Fire in the Steppe:
34th Tank Division

Even before the 1940 German conquest of France had been completed, the Red Army ordered formation of its own tank divisions. The Germans had 10 panzer divisions; the Red Army began to form 18 much larger tank divisions under a directive issued on 6 July 1940.

Assembly of the new units progressed with surprising speed, given the enormity of the task, but Soviet industry had only just begun to produce the modern new tanks that were to equip these divisions. Likewise the Red Army’s stock of trucks fell far short of the number required to move the new divisions’ artillery and supply units, much less their infantry.

On paper at least, the new tank divisions had two tank regiments, each of four battalions, one motorized rifle regiment of three battalions, a motorized howitzer regiment of two battalions (one medium with 152mm pieces and one light with 122mm( plus motorized recon and anti-aircraft battalions.

Alongside the new tank divisions would be eight mechanized divisions, sometimes referred to as motorized rifle divisions, each of which also included a tank regiment of four battalions, two motorized rifle regiments of three battalions each, a motorized howitzer regiment of three 122mm battalions plus motorized anti-tank, anti-aircraft and engineer battalions and a recon battalion.

Two tank divisions and one mechanized division made up a mechanized corps, along with a motorcycle regiment and an additional motorized engineer battalion. The directives established eight of these formations, plus two additional separate tank divisions (one in Central Asia and one in the Transcaucasus).

Over the winter of 1940-41, the Germans almost doubled the number of panzer divisions (from 10 to 19) by halving the number of tank battalions in most of them (from four to two; a few had three battalions before or after the re-organization) but doubling the number of motorized infantry battalions from two to four (again, some divisions varied this number).

Upon learning of this change, the Red Army leadership decided to exceed the German increase. A February 1941 order more than tripled the number of mechanized corps, adding 20 more of the formations to the order of battle. To provide some of the needed tanks and crews, all remaining separate tank brigades and most other smaller mechanized units were rolled into the new divisions; the new units still proved terribly short of tanks, soft vehicles and trained personnel (or in some cases, personnel of any sort).

Among the new divisions, Col. I.V. Vasilyev’s 34th Tank Division had a few advantages. Formed in the Kiev Special Military District in April 1941, the division drew its initial cadre from the 14th Heavy Tank Brigade (formerly the 5th Heavy Tank Brigade), the sole front-line unit operating the T-35 heavy tank, and the 26th Light Tank Brigade, an infantry-support unit operating the T-26 light tank. Other personnel came from the disbanded IV Cavalry Corps and from newly-inducted recruits.

Like other tank divisions, the 34th Tank Division had two tank regiments each of four battalions. Sixty-Seventh Tank Regiment nominally had 51 KV-1 heavy tanks in its 1st Battalion and a mixture of T-34 and BT-7 or BT-5 tanks in its other battalions, 51 in each. Sixty-Eighth Tank Regiment had 50 T-35 heavy tanks - all of the Red Army’s more-or-less combat-worthy “land battleships” - in its 1st Battalion and likewise listed a mixture of 51 T-34 and BT-7 or BT-5 tanks in the other battalions.

Germans swarm an abandoned T-35 of 34th Tank Division.

That’s not what the division fielded when the Germans attacked on the morning of 22 June. Only fourteen KV-1 tanks were actually on hand, and half of these immediately broke down and could not leave the division’s tank park. Likewise, 48 T-35 tanks were actually on hand, and of these, 10 could not be made to run. The division had no T-34 tanks and but 26 BT-7 fast tanks. There were also four T-37 light amphibious tanks, but no drivers for them. The bulk of the division’s tank strength came from its 263 T-26 light tanks, about 30 of which did not answer the call.

The division reported 9,928 men available for duty, very close to its assigned strength; unlike its sister divisions in VIII Mechanized Corps its staff did not break this down by length of service, but 12th Tank Division and 7th Mechanized Division reported that about half of their personnel were in their first year of service and 34th Tank Division probably mirrored that ratio. On the positive side, Vasilevsky, a decorated veteran of the Winter War, had commanded the 26th Light Tank Brigade and had apparently been allowed to keep most of his senior officers for the new division.

Vasilevsky’s division spent the war’s first several days wandering back and forth behind the Soviet lines, along with the other two divisions of VIII Mechanized Corps. By the time the division actually entered combat with the enemy, most of the T-35 heavy tanks (30 to 32 of them, depending on the source) had been abandoned after mechanical breakdowns, and two had been lost to air attack. The division had no heavy tractors to tow the tanks away for repair – those were supposed to come from collective farms during mobilization, and never arrived (and likely their drivers never received mobilization orders before the farms were overrun by the Germans).

Once 34th Tank Division came to grips with the enemy, its men fought very well, engaging in constant combat from 26 June through 1 July. Without sufficient prime movers, the division operated with very little of its artillery. Committed to an effort to isolate the German 16th Panzer Division’s spearhead, the Soviet division itself became encircled and had to fight its war clear. All of its tanks were lost in these battles, and Vasilievsky was killed in action during the final breakout, having stayed behind to shepherd the last of his men out of the German trap.

The battles of 34th Tank Division are the centerpiece of Fire in the Steppe: the division’s troops appear in nine of the game’s 42 scenarios. That covers every action in which the T-35 heavy tank appeared. When the records disagreed on whether the huge tank was present, we included it in the scenario: in some cases German troops called the KV-2 artillery support tank the T-35B, but 34th Tank Division apparently had no KV-2 tanks (most sources agree on that, but one says it had two of them).

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.