Saturday, 13 July 2013

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk

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.

Offensive Delayed
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 Plan
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 attack.

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 anti-armour weapons.

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 back.

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 need improving.

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 Prokhorovka
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 superior speed.

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.


Iain said...

Was the Knights Cross Winner Michael Wittmann?

RobH said...

Thanks for the great summary, as well as for the reminder of this important date in history, and the immensity of the forces involved.

Adam Whitehead said...

Franz Staudegger was the tank commander who won the Knight's Cross. Wittmann got his in 1944, IIRC.

Sebastian said...

I love your historical articles almost as much as your other stuff (if not a little more). I haven't found many online sources for entertaining but meaningful history (could I be more vague? You don't want to know). A good alternative would be John Green's Crash Course series on YouTube. Do you know of any blogs that focus on history where they have writers like you? I promise to keep coming here ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a well-written article.
A small correction: LA-5, not LA-2.