The Battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 has been described as ‘the greatest tank battle in history’. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army and the 2nd SS Panzer Corps met in a great clash of armoured vehicles redolent of medieval clashes of opposing armoured cavalry.
It has been accorded great significance in Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history. Although considered a stalemate in which both Russian and German forces suffered enormous losses, the German tank loss was supposedly so great that Prokhorovka is thought to have played a major part in the outcome of the wider Battle of Kursk.
But is this true? Most historians of the Second World War may have to revise their accounts of Prokhorovka in the light of new research.
It was certainly one of the greatest tank battles of the war, but the claim that it was the greatest has been challenged by American historian David Glantz and Russian historian Valeriy Zamulin. Both have argued that the Battle of Brody, in June 1941, involved more tanks, and was of greater importance, putting an end to Hitler’s hopes of defeating the Soviet Union in a short war.
Was Prokhorovka really a bloody stalemate or, as has recently been argued by German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser, a clear German victory – a conclusion backed by British historian Ben Wheatley in his analysis of the photographs taken immediately after the battle by the Luftwaffe?
The strategic context
The battle took place some six months after the surrender of German forces at Stalingrad had dealt a massive blow to Hitler’s aim of complete victory on the Eastern Front. But it was failure to prevent the subsequent Soviet advance at Kursk that threatened German hopes of holding on to the bulk of their conquests.
The German Kursk offensive was not, compared with previous operations, ambitious. Hitler and the German High Command now recognised that the best that could be hoped for on the Eastern Front was stabilisation. In Frieser’s words, it was ‘only a preventive attack with limited aims within an overall defensive strategy.’
The Russian post-Stalingrad advance had created a vast bulge (or salient) around the town of Kursk, jutting some 90 miles into the German lines, which, at once, provided a spearhead for the Soviet Army, or a trap should a German pincer movement succeed. ‘Operation Citadel’, ordered by Hitler in March, was an attempt to cut off the Kursk salient with two giant pincers from north and south.
It was a desperate venture, for it drew on the greater part of the German operational reserve. Former general and then historian Friedrich von Mellenthin has called it a ‘veritable death- ride’.
The offensive was delayed by Hitler’s hesitation, by the decision to await the arrival of the latest models of tanks, and by disagreements in the High Command, with Guderian opposed and Model wanting further reinforcement. So the attack was not launched until 5 July.
Manstein had wanted to attack in March – as well as favouring a more flexible plan – and though the delay meant more tanks were available, all surprise had been lost and the Soviets had had the time to construct deep defences.
The two German pincers, the one from the north commanded by Model, the other from the south with Manstein in overall command and Hoth in charge of 4th Panzer Army, both ran into fierce resistance from Soviet forces in entrenched positions. The northern offensive made particularly slow progress.
Nevertheless, by 7 July the junction of the two thrusts seemed in reach, causing Zhukov, now in command of the defence, to bring forward plans to unleash the Soviet reserves. He aimed to drive into Model’s flank in the north, and to engage Hoth’s panzers south of Kursk, where they were making their way across the Donets River to the rail junction at Prokhorovka.
The original German plan had been that 48th Panzer Corps would spearhead the attack on the Soviet defences there, but it was 2nd SS Panzer Corps that made the fastest progress and was subject to a major assault from the 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on 12 July.
The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, commanded by General Rotmistrov, had originally been held in reserve, to be used when the German attack was blunted, but it was hastily given the main role in putting an end to 2nd SS Panzer Corp’s advance.
On the German side, the main unit engaged was 2nd SS Panzer Corps’ Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. The Leibstandarte, which had begun as a corps devoted to the protection of Hitler, was the best equipped and the most formidable division in the German Army. Re-armed for Citadel, it had tremendous tank and anti-tank capability; its strength included Panzer IVs armed with long-barrelled 75mm high-velocity main guns, a heavy tank unit with 13 Tigers, an assault gun battalion, and infantry units in armoured vehicles.
Traditional estimates of the number of tanks involved in the battle range from 1,300 to 1,600. The usual assumption – which I have myself repeated – has been that the scale of the German losses led to the stalling of the Citadel offensive. No less an authority than John Keegan has quoted the distinguished John Erickson’s opinion that, when the battle ended, ‘more than 300 German tanks (among them 70 Tigers) were lying wrecked on the steppe.’
Richard Overy has written that ‘the T-34 crews took advantage of the mêlée to attack at point-blank range, blasting the Tigers and Panthers at the side and rear’ – though, as Frieser drily comments, ‘the Germans could not have lost any Panthers simply because [the Leibstandarte] did not possess any.’
Though Valeriy Zamulin, a Russian military historian and former curator of Prokhorovka, Museum, suggests a more modest figure for German losses, he still concludes that they lost as many as 80 tanks – against some 400 Russian losses.
Losses in dispute
Ben Wheatley, drawing on work by historians at the Research Institute for Military History at Potsdam, in particular that of Karl-Heinz Frieser, and checking their findings against aerial photographs taken by the Luftwaffe and now housed in the US National Archive, came to the startling conclusion that the Russians lost 255 tanks as opposed to a German loss of just four Panzer IVs and one Tiger.
The photographs were taken in the days immediately after the battle, while the Germans were still in control of the battlefield. Others, taken three weeks later, confirm the scale of the Soviet disaster. The outcome of the battle thus becomes, not a stalemate, but a total defeat for Soviet armour.
Despite the huge number of tanks involved, Wheatley estimates the battlefront to have been no more than 3km (2 miles), so that, as he comments, ‘the location of one of the most famous battles of the Second World War was able to be photographed by the Luftwaffe in a single shot.’
A defining characteristic of most battles is confusion, with even commanders uncertain of the progress of their forces. This was particularly true of Prokhorovka, where a clash between two great tank armies took place in a confined space close to a rail junction and the River Psel – one which few tank commanders would have chosen – and with the fighting enveloped in clouds of dust.
German success can be explained by two factors: an astonishing error made by Russian commanders, and the consequent opportunity for their German counterparts to display the superiority of their new tanks and their firepower.
The Soviet tank charge
The battle took place on the slope of a hill that the Germans had taken the day before. The panzer units were resting after their advance when, early in the morning, they were awoken by warnings of an imminent Russian tank attack.
An account by Obersturmfuhrer Rudolf von Ribbentrop relates how, on the first signals of a Russian attack, he made his way up the slope of the hill with his company’s seven panzers to investigate and saw first a few and then huge numbers of T-34s approaching.
The seven German tanks stood no chance. Four were hit. Ribbentrop’s and two others got away, covered by clouds of dust, which made it difficult to tell a T-34 from a panzer.
Wave after wave of T-34s, the greater part of the Soviet 25th Tanks Corps, now came down the hill, forming, in Ribbentrop’s words, ‘an unimaginable mass of armour approaching at top speed.’ All seemed lost for the panzer companies below.
Then everything changed, for the Soviet commanders had launched this vast number of tanks downhill towards German positions, forgetting that across the hill lay an anti-tank ditch, dug previously by their own forces.
As the Soviet tanks reached the ditch, which was 4.5m deep, many fell over and into it, while others turned aside to cross the bridge constructed by the Germans for their panzers, thereby exposing their flanks and becoming easy targets.
That the Soviet tanks had rushed downhill so recklessly may, in part, have been because they had mistaken the German Panzer IVs for Tigers and were eager, fearing the greater range of the Tigers’ guns, to close quickly. But the result was that they became easy pickings for the many Panzer IVs and the four Tigers, with their superior firepower, that now rushed to join the battle.
Even Zamulin, who still sees the battle as a Russian victory, has commented: ‘It is incomprehensible why our brigade and battalion commanders did not know of this barrier or the crossing,’ and, he continues,
… as a result of this ill-fated obstacle, over the length of more than a kilometre several Soviet tanks came to an abrupt halt on an open plain, just several hundred metres from the enemy’s positions. The attack faltered, and the SS began to finish off the shock wedge of Rotmistrov’s tank army with artillery and tank fire.
The myth of Prokhorovka
There will be criticism of Frieser’s and Wheatley’s conclusions that Prokhorovka was a complete German victory on the grounds that the battlefield they describe was only one part of a wider battle and, as Zamulin argues, ‘the tank engagement comprised only a part, although indeed the most important part, of the Prokhorovka engagement.’
There have been various estimates of the geographical extent of the battle as a whole, but the tank battle was not only at the heart of Prokhorovka, but the very reason for the fame and mythology attached to it, and there seems no reason not to accept Frieser’s revisionism, supported by Wheatley’s close analysis of the Luftwaffe photographs. This raises the question of why generations of Western historians have repeated Soviet claims as to the number of German tanks destroyed.
The foundation of the myth of Prokhorovka was the need of the commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, Lieutenant-General Pavel Rotmistrov, to explain the heavy losses suffered by the army under his command to Stalin, who was not well-known for a tolerant attitude to bad news.
He therefore claimed that, although the number of tanks that had been destroyed was indeed great, it was more than made up for by the fact that the Germans had lost 400 tanks, including 70 Tigers.
Stalin publicly accepted Rotmistrov’s version of events – though the fact that he sent Malenkov to investigate the general’s account suggests that he had his doubts.
The Western allies were happy to believe a government that they had come to think of as ‘our brave comrade in arms’, while the failure of Hitler’s Operation Citadel seemed to remove any doubts about the outcome of this part of the wider Battle of Kursk.
Even when the Cold War began, there was little desire on the part of Western historians to question any chapter in the history of the Red Army’s hallowed role in the Second World War. In any case, the Russian archives were closed or well-censored until after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989.
What are the implications of this reassessment of Prokhorovka? It becomes a tactical victory for the German forces and a tactical disaster for the Red Army; but the German attempt to take the Kursk salient remains a strategic failure, and the fundamental reasons for this remain unaltered.
As well as the resilience of the Red Army, these include: Hitler’s hesitation before launching the attack, which gave the Soviets time to prepare extensive defences; the inability of Germany’s armaments industry to produce sufficient tanks and other weapons, however well-designed most were; and the decline of the Luftwaffe as the balance of air power shifted against it with increased Allied output of aircraft and Anglo-American bombing of German factories.
A further question is why, if Prokhorovka was a German victory, Hitler summoned Field-Marshals Kluge and Manstein to his HQ in East Prussia the day after the battle – when the Russians remained on the defensive and the German divisions were preparing to build on their victory – and told them he was calling off Operation Citadel and sending the 2nd SS Panzer Corps to Italy?
Any chance that the German forces could have built on, and acquired momentum from, their tactical victory in the tank battle was thus lost. Von Manstein protested vigorously and pressed for a modified version of Citadel, ‘Operation Roland’, which would take advantage of the heavy Soviet armoured losses. But in vain.
Whether or not Wheatley is correct in thinking that ‘had the Nazi leadership held its nerve, then Manstein’s Operation Roland would have probably been successful’ as ‘there is no reason to suppose the trend of armoured combat would not have continued’ is debateable. On the other hand, he accepts that even a further reduction in the Red Army’s strike capacity would not have enabled the Germans to redress the overall strategic situation on the Eastern Front.
Kursk: a decisive turning-point?
Whether the failure of Citadel was, as some historians have claimed, a turning-point in the war is also questionable, for the German position, not just on the Eastern Front, but in the war as a whole, was already parlous.
As we have seen, the aims of the operation were modest and essentially defensive. Frieser argues that its failure was ‘pre-programmed’, as Hitler had decided from the outset to terminate if the Allies landed in Sicily. In any case, it would have failed due to what he calls ‘the law of numbers’, for the Germans were hopelessly outmatched in manpower and productivity.
The claim that Citadel’s failure greatly worsened Germany’s position depends on accepting Soviet figures for Wehrmacht losses during the campaign, which, Frieser points out, were, like those for Prokhorovka, greatly inflated – not the 3,572 tanks and self-propelled guns claimed, but a modest 252, only ten of which were Tigers.
The Eastern Front cannot be considered in isolation: more than 250,000 German troops were taken captive at Tunis in May 1943; the Anglo-American landings in Sicily took place two days before Prokhorovka. The war was swinging rapidly in the Allies’ favour. The Third Reich, which had not prepared for a long war, was now faced with war on two fronts, and even temporarily stabilising the Eastern Front by victory at Kursk could not have made much difference in the long run.
The work of Wheatley and Frieser is, nevertheless, an important corrective to traditional accounts of Prokhorovka, and points to the Western allies’ lack of real knowledge of the Russian front and their gullibility in swallowing Soviet propaganda.
Russian wrath at the challenge posed by the findings of Wheatley and Frieser demonstrates how precious the traditional Soviet account of the war remains, and how difficult it is to view events objectively when they are entangled with the ideological imperatives of contemporary regimes like that of Putin in Moscow.
It was, of course, provocative for the German newspaper Die Welt to publish an article by historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff calling on Russia to pull down the memorial to the Battle of Prokhorovka in the light of recent research. The reaction of Russia’s ambassador to Germany was one of outrage.
‘Attempts to rewrite immutable historical facts, falsify the events of those years, play down the decisive role of the Soviet people in defeating Nazism and freeing Europe from the “brown plague” look unworthy and insulting,’ the ambassador said.
Individual Russian historians may be prepared to accept amendments to Russia’s war, which by one estimate cost 20 million lives, but, in Putin’s Russia, the official Soviet account of World War II remains sacrosanct. •
Bill (A W) Purdue was, before his retirement, a Reader in the History Department of the Open University and is now a Visiting Reader. He was a contributor to consecutive courses on the relations between war and society in the 20th century. Among his publications are The Second World War (1999 and 2011) and The First World War (2015).
Karl-Heinz Frieser, Germany and the Second World War, Volume VIII, The Eastern Front 1943-1944 (2017).
David Glantz, When Titans Clashed: how the Red Army stopped Hitler – the initial period of war on the Eastern Front (1995).
Ben Wheatley, ‘A visual examination of the Battle of Prokhorovka’, Journal of Intelligence History, Vol 18 (2019).
Valeriy Zamulin, Demolishing the Myth: the tank battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943 (2017).
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.