During the Second World War, Yugoslavia was a frontline where all kinds of mostly obsolete armor and rare prototypes were used. In some instances, more advanced and modern tanks also saw service, as was the case with the Soviet T-34-76 and the improved T-34-85 medium tanks. Initially used by the Germans in limited numbers, these tanks would see more extensive action with the Soviets, especially during the liberation of Belgrade. The Partisans also had a chance to operate these vehicles, either captured by the Germans or supplied directly by the Soviets.
Axis Invasion of the Balkans
After Italy’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece, Benito Mussolini was forced to ask his German ally for help. Adolf Hitler agreed to provide assistance, fearing that a possible Allied attack through the Balkans would reach Romania and its vital oil fields. In the path of the German advance towards Greece stood Yugoslavia, whose government initially agreed to join the Axis side. This agreement was short-lived, as the Yugoslav government was overthrown by an anti-Axis pro-Allied military coup at the end of March 1941. Hitler immediately gave an order for the preparation of the invasion of Yugoslavia. The war that began on 6th April 1941, sometimes called April War, was a short one and ended with a Yugoslav defeat and the division of its territory between the Axis powers.
The T-34-76 and the T-34-85 Medium Tanks, the Most Iconic Soviet Tanks
The T-34 became the standard medium tank of the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War. It was produced in two main variants, the T-34 (often labeled the ‘T-34-76’) armed with a 76.2 mm gun (initially the L-11 76.2 mm gun but replaced in 1941 with a F-34 76.2 mm gun) main gun in a two-man turret, while the later T-34-85 was armed with an 85 mm gun (initially a D-5T 85 mm gun in a two-man turret, and quickly replaced by the S-53 and ZiS-53 85 mm gun in a three-man turret).
The T-34 was produced between 1940 and 1944 in some 35 different sub-variants. These variants of the T-34 suffered from a variety of issues.
The early T-34s manufactured before the German invasion of the USSR were well-made tanks with good fittings and quality of life items such as air filters and adequate head and tail lights. The T-34 design however was imperfect, the suspension being a major issue causing internal space issues and structural failures. The early T-34s suffered from gearbox issues due to improper manufacturing, however overall these vehicles were of high quality.
Shortly after the war’s onset, production quotas were increased and manufacturing sped up. Therefore the tank’s quality fell greatly, losing items such as the air filters, tow hooks were simplified, along with the external storage. The number of parts needed to make the T-34 fell, as almost every item within the tank was simplified and often non-essential parts were scrapped. One of the main drawbacks of the T-34, and many other pre-war tank designs, was the two-man turret. This forced the commander to perform too many different tasks, such as being the gunner, giving orders to the rest of the crew, battlefield observation, and using the radio. The initial production T-34s had turret-mounted radios, but due to the overworking of the commander, the radio was moved to the hull for the engineer to use.
As the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for WWII) progressed, the T-34s main armaments became weaker and less effective on the battlefield. While the L-11 and F-34 guns were more than capable of dealing with the early German tanks such as the Panzer III, Panzer 38(t), and Panzer IV, the new German ‘heavies’ with armor thicknesses above 100 mm became fearsome counterparts for the T-34s, often requiring combat ranges to close to as little as 50 m. Regardless of these problems, some 35,853 T-34-76 tanks would be built. A precise number is almost impossible to know. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the Soviets added new chassis numbers to rebuild vehicles.
The T-34-85 was the latter version of the famous Soviet T-34 medium tanks. Thanks to a sufficiently large turret ring it was possible to mount a new turret equipped with an 85 mm L/55.2 D-5T or the more common L/54.6 ZIS-S-53 guns. This gun was able to penetrate the frontal armor of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger at a distance of about 1,000 m. The ammunition load consisted of some 60 rounds.
Most T-34 (except for around 2,000 T-34-76s manufactured at 112 and STZ that used the older M-17F engine that powered the BT tanks with an output of 450 hp) were powered by a V-2-34, 38.8-liter V12 diesel with an output of 500 hp. This propelled the tank to a maximum speed of 55 km/h and a range of 350 km on-road thanks to the 556 liters internal fuel tanks. With additional external fuel drums (the number of used drums varied depending on the period of the war) with 50 liters each, increasing the maximum range to around 550 km.
Between the period 1944 to 1946, some 25,914 would be produced. Other tanks were produced by Communist Bloc countries after the war. For example, some 2,376 were produced by Czechoslovakia from 1950 to 1956 and 685 by Poland from 1951 to 1955. Just above 95,000 (sources vary widely) vehicles of all kinds (medium tanks, self-propelled guns, armored recovery vehicles, etc.) were produced on the T-34 chassis.
First Appearance of the T-34 in Yugoslavia
Following the quick conquest of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia during the April War (6th to 18th April 1941), its territories were divided between the victorious Axis forces. Due to the harsh and brutal occupation by the Axis troops stationed in Yugoslavia, by the second half of 1941, two resistance groups started a rebellion against the occupiers. These proved difficult to defeat, forcing the enemy to send more and more troops and material. In the case of the Germans, they employed whatever they had at hand. These were mostly older or captured enemy equipment. In rarer cases, more modern equipment was also available in limited numbers. During the summer of 1944, the SS Polizei Regiment 10 (English: 10th SS Police Regiment) was transferred from Ukraine to Trieste in Northern Italy. Once there, it was tasked with defending the vital transport lines against the Partisans. This unit would be used in this role up to the end of the war. In its inventory, this unit had around 10 T-34-76 tanks of various types.
The Soviet T-34-76 and T-34-85 Tanks in Yugoslavia
During autumn 1944, the Soviet 3rd Ukraine Front was ordered to proceed toward Yugoslavia and help the Partisans to eliminate German forces that were occupying Serbia. This formation was supported by large armored elements, which consisted of 358 T-34-76 and T-34-85 tanks and self-propelled guns. These saw extensive action against the German-held Serbian towns, such as Kruševac, which was liberated on 14th October 1944. Some 50 T-34-76 and 110 T-34-85 tanks were allocated for the liberation of the capital Belgrade. After successfully defeating the Germans in Serbia, the Soviets moved north toward Hungary.
The T-34-76 in Partisan Hands
The German T-34-76 tanks from the 10th SS Police Regiment were employed against the advancing Partisan 4th Army in Spring 1945. The Partisan forces were supported by the First Tank Brigade, which was equipped with British-supplied M3A1/A3 tanks and AEC Mk.II armored cars. While the M3’s 37 mm gun could do little against the armor of the T-34, the Partisans instead used the AEC’s 57 mm gun, which was more effective in dealing with enemy armor. The Partisans also operated at least one 7.5 cm PaK 40 armed Stuart tank which was modified in early 1945.
During the fighting near Ilirska Bistrica at the end of April, one German T-34-76 tank was destroyed by a modified 7.5 cm armed M3 tank. On 30th April 1945, the Partisans liberated Bazovica but were pushed back by German T-34-76 tanks. These were counterattacked with the Partisans’ own armored units. Inside the small town, the Partisan AECs engaged the advancing T-34-76s. One AEC armored car crew fired at least 8 rounds at the leading T-34-76. The German armored unit was eventually shattered and its T-34-76 tanks were either destroyed or captured. Between 5 or 6 tanks were captured by the Partisans, with 3 or 4 being captured at Ilirska Bistrica and 2 more in Bazovica. Those that were fully operational were immediately put back into service. One was even used to enter Trieste at the end of the war. After the war, these were used with the later improved version for some time before being removed from service. One T-34-76 does survive and is now located in Banja Luka.
Creation of the Second Tank Brigade
As previously mentioned, the best trained and equipped Partisan armored formation was the First Tank Brigade. It was organized and equipped by Western standards. While the Partisans provided the Allies with sufficient crews to form an even larger formation, this was never realized. The Allies, for various reasons, did not want to provide additional armored vehicles to the Partisans. On the other hand, the Soviets were quite willing to help but were prevented from doing so by the distance between these two forces at that point. In order to not waste time, the remaining 600 Partisans that were stationed in Italy were transported by air to the Soviet Union by the Soviet Sokolov Group from the Italian city of Bari to Kyiv in Ukraine. Once all were assembled, they were transported to Moscow, before finally reaching their final destination in Tehnicko, a village near Tula.
Additional personnel were recruited in various ways, including people of Yugoslav origin that were being held in Soviet camps. A Partisan delegation was even sent to the Grozny prison camp, where additional manpower was recruited from the German Legionary Units. Interestingly, the Partisan officials that visited this prison were strictly forbidden from recruiting any former Croatian Ustaše soldiers. Yugoslav soldiers that were in service prior to the war and had been schooled in the Soviet Union also joined this unit.
This was the first step in the creation of the unit later known as the Second Tank Brigade. The order for the creation of such a unit to support the Yugoslav Partisans was issued by Stalin himself in order from 7th September 1944. In comparison to the First Tank Brigade, this unit was to be solely organized based on Soviet equipment and training. Initial plans for the Tank Brigade T-34, as this unit was initially designated, included that it had to be formed by 1st November 1944, something which was not achieved.
The organizational structure of this unit was based on the Soviet model. It would have three tank battalions with two (some sources mention three) tank companies each, each with three platoons. The platoon’s strength was 3 tanks with 1 additional for the platoon commander. In addition, the Brigade’s command unit was equipped with 2 tanks. In total, this unit was supplied with 65 T-34/85 tanks and 3 BA-64 armored cars. No further shipment of additional tanks was made by the Soviets during the war. At least one (possibly more) T-34-85 tank would be recovered from abandoned Soviet equipment. These would be salvaged by the Partisans during the winter of 1944/45.
While such a unit in the Soviet Army would have been supported by a mechanized infantry battalion, the Partisan unit did not have this support. Instead, the Partisans were to provide their own units for this role. These would be trained in Yugoslavia. The purpose of the mechanized infantry battalion was to provide the tanks with close infantry support elements. Ideally, the battalion was to be equipped with trucks for transport, but the Partisans lacked these, and the soldiers had to use the tanks themselves for transport. Additional auxiliary units, such as reconnaissance, a medical platoon, and one anti-aircraft company were also used. Similar to the Soviet Army, the Second Tank Brigade also had a political commissar in it.
The unit was officially formed on 6th October 1944. To train the Partisan’s crews, the Soviets had to provide 16 T-34 tanks. Due to the harsh weather, with temperatures reaching -40 °C, the Partisans had trouble adapting to the climate. There were often cases of frostbite and some soldiers had to be sent back to Yugoslavia for medical reasons.
After the completion of crew training, the Brigade was finally fully formed on 8th March 1945 and was temporarily named First Tank Brigade, but this would be shortly changed to Second Tank Brigade. During the same month, the Brigade was slowly relocated to Yugoslavia. It was transported by rail from the Soviet Union through Romania and Bulgaria and finally reached Topčider (Serbia) on 26th March 1945. The following day, it participated in a military parade in the capital of Belgrade. On 28th March, the 1st and 3rd battalions were transferred to the Syrmian Front. Initially, the Brigade was positioned at Erdeviku, where the mechanized infantry battalion was being formed. Elements of the 2nd Battalion were slightly delayed before they too were sent to the front. Its 2nd Tank Company was stationed in Belgrade to provide protection for the city and the Partisan High Command.
The Syrmian Front was a vital German defense line in the area of Srem and Slavonija. The Germans fortified their positions using extensive trench lines, vast minefields, and entrenched firing points. This line was vital for them, as it protected the retreating units from Greece and Yugoslavia. The Partisans were poorly adapted to this kind of combat and had significant issues penetrating enemy defense positions.
On 12th April 1945, the Second Tank Brigade was split to provide firing support for the advancing Partisans. The 1st Battalion was attached to the 1st Proletarian Infantry Division and the 3rd Battalion to the 21st Serbian Infantry Division in the region of Vinkovci. Opposing them were elements of the German 34th Corps supported by Croatian forces. The attack began on the same day, with the Partisans advancing toward Vukovar supported by artillery. The baptism of fire of the Second Tank Brigade started chaotically. Despite having the mechanized infantry battalion as support, possibly due to poor coordination, the two units attacked independently. Due to heavy German and Croatian resistance and poor leadership of the Second Tank Brigade, great losses could not be avoided. The unit lost 8 vehicles, with two badly damaged, five lightly damaged tanks, and one BA-64 armored car completely written off. The mechanized infantry battalion lost a third of its personnel. The commander of this unit forbade the infantry from disembarking from the tanks that carried them until the enemy line was reached. Most were killed before this actually happened and the tanks were left with no infantry support. Despite these heavy losses, the unit managed to reach the city of Vukovar that day.
The following day, under heavy German anti-tank fire, two more tanks were lost. These were taken out by 7.5 cm PaK 40 fire. One of them received a hit between the turret and the upper hull. Although the turret was severely damaged, the tank was not completely destroyed. At this point, the Partisans were forced to abandon damaged tanks regardless of the extent of the damage. The Brigade’s engineers simply lacked the experience and probably even equipment to tow these to safety.
In the meantime, the absent 2nd Tank Battalion advanced toward the front line. It was initially sent to Bosnia to help liberate Brčko. Due to delays in crossing the Drina river, it did not participate in the liberation of its target and instead was ordered to move toward Županja, in Croatia. On 13th April, it came into contact with the retreating enemy. The enemy forces simply began retreating faster than the Partisan’s tank could follow. Finally, the enemies were cornered near the village of Gudinci. Unfortunately for the Partisans, the Germans blew up the bridges, preventing the Partisans from following them. Attempts to build improvised crossing bridges were abandoned after two Partisans soldiers were killed by German fire. Instead, the 2nd Tank Battalion managed to find another crossing. They immediately began attacking the German positions supported by only a single infantry battalion from the 5th Infantry Division. Partisans expected the resistance to be weak and that the enemy would simply retreat, as they had done before. The enemy’s resistance was heavier than expected. While providing firing support for the infantry, two T-34-85 tanks became bogged down in a canal that the Partisans failed to spot in time. One of them had its barrel digging into the ground. The Partisans abandoned the attack but successfully evacuated the two tanks during the night. The following day, another attack was launched. This time, the Partisans attacked the village from a distance with tank fire. After several rounds were fired, the tanks rushed toward the village expecting that their fire had weakened the defenders. When the two lead tanks reached the village, they were instead met with Panzerfaust fire. Both were taken out, with the last tank managing to pull back. Under heavier Partisan pressure, by the end of the day, the enemy was beaten back.
On 16th and 17th April, other elements of the Second Tank Brigade were positioned at Vinkoci, awaiting necessary repairs and the arrival of the 2nd Tank Battalion. In addition, the damaged tanks were finally recovered and gathered there for repairs. On 18th April, the Second Tank Brigade was meant to begin attacking Axis positions near the village of Pleternica. Once again, inadequate leadership and poor assessment of the enemy’s defensive line lead to a failed attack. One tank was taken out, likely hit by a Panzerfaust. The whole unit had to retreat after an Axis counterattack. The Axis counterattack was spearheaded by one Hotchkiss and three FIAT (possibly L6/40s, which was a common German-used tank by this time) tanks. The following day, another attack was launched by the Partisans. This time, they systematically began demolishing houses in order to take away any possible cover from the enemy. The enemy armor was not used against the Partisan tanks, as they really could do little against them. The fighting for this village lasted up to 20th April. While the Partisans finally managed to take it, they failed in their objective to cut off the elite German 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs-Division “Prinz Eugen” (English: 7th SS Prince EugenVolunteer Mountain Division), which managed to escape. The Brigade lost two more tanks, with one destroyed and the other damaged. Any further breach was not possible, as the T-34-85s came under strong enemy fire. The Brigade was instead pulled back to its starting positions.
On 22nd April, elements from the Second Tank Brigade supported the advance of the 21st Infantry Division in their advance in the area of Brod–Batrina-Novska. This attack was more successful and the enemy was driven off. The pursuit was not possible, as the Germans blew up the bridges over the River Orljava.
After this, the Brigade was positioned in the village of Oriovici. From 23rd April to 4th (or 5th, depending on the source) May, this unit was inactive due to a general lack of spare parts, fuel, and ammunition. The greatest problem was the lack of summer lubricants. The Second Tank Brigade commander simply failed to request these from the Soviets on time. For this reason, the T-34-85 engines often overheated. During this time, the unit’s commanders came under criticism from the Partisan High Command. Due to their poor leadership, the brigade suffered unnecessary losses. In addition, the unit as a whole was rarely used. Instead, smaller groups of tanks were used to support the infantry, which greatly affected their performance. How many tanks were lost by this point is not known precisely. According to the Partisans’ own documentation, dated 25th April 1945, they had 50 fully operational tanks. Croatian documents from the war listed 34 destroyed Partisan tanks during April 1945. Both of these factions had reasons to present figures that may not have been completely true. For the Croatians, by this point, any kind of success could be used for propaganda purposes. The Partisans, on the other hand, may have downplayed their losses to hide the Brigade’s rather poor leadership.
Once the necessary supplies reached the Brigade, the march to the west continued on 4th May. By this point, the enemy resistance was collapsing. The enemy was now desperate, trying to reach the Allies in Italy to avoid surrendering to the Partisans. On 6th May, while crossing a bridge over the Ilova river, the bridge collapsed under the weight of the tank, taking the tank with it. Luckily, the driver survived the fall, and the tank was quickly salvaged from the river but was so badly damaged it could only be repaired after the war. The Partisans simply failed to properly test the bridge’s stability before crossing. On 8th May, as the Brigade was approaching Zagreb, they came under fire and one tank was lost. The city was fully liberated on the following day. On the 10th, elements from this Brigade, supported by the mechanized infantry, attacked enemy positions at Šestina. Once again, the infantry was forbidden from disembarking from the tanks, leading to heavy losses. Finally, with the capture of Zagreb and the larger workshop located in it, the Partisans managed to seize a variety of trucks they provided to the infantry. The tanks entered Ljubljana shortly and they would be sent to Trieste, where they awaited the end of the war.
After the War
After the war, the surviving T-34 tanks would be used as the main fighting force of the newly created Jugoslovenske Narodne Armije (English: Yugoslav People’s Army) for years to come. Despite their obsolescence, they would remain in service up to the early 2000s.
The T-34-76 saw quite limited service with both Partisans and the Germans in the final months of the war. It’s later improved version, T-34-85, was also present in the closing months of the war. Nevertheless, it saw heavy action, albeit mostly in the Soviet’s hand, especially during the liberation of Serbia where the enemy resistance was strong. While the formation of the first Partisans unit equipped with this tank was initiated back in September 1944, the unit did not reach Yugoslavia until March 1945. The Second Tank Brigade would still see some action, but in comparison to the First Tank Brigade, it performed quite poorly. Despite being equipped with the best available tank that was used in Yugoslavia, they were often outperformed by the enemy. This was mostly due to the unit commanders’ poor tactical decisions and general lack of experience. Nevertheless, the T-34-85 contributed to the final liberation of Yugoslavia. It would remain one of the most available tanks in post-war Yugoslavia up to its collapse in the 1990s.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||6.68 x 3 x 2.45 m|
|Total Weight, Battle Ready||32 tonnes|
|Crew||5 (driver, radio operator, gunner, loader, and commander)|
|Propulsion||V-2-34, 38.8-liter V12 diesel 500 hp|
|Speed||Road Speed: 60 km/h|
|Range||300 km (road), 230 km (off-road)|
|Armament||85 mm ZiS-S-53 gun, with two 7.62 mm DT machine guns|
|Armor||40 to 90 mm|
|Number operated||5 to 6 T-34 and 65+ T-34-85|
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