The Battle of Kursk marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's Third Reich, and the rise of the USSR as a great world power. After the battle the Red Army would sweep across eastern Europe to Berlin and the Oder River in central Germany, and usher in 50 years of Cold War paranoia. The great battle in the open steppes of western Russia would usher in the modern age.
Following the German disaster at Stalingrad, Russian forces went on the offensive to take advantage of the huge gap in the lines. German Field Marshall von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, was forced to pull his armies out of the Caucausus to avoid getting cut off from the north. Marshall Zhukov and the Red Army harried his armies the entire way.After a brief but vicious fight in Rostov-On-Don, von Manstein retreated to the city of Karkhov with the Red Army close on his heels.
The Russian plan following the great victory at Stalingrad was to drive a massive wedge between German Army Groups South and Centre. The cities of Karkhov, in the south, and Orel, in the north, were key to this operation, but by March 1943 the Soviet forces were exhausted. Their drive on Orel ran into prepared German defensive positions and they were unable to break through.Nevertheless, they moved onto Karkhov. Von Mannstein had, by this time, managed to re-organize his armies and, with fresh reserves rushed to the front from Germany, the Wermacht fought a great battle in the streets of the industrial city and managed to hold. The Red Army pulled back.
While the Red Army had been stopped at Orel and Karkhov, they had managed to drive a deep wedge between the two cities. This bulge in the lines was 150 miles from north to south and stuck out 200 miles into the German lines. In the center of this salient was the agricultural city of Kursk.
After the horrendous fighting of 1942 and early 1943, with major battles in the Crimea, the Don River, the Caucasus, Stalingrad and Karkhov, both sides dug in along the new lines and for the first time in 2 years a relative calm settled over the Russian front.
While Germany had suffered serious setbacks in the war, she was still strong and the Wermacht and SS were still powerful forces. This situation was changing drastically, however. Russian industrial output was in full swing and by 1943 there were ten Soviet soldiers for every German. German industry, on the other hand, was under siege.By 1943 the western Allies strategic bombing campaign of Germany was in full swing. Following the Casablanca Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt, a policy of "Round-The-Clock-Bombing" was implemented, whereby day and night German factories and cities would be subjected to merciless pounding from the air.
During the day, up to a thousand or more American bombers would stream over the European continent and reduce factories, munition plants, oil production facilities and docks into rubble. German air defences were determined and every day massive air battles took place in the skies over Europe. At night another thousand British and Canadian bombers would cross the North Sea and raze entire cities to the ground in an intentional plan to disrupt German labour.
By the time the Kursk Salient was being formed, German industrial output was being severely disrupted, particularly when it came to ball bearings (a key element in any type of machinery) and oil production.
In March, 1943, Hitler met with his High Command in Berlin and assessed the situation on the Eastern Front.
The Army generals wanted to straighten out the lines by pushing the Russians out of the Kursk salient. This would give Germany the opportunity to dig in on the defensive and lick its wounds for a time. Hitler, however, had a different idea and despite the best arguments of his generals, he ordered plans be made for a renewed offensive in the east, anchored on the Kursk salient.
Hitler saw the salient as an opportunity to crush the Red Army once and for all by pinching off the bulge at the eastern ends and trapping the armies inside. Although his generals were reluctant, fearing what a defeat in this area would mean for Germany, Hitler ordered them to start planning. The operation was codenamed "Citadel".
Hitler had valid reasons for wanting to end the war in the east. Britain's 8th Army in North Africa had linked up with a large American army moving in from west Africa, and Tunis had recently fallen. Axis forces had been pushed off the African continent. Britain and the U.S. had gained complete control of the Mediterranean and Italy was threatened with invasion. Germany couldn't afford to fight a war on two fronts. The destruction of the Red Army at Kursk would be the final victory Hitler needed to swing the war back in his favour.
Operation Citadel called for 2 armies to attack the salient from the north and the south and link up at Kursk, thus trapping the Red Army in a vast pocket. From the north, Field Marshall Model's 9th Army was to strike south. His army consisted of mostly infantry with a few panzer divisions attached for armored punch. From the south, General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, experienced survivors of Stalingrad, was to drive north and link up with the 9th Army at Kursk.
Hitler was placing a lot of faith on his two armies, but he had some valid reasons to do so. Two new tanks types had been developed, so-called "wonder weapons", and Hitler wanted both his armies to be fully equipped with both types for the operation.
The first of these tanks was to become one of the best tanks of the Second World War. The Panzer V "Panther" tank was a reversed-engineered version of the vaunted Russian T-34. Featuring 80 mm-thick sloping armor and a 75 mm main gun, the Panther used revolutionary new suspension and transmission that allowed it operate over almost all terrain and in all weather conditions.
The second of the new tanks, and the most feared tank in the German arsenal, was the monstrous Panzer VI "Tiger" tank. This massive 64-ton machine featured 110 mm armor that was impenetrable to any gun in the Russian and Allied arsenal. Its huge 88 mm main gun could obliterate enemy tanks from ranges of up to 2 km.
The Tiger tank was practically unstoppable in battle, but the over-engineering of this monster would be its own undoing. The Tiger was a complicated machine and frequently broke down. The advanced technology in its design meant that specialist repair crews had to be called in to fix it, whereas the Russian T-34, although smaller, was a rugged and easy-to-repair machine that could be maintained by its own crew in the field.
Production on these two tanks was given the highest priority throughout the Reich's industry, and units at the front began to be equipped with them. As supplies, weapons and replacement troops streamed to the German positions around the Kursk salient, the stage was set for one of the biggest clashes of arms in human history.
In Moscow, Stalin had different ideas about the significance of Kursk. He placed his most able commander, Marshall Zhukov, in charge of the Kursk salient and Zhukov wasted no time in putting together a plan. The Russians were fully aware of Operation Citadel. A British spy ring, named "Lucy", was operating deep within the German command circles, and through information theft, seduction of ranking officials by young female spies, and the cracking of the German "Enigma" code by mathematicians, the British were feeding all their information to Moscow via embassies in neutral countries.
Zhukov's plan called for absorbing the massive German attack and then, once the enemy was bled white, launching a massive counter-attack to destroy the two German armies involved. To do this he streamed almost all the Red Army forces into the salient. Thousands of army engineers went to work building 8 lines of defense, one behind the other. The civilians from the local farming villages, mostly women, were drafted to dig trenches and giant anti-tank ditches. Concrete pillboxes and artillery emplacements were constructed. Nearly 4,000 miles of barbed wire was strung up and over 4 million land mines were laid.
The idea was that as each line was broken by the Germans, the next would be even stronger and more heavily defended than the previous. An entire tank army, the 5th Guards Tank, would be kept in reserve to counter any serious breakthroughs. Two entire army groups would be kept outside of the salient to supply the counter-attack following the initial German attack.
By the end of May Hitler was not satisfied with the number of Panthers and Tigers that had been delivered to the front, and he postponed the start of Operation Citadel. Two massive Allied bombing raids on Bremen and a ball-bearing plant outside Prague delayed production even further, and Hitler pushed the start of the attack back until July. Each day that Hitler delayed gave Zhukov more time to prepare his defences.
By the end of June, with both sides facing off around Kursk and waiting for the great offensive they knew was coming, the tension was coiled tighter than a spring. The only piece of information Moscow didn't have was the exact date that Citadel would begin. In the early morning hours of July 5th, 1943, a small Russian raiding party snuck across no-man's-land and snatched a German sentry from his trench. They dragged him back across to the Russian lines and handed him over to NKVD intelligence officers. The terrified 18-year old private quickly told them that the offensive was to begin in two hours that morning.
Zhukov wasted no time and ordered a massive Russian artillery barrage of German rear areas. As German troops and tanks were moving forward to their jumping-off positions, the night air was suddenly torn apart by 2,000 guns. Shells began to rain down across the lines. German artillery answered and throughout the night a massive artillery duel was fought. Although thousands of guns roared and explosions lit up the night, little actual damage was done to either side and German forces were able to assemble, although four hours behind schedule.
At 8 am on July 5th, Model's 9th Army set off towards the Russian lines. Flights of Stuka dive-bombers preceded them to pound Russian positions into rubble, but for the first time in the war the Germans didn't have air superiority, and a swarm of Russian fighters met them. A gigantic air battle erupted in the skies above the entire salient.
As machine guns chattered, engines screamed and planes exploded above them, Model's troops smashed into the first Russian line of defence. From the outset, the Germans ran into difficulty. Russian troops fought to the death for each trench, each machine gun nest and each bunker. Well-camouflaged anti-tank guns easily picked off German vehicles, and acts of bravery by individual soldiers armed with magnetic mines and molotov cocktails started to knock out the vaunted Panthers and Tigers. Throughout that first day the fighting in the north of the salient was bloody and without mercy.
By the evening the 9th Army had only managed to advance 6 miles. 40% of its tanks were out of action, most of them due to mechanical failure. Model stopped his advance to reorganize.
The next day Model resumed his attack in the north, and ran into the second defence line. The fighting was even more ferocious than the day before, and it took 8 hours to break through this line and move onto the third line. The Russian commander of the northern flank, General Rossossovsky, rushed his reserves to the third line and the Germans were unable to break through. By July 9th, after four days of heavy fighting, Model's 9th Army had only managed to advance 15 miles at the cost of 42,000 casualties and 210 tanks.
On the morning of July 10th Model called off his attack and ordered his troops to hold the positions they had thus far taken. The northern attack had been stopped.
The situation in the south was much different. Hoth's 4th Panzer Army was made up of veterans of the battle of Stalingrad. Many of the crews were already experienced with using Panther and Tiger tanks and they had adjusted their tactics to allow for the heavier hitting power of the new weapons. As a Panzer army, Hoth had also received the bulk of the Panther and Tiger tank deliveries, with the result that during their attack they managed to sweep the Soviet defences aside.
The experienced veterans of the 4th Panzer easily picked off Russian tanks and bunkers with their long-range guns and by the evening of the first day they had broken through the first two lines of Russian defences. On the second day they renewed their attack. Little seemed able to stand in their way.
The heavy Tigers and Panthers would stand off outside of Soviet gun range and blast apart the defences before driving forward. Supporting infantry would swarm into the trenches and kill the dazed Russians cowering in the bottom. Whenever T-34s showed themselves the heavy panzers would destroy them with one or two shots. Most of the Russian shells that managed to make hits simply bounced off the thick armor of the Panthers and Tigers.
By the end of the third day Hoth's army was causing considerable alarm at Soviet headquarters. On July 10th, after advancing 30 miles into the salient, Hoth decided to change the direction of his attack away from Kursk and towards the small farming town of Prokorovkha, to the east of Kursk. His plan was to cut off enemy reinforcements from reaching Model's section of the front and allowing the 9th Army to resume its attack.The sudden change in direction took Zhukov by surprise, and by the evening of July 11th the situation was becoming desperate for the Russians. It appeared as if though the tanks of 4th Panzer were about to squeeze off the salient and trap the entire Red Army far away from Moscow and the Volga River. Zhukov called up his strategic reserve, the 5th Guards Tank Army, and ordered them into the battle.
5th Guards immediately sprang into action, their crews scrambling into their reliable T-34s and revving engines. Their goal was to assemble at a small farming village to the east of Kursk, Prokorovkha, the exact same village Hoth was aiming for. Unbeknownst to either side, the scene was set for the greatest tank battle in history.
1200 Russian tanks and 800 German tanks raced towards Prokorovkha. On the morning of July 12th, 1943, they met.
The Germans had stopped their tanks on a series of low hills overlooking sunflower fields that stretched over the horizon, and as the sun rose on that morning, the first green T-34s appeared to the east. Soon there was a sea of Soviet tanks streaming towards the German position. The German tank crews watched as the Russians formed up into waves and then, like cavalry of old, charged the hills.The long 88s of the Tiger tanks boomed and T-34s began to explode. The first wave of Soviet tanks were destroyed but the next simply drove around the burning hulks and continued the attack. As each wave was destroyed and the following wave moved around them, the Russians came closer and closer.
Nobody knows who gave the order, or whether primal battle-rage took over, but for some reason the tanks of 4th Panzer revved up their engines and charged down the hill towards the advancing Russian tanks. The two sides met as in a medieval battle, and all organization or control over the front was lost.
Tanks swirled around each other, blasting away with their guns and machine guns. Explosions filled the air as German and Russian tanks exploded. Men who bailed out of their burning machines were crushed under the treads of other tanks. Two thousand tanks tore at each other in the sunflower fields beneath a sunny blue skie. Columns of smoke soon filled the air from hundreds of burning vehicles.
During the battle the Russians learned to use the German tanks' strengths against them. The long guns of the Panthers and Tigers were almost useless at close range, and the shorter guns of the T-34s packed a devestating punch at close range. Nimble T-34s would smash into the monstrous German tanks, crushing both tanks' hulls, and their guns would fire round after round until the shells finally penetrated the thick armor. In this way the battle began to swing towards the Russians. More and more German tanks were being destroyed.
After 4 hours of intense, dizzying and merciless fighting, the surviving German tanks turned tail and retreated over the hills. The Russian tanks followed and captured the positions the Germans had held that morning.
In the fighting at Prokorovka, the largest tank battle in history, nearly 800 Soviet tanks had been destroyed with 11,000 lives, while the Germans lost 500 tanks and 4,500 lives. The Russians were able to replace their losses that same night, while the Germans had no reserves.
Hoth called off his advance.
Two days later Zhukov unleashed his counter-attack. In the north a massive Russian army group attacked towards Orel and captured it within a few days. To the south another army group struck towards Karkhov and after a week of fighting that city also fell to the Red Army. Both Model and Hoth were forced to pull out of the Kursk salient and the entire German army retreated westwards to avoid being encircled.
The Battle of Kursk was over. Germany would spend the rest of the war on the defensive, being driven backwards, out of Russia, across eastern Europe and into Berlin itself. Germany never recovered from the resources lost at Kursk, and although the Wermacht was still able to cause considerable difficulties for the Red Army, the days of German blitzkrieg victories were finished.
A few days later Hitler was awoken by his secretary, clutching a telegram. Hitler slowly read the telegram and then let it drop to the floor near his bed. He put his head in his hands and stayed like that for a long while. His secretary quietly backed out of the room and closed the door.
The telegram had brought news of every German general's greatest fear since the days of Bismark. War on two fronts. The telegram read "American, British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian troops landing in the south of Italy."