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July 12 marks 75 years since momentous WW II tank battle near Prokhorovka

July 12, 23:10 UTC+3 MOSCOW

The encounter of tank armies near Prokhorovka occurred in the context of the grandiose Battle of Kursk Salient, which began on July 5, 1943

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MOSCOW, July 12. /TASS/. July 12, 2018, marked the 75th anniversary since a highly remarkable tank battle near the railway station of Prokhorovka, then on the territory of the Kursk region and currently in the Belgorod region.

The encounter of tank armies near Prokhorovka occurred in the context of the grandiose Battle of Kursk Salient, which began on July 5, 1943. The Nazi command planned to shear a big bulge near the city of Kursk, some 500 km to the south of Moscow. It had taken shape during a Red Army offensive earlier that year and was protruding into the territories still staying under German occupation.

Moscow-based historian Alexei Issayev has provided this comment for TASS in connection with the anniversary.

The immediate objective of the Nazi strategy [Operation Citadel] was to encircle a major group of Red Army units and to break through into the depth of the Soviet rear. The Germans concentrated their main striking power at the southern flank of the bulge that was defended on the Soviet side by the troops from the Voronezh Front under the command of General Nikolai Vatutin. His forces came under an attack by about 1,500 German tanks. The epicenter of the clash between the Soviet and German forces was destined to take place near Prokhorovka.

The II SS Panzer Corps bumped into the 5th Guards Tank Army under the command of Gen Pavel Rotmistrov, who would later become a marshal of the Soviet Armored Troops.

This sudden encounter between the two major Soviet and German armor formations was a paradox of history in a sense. Initially, Rotmistrov’s Army was not supposed to turn up in the fields near Prokhorovka. The Soviet Supreme High Command kept it in the reserve, with the intention of using it during a general counteroffensive of Soviet forces in the summer of 1943. The top commanders would have brought the 5th Tank Army into action only if Hitler’s forces had shaved off the bulge around Kursk. Rotmistrov’s troops would have blocked the passageways of the eastward advance for the German tank spearheads then.

Still a third and far more complicated scenario cropped up instead of the former two simpler ones. The crisis at the Voronezh Front’s defense lines prompted the Supreme High Command to augment General Vatutin’s forces with two tank armies from the reserve.

The top decision-makers in Moscow were not particularly happy about the measure and as they assigned a combined force of about 100,000 men and officers to the Voronezh Front, they expected an abrupt turnaround in the standoff battle and hoped it would block the enemy’s offensive. And the only way to do it was to launch a most resolute counteroffensive.

There was one more paradoxical element in the situation. Although the Germans had been pondering a big battle near Prokhorovka, the emergence of Rotmistrov’s armies there baffled them them.

While planning the operation, Gen Hermann Hoth believed he would come upon a Soviet counterattack somewhere between the rivers Psyol and Seversky Donets. He proceeded from the supposition that the Red Army would have used up its reserves in full by the morning of July 12.

The march of the 5th Tank Army was as fast as covert. The commanders of the II SS Panzer Corps learned about the emergence of amassed tank formations only in the small hours of July 12 when the signal flares pierced the morning haze with violet lights. This was the standard way for the Wehrmacht forces to send a warning about the approaching enemy tanks. The flares were fired by the combat outposts that had detected the threat.

A number of factors played against Rotmistrov and his tank crews. First, the situation had deteriorated sharply to the south of Prokhorovka and the commander had to dispatch the 5th Mechanized Corps. It would continue acting separately from the main forces until the completion of operations in the area. Secondly, virtually the day before the battle the German forces took control of the positions the Soviet tank units had prepared in advance for a counterstrike. The 5th Tank Army was left to operate in field between the river Psyol and the railway leading to Prokhorovka. The terrain was heavily scarred with ravines.

Writers who mention the 1,200 tanks and self-propelled artillery mounts, which took part in the battle at Prokhorovka, they usually place them right onto the aforementioned field. In reality, however, engaged in the combat action in the ‘tank field’ were 514 Soviet tanks and artillery mounts versus 210 German tanks. Another 148 tanks and artillery mounts were rebuffing the 119 tanks and assault guns of the enemy to the south of Prokhorovka

Overall, the warring sides threw as many as 1,100 armored vehicles into the fighting for the Prokhorovka bridgehead. However, a human eye could scarcely embrace the entire area of the bridgehead, which was bigger than the Prokhorovka field proper. The figure of 1,500 tanks engaged in the combat operation exactly near Prokhorovka, which various sources cited after the war, is somewhat bigger than the actual number. Still, one way or another, the concentration of 1,100 tanks and artillery mounts on a relatively small land area puts the Battle of Prokhorovka into the rank of largest tank battles of World War II.

The heavily trenched field made it possible to bring only small groups of tanks - from 30 to 50 vehicles - into combat simultaneously and the fact might allowed the Wehrmacht forces to rebuff unexpected counterattacks easily enough. Only one unit, a battalion of the 32nd Brigade under the command of Maj Pyotr Ivanov managed to get deep behind the enemy’s lines under the cover of a strip of wood stretching along the railway.

The Soviet command admitted openly the heavy losses suffered in the battle on the Prokhorovka field. The main combat action on July 12 inflicted telling losses on two corps of the 5th Tank Army. The 29th Corps lost 77% its vehicles engaged in the action. The percentage of vehicles lost by the 18th corps amounted to 56%

Needless to say that the Supreme High Command was extremely disappointed with the loss of more than a half of vehicles that a tank army, fresh from replenishment, had incurred over just ten hours. Moscow formed a special commission to establish the causes of the situation and put the Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov, at the head of it.

And yet, the Battle of Prokhorovka made it impossible for the Wehrmacht to reach the objectives it had designed Operation Citadel for. It had to call off what turned out to be the last strategic offensive in its history. Army Group South was compelled to switch over to defense operations.

As for the damaged vehicle of the 5th Guards Tank Army, repair crews rolled up their sleeves to overhaul them. Later on, these tanks took part in Operation Rumyantsev, which eventually led up the liberation of Kharkov, a major strategic goal for the Red Army in eastern Ukraine.

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