- The German Army  1657-1945

Battle of Prokhorovka 12 July 1943

The battle of Kursk, which had been launched by the Germans on the 5th July, continued. The Wehrmacht and SS troops were making much less progress than anticipated. They found themselves confronting successive lines of well prepared Soviet defences, manned by determined troops who were prepared to fight to the death in defence of the motherland.
Within the wide ranging continuous battle one engagement stood out. On the 12th July one of the largest single tank engagements of the war broke out south of the city of Prokhorovka, when the Germans made a sustained attempt to smash through the Russian lines with a concentration of armour. Estimates vary about the numbers involved but it generally thought that a combined total of over a thousand tanks clashed that day.
In amongst the flying steel was Mansur Abdulin, a veteran of Stalingrad. The Soviet infantry had adopted desperate tactics to be able to take on the largest of the German panzers, the Tiger:
[W]e marched straight into action at daybreak on 12 July 1943.
Neither before nor since had I seen so much artillery. The commanders of artillery units, with their guns of different calibre, had a hard time finding positions from which they could fire without disturbing their neighbours. There was not enough space for the gunners on the battlefield!
The roar of guns continued all day without pause. We infantrymen — surrounded by thick black smoke and covered in soot — looked like stokers, endlessly throwing coal into a furnace. Only the whites of our eyes and teeth were shining. We moved at a furious pace, among burning tanks, exploding shells, and fire from every conceivable sort of weapon.
Every soldier, covered in sweat, was systematically doing his job, as if toiling in a giant workshop; forgetting about his fear and pinning his hopes on chance: ‘Will I be killed or not?’ There’s nothing one can do to save oneself in this carnage, and the hands did what was necessary automatically.
Having been thrown back, the Germans began another onslaught, again without success. How many times a day did both sides crash against one another? Who would win? It was a case of might versus might, power versus power.
The heat of the fighting can be illustrated by the fact that along the battlefront clouds formed from which rain fell. These leaden clouds marked the curved outline of the front, while in our rear (and that of the Germans) the sky was absolutely clear. I have never again seen anything like it! It was a blazing hell and the hot air rose upwards night and day.
All day long planes fired at each other in the sky. There was a hail of splinters and bullets. That was familiar enough: but watch out, you might get killed by falling aircraft! Pilots parachuted here and there. One had to be careful not to confuse our men with the Germans. We could often see how the parachuting pilots continued their fight by firing pistols at each other. We wanted to help them, but how? If only our parachutes had had stars on them or the fabric was of a specific colour.
In order to be more efficient against enemy tanks, our soldiers made special bundles consisting of two grenades and a Molotov cocktail (what our men called ‘a bottle of Champagne for a hangover!’). These bundles had to be thrown from a distance of no less than 50m [over 54 yards – see comments], because the blast was so powerful that it could injure you!
Not many men in our company were strong enough to do it: Sergei Lapunov, Vasili Shamrai, Matvei Yershov, Aleksei Yanson and a couple more. Skinny soldiers, like Kostia Martynov or Piotr Shkolnikov, had to be content with making the bundles, using strips of strong captured telephone wire.
But our comrade Kostia desperately wanted to destroy a Tiger with his own hands. Several times he dug a reserve trench some 30m or 40m away in No Man’s Land, from which he planned to throw his heavy bundle under the caterpillar track of a German tank. One day he got his chance . . 
The Germans have decided to try and dislodge us from a so-called ‘domineering height’ (though it doesn’t look that important to us). They launch a tank attack supported by 100 infantrymen with sub- machine guns.
One of the tanks is rapidly rolling in the direction of Kostia’s reserve trench, so he grabs his bundle of grenades, and keeping as low as possible, makes a dash for his dugout. Vasili Shamrai separates the enemy infantrymen from their tanks by firing several long bursts from his machine-gun, which makes them jump for cover.
Meanwhile, Kostia’s Tiger comes up close and stops, preparing to destroy our position with its gun. Seeing this, Shamrai dives deep into his hiding place. Simultaneously, we see Kostia jump out of his trench and throw the bundle of explosives underneath the caterpillar of the tank. It seems to us that Kostia has plenty of time to take cover before the blast.
Then comes the powerful, deafening explosion. The Tiger loses its track and twitches, trying to resume its forward movement. But having only one caterpillar, it turns and collapses on its side. Our boys bring up some fresh ‘Champagne’ bottles and soon the Tiger is in flames.
We finally repelled the German counter-attack. The Nazis lost two of their Tigers and some fifty soldiers. We had ten men killed, including Kostia and twelve wounded. We found him with blood flowing from his ears and his eyes almost falling out of their sockets. Kostia was born in 1925, in the Miasski District of the Cheliabinsk Region. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Star.
On 5 July 1943, the greatest land battle in history began when Wehrmacht and Red Army forces clashed near the town of Kursk, some 456km (283 miles) south of Moscow. Code-named “Operation Zitadelle,” the German offensive would cut through the bulge in the eastern front that had been created following Germany’s retreat at the battle of Stalingrad. But the Soviets, well-informed about Germany’s plans through their network of spies, had months to prepare. More than two million men supported by 6,000 tanks, 35,000 guns, and 5,000 aircraft convened in Kursk for an epic confrontation that was one of the most important military engagements in history, the epitome of “total war.”
After the Third Battle of Kharkov, the front line had stabilized - runing from just west of Rostov in the south, up to Velikiye-Luki west on Moscow, then on to Leningrad. However a huge Soviet salient protruded 80km (50 miles) westwards in front of Kursk. Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, OKH chief of staff, issued a plan named Zitadelle on April 15, that envisioned encircling and destroying Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. Realizing that the Soviets held a significant numerical advantage, Zeitzler’s plan was based on regaining the battlefield initiative through qualitative  superiority provided by the new Panthers, Tigers, and Ferdinands heavy tanks. Army Group Center will attack from the north with a reinforced Panzer Group, while Army Group South will strike northwards from the opposite side of the salient with a even stronger forces. The attack was originally planned to begin on 3 May, but the offensive was postponed until July when significant numbers of Panthers and Tigers would arrive at the front. The panzers had to break through little more than 160km (100 miles) to cut off all Soviets units in the salient. Further exploitation might take them back to the Don, at Voronezh. Elimination of Kursk bulge would also bring the Wehrmacht into a position to threaten Moscow. Kursk was such an obvious objective that the Soviets began fortifying it almost as soon as the Germans decided to attack it.
The Germans launched the Kursk offensive on 5 July 1943. The northern pincer was under Gen. Model’s Ninth Army. The southern pincer was under Gen. Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, backed up by Army Detachment Kempf. Both wings made slow progress. The Soviets used a semi-elastic defense, holding a line long enough to cause maximum losses to the attackers, then falling back to the next line of prepared defenses.
The German Ninth Army, commanded by the determined Generaloberst Model, made little headway into the northern shoulder of the salient. His force ran headlong into the Soviet Thirteenth Army with the Forty-Eighth and Seventieth Armies on each side. During the first day of the offensive, it had penetrated 8 kilometres (5 miles) into the Soviet lines. The Ninth Army, after initial success, became entirely bogged down in its attack from the north.
Operation Zitadelle was more successful in the south. Von Manstein’s troops (Army Group South) were equipped with more armoured vehicles, infantry and artillery than Model’s in the north (Army Group Centre). At around 04:00 the German attack commenced with a preliminary bombardment. Mainstein’s main attack was delivered by the 4th Panzer Army (commanded by Hermann Hoth), of which its right flank was covered by Army Detachment “Kempf” (commanded by Werner Kempf). Fourth Panzer Army was seemingly poised to break through in the south, but was then fought to exhaustion in massive battles near the town of Prokhorovka, with the II SS Panzer Corps making the deepest penetration before being stopped. On 12 July 1943, one of the greatest tank battles in history occurred at the village of Prokhorovka. It was an engagement that had profound consequences, for it halted the German advance in the battle, and spelled the end of ‘Zitadelle’.
12 July 1943: Clash at Prokhorovka
The Battle of Prokhorovka effectively took place in an area little more than 8km by 8km (five miles by five miles) - it was smaller than the battlefield at Waterloo. The terrain where the main engagement of the battle was to unfold was flat and rolling. By the end of the day, some 700 tanks lay burned out and gutted on the field of battle. Needless to say, few of the crews survived the action.
The tank battles fought through the duration of Operation Zitadelle culminated in the celebrated action near the small town of Prokhorovka. On 10 July, the II SS Panzer Corps (of the 4th Panzer Army), led by Totenkopf Division, tore through the Soviet First Tank Army, over-running the 71st Guards Rifle Division. The Red Army was forced to commit its strategic reserves from the Steppe Front with the release of the Fifth Guards Tank Army. Here, they encountered the Germans in one of the largest tank combats in history, which can best be described as a tactical loss but an operational draw for the Soviets.
Tank losses in the battle have been a contentious subject. Red Army losses have been given from 200 to 822 tanks, but the records show about 300 complete losses and as many damaged. Newer research suggests that German losses were between 3-6 tank destroyed, and about 40–80 damaged. The Leibstandarte Division alone claimed 192 Soviet tanks destroyed. When Hausser saw the tank kill claims coming from the battlefield, he could scarcely believe his eyes. The Waffen-SS General thought this was scarcely credible until he visited the battlefield and walked around the hulks, numbering them with chalk to confirm the kills.
It was now clear, however, that the objectives of ‘Zitadelle’ could not be met. The attack in the north had made little headway, principally because the Soviets had wrongly anticipated that this was the direction from which the main German push would come from, and had fortified their positions accordingly. Although good progress had been made in the south, it had been achieved only at an unacceptable cost in both casualties and armour. On 13 July, Hitler called off the offensive. He was extremely concerned about the situation in the Mediterranean, where the Allies threatened Germany’s southern flank. In addition, a massive Soviet build-up was evident in the Donetz area. Manstein tried to persuade the Führer that success could still be achieved, but when a fresh Soviet assault towards Orel threatened to cut off Model’s 9th Army, he was forced to finally accept that the operation had failed.
Inescapably, though, the Germans had lost men and equipment without gaining Zitadelle’s objectives. German Army suffered some 50,000 casualties with a loss of 252 tanks and assault guns. The Red Army lost many more men and much more materiel at Kursk than did the Germans, possibly up to 250,000 men and 2,586 tanks and assault guns. The carefully gathered Panzer reserves had been largely spent, while the Red Army was now free to launch its own strategic offensive on the Eastern Front. 

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