REVIEW BY TOBY CLARK
This new book by Dr Ben Wheatley of the University of East Anglia can claim success in the fields of both academic and popular history. With a nod to the Soviet ideal of ‘deep battle’, Wheatley (in his own phrase) used ‘deep research’ to comb the archival documents and tell how it really was at the Battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943, part of the wider fighting in the Kursk Salient on the Eastern Front in World War II.
Reading thousands of documents in the archives can be drudgery of the worst kind, but a rare moment of excitement came when the author found a single document long believed lost: a German tank inventory for the day after the battle. With this, along with further data, Wheatley could state conclusively that the mythology and faulty scholarship surrounding the Prokhorovka engagement was just that: false.
The present academic consensus has it that the cream of Hitler’s armoured formations, the thuggish paramilitary SS Panzer Divisions, were smashed in this battle, losing hundreds of tanks, and never recovering their former capabilities. In reality, diligent archival research reveals that only 16 tanks from the SS formations were lost. In fact, by the end of the Kursk fighting, these units had more tanks than they started with.
For the popular market, Wheatley has transformed what was originally the work of three academic articles for the Journal of Intelligence History into a potential bestseller, complete with some general context about the Eastern Front, superb photography, and clear maps – as well as a catchy subtitle. And that is before we mention the additional selling point provided by the current war in Ukraine, with interest in armoured warfare and Russian propaganda running particularly high.
With these academic and popular strengths already going for it, The Panzers of Prokhorovka was always going to be good. And it is. Wheatley’s approach is extremely focused: in the battle between German and Soviet armoured formations south-east of the small Russian town, most of his scrutiny is on the 1st SS Panzer Division. Its tank losses are described in forensic detail, exposing the myths of a ‘great defeat’.
Perhaps surprisingly in a book full of accounts of tank clashes and armies surging forwards, the most readable chapter here is one that looks at the German archival records, right down to the intricacies of divisional paperwork and weekly inventories. Indeed, this book does an excellent service in showing why it is in the archives, not in television studios, that truly good historians spend most of their time.
The book is also a masterclass in source analysis. In other words, the examination of a document not only for what it says, but for its own history. Who produced it? And for what purpose? Wheatley shows that hard work and diligence with a source – questioning whether it may be biased or simply false – is so vital to good history. There is a brilliant lesson here for aspiring academics.
There are some issues with the book, however, particularly its handling of the wider context of the Eastern Front. Although Wheatley’s thesis reveals the amazing information of only 16 German tanks lost in a battle that was reputed to have destroyed hundreds, his introduction states the view that the Eastern Front was the crucial theatre of the war because of the severe German losses that occurred there.
This is a widely accepted view, of course, but to my mind The Panzers of Prokhorovka does not provide enough context to bridge the gap between the minuscule numbers of tanks lost at a tactical level in one battle and the vast array of destruction that epitomised the wider Eastern Front.
This may be the consequence of the book’s origins in one-track academic articles. However, there are many other, broader accounts of the Eastern Front out there for those keen for more context. And future historians of the theatre will have no choice but to integrate Wheatley’s hard-won discoveries into their narratives.
Osprey Publishing, hbk (£25)