Friday, 12 July 2013

Kursk and Prokhorovka- Seventy years on from the battle

Ninety year old Abram Yekhilevsky, "Everything burned....I don't think any living thing could stand it."

It was seventy years ago when Abram Yekhilevsky stood on the battlefield near his home of Belgorod in south western Russia near the Ukranian border. He is ninety now, but watching him remember himself as a young man, terrified amid a living hell, is humbling. He is expressive, lowering and raising his voice, pausing and waving his hands. But none of it seems designed to hide or gloss over those memories.

"I couldn't even hear my mate next to me, who was shouting at the top of his voice, amid the din. It seemed like every gun in the world was firing at once." 

Abram was caught in one of the eastern front's, and history's, biggest battles. It was summer 1943, Hitler's last great offensive to try and cripple the Red Army. Previous Soviet attacks had pushed a large bulge, or salient, into German lines around the town of Kursk. The Germans planned to attack into the base of that bulge like a crab's pincer and trap the vast Soviet forces concentrated inside.

Eighty seven year old Anna Mishnyeva. "I told my friend to shoot me if the Germans broke through."

Anna Mishnyeva was also inside the Soviet defences at the time. She was a sixteen year old signaller in the Red Army and knew of the huge battle that was raging, and the possibility that the Germans could break through. 

"I gave my friend a pistol and told her to shoot me if they broke through and I wasn't able to shoot myself. I did not want to be captured."

The battle of Kursk wasn't like Stalingrad the year before. Both sides knew a titanic clash was coming and each side's build up was obvious. But through extensive espionage, including that provided through British cooperation, the Soviets came to know a lot about German plans such as the start time of their attack. Soviet artillery started their own barrages of German positions before German artillery started what it thought was going to be a surprise bombardment, disheartening many German soldiers waiting to begin the attack.

Abram ended up fighting both in the north of the salient, near the town or Orel (pronounced Ariol, with emphasis on the 'o') and in the south near Belgorod, at the battle he is describing, a huge clash of tanks near the village of Prokhorovka. 

"The tanks were so loud. It was frightening."

Prokhorovka was perhaps the overall battle's most iconic moment, as unfair as that is to all the other desperate clashes along the hundreds of kilometres of front where the Germans tried to punch through three main Soviet defence lines. They nearly succeeded in the south of the bulge, and Prokhorovka was a last attempt to break through the the third line of defence, which would have threatened to unravel the entire Soviet defence. But the Soviets weren't sitting back passively at this point either. They wanted to blunt and destroy the German spearheads.

Living history re-enactors try to give a taste of what life was like inside a military camp of the time.

The result was one of history's largest tank battles across this rich, gently lilting landscape of farmland, woodland, small rivers and streams. German and Soviet formations, with tanks, infantry and artillery crashed headlong into each other. The was little manoeuvre, little finesse could be added by the generals. It was a furious, desperate slogging match under a 30 degree summer sun. German tanks, especially the heavy 'tiger', could shoot further and more accurately than Soviet tanks, so the Red Army crews drove fast and up close to the Germans to negate their advantage. But the result was a maelstrom of clashing metal as Abram witnessed.

"One tank would ram into another. Everything burned. The tanks burned, the ground burned. I couldn't imagine any living thing being able to stand it."

Ninety year old Ivan Shevtsov. "It was very frightening.... all I could think about was survival."

For eight hours the battle raged. Infantry tried to hold trenches as artillery shells rained down and aircraft battled in the skies and strafed them from above. Ivan Shevtsov, also now ninety years old, was fighting for his life in the Kursk salient. He has hit twice by shrapnel, once is his leg and once in his liver.

" It was very frightening and by the end of the battle all I could think about was survival."

The result was a tactical victory for the Germans who destroyed more Soviet tanks and killed more men. But neither side achieved what they had wanted, both withdrawing from the battlefield. The Soviets however could more easily replace their losses, not that that made it any easier for Red Army soldiers like Abram to cope.

"Of 45 of my comrades who had been around me 7 of us were left alive. When we emerged from our trench you couldn't find a patch of earth to sit down on. The ground was littered with bodies, covered with them. One officer who you would expect to be a hard man, when he saw how many young men were dead, he wept such tears."

The Germans began to lose ground soon afterwards. The Red Army had finally managed to beat them on their own terms, blunting and then reversing a major German summer offensive. For the rest of the war the initiative would remain with the Soviets. They would bleed and batter a route all the way to Berlin.

The memorial tower on the site of the battlefield at Prokhorovka. 

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