Battle of Kursk
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
After a two year stalemate, both the Soviets and Germans awaited major confrontations that would define the momentum for either side. This decisive battle would occur near the town of Kursk, a town on the Moscow-Rostov railway, in Southern Russia.
In Mar 1943, German general Erich von Manstein captured Kharkov, a city south of Kursk, and formed a long perimeter along the eastern side of the city. He allowed an opening through his line, allowing Soviet forces to advance, forming a bulge, before sending in his Panzers in two pincer movements to encircle the bulge. The German forces in this battle fielded some new weapons, including the Ferdinand self-propelled artillery and the tank Pather that was designed specifically to counter the Soviet T-34 tanks. The offensive to eliminate the surrounded Soviet forces were devised by Colonel General Kurt Zeitzler, at the insistence Adolf Hitler even though Heinz Guderian opposed risking so much for what he believed to be a small gain. By the time the Germans were finally ready to launch the actual offensive, Soviet spy network "the Lucy Ring" and the British intelligence both had already learned of the attack plans, and even without the spy network the massive tank build up would had alarmed the Soviet field commanders there. Marshall Georgi Zhukov was in command of the Soviet defensive forces, who convinced Josef Stalin to hold off on a summer offensive until he could defeat the impending German attack at Kursk first. To prepare for the defense, Zhukov summoned 300,000 civilians and built a series of defenses including tank traps, mine fields, and various defensive positions. Militarily, Zhukov wielded a strength consisted of 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 pieces of artillery, and 2,400 aircraft. On the other side, the Germans were about to attack with over 800,000 men (including three Waffen SS divisions), 2,700 tanks, and 1,800 aircraft.
The battle started on 4 Jul 1943 as a series of delays, including the desperate situation in Jun 1943 that took away attention from this offensive. Nevertheless, after sappers of the Großdeutschland Division bravely and efficiently cleared a path through the mine fields the previous night, German Stuka fighters led the attack targeting the lightly armored tops of Soviet tanks, followed by an artillery barrage then by the infantry and armor. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps, 3rd Panzer Corps, and the 11th Panzer Division stormed Soviet positions, making advances through the rest of the day, but the Soviets resisted fiercely and slowed the German advances. Main reasons for the slow German advance were often attributed to the defensive structures, especially mine fields, that the Soviets painstakingly set up. Also, Walther Model of the German Ninth Army was employing a rather conservative tactic with his tanks, withholding some in reserve instead of following the usual German tactic that poured all armor strength into battle immediately. Around midnight Zhukov, armed with good intelligence on German movement, ordered a bombardment by artillery pieces, mortars, and Katyusha rocket launchers accurately on German forces.
On the next day, Paul Hausser's 2nd SS Panzer Corp advanced under a newly devised tactic Panzerkiel, where Tiger tanks opened the way for other tanks, prying through enemy defensive lines. By the second day of the Kursk offensive, German troops had penetrated 20 miles into Soviet territory, at a high cost on both sides. At Prokhorovka Hausser's flanks were supposed to be protected by the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was unexpectedly stalled by the 7th Guards Army. To take advantage of the situation, the entire 5th Guards Tank Army was deployed to strike at the 2nd SS Panzer Corps on 12 Jul, which was to become the largest tank battle in history. Armor on both sides engaged in close-range combat, while air forces took their shots at the tanks on the ground amidst the fierce dogfights in the air. Armor-piercing anti-tank guns also made their share of damage during the battle. As tanks on both sides burned and sent thick smoke into the sky, aircraft could no longer tell friend from foe, and slowly disengaged themselves from ground targets in fear of striking friendly units. At the end of the day when the battle subsided, the Germans had lost 60 tanks and Soviets 822.
As casualties mounted high for both sides, Hitler made a surprising announcement to withdraw part of the German forces to reinforce Italy, a response to the successful western Allies' landing in Sicily. After the German strength weakened after the withdrawl, Soviet forces continued on to liberate Oryol, Belgorod, and Kharkov after the Battle of Kursk.
Although the Soviet forces suffered heavier casualties at Kursk than the Germans, the engagement was a success for the Soviets in that they stopped a planned German offensive. Historians attributed a tactical victory to the Soviets at Kursk for that the German forces were depleted and demoralized at the end of the battle without support of reserve forces. Manstein made the recommendation to Hitler that a final reinforcement at Kursk could have turned the tides of the battle and destroyed the Soviet troops present in the area mending their recently received wounds, but Hitler had already made up his mind to shift his focus to Italy. At the end of the fighting in Kursk, the German forces had suffered 200,000 casualties and lost 500 tanks, while Soviet losses amounted to 860,000 casualties and 1,500 tanks. Although the Soviet losses in tanks were greater than that of the Germans, at this time the Kirov tank factory along with other factories on the east side of the Ural mountains were just reaching their peak production capability while the German factories were becoming stressed. In fact, German armor would never regain its numerical superiority over their Soviet counterparts again.
Sources: the Fall of Berlin, Wikipedia.
Battle of Kursk Timeline
|11 Apr 1943||Adolf Hitler issued orders that the best armies, the best leaders and the best weapons were to be made available for employment in the "Encirclement of the enemy forces deployed in the Kursk area".|
|4 May 1943||Hitler postponed Operation Citadel, which ultimately would give the Soviets more time to prepare their defenses.|
|1 Jul 1943||Hitler addressed the generals slated to command Operation Citadel.|
|3 Jul 1943||Germans launched Operation Citadel, aimed at encircling and destroying Soviet forces in the Orel-Belgorod salient in Russia. Soviet air activity had delayed the launch by one day.|
|4 Jul 1943||The Battle of Kursk, what would become the largest tank battle in history, began.|
|6 Jul 1943||In Russia, in the north of the Kursk salient, on Central Front, Konstantin Rokossovsky launched a counter-attack, throwing in three tank corps. But it foundered on former Soviet minefields which the Germans had reinforced, and the Soviets instead took up fixed positions to act as a breakwater against a renewed German assault.|
|7 Jul 1943||Soviet Il-2M aircraft, attacking in huge numbers, destroy some seventy tanks of the German 9th Panzer Division in just twenty minutes during the Battle of Kursk.|
|8 Jul 1943||In the Kursk salient Walter Model's armour made three thrusts into the centre of the Soviet defences along the Central Front, the villages of Teploye, Olkhovatka and Ponyri in Russia. At Teploye, the main objective was Hill 272. Time and again the Germans assaulted it, after attacks by swarms of Stuka dive bombers which dropped 550-pound bombs on the anti-tank positions. But the Soviets were well dug in and camouflaged. They preferred to fight the Germans at close range, where their anti-tank rifles and dug in T-34 tanks took a devastating toll. The Germans took the hill three times, but the Soviets continued to recapture it.|
|11 Jul 1943||German forces in Operation Citadel ran out of momentum, even though there had been some objectives reached. Hitler refused to call off the operation, which could have saved many of the units.|
|12 Jul 1943||Soviet forces launched a massive offensive along their Bryansk, Central, and West Fronts in Russia, toward Bryansk, Kursk, and Orel. Prokhorovka, Russia became the site of what would be hailed as the largest armor battle in history.|
|13 Jul 1943||Hitler called off the Kursk offensive but the decision had already been taken from him by the Soviets who pounded the retreating German forces both north and south of the salient with tanks, artillery, and tank-busting aircraft. Apart from the Soviet Army, the victory at Kursk was as much a triumph for the Soviet workforce which has endured long shifts in appalling conditions to arm, clothe, and feed their fighting men.|
|14 Jul 1943||The Soviet Voronezh Front joined in the offensive against German 4.Panzer Armee and Armeeabteilung Kempf south of Kursk, Russia.|
|19 Jul 1943||Soviet troops began to threaten German positions at Bolkhov, Russia.|
|20 Jul 1943||German troops evacuated Mtensk, Russia.|
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939