South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 July 2013 was Cape Town Chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, whose subject was the Battle of Kursk, which took place in July 1943, and in particular the fighting which took place at Prokhorovka in the southern part of the Kursk salient, on the 12th of July (and, as our speaker pointed out, exactly seventy years ago, almost to the day). This is where, according to many of the books written on this battle, that the “death ride of the Panzers” took place. Fact or fiction – this is what our speaker would attempt to ascertain.

Our speaker noted that he had developed an interest in the Russo-German War of 1941 to 1945 over many years and came to the conclusion that many of the histories on the subject was seriously flawed or skewed – this being the case in point with Kursk in general and Prokhorovka in particular. It also applies to many of the books on the subject, either written in, or translated into English. Prior to 1989 the greater part of the Russian historiography on the “Great Patriotic War” in general was subject to glorifying the part either ideology or Stalin played in the events surrounding the war. When it came to specific campaigns – such as Kursk – and specific battles, such as the fighting at Prokhorovka, the real events and the achievements of the military participants, remained subservient to the glorification of party and/or personality cults - first, of Stalin, and later, Khrushchev, his successor. The status quo changed only as the political ideology changed - it is only recently that the approach to writing Russian history has become more transparent. However, in terms of Russian history during the 20th century, objectivity has become a bitter bone of contention between Russian historians, researchers and academics. Over the last two decades the opening up of the secret state archives has led to revelations and reinterpretation of especially military history and the terror regime of the Stalinist period – and acrimonious mudslinging between the progressive historians on the one hand, and the conservative historians who would like to retain the status quo, on the other.

As far as the Battle of Kursk is concerned, a brief overview of the unfolding of the early stages of the war in the east is needed to put it in its proper context. The Russo-German war was fought over a huge stage, from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean, with a front of almost 5 000km. Very briefly, the war started in June 1941 with a three-pronged assault aimed at Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the north, Moscow in the centre and Rostov in the south. There were huge encirclements of Russian armies but the advance came to a halt at the onset of winter at the end of 1941, being followed by massive Russian counterattacks which pushed the Germans back from the outskirts of Moscow. The German line eventually stabilized, but with the army and its reputation of invincibility in tatters, only to be resurrected with the next German summer offensive.

In the spring of 1942, the siege of Leningrad continued while the main axis of attack shifted to the south with a two-pronged assault launched towards Stalingrad on the Volga (now Volgograd) and the Caucasus with its oilfields. The disparate goals and the Germans’ splitting of their forces contained the seeds of ultimate failure of the summer offensive as they were not mutually supporting and only served to dilute their military strength. The Caucasus Mountains were reached and the German 6th Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, but the goals were more ambitious than the means to achieve them.

The Russians had lost a huge amount of territory and vast quantities of equipment but most of their troops had managed to avoid being encircled by the Germans. This was due to the fact that the Germans did not have sufficient troops to cut off the Russian troops and so they could slip away to fight another day. The Russians could afford to replace material, but not men. In addition, the Russians had gained experience and the worst of the “political” generals had been replaced by more competent men. The Germans in the Caucasus had a very long and extremely ill-defended flank, covered by one Panzergrenadier Division and some hastily cobbled-together combat formations.

The 6th Army, commanded by Gen. Von Paulus, was bogged down in brutal house-to-house combat and his very long flanks were held by Italians, Rumanians and Hungarians, brave enough but not sufficiently trained or equipped to fight the now well-armed and –trained, as well as numerically superior, Russians massing along the flanks. Hitler would permit no retreat. The Russian Stavka (High Command) kept the Germans pinned down in Stalingrad and massed huge forces on the flanks, commanded by three very competent generals: Vatutin, Rokossovsky and Yeremenko. Massive assaults were launched against Germany’s allies from both flanks. The Axis armies broke and there was a kilometres-wide breach punched in the German front. In conjunction with this counter-attack, the Russians launched strong attacks against the German flanks in the Caucasus, virtually cutting off the German army group there.

Eventually, the Germans commenced a well-conducted retreat from the Caucasus and reached Rostov on the Don just before they were cut off by the Russians. Some of these troops were able to help Von Manstein’s troops who were trying to plug the breach in the German front. The front was defended by a number of Armee Abteilungen (ad hoc army detachments) formed from remnants of the divisions overrun by the Russians in their advance. Attempts to first supply, and then rescue, the 6th Army, failed and it surrendered due to lack of ammunition, medicine and the necessary foodstuffs. The overwhelming pressure exerted by the Soviet forces forced the Germans to slowly move back from the Don and retreat westwards. The German forces were only able to counter-attack successfully when the Soviet juggernaut ran out of steam, such as the audacious recapture of Kharkov in February/March 1943 – paradoxically, the one single German success that led indirectly to the formation of the Kursk salient – the subject of the evening’s talk.

One of the specialties of Russian tactics was the habit they had of forming bridgeheads whenever the reached a large river. These were reinforced as heavily as was possible and eventually these would be used as jumping-off points for their next advance. The German response to these was immediate counter-attacks but, for lack of sufficient troops and tanks, this did not always happen. The Kursk salient was a prime example of an ever-growing salient. The winter of 1942/1943 was spent by both sides in rebuilding shattered divisions and re-equipping the forces with artillery and tanks. Fighting continued with the Russians taking Kharkov and losing it again. This happened during the time of General Winter but everything stopped with the advent of General Mud in the spring of 1943.

The Russians began to plan their summer offensive and Von Manstein planned a spoiling attack to cut off the Kursk salient as this would release many divisions urgently needed to strengthen the front. Manstein wanted to attack as soon as possible from both the north and the south, but Hitler and Zeitzler wanted to wait for the complete re-equipment of the army, but the heavy Panzer units. Considerable discussions took place between Von Manstein and Model on the one side and Von Kluge, Hitler and Zeitzler on the other. Guderian was not really interested as he was fully occupied in bringing the Panzer Divisions up to strength. Hitler had valid reasons for the attack – realizing that Allied forces would be able to land in France only in 1944; he would be able to use the resources of the occupied territories for a while longer. Prisoners taken would add to the number of slave labourers to be used in industry and thus releasing more manpower to offset the military losses.

The Kursk salient consisted of rolling countryside rather similar to the area around Caledon and Bredasdorp but with many balkas (dongas, to use the South African equivalent). The Russians guessed that the Germans would try to destroy the salient and so heavily reinforced the area. Stalin felt that the Germans would move against Moscow. British Intelligence had discovered that the Germans were planning an attack at Kursk and this information, picked up by Ultra, was sent to Stalin via the Red Orchestra spy ring in Switzerland. Stalin did not really believe this information but the reinforcement of the salient proceeded. Five layered lines of defence were constructed, one behind the other, at the base of the salient both to the north and to the south. There were huge minefields all over the base of the salient. Vast forces of artillery were dug in and powerful tank and mechanized forces were available for counterattack. More armies were held in reserve outside the salient, including tank armies, and a very large proportion of Russia’s air force was available for air support. The artillery included massed antitank regiments and many captured guns, including 88mm guns in three batteries. Zhukov was in overall command with Rokossovsky and Vatutin as field commanders. Other top generals available were Katukov and Rostmistrov, two armoured commanders of note. By July 4, both sides had crammed men and equipment into an area about 240km wide and 160km deep. Soviet forces consisted of 1.3 million men, 3,444 tanks, 2,900 aircraft, and 19,000 guns while the Wehrmacht concentrated 900,000 troops, 2,700 tanks, 2,000 aircraft, and 10,000 guns (more tanks on the German side than was available for Operation Barbarossa in 1941).

The battle was initiated by Luftwaffe attacks on factories and stores dumps in the rear areas and the Russians retaliated with attacks on the German rear areas. On the 25th June the Russians launched a heavy attack in the Voronezh area but this was held. Fuel shortages due to widespread partisan activity continually dogged the German forces and the frontline troops complained of lack of air support. The German rear areas were under such constant partisan attack that interdiction of railway lines by the Soviet Air Force became superfluous. Over 500 000 German troops were involved in anti-partisan operations – manpower that could have been put to better use elsewhere.

The main German attack started on 4 July 1943 with an intense artillery barrage, which was answered later in the day by a massive Russian barrage. There was considerable aerial activity with both sides using fighters, bombers and ‘Stukas’ (and its Russian counterpart the Shturmovik).

Army Group Centre under Field-Marshal von Kluge commanded the northern attack by the Germans. The army used was the 9th Army under Col-Gen Walter Model with five Corps (20th, 23rd, 41st, 46th and 47th) – the last three being Panzer Corps led by Generals Harpe, Zorn and Lemelsen. These attacked more or less in a line abreast, reminiscent of World War One tactics, and due to the fact that the allotted 45 Tiger (which only became available on the 6th) and 90 Ferdinand heavy tanks were split into penny packets between the Panzer and infantry divisions, the Russians were able to contain the assault with the help of timely reinforcements.

Army Group South under Field-Marshal von Manstein commanded the southern attack, using 4th Panzer Army under Col-Gen Hoth with its two Panzer Corps (48th and 2nd SS Panzer Corps commanded by Gens von Knobelsdorff and Hausser respectively) and the Army Detachment Kempf with 3rd Panzer Corps under Gen Breith, Corps Raus (incl. 2 Inf. Divisions) and 42nd Corps under Gen Mattenklott (incl. 3 Inf. Divisions). The attack in the south made good progress with its armour concentrated a la Guderian’s well-known armoured doctrine of concentration of power. Hoth’s 48th and 2nd SS Panzer Corps made good progress penetrating 10km on the first day. Kempff’s Army Detachment was less successful due to the number of bridgeheads formed, the broken nature of the terrain, exacerbated by heavy Soviet resistance. Vatutin moved armoured reinforcements into the area and Hoth’s and Kempff’s forces were separated from one another by the Voronezh front – of critical importance as Kempf’s forces were tasked with protecting the right flank of the 4th Panzer Army.

At this point, our speaker showed us a video of Russian origin, giving the Russian point of view with English subtitles. The video was, contrary to expectations, objective and reflected the latest findings and viewpoints on Kursk and Prokhorovka internationally. The defence by the Russians was fierce, with a large part of the Soviet Eastern Front troops involved. It was noted that two Fronts, those of Rokossovsky in the north and Vatutin in the south, were defending the salient with Konev’s Reserve Front of some 40 divisions just outside the salient and with huge forces of artillery.

By the 11th July, Hoth’s forces were approaching Prokhorovka, the defence of which was taken over by Zhukov and Vassilevsky on orders of the Stavka (High Command). In the north, the Soviet Bryansk and Western Fronts began to probe the German defences in the Orel region and on 12 July launched an offensive, which effectively put an end of the German offensive in the north.

In the south on 12 July, the German advance on Prokhorovka was counterattacked by Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army which stormed at the Panzers. The main Russian (medium) tank used was the well-known T-34, as well as the light tank T-70, far too light to face Tigers, Panthers, or even the ubiquitous Mk IV with its excellent 75mm gun. The early models of the T-34 were poorly designed and only a few had radios while all German tanks had these. The German operational strategy was to render Russian tank units ineffective by always knocking out all radio-equipped tanks first. The average combat life of a T-34 tank was one week and the tank crews in the years up to the end of 1943, were not well-trained. The T-34’s excellent ballistic design was offset by poor interior design, lack of crew comfort, poor functional responsibilities (labour division) and poor optics, which necessitated the T34s to have to get pretty close to the heavy German tanks to be able to have any chance of success. As a result 50% of Rotmistrov’s tanks were destroyed. Stalin was incensed and Rotmistrov was fortunate in not being shot for incompetence. Russian tanks improved in quality and Rotmistrov ended up as one of Russia’s best tank commanders. More reserves in the form of 5th Guards (Infantry) Army came up and, after heavy losses1; the Russians held the German attack. The Russians had a very low opinion of the USA/UK tanks supplied through lend-lease.

Prokhorovka was a tactical defeat for the Russians but a strategic victory overall. For the Germans Prokhorovka was a tactical victory, but Kursk was a strategic defeat as they would forthwith be fighting defensive battles on the Eastern Front up to the fall of Berlin. The Soviet offensive at Orel and the need to use the German strategic reserve for Citadel in the north to try and stop the Russian juggernaut; another Soviet offensive in the south along the Mius River front that threatened the vital Donbas region; and not so much the invasion of Sicily, rather led to Hitler suspending the offensive. The allotted Kursk divisions had to do ”Fire Brigade“ duties elsewhere on the front as Soviet numerical superiority began to tell. The Soviets had by mid-1943 mastered the skill of launching multiple offensives all along the front to keep the pressure on the numerically inferior German forces. Only superior operational tactics staved off total collapse for the Wehrmacht.

The video shown by our speaker showed the fighting from the Russian point of view but was honest in admitting that they had been hard hit by the Germans and had been outgunned. All the earlier books on the subject talk about large numbers of Tiger tanks being present but actually there were very few and the Russian tank forces hugely outnumbered the Germans.2 Our speaker showed us a number of slides of the area around Prokhorovka which gave a good idea of the terrain in which the battle had been fought. To understand the clash of armour, it is necessary to understand the corridor in which the fighting took place. To imagine the battlefield, imagine a rhomboid slanting to the right: The left edge (west) is delineated by the Psel River valley and the corresponding Psel heights on the westerns side of the river that dominates the corridor; on the right (eastern side) the Prokhorovka-Belgorod railway and its high embankment forms a physical barrier that determines the battlefield, roughly 9km wide east to west; to the north is the corridor opening up into the rural hinterland beyond the headwaters of the northern Donets River, with Prokhorovka situated in the uppermost right-hand corner, and in the south the line held by the Leibstandarte Panzergrendiers. The other two SS Panzergrenadier Divisions covered the Leibstandarte’s flanks – the Das Reich astride the railway and embankment in the east, and the Totenkopf on the Psel heights in the west. In the centre the battlefield was dissected by an anti-tank ditch and a deep balka from east to west, which enabled the defence of the sector with only two points suitable for the passage of armoured vehicles – in the west close to the railway embankment, and in the east close to the Psel River. The German losses were not heavy with about 17 tanks knocked out of 63 deployed and some 520 Russian tanks deployed of which approximately 160 tanks were knocked out. The terms “knocked out” is used in lieu of “destroyed” – recovered tanks were often repaired after the battle to be combat-ready again the next day. From the Leibstandarte’s tank strength returns for the 11th and the 12th of July it was clear that only some 17 were knocked out of 63 deployed (total losses not clear, but believed to be about 7 tanks) – of the other two SS divisions Das Reich had a net gain of 8 “repossessed” T-34s and Totenkopf a net loss of 45 tanks due to mines and strong Soviet anti-tank fronts on the Psel heights. On the left (western) shoulder the strongest division was Grossdeutschland which had a Panther brigade (119 tanks) attached of which 65% were lost by the 12th of July – many due to mechanical problems for being rushed into battle before all the teething problems were sorted out. There were not many Tiger tanks at Prokhorovka – on the 12th only the 2nd SS Panzer Corps possessed them: Leibstandarte - 4 (one lost on the 12th); Totenkopf – 10 (all lost on the 12th due to mine and AT damage) and Das Reich – 2 (one lost on the 12th). As stated previously, only the 501st Heavy Tank Detachment on the right flank had 45 Tiger Is (also parcelled out amongst the infantry).

He then discussed some of the many books written about the battle. The official Soviet histories were at best propaganda but were accepted as gospel truth – also in the West. Russian official records were only opened to researchers - both in Russia itself and elsewhere - in the 1990’s and only now are well-researched and accurate accounts of this battle being produced. Some of the books published in English were factually incorrect and some of those translated from Russian were biased and mostly propaganda. The most accurate attempts to set the record straight and demystify the battle is lately due to the diligent research of so-called “amateur” historians and some of the most inaccurate renderings and perpetuation of the myth flowed from the pens of so-called “professional” historians, not so much in the USA, but mostly in the UK. For the sake of brevity, only the salient aspects of the “Myth of Prokhorovka” will be listed as portrayed in about 80% of readily-available books on, or touching on the subject (mainly English & German texts):

Up to Stalingrad the Germans had appeared as invincible but after Stalingrad many Germans became worried about the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front. Defensive victories were won but after Kursk the Germans only managed to achieve a number of operational victories through skilfully executed local counter-offensives against an increasingly efficient Soviet Army but it was becoming clear that the ultimate defeat of the German armed forces - was only a matter of time.

The treasurer Bob Buser thanked our chairman, Johan van den Berg, for a well-researched and interesting talk on a cataclysmic battle not very well known to us here in South Africa and presented him with the customary gift.

1 Russian tank output amounted to 2,500 units per month – approx. 30,000 T-34s were produced in 1943, while the total output to 1945 amounted to over 90,000 T-34s! It should be noted that American assistance (Lend-lease) to the Russians was immense and diverse – aircraft, tanks, food, weapons, ammunition, boots, Jeeps (over 40,000) and, especially trucks, over 360 000 of them! US government largesse to the Soviet Union amounted to over 9 trillion US Dollars – which was never paid for and written off in 1949.

2  In fact, it was fewer in number than present at a little-known battle that took place between the French and the Germans in 1940. At Gembloux, in Belgium, on May 14-15, two full-strength Panzer divisions (each with about 300 tanks) clashed with two full-strength French Light Mechanized Divisions (each with about 260 tanks). Our speaker covered the specific clash in a lecture on the Fall of France, to the Society in May 2010.



Major Heitman’s annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned – this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the dramatic turn of events in Central Africa as far as the deployment of South African military forces are concerned. With the emphasis falling on the South African deployment to the Central African Republic, Major Heitman will also cover the following hot points/operational theatres of interest:  The French intervention in Mali; the re-hatting of the South African battalion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to be a part of the Intervention Brigade; the South African deployments in Darfur and the Mozambique Channel: An overview and a prognosis.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /