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Kursk, Battle of (5–13 July 1943)

Major Eastern Front battle and the largest tank engagement in history. The Battle of Kursk demonstrated the end of German dominance on the Eastern Front. The 1942–1943 winter campaign had left a 120-mile-wide bulge around Kursk, an important rail junction north of Belgorod and Kharkov, protruding 75 miles deep into German-held territory.

Adolf Hitler saw the salient as an opportunity. By reducing it, his army could regain prestige lost by previous setbacks. By April, plans to blast the Soviets from Kursk were under discussion, and they were solidified into Operation zitadellecitadel) by early May. The plan was to reduce the salient with two armor-led pincer attacks at the northern and southern shoulders that would meet in the middle, surrounding all of the forces in the pocket. From the north near Orel, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's Army Group Center would launch General Walther Model's Ninth Army, led by two panzer corps. The main thrust, however, would come in the south from Field Marshal Fritz Eric von Manstein's Army Group South, with Colonel General Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army moving north from near Belgorod.

Hitler left the start date for the operation open to sometime after 1 May. He then delayed it to June and again to July in order to build up the panzer forces with newly developed heavy Tiger and Panther tanks and Ferdinand 88 mm self-propelled assault guns, although they had been rushed into production and suffered from design flaws.

The Soviets knew of the plans for the impending German offensive through reconnaissance and intelligence agents. Soviet leader Josef Stalin wanted a preemptive spoiling attack, but Stavka representative Marshal Georgii Zhukov convinced him that within the Kursk salient, the Central Front, under General Konstantin Rokossovsky, and General Nikolai Vatutin's Voronezh Front would be able to absorb the initial German blows with the defenses they had established, and to the rear, General I. S. Konev's Steppe Front could then counterattack.

Both sides built up armor and troop concentrations for the coming battle. The Germans amassed 900,000 men in 50 divisions, of which 19 were panzer and motorized, with 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 10,000 artillery pieces, and 2,000 aircraft. The delay, however, allowed the Soviets to assemble 1.3 million men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, and 2,400 aircraft. Some 300,000 local civilians joined the Red Army in laying a massive array of tank traps, minefields, and dug-in antitank guns designed to channel the German armor into kill zones for Soviet artillery.

The German attack commenced on 5 July. In the north, the Ninth Army assaulted on a narrow, 30-mile front but managed to penetrate only 6 or 7 miles in seven days of fierce fighting. The fighting resembled some of the fierce attrition battles of World War I. Fourth Panzer Army in the south did slightly better, pushing to the third Soviet defensive belt about 20 miles deep. The critical stage of the battle came between 11 and 12 July when General Hoth turned his panzer spearhead northwest to envelope the Soviet 1st Tank Army, and with about 400 tanks, his forces reached Prokhorovka Station. Zhukov responded with a counterattack of five tank armies, two coming from the Steppe Front. This engagement was a cauldron embroiling more than 1,200 tanks from both sides (three-quarters of them Soviet) in the largest tank battle of the war. By the end of 12 July, Prokhorovka lay littered with the burned-out hulks of German and Soviet tanks.

At that point, on 13 July, Hitler called off the offensive in order to withdraw panzer forces to reinforce units in Sicily, where the Allies had landed three days earlier. The German commanders had no choice but to conduct a fighting retreat in the face of a Soviet counteroffensive that began on 12 July. By 5 August, the Soviets had retaken Orel and Belgorod, and they retook Kharkov by 23 August, an action that the Soviets consider to be part of the Battle of Kursk. By that reckoning, Kursk involved 4 million men, 13,000 armored vehicles, and 12,000 aircraft, making it one of the largest battles of the war.

In the Battle of Kursk, the Germans lost an estimated 70,000 men killed, 2,900 tanks, 195 self-propelled guns, 844 artillery pieces, and 1,392 planes. More important, the battle cost the German army the strategic initiative. The Germans now began an almost continuous retreat that would end in Berlin.

Arthur T. Frame

Further Reading
Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.; Jukes, Geoffrey. Kursk: The Clash of Armour. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.; Salisbury, Harrison E. The Unknown War. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.; Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964.

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