Saturday 12 July 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Prokhorovka Interview

The winter of 1942-1943 proved difficult for German soldiers. The Wehrmacht took heavy losses of vehicles and men. The Stalingrad catastrophe sapped the Reich's reputation, accentuating internal and external political problems. No one spoke of victory, the Germans could only hope to end the war with minimized losses.

In order to restore political and military prestige, the nazi leaders needed a successful campaign against its main enemy: the Soviet Union. This was the seed of Operation Citadel, an offensive at Kursk. Despite the fact that German commanders were sceptical about the chance of success, it was carried out anyway, and ended with a predictable German defeat.

One of the key moments of the battle was the tank battle at Prokhorovka. The amount of vehicles used was one of the greatest in all of WWII. Valeriy Nikolayevich Zamulin, Candidate of Historical Science, tells us details of this battle.

Valeriy Nikolayevich, the greatest tank battle at Kursk happened at Prokhorovka, on July 12th, 1943. There is much information about this battle, and it is largely contradictory...

Let's start with the fact that the Battle for Prokhorovka happened not only on July 12th. This day was only the culmination, its most dramatic moment. It started on July 10th, when the 2nd SS tank corps acted on the orders of the commander of the 4th tank army, General Hoth, to take Prokhorovka, to later deliver a strike to the rear of the defending Soviet forces, namely the 69th Army. The corps was composed of three motorized SS divisions: Death's Head, Adolf Hitler, and Das Reich. The battle lasted until July 16th. In the night of July 17th, German forces began their retreat to the Belgorod-Tomarovka-Borisovka line, their initial positions.

Data on the amount of vehicles that participated in the July 12th battle differs noticeably between American, Soviet, and German sources. How many tanks were really used?

The main events that used a large number of vehicles on July 12th at Prokhorovka happened in two placed. West of the station, in the so called "tank field", 514 Soviet tanks and SPGs faced off against 210 German tanks and assault guns for 9-10 hours. South of the station, 158 Soviet tanks and SPGs fought against 119 German vehicles. In total, 1001 armoured vehicles, according to documents declassified in the late 1990s.

The popular Soviet figure of 1500 vehicles is too high. It initially was an estimate in a report from the 5th Guards Tank Army for July of 1943, and migrated into historical literature from there.

Why overestimate the amount of vehicles?

The commander of the army needed to show that the losses for only 10 hours of battle were not the results of mistakes or miscalculations, but the army participated in an unbelievably grandiose battle. The losses from such a battle could not be small. In the open, these numbers were first encountered in the "Battle of Kursk: Summary" brochure, published in 1945.

What vehicles were used in battle?

The USSR used mostly T-34 medium tanks (70%), and light T-70s with a 45 mm gun, as well as three SPG regiments using SU-76, SU-122 and SU-152 vehicles. The 5th Guards Tank Army of Lieutenant-General P.A. Rotmistrov had two regiments of English Churchill MkIV tanks. As for heavy KV-1 tanks, there were only two of them during the entire 7 days of battles here, and neither was used directly in combat.

The SS divisions had ordinary PzIII and PzIV tanks, StuG assault guns, and Hummel and Wespe SPGs for fire support. There were Tigers, but very few. On the eve of the famous battle, on July 11th, only 15 Tiger tanks were recorded as functional. Adolph Hitler division, which fought a the "tank field", only had 4.

Panthers and Ferdinands are often mentioned in connection with this battle, but there weren't any here. The Panther battalion that was destined for Prokhorovka was partially defeated by Katukov's 1st Tank Army west of Prokhorovka, and partially broke down. All Ferdinands were in the north, at Ponyri station.

I want to highlight that the main causes of the failed Soviet counterattack on July 12th were the difficult terrain and the fact that Adolph Hitler division transferred to a defense. The greatest losses were suffered not from enemy tanks, but from artillery.

When the battle is described, the image of a massive field where tanks fight "point blank" appears. How was it really?

There are many stereotypes of the Prokhorovka tank battle, and they are far from reality. For instance, the terrain the 5th Guards advanced through did not allow for a massive tank rush which we often envision when reading about the battle. If this was possible, the Germans would have been overrun within the hour, as the main strike was delivered by the 18th and 29th Tank Corps, counting 368 tanks and SPGs, that's theoretically 60 tanks per kilometer, not counting the SPGs.

And there were even more, over 200 tanks of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps in the second echelon of the army. A successful Soviet counterattack would have been disastrous for the Germans, even though they were facing the better equipped enemy units.

Unfortunately, the Soviet counterattack was wedged between the Psel river and Storozhevoye stow, only 900 meters, where a single tank battalion (26 tanks) could deploy with difficulty, let alone a brigade or a corps.

General I.F. Kirichenko's 29th Tank Corps could only send 30-35 tanks in two echelons at a time between the Oktyabrskiy farm and height 252. As a result, a "tank rush" could not be achieved, and the tanks were sent to battle in small numbers, with significant intervals, under heavy enemy fire. Our forces took heavy losses at the start of the battle, and the knocked out tanks impeded the vehicles advancing behind them.

A large ravine impeded the neighbouring 18th Corps, passable by tanks in only one place. Even after passing it, the tanks could not form up for an attack, they needed to drive a few hundred more meters under enemy fire. The real advance of Soviet forces was as follows: 3-4 groups of 30-35 vehicles in two rows, one brigade after another, with intervals of 30 minutes to one hour.

Estimates of losses of both sides at Prokhorovka differ by orders of magnitude. Which are the closes to reality?

The most complicated situation is with the Germans. 80, 130, 350 losses are mentioned. There is also utter idiocy: 5 German tanks. Historians, me among them, consider that the SS lost 122-163 vehicles on July 12th, 20-30 permanently.

The small number of permanent losses creates an illusion, but make no mistake, the SS was heavily bloodied. Despite the fact that they controlled the field of battle until July 17th and could evacuate their vehicles, the majority of them was sent home to Germany for restoration. These may not be permanent losses, but long-term.

Our forces lost 340 tanks and 19 SPGs on July 12th. Of those, 193 tanks and 14 SPGs could not be recovered. This is caused by the Germans destroying Soviet vehicles as they were retreating.

What happened in the vicinity of the station after July 12th?

On the night of the 13th, the command of the Voronezh Front received a report that the 5th Guards Tank Army, due to heavy losses, was no longer battle capable. The best tank unit, which was necessary for a push to the Dnieper, lost near some railroad station in 10 hours, moving only two kilometers forward in the center, at the cost of a 4.5 km retreat at the flanks. The neighbouring 5th Guards Army, who also participated in the attack, faced similar difficulties.

Rotmistrov's guardsmen were incapable of holding the flank of the 69th Army, as heroically as they fought. As a result, the SS tank corps and the 3rd tank corps, newly arrived from the Belgorod direction, managed to encircle the 48th Infantry Corps of the 69th Army, four infantry divisions, at the Donets interfluve on July 15th. At dawn, the encircled units broke out, but with heavy losses. That marked the end of the Battle of Prokhorovka.

How important was the Battle of Prokhorovka to the Red Army?

A counteroffensive was planned on July 12th, the main part of which was the battle between the SS tank corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army. The goal of the offensive, the destruction of the SS tank corps, was not achieved; in those conditions, it would be impossible. The enemy held a large number of forces and caused them noticeable losses. Soviet propaganda inflated it to "the largest tank battle of all time". This was not it.

Nevertheless, the result of the tank battle was a victory, not a tie, as the German military historian Karl Frieser insists. The battle of Prokhorovka is a culminating moment in the Battle of Kursk, after which enemy resistance decreased drastically. I must remark that many publications have a logistical mistake: correlation equals causation! I don't want to equate the events called Battle of Prokhorovka and the battle at Prokhorovka on July 12th, 1943. The tank battle is only one part, if an important part, of the battle.

The Soviet forces achieved their objective: they did not let the enemy break through their defenses and caused serious losses to their enemy.

About the interviewee: Valeriy Nikolayevich Zamulin is a military historian, a Candidate of Sciences. In 2009, he defended his thesis on the historical issues of the Battle of Kursk, the defensive operation of the Voronezh front from July 5th to 23rd. From March 1996 to August 2009, he worked as a director and then deputy director of scientific work at the Federal Cultural Office "State Military-Historical Museum-Preserve "Prokhorovka Field"". He is the author of over 60 scientific publications, including 5 monographs in Russian and English. He participated in a number of documentary films and series on Russian television channels, as well as several radio shows on the Battle of Kursk.

Original article available here.


  1. Oktyabrskiy farm and height 252 - This area was from 1500-2000 meters wide. You can find it with Google Earth. The 32nd and 181st Tank brigades were eviscerated trying to take Oktyabrskiy farm.

  2. The interview is reasonable, except for that it repeats inflated numbers of german tank losses in view of openly accessible strength reports of the three divisions.

    The total number of knocked out tanks, StuG and SPG of the three divisions was above 48 but not by much. The on-hand strength reports indicate that the strength dropped from 23:00 on 11th of July to 23:00 12th of July by 48 tanks, StuG and SPG (Marder). On top of this number, one needs to add the number of tanks repaired between the nights of 11th and 12th. The numbers vary according to the defintion and theory behind the calculation but careful examination of the reports indicates that there is evidence to suggest that the IInd SS PzCorps had to sustain a minimum of ~60 knocked out tanks and a maximum of about ~70 knocked out tanks, StuG and SPG. Of these, only seven tanks/StuG/SPG were eventually recorded on this or the following days as total write off (four from LSAH and three from TOTENKOPF).

    It´s possible that the number of lossed units is understated by the fact that both sides had a number of captured enemy tanks in their possession, and might have used and/or lost a number of these. Captured tanks fail to make it into the officially reported statistics.