Basis of the Tank Ditch Story of 12 July 1943

Figure 12 showing the tank ditch on 16 July 1943

The story of the Soviet tank ditch disrupting the operations of one or more attacking Soviet tank brigades at Prokhorovka is not based upon any documented records. It is entirely based upon post-war interviews and post-war accounts. This is always an uncomfortable basis from which to build an account from.

The primary source for this story of Captain Rudolf Ribbentrop’s account, who was the company commander of the 6th Panzer Company and was in the midst of the fight. As he was the eldest son of the German foreign minister, there is reason to be concerned that he may not have given an unbiased or unvarnished account. I still moved forward and accepted his account, but only after Major General Brand (Bundeswehr, ret) had discussed it with him and Ribbentrop had again discussed it with one or more crew members that were with him at the time. So there was reason to believe that this account is valid, even though it was originally published in a publication that was raising funds for SS veterans (see page 933, footnote 36 in my Kursk book; or page 320, footnote 60 in my Prokhorovka book).

The only other source for the tank ditch story is an account from Wilhelm Roes of the 7th Panzer Company. In this case, I drew his account from Zamulin’s writing, and his source is footnoted that the story came from the “author’s personal archive” (see page 328, footnote 64 in my Prokhorovka book). There may a more detailed Wilhelm Roes’ account in German sources, but I have not taken the time to chase them down. As it is, Zamulin’s used Roes account in Zamulin’s claim the tank ditch was encountered in the early afternoon.

Was the Tank Ditch encountered in the morning, the afternoon, or both?

It appears that these are the only two accounts for the tank ditch story. There may be others, but I have not located them. Now, there is not much question that the tank ditch existed. But, the basis of the story that Soviet tanks drove into and/or were stopped by the tank ditch is primarily (or only) based upon two post-war German accounts.

The interesting aspects of Dr. Wheatley’s research (which I do think is worthwhile, even if I disagree with him over a number of interpretations) is that his photo reconnaissance research could help confirm these stories. In particular in his article Visual Examination…. there are figures 12, 14, 15, 19 and 20 which actually show the tank ditch on 16 July 1943 and 7 August 1943. Figure 12 is displayed at the head of this blog post. Now, I don’t see any Soviet tanks in the ditch, but if there was, this would be very useful confirmation for an otherwise poorly documented action. Does anyone see any tanks in and around the tank ditch in these five pictures?

Now, Dr. Wheatley does note:

By closely comparing the photographs of 16 July and 7 August we can see the location of the destroyed tanks in the anti-tank ditch in the later, though by no means as clearly as on 16 July. The track in front of anti-tank ditch is less worn on 7 August which only goes to highlight (given its clear marking on 16 July) how many tanks on 12 July must have traversed the route whilst looking for a crossing.

I’ll be honest. I don’t see anything identifiable. They may be there and others may see them, but I do not. I see lots of black splotches in the pictures, but I cannot tell what they are. Are they tanks, are they shell holes? I can clearly see planes on airfields on the pictures I copied (see pages 575-576 of my Kursk book) and I can clearly see shell holes in the pictures I copied (see pages 573 and 600 of my Kursk book). There may be a resolution problem with the pictures attached to his article. They may be clear on his copies.

What probably should be done is to make a map and plot all the tanks that can be observed in these pictures on that map. Not sure who, if anyone, is going to take this on.

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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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20 Comments

  1. The author admits up front that the photographs as published don’t do justice to the original ones and recommends to view them at the NARA or seek professional reproduction of them. which is unfortunate. I too can’t make out his observations from looking at the photographs as published in his article.

    • Well, the archives is just down the road from me….so theoretically I could do it. But, sitting there counting each and every tank and plotting them on a map sounds like man-weeks of effort. Not willing to take this on at this point.

  2. This leaves the question: Why did the Soviets fall into the ditch and not the German units? The matter of reconnaissance?

    • Well, if the Soviets fell into the ditch….it was because they did not know about it. The defensive works were created by the 69th Army, the territory was occupied by the Germans and the ditch was well out of the sight from the front lines. The attack was conducted by the newly arriving Fifth Guards Tank Army without reconnaissance. They had arrived the previous afternoon/evening on the battlefield and were immediately sent into the attack the next morning. They simply did not know it was there.

      • One explanation could be (assuming the ditch was ever a thing), that it was utilized as an emergency cover. It might have been exactly the opposite, not a trap, but a temporal escape that turned out to be a death trap for the few that made it in there. It is always important to view it from the perspective of the crews, though it was not unusual, as visibilty in a tank is fairly limited and plenty of such examples exist for 41 and 42 (stuck in bogs and ditches).

        • The tank ditch was part of the defensive works of the 183rd Rifle Division. The day before the LSSAH division took this position and moved beyond it. So the ditch was a 2-3 kilometers back behind the front line when the battle started.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Firstly I think it is quite clear many tanks went into the ditch (I am not saying you disagree with this) and hardly surprising it is not mentioned in official reporting at the time.

    As you know the official German reporting at the time is very brief. So no surprises there either.

    Dieter mentioned he did the interviews for you.

    The images of the tank ditch cannot really be viewed in isolation in simplistic terms (they of course sometimes can be – really only via the PDF download so each image can be zoomed in or out as appropriate), but instead have to be backed up by our knowledge of the battle and a comparison with other images. Of course if anyone doubts the true course of events (tanks going into the ditch) it’s possible not to see much given the poorer quality of the 16 of July images ( I used the very best dpi capture available – the Luftwaffe image is just in worse shape than 7 August images).

    But clearly the terrain has suffered terribly around the ditch but not far beyond (suggesting a concentration of fire on the ditch). German armoured losses could only have been low if they engaged the Soviets at distance (at arm’s length from behind the ditch) – had they not losses surely would have been at least on Ribbentrop’s company’s scale (4 of 7 lost). Figure 11 from June 43 shows the tank ditch in high quality- it is clear there was a major conflagration in the ditch on 16 July. Where did the 29th Tank Corps known losses occur on 12th July if not in the tank ditch? –given we know only the 6th company had armour forward of the ditch. The main point is we know the Soviet losses occurred and the major fighting was at the tank ditch as shown in the images. So the only logical conclusion left is that the black mass in the ditch near the road half of the ditch are Soviet tanks.

    Looking at Figure 19 the right-hand side of the ditch (furthest away from the road) we can see individual tanks in the ditch (zoom out a bit in the PDF). You will not likely spot individual tanks in the figure 14 near the road given the mangle of destroyed armour there. But compare Figure 12 (in a PDF) with the right side of figure 14 – the black mass in the ditch can only be a large concentration of destroyed armour – given that clearly this was where the battle was most intense (tank track in front of ditch & most heavily concentrated fire, plus the line of crators from Hill 252.2 to the ditch shows the Soviet must have advanced on this route and smashed into the ditch here – the craters do not continue far beyond the ditch).

    Of course this is only my view but for the reasons I have mentioned I am very confident in my conclusions.

    • Well, Ribbentrop never stated that any Soviet tanks fell into the ditch. The only actual claim of that event is in the Roes interview and he describes “several Russian tanks driving full speed into the tank ditch” (to quote from Prokhorovka, page 328). My copy of the Roes interview is from Zamulin, pages 327-328 and he states that the story came from the “author’s personal archive” and then uses the story to explain that the event happened in the afternoon after they took Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz and only involved part of one brigade.

      Where did the 29th Tank Corps known losses occur on 12th July if not in the tank ditch?

      Well, the Soviet accounts do discuss Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz a lot.

      The main point is we know the Soviet losses occurred and the major fighting was at the tank ditch as shown in the images. So the only logical conclusion left is that the black mass in the ditch near the road half of the ditch are Soviet tanks.

      I assume you are talking in the upper right corner of Figure 19. It pixelates on my downloaded copy. There was at least one bridge across the ditch on the 12th. If that is the bridge site, then we could also see a “black mass” around there from traffic having come to and fro. I have never worked in intelligence, so I am really not experienced in photo analysis.

      Looking at Figure 19 the right-hand side of the ditch (furthest away from the road) we can see individual tanks in the ditch (zoom out a bit in the PDF).

      I see lots of black splotches. Don’t know if they are tanks. There appears to be almost as many south of the tank ditch as there to the north of it.

      But compare Figure 12 (in a PDF) with the right side of figure 14 – the black mass in the ditch can only be a large concentration of destroyed armour – given that clearly this was where the battle was most intense (tank track in front of ditch & most heavily concentrated fire,…

      I see dark splotches. Is the big round one really a tank or a mass of tanks?

      ….plus the line of crators from Hill 252.2 to the ditch shows the Soviet must have advanced on this route and smashed into the ditch here – the craters do not continue far beyond the ditch).

      The area was also fought over on the 11th of July as the LSSAH pushed back the 183rd Rifle Division and took hill 252.2.

      Now, I am not sure how do-able this is, but what really needs to be done is someone needs to pull up all those pictures, carefully go through them all, and mark everything that they can identify on a 1942 1:50000 scale map. Now, there are a lot of photo recon specialists in the DC area, so maybe one of them, armed with the proper training and proper equipment, will stand up and volunteer to do this. But, I suspect if these pictures are going to be properly analyzed, it will probably end up being done by either you or I.

      If we can identify individual tanks and plot them on a map, then we may be able to assemble a story. As LSSAH was in that position from 11-17 July, I am not sure the location of shell holes and heavy traffic areas are as meaningful.

      In the end, it would be very useful to plot all where all the tanks were in these pictures, if we can. Because, right now we have two post-war German accounts describing this action, no supporting documentation from either the German or the Soviet side, and no Soviet veteran interviews describing this (and we did try to find them). Basically, we have nothing from the official records or the other side confirming this. Details from the photo recon would help.

  4. https://bokasin.no/prokhorovka-verdens-storste-panserslag/ Ribbentrop’s driver also states Soviet tanks tried to hurdle the ditch. There is little doubt this is what occurred looking at the images in my article. There would only have been 7 tanks (Ribbentrop’s company – 4 lost straight away) and a few anti-tank guns at Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz hardly enough to stop the Soviet tanks advance.

    Ribbentrop’s testimony very closely matches the Hill 252.2 images in my article – while it is pretty clear the latter part of the same account regarding the tank-ditch (see link above) is also correct. The mass of tanks converging on the central area of the anti-tank ditch and then to its left and the road. – the images in my article show this is where the tank ditch is most heavily altered by fighting from June 1943. Obviously the whole ditch was taken on 11th July – but only one part was so heavily fought over on the 12th (by oil fuelled fire it seems) – which matches the testimony given in the link above.

    I agree that all testimony needs to be backed up by proof. That is what the article has achieved in this regard.

    The tiny light grey rectangle box like shapes (actually in the ditch) are the tanks in the images on the right hand side of the ditch (not black craters). They match the better focused images of tanks near Hill 252.2 (higher ground + closer to Luftwaffe plane = better quality image). You have take that knowledge when looking for individual tanks in the ditch on the right.

    • Thanks. I had not seen Schule’s account (Ribbentrop’s driver). When General Brand talked to Ribbentrop in September 2002, Ribbentrop did discuss the question with his driver (footnote 37, page 939 of Kursk, footnote 61, page 327 of Prokhorovka).

      Schule does state in the article that: “At the far right, in the part of the tomb that was farthest from me, but still visible, four or five high-speed T-34 wagons tried to jump over the tomb. Two did it while the others overturned.”

      This is using google translate. I gather “tomb” means “ditch” or “tank ditch”

      So, this is the second story that actually has Russian tanks going into the ditch. Otherwise, Schule’s account parallel’s Ribbentrop’s account. Still, I note with interest that Ribbentrop does not ever mention this.

      Now Roes account does describe the tank ditch as being 4.5 meters tall on the Russian side and only 1.2 meters on the German side (see page 328 of Prokhorovka, this is drawn from Zamulin). I don’t have a German or primary account from Roes.

      • The tiny light grey rectangle box like shapes (actually in the ditch) are the tanks in the images on the right hand side of the ditch (not black craters).

        Well, looking at Figure 19 (which is what I assume you are referring to), I see following rectangles:

        1. One in ditch in middle of picture
        2. One just north of ditch middle of picture

        Nothing above, below or to the left of those two figures.

        3. Two rectangles in or beyond the ditch in upper right corner.
        4. Two rectangles in a line. One at the ditch and the other “above” it.
        5. One rectangle turn to the left just above the ditch.

        This is a total of seven rectangles I see. Now there are a lot of other blotches in the pictures. They may also be tanks. They are:

        1. Five blotches beyond the ditch in the center of the map. Some look pretty circular.
        2. Three-four blotches to the upper left of these.
        3. Seven or so blotches above the tank ditch towards the center. Some of these look large and vague.
        4. One to three blotches above the five “tanks” in the upper right corner.
        5. Two blotches (they look like circles) below the ditch and to the right of the road.

        • Yes, the point is clearly tanks are lost in this section of the ditch – indicating it occurred. While we know from the German testimony that the Soviet armour was far more concentrated nearer to the road.

          Logically that tells us the much more severely damaged section of the anti-tank ditch from its ‘middle’ to the road would have contained the most Soviet wrecks. The black mass in this section must contain dozens of Soviet wrecks. This matches German testimony – plus helps us understand how the 29th Tank Corps losses were so heavy – even when compared to the 18th Tank Corps.

      • One final note: The Schule interview also states that the attack occurred in the morning. He specifically states “early morning.” This does argue for an 0830 Moscow start time for the attack vice 1000 as Toeppel claims.

        • Regarding the launch time of the attack – I take an open view. As I footnote in my article. Either could be the case. Toeppel’s reasoning seemed the most logical to me. It seems hardly likely that the Soviets took so long to reach & pass Hill 252.2 given the limited German ability at the Hill to fight the large number of Soviet tanks that rushed forward at pace.

          Whatever the start time, I believe the attack quickly reached the anti-tank ditch.

          • Whatever the start time, I believe the attack quickly reached the anti-tank ditch.

            That is my suspicion also. I suspect elements of the 32nd Tank Brigade overran Ribbentrop’s company of 7 Panzer IVs, pushed to the tank ditch and then fell back to Oktyabrskii Sovkhoz. This, of course, contradicts Zamulin’s narrative and contradicts Toeppel’s assumption on timing.

      • Ribbentrop stated a large numbers of Soviet tanks were destroyed at the tank-ditch crossing points ‘running into and over each other’. Obviously some would have fallen in inadvertently. The 16 July image of the anti-tank ditch close to the road backs up this narrative.

        • Well, my translation of Ribbentrop described that action as:

          Now obviously, the T-34s detected the tank ditch and tried to turn left and cross over the reconstructed bridge….As the Russians were now crowded at the bridge and therefore were now flanked and could be killed much easier, the burning T-34s were driving upon one another and ramming one another. That was an inferno of fire, smoke, burning T-34s, dead and injured.

          And:

          Now our tank was no longer combat ready and I decided to take it out of operations, i.e., to cross the bridge over the tank ditch and drive to the rear….

          (See Kursk, pages 938-939 and Prokhorovka, pages 326-327).

          Now we did not specifically ask him about the details of this. I gather he is still around. A few observations:

          1. We don’t know if this account means 6-8 tanks at the bridge, over a dozen, or 30-40.

          2. I again stress that he was able to drive across the bridge shortly after the engagement. This would indicate that there was not so much of a pile up as the block his path.

          3. His wording (at least as translated) seems to indicate he was trying to clearly indicate that Soviet tanks were not driving into the ditch.

          4. The “burning T-34s” driving and ramming into each other may be amplified for the sake of telling a good story, especially considering the audience he first wrote it for.

          • I think it is quite clear Soviet tanks went into the ditch- the number that did is of course open to question. Ribbentrop hardly needed to state explicitly that Soviet tanks went into the ditch (he brings the narrative to the ditch- I would say he was alluding to this when he said the tanks were upon each other in a melee). The other two German testimonies and the images back up the view that this occurred. Given that the Soviet tankers did not know of the ditch’s existence I think we can take it as read this happened (again the images back this up). I heard Ribbentrop died in May this year.

          • I heard Ribbentrop died in May this year.

            I was not aware of that. Thanks. I understand he had a copy of my book.

            Anyhow, I do think it is significant that he did not say they went into the ditch. It may be because he did not actually see that happen. But….it is one of the stories that seems to like to grow in the telling, which is why I am wary of it.

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