Kursk: Massive tank battle at Prokhorovka

One of the units of the 270th Rifle Division of the Soviet 7th Guards Army at Kursk.
One of the units of the 270th Rifle Division of the Soviet 7th Guards Army at Kursk.
A scout of the 325th "Dvina" Infantry Division, Guard Sergeant Alexey Frolchenko (1905-1967), who was awarded the Order of the Red Star for his action at the Battle of Kursk.
A scout of the 325th “Dvina” Infantry Division, Guard Sergeant Alexey Frolchenko (1905-1967), who was awarded the Order of the Red Star for his action at the Battle of Kursk.

The battle of Kursk, which had been launched by the Germans on the 5th July, continued. The Wehrmacht and SS troops were making much less progress than anticipated. They found themselves confronting successive lines of well prepared Soviet defences, manned by determined troops who were prepared to fight to the death in defence of the motherland.

Within the wide ranging continuous battle one engagement stood out. On the 12th July one of the largest single tank engagements of the war broke out south of the city of Prokhorovka, when the Germans made a sustained attempt to smash through the Russian lines with a concentration of armour. Estimates vary about the numbers involved but it generally thought that a combined total of over a thousand tanks clashed that day.

In amongst the flying steel was Mansur Abdulin, a veteran of Stalingrad. The Soviet infantry had adopted desperate tactics to be able to take on the largest of the German panzers, the Tiger:

[W]e marched straight into action at daybreak on 12 July 1943.

Neither before nor since had I seen so much artillery. The commanders of artillery units, with their guns of different calibre, had a hard time finding positions from which they could fire without disturbing their neighbours. There was not enough space for the gunners on the battlefield!

The roar of guns continued all day without pause. We infantrymen — surrounded by thick black smoke and covered in soot — looked like stokers, endlessly throwing coal into a furnace. Only the whites of our eyes and teeth were shining. We moved at a furious pace, among burning tanks, exploding shells, and fire from every conceivable sort of weapon.

Every soldier, covered in sweat, was systematically doing his job, as if toiling in a giant workshop; forgetting about his fear and pinning his hopes on chance: ‘Will I be killed or not?’ There’s nothing one can do to save oneself in this carnage, and the hands did what was necessary automatically.

Having been thrown back, the Germans began another onslaught, again without success. How many times a day did both sides crash against one another? Who would win? It was a case of might versus might, power versus power.

The heat of the fighting can be illustrated by the fact that along the battlefront clouds formed from which rain fell. These leaden clouds marked the curved outline of the front, while in our rear (and that of the Germans) the sky was absolutely clear. I have never again seen anything like it! It was a blazing hell and the hot air rose upwards night and day.

All day long planes fired at each other in the sky. There was a hail of splinters and bullets. That was familiar enough: but watch out, you might get killed by falling aircraft! Pilots parachuted here and there. One had to be careful not to confuse our men with the Germans. We could often see how the parachuting pilots continued their fight by firing pistols at each other. We wanted to help them, but how? If only our parachutes had had stars on them or the fabric was of a specific colour.

In order to be more efficient against enemy tanks, our soldiers made special bundles consisting of two grenades and a Molotov cocktail (what our men called ‘a bottle of Champagne for a hangover!’). These bundles had to be thrown from a distance of no less than 50m [over 54 yards – see comments], because the blast was so powerful that it could injure you!

Not many men in our company were strong enough to do it: Sergei Lapunov, Vasili Shamrai, Matvei Yershov, Aleksei Yanson and a couple more. Skinny soldiers, like Kostia Martynov or Piotr Shkolnikov, had to be content with making the bundles, using strips of strong captured telephone wire.

But our comrade Kostia desperately wanted to destroy a Tiger with his own hands. Several times he dug a reserve trench some 30m or 40m away in No Man’s Land, from which he planned to throw his heavy bundle under the caterpillar track of a German tank. One day he got his chance . . .

The Germans have decided to try and dislodge us from a so-called ‘domineering height’ (though it doesn’t look that important to us). They launch a tank attack supported by 100 infantrymen with sub- machine guns.

One of the tanks is rapidly rolling in the direction of Kostia’s reserve trench, so he grabs his bundle of grenades, and keeping as low as possible, makes a dash for his dugout. Vasili Shamrai separates the enemy infantrymen from their tanks by firing several long bursts from his machine-gun, which makes them jump for cover.

Meanwhile, Kostia’s Tiger comes up close and stops, preparing to destroy our position with its gun. Seeing this, Shamrai dives deep into his hiding place. Simultaneously, we see Kostia jump out of his trench and throw the bundle of explosives underneath the caterpillar of the tank. It seems to us that Kostia has plenty of time to take cover before the blast.

Then comes the powerful, deafening explosion. The Tiger loses its track and twitches, trying to resume its forward movement. But having only one caterpillar, it turns and collapses on its side. Our boys bring up some fresh ‘Champagne’ bottles and soon the Tiger is in flames.

We finally repelled the German counter-attack. The Nazis lost two of their Tigers and some fifty soldiers. We had ten men killed, including Kostia and twelve wounded. We found him with blood flowing from his ears and his eyes almost falling out of their sockets. Kostia was born in 1925, in the Miasski District of the Cheliabinsk Region. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Star.

See Mansur Abdulin: Red Road from Stalingrad

Massed German Panzers including captured T-34s attack at Kursk.
Massed German Panzers including captured T-34s attack at Kursk.
German Panzer VI/Tiger I tanks passing burning buildings during the Battle of Kursk in Orel (Oryol), Russia, mid-Jul 1943
German Panzer VI/Tiger I tanks passing burning buildings during the Battle of Kursk in Orel (Oryol), Russia, mid-Jul 1943
Damaged and abandoned German Panther tanks left on the battlefield at
Damaged and abandoned German Panther tanks left on the battlefield at Prokhorovka.

8 thoughts on “Kursk: Massive tank battle at Prokhorovka”

  1. I have no problem believing this report, and you have to keep translation in mind. When he said “collapsed on its side” he probably meant “collapsed” as in “stuck”.

    There’s a documented case of a P-51 pilot shooting down a Zero by hitting the pilot with his 1911 as he parachuted to earth. Rare to have pilots that close? Maybe. If two pilots are dogfighting maybe not, as planes do shoot each other down quite often. And over a massive tank battle like this there would be a massive amount of close air support, which means very low altitudes.

    I take every war story with a grain of salt, but I see nothing about this account that screams anything other than some exaggeration.

  2. I agree with Erik’s comment below, aspects of Abdulin’s firsthand account are pretty hard to believe and probably were heavily augmented by the propaganda machine. Pilots shooting at each with pistols while parachuting? Think about how close they would have to be, how low to the ground they would need to be for soldiers below to see them, and how improbable that is. Also, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the weather during the Battle of Prokhorovka was overcast with intermittent thunderstorms, not “absolutely clear” on either side of the front. I love reading firsthand accounts and its sad when the apparatus mucks it up.

  3. your last photo is captioned wrong, it is know that there where no Pathers at Prokhorovka, The SS Pather crews had not been trained in time and where still in Germany at the time of this battle, there where Panthers in kursk just not at Prokhorovka.

  4. The “Massed German Panzer” picture is most likely Das Reich. Note the T-34’s w/ german markings. IIRC they operated a company of captured T-34’s during the battle.

  5. Im not sure if this text written by a soviet soldier is legitimate… Tiger collapsing on its side because it only has one track? Ive never heard of that…

  6. Many thanks ‘pedant’. Well spotted, that was a note from the editor of the original text and escaped me. I must be doing something right because you haven’t picked me up for a while!

  7. Small point, but this part looks wrong by a factor of 10:

    “a distance of no less than 50m [over 540 yards]”

    50 meters is about 54 yards, not 540.

    It also makes sense out of the comment that it was hard, but possible, for a strong man to through a bundle of some 5kg-10kg that distance. 50 meters would be hard; 500 meters (or 540 yards) impossible.

    Thanks for this series, which I check every day. It astounds me how plain it is to see, in hindsight, that the Germans are facing defeat on every front, and have been now since the winter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.