By the end of the Second World War, T-34-85 tanks became one of the most common type of tank in the Czechoslovakian army. The first tanks of this type were received by the Czechoslovakian corps in early 1945, and up to 130 tanks of this type were received in total. They took part in the liberation of Prague and later became the backbone of the post-war Czechoslovakian army. Shipments continued after the war. Later, these Soviet tanks were not only produced in Czechoslovakia, but were also sold in large quantities for export.
Fruit of Compromise
The T-34-85 was a very modern tank at the end of WWII, but it was no secret that the tank would soon be obsolete. The Czechoslovakian military realized this too. On October 17th, 1945, a meeting of the General Staff was held where its commander, Divisional General Bohumil Boček approved the tactical-technical requirements for the Tank všeobecného použití (TVP), a main battle tank. The requirements were clearly inspired by the T-34-85, but the implementation details varied significantly.
Development of the TVP was behind schedule. The military-technical institute (Vojenský technický ústav, VTU) where the tank was being developed presented a concept in March of 1946. CKD and Skoda were supposed to develop their own tanks based on it. The result was the Skoda T 40 project, a significantly different tank from the initial TVP. This project, presented in December of 1946, was already unsatisfactory by next year. As a result, the TVP was reworked in 1948, and resulted in the Skoda T 50 and CKD T 51. SPGs were also designed on the chassis of these tanks.
Time went on, but none of the projects moved past paper. It is not surprising that the military's patience wore thin. Even though work on the TVP continued until 1950, the General Staff already made their decision, and it wasn't in favour of either Skoda or CKD.
This decision is often called politically motivated. It's true that between February 20th and 25th communists took key posts in the Czechoslovakian government, which led to turnovers. On June 14th, Klement Gottwald, a communist, became the president of Czechoslovakia. All these events had an impact on the USSR, including the military.
However, politics was the last thing that influenced the decision of the General Staff. The rapidly ageing fleet of armoured vehicles had to be rejuvenated, and many units were desperately in need of at least some kind of tank. Things got bad enough to modernize captured German StuG 40 and PzIV vehicles. In all the time since the war, Czechoslovakian industry did not build a single new tank or SPG. The only solution in this case was to enlist the help of a political and military ally.
In July of 1949, Czechoslovakia received a license to produce T-34-85 tanks. The reasons why this tank, seemingly obsolete since 1945, was selected for production are quite simple. One was that the Czechoslovakian military was very familiar with the T-34-85. Second, even though it was far from the best tank, this was not critical in the late 1940s. Finally, the tank was easy to produce, and starting up production would not be difficult.
One might ask why Czechoslovakia obtained a license for the T-34-85 and not the superior T-54. The answer is simple: the USSR was only beginning to produce the tank by 1949, and the design only solidified by the early 1950s. Even if the USSR was willing to share such a new vehicle, it would have taken much more time to begin production. With the T-34-85, Czechoslovakian factories received experience in producing a tank that weighed over 30 tons. Vehicles this heavy were not built in Czechoslovakia during the war or before it.
Mass Production on the Move
Technical documentation for the T-34-85 was delivered in November of 1949. The sender was factory #183 from Nizhniy Tagil, the developer of the T-34-85. The tank that was going to be produced in Czechoslovakia differed from the ones that came from the USSR. The last Soviet T-34-85s were built back in 1946, and the design was improved after that. it is not surprising that the Czechoslovakian T-34-85 differed from its Soviet brother.
Conversion of the ČKD Sokolovo factory in Prague to produce the T-34-85 began in January of 1950. Using a locomotive factory as a foundation for tank production seems reasonable, since it already had the necessary lifting equipment. Specialists from the USSR were sent to help in the conversion of the factory.
The Skoda factory in Pilsen supplied the V-2 engines. The armament was produced by another Skoda factory in Dubnica nad Váhom. Like CKD Sokolovo, the SMZ factory used to make locomotives. Finally, the hulls were made at Závod J.V.Stalina (ZJVS) in the Slovakian of Martin. The new tank was, without a doubt, Czechoslovakian, as its components came from both Czech and Slovak factories.
The first post-war tank did not go easy. The first Czechoslovakian T-34-85 was built on September 1st, 1951. By October, another seven tanks were built, two of which were sent to brief trials. 25 T-34-85 tanks were completed by the end of the year.
The first tanks came out rather unpolished, which is common for new production. Many complaints came in about the clutch, transmission, and other components. This was mostly caused by the fact that the necessary level of quality was not immediately reached. It took time to fine-tune the technical processes. Full-fledged production of the T-34-85 only began at CKD Sokolovo in February of 1952.
As mentioned before, the tank was not a clone of the Soviet design. The tank inherited factory #183 style cast road wheels, even though some tanks received stamped ones. As for the turret, it came out closer to those of factory #174 (Omsk).
Various other small parts also separated the Czechoslovakian tank from its Soviet brothers. The quality of the finish of the hulls and turrets is the most obvious. Castings from Martin were very carefully finished. The turret is most obvious, as it lacks the roughness that is characteristic of cast turrets.
The hull of the tank also differs slightly. The hinges of the rear plate were increased, and the armoured covers of the exhaust pipes have a more complicated design. Another characteristic element for Czechoslovakian tanks is the port for a field telephone, positioned in the rear left of the hull. A mount for a tow cable was added on the left, and the front headlight received a guard. Early tanks also received clones of German Notek lights.
951 tanks were assembled at CKD Sokolovo. Production continued until December of 1953. Despite the common opinion that Czechoslovakian tanks were better than Soviet ones, these tanks show the opposite picture. Out of 81 tanks delivered to the Czechoslovakian army in 1951-1952, 280 breakdowns were recorded, 250 of which were directly caused by poor manufacturing quality. Soviet produced tanks, the last batch of which arrived in 1949, were much more reliable.
The Czechoslovakian military made their conclusions. In May of 1952, the first T-34-85 left the factory at Martin, and mass production began here in September. These tanks were more indicative of Czechoslovakian quality. In 1952, both factories produced 352 tanks, and 1050 the next year. In 1953, CKD Sokolovo went back to building locomotives. The T-34-85 became the last tank built by CKD on Czech territory. Martin became the core of the Czechoslovakian tank industry. 1785 tanks were assembled here.
The question of modernization was quickly raised. In many ways, this was connected with the start of production of the SD-100, the Czechoslovakian version of the Soviet SU-100. The 100 mm D-10 gun, named 100 mm vz. 44 S in Czechoslovakia, had greatly superior penetration to the 85 mm gun on the T-34-85. It was natural to want this gun in a tank, especially since the dimensions allowed it. Work was organized at Konštrukta Trenčín in Slovakia, and later in the Military Technical Institute.
Work on the T-34-100 began in 1953. On April 6th, 1954, the Military Technical Institute presented designs of the T-34-85 armed with a 100 mm gun. The tank was practically unchanged, only the front of the turret was redesigned.
The first variant was simpler from a production point of view. Most of the turret was unchanged. Since the gun was moved forward, a forward section was bolted to the turret. The gun was equipped with the TS-20 sight. The coaxial machinegun mount was also changed. The second variant required a more thorough redesign of the front part of the turret, but it had superior protection.
According to calculations, the rate of fire of the 100 mm gun would have been 8 RPM, but this is hard to believe. The budget for this design was 780,000 kroner, 160,000 of which were used for the design, the rest were spent on production of a prototype.
The issue of further work was up in the air for two months. Potentially, this modernization could increase the firepower of the tank. However, there were downsides to this. The situation was similar in many ways to what happened in the USSR 9 years before.
In 1945, a T-34-85 with a 100 mm LB-1 gun entered trials. The TsAKB collective, headed by V.G.Grabin, managed to install the gun without changing the turret at all, and it could still shoot. However, crew conditions were rather cramped. Further development of the subject ceased.
Konštrukta Trenčín did not end up even building a prototype. The General Staff still wanted a 100 mm gun in the T-34-85, but not the 100 mm kanуn vz. 44 S. Now they had their sights on the AK 1, which was meant for the latest incarnation of the TVP. In addition to all its other features, the gun had a loading mechanism and a vertical stabilizer.
These wishes did not even reach the draft stage, and the T-34-100 program was closed on June 30th, 1954. By that point, Czechoslovakia had a license to built T-54 tanks. The last T-34-85s left Martin in late 1956, and the first T-54s were finished the next year. With their arrival, the Czechoslovakian army finally solved the issue of modern tanks.
Out of 2736 T-34-85s that were built. the Czechoslovakian army kept only 1437: 731 from CKD Sokolovo and 706 from ZVJS Martin. The rest of the tanks were exported. The last two years of production at Martin were sent entirely abroad.
In 1956, the Czechoslovakian army had 1701 T-34-85 tanks. This includes tanks that were received from the USSR. Domestically produced T-54 tanks gradually pushed them out. In 1967, Martin was already building T-55s. 1120 T-34-85 tanks of all types remained in the army. Some tanks were written off and sold abroad, some were converted into engineering vehicles. By late 1970, the number of T-34-85 tanks dropped to 780 and continued to decrease.
The career of the T-34-85 in the Czechoslovakian army was uneventful. It served as a learning tool for many tankers. It served as a foundation for experiments with various equipment, including an underwater driving system. T-34-85 tanks produced in Czechoslovakia had a different fate abroad. These tanks had many battles ahead of them, the first of which stated before production in Martin ceased.
On March 21st, 1953, the dead Klement Gottwald was replaced by Antonín Zápotocký, which led to certain changes in the country's political policy. T-34-85 tanks became available for export that year. On September 21st, 1955, Czechoslovakia and Egypt signed an agreement for shipment of a variety of vehicles and armament. The T-34-85 was, of course, present among them.
In total, Egypt received 820 tanks, 230 of which fought in battles for the Suez canal. Fighting began on October 29th, 1956. Egypt was opposed by Israel, France, and Great Britain. Both sides took heavy losses in vehicles, and Czechoslovakian T-34-85 tanks were among the trophies collected by the anti-Egyptian coalition.
The next fight for T-34-85s was halfway around the world. Cuba bought about a hundred tanks, both Soviet and Czechoslovak production. The purchases came straight from the Czechoslovakian army's warehouses and came as a great discount: 67%. Fidel Castro guessed correctly: those tanks came in handy. The famous battle in the Bay of Pigs happened in April of 1961, when forces opposing the revolution, equipped and supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba. At the time, Cuba only had 10 T-34-85s, mostly Soviet built. Their enemies were M41 Walker Bulldogs, which were inferior in every respect. One T-34-85 was destroyed, but the «gusanos», as the counterrevolutionaries were nicknamed, lost all of their tanks. One of them can be see today on display at Patriot park.
The second largest buyer of Czechoslovakian T-34-85 tanks was Syria. 120 tanks were sent there. These tanks underwent the most changes compared to any Czechoslovakian T-34-85. The most noticeable difference was the massive DShK turret on top of the commander's cupola.
The Syrian T-34-85s had their trial by combat in early June of 1967, during the Six Day War. A significant part of these tanks was either knocked out or captured by the Israeli army. Egyptian T-34-85s went into battle as well. In total, the Arabs lost 251 tanks of this type. Some captured tanks were later converted by the Israelis into pillboxes along the border with Syria and Jordan. Their engines and suspensions were removed, and the driver's compartment was replaced with a large ammunition rack.
There were also calmer regions where Czechoslovakian T-34-85s were sold. For example, Romania and Bulgaria received 120 tanks between them. 30 tanks were sent to India, Iraq, and Yemen. However, the latter ended up in battle after all. Czechoslovakian T-34-85s fought in Lebanon, where they ended up in the 1970s.
Domestic production of the T-34-85 was a good move for Czechoslovakia. It was their first medium tank that reached mass production. In addition, Czechoslovakia never made tanks in these amounts before. Production of the T-34-85 allowed Czechoslovakia to raise their tank production to a new level and return to the international arms market.
There was, however, a downside. Domestic tanks were not built or even truly developed. Production of licensed Soviet tanks turned out to be much easier, since it avoided significant costs in development and building of prototypes.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- VHU Prahan (Vojenský historický archiv)
- Dubánek, M — Od bodáku po tryskáče. Nedokončené československé zbrojní projekty 1945–1955, Praha, Mladá fronta 2011http://forum.valka.cz
- Author's photo archive