Ben Wheatley is a Honorary Research Fellow in the School of History, University of East Anglia and a former Teaching Fellow at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. This post coincides with the release of Ben’s article ‘A visual examination of the battle of Prokhorovka’ in the Journal of Intelligence History. The article utilises previously unpublished Luftwaffe reconnaissance photographs to provide the first visual confirmation across the battlefield of the fate of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army’s attacking components. You can follow Ben on Twitter at here.
In the autumn of 2017 I had the opportunity to teach an operational case study at the Joint Services and Command Staff College on an historical campaign of my choosing. As a historian with a long interest in armoured warfare and the war on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, it was an easy choice – the monumental battles around Kursk/Orel in the summer of 1943. Included was the battle of Prokhorovka (viewed as the culmination of the Germans drive on Kursk from the south), which was fought on 12 July 1943. This battle was just one of the major battles which occurred in the Kursk/Orel area during the summer of 1943, collectively these engagements formed part of the monumental Battle of Kursk. Yet the battle of Prokhorovka is perhaps also one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented battles of the Second World War.
The battle of Prokhorovka was not the largest tank battle on a single day in history. It did not mark the death ride of Germany’s panzer forces, nor was it (as is also the case for Operation Citadel in general) a battle that potentially decided the fate of the entire war on the Eastern Front. Undoubtedly, though, it was a very significant engagement and, for the Soviet 5thGuards Tank Army, a disaster. The myths surrounding the battle largely stem from General Rotmistrov’s need to justify to Stalin his 5thGuards Tank Army’s heavy losses. Soviet armoured losses were indeed very severe while German armoured losses were negligible in the extreme. Thanks to excellent post-soviet era research by Niklas Zetterling & AndersFrankson, Karl-Heinz Frieser, Roman Töppeland ValeriyZamulin amongst others (which are based on official reports, losses and testimonies) this is now beyond dispute.
However, by using previously neglected archival sources it has still been possible to make a significant research breakthrough and provide the first visual confirmation of the fate of the 5thGuards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps. Significantly the article includes the first published photographs of the notorious anti-tank ditch (in which the 29th Tank Corps’ 31st & 32nd Tank Brigades were largely destroyed) whilst still in German hands – masses of Soviet tank wrecks being clearly visible. For a battle which was wrapped in myth for so many years this is particularly important. Without this final visual evidence the above mentioned authors’ battle narratives, if not their statistical findings, was still open to debate. This is no longer the case.
Foreseeing an imminent collapse of Nazi Germany, Allied commanders seized in 1944 – 45 large quantities of cartographic materials and aerial photographs as part of Operation Dick Tracy. It was quickly realized by the Allied Forces that the Luftwaffe had much more advanced aerial photography techniques. Faced with the possibility of losing such information to the rapidly advancing Soviets on the Eastern front, Operation Dick Tracy was of paramount importance, considering the geopolitical divisions of an eventual post-war Europe. There is at the NARA in the main “GX” category 1,209,520 aerial photographs and 57,600 rolls and frames of negative films. From this truly massive grouping of GX images the US Army, in the 1950’s, selected a limited number of images which it felt were of operational/historical significance (this is the Dick Tracy sub-grouping). Some seventeen of these related to the battle of Prokhorovka – none highlighted the anti-tank ditch. Fundamentally the US Army at the time believed the battle was concentrated around Hill 252.2 (the vast majority of Soviet armoured losses occurred further to the south-west of Prokhorovka). However, the accurate historical narrative since provided by, Frieser, Töppel and Zamulin has allowed me to search in the relevant areas of the large GX files – an option simply not open to historians or military personal in the 1950’s before key facts about the battle had been fully understood. These allowed me to pinpoint the battle’s key locations on the terrain both today and in the wartime images.
In addition to the anti-tank ditch, all the other key sites of the battle were now also available to be published and correctly interpreted for the first time. The greatly improved clarity of the GX original images, when matched with German testimony, has even allowed the four German Pz IVs that were ultimately written off on Hill 252.2 in the first moments of the battle to be correctly identified in the wartime images. While it has been possible with the aid of Google Earth/Street View to pinpoint these tanks exact location on the battlefield today (the same is possible with German half-tracks). For a battle that is still so emotive, it is vital that accuracy is maintained at all levels. Photographic evidence of the battle quite clearly helps facilitate this.
The chief protagonists of the Battle of Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps and the German SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, fought over a battlefront of no more than 3km between the river Pseland the Storozhevoye Woods. Therefore the location of one of the most famous battles of the Second World War was able to be photographed by the Luftwaffe in a single shot. Specifically and importantly photographs are available from 14 and 16 July when the battlefield was still in German hands (the Germans chose to withdraw from the area on 17 July). The battlefield remained largely unaltered from 12 July. As a result these photographs depict the Soviet armoured disaster (the entire 5th Guards Tank Army lost around 235 fighting vehicles written off) with absolute clarity. The large number of destroyed Soviet tanks of the 29th Tank Corps visible in and around the anti-tank ditch is astonishing. There are also important photographs from 7 August, which although three weeks later, further highlight the scale of the Soviet disaster. Comparisons made between the July and the August photographs are highly revealing. Destroyed tanks visible in both July and August indicate that they were in all probability lost on 12 July. We know this as in the main attack sectors from 13 July, the Soviets went onto the defensive as a result of the extremely heavy losses they sustained the previous day. Equally the Germans, having recaptured their forward positions on 12July, were content to await developments on their flanks before resuming the advance. These factors are of real importance. As a result the front lines of 16 July were virtually identical to those of 12 July. German tank losses were minuscule by comparison, with just five battle tanks ultimately being written off (including the four Pz IVs close to Hill 252.2). All other damaged tanks were located in secure firing positions (i.e. behind the line of the anti-tank ditch) and were recovered before 16 July and later repaired.
It is remarkable that the historiography of the battle has evolved so radically over the last twenty to thirty years from an era when it was believed the Germans had suffered a major war-defining defeat with the loss of as many as 400 tanks (including 70 Tigers), to one that recognizes that a Soviet catastrophe took place and that this setback can be visually verified. We are even in a position to pinpoint individual German tank losses on the battlefield (1 Pz IV with near certainty – with others as possible). My article describes how this was made possible by matching the wartime photographs and topography of the battlefield with detailed German testimony of the battle on Hill 252.2. It is even possible to differentiate between operational and disabled German tanks. In the 16 July image an operational Tiger tank is visible in a forward defensive position close to the summit of Hill 252.2. Being a Tiger tank it is the largest tank visible, the number of operational Tigers belonging to the Leibstandarte’s heavy panzer company having increased to nine by 16 July. No Tigers were lost close to Hill 252.2 and the tank does not appear in the August photographs.
Photographs relating to the 18th Tank Corps offensive are as equally compelling as those relating to the 29th Tank Corps. The major tank dual between the four Tiger tanks and Soviet armour that occurred following the mass breakthrough of 170th Tank Brigade into the Leibstandarte’s weakly defended left flank (west of the anti-tank ditch) is visible. The 170th Tank Brigade had attacked in the first echelon and succeeded in penetrating the German line en masse – according to Soviet reports with 50 tanks. The four Tigers were faced with a mass of Soviet tanks approaching from at least two lines of advance. Testimony of this conflict is provided by Georg Lötzsch, who was one of the four Tiger tank commanders that day: ‘In the morning, the company was on the left wing of the Leibstandarte when about 50 enemy tanks, from the cover of copses and hedges, came storming towards us in a broad wedge formation’. Lötzsch’s testimony matches the events portrayed in the photographs from this location. It is possible to see destroyed tanks from the 170th Tank Brigade which after, making a frontal advance largely unopposed, have begun to deploy in a wedge formation upon seeing the Tiger tanks – it is possible to follow the formers tracks in the field.
The above outlines just some of the discoveries made – others relate to the subsequent Tiger tanks counter-attack against 181st Tank Brigade, and 25th Tank Brigade’s destruction near to the Stalinsk state farm. This is the first time the majority of the true battlefield, while still in German hands, has been published – let alone correctly interpreted. The article includes my full findings and of course the remarkable images of the battlefield.
Image: Soviet (British Lend-Lease) Churchill tank disabled in the sector of SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich, via wikimedia commons.
For an excellent summary of the evolving historiography of the battle of Kursk see Lak, Martijn. ‘The Death Ride of the Panzers? Recent Historiography on the Battle of Kursk’, in Journal of Military History, 82:3 (2018) pp. 909-19. Among the leading authors and works are: Zetterling, Niklas & Frankson, Anders, Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis (London: Frank Cass, 2000), Zamulin, Valeriy, Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative (Solihull: Helion 2011), Töppel, Roman, Kursk 1943: The Greatest Battle of the Second World War (Solihull: Helion 2018) & Frieser, Karl-Heinz, The Battle of the Kursk Salient in The Research Institute for Military History, Potsdam, Germany, Germany and the Second World War Volume VIII – The Eastern Front 1943-1944 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2017).