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July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

Posted July 12, 2007 4:41 PM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, armies from the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany clashed in one of the largest tank battles of World War II . During the spring of 1943, the Red Army amassed 1.3 million troops and 3,600 tanks near Kursk, Russia. Although the Nazi invaders had collected a numerically smaller force, their 900,000 soldiers and 2,700 tanks still posed a formidable threat.

Operation Citadel

After twice delaying the start of battle to await the arrival of new weaponry, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler concluded that his army now had enough tanks to launch Operation Citadel . Designed to counter the Soviet T-34, the new Panzer V tank combined speed and mobility with firepower and protection. What Hitler and his generals failed to realize, however, was that while the Fuhrer had twice delayed the start of battle, over 300,000 Soviet civilians had helped lay a massive array of tank traps and minefields.

The Soviet T-34 Tank

Built at the Kharkov Steam-Engine Factory in Ukraine, the Soviet T-34 was termed the "best tank in the world" by German General Gerst von Runstedt. Inexpensive to produce and easy to repair, the T-34 was small and relatively light. Although a frontal assault from its 76-mm gun couldn't destroy a thickly-armored German Tiger tank, the T-34 could achieve a top speed of 51 kilometer per hour (kph) – over 15 kph faster than the Tiger. The T-34's water-cooled diesel engine also increased the tank's radius of action and decreased the risk of fire from an enemy attack. Sloped armor and a superior welded construction deflected shrapnel and prevented penetration.

The German Tiger and the Panzer V

Named by automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche, Germany's Tiger tank emphasized firepower and protection at the expense of mobility. Armored with thick, interlocking plates, the Tiger tank could destroy bridges that it was too heavy to cross. Even worse, the tank's heavy weight put severe stress on its suspension, causing breakdowns and complicating maintenance activities.

Like the Tiger, early versions of the Panzer moved at relatively slow speeds and suffered repeated breakdowns. Although German tanks could outrange the T-34's smaller and shorter gun, Nazi strategists worried about the speed of Soviet armor. Equipped with a 592-hp Maybach V-12 engine, the Panzer V featured speeds of 46 kph with a governor and 55 kph without.

The Battle of Kursk

On July 4, 1943, Hitler's army launched a blitzkrieg which ultimately lacked the critical elements of shock and surprise. Thanks to Allied intelligence and Russia's own "Lucy" spy network, Marshall Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov knew the locations of the planed German attack. While Hitler had delayed Operation Citadel for almost four months, Soviet civilians helped the Red Army lay a million land mines and dig 5000 km of anti-tank trenches to a depth of 175 km. Soviet military engineers also laid 500,000 anti-tank mines and 400,000 anti-personnel mines.

Although some historians describe the Battle of Prokohorovka as the triumph of faster Soviet T-34 tanks over slower Tigers and older Panzers, the mythology of a Soviet victory obscures the reality of what happened on the ground. In the end, the largest tank battle of World War II ended in a draw. In short, anti-tank fortifications trumped sophisticated weaponry. Still, Mother Russia's belief in a Soviet "victory" ensured that the strategic initiative would remain the Red Army for the rest of the Great Patriotic War.

Resources:

http://zhukov.mitsi.com/Kursk.htm

http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/land/row/t-34.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-34

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panther_tank

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_I

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Prokhorovka

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#1

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 1:15 PM

Army lay a million land mines and dig 5000 km of anti-tank trenches to a depth of 175 km.

What encouraged Russian to dig soooooo deep, fear of Gulags? Did they want to prevent the "bad boys" from piling up 60,000 tanks to use them as bridges?

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#3
In reply to #1

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 1:37 PM

Yeah, that doesn't make sense. I've removed the "to a depth of 175 km" part, since that would be over 100 miles. Maybe the measurement was 175 meters (m), which would be 575 feet? Still, that's one deep trench.

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#4
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 3:30 PM

Yeah, that doesn't make sense...

Hi Moose,

A 1,75 meters (about 7 feet) deep trench + the soil piled up along one of the edges, would certainly make tanks stop or slow down (at least for the time necessary to be shot at with a bazooka or so).

Germans used old railroad rails as well as chunks of concrete for this purpose, Russians might have used them as well along the trench.

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#11
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/14/2007 6:23 AM

I reckon they mean a 'system of trenches' extending over that distance from 'front' to 'back' e.g to cross the system in a tank you would have to travel 175km.

It's the only way I can make sense of the figure, and 'depth' can be used in that manner. e.g. 'deep into the forest'.

Whadda ya think?

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#2

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 1:36 PM

I wonder what happen to all 6300 tanks? All that steel!

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#5
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 3:34 PM

wonder what happen to all 6300 tanks? All that steel!

I´m more concerned about all the people (of both sides) that died there!

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#8
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 3:48 PM

It was a horrific battle. Estimates vary, of course, but there were about a half-million deaths on each side.

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#7
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 3:46 PM

Hello, ngnyur. I revisited my sources and found this in one of the articles I cited.

"Soviet losses have been claimed as low as 200 or as high as 822 tanks, but the loss records now show that they were probably from 150 to 300 complete losses, with a similar number damaged. Likewise, German loss claims have reached as low as 80 or into the hundreds, including "dozens" of Tigers. This number is impossible to establish because of the German philosophy in counting lost tanks."

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#6

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 3:46 PM

Hi Moose:

The details are interesting, but without Hitler's Eastern front, this would be a very different world today. If Hitler had honored his pact with Stalin and they had decided to divide the world between them (and the Japanese), the following years would have been bleak indeed. After those years, the Soviet Union never again contributed to peace and freedom but, in those years, they were a great ally.

DickL

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#14
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/16/2007 8:32 AM

Good to hear from you, DickL. Hitler's Eastern front did indeed make the difference. If I'm not mistaken, the Soviet Union lost 20 million of its citizens during what is called "the Great Patriotic War (WWII). That's a horrific amount by any measure.

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#16
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/16/2007 8:41 AM

Hi Moose:

That number may only be exceeded by the number that Stalin murdered in his paranoia. Good subject about dark days.

DickL

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#19
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

06/05/2009 11:28 PM

where are you?

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#9

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 5:23 PM

If I am not wrong this battle decided the course of the WW II and marked the beginning of the end of the German dominance in the war.

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#15
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/16/2007 8:33 AM

I think you're right, PranavArya. Good to hear from you.

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#10

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/13/2007 6:37 PM

Moose - good story. The Kursk battle was very important to both Germans and Russians. Marshall Zhukov was getting ready for a summer offensive and knew that the Germans were planning this attack, which made it an opportune time for him to start the campaign there. He used the tried and true practice of waiting for the attack rather than attacking first to see if the Germans would wear out before getting to him. Using the partisans was also a common tactic...they laid an enormous amount of mines and traps for the German panzers- which, I think loosely translate into "armor". The Germans were not without ideas either. Their sappers worked overtime on demining fields, which helped with their offensive.

The interesting point about the types of armor used is also important. Russians throughout history relied on light armor. The Russian knights, who were called Bogatiri, wore mostly chain mail. In a very famous battle fought by Alexander Nevski the Russian knights drew the Swedish and German Teutonic knights onto the frozen Lake Peipus in 1242 for the battle. The invading knights wore heavy armor as did their horses and mostly fell through the ice leading to a win for the Russians.

Russian roads during WWII were notoriously bad and muddy (and haven't changed much :-) since then). In fact Stalin had fake maps made so that when they fell into German hands the enemy was constantly baffled to find dirt roads where paved highways were marked. The same was true for bridges...in most cases what was on the map did not exist in reality. So the Russian tanks were also built for the terrain. The Germans over engineered theirs and although achieved some very powerful engineering feats ended up in many cases stuck in the mud.

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#13
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/16/2007 8:28 AM

Great stuff, LeoTheRussian. Thanks for joining the conversation. The story of the Russian knights and Lake Peipus is fascinating. Sounds like history repeated itself in 1943 when Russian light armor trumped German heavy armor once again.

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#12

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

07/14/2007 8:28 AM

'system of trenches'

I believe some commas have got lost in the translations or measure conversions of these documents.

I have re-read this part of the article, and even taking into account how desperate Russians could have been to prevent Nazis from invading their country, it seems very unlikely to me that they managed to dig a 5,000 Km (2,000 miles!) long trench (no matter how wide) in only 4 months! This distance is equivalent to the shortest US coast to coast distance (Georgia to San Diego)!!!!

Considering HOW FAST Russians had to get prepared for the battle (they had only 4 months), and the lack of resources they certainly had in wartime, I would say THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE, even for the 300,000 workers they say'd they had.

Looking at the battlefield map, trench was probably 500 Km long (200 miles), which is still a formidable task to be done in ONLY 4 months!!!!

In regard to the dept of the trench, in a previous posting I suggested it might have been 1,75 metes deep (6 to 7 feet), with the removed soil piled up along one side of it.

This trench also had to be quite narrow, perhaps 2 meters wide (6 feet), which is half of the length of a Panzer.

This would have made tanks get into the trench at an angle of about 70 degrees making them get stuck (this is an area crossed by many rivers, therefore soil was probably muddy) Should trench had been wider, it would have been a piece of cake to leave it behind by the caterpillars.

Here in my country, a very long trench (1,000 km / 300 miles) was dug in the 17th century surrounding farms to prevent "Indians" (local natives) to steel herds of cattle.

5,000 laborers were hired, but it took them almost 4 years to have it finished !

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#17

Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

08/16/2007 8:02 AM

Dear all, I recommend to take a look at the KOSAVE study on the battle at Prokhorovka based on daily statistics reports of both sides. The results really disprove the main mythus of the battle, primarily of the losses. Regards, Filip Blog on strafing missions in WWII

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#18
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Re: July 12, 1943 – The Tiger, the Panzer, and the T-34

08/16/2007 11:40 AM

Here's a link to the KOSAVE study to which Filip refers. Warning: It takes a while to load.

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