To see in the New Year, Defence-in-Depth is re-publishing its three most-viewed posts of 2019. At No. 1, Ben Wheatley’s new research on the visual record of the Battle of Prokhorovka.
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 The article utilises previously unpublished Luftwaffe reconnaissance photographs to provide the first visual confirmation across the battlefield of the fate of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army’s attacking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.
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.
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. 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).
6 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Prokhorovka”
I’ve been a student of WW2 especially the Russo-German War since I was a kid in the mid-1970’s, and I’ve always been puzzled that books on the war seldom if ever included wartime aerial reconnaissance photos. I’ve examined hundreds of books and articles containing thousands of photos and maps on dozens of WW2 campaigns, yet only about a half-dozen such photos have been reprinted, and these were…underwhelming examples. Although historians mentioned them in the text, the photos themselves seldom appeared to enhance the subject at hand. Ten million photos of Tiger tanks, sure, but not a single recon photo.
This led me to assume such intelligence photos were deliberately destroyed, once they became useless for wartime intelligence purposes. After all, if they did exist in the archives, historians and researchers would’ve undoubtedly used them as important source material, right?
Unbelievably, no. Thousands of Allied and German photos have been readily available for many decades, it seems, many of which are simply incredible to gaze at, like the Operation Goodwood photos published a few years ago.
Yet it seems not a single ‘serious’ and ‘acclaimed’ WW2 scholar or historian since 1945 has ever had the presence of mind to look for them in the archives and examine them, despite their obvious value.
The first time any such photos appeared (as far as I know) wasn’t until the late 1990’s in a Canadian military history journal, attempting to determine the fate of Michael Wittman, the German tank ace who was killed with his crew during Operation Totalize in Aug. ’44.
It boggles the mind to realize that decades of professional historians have ‘forgot’ to look for such a valuable resource.
BTW, thanks for the article. I must complain about the rather inadequate reproduction of the photos which appear with the online version. The photos lack the necessary level of high resolution. I cannot recognize or identify any of the dots, smudges, or spots as AFVs with any certainty, which makes it difficult to compare the text with the photos. Perhaps you could post a clearer enlargement of a single tank as an example, or place a light arrow or circle around the tanks mentioned in the text. Otherwise, it’s guesswork trying to follow the text w/ the photos.
Continuing this track, after Kursk, Russians lost the battle of Kharkov, Moscow, Leningrad and in 1945 Nazis triumphantly seized Moscow.
Looking the issue from another direction, I have this question for a long time: if LSSAH only had such a minimum losses with such an exciting victory over 5GTA, what forces blocked them from taking Prokhorovka? They could have easily achieved this goal even on Jul 12 in high combat spirit with such an overwhelming victory. Manstein & Hoth were already behind schedule, Hitler were not happy and Kluge & Model were about to turn back. So what were they waiting for? Just go forward some kilometers crashing the remaining of 18th & 29th Tank Corps then turn east little bit, then Prokhorovka is yours. Don’t worry about 2nd Tank Corps & 2nd Guards Tank Corps on the right, Das Reich already beat them. This is fact (from Nipe Jr “Decision in the Ukraine”): LSSAH already inflicted heavy losses on 18th & 29th Tank Corps by noon time of Jul 12 … 24th Guards Tank and 10th Guards Mechanized Brigades (both belong to 5GTA) blocked LSSAH at night fall of Jul 12. So what happened most of afternoon in between? In such tense battle field, minutes even seconds matter, but why did LSSAH waste several precious hours in the afternoon of Jul 12 (if their losses were so trivial)?
Don’t blame it on Hitler: on Jul 13, Hitler gave compromise to Manstein and allowed him to further occupy Prokhorovka, and hence Operation Roland. But even with several days more (until Jul 16), Manstein & Hoth still could not occupy Prokhorovka. Why? The only rational real reason: the losses of SS II PanzerCorps were higher then they claimed! For any unbiased history fans interested in this great battle, google “Who won the battle of Prokhorovka?” by Paul Neumann, the most objective and justified account (my opinion).
Zitadelle was in effect already cancelled on July 10th due to the Allied landings in Sicily on that date. Hitler had previously warned Manstein that when the Allies landed in Sicily the SS divisions would be withdrawn from Zitadelle and sent to the Mediterranean. Hitler reminded Manstein of this and finally insisted that they be withdrawn ASAP and sent to the west on the 12th. At that moment, capturing Prokhorovka was irrelevant and pointless.
In the event, only LAH was sent, but additional Red Army attacks were launched to the south on the Mius and north near Orel, which also needed German reinforcements, which could only come from Manstein..
That’s why the Germans basically gave up Zitadelle on July 12th.
Because the Germans had no reason at all for ‘taking’ Prokhorovka. It’s just a tiny village.
The whole point of Zitadelle was to destroy Soviet armored reserves which had been located within the Kursk salient. Yet by July 10-12, those Russian tanks were no longer there, they were counterattacking Manstein at Prokhorovka, so Zitadelle’s original purpose of driving into the salient to destroy Soviet armor was now irrelevant. Manstein still needed several armored divisions to finish destroying them, but AH said no, and took half of Manstein’s panzers away, thus depriving his own armies of an almost perfect opportunity to destroy the rest of 5th GTA. This is just one relatively minor example of why AH was largely responsible for bringing Germany to defeat only 2 years after Stalingrad. Without his ‘military intuition’ Germany would’ve been able to continue fighting his war for a considerably longer period, or until the A-Bomb, anyway. Ironic huh?
If you read Pipers account of the Battle, his Grenadier Regimental HQ was overrun, most of the trucks etc destroyed and scattered. The Anti-tank battalion lost 16 Guns and crews [all of them]. One of the field artillery batteries was also close assaulted by T34’s. Also a few weeks later, the Soviets captured the German Rail heads, with 760 damaged German AFV’s [150 Panthers]. These losses are not counted against German losses for Kursk by most Historians. We even have the HIWI debate. The Germans said they ran off? Yet after the war, when the Division associations got together, they had men from Ukraine, who were at Kursk in the ranks? this adds about 2400 losses to the SS Panzer Corps during the Battle, as each Division had 800 attached at the very start of the battle. [not included in each Division ration strength].