Alright, so we shattered all those illusions about the battle of Kursk in our last two posts. Operation Zitadelle was not a breakthrough attempt, but an operation with more limited goals, including a shortening of the German line in order for form reserves for future action. In fact, it was the smallest summer offensive the Germans had yet launched in the east, a fraction the size of Operation Barbarossa (1941) or Operation Blue (1942).
But what about “the greatest tank battle of all time”? What about Prokhorovka? The Germans were nothing in World War II if not meticulous record keepers–even of their atrocities–and so one would expect to find a big red number in the German armor listings for July 12, the day this battle was fought. Perhaps, if you discovered it in the archives, you might even expect to see a marginalia scrawled alongside the table of figures, something like “Mein Gott!” or “Scheiss!” Instead, one finds hardly anything at all. No great tank apocalypse, no “death ride,” no “swan song of the German Panzers.” Ask most of the German tank crews who were there, and they would tell a tale of a hard defensive struggle against a massive Soviet counterstroke. They had taken moderate losses, but they had dished out some serious pain to the attackers. A good day’s work, all in all.
For the myth of Prokhorovka, we have to look to the writings of General Pavel Rotmistrov, commander of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army. Tasked to launch a counterstroke to halt the drive of Army Group South (and its spearhead, II SS Panzer Corps), he did so con brio, as it were, launching a massive frontal assault into the teeth of the advancing Germans. Mixing it up close-range with Panthers and Tigers almost always had deleterious consequences. His losses were stupendous, and only recently have post-Soviet archives been telling the tale. The XXIX Tank Corps, for example, lost 95 of its 122 T-34 tanks, 36 of its 70 light T-70s, and 19 of its 20 assault guns. It didn’t have to be this way. Soviet formations fighting alongside Rotmistrov fought with less boldness, perhaps, but with more wisdom, and brought the Germans to a halt without such mind-boggling losses.
So Rotmistrov had some explaining to do, and explain he did. In his memoirs, he painted what became the received version of Prokhorovka, owning up to his own losses, yes, but claiming to have destroyed 400 tanks and broken the back of the SS Panzer Corps that day. Now, that really would have been an achievement, since there were only 267 tanks in the entire corps at Prokhorovka. Indeed, German losses for all of Army Group South in the entire twelve days of the Kursk offensive amounted to just 161. He also claimed to have destroyed 70 Tigers. The actual number of Tigers lost at Prokhorovka? 0.
And from there? Well let’s just say historians and authors were off and running. “The greatest tank battle of all time.” “The battle of 6,000 tanks.” Ridiculous descriptions of a vast meeting engagement of 1500 tanks on a battlefield “500 meters wide and 1000 meters deep at most,” which is something I would definitely like to see.
Was Prokhorovka a big battle? Absolutely. The turning point of the war? Maybe yes, maybe no. The greatest tank battle in history? Probably not.
For the more discussion on the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II Magazine’s Facebook page.