Monday, 18 March 2013

Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle of Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative - Valeriy Zamulin

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Army Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Canadian Army Journal ( Website for the Journal is:
Title: Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle of Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative
Author: Valeriy Zamulin
ISBN: 978 1 906033 89 7
Publisher: Helion and Company Ltd
Pages: 630

    With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, many documents and unit records of Soviet operations during the Second World War became available to scholars. Valeriy Zamulin has taken advantage of this opportunity to draft an outstanding operational history of the Battle of Prokhorovka. Fought on the Southern Front of the Kursk conflict between 2 and 17 July, 1943, this Battle represented the zenith of German offensive capability on the Eastern Front. From this point on, the Germans efforts were defensive in nature while Russian operations transitioned onto the offensive full time.

    Of note in Zamulin’s book is that it is written from the perspective of the Soviet forces. He has taken advantage of numerous first hand accounts ranging in level from junior soldiers to Front Commanders that provides context and depth to the narrative. While the scope of his study is relatively narrow (the Battle of Prokhorovka within the larger Kursk conflict); the breadth of his operational narrative is such that it provides a clear sense of the challenges faced by the Russian Commanders controlling the fast moving and fluid conflict.

    Zamulin’s approach to the Russian Command performance during the battle is balanced and objective. His use of daily logs, orders, situational reports and first-hand recollections highlight some of the strength’s and weaknesses of Russian command and control. Specifically, the tendency of the Russians to be extremely stratified in their decision making is repeatedly identified. Interestingly, the pressure on senior Commanders to perform effectively was compounded by the implied (and real) threat of consequences should they fail. This expectation resulted in micro management and a fear of error that permeated throughout the command structure.  Zamulin refers to a scenario, as an example of this, where Stalin himself directed that, just prior to the initiation of the Soviet counterattack on 12 July, the senior Front Commanders spread themselves between each individual regional HQ’s. Thus the Front Commander, his Chief of Staff and other key commanders were physically separated while trying to coordinate a multi-army, combined arms battle.

    One of the real strengths of this book is the ability of the author to expose the reader to both the interdependent role that the various arms operated under and the individual challenges and success that each arm faced. This battle revealed a growing confidence in the Russian military leadership in their abilities and equipment. Many errors were committed and these are discussed within the larger narrative of the battle and weaknesses were highlighted in senior leaderships ability/experience level to coordinate effective counterattacks using combined arms assaults. Nevertheless, it is evident from the overall performance of the Russian command and soldiers that morale and competency had improved dramatically.

    What I particularly enjoyed about Zamulin’s book is the way that he presents his evaluation of the battle. Thus, while he sets his third person narrative at the operational level, in order to provide context and depth, he seamlessly transitions to the tactical and first person. This provides the reader with a much greater appreciation of what was going on within the ‘heads’ of the individual commanders and soldiers. Additionally, while this book is primarily a narrative on the Russian experience, he does make a concerted effort to include the German perspective which adds further context and flavour.

    Another strength is Zamulin’s chronological presentation of Prokhorovka. Therefore, despite the complexity of the battle, the reader is easily able to follow as the battle unfolds from the German offensive from 2 – 12 July to the transition over to the Russian counter- offensive  running from 12 to 17 July. Zamulin has obviously researched the units involved in great depth. Included within the narratives (in chart format) are breakdowns of unit strengths by vehicle type and personnel, unit replacement rates and overall loss rates for both the German and Russian sides.

    Zamulin concludes his narrative by addressing the commonly held beliefs of historians surrounding the Battle of Prokhorovka. Using primary source documentation only recently made available to historians he refutes, for example, the idea that Prokhorovka involved the largest concentration of armour involved in a single combat operation on the Eastern Front. Additionally, he summarizes very succinctly the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian commanders from an experience as well as a doctrinal and quality of equipment perspective.

    Rounding off his book is a comprehensive listing of all of the units from both sides involved in the Battle. He also provides an in-depth bibliography of his primary and secondary sources. One observation that I would make involves the concentration of the maps into one section of the book. While a very small point that in no way takes away from the narrative, it would have made tracking the battle easier for the casual reader.

    This is an outstanding historical analysis of a ‘battle within a battle’. Valeriy Zamulin’s work represents for the military professional and the casual military historian a work of profound depth and scope. There is something for any branch of the combat arms professions and for operators in a joint environment.  The cost was horrific but the Russians learned many lessons from their experiences during the Battle of Prokhorovka and they did not waste time applying them.

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