The 'Battle of Prokhorovka' was a very large battle fought between German and Soviet armoured forces near Prokhorovka, 54 miles (87 km) to the south-east of Kursk, as part of the German 'Zitadelle' offensive (12 July 1943).
In April 1943, the Germans began preparations for their 'Zitadelle' offensive with the object of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient by simultaneous attacks to break through the shoulders of the salient from their re-entrants centred on Orel and Kharkov in the north and south simultaneously. The German offensive was delayed several times because of the vacillation of the leadership: Adolf Hitler repeatedly delayed the launch of the attack so that greater numbers of the new PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tank could be delivered to the front, hoping that a technical advantage would help to win the offensive, and so that more forces and new equipment could also be made available. On the other side of the front, the Stavka (Soviet high command) had learned of the German intentions and so made use of the delay to prepare a series of defensive belts along the routes of the planned German advances. The Soviet leadership also massed several armies deep behind their fixed defences as the Stavka reserve, designated as the Steppe Front, which was to launch counter-offensives once the German strength had been blunted. The primary armoured formation of the Steppe Front was the 5th Guards Tank Army.
On 5 July 1943, the Germans launched the 'Zitadelle' offensive. On the northern side of the salient, the 9th Army became bogged down by the Central Front within four days. On the southern side, the 4th Panzerarmee, with the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' on its eastern flank, attacked the Soviet defences of the Voronezh Front, and made slow but steady progress through the Soviet defensive lines.
After a week of fighting, the Soviets launched their counter-offensives: 'Kutuzov' on the northern side and a coincident attack on the southern side. On the southern side of the salient, near Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army engaged the II SS Panzerkorps of the 4th Panzerarmee, resulting in a huge clash of armoured fighting vehicles. The 5th Guards Tank Army suffered significant losses in the attack, but succeeded in preventing the 4th Panzerarmee from capturing Prokhorovka and breaking through the third defensive belt, which was the final heavily-fortified position. Having failed to achieve his objective, and despite the advice of his commanders, Hitler cancelled 'Zitadelle' and began redeploying his forces to deal with new pressing developments elsewhere.
The Red Army went on a general offensive by undertaking 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' on the southern side and continuing 'Kutuzov' on the northern side. The USSR thus seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, which it held for the rest of the war.
After the end of the 'Battle for the Donets River' 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, Iosif Stalin, and some senior Soviet officers wanted to seize the initiative and attack the German forces in the USSR, but were convinced by a number of key commanders, including the deputy supreme commander, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, to assume a defensive posture instead. This would cause the Germans to weaken themselves in attacking prepared positions, after which the Soviet forces would be in a superior position to respond with a counter-offensive.
Strategic discussions also occurred on the German side, with Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein arguing for a mobile defence that would yield 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, Hitler insisted that the German forces go on the offensive, choosing the Kursk salient for the attack, and on 15 April authorised preparations for 'Zitadelle'.
The German offensive plan was based on 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. The two spearheads were to meet near the city of Kursk. From the south, General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s [r]XLVIII Panzerkorps and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, forming the left and right wings of Generaloberst Herman Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, would drive to the north. General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps of General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' was to protect Hoth’s right flank. The 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' were elements of the Heeresgruppe 'Süd' commanded by von Manstein. Air support over the southern portion of the offensive was provided by Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV and its major tactical air formation, General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps. The German offensive, which was originally to have started at 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.
The Soviet leadership, through its agents, intelligence agencies and foreign sources, learned at an early date of the German intentions, and therefore the multiple delays by the Oberkommando des Heeres provided the Soviets a great deal of additional time in which to plan and to prepare their defences. Employing the concept of defence in considerable depth, they constructed a series of defensive lines to wear down the attacking Panzer formations. Three belts, each comprising extensive minefields, anti-tank ditches and anti-tank gun emplacements were created; behind which were an additional three belts, which were mostly unoccupied and less well fortified. The Voronezh Front, commanded by General Nikolai F. Vatutin, defended the southern face of the salient. The Steppe Front, commanded by General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev, formed the strategic reserve, which was to be held back in the area to the east of the salient until the time was right for the Soviet counter-offensive. This formation included General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army and General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army.
The Germans launched 'Zitadelle' on the morning of 5 July and immediately encountered heavy resistance, for there were far more Soviet anti-tank guns, minefields, anti-tank ditches and overall Soviet resistance than had been anticipated, making a breakthrough very much more difficult to achieve. Furthermore, from the outset, the German forces were subjected to frequent counterattacks by Soviet tank units. Despite this, by the end of 5 July the II SS Panzerkorps had advanced through the first defensive belt on the southern side of the salient and reached the second, although the plan had been to breach the first two belts and reach the third on the first day. Nonetheless, the Panzer corps' penetration caused great concern among Soviet commanders, and had compelled Vatutin to commit almost all of the Voronezh Front’s operational reserves by the end of the first day.
The III Panzerkorps also met stiff resistance and had great difficulty in creating and maintaining a bridgehead across the Severny Donets river. The corps eventually succeeded by the morning of 6 July, but the delay in its advance kept it from protecting the eastern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps.
Late on 6 July, the 5th Guards Tank and the 5th Guards Armies of the Steppe Front began moving up from their reserve positions.] The 5th Guards Tank Army covered the distance of between 200 and 240 miles (320 and 390 km) over three days, and arrived in the area of Prokhorovka during the night of 9 July, and the 5th Guards Army’s XXXIII Guards Rifle Corps arrived at the settlement on the night of 10 July. Both armies completed their journey and deployment intact without any substantial Luftwaffe interference.
Slow progress by the XLVIII Panzerkorps caused Hoth to shift elements of the II SS Panzerkorps on 8 July to aid the XLVIII Panzerkorps' drive toward Oboyan and Kursk. On the same day, the Soviet formations counterattacked the II SS Panzerkorps with several tank corps. These attacks did not destroy the Panzer corps as hoped, but did manage to slow its progress. By the end of 8 July, the II SS Panzerkorps had advanced about 18 miles (29 km) and broken through the first and second Soviet defensive belts.
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. Nevertheless, they decided to continue their offensive to maintain pressure and inflict casualties, thereby pinning the Soviet forces there. Any level of success for 'Zitadelle' now depended on a breakthrough being achieved by the 4th Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung 'Kempf on the southern side of the Kursk salient.
On the evening of 9 July, the II SS Panzerkorps was ordered to shift the axis of its advance from due north to the north-east, toward the settlement of Prokhorovka. Hoth had formulated this change, and discussed it with von Manstein, since a time early in May, as he expected large Soviet armoured reserve forces to arrive from the east, and did not want his corps to be caught crossing the Psel river when they arrived. The plan originally envisaged elements of the XLVIII Panzerkorps and the III Panzerkorps joining in the attack toward Prokhorovka, but this could not be realised. The Soviet command interpreted the change in direction to be a response to the heavy resistance the German forces had faced driving toward Oboyan, however, and incorrectly believed the change indicated the Panzer forces had been severely weakened.
Soviet intelligence reports of 8 and 9 July indicated that defensive works were being constructed by German infantry on the flanks of the 4th Panzerarmee, and that German armoured formations were not present in these locations, despite the fact that Soviet armoured formations were situated opposite these flanks. The Voronezh Front’s headquarters supposed the Germans must be reaching their limit, therefore, and on 10 July decided to set its counterattack to coincide with the planned 'Kutuzov' counter-offensive on the northern side of the Kursk salient, which was set for 12 July.
Starting on the morning of 10 July, the II SS Panzerkorps began its attack toward Prokhorovka. SS-Obergruppenführer Hermann Priess’s 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' attacked across the Psel river and secured a bridgehead. SS Brigadeführer Theodor Wisch’s 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' captured Komsomolets State Farm and Hill 241.6. SS-Obergruppenführer Walter Krüger’s 2nd SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' defended the Panzer corps' flank from Soviet armoured counterattacks.
The II SS Panzerkorps continued its attack toward Prokhorovka on 11 July. The advance of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision was checked by the II Tank Corps, which had been reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 301st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, both of the XXXIII Guards Corps. Ther 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision was resisted by the XXXI Tank Corps, the XXXIII Guards Corps' 95th Guards Division and the 11th Motorised Brigade of the X Tank Corps. To the south of the !st SS Panzergrenadierdivision, the II Guards Tank Corps and the XLVIII Corps' 183rd Division opposed the advance of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision.
By the end of 11 July. the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision had advanced deep into the third Soviet defensive belt and had moved up the Psel river corridor, cleared Soviet resistance at the Oktyabrsky State Farm, crossed an anti-tank ditch 15 ft (4.6 m) deep at the base of Hill 252.2 and seized the hill itself after a brief but bloody battle, leaving the division a mere 1.85 miles (3 km) to the south of Prokhorovka. To its north-west, the units of the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision had gained a bridgehead across the Psel river and sent tanks across, but it had yet to take Hill 226.6 and there was a 3.1-mile (5-km) gap between the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and the 1st Panzergrenadierdivision. To the south of the 1st Panzergrenadierdivision, the 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision had also met stiff resistance and lagged behind some 2.5 miles (4 km). With its advance, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision was exposed on both flanks.
Late on 11 July, the 5th Guards Tank Army prepared for its forthcoming counterattack. The advance of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision had disrupted Rotmistrov’s preparations, as the assembly areas he intended to use for the tank army’s XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps were in German hands by the end of the day, forcing him into a hasty revision of his plans and the selection of new positions. The arrival of the 5th Guards Tank Army just days earlier was detrimental to it in two major ways: the tank unit commanders had been offered no opportunity to reconnoitre the terrain across which their units would be travelling, and the supporting artillery was unable to site and register their fire.
Late in the evening of 11 July, Hausser issued orders for the next day’s advance on Prokhorovka. It was known that the Soviets had dug in many anti-tank guns on the south-western slopes of Prokhorovka, making a direct attack by the 1st Panzergrenadierdivision very difficult. The plan was now for the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision to take Hill 226.6 and advance to the north-east along the Psel river to the road linking Kartashёvka and Prokhorovka, and then to strike to the south-east into the flank and rear of Soviet forces at Prokhorovka. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision was instructed to make a limited advance and secure Storozhevoe and Lamki just outside Prokhorovka, then it and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision were to wait untilthe 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision's attack had disrupted the Soviet positions, after which the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision was to attack the main Soviet defences on the south-western slope of Prokhorovka. To the right ofthe 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision, elements of the 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision were also to advance eastward to the high ground lying to the south of Prokhorovka, then turn to the south away from Prokhorovka to roll up the Soviet defences opposing the III Panzerkorps' advance and force a gap. The VIII Fliegerkorps was to concentrate its effort on the support of the advance of the II SS Panzerkorps, with the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west assigned only limited air support.
On the other side of the front, The 5th Guards Army and the 5th Guards Tank Army of the Steppe Front had been brought up from reserve and reassigned to the Voronezh Front on 8 and 11 July respectively. On 11 July, Vatutin ordered the armies of the Voronezh Front to go over to the offensive on the following day. This Soviet counterattack on the southern side of the Kursk salient was planned to coincide with the 'Kutuzov' offensive against Orel on the northern side. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to destroy the German forces near Prokhorovka with his 5th Guards Tank Army and to prevent the German forces from any withdrawal to the south.
For the 'Battle of Pokhorovka', Rotmistrov ordered his armour to move forward at high speed to engage the German tanks and thereby nullify the advantages the Tiger tanks had in the range and firepower of their 88-mm (3.465-in) guns. He believed that his speedier and more manoeuvrable T-34 medium tanks would be able to close rapidly and obtain effective flanking shots against the German heavy tanks. In fact, Soviet intelligence had greatly overestimated the numbers and capabilities of the German SdKfz 184 Panzerjäger Tiger (P) heavy tank destroyers (generally known to the German troops as the Ferdinand and Elefant) and Tiger heavy tanks operated by the II SS Panzerkorps. In fact neither Heeresgruppe 'Süd' nor the 4th Panzerarmee had any Ferdinand tank destroyers as these had all been deployed on the northern side of the Kursk salient with the 9th Army. Soviet tank crews frequently mistook the versions of the PzKpfw IV battle tank armed with the long 75-mm (2.,92-in) KwK 40 anti-tank gun, which also had extra armour added to their turret, for Tiger heavy tanks. Thus Soviet reports tended to overestimate the number of Tiger heavy tanks employed by the Germans during 'Zitadelle'.
Soviet air support in the southern part of the salient was provided by the 2nd Air Army and the 17th Air Army, commanded by General Leytenant Stepan Ya. Krasovsky and General Leytenant Vladimir A. Sudets respectively. However, the bulk of the Soviet air support was committed in support of Soviet units attacking the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west of Prokhorovka and the III Panzerkorps to the south-east, so only limited numbers of aircraft were available to support 5th Guards Tank Army’s attack.
Rotmistrov’s plans for a counterattack were threatened by events to the south. The III Panzerkorps managed to cross the Severny Donets river at Rzhavets on the night of 11 July, and was about 11 milkes (18 kM0 ro the south-east of Prokhorovka and advancing to the north. This threat threatened Rotmistrov’s entire plan by exposing the 5th Guards Tank Army’s flank and rear. Early on 12 July, Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to send reinforcements to the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army facing the ]e]III Panzerkorps. Rotmistrov therefore created a task force under the command of his deputy, General Major Kuzma G. Trufanov, which comprised the 26th Guards Tank Brigade from the II Guards Tank Corps, the 11th and 12th Guards Mechanised Brigades from the V Guards Mechanized Corps, and the 53rd Guards Tank Regiment from the 5th Guards Tank Army. Other units of the Voronezh Front also joined the group on its way south. Rotmistrov had thus committed more than half of his army’s reserves before the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' had even begun.
The German forces involved in the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' were from the three Waffen-SS divisions of the II SS Panzerkorps. On the evening of 11 July, the II SS Panzerkorps' serviceable armour strength was 294 tanks and assault guns, which included 15 Tiger heavy tanks. The armoured strengths of three SS Panzergrenadier divisions were 77, 95 and 122 tanks and assault guns respectively. Ten of the Tiger heavy tanks were to the north of the Psel river with the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision, four were with the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision and just one with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision.
The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision had advanced the most deeply toward Prokhorovka and was operating in the centre of the German position. A railway line, with a railbed some 30 ft (9.1 m) high, divided the division’s area into northern and southern portions, and the division’s main part was positioned to the north of the railway line: these elements included the 1st SS-Panzerregiment, 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment, 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung, 1st SS Artillerieregiment and command units. To the south of the railway line were the 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment and the 1st SS Panzerjägerbataillon. The 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision was positioned to the south of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision, and protected the southern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision was positioned to the north-west of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision, and its [r]3rd SS Panzerregiment had largely crossed the Psel river in preparation for the assault. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision placed its lightly armed 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung in the 3.1-mile (5-km) gap between it and the 3td SS Panzergrenadierdivision to provide some flank protection. Later on 12 July, the unit was bolstered by the division’s four remaining Tiger tanks, commanded by SS Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann.
The main Soviet armoured formation involved in the battle was the 5th Guards Tank Army, which controlled five corps, of which two were guards units, by 12 July: the II Guards Tank Corps, II Tank Corps, V Guards Mechanised Corps, XVIII Corps and XXIX Tank Corps. Altogether the formations fielded 793 tanks and 37 to 57 self-propelled guns for a total of some 840 armoured fighting vehicles. About two-thirds of these machines were T-34 medium tanks, while the remainder were T-70 light tanks, with some 31 to 35 Churchill heavy tanks as well. Not all of the 5th Guards Tank Army was present in the Prokhorovka area during the battle for, as noted above, part of the formation had been sent south to check the advance of the III Panzerkorps. The armour of the 5th Guards Tank Army facing the II SS Panzerkorps on 12 July was about 616 tanks and self-propelled guns. In addition, five artillery regiments, one artillery brigade, and one anti-aircraft artillery division were attached to the 5th Guards Tank Army for the assault.
The main attack of the 5th Guards Tank Army was undertaken against the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision by the fresh XXIX Tank Corps and XVIII Tank Corps that had been brought up from the Soviet strategic reserve. These two Soviet tank corps together provided the greatest number of tanks in the attack, with the XVIII Tank Corps fielding 190 tanks and self-propelled guns, and the XXIX Tank Corps fielding 212 tanks and self-propelled guns. Infantry support to the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps was provided by the 9th Guards Airborne Division. A portion of the XVIII Tank Corps was directed against the eastern flank of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision's 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Theodor Eicke'. On the south-eastern wing of the 5th Guards Tank Army, Rotmistrov deployed the 120 tanks of the II Guards Tank Corps.[ Later on 12 July, during the battle, the XXVI Guards Tank Brigade of that tank corps, with an estimated 40 tanks, as sent to the south to face the III Panzerkorps. The remainder of the II Guards Tank Corps, supported by the remnants of the II Tank Corps, was to attack the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision, and infantry support was provided by the 183rd Division. The western flank of the 5th Guards Tank Army, which faced the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision, was defended by the XXXIII Guards Corps' 42nd Guards Division and 95th Guards Division, which were supported by the remnants of the XXXI Tank Corps and the heavily depleted XXIII Guards Corps' 52nd Guards Division. The forces of the V Guards Mechanised Corps which had not been sent to the south were held as reserve to the north-west of Prokhorovka, and numbered about 113 tanks and self-propelled guns.
Vatutin ordered the Soviet air armies to commit their main effort toward checking the III Panzerkorps' drive northward, and in supporting the attack against the XLVIII Panzerkorps. Missions were also flown in support of the attack of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but only to a more limited extent. The 2nd Air Army had some 472 operational aircraft on 12 July, while the 17th Air Army had 300 operational aircraft.
At 05.45 on 12 July, the headquarters of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision started to receive reports of the sound of many tank engines as the Soviet tanks moved into their assembly areas. At about 06.50, elements of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision's 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment edged forward and drove the Soviet infantry out of Storozhevoe, while elements of the division’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment fanned out from the Oktyabrsky State Farm. The Soviet forces began a preparatory artillery barrage at about 08.00. and as the last shells fell at 08.30, Rotmistrov radioed the code words 'Stal! Stal! Stal!' (Steel! Steel! Steel!) to begin he attack. With that the Soviet armour of the 5th Guards Tank Army began their advance.
In total, about 500 tanks and self-propelled guns of the 5th Guards Tank Army attacked the II SS Panzerkorps on 12 July, doing so in two waves, with 430 tanks in the first echelon and 70 in the second.
Down the slopes in front of Prokhorovka, the massed Soviet armour charged with five tank brigades of the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps, firing as they came at the positions of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision. As the Soviet tanks rolled forward, they carried the men of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on their hulls. The men of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision were not scheduled to go into action until later in the day and, exhausted from the previous week’s fighting, many were just starting their day at the outset of the attack. As the Soviet armour appeared, German outposts all across the corps' front began firing purple warning flares to signal a tank attack. SS Obersturmbannführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop, commander of a Panzer company of the 1st SS Panzerregiment, stated that he knew at once that a major attack had begun. He ordered his company of seven PzKpfw IV tanks to follow him over a bridge across an anti-tank ditch, after which they fanned out on the lower slope of Hill 252.2. On the crest of the hill, SS Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper’s 3rd Panzergrenadierbataillon of the 2nd SS-Panzergrenadierregiment was being overrun.
As von Ribbentrop’s tanks spread out, he and the 1st SS Panzerregiment were suddenly confronted by tanks of the XXIX Tank Corps' 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades. Firing on the move, the Soviet tanks charged down the western slopes of Hill 252.2 into the panzer company, and a tank battle ensued. Rotmistrov’s tactic to close at high speed disrupted the control and co-ordination of the Soviet tank formations and also greatly reduced the accuracy of their fire. In a three-hour battle, the 1st SS Panzerregiment engaged the attacking Soviet tanks and repulsed them, reporting that they destroyed about 62 Soviet tanks. Later that afternoon, tanks of the 31st Tank Brigade and the 53rd Motorised Brigade overran elements of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung and reached thre Komsomolets State Farm, threatening the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision's lines of communication and the divisional command post at Hill 241.6. The Soviet tanks attacked the division’s 1st SS Artillerieregiment, killing some of the crews before they themselves were destroyed by direct fire from German anti-tank teams.
Wittmann’s group of four Tiger tanks provided support to the reconnaissance battalion in its effort to protect the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision's left flank, and faced off with the XVIII Tank Corps' advancing 181st Tank Brigade. In a three-hour battle the Tiger tanks engaged the Soviet tanks at ranges from 1,095 yards (1000 m) down to pointblank, inflicting heavy losses on the Soviet tanks and successfully repelling their attack. None of the Tiger tanks was lost. Later, elements of the 170th Tank Brigade engaged the 1st SS Panzerregiment, which was already fighting the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades. Despite losing its commander and about 30 tanks, by a time early in the afternoon the 170th Tank Brigade had forced the 1st SS Panzerregiment back to the Oktyabrsky State Farm and reached the position of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung. At about 18.00, the 170th and 181st Tank Brigades penetrated the German line connecting the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision and 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision. Assault guns and tanks supporting the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision's 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Theodor Eicke' repelled the Soviet attack and re-established the line, forcing the Soviet tanks to withdraw to the village of Andreevka.
The advance of the Soviet armour down Hill 252.2 was disrupted when the tanks reached the anti-tank ditch at the base of the hill. A number of tanks crashed into the ditch, which was 15 ft (4/6 m) deep, while others moved along the edge looking for a way to cross. Heavy fire was exchanged between the Soviet tanks and two companies of a Panzergrenadier battalion on the opposite side of the ditch. Peiper’s surviving Panzergrenadiers engaged the Soviet infantry and attacked the Soviet tanks with magnetic anti-tank grenades. Some 20 of his battalion’s half-tracked vehicles were lost in the fighting, some destroyed in ramming the much heavier Soviet tanks in an effort to stop them. Eventually, as a result of heavy Soviet pressure and dangerously exposed flanks, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision withdrew from the Oktyabrsky State Farm and established firmer defensive lines 0.6 mile (1 km) farther to the south.
The 2nd Air Army and 17th Air Army flew 893 sorties, and the VIII Fliegerkorps 654 sorties over the southern part of the salient. Most of the Soviet sorties flown on 12 July were, as noted above, directed against the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west and the III Panzerkorps to the south. Low cloud in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon inhibited both sides' air operations over Prokhorovka. Over the Prokhorovka battlefield the Luftwaffe gained control of the air. Formations of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka single-engined dive-bomber and ground-attack aircraft, including a small number of the Ju 87G-2 anti-tank variant experimentally equipped with twin 37-mm Bordkanone BK 3,7 cannon pods, under the command of Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel, attacked the Soviet formations. They were joined by Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single-engined fighter-bombers and Henschel Hs 129 twin-engined ground-attack aircraft, both equipped with 30-mm anti-tank cannon. In particular, the Hs 129 formations of the Schlachtgeschwader 1 inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet armour. The Stuka wings, Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 and Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, made their weakest contribution to the Kursk operation since 5 July with a mere 150 sorties by comparison with the 1,071 sorties on 5 July, but the small Ju 87G contingent proved effective. Luftwaffe liaison officers with the ground forces were able to guide the close air support units to carry out pinpoint attacks. Schlachtgeschwader 1 and the Panzerjägerstaffel/Jagdgeschwader 51 flew 248 attack missions, virtually all of them in support of the II SS Panzerkorps.
The 31st Tank Brigade of the XXIX Tank Corps, reported that 'We suffered heavy losses in tanks through enemy artillery and aircraft. At 10.30 our tanks reached the Komsomolets State Farm, but as a result of continuous air attacks, they were unable to advance any further and shifted to the defence.' The tank brigade also reported that 'our own air cover was fully absent until 13.00'. The 5th Guards Tank Army reported that 'the enemy’s aircraft literally hung above our combat formations throughout the entire battle, while our own aircraft, and particularly the fighter aviation, was totally insufficient.' The 36th Tank Brigade lost its commander to an air attack.
German air superiority over Prokhorovka had several causes. During the initial stages of the battle it was Soviet tanks that were hit and burned, obscuring the battlefield and making it difficult for Soviet commanders to develop a clear picture of the situation. Added to that was the failure to provide air liaison officers with the ground forces, which were then unable to call for air support when the German assault formations first appeared. Whereas the VIII Fliegerkorps assembled powerful concentrations over the Prokhorovka battlefield, the 17th Air Army spread its forces thinly, to support other sectors. The Soviets dominated the air over the 4th Panzerarmee's flanks, leaving the skies over Prokhorovka clear. The 2nd Air Army’s fighter elements had been reduced to 266 aircraft, and this force was used in the escort rather than air superiority role. The battle of Prokhorovka absorbed the VIII Fliegerkorps' combat power to the extent it was unable to intervene to support the XLVIII Panzerkorps, enabling the Soviet defences to defeat the attempted breakthrough in that sector.
The posture, dispositions and tactics on 12 July led to few losses on either side in air combat. The VIII Fliegerkorps reported 19 aircraft damaged and destroyed. Only one German aeroplane was reported lost in combat with Soviet fighters, the rest falling victims of Soviet ground fire. In return, the 2nd Air Army reported 14 fighters damaged and destroyed (German fighter pilots claimed only seven; though they claimed 16 aircraft of all types shot down). Soviet bomber losses are unknown.
By the end of 12 July, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision still held Hill 252.2, but had been exhausted by the effort of turning back five Soviet tank brigades. To its left, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision had succeeded in capturing Hill 226.6 and had advanced along the northern bank of the Psel river to reach the road linking Karteschevka and Prokhorovka 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west of Prokhorovka in accordance with the German plan.It was now in position to outflank the Soviet forces at Prokhorovka, but was under pressure from Soviet attacks and its hold on the forward ground was tenuous. Forced onto the defensive by the attacks of the II Guards Tasnk Corps and II Tank Corps, the 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision was unable to conduct its planned offensive manoeuvres.
On the Soviet side, all the tank units of the 5th Guards Tank Army involved in the battle on 12 July had suffered heavy losses. Rotmistrov later wrote that the XXIX Tank Corps lost three-fifths of its armour and the XVIII Tank Corps lost three-tenths of its strength. A Soviet general staff report recorded that 'Thus on 12 July, the 5th Guards Tank Army failed to accomplish its assigned mission. As a result of the frontal attack, the army’s corps fought heavy battles against large enemy tank forces during which they were forced to assume defence.' Rotmistrov was forced to shift the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps over to the defence and to reinforce them with infantry. They excavated more trenches, dug in some of their tanks, laid new minefields, prepared anti-tank strongpoints and massed their artillery. The 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade and 24th Guards Tank Brigade of the V Guards Mechanised Corps made preparations to push back the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision on the following morning.
Stalin was highly disappointed and infuriated by the early reports of heavy Soviet losses in the battle, and on the evening of 12 July berated Rotmistrov in a telephone call. On this same evening, Stalin despatched Zhukov, who had been overseeing 'Kutuzov', to Vatutin’s headquarters as Stavka representative, in order to assume control of co-ordinating the operations of the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front. A commission was also despatched to investigate the cause of the high losses and the role of Rotmistrov and his plans in the battle. Its findings were completed and submitted to Stalin two weeks later, and initially considering the dismissal of Rotmistrov and his arraignment in front of a military tribunal, but Stalin eventually changed his mind after Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff, interceded.
On the night of 12 July, Vatutin ordered his forces to prevent any further German advance on Prokhorovka, destroy thise German forces which had advanced along the northern bank of the Psel river, and stop the III Panzerkorps from making further progress. Orders issued by the German command for 13 July instructed the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision to consolidate its gains of the previous day and then attack into the flank and rear of the Soviet forces around Prokhorovka. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision was to strengthen its front line and co-ordinate its attack on Prokhorovka from the south with the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision' attack from the north-west. The 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision was to consolidate and strengthen its front and prepare an offensive to link with the III Panzerkorps.
On the morning of 13 July, the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade and the 24th Guards Tank Brigade, in co-operation with the LXXXXV Guards Corps and LII Guards Corps, launched attacks against the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision. These Soviet attacks preoccupied the German division and prevented it from attacking toward Prokhorovka. At about 12.00, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision's 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung was ordered to attack to the north in the direction of the Psel river in order to consolidate its front line with the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision, while the division’s Panzer units were to attack toward Soviet positions to the north-east of the Oktyabrsky State Farm in the direction of Prokhorovka.
The 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung attacked the defensive positions held by the 42nd Guards Division and the remaining armour of the XVIII Tank Corps, while the Panzer units attacked the defences of 9th Guards Airborne Division and the XXIX Tank Corps. These German attacks were repelled by concentrated anti-tank artillery fire. The XXIX Tank Corps responded with a counterattack and penetrated the German lines, reaching the Komsomolets State Farm before being beaten back by the direct fire of German artillery. In the afternoon, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision was ordered to abandon its positions to the north-west of Prokhorovka and return to positions it could hold round Hill 226.6. Soviet attempts to sever the Germans' narrow salient were unsuccessful, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision had completed its withdrawal by the fall of night.
On 13 July Hitler summoned von Manstein and the commander of Heeresdgruppe 'Mitte', Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, to his Eastern Front headquarters, the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. The Allied 'Husky' invasion of Sicily on the night of 9/10 July, combined with the Soviet 'Kutuzov' counter-offensive against the flank and rear of Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army on the northern side of the Kursk salient on 12 July, and the attacks by strong Soviet forces at Prokhorovka the same day had caused Hitler to bring 'Zitadelle' to an end and begin the redeployment of some German forces to the Mediterranean theatre.
von Kluge welcomed the decision, for he had already started to withdraw 9th Army units from the northern side of the Kursk salient to deal with Soviet attacks on his flank. von Manstein was greatly disappointed, on the other hand, arguing that his forces were now on the verge of achieving a major breakthrough on the southern side of the salient. As he saw it, with his III Panzerkorps about to link with the II SS Panzerkorps at Prokhorovka, and with the XXIV Panzerkorps available as his operational reserve, Hitler’s order meant that von Manstein’s forces would be halting the offensive just at the moment when victory was at hand. With an eye toward the western theatres, though, Hitler was unwilling to continue the offensive. von Manstein persisted, proposing that his forces should at least destroy the Soviet reserves in the southern part of the Kursk salient before 'Zitadelle' was finally terminated, so that the Soviet fighting capacity in the sector would be diminished for the rest of the summer of 1943. Hitler then agreed to continue offensive operations in the southern part of the salient until von Manstein’s goal had been achieved.
After the meeting with Hitler on 13 July, von Manstein hastily created his plan for the 'Roland' operation, realising that he only had a few days to undertake this effort before he lost the II SS Panzerkorps, which was slated for redeployment. The plan called for the 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision to attack to the east and south in order to link with the III Panzerkorps, which was to attack to the north-west. the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision and 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision were to anchor the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision's western and northern flanks respectively. Once the junction had been accomplished and the Soviet forces encircled, Prokhorovka would then be attacked shortly thereafter by the combined forces of the II SS Panzerkorps and the III Panzerkorps. The object was to destroy the Soviet armoured reserves massed in the southern sector of the Kursk salient, and thereby check Soviet offensive capacity for the rest of the summer.
The orders for 'Roland' were issued late on 13 July. However, after meeting with von Manstein Hitler countermanded the XXIV Panzerkorps' deployment to the Kursk salient, sending it instead on 14 July to support the 1st Panzerarmee farther to the south.
The German assault began at 04.00 on 14 July. Following a brief artillery barrage, the 4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Der Führer' of he 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision struck out for the high ground lying to the south-west of Pravorot, pushing out the remnants of the II Guards Tank Corps from the village of Belenikhino in house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision's 2nd SS Panzerregiment fought off a series of counterattacks and forced the Soviet formations and units to withdraw eastward to a new line. Zhukov ordered the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade of the V Guards Mechanised Corps to reinforce the line. Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision of the III Panzerkorps established contact with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision, but Trufanov, commanding the Soviet forces in the gap, was aware of the threat and conducted a fighting withdrawal. The link failed to trap the Soviet forces, though they abandoned a substantial number of their anti-tank guns. 'Roland' failed to produce a decisive result for the Germans, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision began to pull back from its positions to the north of the Psel river, following orders issued late on 15 July, as the II SS Panzerkorps switched to a defensive stance along its entire front.
On 17 July the Soviet South-West Front and South Front launched a major offensive across the Mius and Donets rivers against the southern wing of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', exerting great pressure on the 6th Army and the 1st Panzerarmee. In the early afternoon of 17 July, 'Roland' was terminated with an order for the II SS Panzerkorps to begin withdrawing from the Prokhorovka sector to Belgorod. The 4th Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' had anticipated the order and begun to execute it as early as the evening of 16 July.The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision's tanks were distributed between the 2nd Panzergrenadierdivision and 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, and the division was hastily redeployed to Italy, while the latter two divisions were despatched to the south to meet the new Soviet offensives.
The two sides' losses for 12 July are difficult to establish. Tank losses attributed to the German side vary, in part asa result of the German army’s methodology for counting and reporting equipment losses. Only equipment that could not be repaired or that had to be abandoned were counted as losses, while damaged equipment that could be recovered and repaired were simply listed as such. Likewise, reliable figures for the tank and personnel casualties suffered by the Soviets in the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' are difficult to establish.
The II SS Panzerkorps reported 842 soldiers killed, wounded or missing on 12 July, and 2,672 for the period between 12 and 16 July inclusive. As the German forces controlled much of the Prokhorovka battlefield until 17 July, they were able to recover most of their disabled armour. The II SS Panzerkorps' logistics report for 12 July recorded any no confirmed permanent tank losses. Other German sources show that three tanks of the II SS Panzerkorps (two PzKpfw IV and one Tiger machines) that were immobilised in the battlefield could not subsequently be recovered and therefore the permanent losses can only be adjusted to a possible maximum of three tanks for 12 July. A later US Army study claimed six permanent tank losses excluding PzKpfw I and Pz`Kpfww II light tanks and assault guns, if any. Archival files of the II SS Panzerkorps and the 4th Panzerarmee show that the II SS Panzerkorps suffered the permanent lost of 17 tanks and assault guns between 12 and 23 July inclusive, which therefore represents the maximum permanent losses the formation could have incurred for the engagement on 12 July up to the end of 'Roland'.
Archival data of the II SS Panzerkorps show that the corps had 294 serviceable tanks and assault guns on the evening of 11 July, and 251 on the evening of 13 July. Allowing for the possibility that some repaired tanks were returned to service on 13 July, these numbers indicate that at least 43 tanks and assault guns became inoperable during this period, figures which include all 10 Tigers of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision and one of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision. It is estimated that between 60 and 80 tanks and assault guns of the II SS Panzerkorps were damaged or destroyed in combat on 12 July. By the end of 16 July, the II SS Panzerkorps had 292 operational tanks and assault guns, almost the same number it had possessed at the beginning of the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' on 12 July. On that same day, Schlachtgeschwader 1 of the VIII Fliegerkorps reported 11 aircraft damaged, all by Soviet anti-aircraft artillery, of which six were totally lost.
A document prepared on 17 July 1943 by the 5th Guards Tank Army headquarters summarised the combat losses incurred by the formation from 12 to 16 July inclusive for all of its five corps, as well as smaller formations and units directly subordinated to the army headquarters. The document reported the following irrecoverable losses: 222 T-34, 89 T-70, 12 Churchill, eight SU-122, three SU-76 and 240 support vehicles. The document reported damaged vehicles still under repair as 143 T-34, 56 T-70, seven Churchill, three SU-122 and three SU-76 machines, with no figures for support vehicles. The document also reported personnel casualties as 2,940 killed, 3,510 wounded and 1,157 missing. This totals 334 irrevocable losses in tanks and self-propelled guns, with another 212 tanks and self-propelled guns under repair, and 7,607 casualties.
Debate continues about the significance and outcome of the 'Battle of Prokhorovka'. The German forces destroyed many Soviet tanks and temporarily degraded the offensive capability of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but they were unable to take Prokhorovka or break through into open ground before developments elsewhere forced the termination of 'Zitadelle'. For the Soviet side, the massive armoured attack of 12 July failed to destroy the II SS Panzerkorps, but did succeed in exhausting the Germans and eventually contributed to checking their advance. Thus, neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzerkorps accomplished its objectives for 12 July.
While the battle is generally considered a tactical success for the Germans, asa result of the high numbers of Soviet tanks destroyed, in the wider perspective the Soviets successfully completed their defensive operation at Prokhorovka and created the conditions for their decisive 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' counter-offensive, just as planned. Ultimately there was no German breakthrough at Prokhorovka or elsewhere in the Kursk salient: this was the first time in World War II that a major German offensive was halted before it could break through the opposing defences and penetrate into their operational or strategic depths. With the end of 'Zitadelle', the strategic initiative swung permanently to the USSR for the rest of the war.
The 'Battle of Prokhorovka' has been widely described as the largest tank battle in military history, involving between 1,200 and 1,500 tanks and sometimes as many as 2,000 such vehicles, but this is incorrect as the battle actually involved a smaller number of tanks. The exaggerated figures originated from erroneous Soviet intelligence estimates of German armour reported during and after the battle, and subsequent post-war accounts that repeated this faulty narrative. Some Soviet estimates reported figures as high as 800 German tanks and assault guns at Prokhorovka on 12 July.
Comparison of Soviet and German archives indicates that the total number of tanks and other heavy armoured fighting vehicles, such as assault guns and self-propelled guns, deployed by the 5th Guards Tank Army and the II SS Panzerkorps around Prokhorovka during the battle numbered only some 910. The II SS Panzerkorps never had the number of tanks and assault guns attributed to it by Soviet estimates at any point during 'Zitadelle', not even at the start when it fielded only 494. Even if the definition of the battle is broadened to include the III Panzerkorps and the portion of the 5th Guards Tank Army that faced it, the total number of tanks and other heavy armoured fighting vehicles emerges as a maximum of 1,299. In contrast, for example, the Battle of Brody during 'Barbarossa' involved more than 2,000 tanks, up to 6,000 tanks over the duration of the battle, engaged in combat over a 43.5-mile (70-km) front. Even so, the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' is still regarded as one of the largest tank battles in military history.
High figures for the number of tanks lost during the battle have been widely attributed to the Germans, but these are incorrect. For example, Rotmistrov in his post-war accounts of the battle stated that the Germans lost between 350 and 400 tanks, including 70 Tiger tanks, and between 3,500 and 10,000 men on 12 July, and a Soviet general staff study of the 'Battle of Kursk' reported that the Germans had lost 300 tanks, 20 assault guns and more than 4,500 men in the battle from 12 to 16 July inclusive. However, archival data of the German formations and units involved show that much lower losses were incurred during the battle.
It has been asserted that the original intention of the 4th Panzerarmee was to drive to the north, with its two Panzer corps driving abreast toward Oboyan and then Kursk but that on 9 July, heavy Soviet resistance along the road to Oboyan forced Hoth to alter his plan disastrously by ordering the II SS Panzerkorps to swing its axis from the north-west to the north-east toward Prokhorovka. Thus, according to this assertion, the 'Battle of Prokhorovka' was not a result of any original intention, but resulted from tactically-flawed late improvisations to the original German plan. This assertion has been disputed by others. By use of first-hand accounts of German officers who executed 'Zitadelle' and by scrutinisation of the sources, it had been contended that the plan for the 4th Panzerarmee to swing from the Oboyan to the Prokhorovka axis had been decided as early as May, well before the start of 'Zitadelle', as Heeresgruppe 'Süd' planners had always expected an encounter between the 4th Panzerarmee and Soviet reserve formations that would arrive at the Psel river and Prokhorovka.
Some historians have made the claim that the Germans did not expect the Soviet armoured counterattack and were therefore taken by surprise on 12 July, but other historians have stated or argued that the German commanders were aware of, or at least anticipated, the Soviet armour that was massing around Prokhorovka, so the German forces could not have been genuinely surprised. However, one German historian has argued that even though the German commanders expected a major Soviet armoured deployment at Prokhorovka, the German front-line troops were indeed taken largely by surprise when the Soviets counterattacked on the morning of 12 July.