A New Deconstruction of Prokhorovka

Demolishing the Myth
The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrativ
e
By Valeriy Zamulin. 672 pp.
Helion & Company, 2011. $69.95.

For anyone interested in the war between Russia and Germany, the battle of Prokhorovka had it all. On July 12, 1943, the Eastern Front’s essential elements coalesced here in a perfect metaphorical storm. A dramatic, climactic head-on clash between an elite Soviet tank army and the Waffen SS was spearheaded by a muzzle-to-muzzle, hull-to-hull confrontation between the war’s finest signature tanks—Germany’s Tiger and Russia’s T-34. At day’s end, the report allegedly raced across Soviet radio networks: “The Tigers are burning!” No more needed to be said.

It’s a swell story, and historians liked it as much as anyone. But in recent years, scholars examining surviving German records in detail have unearthed significant data that undercuts its dramatic flair. Far from being annihilated, the Tiger units lost only a few tanks. In fact, the Soviet Guards tangled themselves in the terrain, the dust, and their own numbers, suffering massive losses for no significant gain. Indeed, current orthodoxy among historians redefines Prokhorovka as a German local victory that, if properly understood and exploited at the time, might have salvaged something from Operation Citadel.

Historian Valeriy Zamulin restores balance to the battle with this remarkable volume, one of the finest examples of World War II operational history published since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Beginning in the 1990s, he worked with newly declassified operational accounts prepared by the Red Army units engaged at Kursk, and with participant accounts in the Prok­horovka Field Museum. He then dove deep into German sources. Several years after its Russian publication, here at last is an English edition.

“Definitive” is a tag abused by reviewers, but for this book it is unavoidable. For starters, Zamulin establishes the actual numbers and the losses on both sides. He presents the personalities and abilities of Russian commanders who have too often previously appeared as mere opposite numbers to their German adversaries. And he describes German and Russian troop movements, operationally and behind the lines, with astounding clarity since this pivotal battle was defined by hamlets and hills never heard of before or since.

Detailed and coherent, focusing down to company level when appropriate, Zamulin’s Demolishing the Myth concludes that Prokhorovka was not in fact World War II’s largest tank battle—that distinction goes, ironically, to one of the Soviet disasters during Barbarossa’s opening weeks. It accepts that German tank losses were much less than generally thought. It makes no effort to conceal Soviet errors of command and execution. It even concedes that the Germans held their ground and prevented a Soviet breakthrough.

But what really counts is that the Germans, too, were stopped completely. Their best troops, under their best commanders, failed to execute a comprehensively planned operation. After this, the Red Army never turned back, while the long German retreat led inexorably to the streets of Berlin.

2 Responses

  1. bobe

    The Operation Citadel was a gamble, after STALINGRAD germans lacked infantry for such an offensive, ZHUKOV was aware of that, he had information about every german formation in all details, he had information from spies (german and british ) and partisans behind enemy lines, it was a gamble from a LUNATIC HITLER, to bleed his best soldiers its tanks and airplanes, in a final wreck of the powerful german army/airforce.
    the delay of CITADEL just made possible to create formidable soviet defenses lines.
    Prrokhorovka was a disaster for the soviets but it stopped the germans and HITLER again helped soviets by halting offensive to help MUSSOLINI, another example of insanity, soviets had no more reserves while germans still had some fresh panzer divisions.
    KURSK was a waste for the germans, although a GERMAN TACTICAL VICTORY(outnumbered they caused much higher losses on the enemy) the soviet rapidly replaced their losses in men airplanes and tanks, while the germans couldn’t do it, so the war was over in the eastern front.
    What we hear about soviet propaganda is that PROKHOROVKA was a soviet victory but all the new information available points to contrary,
    it was catastrophic disaster for the soviets, also the TIGER made such FEAR on the soviets that they spread lies about it and said that after the third day MOSCOW laid claim to 1,539 tank kills what was just a absurd.

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  2. Craig

    Great work by the Russian author. This is an excellent work, fully supported and documented that shines the light on this battle and again supports all of Manstien’s claims to Hitler at the time and in his book lost victories. This is so much better than the book done by David Glantz that bored me to tears. Glantz did great and invaluable research for us in the west. He got the actual Soviet documents and then dryly reprinted them, in a cut and paste style, but I digress.

    It is so nice to read a work on this subject by an actual writer / historian. I would like to read more works by this great writer, as I am sure he must have done other then just the Citadel offensive.

    The Soviets lied about all the battles, yet Roosevelt believed everything good old Uncle Joe told him.
    I hesitate to say we fought with the wrong dictator in the war, but I agree with Patton and Churchill that we shouldn’t have stopped on the Elbe and we should have just kept going until both of the great dictators were overthrown

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