Prokhorovka, Russia – October 6, 2015: The sculptural composition Tank battle at Prokhorovka – Taran. Located Near a museum commemorating the battle.
At the beginning of March 1943, the commander-in-chief of Army Group South Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein was the first to propose to cut off the Kursk salient, which had formed as a result of the Soviet counteroffensive following the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad, by converging attacks in the direction of Kursk. He did so even before the re-capture of Belgorod by the SS Panzer Corps. However, his proposal seemed untimely: the spring thaw had begun, and the situation that Army Group Center faced was very difficult. Its Ninth Army under Generaloberst W. Model had just completed its withdrawal from the Rzhev salient and had re-assembled in the Orel bulge, and was unprepared for such a large-scale operation. Nevertheless, Hitler favored the idea. Berlin was forced to reject it at that time, however, and postponed its implementation to a later date, by approximately a month.
The plan of a grand offensive in the center of the Soviet-German front began to be fleshed out already at the end of March 1943, and on 12 April the prepared draft of Operation Citadel1 arrived on Hitler’s desk, and was approved by him on the same day. Three days later, on 15 April, it was embodied in the well-known operational Order No. 6, which gave both the objectives and tasks of the summer campaign in the east, and the principle scheme of actions for Army Groups South and Center. The essence of Citadel consisted of two converging attacks out of the areas of Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south in the direction of Kursk to split the defenses of two Soviet fronts – General of the Army N.F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and General of the Army K.K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front – and to encircle their forces. Even so, already at the time a significant portion of the Wehrmacht’s generals, who took part in working out the plan for the operation, regarded this undertaking with disapproval, correctly believing that Germany lacked the strength in order to bring it to a successful conclusion.
Army Group South was to make the main effort; it faced more ambitious tasks. In order to reach the proposed line of link-up Army Group Center would have to cover approximately 75 kilometers, while Manstein’s forces would have to advance nearly twice that distance, 125 kilometers. Thus a greater amount of force was planned for the breakthrough of the defenses of the Voronezh Front, which was holding the southern face of the Kursk salient. For this purpose, Army Group South received Generaloberst H. Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General der Panzerwaffen W. Kempf’s Army Detachment Kempf, which together possessed 11 infantry and 9 panzer and panzergrenadier divisions.
The final plan was prepared after a conference between Manstein and Hoth in Bogodukhov on 11-12 May 1943. It was at this conference that the Fourth Panzer Army commander laid out his plan to destroy the Soviet mobile reserves at Prokhorovka, and this became the essence of the first stage of Operation Citadel. According to the testimony of Fourth Panzer Army’s chief of staff General Fangohr, Hoth planned to implement “Citadel” in two stages. In the first stage, his army was given the task to break through two of the three belts of defenses held by Vatutin’s forces, and to destroy the Soviet operational and strategic reserves in the area of Prokhorovka Station together with Army Detachment Kempf. Hoth believed that Moscow would release its strategic reserve, the Steppe Front, as soon as the breach had been created in the Soviet lines, and would send it to meet the attacking German over the land bridge between the Psel and Northern Donets Rivers. The Generaloberst wasn’t confident that his forces had the strength to carry out the task of the first stage fully, so the objectives of the second stage were to be determined onlyl after the Soviet strategic reserves were defeated in the Prokhorovka Station area.
The overall offensive by the Germans’ two assault groupings in the area of the Kursk bulge began on the night of 4-5 July 1943 and on the second day of the battle “Hoth’s plan” began to yield its first weighty results. His panzer army, having already penetrated the second belt of defenses of the Voronezh Front, had split Lieutenant General I.M. Chistiakov’s 6th Guards Army and then had attempted to throw it back to the north, toward Oboian’, together with the corps of Lieutenant General M.E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, which were approaching to bolster the 6th Guards Army and close the breach. Kampfgruppen of two SS panzergrenadier divisions on the right flank of the Fourth Panzer Army’s attack wedge had reached the third and final army-level belt of defenses, 12 kilometers west of Prokhorovka Station.
However, although the German forces had overcome the main and a significant part of the second army belt of defenses, by the end of 6 July they’d been unable to create a continuous breakthrough front. Army Detachment Kempf’s offensive on the secondary Korocha axis out of the area of Belgorod was making only slow, arduous headway against the powerful resistance offered by Lieutenant General M.S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army that was defending here. Here, the Germans were unable to create a breach and establish contact with Hoth’s panzer army on the second day, nor on the third day of the operation. As a result, the Fourth Panzer Army’s right flank remained unguarded, and its command had no choice but to weaken the SS Panzer Corps’ assault wedge and detach entire panzergrenadier and infantry divisions in order to cover it.
Thus, in spite of the noticeable success of the first two days of Army Group South’s offensive, by the end of 6 July the Soviet side had achieved its main objective – it had forced both of the German attack groupings in the south, Army Group South and Army Detachment Kempf, to attack in diverging directions. Between their flanks, the forces of the 69th Army were stubbornly clinging to the area between the Northern Donets and Lipovyi Donets Rivers. This substantially slowed the development of Operation Citadel and was an important factor of Voronezh Front’s success in the course of the defensive phase of the Battle of Kursk.
Everything wasn’t going smoothly for Hoth either. Firstly, after the breakthrough on 6 July, the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and Das Reich were unable to make shoulder to shoulder contact with each other. The corps’ command demanded they close the gap in the course of the next 24 hours and regroup their forces for a further drive forward, which naturally took precious time and disrupted the operation’s timetable. Secondly, both these divisions reached the Prokhorovka direction in a rather narrow sector, and thus before they could push on it was extremely important that they create more elbow room. In the opposite case, it might prove easy for the Soviet side to encircle them.
On the night of 6-7 July, the Voronezh Front’s Military Council placed responsibility for holding the Oboian’ and Prokhorovka directions on M.E. Katukov.2 Despite a deficit in strength and means, he quickly organized an effective system of mobile defense along the entire breakthrough sector, and created a powerful knot of resistance at the boundary between the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps. Katukov so skillfully planned the actions of his tank and mechanized formations that right up to the start of the fighting for Prokhorovka, General O. von Knobelsdorff’s XXXXVIII Panzer Corps of the Fourth Panzer Army, which was attacking along the Oboian’ highway and covering the SS Corps’ left flank, was unable in fact to emerge out of the second belt of defenses.
However, Katukov’s and Chistiakov’s armies were quickly melting away. The situation was worsened by the fact that already by the end of 5 July N.F. Vatutin had been forced to throw all of his reserve corps into the battle. As a result, on 8 July major villages and simultaneously strong knots of resistance on the Prokhorovka direction – Kalinin, Greznoe (Griaznoe), Kochetovka, Sukho-Solotino, and Luchki, as well as Iakovlevo, Gremuchii and Verkhopen’e on the Oboian’ axis, wound up in enemy hands. However, the main danger was that the SS troops had reached the rear belt of defenses, which ran along the left bank in the bend of the Psel River and covered the only passable corridor for tanks toward Prokhorovka between the basin of the Psel River and the Belgorod – Kursk railroad. The Soviet formations that were fighting on the Oboian’ highway were being subjected to colossal pressure from the Germans. In addition to the fact that the main forces of the Fourth Panzer Army’s two panzer corps were operating against them (each day in a sector of approximately 40 kilometers the Germans were employing up to 500 armored combat vehicles here), the main forces of Luftflotte Four’s VIII Fliegerkorps were active here.
Having no way to help Katukov with reserves, N.F. Vatutin decided on the morning of 8 July to launch a counterattack against the right flank of the Fourth Panzer Army with four tank corps, which had 530 tanks among them, including 308 T-34, supported by the rifle divisions of the 69th Army. A portion of these formations were to arrive only that morning, which is to say immediately on the day of the counterattack, from other fronts. Vatutin’s aggressive measure has been evaluated by Soviet historians as unsuccessful,3 but this label conceals not the failures of the tank corps, but more the unseemly conduct of separate generals, who’d been serving in the acting army for more than a year, but who proved unable to organize command and control over their troops. Thus, Order No. 00212 from the Commander-in-Chief of the Voronezh Front from 30 July 1943, directly points to the failure by the commander of the 2nd Tank Corps Major General A.F. Popov to carry out the order to organize the battle, despite having the possibility to do so. As a result, as we’ve already seen, one of his tank brigades overran the combat positions of a rifle regiment of the 183rd Rifle Division on the Prokhorovka axis and inflicted substantial losses to it.4
Even so, the counterstroke had a large influence on the plans of the Fourth Panzer Army’s command. The appearance of large mobile formations on the Prokhorovka axis became a signal for Hoth that the battle that he had planned back in May 1943 was about to begin. On 9 July he began to pivot both panzer corps, which had been ready first to break through the third and final army belt (in the north and northeastern directions), which was still unoccupied by Voronezh Front’s forces, in order to continue the grinding battles of attrition with the Soviet tank corps once more in the second belt of defenses.
Between 5 and 9 July 1943, while carrying out the scheme of Operation Citadel, Army Group South’s main forces had launched their main attack against the line of Vatutin’s armies along the Belgorod – Kursk highway to the north and northeast. For the Voronezh Front, this was the first, initial stage of the defensive operation. Despite all of the enemy’s efforts, our troops were holding out. After five days of the heaviest, bloody fighting, it had become clear to E. von Manstein that the operation in the form that it had been planned had suffered a setback. The situation before the forthcoming battle at Prokhorovka with the forces of the approaching Steppe Front had become extremely complex and far from that which Hoth had presented during the meeting in Bogodukhov. By 9 July the Fourth Panzer Army’s losses in armor were very high. Of the 327 tanks that were counted as combat-ready in the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps on the morning of 5 July 1943, at 2230 (Berlin time) on 9 July there remained only 123 in that condition, or just 40%.5 Still more catastrophic was the situation with tanks in the Panther-equipped 10th Panzer Brigade, which had been intended to play a role in the Prokhorovka clash. It was practically played out: for various reasons, more than 90% of the Pz V tanks were no longer serviceable (of the 200 Panthers that had arrived just before the Battle of Kursk, on the evening of 9 July only 16 remained operational).6 Secondly, because of the fact that Army Detachment Kempf had thus far made little progress, H. Hoth was forced to continue to keep the SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich and the 167th Infantry Division covering the extended right flank, which didn’t allow him to augment the forces on the axis of his panzer army’s main attack and make a substantial advance to the north and northeast. Reconnaissance reported that lengthy columns of men and equipment were moving in the direction of Prokhorovka. Thus, the threat of powerful flank attacks out of the area of Prokhorovka Station was increasing with each passing day, while the Germans’ strength was dissipating. For Hoth the destruction of our force grouping opposite the Fourth Panzer Army’s right flank (in the interfluvial area between the Northern and Lipovyi Donets Rivers) and preparing to meet the Red Army’s approaching tank reserves at Prokhorovka became the overriding concern for the next few days.
On 10 July, the second stage of Voronezh Front’s defensive operation began. Its main events unfolded at a major center of Soviet resistance – the Prokhorovka railroad station. In this period, Vatutin’s main tasks consisted in preventing a breakthrough of the third (and final) defensive belt on the Prokhorovka axis, inflicting maximal losses to the enemy, and thereby create the conditions for his destruction.
To resolve these assignments, the main role was given to the approaching 5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank Army out of the Stavka Reserve, as well as to the 69th Army that was defending the railroad station. The formations of the 1st Tank Army, 6th Guards Army and 7th Guards Army continued to participate in the fighting until the end of the operation, but were now no longer playing the leading role. This second stage of the battle ended on the night of 16-17 July, when the command of Army Group South, without having achieved the aims of the offensive, began to withdraw its forces, including from near Prokhorovka, back to their jumping-off positions, which meant a shift to a different operational task. Accordingly, the tasks of the Voronezh Front also changed – from a defensive posture it went in pursuit of the enemy. The third, final stage of the Kursk defensive operation for Voronezh Front was the pursuit (and in some sectors, the driving back) of the enemy, which ended on 25 July, when its armies returned to the line they were occupying prior to 5 July.
The day of 12 July 1943 became the turning point of the battle. On that day N.F. Vatutin threw practically everything that he had in his possession into the battle. In the course of the counterattack on that day, there occurred a number of tank clashes with the inclusion of artillery and infantry. The largest of them was the combat in the sector between the Psel River and the hamlet of Storozhevoe (an area which later acquired the name of the “Tank Field”), in which four Soviet tank corps (the 2nd, 18th, 29th and 2nd Guards Tank Corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army), elements of three rifle and one airborne division (the 9th Guards Airborne Division and the 183rd, 42nd Guards and 95th Guards Rifle Divisions of the 5th Guards Army and 69th Army) took part, as well as the 11th and 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigades, which had been left here after the departure of the 1st Tank Army, and the 10th and 5th Guards Tank Corps. The counterstroke’s main aim on this day wasn’t achieved: the enemy wasn’t destroyed, and the Soviet formations that took part in the counterattack took significant losses. Nevertheless, thanks to it the Fourth Panzer Army’s advance was finally blunted. The fighting between the formations of the 5th Guards Tank Army and 5th Guards Army and the divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps on 12 July 1943 ended the first stage of the Prokhorovka battle.
The final, concluding stage of the battle for possession of the railroad station took place between 13 and 16 July. In this period E. von Manstein prepared to withdraw his shock grouping from the narrow salient that had formed in the course of the offensive between 5 and 12 July. In order to make the withdrawal as safe as possible, he ordered the elimination of the powerful knot of resistance on the boundary between the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, which is to say, the encirclement and destruction of the 69th Army south of Prokhorovka, in the interfluvial area between the Northern and Lipovyi Donets Rivers, by means of meeting attacks by the II SS Panzer Corps (Fourth Panzer Army) and III Panzer Corps (Army Detachment Kempf). Although the operation didn’t manage to destroy the 69th Army’s forces, it inflicted substantial damage to them and drove them out of the area between the rivers, thereby ensuring favorable conditions for the withdrawal for his forces.
However, let’s return to the plans of the Soviet side that preceded the clash at Prokhorovka. Back on 7 July, after analyzing the situation that had arisen, N.F. Vatutin and Stavka representative Marshal of the Soviet Union A.M. Vasilevky, who was also Chief of the General Staff, had appealed to I.V. Stalin with a request to move up Lieutenant General A.S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army, which was occupying a sector along the Staryi Oskol – Skorodnoe line, and Lieutenant General P.A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army out of the Ostrogozhsk area, to the Prokhorovka axis to reinforce it. Stalin approved the request, and by the end of 9 July Rotmistrov’s tank army was assembled east of Prokhorovka, having received the assignment to reinforce the defense of the 69th Army’s rifle units, while Zhadov’s divisions began to arrive here a day later. Both panzer corps that were supposed to carry out the Fourth Panzer Army’s main mission on 10 July were already tied up in heavy fighting. Neither Hoth nor Manstein had any available reserves, while the next, even more significant wave of Soviet mobile formations had already rolled up to Prokhorovka.
Prior to 10 July, all of the attention of Voronezh Front’s command was focused on the Oboian’ direction. The approach of two Guards armies not only noticeably strengthened the Front’s position at the railroad station, but also allowed N.F. Vatutin to reinforce the Oboian’ axis and to make a different plan for the subsequent actions. He began to prepare a major counterstroke with the aim of finally stopping the Fourth Panzer Army and to inflict heavy losses to it.
A number of factors prompted him to this decision. First, the 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army had a combined total of more than 100,000 men and around 1,000 tanks and self- propelled guns. These enormous forces were assembled on the flank of the hostile grouping that was attacking in the general direction of Oboian’. Secondly, Front intelligence was systematically reporting that the enemy was bringing up large reserves (a corps or more), although objective information (captured documents and prisoner interrogation) wasn’t confirming this. At the same time, already by 8 July information began to come from the front that on the flanks of the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, the Germans were building field works and setting up strands of barbed wire, which prompted the thought that the enemy’s offensive had run out of steam, but the Germans were trying to conceal this fact. Thirdly, when releasing Rotmistrov’s and Zhadov’s armies from the reserve, I.V. Stalin set a condition: use them only with the Stavka’s authorization for a counteroffensive, while the Chief of the General Staff personally was to determine the most suitable moment to launch it, and coordinate the work to organize the introduction of the powerful, fresh reserves into combat. N.F. Vatutin understood better than anyone that prior to the Battle of Kursk, when determining the area out of which the Germans would launch their main attack, Moscow had made a mistake. The enemy’s main forces had been hurled not against the Central Front, but against his own Voronezh Front. So far, however, he had been unable to persuade I.V. Stalin that in order to repel such a powerful attack, he would need significantly more strength than he possessed. The former member of Voronezh Front’s Military Council N.S. Khrushchev recalled that N.F. Vatutin was daily hearing tongue-lashings and rebukes for his “inability to fight” and his poor organization of the combat work. All of this taken together was strongly suggesting the idea of conducting a powerful counterstroke (the spearhead of which was to assemble at Prokhorovka and advance in the direction of the Belgorod – Oboian’ highway, into the right flank of the Fourth Panzer Army), with the aim of conclusively checking the enemy and going over to a grand counteroffensive.
Thus, the German and Soviet commands, acting according to plans unknown to the opposing side, had objectively set the conditions for a major tank clash in the II SS Panzer Corps’ sector of attack. However, whereas E. von Manstein and H. Hoth had previously anticipated this, back in May 1943, and were deliberately heading toward it, N.F. Vatutin was simply improvising.
On the evening of 9 July, Vatutin requested Moscow’s authorization to conduct the counterstroke. The Front command sincerely believed that the counterattack would develop into a counteroffensive, and thus in all the Soviet combat documents, reference is made to a counteroffensive.7
Not without hesitations, this proposal was approved by the Stavka and the General Staff. The divisions of the right wing of Lieutenant General V.D. Kriuchenkin’s 69th Army were to keep the enemy on the distant approaches to Prokhorovka and secure the deployment of the 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army on a line running from Greznoe (Griaznoe) to Belenikhino Station. On the morning of 12 July, passing through the positions of Kriuchenkin’s troops, two tank and one mechanized corps of Rotmistrov’s tank army, reinforced with Zhadov’s six rifle divisions, were to split the II SS Panzer Corps apart and hurl the Germans back to the Oboian’ highway, and given a favorable development of the situation, advance along the Oboian’ highway toward Belgorod. The plan was fully realistic, but the main thing was that the Voronezh Front possessed the possibilities to realize it; true, only in the event that the line of deployment planned for Rotmistrov’s three corps could be held.
However, Generaloberst Hoth was an experienced commander and realized the threatening situation, and thus made every effort in the next two days (10 and 11 July) to seize the positions in the Prokhorovka area that were suitable for the deployment of the Soviet tank corps and place the 5th Guards Tank Army in a maximally awkward position. He began to implement this mission at the very same moment that N.F. Vatutin was reporting his proposed plan to I.V. Stalin. SS-Obergruppenführer P. Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps was to play the main role, or more precisely, two of his divisions: Totenkopf and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. The former was to break through to Prokhorovka across the bend in the Psel River, along the Kliuchi – Beregovoe – Prokhorovka route of advance, while the latter was to launch a frontal assault in the direction of the southwestern outskirts of the station along the “Komsomolets” State Farm – Hill 252.2 – Prokhorovka Station direction.8 By the morning of 10 July, the conditions were ready for the attack by the SS forces to the east and northeast.
By this time, the Soviet forces guarding the approaches to Prokhorovka had suffered significant losses. Thus, the Voronezh Front leadership sought to reinforce this area. Already by the evening of 9 July, the corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army began to take up a defense in the second echelon here. At the same time, the brigades of the 2nd Tank and 2nd Guards Tatsinskaia Tank Corps, which had in the meantime been made directly subordinate to N.F. Vatutin, were to reinforce “with fire and movement” the line of the rifle units in the first echelon. Within a couple of days, on the evening of 11 July, he would hand them over to P.A. Rotmistrov. They were supposed to create a unique “armored girding” of the rear belt of defenses on the axis of the SS Panzer Corps’ main attack. However, by the start of the Prokhorovka battle, both of these tank corps had suffered painful losses. At 0800 on 10 July, in total they had 257 operational tanks of three types: T-34, T-70 and Mk IV Churchills. Of the 89 serviceable tanks in the 2nd Tank Corps, 43 were light T-70 tanks.9
The main natural obstacle confronting the II SS Panzer Corps’ attack to the northeast was the Psel River. Its channel was relatively narrow – up to 35 meters wide. However, its broad, swampy floodplain, which extended up to 200 meters on both sides of the river, created a serious obstacle for tanks. Thus, on the night of 9-10 July, assault groups of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf crossed the river and made an attempt to seize a bridgehead on the northern bank, in order to cover the work to lay down a bridge for the armor. However, this attempt was thwarted by the troops of the 6th Guards Army’s 52nd Guards Rifle Division that were defending here. Even so, the lack of success didn’t stop the enemy, and the SS division began to prepare a new attack.
The command of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler was focusing its main efforts along a railroad track that ran through Prokhorovka Station. At a distance of 300-400 meters from its embankment was the edge of the deep Molozhavaia balka that was impassable for tanks. These several hundred meters in fact comprised the only “corridor” that the panzers could use for the breakthrough to Prokhorovka. The Soviet forces’ main knot of resistance here was the area of Ivanovskii Vyselok and the “Komsomolets” State Farm. These settlements were located on the edges of the corridor and were the key to the railroad station, and thus the main events of the first day of the battle for Prokhorovka unfolded around them.
Before sunrise a German diversionary group consisting of “Vlasovites” [Russian volunteers for the German Army] dressed in Red Army uniforms overwhelmed the combat outposts of the 183rd Rifle Division’s 285th Rifle Regiment that was blocking the corridor, thereby allowing sappers of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to clear passages through the minefields for the tanks. The morning of 10 July began with an artillery barrage. Once it ended, Tigers and assault guns went on the attack, followed by panzergrenadiers. The battalions of the 285th Rifle Regiment didn’t open fire, seeing that the Germans were heading toward the minefields. Within several seconds, astonishment showed on the soldiers’ faces: the mines weren’t working. The German armor accelerated and surged toward our positions. After a sharp fight, the SS men took Ivanovskii Vyselok and attempted to advance further in the direction of Storozhevoe, in order to widen the gap that had been created in the defenses of the 183rd Rifle Division to the south.
The headquarters of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler division reported: “The well dug-in enemy was defending fiercely, but after taking the positions, the resistance slackened. Numerous Russians took to flight. After 1400 – intense fire of tanks from concealed positions on the slopes and from the northwest fringe of the Storozhevoe woods are preventing a further advance forward.”10 In the afternoon of 10 July, the Germans nevertheless managed to take the “Komsomolets” State Farm as well, and also to create a bridgehead across the Psel River in the bend of the river, where they hastily began to build a bridge. However, German attacks made no further headway. Attempts by combat groups of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to launch a frontal attack along the railroad to the station were stymied by the stubborn resistance of the 69th Army’s rifle units, as well as by counterattacks by the 2nd Tank Corps’ tanks. Thus, on the first day of the battle for Prokhorovka, the Voronezh Front’s troops prevented the SS Panzer Corps from carrying out Hoth’s order to break through the third belt of defenses to their entire depth and emerge at Prokhorovka. Both SS divisions made only a 1.5 to 2.5 kilometer advance.
It should be mentioned that P. Hausser on this day was unable to employ the well-tested means of breakthrough – a powerful panzer wedge supported by Luftwaffe air strikes. In the sector of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler only Tigers and assault guns were activated for the attack because of the Soviet mines and bad weather. At the “Komsomolets” State Farm, the SS troops broke through on a rather narrow sector, where a large number of their combat machines could not deploy because of the high density of mines. Because of the bad weather, the German dive bombers made only a rare appearance. The dense mortar fire coming from the Soviet lines disrupted the work of the German sappers, and attempts to knock out the firing positions with artillery alone without Luftwaffe support, were unsuccessful. The Totenkopf was facing the same problems when seizing the bridgehead. With great difficulty, the SS troops drove back the battalions of the 52nd Guards Rifle Division a short distance from river basin only by evening (they took the first line of Soviet trenches here), and thus there was no success on this day in getting the armor across to the northern bank of the river. Before twilight, the place where the Germans were laying down a corduroy road through the swampy ground was hit by “Katiusha” rockets, as a result of which everything burned up and a number of the engineers killed. The building of a crossing site was renewed that night. The headquarters of the Fourth Panzer Army was forced to shift a company of an engineer battalion from the neighboring XXXXVIII Panzer Corps (from the Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland) to the site to assist with the work.
However, the combat on 10 July once again confirmed that the troops of the Voronezh Front were dealing with a strong enemy. The capture of defensive key points on the approaches to Prokhorovka (Ivanovskii Vyselok and the “Komsomolets” State Farm), as well as the creation of the bridgehead on the northern bank of the Psel River, gave evidence that the foe wasn’t wanting for professionalism.
On 11 July, the task before the SS divisions remained the same: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler was to launch an attack toward Prokhorovka along the railroad; Das Reich was to cover its right flank and reinforce the attack in the event of a success; and Totenkopf was to form an assault group on the northern bank of the Psel River, which was then to attack toward the northeast. The second day of the fighting for Prokhorovka proved to be significantly harder for the Soviet side and was filled with tragic events. After noontime, the SS Corps managed to achieve almost the impossible: a kampfgruppe of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler with a decisive attack managed to rupture the defenses simultaneously of two armies, the 69th Army and the 5th Guards Army that had arrived in the second echelon here, and then reached a brick factory on the outskirts of Prokhorovka. Thus, the third belt of defenses was virtually breached, albeit in a narrow sector of just 900 meters.
Judging from the documents, discovered in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Central Archive, on the afternoon of 11 July the headquarters of the 69th Army was unable to handle fully the situation on its right flank. It reported to the Commander-in-Chief of the Voronezh Front about the German breakthrough only after a delay of several hours, at 1920. A combat order from N.F. Vatutin to the commander of the 69th Army states: “As a result of your carelessness and poor command and control, the enemy has broken through to Petrovka and toward Prokhorovka. I am ordering you at your personal responsibility together with Rotmistrov’s and Zhadov’s troops to destroy the enemy that has broken through and to reach the Vasil’evka – Belenikhino front this very day.”11
Army commander A.S. Zhadov personally took up the matter of eliminating the German penetration by organizing better control over the troops and bringing up artillery and a regiment of “Katiusha” rocket launchers. Having come under their heavy, concentrated fire, the SS combat group fell back 2 kilometers from Prokhorovka Station to Hill 252.2, but the defending Soviets were unable to regain the planned line of departure for the counterattack. Thus, although the SS troops didn’t in fact enter Prokhorovka, the German capture of the entire area southwest and west of it, where the 5th Guards Tank Army could have fully deploy its forces, had in the future tragic consequences for it and played no small role in the failure of the frontal counterstroke. The tank army’s brigades, which began moving toward the jumping-off area on 11 July after the onset of darkness, had nowhere to deploy.
The breakthrough made by the combat group of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to the brick factory resembled a bottleneck. It deeply penetrated into our defenses, while at the same time its neighbors Das Reich and Totenkopf made little progress. Accordingly, its flanks were exposed, and given a further advance, a threat of encirclement would arise for Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s combat spearhead. Division commander SS-Brigadeführer T. Wisch after 1700, with Hoth’s agreement, was forced to issue an order to halt the offensive and go over to a temporary defense, until the neighboring formations of the SS Panzer Corps were able to draw level with Wisch’s division. By midnight the bitter fighting subsided, and the Germans began to fortify the ground they had taken.
The essence of the Soviet frontal counterstroke boiled down to launching an attack with two groupings in the general direction of Iakovlevo and Pokrovka: with the 5th Guards Tank Army and 5th Guards Army out of the Prokhorovka area and the 6th Guards Army and 1st Tank Army out of the area south of Ivnia – Novoselovka – Pokrovka (in the area of the Oboian’ highway). The 7th Guards Army near Belgorod was ready to launch a pinning attack, in order to deprive the enemy of the possibility of maneuvering with reserves.
Rotmistrov’s tank army was given the primary role. N.F. Vatutin had decided to create a powerful wedge at Prokhorovka out of the two Guards armies, reinforced by two tank corps (the 2nd Tank Corps and 2nd Guards Tank Corps) and artillery for the Voronezh Front’s further actions, which was to split Hoth’s grouping and reach the Oboian’ highway. The 5th Guards Tank Army and 5th Guards Army were to launch the main attack against the enemy’s most active and combat-capable formation, the II SS Panzer Corps. If this scheme was crowned with success, it would sharply alter the operational situation and tip it in our favor. However, by the evening of 11 July, the operational picture had changed dramatically: some of the 5th Guards Army’s divisions had already been committed into the fighting, while the 5th Guards Tank Army’s designated line of deployment was now now held by the enemy, so all the preparations made by the supporting artillery units (the selection of firing positions, the stockpiling of ammunition near the guns, and the targeted areas contained in the firing plan) went down the drain.
A.S. Zhadov, the commander of the 5th Guards Army, recalled:
Just several hours of daylight and a short summer night remained to organize the counterattack. Over this time much had to be done: decisions made, assignments issued to the troops, the necessary regrouping of the units conducted, and the army’s and attached artillery allocated and placed. In the evening, mortar and howitzer artillery brigades with an extremely limited amount of ammunition had arrived to reinforce the army. The army had no tanks at all.12
The tankers of the 5th Guards Tank Army were in no better situation. Rotmistrov had been given a very difficult assignment: with a head-on attack against the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and Das Reich divisions, to split the SS Panzer Corps into several pieces and to penetrate 30 kilometers into its rear, not the previously proposed 15-16 kilometers. In the process it was anticipated that the third SS division – Totenkopf – would be trapped between the flanks of the Guards armies.
N.F. Vatutin was staking his hopes on the tanks. He had managed to concentrate an unprecedented density of armor per kilometer of front on the axis of the main attack. At 1700 on 11 July, Rotmistrov had under his operational control 931 tanks, 42 SU-76 and SU-122, as well as 12 SU-152, including 581 T-34 (62.4%) and 314 T-70 (33.7%). Of this total of 985 tanks and self-propelled guns, there were 840 (797 tanks and 43 self-propelled guns) deployed in formation in the area of assembly of the main forces east of Prokhorovka; the rest were either being repaired or en route. By dawn on 12 July several more combat machines arrived, while others, especially self-propelled guns, developed mechanical problems, leaving the 5th Guards Tank Army with a total of 808 operational tanks and 32 SU-76 and SU-122 (for more detail, see Table 3).
The 18th and 29th Tank Corps, under the command of Generals B.S. Bakharov and I.F. Kirichenko respectively, were to lead the main attack. That morning prior to the attack, both of these corps had a combined 368 tanks and 20 self-propelled guns in formation. Initially, the density of armor per kilometer of front was supposed to reach almost 56 combat vehicles. In reality, the Soviet side was able to achieve even more – 60 tanks per kilometer of front, not including the self-propelled guns. Thus, the hopes of the Soviet command to rupture the SS Panzer Corps even in those extremely complex conditions seemed fully justified. If you also consider that more than 200 tanks of the second echelon (the 5th Mechanized Corps) and infantry were subsequently to enter the fighting, then a penetration of 30 kilometers seemed to be a fully realizable task, albeit with difficulty.
However, such important factors as the technical capabilities of the Soviet tanks and the terrain conditions hadn’t been considered. Thus, of the 177 tanks and self-propelled guns located in the 18th Tank Corps on 5 July 1943, the light T-70 tank comprised 35.3%, while the rest were T-34 and Mk IV Churchill tanks.13 The 29th Tank Corps on 9 July 1943 had a greater proportion of T-34 tanks in its complement, 38.8%.14 The T-70 was a light tank that was not capable of fighting with a single German tank on an equal footing, nor could it stand up to the main German antitank guns.
Given the mission of a frontal attack, P.A. Rotmistrov recognized the high amount of risk this entailed for his army. Thus he assigned four tank brigades to the first echelon, in which the T-70 comprised only 30% of the total armor. At the same time, the brigade commanders in the first echelon each yielded a T-70 tank battalion to the second echelon, and received a T-34 tank battalion in return. In order to augment the firepower of the first-echelon tank brigades of the 29th Tank Corps, one self-propelled artillery regiment was attached to each. Thus, when planning the army’s combat formation, the army commander did everything that was within his power to strengthen the tank corps that comprised the spearhead of the counterattack.
The SS Panzer Corps faced the task of withstanding the powerful blow of the Voronezh Front’s counterattack grouping, delivered simultaneously by the formations of three Soviet armies. What did its three panzer grenadierdivisions have available at this moment? On the basis of reports from its command, N. Zetterling and A. Franksen have established the number of serviceable combat machines in their panzer regiments at 1935 on 11 July, which was just 12 hours before the start of the famous tank clash. Unquestionably, over the night the repair services managed to return a certain number of additional combat machines to service, but how many is still unknown. Thus, when laying out the course of events of the fighting, I will adhere to the data of the Western scholars.
Table 3 The availability of tanks and self-propelled guns in the units and formations of the 5th Guards Tank Army on 11 July 1943
Notes: The figures for the brigades may not add up to the total for the corps due to tanks and self-propelled guns under repair, as well as the exclusion of tanks located in auxiliary units. Source: Files for the formations and units found in the TsAMO RF.
* According to the memorandum “On the status of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s materiel and supply as of 1700 on 11.07.43”, which was signed by the deputy chief of staff Lieutenant Colonel Torgalo, the 18th Tank Corps had 183 tanks, of which 68 T-34 were in formation, 26 were en route and 5 were undergoing repairs; 63 were T-70, with 58 in formation and 5 en route; and 21 Mk-IV Churchills, with 18 in formation and 2 en route and 1 under repair. (TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4948, D. 67, L. 12). In Combat Report No. 36 from the headquarters of the 18th Tank Corps on 11 July 1943 at 1600, the figure for all the tanks in the brigades was 159, including those of the 110th Tank Brigade that were undergoing repair and those of the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment which were still en route. (TsAMO RF, F. 3415, Op. 1, D. 26, L. 8, 8 obr.)
** According to the memorandum “On the status of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s materiel and supply as of 1700 on 11.07.43”, the 29th Tank Corps had 120 T-34, 81 T-70, 12 SU-122and 8 SU-76 in formation; 8 T-34, 4 T-70 and 1 SU-76 still en route, and 2 T-34 undergoing repairs. (TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4948, D. 67, L. 12). In Combat Report No. 73 from the headquarters of the 29th Tank Corps at 1600, data for the tank brigades and the total number of all the tank of all marks equipping the tank corps were given. In both documents, it is indicated that the corps had a total of 81 T-70. However, it is impossible to establish the precise number of T-70 tanks, since the combat report gives a total number of 81 tanks, but at the same time shows 74 in formation and 4 undergoing repairs. It is unknown where the other 3 T-70 tanks were. Meanwhile the 5th Guards Tank Army’s information shows 81 T-70 in formation, none undergoing repair, and 4 still en route. The table uses the figure “81” for the total number of tanks and self-propelled guns in the 29th Tank Corps.
*** The 29th Tank Corps’ 25th Tank Brigade also had one captured 38 (t) Czech-manufactured tank. (TsAMO RF, F. 29 tk, Op. 1, D. 7, L. 101. Note also that according to Operational Summary No. 110 from the headquarters of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps at 0200 on 12 July 1943, by morning it expected the arrival of another 2 T-34, 4 T-70 and 4 SU-76 from the march. (TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4948, D. 75, L. 10a.
Of the three mobile formations of Army Group South after a week of the offensive, the II SS Panzer Corps was the most combat-capable. On 11 July it had 34,118 men on its combat rosters, including 11,257 in the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 9, 443 in Das Reich, 9,203 in Totenkopf, and another 4,215 in the corps-level units.15 Altogether, the corps had 294 armored fighting vehicles in formation, including 236 tanks and 58 assault guns. The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had the fewest number of combat machines – 67 tanks (including 7 commander’s tanks) and 10 assault guns. It was positioned in the center of the SS Panzer Corps’ combat formation, and by irony of fate, it was the one that had to take on the main attack by two tank corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army and two rifle divisions of the 5th Guards Army. The right-flank Das Reich stood in second place in the number of available armor fighting vehicles – 68 tanks and 27 assault guns. It was to join combat with tank brigades of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and rifle divisions of the 69th Army. Then finally, Totenkopf possessed the most operational combat machines – 101 tanks and 21 assault guns – which were directed to attack the center of the 5th Guards Army in the bend of the Psel River.
In terms of quality of the combat equipment, Wisch’s Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division stood out; the armored fist of its panzer regiment consisted of Pz IV tanks with the long-barreled 75mm gun and Tiger tanks – 47 and 4 respectively. Its assault gun battalion had taken heavy losses and only 10 assault guns remained operational in it. In the Totenkopf division, more than 54 (53%) of the total number of tanks consisted of Pz III tanks, and there were only 30 Pz IV, of which only 26 had the long-barreled gun. The 10 Tiger tanks and 27 assault guns in service perceptibly enhanced the panzer regiment’s combat possibilities. The Das Reich division’s situation with armor was patchwork. As in the case of the SS Totenkopf, its tank park consisted of 34 Pz III and noticeably fewer Pz IV, just 18, while only 1 Tiger remained operational in its heavy panzer company. In addition to the authorized German tanks, the division still had 8 captured T-34 tanks and 27 assault guns. (The amount of the II SS Panzer Corps’ armor in formation on the evening of 11 July is shown in Table 4).
One of the most discussed topics in the history of the Prokhorovka clash is whether or not the Germans knew about the preparation of such a large-scale counterstroke by the Soviet side. Those, who believe this operation was inarguably successful, refer to the memoirs of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s commander, in which he clearly wrote that the operation was a surprise to the enemy. According to his view, the Germans were stunned in the first few minutes of the battle. In the opinion of P.A. Rotmistrov, this was one of the factors that helped our troops. However, there are doubts in the correctness of such a point of view, although it shouldn’t be fully rejected.
When conducting any offensive operation, the attacking side gives an important place to intelligence. Without this, it is impossible to reveal the enemy’s intentions, and that means it isn’t possible to plan the attacking forces’ further actions properly. On its part the intelligence service pays increased attention to the enemy’s tank and mechanized columns, moving in the direction of the front, because of the high maneuverability and firepower of these forces.
The command of the Fourth Panzer Army and of its formations were well-aware of the fact that Soviet armored forces on the defense usually employed one of two types of combat actions: short, sharp counterattacks with 20-40 machines and infantry support, or massive armored counterstrokes, which employed several hundred tanks and self-propelled guns simultaneously. The latter was the most dangerous, especially when an army was enmeshed in a system of strong Russian defensive lines, and when its flanks were quite exposed. Thus from the first days of “Citadel”, the ground and air reconnaissance diligently searched for any sign of the movement of large tank and mechanized formations in the direction of the front from the Soviet rear area.
Table 4 Operational tanks in the Fourth Panzer Army’s II SS Panzer Corps and Army Detachment Kempf’s III Panzer Corps on the evening of 11 July or morning of 12 July 1943a
a Zetterling and Franksen, Kursk 1943: A statistical analysis, Tables A.6.4 – A.6.10.
b Caliber of the tank gun in millimeters/length of the barrel in calibers.
c In Zetterling and Franksen’s book, there is a mistake; according to the reports of the SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf it had 54 Pz III 50/L60, but had no Pz III 50/L42 tanks.w
Judging from the available documents, this work yielded its fruits. Although only in general outlines, the command of Army Group South knew from which directions large Soviet mobile formations were being brought up and to which areas they were moving. Based on analysis of the operational situation and the nature of the terrain, it was not difficult to determine the possible places of their use in the army’s sector. Until recently, the Soviet side had attempted more than once to launch attacks with strong tank groupings, primarily against the flanks of the II SS Panzer Corps. Because of this, the Fourth Panzer Army and its corps were using reconnaissance means to scan the areas east and southeast of Prokhorovka particularly carefully, and therefore the approach march of the 5th Guards Tank Army and 5th Guards Army was not a surprise for the army and corps commands. Before the end of day 12 July, the numerical designations of the armies and their formations weren’t known to the Germans, or were their total strength. However, the Germans knew 2-3 fresh tank corps had assembled east of Prokhorovka. It was simply impossible for the German aerial reconnaissance flights not to notice the continuous columns of equipment, which extended for many kilometers and were moving in daylight hours toward Prokhorovka. It is impossible as well to believe that the enemy’s intelligence didn’t know that the formations of the 5th Guards Tank Army – the 18th Tank Corps and 5th Guards Mechanized Corps – had taken up a position on 9 July in the second echelon at Prokhorovka, and had then been replaced.
Let’s turn to the documents. Thus, at 2030 on 9 July, the headquarters of the II SS Panzer Corps received information from the headquarters of the Fouth Panzer Army: “Fresh motorized formations are on the march to the west from the directions of Novyi and Staryi Oskol.”
Just an hour before, P. Hausser himself had signed a combat report to Army Group South, in which he remarked: “According to information from aerial reconnaissance, the continued approach of operational tank and motorized reserves to the Prokhorovka area (railroad) is being observed. A portion of the revealed forces might be sent to counter the advancing right-hand neighbor [Army Detachment Kempf].”16
On the next day the II SS Panzer Corps headquarters reported: “Fresh enemy in the bend of the Psel River, presumably units of the 5th Guards Army, which before this had been located in the Ostrogozhsk area … the enemy is bringing up operational reserves from distant sectors of the front. The appearance of 1-2 tank or motorized corps opposite the corps’ attacking group should be expected.”17
Having information on the assembly of a significant amount of Russian reserves, including tank reserves, in the area, where their appearance had been part of the plan from the beginning, the command of both panzer corps of the Fourth Panzer Army nevertheless didn’t believe that the Soviet side was preparing for a major counterattack. Here’s the conclusion that was drawn on 10 July on the results of a discussion of this question at a conference held by Generaloberst H. Guderian with the Chief of Staff of the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps F. von Mellenthin and the Chief of Staff of the II SS Panzer Corps SS-Standartenführer W. Ostendorff:
Thus, as a consequence of the exchange of opinions with the chiefs of staff of the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps and the SS Panzer Corps, it became clear that the numerically strong, well- equipped enemy tank units opposite the front of both corps will not be brought together in a single sector in order to launch a powerful tank attack. The enemy attacks primarily with separate groups of 20-30 tanks. Possibly, the reason for this is concealed in the poor composition of the Russian infantry, which according to the words of eyewitnesses, consists of very old and very young conscripts. There are practically no soldiers of average age. Thus, the enemy is compelled to fritter away his tanks in order to strengthen the morale of the infantry.18
Judging from available documents, this point of view didn’t change and reigned in the leadership of the II SS Panzer Corps even on the evening of 11 July. A report signed by the operations chief of the II SS Panzer Corps notes:
General impression: the enemy’s reinforcement in the Prokhorovka area is possible. The 10th Tank Corps presumably located in the bend of the Psel River is represented only by the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade, since the other three tank brigades are situated in an area west of the Belgorod – Kursk road. Intensive traffic in the Oboian’ area indicates the enemy’s intention to stop the offensive of the left-hand neighbor [XXXXVIII Panzer Corps] in the area south of Oboian’. There is no sign of an attack against the corps’ left flank.19
The presence of brigades of a fresh tank formation, the 10th Tank Corps, simultaneously in two areas was making the enemy anxious, and thus the reconnaissance of both German formations kept a close watch over their locations, trying to determine the Russians’ intention regarding its use. In this situation, it is fair to assume that if the adversary by 11 July had concrete information on the presence of fresh tank or mechanized Soviet forces, located in the Prokhorovka area (for example, the 5th Guards Tank Army), or information on the enemy’s intentions to launch a counterstroke, then the headquarters of the II SS Panzer Corps would not have neglected to point this out, at the very least on the evening of 11 July. However, there is no mention of this in the reports; there is only speculation and assumptions.
Likely, the point of view that dominated at the conference on 10 July and on subsequent days about the Soviet side’s lack of readiness for attacks with large tank formations rested also on the experience of the previous days. After all, on 9 July there were was a grouping of more than 300 Soviet tanks opposite the II SS Panzer Corps in the Vasil’evka – Belenikhino sector, and the Fourth Panzer Army command was aware of this. However, the Voronezh Front command made no effort to launch an attack with this grouping as a unified armored wedge, although it could have done so. Instead, it started to split it up and use the pieces to strengthen the weakened sectors opposite the Fourth Panzer Army’s attacking panzer wedges.
A number of recollections of German veterans of the Battle of Kursk, which have been published in the West, give evidence that the command of the SS divisions at the tactical level also didn’t expect a powerful attack out of the Prokhorovka area. Prisoners captured by our scouts on 12 July also confirmed this. Thus, Sturmann (Gefreitor) K. Wucherpfennig of 6./II Battalion, Panzergrenadier Regiment 2 of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, who was located in a combat outpost in the “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm area on the axis of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s main attack on the night of 11-12 July and who was captured in the morning by soldiers of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division’s 136th Guards Rifle Regiment, stated: “The company was assigned to combat security and reconnaissance. It was positioned in front of our battalion. The battalion had the task to take the Russians’ forward line on 12 July … We knew nothing about the Russian counteroffensive.”20 A former panzer company commander with II Panzer Battalion, SS 1st Panzer Regiment, SS 1st Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler R. Ribbentrop says just about the same thing in his memoirs.
Relying on this information, it is possible today to agree with P.A. Rotmistrov’s assertion that the intention of the Soviet command to launch a counterstroke against the Fourth Panzer Army’s right flank on 12 July wasn’t fully detected by the enemy. At the same time, it must be considered that both H. Hoth and P. Hausser were professionals, and pragmatists with great military experience. Thus after the fact that Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had become extended into a bottleneck southwest of Prokhorovka, but was unable to take the station, the SS corps commander had to foresee the possibility of a counterattack. At a conference in Luchki on 11 July with the participation of Hausser, SS-Brigadenführer T. Wisch had directly spoke up about the looming danger on the flanks of his division and proposed to halt the offensive until the neighboring divisions came up on either side of him. At this moment in fact, the intelligence information reached Hausser about the assembly of a large mobile grouping of Russians at Prokhorovka. After an exchange of opinions with W. Ostendorff, he agreed with the suggestion by the SS panzer division commander and issued the following order:
The reinforced 1. Panzergrenadier-Regiment with the Panzerjäger abteilung is to set out at 04.50 hours [Berlin time] and to capture the Swch. Stalinsk and Jamki [Iamki]. It is to establish a positon adjacent to the I.2 [Panzergrenadier Regiment] at the road next to Hill 252.2.
The reinforced 2.Panzergrenadier-Regiment, the Panzergruppe, and the reinforced Aufklärungsabteilung [reconnaissance battalion] are to stand ready to move in conjunction with elements of the T-Division [Totenkopf] as soon as that Division has neutralized the enemy’s attacks on our flank along the Pssel [Psel] and to capture Prochorowka [Prokhorovka] and Hill 252.4.
The Artillerie-Regiment LAH [Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler] is to send an Artillerie liaison Kommando to T-Division in order to support the attack by that Division on Hill 226.6.21
The adoption of a defensive posture by the main forces of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and above cited German intelligence information for 10 and 11 July about the approach of substantial Soviet forces to Prokhorovka allowed a number of scholars to assert that the German command had nevertheless figured out the plan of the Voronezh Front command. In reality, P. Hausser only assumed that a counterattack might be in the offing on the next day. The only thing that he couldn’t surmise was the fact that such a significant amount of armor would be rolling toward his corps. Thus, in order to keep the situation under control, including if the Russians would launch an attack with tanks, P. Hausser adopted a number of farsighted steps, and the SS divisions would accurately and timely carry out the issued orders.
Wisch’s SS troops didn’t prepare a special line of defense in the sector where Rotmistrov’s army would go on the offensive, but one can say it instead created a standard defense on a 6.5 kilometer sector of the front with the use of all of the firing means available to the division. Nevertheless, the command of Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had to reckon with the fact that the division had already taken serious losses and that a counterattack in this sector by tanks was fully possible. Thus he moved up all of his artillery and anti-tank guns to the forward edge, and first of all, its main anti-tank means: the anti-tank battalion, the assault gun battalion, the panzer regiment with a company of Tigers, and the artillery regiment.
Hoth’s idea for 12 July was just as ambitious: to break through at Prokhorovka toward Oboian’ and with meeting attacks by the II SS Panzer Corps and the III Panzer Corps to encircle the 69th Army, as a result of which a breach should be created, into which the reserve XXIV Panzer Corps, which was assembled at Belgorod, could be introduced. In fact, his army got the jump on the Soviet side. The counterattack hadn’t yet gotten underway, when at dawn on 12 July there arose the need to divert a considerable amount of strength from the axis of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s main attack in order to block a breakthrough of the 69th Army’s defense south of Prokhorovka by the III Panzer Corps: 161 tanks (almost a fifth of the tank army’s total strength), 11 self-propelled guns, 36 armored cars, two artillery regiments and two anti-tank batteries.22 This had a substantial effect on the 5th Guards Tank Army’s subsequent counterattack. The first echelon had been weakened, and the second echelon had been reduced by half. In reserve, P. Rotmistrov was left with just two brigades with a total strength of 92 tanks.
Despite this, the Front command decided not to change the plan. At 0830 at a signal of a salvo of “Katiusha” rockets, the Guardsmen move out on the attack. The spearhead of the 5th Guards Tank Army struck a 6-kilometer sector between the hamlet of Storozhevoe and the Psel River, 1.5 kilometers southwest of Prokhorovka. The 18th and 29th Tank Corps in conjunction with the 42nd Guards Rifle and 9th Guards Airborne Divisions launched the attack. It was the resulting battle fought by these two corps against the II SS Panzer Corps’ troops that subsequently became known as the meeting tank battle.
The authors of books about those events can rarely refrain from touching upon the culminating moment – the attacks by Bakharov’s and Kirichenko’s tank brigades toward the “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm and Hill 252.2. Sometimes in the descriptions of the start of the battle it is maintained that a steel avalanche of several hundred Soviet combat machines were moving simultaneously from Prokhorovka toward the SS men, while to meet it the enemy moved out an equally large number of his own tanks. As a result, over several minutes the combat turned into some sort of roaring, gigantic tangle of machines, fire and human bodies. The memoirs of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s veterans, edited in the “needed direction”, added its piece to this epic picture.
Wrote P.A. Rotmistrov:
The intensity of the battle grew with incredible fury and force. Because of the fire, smoke and dust it became increasingly difficult to make out where our own were and where the other sides’ … Tanks were circling as if caught by a giant whirlpool. The T-34 crews, maneuvering, turning, were firing at Tigers and Panthers, but they themselves, coming under the direct fire of the enemy heavy tanks and self-propelled guns, were stopping, burning and dying.23
Inarguably, for a common man such a picture creates the mental image of an enormous field, more than a thousand tanks, tons of scorched, twisted metal and a sea of fire. Professionals regard such tales skeptically.
In reality, no sort of avalanche of tanks moved out from Prokhorovka on the morning of 12 July, and this proved ruinous for the Soviet side. If the 368 armored fighting vehicles of Kirichenko’s and Bakharov’s tank corps had really moved out in two echelons simultaneously toward the positions of Hausser’s forces, then undoubtedly they would have crushed them. However, an “armored steamroller” didn’t gather. In the ravine at the brick factory there were only somewhere around 80 armored vehicles. It was impossible to deploy a larger number of tanks here. They moved into jumping-off positions along a road, which became constricted at the brick factory and passed over the dam of a small pond. Thus, the tanks could only move in single file. However, even after having passed this place, the brigades of the 29th Tank Corps were unable to deploy into a battle line and accelerate. The places trafficable by tanks in front of the 5th Guards Army’s 9th Guards Airborne Division that was defending here had been mined. There hadn’t been time that morning to lift all the mines, and only narrow passages were available for the tanks to pass through them. The neighboring 18th Tank Corps was in a similar situation; its tanks had to negotiate deep balkas before the attack.
It is always important to apply maximum force to the first attack; thus it was exceptionally important at the start of the attack to achieve the simultaneous and uninterrupted introduction into combat of both the battalions and the brigades, after which with fire and the significant number of armored fighting vehicles engaged to crush the antagonist’s forward positions. Here, the difficult terrain led to an increase in the interval between the introduction into combat of the brigades of the first and second echelon. The tank battalions did not move in a continuous, broad stream, like many authors maintain, but in separate pulses, the intervals between which varied from 30 minutes to an hour or more. This gave the SS troops the possibility to destroy each one in turn, as if the Soviet tanks were approaching on a conveyor belt. Subsequently analyzing the conditions, under which his tank corps went on the counterattack on 12 July, Major General B.S Bakharov24 wrote, “The fighting of 12-14 July … once again demonstrated that the selection of good ground for tanks in the direction of attack is one of the most important questions that affects the outcome of the attack in a decisive manner.”25
In addition to the unsuccessful selection of the ground for the attack, the Front command also underestimated the strength of the enemy’s anti-tank defenses in this sector. It didn’t expect that the enemy could create a tenacious defense over one short summer night. When the SS troops managed to do this, and they nevertheless stopped an attack made by several hundred armored vehicles, the Front command didn’t want to believe that it had miscalculated. From this there appeared a version of events, primarily in P.A. Rotmistrov’s books, about the arrival of purported significant German tank reserves during the battle;26 the decisive “repeated tank attacks”;27 and the multiple panzer “battering rams”.28
The most intense combat actions unfolded between 0830 and 1500. In the sector of defense of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, which extended for 6.5 kilometers, the Germans had up to 305 guns and mortars of all types, or 47 tubes per kilometer of front. At the same time only 26 of the anti-aircraft guns and the 4 Pz II tanks’ main guns had a caliber of just 20mm; the rest of the artillery and the main guns of tanks had a caliber that ranged between 50mm and 150mm. The “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm was the first powerful German strong point in the path of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps. The SS troops made extensive use of our own trenches and fieldworks; over the preceding night they had dug in anti-tank artillery guns and self-propelled guns on the slopes of the State Farm and the slopes of Hill 252.2, and had mined separate sectors. In addition, they had set up ambushes with assault guns and self-propelled artillery guns in the fields of the “Stalin Branch” State Farm and on the northwestern fringes of the Storozhevoe woods. Emplaced in these areas, their guns had a field of fire that included Hill 252.2. Because of the absence of time and the bitter fighting, our scouts had been unable to reveal the enemy’s system of fire, or to determine the layout of the defenses or the combat strength of the defending units. Thus, when Rotmistrov’s tank corps went on the attack early that morning, the blow wasn’t made at exposed enemy flanks, as had been conceived by the plan, but head-on against the defense of the SS division, which had efficiently created a strong line that was saturated with anti-tank artillery means.
When introducing major mobile formations into a breakthrough, the forces in advance of them must destroy the enemy’s organized resistance, particularly the anti-tank means and artillery positioned on the forward edge. However, the reality with which the Guards tankers collided was something else. Just as the Soviet tanks had closed within direct fire range of the German positions, instantly there were flashes of flame and smoke from the guns of dozens of German tanks and self-propelled guns. The Soviet combat formation, such as it was, was thrown into disarray, the crews began maneuvering, scattering in different directions in order to get behind any fold in the ground to escape out from under the deadly fire. The tankers had to fight not only under a hail of fire, but also adapt psychologically to a positional battle, rather than the expected dash into the depth of the German defenses. A significant amount of the tanks of Colonel A.A. Linev’s leading 32nd Tank Brigade were burning in less than an hour. Before noon, the attack by Colonel N.K. Volodin’s 25th Tank Brigade (29th Tank Corps) ended just as tragically. Its losses were catastrophic. Over approximately four hours of time, 320 men (44 officers) became casualties, including 140 killed. No less than 55 tanks had been set ablaze or knocked out; in addition to those that had been destroyed by German fire, some had been disabled by mines,29 and others had broken down due to mechanical problems. All eight self-propelled guns of the two attached batteries had also been knocked out. In the afternoon, the brigade commander was forced to merge his brigade’s remnants into a single tank battalion.
After the second echelon of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps entered the battle, the number of tanks on the axis of the main attack nearly doubled; the enemy gunners and tankers physically no longer had time to fire at all of the approaching Soviet armor. This to a certain extent helped the 181st, 170th and 32nd Tank Brigades to break through to the crest of Hill 252.2 and into the “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm. Now enemy infantry directly joined battle with the Soviet armor, but unable to withstand the onslaught, the SS troops began to retreat. Exploiting a strip of woods along the railroad and the heavy battlefield smoke, 15 T-34 tanks of the 32nd Tank Brigade under the command of Major S.P. Ivanov penetrated 5 kilometers into the depth of the defenses of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and took the “Komsomolets” State Farm.
At 1330, the enemy was finally driven from the “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm, which was situated on the boundary between Bakharov’s and Kirichenko’s tank corps, and began to fall back to the southwest. A distinct success was noted as well on the 29th Tank Corps’ left flank. It seemed that the situation was beginning to turn in our favor. However, witnessing the signs of a Soviet breakthrough, T. Wisch summoned the Luftwaffe, and the ensuing airstrikes lasted for more than an hour. By 1430 the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler with Luftwaffe support had managed to stop the advance made by the main forces of Rotmistrov’s army. Despite the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Guardsmen, the attack on the direction of the main attack didn’t bring the expected result, and there were no reserves left to continue the attack. The neighbor on the right – the 5th Guards Army – was also in a precarious situation. Its troops in the bend of the Psel River had been unable to attack as had been planned. The SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf had on the night of 11-12 July managed to cross a significant portion of the panzer regiment to the northern bank of the river. Thus, the Soviet infantry that rose and went on the attack that morning were met by the dense fire of artillery and tanks, and bloody fighting in the positions of the 52nd Guards and 95th Guards Rifle Divisions ensued. No substantial success was achieved on the sectors of the 5th Guards Army’s other divisions. Thus already by noon, it had become clear that the plan of the counterstroke, at least near Prokhorovka, had failed.
At 1500, making use of the confusion prompted by the retreat of our infantry and the loss of the bulk of the tanks that had attacked that morning, the SS troops switched to an active defense in the sector of the 5th Guards Army. At 1600, there was a strong airstrike against the combat positions of Zhadov’s Guardsmen beyond the Psel River, followed by an artillery barrage. The columns of dust and smoke hadn’t had time to disperse, when panzers and assault guns escorted by panzergrenadiers mounted on halftracks went on the attack, as well as up to 200 motorcycles crewed by submachine gunners. The German armor penetrated our positions, but the panzergrenadiers had been cut off and pinned down, and thus the panzers had to retreat. The struggle with the SS troops in the bend of the Psel River was complicated by the lack of tank support and the hastily-built combat positions that had no elaborate system of trenches. Minefields were also almost totally lacking. All this enabled the enemy not only to strike our infantry with fire, but also to crush them under the tracks of the tanks, simultaneously burying the Soviet defenders in their own trenches. Immediately after the conclusion of the Prokhorovka battle, on the evening of 17 July 1943 the 5th Guards Army’s headquarters reported that over eight days of fighting, the 95th Guards Rifle Division had only 579 men left that were not among the killed or wounded.30
The day of 12 July didn’t bring either side its desired result. N.F. Vatutin managed to hold Army Group South’s formations within the fortifications of the third defensive belt. All of the Fourth Panzer Army’s attempts to break through to operational space and to encircle the 69th Army also had no success. With considerable effort, the Front command had also managed to bring the offensive by Army Detachment Kempf to a halt after it had broken through the 69th Army’s defenses on the night of 11-12 July, and to get the situation under control south of Prokhorovka (in the Sholokovo, Rzhavets, Aleksandrovka area). However, it also can’t be said that the Soviet side celebrated victory on this day. More accurately, on the contrary 12 July was a most tragic and, in essence, unsuccessful day not only in the Voronezh Front’s defensive operation, but also of the Battle of Kursk as a whole. The main assignment – to destroy the enemy grouping that had penetrated into the Front’s defenses and to retake the initiative – had failed. The plan of the counterattack that had been worked out by the Soviet command also proved to be unsuccessful, since by the time it started it no longer corresponded to the altered situation, nor were the troops’ capabilities commensurate with the stated objectives. The shock formations of both Guards Armies were decimated over several hours, and on certain sectors they were even compelled to abandon the positions they occupied. The SS panzergrenadier divisions, having launched a counterattack that afternoon, pushed ahead up to 4 kilometers, just as on the preceding days. Moreover, all of the divisions of Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf had fully retained their combat capabilities. For example, the II SS Panzer Corps before the start of the counterattack had 294 tanks and assault guns, but by the evening of 13 July through the hard work to return damaged combat machines to service, still had 251 tanks and assault guns31 (for a detailed looks at the status of the II SS Panzer Corps on 13 July 1943, see Table 5). This was aided by the fact that 13 July didn’t see any heavy fighting with the use of significant amounts of armor on both sides, as had been the case the day before.
Table 5 Availability of combat-ready tanks and assault guns in the II SS Panzer Corps on the evening of 13 July 1943
Source: NARA, T. 313, R. 366 (Panzer, Sturmgeschütz- und Paklage stand, 13 July 1943)
The main mistake made by the Soviet command when conducting the counterstroke was the decision to launch a frontal attack with two tank and two rifle corps in the area of Prokhorovka, not against the flanks, but directly into the teeth of an enemy panzergrenadier division that had adopted a hasty defensive posture. Because of this, the enemy inflicted heavy damage to them.
According to incomplete data, the Soviets lost 7,019 soldiers and officers in the two Guards Armies on 12 July. The four tank and mechanized corps, including the detachment of Rotmistrov’s army that was operating in the Sholokovo – Rzhavets area south of Prokhorovka, lost 340 tanks and 19 assault guns (194 tanks were destroyed, and 146 were knocked out of action, but could have been repaired and returned to action). For more detail, see Table 6. However, a significant amount of disabled combat machines wound up on territory controlled by the enemy, and the Germans simply blew them up. Thus, the 5th Guards Tank Army was deprived of 53% of its tanks and self-propelled guns that took part in the counterstroke, or 47.2% of those that were in formation at the beginning of this day in all five corps. According to the tables of organization and equipment of 1943, it was possible to equip two complete tank corps with this amount of armor. The main reason for such heavy losses over less than a day was the ignoring of People’s Commissar of Defense Order No. 325 from 16 October 1942, which summarized the accumulated experience in the use of armored fighting vehicles.32 Instead of sending the tank army into an already-cleared breach in the German defenses in order to exploit a success, the army faced the task of chewing through the German defenses on its own, with no prior reconnaissance and without the necessary air and artillery support.
Now let’s focus on the human losses of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s tank corps that were operating west of Prokhorovka. They proved to be just as significant. Documents found in the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s Central Archive testify that in the course of 12 July the four tank corps lost 3,139 men, of which 1,448 were either killed or missing-in-action. The 29th Tank Corps took the heaviest casualties, losing 1,991 men.33 Behind it was the 2nd Guards Tatsinskaia Tank Corps – 550 men, including 145 killed or missing-in-action, while the 18th Tank Corps stood in third place, losing 471 men, with 271 killed or missing-in-action respectively.
The main human losses of the tank corps took place in their motorized rifle brigades. The 29th Tank Corps’ 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade led this woeful list; it lost 1,122 men (including 393 killed or mortally wounded), or more than 37% of the brigade’s total manpower prior to the battle and more than 60% of its combat effectives.34 This brigade’s battalions had been caught in the epicenter of the fighting. One rifle battalion was supporting the tanks that were attacking Hill 252.2, and another accompanied the tanks attacking the “Stalin’s Branch” State Farm. The 1st Battalion of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Battalion penetrated the boundary between Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s 1st and 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiments, penetrated 7 kilometers between the railroad and the Storozhevoe woods, and took the “Komsomolets” State Farm. During the attack toward the State Farm, the rifle companies advanced along a “corridor” that was 300 meters wide between the railroad embankment and the Storozhevoe woods, where SS troops were ensconced. In the battalion’s combat formation, it had no armor other than the 15 T-34 tanks of the 32nd Tank Brigade. Moreover, this cluster of tanks was moving rapidly, and the infantry couldn’t keep up with them. The enemy was conducting intense fire from artillery and mortars. High explosive shell fragments shredded the crowded lines of riflemen, and when the SS troops discovered that small Russian groups had broken through to “Komsomolets” State Farm, several times they blanketed it with artillery fire. It was impossible to organize a withdrawal of the rifle battalion under the pressure of superior enemy forces. They made their way out individually, each man as he was able.
Very many soldiers were also killed in tank brigades of the 29th Tank Corps. For example, the 25th and 32nd Tank Brigades lost 320 and 230 men respectively. This noticeably exceeded the losses even of the motorized rifle brigades of the other corps (the 4th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps (272 men), the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 18th Tank Corps (219 men), and the 58th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 2nd Tank Corps (45 men). In the 29th Tank Corps, among the other categories of losses there was a large percentage of command staff (officers) – 903 men, including 184 officers and 719 of the junior command staff (sergeants and sergeant majors). Among them, 106 were killed or burned alive in their tanks and self-propelled guns, 19 went missing in action (some of whom were taken prisoner by the Germans), 40 were wounded with subsequent evacuation to a hospital, and 2 received heavy concussions.35Accordingly, the 29th Tank Corps’ losses in command staff of all levels were comparable to the losses of the enlisted men (903 and 1,088 respectively).
Table Composite data on the losses of the 5th Guards Tank Army for 12 July 1943.1
1It is important to understand that these are not summary data, but composite data, and each row must be read separately. The author is reporting what he found in the reports and combat diaries of each brigade and regiment kept in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Central Archives, and separately what each corps reported to the 5th Guards Tank Army. Thus, the brigade data when summed will not match the numbers given for the corps as a whole.
aInformation on the casualties of the 18th Tank Corps were taken from TsAMO RF, F. 18 tk, Op. 1, D. 5, L. 125.
bInformation on the tanks in service for the 18th, 2nd and 2nd Guards Tank Corps were taken from TsAMO RF, F. 332, Op. 4948, D. 67, L. 5, and that for the 29th Tank Corps from TsAMO RF, F. 29 tk, Op. 1, D. 6, L. 29.
cThe total combat losses of the 29th Tank Corps were taken from TsAMO RF, F. 332, Op. 4948, D. 80, L. 7. The cell “KIA and MIA” for the 1446th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment gives only the KIA (TsAMO RF, F. 1446 sap, Op. 584031, D. 1, LL. 6–8.
dThe report on the losses of the 32nd Tank Brigade didn’t separate the destroyed tanks from the total losses; the count of 36 tanks was derived on the basis of the total number of destroyed tanks in the 29th Tank Corps.
The number of knocked-out tanks in the 25th Tank Brigades includes 7 T–34 and 4 T–70 that became immobilized on the battlefield due to mechanical problems (TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4948, D. 70, L. 136). At midnight on 12 July 1943, just 3 tanks were counted in service; the location of the others was unknown to the command (TsAMO RF, F. 332, Op. 4948, D. 70, L. 136). In the column that gives the total personnel losses of the 58th Motorized Rifle Brigade and 12th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, only the number of dead and wounded is given. Altogether, the tank regiment of the 11th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade lost 11 machines over the day of fighting (as of 1000 on 13 July). The allocation between destroyed and knocked out tanks in the row for this brigade is tentative. On 12 July 1943, while on the march 2 T–70 and 1 T–34 from the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps (presumably from the 11th Guards or 12th Guards Motorized Brigades) blew up in minefields in the Rzhavets area.
There was no similar loss of personnel over a single day of fighting in any single tank or mechanized formation of the Voronezh Front throughout the entire period of the Kursk defensive operation, which I’ll remind you, lasted from 5 to 23 July 1943. For example, the 1st Tank Army’s 3rd Mechanized Corps over 10 days of combat operations (5-15 July 1943) on the axis of the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’ main attack (the Oboian’ direction) lost a total of 5,220 men (of which 2,694 were killed or missing-in-action).36 The loss of men in the 2nd Tank Corps between 8 and 25 July amounted to 2,767 (1,584 killed or missing-in-action), and the 2nd Guards Tatsinskaia Tank Corps lost 2,314 men between 8 and 20 July (816 killed or missing-in-action).37 Comparing these figures, you experience the bitterness and anguish not only because so many capable men had been killed in the bloom of their lives, but also because it is hard to call these losses justified. The capture of Hill 252.2 and the advance of the front line by 1.5 kilometers essentially didn’t achieve anything and didn’t have any significant influence on the overall course of the defensive operation on this day. If the available forces had been used on the defense instead, the results might have been significantly better.
The losses of the 18th Tank Corps were just one-quarter of those in the 29th Tank Corps, even though both formations were operating adjacent to each other. Bakharov’s troops lost 471 men, including 271 who were killed, mortally wounded or taken prisoner. Yet the loss of commanders at all levels in this tank corps turned out to be noticeably higher than those of the enlisted men; the ratio amounted to 246 to 225. The reason for such a large difference in losses between the two tank corps that were operating on the axis of 5th Guards Tank Army’s main attack was the fact that all of brigades of Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps launched several frontal attacks against two of the strongpoints in SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s sector of defense: the Hill 252.2 – Oktiabr’skii State Farm area, and the “Stalin Branch” State Farm – eastern fringe of the Storozhevoe woods area. It was in these two areas that the bulk of 29th Tank Corps’ armor was knocked out and where it took the greatest casualties. If to compare the number of killed, wounded or missing-in-action in the tank brigades of the 29th and 18th Tank Corps, then it stands out that it was those of them that assaulted the SS positions on Hill 252.2 and the “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm that suffered the most. Thus, 230 men were lost in the 32nd Tank Brigade, 101 men in the 31st Tank Brigade (both of the 29th Tank Corps), 99 men in the 181st Tank Brigade, 46 men in the 170th Tank Brigade (both of the 18th Tank Corps, and 41 men in the 1446th Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment (of the 29th Tank Corps). At the same time, in the units of the 18th Tank Corps that attacked only through the villages on the left bank of the Psel River and conducted reconnaissance work in the course of the fighting, the amount of human losses proved to be substantially lower: in the 110th Tank Brigade – 28 men (of which 11 were KIAs or MIAs); in the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment – 25 men (of which 7 were KIA). I’ve already talked above about the tragedy of 29th Tank Corps’ 25th Tank Brigade, which was shattered in the vicinity of the “Stalin’s Branch” State Farm.
In this connection, the losses of the SS Corps provoke great interest. Unfortunately, despite the open access to Western archives and the enormous amount of literature on the given subject by Western authors, there are still no precise data on the losses of Hausser’s panzer corps. To the present day, this question has been surrounded by as many myths as the question of 5th Guards Tank Army’s manpower losses. In my book Prokhorovka – neizvestnoe srazhenie velikoi voiny [Prokhorovka – unknown battle of the great war], I touched upon this topic in considerable detail. Relying on documents out of the German Bundesarchiv, with a certain amount of confidence it is possible to state that the SS Panzer Corps lost 842 men on 12 July. Of this total, Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler lost 279 men (39 killed, 235 wounded and 5 missing-in-action), Das Reich lost 243 men (41, 190 and 12 respectively), Totenkopf lost 316 men (69, 231 and 16 respectively, and those units directly subordinate to corps headquarters lost 4 wounded.38
The situation with respect to the loss of armor looks differently. A number of scholars, who have been occupied with this problem, come to the shared opinion that Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps lost 153 to 163 tanks and assault guns over the day of 12 July. As an example we can look at one of the latest Western publications on this topic. In an article that came out in 2003 for the 60th Anniversary of the battle for Prokhorovka, with a reference to the German scholar Karl-Heinz Frieser, Generalmajor D. Brandt asserts that in the course of the fighting on 12 July against the main forces of the 5th Guards Tank Army, the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and Das Reich lost 108 tanks and assault guns knocked out action, of which 41 required major overhauls, and 67 needed minor overhauls.39 The analysis of data from reports of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf, published by Zetterling and Franksen, testify that this division lost 46 combat machines on 12 July, including 10 Tiger heavy tanks. Thus, if we combine the cited figures, it turns out that in the three panzergrenadier divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps, of the 294 tanks and assault guns that were operational on the morning of 12 July, 154 were knocked out or 52.4% of the total. Other scholars relaying on different authors, sources and methods of computation come to pretty much the same numbers.40
The rifle divisions of the 5th Guards Army’s 33rd Guards Rifle Corp, which was operating together with Rotmistrov’s tank army, also suffered heavy casualties. They lost a total of 1,728 men, including 1,307 in the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 421 in two regiments of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division. Accordingly, if you combine the manpower losses of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps together with those of the two divisions of the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps, which were operating in their sectors, it turns out that in the epicenter of the fighting (on the front: Vasil’evka – Andreevka – Prelestnoe – “Oktiabr’skii” State Farm – “Stalin’s Branch” State Farm) on 12 July 4,190 Soviet soldiers and officers were killed, wounded or went missing. This total does not include the losses for 12 July of the 183rd Guards Rifle Division, the 5th Guards Tank Corps’ 6th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade and the 158th Guards Rifle Regiment, which took part in the 2nd Guards Tank Corps’ counterattack.
If you imagine that even before this day hundreds of bodies and heaps of damaged equipment were already laying on the field at Prokhorovka, which has a width of approximately 4.5 kilometers and a length of approximately 3.5 kilometers, and that on 12 July there appeared an additional 237 destroyed or knocked-out Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns alone, as well as several thousand more bodies of the dead from both sides, then there is no wonder that the veterans of that combat action speak in one voice that they never saw a more terrible scene in their entire lives.
Several scholars pointedly criticize N.F. Vatutin and the headquarters of the Voronezh Front, accusing them of blunders and miscalculations in the period of the defensive operation and, in particular, on 12 July at Prokhorovka.41 This criticism isn’t groundless. Obviously, the time chosen for conducting the counterstroke on 12 July was unsuccessful. The introduction of two fresh Guards armies into battle was made without prior, appropriate reconnaissance or serious preparations in the counterattack’s sector. It also shouldn’t have been thrown together so quickly given the high pace of combat operations.
The Soviet command underestimated the nature of the enemy’s actions and the possible changes in the situation in the 48-72 hours prior to launching the counterattack, from the inception of the plan for it on 9 July. The German pivot toward Prokhorovka meant that the main attack struck the attacking enemy grouping head-on, and not in the flank as intended. Cooperation among the attacking formations and units wasn’t properly implemented, which led in separate cases to fighting between our own units,42 airstrikes against our own positions,43 and unjustified losses.
The organization of supply for the counterattacking armies was in a bad way. The artillery was “on starvation rations”. For example in the 5th Guards Tank Army the reserve of ammunition amounted to just one-half of a regulation combat load per gun instead of the 2.5 to 3 combat loads that were standard for an offensive. In his memoirs, A.S. Zhadov wrote:
On 16 July Marshal of the Soviet Union G.K. Zhukov arrived at our command post. He was interested in how the introduction of the army for launching the counterattack on 12 July was handled. Left alone with me, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the organization of the army’s introduction into the battle, and gave me a scolding for the fact that a full-strength army that was well-prepared to carry out combat assignments was committed to the fighting without tank reinforcements or an adequate amount of artillery, while being exceptionally poorly supplied with ammunition. In conclusion Georgii Konstantinovich said: “If for any reasons the Front headquarters has not managed to supply the army with everything necessary in good time, then you must request this of the Front Commander-in-Chief, or at the very least make an appeal to the Stavka. The army commander and the commanders of the corps and divisions are first of all responsible for the army’s troops and the fulfillment of the task assigned by them.” … To appeal to the Stavka for any sort of clarifications and assistance – such thoughts never entered my mind back then.44
Aleksei Semenovich Zhadov spoke more openly in a conversation with the writer K.M. Simonov on 13 August 1961 about how the Voronezh Front command and the Chief of the General Staff personally reacted to his requests before the counterattack. Noted the former commander of the 5th Guards Army:
The army had been considerably staffed with cadres. The contingent of men was superlative, such that I deliberately didn’t bring the divisions up to 9,000 men, as I might have done, but had 7,000 to 7,500 in each of them. I left approximately 9,000 men in the army’s reserve, in order to offset excessive losses in the very first days. The order was given to commit the army – a Guards Army, with select soldiers and officers, but no sort of reinforcement, not a single tank, not a single gun more than the authorized mix. I posed this question first to Vatutin, then to Aleksandr Mikhailovich Vasilevsky, who was there as the Stavka representative. Ordinarily he was a very calm man, and I’d never before seen him in a state of extreme agitation:
“What, you’re intending to give me an ultimatum?!” – He shouted. “An order has been given to commit the army – so commit it and don’t give ultimatums. The situation demands that you introduce it as it is.”
So I committed the army. But my perception and feeling was such that with means of reinforcement, this army, according to its personnel, might have been a formidable force, but without means of reinforcement I entered the battle with a feeling of extreme bitterness on behalf of my men.45
The Marshal’s sharp tone and irritability can be understood. This conversation took place on the afternoon of 11 July, when it had become clear that the situation had turned sharply for the worse both in the area of Prokhorovka and along Voronezh Front’s entire front. Thus, the counterattack could hardly reach its objective; in its best case, it might lead only to the disruption of the enemy’s offensive on this day.
According to the account by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Tank Army, between 12 and 16 July it irrecoverably lost 323 tanks and 11 self-propelled guns. Accurate losses in men still hadn’t been determined. At I.V. Stalin’s decision, a commission was formed to investigate the reasons for the heavy losses of the 5th Guards Tank Army suffered at Prokhorovka, headed by a State Defense Committee member and a Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee G.M. Malenkov. The result of its activities was an account, presented to I.V. Stalin at the end of July 1943. The conclusions were discomforting. The combat actions on 12 July were called a model for an unsuccessfully conducted operation.
Today, the transcript of the conversation that the Voronezh Front command and the Chief of the General Staff had with I.V. Stalin on the evening of 12 July is still inaccessible for study. However, judging by the decisions taken, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army expected greater results from the counterstroke and was extremely unhappy with the situation as it stood on southern face of the Kursk salient. In the course of the defensive operation, the Stavka had assigned its main reserves specifically to N.F. Vatutin. By the start of the battle his Voronezh Front had six armies, including one tank army; on 8 July he’d been given control of two more tank corps, and then of another two Guards armies. Thus, in order to look into the situation, already on 12 July I.V. Stalin contacted Marshal of the Soviet Union G.K. Zhukov, who was located at the headquarters of the Briansk Front, and directed him to the Voronezh Front as a Stavka representative. Simultaneously, A.M. Vasilevsky, who had been the Stavka representative with the Voronezh Front, was ordered to go to the Southern Front.
On the morning of 13 July G.K. Zhukov arrived at N.F. Vatutin’s headquarters, where an operational meeting was held in order to examine the situation and the results of the counterattack. Recalls G.K. Zhukov: “It was decided to continue the counterattack that had been started more energetically in order to achieve better conditions for the fronts’ counteroffensive, in order to seize the lines they had previously occupied in the Belgorod area on the heels of the retreating enemy.”46 However, there was still a long way to go to accomplish this.
Table 7 Information on the irrecoverable losses of the formations and units of the 5th Guards Tank Army from 12 to 16 July 1943a
aTsAMO RF, F. 203, Op. 2851, D. 24, LL. 451-455
Table 8 Casualty report for the 5th Guards Tank Army from 12 to 18 July 1943a
aTsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4952, D. 7, L. 3
At the same time, a meeting was taking place in the Führer headquarters, in which Hitler announced to the Commander-in-Chiefs of Army Group South and Army Group Center that he was halting Operation Citadel because of the impossibility of rapidly achieving its goals. However, the troops that were fighting at Kursk still didn’t know about this, and the formations of the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf still faced their previous assignments: to cover the left flank of the assault wedge securely and wrap-up the encirclement of the Russian forces at Prokhorovka and south of there as quickly as possible. The events of the subsequent few days remain in the shadow of the famous battle. The day of 13 July marked the last day when H. Hoth tried to close a ring of encirclement around Prokhorovka with the forces of the II SS Panzer Corps’ three divisions, but thanks to the successful resistance by the Soviet forces, these calculations came to naught. After this, having abandoned his idea to take Prokhorovka Station, Hoth fully switched to preparing the encirclement of the 69th Army’s 48th Rifle Corps, which was still clinging to the small piece of ground at the confluence of the Northern and Lipovyi Donets Rivers at the boundary between the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf.
Initially, it had been intended to implement this plan on 12 July, but this had been disrupted by the counterattack of the 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army. The situation began to change on 13 July, and at 1115 the commander of the II SS Panzer Corps Obergruppenführer P. Hausser received an order from H. Hoth to shift the panzer corps’ main attack to the sector of the SS Division Das Reich (in the vicinity of Belenikhino Station), and at 2300 an updated order arrived:
Das Reich continues the offensive in the direction of Ivanovka and Vinogradovka. The first goal is to seize Pravorot’. If possible, the division must break through further toward Prokhorovka Station and take it by surprise. The 167th Infantry Division should be oriented toward the option of an attack toward Ivanovka. … The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division remains in its current positions and is oriented toward launching an attack with its right flank through Iamki to Prokhorovka, as soon as Das Reich’s offensive through Pravorot’ to Prokhorovka begins.47
At this moment the II SS Panzer Corps was the strongest formation in Army Group South; on the evening of 13 July, it had a total of 251 tanks and assault guns.48
By 10 July, the start of the battle for Prokhorovka, five divisions of the 48th Rifle Corps were defending in the interfluvial area between the Northern and Lipovyi Donets Rivers (the 81st Guards, 89th Guards, 93rd Guards, 183rd and 375th Rifle Divisions), which had a total strength of 36,177 men,49 plus units directly subordinate to corps headquarters and attached assets. In total, the grouping reached 40,000 soldiers and officers. They were holding a front that extended for approximately 32 kilometers, running from Belenikhino through Gostishchevo to Rzhavets. On average the 48th Rifle Corps’ divisions numbered 8,250 men, except for the 81st Guards Rifle Division, but by the morning of 13 July they had all suffered considerable losses and had no antitank means, and it was precisely tanks that were the enemy’s main breakthrough means. The 81st Guards Rifle Division was in essence combat-ineffective. Reported the division commander Major General I.M. Morozov:
The men are physically exhausted, since for 2-3 days they’ve been fighting in the Belgorod area without food or even water. In the fighting the division has lost all of its divisional artillery and almost all of its regimental artillery. On 13.07.43 it had a total of up to 3,000 men, only a portion of which (approximately 20%) was armed, no anti-tank means (45mm antitank guns and anti-tank rifles), and only a few heavy and light machine guns remain.50
Stress and fatigue were increasing among the troops, and the incessant, bloody fighting over the last nine days and the growing threat of encirclement were making themselves felt. The massed retreat of the men from the front without any orders that had started on 12 July hadn’t yet been fully stopped. For 13 July alone, 1,841 men had been detained by blocking detachments.51 From a special communique from the SMERSH counterintelligence department on the work of blocking detachments between 12 and 17 July 1943:
During the combat actions, there were cases of voluntary abandonment of the battlefield by entire elements on the part of military servicemen of the 92nd Guards Rifle Division, 305th Rifle Division and 290th Mortar Regiment. For example, on 14 July three elements of the 305th Rifle Division were detained by a blocking detachment in the vicinity of Novaia Slobodka: a battery of 76mm cannons, a howitzer battery and an engineer company. Three mortar batteries of the 290th Army Mortar Regiment were detained in the area of Samoilovka by a different blocking detachment. Two baggage trains of the 92nd Guards Rifle Division numbering 25 wagons and 200 men were detained by a blocking detachment in the area of Kashcheevo.52
The 69th Army command was taking measures to restore order, but was only able to take the situation under control on 16 July.
The divisions of the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf launched the converging attacks from the north and south on the night of 13-14 July. The distance between their forward groups amounted to approximately 13 kilometers. Between 0400 and 0500, the northern grouping attacked simultaneously in three directions: the SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich (which had 90 tanks and 25 assault guns at 1800 on 14 July)53 out of Ivanovskii Vyselok toward Vinogradovka and out of Iasnaia Poliana – Kalinin toward Belenikhino Station; and the 167th Infantry Division out of Sobachevskii toward Ivanovka and Leski. The area of Belenikhino Station was being defended by three brigades of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 2nd Guards Tank Corps, which had only 45 tanks,54 while the 183rd and 375th Rifle Divisions were holding the area south of the station. A report from the II SS Panzer Corps stated: “The corps at 0400 with the Division Das Reich went on the offensive south and east of Iasnaia Poliana through Belenikhino to the east, in order to take the ridge southwest of Pravorot’. After bitter street fighting between 0700 and noon, Belenikhino fell, and the reinforced panzer regiment was able to attack at 1700 after an artillery preparation.”55
Under heavy enemy pressure the brigades of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps began to retreat from the area east of Belenikhino to Ivanovka, but badly depleted in men and equipment, they couldn’t hold Ivanovka either and continued to retreat toward Hill 234.9. Having penetrated the defenses at the Belenikhino Station, the SS troops not only drove the 2nd Guards Tank Corps back in the direction of Pravorot’, but also attacked the right flank of the 183rd Rifle Division, which on its left flank had been engaged in heavy fighting with the 167th Infantry Division since sunrise. Under the pressure on both flanks, the 183rd Rifle Division began gradually to fall back to the Pravorot’ – Storozhevoe area. The gap on the northern (right) wing of the 48th Rifle Corps began to widen. However, the Red Army resistance was so stubborn, that the adversary, fearing unexpected attacks, was operating cautiously and was “feeling” his way forward.
The Soviet troops were also engaged in bitter fighting on this day with the southern German grouping, General Breith’s III Panzer Corps (the 505th Heavy Panzer Battalion; the 6th, 7th and 19th Panzer Divisions [which at 0500 on 14 July had a combined 66 tanks];56 and the 167th Infantry Division) in the Shakhovo, Rzhavets and Avdeevka area. Here, on the southern (left) flank of the 48th Rifle Corps, there was also a sizeable detachment from the 5th Guards Tank Army – the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps. At 2100 on 14 July, Stavka representative Marshal of the Soviet Union A.M. Vasilevsky reported to I.V. Stalin:
The 5th Guards Mechanized Corps had to conduct particularly stubborn fighting on the Shchelokhovo, Vypolzovka, Avdeevka, Aleksandrovka front with three enemy tank divisions. Between 0700 and 1400 hours, up to five enemy tank attacks were driven back primarily by our artillery, and partially by our rocket artillery (firing over open sights) and tanks. … The tankers and artillerymen of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps are fighting splendidly; much worse – the infantry of the 92nd Guards Rifle Division, which as a rule is not holding up against tank attacks.57
The troops of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 53rd Guards Separate Tank Regiment were also fighting with particular skill and bravery. The regiment’s journal of combat operations noted:
Senior Lieutenant Ligman’s 2nd Tank Company was positioned in ambush in Avdeevka. At 1800 a German tank appeared, and moving to within radio range of our tanks, began to conduct negotiations. The company commander sent Lieutenant Kosichenko’s crew to meet the Germans. The Germans opened fire, and two more German tanks were in ambush positions. With their first shot, Kosichenko’s crew knocked out the German tank, and then – a second one. However, the third German tank, camouflaged by bushes, knocked out our machine. A shell hit on the turret jammed the gun. The tank commander took the decision to advance to the forward edge of the Germans and to kill the enemy with its machine gun and treads. As a result of the extraordinary combat, the tank managed to kill up to a platoon of soldiers and to take six soldiers and one officer prisoner. Afterward the tankers returned under their own power to the unit’s position.58
By giving Das Reich the assignment to break through to Pravorot’ from Belenikhino Station, and further on to Prokhorovka, P. Hausser was thereby trying to secure the breakthrough’s flanks and to create an outer ring of encirclement around the 48th Rifle Corps. It was planned to form the inner ring of encirclement in conjunction with the 167th Infantry Division, which launched attacks toward Leski. However, the tankers of two tank corps, the 2nd and 29th Tank Corps, were defending Pravorot’, and the Germans were unable to take the village from the march. Thus after reaching the approaches to Malo-Iablonovo, at 1910 the II SS Panzer Corps received an order for 15 July, which fundamentally changed the assignment: it was to halt the attack toward Pravorot’ and launch its main attack to the south, in order to link up with the III Panzer Corps.
On the evening of 14 July, the situation in the area between the Northern Donets and Lipovyi Donets Rivers became critical. The semi-encircled forces of the 48th Rifle Corps were experiencing a shortage of ammunition and anti-tank weapons. The corps’ headquarters was unable to get command and control over the troops up and running smoothly, because communications were often being interrupted. Thus the 69th Army command was unable to track the situation of the divisions, and therefore couldn’t organize the needed assistance to them. By 2400 up to 30 tanks and around a regiment of panzergrenadiers of the III Panzer Corps seized Shakhovo, while at around the same time 40 tanks with panzergrenadiers of the II SS Panzer Corps were digging in on Hill 234.9. By dawn on 15 July, SS troops had taken Malo-Iablonovo, and the III Panzer Corps had captured Plota. The pocket south of Prokhorovka had shut closed, but in the meantime it still wasn’t solid. Four Soviet divisions with units of reinforcement wound up pocketed in an area of 126 square kilometers.
N.F. Vatutin was correctly assessing the intentions of the Army Group South command: having failed to carry out Operation Citadel, the Germans were striving to cut off the salient of Russian forces between the two rivers, in order to secure the inevitable withdrawal of its own forces. Already between 12 and 14 July, preparation was underway for a Soviet counteroffensive on the southern side of the Kursk bulge. The Steppe Front was moving in this direction, which was to go over to an offensive in the direction of Khar’kov, so the staging area in the interfluvial area would be very convenient for launching deep attacks against both the right flank of the Fourth Panzer Army’s groupings at Prokhorovka (in the direction of Plota, Gostishchevo and Iakovlevo) and the left flank of Army Detachment Kempf. Thus, N.F. Vatutin was making every effort to hold the line of the 48th Rifle Corps. However, he didn’t have enough strength. Because of heavy losses, the corps was holding up against the enemy attacks with difficulty. In the situation that had arisen on the evening of 14 July, there was only one option – to withdraw his forces rapidly from the pocket, because the draw string was quickly closing. Z.Z. Rogoznyi’s order to his 48th Rifle Corps to withdraw to new lines has not been found, but from a preserved order of the 81st Guards Rifle Division it follows that the corps commander issued his order to the subordinate division commanders verbally.59
Major General V.V. Rogoznyi’s sense of responsibility and composure should be noted. Over the night in the difficult circumstances of unceasing enemy tank attacks he retained his poise and, remaining within the pocket he drove repeatedly to his command post and issued orders to his division commanders to withdraw from the encirclement and take up a new defense. The 48th Rifle Corps headquarters’ operational group took up the organization of the withdrawal of the troops. From 2100 on 14 July and 0200 15 July it was located in the village of Chursino, and then until 0500 its officers moved in the columns of the retreating units.60 The withdrawal of the 48th Rifle Corps was implemented under the cover of rear guards in the following order of succession: 89th Rifle, 81st Rifle, 93rd Guards Rifle and the 375th Rifle Divisions. According to a report from the 89th Guards Rifle Division, it began moving into a new line at 0700 on 15 July.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to bring out the troops without complications. The 375th Rifle Division was the last to come out, covering the withdrawal of the other divisions. The report of its commander Colonel P.D. Govorunenko states:
On the approach to Kozinets, the enemy opened up artillery and mortar fire on the column in combination with a hail of machine gun and rifle fire from the east and west spurs of the Sukhaia Plota ravine. Having deployed the units and adopted a combat formation, a firefight ensued, and the division broke out in the area of Dal’nii Dolzhik with heavy losses. By 1130 the forward units were breaking through the ring of fire, losing a significant amount of men, horses and weapons. At 1200 the enemy went on the attack with newly arrived forces of infantry and tanks, blocked the Sukhaia Plota ravine (west of Malo-Iablonovo) and cut off the path of retreat for the division’s remaining units. The rearguard consisting of two reinforced rifle battalions didn’t come out, and together with them the commander of the 1241st Rifle Regiment Major Karklin, the commander of the 1243rd Rifle Regiment Lieutenant Colonel Frolov, the signal chief Engineer-Captain Tsukasov, two battalion commanders, and a number of lower-ranking officers went missing in action. The division’s personnel – 3,526 men – upon reaching the new line of defense at Novoselovka quickly adopted a combat formation, dug in, and repulsed two attacks.61
The commander of a submachine-gun company of the 375th Rifle Division P.G. Zolotukhin, who came out of the pocket along a balka of the Sukhaia Plota ravine, recalled:
The enemy set up tanks and machine guns in each side branch of the ravine and strove to block the column of retreating troops on the Malo-Iablonovo – Ivanovka line. When the Germans began an intensive barrage, panic erupted in the columns, men began to scatter, companies became intermingled, and control was lost. Commanders were trying to stop the fleeing men with difficulty. In the low ground there were jumbles of men, horses, overturned vehicles, cannons and other equipment. “Katiusha” rocket launchers that had been set ablaze were burning. When German infantry and tanks appeared right beside us and began to chop the column into pieces, the combat-experienced soldiers recollected themselves. They were acting alone and in groups. They were showing initiative and resolve. They didn’t need any sort of command to fight back and kill the enemy that had appeared. Coming out toward Zhimolostnoe, we wound up under a tank duel. German tanks were firing from the woods east of Vinogradovka, while our tanks were firing from Pravorot’. The infantry was hurrying along under the trajectory of tank shells. The fire from the tanks of both sides was at close range. Moreover, the rain had stopped and German aircraft began to operate. With one platoon I somehow managed to make it to Krasnoe. Thirty men of the company gathered there. The exhausted, hungry soldiers and officers were keeping their chins up. It inspired everyone that the regiment and division remained as intact combat units, even though the only weapons left were what the men were carrying. The uniforms of the majority of them were in tatters, and their footgear was falling apart. The men collapsed onto the ground and despite the driving rain, slept directly under the open sky. Many men even rejected a dry ration. Sleep was more precious than food.62
One should particularly stress the fact that despite the active enemy opposition and the lack of stable communications, the command of the 48th Rifle Corps managed to bring out of the encirclement all four divisions in fairly good order. On the whole, Rogoznyi’s decision to escape the pocket with his rifle corps was timely. He carried out his assignment, even though the combat losses prevented him from holding his line any longer. The withdrawal of the forces from the interfluvial area to a considerable extent proved even more advantageous to the Soviet side than to the enemy. In the first place, the front line in this sector was shortened by more than half, and because of this the 69th Army was able to make its defense more compact and solid. Secondly, the opportunity appeared to withdraw the divisions for rest and refitting; many were now no stronger than a regiment. However, the main point was that Rogoznyi’s largely successful withdrawal from the pocket avoided needless losses.
Even so, those losses suffered by the 48th Rifle Corps proved to be large. Over 16 days of July, its divisions (not including the units directly subordinate to the corps) lost 18,958 soldiers and officers, of which 13,073 were KIA or MIA. Of this total, 14,022 (or 74%) were lost over the seven days between 10 and 16 July of the battle for Prokhorovka!63 (See the details in Table 7). Remember, over this same time the losses in the units of the 5th Guards Tank Army were also high. However, these data are only preliminary, taken as of the morning of 16 July, when the situation regarding the withdrawal from the pocket was still murky. How many soldiers and officers were lost between the Northern and Lipovyi Donets Rivers would become clear only by the end of the month. So far, accounts of only the 375th Rifle Division have been found. On 28 July 1943 a report from its headquarters indicated that on 20 July, 2,718 of its men were missing-in-action.64 Considering that between 5 and 20 July, the division was only once in encirclement, and prior to 15 July its headquarters had only reported 18 men missing-in-action, there is the basis to assert that the remaining 2,700 men were either killed or captured by the enemy in the Sukhaia Plota ravine. Altogether in the middle of July in the 48th Rifle Corps, there were 10,647 MIAs.65 This was equivalent to a full-strength Guards rifle division. Such a large number of missing men can be explained by the fact that the troops were coming out of encirclement at night under enemy fire through heavily cut terrain, and the order to withdraw came too late for the rearguard units. In addition, many of the Red Army soldiers were wounded, extremely fatigued by several days of the heaviest combat, lagging behind the rest of their units, and some simply got lost. Even as the Germans recognize: “The SS Panzer Corps closed the ring around the so-called “Belgorod Pocket” in cooperation with the III Panzer Corps, but the 69th Army that was operating south of Prokhorovka had retreated, and the majority of its forces managed to avoid encirclement.”66
By midnight on 15 July 1943, the defense of the 69th Army’s 48th Rifle Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army south of Prokhorovka had stabilized along the line: Lutovo – Pravorot’ – Novoselovka – Shipy. This was the final day when Army Group South made an advance here. A day later, it initiated the withdrawal of its forces back to the positions from which they had launched Operation Citadel on 5 July 1943. It became obvious that Citadel had ultimately failed.
When assessing the result of the combat operations in the 69th Army’s sector, it is necessary to stress the following: the army carried out its assignment in the defensive operation. It had prepared a sufficiently firm line of defense, which withstood daily strong enemy attacks. In the conclusive stage of the operation, its divisions, given the absence of reserves and an adequate amount of weapons (particularly tanks and artillery) or ammunition, in the heaviest conditions of combat with the enemy managed to stand their ground and in good time, at an order, withdrew to a new line of defense.
Table 9 Information on the losses of the 69th Army’s 48th Rifle Corps from 1 July to 16 July 1943 (according to data of the 69th Army’s Operations Department on 16 July 1943)a
aTsAMO RF, F. 69A, Op. 10753, D. 442, L. 24; D. 8, LL. 90-91.
bTsAMO RF, F. 69A, Op. 10757, D. 8, LL. 90-91.
Calculated by the author
From 5 to 10 July 1943, the 81st Guards Rifle lost 815 men irrecoverably in the fighting north of Belgorod.
On 18 July, the division clarified the number of its wounded and missing-in-action, and adjusted the numbers to 1,857 and 1,309 respectively.
The number within the parenthesis reflects additional data from a report of the 375th Rifle Division on 28 July 1943.
At the same time one should note a number of shortcomings, which had a serious influence both on command and control of the troops and on their combat operations. This relates first of all to flaws on the organizational level. Prior to the start of July, the 69th Army had no corps commands. Just before the start of the German offensive, it received control of the 48th Rifle Corps. In the course of the fighting, there were instances when command over the formations and units became disrupted, and communications lapsed. Not coincidentally, Order No. 00194 from the Voronezh Front Commander-in-Chief on 21 July 1943 issued disciplinary rebukes regading the results of the defensive operation to a number of commanders of precisely the 69th Army’s formations.
Aware of the serious losses that the Front had suffered in two weeks of fighting, and fearing a surprise from the wise and clever von Manstein, N. F. Vatutin at 1000 on 16 July 1943 issued an order to continue the defensive operation. Here is its preamble:
The enemy has been inflicted large losses in men and materiel by the Front’s stubborn defense, and the enemy’s plan to seize Oboian’ and Kursk has been foiled. However, the enemy is still not rejecting offensive aims and is striving with daily attacks with main forces to bypass Oboian’ from the east, as well as to expand the seized staging area.
With the goal of ultimately depleting the strength of the enemy’s attack grouping, the armies of the Voronezh Front are to go over to a stubborn defense on occupied lines with the task to prevent an enemy breakthrough of our defense ….67
This document countermanded the preceding order issued before the 12 July 1943 counterattack. It conflicts with the view of certain scholars, which dominated in the Soviet historiography of the Battle of Kursk. According to their view, the counterattack that had started on 12 July came to a successful conclusion on this very day of 16 July, even though the defensive operation was continuing. However, this isn’t true: the objective set before the troops of the Voronezh Front on 12 July hadn’t been achieved. As has already been noted, at the meeting on 13 July with the participation of G.K. Zhukov, the decision was made to continue the counterattack, and only the form of conducting it was altered. The order on 16 July was in fact the document that officially halted the counterattack.
The day of 16 July became the conclusive one in the battle for Prokhorovka. There were no significant changes in the operational situation over the day. The normal preparations for a withdrawal were underway in the enemy’s formations and units. Our forces were also putting themselves back in order and rebuilding their strength. Work was going on particularly actively in the area where the 375th Rifle Division came out of the pocket. The division command was organizing the collection of heavy weapons, transport and ammunition that had been left behind in the balkas. Even though this work went on under enemy fire, and in several places full-scale combat erupted, nevertheless in the course of several ventures out into the Sukhaia Plota ravine and its adjacent spurs, the division that had been left without artillery and vehicles managed somewhat to restore the situation.68 In fact, this work continued on the following days.
On the night of 16-17 July the Army Group South command initiated the withdrawal of its armored units and rear service and support elements from the forward edge in the direction of Belgorod and Tomarovka. Aerial reconnaissance of the 2nd Air Army immediately detected this.69 In the morning, under the cover of strong rear guards, the withdrawal of the enemy’s main forces began. This was indisputable evidence of the fact that the Wehrmacht’s offensive toward Kursk had failed. With this, the battle for Prokhorovka also came to an end.
Undoubtedly, the Prokhorovka clash was the culminating moment of the Kursk defensive operation on the southern face of the Kursk bulge, after which the intensity of the fighting sharply subsided. Unfortunately, a logical fallacy is rather widespread in many publications (either inadvertently or intentionally) – post hoc ergo propter hoc [A occurred, and then B occurred, so A caused B]! However, already on 11 July the Wehrmacht command, having learned of an offensive by the Western and Briansk Fronts (it took the reconnaissance-in-force, which was conducted on a broad front, as the start of the offensive), came to the conclusion: “In view of the fact that it is impossible to achieve a rapid success, now there can only be talk of inflicting the greatest damage to the enemy as possible with as few of our own losses as possible.”70
Nevertheless this shouldn’t be construed as a sign of the equivalence between the events labeled the “Battle for Prokhorovka” and the specific combat actions west of the station on 12 July 1943. The latter comprised only one part of the battle for Prokhorovka, albeit an important one.
K-H. Frieser gives an interesting assessment of these events from the German side: “… Today it is possible to assert: the meeting engagement at Prokhorovka on 12 July wasn’t won by the Germans or the Soviets, since neither side was able to reach its intended objective.”71 It is hard to agree with this assertion. In reality, Voronezh Front’s counterattack grouping didn’t fully carry out its assignment, because it was simply unrealistic to do this given the existing correlation of forces. However, the main objective when on the defensensive is to repulse the enemy’s offensive, and this our forces accomplished: they prevented a breakthrough of the third and final army-level defensive belt, retained the operational resilience of the defense, and inflicted such losses to the enemy that the Germans were forced to halt the further continuation of the offensive on the main axis of advance. After all, E. von Manstein had planned for 12 July after the regrouping of his forces to launch a decisive attack, secure a breakthrough of the Russian defenses, and reach operational space. The foe didn’t accomplish this. Thus, in the final result Vatutin’s troops won the battle for Prokhorovka, and then successfully concluded the defensive operation, having thereby created the conditions for a decisive counteroffensive.
After the Western and Briansk Fronts began to implement Operation “Kutuzov” on 12 July 1943, it became conclusively clear that Army Group South’s offensive had reached a dead end. On 13 July Hitler made the decision to halt Operation Citadel. Manstein asserts that the Führer, having refused him the opportunity to employ the operational reserves – the XXIV Panzer Corps – at the decisive turning point of the battle, deprived him of a deserved victory.72 However, by that time the enemy was already aware of the preparations by the Southern Front for an offensive against the First Panzer Army, which would thereby pose a serious threat to Army Group South’s southern flank. Even if one allows that Manstein would have succeeded in breaking through the Soviet line at Prokhorovka (which is improbable, given the correlation of forces that existed by that time on the Prokhorovka – Kursk axis), his attack would have been “hanging in the air”. Thus, after 12 July he was thinking only of conducting partial operations with limited forces: the encirclement of the 69th Army’s 48th Rifle Corps, and then, in the future, about an attack to the northwest with the aim of unilateral envelopment and encirclement of the 40th Army.
However it went, the Soviet forces won the battle for possession of Prokhorovka. The victory in this fighting, which became the concluding stage of the combat operations on the southern face of the Kursk bulge, pre-determined the success of the Voronezh Front’s defensive operation as a whole.
1. The operation received its code name Zitadelle [Citadel] on 31 March 1943.
2. TsAMO RF, F. 335, Op. 5113, D. 208, L. 131.
3. G.A. Koltunov and B.G. Solov’ev, Kurskaia bitva [Battle of Kursk] (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1970), pp. 156–157.
4. TsAMO RF, F. 38A, Op. 9027, D. 50, L. 375.
5. N. Zetterling and A. Franksen, Kursk 1943: a statistical analysis (London, Portland: Frank Cass, 2000), pp. 185–186.
6. NARA, T. 313, R. 368, F. 8654337.
7. For example, in the order for the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 18th Tank Corps from 11 July 1943 (TsAMO RF, F. 18tk, Op. 1, D. 23, L. 9).
8. S. Stadler, Die Offensive gegen Kursk 1943: II SS Panzerkorps als Stoskeil im Grosskampf. NATION EUROPA Verlag GmBH COBURG, 1998; pp. 81–82.
9. V.N. Zamulin, Zasekrechennaia Kurskaia bitva. Dokumenty svidetel’stvuiut [The Secret Battle of Kursk: Documents testify] (Moscow, 2007), p. 61.
10. Stadler, Die Offensive gegen Kursk, pp. 87–88.
11. TsAMO RF, F. 203, Op. 2777, D. 86, L. 273.
12. A.S. Zhadov, Chetyre goda voiny [Four years of war] (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1978), p. 91.
13. TsAMO RF, F. 18 tk, Op. 1, D. 93, L. 122.
14. TsAMO RF, F. 29 tk, Op. 1, D. 36, L. 28.
15. NARA, T. 354, R. 606, F. 162, 167, 169 and 171.
16. Stadler, Die Offensive gegen Kursk, pp. 79, 80.
17. Ibid., p. 92.
18. NARA, T. 314, R. 1170. Kriegstagebuch 48 Pz Kps. 10.7.43, p. 48.
19. Stadler, Die Offensive gegen Kursk, p. 99.
20. TsAMO RF, F. 42.gv.sd, Op. 1, D. 79, L. 10.
21. Rudolf Lehmann, The Leibstandarte III (Winnipeg, Manitoba: J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, 1990), p.
22. V.N. Zamulin, Prokhorovka: Neizvestnye podrobnosti ob izvestnom srazhenii [Prokhorovka: Unknown details about the famous battle] (Moscow: Veche, 2013), p. 238.
23. P.A. Rotmistrov, Stal’naia gvardia [Steel Guard] (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1984), p. 187.
24. Boris Sergeevich Bakharov (1902–1944), Major General of Tank Troops (1942). In the Red Army from 1919. A veteran of the Russian Civil War. On 11 May 1941, he was appointed commander of the 50th Tank Division of Khar’kov Military District’s 25th Mechanized Corps. With the start of the Great Patriotic War, Bakharov’s division took part in the fighting on the Western, Central and Briansk Fronts. In September 1941, the division was reformed into the 150th Tank Brigade. In July 1942, he was appointed first as the chief of staff, and then on 20 July, as the commander of the 17th Tank Corps of Voronezh Front’s 60th Army. On 7 September 1942, he became the commander of the 18th Tank Corps, which he would command until his tragic death. In March 1943, the tank corps was withdrawn into the Stavka reserve (in the Steppe Military District), where it remained until the start of the Battle of Kursk. On 6 July 1943, Bakharov’s tank corps was transferred to the 5th Guards Tank Army, and having completed a 200-kilometer march, on the evening of 9 July it was assembled on the Voronezh Front, 25 kilometers east of Prokhorovka Station. On 12 July 1943, Bakharov’s troops launch an attack along the Psel River (at the boundary between the SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte “Adolf Hitler” and the SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf) and made a 5-kilometer advance, thereby creating a threat to Totenkopf’s bridges across the river and the left flank of the Leibstandarte “Adolf Hitler”, but it fell into semi-encirclement. B.S. Bakharov was forced to halt a further attack and issued an order to fortify the ground gained. However, the 5th Guards Tank Army command assessed this as passivity when carrying out his orders. A commission of the State Defense Committee (“Malenkov’s Commision”), which arrived at the Voronezh Front in order to investigate the reasons for the 5th Guards Tank Army’s heavy losses at Prokhorovka, supported this point of view, even though the corps commander’s decision had been dictated by objective circumstances. On 25 July 1943 Major General Bakharov was removed from his post for “inability to cope with his command duties” and was appointed to a lower post – deputy commander of the Central Front’s 9th Tank Corps. In essence, the responsibility for the failure of the counterattack on 7 July 1943 was placed on his shoulders, since only he was dismissed from his post after the Prokhorovka clash. Subsequent events showed that this decision was unjust. Already on 9 September 1943, he assumed command of the 9th Tank Corps, and on 15 September 1943 for his successful leadership of the corps, the 60th Army command awarded him the Order of the Red Banner. He was killed in action on 16 July 1944 in the area of Bobruisk during Operation Bagration.
25. TsAMO RF, F. 18tk, Op. 1, D. 27, L. 123.
26. Rotmistrov, Stal’naia gvardiia, p. 192.
27. Ibid., p. 186.
28. E. Ivanovsky, Ataku nachinali tankisty [Tankers started the attack] (Moscow: Voenizdat), p. 131.
29. According to information that requires verification, these tanks had blundered into one of our own minefields.
30. TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv.A, Op. 4855, D. 20, L. 4.
31. Zetterling and Franksen, Kursk 1943: A statistical analysis, Tables A 6.4, A6.5 and A 6.6.
32. See Glavnoe avtobronetankovoe upravlenie: liudy, sobytiia i fakty v dokumentakh 1940–1942, Kn. 2 [Main Armored Command: People, events and facts in documents of 1940–1942, Book 2] (Moscow: GABTU Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, 2005), pp. 376–380.
33. TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv. TA, Op. 4948, D. 80, L. 7.
34. TsAMO RF, F. 3386, Op. 1, D. 2, L. 45.
35. TsAMO RF, F. 3420, Op. 2, D. 98, LL. 79–88.
36. TsAMO RF, F. 8 gv.TK, Op. 1, D. 49, L. 26.
37TsAMO RF, F. 5 gv.TA, Op. 4952, D. 7, L. 7.
38. Zetterling and Franksen, Kursk 1943: a statistical analysis, p. 207.
39. D. Brand, Vor 60 Jahren Prohorowka (Teil 2). Osterreichische Militerische Zeitschrift. Ausgabe, 6/2003 (Ausfall Heeresgruppe Sud, stand 12.7.43 (Bl. 48) BA-MA:RH, zitert nach Frieser, Weltkrieg, Bd. 8 (Entwurf), p. 72.
40. For more detail, see V.N. Zamulin, Prokhorovka – neizvestnoe srazhenie velikoi voiny [Prokhorovka – unknown battle of the great war] (Moscow: EKSMO, 2005), p. 621.
41. For one example, see L.N. Lopukhovsky, Prokhorovka: Bitva stal’nykh gigantov [Prokhorovka: The Battle of steel giants] (Moscow, Iauza, 2005).
42. TsAMO RF, F. 48 sk, Op. 1, D. 2, L. 17.
43. TsAMO RF, F. 332 sk, Op. 4948, D. 70, L. 136; TsAMO RF, F. 95 gv. sd, Op. 1, D. 25, L. 105obr; TsAMO RF, F. 3400, Op. 1, D. 31, L. 77.
44. A.S. Zhadov, Chetyre goda voiny, pp. 97–98.
45. E. Simonova-Gudzenko and V. Zhdanov, “General A.S. Zhadov: Prokhorovka v moei sud’be” [General A.S. Zhadov: Prokhorovka was my fate”] Patriot Otechestva, No. 8 (2013), pp. 16–17.
46. Zhukov, Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia, p. 489.
47Stadler, Die offensive gegen Kursk 1943, p. 113.
48. NARA, T. 313, R. 366, F. 597.
49. TsAMO RF, F. 69A, Op. 10757, D. 8, L. 90, 90obr
50. TsAMO RF, F. 48 sk, Op. 1, D. 2, L. 21.
51. Ogennaia duga. Kurskaia bitva glazami Lubianki, p. 61.
53. Zetterling and Franksen, Kursk 1943: a statistical analysis, p. 187.
54. V.N. Zamulin, Zasekrechennaia Kurskaia bitva, p. 773.
55. Stadler, Die offensive gegen Kursk 1943, p. 118.
56. Zetterling and Franksen, Kursk 1943: a statistical analysis, pp. 189–190
57. TsAMO RF, F. 203, Op. 2777, D. 75, LL. 414–415.
58TsAMO RF, F. 53 gv. otp, Op. 354813s, D. 1, L. 21.
59. TsAMO RF, F. 81 gv. sd, Op. 1, D. 5, L. 284.
60. TsAMO RF, F. 48 sk, Op. 1, D. 17, L. 36.
61. TsAMO RF, F. 69A, Op. 107753, D. 390, LL. 32–33.
62. Author’s personal archive.
63. V.N. Zamulin, Neizvestnye podrobnosti ob izvestnom srazhenii, Table 13.
64. See http://obd-memorial.ru/html/info.htm?id=4639479 & page=1#
65Zamulin, Neizvestnye podrobnosti ob izveston srazhenii, Table 31.
66. K-H. Frieser’s presentation at the military history conference dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, 12 July 1993. Materials of the conference published by the Moscow Institute of Military History, 1993, p. 15.
67. TsAMO RF, F. 203, Op. 2777, D. 75, L. 437.
68. TsAMO RF, F. 33, Op. 686044, Ed.khr. 2713.
69. TsAMO RF, F. 203, Op. 51360, D. 5, L. 103, 105.
70. KTB/OKW Bd. 111.Hb. 11, p. 769.
71. K-H. Frieser’s presentation at the military history conference dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, 12 July 1993. Materials of the conference published by the Moscow Institute of Military History, 1993, p. 15.
72. E. Manstein, Poteriannye pobedy [Lost victories] (Smolensk: Russich, 2003), p. 538.
THE BATLE OF KURSK
Controversial & Neglected Aspects
Translated & edited by Stuart Britton
About the Author
Valeriy Nikolaevich Zamulin, a PhD candidate, is a leading Russian scholar of the Battle of Kursk. Since 1996, he has been working intensively in the most important Russian and foreign archival institutes, including the Central Archive of Russia’s Ministry of Defense and in the US National Archive, in order to gather and analyse documentary sources on the events in the Kursk bulge in the summer of 1943. In 2002, he was the first to describe the course of the famous Prokhorovka tank clash on a documentary basis, to publish previously unknown figures on the Red Army’s armour losses in the tank battle of 12 July 1943, and to give his assessment of the results, which differed from that previously accepted in Russia. He is the author of more than 60 scholarly works, including six books, in both the Russian and English languages, which have attracted great interest among scholars and history buffs. His most well-known work is “Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative” (Helion, 2011). The results of V.N. Zamulin s scholarly work are broadly used by military-historical authors, professors of state universities and Russia s military museums. Several documentary films and television programs have been made with his participation. In 2010-2011, he was the academic consultant during the creation of the new military history museum in the legendary village of Ponyri, which in the Battle of Kursk was the epicentre of the most savage and bloody fighting. At present, Zamulin is a member of the faculty of Kursk State University.
Stuart Britton is a freelance translator who resides in Cedar Rapids, IA. He is responsible for a growing number of translated Russian military memoirs, battle histories and operational studies, which saw an explosion in Russia with the opening of secret military archives and the emergence of new Russian scholars who take a more objective look at the events and historical figures. Two works that received prizes or prominent acclaim were Valeriy Zamulin’s Demolishing a Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk 1943 and Lev Lopukhovsky’s The Viaz’ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army’s Disastrous Stand Against Operation Typhoon. Notable recent translations include Valeriy Zamulin’s The Battle of Kursk: Controversial and Neglected Aspects and Igor Sdvizhkov’s Confronting Case Blue:Briansk Front’s Attempt to Derail the German Drive to the Caucasus, July 1942. Future translated publications include Nikolai Ovcharenko’s analysis of the defense, occupation and liberation of Odessa, 1941-1944, and Zamulin’s detailed study of 7th Guards Army’s role and performance in the Battle of Kursk against Army Detachment Kempf.