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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 Shadow of Doom

At first, the inexorable weight of the German attack in both directions seemed to be succeeding. The tragedy was as they advanced their numbers were greatly diminished. Thus after covering a few miles an attacking group would have its strength cut by one-third or more, greatly reducing its effectiveness.

German tank commanders had standing orders that if their tanks were disabled, they were not to abandon them, but continue to fight. Such orders were suicide. One of the essential qualities of a tank is its mobility. Take it away and it becomes a large inviting target. The hundreds of antitank guns and Soviet assault crews made quick work of such steel invalids.

In the north, von Kluge’s forces penetrated nine miles of the deadly enemy defenses. It had taken five days to do it. By this time, however, the German juggernaut had come to a standstill. Manstein’s armies in the south did even better. Though getting off to a slow start, they gradually picked up momentum. Their high point came at the great tank battle of Prokhorovka.


Destroyed German tanks

This would be the culmination of a week of hard fighting on a scale hitherto unseen in history. When General Hermann Hoth, commander of the 4th Panzer Army, sensed that the offensive was becoming mired down in the fighting south of Oboyan, he changed his plans. He would use the 48th Panzer Corps to keep the Russian forces ahead of him quite busy. Then he would send his still powerful 2nd SS Panzer Corps to the northeast toward Prokhorovka.

The town was insignificant in terms of inherent value, but once taken, it would give the Panzers a golden opportunity to flank the Soviet defenses and head north to Kursk. Detachment Kempf would cover the right flank and reinforce if necessary the units of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps. The Russians quickly deduced what was taking place and made plans to counter the move. They would launch a series of counterattacks. The 48th Panzer Corps would be hit by the 6th Guards and 1st Tank Armies from the west and northwest. On the far western flank the 7th Guards Army was ordered to attack straight into Detachment Kempf, keep it from advancing any further. Finally, the 5th Guards and the mighty 5th Guards Tank Army would meet the three SS Panzer Divisions head on, attacking from the Prokhorovka area.

The successes of the Panzer divisions on the 11th put them within reach of Prokhorovka and also established a bridgehead across the Psel River. Only inclement weather kept the panzers out of the city that day. Realizing the danger, General Nikolai Vatutin, the commander of the Voronezh Front, consolidated all possible units under the command of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Numerous other Soviet units, including 1st Tank and 5th Guard Armies and the 2nd Guards Tank Corps, reinforced the 18th and 29th Tank and the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps.

The 2nd SS Panzer Corps consisted the Totenkopf, the Leibstandarte, the Das Reich, 11th Panzer divisions, with support from the 167th Infantry. Though at that time with less than 300 functioning pieces of tanks between them (many of which had been repaired from the week of fighting and put back into action), it was felt that the breakthrough could be achieved. Further, it was hoped that at least part of the three panzer divisions of Detachment Kempf would further solidify the advance and take Prokhorovka by the end of the day. It did not happen.

Thus it was that over 1,500 tanks of both sides entered into one of the most intense confrontations of armor ever seen. The Germans broke through, even though they had suffered horrendous casualties. They had, however, smashed or badly crippled no less than ten Soviet tank or mechanized Corps, or upward of 20 enemy divisions.

Up until this point neither side had achieved its objectives of the day. The German 2nd Panzer Corps had not broken the final defensive Soviet lines and move toward Kursk. Instead the advance had stalled and turned into a series of defensive actions as hundreds of Russian tanks were hurled at them. On the other hand, the 5th Guards Tank Army had failed to encircle and cut off the units of the Panzer Corps. As the success of the fight seemed to hang in the balance, Hitler made a startling announcement. Allied landings had taken place in Sicily. Fearing the weakness of his Italian allies, the Fuhrer made immediate plans to withdraw the very units needed to complete the task and send them to the west.

Von Kluge put up little protest. He already felt beaten and unable to continue in the north. In the south, however, General von Manstein cried “foul,” and earnestly pleaded to keep his units. Hitler finally agreed that the fighting could continue to finish off the Soviet forces already engaged. His removal of the very units needed to accomplish that brought the battle of Kursk to a close. In the days following the Germans would slowly withdraw to the positions held on July 5th.

Germany had given its best. Its casualties included 120,000 men and over 1,500 tanks, many of which could not be recovered for repair. These would prove to later be irreplaceable. Not that the Soviets had not suffered either. Their losses included over 200,000 casualties and over 1,500 tanks. Many of those, however, were recovered and repaired, thus minimizing the armor losses.

So the battle of Kursk became a doorway, a doorway of retreat, through which the German Army, once the almighty conqueror of the Russian Steppes, would begin a painful, shameful retreat for over 1,000 miles back to their shattered homeland. Like angry baying hounds, the Russian now had the taste of blood, and would pursue them relentlessly.

Kursk would mark the end of the great German offensives. It would also signal the beginning of the Russian recovery of its land and its dignity. And no one could tell a soldier of the Motherland that revenge is a dish served cold. The heat of their anger and resentment would fire their courage and enthusiasm to achieve a final smothering victory over the evil fascist invaders. Though it would go on for nearly two more years, the outcome of the war between Germany and Russia was decided at Kursk.

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  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.
    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.

    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.