The Battle of Kursk

Ralph Zuljan

The greatest tank battle in history occurred at Kursk. It began on July 5th, 1943 and it ended ignominiously eight days later. This was the last major offensive launched by the Germans on the Eastern Front. During the battle the last hope of a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union faded into oblivion and it has since been considered to be a turning point in the war. At Kursk the Red Army proved that it could defeat a German summer offensive -- something that even the victory at Stalingrad had failed to show. However, the context in which Kursk took place should also be kept in mind.

The war had already turned against the Axis in Europe by the time the battle of Kursk took place. This is primarily because the military weight of the western Allies was noticeable at the front at this time while it was effectively discounted by German planners earlier in the war. Nothing that the Allies did in this period constituted a decisive contribution. Yet the strategic bombing campaign had become significant and forced substantial elements of the Luftwaffe to defend the homeland, the battle of the Atlantic had effectively been decided in the Allies favor, and the Axis surrender in Africa threatened to unhinge the Italian war effort. Each, in its own way, required resources committed to the all consuming Eastern Front. So, while at Stalingrad the Germans had still hoped for a conclusive victory over the Soviet Union, at Kursk they wanted to force a draw.

German planning for the offensive had begun in March. Originally conceived by Manstein as a follow-up to his triumphant recapture of Kharkov earlier in the month, it was delayed several times, over several months, for new weapons and further building-up. Evidence of Soviet might and the psychological pressure on the German command to produce a clear victory both contributed to the postponements. Hitler gave his generals remarkable leeway in planning this battle and what they produced was a transparent scheme that Soviet senior planners easily anticipated.

Operation Citadel, the German code name for the attack, was intended to eliminate the Soviet salient centered on Kursk through two pincer attacks at its neck. In the north, units of Model's 9th Army, part of Kluge's Army Group Center, were to attack southward. Units of 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf, both part of Manstein's Army Group South, were to attack northward. If successful, it would eliminate a significant portion of Red Army strength. By achieving this, the Germans hoped to eliminate the possibility of a Soviet offensive in 1943 and thereby gain freedom to withdraw units to the west to meet the anticipated Allied invasion of Europe. It was an uninspired plan that reflected German strategic uncertainty.

Before the German command felt ready (almost four months later), 200 of the new Panther tanks, 90 Elefant tank destroyers and a mass of the new Henschel Hs129 ground attack aircraft were made available for the battle as well as a host of Tiger Is, late model PzKpfw IVs and venerable Stukas. In total, the Germans assembled a force of some 2700 tanks and assault guns and 1800 aircraft; about 900,000 men were earmarked for the battle. It was the greatest concentration of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.

While the Germans were busy trying to create the conditions for a decisive victory at Kursk, Soviet military planning quickly reached a consensus on their strategic objectives for the summer. They intended to strike westwards in the general directions of Orel to the north of the Kursk salient, Belgorod and Kharkov to the south. Soviet intelligence knew German intentions thanks to the Lucy spy ring and Zhukov and the Soviet General Staff believed that it would be wise to wait until after the German offensive was spent before launching their own. Although Stalin wanted to strike first, because he feared that the Red Army would not be able to stand up to a German summer offensive (as they had failed to do in summers of 1941 and 1942), the unanimous advice of the professional soldiers convinced him of the wisdom of waiting.

The Soviet forces allotted to the battle at Kursk were organized into the Central Front under Rokossovsky (with STAVKA representative Zhukov) facing Model in the north and the Voronezh Front under Vatutin (with STAVKA representative Vasilevsky) facing Manstein's forces in the south. The Steppe Front commanded by Konev was in STAVKA reserve to the east of the salient to guard against the possibility of a German breakthrough.

Soviet defensive preparations in the Kursk salient were unprecedented in scale. In addition to having a numerical superiority in all weapons categories and manpower available for their defensive battle, the Red Army laid over 400,000 mines and produced about 5,000 kilometers of trenches in the salient. Soviet defensive positions were up to 175 kilometers in depth.

The German command was well aware of the awe inspiring Soviet defenses in the Kursk salient. Nonetheless, the northern attack was ordered to begin at 0330 as scheduled. Soviet spoiling fire began at 0220 and this was indicative of how the battle would play out. Everywhere, German forces encountered stiff resistance as they advanced. Nowhere did they achieve a breakthrough into the Soviet rear. On July 13th, after nine days of intensive fighting with inconclusive results, Hitler called off the attack. The Allied landings in Sicily on July 10th and the lack of a breakthrough both played a role in that decision. Soviet forces were already counterattacking on a broad front and made substantial territorial gains in the following months.

The Third Reich had to shift military forces to the west in 1943 and the failure at Kursk ensured that this could not be done without fatally weakening their position in the fight against the Soviet Union. Consequently, after Kursk, the Soviets were more powerful than the Germans and their allies on the Eastern Front. In that sense, initiative changed hands at Kursk.

Originally published in "World War II" at on November 1, 1999.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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