Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.
As part of Von Manstein’s Donetz Campaign, the SS Panzer Korps played a decisive role in the maneuver battles that had destroyed the advancing Soviet armored spearheads pushing deep into German-controlled Ukraine, following the fall of Stalingrad. Disobeying orders, the Waffen had then stormed Kharkov in March 1943, recapturing the city they had been forced to retreat from a month earlier in a well-executed and courageously conducted street battle. “General Mud” in April had brought the German counter-offensive to a halt, leaving a Soviet salient, centered on Kursk, bulging into their lines. It was decided by Hitler’s OKW that a summer offensive would be conducted to eliminate this bulge and straighten out the German lines in the east.
Meanwhile, as the SS Panzer Korps was resting and refitting for the battles to come, other Waffen formations were engaged in one of the darkest incidents in German military history: the April ’43 destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
This battle began when the Jews concentrated in the Warsaw Ghetto rose in armed resistance to the Nazis attempt to “liquidate” the Ghetto and deport the residence to the Treblinka extermination camp. From 19 April to 16 May 1943, the Jewish resistance battled heroically in a doomed struggle against hopeless odds.
The Germans eventually crushed the resistance, killing 13,000 of the defenders. The surviving Jewish residents were shipped to the death camps, the majority to Treblinka. In this battle, the Waffen SS played the largest supporting role, contributing 821 combat troops to infamous SS-und-Polizeiführer (SS and Police Leader) Jürgen Stroop‘s 2,054 men. These were drawn from SS Panzer Grenadier Training Battalion III (a training unit for the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf) and from the SS Cavalry Training Battalion (a training unit for the 8th SS Cavalry Division, later named Florian Geyer). This was one more example that refutes the notion that the Waffen SS were merely front-line combat formations and not involved in the Holocaust. Their participation in the Ghetto liquidation helped doom thousands of Jews to the death camps.
The 1943 German summer offensive in Russia was code named Operation Citadel.
The plan called for a double envelopment by two massive pincers meant to penetrate and surround the majority of the Soviet defenders of the Kursk salient. General Walter Model‘s 9th Army would form the northern pincer, driving south to the east of Kursk and cutting the rail line resupplying Soviet forces. Von Manstein’s Army Group South would commit the 4th Panzer Army, under Hermann Hoth, and Army Detachment Kempf, under Werner Kempf, to penetrate the southern face of the salient. This force would drive north to meet 9th Army east of Kursk. If successful, the Germans would encircle and destroy more than five Soviet armies. Such a victory would cripple Soviet offensive operations in 1943, restore the strategic initiative lost by the defeat at Stalingrad, and (by crushing the bulge and straightening their line) reduce the number of troops required to hold the front.
The SS Panzer Korps, commanded by the veteran Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, and now renamed the II SS Panzer Korps (as the another SS Panzer Corps, designated the 1st, was being assembled in the West), would form the spearhead of 4th Panzer Army; with the XLVIII Panzer Corps on its left and the III Panzer Corps of Detachment Kempf on the right.
For this operation, the II SS Panzer Korps consisted of three elite SS panzergrenadier divisions: 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich commanded by Walter Krüger, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hermann Prieß. Leibstandarte was now under the command of SS-Brigadeführer, Theodor Wisch, as its founding commander, Sepp Dietrich, had been promoted to command the newly forming 1st SS Panzer Korps in France. The combined strength of the Korps on the eve of Kursk was between 40,000-50,000 men and approximately 300-350 tanks and assault guns (see below).
For this offensive Hitler allocated a total of 912,460 men, nearly 3,000 tanks and 10,000 guns and mortars; as well as 2,110 Luftwaffe aircraft (including a handful of the Ju 87G Stuka tank busters). To assemble this force took time. The offensive was originally planned to begin on or soon after 4 May 1943. However, the timetable was continuously pushed back to allow time for the delivery of the newly-developed Panzer Mk. V Panther Tanks, and the Ferdinand heavy tank-hunters, as well as more of the recently-operational Panzer Mk. VI Tiger I Tank. (In fact, the Panther’s earmarked for the SS formations never arrived: see below.) These heavy armored vehicles would give the SS Panzer formations (and the elite Panzer Grenadier Division Gross Grossdeutschland, part of the 48th Panzer Corps, the central element of 4th Panzer Army) greatly enhanced fighting power. The delay, however, was not without a cost.
Erich Von Manstein, commander of Army Group South; with Tiger Tanks in the background. The delay involved in refitting the elite Gross Grossdeutschland and Waffen SS Panzer formations with the newest Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinand/Elefant Tank Destroyers gave the Russians time to create massive anti-tank defenses in the Kursk Salient.
The Russians were well aware of the coming blow. Alerted through the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland and by their spy in Britain at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (who clandestinely forwarded raw decrypts directly to Moscow) they used the additional time to turn the Kursk salient into one of the strongest fortified zones in the world; consisting of massive belts of anti-tank obstacles and minefields, supported by tens of thousands guns and anti-tank guns. In all, the Soviets assembled 1,426,352 combat troops, 5,000 tanks, and 31,415 guns to repel the German assault. Most of the Soviet armor was assembled at the base of the Salient, prepared to counter-attack any German penetrations.
As May turned to June, and the Soviet preparations became increasingly apparent and the element of surprise obviously gone, Manstein and others (most notably General Heinz Guderian, father of panzer warfare and now Inspector General of the Panzer Forces) advised cancelling the offensive. Even Hitler had trepidation: “The thought of it turns my stomach.” But the plans went forward, despite the dwindling chances for a decisive (or even favorable) result.
On 5 July 1943 the Battle of Kursk began. This would be the last great German offensive in the East of the war and involved as many as 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2 million fighting men, on both sides.
JU-87G Stuka tank-busters fly over the Kursk battlefield; as Tigers engage Soviet T-34s
For the Waffen troops, the battle began in the pre-dawn hours with SS combat engineers infiltrating the no-man’s land and clearing lanes through the Soviet minefields. With dawn the armored spearheads advanced, clearing outposts and driving back armored detachments of the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army. By 9am, the SS spearheads had penetrated the Soviet’s first line of defense, and were approaching the second. The panzers, advancing in Panzerkeils (wedges), now ran into the Soviet Pakfronts. These were groupings of 76mm anti-tank guns working in cooperation and sited to engage tanks from multiple concealed positions. The elaborate system of Soviet defenses slowed the armor’s attack, as the only way to clear them without heavy loss in tanks was to lead with infantry supported by artillery, thus slowing the advance to a crawl.
A well-concealed Soviet anti-tank gun takes out German panzer
By the second day of the offensive Soviet defenses had slowed the supporting Panzer formations on either flank of the SS almost to a standstill. In the north, where Model’s 9th Army was attempting to break through, the Soviets stopped the Germans completely after only minimal penetration. But the Waffen-SS Panzers, highly adaptable and very accomplished at small-unit tactics, broke through.
The new Tiger tanks, used in large numbers for the first time, proved a fearsome beast on the battlefield. The Tiger’s 88mm gun gave the German panzer commanders a superior stand-off capability, and the German crews were very effective at picking-off Russian tanks before these could come within range with their own inferior 76mm and 85mm guns.
During the fighting on 7 July, Tiger Tank commander SS Unterscharführer Franz Staudegger encountered a group of 50 T-34s. In the ensuing battle, Staudegger’s Tiger knocked out 22 T-34s. For this action, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross (the first Tiger commander to be so decorated).
Members of 3rd SS Totenkopf
By 9 July Hauser’s Panzer Korps had advanced 48 km (30 mi) north, through the last belts of Soviet minefields and anti-tank defenses. Totenkopf reached and established a bridgehead across the Psel River on the 11th. However, on the right flank of the advance, the XLVIII Panzer Korps was still bogged down in the second Soviet defensive line; and Detachment Kemp was stopped by a bend of the Donetz. This left the flanks (particularly the right flank) of the II SS Panzer Korps exposed to counter-attack. However, on the night of the 11th, 6th Panzer Division (of the III Panzer Korps) created a bridgehead across the river, and passed over. This formation now drove north, while the SS shifted the axis of their advance to the northeast. Both thrusts were targeted upon the the small town of Prokhorovka, where they could link-up and complete the encirclement of the Soviet 69th Army.
As the SS Panzers neared Prokhorovka, Hausser prepared to attack the town with Leibstandarte, supported on either flank by the other two divisions. However, unbeknownst to the Germans, the Soviets had moved the 5th Guards Tank Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov, to an assembly area just below Prokhorovka, in preparation for a counter-attack the following day, July 12. This was a massive force of 850 tanks and self-propelled guns, two-thirds of which were the fast and lethal T-34, more than a match for all but the newest German tanks (the Panthers and the Tigers).
The stage was set for the largest tank battle of WW-II.
BATTLE OF PROKHOROVKA REEXAMINED
(The following account is excerpted from the excellent article written by George M. Nipe, Jr., originally appearing in the February 1998 issue of World War II magazine.)
Prochorovka is one of the best-known of the many battles on the Eastern Front during World War II. It has been covered in articles, books and televised historical documentaries, but these accounts vary in accuracy; some are merely incomplete, while others border on fiction.
In the generally accepted version of the battle, Hausser’s three SS divisions attacked Prochorovka shoulder to shoulder, jammed into the terrain between the Psel and the railroad embankment. A total of 500 to 700 German tanks, including dozens of Panther medium tanks with 75mm guns and Tiger heavy tanks with deadly 88mm cannons, lumbered forward while hundreds of nimble Soviet T-34 medium tanks raced into the midst of the SS armor and threw the Germans into confusion. The Soviets closed with the panzers, negating the Tigers’ (longer range) 88mm guns, outmaneuvered the German armor and knocked out hundreds of German tanks. The Soviet tank force’s audacious tactics resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Germans, and the disorganized SS divisions withdrew, leaving 400 destroyed tanks behind, including between 70 and 100 Tigers and many Panthers. Those losses smashed the SS divisions’ fighting power, and as a result Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had no chance to achieve even a partial victory in the south.
Artistic interpretation of the battle; depicting Soviet tanks and infantry close-assaulting the German panzers
While it makes a dramatic story, nearly all of the above is essentially myth. Careful study of the daily tank strength reports and combat records of II SS Panzer Corps (available on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) provides information that forces a historical reappraisal of the battle.
These records show, first of all, that Hausser’s corps began with far fewer tanks than previously believed and, more important, that they suffered only moderate losses (in the fighting at Prochorovka) on July 12, 1943. As those reports were intended to allow the corps commander to assess the combat strength of his divisions, they can be considered reasonably accurate.
Panzers advancing deep into Soviet territory, near Prochorovka
The number of SS tanks actually involved in the battle has been variously reported as high as 700 by some authorities, while others have estimated between 300 to 600. Even before the Battle of Kursk began, however, the II SS Panzer Korps never had 500 tanks, much less 700. On July 4, the day before Operation Citadel was launched, Hausser’s three divisions possessed a total of 327 tanks between them, plus a number of command tanks. By July 11, the II SS Panzer Corps had a total of 211 operational tanks: Totenkopf had 94 tanks, Leibstandarte had only 56 and Das Reich possessed just 61. Damaged tanks or tanks undergoing repairs are not listed. (Most of the tank attrition since the beginning of the offensive was due to mechanical breakdowns or recoverable battle damage.) Only 15 Tiger tanks were still in action at Prochorovka, and there were no SS Panthers available (the Panthers that were involved in the battle were those allocated to the Gross Grossdeutschland division, fighting to the west). The (SS) battalions that were equipped with Panthers were still training in Germany in July 1943.
Soviet 76mm anti-tank gun supporting armor unit
On July 13, the day after the Battle of Prochorovka, Fourth Panzer Army reports declared that the II SS Panzer Korps had 163 operational tanks, a net loss of only 48 tanks. Actual losses were somewhat heavier, the discrepancy due to the gain of repaired tanks returned to action. Closer study of the losses of each type of tank reveals that the corps lost about 70 tanks on July 12.
In contrast, Soviet tank losses, long assumed to be moderate, were actually catastrophic. In 1984, a history of the Fifth Guards Tank Army written by Rotmistrov himself revealed that on July 13 his army lost 400 tanks to repairable damage. He gave no figure for tanks that were destroyed or not available for salvage. Evidence suggests that there were hundreds of additional Soviet tanks lost. Several German accounts mention that Hausser had to use chalk to mark and count the huge jumble of 93 knocked-out Soviet tanks in the Leibstandarte sector alone. Other Soviet sources say the tank strength of the army on July 13 was 150 to 200, indicating a loss of about 650 tanks. Those losses brought a caustic rebuke from Josef Stalin. Subsequently, the depleted Fifth Guards Tank Army did not resume offensive action, and Rotmistrov ordered his remaining tanks to dig in among the infantry positions west of the town.
Soviet infantry dismount from a T-34 as the tank advances at Prochorovka
Another misconception about the battle is the image of all three SS divisions attacking shoulder-to-shoulder through the narrow lane between the Psel and the rail line west of Prochorovka. In truth, only Leibstandarte was aligned directly west of the town, and it was the only division to attack the town itself. The II SS Panzer Korps zone of battle, contrary to the impression given in many accounts, was approximately nine miles wide, with Totenkopf on the left flank, Leibstandarte in the center and Das Reich on the right flank. Totenkopf’s armor was committed primarily to the Psel bridgehead and in defensive action against Soviet attacks on the Psel bridges. Only Leibstandarte advanced into the corridor west of Prochorovka, and then only after it had thrown back initial Soviet attacks.
Tigers prowl the tall grass
The Battle of Prochorovka began early on July 12, when Leibstandarte units reported a great deal of loud motor noise, indicating massing Soviet armor. Soon after 5 a.m., hundreds of Soviet tanks, carrying infantry, rolled out of Prochorovka and its environs in groups of 40 to 50. Waves of T-34 and T-70 tanks advanced at high speed in a charge straight across the open at the startled Germans. When machine-gun fire, armor-piercing shells and artillery fire struck the T-34s, the Soviet infantry jumped off and sought cover. Leaving their infantry behind, the T-34s rolled on. Those Soviet tanks that survived the initial clash with SS armor continued a linear advance and were destroyed by the Germans.
Tiger provides over-watch with its 88mm long range gun for advancing panzer Mk IVs, the workhorse of the German armored forces.
When the initial Soviet attack paused, Leibstandarte pushed its armor toward the town and collided with elements of Rotmistrov’s reserve armor. A Soviet attack by the 181st Tank Regiment was defeated by several SS Tigers of the 13th Schwere (heavy) Company of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, one of which was commanded by 2nd Lt. Michael Wittmann, the most successful tank commander of the war.
Wittmann’s group was advancing in flank support of the German main attack when it was engaged by the Soviet tank regiment at long range. The Soviet charge, straight at the Tigers over open ground, was suicidal. The frontal armor of the Tiger was impervious to the 76mm guns of the T-34s at any great distance. The field was soon littered with burning T-34s and T-70s. None of the Tigers were lost, but the Soviet 181st Tank Regiment was annihilated. (Wittmann and his Tiger alone are credited with destroying “at least” 30 tanks during this battle, according to his biography, for which he was later awarded the Knight’s Cross.) Late in the day, Rotmistrov committed his last reserves, elements of the V Mechanized Corps, which finally halted Leibstandarte.
Michael Wittmann, Germany’s greatest “Panzer Ace”, personally killed “at least” 30 tanks at Kursk
Das Reich began its attack from several kilometers southwest of Prochorovka and was quickly engaged by aggressive battle groups of the II Tank Corps and II Guards Tank Corps. Fierce, somewhat confused fighting broke out all along the division’s axis of advance. Battle groups of 20 to 40 Soviet tanks, supported by infantry and ground-attack planes, collided with Das Reich regimental spearheads. Rotmistrov continued to throw armor against the division, and combat raged throughout the day, with heavy losses of Soviet tanks. Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward, advancing into the night while suffering relatively light tank losses.
Infantry elements of Das Reich advance, an MG-42 in the lead.
Meanwhile, on the left flank, Soviet First Tank Army elements unsuccessfully tried to crush Totenkopf’s bridgehead. The SS division fought off the XXXI and X Tank Corps, supported by elements of the XXXIII Rifle Corps. In spite of the Soviet attacks, Totenkopf’s panzer group drove toward a road that ran from the village of Kartaschevka, southeast across the river and into Prochorovka.
The fighting, characterized by massive losses of Soviet armor, continued throughout July 12 without a decisive success by either side–contrary to the accounts given in many well-known studies of the Eastern Front, which state that the fighting ended on July 12 with a decisive German defeat. These authors describe the battlefield as littered with hundreds of destroyed German tanks and report that the Soviets overran the SS tank repair units. In fact, the fighting continued around Prochorovka for several more days. Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward in the area south of the town until July 16. That advance enabled the III Panzer Corps to link up with the SS division on July 14 and encircle several Soviet rifle divisions south of Prochorovka. Totenkopf eventually reached the Kartaschevka-Prochorovka road, and the division took several tactically important hills on the north edge of its perimeter as well.
Those successes were not exploited, however, due to strategic decisions made by Adolf Hitler.
After receiving the news of the Allied invasion of Sicily, as well as reports of impending Soviet attacks on the Mius River and at Izyum south of the fighting, Hitler decided to cancel Operation Citadel. Manstein argued that he should be allowed to finish off the two Soviet tank armies. He had unused reserves, consisting of three experienced panzer divisions of XXIV Panzer Corps, in position for quick commitment. That corps could have been used to attack the Fifth Guards Tank Army in its flank, to break out from the Psel bridgehead or to cross the Psel east of Prochorovka. All of the available Soviet armor in the south was committed and could not be withdrawn without causing a collapse of the Soviet defenses. Manstein correctly realized that he had the opportunity to destroy the Soviet operational and strategic armor in the Prochorovka area.
Built low to the ground, the Soviet SU-122 Assault Gun packed a heavy punch, and was effective in its role of providing direct fire on strongholds.
Hitler could not be persuaded to continue the attack, however. Instead, he dispersed the divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps to deal with the anticipated Soviet diversionary attacks south of the Belgorod/Kharkov sector. On the night of July 17-18, the corps withdrew from its positions around Prochorovka.
Thus, the battle for Prochorovka ended, not because of German tank losses (Hausser had over 200 operational tanks on July 17) but because Hitler lacked the will to continue the offensive. The SS panzer divisions were still full of fight; in fact, two of them continued to fight effectively in southern Russia for the rest of the summer.
(Manstein considered this failure to exploit the successes of the SS Panzer Korps after the fighting at Prochorovka an example of “lost victories”. German casualties on the 12th were very light, considering the intensity of the fighting, and belie the often related “official version” that the battle was a bloody draw. The Waffen suffered a mere 842 casualties, killed, wounded, or missing; compared to the estimated 5,000-8,000 Soviets casualties in the fighting against them. Armor losses were also extremely one-sided. 43 German tanks were disabled during the battle, and most were recovered, as the Germans retained the battlefield. German archival data for II SS-Panzer Korps indicates that the Corps ultimately lost a mere three to five tanks! By the end of 16 July, the II SS Panzer corps had almost the same number of serviceable tanks it had at the beginning of the battle.
By contrast, Soviet armored losses were staggering. Estimates vary in the sources, but all agree that not less than 400 and perhaps as many as 800 tanks were lost in the suicidal assaults upon the SS panzers at or around Prokhorovka.
Despite the ultimate strategic outcome for the Germans, the Battle of Prochorovka was tremendous, one-sided tactical victory for the Waffen-SS panzers. The Waffen-SS had grown into a mature and highly capable fighting force, perhaps the most capable and lethal armored force in the world.
NEXT: CAULDRON OF FIRE IN NORMANDY
A Russian tank commander recounts his experience in the battle.