In the decades since the end of the Second World War, thousands of discoveries have been made. From sunken ships and downed aircraft to unexploded munitions and lost weaponry, items dating back to the conflict can be found across Europe and the Pacific. One such discovery to make headlines was that of a captured T-34 tank, which had been abandoned by the German Army not long after the Battle of Narva.
A brief history of the Soviet T-34
Before one can understand the magnitude of such a discovery, they must first be given a proper history on the T-34. Introduced into service with the Red Army in 1940, this medium tank became the most-produced of the Second World War, as well as the second most-produced of all time, after the T-54/T-55. A total of 84,070 were built: 35,120 of the original model and 48,950 of the T-34-85 variant.
The T-34 initially featured the 76 mm tank gun M1940 F-34 as its main armament, with two 7.62 mm Degtyaryov (DP) machine guns providing additional firepower. While not as heavily armored as other tanks during the war, it had a unique sloped design, which effectively protected the vehicle and its crew of four from anti-tank weaponry. Pair all this with wide tracks and a V12 diesel engine, and the Soviets had a leg up on their German opponents.
Prior the the German invasion of the Soviet Union, better known as Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht wasn’t aware of the T-34’s existence, nor that of the powerful Kliment Voroshilov (KV) heavy tank. They, therefore, believed they would encounter little resistance as they made their way across the Eastern Front. The Germans were surprised by the strength of the Red Army’s tank divisions and subsequently increased the development of their own tank technologies.
The T-34, however, wasn’t without its faults, and by the final years of the war found itself being outmatched by newer tanks. That being said, it continued to see service with the Soviet Union and its allies, including during the Korean War and the Angolan Civil War. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) even equipped troops with the T-34-85 during Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1975 Spring Offensive, among other Vietnam-era engagements.
Battle of Narva
Now that the importance of the T-34 has been established, it’s time to set the scene under which this particular one was captured. Between February and August 1944, a number of battles occurred between the Germans and Soviets along the 50-km wide Narva Front, in the northeastern portion of Estonia. It was a particularly deadly offensive, with over 100,000 killed and more than 400,000 wounded.
During this time, the German Army’s Detachment “Narwa,” bolstered by volunteers and Estonian conscripts, and the Soviet Leningrad Front fought for possession of the Narva Isthmus, which was of strategic importance to both sides. The offensive consisted of two parts, starting with the Battle for Narva Bridgehead and ending with the Battle of Tannenberg Line.
Viewed as a continuation of the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive, the Red Army established bridgeheads along the western bank of the Narva, while the Germans maintained a number on the eastern side. Attempts by the Soviets to advance were consistently thwarted by the German forces, and when all was said and done, the goal of recovering Estonia for use as a base for seaborne and airborne attacks against Finland failed to come to fruition.
Capture and abandonment of a Soviet T-34
At some point during the Battle of Tannenberg Line, the Germans captured a T-34 manned by the Red Army. They fixed it up and painted their own markings on the exterior, before sending it back to the frontlines, this time for use against the Soviets.
Six weeks later, on September 19, 1944, the German forces began an organized retreat along the Narva Front. Likely not wanting to bring the T-34 with them, they drove it into Lake Mätasjärv, to prevent the Soviets from reclaiming it.
It was around this time that a local boy noticed tank tracks in the mud surrounding the lake and air bubbles rising to the surface of the water. This continued for approximately two months, leading him to believe there must be a tank or some other type of armored vehicle at the bottom.
Discovery of the Soviet T-34
Over 50 years later, the boy, now a man, remembered what he’d seen back in 1944 and told Igor Shedunov, the head of a local war history club. Together with other members, the decision was made to search the lake to determine if there was, in fact, a tank sat at the bottom.
Luckily, the club had two sections: one containing trained scuba divers who specialized in underwater exploration and recovery, and another best known for conducting land-based searches. The former, led by Mihail Zenov, planned out a systematic search of Lake Mätasjärv.
Despite there being no oil or lubricant floating along the water’s surface to give an indication of where the tank may be, the divers eventually located it, some seven feet below and laying beneath a three-meter layer of peat and silt.
A coordinated effort to retrieve and repair
Following the discovery of the T-34, plans were made to retrieve it from the bottom of Lake Mätasjärv. On September 12, 2000, a Komatsu D375A-2 was used to pull it from its underwater resting place. Once back on land, the members of the war history club confirmed it to be a T-34/76A, with a surprising 116 shells found within. Despite being submerged for approximately 56 years, it was in relatively good condition, with no rust. What’s more, all its systems, minus the engine, were still in working condition.
In the days following the tank’s retrieval, word spread of the T-34’s discovery, and then-Estonian President Lennart Meri came to admire it.
Under Estonian law, the club couldn’t claim ownership of the armored vehicle for five years. Once the mandated amount of time had passed, its members got to work restoring the piece of World War II history. This included a total overhaul and restoration of the T-34’s many components.
Where is the Soviet T-34 today?
At present, the current whereabouts of the T-34 are unknown. Some sources claim it was last seen on display at the Estonian War Museum in the village of Gorodenko, while others say it was awaiting re-assembly at the war history club’s workshop near Sirgala, in the northeast.
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Wherever it is, the hope of military and history enthusiasts alike is that the T-34 is being taken care of. The tank is an important piece of history and one of the few surviving examples of the fighting that occurred along the Narva Front during the Second World War, and it would be a shame for it to be lost (again).