On the morning of 12 July, the climactic day began, with Das Reich deployed southwest of Prochorovka on the right, Leibstandarte in the center (slightly southwest of the town), and Totenkopf on the left, holding the Psel bridgehead and defending the south bank, east of its two bridges over the river. The battle of Prochorovka is one of the most misunderstood major battles of the Eastern Front. The strength of German forces, the course of the fighting and the losses of each protagonist have been incorrectly reported. Of significance are the inflated reports of tank losses by Hausser’s II. SS-Panzerkorps and the enormous (factual) losses of Rotmistrov’s tank army.
Early on 11 July, Rotmistrov was in Prochorovka, personally directing and concentrating his forces in the area around the town. The 5th Guards Tank Army was made up of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps and 5th Guards Mechanized Corps. In addition, the 2nd Tank Corps and 2nd Guards Tank Corps were attached to Rotmistrov’s army by 11 July. Most authorities agree that the 5th Guards Tank Army, including the two attached tank corps, probably had 850 tanks, of which 500 were T-34s. The rest were lighter T-70s and a few Lend-Lease Churchill tanks. The Soviet tanks had barely arrived in time to prevent the capture of the town by the Germans. When he first reached Prochorovka early on 11 July, the Russian commander drove a light vehicle to the outskirts of the town, intending to conduct a preliminary reconnaissance of the terrain beyond the town. He was unpleasantly surprised to see German tanks already assembling in the distance to the west. He hurriedly returned to prepare for his attack, which was to be launched on the following morning.
Prochorovka itself was of no great importance, but it lay square in the middle of the open ground between the Psel and the origin of the Donets River. Since this land bridge was the most likely route of advance for a Russian armored counterattack on the SSPanzerkorp’s right flank, Hoth planned to take the town with II. SSPanzerkorps in order to secure his right flank prior to the advance north of the Psel. He did not want to continue an advance to the north across the Psel and thereby leave his right flank open to this attack. When his panzer spearheads approached the Psel west of Prochorovka, Hoth ordered II. SS-Panzerkorps to turn to the northeast and deploy for the expected attack. After defeating the Soviet reserves at Prochorovka, he planned to resume his advance north of the Psel and drive on to Kursk with III. Panzerkorps on the right of the SS panzer corps and XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps on the left. North of the river, the terrain was a sea of flat steppe, very favorable for tanks, with no significant natural barriers between the Psel and the Kursk area. In the meantime, while Hausser’s divisions prepared to take Prochorovka, XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps continued to push toward Oboyan.
The right flank of the attack by II. SS-Panzerkorps was to be protected by Armee-Abteilung Kempf’s III. Panzerkorps’ parallel advance east of the line of advance of the SS-Panzerkorps. On 12 July, however, Breith’s panzers were twenty-five kilometers south of Prochorovka. This delay, combined with the reports of stalemate in the north, was discussed in a conference between Manstein, Hoth, and Kempf that took place on 11 July during which preparations for the continuation of the attack were discussed. Kempf, his opinion obviously influenced by the heavy losses of tanks that III. Panzerkorps had suffered, favored the ending of the offensive. Hoth, whose two panzer corps were steadily advancing, was of the opinion that the attack should continue. Manstein, after further study of the situation, realized the opportunity presented him by the presence of the 5th Guards Tank Army and agreed with Hoth. Breith’s III. Panzer -korps was to resume its attack toward Prochorovka and hit the 5th Guards Tank Army on its southern flank while the Russians were heavily involved fighting II. SS-Panzerkorps. Manstein’s intention was to fix the Soviets with a frontal attack by Hausser and cut into the flank and rear of the Soviet tank army with III. Panzerkorps and, if necessary, use XXIV. Panzerkorps, Heeresgruppe Süd’s panzer reserve, to finish off the Russians. However, on the following morning, the Soviets beat the Germans to the punch, launching a massive attack all along the front of II. SS-Panzerkorps, while continuing to delay Breith’s advance.
Rotmistrov’s army deployed on a fifteen-kilometer-wide front of advance, with the 18th Tank Corps on the Soviet right, west of the town; 29th Tank Corps deploying forward southwest of Prochorovka along both sides of the railroad leading out of the town and on the left; the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 2nd Tank Corps attacking from staging areas to the south. The 5th Mechanized Corps was held in reserve. The action began very early in the morning with sporadic attacks at several points. Totenkopf reported a battalion-strength Soviet attack by infantry on the west edge of the bridgehead at 0315 hours, moving south from the village of Wess’elyj. This attack was not supported by tanks. On the southern bank, Soviet armor and infantry were observed assembling near Michailovka.
Leibstandarte reported its first contact with Soviet armor northwest of Prochorovka, after a few Russian tanks made contact with SS panzers at first light. Shortly thereafter, ominously, the dull roar of large numbers of tank motors was reported from the vicinity of the town. With the arrival of daylight, numerous squadrons of Soviet planes swooped in over the battlefield to bomb and strafe forward positions. Reports of heavy artillery fire confirmed the growing sense that this was something more than normal activity.
Totenkopf also noted heavy enemy activity in the air and Russian artillery grew steadily stronger all along its front. Totenkopf reported the beginning of an attack by two regiments of infantry with tanks at 0745 hours. This attack was on the south bank of the Psel and advanced to the southwest from the village of Michailovka, which was several kilometers due west of Prochorovka. Its objective was probably the bridges crossing the river, defended by Regiment Eicke and some of the division’s assault guns.
Southwest of Prochorovka, while Totenkopf fought to defend the bridgehead and the vital bridges, Leibstandarte and Das Reich prepared to attack. Leibstandarte, commanded by SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Wisch, was to attack Prochorovka on a narrow three- or four-kilometer front between the Psel and the Prochorovka–Belgorod railroad line. Das Reich, commanded by SS-Gruppenführer Walter Kruger, was assembled on its right, on a five-kilometer front, ready to advance east toward Belenichirici and Storoshewoje. Records of 4. Panzerarmee show that Leibstandarte had a strength of 56 tanks late on the evening of 11 July, and Das Reich had 61, including 8 captured T-34s. This was a total of 117 operational combat tanks, not counting command tanks of which each division had 7. According to 4. Panzerarmee and II. SS-Panzerkorps records, Leibstandarte had just 4 Tigers still in action by that date, while Das Reich had only 1 Tiger still operational.
Soon after the first scattered fighting of the morning was reported, hundreds of T-34s and T-70s emerged from Prochorovka and advanced in waves all along the front. The loud motor noises heard from the vicinity of Prochorovka had been these tanks assembling for the attack. Rotmistrov observed his army’s attack from a nearby hill as the Soviet tanks rolled out of Prochorovka and its environs toward Leibstandarte. The 18th and 29th Tank Corps moved quickly to the attack, some of this armor assaulting the base of the bridgehead, defended by Regiment Eicke. However, the main body hit the positions of Leibstandarte, whose own armor was assembled southwest of the town. By 1000 hours, the SS division reported massive tank attacks at several points. In groups of 30 to as many as 100 tanks, the Soviet armor rolled forward, preceded by heavy artillery support. Soviet infantry clung to the tanks as they careened wildly over the ground between the Germans and the town.
From his hilltop observation post, Rotmistrov had a perfect vantage point to watch his tanks charge headlong toward the Germans. In order to negate the advantage the Germans had in long-range optics and main gun range, particularly the 88s of the Tiger, the Soviet tank corps was ordered to charge at high speed and close with the Germans quickly. The Russians greatly outnumbered the SS tanks, as a Soviet tank corps normally had about 200 tanks when at established strength, and Rotmistrov believed he could overwhelm the SS panzers if his tanks could close with them. Judging from the direction of attack and the map positions of the forces involved, almost all of the more than 400 T-34s and T-70s of the two Soviet tank corps were headed toward the 56 tanks of 1. SSPanzergrenadier-Division in the center of the battlefield between the railroad line and the Psel River. About 40 Soviet tanks were reported in action against Regiment Eicke, east of the bridges. Some of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps may have contacted the left flank of Das Reich’s advance, but the majority assaulted Leibstandarte. Leibstandarte grenadiers and tank crews watched in amazement as hundreds of tanks emerged from positions of assembly west and south of the town and continued to advance at full speed toward the Germans. The German tanks, assault guns, and antitank guns began to fire at the oncoming Russian tanks at ranges of 1,800 meters or more.
Rotmistrov held the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps in reserve, although one brigade of this corps was already in action against III. Panzerkorps south of Prochorovka. While the 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared toward the panzers of Leibstandarte, the rest of the armor of Rotmistrov’s army, 2nd Guards and 2nd Tank Corps, moved to the attack against Das Reich, advancing in groups of from twenty to forty-five tanks in the first wave.
South of Prochorovka, Das Reich, on a line of Storoshevoje-Belenichino-Pravorot, became increasingly involved in repelling these attacks. On the right flank of II. SS-Panzerkorps, from the Storoshevoje area, the main elements of 2nd Guards Tank Corps attacked Das Reich throughout the day, supported by armor from 2nd Tank Corps. The intense fighting, with Soviet armored battlegroups continually pressuring the SS and being forced back by repeated German counterthrusts, was a series of ripostes, each side attacking or defending in efforts to destroy the other. During the course of the early part of the day, Das Reich was attacked by tanks and infantry from north and south of the Belenichino area.
Totenkopf deployed its panzer regiment, commanded by SS-Sturm-bannführer Georg Bochman, across the Psel in attempts to enlarge the bridgehead to the north and the Karteschevka-Prochorovka road. The panzer group of the division apparently included all ten of the heavy Tigers.19 The Totenkopf panzers faced armor of the Soviet 1st Tank Army’s 31st Tank Corps, a force much reduced from an original strength of about 200 tanks. How many Soviet tanks were still in action on this date is not precisely known. While 31st Tank Corps, supported by a rifle corps, fought to destroy the SS battle group on the north bank of the Psel, two entire tank corps with a strong infantry support assaulted Leibstandarte, and one and a half tank corps attacked Das Reich.
The resulting thunderous collision, with a total of about 1,000 tanks in action, was a day-long, chaotic, swirling tank battle. The German tanks, with superior sight optics and better crew training, held a decided advantage over the Russian tankmen when combat took place at long range on open ground. In addition, the Soviet tanks were at a disadvantage because their cannons could not penetrate the frontal armor of the German Tiger tank at even moderate range, while the 88mm gun of the Tiger could penetrate the glacis armor of the T-34 at ranges out to 1,500 to 2,000 yards. However, the relatively small number of Tigers that were left in action with the three SS panzer divisions meant that the bulk of the fighting was carried out by Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, even though the small number of remaining Tigers proved to be dangerous opponents, as always. An example of the deadly effect of their 88mm guns occurred during the afternoon.
Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann, the famed SS tank commander, took part in the fighting at Prochorovka, his detachment protecting the left flank of the main afternoon attack by Leibstandarte. Wittmann’s tank was one of a group of Tigers from 13./SSPanzer-Regiment 1 (the heavy company) during this engagement. The detachment met main elements of the 18th Tank Corps when the entire 181st Tank Brigade deployed in an attack along the southern edge of the Psel, just as the German advance began. The Soviet brigade advanced to meet the German attack just south of the river. It was during this encounter that a celebrated incident took place that is often given as an example of the intensity of the fighting at Prochorovka. In the Soviet version, which is most often reported, the command tank of the Soviet force, manned only by a wounded driver after the rest of the crew was wounded and abandoned the tank, rammed an SS Tiger and destroyed it in the resulting explosion. This incident is described below, as witnessed by Wittmann:
The three Tigers rumbled forward in line astern, their turrets trained to two o’clock, until they reached a position at the head of the German armoured force. Then they set out again, keeping pace with the main body. Some time later, they rolled through a corn field and then along an extended balka. The tanks halted on a low rise. The silver band of a stream appeared through Wittmann’s vision slit.
Prochorovka already lay behind them. Wittmann hoped to veer towards the village, which was still shrouded in the smoke and flames of battle, and hurry to the aid of his comrades. If they could attack the enemy from behind, they would turn the tide of battle in their favor. But then he heard a warning call from his company commander, followed soon after by the voice of Hauptsturmführer Kling: “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”
Moments later, Wittmann, too, saw them. There were at least a hundred enemy tanks of all types, and they were approaching quickly.
“Fire from the halt! Begin firing at 1,800 meters!”
Each gunner selected a target. The mass of Soviet tanks rushed toward the Germans, disappeared into a depression and reappeared again a good 1,000 meters away.
“Aim well, Woll!” gasped Wittmann.
The long-ranging guns of the Tigers opened fire. The first gaps were smashed in the advancing phalanx of enemy tanks. There were explosions and fires. Pillars of smoke rose into the sky. But the main body of enemy tanks—the 181st Brigade of the Soviet 18th Tank Corps—continued to come.
The Soviets were trying to close the range as quickly as possible, because they knew that they had to get to within 800 meters to pose a threat to the heavily-armoured Tigers.
. . . His crew, and those of Lotzsch and Hoflinger, maintained a high rate of fire. By the time the Soviet tanks were within 1,000 meters, every shot was a direct hit. The enemy now began to reply.
They fired on the move and were therefore unable to aim precisely. . . . One group of about fifteen tanks rushed in from the flank. They rolled directly towards Wittmann’s three Tigers. . . . “The lead tank, Woll!” shouted Wittmann.
Gunner Woll aimed and fired. They all saw how the shell pierced the side of the T-34. . . . Another hit. The T-34 halted again. . . . As Wittmann watched, the burning T-34 suddenly began to move towards Lotzsch’s Tiger. He called a warning!
“Look out! He’s coming!”
The blazing ball of fire rolled onwards. Seconds later, the T-34 rammed the Tiger. Flames covered the German tank. It seemed as if the Tiger crew had lost its nerve.
“Lotzsch, back up! Back up!” implored Wittmann.
Suddenly, the Tiger began to back up, separating itself from the ball of fire; one meter, two meters, five meters! At that moment, the T-34’ s reserve ammunition exploded. After the dust settled, the Tiger backed up to its original position.
The Soviet armored phalanx had been halted. The battlefield was saturated with burning and disabled tanks. Some of stricken tanks continued to fire on the Tigers, until they too were hit again and destroyed.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, groups of Russian tanks tried to break through Leibstandarte in the center of the German attack while other Soviet battle groups jabbed repeatedly at Das Reich. Rotmistrov sent the armor of four entire tank corps against the Germans in successive waves. The main elements of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps remained in reserve during the morning and early afternoon.
Both sides claimed destruction of large numbers of tanks. The tank losses that the 1st Tank Army’s three armored corps suffered against XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps and Totenkopf are not known, but Katukov’s 6th Tank Corps had only 50 tanks left two days earlier, on 10 July and two additional days of hard fighting would only have reduced its strength and that of the army in general. However, the severity of the damage done to the Soviets by the German panzer divisions can be roughly estimated from the following information. Colonel David Glantz, who utilized Russian sources, reports that the 1st Tank Army received 200 new tanks by 3 August, repaired all of its vehicles that could be put back in action and still was 20 percent under strength in tanks by that date. Thus, it would be safe to assume that Katukov’s army probably was reduced to between 100 and 150 tanks on 13 July. German losses on 12 July were moderate although Totenkopf had only 49 operational panzers left on 13 July, from a total of 94 on 11 July. On that same date, the division’s Tiger tanks were all out of commission, although most were back in action within days. These figures and estimates provide stark testimony to the intensity of the fighting across the river in the bridgehead. The panzer losses of Leibstandarte and Das Reich were much lighter, contrary to popular conception.
Past histories dealing with the battle of Prochorovka have given inaccurate figures in regard to the number of SS tanks that took part in the fighting around the town, leading to misconceptions about the facts of the battle and resulting in incorrect conclusions. Various sources give totals of SS tank strength before the battle of Prochorovka, ranging from 300 to 600 tanks. These numbers are inaccurate, as can be seen from study of the records of II. SS-Panzerkorps, which are available at the National Archives. These records show that the corps had 327 combat tanks on the day before the battle of Kursk began. After seven days of hard fighting, late on 11 July, II. SS-Panzerkorps reported a total of 211 operational tanks. Of these, only 117 were in action against the 5th Guards Tank Army south of he river. As we have seen, most, if not all, of Totenkopf’s armor was across the Psel, in the bridgehead. Nor were there large numbers of Tigers in action. Of the tanks of the two SS divisions south of the river, the majority were Panzer IIIs, by that time equipped with a long-barreled 5cm gun or Panzer IVs, which were upgraded with a 7.5cm high-velocity gun. SS battle records give daily tank strength reports, carefully listing each type of tank, even down to barrel length, and list the numbers of each type in operation on that day.
The fighting in which Wittmann took part resulted in the destruction of the 181st Tank Brigade and was the last gasp of 18th Tank Corps. Evidently, by late in the day, the 18th and 29th Tank Corps were both substantially reduced in strength or destroyed because Rotmistrov believed that they had failed to stop the SS tanks, and as a result, he committed his last reserve, the 10th Guards Mechanized Brigade and 24th Guards Tank Brigade of 5th Guards Mechanized Corps. At this point in the battle, hundreds of Soviet tanks were already out of action. Exact figures on the losses of the individual Soviet formations are not usually available; however, the numbers of German tanks that were lost in the fighting can be more accurately determined.