Previously we covered the Wehrmacht’s defeat
in Stalingrad. It was very costly in terms of the soldiers, material and morale, and
also threatened the positions of the German Army along the Eastern front of the WWII.
Liberation of Kursk, Rostov and Kharkiv by the Red Army in the February of 1943 put further
pressure on the German army and it was time to counter-attack to regain the initiative.
The biggest tank battle in history was right around the corner… In February 1943 the German Field Marshall
Mannstein got the approval of Hitler to launch a counter-offensive on the Southern Front.
On Feb 21 the 4th Panzer Army started the offensive and reoccupied Kharkiv and Belgorod.
The Red Army fell back to Kursk and soon after that, military action stopped due to Spring
mud season known as Rasputitsa preventing the movement of armour and infantry.
On 15 April Hitler ordered the Operation Zitadelle (Citadel), which targeted encirclement of
5 Soviet armies in the Kursk area from the North and the South. General Model’s 9th
Army would attack from the North to connect with the 4th Panzer Army of Hoth and Army
Detachment Kempf under Werner Kempf, which would attack from the South. These groups
were supposed to meet in the East of Kursk with an aim to encircle the Red Army defending
it. There was a significant disagreement among the German military leadership and Hitler
about the potential of the Operation Citadel. Some were proposing to abandon the operation
and prepare for strategic defense and wait for a chance to pierce through weaker parts
of the Soviet front in counter attacks, which suited the German strength in mobile tank
warfare much more. Others indicated that, if Operation Citadel was to proceed, it must
start as soon as possible, since there was information that, the Soviets were actively
building defensive constructions around Kursk. Despite the initial plan to start the offensive
in May, Hitler decided to postpone it until arrival of new tanks to the front. As a result,
the offensive started two months later than the initially planned date.
The Soviets possessed intelligence indicating that, the German Army was preparing for a
major offensive. Zhukov persuaded Stalin to wait for the German offensive instead of striking
first, wear them out, knock out as many tanks as possible and then use the first chance
for a decisive counter-offensive. So the Soviets proceeded in building construction of defense
structures, fortifications, minefields and anti-tank obstacles. The Voronezh Front under
Nikolai Vatutin was to defend the South of the Kursk salient, while the North was to
be defended by the Central Front under Konstantin Rokossovsky. There was also the Steppe Front
waiting in reserve commanded by Ivan Konev. In preparation for the German offensive the
Soviets employed partisan tactics behind German lines to disrupt supplies and communication
of the German armies. This proved to be successful, since partisans were able to destroy 298 locomotives,
1222 railway wagons and 44 bridges, which delayed the German offensive.
In total Germans had up to 780.000 men and around 3000 tanks available for the Kursk
offensive, while the Red Army possessed up to 2 million men and over 5000 tanks. The
manpower and armour advantage for the Soviets was overwhelming.
The preliminary engagements started on 4 July 1943, when the German infantry started the
offensive in the South and proceeded to penetrate the first line of the Soviet defenses. This
was followed by the Panzer attack by the panzergrenadier division Grossdeutschland, which succeeded
in capturing of Butovo village and Gerstovka despite heavy losses due to fierce Soviet
resistance and minefields. 36 Panzer tanks were immobilized due to mines just in one
episode on the left flank of the attack. Grossdeutschland reached Mikhailovka on the left and Tirechnoe
on the right. This created a wedge in the first line of the Soviet defence. To the east
the II SS Panzer Corps managed to break through the first line of defence, but the Red Army
resistance and inabilitity of the 3rd SS Division to advance together with the rest of the II
SS Panzer Corps, stopped the advance short of breaching the second defence line and exposed
the right flank of the offensive to the Soviet troops. Parts of the Army Detachment Kempf
succeeded in forcing the River Donets and advancing up to 10 kilometers in parts of
the front. But again, Soviet resistance, defensive constructions, disadvantageous terrain halted
the overall progress of the Wehrmacht and they fell short of breaching the second line
of Soviet defence. Up North the 47th Panzer Corps started the
advance on July 5. Red Army’s 15th Rifle division, minefields and strong fortifications
slowed the German advance. Information from an interrogated POW assured Germans that,
there was a weak part in the Soviet defenses and the Tiger tanks were sent there. 90 T34
tanks were sent by the Soviets to confront the Tiger tanks, but after a 3 hour battle
the Soviets lost 40 tanks, while Germans lost only 7. But the lost time allowed the Soviets
to seal the weak part of the defense. The fierce resistance by the Soviets and defense
fortifications allowed Germans only a minor advance of 10 kilometres.
6 July saw back and forth action. Initially the Soviet 16th Tank Corps went on a counter-offensive,
and faced by the 505th Heavy Tank Batallion of the Wehrmacht. The Soviets had to retreat
after losing 69 tanks. Later that day, the Germans tried to break Soviet defence in Okhlovatka
and Ponyri, but the Red Army stood firm. Over the next three days, the German army continued
its attack on strategically important Okhlovatka and Ponyri. The Soviets reinforced the defence
in those areas too. By July 10 after heavy house-to-house fighting Germans were able
to capture most of Ponyri, but were not able to penetrate the Soviet defence in Okhlovatka.
Still the Soviets were suffering heavy losses in attempts to halt German advance. As a consequence
forces of the reserve of the Steppe Front were sent to reinforce the defence against
the XLVIII Panzer Corps, which was one defensive belt away from breaking through to the Soviet
unfortified rear. The 5th Guards, 2nd Guards, 2nd and 10th Tank Corps of the Soviet Army
were ordered to move towards Korocha, 40 kilometres Southeast to Prokhorovka to confront the II
SS Panzer Corps on 8 July. The Soviet counter-offensive ended in a failure due to poor coordination.
50 Soviet tanks were destroyed by Luftwaffe, which was the first time in history, when
the whole tank formation was destroyed by airstrikes alone. This counter-offensive slowed
down the German advance, but by 11 July Army Detachment Kempf managed to break through
while the II SS Panzer Corps was order to move towards Prokhorovka. German success here
would potentially mean encirclement of the Soviet forces protecting Kursk.
The Germans had 294 tanks, while 616 were in disposal of the Red Army for the battle
of Prokhorovka. On 12 July about 500 tanks and self-propelled guns of the Soviet 5th
Guards Tank Army started its attack on the II SS-Panzer Corps. 430 of them were in the
first echelon and 70 in the second. They attack the positions of the Liebstandarte division.
1st SS-Panzer Regiment were sent to confront them. Here they faced Soviet tanks of the
31st and 32nd Tank Brigades of the 29th Tank Corps’ and a tank battle started.
The tactic of the Soviet tank commander Rotmistrov to close in and fire at high speed negatively
affected the coordination and accuracy of the Soviet tanks. After 3 hour battle the
1st SS Panzer regiment reported destruction of as many as 62 Soviet tanks and repulsed
their attack. Nevertheless, later in the afternoon of that day tanks from the 31st Tank Brigade
and the 53rd Motorized Brigade defeated elements of the 1st SS-Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion
and reached Komsomolets State Farm, which put the Leibstandarte’s communication lines
and overall operations in grave danger. Four Tiger tanks engaged in battle with the Soviet’s
181 Tank Brigade in attempt to protect the left flank of Liebstandarte. They successfully
repelled the Soviet attack, inflicted heavy losses and managed to stay unharmed in this
skirmish. After that elements of the Soviet 170th Tank Brigade attacked the 1st SS-Panzer
Regiment, which was already engaged with the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades. Despite losing
its commander and about 30 tanks in the fight the 170th Tank Brigade pushed the 1st SS-Panzer
Regiment and reached the position of the 1st SS-Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion. Soon the
170th and 181st Tank Brigades breached the German line connecting Totenkopf and Leibstandarte,
but were eventually pushed back to the village of Andreevka. Towards the end of the day Liebestandarte
fell back from the Oktyabrskiy State Farm due to heavy Soviet attack.
Soviets suffered heavy tank losses in the battle of Prokhorovka. The estimates of permanently
or temporarily damaged tanks were between 330 and 650, while the Germans lost 60-80
tanks. There is a staggering difference in this biggest tank battle in the history of
the military and it might look like Wehrmacht gained from it. But despite heavy losses the
Soviets were able to stall the German advance, significantly drain its resources and create
ground for a successful counter-offensive. Battle of Prokhorovka, along with the Allied
invasion of Sicily led to abandoning of Operation Citadel and offensive operations and Germans
went to defensive. To the North of Kursk Soviets launched the
Operation Kutuzov on 12 July. As a result the German Army Group Center was pushed back
by the Bryansk Front and by the Western Front. It was followed by the Operation Rumyantsev
conducted by the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front in attempt to destroy the 4th Panzer
Army and Army Detachment Kempf, and cut off the extended southern portion of Army Group
South from the rest of the German Army. Soviets liberated Belgorod on 5 August and Kharkiv
on 23 August. The battle of Kursk was the first instance
of Wehrmacht being unable to make a significant breakthrough in its offensive in the Eastern
Front. Despite, relatively successful start by the Germans, the vast manpower resources
and increasing military-industrial potential of the Soviets proved to be too much for the
German Army. Despite heavy losses the Red Army was able to push back and liberate some
of its territories. Emerging problems in Italy forced Hitler to further weaken his troops
in the Eastern Front and transfer some of them to the Western Front. The noose was getting
tighter… Thanks for watching our documentary on the
battle of Prokhorovka and the Kursk operation. We are going to continue our series on the
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