As both the harsh winter and the muddy spring came to an end in 1943, it was clear that the next phase of the German invasion of Russia was about to start. The upcoming series of events got to known as the Battle of Kursk, one of the main engagements fought on the Eastern front that also marked the turn of the tide.
The German forces decided for an offensive (code named Operation Citadel), in the form of a pincer movement around the Kursk salient, with the aim of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the area. They were to be attacking both from the north and the south simultaneously, and meeting around Kursk. Their armored forces mostly included Panzer III-s and Panzer IV-s, with a few of the latest tank designs – the dreaded Ferdinand tank destroyers and the Tiger heavy tank. While the Soviet forces feared the Tigers, their numbers were vastly over exaggerated, mostly as Soviet tank crews constantly mistook the upgraded and reinforced versions of Panzer IV-s for the new heavy tanks. In fact, from all the 300 armored German vehicles taking part in the battle of Prokhorovka, only 15 of them were Tigers.
The Soviet high command on the other hand set up a stiff defense, consisting of six belts of minefields, anti-tank ditches and anti-tank gun positions, with the forward three belts being the most fortified. Their aim was to soften up the attacking forces, before launching a major counter-offensive. The bulk of their armored forces was made up of highly mobile T-34s, the rest being T-70 light tanks with an additional about 60 self-propelled guns and 30 Churchill heavy tanks. They knew that the Tiger tanks had a massive advantage in range and firepower, so they planned an armored rush to close the distance fast and allow the more maneuverable T-34s to flank the enemy.
Beginning of July the German offensive started with a massive push on both fronts, and while they met very stiff resistance and constant counterattacks on their flanks, they managed to break through the first defensive belt within the first day. Soviet command ordered the mobilization of the counter-offensive force as a direct answer, but since these reserves were 400 km-s away from the front line, it took them days to get there. During the next days the defenders managed to stall the German advance on the northern front, but in the south the II SS-Panzer Corps managed to break through and was now pushing into the third (and last main) defensive belt towards the city of Prokhorovka, endangering the whole southern front. A week into the offensive however the Soviet forces were ready to counter attack with 500 tanks, outnumbering the German armored forces almost 2 to 1.
On the 12th of July the counter-offensive begun with an early morning artillery barrage lasting for half an hour, before unleashing a storm of 430 tanks in the first wave alone. As this wall of steel thundered downhill on the slopes in front of Prokhorovka while firing on the move, German outposts and forward positions were simply overrun. On the other hand, this grand charge also meant that the accuracy of the Soviet tankers was greatly reduced, which allowed the German forces to pick them off in numbers.
The Tiger tanks (lead by the legendary German tank commander Michael Wittmann) got stuck in as well, engaging the enemy in the ensuing chaos as of 1000 meters down to point blank range, causing heavy losses and repelling the attack on their flank. Eventually the Soviet downhill attack came to an abrupt end by a 5m deep anti-tank ditch at the foot of the hill, with several tanks crashing into it and the rest of armor getting tied down in a heavy fire exchange from both sides of the ditch.
By the end of the day the Soviet forces suffered heavy losses, losing between 300 to 400 tanks in the attack, especially compared to the Germans losing about 40. At the same time the ferocity of the attack successfully stopped the German advance, forcing them on the defensive, and in some cases pushing them back from their forward positions. After seeing the failure to break through at Prokhorovka, and in light of the simultaneous counter-offensive on the northern front and the Allied attack on Sicily, Hitler decided to terminate Operation Citadel and focus his forces elsewhere.
While the Battle of Prokhorovka is widely considered to be a German tactical victory due to the number of enemy forces destroyed, the termination of Operation Citadel meant that the Red Army seized the strategic initiative, and held onto it until the end of the Second World War.
- A column of Panzer III-s on the Eastern Front: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0562A-06 / Scheffler / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de
- German crew loading rounds in a Tiger I, 1943: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-J14931
- Knocked out Soviet T-34 tank: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0553A-36 / Koch / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de
- Tiger I in action near Kursk, 1943: German Federal Archive, Bild 101III-Groenert-019-23A
- Destroyed Soviet T-34: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-220-0630-02A / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de