#RockyReads for #Wargame – The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, The Largest Clash of Armor in History by Christopher A. Lawrence (Stackpole Books abridged second edition, 2019)

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Looks bigger than it is. The Battle of Prokhorovka is largely a textual retelling of the extensive database collected by The Dupuy Institute on the battle. Many details but best parts may actually be the sidebar texts that cover a myriad of associated issues in a short, succinct manner.

The “Short” 639-Page Version

The Battle of Prokhorovka is a hefty book coming in at a grand total of 639 pages. Surprisingly, it is an abridged version of the author’s 1,662 page mega-book Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, 2015). This abridged version focuses almost exclusively on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and supporting III Panzer Corps from July 9-18, 1943. The account is based primarily on German unit records complimented by some access to Soviet Army Files from the Russian Military Archives. The work was originally accomplished by The Dupuy Institute for the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency (CAA), better know today as the Center for Army Analysis.

Deconstructing German Myths

I noted after reading The Battle of Kursk by Jonathan Glantz that his book attempted to deconstruct the German myths around the Battle of Kursk and retell the story in a more balanced fashion by incorporating Soviet archival materials. Christopher Lawrence in The Battle of Prokhorovka attempts much the same, but instead of depending heavily on Soviet archive material like Glantz does or on memoirs of German officers like many others, he digs into German (and as available some Soviet) unit reports. You know, those daily, often monotonous tomes of numbers. The end result is a viewpoint in retelling the story that still is biased towards the Germans, but one that attempts to “ground” itself in data rather than emotion.

With the focus on two German corps on the south side of the Kursk salient, The Battle of Prokhorovka is really just a small part of the larger story. That said, one might assume that with 639 pages this volume is very detailed. Surprisingly, I actually found Lawrences’s The Battle of Prokhorovka easier to read than Glantz’s The Battle of Kursk. Maybe this was because the language used was less emotional. It might also be easier to read because The Battle of Porkhorovka is actually laid out on the page in an easier to read manner – there’s more white space on some pages than I expected which lengthens the book but doesn’t expand the content. There are also several interesting sidebar content areas, like the “Terrain Photo” or “Photo Reconnaissance” sections. There are also many interesting sidebars on the tanks and various “numbers” associated with the battle.

Large Clash but Small Numbers

As someone who grew up steeped in the myths of the great Battle of Kursk, it never ceases to amaze me just how small the battle actually was. Not only was the area very small (10’s of kilometers across and in depth) but also for all the “Corps” and “Armies” involved the number of tanks was actually far less than the myth portrays. The two numbers that jumped out at me in this reading of The Battle of Prokhorovka was the Panthers and German tank losses on July 12.

According to Lawrence, around 200 Panther tanks were assigned to Panzer Regiment von Lauchert supporting the Gross Deutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. Here is what happened to all those Panthers, on the first day (July 5) of the offensive:

The Panther Regiment started with as many as 198 tanks operational. By the end of the day, they were down to 119 operational. As well as can be determined, two were lost due to friendly fire, one to hostile fire, six broke down during the march in the morning, and up to 19 were lost to mines. The remaining estimated 51 tanks were most likely mechanical failures. The Panther regiment had hardly seen action, but was now down to around 60 percent of its strength. This does not seem worth the two-month delay in the start of the offensive for this level of support.

The Battle of Prokhorovka, p. 56

A single graphic on page 344 of The Battle of Prokhorovka destroys the myth of the battle better than any written account can. According to Lawrence, the Lieberstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division lost 19 tanks on the fateful day of July 12 as compared to 159 in the opposing Soviet XXIX Tank Corps. Lawrence further points out that many “losses” claimed in battle were made good by battlefield recovery effort, meaning losses in combat don’t necessarily mean losses in combat power over the course of the campaign.

Wargame Application

The Battle of Prokhorovka, focusing on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps, is a very good source for wargame scenarios or campaigns based on the actions of these units. That said, Lawrence generally discusses unit at the Brigade/Regiment levels and occasionally down to Battalions. If one wants to recreate more tactical scenario situations like in Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) then there might actually NOT be enough detail in this book. That said, I encourage every potential scenario designer to focus not on recreating a historical event in a scenario, but instead focus on recreating the historical situation in a more “inspired by history” situation.

The accounts of battle in The Battle of Prokhorovka, and especially how many tank “losses” didn’t come from hostile fire, also challenges wargame scenario designers. I know of few scenarios where units are attrited before contact (“fall out”) or where mines and engineers become so important for a tank battle. It’s a new perspective and one often overlooked, if for no other reason than it “ain’t cool” if you don’t get to blow up tanks in battle!

Citation

Lawrence, Christopher A., The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle of Kursk, The largest Clash of Armor in History, Guilford: Stackpole Books abridged second edition, 2019.

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