Ben Wheatley on The Panzers of Prokhorovka

Ben Wheatley

The author of a new book destroys myths about the great tank battles of the Eastern Front.
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Ben Wheatley, many congratulations on your new book The Panzers of Prokhorovka. Was it the greatest tank battle(s) of the war?

Thank you. It’s now generally accepted that it was the fighting around Brody and Dubno between the 26th and 29th July 1941, rather than Prokhorovka that was the greatest ‘single’ tank battle.  This was part of the border battles fought at the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  It involved up to 3500 Soviet and 750 German tanks.  However, the overall battle of Kursk (of which on 12 July 1943 Prokhorovka was part) stretched for 50 days and can be regarded as the greatest series of armoured clashes in history. The battle consisted of the German offensive Operation Citadel, 5-16 July 1943, (a pincer attack on the Kursk salient), and two Soviet counteroffensives aimed at Orel, 12 July–18 August 1943 and Kharkov, 3–23 August 1943. During the fighting the two sides deployed more than four million troops, 69,000 guns and launchers, 13,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and almost 12,000 aircraft. The bitterness of the fighting is shown by the fact that the Red Army lost a total of at least 6,064 tanks.

The battles of Kursk and Prokhorovka have been known as a catastrophic defeat for the Germans. Is that correct?

It is important to note that by the summer of 1943 the war on the Eastern Front had long since been lost by Germany. The Red Army’s vast superiority in men and materiel meant that ultimate victory was now impossible for Germany. The German Army had been worn down during the years 1941–43 when the Red Army had been the only force capable of fighting the bulk of the Wehrmacht. However, in order to achieve complete victory over the Wehrmacht vast battles still had to be fought. The battle of Kursk was the largest of these battles. There is no doubt that the Red Army, despite suffering very high losses in men and materiel, won a convincing victory at Kursk. However, in a battle of the size and scope of the battle of Kursk some setbacks for the Red Army were inevitable. The overall Soviet victory at Kursk, indeed at Prokhorovka, is not in any way diminished by highlighting examples (such as at Prokhorovka) where the Germans inflicted serious losses on the Red Army.

How important were intelligence reports to the Soviet victory, and how much did the work at Bletchley assist the Red Army?

The importance of officially passed Ultra intelligence (the name given to decoded signal intelligence) is often over-hyped in the West. The Soviets were fully aware of the Germans offensive intensions against the Kursk salient via their own sources of intelligence, which included air reconnaissance, signals interception and foreign agents, long before they received official notification from British Ultra intelligence of the obvious German build up. At the end of April 1943 Ultra picked up a comprehensive assessment by Army Group South of future German intentions at Kursk – which was passed to the Soviets on 30 April along with a warning that the attack would take place in the near future. For next two months, however, Ultra intelligence assessments were doubtful regarding future combat at Kursk (no doubt reflecting the Germans own misgivings). Ultra often gave contradictory information which limited its operational use. Indeed, Ultra did not indicate the German offensive had begun until 10 July (the 6th day of the offensive) – in other words Ultra offered no advance warning.

Was the T-34 the best tank of the war, or is its effectiveness exaggerated?

The T-34/76 was dominant in the early stages of the Second World War and came as a nasty surprise to the Germans in 1941. At the time, the T-34/76’s 76.2 mm gun was more than a match for any tank in service at that time, and its sloped armour was unhindered by anti-tank weapons at this stage of the Second World War. However, by 1943 the original version of the T-34 with its 76mm gun and two-man turret had become inadequate. The gun struggled against up armoured Panzer IVs, and the frontal armour of Tigers and Panthers was essentially impenetrable. The balance was not readdressed until Spring 1944 with the introduction of the T-34/85 which had an 85mm gun and three-man turret.

And what of the Tiger and Panther tanks?

The Tiger tank’s powerful long-range firepower (88mm gun) and thick armour meant it was ideally suited to forming the spearhead of German attacks. Although only available in small numbers at Kursk (112), in 1943 the Tiger was imperious on the battlefield. The Panther had comparable firepower (extra-long barrelled 75mm gun) and frontal protection to the Tiger, but it was more mobile and cheaper to produce.  The Panther was intended to replace the Panzer III and IV, but at Kursk only 200 were available. The Panther was rushed into service before all its teething troubles had been resolved.  The Panthers used at Kursk suffered from mechanical breakdowns and their crews had limited training time, affecting their confidence in the vehicle. However, the Panzer III (50mm gun) and Panzer IV formed the bulk of German tank strength at Kursk. The Panzer III (562) was clearly obsolete by this point, however, at Kursk the bulk of the Panzer IVs (664) had an upgraded 75mm gun which made it superior to the T-34/76.

Panzer IV Ausf. C, 1943

How did the Soviets furnish the myth of Prokhorovka?

For many years both Soviet and Western historiography claimed that between 300 and 400 German tanks were destroyed during the battle of Prokhorovka. If these German armoured losses had occurred, they would have in fact represented the loss of between 58 per cent (300) and 77 per cent (400) of the total German armoured force in the Prokhorovka area (II SS Panzer Korps). One might ask where these extremely high claims of German armoured losses originated from. The birth of this ‘myth of Prokhorovka’ can clearly be seen in the reporting of German armoured fighting vehicle losses in the 5th Guards Tank Army status report of 17 July. On this date the 5th Guards Tank Army claimed that between 12 and 16 July 1943 its four tank corps involved in the battle had destroyed 298 German tanks, including 55 of the formidable heavy Tiger tanks. Later in 1960 General Pavel Rotmistrov, the commander of 5th Guards Tank Army, claimed in his memoirs (Tankovoe srazhenie pod Prokhorovki) that his units had destroyed 400 German tanks, including 70 Tiger tanks, at Prokhorovka. In reality, the Germans lost a maximum of 16 armoured fighting vehicles during the battle.

Who won the battle of Prokhorovka?

The disproportionally high number of Soviet armoured losses (the Soviets lost as many as 246 armoured fighting vehicles during the battle and its immediate aftermath) did not, however, equate to a Soviet defeat at Prokhorovka; that is because the Soviets achieved their central aim of halting II SS Panzer Korps’ drive on Prokhorovka. On two occasions (11 and 13 July) the German attackers simply had no answer to the extremely powerful Soviet defences that had been installed to protect Prokhorovka. These defences included a formidable artillery capability and an impenetrable anti-tank screen. The Soviets also maintained a high number of operational tanks; even after the battle the 5th Guards Tank Army still possessed over 650 armoured fighting vehicles. As a result of these realities the Germans, having failed to obtain flanking support, had no hope of continuing their advance on the Prokhorovka axis.  Even though this victory may not be the one of legend, the Soviet soldiers who fought so courageously against Nazism at Prokhorovka still deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for their victory.

Ben Wheatley is the author of The Panzers of Prokhorovka: The Myth of Hitler’s Greatest Armoured Defeat and is published by Osprey.

Aspects of History Issue 14 is out now.