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The Greatest Tank Battle of All Time

By Robert M. Citino
6/6/2010 • Fire for Effect

Well, maybe.

The title of this entry is no doubt instantly familiar to every student, aficionado, and wargaming  grognard of World War II.  We’re talking here about the battle of Kursk, Operation Citadel, the monstrous armored clash between the German and Soviet armies in 1943.  There was desperation on both sides.  The Germans were trying to chew through a tough Soviet defensive position into open ground, where, they believed, their superior training and initiative could equalize the enemy’s superior numbers.  An increasingly confident (and why not?) Soviet army was counterattacking from day one, at first in isolated locales and later, with their operational reserves, all over the map.

And then, the climax of the battle near a non-descript village named Prokhorovka.  In this corner, the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, under General Pavel Rotmistrov; in that one, the II SS Panzer Corps, under one-eyed SS General Paul Hausser.  Once again, the Germans were on the prowl, seeking to thrust across the Psel river, the last natural obstacle in front of Kursk.  Once again, the Soviets alternated between holding on grimly and launching vicious counterstrokes.  What a day!  Frightening intensity, intermingled columns, point-blank main gun fire, and yes—every student of the war knows it—tanks ramming one another in the scorching July heat.  One Soviet participant (Colonel G. A. Koltunov) described Prokhorovka as “an immense knotted mass of tanks.”  In the end, the Soviets held, the Germans failed to break through, and Operation Citadel was effectively over. 

As ever, it’s a compelling, even irresistible, narrative.  Kursk has it all, the elite mechanized formations of the SS, Soviet heroism in defense of the homeland, and tanks—LOTS of tanks.  For the Germans, the new Panthers and Tigers made an appearance, not to mention a gigantic tank destroyer named Ferdinand.  For the Soviets, the trusty T-34 proved once again to be the margin between victory and defeat.  The significance of the battle, like its size, appears to be massive.  Indeed, for all those historians who point to the German defeat in front of Moscow (1941) as the turning point of the war, or the encirclement of German 6th Army at Stalingrad (1942), there have always been a sizable number who see that same turning point in Kursk.  It was the “swan song for the German Panzers,” their collective death ride.

For decades, historians were nearly unanimous.  It was the greatest tank battle of all time.  Or was it?  Next time out, let’s discuss “Kursk:  the Amazingly Shrinking Battle.”

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23 Responses to The Greatest Tank Battle of All Time

  1. Andrew Morris says:

    I think that the further we get away from the actual events of the war the more romanticism seeps in and the “stories” of WWII become the accepted narrative and there’s an attitude of “we love the story, so don’t upset me with the actual details” prevailing out amongst most people today. Also, if we’re honest, isn’t it stories and “facts” like theses that drew us into the study of history in the first place?
    Even so, it’s still a great task to look down into the nitty-gritty details to find out what actually happened – it’s the best way to honor those who fought and died in defense of their country.

  2. paul penrod says:

    Some revisionists have indicated that the Germans didn’t loose nearly as much at Kursk than has been stated in years past. Kursk did mark the fatal departure of German planners and operations from the finesse and maneuver style of warfare that they
    had been successful with. Instead, they resorted to a head to head slugfest with the Russians, an enemy that could not be worn down
    Although armored aficionados revel at the appearance of Tigers, Panthers and Ferdinands, against the hordes of T-34s and the unceasing phalanxes of dug in Soviets 76.2’s, heavy artillery and rocket launchers, they may well have been the handful of scorpions battling the swarms of ants played with by a group of kids as the “Wild Bunch” rode by

  3. Bill Nance says:

    Of course this was also the operational debut of the panther, so it really sucked in this particular battle.

    Really, Kursk just was a demonstration of why the Germans were failing. To muster all their strength, and all they can manage is an unsuccessful two army assault against one salient.

    It was not a departure from their previous tactics, instead it was the proof that the Soviets had gained enough strength and operational savvy to prevent the Germans from pulling a dramatic breakthrough. When both sides are now experienced in high intensity, manuever warfare, with equivalent weapon systems (either through tech or numbers), the result is most often – an attritional slugging match. Germany is never going to win that kind of war against the Soviet Union without some sort of strategic head shot (i.e. assassination of Stalin).

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  5. Mike Reese says:

    Guderian wanted to hold back the armor reserve he had built, wait for the Russians to attack, and then counter-attack to destroy the Russians in the open. Maybe. The Germans did it the winter before with Manstein’s counter-offensive that created the Kursk saliant. I think a key problem for the Germans was in determining just where the Soviets would attack, and having their reserves available in the right place. On the other hand the Germans could still out-fight the Soviets in the open. No way of knowing the outcome if Hitler had listened to Guderian and Manstein. We know now that the Soviets knew where the attack would come, and Zukhov talked Stalin into waiting for the Germans to attack. The Northern thrust was stopped cold, but the Southern German attack came so close – then Italy was invaded and the German offensive halted. Then the Soviets attacked to the north of Kursk.

  6. Bill Nance says:

    I might disagree about the Germans being able to out-fight the Russians in the open. Prokorovka pretty much proved the opposite. True, the Germans held the battlefield at the end, but not much else, and at catastrophic losses.

    I will agree that the Germans could still hold their own against Soviet forces in the open, but then this turns into a slugging match where the side with the most wins.

    Also, let’s be fair to the Soviets. Their operational art was pretty good from 43 on (actually from the mid 30’s but Stalin purged ’em all). Their wins weren’t just steamroller, there was some art there. By 43, the Soviets had some generals just as good as Guderian, Manstein, and company. Imagine, a guy as good as you, with lots more toys to play with.

    By mid 44, the Germans were like a Superbowl team that shows up at the game, but only can put 7 guys on the field. They might play like champions, but the other side is just as good, and there are more of them.

  7. Luke Truxal says:

    Very nice Bill.

  8. Peter says:

    Not even the weather is correct in the version: heavy thunderstorms on the 12th of July. It was hot, but it was muddy and wet. Its also worth stressing that the tanks on both sides were far poorer than generally claimed. On the German side no Panthers, No Ferdinands and possibly as few as 4 Tigers. Most were Stugs, PzIII and IV. On the Soviet side plenty of T34/76 but plenty of T70 & SU-76 too. The only heavy tanks were 35 British lend-lease Churchills.

  9. Mike Mullikin says:

    No one can deny the importance of Kursk; I accept the view that after Stalingrad the Germans couldn’t win and after Kursk they had to lose. After Kursk the Germans never again took the strategic offensive in the East. But the greatest tank battle of all time? I don’t think so.
    Considering the scale of the forces involved, the brilliance of the planning, near-perfection in execution, and decisiveness of effect I nominate the battle of 73 Easting in the first Gulf War.

    • MIKE D. DZIUBA says:

      You are obviously german and unwilling to give the soviets credit for having surperior muscle brains,and leadership.

  10. Bob Simpson says:

    Though Kursk was an intense battle that lasted all of 4 (?) days, it was more important in denying the german army regaining the strategic nitiative. After Kursk the german army, with small exceptions, sat and waited for the soviets to attack. A battle they could never win.
    Kursk also showed that the soviets could take a full blitzkrieg attack and counterattack with a blitzkrieg in 12 places afterward. The smartest thing Stalin did in 1943 and beyond was to let Zhukov and his other generals fight the battles. Advance and retreat as needed. Hitler was the self-appointed in charge of all armed services. He moved battalions here and there. He created armies with 2000 man divisions while his field forces were quickly burnt out. It was not Kursk, the city, which was important to the attacking german army. It was the attempted destruction of 7-8 russian armies in an attempt to slow them down. I think even Hitler at this point knew he did not have the force to beat the soviets. I think Himmler was hoping for a negotiated peace on the east front so the germans could deal with the west. Sort of a WW 1 repeat.

  11. Mark Healy says:

    This is my first posting on this site so please bear with me.
    I wrote a book on the Battle of Kursk entitled ‘Zitadelle – the German offensive against the Kursk salient’ that was published in Oct 2008. My own view is that in the battle the Germans demonstrated once again that they were still tactically superior to the Soviets in their handling of armoured formations. Indeed, it was recognition of that factor that underlay, in part, the manner whereby the Red Army drew up its defences within the salient. Furthermore, the bulk of German armour viz Pz IV, Tiger, Panther, Stugs and many of the assorted panzerjaeger were mounting superior guns and their crews were better trained.
    That being said, the Soviets demonstrated a remarkable flexibility in the manner in which they deployed and employed their T-34s en masse. I think it is simply in error to see Kursk as a massive tank battle to bolster the fixed defences. Indeed, it was Soviet artillery and anti-tank guns that accounted for most German tank losses – be they write offs ( of which there were realtively few in the offensive phase) and damaged machines ( of which there were narly a 1,000 in the south by the 10 July).
    It was the totality of Soviet defences and the manner in which armour was used by the Soviets to aid and support them that saw the Germans down.
    In my opinion , it was the dearth of infantry divisions caused by the massive losses of the previous two years in the East that profoundly impacted on the ability of German armour to force the decision that would have ben needed to carry the battle. Their lack led to a far higher loss rate among the attacking panzers than probably would have been the case had they been available.
    My own view is that tnotwithstanding the quantity and quality of the armour assembled by the Germans the offensive had little chance of succeeding – a position held by quite a number of senior German officers at the time. It must also be noted, that as usual, German intelligence of Soviet forces was quite wide of the mark ( note Guderians complain of the 10 July when he likened the the seemingly endless number of T-34s /T-70s to rats streaming across the fields)
    As to whether it was the greatest tank battle.
    It was not one battle but two. That in the north of the salient and that in the south were fought virtually independently of each other. Prokhorovka was matched in size by tank clashes in the northern sector on the 6/7th July.
    I think the ‘greatest tank battle ‘aspect has been over-hyped as think is also true of the importance of the ‘battle’ itself.
    Germany had lost the war by that date.
    Even Hitler and Zeitzler did not believe that victory at Kursk would grant the Germans anything more than a temporary breathing space in the east.
    Forgive the length of my response.

  12. Frank Hinchman says:

    I am reminded of the exchange Hitler had with Guderian on the latter’s intentions when and if a breakthrough was achieved at the Meuse; If the initial destruction of the Soviet armies is achieved at Kursk, then we can infer that Hitler would be open to the initial proposals by Manstein to drive towards the Sea of Azov; and there we have a ‘decisive’ German victory.

    It is incomplete to label the battle a ‘spoiling’ operation, in the same way it is incomplete to view the 1941 German plan of attack into the Baltic States as indecisive; when you are leaving out the ultimate goal to move on Leningrad and beyond. The entire strategic situation changes if Germany wins at Kursk, and it would be foolish to think the Military Leadership wouldn’t look to stabilize the situation now threatening the Crimea if they had removed the threat from Kharkov and Orel.

  13. Keith says:

    Sorry WWII groupies, Kursk was a baby battle in comparison. 73 Easting put nearly 8,000 tanks at each others faces – it just went REALLY ONE WAY.

    Have fun!

  14. chris ellis says:

    The comments that 73 hastings was the greatest tank battle is again part of an american Bias that any us victory is the greatest is absolutely ludicrous …. Comparing the useless and feeble iraqui army to the russian or german forces is crazy . Considering the stakes in ww2 the american victory against iraq was comparable to a lion taking on an ant syop your cheerleading america your victorys lately have all been against small backwards forces not fit to even train for war forget fighting one

  15. John Salander says:

    it seems the professionals have been replaced by amateur cheerleaders…

    i recommend the amateurs take a spin by the wiki so they can freshen up before speaking at random…

  16. Friendly says:


    i think a lot guys need to read some more informations about the tankbattle of prohorovka…

    first: Kursk was a big battle, with a northern and southern pincer.
    P. was just one battle in it

    second: P was a big german win, they killed estimated in a 20:1 ratio russian tanks
    But – these tanks wer not all KV1 and t34, they had lots of T70 and other light tanks.
    third: the germans had four tigers and 30 or less mark IV in that battle…. the russians around 350 tanks…

    next thing: it was an onesides massacre, russian tanks driven by inexperienced soldiers against dug in german grenadiers of 1. SS Division (Regiment Der Fuehrer) of the germans. Germans lost around 4 tanks totally and 16 or 18 tanks,but they could repair these… but the russian advance earned the russians some time

    also: no tiger got rammed by t34… that was a propaganda lie to cover the huge russian losses.

    the russians won this battle in the north, their counterattack at orel forced Model to stop his attacks in the north. But most important, the allied invasion in sicily caused hitler to panik (he wanted to withdraw 2.SS Panzerkorps to italy)….

    But this battle wasn´t even really costly for the russians… the 4th battle of charkow in august 43 was much more costly in tanks

  17. aldol says:

    only a couple of comments.
    1.Hitler lost the war in december 1941.
    of 162 divisions that started Barbarossa only 11 were up to decent strength levels by february 1942, with no chance to resupply indefinitely in raw materials like the russian could.
    2 . Hitker KNEW that he lost the war by december 1942 ( stalingrad)
    3. US supplied Russia with 500,000 trucks ( forget the planes and the tanks, they were totally secondary) , while Hitler’s army moved on horses.
    enough said
    Hitler never had a chance to win the war
    even if he had taken Moscow in 1941
    he could never cross the Urals and was doomed to defeat.
    Kinda the same for Japan and the US
    Whenever a strategy for attack is based on speed and quick resolution, it really means that the attacker recognizes that he does not have the stamina to stay in it for the long run

    Kursk in the end was just a photo-op so to speak for Hitler nothing else.

  18. MIKE D. DZIUBA says:

    The T-34 was the best tank design during WW2 and is still used today by third world countries.

  19. MIKE D. DZIUBA says:

    Please tell me how you can compare the hundreads of thousands of fallen soldiers at KURSK on both sides to few fallen at the battle you refer to?

  20. OmarSK says:

    Funny to read your articles about the Eastern front. Many errors and inconsistencies. Very often, our historians reduce German forces in one or another operation, even contradict the memoirs of the German generals. With greetings from Russia:)

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