5-13 July 1943

The battle for a large Soviet-held salient around the Russian city of Kursk in the long German-Soviet line in July 1943 is remembered chiefly for being the biggest tank battle in history. The decisive intervention of General Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army in the famous Battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July, it was claimed, saved the Red Army from imminent disaster at the end of a week of gruelling combat.

This image taken in winter 2013 at the Russian memorial near the village of Prokhorovka shows some of the tanks that participated in the Battle of Kursk on 12 July 1943. Recent research has suggested that the celebrated clash of 700 tanks never took place.

Western historians’ scepticism about this account has promoted a rival version of events. Hitler’s decision to cancel the German offensive, they have argued, should instead be attributed to the timely invasion of southern Sicily by British and American forces, which began on 9 July at the height of the Battle of Kursk. Neither of these explanations withstands close examination. This was a nick of time that never was. Soviet victory came from careful planning, a sound defensive field and the massing of a surprising quantity of key reserves.

The battle was the result of a German attempt to stabilize the long front line after the disastrous retreat from Stalingrad, perhaps even to create the conditions, in summer campaigning weather, which the Germans preferred, for a more adventurous set of operations.

The key was thought to be the Kursk salient that jutted out for 100 kilometres (60 miles) into the German line. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein drew up a plan codenamed ‘Citadel’, the purpose of which was to attack the neck of the salient from south and north with heavy armour and air forces in order to cut off the large Soviet forces bottled up in the bulge.

He wanted to attack in April or May before the Red Army had time to dig in, but Hitler was more cautious, keen to await new tank supplies and to avoid any risk of a further disaster. In the end the delays postponed the opening of ‘Citadel’ until 5 July when over 750,000 soldiers, 2,450 tanks, 1,830 aircraft and 7,420 heavy artillery pieces were positioned north and south of the Kursk bulge.

The Soviet leadership had suffered from two years of wrong guesses about German intentions, from the invasion in June 1941 to the southern offensive towards Stalingrad in 1942. This time, thanks to better intelligence, much of it supplied from British Ultra intercepts of German messages, they guessed correctly.

Stalin’s deputy supreme commander, General Georgy Zhukov, organized a complex defensive field around the perimeter of the Kursk salient.

There were six layers of defence, each one bristling with tank traps, artillery, batteries and machine-gun nests; 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) of trenches were dug in a criss-cross pattern, allowing the defenders to move easily from one firing position to another. Over 400,000 mines were laid, and streams were dammed so that water could be released around oncoming tanks. Fifty dummy airfields were built to attract enemy planes.

Into this obstacle course Zhukov placed seven armies, a total of 1,336,000 men (and some women), 3,440 tanks and self-propelled guns, 19,100 artillery pieces and 2,170 aircraft. About 250 kilometres (150 miles) further back was the reserve Steppe Front commanded by General Ivan Konev with another 500,000 men and 1,400 tanks, ready to strike at the right moment. The battle for the Kursk salient was the largest set-piece battle of the Second World War. If Manstein had succeeded in cutting the salient, 40 per cent of Red Army manpower and 75 per cent of Soviet armour would have been trapped.

There followed weeks of waiting for the Germans to come. Hitler hesitated until he was confident that the armies had what they needed, including a small number of the new heavy Panther and Tiger tanks. For Soviet soldiers, the suspense was enervating. Finally a captured German soldier confessed that the morning of 5 July was the start date.

The Red Army fired off a spoiling bombardment in the middle of the night, alarming German commanders, who briefly thought they were the victims of an unanticipated Soviet offensive. Things were again quiet until, at 4.30 a.m., Field Marshal Walter Model’s 9th Panzer Army in the north and General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army in the south, supported by three armoured divisions of Army Detachment Kempf, plunged into the lines of fixed defences.

The battle was on an extraordinary scale, with thousands of guns, aircraft and tanks pulverizing the ground, tearing apart the woods and villages in their path. A pall of acrid smoke obscured much of the battlefield. Model’s armoured divisions made very slow progress against determined opposition, facing the worst field of fire they had yet experienced.

A line of Soviet armour is on its way to reinforce the Red Army during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The arrival of reinforcements in time has often been seen as a critical turning point in the battle. In fact Hitler ended the attack because of a massive Soviet counter-offensive.

They moved 6 kilometres (4 miles) on the first day and a further 11 kilometres (7 miles) by 7 July, subjected to continuous attacks. The limit of the advance was reached two days later. In the south, Hoth had greater success because the defensive forces were weaker than further north. Spearheaded by the three notorious SS panzer divisions – Totenkopf, Das Reich and Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler – the southern assault penetrated 32 kilometres (20 miles) by 7 July with the aim of cutting the main road to Kursk. It was halted by a strong counter-attack. On 9 July, the tank divisions grouped for one more thrust but were held as they were in the north. Hoth ordered the tanks to move northeast, towards a small rail junction at Prokhorovka.

The Soviet account of Kursk needed a hero suitable for the regular propaganda that exalted the bravery of Soviet men and women in the face of fascist aggression. The hero of this battle was General Pavel Rotmistrov, commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, held back with Konev’s reserves.

On 9 July, he was ordered to move forward to join the main battle and on 12 July, his tanks clashed with the approaching German panzer divisions in what was hailed as the greatest tank battle of the war. At the end of the day the German assault was blunted and, so it was claimed, over 700 tanks littered the battlefield, their burning hulks a testament to the bitterness of the conflict and the triumph of Rotmistrov’s men. The legend, however, has been overturned by modern research.

There was only one German panzer division at Prokhorovka, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, with around 100 tanks, faced by two Soviet Tank Corps with 421 tanks and self-propelled guns. Charging forward, the Soviet tanks fell into one of the tank traps built by their own side, where many were damaged or destroyed. At the end of the day, the German force had lost only 32 tanks, the Soviet side 259.

Nevertheless, the overturning of the myth of Prokhorovka has done little to undermine the broader story of Soviet success in blunting the power of the fifteen panzer divisions hurled at the Kursk lines. If the great tank battle is an invention, the defence held firm and inflicted heavy losses on the attacker. What did happen on 12 July was a massive counter-offensive codenamed Operation Kutuzov mounted against the northern wing of the German attack. Not suspecting that there were reserves available, the counter-attack stunned the German command.

The following day, Hitler, already anxious about the invasion of Sicily, for which forces would have to be moved from the Eastern Front, cancelled Citadel and ordered Hoth back to the German starting lines. On 3 August, a second Soviet offensive using the reserve armies, Operation Rumyantsev, smashed into the southern German line. The unleashing of the reserves after a week of battle stopped the last German offensive in its tracks. No legend of last-minute reinforcement was needed to embellish a comprehensive victory. The gleeful debunking of the Prokhorovka story cannot conceal the reality of Soviet success.