It was becoming clear that the offensive was not going according to plan. Observing the battlefield and listening over the radio to the transmissions and reports from the corps commanders, Rotmistrov understood that his army had collided with a strong, well-organized enemy anti-tank defense, bristling with a significant quantity of artillery.
It is impossible for one person to see the entire course of such a massive event as this clash between two powerful groupings, the Prokhorovka tank engagement. Each person views it as he saw it from the place where he was at that time. However, the recollections of eyewitnesses are invaluable, since this is a piece of the events, refracted through the consciousness and disposition of a real person. The greater the number of such pieces, the more clear and distinct is the resulting picture of what occurred. The excerpt of the army commander’s [Rotmistrov’s] memoirs, cited above, is the impression of a man who was standing on the pinnacle of an army’s pyramid and observing everything as if from this summit. But what was happening inside the battle? Here are the stories of two participants, who were directly located in the first ranks of the attackers. All the events that they describe occurred in the epicenter of the engagement – in the vicinity of Hill 252.2 –within the first hour of the attack.
Gunner-radio operator Sergeant Savelii Baase of the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade remembers:
I recall that from our jumping-off positions, which were in a shallow depression in the area of the brick factory, we drove onto a hillock, from which point a level field spread before us, covered with either ripened wheat or barley. On our left were a railroad and a planted forest; on the right, in the distance beyond the field, was a cluster of buildings. I was told that the Oktiabr’skii State Farm was over there. Soon shells exploded nearby, and in front of us there were flashes, tanks and dust. Even though our tank was not in the first line, we were also firing our main guns at clusters of tanks and individual targets, which were moving toward us. The range closed quickly. Soon tanks began to burn, both ours and the Germans’. I remember how we were firing at a Tiger, but our shells were ricocheting off its thick armor, until someone managed first to knock off a track, and then to plant a shell in its flank. But the tank didn’t blaze up, and its crew began to leap out of opened hatches. We shot them up with our machine gun. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled …
Lieutenant I. M. Fomichev, the commander of the 1st Rifle Company’s 1st Rifle Platoon in the 23rd Guards Airborne Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion, remembers:
At dawn on 12 July, we rose and went into the attack without artillery preparation. My platoon and I were moving to the right of the railway. Two Messerschmitts appeared from the enemy’s direction, which flew along the combat formation of our regiment, strafing as they went, before disappearing in the distance. We emerged onto an open field, and the Germans immediately blanketed us with artillery fire. Killed and wounded appeared. Without much understanding of what was going on amid the continuous crash of explosions and the cries of the wounded, I crawled along the platoon’s line and bandaged the wounded. The fingers of my hands were sticky with blood.
After some time (I wasn’t wearing a watch), I watched as a wave of our tanks passed through the regiment’s positions. I prepared to move out after them, but the order ‘Forward!’ never came. A second wave of our tanks passed through our lines, and still there was no order to advance. A third wave of tanks passed through, carrying mounted submachine gunners, and only after this did they give the order: ‘Forward!’
Later I learned that before our tank attack, there had been an artillery barrage and a salvo of Guards’ mortars [Katiusha rockets] on the enemy positions, but I didn’t see or hear them. Perhaps they coincided with an enemy artillery barrage on our forces.
My platoon and I were running behind the tanks. We reached a trench and leaped into it. At the entrance to a bunker, I saw the body of a senior lieutenant, whose uniform had been mostly burned off (only the collar with three bars on the shoulder boards remained), lying on top of an anti-tank rifle. I glanced into the bunker and spotted an ammunition drum for a PPSh submachine gun, so I grabbed it. It was fully loaded with cartridges.
We ran on ahead. In the dense smoke and dust, we could not see our neighbors on the right or the left … As they had trained us in the specialist school, we tried to take cover from enemy fire behind the hulls of the tanks. Moving along the platoon’s line, I took cover behind one of the knocked-out tanks, and when I raised my head to take a look around, I saw crosses on the armor. I realized that my platoon and I were in the thick of a tank battle. This was between the railroad and the Oktiabr’skii State Farm.
Moving on, we ran up to another trench. I hopped into it and almost collided with a German. His hand were upraised. I was stunned by the surprise and lost my head, because this was the first living German soldier I’d ever seen. One of the men from my platoon, who leaped into the trench right behind me, shouted: ‘Lieutenant, shoot him, what are you looking at!’ At that moment, a burning tank nearby suddenly exploded; the German flinched and turned his head, and in my fright I squeezed my trigger and fired a long burst into the back of his head.
Just beyond the trench, I met a colonel who had been wounded in the shoulder. He said he was the deputy commander of our division, Grachev, and ordered me to escort him to the nearest aid station. While we moved toward an aid station, Messerschmitts dove on us three times and strafed us with their machine guns. On the third pass, the plane flew so low that I couldn’t stand it and I fired at it with my submachine gun; of course, I didn’t do it any damage. Colonel Grachev, apparently from the loss of blood, seemed indifferent to what was happening all around him, and leaned on me heavily. I supported him with difficulty.
My platoon was accompanying us. We crossed the rail line in the area of Hill 252.2, and found ourselves in the middle of the 26th Regiment’s offensive.
Here, to the left of the railway, we spotted a group of soldiers lying in the field, apparently without any commanding officers. Grachev told me he could reach the aid station by himself, and ordered me to take command of these soldiers and get them moving forward. The soldiers responded to my order and started moving, but once we had passed through a wheat field and emerged into an open area, I saw that a few of the soldiers had lagged behind. Apparently, they didn’t want to follow an unknown commander.
Reaching the trench line where I had bumped into the colonel, I first saw a senior lieutenant, who said he was the commander of a machine gun company. He had nine Maxim heavy machine guns. I decided to reinforce the machine gun company’s defensive position. Here in the trench I ran into Junior Lieutenant Gerasimenko, with whom I had trained together back at the specialist school. We exchanged impressions. The Germans began to outflank our position on both sides. The company commander made the decision to fall back through the wheat field. My platoon and I pulled back together with him. While retreating, my messenger Private Odintsov was wounded. The bullet entered his shoulder from behind and buried itself there. We pulled back beyond the wheat field and occupied the first trench line we had passed, where we dug-in again.
The combat that took place on Hill 252.2 had no equal in its drama and intensity. Immediately after 1000, at the moment when the second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade) entered the battle, the Germans began an intensified bombardment of the assault wedges of both our tank corps east of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. The VIII Air Corps headquarters sent the following message to the II SS Panzer Corps: “Two gruppen of dive bombers have been assigned to operate against the enemy group, [and are] moving from Petrovka to the southwest.”
The situation in the 31st Tank Brigade at the start of the attack received only a brief description in combat documents: “The pace of the offensive has slackened; the brigade has begun to mark time in place.” The tankers didn’t succeed in giving fresh impetus to the attack. Chronologically, the start of the attack began as follows.
The movement of the 32nd Tank Brigade from its line of deployment (in the area of the brick factory) began at approximately 0840-0845; approximately an hour later, the battalions of the 31st Tank Brigade moved out, and tanks from both brigades neared the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm at approximately 1030. I repeat: they didn’t break into the State Farm at that time – this didn’t occur until 1300 – but they closed to within firing range of the State Farm, approximately 500 meters from its outskirts, where antitank guns of Leibstandarte’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment were dug-in. Moreover, this division’s panzer regiment had already deployed at a distance approximately 0.5 to 1 kilometer from the State Farm, and behind it – east of Hill 241.6 – its artillery regiment, consisting of 105mm and 155mm howitzers, Nebelwerfers, and Hummel, Wespe and Brummbär self-propelled artillery vehicles. Thus, the first echelon of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps ran into a wall of fire. For the next two hours of the attack, the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades advanced approximately 1.2 to 1.5 kilometers. How can one speak of any “pace of the offensive” here!
The foe’s artillerymen took advantage of the moment, and fired their guns both intensively and with deadly accuracy. This beaten zone east of Hill 252.2 and Oktiabr’skii State Farm, bordered on the north and east with gullies, and on the south by the railroad embankment, became a genuine graveyard for the tank battalions of these brigades. They suffered their greatest losses here, at the start of the attack.
Reports from the corps headquarters and the brigades of the 29th Tank Corps speak to the nature and intensity of the fighting:
… Despite the heavy fire put up by the enemy, the 32nd Tank Brigade, maintaining the organization in its combat formations in cooperation with the 25th Tank Brigade, moved forward, while opening a concentrated fire from its tanks. Upon the approach to the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Stalinskoe Branch of the [Oktiabr’skii] State Farm, they came under artillery and mortar fire and were compelled to dig in on the line they had reached, gather strength for a resumption of the offensive, and prepare to repulse enemy attacks.
Separate elements, penetrating even as far as the Komsomolets State Farm and suffering heavy losses from artillery fire and fire from tanks in ambush positions, fell back to the line occupied by the fire support forces [author’s note: as stated in the text].
… a) The 32nd Tank Brigade: At 0830 12.07.43 without working over the enemy’s forward edge of defense with artillery and aviation [author’s emphasis], lacking accurate information about the enemy’s fire means, the brigade in two echelons attacked the enemy in the direction … along the railroad line in a sector up to 900 meters wide. On this (main) axis, the enemy concentrated a large number of Panzer VI tanks, Ferdinand self-propelled guns [there were no Ferdinands with the Fourth Panzer Army], and other anti-tank means.
… The attack of the 32nd Tank Brigade flowed at an exclusively rapid pace. All the tanks went into the attack, and there was not a single case of indecisiveness or refusal to fight. By 1200 12.07.43 the tank battalions reached the area of the enemy’s artillery positions. [Enemy] Infantry began to run away in panic. … The enemy hurled up to 150 aircraft at the forward edge of defense, which suppressed the infantry of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (following behind the tanks) and knocked out several tanks. The 32nd Tank Brigade began to falter …. The adversary noticed that the pace of the attack had slackened, and brought up fresh tank reserves and infantry. By this time the brigade had lost up to 40 tanks and 350 men and was compelled to stop.
- b) The 31st Tank Brigade: At 0830 following the signal (the rocket artillery salvo), the attack of the tanks and infantry began without artillery preparation or air cover [author’s emphasis]. Groups of 8 to 37 Me 110 and Ju 87 were conducting attacks.
The tanks suffered heavy losses from the enemy’s artillery fire and aviation. … At 1030 the tanks reached the border of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. Further advance was stopped by the ceaseless influence [author: as in text] of the enemy’s aviation.
Air cover for the attacking tanks was absent until 1300. At 1300, cover was provided by groups of 2 to 10 fighters.
The 31st Tank Brigade’s chief of the political department Colonel Povolotsky reported:
The large losses, especially in equipment, and the insufficiently active advance of our brigade are explained by the strong influence of the enemy’s aviation given our aviation’s lack of support for the offensive, and the enemy’s strong artillery and mortar fire, in contrast to our very weak artillery preparation at the moment of attack. The long presence of the tanks and personnel in their starting positions (eight hours) allowed the enemy to reorganize his defense in order to repulse the attack [author’s emphasis].
As we see, there is little resemblance here to a meeting engagement involving hundreds of tanks. Moreover, there is also nothing that corroborates the assertion that “on 12 July of this year occurred the greatest tank battle in the history of the Great Patriotic War, in which up to 1500 tanks of both sides met in a head-on attack” (from the 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of combat operations at Prokhorovka).
In the 29th Tank Corps, 199 tanks took part in the attack, in the 18th Tank Corps – 149 tanks; altogether 348 tanks, which moreover were echeloned in depth. On the enemy’s side (SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte’s 1st Panzer Regiment, and elements of Totenkopf ’s and Das Reich’s panzer regiments), approximately 140 to 150 tanks participated in this battle. Altogether on 12 July 1943, a combined maximum of up to 500 tanks from both sides could have participated in the battle southwest of Prokhorovka.
The battle of several hundred armored vehicles disintegrated into separate duels between groups of tanks, over which unified command and control was lost. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled. Radio became the only possible means of communication in the companies and platoons. However, while all the German tanks were equipped with two-way radios, the Soviet T-34 tanks, not to mention the T-70 tanks, lacked radio communications in all but the commanders’ tanks.
According to the testimony of veteran tankers, the 5th Guards Tank Army, which from the beginning had been formed as a Guards army, was in a more advantageous situation in this respect than other formations. Down to the platoon level, commanders’ tanks were equipped with radios, while even some non-command tanks had radio receivers, in order to receive orders from the commander. In other formations, even these were entirely lacking. Only commanders at the company level and higher had full communications in their tanks. All other tanks operated following the example of the commander’s tank, according to the principle “Do whatever I’m doing.” Under the conditions of limited visibility and given the concentration of a large number of armored vehicles on a relatively narrow sector, this left the crews practically without any communications.
Knowing this detail, the Germans took advantage of it in full measure. German tanks, assault guns and anti-tank guns concentrated all their fire first of all on those Red Army tanks with antennas. In addition, our radio sets were not reliable. As M. Dovbysh, a veteran of the 18th Tank Corps told me that only one or two solid hits on a tank that failed to penetrate were enough to cause the radio to quit working due to the concussive impact. The summary report of the 29th Tank Corps command also testifies to this; in it there is a statement that radios on the Su-152 would stop operating after five to eight shots from its own gun. All of this prevented the company or platoon commander from smoothly directing the tanks under his command in battle, concentrating their fire or strength in a certain direction (or on specific targets).
In such circumstances, the training and experience of the crew commander and the driver-mechanic played a special role. In the battle on the fields of Prokhorovka, the “birth defect” of the T-34 manifested itself in full measure. In the years before the war, trying to decrease the size of the tank, designers had removed the position of the fifth crew member, the gun layer, and turned his functions over to the commander. This meant that with the start of a battle, the tank crew was practically left without a commander, since he could not physically carry out two duties at the same time. All his attention was concentrated on gunnery. That is why the actions of the crew were fettered, and its attention focused more on self-preservation than common action. These problems substantially increased tank losses.
The 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of the battle points to the critical problems caused by the failures in intelligence, information and communication: “The enemy aviation reigned supreme in the sky – up to 200 individual sorties. The absence of reconnaissance, as well as the lack of fire direction, had an immediate effect on the process of the fighting, and choked the attack.”