Epic battle that became a slaughterhouse of tanks

From the turret of his Panzer tank, Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the notorious German foreign minister, peered through the purple pall of the enemy’s smokescreen.

The deployment of smoke shells was a clear warning that Russian armour was approaching and it wasn’t long before they hoved into view.

‘What I saw left me speechless,’ he recalled. ‘From beyond the shallow rise about 150-200 yards in front of me appeared 15, then 30, then 40 tanks. Finally there were too many to count. The T-34s were rolling towards us at high speed, carrying mounted infantry.’

Soon Von Ribbentrop’s panzer was engulfed, engaging with enemy tanks as close as ten metres away. Turrets were blown into the air as its high-velocity 75mm armour-piercing shells hit stationary Russian T-34 tanks at point-blank range.

Burning enemy tanks ran into, and over, one another. ‘It was,’ noted the German, ‘a total inferno of smoke and fire, impacting shells and explosions. T-34s blazed, while the wounded tried to crawl away to the sides.’ That day’s fighting on July 12, 1943, was the bloodiest confrontation in the Battle of Kursk, the biggest armoured clash in history.

Red army soldiers and Soviet T-34 tanks on the attack during the battle of Kursk in World War II

A NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group takes part in Silver Arrow military drill in Adazi, Latvia

A NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group takes part in Silver Arrow military drill in Adazi, Latvia

Adjectives can’t do justice to its scale: The Wehrmacht had deployed no fewer than 518,000 men and 2,500 tanks in a bid to halt the Russian advance around the city of Kursk. Ranged against them was an even more daunting 1.4 million Soviet soldiers and almost 5,000 tanks.

In this, the 80th anniversary year of the battle that decisively pushed the Nazis back from the eastern front, German panzers — in the form of the excellent Leopard IIs — are about to meet a new generation of Russian tanks on the same Ukrainian steppe. 

Under huge pressure from his Nato allies, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has donated 14 Leopards to the Ukrainians, and allowed other countries such as Poland to do the same. 

Britain and America are also sending modern battle tanks — 14 Challenger IIs and 30 Abrams M1s — and by spring, Ukraine could have as many as 200 Western tanks. The Kremlin reviled the move as ‘blatant provocation’, promising that Nato tanks will ‘burn like all the rest’.

Putin himself recalled the spectre of history. ‘It’s unbelievable but true,’ he said last week. ‘We are once again being threatened by German Leopard tanks with crosses on them. And again they are going to fight Russia on Ukrainian soil.’

Undoubtedly, what we are about to witness in the Ukrainian war is a sobering echo of a battlefield clash of the titans that has resounded down the decades.

The rhetoric shows the tactical esteem in which tanks are still held — and how vital they remain for land-based warfare.

In 1943, a similar hope was vested in two new German panzers: the medium Mark V ‘Panther’ and heavy Mark VI ‘Tiger’. The Tiger could penetrate a T-34’s armour from a mile away, while its own 4 in armour was thick enough to withstand a T-34’s 76mm gun except at very close range.

But the Tiger had weaknesses: it was slow, cumbersome and unreliable, and drank fuel. It was also expensive to produce, and in short supply.

The year had started badly for the Germans with the surrender of General Paulus’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad in late January. Further Russian advances culminated in the capture of the city of Kursk in eastern Ukraine on February 8.

Hitler was determined to strike back. Unlike at Stalingrad, however, he did not travel to Ukraine to direct operations personally. Instead, from his famous Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia, he told his senior commanders that ‘one never knew if the Russians might not be near the end of their strength’.

Germany delivers its first Leopard tanks to Slovakia, in Bratislava

Germany delivers its first Leopard tanks to Slovakia, in Bratislava

Polish army train soldiers work on the newly donated Leopard tanks

Polish army train soldiers work on the newly donated Leopard tanks

To test that theory, he ordered a counter-attack to pinch out the huge ‘salient’ or ‘bulge’ in the Russian line at Kursk. The plan — codenamed Citadel — was to attack the northern and southern flanks of the bulge, surround the five Russian armies within, and retake Kursk.

If successful, it would rival the most famous double envelopment battle in history — Hannibal’s victory over a Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC — and restore Germany’s position on the Eastern Front by straightening the line and destroying the main concentration of Soviet armies. The Führer, noted his Luftwaffe adjutant, was ‘confident and expected victory’.

Unfortunately for Hitler, the Russians had other ideas. Informed by spies that an attack was imminent, they had built five main defensive ‘belts’ around the salient and Kursk itself, with another three behind.

These consisted of a web of minefields, anti-tank ditches, trenches and machine-gun emplacements, with all artillery pieces and rockets assigned to anti-tank defence. The combined depth of these zones was 25 miles.

At 5am on July 5, the operation opened with a 50-minute German artillery bombardment that fired more shells than the campaigns to conquer Poland and northern France combined. 

It was followed by simultaneous attacks on the northern and southern flanks of the salient by the German 9th and 4th Panzer Armies respectively. Spearheading the assault in the north were infantry divisions with assault guns and heavy tanks.

For tank crews, armoured warfare was a hellish experience. There were typically four to five: commander, main gunner, loader, driver and machine gunner who doubled as the radio operator.

In combat, with the hatches sealed, the tank was roasting hot, claustrophobic and very loud — a squeaking washing machine on full spin. The main fear was that in the event of a hit, the vehicle would catch fire — ‘brew up’, in military slang — igniting the ammunition, in which case it was a desperate lunge to get out through the top or an escape hatch below. Some crews could be burnt alive.

Infantry, like Raimund Rüffer, a 20-year-old lieutenant of the 78th Assault Division, marched alongside the tanks. He recalled the zip of bullets around him: ‘I could hear them flying past my ears. I expected to be cut down any moment or blown to smithereens by the shells that slammed about. This was not my first action but it felt like it.’

Soviet soldiers walk and drive past a burning T-34 medium tank during the Battle of Kursk

Soviet soldiers walk and drive past a burning T-34 medium tank during the Battle of Kursk

Red Army T-34 tanks advancing during the Battle of Prokhorovka in July 1943

Red Army T-34 tanks advancing during the Battle of Prokhorovka in July 1943

As he moved to help a stricken comrade, Rüffer saw a Russian pop up from a camouflaged trench. He dropped to one knee and fired, sending a round ‘hurtling towards a faceless Soviet soldier’. Instantly a bullet came back, striking him in the shoulder, shattering the bone and leaving him ‘gasping for air’.

The fighting continued for six long days. In the end the 9th Army knocked out 526 Russian tanks and lost just 77 of its own.

But the northern attack failed to break through the extensive Russian defences and, on July 10, the 9th Army commander called a temporary halt to the offensive. It was never resumed because two days later the Russians launched a long-planned counter-offensive, Operation ‘Kutuzov’.

The German pincer to the south also faced stiff resistance. But its attacks were spearheaded by Tigers and Panthers that eventually broke through the first two defensive belts.

One Russian tankman, Vladimir Alexeev, recalled a Tiger firing at his T-34 from a distance of 1km: ‘His first shot blew a hole in the side of my tank, the second hit my axle. At a range of half a kilometre I fired at him with a special calibre shell, but it bounced off him like a candle.’ He fired again at 300 yards, to no effect. As the Tiger’s gun turned towards him, Alexeev told his driver to reverse at speed and find a hiding place.

On the fifth day of the battle in the south, the leading panzers had advanced 20 miles to the river Psel, the last natural obstacle before Kursk. But mechanical breakdowns — particularly of Panthers whose numbers fell from 200 to 48 — meant that II SS Panzer Corps was forging ahead alone.

After a short pause to secure its flanks, the SS panzers continued their drive north-east towards the Ukrainian village of Prokhorovka, setting the scene for the great armoured clash with the Russian 5th Tank Army on July 12.

Rudolf von Ribbentrop led his company of panzers — from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division — down a forward slope until he spotted the first Russian T-34s, trying to get around his left flank. He ordered his tanks to stop and open fire at a range of 800 yards. A number of T-34s burst into flames.

At his back, Von Ribbentrop had 345 panzers and self-propelled guns of the II SS Panzer Corps, as well as German tank ace SS-Untersturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann — who was later killed in Normandy in 1944 — whose platoon was about to stop 100 Russian tanks in their tracks.

But pouring forth was an avalanche of twice as many armoured fighting vehicles (mainly T-34s and T-70s) of the Russian 5th Guards Tank Army. ‘Tank after tank!’ Von Ribbentrop wrote. ‘Wave after wave! It was a simply unimaginable assembly, and it was moving at high speed.’

In one of the advancing T-34s was Vasili Bryukhov. ‘It wasn’t a battle,’ he recalled, ‘it was a slaughterhouse of tanks. We crawled back and forth and fired. Everything was burning. An indescribable stench hung in the air over the battlefield. Everything was enveloped in smoke, dust and fire, so it looked as if it was twilight . . . Tanks were burning, trucks were burning.’

One SS man described Russian tanks ‘streaming like rats all over the battlefield’. They were stopped by a combination of German panzers, anti-tank guns and panzergrenadiers armed with explosive charges.

A T-34 tank drives over a trench with fearful soldiers underneath

A T-34 tank drives over a trench with fearful soldiers underneath

‘My company alone,’ recalled one of the latter, ‘had destroyed 15 tanks. The Soviet armoured phalanx had been halted. The battlefield was saturated with burning and disabled tanks. Some of the stricken continued to fire on the Tigers, until they too were hit again and destroyed.’ One Russian commander said, ‘On the black, scorched earth the gutted tanks burnt like torches. It was difficult to establish which side was attacking, which was defending.’

When Vasili Bryukhov’s tank was hit, he and his crew bailed out and hid in a shell crater. He later got into another tank, but that was also knocked out. He took cover and fired at German infantry and the crews of disabled tanks.

‘That,’ he recalled, referencing the village that was to give its name the day’s battle, ‘was Prokhorovka’.

By the end of the day, the surviving Russian tanks had fallen back to their starting position. But they had prevented the Germans from capturing Prokhorovka and, that evening, alarmed by the Allied invasion of Sicily on July 10, Hitler called off the offensive so he could move reinforcements to Italy.

Soviet historians always insisted up to 400 German tanks were lost at Prokhorovka, now one of Russia’s three sacred battlefields — along with Kulikovo (on which the Mongols were defeated in 1380) and Borodino (where Napoleon was fought to a standstill in 1812).

The annihilation of Hitler’s elite panzer force is still cited in Russia today as a great turning point in World War II. In truth, the Germans destroyed many more tanks at Prokhorovka than the Russians.

According to a forthcoming book by British historian Ben Wheatley, The Panzers Of Prokhorovka, the II SS Korps lost just 14 of its 345 panzers and self-propelled guns, or four per cent of the total, on July 12. Russian tank losses were 246 of 663, almost 40 per cent.

The fighting around Kursk rumbled on deep into August. When the eastern front finally receded, accelerating towards the Third Reich, 170,000 German soldiers lay dead, wounded or were missing, an enormous toll dwarfed still by the Soviet’s 863,000.

And yet, writes Wheatley, the Russians won the battle thanks to their artillery, ‘almost impenetrable’ anti-tank defences and huge supply of replacement tanks.

Kursk did not destroy Hitler’s armoured capability, but it was still a hinge moment: the last major German offensive in the East, and one that ended in failure. Thereafter, faced with a continental war on two fronts, defeat for the Nazis was just a matter of time.

Will history repeat itself in 2023? Once again Russia’s enemy has the better German-made tanks, while Russia has the numbers. But this time the economic and military might of the West is supporting not Russia but its opponent and that, ultimately, will make the difference.

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