On July 12, 1943, the tank Battle of Prokhorovka was fought by the German Wehrmacht’s Panzer Army and the Soviet Fifth Guards Tank Army in the heat of the Second World War. The present day considers it to be the largest tank battle in the world military history.
In the course of the Prokhorovka Battle the German High Command was planning to destroy the considerable Soviet forces in the Kursk salient and recover its strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The plan of the offensive suggested that five German field armies encircle Soviet forces in the Kursk salient.
The major clash of armor took place at a five to six-mile-wide sector of the front near the small village of Prokhorovka, which hadn’t even made it onto most maps before it had become one of the most significant points in the Fiery Bulge of Kursk.
The battle commenced at 08:30. The Nazi troops, comprised of motorized SS divisions with up to 500 tanks and assault guns, launched the offensive. After a brief preparatory break, the Russian Fifth Guards Tank Army with over 800 tanks, under General Rotmistrov, attacked the Nazi grouping. Marshal Pavel Rotmistrov reminisced:
“In the morning of July 12, with a group of officers, I was at a watch tower from where the field of the would-be battle could be clearly seen. By six in the morning commanders of military units reported their troops to have taken assigned positions, awaiting the battle. Within the first moments of the battle two powerful avalanches of tanks moved toward each other making clouds of dust and smoke. The total of 1,500 tanks met in a battle on a small front sector in the vicinity of Prokhorovka. That tank battle was a major one in the whole history of wars, unprecedented in scale and the fiercest. A spacious field near Prokhorovka seemed to be too narrow for such a great number of belligerents. The battle lasted till late at night. Upon entering the battle, tanks had formed a close-knit gigantic knot, which they were unable to disentangle. On the battlefield, hundreds of tanks and self-propelled guns were burning, noise from the caterpillar tracks was terrible, shells hit the armor, and many of them flew aside, squealing.”
The Prokhorovka battlefield also witnessed outstanding feats of strength and daring of the Soviet soldiers. Armed with nothing but anti-tank grenades, they rushed toward the avalanche of German tanks. Sometimes they even took their boots and overcoats off to ease movement. Crawling along the battlefield, unprotected under the shower of bullets and grenades, they approached the enemy tanks, rose on their feet and threw grenades at them, very often dying in the explosions.
The losses on both sides were very significant, and recently this issue is still subject to fierce debate. The numbers provided by different sources vary greatly. Some sources claim the Germans to have lost from 70 to 200 tanks, while the Soviet forces left over 300 tanks on the field. As far as the contingent is concerned, the losses on the Soviet side range from 2,000 to over 10,000 people and from about 800 to 10,000 on the German side.
Generally, however, the battle was a strategic stalemate, as neither the Fifth Guards Tank Army nor the SS Panzer Corps accomplished their terrain objectives. Whatever the tactical outcome, the Battle of Prokhorovka was an important gain for the Red Army in terms of propaganda: instead of a handful of anti-tank grenades, the Germans were confronted by modern tanks, which in fact had made the German commandment reconsider its further tactics.
The Prokhorovka battle marked the start of the German Army’s major defeat, as the crippled Panzer Corps wasn’t able to fully recuperate from the huge losses during the battle. From that point on, the strategic initiative was taken over by the Red Army until the end of the war.