Saturday, December 7, 2013

When Humans fought Steel while Steel clashed Steel

David Eshel

…..I saw the thing coming at me. It looked like a wobbling, wavering ball of fire. Suddenly, as I ducked into the commander's turret, there  was a terrific bang. The tank stopped in its tracks and I lost my balance, cracking my head against the optics. Everything went bright red. The turret front became a searing hot mixture of molten steel. As if in a dream I heard the loader, Danny, yelling at me through the intercom. 
As I pulled myself up, my arm touched the red hot steel and I smelt my own flesh bum! Before the pain set in, nausea hit me; then I must have fainted. But not for long - I wanted to get out of that blazing steel coffin! Pulling wildly at the straps of my tanker's helmet, unable to find the control box to disconnect the radio plug, I pushed myself up through the loader's hatch - just in time to watch his legs disappear from view. I looked down and saw the gunner's position in a complete shambles, the gunner lying prone backwards with his eyes open wide - he must have died instantly. There was not a moment to lose if I was to live! With my last bit of strength I pulled myself out of the hatch and fell  gasping onto the engine deck.

'Nearby I saw the war going on. Harman's tank was blazing only twenty meters away and, on the hilltop, another Patton tank had just been hit, some of the crew bailing out as it exploded in a ball of fire. I watched this scene as detached as if I was watching a war movie, as if it did not concern me - then something hot rudely woke me from my daydream. I was on fire myself! I rolled down from the blazing engine deck. onto the ground below, soft sand welcoming me as I frantically tried to unzip my overalls with my good arm, scooping sand onto the painful spots on my body. The overall was in shreds - mostly burned away. The pain increased; it was almost unbearable now. Suddenly the earth erupted as the tank's ammunition exploded; the turret flew off, leaving a large fireball where it had been. I was shocked, frozen with fear, but then I tried to crawl away from that ghastly scene, repeating to myself loudly: "I am strong and I am going to survive. I must live!" I remembered that half of our company was in support on the hill way back and tried to get my bearings to crawl in the right direction. The last thing that I remember is someone calling my name. I tried to answer - my head became heavy and the world turned black ... .'

This vivid description by a young Israeli tank commander who survived his terrible ordeal gives some idea of what tank fighting is about. There is little glamour, not much heroics, but lots of blood, sweat and fear being encased in a tank hull of cold steel, which can become a burning inferno within seconds without warning- creating a horrifying death trap for those men, huddled in a cramped interior. It needs a lot of raw courage to enter into such a vehicle facing mortal combat. Such a fate confronted hundred thousand tank crews, both German and Russian when they fought the biggest tank battle yet in Summer 1943 during the murderous campaign of the Kursk salient. This is their story, a tale of unprecedented courage and determination to fight a savage war between two of the world's most brutal dictators, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Introduction into the Scene of Battle

70 years ago, the great Battle near Kursk took place. It was long claimed being one of the largest tank battles in history. Following their disastrous defeat at Stalingrad during the winter of 1942-43 the German summer offensive in the Kursk enclave, code-named Operation "Zitadelle" led into the heaviest armored clashes ever fought in such a confined area. The climax of this horrendous carnage  took place near the village of Prokhorovka which is about 140 kms from the city of Kursk.
The original German plan, was to pinch off a large bulge created in the Eastern Front, extending 70 miles westward, presenting an ideal target for a twin pincer attack, which German Panzer leaders had successively mounted with devastating effect. If their plan succeeded, the Germans would encircle and destroy more than five Soviet armies, letting the  "Victory Bells" ring  in Berlin again, after the moral blow of the Stalingrad catastrophe shattered the peoples' mood. Moreover, it  would have forced the Soviets to delay their planned summer offensive and might have allowed the Wehrmacht its desperately needed breathing space on their  battered Eastern Front.

The frontal bulge created  in the front-line around Kursk made it an obvious and tempting target to the Wehrmacht. But by allowing the Germans to strike first at the target area would give  the Red Army an opportunity to wear down German Panzer formations against pre-prepared positions, thereby shaping the force in its field ratio heavily against the enemy. Once the initiative had been achieved and the enemy had been worn down sufficiently, well concealed strategic reserves would be committed to finish off the remaining German force. This indeed was the plan of the Soviet high command (Stavka) in Moscow. The problem was that it hinged on a very thin threat of luck, because the Germans had placed everything on a single card, massing all their armor to be thrown into this Bulge to achieve a strategic victory, on which depended the entire campaign in Russia. Some of their generals were expressing concern over concentrating all their available power in, what they considered a  dubious campaign on which they had serious doubts as to its successful outcome. But on Hitler's direct order, no less than 2700 panzers and assault guns and 23 infantry divisions were earmarked for the Battle of Kursk.
Much of the long under-strength German Panzer units were of minor combat value, being equipped largely with virtually obsolete MkIII or MkIV still mounting the short barrel 50 and 75mm gun, although a large part of the latter were sent, almost at last minute, with the new MkIVG version, mounting the more effective and longer  75mm KwK 40 L/48 gun. Nevertheless, the Panzerwaffe poised for action in Summer 1943 was a most powerful adversary.
The Stavka in Moscow was fully aware on what was in stake and prepared itself to defeat the German plan, cost what it takes. And indeed, the loss in manpower and Materiel was to be horrendous, remaining a source for painful memories and inevitably, also long disputable myth for decades.
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein
The foremost commander masterminding the Zitadelle Campaign was one of Germany's greatest strategists, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Born into an aristocratic Prussian family with a long history of military service. Following a notable combat career in WW1, Manstein displayed brilliant strategic outlook, mastermining the dramatic drive through the believed "impassable" Ardennes, which brought to the fall of France in 1940. After a series of excellently conducted defensive battles against overwhelming enemy forces, he was given command of the armor heavy Army Group South, achieving the deepest penetration into the Soviet defenses, until embroiled in the notorious tank battle at Prokhorovka.
Marshall Fyodorovich Vatutin facing Manstein on the Russian side, took command of the Voronezh Front, preparing for the momentous Battle of Kursk, he rejected conventional echeloning of armies; his innovative deployment allowed him not only skillfully conducting the defense against the technically superior Germans, but also to quickly switch from defense to offense, when time was ready.
Marshall Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov
The overall command designated by Stavka was to Marshall Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, perhaps the most famous Russian commander in WW2. Born into a poverty-stricken peasant family, he already became noticed, when commanding the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group in 1938, saw action against Japan's Kwantung Army  on the border between Mongolia and the Japanese-controlled state of Manchukuo. The campaign at Khalkhim Gol had significance beyond the immediate tactical and local outcome. Zhukov demonstrated and tested here the techniques later used against the Germans in Russia. Evaluation some of the problems inherent in the performance of the BT tanks led to the replacement of their fire-prone petrol (gasoline) engines with diesel engines  and provided extremely valuable practical knowledge that was essential to the success in development of the excellent T-34 medium tank.

The Soviet Defenses in Depth: Creating Fortress Kursk

German forces occupied an extensive salient in the northern portions of the Uplands around the city of Orel, while the Soviet Kursk Bulge dominated the Upland's southern region. The Red Army anchored its defenses along the northern edge of the Kursk Bulge, based on ridge lines north of the Svapa River valley and along the southern bank of the Oka River north of Kursk. Along the southern flank of the bulge, Soviet defenses extended along the higher ground north of the cities of Sumy and Belgorod, but here the terrain was barren and open country enabling wide deployment and maneuver of armored forces.
The nature of the bulge allowed the Red Army to build a virtual fortress of  strong fortifications in greatest depth facing all the expected German axis of advance. The depth of these defenses was indeed staggering, combining no less than eight fortified lines of resistance, stretching nearly 110 miles deep. The immense use of manpower, both military and civilian, employed to build this huge task, left no doubt as to the significance of the coming battle for life and death, facing the Nazi onslaught as anticipated by the Russian commanders.
But the Stavka also held an "ace card" carefully concealed from German intelligence: The newly created huge Steppe Front in the rear zone of the Bulge contained not only further fortified belts, covering the east bank of the river Don, but concentrating an unprecedented mass of "fresh" fighting units, including six Armies with massive tank forces and airpower, all in top fighting condition, ready to strike a devastating counter attack on the mauled Nazi Panzers in the "Bulge".
Historians and interested readers alike have been dazzled by staggering human and material losses, suffered in such a short time, becoming endless subject of myth and misconceptions on both sides. But the sheer drama of combat and its horrors remains one of the most discussed military campaigns  in modern history.
The Germans faced a number of major problems in early 1943. First, among them was manpower. The armed forces had been severely mauled on the Eastern Front, after continuous operations from June 1942 to March 1943, most German units were worn out. General Heinz Guderian the leading Wehrmacht tank expert, did not believe that either Army Group, destined for the attack could be ready to mount the offensive that Adolf Hitler and his High Command envisioned and declared that the mission was pointless…" if we attacked according to the plan of the Chief of the General Staff, we were certain to suffer heavy tank casualties, which we would not be in position to replace in 1943", Guderian warned and he certainly knew what he was talking about! The Germans placed all their hopes on two new tanks, just coming off the production line: the Pz IV Tiger and Pz V Panther. The Tiger was indeed a massive beast to look at, but it was not a "wonder weapon" that Hitler believed. The first time Tiger saw action, was  a year before, on August 29th of 1942, southeast of Leningrad with 1st company of sPzAbt 502. The highly embarrassing engagement ended in fiasco, with  a new Tiger being captured by the Soviets, who then examined the vehicle in detail, to discover its weak points and there were several, which proved this Behemoth's vulnerability during the Kursk carnage.
Correctly estimating the two German onslaught approaches, North and South of the Bulge, the Soviets created lines of defense in depth, with two Rifle Divisions defending the first belt, and one defending the second. Successive defense belts would slow German forces down and force them to conduct slow and attritional battles to break through into the open operational depths. Each defensive belt included not only trenches and fortified blockhouses with anti-tank weapons. But also so-called well camouflaged Pakfronts, with artillery and antitank guns hidden at vantage points. The Russians used their very effective 85mm anti tank gun and also included German anti-tank guns captured at Stalingrad into some of the Pak Fronts.
The entire zone was covered with dense multi-layered minefields with no less than 64000 AP and 70000 AT mines sown between the defensive belts. Along the most expected enemy approach routes, strong components of T-34 tanks and SP tank destroyers, mounting 122mm and 152mm guns, were concealed in readiness positions to mount local counter attacks on the German Panzers and grenadiers already deeply entangled fighting in the dense defenses and minefields.
Taking no chances, that the German elite Panzer units would smash through, Russian elite Rifle Divisions defended the first and second belts. Moreover, to keep the German vanguard Panzers at bay, as long as possible,  wearing them down by destroying as many possible of the lead panzers, a first belt division would only tasked to defend an area only  8-15 kilometers wide and 5-6 kilometers in depth, thus bearing maximum firepower concentrated on the attackers. Successive defense belts would then slow German forces down and force them to conduct costly attritional battles to break through into the operational depths, where they could deploy and maneuver. Slowing the operational tempo of the enemy would also allow the Soviet intelligence analysts,  operating right up front,  keeping track of German pincers and their direction of advance, enabling Soviet stand-by tank formations to be accurately positioned to counter-attack, preventing the German spearheads breaking through each of the three main defense belts and reach their pre-planned operational zones.
Having described the general situation, without going into unnecessary detail, ( which can be easily studied further by consulting the variety of maps)  let us therefore enter into the battle scene, without further ado and try enliven what happened,  as seen through the eyes of combatants and their experience, fighting under the most trying conditions, that the horrors of war can challenge young humans to the utmost courage.

The German Plan: Simple but Unrealistic to Succeed

Broadly speaking, the German plan for Citadel was relatively simple indeed: The Kursk "Bulge" created the ideal conditions to "pinch" the entire Russian frontline, with two massive armored thrusts, 9th Army from the north and Fourth Panzer Army from the south, smashing the Soviet defenses to link up east of Kursk, thus encircling the entire Russian forces in the Bulge. Success depended on massive fire power, speed and courage of the panzer crews advancing relentless with heavy air cover, smashing all in their way.

The main thrust was to be made by 4th Panzer Army commanded by General Hermann "Papa" Hoth, one of the top Panzer experts. Hoth, born 1885 son of an army doctor, fought in WW1 with a distinguished record. Hoth's 4th Panzer Army had been massively reinforced, and contained more tanks than any other German Army of the war - a total of 700, including a strong detachment of PzVI Tigers. His army was to be the armored spearhead for Manstein's Army Group South, forming the southern pincer, attacking on both sides of Tomarovka, by 48th Panzer and 2nd SS Panzer Corps. The latter was a very strong force, under its command were three elite SS armored formations, 1st SS Leibstandarte Division, the so-called Hitler's Body Guard, equipped with 12 Tiger Is, 72 Panzer IVG a number of older types, but with a unit of the latest assault guns, the turretless Sturmgeschütz III, one of the most successful self-propelled guns of the war, mounting the 75mm/L70. which were very effective weapons, due to their low silhouette. Also included were 2nd SS Panzer and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions, the latter  infamous due to its insignia, the death Head. The latter were PzGrenadier units but with armored assault gun battalions. Operating on its right flank, was Army Detachment Kempf, commanded by General Werner Kempf a seasoned panzer officer. His force was to advance and guard the northeastern flank for the main drive. In this formation, were two panzer divisions and the elite panzer grenadier division " Gross Deutschland" ( greater Germany), one of the strongest formations in the 1943 Wehrmacht. Although nominated 'mounted infantry', it was virtually the strongest outfitted armored unit that fought at Kursk. It mustered no less than 180 tanks, including eighty brand new PzV Panthers, commanded by an experienced tanker, Colonel Meirad von Lauchert with a strong artillery regiment under its command. In all, Colonel General Hoth's Army could mount some 925 tanks and 170 assault guns, of which 200 were PzV Panther and 48 Tiger I.
Preliminary fighting started in the southern part of the salient on the evening of 4 July 1943, when German infantry forces launched probing attacks to seize the high ground  suitable for artillery observation posts prior to the main assault scheduled for 5 July. This was to be opened  by a massive artillery barrage and powerful air strikes on the soviet defenses. The aim of these preliminary moves was to gain lodgments in the forward line of Russian defenses, preparing the full weight of the Fourth Panzer Army, planned for the coming morning.
Vanguard of the 11Pz Division tanks and Grenadiers struck the Soviet outposts with full surprise, but a fierce fight ensued, as the German grenadiers entered into a prepared defense zone and first casualties were reported. After midnight, the German advance stopped and soldiers dug in, awaiting the planned artillery barrage, which was scheduled to start next dawn. Meanwhile along the two fronts, a massive troop movement commenced, as the prepared assembly areas became congested with men and tanks. Suddenly a heavy thunderstorm started, violent lightning followed by torrential rain which engulfed the German troops, turning the ground within minutes into a deep morass. Confusion raged as tanks, assault guns, horse-drawn artillery and infantry-carrying armored cars, mingled in the darkness, sinking into the unending quagmire. Officers were frantically trying to restore some order, when adding to the maze, suddenly accurate Russian artillery pounded the hapless troops, causing  heavy casualties among the unprotected soldiers.
As dawn broke into the first day of the Battle of Kursk, the fighting started in earnest, as the Panzers broke into the first Russian defenses, supported by a massive artillery barrage and screaming Stuka Dive bombers, falling like birds of prey onto the Soviet positions. The German Panzer generals were acutely aware of the vulnerability of their new heavy armored vehicles, especially the mammoth Ferdinand self propelled guns- which were extremely prone to approaching infantry tank killer teams. To protect the advancing tanks, accompanying infantry were to protect the armor, inevitably suffering heavy casualties. The first tank vs tank encounters were fought as the German panzers entered into the Soviet positions and came upon the Russian armored reserves hidden behind the forward line. A Russian officer, who lived through the carnage, remembered his shock in the first counter attack: " After several minutes of firing on the move, the attacking echelon of our T-34s cut into the Nazi ranks with a thrust forward—a rapid assault literally smashing  through the enemy infantry protecting the tanks. Now the Tigers and Panther monsters, deprived in the melee of their advantage in firepower and protection, as  we closed in, started to get hit. Smoke and dust swirled all over the battlefield. The earth shook from the powerful blasts. The battlefield turned into sheer Hell, as tanks struck each other and, having grappled, could not cut themselves loose and fought to the death, until the area was strewn with exploding vehicles, dazed survivors running frantically searching cover which could not be found, only to be cut down by machine gun fire. Tanks that had been knocked out, or lost their tracks, but whose weapons were still functioning, continued to fire, until they too became blazing hulks, deathtraps for their hapless crews.”
 A German tank crewman saw the battle through his Periscope:" Suddenly a T-34 broke through and headed straight for us. Our radio operator/loader started giving me shells to push into the gun. At this time, our tank commander above us was screaming ‘Fire! Fire!’ nonstop, because the tank was getting closer; but only after the fourth ‘Fire!’ I heard his ‘Thank God!’ Luckily we survived, but soon found out that the Russian was stopped just eight meters from us burning fiercely, his ammunition exploding. Looking round amazed, I noticed high on our turret a large hole that a Russian armor piercing round had created, but no one was hurt, we had survived our first encounter at Kursk, but there was more to come!"

Reeled by the shock of their first encounter the German panzer attack seemed to stagger, but the aid came swiftly from the sky as Captain Hans Rudel's squadron of nine tank-busting Ju-87 G-1, newly armed with twin deadly BK37mm cannons fitted under the wings, swooped in low. Firing hard core APCR Tungsten) ammunition or high explosive shells at 160 rounds per minute, they created devastating results with the enemy tanks. The BK-37 was employed in a top attack profile against the especially thin upper turret and engine compartment armor of a T-34. Rudels Stukas screamed into the frey, blasting the enemy tanks diving on them down to a few meters height.  "We were all seized with a kind of passion for the chase from the glorious feeling of having saved much German bloodshed with every tank destroyed," the Luftwaffe Stuka Ace Rudel told later. The Stukas came not a moment to soon, as more Russian tanks approached the battlefield, coming out of their hideouts in the woods nearby. Rudel had developed new tactics for his "Panzerknocker" Stukas. He found that the best way to knock out tanks was to hit them in the back, where the rear-mounted power pack is located, its cooling system protected with lesser armor plates. But by going in that low, nearly on the "deck" some of his pilots were hit by Russian small arms fire from the tanks and crash-landed  right near the advancing panzers. Some pilots, surviving the crash even continued fighting as tankers replacing wounded crew members, such  was the combat morale, at least during the first phase of the battle. It changed for the worse as the carnage grew.
As the Germans managed finally to break through the Russian forward lines, while suffering heavy casualties, they ran into improvised minefield which soldiers recruited from the notorious Soviet penalty battalions quickly laid out, disregarding the withering fire from the advancing panzers. Only one or two out of dozens of these unfortunate troops survived, the rest blew up by their own mines or were squashed by the panzers as they drove over them and blowing up the mines, all involved suffering a horrible death.

The attack halted under heavy fire right in front of the Russian defenses. As one German survivor told:" the panzers were supposed to attack, but looking back I saw them stuck in a minefield, some exploding, with their crews bailing out only to be killed by enemy fire. With the tanks stuck fast, it was up to us to enter the enemy trenches and a savage hand-to-hand melee started with no quarter taken or given. All round me, men fell, Russians and Germans grappeled for life and death. Tremendous confusion raged, within minutes we suffered dozens of casualties, but no rescue was possible, as the medics fell too in the carnage. Ten more nerve shaking hours were to pass until the panzers finally managed to extricate themselves from the minefield and came to our rescue. By them most of our company lay dead or severely wounded in the trenches".

Turning now to the northern part of the Salient- Walter Model's Army Sector.

Walter Model with General lieutenant (later General der Infanterie) Friedrich Schulz
Commanding the 9th Army  was General Walter Model a hard-driving, aggressive panzer commander. Born January 24, 1891, as the son of a music teacher in Genthin, Saxony, he fought in the Great War with distinction and quickly advanced his career, becoming Hitler's expert in defensive warfare. Although a devout Nazi, he  openly criticized Hitler's Kursk Plan, with other generals, including the panzer expert Heinz Guderian, feeling that attacking was unnecessary, and the Germans should instead wait for the Soviets to launch their own offensive before defeating it. Model was also dubious about attacking with his 9th Army, pointing out that Konstantin Rokossovsky's Central Front was strongly dug in and outnumbered him two to one in men, tanks and artillery. As it turned out, indeed Model's assault was a failure, as his Army quickly became enmeshed in the elaborate Soviet fortifications. Having less armor, but more artillery than von Manstein had massed  in the south, and fearing that the deep Soviet defenses would stall an armor-heavy attack, he decided to use his infantry to breach Rokossovsky's line before unleashing his armor. It did not work. The Germans took heavy losses to advance less than 12 km in seven days, and were unable to break through to open ground. Then only, Model threw his armor into the fray, but with little effect beyond incurring more casualties. The Soviets had concentrated more of their strength facing Model in the north; and Rokossovsky had correctly anticipated where the attack would come, defending that sector most heavily.
Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky
Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky was born in Velikie Luki, a small Russian town, of Polish origin and started as a private soldier, but thanks to his military talent, courage and leadership, rose to high command and fame. A brilliant strategist, he was  appointed commander of the Central Front that Stalin and entrusted to play the key part in the summer Kursk campaign. Rokossovsky was responsible for stopping the Nazi’s attack in the outskirts of Kursk, which actually became the turning point of the whole campaign in Russia.
Model's main attack was delivered by 47 Panzer Corps, to which were attached 45 Tigers of the 505 Heavy Tank Battalion. Also supporting were  83 of the new giant Ferdinand tank destroyers, in their first operational blooding, which soon turned into an embarrassing fiasco.
 Ferdinands ( also named Elephant), real steel monsters at 72 tons,  they were reputed by their designer Ferdinand Porsche, capable to knock out a T-34 at a range of over 3000 meters, with its massive 88mm Pak43/2 L/71. Great hopes were placed on its firepower and heavy armor protection, designed to combat the heavy Russian tanks, which had raised havoc with German Panzers early in the campaign. However in its original configuration, the Ferdinand lacked a machine gun as secondary armament, making it prone to close-up attack by infantry tank-killer teams, in which the Soviets had specialized. Some crews tried to improvise by using  a MG-42 to fire through the 88mm gun barrel, but unable to traverse, their steel monster remained highly vulnerable to the Soviet infantry crouching in their camouflaged foxholes. After shooting up the accompanying grenadiers, who suffered grievous losses, the Russians  approached the unsupported vehicles and destroyed them with heavy explosive satchel charges. Thus on their first encounter, almost half of those Ferdinands were already out of action, either by Russian tank killer teams, mines or technical problems. Much too heavy to be towed from the battlefield, damaged vehicles were abandoned, prey for Russian expert examination, which drew important lessons how to destroy those mammoth beasts.

With some of the remaining Ferdinands still intact, a grenadier battalion led by Major Steinwachs, stormed a Russian outpost near the village of Alexandrovka, overcoming the outer defenses by crushing them with their weight. But the Soviet soldiers did not panic, letting the  roaring tanks rumble over their trenches, they then rose to deal with the surprised grenadiers advancing in their wake. Officers frantically radioed for more tanks to relieve the hapless troops, but when those arrived they came under fire from camouflaged anti-tank guns, which had carefully held their fire until the Germans came into range. By evening the attackers had not only suffered heavy losses, but were totally exhausted. During the first day of the offensive, German units had penetrated only a mere 8 kilometers into the outer Soviet defenses, already deeply enmeshed in close-in fighting, but much more was to face them, as they faced the maze of trenches and fortified bunkers of the follow-on positions.
The following day the Central Front under Rokossovsky launched a counterattack against the German 47 Panzer Corps. The Red Army attacked with the 2nd Tank Army and the 19Tank Corps. After vicious fighting, the Soviet counterattack was finally stopped by the Tiger tanks of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion.
One of the survivors remembers the shock of his encounter with his first Tiger: "Without warning, there was a tremendous explosion and a myriad of sparks were shooting into the air. The tank in front of us had been hit the most fearsome 88mm gun! The result was shattering to watch. The T-34, regarded by us tankers as an invincible steel monster, started to burn furiously so near to us frightening the life out of me. Fire everywhere! Exploding shells! Some of my closest friends were in that stricken blazing hull. I kept shouting, “Bail out, you silly buggers!” However, there was no living sign of them and I realized then that the guys in that burning steel coffin were already dead. This was real war, nothing would save me from meeting the same fate within minutes, as the German steel giants came right at us. I tried to shout to the gunner to aim and fire but there was no response, he seemed shocked,- frozen stiff with fear. But we were lucky bastards. The German Tiger advanced and hidden probably by the smoking hull next to us, seemed to ignore us and drove on with clanking tracks, passing the smoking wreck, in which our comrades died only seconds earlier. Determined to move ahead and live for another day, I began to nudge the stricken tank out of the way so we could pass. But the  war was far from over that morning, more was to come and it seemed that survival at Kursk was not in the cards"!

The next two days of the attack saw heavy fighting around the strong point of Ponyri (on the Orel–Kursk railway), which was one of the most heavily fortified positions in the northern sector. Both sides saw this area as a vital point. The Soviets had placed 70 anti-tank guns per kilometer in this region. Model paused to reorganize his units and renewed his attack with air support on 10 July, but the gains were small. Fresh Soviet formations had arrived to repel the German attacks and only limited penetrations were achieved. But as the German Panzer spearheads advanced towards the barren ridges of Ponyri Station, a Russian armada of nearly thousand armored fighting vehicles, tanks, self-self-propelled guns accompanied by massed infantry appeared with artillery firing over open sights at the German tanks. The fight over the capture of this important vantage point reached its climax when the Germans stormed the fortified villages on a dominant hill. The savage fighting over the possession of the Hill continued for hours, culminating, when a Soviet force led by Colonel Teliakov's 107 Tank Brigade fell into a well concealed Tiger ambush, which in minutes destroyed nearly half of the Russian force. The scene was horrifying, as tanks exploded, surviving crew members having extricated themselves from their burning hulks, frantically searched cover, only to be killed by the German grenadiers. But as evening fell, General Model's attack had reached its deepest point and was stalled in front of heavy enemy fire from their multi-trench defensive position. Next day at dawn Rokossovsky, at last,  launched his first massive strategic counter attack upon the Orel salient. It was a crucially decisive move that decided the fate of Model's offensive ambitions.

Back to the Southeastern Sector.

During the night of 4–5 July SS combat engineers had infiltrated no-man's land and cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields. At dawn the three divisions of II SS Panzer Corps – 1st, 2nd and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions- moved to attack General Ivan Christiakov's 6th Guards Army defenses. Using a special "Panzer Keil" formation, at the point of the wedge were the heavy Tigers, flanked by Panthers, while the older tanks followed behind, well protected by the heavies. This panzer tactic, might have been fully effective if both Tigers and Panthers were up to their expected operational value. But they were relatively new and still full of technical problems, which caused severe setbacks.
What proved to be the best tank performing at Kursk was the Pz IV G version. Even though the T-34 had better speed and mobility, it's armor could easily be penetrated by the L/48 gun at 1000 meters.
Leading the assault with the heavy Tiger tanks, protecting the more vulnerable Pz III and IV, while also bringing forth a strong armored vanguard for its most effective firepower at the first encounter- was foreseen as the very best solution to open the offensive against the Russian defenses. Shock-and Awe was the motto, but while it did, for the first phase function as planned in Iraq, several decades later, here at Kursk it backfired. The Soviets, having anticipated the strong German panzer assault, had organized their defenses, emplacing their heaviest equipment and the best troops to stop the German onslaught, right up front. General Hoth's tactic staggered, as his two elite panzer corps, storming head-on soon closed range with the enemy defenses and  exposed their best equipment to the full effect of the Russian heavy anti-tank fire coordination in their prepared defenses, thereby losing the effect of their massive long-range firepower- but close enough for the defending T-34 and anti-tank artillery to penetrate even the thick Tiger armor protection, at their weakest points known and thoroughly trained by the Soviet troops.
As the SS Panzers stormed into the Russian defenses all Hell broke lose. One of the Soviet commanders, A Russian major who survived the carnage, remembered: " We saw the huge armored phalanx coming over the hill presenting a frightening, but spectacular display of power. We were prepared, having been briefed on the weak spots of the Giant Tiger and Panther monsters. Our own tanks rolled out of their hiding places and closed in on the advancing Germans, firing on the move. The first T-34s literally smashed into the German panzers. Tanks exploded on both sides, but the giant monsters, deprived in the melee, from their advantage in firepower, which they had enjoyed at the beginning of the offensive in the clash with our other armored formations, at long range, were now completely astonished by the Soviet T-34 tanks closing in on them firing their 76,2mm guns with full effect. Smoke and dust swirled all over the battlefield. The earth shook from the powerful blasts, as ammunition exploded and turrets blown out. Tanks struck each other and having grappled, could not cut themselves loose and were forced to fight for the death. Tanks that had been knocked, but those, whose weapons were still functioning, continued to fire.”
The 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Corps, an elite unit, manned by determined Nazi fighters , highly trained and dedicated, was commanded by SS General Paul Hauser a very experienced Panzer officer who already fought in the First World War with great distinction. Hauser, leading his very strong force had expected to break through the Soviet defenses and head straight for Prokorovka, where  he wished to confront and destroy the Russian reserve armor by concentrating superior air/armored tactics and mobile firepower. According to his plan of attack, a classic armored maneuver battle would begin north of Psel river, with 3rdSS PzDivision driving northeast reaching the Karteschewka-Prokhorovka road. Once there his panzers were to strike southeast to envelop the target-Prokhorovka from its rear, while his two remaining divisions, were to wait in readiness until the enemy position was destabilized and ready for the final knock-out blow by a concentric devastating armored storm. From this position, under full control, Hausser planned to turn south and roll up the Soviet defense line, going westward. It was a highly ambitious plan,  and while risky, could possibly decide the outcome of the Kursk campaign in Germany's favor, a vision which at the time of planning did not seem very likely, judging by the massive Soviet deployment of power. What Hausser and his superiors did not realize, was the huge reserves, which the Russians had concentrated under highest secrecy and
General Ivan Konev
stealth, the
 Steppe Front, commanded by capable General Ivan Konev massing its forces, preparing for a tremendous counter attack, which would dislodge all German planning for the campaign. Only days before, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps officers were confident that through their impressive power, victory was in hand, as one officer joyously declared: " “We will have lunch in Kursk!” But the SS would never have lunch nor dinner in Kursk, other then as prisoners!
In fact, neither campaign objectives, General Walter Model 9th Army's, nor Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, and in fact Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's general campaign plan had materialized and the planned joined pincer seemed illusive as matters stood, facing the overwhelming Soviet power and huge reserves, confronting a more and more demoralized and exhausted German army.
While  9th Army encountered growing resistance from Rokossovsky's massed armor reserves and his infantry fighting desperate battles in the endless maze of Soviet defenses, Model played his last card by throwing in his own armor divisions, which he had held in reserve for the "final" strike into the Russian rear, closing the pincer with Hoth's 4th Army. But it was not to be. Losses grew dangerously by the day, as seemingly endless numbers of Russian tanks appeared out of nowhere and desperate fighting went on day and night with no decision achieved.
All depended now with "Papa" Hoth's 4th Army and Hausser's ambitions to decide the battle of Prokhorovka, which  was the key objective for his campaign. The relatively open terrain made excellent tank country, bringing the German 88mm/56cal long range firepower to its maximum effect. But while the Germans were confident to achieve a decisive win at Prokhorovka on 12 July, it proved them wrong. As Hausser's panzer divisions smashed through the last Soviet lines of defense, they came up on a painful surprise.

"Prelude" to Prokhorovka

While General Hausser's SS divisions prepared for battle, there was feverish activity in the
Lt. General Pavel Rotmistrov
Soviet camp as well. On
 July 11, the elite Fifth Guards Tank Army, commanded by Lt. General Pavel Rotmistrov, who at the age of 42 became one of the youngest Soviet generals,  had also moved his massive force into the Prokhorovka area, having force-marched 200 miles in four days from his deployment with Konyev's Steppe Front to the East.
What lay a head, was to become the most savage and massive armor encounter, fought in such a relatively confined battlefield. The ruthless bloody carnage, under which this battle was fought, but the confusion also creating one of great myth make-believes of the War in Russia, to be disputed to this day. The battle was fought across a stretch of land ranging in an arc of 20 kilometers to the west and south of Prokhorovka.
Generally open country, but hilly, terrain around a vital railroad, with groups of woods providing shelter for tank destroyers, a near pergect scene for a great tank battle. Seen in detail, the countryside around Prokhorovka, while relatively open to mechanized operations, was divided into compartments by the Psel and Lipovyi Donets Rivers and adjacent ridge lines, rendering good hide-outs for hull-down positions for long range guns. With the massing of armor and confused in-fighting that followed, this was of limited gain, as proved by the morrow.

The 2nd  SS Panzer Corps' axis of advance led northeastward along both banks of the Psel River, with one division (Totenkopf with 103 tanks and assault guns) advancing north of the river and two divisions (Leibstandarte and Das Reich, ( with 77 and 95 tanks and assault guns, respectively) advancing south of the river directly against Prokhorovka. Rotmistrov's tank army defended both approaches, and his corps also stretched far to the south to cover the advance of the 111 Panzer Corps from the Belgorod region. As a result, the fighting in the narrow plain adjacent to the rail line and main road immediately west and south west of Prokhorovka involved elements of two German panzer grenadier divisions and three equivalent Soviet tank and mechanized corps.
On the morning of 12 July, the 4th Panzer Army and advanced on Prokhorovka. At the same time the 5th Guards Tank Army launched a series of attacks as part of a multi-front counteroffensive in an attempt to catch the Germans off balance. The SS and Guards units were to collide head-on, west of Prokhorovka. The Soviets outnumbered the Germans, having used fresh reserves, not committed to the battle until this moment. Moreover, unknown to the advancing Germans, the Russians occupied a strategic hill, offering them a magnificent field of fire, controlling the battleground below. For the SS Panzer commanders, standing in their tank turrets the panoramic sweep of the battlefield would present them the long awaited flat country, which they had missed for days fighting close-in battles to overcome the endless Russian defenses. It seemed a perfect day for panzer war, but no one expected it to end the way it did!
Throughout the night the German troopers could hear the ominous sounds of Russian tank engines to the east as Rotmistrov's Tank Corps moved into their assembly areas At 0615 the Russian artillery barrage began, and at 0630 Rotmistrov radioed to his tankers: "Steel, Steel, Steel!", the order to commence the attack. Rotmistrov, fearing that German Tiger tanks made up a large component of his opponents forces, had instructed his tankers to move forward at speed to close range quickly, firing on the move in an attempt to obtain a flank or rear firing position on the German tanks. But firing while moving with the tanks in that era was still  highly inaccurate, particularly if the tank was moving at high speed and the main armament's effect was only gained when stationary, but then the tank came under accurate and deadly fire.

The Carnage at Prokhorovka

The battle may best be described by one of the participants.
Down off the west slopes before Prokhorovka came the massed armor of five tank brigades from the two Soviet tank corps. They had been ordered to approach at high speed. What followed became a horrifying spectacle, engulfed in dust smoke and fire, lasting throughout the day. As one Russian tank commander remembers:" the sun came to our aid as we raced into the battle. It blinded the Nazi tankers, making their periscopes useless. The German Tiger giants seemed confused, their drivers trying to change direction, but we were on to them, closing fast, making their long range 88mm guns ineffective, our own 76,2mm guns tearing great holes into their side armor. Ammunition exploded inside, from the blast the ton heavy turrets were torn off and flung away. The point-blank fighting became totally disarrayed, no control possible as it was each tank fighting for his life in a swirling melee caught in a murderous slogging-match. Soon the entire battlefield was littered with smoldering steel coffins, that had been proud vehicles of war only seconds before. Black thick oily smoke covered the valley, leaving not a blade of grass green."
But the battle was far from over yet. Haussers's  young SS tankers were made of sterner stuff and still more than ready to fight and die for their "Fuehrer". When the initial Soviet attack paused, 1st Panzer Division Leibstandarte pushed its armor toward the town and collided with elements of Rotmistrov's reserve armor. A Soviet attack by the 181st Tank Regiment was defeated by several SS Tigers, one of which, the 13th (heavy) Company of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, was commanded by Lieutenant  Michael Wittmann, probably one of the most successful tank commanders of the entire war. Wittmann's group was advancing in flank support of the German main attack when it was engaged by the Soviet tank regiment at long range. The Soviet charge, storming straight at the Tigers over open ground, was suicidal. The frontal armor of the Tiger was impervious to the 76mm guns of the T-34s at any great distance. The field was soon littered with burning T-34s and T-70s. None of the Tigers were lost. Late in the day, Rotmistrov committed his last reserves, elements of the V Mechanized Corps, which finally halted the Leibstandarte.

The Reckoning

The Prokhorovka battle ended at a draw with heavy losses on both sides. However, after the battle was over, the Soviets held the area and were able to recover their disabled tanks and wounded crews.
While it makes a dramatic story, nearly all the stories of this battle scenario are essentially myth. Steel certainly clashed head on with Steel, but the numbers, which both sides claimed destroyed was exaggerated and there was no "ramming" of Tigers by Soviet T-34 tanks either, as some of the Russian sources claim.
Certainly when tanks are fighting in such a confined battlefield, with little maneuver possible, there would have been close clashes and display of heroics by very brave soldiers giving their utmost under most difficult conditions. But under the heat of battle these things happen and are unfortunately much later are exploited for quite different purpose by ruthless and egocentric politicians, which never fail.
On 16 July, German forces withdrew to their start line. Severely depleted, the Germans then had to face a heavy Russian offensive launched to smash the German forces in the Belgorod–Kharkov area which was launched on 3 August.
Although the Battle at Kursk may not have been the "turning point" of the war, it does represent the point where the Red Army took away, for good, the initiative from Hitler's War in Russia. From now on, hard fighting was still ahead, but the road was now clearer in the single direction of Berlin.
There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about how CITADEL progressed.  This misunderstanding is fueled by oft-repeated, but false, descriptions of the combat that took place. The typical claim that the Battle of Prokhorovka was the biggest tank battle ever fought is also misleading, as there were tank battles fought in which no less numbers of tanks took part. To mention only one of them, at Brody in June 1941, soon after the beginning of the German Barbarossa invasion, several thousand Russian tanks, including some of the first T-34, fought  over a thousand German Panzers, with huge losses on both sides.
Thirty years later in 1973, the so-called Yom Kippur War, cost nearly 3000 tanks , with the Syrian army losing 4,000 men and 1,100 tanks, the Egyptian Military lost 10,000 men and over a thousand tanks, while the IDF lost 2500 men and 800 tanks, These losses were based on real numbers and not myth, so it might well be that the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 became the greatest tank campaign in modern history.

Recommended reading and watching of related sources available:

Youtube films on Kursk

This is perhaps the best film that I have watched chosen from a lot of rubbish. Made from original Russian sources with excellent English guidance, this film gives a good insight into the battle, accompanied by maps, diagrams and no nonsense stuff and only little Russian Propaganda at the end. Recommended.
There are no less than twenty YouTube films available on the related internet channel, most if not all, except the one above are not worth viewing, as they either repeat themselves with the same pictures and tank noises, some of them are a sheer waste of time with unnecessary talk by so-called experts, not fully familiar with the events and without maps nothing worthwhile to look and listen. One or two are Russian or even German WW2 propaganda, total WOT.

Books related to the Battle of Kursk (a selection of the best books)

This is a review of books related to the Battle, it does not contain all available books, also the latest publications are not included, but the review is worth reading to get an insight into the main topics, before choosing a reliable book to study.

Books from the list with excerpts of reviews:

The Battle of Kursk by Col, retd David Glantz

ISBN 0-7006-0978-4, 2009, 472 pages
This is probably the best researched book on the Battle at Kursk. Written by a veteran military researcher and historian, it best used as a reference source. Although quite difficult to read from start to finish, it is packed with details, data and sources, both German and newly released Russian. Problem are the maps, which are so packed with numbers that they are quite impossible to understand- their background is grey and place names near unreadable. The mythical July 12 tank battle at Prokhorovka is critically examined and placed in a proper context. This book also does an excellent job of placing the entire Kursk battle in its larger context. There is a wealth of appendices containing all possible statistical information, making it an indispensable tool for researchers and historians.

Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943

An Operational Narrative by Valeriy Zamulin ISBN-10: 1906033897, 2011, 672 pages
Written by a Russian historian, a local resident living near the site of event, Zamulin's book is trying to rip off the decades of misinformation and to reveal heretofore unavailable detail about well-known battles like Kursk. The first three chapters, which consist of about 60 pages, provides an overview of the Battle of Kursk, the defensive preparations of the Voronezh Front and an overview of the 5th Guards Tank Army (5GTA) and its commander, Pavel Rotmistrov.
The author gets into the Battle of Prokhorovka proper about one-third of the way through the book and is most likely to remain the best Soviet account of the battle for some time.
Osprey Campaign Books: 16  Kursk 1943
Mark Healy's Book is a short and easy to read coverage of the campaign, with lots of photos, maps and diagrams, without going into much detail. I does however give the reader an insight into the battle, the participants and the outcome. A very good buy.

Scorched Earth- the Russian-German War 1943-1944

Paul Carell, ISBN 345-02213-0-165 (1966)
This is a book which tells the German side of the story, although some Russian survivors' tales have been included. It is one of the best books written on the war in Russia, describing the heat of battle in brilliant narrative and style. Personal stories of the men involved in this terrible carnage are gripping and live. A tale told to remember what war is like in real terms. Unfortunately only second hand buy available of this excellent book.

Panzer Battles

Major General F.F. von Mellenthin
A study of the employment of armor in the Second World War
One of the best books written on the subject, presenting not only the story of Germany's armor, but told by one of their foremost experts on armored warfare, which served as guidance to many officers and students how armor should be operated in battle. The author's gripping description of his part in the Battle of Kursk is of prime interest, although it covers only the German side of the campaign, at the time no Russian version was available to the author, it is still an unbiased report. His maps are very good and clear to follow the narrative. An interesting part discusses armored tactics throughout Citadel, which is very helpful to explain the way German panzers fought in the Southern section of the campaign. A reprint is available from 2006.

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