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Posted on Oct 4, 2011 in Books and Movies

Blood, Steel, & Myth: The II. SS Panzer Corps and the Road to Prochorowka – Book Review

By Douglas E. Nash

Blood, Steel, & Myth: The II. SS Panzer Corps and the Road to Prochorowka by George Nipe, Jr. RZM Imports, 2011. 496 pages, hardcover.

I just finished reading George Nipe’s Blood, Steel, & Myth: The II. SS Panzer Corps and the Road to Prochorowka (RZM Imports, 2011). The book deals primarily with how the 1943 Eastern Front Battle of Kursk was fought by elements of German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South, in particular General Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf (note: it only mentions in passing the Kursk battle’s fighting to the north in Army Group Center’s sector by Model’s Ninth Army). The book, Nipe’s third, contains maps galore and hundreds of fantastic photos for which RZM Imports has become well-known. It is a good read and very well researched. It also will prove to be extremely controversial — Nipe’s “bottom line” will shock and surprise readers who are familiar with the, to date, standard accounts of the battle. He reveals that the gigantic tank battle of Prochorowka (also spelled Prokhorovka), the mythical climactic event of the Battle of Kursk, never happened.

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Admittedly, there was a lot of fighting taking place south and west of the town on July 12, 1943, but nothing that even remotely resembles the stories of legend, especially the official Soviet version. The so-called “death ride” of the II SS Panzer Corps into the Psel River "Gap," which supposedly involved hundreds of SS Tiger & Panther tanks locked in mortal combat with hundreds of charging Soviet T-34 tanks from Red Army General Pavel Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, was a flagrant Soviet post-battle fabrication in every sense of the word (one example: the Waffen-SS did not even have any operational Panther tank units at that time).  As the reader will discover, most of the Soviet tanks destroyed July 10 – 13 in the II SS Panzer Corps’ area of operations were destroyed by antitank guns and determined German infantrymen (although a “stand” by a platoon of Tiger tanks by legendary “panzer ace” Michael Wittmann does hold center stage). Nipe found that German tank losses actually were moderate, but did verify that the numbers of Soviet tanks destroyed closely matched the numbers that both sides gave out. Forced to call off the ambitious offensive after ten days, the Germans did suffer a strategic defeat at Kursk, true enough; but their tank losses were nowhere near what the Soviet Union trumpeted then and that have become legend in the years since.

Nipe backs up every claim in the book with solid evidence. He has done what most others have not — including more better-known Eastern Front historians who have written extensively about the battle. What Nipe did was to take the time to comb painstakingly through the German war diaries of all the units concerned – from Army Group, to Army, to Panzer Corps, and down to division, regimental & battalion level. Sifting through and translating daily status reports, evening conference notes between commanders and reports about available tank strengths, he went through them all with a fine-tooth comb and the results will surprise you. Aided by guides such as David Glantz & Jonathan House’s account, The Battle of Kursk (albeit theirs from the Soviet perspective), Nipe also pored through available Soviet primary source documents and developed the ability to read between the lines to get closer to what really happened. A large number of sacred cows will be gored and shibboleths laid to rest in Nipe’s account, but the end result is a new, fresh and surprising account of a battle that has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

As you can tell, I was excited to get my hands on this book – George Nipe has confirmed what I had long suspected but did not have the time and resources to research myself. Those who believe the Soviet account will be shocked at how poorly the Red Army’s tank units stood up in tank-on-tank engagements, though Nipe properly gives the Soviet defensive preparations and maturing operational abilities their just due. Those who view the battle from the German perspective will also be unpleasantly surprised, especially in regards to how poorly some of the more vaunted German formations, such as the famous Grossdeutschland Division, actually performed in the battle. Even Field Marshal von Manstein doesn’t make it through this account completely unscathed, coming across more like a “Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg”- – watching his subordinate army commanders make repeated mistakes while he fails to exercise much command influence.

This book definitely deserves special notice and a wide readership, principally because it forces us to reexamine our assumptions about the Battle of Kursk and to reflect upon how politics and the mass media affect the official histories of controversial battles.

Reviewer: Douglas E. Nash, Colonel, U. S. Army, ret. is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp: The 272d Volks-Grenadier Division From the Huertgen Forest to the Heart of the Reich (Aberjona Press, 2008) and Hell’s Gate: The Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket, January to February 1944 (RZM Publishing, 2002). An Armchair General magazine contributing author, Nash’s ACG articles include Battle Studies “Costly Diversion at Simmerath” (March 2010) and “The Forgotten Soldier: Identified!” (November 2010).

11 Comments

  1. The myth of Prokhorovka is not just Siviet propaganda but also belongs equally to the German writers who did nothing to correct the view throughout the four decades since the war. It should not come as any surprise to anyone with even a passing reference to the battle iven without Nipe or Glantz and House. The myth, as propagated by both German and Soviet sides, speaks of some 700 German tanks in the SS pz corps with nearly 100 Mk VI and hundreds of Mk V ytanks involved in the battle. It should not have taken the fall of the Soviet Union to to discover that the German sources clearly showed that the SS Pz Corps never had 700 tanks, much less 700 10 days into a major battle. The SS did not have any Mk V tanks at all and the total of Mk VI tanks in Manstein’s assault force was only 100, so they could not all have been with the SS.

    This information was available from non-Soviet sources and if readers, researchers and armchairgenerals alike chose to ewww and ahhh at the idea of the 1500 tanks charging each other it is the fault of their own foolishness. The numbers did not add up in 1950, 65, 80 or 1990. That should have been the first clue to readers that the cold war era fable was just that,… a tall story.

  2. Actually, this revelation WILL come as a surprise to the overwhelming majority of people with any knowledge or interest in WWII history – the popular account of the battle is still generally accepted today, as evidenced by the current run on the Military Channel of the Great Tank Battles series, which perpetuates the myth about Prokhorovka. The circle of folks like you and me who understand what actually happened is quite small – probably 10,000 people or less (who have read Zitterling, et al) out of the millions who consider themselves history buffs. We can shake our heads and criticize the History or Military Channels, but there it sits, available night after night for all to watch. Even the Army War College, that bastion of conservative military thinking, has several members of its History Faculty, who I personally contacted prior to writing the review, who are very skeptical of Nipe’s thesis – who believe, unless told otherwise, that Kursk in general and Prokhorovka in particular happened exactly the way the Soviets (and Germans) portrayed it. So contrary to your argument, Nipe’s account will come as a surprise to just about everyone except us few history geeks. The fact is, is that most of the official German and Soviet accounts were kept under wraps by the Soviets, who captured the bulk of it and prevented access to military historians until the fall of the Iron Curtain & the Soviet Empire, when guys like David Glantz could get their hands on it. Until then, the only account that existed was the “official” Soviet version and German officers and veterans of the battle had only their memories & unofficial unit histories to draw upon, with nothing to back them up. So you can’t blame them for perpetuating the myth – however, professional military historians don’t get off so lightly, for there were some surviving German records that lay relatively untouched and untranslated for nearly 70 years in the US National Archives (and in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz as well). These records – daily division, corps, and army status reports and commanders comments from the engaged elements of Army Group South – pretty much spell out in detail what happened and a careful analysis leads one to no other conclusion that the popular understanding (and Soviet version) of the battle was a myth. Why no one until recently bothered to translate them is the mystery here – perhaps the myth was so strong that it even suppressed intellectual curiosity, who knows? But Nipe’s is a ripping good account that brings the truth about Prokhorovka out of the shadows where WW2 military historians dwell and lays it bare out there in public. It will certainly be interesting to see how it is received by the broader reading public!

  3. I can only agree with what Mr. Nash wrote. Being Swedish, I am one of the lucky few that have for several years had access to Niklas Zetterlings (among others) incredible books about the truth behind many of the Eastern front myths. It’s no doubt that this is where Nipe’s inspiration for his book came from.

    We can only hope that with time, these facts will spread and become more accepted in the more main stream circles, and from there to a much wider audience that just a few of us history buffs.

    • Johan, George Nipe here. Thanks for your interest in my book. I would like to clarify where my “inspiration” for writing Blood, Steel and Myth originated. Let me assure you that it did not come from reading someone else’s work. It came the old fashion way, from years of careful study of the German Army and W-SS records available on microfilm in the US National Archives. Anyone who actually reads BSM carefully, and notes the primary sources cited in the footnotes, assuming one can read German, will be able to understand where the information came from. The conclusions I made, based on these primary sources, are clearly stated and supported by records at the Army Group, Army, Corps, Division and small unit level, as well as with numerous personal accounts from men who were there. I have not read Mr. Zetterling’s book at this writing so I don’t know where his information came from or what he concluded. In any event, many of the basic conclusions I made regarding myths of Kursk were first documented (although in lesser detail) in my book Decision in the Ukraine, which was published in 1999. Since that book predated both Zamulin’s and Zetterling’s books……perhaps these authors initially learned of the myths of Prochorowka from my first book.
      I find it amusing that someone would think that information from a recently published book could just be inserted into a 496 page book with literally thousands of carefully documented sources that took six years to research and write. Anyone who suggests such a thing, has no concept of the difficulty or time it would take to make sure each new idea would agree with everything that was written throughout more than 350 pages of text. But then, perhaps you would have actually had to write a book to understand the difficulty involved.
      Doug, like you, I don’t think that the history channel would ever admit being wrong in their portrayal of Prochorowka being a battle between hundreds of SS Tiger tanks and the 5th Gds Tank Army. Or that Ribbentrop did not command a Tiger company, but led a company of 7 Panzer IVs. In fact there were only four Tiger tanks (belonging to Leibstandarte) in the Psel corridor when the 18th and 29th Tank Corps charged out of the town. Anyone who wonders were Totenkopf’s and Das Reich’s Tigers were, will have to buy the book. Thanks, for the chance to reply. sincerely, George Nipe

      • Thank you for the reply, and the clarification. I just want to clarify myself that I did not by any way mean to imply that your book is not original research or that information in it was taken from previous works. That’s not the meaning I put on “inspiration”.

        But that is all cleared up now I guess. Mr Zetterling/Frankssons first book on this topic was published sometime around the turn of the century, I think (called Kursk – a statistical analysis), and that early publishing date is what made me jump to the incorrect conclusion that I did.

        Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to reply to my comment and providing some very interresting information. I look forward to reading your (and Zamulins) book when I get the opportunity to do so, and I am glad that there are now several new books being published giving a truer picture of these events.

      • Johan, thanks again for your interest in my book, as well as of the other Kursk books that have come out within the last six months or so. I have the Zamulin book on order and will be interested to read about his conclusions regarding Kursk in general and Prochorowka in specific. We are fortunate that a few well researched, painstaking studies on the Eastern Front still appear from time to time. Another book of this type that we will both have to get will be Col. Doug Nash’s next book (as yet untitled) which will be on the 1944 battle for Kovel. In my estimation, Doug’s first book, Hell’s Gate, was a masterpiece.
        Hope that you enjoy Blood, Steel and M. and will be interested in your further comments/questions. Sincerely, George Nipe

  4. Johan,
    What will be more interesting is whether or not the History/Military Channel in the USA picks up any of this and has the courage to pull the current program they have and to make a corrected version. My bet is that they will not – it will cost too much $ to have to refilm the program and do the research required in order to get the story right. I doubt if there are many on the staff (though there might be a few real historians) who will both to read both Nipe and Zamulin and draw the necessary conclusions and insist that the historical record, at least on television, be corrected. Far easier to let the myths lie than to muster the enery go make the necessary changes.
    Regards,
    Doug Nash

  5. Thank you for the thought provoking review Mr. Nash! I have read both Decision in the Ukraine (sadly out of print) and Last Victory in Russia, and I am excited to start reading Nipe’s latest work. I’ve found his other two books to be exceptionally well researched and I don’t doubt that his latest effort will be any different.

    I too am skeptical as to whether or not more popular accounts of this battle will be revised, but it is great to see serious researchers like Nipe, yourself and Glantz hard at work to give us a better understanding of the war in the east.

    • “Decision in the Ukraine” is available second-hand from ABE books and other online vendors.

  6. For Mr. Nipe,

    We are a Military History Publisher in Spain. We are interested in publish your book “Decision in the Ukraine”, please, can you contact us in contacto@edicionesplatea.com?. Thank you very much!.

    Emilio.

  7. What a load of pro-Nazi bullcrap.

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