Friday, March 23, 2012

Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative by Valeriy Zamulin

Valeriy Zamulin’s ”Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative” is the quintessential representation of what Eastern Front literature is all too often lacking. Today’s Russian historians and scholars are putting out a plethora of monographs and studies of the Great Patriotic War and Zamulin is one of the best examples of the type of objective analysis they are capable of producing (it should be noted that this study of Prokhorovka was Zamulin’s first, he has since then put out at least three other monographs covering various aspects of the Kursk battle and the ensuing operations unleashed to liberate Belgorod and Orel). While there have been quite a few titles recently released on the Battle of Kursk none of them will have the level of detail and analysis that Zamulin’s study exhibits. This is not because they are of a lower caliber of scholarship, but simply because they lack his experience with and access to Soviet era archives. This is a book that in the grand scheme of things covers and offers much more than an analysis of the encounter at Prokhorovka between forces of the 5th Guards Tank Army and the II SS Panzer Corps. Through Zamulin’s ‘operational narrative’ the reader is exposed to the inner workings of the Red Army and a multidimensional look at the weaknesses and failures of Red Army leadership on the ground that led to the losses experienced by Soviet forces when they attacked the Germans head-on July 12, 1943. Finally, there are many images we can conjure up when thinking of the ‘myth(s)’ associated with the battle at Prokhorovka. Many readers will find that aside from the usual questions about how many tanks took part in the engagement and their losses, Zamulin also questions many myths that can only be found in Soviet era accounts of the battle – from individual soldier and officer accounts, to greater narratives of the war that have perpetuated various myths and legends, which have become engrained in even today’s histories of the Battle of Kursk.

The majority of this book is dedicated to German and Soviet actions around Prokhorovka. There is a good amount of text devoted to analyzing how Vatutin’s Voronezh front faired before the onslaught of the II SS Panzer Corps, the XXXVIII Panzer Corps, and Army Detachment Kempf, followed by the makeup of the 5th Guards Tank Army (including small biographies of the leadership). The post-July 12 actions are only analyzed through July 16 on a limited front as ensuing German operations were reduced in scale. Thus, this is a study that revolves around Prokhorovka, the analysis of which is unrivaled in western literature.

To begin, Prokhorovka is usually viewed as a wholly separate battle from the rest of the encounters that German forces had with Vatutin’s Voronezh front. Desperate and costly battles were ongoing since the start of operations, July 5, up to July 12 and days later when German troops abandoned their original plans to breakthrough to Kursk and settled instead on a more limited objective, the encirclement of the 48th Guards Rifle Corps. The situation that developed on the southern face of the Kursk battle in the first days forced Vatutin to include all of his reserves, thus leading to the eventual need for the 5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank armies from the Steppe Front under the command of Konev. One should keep in mind that the Central Front under Rokossovsky had an easier time holding back Model’s forces and switching over to the counteroffensive without the amount of help Vatutin was requesting, but they also faced a more limited German force when compared to what Manstein was able to put in the field.

The initial plans of the Voronezh front for Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Army were beyond his capabilities. His tank corps were not only supposed to check the German advance, but in cooperation with Vatutin’s forces switch over to the offensive and advance some 15-20 kilometers against German troops to return the frontlines to their positions before the start of Operation Citadel. This was beyond the ability of Rotmistrov and beyond the capabilities of Red Army forces in general at this point in time. Additional problems arose from the fact that the 5th Tank Army included forces that recently joined it, and some of their commanding officers were also fresh additions, thus this was not a cohesive force accustomed to planning and fighting together. In many ways Vatutin and his staff share a large portion of the blame for what came about as the plan for the 5th Tank Army, but the pressure he was under makes it clear that something had to be done and the limited Soviet intelligence of German positions and abilities only added to the strain and problems Soviet forces now had to contend with.

The actual forces that took part in operations on July 12 featured two Soviet Tank Corps, with some 350 tanks, taking on one SS Panzer Division with support from two others, all part of the II SS Panzer Corps, fielding around 120-150 tanks (exact numbers are simply impossible to come by for either side) for a total of some 500 tanks. German troops did not engage in a ‘meeting engagement’ with their Soviet opponents, on the contrary, German forces were entrenched in recently taken positions and put up a bloody defense against both Soviet tank corps. Additionally, the fact that Soviet tank and mechanized corps lacked in their anti-tank and artillery assets when compared to German panzer and panzer grenadier divisions only complicated the situation that much further as German forces were able to readily engage Red Army forces from ambush and defensive positions with all types of weapons. Meanwhile Soviet reconnaissance failed to adequately predict the territory and numbers of enemy troops the 5th Guards Tank Army would be facing and artillery and aviation failed to adequately support their tank counterparts on the ground and in the air. Shell shortages were soon apparent as well when logistical capabilities broke down for various reasons. One of the ‘myths’ that exists about the battle is that German forces were caught unawares of the attack by forces of the 5th Guards Army. This is readily disproven as the Germans had excellent intelligence about the movement and location of Soviet forces and also guessed correctly their future intentions, thus allowing for a formidable defense in the face of the ensuing Red Army attack.

An additional battle on July 12 took place further from Prokhorovka and featured a few hundred more tanks, combined from both sides, but it was on a more limited scale and suffered from the same deficiencies that the two Soviet tank corps experienced. Soviet losses overall were heavy, as were those they inflicted on the Germans. The numbers are contested and depend on which forces are taken into account as it is impossible to ascertain exactly which formations took part in the fighting. Zamulin presents numerous tables showing loss figures for Soviet forces and consults various German publications to come up with numbers for the II SS Panzer Corps as well as the other formations that took part in the fighting leading up to July 12 and after. But he points out that even with the casualties the Germans suffered, they were able to go on a limited offensive in the following days and almost managed to encircle the 48th Guards Rifle Corps. Unfortunately for Manstein and Hitler, the ultimate objective(s) of Operation Citadel were beyond the German grasp by the end of July 12. Thus, Zamulin views the operation as an ultimate success for the Red Army as it prevented the Germans from fulfilling their original objectives, even if the losses were skewed in the German’s favor and they went on the offensive immediately after. Depending on how one views the assignment of the Voronezh front and that of Manstein’s forces, this represents a reasonable conclusion when confronted with the amount of detail, facts, and figures Zamulin has presented.

The above is a very much simplified version of events that Zamulin goes over and the reader should be warned that this is an immensely dense and detailed study although often enough his narrative is simply riveting. The maps and pictures of the battlefield that are provided are very helpful but the numerous locations are still difficult to keep track of, especially since this is one of the few, if not only, studies that features discussion of individual Red Army regiments and even battalions. Additionally, one of the more interesting aspects of this study was a look into the ‘inner workings’ of the Red Army. For instance, the use of blocking detachments; on a few occasions, when retreating Red Army forces could not be stopped by their commanders, orders went out to form blocking detachments that were able to gather up troops and send them back in order to establish new defensive positions. This is something usually encountered with descriptions of the Battle of Stalingrad, but blocking detachments were regularly used since 1941. They were made up of dependable Red Army soldiers (or later on NKVD personnel) and contributed to limiting panic in the rear and retreat from the frontlines without authorization. Zamulin also presents numerous after action reports that are highly critical of the actions of Soviet commanders. Seeing these inadequacies shows how much rank and file Red Army soldiers had to overcome to achieve victory. Not only did Soviet forces face the professionalism of the Wehrmacht but also, at times, the gross neglect of their wellbeing by their own commanders who occasionally could not properly organize reconnaissance, establish communication with artillery and aviation for mutual support, or succeed in utilizing flanking maneuvers where head-on assaults were an obvious death sentence.

Finally, one must mention that this work is available to western readers thanks to the efforts of translators like Stuart Britton who continues to translate and make available invaluable memoirs and now operational studies from the Red Army to help contextualize the Eastern Front for a western audience. While there are minor mistakes throughout the book, and considering that this is a 630 page monograph (including 560 pages of text) some would simply be unavoidable, they will not detract from the overall reading experience that Zamulin has created. Although limited to the southern face of the Kursk operation, this is a highly recommended text for those who are interested in an in-depth and the most objective analysis to date of the German-Soviet encounter around Prokhorovka.

1 comment:

Vassily Korman said...

Wonderful book and a real treat for any EF buff, but the title is seriously misleading (Zamulin ain't demolishing any myth, in fact it the German side that comes out somehow redimensioned)
Great site, keep up with this good job!