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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