In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:
This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.
Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15
While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).
Lost Cause Wargaming?
Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?
Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.
The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.
According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”
Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.
Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).
This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.
Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.
Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.
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.
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!
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.
This History to Wargame series focuses on two books, The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and The Battle of Prokhorovka by Christopher Lawrence (Stackpole Books, 2019). The feature wargame is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020).
Lead Up to Citadel (March – June 1943)
The Glantz book is an excellent overview of the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to the Battle of Kursk. Indeed, the Battle for Kursk wargame closely mirrors Glantz’s discussion of the lead up to the battle in terms of the units discussed and the area focused upon. Having the Battle for Kursk game map out while reading Glantz helps immensely with understanding the geography.
One part that caught my attention for a possible “what if” was the plans for Operations Habicht and Panther (Glantz, p. 25) which were intended as follow-on attacks from Citadel. But “what if” one reversed the plan? What if the Germans launched Habicht/Panther in May 1943 (Turn C) before the Soviet fortifications in that area are complete with orders to seize Kuyansk and cut the rail line from the south into the Kursk salient?
At several points in the lead up to the battle, Glantz discusses the “correlation of forces.” He first discusses this on page 65 and again when he shows a German Staff Estimate on page 75. Now I wonder if I need to bounce these figures off another Lawrence book, War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) which makes extensive use of data from the Kursk campaign.
One aspect of the lead up to Operation Citadel that Lawrence emphasizes is the political aspects of the offensive, especially Hitler’s concern about his allies. Lawrence asserts that the need to prop up Italy was an important distraction. Now I better understand one of the alternate starting scenarios in WW2 Deluxe: European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018) which has the “Citadel and Avalanche (Summer 1943)” start scenario. These two offensives were not only linked temporally but politically as well.
Lawrence also goes much deeper than Glantz into the discussion of the different tanks and how tank production by the Germans in many ways drove the start date of Citadel. For all the different tanks discussed it is interesting to see how few actual tanks were in a given unit. It is also interesting to see all the different models that were thrown into battle at Kursk. The tank vs. tank battles are certainly played up in the wargames Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) but Lawrence reminds us that there were many other tanks on the battlefield, including more than a few designed for infantry support.
A possible “what if” scenario that jumped out at me from Lawrence’s preparations was an idea rejected at the June 27 pre-battle commander’s conference. At that meeting Hitler, “rejected a recent memo from Army Group Center to evacuate the Orel bulge so as to create an operational reserve. He also again rejected the idea of a “backhand” strike. He decided it would be better to seize the initiative and attack” (Lawrence, 29). This could be recreated in Battle for Kursk by having the Germans chose a “Reposition” or maybe a “Deploy” Posture on Turn D and evacuating the Orel bulge by realigning forces along the 1800 hex column. This would shorten the front lines in this area from 7 hexes to four hexes. More importantly, the four Infantry Corps and four Panzer Corps within the Orel bulge would take over the new line (4x Infantry Corps?) leaving four Panzer Corps to become that “operational reserve.” It might still be possible to launch Citadel on Turn 1 and not lose the initiative to the Soviets. [In Battle for Kursk if the Germans do not attack by Turn 1 they “lose the initiative” to the Soviets as the German bonus VP marker on Kursk turns Soviet and is placed in Kiev.]
Battle for Kursk – Alternate Preparations
I decided to play out an alternate start for Battle for Kursk. German High Headquarters ordered Operation Habicht/Panther starting on April 12 (Turn B) while at the same time ordering the evacuation of the Orel bulge. The weather is non-randomized (uses Mud turns as printed on Turn Track).
Why Turn B when I talked Turn C above? First off, the Soviet Fortifications in this area were expected to be completed on Turn C so rather than have the Germans attack into the fortifications the offense jumped-off a turn earlier. Of course, Turn C was historically Mud; maybe I should of used random weather?
FAILURE – Although 1st and 4th Panzer Army were able to cross the Donets, progress was immediately stymied by a stubborn Soviet defense. The Soviets strengthened the Southwest Front to limit further German penetrations. The rasputitsa (Mud on Turn C) brought the offensive to a complete halt.
DISASTER – German 2nd Panzer Army realigned allowing the 9th Army to go into operational reserve. By mid-July (Turn 2) the Soviets had strengthened the West and Bryansk Fronts which broke through the German lines at Bryansk and eventually led to the collapse of the northern part of Army Group Center and the capture of Smolensk (VP). The commitment of the new German operational reserve (9th Army) to the defense of Gomel (VP) provided an opportunity for the Soviets to remove the Belgograd salient in August into September (Turns 3-5) by retaking Belgograd, Kharkov (VP), and Sumy from Army Group South.
Army Group Center proved unable to hold Vitebsk (VP) in the north. The German 9th Army attempted to defend Gomel (VP) but was ground down and the city lost. 4th Panzer Army was beaten up withdrawing from the Belgograd salient and rendered combat ineffective. The 1st Panzer Army and 6th Army withdrew in fair order across the Dnieper. Final score = +5 German Operational Victory.
Missed the Backhand
In my post-game AAR, it dawned on me that, acting as the staff of Army Group Center, I had totally failed my von Manstein-check and employed my operational reserve in a very poor way. Rather than taking inspiration from General von Manstein and looking for a chance to use the German operational reserve to deliver a ‘backhand blow’ and cut off the deep penetration advances of the Soviet, I instead committed them to a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, defensive stand in front of Gomel.
Next Time – Part 3 Tactical Choices
Feature image “Manstein with tanks” courtesy weaponsandwarfare.com
For My Kursk Kampaign I am primarily reading two books. The first is The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (University of Kansas Press, 1999). This 472-page volume provides an excellent moderately-deep look at the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to and through the battle.
The second book I am using is The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Clash at Kursk, The Largest Clash of Armor in History by Christopher A. Lawrence of The Dupuy Institute (Stackpole Books abridged edition, 2019). This 639-page(!) volume is a very in-depth look at the actual battle around Kursk with a deep focus on the events of July 9-13 around Prokhorovka. Actually, The Battle of Prokhorovka laser-focuses on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps from July 9-18. In terms of the Battle for Kursk wargame, this is just two (!) counters.
My plan it to read both books together but alternate between them by dividing the reading by different periods of the battle. For each section I will also look at wargames to support my learning:
Preparations – Glantz chpts. 1-3 followed by Lawrence chpts. 1-2
“Stopping the Blitzkreig” (~July 10-15) – Glantz chpts. 5-6 / Lawrence chpts. 8-13
The Aftermath – Glantz chpts. 7-8 / Lawrence chpts. 14-16
As already mentioned, the primary wargame I will use to go along with my reading is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk, The Tigers are Burning, 1943. This game geographically covers the Eastern Front from Velike Luki (hex 1200) in the North to Taganrog (hex 2724) on the Sea of Azov. Historically, this was the front of German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Units are Corps for the Germans (approx. 25,000 troops) and Armies for the Soviets (approx. 40,000 troops). Each turn is approximately 2-4 weeks of time but is flexible to represent operational tempo and weather. The four preliminary turns (Turns A-D) each cover about a month starting on March 18 (Turn A), April 12 (Turn B), May 3 (Turn C), and June 12 (Turn D). “Regular” turns begin on Turn 1 (July 5) and play through Turn 8 (Nov 3). The most important mechanic in Battle for Kursk is the Posture Selection Segment. The Posture chosen by a player determines the amount of Replacement Points, mobility, and ability to engage in combat for that turn.
My goal is to actually play Battle for Kursk at various points during my readings to try out several “what ifs” or simply better explore the situation as it existed historically. Decisions made in the game may be limited based on what I read.
Now that I look at it, the scale of Storms of Steel and Panzer may be too finite. Individual tanks and squads of infantry at 100m per hex may be good for looking at a particular small engagement but too much for this exploration. As I look around my gaming shelves, I also see Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (GDW, 1992) which is platoon-level units and 250m per hex. This First Battle series title may just be playable enough to make it to the table as part of this exploration.
While I may be tempted to play out a tactical battle, more realistically I think my focus will be more on an evaluation of published scenarios as compared to the history I am reading. It may also delve a bit into the equipment and parse how certain vehicles are depicted in the different games.
As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”
Vasilevsky or Vasilevskii?
A note on terminology. The Russian transliterations used by Glantz, Lawrence, and the various wargame designers are different from one another. To the greatest extent possible, I will use the transliteration in the text I am discussing at that moment but will fall back on those found in Glantz when necessary.
Next Time – Part 2 Before Citadel
Feature image “Walter Model with General lieutenant (later General der Infanterie) Friedrich Schulz” courtesy dedefense.blogspot.com
I HAVE BEEN WARGAMING SINCE 1979 but I have to admit that the Eastern Front of World War II is not really my thing. I have a few Eastern Front wargames, but most of my historical games are actually naval or air combat. If I have a World War II land combat game it probably is the Western Desert or the Western Front. This is a bit surprising since my very first wargame ever was Jim Day’s Panzer (First Edition) from Yaquinto publishing in 1979.
To better prepare myself for the game I turned to my in-house library to do a bit of some research. My library was almost as bare as my game shelf! I had the 1978 printing of the 1956 Panzer Battles by Maj. Gen F.W.Von Mellenthin (1). I also had The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 by Lloyd Clark (2). As luck would have it, I saw an advertisement for a brand new book by Christopher A . Lawrence of The Dupuy Institute titled The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, the Largest Clash of Armor in History (3).
The battle of Prokhorovka was not the largest tank battle on a single day in history. It did not mark the death ride of Germany’s panzer forces, nor was it (as is also the case for Operation Citadel in general) a battle that potentially decided the fate of the entire war on the Eastern Front. Undoubtedly, though, it was a very significant engagement and, for the Soviet 5thGuards Tank Army, a disaster. The myths surrounding the battle largely stem from General Rotmistrov’s need to justify to Stalin his 5thGuards Tank Army’s heavy losses. Soviet armoured losses were indeed very severe while German armoured losses were negligible in the extreme. Thanks to excellent post-soviet era research by Niklas Zetterling & Anders Frankson, Karl-Heinz Frieser, Roman Töppeland, and Valeriy Zamulin amongst others (which are based on official reports, losses and testimonies) this is now beyond dispute.
For wargamers, the Battle of Prokharovka took place in such a small area it should also be easily gamable:
The chief protagonists of the Battle of Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps and the German SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, fought over a battlefront of no more than 3km between the river Psel and the Storozhevoye Woods.
Three kilometers in Panzer is only 30 hexes (100m/hex). A play area 30 hexes wide by maybe 60-90 hexes long could cover the entire battle!
Putting all this together, I figured I had a collection of good source material to study and get in the right mindset for playing games of Panzer or Storms of Steel. That is, until I really dug into the readings and discovered “the myth of Prokhorovka.” Getting to the “truth” is challenging and makes recreating the battle in wargames even more difficult.
The Myth of Prokhorovka
The World Almanac Book of World War II describes the Battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 this way:
In the Battle of Kursk the Fourth Panzer Army, led by the II SS Panzer Corps, makes one final effort in the direction of Prokhorovka but cannot break through the fresh Soviet forces. Army group South is now being threatened near Taganrog and Stalino, and in the north of the salient a Soviet counter-offensive begins toward Orel even as Kluge orders Model to withdraw some of his panzers to meet such a threat. At the end of the day Hitler orders that the battle be discontinued. The new Soviet attack involves troops of the West and Bryansk Fronts in two thrusts west from Novosil and the south between Kozelsk and Sukhinichi.
In this battle the Germans have conceded the strategic initiative to the Soviets for good. The shortage of manpower has compelled them to attack on a limited front and to commit almost all of their tank force to one effort. The Soviet losses in the battle so far have probably been greater than the German’s but they can afford it. The Luftwaffe losses have been severe and its dominance is now over. The Germans must also send troops to Italy but Hitler still forbids his Generals to make necessary withdrawals.
The World Almanac Book of World War II (New York: World Almanac Publications, 1981), 218.
You see, even today, 75 years after the battle, we actually don’t know that much. Von Mellenthin doesn’t even mention Prokhorovka; indeed, reading Panzer Battles one might even think there was little fighting at all on July 12, 1943. Overall, he definitely doesn’t see Kursk as any sort of glorious event:
By the evening of 14 July it was obvious that the time table of the German attack had been completely upset. At the very beginning of the offensive, the piercing of the forward Russian lines, deeply and heavily mined as they were, had proven much more difficult than we anticipated. The terrific Russian counterattacks, with masses of men and material ruthlessly thrown in, were also an unpleasant surprise. German casualties had not been light, while our tanks losses were staggering. The Panthers did not come up to expectations; they were easily set ablaze, the oil and gasoline feeding systems were inadequately protected, and the crews were insufficiently trained. Of the eighty Panthers available when the battle was joined only a few were left on 14 July. The S.S. Panzer Corps was no better off, while on the southern flank the Ninth Army had never penetrated more than seven miles and was now at a complete standstill. Fourth Panzer Army had indeed reached a depth of twelve miles, but there were another sixty miles to cover before we could join hands with Model.
Panzer Battles, 276-277.
Maybe more recent scholarship, like Lloyd Clark, would shed more light on the battle. The Battle of the Tanks is written at a much more tactical, even personal, level. It certainly portrays the huge scale of the battle:
In front of him were 294 fighting machines of the II SS Panzer Corps and 616 of his own tanks. On that day, just over half of Rotmistrov’s tanks were T-34s and most of the remainder were T-70s.
The Battle of the Tanks, 344.
Clark goes on to show how Soviet perceptions of German armor superiority drove their tactics:
Soviet tactics continued to emphasize the need to close with the enemy’s armor as quickly as possible for fear of the Germans’ powerful 88mm guns smashing them at long range. Rotmistrov was adamant that ‘successful struggle with [Tigers and Ferdinands] is possible only in circumstances of close-in combat”, and by exploiting the T-34’s greater maneuverability and by flanking fire against the [weaker] side armor of the Germans’ machines. Tigers were capable of disabling a T-34 at a range of over 4000 yards, but the Soviets seem to have massively overestimated the number that were available to Hausser. The reality was that II SS Panzer Corps had 15 – Totenkopf had 10, LAH had four and Das Reich just one. There were no Ferdinands or Panthers on the Prokhorovka battlefield.
The Battle of the Tanks, 346.
Clark points out that nobody can agree on the numbers of tanks destroyed:
The Soviets had suffered heavy losses in the successful attempt to defend Prokhorovka, and he [Vatutuin] still had to achieve his aim of forcing Hoth back and regaining lost territory. Stalin was particularly concerned at reports, subsequently proved erroneous, of the 5th Guards Tank Army losing around 650 tanks on that day for the total loss of a mere 17 German armored fighting vehicles.
The Clash of Tanks, 370-371.
Having started down this rabbit-hole of history, I asked myself, “So just how many tanks were destroyed? For that answer I turned first to Christopher Lawrence.
The Dupuy Institute approach
Christopher Lawrence is the President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute is best known for their Tactical, Numerical, Deterministic Model (TNDM):
The Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM) is an empirically based combat model with a database derived from historical research. It was developed by Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy, (USA, Ret.), from his concept, the Quantified Judgement Method of Analysis (QJMA), as presented in his two books, Numbers, Predictions and War (1979) and Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (1987). The QJMA has two elements:
1. Determination of quantified combat outcome trends based upon modern historical combat experience in more than 200 examples of 20th Century combat, mostly World War II and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, and
2. Extrapolation of historical trends to contemporary and future combat on the basis of developments and changes in firepower and mobility technology.
In developing the TNDM as a refinement of an earlier model based upon the QJMA, Col. Dupuy had the collaborative assistance of Dr. James G. Taylor (noted author of works concerning modern Lanchester-type models) in developing a new differential equation attrition methodology based on historical data. By a mathematical process akin to that of the Lanchester Equations, the TNDM attrition methodology provides results consistent with those which occurred in historical engagements. By being historically based, the methodology is more scientifically justified than any methodology not consistent with historical experience.
What this means is that Christopher Lawrence’s The Battle of Prokharovka is data-heavy. The main battle is covered in “Chapter Nine: The Tank Fields at Prokhorovka, 12 July 1943.” Even then, Lawrence warns us that the data can be suspect:
The XLVIII Panzer Corps with its chief of Staff, Colonel von Mellenthin, having been an officer of the general staff, had good detailed records throughout its operations, including useful daily summaries of the action. The record-keeping of the SS Panzer Corps, on the other hand, suffered when the fighting got intense. While they kept good status reports, their daily reports of activity almost seemed to disappear when the fighting got toughest. As a result, on the day of greatest drama, the record keeping for one of the major players almost disappeared.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, 306.
What we can see is that the battle of 12 July 1943 near Prokhorovka was maybe the most interesting of the war, and ripe for wargaming. Lawrence describes (and editorializes about) the engagement this way:
Perhaps the strangest attack the Soviets conducted this day was done by the XVIII Tank Corps. This attack required the two leading Soviet tank brigades [each with about 40 tanks – half T-34 and half T-70] to move along the Psel River to the southwest. The 170th Tank Brigade ended up attacking the Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz, which constricted its attack area, effectively attacking uphill towards height 252.2. Meanwhile, the 181st Tank Brigade continued to push southwest down the Psel into the area between the two SS divisions. These attacks could also be fired upon by Totenkopf’s forces on the other side of the Psel. The attack was essentially through a shallow valley flanked by enemy forces. It was a scenario reminiscent of the famous British charge of the light brigade from the Crimean War, and with similar results.
The Battle of Prokhorovka, 315-316.
So what were the losses? According to Lawrence, the Soviet XVIII Tank Corps lost 45 T-34s, 25 T-70s, and 11 Churchills on 12 July. The XXIX Tank Corps, thrown into the fray in the same area later in the day lost 105 T-34s, 42 T-70s, 9 SU-122s, and 3 SU-76s (4). The defending Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division lost maybe 19 tanks (5).
Seeing is Believing
Ben Wheatley thinks he has the answer, and it’s the Luftwaffe:
However, by using previously neglected archival sources it has still been possible to make a significant research breakthrough and provide the first visual confirmation of the fate of the 5thGuards Tank Army’s 29th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps. Significantly the article includes the first published photographs of the notorious anti-tank ditch (in which the 29th Tank Corps’ 31st & 32nd Tank Brigades were largely destroyed) whilst still in German hands – masses of Soviet tank wrecks being clearly visible. For a battle which was wrapped in myth for so many years this is particularly important. Without this final visual evidence the above mentioned authors’ battle narratives, if not their statistical findings, was still open to debate. This is no longer the case.
Therefore the location of one of the most famous battles of the Second World War was able to be photographed by the Luftwaffe in a single shot. Specifically and importantly photographs are available from 14 and 16 July when the battlefield was still in German hands (the Germans chose to withdraw from the area on 17 July). The battlefield remained largely unaltered from 12 July. As a result these photographs depict the Soviet armoured disaster (the entire 5th Guards Tank Army lost around 235 fighting vehicles written off) with absolute clarity. The large number of destroyed Soviet tanks of the 29th Tank Corps visible in and around the anti-tank ditch is astonishing. There are also important photographs from 7 August, which although three weeks later, further highlight the scale of the Soviet disaster. Comparisons made between the July and the August photographs are highly revealing. Destroyed tanks visible in both July and August indicate that they were in all probability lost on 12 July. We know this as in the main attack sectors from 13 July, the Soviets went onto the defensive as a result of the extremely heavy losses they sustained the previous day. Equally the Germans, having recaptured their forward positions on 12 July, were content to await developments on their flanks before resuming the advance. These factors are of real importance. As a result the front lines of 16 July were virtually identical to those of 12 July. German tank losses were minuscule by comparison, with just five battle tanks ultimately being written off (including the four Pz IVs close to Hill 252.2). All other damaged tanks were located in secure firing positions (i.e. behind the line of the anti-tank ditch) and were recovered before 16 July and later repaired.
Based on photographic analysis, Wheatley believes the German losses were very slight:
As a direct consequence of the fighting on 12 July the Leibstandarte division lost just five tanks. No German tanks were reported as ‘write-off’s on the 12 July. However, five tanks that were left immobilized on the battlefield could not subsequently be recovered because of enemy fire; so the write-off figures had to be adjusted later. Four of the five tanks in question were Pz IVs belonging to Ribbentrop’s 6th Company, 1st SS Panzer Regiment, the other was the Tiger belonging to the panzer regiment’s heavy panzer company. No StuG assault guns or Marder tank destroyers were reported as being lost on 12 July.
Ben Wheatley (2019) A visual examination of the battle of Prokhorovka, Journal of Intelligence History, 18:2, 115-163, DOI: 10.1080/16161262.2019.1606545 (6)
Wheatley admits that Soviet losses are so numerous that he can’t rely on the photos alone and must rely on other research:
The Soviet losses are slightly harder to detail precisely but all reliable accounts of the battle indicate that well in excess of 200 Soviet tanks were written-off. Frieser using Russian archival material reaches the figure of around 235 vehicles as write-offs for 12 July….The Russian historian Valeriy Zamulin comes to the conclusion, that at least 207 of Rotmistrov’s fighting vehicles were ‘burned’ on that day. As the Germans had succeeded in pushing back the Soviet attacking forces to their starting positions, the battlefield was in the Germans hands. On the evening of 12 July, damaged Soviet tanks were totally destroyed by special squads. It was only on 17 July, when the II SS Panzer Korps was withdrawn from the front, that the approaching Soviet troops were able to see the extent of the debacle that had taken place. Thus, the first reliable report of losses also bears that date. It is a statement of fighting vehicles lost from 12 to 16 July, signed by the chief of staff of 5th Guards Tank Army, according to which the army had written off 222 T-34s. 89 T-70s, 12 Churchill Tanks and 11 assault guns for a total of 334 tanks and assault guns. However, almost all those losses must have occurred on 12 July, since immediately afterwards the hard-hit 5th Guards Tank Army was largely withdrawn and, as is also evident from the German reports, took hardly any further part in the fighting.
Ben Wheatley (2019)
Mr. Wheatley rightly gives himself praise for his work:
In conclusion, given our knowledge of the relative losses incurred by both sides and the locations of the tanks on the battlefield, it is clear that the photographic evidence contained in this article support Frieser’s description of the battle – i.e. that the Soviets suffered a major defeat and incurred vast numbers of written off tanks in the process. The location of the mass destruction of the 29th Tank Corps armour is clear to see with 32nd & 31st Tank Brigades demise in (or near to) the anti-tank ditch and 25th Tank Brigade’s defeat between the railway embankment, Stalinsk state farm and the Storozhevoye Woods also being clearly visible in the photographs provided. Regarding the halting of 18th Tank Corps – we can see from the photographs available to us that the Soviet attempt to outflank the Leibstandarte was also met with a major defeat. The demise of the 170th & 181st Tank Brigades is clearly highlighted behind the left flank of the anti-tank ditch and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment’s position. The defeat of 181st Tank Brigade’s subsequent effort to advance up from the ribbon village of Andreyevka is also depicted. The fact that only four Tiger tanks repelled both of these armoured advances is testament to the tanks’ prowess at that stage of the war.
This article has therefore verified the demise of the majority of the attacking components of the 5th Guards Tank Army during the battle of Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943. As has been shown above, the level of detailed information now available to us means it is entirely possible that individual lost German tanks can be located on the battlefield photographs amongst the mass of Soviet tank losses. It is remarkable that the historiography of the battle has evolved so radically over the last 20–30 years from an era when it was believed the Germans had suffered a major war-defining defeat with the loss of as many as 400 tanks (including 70 Tigers), to one that recognizes (with respect) that a Soviet catastrophe took place and that this catastrophe can be visually verified. If the myth of Prokhorovka is still given any credence around the world then the photographs contained in this article will surely bring this myth to an end.
Ben Wheatley (2019)
On to Gaming Prokhorovka
As a wargamer, I can see few battles as interesting as Prokhorovka. The fact that four Tiger tanks held off two entire Soviet tank brigades is incredibly dramatic and certainly deserves a scenario. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the wealth of available scenarios is lacking.
Why are there so few scenarios? Is it that the “myth of Prokhorovka” scares designers away? Since everyone “knows” the battle was at first a crushing German defeat, then a Soviet disaster, does it get passed over because it “lacks excitement?” That’s too bad. Rarely do wargamers get a chance to portray a single battlefield and array a large set of forces. Nor do many games contain the high drama of four heavy tanks holding off two entire tank brigades. That’s a game!
(1) Von Mellenthin, Maj. Gen. F.W. Panzer Battles (New York: Ballantine, 1956), First Ballantine Books Edition, Fourth Printing, 1978.
(2) Clark, Lloyd. The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 (New York: Grove Press, 2011).
(3) Lawrence, Christopher A. The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, the Largest Clash of Armor in History (Guilford: Stackpole Books abridged edition 2019).
(4) ibid, 342.
(5) ibid, 346.
(6) Ben Wheatley (2019) A visual examination of the battle of Prokhorovka, Journal of Intelligence History, 18:2, 115-163, DOI: 10.1080/16161262.2019.1606545
Feature image from Wheatley, Figure 2. GX-3734-SK-61 16 July – Battlefield of 29th Tank Corps