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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 Russian Anticipation

By the end of June, the Germans were finally ready. But so were the Russians. Through an intricate and reliable spy network known as “the Lucy Ring” the Russian high command was well informed about the German plan and began stuffing the Kursk bulge with every weapon and man it could spare.

The forces grew until elements of three Russian “Fronts” were packed into a tiny area. It included Rokossovsky’s Central Front (the northern sector), Vatutin’s Voronesh Front (Southern sector) and Konev’s Steppe or Reserve Front. Remember, the term “Front,” when referring to the Soviet army, was the equivalent of an army group, not a battle line as the word suggests.

It would be Marshall Georgi Zhukov who would coordinate the defenses and counteroffensives at Kursk. With information supplied by the infamous spy ring within the higher echelons of German command, Zhukov was fully aware of the enemy’s intentions. As early as April 12th, he conferred with Stalin in Moscow.

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Quietly listening, Stalin puffed his pipe and nodded his head. Though the Premier considered Zhukov a threat to his authority, there was no refuting his talents as a military leader. Stalin needed Zhukov at this point in the war. He knew full well that he would later have an opportunity to put the Marshal back into obscurity, or so he thought. Stalin agreed with the successful commander. The area in the salient would be strongly reinforced with three concentric belts of mines, antitank guns, artillery and fortified infantry positions. In reserve would be a huge force of tank-heavy units for a swift and brutal counterattack.

Zhukov and his commanders were quite enthusiastic about the battle to come. Not only would German tanks and men wear themselves down on the Russian defenses, but also a series of counterattacks were scheduled to take place once the enemy had been stopped. Huge reserves of tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns were nearby, either to plug any holes made by the Germans or to launch the blows that would spell the doom of the German offensive.

Thus the German high command was unaware that an attack in great force into Kursk was precisely what the Russian military desired. What the Russians desperately needed was time. The Soviet leaders felt sure they could overwhelm even the most ardent German efforts, IF they were given enough time to prepare. Unwittingly, Hitler’s procrastination would be the very thing that his mortal enemy required to give more assurance of a Soviet victory.

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Russian T-34 tank set aflame near Kursk

As time passed, and the ground dried from the spring thaw, the Germans still did not come. Excellent! Now Zhukov began to work in earnest. Organizational tables and communications between units were much improved. Better radios, automatic weapons, antitank guns and an enormous amount of mines (2,500 anti-personnel and 2,200 antitank mines per mile of defensive front) were brought into the salient.

Whole antiaircraft and artillery divisions were formed and moved to the front to give the Supreme Command more mobility with better control and higher density of fire. Tank production was increased, with units in the Kursk area having top priority.

By the summer of 1943, the Russians had five full tank armies ready for action. Each army included two tank corps and one mechanized corps. Over one million soldiers were prepared to fight. In the air, the aircraft wings were flying improved Yaks and Sturmoviks. Each of the four Fronts now had its own air arm of 700 to 800 aircraft.

In actuality, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in every area. While no sets of figures found in historical documents match exactly, it is estimated that the German forces at Kursk numbered 900,000 men, 2,500 aircraft, 10,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 tanks.

On the Soviet side of the ledger, there were 1,350,000 men, 2,650 aircraft, 20,000 artillery pieces and nearly 4,000 tanks and self-propelled guns. Numerically then, considering the standard table of odds (an attacker should have a 3 to 1 advantage against the enemy and a 5 to1 advantage against well-prepared defenses), the Germans were defeated before they began.

The Thunderous Roar!

On July 5th, the moment came. With a roar of artillery, the deciding battle got under way.

The mighty German armored spearheads swept forward into a sea of mines. Minefields were everywhere. The columns continued. Flying low overhead were specially equipped tank-killing Stukas, armed with 37mm cannon that could easily penetrate the lightly armored tops of Russian tanks. From the other side came the Yaks and Sturmoviks, wreaking the same havoc on German armor.

The dreaded T-34s were present, in such numbers that German tank crews described their mad charges as suicidal, yet effective. Knowing that range was their enemy against the 88mm guns of the Tigers, the T-34s and other Soviet armor rushed ahead and closed with the enemy. They came so fast and so many that even the most proficient German tank crews could not stop them all. They were almost like human-wave assaults dressed in thick steel. Once at close range, even the vaunted Tiger found itself vulnerable to an armor-piercing 76mm shell.

Explosions from dying tanks came as rapidly as the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. Both in the north and south, tanks were going up in flames every few seconds. Frightened peasants living in the area ran for their lives, screaming and covering their ears to shut out the mighty crescendo of death.

There were times when the smoke from burning vehicles blotted out the sun. Never before or since had an action of this magnitude been fought in such a reduced space. Aircraft constantly fell from the sky, like stricken birds, the flames and smoke of their fiery destruction lacing the sky. German gunners claimed over 400 Russian planes shot down in one day.

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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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