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Battle of Prokhorovka
Part of World War II
Date 12 July 1943
Location 51°2′11″N 36°44′11″E / 51.03639°N 36.73639°E / 51.03639; 36.73639Coordinates: 51°2′11″N 36°44′11″E / 51.03639°N 36.73639°E / 51.03639; 36.73639
Prokhorovka, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Result Tactical Soviet defensive victory[1]
Operational stalemate[2][3]
Strategic German failure[4]
Belligerents
 Germany  Soviet Union
Strength
II SS Panzer Corps Voronezh Front
  • 1st Tank Army
  • 69th Army

Steppe Front

  • 5th Guards Army
Casualties and losses
c. 320 tanks and self-propelled guns[5] c. 400 tanks[6]

The Battle of Prokhorovka was a battle fought principally by the German Wehrmacht's Fourth Panzer Army and the Soviet Red Army's 5th Guards Tank Army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. It is one of the largest[7] tank battles in military history.

On 5 July 1943 the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht launched Operation Citadel. The aim of the German High Command was to destroy the considerable Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. Destroying the Red Army in the field would recover the strategic initiative for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. The operation was to be achieved by five German field armies that were to strike in a pincer movement on either side of the Kursk Bulge. The Soviet Supreme Command, the Stavka, foresaw the German attack and prepared a defense in depth along the lines of the military deep operations theory. Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov convinced Joseph Stalin that the Red Army should remain defensive and wear down the German Army. When the German forces had been worn down sufficiently by the Red Army defence, the Soviet would release their operational reserve to destroy the weakened German spearhead.

In the ensuing Battle of Kursk, German forces were halted on the northern Orel sector. However, in the south the formations of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS achieved a deeper penetration, approaching Prokhorovka. The Red Army was forced to commit its operational reserves sooner than it would have wished. The resulting clash of armour occurred on 12 July 1943 and became known as one of the largest tank battles in history.

This was the pivotal battle of the German offensive to encircle Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. Its culmination and outcome are a matter of contention. The German assault failed to achieve its strategic objective, but succeeded in winning several tactical engagements. The Soviets also succeeded in winning a series of defensive engagements and prevented the German formations breaking through their lines, but Soviet attacks against German positions were repulsed. By the end of the battle both sides had suffered heavy losses. The Soviet losses were much higher, but larger operational and strategic manpower and materiel reserves enabled the Red Army to retain the strategic and operational initiative. The battle marked the end of any realistic chance of a German victory on the Eastern Front. The German Army would remain on the strategic defensive for the remainder of the war.[8]

Contents

Background

In the winter of 1942–1943 the German Sixth Army had been lost during the Battle of Stalingrad. The subsequent Soviet operations; Operation Uranus, Operation Winter Storm and Operation Little Saturn threatened the position of Army Group South. The Soviet operations, if successful, may have destroyed the entire Army Group. These operations led to the liberation of most of the Caucasus from German occupation at a cost of only 70,000 casualties.[9] Keen for more success Stalin had ordered the Red Army to encircle German Army Group South by thrusting through to Rostov-on-Don. The Red Army advanced but became overstretched. Erich von Manstein recognised this and organised an improvised counter-offensive which resulted in the Third Battle of Kharkov. In a repeat of the Second Battle of Kharkov mobile German forces pinched off the flanks of the Soviet spearhead and destroyed them. The German victory had enabled the Wehrmacht and SS forces to recapture Kharkov on 14 March 1943 and drove the Red Army back over the northern Don River. In the process they punched a bulge into the Soviet lines to create a salient some 150 miles from north to south. The Germans took some 9,000 prisoners and counted 23,000 Soviet dead. Soviet figures counted 45,000 killed and captured.[9]

Battle of Kursk. The Battle of Prokhorovka took place on the Belgorod-Kursk bulge in the south

German forces also recaptured Belgorod to the south of Kursk, but the Soviets held Kursk. The German advance beyond Kharkov was soon slowed to a halt as Soviet resistance grew stronger. Neither had the strength to continue offensive operations and the Kursk salient was formed. Adolf Hitler and the German High Command selected the relatively narrow Kursk sector for their next major offensive in an attempt to crush Soviet operational and strategic reserves. This was to restore equilibrium to the Eastern Front and win back the strategic initiative.[10] Soviet intelligence recognised the Kursk bulge would be the focus of a major German offensive in the summer. The Soviet strategic defence of Kursk, unlike Moscow in 1941, would not occur along the entire front. This enabled the Soviets to prepare a strong defence in depth of up to 100 kilometres deep. The Soviets committed 10 Soviet Army Fronts, containing 40 combined armies and five tank armies operating on a 2000 kilometre front to a depth of 600-700 kilometres.[11] The Stavka authorised a defensive strategy aimed at wearing down the German spearhead by forcing them to breakthrough multiple lines of heavily fortified positions, defended by Soviet units with combined arms capabilities. When the German offensive withered, the Soviet operational armour reserves would be released to counter attack and destroy the weakened enemy.

The forces

German

The German forces involved were primarily from three Waffen-SS divisions, all of which had already suffered losses during the preceding days. The 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Division Das Reich and 3rd SS Division Totenkopf had begun the offensive with 456 tanks and 137 assault guns, including only 35 Tiger I tanks. It is possible a further brigade was involved in the fighting. The 10th Panzer Brigade had been created on 23 June 1943 and had 45 Tiger tanks on strength. It is unknown whether this unit participated in the fighting. It is possible that this unit joined the 2nd SS Panzer Das Reich, which would have bolstered its strength to 70 Tigers. The total number of tanks and assault guns available on 11 July was about 400, including 70 Tigers.[12] Soviet sources claim that the Germans possessed 500–700 tanks.[13] German sources are not complete for tank strength returns of 12 July. According to available German sources, 204 German tanks were available on 11 July between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier (77, 95 and 122 tanks respectively). The following day, 12 July, the figures for the 1st Panzer Grenadier Division were unknown, but the strength returns for the remaining two divisions were 103 and 121. On 13 July, returns indicate 70, 107 and 74 tanks available. By 14 July the returns were 78, 115 and 73 tanks. On 15 July, a general decrease to 85, 99 and 77 was recorded. The last record, for 16 July, recorded 96, 103 and 96 tanks operational for the three divisions.[13] The II SS Panzerkorps began the battle of Kursk with 494 tanks; by 12 July its strength had dropped by exactly 200.[14] German air power amounted to one Luftwaffe Korps, VIII. Fliegerkorps. It had 966 aircraft on its order of battle on 5 July 1943.[15] Attrition had been low over the previous week. Between 5–8 July the Generalquartiermeister der Luftwaffe reported the loss of only 41 aircraft. Losses for the period 8–11 July are not clear, although it is known that around 220 aircraft were lost altogether on the southern face of the Kursk bulge between 5–31 July.[15]

Soviet

On the Soviet side the main formation involved was the 5th Guards Tank Army. The total tank strength of the army stood at ca. 800-850 tanks. Many of these however, were the light T-70 tanks. The 5th Guards Tank Army had some 409 T-34, 188 T-70, 31 Churchill tanks, 48 self-propelled guns of the SU-122 and SU-76 type, and a small but unknown number of heavy KV-1 tanks. Contrary to claims in some accounts of the battle, no SU-152 or SU-85 assault guns were fielded. According to Soviet sources these figures do not include the 2nd Tank Corps, 2nd Guards Tank Corps or the 1529th Self-propelled gun Regiment.[16][1]

The Red Army fielded the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Corps and Soviet 29th Tank Corps, Soviet 18th Tank Corps in the first echelon. The Soviet 5th mechanised Corps and the already weakened Soviet 2nd Tank Corps were kept in reserve. The 18th Tank Corps fielded 144 tanks on the afternoon of 11 July, while the 29th Tank Corps fielded 212 tanks and self-propelled guns. Together with the formations committed during the day, the total number of Soviet tanks in the battle probably reached 500. The Soviet 1st Tank Army also attacked elements of the German XLVIII Panzerkorps, but this was not directly related to the tank battle of Prokhorovka. Altogether research reveals that 294 German and 616 Soviet armoured fighting vehicles (AFV), up to a maximum of 429 German and 870 Soviet AFV took part in the battle of Prokhorovka.[17]

Soviet aviation amounted to a weak concentration of forces. The Red Air Force's 2nd Air Army, despite bitter losses in the past week, could muster 472 operational aircraft. Of this fleet, 266 were fighter aircraft, 160 bombers and 90 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks. The 17 Air Army was also committed. It had also suffered a high attrition rate but could field some 300 operational aircraft. Air power was thus even, making it imperative that it be used wisely.[18]

Prior to the battle

German advance before Prokhorovka

After several delays in waiting for the new equipment to reach the front, the German offensive was launched on 5 July 1943. Generaloberst Hermann Hoth's 4.Panzer-Armee, spearheaded by the SS-Panzerkorps, had fought through 10–15 miles of Soviet defenses consisting of high-density minefields, entrenched infantry and anti-tank guns arranged in elaborate pakfront anti-tank zones. The attack penetrated into the third defensive to a depth of 35 kilometres but was stopped by the Soviet 1st Tank Army.

During the course of the 5–11 July, the II SS Panzerkorps was close to driving a wedge between the 1st Tank Army and Soviet 69th Army. The battles had been difficult, but the Fourth Panzer Army had managed to break through the main Soviet defence zones. The Germans claimed 1,000 Soviet tanks destroyed since the 5 July. The 48 Panzer Korps alone claimed to have eliminated 1,300 Soviet soldiers and to have taken 7,000 Soviet prisoners. The 48th also claimed to have destroyed or captured 170 Soviet tanks and 180 heavy mortars along with anti-tank and artillery guns.[19]

The II. SS Panzerkorps broke through the third line of Soviet defences at Prokhorovka. The Germans wrongly believed they had made a breakthrough and were to exploit the opportunity the following day.[19] They thought to have defeated the last of the Soviet reserve units. Unknown to the Germans, the Steppe Front under Ivan Konev stood ready as a reserve to conduct a counter-offensive. Following the German success up to 11 July, and against Konev’s protests, Zhukov allowed the Stavka to release two armies, the 5th Guards Tank Army under General Pavel Rotmistrov and the 5th Guards Army from Steppe Front to meet the German threat. The 42nd Guards Rifle Division was committed immediately. After forced road marches, the Soviet forces reached Prokhorovka on the night of July 11.[20] The Soviet Fronts were now ready to launch their counter offensive.

German offensive plans

The German plan at Prokhorovka was to press on with the general campaign plan for Citadel by forcing the Soviet defences open in the south and link up with the northern pincer at Kursk. The attack coincided with an effort by the 48 Panzerkorps to thrust against the Psyol River to the south west. The station of Prokhorovka was the prime tactical target. The capture of the station, it was hoped, would enable a breakthrough by the Fourth Panzer Army in this sector. This would allow the Wehrmacht to break into the operational and strategic depths of the Soviet rear and to complete the encirclement of the Soviet forces in and around Kursk.

Soviet counter offensive plans

The Kursk battle had reached its critical point on 11 and 12 July. The penetration by II SS Panzerkorps succeeded in penetrating to Prokhorovka station and threatened to encircle the Soviet 1st Tank Army. The station lay in the heart of the Voronzeh Fronts defences. On the 11 July Marshal Zhukov ordered a counter offensive of five Soviet armies, including two from the Steppe Front against the spearhead to begin on 12 July.[21] The Soviet armies together with the 1st Tank Army under Major-General Mikhail Katukov were supposed to attack the German forces and cut off the penetration, trapping and then destroying the advanced German forces. The attack by 5th Guards Tank Army was aimed at the SS-Panzerkorps, while the other three armies were attacking XLVIII Panzerkorps and LII Army Corps.

The attack plan for 5th Guards Tank Army had major shortcomings, in that it neglected a proper artillery preparation, ordered the Soviet tankers to use high speed to overcome the shortcomings in armour and weaponry of their tanks, and put the main attack into a sector in which an anti-tank ditch dug by Soviet troops protected the German forces to some degree. Moreover, most of the Soviet aviation was concentrated on the northern flank of the southern sector, leaving the Luftwaffe in complete control of the skies over Prokhorovka. To complicate matters further, the Soviet air-to-ground communication system failed resulting in German aviation delivering heavy losses in the opening hours.[22]

The battle

The morning battles

At 06:50 hours on July 12 II SS Panzerkorps began their attack. As it did so the Soviets also initiated their opening offensive moves. Aircraft from both sides arrived over their respective support points and a huge aerial battle developed. The II SS reported "very strong enemy air activity[...] at 07:10".[23] For the first time during the Kursk battle, the Soviet Air Armies had flown more sorties than the Luftwaffe over the southern sector. the 17 and 2 Air Armies flew 893 sorties while VIII. Fliegerkorps flew some 654 missions.[24] The Luftwaffe units were ordered by the commander of VIII. Fliegerkorps Hans Seidemann to concentrate on covering the advance of the II SS. The attack by 48 Panzerkorps further north was to be given only sporadic support by Jagdgeschwader 3 and Jagdgeschwader 52.[24] The air battle became critical to the success of the respective attacks of Soviet and German ground forces. Without proper defensive air support, and in face of Soviet aerial assaults, 48 Panzerkorps was forced onto the defensive. The 11 Panzer Division noted, "there was some German air activity but more Soviet, including some dive-bomber attacks".[24]

To increase the pressure the 48 Panzerkorps was engaged by the Soviet 10th Tank Corps and the Soviet 1st Tank Army.[24] However the Luftwaffe also struck back with ground attack missions. Heinkel He 111s inflicted heavy losses on Soviet 69th Army and the 5th Guards Tank Army. Such was the weakness of either sides fighter forces that no losses on this sector were reported on July 12.[24] One result of the inactivity of the Luftwaffe over the 48 Panzerkorps was its halting of offensive action. Without any supporting diversion attacks the II SS launched its assault against the 5th Guards Tanks Army without support. Both the 5th Guards and the II SS had launched their offensives simultaneously.[24] The German plan was for Totenkopf to launch an assault north of the Psel to extend the bridgehead that had been gained there. The Das Reich and LSSAH divisions were not involved in the assault, and had a defensive mission until Totenkopf reported a success.

The Soviet attack started at 09:15. General-Leytenant Rotmistrov committed around 430 tanks and assault guns in a frontal attack, with another 70 following in a second wave.[25] The attack was a disaster. The Luftwaffe responded quickly to air support requests and large formations of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, bomb-carrying Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Henschel Hs 129 tank busters equipped with BK 37 37 mm Bordkanone appeared over the Soviet armoured formations. The Soviet tanks were caught out in the open.[25] Supported by German artillery and German tank fire the attack was defeated. The battlefield was covered in thick smoke from exploding Soviet tanks making it difficult for either side to see. Normally the 37 mm was not enough to destroy a Soviet tank. But the Soviets, expecting light resistance at first, had left their metal fuel containers on their rear engine blocks.[25] The Soviet 31st Tank brigade attached to the 29th Tank Corps reported, "We suffer heavy losses in tanks through enemy artillery and aircraft. At 10:30 hours our tanks reached the Komsomolets state farm, but due to continuous air attacks, they were unable to advance any further and shifted to the defence".[25] In total the 5th Guards Tank Army, Soviet 18th Tank Corps and the 29th Tank Corps lost some 400 of their 800 tanks in the morning attack.[26]

One of the reasons for the failures was the lack by the Soviets to have an efficient air-to-ground system.[27] The Soviet air assault units could not react quickly enough to sudden enemy movements. Moreover, the 2nd and 17th Air Armies were concentrated over the 48 Panzerkorps giving the Luftwaffe unhindered access to the exposed Soviet armour.[25] The Soviet 31st Tank Corps commander reported, "Our own air cover was fully absent until 13:00 hours".[27] The 5th Guards Tank Army complained, "the enemy's aircraft literally hung above our combat formations throughout the entire battle, while our own aircraft, and particularly the fighter aviation, was totally insufficient".[27]

Afternoon battles

The reserves of 5th Guards Tank Army had to be sent south, to defend against a German attack by III Panzerkorps. With the loss of these reserves, any hope that may have been left of dealing a major defeat through offensive action to the SS Panzerkorps ended. But German advances also failed. Despite appalling losses, the Soviet Tank Armies held the line and prevented the II SS from making a breakthrough. Most of the tank battles were fought in fairly close quarters as the Soviets learned from the defeat in the morning action. The losses in men were roughly 5,500 Soviets and 850 SS. Tank losses are disputed, but around 300 Soviet and 70 to 80 II SS AFV were lost in the German offensive actions.[27]

The outcome

A bell-tower commemorating the Soviet victory on the Field of Prokhorovka.

While the exact losses on each side cannot be established precisely, the outcome is clearer. Neither the Fifth Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their missions that day: The 5th Guards Tank Army did not take its terrain objectives nor destroy the II SS Panzer Corps. Both units were weakened although both were committed to combat the following day. The Soviet cause would probably have been better served if the hundreds of tanks had not been thrown away in a failed attack, but instead been used in dug-in defensive positions to wear down the German attacks. Konev was highly critical of the decision to use 5th Guards Tank Army in this manner, since it robbed him of the main operational exploitation force for his offensive.

Another aspect is that the sudden and violent attack by strong Soviet reserves and the need to break off the assault by the German 9th Army on the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient due to Operation Kutuzov contributed to the decision of Adolf Hitler to discontinue the attack, the implications of which made him 'sick to his stomach' when he had originally considered it[2]. A parallel attack by the Red Army against the new 6th Army on the Mius river south of Kharkov necessitated the withdrawal of reserve forces held to exploit any success on the southern shoulder of Kursk, and the OKW also had to draw on some German troops from the Eastern Front to bolster the Mediterranean theater following the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943.

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

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

References

  1. ^ Overy 1997, p. 208: "German losses were too great to allow a decisive breakthrough. Soviet forces held the German attack, but made little progress themselves. Flanking movements by heavy German forces to the left and right were repulsed".
  2. ^ Overy 1997, p. 210: By 15 July both sides had ended up where they started. The SS Divisions were devastated. The Death's Head Division which bore the brunt at Prokhorovka was withdrawn from the front.
  3. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 166. In the south as in the north the Germans were never able to achieve a significant operational penetration and were, therefore, unable to encircle and disrupt their enemy's rear areas.
  4. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 166: The Soviet's engineer and anti-tank forces, concentrated forces in depth, superb intelligence, and the mobility of their new tank armies had given the "Blitzkrieg its worst defeat. It was the first time a German strategic offensive had been halted before it could breakthrough enemy defences into the strategic depths beyond.
  5. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 166.
  6. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 166.
  7. ^ See also: Battle of Brody (1941).
  8. ^ Overy 1997, p. 210.
  9. ^ a b Bellamy 2007, p. 556.
  10. ^ Glantz 1991, p. 122.
  11. ^ Glantz 1991, p. 127.
  12. ^ Dunn 1997, p. 154.
  13. ^ a b Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 101.
  14. ^ Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 103.
  15. ^ a b Bergström 2007, p. 120.
  16. ^ Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 106.
  17. ^ Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 107.
  18. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 78.
  19. ^ a b Dunn 1997, p. 153.
  20. ^ Glantz 1995, pp. 166-167.
  21. ^ Glantz & House 1995, pp. 166-167.
  22. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 79-80.
  23. ^ Bergstrom 2007, p. 78.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Bergstrom 2007, p. 79.
  25. ^ a b c d e Bergstrom 2007, p. 80.
  26. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 167.
  27. ^ a b c d Bergstrom 2007, p. 81.

Sources

  • Bellamy, Chris. Absolute War; Soviet Russia in the Second World War. Pan Books. (2007). ISBN 978-0-330-48808-2
  • Bergström, Christer (2007). Kursk - The Air Battle: July 1943. Chervron/Ian Allen. ISBN 978-1-903223-88-8.
  • Cross, Robin. Citadel: The Battle of Kursk, Barnes & Noble Edition. (1998).ISBN 978-1-566195-81-2
  • Dunn, Walter (1997). Kursk: Hitler's Gamble, 1943. Greenwood Press Ltd. ISBN 978-0-275957-33-9.
  • Glantz, David M. & House, Jonathon. When Titans Clashed; How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University of Kansas Press. (1995). ISBN 978-0700608990-7
  • Glantz, David M. Soviet Military Operational Art; Pursuit of Deep Battle. Frank Cass. (1991). ISBN 0-7146 4077 8
  • Healy, Mark. (1992). Kursk 1943: Tide Turns in the East. Osprey Publishers, London. ISBN 978-1-85532-211-0
  • Overy, Richard. Russia's War.Pengiun Books. (1997). ISBN 0-14-027169-4
  • Zetterling, Niklas and Anders Frankson. Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis, London: Frank Cass, (2000). ISBN 0-7146-5052-8

External links

  • Kursk Reconsidered: Germany's Lost Victory from Historynet.com.
  • Review of Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis with a detailed comparison with the statistics provided by Walter Dunn's "Kursk: Hitler's Gamble, 1943", George Nipe's "Decision in the Ukraine", "The Battle of Kursk" by David Glantz and Jonathan House, and "The Battle for Kursk, 1943" from the Soviet General Staff.
  • La Batalla de Prokhorovka from Panzertruppen.org
  • Олейников Г.А. Прохоровское сражение (июль 1943). — СПб.: Нестор, 1998., [3] a comprehensive analysis in Russian
  • Валерий Замулин. Прохоровка — неизвестное сражение великой войны. М.: АСТ: АСТ МОСКВА: ХРАНИТЕЛЬ, 2006 ISBN 5-17-039548-5 - total description of movement of Russian and Germany troops based on Russian and Germany archive documents with full statistic of Russian troops. In Russian.







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