This week in history: The battle of Kursk and the largest WWII tank battle begins
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.
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