Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Kursk

Title: Battle of Kursk
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The World War II Battle of Kursk marked the turning point in the war on the Eastern Front and saw the largest armor engagement in history. German leader Adolf Hitler now personally directed his nation's military operations. In spring 1943 he no longer had the resources for one short, victorious campaign on the Eastern Front. He therefore planned a series of attacks against the Red Army's positions, first in the south-central part of the front at the Kursk pocket and then in the north at Leningrad. Hitler expected these offensives to use up Soviet reserves and allow the Germans to hold the Eastern Front with fewer men.

Hitler planned to attack as soon as spring weather allowed solid ground suitable for the tanks, but with German positions north and south of the Kursk salient vulnerable to Soviet counterattack, he agreed to a delay to strengthen them and to add additional Tiger and new Panther tanks. German Army Group South commander Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein disagreed with Hitler's approach, however. Manstein favored maintaining a flexible defense that would inflict maximum casualties on the Red Army and force a stalemate. That would mean only a spoiling attack and counterattack of a forthcoming Soviet spring offensive. It would also involve yielding some territory, at least temporarily. Hitler rejected this and insisted that the German Army retain all Soviet territory taken by force of arms. Manstein then planned a pre-emptive "blow of limited scope" before the Red Army could recover from its losses of the previous winter campaign, but Hitler recast Manstein's plan into an all-out offensive.

The German offensive, codenamed Operation ZITADELLE (Citadel), was to be a double envelopment against both shoulders of the Kursk salient. Generalfeldmarschall Gunther von Kulge's Army Group Center would drive south against the salient from near Orel, while Manstein's Army Group South would strike north against the southern face of the Kursk bulge from near Belgorod. The two would then meet well to the east, behind Kursk, cutting off the salient and destroying Soviet forces trapped in the pocket. Hitler sought a major victory that would restore German prestige and be "a signal to all the world."

ZITADELLE had been scheduled to begin in the first half of May, but Hitler delayed its start until June to strengthen the Panzer divisions with new tanks. A number of German generals disagreed with this decision, including new German Army Chief of Staff Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, who planned much of the operation. The two army group commanders involved, Kluge and Manstein, strongly opposed any delay, which they believed only gave the Soviets additional time to fortify.

In fact, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's generals, above all Marshal Georgi Zhukov, persuaded him to allow the Germans to take the offensive while the Red Army worked on defenses in depth. The Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), the Soviet spy apparatus in Berlin, knew about the German plans, and the Soviets learned of the basic outline of ZITADELLE in April. Soviet preparations included front-line defensives two to three miles in depth, and secondary and tertiary defenses extending up to 25 miles. The entire defensive belt was studded with bunkers and strong points, supported by massive amounts of heavy artillery and anti-tank guns. The Soviets also laid up to one million mines and brought up 5,128 tanks and self-propelled guns. More than a million troops were in position. Four Soviet armies held the northern shoulder and six the south, while five armies were in reserve. Five additional Soviet armies north and south of the salient could be shifted there as a last resort.

Even with the delay, German resources were still inferior to those of the Soviets. The German forces sent against the north face of the salient consisted of Ninth Army (4 Panzer and 1 army corps) and Second Army; Manstein's Army Group South consisted of Fourth Panzer Army (3 Panzer corps) and Army Detachment Kempf, commanded by Generaloberst Werner Kempf. Altogether the Germans had available 780,900 men and 2,928 tanks and assault guns.

ZITADELLE began on July 5 and lasted until July 17, but if one considers as part of the battle the subsequent Soviet elimination of the Orel and Kharkov salients (beginning on July 10 and August 3, respectively), Kursk was actually the largest battle of the Second World War, lasting some 50 days. The battle ultimately involved nearly 3.5 million men, 12,000 aircraft, and more than 10,600 tanks.

In the north Model's Ninth Army enjoyed initial success, reaching the second Soviet defensive belt at the end of the first day. On July 6 Soviet General of the Army Konstantin Rokossovsky, commander of Soviet forces in the north of the bulge, ordered up reserves, and on the third day the German drive stalled well short of the final Russian line. Subsequent German attempts to break through were unsuccessful, and the fighting settled down to slow-moving, attrition warfare. This played to Soviet defensive strength and minimized the chief German asset of mobility.

To the south, Manstein's assaulting formations sustained heavy losses as they moved to their assembly areas in the pre-dawn hours of July 5. Fully informed of the German plans, General of the Army Nikolai F. Vatutin, commander of the Boronezh Front that defended the southern face of the bulge, ordered a massive pre-emptive artillery bombardment that caught the German troops while they were deploying. Despite this setback, the German drive from the south enjoyed initial success. In only a few hours Manstein's troops broke through the first Soviet defensive belt, but they were temporarily halted by a great thunderstorm that impeded tank movement.

When the attack resumed, the Germans quickly realized the full extent of the Russian defensive preparations. Despite a heavy cost in men and equipment, Manstein's forces pushed ahead and by July 11 had covered 25 miles. The next day, July 12, the largest tank battle of the entire war occurred, at Prokhorovka, involving some 1,200 tanks. The Soviets lost 400 tanks, the Germans 300, but the Soviets managed to hold. Soviet Air Force IL-2 Sturmovik aircraft proved invaluable; flying at very low altitude and firing rockets, they knocked out large numbers of the German Tigers.

At this point other events influenced the battle. On July 9 British and American forces invaded Sicily, bringing Benito Mussolini's regime in Italy to the brink of collapse. With the Soviets also threatening offensives north and south of Kursk, Hitler broke off the attack on July 13 to shift resources elsewhere, including reinforcing the Mediterranean. Manstein argued for continuation of the offensive. Confident of breaking through, he was prepared to commit his reserves, but Hitler refused.

ZITADELLE was over. During the two weeks of fighting the Soviets lost 177,847 men out of 1,910,261 engaged and 1,614 tanks; the Germans lost 49,822 of 780,900 men and an unknown number of their 2,928 tanks. The extended Battle of Kursk would cost the Soviets 863,303 of 2,500,000 men engaged and 6,064 tanks out of 7,360. German losses in the extended battle are unknown.

Key factors in the battle's outcome included Soviet foreknowledge of German plans, Hitler's postponement of the operation, the German failure to understand the extent of Soviet defensive preparations, harassment of supply lines by Soviet partisans, and the superb Soviet T-34 tank. Kursk proved to be the graveyard of the German Panzer armies, and its outcome left the Soviets with the military initiative on the Eastern Front.

Spencer C. Tucker


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

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