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Posted on Aug 15, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Prokhorovka: The Deciding Battle of Kursk

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Critical Moment

It seems now that the battle of Kursk was really inevitable. It had to come to this. The two opposing sides had been hammering at one another for two years. The pendulum swung one way and then the other. Sooner or later, there would be a decisive battle that would decide the final course of the war. It would take place in southern Russia in an uneven circle of some 75 miles with the town of Kursk at its center. Though the fighting never reached it, Kursk would be the infamous name attached to this mighty series of battles.

Kursk was in essence a show of strength. The German army would stand toe to toe with the Russian bear in a slugfest to the bitter end. It was not a contest of courage or will. If it had been it would have ended in a draw. Both forces demonstrated clearly that they had the will and the desire to win. Ultimately it was a conflict in which skilled warriors with high-tech equipment would fight a larger swarming horde of lesser-trained, but equally motivated soldiers, tankers, and airmen in a fight to the finish.

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Oh the war would go on, of course, but this would be the last great offensive action of the German army in the East. From Kursk on to the end, the Wehrmacht began a bloody trek back to whence they had come two years earlier.

The Massive Effort

The path that had led both forces to this point was marked with danger signs for Germany from the start. The first winter in Russia was for the Wehrmacht a nightmare. The second winter, a calamity of major proportions. In a battle that lasted for six months, one tenth of the entire Germany army was lost.

That meant one soldier in ten had disappeared from the German ranks. The vaunted German 6th army and entire divisions of allies were simply sucked off the face of the Motherland as with a giant brown vacuum cleaner. They were gone. The only remains were the blackened hulks and torn bodies that littered both the city and the surrounding countryside. Nature mercifully covered the entire grim spectacle with a blanket of white as if to give the combatants a moment of peace.

Now it was 1943. General von Manstein, in a masterstroke that compensated somewhat for the horrendous losses suffered in the fighting for Stalingrad with the recapture of Kharkov in March. The spring thaw then slowed movement to a crawl and halted any advantages to the Germans to capitalize on the opportunity. Army Group South with its victory had given new impetus to Hitler and the OKW.

The new plan that was generated was Manstein’s “backhand stroke.” He would allow the Russians to enter the Donetz basin and then begin a sweeping movement north from Kharkov that would place the Soviets in the same peril that his fellow soldiers had fallen into at Stalingrad. When OKW got wind of the idea, it was felt that such a move could be much more significant, perhaps changing the course of the war to that point in favor of the Wehrmacht. Another plan quickly arose that seemed to the higher command to be much more effective and final.

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German forces on the move on the Eastern Front

Since there now existed a salient or bulge of Russian forces that had protruded itself into the German front lines, why not cut it off? Instead of a sweep from the south by one Army Group, two would participate and form giant pincers at both extremes of that bulge.

Well equipped and with the newer weapons and tanks, the German army would deal the Bolsheviks such a blow that the whole Russian offensive would stall. Then either Hitler could negotiate a peace of sorts with Stalin or time would be bought to bring more devastating weapons to the table of war.

The Fuhrer’s Concern

Hitler, on this occasion, vacillated. When speaking of Operation Citadel he told those closest to him that the very thought of this battle caused his stomach to churn. Perhaps the Fuhrer realized that this was the “do or die” battle for Germany. Win it, and the campaign for conquering the western half of Russia would be kept alive. Lose it, and the loss would be the harbinger of an ultimate total defeat of the Third Reich. No one will ever know what he thought.

What was known was that Hitler had reservations. The loss at Stalingrad seemed to have taken the blind assurance for which he had been known away from him. He wanted to be absolutely sure that victory would be his. The losses suffered in and around Stalingrad at the end of the previous year had so weakened the offensive punch of the Wehrmacht that it would be some months into 1943 before anything like the earlier German offensives could be executed.

So in order to be certain of a victory, he would need time to prepare his attacking forces. This period of preparation was first designated to end in May. It was then postponed for another month. The newest tank in the German inventory, the Mark V Panther was in production, but would enough of them be ready in time? There was also the new self-propelled tank killer called the Ferdinand that Hitler wanted to be involved in the fighting in some quantity.

The introduction of the Tiger a few months earlier had startled the Russians, much as the T-34 had startled the German tankers in 1941. The coming of the Panther would enhance the use of the Tiger and give the tankers of the Panzerwaffe a vehicle specifically designed to kill the T-34 or any other piece of Soviet armor then on the field. The first use of the Panther at Kursk was less than impressive but this was due to a lack of testing and fine tuning the tank before sending it into combat. More Panthers were lost to mechanical malfunction than to Soviet fire. Eventually, however, it would become the best medium tank of World War Two. The initial rush to get it off the assembly lines and into action would be the source of much grief to German armored commanders as the battle got under way.

The Germans had amassed a powerful force. To the north, under von Kluge (the 9th Army) were poised six armored and five infantry divisions with all their support units. In the south, the brilliant General von Manstein would provide two armies, the Fourth Armored and Detachment Kempf. Together they mustered eleven armored and five infantry divisions.

Some of the most intricate and deadly defenses ever imagined were prepared and in great depth. The Russians wanted the Germans to attack. They wanted to bleed and kill the German army. This was a showdown that would please the Soviets.

There was intense debate over the outcome of such a titanic battle among the high command in the German army. As previously noted, even Hitler admitted to his staff that his stomach churned at the thought of such a gamble. He apparently recognized that the fate of the war in Russia would hinge on this momentous conflict.

Still, there seemed to be no other choice. The Fuhrer despised retreat and desperately wanted to go back to the offensive. This was the ideal place. April had been the ideal time. But it was July, and it was too late. Like a giant machine set in motion, the plans and preparations had come too far to stop now. The battle for Kursk would take place.

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5 Comments

  1. Sirs,
    I find that this article well written but fails to make the main point. The operational center of gravity of the German Army was the Panzer Waffe. The Russian goal was to destroy the German armour forces as much as they could in order to finally end the ability for the Germans to conduct offensive operations, Also the Russians wanted to get inside the German high commands mind and destroy their confidence by showing that the vaunted German armour could be defeated even in summer, which so far had been the time of German attack and successes. This they did in spades and also gave their own Armour forces the confidence they would need in the future.
    Keep up the great work in your magazine.
    Thanks
    SPC. James P. Grcevich
    B Troop 1-14 Cav
    COP Cobra, Iraq

  2. I liked the article very much, personally I believe that the Germans would have been better off with static defense, rather than attacking. The German army to my understanding was better suited for ambushing or waiting in a defensive position. Sure, the Ferdinand had some big flaws due to the lack of a turret, and no MG ports, but it would be so much better if it was placed, say, in an entrenched position looking down a road. Same for most all German material. Yes, indded it was a “Blitz” army, but it could have lasted longer if it was more careful with large scale movements. Thats my opinion, great article anyways.

  3. I think the Wehrmacht would be better off if Hitler would have not meddled over their affairs, like insisting in offense when impetus and surprise have gone, as in the case of Kursk, and also in defense, believing in ‘no retreat, no surrender’ attitude of static defense against the mobile defense advocated by his generals. Sun Zi was right when he said that politicians should not interfere with the decisions of their generals. Strategy and tactics are for the general, while the goals and rationale for war are for the politician.

  4. It is certain that CITADEL failed and in no way were the Germans positioned to even score a partial victory. The Germans did not fail, however, due to a defeat at Prokhorovka. There was no “death ride of the panzers” on July 11 and 12. Nor was there a very big battle on those dates. It’s time to put to rest the fanciful notions of waves of Tiger and Panther tanks riding across the dry, dusty plains to do battle with Soviet tanks at point-blank range.

    It just didn’t happen.
    The battle at Prokhorovka was the largest tank battle in history. This is probably the most-repeated claim about CITADEL. It is also misleading and almost certainly wrong. The typical claim is that the battle at Prokhorovka was massive, involving two thousand tanks. While a significant battle, it was nowhere near as large as the myth supposes. One way people arrive at inflated numbers is to assume that all three SS Panzergrenadier divisions participated. In fact, only one, the Liebsstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) fought this battle. The other two were on the flanks of the LSSAH (Totenkopf on the left, and largely across the Psel River, and Das Reich on the right) and were fighting their own separate battles. At the time of the battle, LSSAH had already been in combat for about a week and was substantially depleted. By July 11th and 12th, the two main days of the battle, LSSAH was down to about 100 tanks, assault guns, and tank destroyers (not including observation tanks). The Soviet units that participated in the battle at Prokhorovka were the 18th and 29th Tank Corps, along with a separate detachment under General Trufanov. These units combined were able to field about 421 tanks, assault guns, and tank destroyers. So, contrary to the popular claims of “thousands” of tanks fighting it out in front of Prokhorovka, we have about 517, of which 455 were actually “tanks”. I have provided data for the number of on-hand (that is, ready to fight) armored fighting vehicles for July 10, 11, and 12. Note that these numbers fluctuate for a variety of reasons: temporary losses due to damage, permanent losses due to destruction, and returns from repair shops.
    Russian tanks rammed German ones. This fanciful notion has Soviet tanks, knowing that their guns would be ineffective against the tough German armor, close to point-blank range and begin to ram German tanks to knock them out. Hogwash! There is in fact no evidence of this. It never appears in any reports, German or Soviet. The stories of tank ramming typically focus on KV tanks ramming Tigers. Considering there were a grand total of 1 KV tank (most certainly a command tank) and only 4 Tigers, this is incredibly unlikely. Rather, these stories are a product of embellished accounts, and propagandized Soviet versions designed to “play up” the fierceness of the battle so as to justify their losses. Note too that hardly any of the German AFVs present (just the 4 Tigers) had armor that would be able to consistently withstand Russian firepower. The only documented instance of tank-ramming I am aware of is in Normandy, when a British Sherman rammed a German Tiger.
    Hitler called off CITADEL because the Americans and British landed on Sicily and the Germans needed to shift forces to the western front. This component of the overall myth of Kursk is undoubtedly due to western authors trying to increase the otherwise paltry contributions of the western allies in 1943. In actual fact, the German units on the southern face of the Kursk salient received new orders to renew their attacks several days after the landing on Sicily. Hitler called off CITADEL not because a couple of British and American divisions were attacking a strategically insignificant island in the Mediterranean, but because the Soviets had (1) blunted and stalled the German CITADEL offensive, and (2) launched their own massive offensives on the flanks of the German attack. These attacks soaked up reserves the Germans had planned on using to complete the destruction of the Kursk salient. Without them, the Germans were too weak to continue CITADEL and they began withdrawing their units.

  5. Please read the following comment on this wedadress.

    http://www.uni.edu/~licari/citadel.htm

    It s a very well docuentented study based on studies of German army reports and statistics. It places the battle of Prokorovka in a totaly different perspective.

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