Author Ben Wheatley discusses the Battle of Prokhorovka on the 80th anniversary of the battle.
This article consists of extracts from The Panzers of Prokhorovka, published on June 8th 2023
It is important to remember (and often overlooked in the West) that despite suffering a very high number of armoured losses on 12 July 1943 during the battle of Prokhorovka, the Soviets achieved their central aim of halting the German II SS Panzer Korps’ drive on the town (the Red Army lost as many as 246 armoured fighting vehicles [AFVs] during the battle and its immediate aftermath). As a result, the Soviets were the clear winners of the battle of Prokhorovka.
A Leibstandarte Panzer IV on Hill 252.2’s summit supports the semi-tracked armoured personnel carrier (SPW) battalion’s abortive attack towards Hill 252.4 and the town of Prokhorovka (2.5km away) on the afternoon of 11 July 1943. (NARA)
The seeds of Soviet victory were sown prior to the battle when a formidable artillery capability (on the governing Hill 252.4 in particular) and an almost impenetrable anti-tank screen was installed close to the small township of Prokhorovka. By the evening of 11 July the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Panzergrenadier Division had already recognised the unfeasibility of a frontal assault on Prokhorovka (confirmed by the Leibstandarte armoured personnel carrier battalion’s probing attack on 11 July). That day the Leibstandarte stated, ‘The frontal attack on Prokhorovka, because of the strong anti-tank and artillery fire from the southeast outskirts [of the town] and the commanding elevation 252.4, is possible only with great losses. Proposal, after the capture of Hill 252.4 by the left-hand neighbour [Totenkopf SS Panzergrenadier Division], conduct an artillery preparation and bombing of Prokhorovka’. However, Hill 252.4 was destined never to be captured. On 13 July Totenkopf, under heavy pressure, was forced to retreat from the Prokhorovka-Kartashevka road to its 12 July start lines around Hill 226.6 (close to the Psel River crossings). As a result, Totenkopf was never able to launch the flanking assault on Hill 252.4 that the Leibstandarte deemed was a prerequisite to its own assault on Prokhorovka. Totenkopf’s inability to suppress Hill 252.4’s devastating artillery fire meant that any prospect of a serious Leibstandarte assault on Prokhorovka evaporated. On 13 July the Leibstandarte again probed the Soviet defences in front of Prokhorovka, this time north of Oktiabrskiy State Farm, but as on 11 July no weak spots could be found. Furthermore, by 17 July, despite its recent high number of armoured losses, the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army was still capable of bringing together 444 operational AFVs for the defence of Prokhorovka. In addition, a further 211 Soviet AFVs were under repair or in transit to the front. It was the combination of these complicating factors that forced the Germans to shift their intended axis of advance (away from Prokhorovka) towards the north-west and Oboyan.
Therefore, on two occasions (11 and 13 July – see images 1–3 for the former and image 4 for the latter) the German attackers simply had no answer to the extremely powerful Soviet defences that had been installed to protect Prokhorovka (see image 5). In addition, after the battle the 5th Guards Tank Army still possessed over 650 AFVs. As a result of these realities the Germans, having failed to obtain flanking support, had no hope of continuing their advance on the Prokhorovka axis.
Beyond Hill 252.2 the Leibstandarte SPW battalion and attached Sf 150mm heavy infantry guns (Grille) soon came under intense Soviet bombardment. As a result, the Germans only managed to advance a short distance beyond Hill 252.2 (11 July 1943). (NARA)
The Leibstandarte SPW battalion and Grille were forced to seek cover in the undulating terrain, and by 20:15 the Germans had withdrawn back to Hill 252.2. The abortive nature of this attack confirmed to the II SS Panzer Korps’ leadership that any frontal assault on Prokhorovka would be extremely costly given the Soviet’s anti-tank and artillery strength (11 July 1943). (NARA)
At 10:30 on 13 July 1943 the Leibstandarte made one final attempt to breach the Soviet defences beyond Hill 252.2, this time north of Oktiabrskiy state farm. Once again, the Germans could find no way through the superior Soviet defences. (II SS Panzer Korps Map, 13 July 1943.) (NARA).
Overall, it is remarkable that the historiography of the battle of Prokhorovka has evolved so radically over the last 30 years, arguably more so than any other battle during the Second World War. In 1993 it was still believed that the Germans had suffered a war-changing armoured disaster at Prokhorovka with the loss of as many as 400 tanks. Now, in 2023, The Panzers of Prokhorovka has verified for the first time, through statistical and imagery analysis, that there was no German armoured disaster at Prokhorovka (the Germans lost a maximum of 16 AFVs during the battle). The reality of the battle being recognised with the greatest respect to the Soviet loss of life. The post-war testimony of Soviet war photographer Anatoly Yegorov is perhaps telling. His nephew Mikhail Yegorov recalled what Anatoly told him about his work: ‘Most of those photos were not published. “Do you know why no panoramic photos of the Prokhorovka battlefield were ever shown in our country?” my uncle asked me. “Because for every burning Tiger there were ten of our smashed-up T-34s! How could you publish such photos in the papers?”’
The disproportionally high number of Soviet armoured losses did not, however, equate to a Soviet defeat at Prokhorovka. As we have seen, the Soviets instead gained victory at Prokhorovka by virtue of possessing a formidable artillery capability, establishing an impenetrable anti-tank defence and by maintaining a high number of operational tanks. Even though this victory may not be the one of legend, the Soviet soldiers who fought so courageously against Nazism at Prokhorovka still deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for their victory.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance image from 23 August 1943. This image highlights elements of the impenetrable Soviet anti-tank screen that had been installed on the outskirts of Prokhorovka. These defences were never breached by the Germans. (NARA)
If you enjoyed today's article you can find out more about the battle in Ben's new book here.