The Battle Of Kursk: 75th Anniversary // Part Four: The Myth Of Prokhorovka

July 23, 2018 by oriskany

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Every good story has a climax, the writers tell us. So if we’ve spent the last three weeks telling the story of the Battle of Kursk, the most titanic single battle in the span of human history, it follows that we’d be approaching one hell of an explosion. Sure enough, we have arrived at last: the tank clash at Prokhorovka.

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Catch The Entire Series Here

If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out the previous instalments, where we reviewed the background and context for the Battle of Kursk, look at the games most commonly used to play out moments in the battle...

...and review the two great strikes the Germans hoped would bring them victory.

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Now, the battle has reached a deadly breaking point, leading to a gigantic firestorm of men and machines at a tiny railroad town called Prokhorovka.

The Myth Of Prokhorokva

Like so many such events, the true story of Prokhorovka has been blurred by layers of myth and legend. Revisionists and apologists have clouded what really happened here, hampering our ability to design, set up, and play historically-accurate wargames. We’ll see what we can do to fix that.

So here’s a very fast background. In the summer of 1943, the Germans launched Operation Citadel against Soviet armies on the Eastern Front. Their target was the Kursk Salient, a huge bulge in the battle line about the size of Northern Ireland. With converging attacks from the north and south, the Germans hoped to slice off this bulge.

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If the Germans could destroy the Soviet armies caught in this pocket, they just might buy the time they desperately needed to stabilize the front in the wake of Stalingrad, and perhaps redeem a global war that was already slipping away from them.

Operation Citadel kicked off on 5th July 1943. Almost immediately, their attack in the north was bloodily halted in a series of engagements whose scale and ferocity frankly defy description in an article like this. But in the south, a stronger German offensive (Fourth Panzer Army) was still gaining ground after a week of apocalyptic combat.

By July 11th, the situation was coming to a head. Although bloodied and exhausted, Fourth Panzer Army’s spearheads were finally coming to the end of the strongest Soviet defensive belts. Were these Germans about to pull off the impossible…again?

The Soviet plan had always been to let the Germans hit them at Kursk with everything they had. Only after grinding them down in brutal defensive warfare would the Soviets hit the Germans with carefully hoarded reserves, all at once.

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Now that Soviet plan was under threat. Although their Central Front had shut down the German attack in the north, the Voronezh Front was perilously close to a fatal crack in the south. Finally, the STAVKA high command was forced to a fateful decision. They had to change the plan.

Reaching into their strategic reserves (Steppe Front, General Ivan S. Konev), the Soviets sent two huge armies to bolster the splintering Voronezh Front. First of these was the 5th Guards Army. But next came the 5th Guards Tank Army, heavily reinforced and ordered to smash a gigantic attack headlong into the very tip of the German penetration.

These positions were held by some of the very best…and worst…soldiers in the Third Reich - the top three panzergrenadier divisions of the Waffen SS. These were the ideological shock troops of National Socialism, armed to the teeth with the very best equipment. Politics aside, one cannot argue with their battlefield accomplishments.

These three divisions (collectively, 2nd SS Panzer Corps) were massed near a gap leading northeast between a bend in the Psel River and the Kursk-Belgorod rail line, where it passed through the town of Prokhorovka. This part of the Soviet line was held by Guards and even a Guards airborne division, hurriedly rushed in as part of 5th Guards Army.

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Poised to continue their assault, 2nd SS Panzer Corps was instead struck full-force by 5th Guards Tank Army, now reinforced to contain four full Soviet tank corps and a mechanised corps. As the story goes, the stage was set for thousands of tanks of collide in open combat, a “Braveheart on Tank Tracks” clash to decide the fate of the world.

Okay, sure. Now let’s look at what really happened.

First, one must remember that Soviets organised their tank units very differently than Western armies. In short, a Soviet tank or mechanised “corps” is essentially analogous to a division in other armies. So it’s not like the Soviets had five corps times three divisions = 15 divisions. More like five divisions and even this number is a little soft.

Also, some of these corps could not get their full order of battle onto the field in time. Some had been attached to 5th Guards Tank Army only the night before, and communications and coordination with HQ remained poor.

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The myth of Prokhorovka also includes Soviet tanks deliberately ramming Tigers to destroy them. This just didn’t happen, is all – although the Soviets did rush one battalion of 1st SS Division with six brigades of tanks, desperate to close to point-blank range to nullify German advantages in long-range gunnery.

Another myth of Prokhorovka is the sheer size of the battle. “Sloppy” historians use the starting orders of battle of all units involved to calculate the scope of the fight, rather than a careful review of battlefield reports. Although huge, and still the biggest tank battle that every been, Prokhorovka isn’t as nearly big as some people would say.

Another fallacy is the notion that Prokhorovka was mostly a tank battle. It wasn’t. Like most World War II battles, this was predominantly a clash of tanks hitting dug-in infantry and anti-tank guns. Only once these tank thrusts had been contained could they be counterattacked by friendly armour and a classic “tank-on-tank” battle ensue.

Yet another Prokhorovka myth is that 2nd SS Panzer Corps was effectively annihilated in place. Although losses were heavy, these Waffen SS divisions retained much of the field, so could recover and repair many of their tanks overnight. In short, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps survived Prokhorovka largely intact.

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Perhaps the biggest falsehood, however, is that Prokhorovka “ended” the Battle of Kursk. This is 100% flat-out wrong. Fourth Panzer Army and 2nd SS Panzer Corps continued to mount limited operations as late as 15th July, and parts of Army Detachment Kempf even made modest gains.

Even when Operation Citadel truly ended, this is only the halfway point in the true Battle of Kursk. Despite what you’ll read in almost any history published in the West, a huge part of the battle had yet to be fought as the Soviets unleashed their long-awaited counterattacks. We’ll cover these (with tragic brevity) in Part Five.

The point is, while Prokhorovka may have been the “cinematic climax,” it certainly wasn’t the end.

Prokhorokva In Miniature Wargaming

Simply putting a word like “miniature” next to a clash as huge as Prokhorovka seems a little silly. We’ve already seen where a full-scale recreation of the fight flat-out broke PanzerBlitz, so can you even do a battle like Prokhorovka in any kind of miniature scale?

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Obviously, the answer is yes…you just have to select either a specific part of the engagement you want to recreate, or “sample” the kinds of units you think were engaged in the overall battle, build a list, and run the game as a “representative compression.” For this article, I decided to do a little of both.

Turning again to Battlegroup: Kursk, I’m running a large but simple Soviet list…mass armour. The aim is to recreate part of 18th Tank Corps’ spearhead against the German centre (1st SS Leibstandarte Division) near Hill 252.2. Every T-34c on my shelf is on the table, along with some assault guns, T-70 light tanks, and even Lend Lease Churchills.

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The Germans, being on hasty defence, have to build a more eclectic list. Although they have one platoon of PzKpfw IVHs and one of Gs, two StG-IIIGs and a single Tiger (eleven vehicles in all), they’re still outnumbered two-to-one by the Soviet tanks and assault guns. The rest of the weight has to be carried by artillery and grenadiers.

Whether your playing World War II Battlegroup or World War III Team Yankee, the dilemma for the Soviets is largely the same. Their guns are powerful enough, they just don’t shoot very far. Their enemies, meanwhile, can mow them down at a distance with virtual impunity, not because their guns hit harder, just shoot further.

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So the Soviet aim (and we certainly see this at Prokhorovka) is to rush the enemy as fast as possible, using every possible scrap of terrain to screen your charge from enemy reaction fire. Up close, everything hits and kills on a much evener basis, and the Germans lose their critical edge.

The question is almost always some version of the following: Have the Soviets lost too much making that initial charge? Or have their edges in numbers and mobility helped them close the distance to where a T-34 can kill a Tiger almost as easily as the reverse?

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There are a hundred and one variations on this theme. As mentioned, the Soviets can use terrain to screen their approach. Feints and misdirection can also help, as can artillery-delivered smoke. Artillery can also suppress pin German gun emplacements and dilute that murderous “reaction fire” that reaps such a grim harvest.

Of course, the Germans have their own bag of tricks to impede this tactic. Artillery can pin Soviet targets as they make that charge, holding them up for direct-fire attacks next turn. German defences can also be layered, with grenadiers and antitank guns to absorb the shock, while panzers snipe from afar or launch a counterattack.

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As it unfolded, the Soviets took a bloody-knuckled win. German “area fire” wasn’t terribly effective at pinning Soviet armoured targets, and even when they had to rally tanks and thus draw battle rating counters, they were lucky enough to draw relatively small numbers and thus keep their battlegroup intact.

The Germans, meanwhile, lost heavily in a series of close assaults against Soviet tanks overrunning their positions. This is always a dangerous tactic when the enemy is not pinned, but before long the Germans just had no choice.

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These losses kept forcing the German player to draw battle rating counters. They did draw an “Air Strike” counter but never rolled the 5+ required to activate it. Even if they had, the Soviet tanks were so intermingled with their own positions it’s uncertain whether such a strike would have done more damage to the Germans.

In any event, once the Soviet tanks were amidst the Germans in a melee, the game was pretty much up. Here is where Soviet numbers (assuming enough of them have survived) will almost always come out on top, and today was no exception.

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Well, it certainly hasn’t been easy trying to crunch the largest tank battle ever fought into a single web article. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Next week we close out the series with the devastating Soviet counterattacks, considered by some to be the “true” Battle of Kursk.

In the meantime, please post your questions and comments in the comments below. Have you ever “been” to the Eastern Front? Inspired to give it a try? What kind of tactics do you use to defeat a smaller but more advanced foe or an opponent with perhaps lower quality units…but five times as many of them?

"Now, the battle has reached a deadly breaking point, leading to a gigantic firestorm of men and machines at a tiny railroad town called Prokhorovka..."

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"Perhaps the biggest falsehood, however, is that Prokhorovka “ended” the Battle of Kursk. This is 100% flat-out wrong..."

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