Battle of Prokhorovka

Battle of Prokhorovka
Part of the Battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-022-2950-15A, Russland, Panzer im Einsatz.jpg
German tanks during Operation Citadel
Date
12 July 1943[a]
Location
51°2′11″N 36°44′11″E / 51°2′11″N 36°44′11″E / 51.03639; 36.73639
Result

Both sides failed to achieve their objectives:[1][2]

Belligerents
 Germany Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Units involved

II SS-Panzer Corps

5th Guards Tank Army[b]

Other units

Strength

German:

294 tanks and assault guns[i]

Soviet:

616 tanks and self-propelled guns[i]
Casualties and losses

German (on 12 July):[j]

  • 43–80 tanks and assault guns destroyed or damaged
  • 842 men killed, wounded and missing
  • 6 aircraft destroyed
  • 5 aircraft damaged

Soviet (on 12 July):[j]

  • 300–400 tanks and self-propelled guns destroyed or damaged
  • 5,500 men killed, wounded and missing
Battle of Prokhorovka is located in Russia
Battle of Prokhorovka

The Battle of Prokhorovka was fought on 12 July 1943[a] near Prokhorovka, 87 kilometres (54 mi) southeast of Kursk in the Soviet Union, during the Second World War. Taking place on the Eastern Front, the engagement was part of the wider Battle of Kursk, and occurred when the 5th Guards Tank Army of the Soviet Red Army attacked the II SS-Panzer Corps of the German Wehrmacht in one of the largest tank battles in military history.[k]

In April 1943, the German leadership began preparing for Operation Citadel, with the objective of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient, by attacking and breaking through the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously. The German offensive was delayed several times due to the vacillation of the leadership and the addition of more forces and new equipment. The Soviet high command, Stavka, had learned of the German intentions, and therefore used the delay to prepare a series of defensive belts along the routes of the planned German offensive. The Soviet leadership also massed several armies deep behind their defences as the Stavka Reserve. This army group, the Steppe Front, was to launch counteroffensives once the German strength had dissipated. The 5th Guards Tank Army was the primary armoured formation of the Steppe Front.

On 5 July 1943 the Wehrmacht launched its offensive. On the northern side of the salient, the German forces bogged down within four days. On the southern side, the German 4th Panzer Army, with Army Detachment Kempf on its eastern flank, attacked the Soviet defences of the Voronezh Front. They made slow but steady progress through the Soviet defensive lines.

After a week of fighting, the Soviets launched their counteroffensives – Operation Kutuzov on the northern side and a coinciding one on the southern side. On the southern side of the salient near Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army engaged the II SS-Panzer Corps of the 4th Panzer Army, resulting in a large clash of armoured fighting vehicles. The 5th Guards Tank Army suffered significant losses in the attack, but succeeded in preventing the Wehrmacht from capturing Prokhorovka and breaking through the third defensive belt – the last heavily fortified one. The German high command, unable to accomplish its objective, cancelled Operation Citadel and began redeploying its forces to deal with new pressing developments elsewhere.

The Red Army went on a general offensive, conducting Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev on the southern side and continuing Operation Kutuzov on the northern side. The Soviet Union thus seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, which it was to hold for the rest of the war.

Background

Map showing the German plan for Operation Citadel (blue arrows) to cut off the Kursk salient into a pocket, and the deployment of Soviet and German forces ahead of the operation. The blobs of red dashed lines show the position of Soviet reserves upon their arrival. The map shows the starting position of the II SS Panzer Corps ("2 SS-PzK"), the initial redeployment positions of the 5th Guards Tank Army ("5. GpzA") and the 5th Guards Army ("5. GA"). Prokhorovka (not shown) is 40 kilometres (25 mi) northeast of Pokrovka ("Pokrowka").

After the conclusion of the battle for the Donets, as the spring rasputitsa (mud) season came to an end in 1943, both the German and Soviet commands considered their plans for future operations. The Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and some senior Soviet officers wanted to seize the initiative first and attack the German forces inside the Soviet Union, but they were convinced by a number of key commanders, including the Deputy Supreme Commander Georgy Zhukov, to assume a defensive posture instead. This would allow the German side to weaken themselves in attacking prepared positions, after which the Soviet forces would be able to respond with a counter-offensive.[10][11]

Strategic discussions also occurred on the German side, with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein arguing for a mobile defence that would give up terrain and allow the Soviet units to advance, while the German forces launched a series of sharp counterattacks against their flanks to inflict heavy attrition. But for political reasons, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler insisted that the German forces go on the offensive, choosing the Kursk salient for the attack.[12] On 15 April 1943 he authorised preparations for Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel).[13]

The German offensive plan envisioned an assault at the base of the Kursk salient from both the north and south, with the intent of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the salient.[14][15] The two spearheads were to meet near Kursk. From the south, the XLVIII Panzer Corps and General Paul Hausser's II SS-Panzer Corps, forming the left and right wings of the 4th Panzer Army commanded by Colonel General Hermann Hoth, would drive northward. The III Panzer Corps of Army Detachment Kempf was to protect Hoth's right flank. The 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf were under Army Group South, commanded by Manstein. Air support over the southern portion of the offensive was provided by Colonel General Otto Deßloch's Luftflotte 4 and its major air formation, the 8th Air Corps.[16][17] The German offensive, originally slated to commence in the beginning of May, was postponed several times as the German leadership reconsidered and vacillated over its prospects, as well as to bring forward more units and equipment.[18][19]

The Soviet leadership, through their intelligence agencies and foreign sources, learned about the German intentions, and therefore the multiple delays by the German high command, OKW, allowed them a great deal of time to prepare their defences.[20] Employing defence in depth, they constructed a series of defensive lines to wear down the attacking panzer formations. Three belts made up of extensive minefields, anti-tank ditches, and anti-tank gun emplacements were created; behind those were an additional three belts, which were mostly unoccupied and less fortified.[21][22] The Voronezh Front, commanded by General Nikolai Vatutin, defended the southern face of the salient. The Steppe Front, commanded by Colonel General Ivan Konev, formed the strategic reserve. It was to be held back east of the salient until the time was right for the Soviet counteroffensive.[23] This formation included Lieutenant General Alexei Zhadov's 5th Guards Army and Lieutenant General Pavel Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army.[24][25]

German advance leading up to Prokhorovka

Panzer IIIs and IVs on the southern side of the Kursk salient at the start of Operation Citadel
The extent of the German advance during Operation Citadel (red dashed line arrows)

The Wehrmacht launched its attack on the morning of 5 July 1943 and met heavy resistance.[26] There were far more Soviet anti-tank guns, minefields, anti-tank ditches and overall Soviet resistance than had been anticipated, making a breakthrough more difficult to achieve.[27] Furthermore, from the outset they were subjected to frequent counterattacks from Soviet tank units.[28][29] Despite this, by the end of 5 July the II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced through the first defensive belt on the southern side of the salient and reached the second,[30] although the plan was to breach the first two belts and reach the third on the first day.[31] Nonetheless, the panzer corps' penetration caused great concern among Soviet commanders,[32] compelling Vatutin to commit almost all of Voronezh Front's operational reserves by the end of the first day.[33]

The III Panzer Corps met with stiff resistance as well and had great difficulty creating and maintaining a bridgehead across the Northern Donets River.[34] They eventually succeeded by the morning of 6 July, but the delay in their advance kept them from protecting the east flank of the II SS-Panzer Corps.[35]

Late on 6 July, the 5th Guards Tank and the 5th Guards Armies of the Steppe Front began moving up from their reserve position.[36] The 5th Guards Tank Army covered the 320–390 kilometres (200–240 mi) over three days, and arrived at the Prokhorovka area on the night of 9 July,[37][38] and the 5th Guards Army's 33rd Guards Rifle Corps arrived at the settlement on the night of 10 July.[39] Both armies completed their journey and deployment intact without any substantial interference from the Luftwaffe.[40]

Slow progress by the XLVIII Panzer Corps caused Hoth to shift elements of the II SS-Panzer Corps on 8 July to aid the XLVIII Corps' drive toward Oboyan and Kursk.[41] On the same day, the Soviet units counterattacked the II SS-Panzer Corps with several tank corps. These attacks did not destroy the panzer corps as hoped, but slowed its progress.[42][43] By the end of 8 July, the II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced about 29 kilometres (18 mi) and broken through the first and second defensive belts.[44][45][46][47]

On the following day, 9 July, a meeting of the commanders of the German forces on the northern side of the Kursk salient concluded that a breakthrough on the northern side of the salient was unlikely.[48] Nevertheless, they decided to continue their offensive to maintain pressure and inflict casualties, thereby tying down the Soviet forces there.[48] Any level of success for Operation Citadel now depended on a breakthrough being achieved by 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf on the southern side of the Kursk salient.[48]

German attack toward Prokhorovka

A German soldier inspects a T-34 tank knocked out at Pokrovka that is still smoldering. Pokrovka is 40 kilometres (25 mi) southwest of Prokhorovka

On the evening of 9 July, the II SS-Panzer Corps was ordered to shift its own forward progress, from due north to the northeast, toward the settlement of Prokhorovka.[49] Hoth had formulated this move, and had discussed it with Manstein since early May, as he expected large Soviet armoured reserve forces to arrive from the east, and he did not want his corps to be caught crossing the Psel River when they arrived.[k] The plan originally envisioned elements of XLVIII Panzer Corps[50] and III Panzer Corps joining in the attack toward Prokhorovka, but this could not be realised.[51] The Soviet command, however, interpreted the change in direction to be a response to the heavy resistance the German forces had faced driving toward Oboyan, and incorrectly believed the change indicated the German panzer forces had been severely weakened.[52]

Soviet intelligence reports issued from 8 to 9 July reported that defensive works were being constructed by German infantry on the flanks of the 4th Panzer Army, and that German armoured formations were not present in these locations, despite the fact that Soviet armoured formations were situated opposite these flanks.[53] Voronezh Front headquarters supposed the Germans must be reaching their limit, and on 10 July decided to set its counterattack to coincide with the planned Soviet counteroffensive on the northern side of the Kursk salient, Operation Kutuzov, which was set for 12 July.[54]

Starting on the morning of 10 July, the II SS-Panzer Corps began its attack toward Prokhorovka.[55] Its 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf attacked across the Psel River and secured a bridgehead.[55] The 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler captured Komsomolets State Farm and Hill 241.6.[56] The 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich defended the panzer corps' flank from Soviet armoured counterattacks.[57]

Vehicles of II SS-Panzer Corps advancing toward Prokhorovka on 11 July[58]

The II SS-Panzer Corps continued its attack toward Prokhorovka on 11 July. The advance of Leibstandarte was checked by the 2nd Tank Corps, which had been reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 301st Anti-tank Artillery Regiment, both from the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps.[59][60] Totenkopf was resisted by the 31st Tank Corps, the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps' 95th Guards Rifle Division,[61][62] and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 10th Tank Corps.[63] To the south of Leibstandarte, the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and the 48th Rifle Corps' 183rd Rifle Division opposed the advance of Das Reich.[64]

By day's end on 11 July Leibstandarte had advanced deep into the Soviet third defensive belt.[65] They had moved up the Psel corridor, cleared Soviet resistance at the Oktyabrsky ("October") State Farm (Russian: Совхоз Октябрьский), crossed a 15-foot (4.6 m)-deep anti-tank ditch at the base of Hill 252.2 and seized the hill itself after a brief but bloody battle,[66] leaving them only 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) south of Prokhorovka.[65] To its northwest, the panzergrenadiers of Totenkopf had achieved a bridgehead across the Psel and tanks had been brought across, but they had yet to take Hill 226.6 and there was a 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) gap between Totenkopf and Leibstandarte. To the south of Leibstandarte, Das Reich had also met stiff resistance and lagged behind some 4 kilometres (2.5 mi).[64] With its advance, Leibstandarte‍ was exposed on both of its flanks.[66]

Late on 11 July the 5th Guards Tank Army prepared for its forthcoming counterattack.[67] Leibstandarte's advance had disrupted Rotmistrov's preparations, as the assembly areas he intended to use for the tank army's 18th and 29th Tank Corps were in German hands by the end of the day, forcing him to hastily revise his plans and select new positions.[68][69] The arrival of the 5th Guards Tank Army just days earlier was detrimental to it in two major ways: the tank unit commanders did not have an opportunity to reconnoitre the terrain they would be travelling across, and the supporting artillery was unable to site and spot their fire.[70]

Soviet and German deployments near Prokhorovka on the eve of the engagement of 12 July. The blue dashed line shows the frontline positions of the divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps in the evening of 11 July, and the red dashed line shows the position of Soviet forces directly opposing the II SS-Panzer Corps. The black dashed line shows the railway running from Prokhorovka southwest through the Psel corridor (the strip of land between the Psel River and a tributary of the Northern Donets River).
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