On July 5, 1943, Adolf Hitler's last big offensive in Russia began. Aimed at a giant salient in the German lines around the Russian town of Kursk, the attack proved to be the largest tank battle in history, and ended in dramatic failure for the German army.
After the German disaster at Stalingrad in February 1943, many predicted that the Wehrmacht would soon disintegrate in the face of ever more daring Red Army attacks. The German situation was salvaged, however, largely due to the exploits of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, arguably the most gifted field commander in all of World War II. Manstein was able to stabilize the German line, fight off the Red Army attacks and even retake ground such as the strategically important city of Kharkov.
Within a few weeks, the lines had settled and the great offensives and retreats had given way to smaller skirmishes along the line. Much of the Soviet Union still lay in German hands, however, from the Baltic Sea to Ukraine.
This was perhaps the great crossroads of the war. After Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht was still a force to be reckoned with, but the Red Army had finally proven itself in battle, winning a major battle and going on the offensive. Though it was now all but impossible for Germany to win a decisive military victory in Russia, at this point Hitler still could have attempted to negotiate peace with the Soviet Union, and Stalin, despite American President Franklin Roosevelt's call for an unconditional surrender, may well have agreed to a separate peace.
If Hitler were to negotiate, however, he wanted to do so from a position of strength. Additionally, Germany's allies began to question their relationships with the Third Reich after the military setbacks in Russia. Another decisive battlefield victory, Hitler reasoned, could well shore up his political and diplomatic fronts.
A look at the map of the German lines in Russia made the target of a German attack obvious. Located roughly 330 miles south of Moscow, Kursk and the surrounding countryside lay in Soviet hands, an enormous bulge penetrating deep into the German lines, surrounded on threes sides by the Wehrmacht. In their book “When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler,” historians David M. Glantz and Jonathan House wrote:
“Given the peculiar shape of the Kursk salient, the German operational plan was obvious to both sides: two massive, armor-tipped thrusts, aimed at the northern and southern shoulders of the bulge, would seek to meet in the middle, surround all the forces in the pocket, and tear a fatal wound in the Soviet defensive front. Fifty divisions, including 19 panzer and motorized divisions with 2,700 tanks and assault guns, would be supported by over 2,600 aircraft.”
In the summer of 1941, the Germans had unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which had been a massive undertaking to completely defeat and conquer Russia. In the summer of 1942, the Germans had launched Operation Case Blue, another massive attack designed to completely defeat and conquer Russia. By contrast, for all of the men and equipment involved, Operation Citadel, the attack on the Kursk salient, was a much smaller affair.
The aim with Citadel was not to completely destroy the Red Army, for that was now impossible. Rather, it was to shore up the line and provide Hitler with better options, both military and diplomatic, in the future. To this end, unlike the 1941 and 1942 offensives, German propaganda played down the importance of the battle.
The big question for German military planners was: when? Many German generals argued the sooner the better. Since the Russians anticipated the location of the attack, every second delayed meant more time for the Red Army to build up its defenses — trenches, anti-tank guns, tank-traps and more. Hitler, however, kept postponing the operation. The new Tiger tank was at that time just rolling off the assembly line, and Der Führer wanted the attack to include sufficient numbers of the heavy tank.
In his largely self-serving post-war memoir, “Panzer Leader,” German Gen. Heinz Guderian, who in 1943 was an inspector for tank troops, related a meeting he had with Hitler in May 1943, in which he expressed his concerns about the forthcoming battle:
“I ended with the question: 'Why do you want to attack in the East at all this year?' Here (Field Marshal Wilhelm) Keitel joined in, with the words: 'We must attack for political reasons.' I replied: 'How many people do you think even know where Kursk is? It's a matter of profound indifference to the world whether we hold Kursk or not. I repeat my question: Why do we want to attack in the East at all this year?' Hitler's reply was: 'You're quite right. Whenever I think of this attack my stomach turns over.’ ”
Under the direction of Red Army Generals Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, the Soviets were indeed preparing their forces for the expected battle. By early July, the Red Army around Kursk boasted nearly twice as many men as the Germans, twice as many tanks and heavy guns, and an advantage in the number of aircraft. Still, the mystique of the Wehrmacht kept the Red Army on edge. True, they had bested the Germans at Stalingrad, but that was when the Red Army had counted on its greatest ally, General Winter. The question lingered: Could the Red Army defeat the Germans in a summer battle, where freezing temperatures and poor flying conditions didn't apply?
Having received intelligence that the Germans were going to attack at dawn on July 5, Zhukov, acting on his own initiative, began a massive artillery barrage of the German line. German commanders, stunned by the Red Army's attack, feared that this signaled a major Soviet push that they had not anticipated. When it became clear that no grand Soviet offensive was coming, the Germans stuck to the plan and began their attack at dawn.
The attack on both the northern and southern sectors of the salient met with tremendous initial success. German tanks rolled over Red Army trenches and defensive works. Though the Germans took losses, it appeared that they were pushing the Soviets back. At the end of the first day, Field Marshal Walther Model's 9th Panzer Army, attacking from the north, had captured four miles of ground — no small feat. Model reinforced his front with more tanks on July 6.
In his book, “Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945,” historian Richard Overy wrote: “The next day proved to be decisive. On July 7, having moved on more than seven miles, the German tanks were turned on the village of Ponyri. The battle was continuous. The thunder of guns and bombs and the heavy smoke soon made it difficult either to hear or to see. German armor was pushed against the main defensive line and ground to a halt.”
The southern attack, led by Gen. Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, likewise made impressive early gains. Fearing the German advance in that sector, Stalin personally intervened, ordering General Pavel Romistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army to march 230 miles to meet the threat. On July 12, the German and Soviet forces met near the village of Prokhorovka. The engagement saw 600 German tanks duel with 850 Soviet tanks, the largest armor on armor clash of World War II. Here as well, the German advance was savagely curtailed.
As Glantz and House noted, “It was the first time a German strategic offensive had been halted before it could break through the enemy defenses into the strategic depths beyond.”
Manstein, in his likewise largely self-serving memoir, “Lost Victories,” wrote: “And so the last German offensive in the east ended in a fiasco, even though the enemy opposite the two attacking armies of Southern Army Group had suffered four times their losses in prisoners, dead and wounded.”
One of the reasons for the Soviet success stemmed from the fact that they relied almost completely upon the T-34 medium tank, a weapon that Guderian would later call the best all-around tank of the war. By contrast, the Germans used not only the Tiger tank, but also the Panther tank, the Elephant tank-destroyer, as well as various iterations of smaller panzer tanks and even captured T-34s. Supplying these various tanks and keeping them in repair proved to be a logistical nightmare, a feat for which the Wehrmacht was ill-equipped.
In a larger sense, however, the attack was ill-conceived from the beginning. By its nature it could not be surprise attack, and given the resources and manpower that the Red Army could draw upon by the summer of 1943 (thanks in no small part to American Lend-Lease aid), the German action was doomed before it even began. An earlier attack, say in April, may have met with more success, but even that is doubtful.
A continent away on July 9, the Americans and British invaded Sicily. Hitler used this as a pretext to eventually withdraw his army from Kursk and ship units to help bolster his Italian ally. The damage was done, however, as the cream of Hitler's forces had been decimated. Kursk proved the swan song for the panzer divisions and ensured that Germany never again launched a major offensive against the Soviet Union in the war.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org