Battle of Prokhorovka
The Battle of Prokhorovka was fought on 12 July 1943 near Prokhorovka, 87 kilometres (54 mi) southeast of Kursk, in the Soviet Union, during the Second World War. Taking place on the Eastern Front, the fighting was part of the wider Battle of Kursk, and occurred when the 5th Guards Tank Army of the Soviet Red Army attacked the II SS-Panzer Corps of the German Wehrmacht in one of the largest tank battles in military history.[j]
On 5 July 1943, the German high command launched Operation Citadel with the aim of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. The Soviet high command, Stavka, had been forewarned of the German intentions, and employed a defence in depth strategy, preparing a series of defensive lines along the routes of the planned German attack. On the southern side of the salient, the German 4th Panzer Army, with Army Detachment Kempf on its eastern flank, attacked the Soviet defences of the Voronezh Front. The Soviets also massed several armies as the Steppe Front, which included the 5th Guards Tank Army, deep behind their defences, which they intended to use to launch their own counteroffensives once the German strength had dissipated.
A week into the German offensive, the Soviets launched powerful counterattacks against the attackers. In the southern side of the salient at Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army attacked the II SS-Panzer Corps of the 4th Panzer Army, resulting in a large clash of armour just outside the settlement on 12 July 1943. The 5th Guards Tank Army was decimated in the attack, but succeeded in preventing the Germans from capturing Prokhorovka and breaking through the third defensive belt to achieve operational freedom. Subsequently, the German offensive was cancelled and their forces withdrawn. The Red Army went on a general offensive and seized the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, which it was to hold for the rest of the war.
- 1 Background
- 2 Planning
- 3 Opposing forces
- 4 Battle
- 5 Following the main engagement
- 6 Casualties and losses
- 7 Outcome
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
As the spring rasputitsa season came to an end in 1943, both the German and Soviet commands considered their plans for future operations. Stalin and some senior Soviet officers wanted to seize the initiative and attack the German forces inside the Soviet Union, but they were convinced by a number of key commanders, including the Deputy Supreme Commander Georgiy Zhukov, to assume a defensive posture instead. This would allow the Germans to weaken themselves in attacking prepared positions, after which the Soviet forces would be able to reposture and go on the offensive. A similar strategy discussion occurred on the German side, with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, arguing for a mobile defence that would give up terrain and allow the Soviets to advance, while the Germans launched a series of sharp counterattacks against their flanks to inflict heavy attrition. For political reasons Hitler insisted that the German forces go on the offensive, choosing the Kursk salient for the attack.
The German offensive plan, called Unternehmen Zitadelle ("Operation Citadel"), envisioned an assault at the base of the Kursk salient from both the north and south, with the intent of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces in the salient. The two spearheads were to meet near Kursk. From the south, the XLVIII Panzer Corps and General Paul Hausser's II SS-Panzer Corps, forming the left and right wings of the 4th Panzer Army commanded by Colonel General Hermann Hoth, would drive northward. The III Panzer Corps of Army Detachment Kempf was to protect Hoth's right flank from counterattack by the Soviet strategic reserves known to be located just east of the salient. The 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf were under Army Group South, commanded by Manstein; and their air support was provided by Colonel General Otto Deßloch's Luftflotte 4.
Multiple delays by the Germans allowed the Soviets a great deal of time to prepare their defences. Employing defence in depth, they constructed a series of defensive lines to wear down the attacking panzer formations. Six belts made up of extensive minefields, anti-tank ditches, and anti-tank gun emplacements were created, although the last three belts were mostly unoccupied and less fortified than the first three. The Voronezh Front, commanded by General Nikolai Vatutin, defended the southern face of the salient. The Steppe Front, commanded by Colonel General Ivan Konev, formed the strategic reserve force to be held deep behind the front until it was needed for the Soviet counteroffensive. It included Lieutenant General Alexei Zhadov's 5th Guards Army and Lieutenant General Pavel Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army.
German advance leading up to Prokhorovka
The Germans launched their attack on the morning of 5 July 1943 and were met with heavy resistance. The density of Soviet anti-tank guns, minefields, anti-tank ditches and large numbers of Soviet tanks were all much greater than had been anticipated, and made a breakthrough far more difficult to achieve. By the end of 6 July, II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced through the first defensive belt and reached the second. But its advance was greatly behind schedule, as according to the Citadel plan it should have penetrated the first two belts and been on its way to the third by the end of the first day. The corps benefited from close air support provided by the Luftflotte 4's VIII Fliegerkorps, commanded by General Hans Seidemann, whose aircraft helped destroy Soviet strong points and artillery positions. To the southeast, III Panzer Corps had great difficulty crossing the Northern Donets River on 5 July. They eventually formed a bridgehead across by the morning of 6 July, but stubborn Soviet resistance meant they were unable to protect the east flank of the II SS-Panzer Corps.
On the evening of 6 July, the 5th Guards Tank and the 5th Guards Armies of the Steppe Front began moving up from their reserve position, travelling at night to avoid detection. The 5th Guards Tank Army covered the 390 kilometres (240 mi) over three nights, and arrived at the Prokhorovka area on the night of 9 July, and the 5th Guards Army's 33rd Guards Rifle Corps arrived at the settlement on the night of 10 July.
On 8 July, the slow progress by the XLVIII Panzer Corps caused Hoth to shift elements of the II SS-Panzer Corps to link up with and help the panzer corps regain the momentum towards Oboyan and Kursk. The same day, the Soviets launched powerful counterattacks against the II SS-Panzer Corps with several tank corps. These failed to destroy the II SS-Panzer Corps as hoped, but succeeded in greatly slowing its progress. By the end of 8 July, II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced about 29 kilometres (18 mi) and broken through the first and second defensive belts. Starting on the morning of 10 July, the full effort of the II SS-Panzer Corps was shifted back to its own forward progress, away from Oboyan due north, to the northeast toward the town of Prokhorovka. Hoth had discussed this move with Manstein in early May, as they expected an eventual arrival of large Soviet armoured forces in the Prokhorovka area. The plan originally envisioned elements of XLVIII Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps joining in the attack towards Prokhorovka, but this could not be realized.
Soviet intelligence reports issued from 8 to 9 July indicated that defensive works were being constructed by German infantry all along the flanks of 4th Panzer Army and that German armoured formations could not be spotted on the flanks despite armoured counterattacks that should have provoked their appearance. The Voronezh Front headquarters concluded that the Germans were reaching their limit, and hence it decided on a major counteroffensive as the next course of action.
On morning of 11 July, the II SS-Panzer Corps continued its attack toward Prokhorovka. In the ensuing attacks, its 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler had the most success, penetrating the Soviet defences manned by the 2nd Tank Corps, which had been reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 301st Anti-tank Artillery Regiment, both from the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps. They cleared Soviet resistance at the "October" state farm (Russian: Совхоз Октябрьский), crossed a 15-foot (4.6 m)-deep antitank ditch at the base of Hill 252.2 and seized the hill itself after a brief but bloody battle. North of Leibstandarte, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf failed to expand their bridgehead across the Psel River or capture Hill 226.6, which were defended by the 31st Tank Corps, the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps' 95th Guards Rifle Division, and the 10th Tank Corps' 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To the south, the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and the 48th Rifle Corps' 183rd Rifle Division repelled the attack of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich.
By day's end on 11 July Leibstandarte had advanced deep into the Soviet third defensive belt and was only 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) from Prokhorovka, but its flanks were exposed, as there was a 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) gap between it and Totenkopf, and Das Reich lagged behind by 4 kilometres (2.5 mi). Throughout 11 July, the 5th Guards Tank Army organized itself around Prokhorovka as it prepared for its forthcoming counteroffensive. But Leibstandarte 's advance disrupted some of these preparations by capturing the 5th Guards Tank Army's planned artillery positions and assembly areas, forcing Rotmistrov to hastily revise his plans and select new positions.
German plans for 12 July
Late on the evening of 11 July, General Paul Hausser, the commander of the II SS-Panzer Corps, issued orders for a classic manoeuvre battle for the following day's advance on Prokhorovka. It was known that the Soviets had dug in many anti-tank guns on the west slopes of Prokhorovka, making a direct attack by Leibstandarte very difficult. The plan was for Totenkopf to capture Hill 226.6, and advance northeast along the Psel river to the Kartashёvka-Prokhorovka road, and then strike southeast into the flank and rear of Soviet forces at Prokhorovka. Leibstandarte was ordered to nudge forward and secure Storozhevoe and Lamki just outside Prokhorovka, then it and Das Reich were to wait until Totenkopf 's attack had disrupted the Soviet positions, after which Leibstandarte was to attack the main Soviet defences on the west slope of Prokhorovka. To Leibstandarte 's right, Das Reich was to advance eastward to the high ground south of Prokhorovka, then turn south away from Prokhorovka to roll up the Soviet defences and force a gap. The VIII Fliegerkorps was to make their main effort in support of the advance of the II SS-Panzer Corps, with the XLVIII Panzer Corps to the west assigned limited air resources.
Unbeknownst to Hausser, on the night of 11 July Rotmistrov had moved his 5th Guards Tank Army to an assembly area just south of Prokhorovka in preparation for a massive armoured attack the following day. Throughout the night, German frontline troops could hear the ominous sounds of Soviet tank engines to the east as the 18th and 29th Tank Corps moved into their assembly areas.
Soviet plans for 12 July
The 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army of the Steppe Front had been brought up from reserve and reassigned to the Voronezh Front on 8 and 11 July respectively. On 11 July Vatutin ordered that the following day the armies of the Voronezh Front were to go over onto the offensive along the entire front of the southern salient. This counterattack was planned to be in concert with the Soviet Operation Kutuzov in the northern side of the Kursk Salient. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to destroy the German forces near Prokhorovka with his 5th Guards Tank Army, without allowing the Germans to withdraw southwards.
For the battle, Rotmistrov ordered his tanks to move forward at speed to engage the German armour in order to nullify the advantages the Tiger tanks had in the range and firepower of their 88 mm guns. He believed the more manoeuvrable T-34 would be able to quickly close and obtain effective flanking shots against the German heavy tanks. In fact, Soviet intelligence had greatly overestimated the numbers of Ferdinands and Tigers possessed by the II SS-Panzer Corps.[k] In actuality there were no Ferdinands with the 4th Panzer Army, as they were all deployed in the northern side of the Kursk salient with the 9th Army.
Late on the night of 11 July, the III Panzer Corps crossed the Northern Donets at Rzhavets. This jeopardised Rotmistrov's entire plan by threatening the flank of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Early on 12 July, Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to send reinforcements to the Soviet 7th Guards and 69th Armies facing the III Panzer Corps. He organised a task force under the command of his deputy, Major General Kuzma Trufanov, which consisted of the 26th Tank Brigade from the 2nd Guards Tank Corps, the 11th and 12th Guards Mechanized Brigades from the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps, and the 53rd Guards Tank Regiment of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Other units of the Voronezh Front also joined the group on its way south. In doing so Rotmistrov had committed over half of his reserves to an essential ad-hoc advance before the Battle of Prokhorovka began.
Soviet air support in the southern side of the salient was provided by the 2nd Air Army and the 17th Air Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Stepan Krasovsky and Lieutenant General Vladimir Sudets, respectively. However, the bulk of the air support was committed in support of Soviet units attacking XLVIII Panzer Corps to the west of Prokhorovka and the III Panzer Corps to the southeast, and only limited numbers of aircraft were available to support 5th Guards Tank Army's attack.
The German forces involved in the Battle of Prokhorovka were from the three Waffen-SS divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps: Leibstandarte, Das Reich, and Totenkopf. On the evening of 11 July, the serviceable armour strength of the II SS-Panzer Corps was 294 tanks and assault guns, which included 15 Tigers. The armoured strength of Leibstandarte, Das Reich, and Totenkopf were 77, 95, and 122 tanks and assault guns respectively. Ten of the Tigers were to the north of the Psel river with Totenkopf, four were with Leibstandarte, and Das Reich had just one.
Leibstandarte had advanced the most deeply towards Prokhorovka and was situated in the centre of the German position. A railway line, with a 30-feet high railbed, divided the area of Leibstandarte division north and south. The bulk of the division was positioned to the north of the rail line, including the division's 1st SS-Panzer Regiment and 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment, as well as its reconnaissance, artillery and command units. To the south of the rail line was Leibstandarte 's 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment, along with the division's 1st SS-Panzerjäger battalion. Das Reich was positioned to the southeast of Leibstandarte, and it protected the southern flank of the II SS-Panzer Corps. Totenkopf was positioned to the northwest of Leibstandarte. The division's 3rd SS-Panzer regiment had largely crossed over the river Psel in preparation for the assault. Leibstandarte placed its lightly armed 1st SS-Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion in the 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) gap between it and Totenkopf, together with the division's four remaining Tigers, which were commanded by SS-Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann, to provide some flank protection.
The main Soviet armoured formation involved in the battle was the 5th Guards Tank Army, which controlled five corps by 12 July: the 2nd Guards, 2nd, 5th Guards Mechanized, 18th and 29th Tank Corps. All together they fielded 793 tanks and 37 to 57 self-propelled guns for a total of approximately 840 armoured fighting vehicles. About two-thirds of these tanks were T-34s, while the remainder were T-70 light tanks, with some 31 to 35 Churchill heavy tanks as well. Not all of the 5th Guards Tank Army was present in the Prokhorovka area during the battle, as part of the formation had been sent south to check the advance of the III Panzer Corps. The Soviet armour of the 5th Guards Tank Army – including the newly attached 2nd Guards Tank Corps[b] and 2nd Tank Corps[c], as well as the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps[d] held in reserve – facing the II SS-Panzer Corps on 12 July was about 616 tanks and self-propelled guns. In addition, five artillery regiments, one artillery brigade, and one anti-aircraft artillery division were attached to the 5th Guards Tank Army for the assault.
The main attack of the the 5th Guards Tank Army was conducted against Leibstandarte by its fresh 29th and 18th Tank Corps that had been brought up from the Soviet strategic reserve. These two Soviet tank formations together provided the greatest number of tanks in the attack, with the 18th Tank Corps fielding 190 tanks and self-propelled guns, and the 29th Tank Corps fielding 212 tanks and self-propelled guns. Infantry support to the 18th and 29th Tank Corps was provided by the 9th Guards Airborne Division. A portion of the 18th Tank Corps was directed against the eastern flank of Totenkopf 's Regiment "Eicke". On the southeastern wing of the 5th Guards Tank Army, Rotmistrov deployed the remaining forces of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps that were not sent south, which numbered about 80 tanks. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps, supported by the remnants of the 2nd Tank Corps, was to attack Das Reich. Their infantry support was provided by the 183rd Rifle Division. The northwestern flank of the 5th Guards Tank Army, which faced Totenkpf, was defended by the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps' 42nd and 95th Guards Rifle Divisions, supported by the remnants of the 31st Tank Corps and the heavily depleted 23rd Guards Rifle Corps' 52nd Guards Rifle Division. The forces of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps that were not sent south were held as reserve north of Prokhorovka, and they numbered about 113 tanks and self-propelled guns.
Despite having suffered significant losses over the previous week's fighting, on 12 July the 2nd Air Army still had some 472 aircraft operational, while the 17th Air Army had 300 remaining operational aircraft; however, only a few of these were made available to support the 5th Guards Tank Army.
At 05:45 on 12 July, Leibstandarte 's headquarters started receiving reports from its troops, of the sound of many tank engines as the Soviet tanks moved into their assembly areas for the attack. At around 06:50, elements of Leibstandarte 's 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment nudged forward and drove the Soviet infantry out of Storozhevoe, while the bulk of Leibstandarte waited to commence their main task for the day. The Soviets began a preparatory artillery barrage at around 08:00, and as the last shells fell at 08:30, Rotmistrov radioed the code words "Stal! Stal! Stal!" ("Steel, Steel, Steel!") – the order to commence the attack. With that the Soviet armour of the 5th Guards Tank Army began their advance.
In total, about 500 tanks and self-propelled guns of the 5th Guards Tank Army attacked the positions of the II SS-Panzer Corps, doing so in two massive waves, with 430 tanks in the first echelon and 70 more in the second.
Down off the west slopes before Prokhorovka charged the massed Soviet armour of five tank brigades of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps, ineffectually firing as they came at Leibstandarte 's positions. As the Soviet tanks rolled down the slopes, they carried the men of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on their hulls. Exhausted from the previous week's fighting, the troops of Leibstandarte were just starting their day at the outset of the attack and were largely taken by surprise. As the Soviet armour appeared, several German outposts began firing purple warning flares signaling a tank attack. Obersturmbannführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop, commander of a panzer company under the 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment's 2nd Panzergrenadier Battalion, stated later that he knew at once a major attack was underway. He ordered his company of seven Panzer IVs to follow him over a bridge across an anti-tank ditch. Crossing the bridge they fanned out on the lower slope of Hill 252.2. Above them on the crest of the hill, Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper's 3rd Panzergrenadier Battalion of Leibstandarte 's 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment were being overrun. As Ribbentrop's tanks spread out, he looked up the hillside and was suddenly confronted by Soviet tanks of the 29th Tank Corp's 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades: "About 150–200 meters in front of me appeared fifteen, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there were too many of them to count." The Soviet armour, firing on the move, charged down the west slope of Hill 252.2 into the panzer company, and a hotly contested tank battle ensued.
Four of the Panzer IVs under Ribbentrop were destroyed by the time their position was overran. The three surviving tanks rode along with the advancing Soviet armour and reported to have destroyed 14 Soviet tanks from close range. Rotmistrov's tactic to close at high speed disrupted the control and co-ordination of the Soviet tank formations and also greatly reduced their accuracy. The advance of Soviet armour was held up when they reached the anti-tank ditch at the base of Hill 252.2. Some vehicles crashed into the 15-foot ditch while others moved along the edge looking for a way to cross. Heavy firing occurred between the Soviet tanks, as they searched for a route across the ditch, and the two companies of the 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Battalion on the opposite side. Meanwhile, Peiper's surviving panzergrenadiers emerged from trench lines to engage the Soviet infantry and attack the Soviet tanks with magnetic anti-tank grenades. Twenty of his battalion's half-tracks were lost in the fighting, some of which were destroyed when they attempted to ram the much heavier Soviet tanks in an effort to stop them.
Wittman's company of Tigers were confronted by racing Soviet tanks from the 18th Tank Corps' 170th and 181st Tank Brigades. In a three-hour battle, the Tigers engaged the Soviet tanks at a range of up to 1000 meters, inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet tanks, and successfully repelled the attack.
The 2nd and 17th Air Armies flew 893 sorties compared to the VIII Fliegerkorps's 654 sorties over the southern part of the salient. Of note, most of the Soviet sorties flown that day were flown against the XLVIII Panzer Corps to the west and the III Panzer Corps to the south. Low clouds in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon inhibited air operations in Prokhorovka by both sides. Over the Prokhorovka battlefield the Luftwaffe gained control of the air. Formations of Stukas, including a small number of experimental 3.7-centimetre (1.5 in) BK 37 cannon-equipped G-2 variants, commanded by Staffelkapitan Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Fw 190 fighter-bombers and Hs 129 ground-attack aircraft equipped with 3-centimetre (1.2 in) anti-tank cannon attacked the Soviet formations. The 31st Tank Brigade reported: "We suffered heavy losses in tanks through enemy artillery and aircraft. At 10:30 our tanks reached the Komsomolets State Farm, but due to continuous air attacks, they were unable to advance any further and shifted to the defence." The tank brigade also reported: "our own air cover was fully absent until 13:00." The 5th Guards Tank Army reported: "the enemy's aircraft literally hung above our combat formations throughout the entire battle, while our own aircraft, and particularly the fighter aviation, was totally insufficient."
Result of the engagement
By the end of the day, Leibstandarte still held Hill 252.2 and had lost no significant ground, but was exhausted by the struggle turning back the five brigades of the two tank corps. To its left, Totenkopf had succeeded in capturing Hill 226.6 and its panzer group had advanced along the north bank of the Psel to reach the Karteschevka-Prokhorovka road, 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) northwest of Prokhorovka. Though its hold on the forward ground was tenuous, it was in position to outflank the Soviet forces at Prokhorovka. Das Reich had been forced onto the defensive by the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and 2nd Tank Corps, along with the Soviet infantry of the 183rd Rifle Division, which precluded its own planned attack.
On the Soviet side, all the tank units under Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army involved in the battle suffered heavy losses. The Soviet attack had been repelled and Rotmistrov was forced to shift his tank army over to defence.
Following the main engagement
On the night of 12 July, Vatutin ordered the Soviet forces facing the II SS-Panzer Corps to take a defensive stance. Orders issued by the Germans for 13 July instructed Totenkopf to consolidate its gains of the previous day and then attack into the flank and rear of the Soviet forces around Prokhorovka. Leibstandarte was to strengthen its front line and co-ordinate its attack on Prokhorovka from the south with Totenkopf 's attack from the northwest. Das Reich was to consolidate and strengthen its front line and prepare for an offensive operation to link up with the III Panzer Corps.
On the morning of 13 July, the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps launched attacks against Totenkopf 's left flank. By afternoon these Soviet attacks had been beaten off, but they did prevent Totenkopf from attacking to the south toward Prokhorovka. Around noon, Leibstandarte was ordered to attack northward toward the Psel River to consolidate its front line with Totenkopf 's position. This attack confronted the defensive positions held by the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps, which had been supplemented by the remaining armour of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps. Leibstandarte 's attack was repelled. That afternoon, Totenkopf was ordered to abandon their positions northwest of Prokhorovka and return to a more defendable positions along the north bank of the Psel River. Soviet attempts to sever the salient were unsuccessful, and the unit completed its withdrawal by nightfall.
On 13 July Adolf Hitler summoned Manstein and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge to his headquarters, the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. The Allied invasion of Sicily on the night of 9–10 July combined with the Soviet counteroffensive of Operation Kutuzov against the flank and rear of Model's 9th Army on 12 July and the violent attacks by strong Soviet forces at Prokhorovka the same day had caused him to stop the offensive and shift forces to the west. He ordered his generals to terminate Operation Citadel.
Kluge welcomed the decision, as he was already in the process of withdrawing units of the 9th Army from the Kursk salient to deal with Soviet attacks on his flank. Manstein was greatly disappointed. He argued that his forces were now on the verge of achieving a major breakthrough. As he saw it, with his III Panzer Corps about to link up with the II SS-Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka, and with the XXIV Panzer Corps available as his operational reserve, they would be halting the offensive just at the moment when victory was in hand. With an eye toward the west, Hitler was unwilling to continue the offensive. Manstein persisted, proposing that his forces should at least destroy the Soviet reserves in the southern Kursk salient before Citadel was finally terminated, so the Soviet fighting capacity in the sector would be depleted for the rest of the summer. Hitler agreed to continue offensive operations in the southern salient until Manstein's goal was achieved.
Manstein hastily put together the plans for Operation Roland, realizing that he only had a few days to conduct the operation before he lost the SS-Panzer Corps. The plan called for Das Reich to attack east and south and link up with III Panzer Corps, which would attack to the northwest. Leibstandarte and Totenkopf were to anchor the left and northern flanks of Das Reich. Once the link was achieved and the Soviet forces encircled, the Soviet defence would be crippled and Prokhorovka would likely fall shortly thereafter. The goal of the operation was to destroy the Soviet armoured reserve massed in the southern sector of the Kursk salient, and thereby check Soviet offensive capacity for the rest of the summer.
The orders for Operation Roland were issued in the closing hours of 13 July 1943. However, following Hitler's meeting with Manstein, Hitler countermanded the XXIV Panzer Corps' deployment to the Kursk salient, sending them on 14 July to support the 1st Panzer Army to the south. The assault began at 0400 on 14 July. Following a brief artillery barrage, the Der Fuhrer Panzergrenadier Regiment of Das Reich struck out for the high ground south-west of Pravorot, evicting the remnants of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps from the village of Belenikhino following violent house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting. The panzer regiment of the division fought off a series of counterattacks, destroying a number of T-34s in the process, and forced the Soviets to withdraw eastwards to a new line. Zhukov ordered elements of the 10th Guards Mechanized Brigade out of reserve to reinforce the line. The 7th Panzer Division made contact with Das Reich, but Trufanov, commanding the Soviet forces in the gap, was aware of the threat and conducted a fighting withdrawal. The link-up failed to trap the Soviet forces, though they abandoned a substantial number of their anti-tank guns. Operation Roland failed to produce a decisive result for the Germans, and Totenkopf began withdrawing from its positions north of the Psel, following orders issued late on 15 July, as the II SS-Panzer Corps assumed a defensive stance.
On 17 July the Soviet Southwestern and Southern Fronts launched a major offensive across the Mius and Donets Rivers against the southern wing of Army Group South, pressing upon the 6th and 1st Panzer Armies. In the early afternoon of 17 July, Operation Roland was terminated with an order for the II SS-Panzer Corps to begin withdrawing from the Prokhorovka sector back to Belgorod. The 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf anticipated the order and began executing it as early as the evening of 16 July. Leibstandarte 's tanks were distributed between Das Reich and Totenkopf and the division was hastily redeployed to Italy, while Das Reich and Totenkopf were dispatched south to meet the new Soviet offensives.
Casualties and losses
Losses are difficult to establish for either combatant. Tank losses attributed to the Germans vary, in part due to the Wehrmacht's methodology for counting and reporting equipment losses. Only equipment that could not be repaired or that had to be abandoned were counted as losses, but damaged equipment that could be recovered and repaired were simply listed as such. Likewise, reliable figures for tank and personnel casualties for the Soviets in the battle of Prokhorovka are difficult to establish.
The II SS-Panzer Corps reported 842 men killed, wounded, or missing for 12 July. Since the Germans controlled the Prokhorovka battlefield until 17 July, they were able to recover most of their disabled armoured vehicles. German historian Karl Frieser attributed between three and five permanent tank losses to the II SS-Panzer Corps.
Archival data of the II SS-Panzer Corps shows that the corps had 294 operable tanks and assault guns on the evening of 11 July and 251 on the evening of 13 July. Allowing for the possibility that some repaired tanks were returned to service on 13 July, these numbers indicate that at least 43 tanks and assault guns became inoperable during the battle of Prokharovka, which includes all 10 Tigers belonging to Totenkopf and one belonging to Leibstandarte. However, all of the inoperable Tiger tanks were repairable, and none were write-offs. An estimated total of between 60 and 80 of II SS-Panzer Corps' tanks and assault guns were damaged or destroyed in combat on 12 July. By the end of 16 July, the II SS-Panzer Corps had 292 serviceable tanks and assault guns, almost the same number it had at the beginning of the battle on 12 July. On 12 July, Schlachtgeschwader 1 of the VIII Fliegerkorps and its attached squadron of Stukas reported eleven aircraft damaged, of which six were total write-offs, all by Soviet anti-aircraft artillery.
Exact Soviet losses for 12 July are not known, but have been estimated by military historians. Personnel losses at Prokhorovka were estimated by the historian Christer Bergström to have been as high as 5,500 men. For equipment damaged or destroyed, David Glantz and Jonathan House estimate that the 5th Guards Tank Army lost at least 400 tanks in its attacks on 12 July. George Nipe puts the losses in armour as between 600 and 650 tanks. 5th Guards Tank Army losses were estimated by the Soviet historians Grigoriy Koltunov and Boris Soloviev to have been about 300 tanks and self-propelled guns.
A document prepared on 17 July 1943 by the 5th Guards Tank Army Headquarters summarised the combat losses incurred by the formation from 12 to 16 July inclusive for all of its five corps, as well smaller units directly subordinated to the army headquarters. The document reported the following irrecoverable losses: 222 T-34s, 89 T-70s, 12 Churchill tanks, 8 SU-122s, 3 SU-76s, and 240 support vehicles. The document reported damaged vehicles still under repair as 143 T-34s, 56 T-70s, 7 Churchill tanks, 3 SU-122s, 3 SU-76s, and no figures for support vehicles. The document reported personnel casualties as 2,940 killed in action, 3,510 wounded in action, and 1,157 missing in action. This adds up to a total of 334 irrevocable losses in tanks and self-propelled guns, with another 212 tanks and self-propelled guns under repair, and 7,607 casualties.
Debate exists over the significance and outcome of the battle. The Germans destroyed many Soviet tanks and temporarily degraded the striking power of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but they were unable to take Prokhorovka or break through into open ground. For the Soviets, the massive armoured attack of 12 July failed to destroy the II SS-Panzer Corps or throw it onto the defensive, but succeeded in exhausting the Germans and eventually contributed to checking their advance. Thus, neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS-Panzer Corps accomplished their objectives for the day. While the battle is generally considered a tactical success for the Germans due to the high numbers of Soviet tanks destroyed, ultimately there was no German breakthrough at Prokhorovka, and with the end of Operation Citadel the strategic initiative permanently swung over to the Red Army.
- The 5th Guards Tank Army was transferred from the control of the Steppe Front to the Voronezh Front on 11 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 327) All of its subordinate corps as of 12 July are listed below;(Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 48) the divisions, regiments and battalions directly subordinate to the Army's Headquarters are not listed below.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 327)
- The 2nd Guards Tank Corps was initially not part of the 5th Guards Tank Army. It was transferred from the control of the 1st Tank Army to the 69th Army on 10 July, and then to the 5th Guards Tank Army on 11 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 318)
- The 2nd Tank Corps was initially not part of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but was transferred from the control of the Southwestern Front to the 5th Guards Tank Army on 11 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 321) Due to earlier combat, by 12 July the 2nd Tank Corps had few tanks left, many of which were locked in combat elsewhere outside the battlefield of Prokhorovka and out of contact with their parent headquarters. Therefore it was reinforced with the 10th Antitank Brigade and relegated to a supportive role in Prokhorovka.(Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 106; Glantz & House 2004, p. 179,181)
- Two of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps' four brigades – the 10th, 11th and 12th Guards Mechanized, and the 24th Guards Tank Brigades – were sent south to block the III Panzer Corps, leaving its 10th Guards Mechanized and 24th Guards Tank Brigades near Prokhorovka on 12 July.(Clark 2012, p. 379; Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 101; Glantz & House 2004, p. 321)
- The 5th Guards Army was transferred from the control of the Steppe Front to the Voronezh Front on 8 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 323) Only one of its two corps were present on the battlefield of Prokhorovka – the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 167) The other corps – the 32nd Guards Rifle Corps – was deployed further west, near Oboyan.(Clark 2012, p. 230) The divisions, regiments and other smaller units directly subordinate to the Army's Headquarters are not listed below.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 323)
- The 10th Tank Corps was transferred from the control of 5th Guards Army to the Voronezh Front on 7 July and to the 1st Tank Army on 8 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 324) Only its 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade was in the battlefield of Prokhorovka on 12 July.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 166,195,417) It is not uncommon for this formation to be portrayed as part of the 5th Guards Army during the Battle of Prokhorovka, but that is a metachronistic error.
- The 6th Guards Army bore the brunt of the German offensive from the very opening hours of it; therefore, its subordinate units present at the Battle of Prokhorovka were already heavily depleted.(Glantz & House 2004, p. 167)
- These are only for the II SS-Panzer Corps.
- These are for the whole 5th Guards Tank Army.
- See also: Battle of Brody (1941), Battle of Raseiniai, Operation Goodwood, Battle for Golan Heights (1973), and others.
- A Soviet General Staff report estimated that the II SS-Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps had 100 Tigers and Ferdinands on 12 July.(Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 222)
- Healy 2008, p. 347, Excerpt reads: "... a local, tactical German victory.".
- Clark 2012, p. 408, Excerpt reads: "Even though II SS-Panzer Corps could claim to have won a tactical victory in the monumental armoured clash at Prokhorovka ... Hausser's men did not do enough to change the course of the operation.".
- Showalter 2013, p. 269, Excerpt reads: "The Waffen-SS won a tactical victory on July 12.".
- Nipe 2012, p. 86, Excerpt reads: "The small expansion of the Psel bridgehead by Totenkopf and the advances of Das Reich around the southern edges of Prochorovka were tactical victories at best and not decisive by any definition.".
- Showalter 2013, p. 269, Excerpt reads: "Operationally, however, the palm rests with the Red Army.".
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 561, Excerpt reads:"The counterattack did not achieve its basic goal. The enemy [II SS-Panzer Corps] was not routed, but the further advance of the II SS-Panzer Corps beyond Prokhorovka was finally halted.".
- Healy 2008, p. 347, Excerpt reads: "... the clash was, when set against the much wider strategic backdrop of the offensive, no more than a local, tactical German victory. It was of no consequence or significance in helping to realise any of the wider offensive objectives of Operation Zitadelle, which was in any case by this date already a failure.".
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 108, Excerpt reads: "If we take a look at how the front lines changed during these five days one could interpret it as some sort of success for the Germans ... However, if we compare the outcome with the German orders for the battle, which stated that Prokhorovka was the target, it is clear that the Germans fell short of their goals. The Red Army had hoped to push the II SS-Panzer Corps back and crush it. This failed completely, but at least the 5th Guards Tank Army prevented the Germans from taking Prokhorovka.".
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 28–29].
- Clark 2012, p. 189.
- Healy 2008, p. 43.
- Clark 2012, p. 187.
- Glantz 1986, p. 23–25.
- Clark 2012, pp. 194,196–197.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 51–53.
- Glantz 2013, p. 184.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 63–65.
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 41, 49.
- Glantz 2013, p. 195.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 3–4.
- Clark 2012, p. 407.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 269–272.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 112.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 89–90.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 101.
- VIII. Fliegerkorps.
- Clark 2012, pp. 256–260.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 138–139.
- Healy 2008, p. 296.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 166–167.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 133–135.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 134–135.
- Clark 2012, pp. 297–299.
- Clark 2012, pp. 68, 279, map on page 68 shows 18–20 miles.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 130, the map shows 18–20 miles.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 90, this places it at 28 km at the end of 7 July.
- Bauman 1998, pp. 8-5 to 8-6, this places it at 23 km.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 146–147.
- Newton 2002, p. 6, 72–73, 358–363.
- Brand 2003.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 29–33.
- Newton 2002, p. 76.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 258–260.
- Clark 2012, p. 308–309.
- Clark 2012, pp. 350–353.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 169, 171.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 172.
- Clark 2012, pp. 352–353.
- Nipe 2012, p. 315.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 95.
- Clark 2012, p. 352.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 166.
- Dunn 1997, p. 153.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 173.
- Clark 2012, pp. 350.
- Glantz & House 1999, pp. 176.
- Clark 2012, p. 356.
- Nipe 2010, p. 310.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 178.
- Bergström 2007, p. 79.
- Nipe 2010, p. 276.
- Bergström 2007, p. 77.
- Nipe 2010, p. 315.
- Healy 2008, p. 330.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 323, 326.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 178, 198.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 227.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 179.
- Clark 2012, p. 364.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 103.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 198–200.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 202.
- Bergström 2007, pp. 78–81.
- 17th Air Army.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 317,321.
- Dunn 1997, p. 154.
- Nipe 2010, p. 309.
- Nipe 2012, p. 326.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 287, information on the specific names of the units.
- Healy 2008, p. 320.
- Healy 2008, p. 333.
- Clark 2012, p. 368.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 48, 101.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 151.
- Nipe 2012, p. 39.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 48, 105–106, 793 tanks and 57 self-propelled guns.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 151, 328, 793 tanks and 37 self-propelled guns.
- Nipe 2012, p. 39, 850 tanks.
- Healy 2008, pp. 171–172.
- Healy 2008, pp. 171–172, 35 Churchill tanks.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 328, 31 Churchill tanks.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 106-107.
- Clark 2012, p. 362.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 181.
- Licari 2004.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 180.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 106–107.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 107.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 180–181.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 192.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 96.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 184.
- Clark 2012, p. 378.
- Clark 2012, p. 363.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 182.
- Barbier 2002, p. 139.
- Bergström 2007, p. 80.
- Brand 2003, p. 8.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 187, in Moscow time.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 349.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 188, in Moscow time.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 188.
- Bergström 2007, p. 79–80.
- Nipe 2010, p. 317.
- Nipe 2010, p. 316–317.
- Nipe 2010, p. 320.
- Clark 2012, p. 351, Information on Joachim Peiper's rank and panzer unit..
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 185.
- Clark 2012, p. 366.
- Agte 2006, p. 124.
- Agte 2006, p. 125.
- Nipe 2010, p. 321.
- Nipe 2010, p. 322.
- Nipe 2010, p. 329–330.
- Nipe 2010, p. 330–331.
- Bergström 2007, pp. 79–81.
- Bergström 2007, p. 81.
- Showalter 2013, p. 212.
- Nipe 2010, p. 335.
- Showalter 2013, p. 216.
- Clark 2012, pp. 388–389.
- Clark 2012, pp. 381, 389.
- Nipe 2012, pp. 48, 52.
- Clark 2012, pp. 390–391.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 208.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 209–210.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 209, 216.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 212–215.
- Clark 2012, p. 394.
- Molony et al. 2004, pp. 55–65.
- Clark 2012, p. 397.
- Nipe 2012, p. 71.
- Barbier 2002, p. 153.
- Clark 2012, pp. 395–397.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 208, Kutuzov and allied landings had an effect on the German High Command.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 217–218.
- Clark 2012, pp. 397–398.
- Healy 2010, p. 358.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 218.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 219.
- Barbier 2002, p. 163.
- Healy 2010, p. 356.
- Clark 2012, pp. 398.
- Healy 2010, p. 359, States 15 July in error.
- Healy 2010, p. 359.
- Clark 2012, pp. 401.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 98.
- Nipe 2012, p. 70.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 204, 223.
- Newton 2002, p. 24.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 223.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, pp. 514–515.
- Barbier 2002, p. 164.
- Nipe 2012, p. 72.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 139, 218.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 245.
- Nipe 2012, p. 87.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, pp. 531–532, outlines various figures proposed by various historians over the last three decades.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, pp. 531–532.
- Bauman 1998, pp. 5-14.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 108.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 105, 110, 247.
- Frieser 2007, p. 130, gives 3 losses.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, pp. 513, 598, attributes five losses to a claim by Frieser made in 1993.
- Healy 2010, pp. 346.
- Glantz & House 1999, pp. 212.
- Nipe 2012, pp. 60–61.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 103, 105.
- Glantz & House 1995, p. 167.
- Nipe 2012, pp. 85–86.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 102.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, pp. 536–538.
- Overy 1997, p. 208.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, pp. 108–109.
- Zamulin & Britton 2011, p. 553.
- Clark 2012, p. 408.
- Nipe 2012, p. 86.
- Glantz & House 1995, p. 166.
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