Prokhorovka Melee I

Soviet and German deployments near Prokhorovka on the eve of the engagement of 12 July. The blue dashed line shows the frontline positions of the divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps in the evening of 11 July, and the red dashed line shows the position of Soviet forces directly opposing the II SS-Panzer Corps. The black dashed line shows the railway running from Prokhorovka southwest through the Psel corridor (the strip of land between the Psel River and a tributary of the Northern Donets River).

Observing the artillery’s work from his observation post, the army commander, Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov, could easily envision the conditions in the corps. A professional tanker with great combat experience, he understood better than anyone else the situation of the corps and brigade commanders in the situation that was taking shape. They were forced, as they say, to attack from scratch against an adversary that was plainly strong, judging from the course of combat operations over the preceding days.

Even Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov himself was not in an enviable position. He had no possibility (because of terrain conditions) to employ the full potential of his combat equipment. He had been deprived of a reserve (Trufanov’s detachment), a unit of the first echelon, and half the second echelon (two mechanized brigades of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and one tank brigade of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps). He had also not received the necessary support from the front’s artillery and aviation (having at his disposal only one howitzer regiment). In spite of all this, the commander was supposed to strike the strongest formation of the Fourth Panzer Army (which was fully-prepared to receive the attack), split it, and drive 30 kilometers deep into enemyheld territory. All this, while periodically repelling attacks from his own air force (about this, a little later).

A significant number of problems arose within the corps themselves. For example, the 29th Tank Corps commander Major General I. F. Kirichenko was not a novice in military affairs; as a brigade commander he had taken part in the fighting for Moscow, demonstrating not only personal courage, but also professionalism in a difficult situation. However, Kirichenko had never commanded such a major formation as a corps before, and the battle at Prokhorovka would be his first in his role as corps commander. In addition, the headquarters of the 29th Tank Corps had just been organized. While the staff had passed through an intensive four-month training course, the main test of the quality of combat training remained genuine battle itself. It is precisely combat that developed the professionalism of commanders and staff, initiated and honed the work routines in headquarters, and forged the ability to work together smoothly in the midst of battle.

The 18th Tank Corps had been added to the 5th Guards Tank Army just before the march to Prokhorovka. P. A. Rotmistrov had been previously acquainted with the 18th Tank Corps commander, General B. S. Bakharov, but this would be the first time they would be working together in a combat situation. The army commander had been dissatisfied with how Boris Sergeevich Bakharov had handled the corps march from Ostrogozhsk. His formation had lost a lot of vehicles en route; the corps commander and headquarters staff had plainly underestimated the difficulty of the assignment. Although by the morning of 12 July the brigades’ repair teams and crews had managed to restore most of the disabled vehicles to good working order and the corps was fully combat ready, Rotmistrov decided to send his chief of staff Major General V. N. Baskakov to the 18th Tank Corps, in order to assess the corps commander, to prevent mistakes on his part in the extremely complex situation, and to assist him in coordinating the work of his staff with the army units.

Tank combat is characterized by its highly dynamic nature and by sharp changes in the situation. Therefore, strict control over the tank formations, stable and efficient communications with the brigades, and the rapid processing of orders and instructions are extremely important. However, there were no conditions for fulfilling these demands, and problems arose in securing communications between the corps and the brigades, and especially between the brigades and their subordinate battalions. Furthermore, the command and control in several of the brigades were as yet untested by combat.

In short, the 5th Guards Tank Army was entering its first battle. Therefore, the army commander and the subordinate commanders at all levels strove to spend time in the forward units before the start of the battle. On the evening of 11 July General I. F. Kirichenko, leaving behind his chief of staff Colonel E. I. Fominykh at the command post, journeyed to Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade; his deputy Colonel A. V. Egorov went to A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade.

At 0830, the Katiushas of the 76th Guards Mortar Regiment fired its final volley from their position southwest of Prokhorovka. At the instant the explosions died away, a relative calm fell over the field. As eyewitnesses later recalled, for the next several minutes, a rustling wave passed across the field, like a heavy, but short summer squall. The dust raised by the explosions settled to the earth. For a few brief moments, everything fell silent. They were only seconds, followed immediately by the sound of a powerful, rising rumble. The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army were moving out of their jumping-off positions and accelerating into the attack.

The army commander attentively watched the departure of the tank brigades. He had been waiting for this moment for several months. Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov had been appointed to command an army that did not yet exist at the time. He had spent four months forming it, equipping it, and organizing the training of its staff and combat troops. Now the moment of its first trial by fire had arrived. For us, who did not travel that hard path, it is difficult today to understand the thoughts and feelings of a man, who was witnessing the combat baptism of his progeny.

Rotmistrov recalled after the war:

Our artillery’s squall of fire had not yet subsided, when the volleys of our Guards mortar regiments rang out. This signified the start of the attack, which my radio set duplicated. ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel’ – the chief of my radio apparatus Junior Technician-Lieutenant V. P. Konstantinov sent out over the radio. Immediately there followed the signals to attack from the commanders of the tank corps, the brigades, the battalions, the companies and the platoons.

I look through my binoculars and watch, as our glorious ‘Thirty-fours’ move out from under their cover and, accelerating, rush ahead. At the same instant, I spot a mass of enemy armor. It turned out that both we and the Germans went on the attack simultaneously. I’m surprised by how quickly our tanks and the hostile tanks are closing the distance to each other. Two enormous avalanches of tanks were moving towards a collision. The morning sun rising in the east blinded the eyes of the German tankers and brightly illuminated the contours of the fascist tanks for us.

Within several minutes, the tanks of the first echelon of our 29th and 18th Tank Corps, firing on the move, sliced head-on into the combat formations of the German fascist forces, having literally pierced the enemy’s formation with an impetuous, penetrating attack. The Hitlerites, apparently, had not expected to encounter such a large mass of our combat vehicles and such a decisive attack by them.

Unfortunately, Rotmistrov’s account is highly misleading. The actual course of the battle, as set forth in the documents of the brigades of the tank army’s first echelon, does not correspond with the army commander’s words. Incidentally, the sunrise on 12 July was at 0502. Therefore at 0830 it could not have blinded the eyes of the German tankers. However, the morning sun’s rays might have illuminated the contours of their tanks – if they had moved out on the attack, and were not staying concealed behind the positions of their anti-tank guns. At 0920, N. F. Vatutin reported to I. V. Stalin:

After a 30-minute artillery preparation, at 0830 the forces of Voronezh Front’s center (6th Guards Army, 1st Tank Army, 5th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army) went on the offensive according to plan. The forces of the 7th Guards Army are completing preparations to go over onto the offensive – the artillery preparation from 0900, the offensive at 0940.

The 5th Guards Tank Army command rested its plans on an impetuous lunge into the depth of the enemy’s from the first minutes of the attack. The area of Oktiabr’skii State Farm – the main fulcrum of the German positions, which indeed Zhadov’s Guardsmen proved unable to crack in the morning – was supposed to be enveloped on two sides: on one side, by the 18th Tank Corps’ 181st Tank Brigade, 170th Tank Brigade and the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment; on the other side, by the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade with three batteries of the 1446th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment. Infantry of the 5th Guards Army’s 33rd Guards Rifle Corps would follow behind the armor. It was assumed that the 181st Tank Brigade, attacking through the villages along the river would not encounter any heavy enemy resistance, since they (Andreevka and Vasil’evka) had only been abandoned by the tankers of the 2nd Tank Corps that morning; thus, its advance would be more rapid. Along the railway, the shock 32nd Tank Brigade was to clear a path for the main forces of the 29th Tank Corps. The 9th Guards Airborne Division and two regiments of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division were to consolidate the success of the 32nd, 170th and 181st Tank Brigades by mopping up the areas of Hill 252.2 and the villages along the river of any remaining enemy.

The second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th and Bakharov’s 18th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade and the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade with an artillery group) had the assignment to bolster the strength of the assault and to replenish the tank losses of the first echelon, suffered during the breakthrough of the defenses on Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. However, this plan collapsed in the first minutes of the attack.

The 29th Tank Corps went on the offensive in the sector Oktiabr’skii State Farm (incl.) – Iamki – Sazhinskii ravine (1.5 kilometers south of Iamki). Its attack formation had the 32nd Tank Brigade (63 tanks) and the 25th Tank Brigade (69 tanks) in the first echelon, and the 31st Tank Brigade (67 tanks) in the second echelon. To the right, between Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Psel River, the 18th Tank Corps was to advance. Its combat formation was arranged in three echelons: in the first – the 181st Tank Brigade (44 tanks) and the 170th Tank Brigade (39 tanks), supported by the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment (19 Churchill tanks); in the second – the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (which had no tanks); in the third – the tank brigade of the corps’ forward detachment (38 tanks). Thus, in the first attacking echelon of the two corps in a sector approximately 7 kilometers wide, four tank brigades and one tank regiment were attacking with a total of 234 tanks.

Immediately after the attack start, the field was covered by dozens of mushroom clouds of erupting earth from exploding bombs and shells, and dozens of tanks blazed up like torches. The battlefield became enveloped in a bluish-gray shroud of smoke and the exhaust gases of hundreds of armored vehicles, lit up by the fiery discharges from tank guns. The guide brigade in the 29th Tank Corps was Colonel A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade. Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade was supposed to follow it, but Moiseev’s battalions were slow in moving into their jumping-off positions, so Linev’s tanks in the first minutes of the attack were greeted by a hurricane of anti-tank fire from Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. Quickly, more than twenty tanks (almost one third of the brigade’s complement) blazed up like torches or began to emit thick plumes of dark smoke. The brigade’s combat formation was shattered, and the surviving tanks began to maneuver on the battlefield and to crawl away in different directions, trying to use any folds in the terrain in order to escape the ruinous fire. However, the sector was narrow, and approximately 100 armored vehicles had crowded into it, not including the self-propelled artillery, the artillery and the infantry of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division.

The commander of Leibstandarte’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 6th Company, Obersturmführer R. von Ribbentrop, described the scene from the German lines:

… I spotted the section leader of the company headquarters personnel, whom I had left at the infantry battalion’s command post. Shrouded in a gigantic cloud of dust, he was racing down the slope on his motorcycle, all the while extending his fist into the air: Move out at once!”

With that the company set itself in motion and deployed on the slope as if on the exercise field. It deployed with a precision that made my twenty-two-year-old heart beat faster. It was an especially uplifting feeling for me to lead these young but experienced soldiers into battle.

On reaching the crest of the slope we saw another low rise about 200 meters away on the other side of a small valley, on which our infantry positions were obviously located.

By radio I ordered my company to move into position on the slope ahead of us and take up the battle from there.

The small valley extended to our left and, as we moved down the forward slope, we spotted the first T-34s. They were attempting to outflank us from the left.

We halted on the slope and opened fire, hitting several of the enemy. A number of Russian tanks were left burning. For a good gunner, 800 meters was the ideal range.

As we waited to see if further enemy tanks were going to appear, I looked all around, as was my habit. What I saw left me speechless. From beyond the shallow rise about 150 to 200 meters in front of me appeared fifteen, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there was too many to count. The T-34s were rolling toward us at high speed, carrying mounted infantry.

My driver, Schueler, called over the intercom: ‘Sir, to the right, right! They’re coming! Do you see them?’

I saw them only too well. At that second I said to myself: ‘It’s all over now!’ My driver thought I had said ‘Get out!’ and began to open his hatch. I grabbed him rather roughly and hauled him back into the tank. Meanwhile, I had poked the gunner in the right side with my foot. This was the signal for him to traverse right.

Soon the first round was on its way and, with its impact the T-34 began to burn. It was only fifty to seventy meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. I saw SS Sergeant Papke jump clear, but that was the last we ever saw of him. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames.

The avalanche of enemy tanks rolled straight towards us: Tank after tank! Wave after wave! It was a simply unimaginable assembly, and it was moving at very high speed.

We had no time to take up defensive positions. All we could do was fire. From this range every round was a hit, but when would a direct hit end it for us? Somewhere in my subconscious I realized that there was no chance to escape. As always in such hopeless situations, all we could do was take care of what was at hand. So we knocked out a third, then a fourth T-34, from distances of less than thirty meters.

The Panzer IV we were using carried about eighteen to twenty rounds of ammunition within immediate reach of the loader, of which the majority was high explosive. The rest were armor-piercing.

Soon my loader shouted: ‘No AP left!’

All of our immediately available armor-piercing ammunition had been expended. Further ammunition had to be passed to the loader by the gunner, radio operator and driver. At this point remaining stationary was the surest means of being spotted and destroyed by the Russian tanks. Our only hope was to get back behind the slope again, even though the Russians had already crossed it. Our chances of escaping there were better than in our present exposed position.

We turned in the midst of a mass of Russian tanks, rolled back about fifty meters and reached the reverse slope of the first rise. There we turned to face the enemy again, now in somewhat better cover.

Just then a T-34 halted about thirty meters off to our right. I saw the tank rock slightly on its suspension and traverse its turret in our direction. I was looking right down the muzzle of its gun. We were unable to fire immediately, as the gunner had just passed the loader a fresh round.

‘Step on it, now!’ I shouted into the microphone. My driver Schueler was the best driver in the battalion. He had already put the tank in gear, and the lumbering Panzer IV set itself in motion. We moved past the T-34 at a distance of about five meters. The Russian tried to turn his turret to follow us, but was unable to do so. We halted ten meters behind the stationary T-34 and turned. My gunner scored a direct hit on the Russian’s turret. The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun. While all this was going on, other T-34s with mounted infantry were rolling past us.

In the meantime, I tried to pull in the Swastika flag that was lying across the box on the rear of the tank. The flag’s purpose was to let our pilots know where we were. I only half succeeded in this, with the result that the flag then fluttered in the wind. One of the Russian commanders or gunners would have to notice it sometime. It was only a question of time until we received the fatal hit.

We had only slim chance: We had to remain constantly in motion. A stationary tank would immediately be recognized by the foe as an enemy and fired upon, because all the Russian tanks were rolling at high speed across the terrain.

We then faced the additional challenge of being destroyed by one of our own tanks, which were sitting below at the anti-tank ditch by the railway embankment in a wide line. They had begun firing at the approaching enemy tanks. On the smoke- and dust-shrouded battlefield, looking into the sun, it would be impossible for our crews to distinguish us from a Russian tank. I repeatedly broadcast our code-name: ‘All stations: This is Kunibert! We are in the middle of the Russian tanks! Don’t fire at us!’

I received no answer. In the meantime, the Russians had set several vehicles on fire as they rolled through Peiper’s battalion and our artillery battalion. But by then the fire of our two remaining tank companies was beginning to have an effect. The artillery’s battalion of self-propelled guns and Peiper’s Panzergrenadiers – the latter with close-range weapons – were also taking a toll of the Russian tanks and pinning down the Russian infantry, which had jumped down from the T-34s and were attempting to advance on foot.

The entire battlefield lay under a thick pall of smoke and dust. Fresh groups of Russian tanks continued to roll out of this inferno. They were knocked out on the broad slope by our tanks.

It was an indescribable jumble of wrecked tanks and vehicles. This undoubtedly contributed to our salvation, in that the Russians did not recognize us.

The first to encounter the Germans’ anti-tank defenses on the outskirts of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and on Hill 252.2 were two companies from the 32nd Tank Brigade’s 2nd Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain A. E. Vakulenko. Under their covering fire, the commander of this tank brigade’s 1st Tank Battalion, Major P. S. Ivanov, directed his tanks across the railway embankment, in order to bypass the State Farm. The 15 T-34s, concealed by a belt of woods, found a seam in the German line, dashed at full speed past the most dangerous points of Hills 242.5 and Hill 241.6, where German anti-tank gun batteries and self-propelled guns were positioned, and broke into the southern outskirts of the Komsomolets State Farm from the rear, some 5 kilometers into the depth of the enemy’s defenses. Motorized riflemen of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade, which managed to slip through the enemy’s defenses in the wake of the tanks, reinforced the tankers’ sudden and unexpected advance. However, this local breakthrough had no effect on the tenacity of the defense at the Oktiabr’skii State Farm, which was SS Leibstandarte’s focal point of resistance. Even an hour after the start of the 5th Guards Army’s follow-on attack, the State Farm remained in the hands of Obersturmbannführer H. Krass’ 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, although individual T-34 tanks, having broken through to the crest of Hill 252.2, were already battling its anti-tank defenses and the tanks of SS Sturmbannführer M. Gross’ II/1st SS Panzer Regiment, positioned behind the anti-tank ditch.

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