If you take a train from Moscow to Belgorod, a city some 650 km to the south of the capital, Prohorovka will be the next station after Kursk. A few kilometers away from it you will see a huge field with heroic T-34s on pedestals [a Soviet medium tank introduced in 1940, famously deployed during World War II against Operation Barbarossa.] This is the famous Prokhorovka tank field.
After Kulikovo, site of a major battle between Russian troops and the forces of the Golden Horde in 1380, and Borodino where Napoleon’s Grande Armée clashed with the Russian Army in 1812, Prokhorovka is often called Russia’s Third Battlefield.
The witnesses of what was happening near a small station of Prohorovka on July 12, 1943, compared those events to the horrors of hell -- the sky became leaden because of thousands of warplanes there, and the field was black from the tanks. Hundreds of armored vehicles engaged head-on with no chance of bypassing one another. The battle lasted far into the night.
Human losses were enormous. Ignat Yefimenko, one of the locals, told me once that after the battle when our soldiers and officers had been buried in mass graves, several bags of Communist Party and Young Communist League membership cards had been found.
Pavel Rotmistrov, the commander of Red Army armored forces and Hero of the Soviet Union, whose tanks had fought against the German ones, recalled:
“Two huge billows of tanks were moving towards us. The sun rising in the east blinded the eyes of the German tank crewmen and brightly illuminated the contours of their vehicles for those on our side of the frontline.
“In a few minutes, the tanks of the first echelon of our 29th and 18th Corps rammed into the Nazi military dispositions, delivering fire at them on the move. The rapid attack literally pierced through the battle line of the enemy.
“Obviously, the Germans did not expect to come to grips with such a huge number of our combat vehicles and their determined attack. The tactical control in the enemy's front units was clearly disrupted. In a close combat, its Tigers I and Panthers were deprived of their fire power advantage which they had used in the beginning of the offensive operations in close fights with our other tank units. From short distances, they were successfully hit by the Soviet T-34 and even T-70 tanks. The battlefield was clouded with smoke and dust, and the ground shuddered after powerful explosions. The tanks bumped into each other. Locked in combat, they could not go separate ways fighting to the bitter end until one of them started burning or stopped with broken caterpillars. However, the broken tanks continued to fire until their weapons did not go out of order.
“This was the first major tank counterattack battle during the war, as the tanks were fighting with the tanks. Due to the fact that the battle formations were mixed up, artillery from both sides stopped firing. For the same reason, neither our Air Force nor Luftwaffe bombed the battlefield. Meanwhile, fierce battles continued in the air, and the yowl of the aircraft shot down and engulfed in flames mixed with the rumble of the tank battle on the ground. No separate shots were heard: everything merged into one formidable roar.
“The tension of the battle increased with terrifying rage and power. Fire, smoke and dust made it harder to understand where “friends” and “foes” were. However, even with limited ability to observe the battlefield I knew the decisions of the corps’ commanders and heard their reports on the radio. I could imagine what the Army troops were doing. What was going on there could be determined also by the orders of our Soviet and German commanders captured by my radio station. They were given in explicit language: “Go!,” “Orlov, come from the flank!,” “Schneller!,” “Tkachenko, cut into rear!,” “Vorwärts!,” “Do as I do!,” “Schneller!,” “Vorwärts!.” There were also evil and fierce expressions you would not find in Russian or German dictionaries.
“The tanks were circling as if they were caught by a giant whirlpool. The T-34 crews, maneuvering and turning, were firing at Tigers and Panthers, but they themselves, coming under the direct fire of the heavy enemy tanks and self-propelled guns, were stopping, burning and dying. Hitting the armor, the shells bounced off, the caterpillars torn to pieces, the rollers fell out, and the explosions of ammunition inside the vehicles took off and threw the tank turrets aside.
The heaviest and extremely fierce battle was fought by the 29th tank corps of General I. F. Kirichenko, which was pushing forward along the railway and highway. His corps was attacked by the enemy’s main forces of the SS Adolf Hitler and Totenkopf (Dead’s Head) tank divisions that were stubbornly making persistent attempts, one after another, to break through to Prohorovka. However, the forces of the corps were fighting with utmost resolve and did not yield the positions they had gained.”
On the same day, fierce battles took place in other parts of the Voronezh front, but those in the tank battle near Prohorovka were of the greatest intensity.
In the year of 1943,
Here, near Prohorovka,
After a charge
Our soldiers were giving up their lives,
Their tanks were becoming immortal.
These poetic lines show figuratively and at the same time realistically what was happening in the battlefield. The unctuous black soil was burning like anthracite. Tanks’ armor was melting like in an open-hearth furnace. Day was turning into night because of the huge black clouds of smoke and dust. The wounded did not leave the battlefield. The tank soldiers who had abandoned the flaming battle vehicles were fighting in hand-to-hand fights. Gun detachments were deafened by endless shooting, but went on fighting to the bitter end. All the fighters showed unprecedented heroism and unshakable firmness.
To imagine these fights, let us give only one example of many similar ones. A large grouping of German tanks pounced on the tank battalion commanded by Captain P.A. Skripkin. His tank immediately hit the leading Tiger. It spun on the spot and went up like a match box. The second Tiger twitched from two shells, but a new precise shot forced him to stop finally burning as a bright torch. Three enemy vehicles opened fire on the tank at once. Several shells hit the commander's Kliment Voroshilov (KV) tank and set it ablaze. The mechanic-driver senior sergeant A. Nikolayev and radio operator A. Zyryanov rescued the wounded Captain Skripkin, pulled him out of the tank and hid him in a shell crater. But one of the Tigers was coming right on to them. Then Nikolayev rushed into the burning tank and thrust it towards the enemy. The Tiger stopped, trying to get back. But it was too late. Embraced by the flames KV hit the German tank at full speed. There was a terrible explosion. A column of fire and smoke shot up into the sky.
The tank battle lasted all day. The whole battlefield was dotted with hundreds of burnt or warped tanks, self-propelled guns, crushed armored personnel carriers, cars and the debris of planes. The surrounding area looked like a dead desert -- burnt-down huts and buildings, as well as trees and bushes erased by artillery fire as if by a tornado.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellentin, former commander of the Wehrmacht’s 48th Tank Corps and Major General of Tank Forces, wrote in his memoirs “Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War”: “By the evening of July 14, it was clear that the German offensive had been disrupted. From the very beginning it turned out that the breakthrough of the forward positions of the Russians reinforced with powerful minefields would be a much more difficult task than we had thought. Powerful counterattacks of the Russians, who despite the losses, were fighting off sending people and vehicles en masse became also an unpleasant surprise. Operation Citadel ended in complete defeat. After the failure of this highly intense offensive, the Russians took over the strategic initiative.”
As a reporter I got a chance to meet Andrei Gerasimov. During World War II, Gerasimov commanded an armored reconnaissance company. He had been in the heat of battle. We visited together the “tank” field.
“We stood here, near the railroad tracks,” recalls the grey-haired Gerasimov. “We did not know how many hours the battle had been going on. The fire and the soot eclipsed the sunny day...”
Then the veteran interrupted his story. For a long time, he stared silently into the vast distance in front of our eyes. Then, in July 1943, he might have remained forever on that earth twisted by bombs and shells and plowed by tank tracks. Like many thousands of soldiers, Gerasimov was ready to fight to the bitter end on that moaning field. His tank caught blaze but he survived.
During the battle there was the command post of General P.A. Rotmistrov on a hilltop in the field. It has been preserved as eternal memory. From there, the General commanded the battle. In those days, he was visited by war correspondent and writer Boris Polevoy, who left for a squadron of pilots afterwards. In the area of Prokhorovka Boris Polevoy met Aleksey Maresyev, who became a Soviet fighter ace during World War II despite the loss of both legs, and wrote a book about him titled “The Story of a Real Man.”
Alexander Werth, a well-known British journalist, who visited the battlefields shortly after the battle, wrote: “We were driving through a terribly devastated area north of Belgorod where the fiercest battles happened in July during the Kursk operation. “There was no living place,” as the Russians say. And it stretched for many kilometers around...”
And further: “The area north of Belgorod turned into a gloomy desert. Even all the trees and bushes there were swept away by artillery fire. The battlefield was still dotted with hundreds of burnt tanks and crashed aircraft.”
By the way, some current Western journalists have a completely different view of the events of summer 1943. Without a twinge of conscience, they write that there was no battle in the Prokhorovka area. Allegedly, all this was an invention of Stalin’s propaganda fanned in subsequent years by Brezhnev’s propaganda. Some of our reporters and historians echo their allegations.
Of course, it is easy to be a strategist, watching the battle from the outside. Especially after many decades that have passed. Some of the domestic “researchers” came to the conclusion that allegedly, the Germans won the battle of Prohorovka, and the 5th Guards tank army of Lieutenant-General of Tank Forces P. Rotmistrov and the 5th Guards General Troops Army of Lieutenant General A. Zhadov were defeated. But if the Nazis won, then why didn't they fulfill their main task to break through the last defense area of the Voronezh front and didn’t go further to Kursk? Hitler's generals themselves gave the answer to this question -- they did not go farther because Operation Citadel ended in complete failure for their army.
In recent years, the Prokhorovka Tank Battle Museum has been visited by thousands of Russian and foreign visitors. In the comments book of the museum I found a record by N. Istomin, a participant in the battle, and rewrote it into my notebook. Here it is:
Fire of the mine plowed its ground,
Endless flights came around.
Everyone has heard its name,
As Moscow’s Borodino.
Documents prove that after the battle, only shell craters and piles of crushed stone and bricks were left of Prohorovka township. The neighboring villages of Prelestnoye, Storozhevoye and Beregovoye also burned to the ground. The damage amounted to millions of rubles.
It is difficult to assess the acts of bravery of Prokhorovka’s residents before and after the battle. They dug trenches, built the railroad and were by the soldiers’ side during the battle. They helped in any way they could. The next spring, they did the sowing. The army needed bread. Women, the elderly and children went out to the wounded fields. In the post-war years Prohorovka was rebuilt by the hands of these people. A total of 5,000 male residents of the village did not come back from the war.
It is no coincidence that there are a lot of monuments and obelisks. A granite soldier who bows his head. A mother frozen in endless grief. A mound topped with a spire and a star. The famous T-34 and the legendary Katyusha rocket launcher on pedestals... These are monuments of national heroism. They stand like guards on their eternal sentry duty, reminding new generations of the glory of their grandfathers and fathers.
There are also many cathedrals here. The white-stone St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral with golden cupolas was erected on Prokhorovka Field as a symbol of eternal grateful commemoration of defenders of homeland. Thousands of the names of warriors, who died at the height of operations in July 1943, are carved on marble slabs. This mournful list continues to be filled with new names.
The bell ringing is heard from far away. Every twenty minutes, the bell tolls. The first ringing of the bell is in honor of the heroes of the Kulikovo field, liberators of Russia from the Mongol-Tatar yoke. The second is in honor of Borodino soldiers, faithful sons of Russia who fought against Napoleon's troops. The third is to honor the Battle of Prohorovka and of all people who gave their lives in struggle against Nazism.
I have visited Prokhorovka recently. I have seen numerous monuments and obelisks set up to the heroes of the battle. Veterans of the battle are welcomed there as heroes. People invite them to their houses. Vladimir Chursin, editor of the Istoki local newspaper is our old friend. He says that every summer veterans come to Prohorovka on the anniversary of the battle. Although a few of them are alive today, they still try to visit this place to recall the hot summer of 1943 and their youth and to bow to their brothers-in-arms who fell on the battlefield.
Prohorovka waited for the guests this May, too. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus quarantine, they will not be able to come. Meanwhile, live flowers will be laid at the monuments and obelisks. As custom has it, one hundred grams of vodka will be raised in every house. To all the people who survived and who fell! To our Victory!
Photo credit: https://ya-to.ru/
The bell will be ringing above the Third Field of Russian Glory. Its sounds will fill people's hearts with warmth and kindness and pay tribute to the soldiers who never came back from the bloody fields.
The bells are faithful companions of every Russian person from his or her birth to death as long as Christian Russia exists. Their ringing summoned people to take part in councils, to commemorate joyful events and to fight against the bitterest enemy... It has always been so, and it will always be. Therefore, our Russia will continue to live.