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Battle of Kursk

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Template:Battlebox The Battle of Kursk was a significant battle on the Eastern Front of World War II. It remains the largest armored engagement of all time, and included the most costly single day of aerial warfare in history. Though the Germans planned and initiated an offensive strike, the Soviet defense managed to stop their ambitions and launch a successful counteroffensive and freed Oryol (August 5), Belgorod (August 5) and Kharkov (August 23).

Contents

Background

The German Army relied on armored forces to push through enemy lines at high-speed (the famous Blitzkrieg tactic). This meant they could only assume the offensive during the summer when the Russian continental climate had dried out the ground enough to give tanks a high degree of mobility. The Eastern Front war in 1941 and 1942 had thus developed into a series of German advances in the summer, followed by Soviet counterattacks in the winter.

In the winter of 19421943 the Soviets conclusively won the Battle of Stalingrad. One complete army had been lost, along with about 500,000 Germans and allies, seriously depleting the Axis strength in the east. With an Allied invasion of Europe clearly looming, Hitler realized that an outright defeat of the Soviets before the western Allies arrived had become unlikely, and he decided to force the Soviets to a draw.

In 1917 the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg line on the Western Front, shortening their lines and thereby increasing their defensive strength. They planned on repeating this strategy in Russia and started construction of a massive series of defensive works known as the Panther-Wotan line. They intended to retreat to the line late in 1943 and proceed to bleed the Soviets against it while their own forces recuperated.

In February and March 1943 German General Erich von Manstein had completed an offensive during the Third Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle lay a large 200 km wide and 150 km deep Soviet-held salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south.

German Plans

Von Manstein pressed for a new offensive based on the same successful lines he had just pursued at Kharkov, when he cut off an overextended Soviet offensive. He suggested tricking the Soviets into attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming 6th Army, leading them into the Donets Basin in the eastern Ukraine. He would then turn south from Kharkov on the eastern side of the Donets River towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the Red Army against the Sea of Azov.

The OKW did not approve von Manstein's plan, and instead turned their attention to the obvious bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. Three whole Soviet armies occupied the ground in and around the salient, and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's manpower. It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line, and capture the strategically useful railway town of Kursk located on the main north-south railway line running from Rostov to Moscow.

Missing image
Eastern_Front_1943-02_to_1943-08.png
The eastern front at the time of the Battle of Kursk.

In March the plans crystallized. Walther Model's 9th Army would attack southwards from Orel while Hoth's 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf under the overall command of Manstein would attack northwards from Kharkov. They planned to meet near Kursk, but if the offensive went well they would have permission to continue forward on their own initiative, with a general plan to create a new line on the Don River far to the east.

Contrary to his recent behavior, Hitler gave the General Staff considerable control over the planning of the battle. Over the next few weeks they continued to increase the scope of the forces attached to the front, stripping the entire German line of practically anything remotely useful for deployment in the upcoming battle. They first set the attack for May 4, but then delayed it until June 12, and finally until July 4 in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from Germany, especially the new Panther tanks.

One could instructively contrast this plan with the traditional (and successful) blitzkrieg tactic used up to this point. Blitzkrieg depended on massing all available troops at a single point on the enemy line, breaking through, and then advancing as fast as possible to cut off enemy front-line troops from supply and information. Blitzkrieg involved avoiding direct combat at all costs: attacking a strongpoint makes no sense if an invader can achieve the same ends by instead attacking the trucks supplying the strongpoint. And Blitzkrieg worked best by attacking at the least expected location -- hence the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940, and towards Stalingrad in 1942.

The OKW's conception of the attack on the Kursk salient, Operation Citadel formed the antithesis of this concept. Anyone with a map could confidently predict the obvious point of attack: the German plan reflected World War I thinking more than the Blitzkrieg. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Heinz Guderian who asked Hitler:

Was it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east that year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is?. Perhaps more surprisingly Hitler replied: I know. The thought of it turns my stomach.

Simply put, Operation Citadel embodied an uninspired plan.

Soviet Plans

The Red Army had also begun planning for their own upcoming summer offensives, and had settled on a plan that mirrored that of the Germans. Attacks in front of Orel and Kharkov would flatten out the line, and potentially lead to a breakout near the Pripyat Marshes. However, Soviet commanders had considerable concerns over the German plans.

All previous German attacks had left the Soviets guessing where it would come from, and in this case Kursk seemed too obvious for the Germans to attack. However, Moscow received warning of the German plans through a spy ring in Switzerland.

Stalin and a handful of the Red Army Stavka (General Staff) wanted to strike first. They felt that history had demonstrated the Soviet inability to stand up to German offensives, while action during the winter showed their own offensives now worked well. However the overwhelming majority of the Stavka, and notably Georgi Zhukov, advised waiting for the Germans to exhaust themselves in their attack first. Zhukov's opinion swayed the argument.

The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Soviets four months in which to prepare, and with every passing day they turned the salient into one of the most heavily defended points on earth. The Red Army laid over 400,000 landmines and dug about 5,000 kilometers of trenches, with positions as far back as 175km from the front line. In addition they massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft.

The Germans had good information on the Soviet defensive preparations. Why they did not then switch targets remains a mystery.

Set in the larger vista of the Great Patriotic War Kursk is significant because it demonstrated that the Soviet high command and staff worked more effectively than the OKW - largely due to Stalin finally being prepared to act on the advice of his professional staff officers and his intelligence staff; the defeat of the blitzkrieg in summer campaigning weather - albeit at a very high price; and the ability of the Soviet forces to move from defensive to offensive operations due to better staff work, larger reserves and better planning. In these senses Kursk, and not Stalingrad, can be viewed as the turning point in the war: certainly the iniative passed decisively from the OKW to the Stavka.

Operation Citadel

It took four months before the Germans felt ready, by which time they had collected 200 of the new Panther tanks, 90 Elefant tank destroyers and every flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft, as well as 146 Tiger Is, late model Panzer IVs and even a number of captured T-34/76s. In total they assembled some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 800,000 men. It formed the greatest concentration of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.

By this time Allied action in Western Europe was beginning to have a significant impact on German military strength. Although actions in North Africa hardly constituted the Soviets' longed for second front the battle there did begin to tell and in the last quarter of 1942 and the first half of 1943 the Lufftwaffe lost over 40 per cent of its total strength in the battles over Malta and Tunisia. Lufftwaffe air superiority was no longer guaranteed.

Preliminary fighting started on 4 July 1943. In the afternoon Junkers Ju 87 Stukas bombed a two-mile-wide gap in the front lines on the north in a short period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Hoth's armored spearhead, the III Panzer Corps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Zavidovka. At the same time the Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the 11th Panzer Division took the high ground around Butovo. To the west of Butovo the going proved tougher for Grossdeutschland and 3rd Panzer Division, which met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure their objectives until midnight.

Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf during the start of operation Zitadelle
Enlarge
Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf during the start of operation Zitadelle

In the south the II SS Panzer Corps launched preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again met with stiff resistance until assault troops equipped with flame-throwers cleared the bunkers and outposts. At 22:30 the Soviets hit back with an artillery bombardment which, aided by the torrential rain, slowed the German advance. By this time Zhukov had received briefings on the information about the start of the offensive gained from captured Germans: he decided to launch a pre-emptive artillery bombardment on the German positions.

The real battle opened on 5 July 1943. The Soviets, now aware even of the exact time of the planned German offensive, commenced a massive artillery bombardment of the German lines 10 minutes prior. There soon followed a massive attack by the Soviet Air Force on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area, in an attempt to turn the tables on the old German "trick" of wiping out local air support within the first hour of battle. The next few hours turned into probably the largest air battle ever fought. The Luftwaffe defended itself successfully and lost very little of its fighting power, but from now on the Soviets challenged it strongly.

The 9th Army in the north found itself almost unable to move. Within only minutes of starting forward they found themselves trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire. Model's army had fewer tanks than Manstein had in the south. He also used a different tactic, using only some units at a time, thus saving the others for later use, whereas the Germans usually would attack with everything they had got in order to maximise the effect. They could do this because of their superior training of low-ranking officers and individual soldiers. For some reason Model did not use this tactic, though.

After a week the Wehrmacht had moved only 10 km forward, and on the 12th the Soviets launched their northern arm against the German 2nd Army at Orel. The 9th Army had to withdraw, their part in the offensive over. Their casualty rate versus the Red Army stood at about 5:3 in their favour. However, this fell short of the usual figures, and failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matriel for the Red Army.

In the south things went somewhat better for the Germans. The armored spearhead of Hoth's 4th Panzer Army forced its way forward, and by the 6th had reached some 30km past the lines at the small town of Prokhorovka.

The Red Army was forced to deploy troops originally reserved for the counteroffensive. The German flank, however, stood unprotected as the Soviet 7th Guards Army stalled Kempf's divisions, aided by heavy rain, after the Germans had crossed the River Donets. The 5th Guards Tank Army held positions to the east of Prokhorovka and had started to prepare a counterattack of their own when II SS Panzer Corps arrived and an intense struggle ensued. The Soviets managed to halt the SS - but only just. Little now stood in the way of the 4th Panzer Army, and a German breakthrough looked like a very real possibility. The Soviets decided to deploy the rest of the 5th Guards Tank Army.

On 12 July the Luftwaffe and artillery units bombed the Soviet positions as the SS divisions formed up. Traditionally the description of this battle goes like this:

The German advance started and they were astonished to see masses of Soviet armor advancing towards them. What followed was the largest tank engagement ever, with over 1,500 tanks in close contact. The air forces of both countries flew overhead, but they were unable to see anything through the dust and smoke pouring out from destroyed tanks. On the ground, commanders were unable to keep track of developments and the battle rapidly degenerated into an immense number of confused and bitter small-unit actions, often at close quarters. The fighting raged on all day, and by evening the last shots were being fired as the two sides disengaged. German losses amounted to over 300 tanks with the Soviets losing a similar number.


In the most famous action of the day the T34s of the Red Army's 29th Guards Tank Division of the 5th Guards Tank Army charged headlong at the SS's Tigers. The T34s were faster but more lightly armoured and armed - they aimed to exploit weaknesses in the German machines' armour at close range.

The Germans destroyed most Soviet tanks at long range, and relatively few became involved in short-range exchanges of fire. German units actually incurred relatively light casualties, and for most of the day they fought in good order. The Soviets lost 322 tanks (more than half of them beyond repair), had more than 1000 dead and an additional 2500 missing or wounded. German losses reached less than 20% of that. The Germans had however planned to attack that day, and because of the Red Army advance they lost their impetus.

The overall battle (of Kursk) still hung in the balance. German forces on the southern wing, exhausted and heavily attrited, nevertheless faced equally weak defenses and had an excellent position, clear of the defensive works and with no forces between them and Kursk. The German generals had held relief forces ready for just this moment, maybe they could still win the battle.

Soviet counteroffensive

Although the Red Army remained unaware of the change in Hitler's plans, German attacks near Kursk obviously diminished. The Soviets put their pre-Citadel plans into action. On 15 July the attacks on Orel opened with the release of the entire Soviet Central Front. The Germans withdrew to the partly prepared Hagen line at the base of the salient. German forces transferred from the south to the north to help cover the retreat. Although the retreating German forces inflicted severe casualties upon the Red Army, this action marked the first time that the Soviets had advanced in the summer, drastically boosting Soviet morale.

To the south the Red Army needed more time to re-group after the severe beating they had taken during July, and could not open their counterattack until 3 August. Aided by diversionary attacks further south they took von Manstein's hard-won Belgorod. Fireworks in Moscow marked the capture of Belgorod and Orel, a celebration that henceforward became an institution with the recapture of each Soviet city. On 11 August the Red Army reached Kharkov, a city Hitler had sworn to defend at all costs. The German units had reduced manpower and shortages of equipment. On 20 August all German forces in the area had to withdraw.

Battle ends

By 22 August utter exhaustion had affected both sides and fighting (officially) drew to a close. The Soviets had suffered higher casualties than the Germans. The Germans however had for the first time lost substantial territories during the summer and had failed to achieve their goals. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting their attention. Both sides had their losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully, as well as the substantial aid from the American lend-lease programme. The Germans never regained the initiative after Kursk.

Moreover the loss convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his General Staff. When given the chance, his generals selected a poor plan, and he decided to make sure this would not happen again. The opposite applied to Stalin, however. After seeing his generals' intuition justified on the battlefield, he stepped back from the strategic planning and left that entirely to the military.

Predictable results ensued for both sides: the German army went from loss to loss as Hitler attempted to personally micromanage the day-to-day operations of what soon became a three-front war, while the Soviet army gained more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.

Estimates of the casualties of the Battle of Kursk vary. Germany suffered about 60,000 killed and missing with about 150,000 wounded. The official Soviet casualty figures did not emerge until after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. These were given as 70,330 deaths and 107,517 wounded and missing.

References

External links

da:Panserslaget ved Kursk de:Unternehmen Zitadelle es:Batalla de Kursk fr:Bataille de Koursk hr:Bitka kod Kurska it:Battaglia di Kursk ja:クルスクの戦い nl:Slag om Koersk pl:Bitwa na łuku kurskim pt:Batalha de Kursk fi:Kurskin taistelu sv:Slaget vid Kursk sr:Курска битка

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