the vehicle was a 2 cm Flakvierling 38 mounting four 20 mm autocannons. This quadruple mount was introduced in May of 1940. As well as combining the four guns, it included collapsible seats and folding handles. In the field configuration, it could elevate to up to +100°. Each of the individual 2 cm Flak 38 guns had a cyclic rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute, which would result in a massive 1,800 20 mm rounds sent downrange per minute on the Flakvierling, though in practice, due to operations such as reloading the gun, as well as minimizing overheating, the practical rate of fire would be around 800 rounds per minute, which was still massive for 20 mm ammunition. The rounds fired by the Flak 38 included SprGr.Patr.L/Spur (HE), Pzgr Patr 40 L/Spur (AP penetrating 40 mm at 100 meters) and Pzgr Patr L/pur m Zerlegung (AP/HE incendiary). Muzzle velocity varied from 830 to 900 m/s depending on which type of ammunition was used. The Flakvierling would weigh around 1,520 kg in operation, though the additional armor plates found on the Flakpanzer T-34’s armament make its weight hard to estimate.
The hull on which this was mounted was a T-34, the production factory and year not being known. This was the standard Soviet medium tank, which used a welded hull with both sloped front and sides, armored at 45 mm (not accounting for the angling). The engine was a V-2-34 V12 diesel engine producing 500 hp in theory, though in practice the output was typically lesser due to issues with air filters quality.
On the Flakpanzer T-34, this Flakvierling mount was given what could be described as the intermediate between a gun shield and a fully rotatable turret. The armor protection, though from the front it may appear as comprising all sides but the top, as it would be on a Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind, was actually fully open at the rear, with only the front and sides being given armor. The armor plates were reportedly taken from disabled German half-tracks (likely Sd.Kfz.251s), which would give them a thickness of either 8 mm or 14.5 mm, most likely the lighter option (the lighter weight would have eased rotation of the mount, and there was a greater quantity of lighter plates to salvage from German half-tracks). These plates appear to have been welded together. The turret is at its highest at the front, with the front plates being fairly similar in shape to what could be found on the Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind. The height of the armor plates declined progressively over the sides.
Outside of these additional armored plates, a large armor-plated collar was installed around the turret race, likely intended as protection to this very vulnerable part of the vehicle. Further modifications were undertaken to fulfill the vehicle’s role as an anti-aircraft weapon by adding a large ammunition container rack on the right rear of the hull, holding a number of stowage boxes for 20 mm ammunition. Spare track links were also present on the hull’s sides. The hull machine gun appears to have been retained.
The nature of the Flakpanzer T-34 crew’s composition is not known. In the field, a Flakvierling 38 would have a large crew of eight, but this was obviously not a possibility for a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun on a tank chassis, which could not transport such a high crew complement. A crew composition similar to the Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind, with the radio operator ditched due to seating for only one crewman existing inside the T-34 hull itself, may have been adopted: this would have left the Flakpanzer T-34 with a crew of four. It would consist of a driver, a commander/gunner and two loaders. A photo of the vehicle in operation does show four servicemen posing on it, which would perhaps support this theory but is not deep, tangible evidence.
The vehicle was operated by an anti-aircraft detachment that would have covered Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 on the Eastern Front. The vehicle is known to have been operated in July of 1944. This would be smack in the middle of Operation Bagration, the massive Soviet 1944 summer offensive. While no report of the Flakpanzer T-34’s combat record has surfaced, it is as such very likely the vehicle would have been engaged in combat during this time.
The battalion the Flakpanzer T-34 was operated in would be removed from the front on the 3rd of August 1944 for re-equipment and rest, after having been battered by weeks of fighting. Crucially, while twelve Elefants remained, no mention of the Flakpanzer T-34 exists after this point, and it appears the vehicle was not present as the unit was patched up, which suggests it was likely lost in July or very early August 1944. The exact causes of this loss are unknown. The vehicle may merely have been lost in combat, or have suffered a breakdown that could not have been solved due to lack of Soviet spare parts or advancing Soviet forces. The precise fate of the vehicle is in any case unknown, with all known views of it showing it during its short time in service of Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653.
Conclusion – The only confirmed Flakpanzer T-34
The Flakpanzer T-34 has, over the years, gathered some considerable interest from Second World War armor enthusiasts. The vehicle has been upheld as an impressive example of the various field conversions and modifications that were often fielded during the conflict, particularly within the German armored forces. Indeed, the vehicle can be described as seemingly rather formidable for a field conversion. Though obviously some very important aspects of it, such as for example the rotation speed of its turret or even confirmation of its crew layout or armor thickness, are not known, the Flakvierling 38 was a deadly anti-aircraft system and the Flakpanzer T-34 would likely have far superior anti-aircraft performances than what would typically be expected of a captured tank hull modified for such duties in a field workshop.
The Flakvierling armed vehicle is not the only Flakpanzer T-34 claimed to have existed. Two other models have popped up in Internet rumors, but none are confirmed to have existed – one is fairly likely but the other not so much. The less likely one was that a T-34 was refitted with a much larger 8.8 cm Flak gun around the turret race and used in combat, reportedly in April 1945 in Saxonia. A photo manipulation has been circulated around showing a T-34 hull fitted with such a gun, the original photo instead showing a standard T-34-85. The more likely conversion would be a T-34 refitted with the triple MG 151/20 Drilling mounting featured in some anti-aircraft German half-tracks, a much lighter main armament which would likely have been far less problematic to install. A photomanipulation of this vehicle also circulates around, based on a photo originally showing a Bergepanzer T-34. A unit has reportedly been mentioned for this conversion, Panzer-Jäger-Abteilung 561, but its existence remains to be proven and it is best described as a rumor as of now. The Flakvierling-armed vehicle, as such, remains the only confirmed Flakpanzer T-34.
Flakpanzer T-34(r) (2 cm Flakvierling 38)
|Weight||Likely around 30 tons|
|Engine||V-2-34 V12 diesel engine producing 500 hp (theoretical)|
|Crew||Likely 4 (possibly commander/gunner, driver and two loaders)|
|Armament||2 cm Flakvierling 38|
|Hull armor||Maximum 45mm|
|Turret armor||Likely either 14.5 mm or 8 mm|
Panzerkampfwagen T 34- 747(r) , The Soviet T-34 Tank as Beutepanzer and Panzeraatrappe in German Wehrmacht Service 1941-1945, Jochen Vollert, Tankograd publishing