08:30 or 10:00 at Prokhorovka?

According the standard history of the Battle of Prokhorovka, the attack was originally scheduled at 1000 but moved up to 0830 (Moscow time). This is an odd event but one that is documented. Dr. Wheatley recently commented to one of my blog post about this. The blog post is here:

So did the Soviet 31st Tank Brigade attack on the morning of 12 July 1943?

He quotes Roman Toeppel’s book:

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From Toeppel, Roman. Kursk 1943: The Greatest Battle of the Second World War (Modern Military History) . Helion and Company.

‘According to Soviet combat reports, Rotmistrov radioed the signal to attack at 0830, whereupon the 18th and 29th Tank Corps at once began their advance. However, this is unlikely, as German combat messages reported that the first Soviet tanks reached Hill 252.2 only at 1015 Moscow time, which, in turn, is in agreement with a report from the Soviet 31st Tank Brigade advancing behind the 32nd Tank Brigade, which states: ‘At 1030 the tanks reached the area of the Oktyabrskiy Sovkhoz.’75 It seems absurd that it took the Soviet tanks almost two hours to drive the few kilometres from their assembly area at Prokhorovka to the forward German lines at said Sovkhoz (on Hill 252.2). It is more likely that the Soviet commanders wanted to allow their soldiers some rest before the operation and then launched the attack at 1000 Moscow time, as initially scheduled.’

Footnote 75 reads: Otchët o boevykh deystviyakh 29 tankovogo korpusa za period s 7.7. po 24.7.1943 g. [Report on the operations of the 29th Tank Corps, 7 July to 24 July 1943], p. 4, copy from the document collection (‘Materialsammlung’) of the ZMSBw.

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So…..this is a case where the historian is using logic or interpretation to override a documented historical event. This is kind of part of the trade, but you do have to be careful when you do this. Let my quote the times I have from multiple records:

XVIII Tank Corps

Account of 18th TC’s Combat Activities, July 12-24, 1943: “At 0830 the corps’ units attacked.”

No times given in Combat Report #37, 1400, July 12, 1943 or Combat Report #38, 0300 July 13, 1943

XXIX Tank Corps

No times given in Combat Report #74, 1900, July 12, 1943 or Combat Report #75, 2400, July 12, 1943 except: “At 1300 a group of our assault aircraft attacked 32nd Tank Bde and 170th Tank Bde/18th TC”

Fifth Guards Tank Army

Operational Report #1, 1900, July 12, 1943: “The army’s units and formations, following a 30-minute artillery preparation, attacked at 0830 in the general direction of the Komsonolets Sovkhoz-Bol’shie Maiachki-Pokrovka.”

and

“Enemy aircraft, in groups of up to 25-50 planes, uninterruptedly bombed the army’s lines from 0530.”

Fifth Guards Tank Army’s Combat Activities from July 7-24, 1943: “The initial time of 1000 set for the attack was moved back by the Front commander [Vatutin] to 0830 on July 12. At 0830, following a short artillery preparation, the corps moved into the attack.”

II Tank Corps: No times given

II Guards Tank Corps:

Operational Report #185, 0700, July 12, 1943: “By 0600 on July 12 an enemy tank attack on Prokhorovka was beaten off by units of 5th Gds Tank Army. Corps’ units reached their areas in readiness to carry out the army commander’s orders.”

Operational Report #186 is missing.

Fifth Guards Army (which was very much involved in this effort):

From a summary (5 Gv.A Opisaniye Operatsii): “At 0830 the army’s troops attacked decisively along the entire front in the general direction of Bol’shie Maiachki, launching their major blow along the left flank.”

Also worth noting (as this would be Totenkopf’s attack): “The enemy, stubbornly resisting our units, launched at 1215 a counterattack with up to 100 tanks, plus infantry, in the direction of ht. 226.6, developing the success toward ht. 236.7.”

Operational Report #200, 0700, July 12, 1943: “At 0530 a group of aircraft bombers the positions of 95th Gds RD and 9th Gds AbnD.”

Missing operational report #221.

9th Guards Airborne Division: “At 0540 28 bombers bombed 23rd GdsAbnRgt.”

6th Guards Airborne Division: “At 1200 enemy tanks forced the Psel River in the Krasnyi Oktiabr-Prokhorovka-Kozlovka-Vasilevka-Prelestnoe area, throwing back units of the 95th Gds RD and taking Pol…(?) and Veselyi. Tanks reach pt. 236.7 (?)”

13th Guards Rifle Division: “By 0500 on July 12 the division’s units reached its jumping-off positions for the attack along the following lines….”

and

“At 0830, following a 30-minute artillery, the division’s units attacked.”

95th Guards Rifle Division: “At 1000 units of 42nd RD and tanks from 1st Tank Army attacked through 287th RRgt.”

97th Guards Rifle Division: “The division’s units, following an artillery bombardment at 0830 on July 12, pushed aside the enemy’s forward detachments and by 0900 had reached the line pt. 183.1-Il’inskii.” 

Zhadov’s bio (a secondary post war account, perhaps partly ghost-written): “Morning arrived. At 0830, after a short artillery barrage, 5th Guards Tank Army’s 18th and 29th tank corps, and 2nd Gds TC, launched the main attack….” (it just happened to be in front of me in our Fifth Guards Army files).

 

So, we have two different headquarters in the Fifth Guards Tank Army reporting the attack time of 0830 in their summaries. We have one report made at the time from the Fifth Tank Army Daily Operation Report that reports that time. I do have a Xerox copy of that report. So in this case, it was probably not something doctored, edited or created later. It is what the documented at the time.

We also have the neighboring Fifth Guards Army launching their attack at 0830. This is declared in their summary report and in two of the reports we have from the divisions.

Would they have rested? Well, they supposedly were under air attack from 0530. Not the most restful of situations.

Now, could they have been allowed to rest from 0830 to 1000 before they started the attack? Maybe, but only if the senior command allowed it. The commander of the Voronezh Front was Vatutin with Khrushchev as his commissar (yet, that Khrushchev). The STAVKA rep was Vasilevskii (who outranked Vatutin). The order to move the attack up to 0830 was made by Vatutin, but I am sure with Vasilevskii’s concurrence. Rotmistrov’s command post was at height 252.4 where he could see parts of both the XXIX and XVIII Tank Corps. With him, in his command post was Vasilevskii. So, for them not to attack on time would have required the tank corps’ commanders to disobey orders in the sight of both the army commander and the STAVKA representative. Not likely, unless they also agreed to this delay. In the case of the XVIII Tank Corps, Rostmistrov attached his chief of staff, Major General Baskakov to Bakharov’s headquarters to make sure the attack was properly conducted. So, Bakharov was being directly overseen. Again, hard not to attack on time in that situation.

To delay the attack until 1000 would have required the agreement of Rotmistrov and Vasilevskii. This was to be a coordinated offensive with neighboring units, like the Fifth Guards Army, and that army was also attacking at 0830.

I am not aware of anything in the German records on the time of the attack. I gather Roman Toeppel has located in the message traffic a German report that the Soviets reached Ockyabrskii Sovkhoz at 0915 (Berlin time), if I read his passage correctly. If I believe Captain Ribbentrop’s account, the attack occurred fairly early in the morning because when the attack started they were still drinking Muckefuck (which is not a dirty word, but a coffee substitute).

So, I understand Roman Toeppel’s argument, but there are multiple arguments against it:

  1. We have the attack time documented in multiple Soviet unit reports.
  2. More to the point, we have the attack time recorded in a report made at that time.
  3. The units involved were overseen by senior commanders (including those who gave the order that they should attack at 0830).
  4. All these units were probably supposed to attack together and the Fifth Guards Army was also attacking at 0830.
  5. The one German account we have indicates that the attack occurred early morning vice mid-morning.

Do these five points outweigh the one interpretive argument provided by Toeppel?

But Totenkopf’s activities are of interest in this case. They report that the last elements for the SS attack finally crossed into the bridgehead at 0900 (Berlin time) and at 0930 the armored group jumped off from hill 226.6 to the northeast. If the XVIII Tank Corps started attacking at 1000 (Moscow time, 0900 Berlin time), would Totenkopf really conduct this push to the northwest just as the attack started. Conversely, if the XVIII Tank Corps started attacking at 0830 (Moscow time), does that mean everything was brought under control by 1000 (Moscow time, 0900 Berlin time)? Does it means the entire initial attack has burned itself out in less than an hour and a half? This actually does appear to be the case from reading the various personal accounts.

This armor attack by Totenkopf is marked on the situation map for July 12 (see page 922/305). It shows it starting at 0930 (Berlin time) and the attack had moved forward about a kilometer by 1230. Not a directly analogous situation to the XXIX Tank Corps attack, but Toeppel’s argument why that attack did not occur at 0830 was because: “It seems absurd that it took the Soviet tanks almost two hours to drive the few kilometres from their assembly area at Prokhorovka to the forward German lines at said Sovkhoz (on Hill 252.2).”

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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