Battle of Kursk

Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the greatest tank battle in military history.

Panzer III under fire at Kursk

Panzer III under fire during the tank battle of Kursk, July 1943. Still 432 Panzer III with the long 5 cm gun were available with the units of Army Group South and Center at the start of the battle.

The German leadership had initially planned to attack on the Eastern Front after the spring melt, when the terrain had dried so much that the armored troops could move properly, which probably lasts until about mid-April. From the German point of view, the sooner, the better and above all before the Red Army had recovered from their defeat at Kharkov.

The original attack order of March 13 required Manstein to strike north into the Kursk front-line, while Army Group Center, reinforced by troops from the evacuated Rzhev bulge, was to advance southward toward Kursk. Subsequently, the Army Group North should begin with an offensive on Leningrad, which was to clean up the Soviet successes there in January and the city should finally take. This would strengthen the German position in the Baltics and Finland, keep Sweden out from any intervention into the war and secure the entire northern flank.

The most important part of these operations, however, was the Operation Zitadelle (Citadel), as the attack on Kursk was called. This offensive was intended to regain the initiative in the East and thereby stabilize the entire Eastern Front. This was to enable the Wehrmacht to create a large mobile reserve that would exclude Soviet offensives in the east and crush any invasion in the west during 1943.

In the following weeks, further offensive plans were considered, but not accepted. Not only did these discussions lead to delays, but also the wishes of General (later field marshal) Walter Model, the commander of the German 9th Army south of Orel, whose headquarters and staff had become available by the evacuation of the Rzhev bulge. Since his army was to carry out the attack on Kursk from the north, Model repeatedly called for deferment until he was able to build up his troops sufficiently and in particular was waiting for a substantial allocation of the new Panzer V Panther and Tiger tanks.

Despite objections from other German commanders, Manstein and Kluge in particular, who argued that how later Citadel operation would be deferred, the riskier it became and the Russians were given more opportunity to adapt, Hitler was on the side of Model, one of his own favored troop commanders.
In the face of increasing doubts among his military leaders and an increasing feeling of badness, which advised him to better cancel the whole offensive, Hitler nevertheless decided to prepare everything until June 19. In the statement of the attack order of April 15, he had made it clear that ‘the victory of Kursk must have the effect of a lesson for the world ‘. He was perfectly right in this prediction, but not in the way he had thought.

Tiger tank of the 7th Tank Division were prepared at Bjelgorod for Operation Citadel

Tiger tank of the 7th Tank Division were prepared at Bjelgorod for Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk (July 1943).

The German 9th Army in the north as well in the south the 4th Panzer Army and Army Department Kempf, had been greatly strengthened with replacements and new weapons and also received strong air support. About 2,700 tanks and assault guns were to provide the necessary push and 1,400 to 1,800 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe for air cover and ground support were available.
The German troops were made ready for this major operation, although the goal this time was much less ambitious than in 1941 or 1942. It was just to regain the initiative and win a great tactical victory on the battlefield – and not, as before, to force the important complete collapse of the Soviet Union.

After considerable internal debate, the Soviet leadership had decided that the Red Army on the northern and southern sections of the apparently vulnerable bulge around Kursk would have to strength its defenses and wait for the German offensive.
However, a big counteroffensive was planned long before with the goal to break from the northeast into the German front bulge around Orel in the north of the Kursk salient. From here, the northern German pincers movement was expected. Subsequently, a Soviet offensive should also follow in the south to seal the hoped-for defeat of the German summer offensive.

While awaiting the German strike, the commanders of the Red Army received massive reinforcements, set up several lines of defense at depth, and trained their units to resist against Panzers attacks.
Rokossovski’s central front in the north and Watutin’s Voronezh front in the south of Kursk salient created the strongest defenses against which an attacker had been forced to attack since the trench warfare on the western front in 1918. Both sides had vigorously reinforced their tank units for the biggest tank battle in history.

 StuG assault gun attacking a Soviet anti-tank gun

A German StuG assault gun attacking a Soviet anti-tank gun position near Kursk.

On July 4, 1943, preparatory attacks began and on July 5, the main German offensive took place. From the north, the German 9th Army began to push its wedge into the Soviet Central Front, while in the south of Manstein armored units were already penetrating deep into the lines of defense of the Voronezh front. Both sides sent their reserves into battle. The Germans, to feed their attacking spearheads and the Russians to support their defensive forces, which had been destroyed or forced to retreat.

Over the next six days, there were unprecedented battles as tank clashes and infantry and artillery fire claimed massive casualties on both sides. Although German troops were still on the advance – somewhat stronger in the south than in the north – they were unable to make a real breakthrough in any of the two pincer strikes in the face of determined and effective Soviet resistance.
It turned out that the months-long delay of the offensive had probably used more of the Red Army than the Wehrmacht, because many of the supposedly decisive new German tank types, such as the Panther, Ferdinand and even the somewhat longer in service Tiger, remained with initial mechanical failures.

assault guns SU-152

Russian heavy tank destroyers and assault guns SU-152 crossing a side arm of the river Donez at Orel salient. Nicknamed ‘Zvierboy’ (Animal Hunter) for their ability to deal with the new German Panther, Tiger and Elefant armoured vehicles.

By July 12, the northern strike was almost over and Model was forced into a battle of attrition. This form of struggle now consumed all reserves of Army Group Center and the Russians had been waiting for this moment.
The Western Front in the north and the Bryansk Front in the northeast of Orel began their turn with a massive Soviet counter-offensive directly into the back of the attacking army of Model and penetrated quickly through the thinned lines of there covering German 2nd Panzer Army.
Now, Army Group Center under von Kluge was forced to redirect the fresh divisions and supplies intended for Models Army to prevent the threat of collapse of Orel’s entire German wing. In addition, even the attacking 9th Army had to relinquish own forces to be deployed to the threatened front section. Thus, the northern strike of the German pincer move had in fact come to a standstill and soon found its own in danger of being cut off.

German tanks roll forward to Prokhorovka

German tanks roll forward to Prokhorovka in the south.

The southern pincers, however, were still working against the extremely violent Soviet resistance, and von Manstein actually wanted to continue the attack, but this time around on July 13, Hitler decided that his armies would break off the Citadel Operation. The Orel bulge was in jeopardy, Model’s army was no longer able to continue attacking and instead had to retreat to their original positions. There was evidence of another Soviet offensive in the Donets Basin.
From the assault troops of the southern pincer, with which Manstein actually wanted to continue attacking, Hitler planned to send some of them to Italy.
In the meantime, on July 10, 1943, the invasion of the Western Allies had taken place on Sicily, with the apparent collapse of much of the Italian resistance. Therefore, German divisions had to be withdrawn from the Eastern Front to build up a new army in Italy and to prepare to take over the duties of the Italian occupying forces in the Balkans. From now on Germany actually to wage a complete multi-front war and not practically only warfare on the Eastern Front.

Just as the heavy fighting on the Eastern Front prevented the Germans from devoting much of their resources to the fight against the United Kingdom and the United States, so did the need for Germany to retain large numbers of troops in the West and South, and to defend the industry of the Reich against Allied air strikes, reduce the pressure that the Wehrmacht could exert on the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, industrial capacity and the material and human resources required for the new German tanks, which were primarily developed for use against the Red Army, could not be used to build submarines to reinforce the Battle of the Atlantic. At the same time, the mass production of hundreds of submarines for the naval war kept the Germans from having thousands of extra tanks available for the battles on the Eastern Front instead.

T-34 tanks supported by 76m field guns

Soviet T-34 tanks supported by 76m field guns in action at Kursk-Orel.

In the northern part of the Kursk front, Model, with the consent of Hitler, now made an elastic defense of the Orel bulge and prepared retreat in a shortened line behind, the ‘Hagen’ line, into which the Red Army had driven him until mid-August. In these four weeks Orel was recaptured by the Soviets and the battered 2nd Panzer and 9th Army pushed back.
The new German line was shorter, but the losses during the initial offensive and then in the defense against Rokossovsky’s attacks were high.
Hitler’s perseverance that Army Group Center moved divisions directly to Italy and to Army Group South to replace divisions sent from there to Italy had made it impossible even to try to defend the Orel bulge.
In contrast to later behaviors, Hitler was clearly in a position to retreat when urged by generals whom he trusted – and this was essential because of strategic priorities in this case.

As the Soviet advance and German retreat at Orel were well in progress, the Soviet offensive into the Donez Basin had begun, which had already been planned before operation ‘Citadel’ and was also expected by Hitler when he broke off the offensive on July 13.
On July 17, the Southwest and South Front attacked the German 1st Panzer Army and the new 6th Army in the Donez region. Although this operation did not drive the Germans out of the Donez Basin in the remaining two weeks of July as hoped for by STAVKA, it made renewed German attacks in the south impossible, caused heavy losses and showed that the initiative had finally passed to the Red Army both in summer and in winter.
Further offensives were launched by the Soviets in August, while the Red Army liberated Orel.

Destroyed German Panzer IV

Destroyed German Panzer IV with killed crew in front on the battlefield of Kursk-Orel.

More importantly, however, the German army suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The Wehrmacht had deployed their best units and modern weapons against an exposed Soviet salient and had been repulsed with heavy losses.
Of course, the Soviet losses were enormous, and the battlefield was littered for years with burned out German and Soviet tanks, but the signal to the world that Hitler had expected from a victory in Kursk had actually been sent – but it was a signal for the triumph of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht in a gigantic, cruel fight.

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