Battery of Red Army 152mm howitzers preparing to fire during the Battle of Kursk. 3,000 guns and aircraft severely disrupted the German deployment at the outset of Operation Citadel.
The German push into Russia had been stopped at the gates of Moscow in the winter of 1941-42 and again at Stalingrad on the Volga a year later. In February 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad ended with over 300,000 German soldiers dead or captured. Soviet forces moved on Kharkov but a German counterattack stopped that Winter Offensive.
To bolster morale in Germany and hold his allies in line, Hitler needed a clear cut victory in Russia. To erase the pain of Stalingrad, Hitler decided to order a massive force to regain the initiative against the Red Army.
Hitler and his generals looked for a place where a decisive victory could be purchased relatively cheaply. They chose to cut off a 90 mile bulge in the Eastern Front between the cities of Orel and Kharkov that included the small city of Kursk at its pivot, using a gigantic pincer movement. Hitler's key military leaders wanted to stage this offensive (Operation Citadel) in May 1943, but bickering and interference by Hitler delayed it until early July.
Months of preparation under the eyes of the Soviet army eliminated any surprise when Operation Citadel launched on 5 July. The Germans failed in their objective to pinch off the Kursk salient and suffered irreplacable losses of men and materiel in the process. Now that both German and Soviet records are available, it is clear that the German plan was based on faulty assumptions. After two years of fighting inside Soviet territory, the Germans assumed that a well-prepared offensive would be able to penetrate the Soviet defense and that superior German tactics, staff work, and weaponry would compensate for greater Soviet numbers. Furthermore, they thought that adverse weather would hamper any Soviet offensive, and that if such an offensive occurred, the mobile German counterattack could halt it.
The Germans were badly mistaken. The Soviet army of mid-1943 had evolved far from the Soviet army of 1941. They had learned from their mistakes, more than the Germans had learned about the Reds. The Kursk salient contained Soviet forces that were hardened and ready, strong and complete units that would be difficult to encircle and erase even under the best of circumstances. For the German army of 1943, Operation Citadel was far too ambitious to succeed.
The Soviet's plan was much more realistic and actionable. They anticipated the German lines of attack and prepared the battlefield with dense mine fields, trenches, and camouflaged gun positions. An enormous reserve force was assembled with plans to absorb the German attack and exhaust them, then counterattack with overwhelming force when the Germans were weakened and without reserves.
The Battle at Kursk Unfolds
The Germans massed tanks, guns and tens of thousands of troops on the front. From the north, the Wehrmacht's Ninth Army was poised to move from the south of Orel toward Olkhovatka. In the south, the Fourth Panzer Army would move from east of a line joining Kharkov and Belgorod toward Prokhorovka. At dawn on 5 July German guns opened up a huge bombardment, and masses of German tanks moved into the battle supported by Stuka fighters overhead. Soviet artillery, T-34 tanks and Katyusha rockets answered. German Tigers did well, but the lighter Mark IV and Panthers were decimated. Guns tanks and infantry fought for more than a week in vicious battles of total war.
More than 2.2 million men were engaged on both sides, along with 5,000 airplanes and 6,000 armored vehicles. Soviet minefields channeled German tanks into prepared fields of artillery fire. Panzers would make progress in one area but be immediately challanged and attacked by Soviet planes or by infantry with explosives. The Soviet defenses held.
Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, 12 July 1943
The greatest tank battle of World War II, unsurpassed until Operation Desert Storm in February 1992, was fought at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk. Approximately 6,000 to 6,500 AFV's were involved, with about one-quarter to one-half actually engaged at any one time (compared to 10,000 AFV's in the Kuwait-Iraq area in 1992.) The Russians are credited with more than half the total, perhaps 2,700 German and 3,500 Russian vehicles.
Elements of the 4th Panzer Army, on the southern battlefield, made their final attack in the direction of Prokhorovka but the Soviet forces stopped them short of their objective. Soviet counteroffensives threatened to annihilate the Germans in both the north and south sectors. After the day's action on 12 July, Hitler ordered an end to the German offensive.
Aftermath of the Battle of Kursk
The Germans suffered tremendous losses at Kursk, their last offensive operation in Soviet territory, including about 30,000 dead and 60,000 wounded. After the German failure, the Russians launched their own Summer Offensive to take the Belgorod-Kharkov area and cross the Dnieper to cut off the German withdrawal, an extensive and decisive campaign along the Orel-Kursk-Belgorod line which extended directly south of Moscow. After fierce battles, the Germans had to abandon Kharkov because of their heavy losses and Russian advances elsewhere on the front.
The Soviet offensive that began after Kursk continued westward until the fall of Berlin in 1945.
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