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  • James Houser

July 12, 1943 - The Battle of Kursk Part II: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 12, 1943. The Battle of Kursk has raged for seven days, with the Nazis biting deep into Soviet defensive lines in Ukraine. At 5:45 AM, the spearhead of the 1st SS Panzer Division at Prokhorovka reports the sound of tank engines to the east – a LOT of tank engines. The largest tank battle in history is about to commence, and the turn of the tide of history’s greatest war has come.

The Germans had clawed inch by agonizing inch into the Soviet forces arrayed north and south of Kursk. From July 5 onwards, they had shoveled enormous amounts of troops, tanks, artillery and airplanes into the offensive. The Soviets had been waiting for them with defensive positions months in the making, with almost two million soldiers manning them. Thousands of artillery pieces, over 10,000 tanks, and multiple army group-size formations on both sides had committed to the largest battle in history.

For more background, my post on July 5 discussed the background and beginning of the Kursk battle. If you read it and remember it, cool, on with the show. If not, don’t worry too much. Her's the link if you want it. (POST LINK)

The Germans had launched their enormous Kursk offensive – their final attempt to beat the Soviet Union in decisive battle – on July 5, 1943. It represented the amassing of almost all their available strength, especially the carefully rebuilt panzer forces. The Germans had delayed the attack for so long that the Soviets had easily figured out what they were doing. Stalin and his chief general Zhukov had packed the Kursk area with staggering numbers of troops, tanks, and munitions. Their plan was to grind the Germans down and win a defensive victory. Only when the Germans were exhausted would they show their own hand – attacks north and south of Kursk that would strike the rear of the attacking enemy and stand a good chance of destroying the German forces.

What the Germans had wanted out of Kursk was another blitzkrieg victory. This would mean quick penetration of the enemy lines, a rapid exploitation, and the encirclement and destruction of a large Soviet force – a big, quick, juicy bite. What they got instead was a slow, agonizing grind forward. Their intended target had proved thicker and harder than they ever imagined. Instead of a quick, clean stroke, they were having to hack away at a series of heavy defensive lines that never seemed to end.

On the southern face of the Kursk bulge, Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South had somehow managed to hammer their way through the first and second Soviet defensive lines, but Walther Model’s 9th Army had stalled in the north. Manstein believed he could still achieve a breakthrough if he finally wore down Soviet resistance and punched an irreparable hole through their lines. The constant, grinding attrition of the battle, though, had badly worn his forces down, even if the Soviets suffered more.

The tip of Manstein’s spear was the SS-Panzer Corps, three elite divisions of the SS lavishly equipped with tanks and equipment. These divisions were the 1st SS Panzer “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (originally Hitler’s personal unit), 2nd SS Panzer, and 3rd SS Panzer “Totenkopf.” Totenkopf, the Death’s Head division, was made up entirely of former concentration camp guards. The SS-Panzer Corps was a Nazi force through and through, bound together by the murderous fascist ideology and their vast number of war crimes.

When the Corps had captured Kharkov in 1943, they had engaged in mass executions of wounded Soviet soldiers. Now they were eating their way through the Russian defenses, headed for Kursk. Despite serious losses, by July 12 they still had 294 serviceable armored vehicles, including 15 of the fearsome Tigers. (They had started with over 40, but the Tiger breakdown rate was so high that many had been cannibalized to keep a few running.)

The Soviet High Command had become mildly alarmed at the progress of the SS-Panzer Corps. They were still confident about winning the battle, especially since the Germans in the north had run into a brick wall and given up by July 9, but the Soviet defenses had not yet halted the SS fanatics. Zhukov had kept a careful rein on the large Soviet reserve forces remaining behind the lines. They were needed for the next phase of the campaign, the great counteroffensive to retake the Ukraine. Nevertheless, he had had to give up several large units. With the SS-Panzer Corps about to strike the third defensive line, Zhukov finally sent word for Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army to move up and intercept the black murderers of Hitler’s elite.

The 5th Guards Tank Army was the final round in the Soviet chamber. 840 armored fighting vehicles strong, it roared forward from its reserve positions when the call-up came. It had to cover 240 miles in three days, a gigantic column of machines striking up a dust cloud of great proportions. Most drivers and commanders could not see from the dust, but tried their best to make out the vehicle directly in front of them. The T-34s, T-70 light tanks, and even some Lend-Lease Churchill tanks sent from Britain drove day and night over the vast, open plains of Ukraine, their drivers swapping out even as the vehicles were in motion.

The Soviets soon received word that many of the German forces were stopping and digging in, but that the SS-Panzer Corps was still pushing forward. This led Zhukov to guess correctly that the Germans were near the limits of their endurance, and that they were shifting all their energy to propelling the SS forward. Manstein redirected the SS towards the east on July 10, hoping to find a breaking point in the Soviet lines. Zhukov, once he had received word of the new attack, directed Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army to the town of Prokhorovka, where they were to meet and smash the German spearhead.

The SS men finally began to chew through the third defensive line, even as fanatic Soviet resistance and tank counterattacks slowed them down. By day’s end on July 11, they had crossed a deep antitank ditch 2 miles south of the village of Prokhorovka and seized a local promontory, Hill 252. The SS line was jagged and uneven, reflecting the incomplete and local nature of their success, but they had penetrated farther than any other German unit into the Soviet defenses around Kursk. Leibstandarte, Hitler’s favorite unit, was exposed and isolated atop Hill 252. To make a twisted allegory, they were the mole poking their heads from the hole, and they were about to get whacked.

The SS-Panzer Corps was about to start its move at first light on July 12 when several soldiers began to report the sounds of “a large number” of tank engines to the east. The exhausted black-coated men had been fighting for eight days straight, day and night, many only on their feet through the power of amphetamines. The SS recon elements had completely failed to detect the approaching hurricane that was about to descend on them in the square miles south of Prokhorovka, and it would soon catch them out of position and unprepared for an attack.

Rotmistrov’s Tank Army had arrived on the scene the previous night. The Soviet general ordered his tanks to close rapidly with the enemy armor to nullify the longer range of the Tiger’s guns. Soviet intelligence generally overestimated the number of Tigers in the German force – there were only 15 – while most of the German panzers were the old Panzer 3 and Panzer 4 types, roughly equivalent to the main Soviet tanks. Therefore, Rotmistrov’s plan was based on a false assumption; instead of good armored tactics, he committed his force to a headlong charge.

As the German and Soviet infantry began to open the battle with skirmishing, a sudden barrage of Russian artillery fire began to plaster the SS positions. This punishment lasted for around thirty minutes, and the SS men took cover and held their breath. When the bombardment finally lifted at 8:30 AM, July 12, there was a momentary silence on both sides of the line.

800 Soviet tanks, lined up and ready to attack, received the code word, spoken in Rotmistrov’s rasping Russian. “STEEL. STEEL. STEEL.” With a roar like hell, the 5th Guards Tank Army pelted forward against the SS-Panzer Corps’ waiting 300 tanks. Over a thousand armored vehicles collided in the climax of World War II.

The massed Soviet armor charged, five tank brigades abreast, firing wildly at the positions of the isolated Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division. They carried troops clinging to the side of their turrets and hulls, elite troopers of the 9th Guards Airborne Division, who dismounted closer to the enemy and began to tangle with the SS grenadiers. Purple flares went up from Hill 252 and all along the SS line, signaling the incoming attack to their fellow units.

The Russians’ forward charge swamped the Germans, with massed clusters of tanks crashing up from ravines and down from the hillside to be met with experienced and tough cadres of panzers. One panzer captain led his seven Panzer 4s onto the lower slope of Hill 252, to be met by almost forty T-34s, charging over the crest of the hill. A hair-raising fight ensued, but Rotmistrov’s order for a headlong charge had disrupted the command and control of the Soviet tank formations as well as reducing their accuracy. In most cases the superior German experience and the benefits of their defense managed to keep the Soviets at bay.

But not everywhere. The Soviet tanks cracked through on either side of Hill 252, briefly isolating it. The SS-Panzergrenadier battalion on top of the hill, commanded by Colonel Joachim Peiper, fought like the demons they were to throw back the Soviets. Peiper himself, who would later massacre unarmed American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge, hunted down a Soviet tank with a magnetic grenade on foot. The SS somehow managed to hold the hill against the tidal wave.

Elsewhere, the T-34s swarmed through the German lines, hammering away at any and all targets, almost destroying Leibstandarte’s artillery unit in the process and briefly surrounding the division headquarters. Everywhere, the fight was desperation. The few Tigers the Germans had left, the fanatic resistance of the SS troopers, and the poor Soviet tactics in the attack were all that kept the 5th Guards Tank Army from crushing the SS like a beer can on a frat boy’s head.

The battle was insane, there’s no other word for it. Over a thousand armored vehicles swirled in melee as poor infantrymen tried their best to stay out of their way, like small mammals fleeing before the dinosaurs. German trucks and halftracks carried out ramming attacks against the Soviet tanks, trying desperately to stem the flood. Planes swirled overhead as German air attacks tried to break up the struggle. Multiple German units were overrun, and the Soviets nearly achieved a breakthrough past Hill 252 – only to run headlong into one of their own antitank ditches, dug as a means of stopping the Germans but perfectly capable of stopping the Soviets as well. A number of T-34s plummeted into the 15-foot ditch before the officers realized their mistake.

By the end of the day, the 5th Guards Tank Army had smashed, dented, driven back and bent the SS-Panzer Corps. They had not broken it. The Nazi troops had clung by their fingernails to Hill 252. They had suffered around about 43 irrecoverable tank losses, including 11 of their 15 remaining Tigers, but this was dramatically less than the Soviet losses – 334 tanks altogether, many destroyed by accident or crew error. The 5th Guards had essentially smashed itself trying to destroy the SS.

Stalin was furious at Rotmistrov for the catastrophic losses, and Zhukov wanted him fired and possibly court-martialed, but other generals intervened. In retrospect Zhukov was right; Rotmistrov’s terrible attack plan had nearly cost the Soviets the battle. It had certainly cost them the very real chance to wipe out the SS-Panzer Corps.

Despite all of that, and despite the vastly unbalanced loss ratio, the great tank battle of Prokhorovka was a Soviet victory. The SS-Panzer Corps had been ground to a halt. Even if they had held their ground on July 12, they were exhausted, depleted, and at the limit of their endurance; they could go no farther. Even if the 5th Guards had not destroyed them, it had taken the last of their strength in its desperate headlong attack. Despite the casualties and despite the missed opportunities, the Soviets had accomplished their mission. They had broken the tip off the German katana.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The attack at Prokhorovka did not occur in a vacuum. On the same day that the greatest tank battle in history was taking place, the Soviets had launched the first of their major counterstrokes in the north, catching the Germans completely by surprise in a very weak area. Even worse, on July 10 the Allies had landed in Sicily, another weak area for the Axis. On July 13, Hitler took all these factors into account, including the defeat at Prokhorovka, and decided to cancel the Kursk offensive. The SS were needed in Italy, and other forces needed to be sent to stop the Soviet attacks. Operation Citadel, the last great German attack in the East, had failed.

By its failure, the Germans had reached their high water mark. The SS-Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka on July 12 was the final limit of the German blitzkrieg. It could go no farther, and it was all downhill from here. From now on, the Germans would not be launching their great panzer strikes into enemy territory, but trying desperately to stop the Soviets, British or Americans from getting any farther. The German blitzkrieg finally broke down at Kursk, and Kursk ended at Prokhorovka. If there had ever been a chance to turn the war around – and it’s highly unlikely that the German attack at Kursk ever would have succeeded – it vanished on July 12 in the world’s greatest tank battle.

Kursk ensured that the Germans would lose World War II. All that remained to be decided was the manner of their destruction.

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