Battle of Prokhorovka


Battle of Prokhorovka

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Prokhorovka
partof= World War II


caption=Monument to the fallen tank crews at Prokhorovka
date=12 July 1943
place=coord|51|2|11|N|36|44|11|E|display=inline,title|type:landmark
Prokhorovka, Russia
result=Disputed. Often cited as Operational draw
combatant1=flagicon|Germany|Nazi Waffen-SS
combatant2=flagicon|Soviet Union|1923 Red Army
commander1=
commander2=
strength1=Est. 300 tanks
strength2=500 tanks
casualties1=80-150 tanks destroyed
100 tanks damagedFact|date=January 2008
casualties2=189 tanks destroyed
140 tanks damagedFact|date=January 2008|

The Battle of Prokhorovka was the largest tank battle in military history, fought by armoured formations of Wehrmacht and the Red Army. It occurred on July 12, 1943 and was the pivotal battle of Operation Citadel, the German offensive to encircle Soviet forces in the Kursk salient; also known as the Battle of Kursk it was fought during the Second World War (Russian: Great Patriotic War).

Prelude

July 4-11

From July 4-11, 1943 "Generaloberst" Hermann Hoth's 4.Panzer-Armee, spearheaded by the SS-Panzerkorps, had fought through 10-15 miles of Soviet defenses consisting of high-density minefields, entrenched infantry and anti-tank guns arranged in elaborate kill zones (see pakfront).

By the end of July 11, SS-Panzerkorps was close to driving a wedge between the 1st Tank Army and 69th Army. Unknown to the Germans, a whole army group, the Steppe Front under Ivan Konev stood ready as a reserve to conduct a counter-offensive. Following the German success up to 11 July, and against Konev’s protests, the STAVKA released two armies, the 5th Guards Tank Army under General Pavel Rotmistrov and the 5th Guards Army from Steppe Front to meet the German threat. After forced road marches, the Soviet forces reached Prokhorovka on the night of July 11th.

The plans for the 12th

For the 12th July, the Soviet armies listed above, together with the 1st Tank Army under General Katukov were supposed to attack the German forces and cut off the penetration, trapping and then destroying the advanced German forces. The attack by 5th Guards Tank Army was aimed at the SS-Panzerkorps, while the other three armies were attacking XLVIIIth Panzerkorps and LIInd Army Corps.

The attack plan for 5th Guards Tank Army had major shortcomings, in that it neglected a proper artillery preparation, ordered the Soviet tankers to use high speed to overcome the shortcomings in armour and weaponry of their tanks, and put the main attack into a sector in which an antitank ditch dug by Soviet troops protected the German forces to some degree.

The German plan was to have the Totenkopf Division attack to secure and extend the German bridgehead north of the Psel, while the other divisions should take a defensive stance until this objective was achieved.

The forces

German

The German forces involved were primarily from two Waffen-SS divisions, all of which had already suffered losses during the preceding daysref|Toeppel:

* Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, with 67 operational armored fighting vehicles on the evening of 11 July, including 4 Tiger Tanks, 7 command tanks, and 4 obsolete Panzer IIs. Additionally 10 Sturmgeschütze assault guns and 20 lightly armoured Marder tank destroyers.
* Das Reich, with 68 operational armored fighting vehicles including command tanks, 1 Tiger, and 8 captured T-34s. Additionally 27 Sturmgeschütze assault guns and 12 Marder tank destroyers were present.
* Totenkopf, with 101 operational armored fighting vehicles, including 10 Tigers and 7 command tanks, along with 21 Sturmgeschütze assault guns and 11 Marder tank destroyers.

The total number of tanks and other heavy armoured fighting vehicles on the evening of the 11th was therefore just over 200. An unknown number of tanks may have become ready during the night through repair.

Only these two divisions were present on the battlefield of Prokhorovka. The third division of the Panzerkorps involved in the battle during the day had its tanks moved north across the Psel river, and was involved in fighting 5th Guards, 6th Guards, and 1st Tank Armies.

oviet

On the Soviet side the main formation involved was the 5th Guards Tank Army. The total tank strength of the army stood at ca. 800-850 tanks. Many of these however, were the light T-70a and Lend-Lease tanks. The numbers were: 501 T-34a, 261 T-70a, 35 Churchills, 40 self-propelled guns of the SU-122 and SU-76 type, and a small but unknown number of heavy KV-1 tanks. Contrary to claims in some accounts of the battle, no SU-152 or SU-85 assault guns were fielded.ref|Töppel1

The army fielded the 2nd Guards, 18th, and 29th Tank Corps in the first echelon. 5th mechanised Corps and the already weakened 2nd Tank Corps were kept in reserve. The 18th Tank Corps fielded 144 tanks on the afternoon of 11 July, while the 29th Tank Corps fielded 212 tanks and self-propelled guns. Together with the formations committed during the day, the total number of Soviet tanks in the battle probably reached 500.

The Soviet 1st Tank Army also attacked elements of the German XLVIIIth Panzerkorps, but this was not directly related to the tank battle of Prokhorovka.

The battle

On July 12 the Luftwaffe and artillery units bombarded the Soviet positions as the Totenkopf division formed up. The plan was for Totenkopf to launch an assault north of the Psel to extend the bridgehead that had been gained there. The Das Reich and LSSAH divisions were not involved in the assault, and had a defensive mission until Totenkopf reported a success.

The Soviet attack started at 9:15, with the tanks rushing into the relatively unprepared security posts of the LSAH. Despite this surprise, the attack was defeated with heavy losses by mid-day, and by the evening 5th Guards Tank Army had to go over to the defensive. By 9:30, within 15 minutes of the attack commencing, the Soviet 25th Tank Brigade had lost two-thirds of its tanks, and also had to go on the defense. A regiment of SU-122 assault guns reported the loss of 11 of its 12 vehicles within a short time. 18th Tank Corps did not suffer as heavily, but was also forced to take a defensive stance during the afternoon, reporting the loss of 55 tanks. Due to counter-attacks, all ground gained had to be given up by the evening.

The reserves of 5th Guards Tank Army had to be sent south, to defend against a German attack by IIIrd Panzerkorps. With the loss of these reserves, any hope that may have been left of dealing a major defeat to the SS Panzerkorps ended.

Myths and reality

Mythology

Many books written in the 1970s and '80's depict the Battle of Prokhorovka as waves of speedy Soviet T-34 tanks closing with the heavier German Tiger and Panther tanks and then blasting them at point-blank range. This mythology was created by both sides, through the memoirs of Marshal of Armoured Troops Pavel Rotmistrov on the Soviet side, and through the description of the battle by Paul Carell on the German side. Even recent histories, e.g. by Richard Overy, uncritically accept this description of the battle, despite the possibility to check on real events in the unit records of both sides.

Traditionally the description of this battle goes like this: :"The German advance started and they were astonished to see masses of Soviet armor advancing towards them. What followed was the largest tank engagement ever, with over 1,500 tanks in close contact. The air forces of both countries flew overhead, but they were unable to see anything through the dust and smoke pouring out from destroyed tanks. On the ground, commanders were unable to keep track of developments and the battle rapidly degenerated into an immense number of confused and bitter small-unit actions, often at close quarters. The fighting raged on all day, and by evening the last shots were being fired as the two sides disengaged. German losses were about 60 tanks and assault guns with the Soviets losing at least eight to ten times that number." ref|mythology

This depiction is now accepted as incorrect for several reasons.

The reality

The Waffen SS units involved at Prokhorovka mostly consisted of Panzer III tanks, up-gunned Panzer IV tanks and only a handful of Tigers (see above). The Waffen SS did not have any of the new Panther tanks at Prokhorovka, as these had been issued exclusively to a Heer Panzerbrigade (Panzerabteilung 51) fighting with Panzergrenadier-Division "Großdeutschland" on the southern shoulder of the salient. The Soviets were handicapped as well with some tank formations consisting of obsolete tanks (T-70 and Churchills).

While the Germans did suffer casualties when 5th Guards Tank Army's attack hit their first echelon of tanks, SS Panzerkorps was able to set up quick defensive positions and repulse the 5th Guards Tank Armies. The Soviets suffered considerably heavier losses than the Germans.

According to German tank strength reports, their heaviest tank losses occurred in the first four days of Operation Citadel when Fourth Panzer Army was fighting through Soviet minefields and pak fronts (not to mention mechanical breakdowns; especially with the Panther-equipped units).

In the most famous action of the day the T-70 and T-34 tanks of the Red Army's 18th and 29th Tank Corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army charged headlong at the SS tanks. The T-70s, already obsolete at the time of the battle and no longer produced, were faster but more lightly armoured and armed - they aimed to exploit weaknesses in the German machines' armour at close range. A series of disjointed engagements went on for much of the day with high losses on both sides.

The outcome

The battle can best be described as a very costly tactical loss but an operational draw for the Soviets. Neither the Fifth Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their missions that day. Tank losses have been a contentious subject ever since. Soviet losses have been claimed as low as 200 or as high as 822 tanks, but the loss records now show that they were probably between 150 and 300 complete losses, with an additional number like that damaged. Likewise, German loss claims have reached as low as 80 or into the hundreds, including "dozens" of Tigers. This number is impossible to establish because of the German philosophy in counting lost tanks. The number of complete losses for the period 10-13 July for LSSAH and Das Reich divisions was 3 (three). Additional to that is an unknown number of damaged tanks, many of which would have been lost in repair depots during the subsequent retreat as a consequence of the Soviet post-Kursk counteroffensive Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Nipe puts the number of operational tank reductions in the whole Corps at 70-80, but it is unclear how many of these would have been in short-term or long-term repair.

While the exact losses on each side cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt, the outcome is clearer. The 5th Guards Tank Army did not take its terrain objectives nor destroy the II SS Panzer Corps. Both units were weakened although both were committed to combat the following day. The Soviet cause would probably have been better served if the hundreds of tanks had not been thrown away in a pointless attack, but instead been used in dug-in defensive positions to wear down the German attacks. Konev was highly critical of the decision to use 5th Guards Tank Army in this manner, since it robbed him of the main operational exploitation force for his offensive. ref|konev

The reality is that the sudden and violent attack by strong Soviet reserves and the need to break off the assault by the German Ninth Army on the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient due to Operation Kutuzov contributed to the decision of Adolf Hitler to discontinue the attack, the implications of which made him 'sick to his stomach' when he had originally considered itref|sick. A parallel attack by the Red Army against the new 6th Army on the Mius river south of Kharkov necessitated the withdrawal of reserve forces held to exploit any success on the southern shoulder of Kursk, and the OKW also had to draw on some German troops from the Eastern Front to bolster the Mediterranean theater following the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily on July 10th, 1943.

Regardless of the tactical outcome, the Battle of Prokhorovka was turned into a critical psychological and operational victory for the Red Army. The Germans had thought they were almost through the defenses and were expecting nothing more than a few anti-tank guns; instead, they met the better part of a thousand tanks. Clearly the Russians were not beaten, and this had a significant impact upon German decision making.

It also became clear that the German advantage in quality of officers and men was now eroding and the self-confident Soviets were ready to begin launching larger offensives and driving the German forces back towards Germany. From this point forward, the strategic initiative would remain with the Red Army.

References

* Töppel, R. p.33-4
* Töppel, R. p.34-5
* A Soviet tank brigade fielded 62 tanks.
* Source not provided.
* Konev, I.S. ‘Notes of a Front Commander’
* In a conversation with Colonel General Heinz Guderian during the preparation of the operation.

ources

*Cross, Robin (1993). "Citadel: The Battle of Kursk", Barnes & Noble Edition (1998).
*Zetterling, Niklas and Anders Frankson. "Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis", London: Frank Cass, 2000.
*Töppel, Roman ‘Die Offensive gegen Kursk 1943’, M.A. Thesis, University of Dresden, 2002

External links

* [http://www.historynet.com/magazines/world_war_2/3035106.html Kursk Reconsidered: Germany's Lost Victory] from Historynet.com.
* [http://www.sonic.net/~bstone/archives/001002.shtml Review of Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis] with a detailed comparison with the statistics provided by Walter Dunn's "Kursk: Hitler's Gamble, 1943", George Nipe's "Decision in the Ukraine", "The Battle of Kursk" by David Glantz and Jonathan House, and "The Battle for Kursk, 1943" from the Soviet General Staff.
*Олейников Г.А. Прохоровское сражение (июль 1943). — СПб.: Нестор, 1998., [http://militera.lib.ru/h/oleinikov/index.html] a comprehensive analysis in Russian
* Валерий Замулин. Прохоровка — неизвестное сражение великой войны. М.: АСТ: АСТ МОСКВА: ХРАНИТЕЛЬ, 2006 ISBN 5-17-039548-5 - total description of movement of russian and germany troops based on russian and germany archive documents with full statistic of russian troops. In Russian.
* Healy, Mark. (1992). "Kursk 1943: Tide Turns in the East". Osprey Publishers, London. ISBN 978-1-855322-11-0


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