The Battle of Kursk
THE BIGGEST TANK BATTLE EVER
On 24 April 1918, a German A7V tank exchanged fire with three British Mark IVs close to the French village of Villers-Bretonneux. In the first head-to-head tank battle in history, the A7V damaged two of the British machines before it was destroyed with a direct hit. A little over 25 years later, on 12 July 1943, the world witnessed what arguably remains the biggest-ever tank battle, involving an estimated 700 German tanks and 850 Soviet tanks during the Battle of Kursk.
The setting was the flat terrain of Prokhorovka in south-western Russia, as the 2nd SS Panzer Division tried to smash through the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army on a front just 12 miles long. The fighting was ferocious and unprecedented in warfare, as the two mechanised armies clashed. “Tanks that sustained direct hits exploded while driving at full speed,” recalled Russian veteran Evgeny Shkurdalov. “Single shots were inaudible as the cannonade fused into a deafening roar. There were moments when due to dense powder fumes, we could distinguish our tanks from German only by silhouettes in the smoke.”
One SS tank officer, 1st Lt Rudolf von Ribbentrop, said of the battle: “The avalanche of tanks rolled straight towards us… from this range every round was a hit.” One of Ribbentrop’s shells hit a Soviet tank that was so close when it exploded, “its turret flew about three metres through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”
By the end of the day, the Soviets had 650 tanks out of action, and the Germans believed victory was theirs. But their enemy brought up reinforcements, and poor weather hampered resupply efforts. Hitler soon called off the offensive, handing the strategic initiative to the Soviets in the war on the Eastern front.