Battle of Kursk
The Soviet Union halts the German offensive
5 July - 23 August 1943
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
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.
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.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein finalized an offensive in the third battle of Kharkov. Thus, he created a very long front line again, from Leningrad in the north, to Rostov in the south. In the middle was a Soviet outpost 200 km long and 150 km wide, between Orel and Kharkov. In these conditions, von Manstein suggested tricking the Soviets into attacking the 6th Army, which was being restructured. The German troops would then close the circle from Kharkov to Rostov.

The OKW did not approve Manstein’s plans. The German command turned its attention to the Soviet outposts between Orel and Kharkov. Three Soviet armies were stationed in this area. If they could cut the line in half, the Germans would trap a considerable proportion of these armies. At the same time, they would create a shorter front line and capture the strategic railway line close to the city of Kursk.

The city of Kursk is found over 500 km south of Moscow, and is bisected by the principal Moscow-Rostov railway. The city was once known for its nightingales. Songbird competitions had been held here since the 19th century. However, during the offensive, the only sounds heard in the city were sounds of war. Kursk was captured by the Germans during Operation Barbarossa. After its capture, the Wehrmacht shot 15,000 people and sent another 30,000 to Germany as slave laborers. Kursk was recaptured by the Russians immediately after Paulus surrendered in Stalingrad.

After Stalingrad, Manstein stabilized the front of the Army Group South. The Army Group Central, under the command of Field Marshal von Kluge, stopped the Russian advance to the north, at Orel. After they were both exhausted, the two sides entered a period of reduced activity. During this time, fresh troops were brought in for the summer offensive. Even so, time was not on the Germans’ side. Through the Lend-Lease Bill, the Russians received large quantities of equipment from the Americans.

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.

Contrary to his earlier behavior, Hitler allowed his generals a considerable amount of control in planning the forthcoming battle. In the following weeks, they continued increasing the number of forces in the area. They selected, from the entire German line, everything that could be useful in the battle which was to come. On the date of the attack, the German forces were composed of 50 divisions, of which 17 were motorized. The OKW distributed the new models of tanks for the battle: Tiger, Panther and Ferdinand, the latter a tank destroyer. In this way, the generals commanding the attack gathered a formidable concentration of armored vehicles.

Hitler flew to the Zaporoje front line for three days of discussions with Manstein. He got so close to the enemy, that the T-34 tanks were within firing range of the aerodrome. The Fuhrer was far from being the Supreme Military Dictator of the days before Stalingrad. Guderian noted four days later, at a reunion: “His left hand trembled, his back was bent, his gaze was fixed, his eyes protruded but had lost their former lustre, his cheeks were flecked with red. He was more excitable, easily lost his composure and was prone to angry outbursts and ill-considered decisions.”

A war of attrition was exactly what the Germans should have avoided after Stalingrad. However, because of the constant delays to Operation Zitadelle, this is what they had. Before Hitler delayed the attack, Kursk was a defenceless city, lying in the middle of hundreds of square kilometers of empty agricultural land. Once the operation started, the city became a fortress.

Unfortunately for the Germans, even the most cursory glance on a map would clearly show where they were going to attack. A pincer movement directed towards the northern and southern parts of the Kursk region would have strangled the Soviet line. This would lead to the capture of Rokossovsky’s Central Front, from the north, and the Voronezh Front, from the south, commanded by General Nikolai Vatutin. Surely, this would have happened during Operation Barbarossa, when the Germans were still capable of such blows.

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.

Alfred Jodl opposed the plan due to the imminent danger of the Allied landing in the Mediterranean. Heinz Guderian, at that time general inspector of tanks, responsible for repairing and maintaining Germany’s armored forces, was just as firmly opposed. They knew that the Russians were expecting the operation and had prepared for it.

In spite of the fact that Albert Speer promised to send 324 Panther tanks, in the end only 100 were delivered to the front. Before the operation, a famous exchange took place between Hitler and Guderian. The general inspector asked: “My Fuhrer, why do you want to attack in the east at all this year?” Hitler replied: “You are quite right. Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over.”

Von Kluge hated Guderian and even asked the Fuhrer if he could challenge Guderian to a duel. Von Kluge fully supported the operation. So did Zeitzler, who pretended it had been his idea, at least until things started going badly. Walther Model was skeptical about it. When he argued that the Stavka knew about the plan, Zeitzler used a circular reasoning. He said that the very fact that the Russians were expecting the launch of the operation “was an admission that the area chosen was of vital importance, and would result in a substantial part of the Russian armour being brought to battle, where it could be destroyed.”

Keitel believed that, for the sake of prestige, Germany must attack Kursk. This was already one of the best-defended fortresses in the world. Guderian underlined the fact that very few people had ever even heard of the town. Also, as Keitel should have learned at Stalingrad, prestige is rarely a good enough reason to start a military operation.

As time passed, Manstein slowly turned against the entire operation. Friedrich von Mellenthin’s evaluation was correct: if it were carried out early enough, it could be successful. However, by the time it was launched, Zitadelle had become “an operation in which we had little to gain and probably a great deal to lose.”

The Luftwaffe’s reconnaissance flights should have been enough to convince Hitler to listen to his initial instincts and look for other places to pick a fight. Even so, Hitler gave the impression that he had been convinced by Keitel, Zeitzler and Kluge that the attack must begin. Goebbels’ propaganda machine still described Hitler as “the Greatest Warlord of all time.”

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.

Moscow was warned of the enemy’s plans through the Swiss spy network led by Rudolf Roessler. The Red Army, aided by thousands of civilians, laid approximately one million mines and dug 5,000 km of trenches. Many of the people brought in to defend the front were veterans of the battles at Stalingrad. There were also, however, fresh reserves of men.

Due to their earlier losses, German air superiority was no longer guaranteed. The Soviet air forces were now more numerous than the Germans. At the same time, they had made technological advances.

The Stavka sent Jukov to take control of the battle. This meant that Stalin was treating this front with the greatest gravity. Jukov sent a report warning of the vulnerability of the area. He convinced Stalin not to follow his initial instinct to strike first. Jukov wrote to Stalin: “I consider it inexpedient for our forces to mount a preventative offensive in the near future. It will be better if we wear out our enemy in our defence, destroy his tanks, and then, having introduced fresh reserves, by going over to an all-out offensive, we will finish off the enemy’s main grouping.”

In some sectors of the Russian defence, the artillery regiments had a superiority of five to one. 20,000 weapons were trained on the Wehrmacht. Added to this were 6,000 anti-tank cannons and 920 Katyusha rocket launchers. The Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft, with their bombs capable of piercing armor, were a deadly threat to the German tanks.

The one hundred days of waiting before the German attack gave the Red Army sufficient time to build miniature fortresses. The army explored the battlefield, measured the depth of the water, evaluated the strong points of bridges and trained day and night. For the Russians, it was an unusual luxury to have the time to prepare like this. “At the beginning of the war, everything was done in a hurry,” explained a tank captain of the Red Army, “and time was always lacking. Now we go calmly into action.”

The Red Army was already supplied with enormous amounts of military equipment. In that calendar year, the Russians produced 24,000 tanks, twice as many as the Germans. The remarkable fire power at Kursk displayed this great accomplishment. They managed to survive immense losses and rapidly compensate with new troops and war equipment.

The result of the Battle of Kursk was excellent for raising the morale of the Russians and, in contrast, extremely bad for the Germans. Jukov and the Stavka synchronized very well, with their counter blows perfectly organized. The invincibility of the Germans had been proven to be a myth at Stalingrad. However, at Kursk, the Russians managed to repel the total assault of an army made up of 50 divisions. Thus, the Germans showed they could lose the war, and, just as important, the Soviets demonstrated that they could apply the tactics necessary to win it.

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.

The Soviets, having precise knowledge of the German plans, launched a massive air attack on German airports in the area. The attack was carried out in order to prevent the use of the tactic previously employed by the Germans - that of rapidly eliminating Soviet airplanes. However, the Soviets did not coordinate their forces properly. Their fighter planes took off too soon and reached the German air bases before the bombers. They had to return to base due to lack of fuel. Under these conditions, the Soviets lost 120 airplanes.

The attack of the 9th Army on the first day did not fulfil its objectives, since the Central Soviet Front had correctly anticipated the place of attack. The attack also failed because the German armored vehicles encountered difficulties, especially in crossing the minefield. Initially, the Germans attacked along a 40 km front. Due to the vast minefields and the high concentration of Soviet artillery and antitank weapons, the 9th Army completely halted its offensive.

After a week, the German forces had only advanced 12 kilometers. The Soviets launched their own offensive against the 9th and 2nd Panzer Armies close to Orel. At that moment, the situation became critical, since the 11th Soviet army had the possibility of cutting the German front in two, isolating the two German armies. At this point, the Luftwaffe intervened. The actions of the German aircraft prevented the German forces from being surrounded. General Model sent a message of gratitude to von Greim, commander of the Luftwaffe: “the intervention of the Luftwaffe was absolutely decisive in order to avoid a second, and more disastrous, Stalingrad.”

The 9th Army was forced to retreat, ending its role in this offensive. Due to the fact that the German armored vehicles were not used with the same intensity as in the south, losses were much fewer. The Germans only lost 143 armored vehicles during the offensive. However, they were unable to take advantage of this. They were unable to stop the flow of men and materials from the Red Army.

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 Soviet armies from the Voronezh Front had 10 anti-tank weapons per km, in stark contrast to the Central Front, where the concentration of weapons in active sectors was much higher. The Voronezh front was much weaker and was forced to face much stronger German forces.

In the terrible battles in this area, the number of operational vehicles at Hoth’s disposition was reduced from 865 to 621 in just two days. Lieutenant Schütte captured a village and then suffered heavy losses, due to the Russian pre-registered artillery fire. He complained to his commander that, “having driven Ivan out, we should have withdrawn ourselves and let him bomb the place out of existence. Then we could have moved the armour forward relatively safely.”

The Germans made gradual progress against the Soviets. But, as in the north, the attack zones began to get smaller, until the attack was stopped. The Soviet minefields and artillery were again decisive factors in the Germans’ delay. These actions were vital. They delayed the German forces long enough for the Soviets to receive fresh troops in the threatened sectors.

German losses in this area were very great, both in terms of human lives and materials. To the Soviets, it was clear that any attempts to break the front in this area must be prevented. In these conditions, the Steppe Front, in reserve, began to move towards the southern area. In this army group was the 5th Tank Army, together with other armies using combined units.

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 attack began when the SS Corps 2 advanced towards Prokhorovka at the same time as the Soviet 5th Army. The SS troops met the Soviets to the west of the locality, in open terrain. Jukov sent an elite component of his reserve armored vehicles, the 793 tanks of the 5th Tank Army Guard, led by General Pavel Rotmistrov.

The Germans had been fighting for a week, and were having difficulty getting new supplies and fuel under the onslaught of the Russians. They had mechanical problems, due to technical issues with the Panther tanks. On the other hand, the Russians had only just begun fighting. The Russians used just one basic model in their tank production, making spare parts much easier to find. The Germans, however, used five different models, which caused problems in obtaining supplies. At Kursk, many Panther tanks stopped working due to transmission problems.

A huge cloud of dust was raised by the hundreds of tanks and self-propelled guns when the two armies clashed head-on at the Prokhorovka railway crossing. “We found ourselves taking on a seemingly inexhaustible mass of enemy armour,” recalled an eye-witness; “never have I received such an overwhelming impression of Russian strength and numbers as on that day. The clouds of dust made it difficult to get help from the Luftwaffe, and soon many of the T-34s had broken past our screen and were streaming like rats all over the old battlefield.”

The T-34 tanks, and also some KV tanks, needed to get into battle at close quarters as soon as possible. The German tanks were much larger and more powerful, especially taking into account the 88mm gun on the Tiger tank. Some testimonies state that Russian tanks deliberately rammed the German tanks. The Luftwaffe did not manage to offer sufficient support to the tanks in this destructive battle

Even after this battle, Soviet success in the south was not guaranteed. The German forces on the southern wing of the front, although exhausted and much reduced in number, broke through the first two defensive zones. At that moment, the Germans believed they were about to break through the last Soviet line. In fact, there were still five more active Soviet defence zones, although they were not as strong as the first two. The Soviet defences had been weakened, but their number of reserves was much greater than the few reserves held by the Germans.

Prokhorovka was the beginning of the end for Nazism. This came after the German armies had been repelled in Moscow, then defeated at Stalingrad. The OKW hoped that Kursk would be a turning point. But, on the battlefield at Prokhorovka, history played tricks on them. This took place in spite of the fact that the Soviets lost more men and military equipment than the Germans.

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.”

Hitler’s decision was strongly contested by some of his generals. They argued that transferring the corps of Panzers to Italy would take three months, so they could not influence the result of the battle there. Right now, in Kursk, the Panzers could play a vital role.

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.

The campaign was a shining success for the Soviets. For the first time, a major German offensive had been halted before it broke through defensive lines. Germany, in spite of its technological advantage compared to previous years, didn’t manage to break through the strong Soviet defensive positions. The Soviets began a counter-offensive, pushing the Germans back into their own defensive lines in a way which was very costly for the Wehrmacht.

From that moment, the initiative on the eastern front belonged to the Soviets, with the Germans reacting to their moves for the rest of the future conflicts. Further, from that point, only the Soviets had the industrial and human resources necessary to wage a total war.

A major problem was noted concerning the Ferdinand assault tank. To German thinking, this should have been one of the decisive weapons for winning the battle. Although it had a very thick armor plating, this monster was not equipped with machine-guns. Thus, it was defenceless against Russian soldiers. These would bravely approach the tank, climb onto it and incinerate those inside by directing flame-throwers through the engine vents. Guderian observed that using Ferdinand tanks against infantry was, in his own words, “going quail-shooting with cannons.”

Operation Kutuzov was the Russian assault against the Orel pocket, to the north of the Kursk group. The Bryansk front of General Marian Popov, with the West Front of General Vasily Sokolovsky, participated in this operation. Jukov had kept these back until the right time. The operation forced von Kluge to withdraw four divisions from the 9th Panzer Army’s spearhead. Thus, he reduced the chances of breaking through the Russian front. One week after beginning Operation Zitadelle, Jukov was in the position of blocking Model in the north and slowing Hoth’s advance in the south.

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 four separate, bloody battles which were fought for the control of just one city show the doggedness of the war on the eastern front. The Voronezh and Steppe Fronts suffered over 250,000 dead and wounded by the moment of the final fall of Kharkov. This throws light on the battles fought in Sicily at the same time - completely insignificant compared with the fight at Kharkov.

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.

Kursk was the first great clash in which the Russians were able to gather more planes than the Luftwaffe. This, together with many other aspects of the battle, was an indication of the way future operations would go on the eastern front. The 2nd and 17th Air Armies of the Soviets carried out 19,263 flights from Kursk towards the southern sector. They were organized in more formations than ever before.

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.

An ever more pressing problem for the Germans was bringing war supplies to the front line. Pro-Soviet partisans, until now almost completely ignored by the Stavka, were supplied with officers, engineers and mine experts. These were parachuted into the designated areas, with orders to take out the German communication lines. The German factories and deposits of the regiments inside Russia were separated by thousands of kilometers of railway line. Thus, the partisans managed to intercept great quantities of provisions.

The partisans invented instruments which could adjust the barrels of the Russian machine guns to fit the captured German ammunition. In June, for example, the partisans blew up 44 railway bridges. They damaged 298 locomotives and disrupted railway traffic 746 times.

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.

The Russians learned how to continue fighting even when their ranks were broken by Panzers. Thus, the Germans were forced to adopt the tactic called Panzerkeil. This meant that the German tanks would be grouped in the shape of an arrow. The heaviest tanks, Tiger and Panther, were placed in the middle of the formation, next to others on the wings. They were supported by infantry, by grenades and mortars from behind the battle formation. The Russians responded to this tactic with what the Germans called Pakfront. Up to ten Russian cannons, forming a single unit, concentrated their fire on just one tank.

After the German tanks were taken out of action, the German soldiers were ordered to remain inside the tanks and offer cover for the rest of the battle. This was, in effect, a death sentence for these men. The tanks which sheltered them were usually bombed a few minutes later. The Waffen-SS Panzer teams which managed to leave their tanks immediately ripped the skull badge off their uniforms. No one wearing such a badge would be given the privilege of being taken prisoner. The Russians immediately executed any member of the SS trying to surrender.

The Russian 76.2 mm anti-tank cannon could only break through the front armored plate of a Tiger by a direct hit. Long and thin, this was, however, very efficient against Panzer tanks. At Kursk, there were countless cases in which the target could be given a direct hit. Mines were responsible for destroying many German tanks.

The performance of the Soviets at Kursk, especially concerning cooperation between the different units, made their losses tolerable. The success offered the USSR a new military theory which allowed it to consider the possibility of a final victory. The rate of losses at Kursk was, in comparison, half of that suffered during the battle for Moscow. “The reconstruction of an almost entirely new army on the ruins of the collapse of 1941,” reckons the respected historian Richard Overy, “ranks as the most remarkable achievement of the war.”

The huge amount of troops and war materials involved in this battle, together with its crucial consequences, made Kursk an extremely important stage of the war. The Germans had approximately 900,000 soldiers, 2,700 tanks and self-propelled guns, 10,000 pieces of artillery and 2,600 planes. The Russians had around 1.8 million soldiers, 3,800 tanks and self-propelled guns, 20,000 pieces of artillery and 2,100 planes. Thus, Kursk fully deserves its title as the greatest tank battle in history.

n the first two days of the battle of Kursk, 40 of the 70 Ferdinand tanks were destroyed. Since they had not managed to silence the Russian machine-gun positions, the infantry of General-Lieutenant Helmuth Weidling could not support the tanks which had succeeded in breaking through the front. This was a classic example of a mistake in calculation causing a disaster. The assault tanks had to be equipped with machine guns before being sent to Italy in an attempt to stop the landings in Anzio.

The Soviets managed to combine their armies, apply new techniques to offensive action, quickly capitalize on successes and learn how to beat the Blitzkrieg. They continued to lose more soldiers than the Germans, but they reduced the ratio to 3:2. This proportion remained unchanged until the end of the war. As a consequence, the defeat of the Germans became a question of loss of human life and time. From that moment on, the Germans had too few troops and too little time available. In contrast, the Russians had an abundance of both.