The Battle of Kursk was a decisive battle of World War II. It remains the largest armored battle of all time, and included the most costly single day of aerial warfare in history. Although originally planned as a German offensive, the Soviet defense was so successful that they were able to turn it into a rout.
The German Army relied on armored forces to push through enemy lines at high-speed, the famous Blitzkrieg tactic. This meant they were only able to assume the offense during the summer when the Russian summer had dried out the ground enough for the tanks to be highly mobile.
The Eastern Front had thus developed into a series of German advances in the summer, followed by Soviet counterattacks in the winter.
In the winter of 1942 the Soviets won conclusively during the Battle of Stalingrad. One complete German army had been lost, along with about 300,000 men, seriously depleting German strength in the east.
With an Allied invasion of Europe clearly looming, Hitler realized that an outright defeat of the Soviets before the western Allies arrived was unlikely, and decided to force the Soviets to a draw.
In 1918 the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg line on the western front, shortening their lines and thereby increasing their defensive strength.
They planned on repeating this strategy in Russia and started construction of a massive series of defensive works known as the Panther-Wotan line.
Late in 1943 they would retreat to the line, and proceed to bleed the Soviets white against it while their forces were able to mend.
In February and March 1943 Erich von Manstein had completed a brilliant offensive during the Second Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle was a large 200 km wide and 150 km deep salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south.
Manstein pressed for a new offensive based on the same successful lines he had just pursued at Kharkov, when he cut off an overextended Soviet offensive. He suggested tricking the Soviets into attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming 6th Army, leading them into the Donets Basin in the eastern Ukraine.
He would then turn south from Kharkov on the eastern side of the Donets River towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the Red Army against the Sea of Azov.
OKW did not approve the plan, and instead turned their attention to the obvious bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. There were three complete armies in and around the salient, and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's manpower.
It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line, and capture the strategically useful railway town of Kursk located on the main north-south railway line running from Rostov to Moscow.
In March the plans were settled. Walther Model's 9th Army would attack south from Orel while Hoth's 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf under the overall command of Manstein would attack north from Kharkov. They were to meet near Kursk, but if the offensive went well they were allowed to continue forward on their own initiative, with a general plan to create a new line on the Don River far to the east.
Unlike recent efforts, Hitler gave the General Staff considerable control over the planning of the battle. Over the next few weeks they continued to increase the scope of the forces attached to the front, stripping the entire German line of practically anything remotely useful in the upcoming battle. The battle was first set for May 4, but then delayed until June 12, and finally July 4 in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from Germany.
It is worth discussing this plan in terms of the traditional, and successful, blitzkrieg tactic used up to this point. Blitzkrieg depended on massing all available troops at a single point on the enemy line, breaking through, and then running as fast as possible to cut off the front line troops from supply and information.
Direct combat was to be avoided at all costs, there is no point in attacking a strongpoint if the same ends can be had by instead attacking the trucks supplying them.
The best place for Blitzkrieg was the least expected, which is why they had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940, and towards Stalingrad in 1942.
OKW's Operation Citadel was the antithesis of this concept. The point of attack was painfully obvious to anyone with a map, and reflected World War I thinking more than the Blitzkrieg. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Heinz Guderian who asked Hitler Was it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east that year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is?. Perhaps more surprisingly Hitler replied I know. The thought of it turns my stomach.
Simply put, it was an uninspired plan.
The Red Army was also planning for their own upcoming summer offensives, and had settled on a plan that was a mirror of the Germans. Attacks in front of Orel and Kharkov would flatten out the line, and potentially lead to a breakout near the Pripet Marshes. However there was considerable concern over the German plans.
All previous German attacks had left the Soviets guessing where it would come from, and in this case Kursk seemed too obvious for the Germans to attack. However they were then tipped of the German plans through a spy ring in Switzerland.
Stalin and a handful of the Red Army General Staff wanted to strike first. They felt that history had demonstrated that they were unable to stand up to German offensives, while action during the winter showed their own offensives were now working well. However the overwhelming advice of the General Staff, notably Georgi Zhukov, was to wait for the Germans to exhaust themselves in their attack first. His opinion swayed the argument.
The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Soviets four months in which to prepare, and with every passing day they turned the salient into one of the most heavily defended points on earth. The Red Army laid over 400,000 mines and dug about 5,000 kilometers of trenches, with positions as far back as 175km.
In addition they massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft. It was still unclear whether or not it would help, in the past the Germans had overrun their lines with seeming ease.
The Germans were well aware of the Soviet defenses. Why they did not then switch targets remains a mystery.
It took four months before the Germans felt ready, by which time they had collected 200 of the new Panther tanks, 90 Elefant tank destroyers, every flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft, as well as a host of Tiger Is and late model Panzer IVs. In total they assembled some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 900,000 men. It was the greatest concentration of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.
Preliminary fighting started on the 4th of July. In the afternoon Junkers Ju 87 Stukas bombed a two mile wide gap in the front lines on the north in a short period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Hoth's armored spearhead, the 3rd Panzer Korps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Savidovka.
At the same time the Gro▀deutschland Panzer Grenadier Regiment attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the high ground around Butovo was taken by 11th Panzer Division. To the west of Butovo the going proved tougher for Gro▀deutschland and 3rd Panzer Division who met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure their objectives until midnight.
In the south the 2nd SS Panzer Korps were launching their preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again were met with stiff resistance until assault troops equipped with flame-throwers cleared the bunkers and outposts.
At 22:30 the Soviets hit back with a artillery bombardment which, aided by the torrential rain, slowed the German advance.
By this time Zhukov had been briefed on the information about the start of the offensive gained by the German prisoners and decided to launch a pre-emptive artillery bombardment on the German positions.
The real battle opened on 5 July 1943. The Soviets, now aware even of the exact time, commenced a massive artillery bombardment of the German lines 10 minutes prior.
This was soon followed by a massive attack by the VVS on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area, in an attempt to reverse the tables on the old German "trick" of wiping out local air support within the first hour of battle. The next few hours turned into what is likely the largest air battle to ever be fought.
The 9th Panzer Army in the north found itself almost unable to move. Within only minutes of starting forward they were trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire.
After a week they had moved only 10km into the lines, and on the 12th the Soviets launched their northern arm against the 2nd Army at Orel. The 9th had to be withdrawn and their part in the offensive was a massive and costly failure.
In the south things went somewhat better. The armored spearhead of the Hoth's 4th Panzer Army slowly forced their way forward, and by the 6th were some 30km behind the lines at the small town Prokhorovka. Their flank, however, was unprotected as Kempf's divisions were stalled by 7th Guards Army after crossing the River Donets.
The 5th Guards Tank Army were situated to the east of Prokhorovka and were preparing a counterattack of their own when II SS Panzer Korps arrived and an intense struggle ensued.
The Soviets managed to halt the SS - but only just. There was now little to stop the 4th Panzer Army, and it looked like a breakout was a very real possibility. The Soviets decided to deploy the rest of the 5th Guards.
On 12 July the Luftwaffe and artillery units bombed the Soviet positions as the SS divisions formed up. Their advance started and they were astonished to see masses of Soviet armor advancing towards them.
What followed was to go down history as the largest tank engagement ever, with over 1,500 tanks in close contact. The air forces of both countries flew overhead, but they were unable to see anything through the dust and smoke pouring out from destroyed tanks.
On the ground, commanders were unable to keep track of developments and the battle rapidly degenerated into an immense number of confused and bitter small-unit actions, often at close quarters. The fighting raged on all day, and by evening the last shots were being fired as the two sides disengaged. German losses amounted to over 300 tanks with the Soviets losing a similar number.
The overall battle still hung in the balance. German forces on the southern wing were exhausted and heavily attrited, but at the same time faced equally weak defenses and were in excellent position, clear of the defensive works and with no forces between them and Kursk. Relief forces were being held ready for just this moment, the battle could still be won.
And then, everything changed.
On 11 July, in the midst of Citadel, US and British forces landed on Sicily during Operation Husky. Hitler called von Kluge and Manstein to his headquarters in Poland and declared that he was calling Citadel off. Manstein was furious, and argued that one final effort and the battle could be won. Hitler would have none of it, particularly as the Soviets had launched their counteroffensive in the north.
Although unaware of the change in Hitler's plans, the attacks near Kursk were obviously ending. The Soviets immediately put their pre-Citadel plans into action. On 15 July the attacks on Orel were opened with the release of the entire Soviet Central Front.
The Germans withdrew to the partly prepared Hagen line at the base of the salient. To the south the Russians re-grouped and opened their counterattack on 3 August, taking von Manstein's hard-won Belgorod, and then reaching Kharkov on the 11th. On the 20th all German forces in the area had to withdraw.
End of the Battle
On the 22nd both forces were utterly exhausted and fighting (officially) drew to a close. By this point overall German casualties may have been as high as 500,000 killed or wounded. The Soviet casualty figures were not released until the end of the communist regime, and comprised 250,000 killed and 600,000 wounded. They also lost 50% of their tank strength during the Kursk offensive.
Although the battle was not a clear-cut victory for the Soviets, the Germans suffered a clear defeat. Their plans for 1943 were now in serious disarray, and a new front had opened in Italy. Both sides had taken severe losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never regained the initiative after Kursk.
Moreover the loss convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his General Staff. When given the chance, his generals selected a poor plan, and he decided to make sure this would not happen again. The opposite was true of Stalin, however. After seeing his generals' intuition justified on the battlefield, he stepped back from the strategic planning and left that entirely to the military.
The results for both sides were predictable: the German army went from loss to loss as Hitler attempted to personally micromanage the day-to-day operations of what was soon a three-front war, while the Soviet army gained more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.
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