In July and August 1943, one of the colossal battles of the Second World War raged over a vast space in western Russia and eastern Ukraine. The Battle of Kursk has been argued by many historians to be a key point in the Great Patriotic War, the moment when the initiative shifted irrevocably from the German military to the Soviet forces. It remains a point of national pride in Russia, in particular the area of Prokhorovka, where on 12 July 1943 the Red Army counterattacked against the SS spearheads in an epic tank clash. I have no small amount of particular interest in this battle, so I've been taking some interest in the recent media dust-up over it in the British press. This BBC article in particular caught my attention. A British historian, one Ben Wheatley, has been doing some work in the American archives at NARA College Park, MD, and has discovered aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the Germans over the Prokhorovka battlefield showing a) basically no German tank losses and b) a...lot...of Soviet tank losses. This clashes quite directly with the traditional narrative in Russia and the USSR, following the account of General P. A. Rotmistrov, commander of Fifth Guards Tank Army, the unit that led the charge at Prokhorovka. Rotmistrov claimed it was a glorious victory and that despite Soviet losses, the Germans lost a lot of tanks of their own, including many of the feared Tiger heavy tanks. Wheatley's findings clearly demonstrate Rotmistrov's claims to be rubbish. Wheatley's article was picked up by the British gutter press, because he is a British historian. But the articles didn't get nearly as much notice until an incendiary take found in the German daily Die Welt, titled "The 'Victory' of the Red Army that was, in reality, a disaster" (DE link here). Sven Kellerhoff, the author, opens by mentioning the Prokhorovka victory monument erected during the Yeltsin years, and continues with this sentence: Well then. There's more to say about that comment, but I'm going to move on to the BBC article for now. The article almost entirely focuses on Wheatley's paper and generally portrays him as the one who Figured It All Out without actually using those words. It's not hard to figure out why this is, because he is a Britisher and this is the BBC. But the article introduced some gaps that frustrated me, and so I have come to complain about them. Firstly, Wheatley's discovery, while it unquestionably is well sourced and very neat, is not new information. We have known that the 12 July fight at Prokhorovka was actually a Soviet disaster for a very long time. David Glantz and Jonathan House's reexamination of the Kursk fighting in the early 1990s suggested that Rotmistrov's account was mistaken, but the biggest work was done by a Russian historian and a German historian. Valerii Zamulin, a local Russian historian, wrote Demolishing the Myth, an account of the Prokhorovka fighting, in 2005. It has since been translated into English. Zamulin's work exhaustively examined the Soviet primary sources and comprehensively wrecked the Rotmistrov narrative. And in Germany, Karl-Heinz Frieser, with the German WW2 official history project, closely examined the SS records and casualty assessments to find that Soviet claims of losses inflicted on the Germans were dramatically inflated. Niklas Zetterling has also done excellent work on tallying the casualties at Kursk in both human and war materiel, as he has done for the fighting in Normandy and in the Korsun-Shevchenkovskii Pocket. The narrative runs something like this. In 1941 and 1942, the Soviets were unable to stop German attacks before they reached strategic depth, meaning that they overrun vast amounts of territory. In 1943, the Soviets planned to stack the deck. Red Army foreknowledge of the planned German attack on Kursk led them to turn the region into a vast fortress over the months before the battle started, with several defense lines backed up by vast reserves. For the most part, when the German attack went in, they found that despite German tactical finesse and extremely high kill ratios (eight Soviet tanks destroyed for every one German), they were unable to get their attack to develop any momentum. Everywhere, German tanks and infantry bogged down in the network of machine-gun nests and anti-tank positions and were slowed down by mass armored counterattacks. The one place where the Germans seemed to be getting somewhere was on the southern flank of the Kursk bulge, where the SS elite led the charge. II. SS Panzerkorps found a seam and kept pushing far enough to clear the Soviet tactical defensive belts. This convinced the Soviet commanders on the southern flank of the bulge to release some of their reserves to hold the Germans back. P. A. Rotmistrov's Fifth Guards Tank Army was slated to counterattack the Germans along the Psel' River, but on 11-12 July, two things happened to derail the Soviet plan. First, the SS mechanized division Leibstandarte, Hitler's guard, overran the Soviet assembly areas in a bitter battle with Soviet Guards airborne infantry near the Stalinsk state farm south of Prokhorovka. Second, the German III Panzerkorps, several miles away, started to break free of the Soviet defenses as well and was moving to link up with the SS. Rotmistrov had to divert troops to slow down III. Panzerkorps and plan his counterattack on the fly. In the Soviets' haste, they mismanaged several aspects of the counterattack. The Prokhorovka defenses contained a large antitank ditch that was not on the maps provided to Fifth Guards Tanks. In addition, many of the Soviet tanks kept their external fuel tanks on for the battle. (The reason for this is unclear: it may have been a hold-over from the long approach march they had to make from their reserve position, or it may have been based on an unrealistic belief that they would crush the Germans and be able to exploit their victory quickly.) Furthermore, Soviet armor was, at this point in the fighting for Eastern Europe, actually outclassed by the Germans. Long-barreled German Pzkpfw. IVs and the fearsome heavy Tigers had superior optics, superior hitting power, and superior armor to the aging T-34/76s and light T-70s that made up the majority of Rotmistrov's counterattack force. Elsewhere on the Kursk front, Soviet commanders had been compensating for German superiority by digging their tanks in up to the turret; the tanks would be harder to hit, even if they were condemned to die in place. At Prokhorovka, they didn't have that option. The attack was an almost total disaster. Although the Germans of Leibstandarte were caught somewhat off guard by the Soviet counterattack, they recovered quickly. Rotmistrov's headlong rush - the Voronezh Front commander, N. F. Vatutin, allegedly told him to compensate for his tanks' inferiority by closing in with the German tanks to "engage in hand-to-hand combat and board them" - ran straight into the unseen AT ditch, which upended Soviet tanks like they were toys. With few routes over their own captured defenses, the Soviet armor was trapped and became easy targets for the SS men. The external fuel tanks made the consequences horrifying: they were soft targets and every time the Germans hit them, a tank would turn into a flamer, roasting the crew alive. Rotmistrov was unable to even get all of his troops into the fight, but those that did took horrifying losses for almost none of the Germans' own. German war diaries do not even mention a mass Soviet counterattack on 12 July; it's one thing for the attack to fail, but another entirely for it to not even be noticed. Rotmistrov failed in planning his counterattack and under I. V. Stalin, failure was punished very severely. Earlier during the Battle of Kursk, failures by the Frontal Aviation commander had merited a personal call from the Boss and what Dennis Showalter calls a pants-wetting moment. Rotmistrov quickly concocted a story of grim, bloody success: his counterattack force took heavy losses, but they stopped the German advance in its tracks and wrecked dozens of Tigers. Stalin was mollified, and the story of the glorious and heroic sacrifice of Fifth Guards Tanks made it into the history books on both sides of the eventual Iron Curtain. Zamulin's and Frieser's writings have filtered into the generalist literature. Books by Dennis Showalter and Rob Citino on Kursk and the Great Patriotic War have acknowledged their contributions. The historically accepted narrative for well over a decade has been that Prokhorovka was a Soviet disaster. And they are both extensively cited in Wheatley's actual paper. (I can only imagine that it sucks to be Wheatley right now. He did a good and useful thing that is being misrepresented in the media and is also the cause of a diplomatic row with Russia. Great.) The BBC article mentions Zamulin approximately never and Frieser once - and Frieser only because he is cited in Kellerhoff's article in Die Welt. The article does gesture in the direction of acknowledging that Russian academics and writers do know what's going on by quoting Zamulin's fellow historian A. V. Isaev and including a human-interest story about snipers. But my impression - and you may disagree - is that the tone of the text minimizes those bits. I think that the author of the article made an error in framing this as a contest between the West (especially Britain), whose brilliant academics understand the real history, and the backwards Russians, who want to keep their made-up glory stories. Secondly, the article acknowledges the actual Russian grievance, the comment about the victory monument, but...kind of elides it? What happened at Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 was shameful and the subsequent cover-up was worse. But the suggestion that there is no reason to have a victory monument at Prokhorovka is totally at odds with a) the actual situation in 1943 and b) the state of Russian political and public opinion about war remembrance. Some of this is very "usual suspects" - Duma deputies calling for legal action, etc. But, um, it was totally foreseeable and avoidable. Prokhorovka was a disaster, yes. But Kursk was a victory. It was arguably the victory that ended the German attacks once and for all. From Prokhorovka onward, the front moved in only one direction: toward Berlin. While the heroic sacrifice of Prokhorovka was rather more "sacrifice" than "heroic", the fact of the matter is that the SS advance stopped. Now, it stopped for reasons other than the counterattack of Fifth Guards Tanks. The SS wasn't halted by a Big Damn Battle, but rather by the accumulation of lots of problems that made continuing the offensive impossible. None of the other German spearheads was getting anywhere. The momentum necessary to develop the attack was gone. The Red Army outright won the battle on the northern flank of the Kursk bulge and slowed the southern spearheads enough to burn all of the Germans' precious time. During the Kursk battle, at about the same time as the fight at Prokhorovka, the Americans and British landed on the island of Sicily, opening up a new front in the war that was the final nail in the coffin for the Kursk offensive. Hitler canceled the operation and diverted armor to the Mediterranean. And in the follow-up, Soviet forces counterattacked for real, all along the front. Despite taking extremely heavy losses, they started to win back ground and things began to snowball. A few months after Kursk, they reached the Dnepr River. By the end of the year, Kiev had fallen. Soviet victories and German disasters started piling up. The scale of the German defeat was enough to give the lie to the salt-crusted claims in German generals' memoirs that Kursk had been winnable if only Hitler had possessed the nerve to let them keep attacking. At Prokhorovka, things certainly seemed desperate for awhile...but that was because Stalin and his Stavka wanted to hold back their reserves for the inevitable counterattack. Most of those reserves were held back for the inevitable counterattack, and they delivered the death blow to Nazism in Eastern Europe. Suggesting that the victory monument at Kursk has no reason to exist is outright wrong. Whatever you think about the immoderate claims of many Russian nationalists, and however grim and messy the actual battle got, the Soviet Union's soldiers defeated fascism in those fields in July 1943. Victory over Nazis, especially given the political climate in much of the West, feels like something we need to celebrate more, not less. Also, support your local historians. Zamulin lived in Kursk when he published Demolishing the Myth. So much for soapboxing. Y'all might have a different take on the victory monument than me, of course, or on war and remembrance generally. As far as discussion goes...the original motivator behind this post was the BBC text, which, I believe, was insufficiently critical of the claim that we should get rid of Russian war memorials because they weren't as victorious as they claimed. So, does anybody have any tongue-in-cheek examples of British battles that were remembered gloriously while actually being total disasters? Maybe we should tear down those memorials first. Sabaton song related.