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Cold War Yugoslav Armor

T-34-85 in Yugoslav Service 

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-2000)
Medium Tank – 1,000+ Operated

After the Second World War, the Jugoslovenska Armija (JA, English: Yugoslav Army), better known as the Jugoslovenska Narodna Atmiija (JNA, English: Yugoslav People’s Army), was created. Initially, it was equipped with armored vehicles of various origins. Most had been captured by the enemy during the war. Besides them, the JNA operated a number of vehicles given to them by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. This included the T-34-85 tanks that formed the Second Tank Brigade. While, later, more advanced tank designs would be acquired, the T-34-85 would remain in use up to 2000.

A T-34-85 in JNA service. Source:www.srpskioklop.paluba

The T-34-85 in Yugoslavia

The first T-34-76 tanks that appeared in Yugoslavia were operated by the German SS Polizei Regiment 10 (English: 10th SS Police Regiment), which had 10 such vehicles in late 1944. These were used to protect Trieste and saw service against the Yugoslav Partisans. Out of 10 German T-34-76s, the Partisans managed to capture between 5 or 6 before and at the end of the war. These remained in use after the war and one has even been preserved to this day.

While not clear, at least 5 or 6 T-34-76s were captured by the Partisans and put to use. Source:www.srpskioklop.paluba.

The improved T-34-85 version was used in Yugoslavia for the first time by the advancing Soviet 3rd Ukraine Front. These supported the Yugoslav Partisans, helping them liberate many towns in Serbia, including the capital, Belgrade. After their mission was completed, the 3rd Ukraine Front began moving toward Hungary to continue fighting the remaining Axis forces there.

A Soviet T-34-85 during the liberation of Belgrade. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

The Yugoslav Partisans got their chance to operate the newer T-34-85 tanks in late 1944. On the order of Stalin, a tank brigade operated by Partisan crews trained in the Soviet Union was formed. This unit would be known as the Second Tank Brigade and was formed on 8th March 1945. The Brigade was organized according to the Red Army model of the Tank Brigade. As far as equipment is concerned, this brigade was equipped with 65 T-34/85 tanks and 3 BA-64 armored cars.

The Unit arrived in Topčider (Serbia) on 26th March. After a military parade held in Belgrade on 27th March, it was sent to the Syrmian Front (21st October 1944 – 12th April 1945), where this Brigade participated in the heavy fight that lasted until the final collapse of the German forces there. The Second Tank Brigade also participated in the fighting for Slavonia and during the liberation of Zagreb. Besides the T-34-85 tanks supplied to the Second Tank Brigade, the Partisans managed to salvage a few abandoned Soviet T-34-85 tanks left in Yugoslavia.

T-34-85 tanks of the Second Tank Brigade on their way to Trieste, May 1945. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

First Years after the War

After the war, the Partisan forces became the nucleus of the JNA. Initially, the main armored forces consisted mainly of captured or supplied Allied vehicles. The captured vehicles, in reality, had little combat value given their obsolescence and lack of spare parts. Their more important role was to provide the necessary crew training. Due to the shattered industry and infrastructure across Yugoslavia, the production of new vehicles and equipment was not possible. Thus, the rearmament of this new army was heavily based on foreign imports. In the first few years after the war, the main Yugoslav arms and weapons supplier was the Soviet Union. Given that both countries were led by Communist parties and had cooperated during the war, this was not surprising. Through them, the JNA received great quantities of weapons and equipment, including tanks. The Soviets also sent a number of tank instructors to Yugoslavia. While the documentary records of these early years are somewhat lacking, it is known that Yugoslavia received some 66 tanks in 1946 and 308 in 1947. By that time, the JNA had in its inventory some 425 T-34-85 (including a few T-34-76) tanks. This number also included vehicles that had been operated during the war.

An interesting photograph of a T-34-85 during military exercises in 1949. Note the Jagdpanzer 38(t), SU-76, and even Bren gun carriers in the background. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

While these two countries were nominally friendly toward each other, the Soviet tank shipment quality was less so. The majority of tanks received lacked any kind of documentation of their previous use or their mechanical life. Information, such as their age or usage, was also unknown. Some even had completely unusable engines. Moreover, great numbers of the spare barrels supplied were of the 76 mm caliber which the JNA did not need in large numbers.

While the JNA was still in its early development phase, political tensions between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union and, more precisely, between Tito and Stalin, began to arise. Stalin wanted to impose a more direct Soviet control over Yugoslavia, something that Tito fiercely objected to. This led to the famous so-called Tito-Stalin Split in 1948, which basically isolated Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc.

The situation became even more critical, as Yugoslavia’s eastern borders were surrounded by Soviet allies. The possibility of a Soviet invasion was a real threat to Yugoslavia at that time. The problem was not only the lack of equipment and tanks, but also attempts of desertion by at least two generals. They tried to escape to Romania using a training tank (type not specified, but a T-34-85 highly likely) from a tank school in Bela Crkva, which was close to the border. The escape attempt failed and one of the deserters was killed in the process.

Fear of sabotage was also present. Most accidents or negligence in properly operating tanks were often placed under investigation as possible sabotage. The majority of these could simply be attributed to poor maintenance or the inexperience of the crews. Still, there were cases of deliberate sabotage. For example, one T-34-85 was sabotaged by throwing a metal plate inside its driving gears.

The Tito-Stalin Split caused huge economic and political strain on Yugoslavia, but in the long run, proved arguably beneficial. Yugoslavia turned more towards the west. This would lead to a more liberal variant of communism, Titoism, which improved living conditions significantly more than those of other European Communist countries in the following decades.

The First Domestic Attempt to Develop an Improved T-34-85

In the meantime, the JNA found itself in a critical situation. The army was in the process of reorganization and rearmament and was heavily dependent on Soviet military supplies. The problem also resided in the fact that the Western world initially refused to deliver any military support to Communist countries. One way to resolve the dependence on foreign aid was to introduce domestic tank production. The production of domestically developed tanks was something that the JNA was obsessed with. This was, at that time, an almost impossible task. It required a well-developed industry, experienced engineering staff, and probably most importantly, time, all of which Yugoslavia lacked at that point. The industry and its infrastructure had been destroyed almost beyond repair during the war.

Nevertheless, in 1948, work on such a vehicle was initiated.  The Petar Drapšin workshop was instructed to produce 5 prototype vehicles. The new tank was designated simply as Vozilo A (English: Vehicle A), also sometimes referred to as Tip A (English: Type A). In essence, it was to be based on the Soviet T-34-85 tank with improved overall characteristics. While it used the same gun and suspension, the superstructure and turret design were significantly changed. While the 5 prototypes were completed, they quickly showed a number of deficiencies. Mostly due to inexperience, lack of adequate production capacity, and more importantly, that there were no design plans, all five tanks were generally different in detail from each other. For example, some were heavier by a few hundred kilograms or were built using different materials. When the JNA field-tested these vehicles, it was not possible to make an accurate conclusion as to whether they were successful or not. They could not be considered as prototype vehicles for possible future production and, in order to get any useful information, it was necessary to produce several more vehicles, which was too expensive. This led to the cancellation of his project.

One of five Vozilo A prototype vehicles built. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

Stalin’s Death a New Light in the Tunnel

In the years that followed Stalin’s death in 1952, the relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union gradually warmed. This was also the case with military cooperation, thanks to which the JNA was able to acquire new equipment during the 1960s. This came at the right time, as the JNA was in great need of armored vehicles given the global political turmoil regarding the Cuban crisis in 1961 and 1962. The previous acquisition of Western armored vehicles also came to an end. Through the Soviets and other Eastern Bloc states, the JNA acquired vast quantities of new equipment, such as T-54 and T-55 tanks, which were far superior to the aging T-34-85.

In 1966, during negotiations with the Soviets, the JNA’s experts were interested in purchasing the improved T-34-85 model 1960. It is not quite completely clear why this decision was made. Prior to the purchase, the JNA’s hierarchy debated whether it was worth buying this obsolete tank at all. Some ten arguments were made against it, while only two were made in support of the idea. The arguments for its acquisition revolved around the fact that most parts of these tanks could be domestically produced by this point. The 1960 version of the T-34 had several improvements in comparison to those that were already in service within the JNA. It was, among other things, powered by a new V-2-34M-11 engine, had better sights and periscopes, the suspension was strengthened, it used the new ‘Starfish’ drive wheels, and had a new communication system for the crew. Before any deal with the Soviets was made, the JNA asked that these tanks should be delivered either as a free donation or at a simple symbolic price. The JNA officials proposed a price of US$8,000, while the Soviets gave a counteroffer of nearly US$40,000 per piece. The deal was done in US dollars for some unclear reasons. A deal would be eventually made for the acquisition of 600 improved T-34-85 tanks, including some 140 of the command version. These arrived in three batches of 200 tanks each from 1966 to 1968. With them, a vital supply of some 24,380 HEAT rounds also arrived. These were in high demand by the JNA, which tried to find a means to increase the older 85 mm gun’s anti-tank capabilities. The demand for improved ammunition was such that the Yugoslav negotiators asked for these to be delivered before the actual tanks. The new T-34-85 tanks were marked with white tactical numbers located on the turrets: 99– (for tanks received in 1966), 18— (1967), and 19— (1968).

The T-34-85 version of 1960 is mostly recognizable because of the anti-aircraft machine gun. Its new road wheels were quite similar to the T-54/55’s ones. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.
Side view of the improved version. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

The new T-34-85 vehicles were intended to completely replace the M4 tanks. Interestingly, besides the received T-34-85 tanks, the JNA officials asked the Soviets for the delivery of T-34s armed with 100 mm guns. It is not quite clear, but it appears the JNA was not aware that this vehicle was not produced by the Soviets. The confusion with it lay in the fact that the JNA wrongly thought that the Romanian armed forces possessed 100 mm-armed T-34-85s, which, according to them, were likely imported from the Soviet Union. Romania possessed no such thing, the closest thing being the SU-100 tank destroyer.

Designation

A number of authors, including B. B. Dimitrijević (Modernizacija i Intervencija Jugoslovenske Oklopne Jedinice 1945-2006), describe this tank as the T-34B. The origin of this designation is not clear. but it is possible that it was given in order to differentiate them from the older versions. These sources do not specify if the older T-34-76 or even the unimproved T-34-84 were marked as T-34A as they do not even use this designation in any context.  On the other hand, sources, such as F. Pulham and W. Kerrs (T-34 Shock: The Soviet Legend in Pictures), mention that the T-34B designation referred to the older T-34-85 and not the later improved vehicles used by the JNA. To avoid any potential confusion, this article will use the simple T-34-85 designation.

Further Attempts for Improvements and Standardization

While the Vehicle A project was canceled, experiments on improving the T-34 continued for some time after that. With the arrival of Western equipment, such as the M4 and M47 tanks, there was an issue regarding available spare parts. The production of parts for Soviet vehicles would be adopted in time. On the other hand, the JNA officials decided not to adopt the production of spare parts for Western vehicles. These were to be acquired from abroad instead. During the 1950s, a series of experiments and testing was undertaken in order to see if improving the performance and standardization of parts and weapons was possible. The JNA was especially interested in replacing the M4’s engine with the one from the T-34-85. In addition, the armament of these two tanks was to be replaced with 90 mm caliber weapons. Another small standardization effort included reboring the Browning machine guns from 7.62 mm to 7.92 mm caliber.

Most of these modifications were undertaken at the Machine Bureau in Belgrade, formed in 1950. Most of the manpower at this bureau was relocated to the Famos factory, where production of the V-2 engine and the gearbox began in 1954 and 1957 respectively. In addition, at Famos, the idea of a self-propelled vehicle armed with a 90 mm gun, known as Vozilo B (English Vehicle B), possibly using components of the T-34-85, was proposed, but nothing came from it.

In 1955, after testing two French AMX-13 tanks, which were rejected, mostly due to their price, the idea of domestically-built tanks was once again considered. In 1956, this led to the M-320 proposal. The project would be rejected due to its price and because it did not utilize components taken from the T-34-85 tank. It was replaced with a new proposal, the M-628 Galeb (English: Seagull), which was in essence an improved T-34-85 tank. There were two versions of this vehicle. The AC-version was to be armed with the standard 85 mm gun but equipped with M-53 domestically produced machine guns, new radios, a new V-2-32 engine, etc. The second proposal was the AR-version, armed with a 90 mm gun and a 12.7 mm machine gun.

At the end of 1958 and early 1959, one T-34-85 armed with a 90 mm gun was tested. During the firing trials, it was noted that, firing at a range of 500 m, it could not penetrate 100 mm of armor plate angled at 30o. The firing rate was reduced to only four rounds per minute, in comparison to the original T-34-85, which had a firing rate of 7 to 8 rounds per minute. Due to the larger rounds, the ammunition load had to be reduced from 55 to 47 rounds. Despite these deficiencies, in April 1959 a small pre-prototype series was meant to be built. Additional changes were to be tested, such as the installation of a 12.7 or 20 mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on top of the turret, improving electrical installations, control systems, etc. Several different workshops were to be included in the realization of this project. For example, the turret was developed and tested by Železara Ravne, Bratstvo was responsible for the installation of the gun inside the turret, and the final assembly was to be done by Famos. Due to a lack of experienced engineers to lead the project, large quantities of newly produced parts could not be used due to poor quality.

In 1960, attempts to improve (or reuse some of its parts for other projects) the T-34-85’s performance continued. This led to the M-636 Kondor (English Condor), which incorporated some components from the T-34-85.

Front view of the experimental M-636. Few pictures of these experimental vehicles have survived to this day. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.

In 1965, the so-called Adaptirani (English Adapted) T-34-85 was tested. These received a number of modifications, including the installation of a 12.7 anti-aircraft machine gun, smoke dischargers, improved hydraulic steering, etc. Other projects, such as using a 2 cm anti-aircraft gun and improved nuclear protection, were discarded early on. The Adapted and the previously mentioned T-34 armed with the 90 mm gun were used for testing the added and modified equipment.

Besides the installation of the 90 mm gun, other larger weapons were also considered for the T-34-85. These included the 100 and 122 mm caliber guns. Interestingly, the 122 mm gun was tested on an M4 with a modified turret. While a production order for some 100 vehicles was given, it was ultimately rejected. The project was briefly revived, using the T-34-85 tank for the conversion.

The year 1966 was crucial for the older JNA tanks (the M4 and T-34-85). By this time, the more modern equipment, including improved T-34-85 tanks, were arriving in larger numbers. For this reason, it was decided to slowly remove the M4 from service but also stop any attempt at modifying either of the tanks. This year basically marked the end of any project that involved improving or changing the design of the T-34-85.

The two modified T-34-85 tanks were found in a military warehouse in Banja Luka (BiH) in 1969. Given the rather slow and ineffective Yugoslav bureaucracy, it is not a surprise that these two tanks appear to have been stored and ‘lost’. After a dilemma about what to do with them, a decision was made to use them as basic training tanks (with the guns non-operational). Later, it was ordered to switch the main gun back to the original 85 mm gun.

Of all previously mentioned modifications, only a few would be adopted for service. The most obvious modification was adding a 12.7 mm Browning heavy machine gun on top of the turret. These were mainly reused from the obsolete M4 tanks. The standard handrails from the turret were replaced with new ones. Probably the most important change was the installation of the M-68 infrared device.

In 1967, two army technical overhaul plants (TRZ 1 Čačak and TRZ 3 Đorđe Petrov) made an analysis of opportunities for improvement of these older models to T-34-85 1960 standards. These analyses showed that it was feasible to upgrade them, even within the scope of the existing military industry. All older T-34-85s were to be modified to the new standards, adding a more powerful engine, an anti-aircraft gun, installing new drive wheels when the old ones wore out, improved night vision systems for night driving, etc.

The process of modernization began in 1969 and was undertaken by the technical overhaul plant Čačak. In early 1970, the installation of four series of night vision systems began. The problem was the slow upgrading process of older engines to the new standard. For this reason, delegations were sent to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union, in order to buy more engines. In 1972, 150 new engines were bought. In 1973, new engines were fitted into the tanks while the older engines were used for training by battalions armed with this type of vehicle. The delegations were especially keen on engines from Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Poles offered 100 revamped engines. However, they also could produce new engines if a deal was made. A year later, 120 V-34M-11s were bought. Another innovation was the introduction of the R-113 and R-123 radios, which were to replace the outdated SET 19 radio.

Modificatications characteristic of the Yugoslav T-34-85 tanks. 1 – new handrails, 2 – remains of the standard handrails, 3 – one of the machine gun support types, 4 – alternate placement for the machine gun. Source: www.hrcappuccino.org
1 – the second type of machine gun support, 2 – stand of the machine gun support. Source: www.hrcappuccino.org
The third type of machine gun support. Source: www.hrcappuccino.org
The way of fixing the machine gun was when it was located in the alternate position. The barrel of the gun was laterally fixed. Source: www.hrcappuccino.org
Another way of fixing the machine gun. This method was used when the machine gun was located on the turret. The gun was fixed with this type of ingot. Source: www.hrcappuccino.org

Besides these improvements, a number of T-34-85s were modified to be used as training tanks. In essence, only a firing imitator device was added above the gun. Interestingly, during the winter of 1969/1970, a small prototype series of T-34-85 tanks were modified, receiving a 2 cm gun (taken from old captured German Flak AA pieces), which was installed inside the 85 mm gun. This was done to help during firing training. This was successfully tested by the 211th Armored Brigade.

The training vehicles had to fire a firing imitator device that was added above the turret and the gun. Source: www.mycity-military.com

Non-Combat Modifications

For a long time, the JNA had planned to convert some T-34-85s into mine-clearing vehicles. On one prototype, the turret was removed and, in its place, a crane was installed. The results were not satisfactory and the project was canceled. The single prototype remained in use up to 1999, when it was abandoned in Kosovo and Metohija by the VJ (Vojska Jugoslavije, post-1992 Army of Yugoslavia).

The single mine-clearer prototype was built in the late 1950s and remained in use with the later Army of Yugoslavia up to 1999. It was left behind after its armed forces left Kosovo and Metohija the same year. Source: www.srpskioklop

Another proposal to develop a recovery vehicle based on the T-34-85 was also examined. This vehicle was designated M-67, but as newer improved ammunition arrived from the Soviet Union for the T-34-85, it was deemed wasteful to use the tank chassis in this manner, so the project was rejected. Projects including a bridge-carrying version were also tested, but they too were canceled.

Ordinary T-34-85 tanks could be equipped with an M-67 military plow to help dig trenches and shelters. In addition, every third tank would have a PT-55 anti-mine device and every fifth a dozer.

A T-34-85 equipped with a plow. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba

Export

A lesser-known fact is that Yugoslav T-34-85 tanks were exported, but precise information is still somewhat lacking. While not completely clear, there is a chance that the JNA supplied a few T-34-85 tanks to the Cypriot Army during the 1970s. While no documentation was ever found of this alleged transfer of these tanks, authors such as B. B. Dimitrijević (Modernizacija i Intervencija Jugoslovenske Oklopne Jedinice 1945-2006) mention that there is some photographic evidence suggesting that some Cypriot vehicles were equipped similarly to the T-34-85s that were in JNA service (night vision equipment and 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine guns).

It is known that, during 1970, some 10 tanks with ammunition and personnel were delivered to the Angolese Communist guerilla MPLA. The retired tanks of the 51st Motorized Brigade were sent from the port of Ploče, Croatia. All costs for the transport were paid by the Yugoimport-SDPR company. According to some sources, Yugoslav tanks were also in the hands of Middle Eastern and other African countries.

Service in Yugoslavia

In service, the T-34-85s were used in various military exercises and parades. Despite the cooperation with the Soviet Union (except for the period from 1948 to Stalin’s death) regarding the acquisition of spare parts, the JNA had trouble doing effective mechanical maintenance of these tanks. This was due to many reasons. The first problem was the rather poor mechanical condition of many vehicles supplied prior to 1948. They lacked proper documentation, so the JNA engineers simply did not know about their use and mechanical maintenance history. Another major problem was the prolonged delay in starting the domestic production of spare parts and equipment. During the early 1950s, some 30% of available T-34-85s were out of service for various reasons, but mostly due to mechanical breakdowns.

In order to resolve this issue, during this time, at least 5 technical repair institutes were formed. These proved insufficient for the job and the number of inoperative T-34-85 tanks began to rise, reaching half of the available tanks in 1956. A huge problem was the inability of the domestic industry to begin producing spare parts. The problem with domestic production of spare parts took more than a decade to be resolved to some extent. Production of these in the civilian industry proved problematic and too expensive. This forced the JNA to use the technical repair institutes for this role. This, of course, was another problem, as these rarely communicated with each other, which led to them producing spare parts for their own demands. Relocation of spare parts from storage to the designated units was slow and usually needed between 6 to 20 months to arrive.

Trieste Crisis

After the end of the war, the political tensions between the Western Allies and Yugoslavia began to rise. The focal point of this growing crisis was the Italian city of Trieste, which the Yugoslav officials wanted to occupy. The negotiations for resolving this issue and avoiding possible conflict lasted several days. Finally, on 9th June 1945, an agreement was signed between the Yugoslav and Western Allied representatives. The Yugoslav Army was to evacuate Trieste. The city and its surroundings were divided into two spheres of influence. Zone A was controlled by the Allies and included the city itself and its surrounding. Zone B included the city of Istra and part of the Slovenian coast. Both the First and Second Tank Brigades (equipped with the T-34-85 tanks) were present during this crisis.

On 9th June 1945, an agreement was signed between the Yugoslav and Western Allied representatives. The city and its surroundings were divided into two spheres of influence. Zone A was controlled by the Allies and included the city itself and its surrounding. Zone B included the city of Istra and part of the Slovenian coast. Source: Wiki

At the end of 1945 and the start of 1946, the Allies began repositioning additional Polish units to the area of Trieste. This caused great concern to the Yugoslav hierarchy, which followed these new developments with interest. The Yugoslav build-up of additional forces began shortly after, as the Second Tank Brigade was repositioning to this area. After a series of peace negotiations, an agreement was signed in September 1947. This allowed Yugoslavia to take some of the disputed territories in Slovenia. This was actually the first usage of tanks after World War Two ended.

In October 1953, the Western powers authorized the Italians to position their forces in the city of Trieste. This move caught the Yugoslav military and political authorities completely unprepared. They immediately responded by concentrating additional forces, with the aim of expelling the Italians in case they entered the city. First to respond was the 265th Tank Brigade equipped with M4 tanks. Due to political reasons, this unit was to be replaced with the 252nd Tank Brigade equipped with T-34-85 tanks, which was previously positioned in the eastern part of Yugoslavia for an anticipated Soviet attack. Luckily for all sides, despite the great confusion and stubbornness on both sides, no actual combat occurred. Political negotiation began shortly and a final agreement was signed. Yugoslavia agreed to stop attempts to annex this area.

Prior to the Yugoslav Wars

The T-34-85 represented a great portion of the JNA’s armored forces. For example, in 1972, there were 1,018 T-34-85 tanks in service within the JNA, which was 40% of Yugoslav armored forces in total. They served in armored units such as the 5th Armored Brigade, including the 14th, 16th, 19th, 21st, 24th, 25th, 41st, and 42nd Armored Regiments. The vehicles were also used in motorized units, such as the 36th and 51st Motorized Brigades, and rifle units, for example, the 12nd Rifle Brigade. The tanks were used in training units and educational centers, among others, at Zalužani, as well.

During the 1980s, the process of withdrawing the T-34-85 tanks from service began. They were moved from armored units to motorized and even to infantry units in the independent armored battalions. A huge number of this type of vehicle was transferred to warehouses, where they remained until the early 1990s. By 1988, there were around 1,003 T-34-85 tanks in the JNA’s inventory. In the early 1990s, T-34-85 tanks were in service with at least 17 armored battalions of various motorized brigades.

T-34-85 tanks in one of the warehouses of the JNA. Notice that one vehicle has a five-digit tactical number (18704), while the vehicle on the left (2884) has a standard four-digit tactical number. Another interesting detail is the different types of road wheels on vehicle no. 18704. Source: Poligon 2/2018
The T-34-85s were quite common during many military parades celebrating the victory in the Second World War. Source:www.srpskioklop.paluba

The Yugoslav Civil Wars

The political and economical crisis of the late 1980s, together with ever-rising nationalism in all federal entities in Yugoslavia, would ultimately lead to a bloody and costly civil war. These events are still politically and historically controversial, especially in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The reasons why it started, who started it, when and even its name are still ferociously debated to this day. Unfortunately, the war was accompanied by great suffering and crimes committed by all warring parties.

The authors of this article seek to be neutral and to write only about the participation of this vehicle during the wars without any involvement in current-day politics.

By the early 1990s, the JNA, despite the obsolescence of the T-34-85 tanks, still had fairly large numbers of them. The majority were, by this point, stored in various military warehouses across the country. All warring parties would manage to get their hands on them. They would see extensive action simply as they were available in sufficient numbers and relatively simple to use.

Just prior to the civil war that broke out in 1991, Yugoslavia was home to many different, mostly Slavic people. While for decades they lived in peace, the rise of nationalism and economic stagnation, to name a few reasons, ultimately plunged this country into a bloody civil war, with thousands of human lives lost. Tenths of thousands were also forced to abandon their homes. Source: www.pinterest.com

Slovenia 

The tensions that would eventually lead to open war, began in late 1990. By 25th June 1991, both the Croatian and Slovene parliaments unilaterally declared independence. The remaining Yugoslav government issued orders to the JNA to begin military action against these two republics. In late June 1991, in Slovenia, a short and the least bloody conflict in the breakup of Yugoslavia took place. Even though the T-34-85 tanks were present in Slovenia, it is likely that the vehicles were not used in this conflict.

After the war and retreat of Yugoslav forces, the tanks were returned to warehouses, located in Vipava and Pivka. According to some sources, over a dozen were sold to Croatia, while the rest were either sent to museums or scrapped.

Croatia

Soon after the end of the war in Slovenia, clashes started in Croatia. Prior to this event, there had been some minor skirmishes between Croatian and Serbian paramilitary forces. After June 1991, the JNA took a more aggressive stance. At first, the JNA also used units equipped with T-34-85 tanks against the Croatian forces. It is known that the 16th Rifle Brigade used them, which participated in the fighting in Western Slavonia. The tanks were also used during the battles near Dubrovnik and Konavle.

Destroyed T-34-85 operated by the JNA during the fighting for Stari Grabovac, near Vukovar, Eastern Slavonia. Notice the ‘JNA Jugoslavija’ inscription. The tank has also received a new tactical number at the front of the turret – 6. The older number, 18018, was also kept. Source: Poligon 2/2018

Several units operated vehicles of this type: the 5th Proletarian Brigade, 145th Rifle Brigade, and the 316th Motorized Brigade. The 9th Corps, stationed near the city of Knin, also operated T-34-85 tanks. Some of the tanks were transferred from the island of Vis a year before.

At the moment when the war broke out, Croatian forces did not have a single T-34-85 tank. However, they managed to capture some and, after doing necessary repairs, the tanks were sent to Croatian units. Some sources also imply that Slovenia delivered over a dozen tanks to Croatia.

In the late Autumn of 1991, units of the 2nd Titograd Corps started blocking and shelling Dubrovnik. The main goal of this attack was either to annex the city to Montenegro or declare the separatist Republic of Dubrovnik. The fierce clashes ended in May 1992 with the JNA’s defeat.

A Croatian T-34-85 nicknamed ‘Leopard’ in the Dubrovnik region. The man on the right is Major Andrija Matijaš Pauk. He was one of the most famous Croatian commanders of the armored forces. Source: Poligon 2/2018

An important role in the defense of Dubrovnik was played in the Croatian 163rd Dubrovnik Brigade. One of the T-34-85 tanks became a true legend within Croatian forces, nicknamed Malo bijelo (English: Little White). Allegedly, during the battle, it survived two shots from 9M14 Malyutka anti-tank guided missiles. The tank also managed to destroy several enemy vehicles. At least two armored personnel carriers, one T-55, and a truck were claimed to have been destroyed.

Malo bijelo allegedly survived two shots from Yugoslav 9M14 Malyutka anti-tank guided missiles. Source: Poligon 2/2018

The characteristic feature of vehicles that belonged to the Croatian 136rd Brigade was the sandbags added to the hull and around the turret. Even though this kind of protection was primitive, it may have been somewhat effective, as the Malo bijelo story could indicate.

Malo bijelo seen from the other side. The word Sokol (Falcon) is written on the barrel. Source: Poligon 2/2018

Moreover, this kind of protection was also used by other Croatian units in the region of Dubrovnik between 1991 and 1992. In 1992, Croatian forces started pushing the Serbs back. During this period, the Croats captured over a dozen T-34-85 tanks. After some months, they were sent to armored battalions of various brigades of the Zbor narodne garde – ZNG (English: Croatian National Guard), later renamed to the Hrvatska vojska (HV, English: Croatian Army).

Croatian T-34-85 with the characteristic protection made of sandbags and checked red and white coat of arms painted on the front, Dubrovnik, 1992. Source: Poligon 2/2018

In August 1992, Croatian tanks of the 114th, 115th, and 163th Brigades participated in Operation Tigar (English: Tiger) and then in Operation Medački džep (English: Medak Pocket) during September 1993.

Destroyed T-34-85 operated by the Army of Serbian Krajina by Croatian forces in Karlovac, 1992. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_destroyed_T-34-85_tank_in_Karlovac,_Croatia.jpg

The T-34-85 tanks also participated in Operacija Bljesak (English: Operation Flash) during May 1995 in Slavonia, and in Oluja (English: Operation Storm). These two operations basically marked the end of the war in Croatia. However, the T-34-85 tanks were not used in the first line, but rather in infantry support tasks.

Soldiers of the Army of Serbian Krajina posing in front of a T-34-85 tank, Osijek, between 1991 and 1992. Poligon 2/2018

It is not known how many tanks survived the war but it is known that, after the war ended, they were retired and gradually scrapped. An interesting fact is that some vehicles were still in a military base in Benkovac between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The state of the vehicles shows that it was some kind of warehouse.

Croatian tanks used various types of improvised protection. In addition to the already mentioned sandbags, rubber was also used. They also strongly differed from Yugoslav tanks in the paint job. While some kept their original olive green color, some were painted with camouflage. The first type of camouflage consisted of brown stains on the standard olive green, while the second type had three colors – light green and brown stains on the base olive green. The fourth type had the most colors – light green, brown and black stains on the base olive green. A lot of vehicles had a painted red and white Croatian checkerboard and their nicknames as well (Belaj bager, Demon, Mungos, Malo bijelo, Leopard, Pas, Sv. Kata, and Živac) on the hull and turret.

While the Croatian forces often managed to take over equipment from the now disintegrating JNA, some military units managed to repel the attacks using their manpower and equipment. One such event occurred during the JNA break out of the Stjepan Milanšić-Šiljo military barracks near Logorište. This barrack, which was meant to house fairly large units, was guarded by only a skeletal crew of 40 soldiers. These had the responsibility of guarding some 63 T-34-85 and T-55 tanks and other equipment. The encirclement of this JNA point began to tighten in August 1991. Due to the poor organization of the attacking Croatian units, this could not be fully implemented and the JNA could slowly reinforce its beleaguered garrison. The situation escalated when the Croatian soldiers killed 17 previously disarmed JNA soldiers. On 4th November 1991, the trapped garrison launched a general breakout with all available equipment. After two days of heavy fighting, the previously trapped JNA units managed to escape. They managed to evacuate 21 T-55 and 9 T-34-85 tanks. During the harsh fighting, the JNA forces lost between 8 to 10 tanks, many of which were T-34-85s. The Stjepan Milanšić-Šiljo military barracks was previously set on fire and were shelled by the JNA artillery, destroying much of its pre-war inventory.

One of the JNA T-34-85s lost during the Stjepan Milanšić-Šiljo breakout. Source: www.srpskioklop.palubal

Bosnia and Herzegovina

In spring 1992, another war broke out, this time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Territorial Defense Force of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to capture 19 T-34-85 tanks in Zenica at the beginning of the conflict. Later, they were assigned to various units, where armored battalions (platoons) were formed.

Later, the Bosniaks (known before as the Bosnian Muslims) captured more vehicles of this type, and after repairs, the tanks were sent to units of the Armija Bosne i Hercegovine (English: Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina).

It is assessed that the total number of T-34-85 tanks operated by Bosnia and Herzegovina was around 45. Some sources also state that a part of these vehicles were imported from other countries, with the West turning a blind eye. This is rather interesting as, officially, there was an embargo on exporting arms to warring countries in the Balkan region.

T-34–85 operated by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, probably in 1993. National insignias representing the country are on the turret (Coat of Arms, inscription BiH). Notice also the improvised protection made of rubber. Source: Poligon 2/2018

After the beginning of the war, the T-34-85 tanks were intensively used by the JNA, mainly in the regions of Posavina, Herzegovina, and central and eastern Bosnia. They were also used during the Siege of Sarajevo to support infantry and as entrenched firing points.

In May 1992, the JNA (which also changed its name to the  Vojska Jugoslavije (VJ, English: Army of Yugoslavia) withdrew from Bosnia and Herzegovina, while huge numbers of heavy equipment left behind, including T-34-85 tanks. They were sent into service with the Vosjka Republike Sprske (English: Army of the Republika Srpska) including personnel that had decided to stay. At first, armored equipment was stationed in the region of Banja Luka, then being split between individual units for infantry support tasks.

Besides Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Croats within the Hrvatsko Vijeće Odbrane – (HVO, English: Croatian Council of Defense) also operated T-34-85 tanks. They were used against the two other groups, mainly in 1993.

During the war, there were also attacks on international peace forces. On 3rd May 1995, Bosnian Serb forces attacked a checkpoint of the UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) in Maglaj, where soldiers of the 21st Regiment of the Royal Engineers were stationed. On the Serbian side was at least one T-34. Even though the attack was repulsed, six British soldiers were injured because of the tank’s fire.

Many tanks used during the war were equipped with improvised protection in order to protect the crew. According to available photos, the protection was made from thick sheets of rubber. However, a universal scheme of up-armoring did not exist, so, in reality, every tank had its protection made in a different way. Still, many tanks had this kind of protection on the hull and on the turret as well. It is not known if this kind of protection was effective, especially against modern anti-tank weapons.

Bosnian Serb T-34-85 with improvised protection, Bijeljina, between 1994 and 1995. Source: Poligon 2/2018

The war ended in 1995, when the Dayton Peace Treaty was signed. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the last post-Yugoslav operator of the T-34-85 tanks, as the last 23 tanks were sent to be scrapped in 2000.

Abandoned T-34, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1995. Source: Poligon 2/2018
T-34-85 which belonged to the Army of Republika Srpska, Doboj, 1996. Source: Poligon 2/2018

Macedonia

Meanwhile, Macedonia became independent in the Autumn 1991. There were either 4 or 5 T-34-85 tanks that were operated by the JNA in the area, but they were not evacuated from Macedonia in time. The Macedonian Army operated them for a short time. They were retired and probably used as monuments and sent to museums. However, it is not known when this happened and some sources state they were repaired and entered service in the Summer of 1993. This means they could have stayed in service for a bit longer.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

The Savezna Republika Jugoslavija (SRJ, English: Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was the union between Serbia and Montenegro. At the beginning of 1993, its army had some 393 T-34-85 tanks. The end of the T-34-85 tanks in VJ service came to an end in 1996 due to the armament regulations instituted by the Dayton Agreement (late 1995). The former Yugoslav countries had to reduce their numbers of military armored vehicles. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia retained the right to have around 1,875 armored vehicles, of which 1,025 were tanks). Following these restrictions, a large number of older vehicles were removed from service. All VJ T-34 tanks were removed and sent for scrap metal, with the exception of those few which were given to museums. One can be seen at the Kalemegdan military museum in Belgrade.

The surviving T-34-85 at the Serbian Kalemegdan military museum in Belgrade. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba

Given the rather large number of used T-34-85, it should not be surprising that over a dozen or so vehicles survived the Yugoslav wars. They are exhibited in various museums, storehouses, or even in private collections.

A JNA T-34-85 in the Pivka museum in Slovenia. Source:/ftr.wot-news.com
T-34-85 tanks operated by the Croatian Army lined up in Benkovac. The photo is interesting because it shows various versions of modernized T-34-85s. It is also interesting because of the various camouflage types. Source: Poligon 2/2018

JNA T-34-85 on the Movie Screen

The Yugoslav film industry often made films with the theme of the Partisan’s exploits during the Second World War. The JNA often provided the necessary military equipment to portray enemy armored vehicles. One example was the movie Battle of Neretva from 1969. In it, some T-34-85 were modified to resemble the German Tiger tanks, even though these tanks were never actually used in Yugoslavia during the war. The creators of this movie went for a much more imposing visual effect than historical accuracy.

A Yugoslav T-34-85 disguised as a Tiger tank in the movie Battle for Neretva. Source: www.reddit.com/

The JNA’s T-34-85s were also used to portray German Tiger tanks in the 1970 classic Kelly’s Heroes. The film featured Hollywood greats, such as Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. Three modified T-34-85 were used in this movie. The film was a US-Yugoslav co-production, filmed mainly in the Croatian village of Vižinada, on the Istria peninsula

Similar Tigers in the movie classic Kelly’s Heroes. Source: www.pinterest.com

Conclusion

Despite being obsolete, the T-34-85 was an important armored vehicle in the JNA arsenal. It represented over 40% of all available tank models. Even though the JNA acquired more modern tanks, and despite many mechanical and maintenance issues, the T-34-85 persisted in service up to the 1990s. Unfortunately for a weapon intended to protect Yugoslavia, it helped tear it apart during the civil wars in the 1990s. After those wars, nearly all would be removed from service and sent to be scrapped, with the last vehicles finally being sent to the scrapyard in 2000, several decades after they first entered service.

An article by John Stevenson and Marko Pantelic. The authors of this article would also like to thank Discord user HrcAk47#2345 for providing data related to ammunition.

T-34-85 in JNA service Illustration made by Godzila

T-34-85 specifications

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 500 hp
Speed 60 km/h (road)
Range 300-400 km (road), 230-320 (off-road)
Armament 85 mm ZiS-S-53 gun, with two 7.62 mm DT machine guns and one 12.7 mm Browning M2 heavy machine gun.
Armor from 45 mm to 90 mm
Number operated 1,000+ vehicles

 

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One reply on “T-34-85 in Yugoslav Service ”

Great article!

I have two questions:

– Are there any confirmed instances of T-34 on T-34 combat during the civil war?

– Is it realistic for the 85mm ZIS-S-53 to be able to defeat the armor of a T-55?

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