The Bat­tle of Kursk



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.

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