Move Aside, Kursk—Was This Really History’s Largest Tank Battle Ever?

Move Aside, Kursk—Was This Really History’s Largest Tank Battle Ever?

Robert Beckhusen

History, Europe

German infantryman in front of fallen Russian tank soldier and burning BT-7 light tank in the southern Soviet Union during the early days of Operation Barbarossa

It showed that Nazi Germany was not invincible.

Key Point: The battle which developed and then concluded on June 30 was a confusing morass that swallowed 2,648 Soviet tanks out of a total force of 5,000 versus some 1,000 German tanks.

A thousand coffee table books and countless hours of popular history programs have described the Battle of Prokhorovka, part of the Third Reich’s 1943 Operation Citadel, as the largest tank battle in history. Near the city of Kursk on the Eastern Front, hundreds of Soviet tanks slammed into the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in an enormous conflagration of flesh and metal.

Prokhorovka was certainly an important clash and one of the largest tank battles ever, but it might be time to retire its description as the biggest — a claim which has been seriously questioned in recent years by historians with access to Soviet archives opened since the end of the Cold War.

In fact, there’s a strong case that history’s largest tank battle actually took place two years prior and is largely unknown.

Prokhorovka was the centerpiece of Citadel, the last German strategic offensive on the Eastern Front. On July 12, 1943, counter-attacking Soviet tanks charged across open terrain, taking heavy losses to German tank fire, including from heavily-armored Tiger Is with 88-millimeter guns.

This particular engagement was a tactical defeat for the Soviets, but the charge inflicted enough damage to help stall — and eventually halt — the German army’s Citadel offensive.

So, how many tanks were at Prokhorovka? To be sure, not the common popular figures which range as high as 1,500 tanks in total, according to the 2011 book Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943 by Valeriy Zamulin, a Russian military historian and former staff member at the Prokhorovka State Battlefield Museum.

The actual number was 978 tanks in total — 306 German and 672 Soviet, according to Zamulin. As many as 400 Soviet and 80 German tanks were destroyed.

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