Key point: World War II didn’t necessarily have to end in either a complete German or Soviet victory.
At daybreak on Monday, July 12, 1943, SS Sturmbannführer Christian Bachmann, the panzer group commander of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division, ordered his unit to cross the Psel River and attack. The Germans drove north toward the east-west road connecting the towns of Karteschewka and Prokhorokva.
After fighting through several Soviet defensive positions and advancing nearly five miles, the panzer group reached the road around midnight. The plan for the next day was to attack the rear of the Soviet forces defending the town of Prokhorokva, just three miles to the east. The Soviets would either be encircled or forced to retreat, and the Germans would break through one of the last major defensive belts protecting the Russian town of Kursk, the objective of Operation Citadel, the effort to encircle a large number of Red Army troops that occupied a salient, or bulge, deep in the German front line.
Success would mean the death or surrender of thousands of Soviet soldiers, and Operation Citadel had reached a critical stage. Would one last successful German attack toward Prokhorokva unhinge the extensive Soviet defenses?
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The attack toward the Karteschewka-Prokhorokva road had cost Bachmann’s panzer group 45 tanks destroyed or damaged, nearly 50 percent of its total strength. Coupled with sheer exhaustion, mounting personnel losses, and the arrival of massive Soviet reinforcements, the panzer group could go no farther. In fact, all the German forces participating in the offensive were in the same situation. Operation Citadel had been stopped. The Karteschewka-Prokhorokva road was the closest the German’s got to Kursk, and it was also the last gasp of the last major German summer offensive on the Russian Front in World War II.
The Soviet encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad ended on February 2, 1943, with the destruction of more than 20 German divisions and much of the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian armies guarding the flanks of the Sixth Army. The loss of nearly 225,000 men at Stalingrad left little for the Germans to stop the Soviets, who were trying to encircle the remaining armies of Army Group South. If the Soviets succeeded, the German Army would be defeated on the Russian Front.
The task of stopping the Soviets and restoring the front was placed in the hands of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, a master of mobile tank warfare who some consider the best German general of World War II. On February 17, Adolf Hitler flew to Manstein’s headquarters near the town of Zaporozhye on the Dneiper River to discuss the predicament of Army Group South. In what was becoming a common theme of Hitler’s hands-on approach to managing the army, he directed Manstein that no further retreats would be permitted and that the German soldiers would stand and fight. Manstein knew that order would lead to the destruction of the German armies in southern Russia and argued vehemently with Hitler. Manstein finally convinced Hitler to rescind the no retreat order and allow operational freedom of the forces under his command. Perhaps the fact that no German troops were between Hitler and a Soviet armored unit less than 25 miles away was also persuasive.
Manstein immediately initiated a plan that deceived the Soviets into thinking that the German Army was in full retreat to the Dnieper River. The Soviets, believing that a huge victory was within reach, had pushed their armies to exhaustion and had outrun their supplies lines. German cipher decryptions of Soviet operational codes had alerted Manstein of this fact, and he unleashed his panzer divisions in an attack on the weak Soviet flanks.
The plan, later to be known as Manstein’s Counterstroke, was very successful and indeed accomplished its goals. The fourth largest city in Russia, Kharkov, was recaptured, and the Soviet offensive was stopped with considerable losses. Unfortunately for the Germans, the rainy season in Russia started in March and turned most of southern Russia into an ocean of mud in which most motorized movement was rendered nearly impossible. Exhaustion and mud put an end to the German counteroffensive just in time for the reeling Soviets. For the Germans, the unfortunate outcome of the victory was the formation of a bulge in the front line, 120 miles wide at its base, centered around the town of Kursk.
Operation Citadel: The Battle of Kursk
Within the Kursk Salient, nine Soviet infantry armies and two tank armies were at stake, and if the Germans were successful any Soviet offensive action planned for the remainder of 1943 would be delayed or canceled. A victory would allow the German Army in the East to rebuild and shift units to the Mediterranean or France to meet anticipated Allied amphibious landings.
The German plan was to use the classic pincer movement, attacking at the base of the bulge with the Ninth Army (from Army Group Center) from the north and the Fourth Panzer Army (from Army Group South) from the south. The armies would meet at the town of Kursk and trap the Soviet forces inside the bulge.
Despite Manstein’s concerns about repeated delays, Operation Citadel finally began on the afternoon of July 4, 1943. Preliminary attacks, to gain artillery observation posts for the next day’s full offensive, were conducted by the 48th Panzer Corps of the Fourth Panzer Army. The Ninth Army and the rest of the Fourth Panzer Army began the offensive on July 5.
In the north, the Ninth Army used its infantry divisions to begin the attack with the hope that they would breach the Soviet defenses. The panzer divisions would then be inserted into the breach and defeat the Soviet reserves in the open terrain north of Kursk.
After several days of bloody fighting, the attack stalled near the towns of Teploye and Ponyri. The German infantry failed to make the necessary breach in the Soviet defenses, and the panzer divisions got bogged down in the defensive belts. On July 12, after the Ninth Army had committed its last reserves to the offensive, the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, attacking the rear (north and east of Orel) of the Ninth Army and forcing it to curtail further offensive operations. Operation Citadel was over for the Ninth Army after an advance of only about 10 miles toward Kursk.
In the south, the Fourth Panzer Army employed its panzer divisions in the opening attack and had more success. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps performed exceptionally well but was hampered by the inability of the 3rd Panzer Corps and the 48th Panzer Corps to protect its flanks. The 3rd Panzer Corps, on the east flank of the SS formations, had to start the offensive by forcing a crossing over the Donets River. Strong Soviet defenses delayed the crossing, and the 3rd Panzer Corps was not able to keep pace with the advance of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps despite a successful surprise attack using captured Soviet T-34 tanks on the night of July 11.
The 48th Panzer Corps, despite containing the elite Gross Deutschland Panzer Division with more than 300 tanks, stumbled from the start. Poor tank tactics, weather, and bad luck kept the 48th Panzer Corps from protecting the western flank of the II SS Panzer Corps. This caused the SS panzers to divert resources to protect their flank instead of pushing north for a quick, decisive breakthrough to Kursk.
“Death Ride” at Prokhorovka
On July 12, the final episode of Operation Citadel began with the arrival of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army and several attached corps. These fresh Red Army formations attacked the II SS Panzer Corps with nearly 850 tanks, of which 520 assaulted a corridor between the Psel River and Prokhorovka being held by the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. The Soviets committed 240 tanks against the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich southwest of Prokhorovka.
The massed Soviet tank formations tried to close the distance between themselves and the German tanks as rapidly as possible to offset the superior firepower and range of the German tank guns. It was a disaster for the Soviets. In total, the Soviets lost about 650 tanks to the II SS Panzer Corps. Lt. Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov, commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, reported after the battle that he lost 400 tanks just in the area of Prokhorovka. The three divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps lost a total of 62 tanks.
Contrary to many published works, Soviet propaganda, and early Soviet battle reports, the tank battle at Prokhorovka was not the “death ride” of the panzers with hundreds of German tanks being destroyed. Thorough research of German battle reports and postwar admissions by Soviet generals clearly show that tactically and numerically the Germans won the tank battle at Prokhorovka on July 12. But after July 12, the Fourth Panzer Army failed to regain its momentum after advancing almost 35 miles since July 4. The German divisions were exhausted after eight continuous days of fighting with few replacements and no reinforcements. Despite the enormous Soviet tank losses at Prokhorovka, the Soviets did accomplish their ultimate goal of stopping the German offensive.
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