The Battle of Kursk, codenamed Operation Zitadelle - Citadelle - was the last great Blitzkrieg offensive on the eastern front. To this day, the battle remains the greatest tank conflict in the history of mankind. After repelling the German offensive, the Red Army launched two powerful counter-offensives. The Germans suffered heavy losses of men and tanks. This led to their losing the strategic initiative, and, in the end, the war.
The 9th army of Walther Model was to attack from Orel. During this time, the 4th Panzer army of Hermann Hoth and the Kempf Detachment, under the direct command of Erich von Manstein, would attack from Kharkov. The two groups planned to meet close to Kursk. If the offensive went well, they would have the initiative to continue and create a front line on the Don river. The date of the attack was postponed twice. These postponements allowed new forces and weapons to be received, including new Panther tanks.
Internal dissension amongst superior officers aggravated the German situation, which led to further delays of Operation Zitadelle. While some generals agreed with the operation plans, others categorically opposed its launch. At a conference, Guderian and Speer spoke out firmly against Zitadelle. Zeitzler and Kluge supported it enthusiastically, and Manstein later said that it was hard to say whether the right moment had passed or not.
The Red Army planned its own summer offensive. The Russians had a similar plan to the Germans: attacking at the Orel and Kharkov points to enlarge the existing outpost. Even so, the Soviet officers were worried about the German plans. Up until that moment, all the German attacks had taken them by surprise. In this case, however, Kursk seemed to be the most obvious target. The delay in beginning the offensive gave the Soviets four months to prepare their defence. Two fronts, one Central and another at Voronezh, were created for defence, while a third remained in reserve.
The Germans launched the offensive of the 9th Army in this area. The attack was gradually stopped by the Soviets, who had correctly anticipated the area where the Germans would attack. The Soviet superiority in troops and materials was a decisive factor in the economy of the front in this area.
In the south, the Soviets were much weaker against the 4th Panzer Army. The SS Panzer Corps 2 attacked first in a narrow area, guarded by two regiments of infantry. The armored vehicles of the 4th army forced a break in the lines, so that they reached 15 km behind enemy lines. Again, the Soviet plans played an important role. In contrast to the attack from the north, they could not dictate which sectors would be attacked. This forced the Soviets to spread their forces out further.
The southern German flank was exposed to the 7th Soviet Army, since this had crossed the Donetsk River. During this time, the 5th Tank Army moved to positions east of the locality of Prokhorovka and began preparations for an attack. Thus, the 5th Army was facing the 4th Panzer Army and the SS Panzer Corps 2. What followed was later named The Battle of Prokhorovka. This tank battle was the bloodiest of the campaign. The result of the battle is disputable. Although the Germans fulfilled the majority of their tactical objectives in the area, they did not manage to force a large breach of the Soviet lines.
The situation on the eastern front changed when the Allies invaded Sicily. Because of this, Adolf Hitler cancelled Operation Zitadelle. Hitler summoned Generals Manstein and Kluge, ordering them to end Operation Zitadelle. The Allies had landed in Sicily, and part of the SS Panzer Corps II must be immediately transferred to Italy. This was easier decreed than done, since, as General Mellenthin said, “We are now in the position of a man who has seized a wolf by the ears and dare not let him go.”
The Soviet counter-offensive at Orel definitively changed the situation. The units of the 9th German army had to be repositioned in order to resist attack, instead of continuing their offensive. In the south, the Soviet losses did not allow them to launch a similar counter-offensive until later. The two Soviet attacks captured the towns of Orel and Belgorod, with the Soviets later reaching Kharkov.
Manstein considered that the offensive should continue, but Hitler didn’t listen to him. Army Group South was weakened due to the loss of the Grossdeutschland Division, sent as backup to Kluge. Thus, the Group was forced to return to the initial point of Operation Zitadelle. The fresh Steppe Front took the positions defended by the Voronezh front. Tactical battles were fought, but without clear results. At this time, the Germans were retreating, with the Soviets pushing them south to retake Kharkov, the town for which the fourth battle was fought. Manstein abandoned the town against Hitler’s orders, and withdrew his forces towards the Dnieper river.
The Battle of Kursk was the first major campaign on the eastern front in which the Soviets held air superiority. This helped them halt the Wehrmacht’s offensive. Soviet aircraft bombed the German armored vehicles and fought the Luftwaffe in the air.
The operations of the partisans gravely affected the capacity of the Germans to consolidate their fronts, even before the battle at Kursk. Afterwards, things only got worse, in spite of extremely harsh repression applied by the Germans on the local population.
Operation Zitadelle was a significant success for the Red Army. Due to the fact that they did not have the element of surprise, the Germans did not manage to breach the Soviet front in depth. Also, the massive concentration of Russian soldiers and war materials contributed to the defeat of the Germans.