On 5 July 1943,
the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany
met in the biggest and most significant battle since the German defeat at Stalingrad.
The Battle of Kursk, though not as well-known as Stalingrad,
proved to be as significant for the destruction it caused amongst German
personnel and material. The battle ended all chances for the Germans to retake
the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front and grimly set the stage for two
years of heavy fighting that would eventually lead to the Soviet capture of Berlin.
The Battle of Kursk, noted as one of the biggest field battles of the war.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russians successfully
encircled the German Sixth Army fighting within the city, allowing them to
prepare a grander offensive to cut off the German forces trying to seize
Russian oil supplies in the Caucasus region. As it
turned out, the tenacious German defence of Stalingrad
allowed their comrades the time needed to evacuate: hundreds of thousands of
German troops retreated from the Caucasus and managed to
establish a new defensive line several hundred miles to the west, running from Rostov
in the south to Leningrad in the
north. This line was almost straight apart from one major protrusion: the Red
Army had successfully retaken the city of Kursk,
forming an immense (180 miles wide) salient into the German lines.
The German generals immediately saw an opportunity to retake
Kursk and eliminate the Russian
forces surrounding the city. The nature of the salient would allow German
forces to attack simultaneously from the north and south, cutting off the city
and forcing it to surrender. This was the classic German strategy, although it
was also one that the Russians had used to devastating effect on the Germans at
Stalingrad. Despite the likelihood of success, some
German generals (such as Manstein and Guderian, the architects of blitzkrieg)
thought the plan was too risky, as it mean using hundreds of thousands of
German troops to retake a target that was, on its own, of limited value.
Hitler, surprisingly, agreed but also noted that this was the last opportunity
for the Germans to undertake an offensive campaign that they had a good chance
of winning on the Eastern Front. If they succeeded, they could regain the
initiative. If they failed, the war would likely be lost.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the Russians were well aware
of their preference for attacking salients. Once it became clear that Kursk
was a target the Germans could not ignore, the Russians began pouring men,
tanks and artillery guns into the area. They established a defence in depth
consisting of artillery pieces, minefields and anti-tank guns, with huge
numbers of T-34 and KV-1 tanks ready to sweep in and knock out the advancing
enemy panzers. And as the Germans dithered, so the vast area surrounding Kursk
became even more impregnable.
The original German plan had been to launch the offensive at
the start of April 1943, only two months after their defeat at Stalingrad.
At this point Kursk was still
fairly vulnerable to attack, with the Russian military build-up only just
getting underway. Hitler was finally persuaded into approving the operation,
but was unhappy with the performance of the German Panzer IV tank against the
T-34, the Russian mainstay. He wanted the heavier tanks that had been in
development for some time available for use.
The first of these tanks was the Panther, a formidable
machine designed to directly rebuff the T-34. Equipped with a heavier gun and
better armour (though this resulted in less speed), the Panther was -
eventually - the outstanding German tank of the Second World War. Even more
formidable - at least on paper - was the Tiger. Larger, more heavily-armoured
and better-armed than either the T-34 or Panther, the Tiger was a monstrous
machine capable of causing immense damage. The expense of building them meant
they would always be some what rare, but they were a much-needed
force-equaliser against the numerically superior Russian tanks.
The problem was that the deployment of both tanks was
running behind schedule, and the Kursk
offensive was delayed several times due to the manufacturers not meeting their
delivery targets. The Germans finally received enough of both tank to satisfy
Hitler, who set the date for the offensive to begin as 5 July 1943.
The German plan called for the 2nd Army to hold the Russians
at bay on the west-facing side of the salient whilst the 9th Army under General
Model attacked the salient from the north and the 4th Panzer Army (under
General Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf (under General Kempf) attacked from the
south. As early as the end of April Model had become concerned over aerial
reconnaissance that showed the scale of the Soviet build-up, pictures which
convinced even Manstein that the plan was probably too ambitious, but Hitler
had become committed to 'Operation Citadel'. General Guderian, infamous for his
seeming total disregard for Hitler's formidable temper, suggested that Hitler
abandon the operation and indeed all offensive plans for 1943. Instead they
could use Manstein's plan to lure the Russians to attack on the southern front
and then destroy them with a counter-offensive. Hitler's response was
surprisingly downbeat: he agreed with Guderian and said the thought the
operation turned his stomach. But it was the only option on the table and he
was determined to see it through rather than do nothing.
Soviet signal flares are fired ahead of an armoured assault.
Military Forces and the Opening of the Battle
The three-month delay proved costly for the Germans, as the
Russians had time to almost quadruple their own armoured forces in the salient
and lay immense minefields. They brought in 300,000 civilian workers to help
construct these defences rapidly. They constructed a defensive zone almost 190
miles in depth, the result of an almost unprecedented amount of preparation
time: three months in the fast-moving war was almost luxurious. Just under 2
million men and just over 5,000 tanks were deployed in the Kursk
region, backed up by over 25,000 artillery pieces and mortars. More than 3,000
aircraft were also assigned to the defence of the region. Startlingly, the
Russians were able to deploy a minefield density of over 3,000 mines per square
kilometre throughout the forward areas of the salient, enough to immensely slow
down the German advance (or so it was hoped).
On the German side, some 900,000 troops, 3,000 tanks
(including 240 Tigers and over 200 Panthers), 2,000 aircraft and 10,000
artillery pieces and mortars were deployed for the offensive. Not only were the
Germans attacking a numerically superior enemy (not unusual for them), they
were also attacking with a deficiency in material and a lack of available
reinforcements (which was more unusual) if things went wrong.
In terms of tanks, both sides brought an unusually high
number to the battle. The Germans committed 70% of their total available tank
forces on the Eastern Front to the operation. The Russians brought in just
under half of their total tank forces in existence at that time. The Russians
also deployed considerable numbers of anti-tank mines, anti-tank artillery
pieces and anti-tank rifles, resulting in a Russian superiority of both armoured
numbers and also other anti-tank forces. Hitler was relying on the superiority
of the Tigers and Panthers (as well as the newly-deployed Ferdinand tank
destroyer) to turn the tide of numbers.
On the aerial side of things, the air superiority that the
Germans had enjoyed throughout the war was beginning to wane. Constant British
(and now American) air raids on Germany
had called away fighters to defensive duties, and operations in North
Africa were also putting a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe. The Red
Air Force had also been compromised by poor equipment, but by the time of Kursk
this had been remedied by the introduction of the Yak-9 and La-2 fighters and
especially the Sturmovik IL-2 ground attack aircraft (arguably the outstanding
Russian aircraft of the war). The Germans were slower to bring new equipment to
the battle, though an upgraded Stuka and more Focke-Wulf FW-190s did help.
Overall, neither side enjoyed air superiority in terms of equipment over the
battlefield, though the Russians did enjoy numerical superiority.
Probing attacks by German scouts and pioneers were launched
on the evening of 4 July. This resulted in a Russian artillery bombardment just
after midnight which proved less
effective than hoped. A major Red Air Force attack on German airfields was also
fought off with heavy Soviet losses. On the southern face of the salient the
Luftwaffe was able to quickly achieve local superiority to cover the ground
offensive, but in the northern sector the Russians were able to hold the
Germans at bay, resulting in aerial stalemate. The Germans returned fire with
their own artillery bombardment, but this also failed to make much impact on
the Russian positions, which were too well-dug-in.
The Offensive in the North
On the northern sector the Germans launched an overwhelming
attack with mobile artillery and infantry, with Model's plan being to break
open holes in the Russian lines that their panzers could exploit. Given that
the weight of the defences was oriented towards resisting armour, this proved
to be a reasonable decision, though it was criticised at the time. The northern
forces achieved a breakthrough when they successfully identified a weak spot in
the Russian lines between two divisions and drove into the gap, spearheaded by
two dozen Tigers. The Russians fought them off by deploying 90 T-34s, but the
Tigers made a formidable impression: 42 T-34s were destroyed to the loss of
seven Tigers. Despite this impressive showing, the three-hour tank battle
delayed the Germans and allowed the Russians to reinforce and beat off the
Elsewhere in the northern sector the Germans ran into
repeated problems: the sheer mass of the minefields slowed their advance to a
crawl, which made them easy prey for enemy artillery and mortars. In one area the
Germans achieved a breakthrough by using their Ferdinand tank-destroyers in an
offensive capacity to attack a Russian artillery position, but the destroyers'
lack of machine guns weapons left them easy prey for Russian small arms and
With the German advanced slowed - only 5 miles' progress was
made on the first day, astonishingly feeble by German standards - the Russians
counter-attacked in force on the second day across the northern sector. The
T-34s spearheading the attack enjoyed superior speed and manoeuvrability to the
Tigers, but were now facing an enemy who could destroy them at range and
shrugged off counter-fire (for too long, the T-34's advantage over the Panzer
IV). The Russians suffered devastating losses in the attack and had to pull
The next few days saw heavy exchanges of fire, but Model
refused to mass his tanks for a sustained assault, fearing the depth of the
Russian minefields and the formidable anti-tank forces arrayed against him. On
12 July he - reluctantly - began preparations for a major armoured offensive
but was caught off-guard by a Red Army advance on Orel
to the north which threatened to encircle him. With little choice, Model
withdraw the entire German 9th Army from the battlefield. Whilst his caution
had preserved his forces remarkably well (only 143 vehicles lost), it had also
failed to achieve anything of note, only to prove the impressive nature of the
Soviet defences. Still, Model's deployment of the Tiger tank was successful,
achieving a kill-to-loss ratio against the until-then superior T-34 that served
as a nasty wake-up call to the Russian commanders that their front-line tank
Though limited in speed and number, the superior firepower of the German Tiger inflicted tremendous losses upon the Russian forces during Kursk.
The Offensive in the South
The Germans launched a major assault from the south of the Kursk
salient on 5 July. Unlike the more cautious attacks in the north, the southern
German forces arrayed their tanks in concentrated spearheads. They brought
large amounts of fire to bear on single parts of the Russian line. The Russians
had also failed to anticipate the likely main axis of attack on the southern
front, forcing them to spread out their defences. In short, the attack in the
south allowed the Germans to unleash one of their favourite tactics: bringing
maximum offensive power to bear against a single part of the enemy line,
overwhelming the enemy's superior overall numbers on a local level.
These attacks in the south were impressive, but also exposed
some serious problems. 200 Panthers were ordered into the fight, only for a
dozen of them to break down before they even started action. After further
thirty-three suffered mechanical breakdowns on the battlefield, leading to a
failure rate of almost 25% without taking into account enemy action. The reason
for this was simple: the Tiger had been deployed on a small level since late
1942 (though Kursk represented its
first deployment on a mass scale) and some of its mechanical kinks had been
ironed out (though others remained). The Panther had been rushed almost
straight from the factory to the battlefield with little time for testing. The
Panther's mechanical unreliability proved to be a major headache for the
Germans, with battlefield-reliable Panthers not entering service until August
1944, far too late in the day to change the outcome of the war.
Despite the Panthers' teething troubles, the Germans did
succeed in penetrating the Russian positions and getting to the second
defensive line. Unfortunately, they could not follow up on this success: reinforcements
were slow to arrive and in some cases were halted by katyusha strikes knocking out the bridges behind the German front
units. Unexpected German tank successes forced some of the Russian armour to
dig in. Helped by camouflage, these dug-in tanks worked as stationary (and
hard-to-spot or hear) gun turrets and slowed the German offensive even further.
Russian armour continued to counter-attack, achieving great successes against
the weaker German tanks but continuing to face stiff resistance from the
Tigers: one German Tiger destroyed 22 T-34s single-handed, winning its
commander the Knight's Cross.
German progress in the south was slow but steady, but on 12
July, the same day the northern front collapsed and had to withdraw, they broke
through the Russian lines near the town of Prokhorovka.
The Russians had rushed as much armour as possible to meet the incursion, putting
the pieces in place for the greatest tank battle in history.
The Battle of
On the morning of 12 July, General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army
advanced on Prokhorovka, its tanks clustered in one powerful spearhead. The
Russian 5th Tank Guards Army responded, and the two massive armoured forces
collided south-west of the town.
The resulting tank battle was fought on a flat plain
extending across seventeen miles and lasting eight hours in stifling heat. The
numbers involved are disputed, with conservative estimates stating that only
about 900 tanks were involved (593 Russian tanks and 37 self-propelled guns versus
300 German tanks and guns), and more outlandish ones putting the figures closer
to 2,000. Whatever the numbers, it was the biggest tank engagement of the
Second World War. Hundreds of tanks advanced across a relatively narrow front, resulting in
a lengthy, sustained exchange of fire. The fighting was fierce and at
close-quarters, allowing the T-34s to close with and engage the Tigers on a
more equal footing. The Germans achieved aerial superiority over the
battlefield and inflicted tremendous damage on the Russian forces. Despite the
German tenacity and their strength of their tanks, the Russian lines held and
the Germans were forced to withdraw. Both sides left hundreds of tanks
smouldering on the battlefield, but the losses were more devastating for the
Germans, who could ill afford to lose them and were slower replacing them.
Though still formidable, the Battle of Kurk proved the need for an upgraded, more powerful variant of the T-34 to answer the new German tanks.
The Closing Stages
By 16 July the Germans had won some ground and were holding
it, but the lack of reinforcements compared to a steady replenishment of
Russian tanks and troops began to tell. The German breakthroughs were
impressive, but also not as significant as they first appeared: in some places
the Germans still had five rings of defences to penetrate before they could
capture the salient, and they had exhausted themselves battling through the
first two. The Germans had also suffered devastating tank losses, with their
problems compounded by the extremely poor performance of the Panther: out of
the 200 present in the southern sector on 5 July, only 38 were still
operational on the morning of 10 July, to the fury of the tank commanders. Only
a few had been destroyed or captured, with the rest simply failing to work.
On 16 July the attack was called off and the Germans,
exhausted, fell back to their start line. On 3 August the Soviets launched
Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, a major military operation designed to retake
the city of Kharkov. Despite German
resistance, the city fell on 23 August. The Germans were forced to retreat
towards Kiev, meaning that not only
had they failed to take the Kursk
salient, but the Russians were able to successfully use the salient as a
springboard for further, successful offensives into the southern part of the
German lines and begin the re-conquest of the Ukraine.
In the north the Russians had launched Operation Kutuzov, an
effort to liberate the city of Orel
north-west of the Kursk salient, on
12 July. This operation forced the Germans to completely abandon the northern
assault on Kursk or risk being
encircled. On 5 August Orel itself
fell, driving the Germans even further back and opening up a possible route for
the Russians to advance on Smolensk.
By the end of the Battle of Kursk, the Germans had suffered
a serious strategic reversal on the Eastern Front. It had lost a substantial
number of its tanks on the Eastern Front, lost two major conquests (Orel and
Kharkov) and was in danger of losing two, much more important cities (Smolensk
and Kiev itself). The technological superiority of the Tiger and - when it
worked - the Panther was proven, but both tanks were expensive to build and
ineffective against the T-34 when it was fielded against them in superior
numbers. Even the technical superiority of the German tanks was lost a few
months later when the Russians (for a modest increase in price) upgraded their
tanks with a new, heavier gun, resulting in the T-34/85. Once again, the T-34
was able to engage German armour at longer ranges without sacrificing their
Kursk was the
last throw of the dice for Hitler on the Eastern Front. Never again would the
Germans be able to mount a large and sustained offensive in the east, and the
stage was set for the infamous Russian offensives of 1944, Operation Bagration.