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8 May, 2010 04:58

Battle of Kursk – a turning point of WWII

The Russian town of Prokhorovka, in the south of Russia, is where a crucial battle of the Kursk defense took place in 1943. This fiercest of tank clashes switched the momentum on the Eastern Front to the Soviets.

RT highlights key points of the war and how the main geographical spots of decisive battles are preparing for the Victory celebration.

For some veterans this year Victory Day parade is not just for show. They are the few who remember first hand the original reason for today’s pageantry.

Because 67 years ago, this part of central Russia was the largest battlefield the world had ever seen. And they are grateful it is remembered.

“65 years later, I want to greet the new young generation,” said one of the veterans, during a remembrance speech. “I am happy that a great new generation is growing, which has done a good job in Prokhorovka. This is a beautiful area you’re standing on.”

Spring 1943. Hitler wants to strike back at the Red Army and avenge the humiliating defeat at Stalingrad in February. Soviet attacks have pushed out a huge bulge into German lines around the city of Kursk, 600km south of Moscow. Now the Germans want to pinch it off at its base. Hitler said that victory here would be a beacon for the whole world.

“They saw Russia as a big prize, so to say,” claimed WWII veteran Dmitry Yuriev. “It would’ve been profitable, had they conquered it. But they miscalculated. The Russian nation proved tougher, stronger, more confident and far-sighted than they imagined.”

But Hitler also wanted to introduce Germany’s latest tanks to battle and kept delaying the attack. By July, they were finally ready. So were the Soviets.

Tipped off by multiple intelligence sources, Zhukov convinced Stalin to turn the area around Kursk into a giant fortress, with eight defensive lines bristling with anti-tank guns and artillery. When the panzers rolled forward in the summer heat, the Red Army was waiting.

From hundreds of kilometers of trenches, Soviet troops raked the advancing panzer divisions with fire. The Germans broke through three of the Soviets’ defense lines, but after five days of it, their advance had ground to a halt.

In desperation, the Germans in the south pincer regrouped and tried to smash their way through to the base of the bulge. The assault was spearheaded by three of Germany’s most ruthless and elite SS divisions.

It all came to a head on the 12th July, 1943, in what’s become known as the death ride of the panzers near the little Russian town of Prokhorovka. On the morning of the 12th July two huge tank forces from German and Soviet sides, unaware of each others’ locations, collided head on on the field of Prokhorovka.

Eyewitnesses describe a scene of unimaginable carnage. The Germans’ advantages in range and firepower were useless as tanks blasted each other from point blank range.

Some Soviet crews, knowing death was imminent, rammed their vehicles into the Germans, sending both vehicles up in a huge fireball. Such was the maelstrom that neither side’s air forces could intervene, unable to tell friend from foe in the swirling dust. A huge thunderstorm broke overhead, heard by no one.

This was the culmination of total war in the industrial age, and of the Soviet Union’s fight to the death with Nazi Germany.

By the day’s end, the Red Army had fought the SS to a standstill.

Hundreds of burning tanks littered the field, heavy with the stench of exploded shells, burning fuel and charred human flesh. It had been a horrifically bloody draw.

But the Soviets, now totally mobilized for a war of annihilation, could replace their losses. The Nazis could not. It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

“The Battle of Kursk on the 12th July was a turning point in WWII,” said Natalya Ovcharova, curator of Prokhorovka museum. “German troops began retreating on the 12th July. First they left Belgorod, and then other areas. Some even believe that the Battle of Prokhorovka started the retreat of the Germans which ended in Berlin.”

The Red Army had beaten a full scale German summer offensive for the first time, and all without a sign of the Western Allies promised second front.

If Stalingrad had witnessed the birth of a new Red Army, this was its coming of age.

The road from Prokhorovka, would lead all the way to Berlin.