WWII, the greatest conflict in human history, had more than its fair share of significant battles. Many of which occurred on the Eastern Front, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht clashed with Stalin’s Red Army during Operation Barbarossa.
When it came to bloodshed, nothing on the Eastern Front could quite top the meat grinder that was Stalingrad, a bloody urban conflict that caused 2 million casualties and included the total annihilation of the German 6th Army. However, the mechanised Battle of Kursk witnessed the world’s largest armoured confrontation, as two sides equipped with a combined 8,000 tanks squared off.
In early 1943, the Soviets looked to capitalise on their morale-boosting win at Stalingrad and began an offensive against the Germans in the south, retaking territory including the city of Kursk. The Germans re-organised and launched a counteroffensive under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. The offensive was short-lived; military fatigue coupled with the spring rains reduced mobility and ground both armies to a halt by mid-March.
As the dust settled it was clear a salient (an outward projection in a battle line.), some 160 miles from north to south and 100 miles from east to west, had been created protruding into German territory. At the centre of the salient was the city of Kursk.
After the defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler believed his allies were beginning to question their involvement in the war. To regain morale and seize the initiative on the Eastern Front once again, Hitler focussed his attention on taking the salient by attacking it from the north and south simultaneously, leading to the recapture of Kursk.
Up to this point, German success had largely relied on Blitzkrieg tactics, their lightning-fast warfare that stunned and shocked the enemy into defeat. The element of surprise was crucial and Hitler aimed to launch his campaign against Kursk on 3 May. That date would eventually slip to 5 July, as Hitler and his senior command dithered over the viability of the Kursk operation.
Fuelling that debate was the extensive Soviet defensives being built up around the area. Having been tipped off by British intelligence of the impending attack, the Soviets made good use of the German delay.
The Soviets created three defensive belts in each sector around Kursk, each belt fortified with interconnected defensive zones that included anti-tank minefields, tank traps, trenches, barbed wire snares and other fortifications. The Soviets also made use of thousands of partisans behind enemy lines, who consistently disrupted German supply lines and communications, delaying the German offensive and hampering their preparations.
The Germans might have lost the element of surprise but had used the three-month quiet period to build up their own forces, including the deployment of two new tanks – the Panther and the Ferdinand tank destroyer. Although both were untested in the field of conflict, Hitler had high hopes for his new weapons, which he believed would negate the loss of surprise.
By the time the Germans launched Operation Citadel, they had amassed 780,000 troops, 3,000 tanks and 2,000 aircraft whilst the Soviets had brought in some 1.9 million soldiers, 5,000 tanks and 3,000 aircraft.
Early in the morning on 5 July, Soviet artillery rained down on German forces concentrating for the attack on the northern side. A short while later, German artillery returned fire. The Battle of Kursk had begun.
On the northern face of the salient, the German 9th Army Group launched their offensive. Infantry units and tank divisions, supported by artillery fire and the Luftwaffe, raced towards Soviet defences. Although Red Army fortifications significantly slowed the German advance, by the end of the first day the Germans had breached the first belt of Soviet defences and advanced some 6 miles into Red Army territory.
In the coming days, the German advance made little further progress with dogged Soviet defences holding firm. German command soon realised the 9th Army didn’t have enough strength to achieve a breakthrough and by 10 July, the Germans had been completely stopped in their tracks.
On the southern side, the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf made better progress against the defenders and although progress was slower than the Germans had hoped, it wasn’t long before they threatened to break through the Soviet’s third defensive belt.
The German forces neared Prokhorovka, 54 miles southeast of Kursk, but before they could attack the Soviets countered on 12 July with a force of five tank brigades, leading to one of the largest tank battles in military history. Although the Soviets suffered heavy loses they prevented the Germans from breaching that all-important third defensive belt.
Two days prior to the Battle of Prokhorovka, Allied forces had landed on Sicily commencing their Italian Campaign. The invasion forced Hitler to cancel Operation Citadel on the evening of 12 July and divert his forces from the Eastern Front to Italy. Manstein managed to convince Hitler to temporarily allow the more successful southern offensive on the Kursk salient to continue its attempts to break through Soviet lines.
Operation Roland launched on 14 July and after three days had failed to produce the decisive breakthrough that Manstein had hoped for. On 17 July, the operation was cancelled.
Throughout the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets had held back a large reserve force to deploy the moment the German offensive came to a halt. With the Germans now withdrawing forces from the East, the Soviets went on the attack. Operation Kutuzov was launched on 12 July towards the north of the Kursk salient. It wasn’t long before German forces had been pushed back beyond their original starting point before Operation Citadel had begun.
A few weeks later, the Soviets launched Operation Rumyantsev on the southern side of the salient and by 23 August the Battle of Kursk was over. The Soviets had seized the strategic initiative and would hold onto it for the remainder of the war.
The Red Army defences had held firm but a great cost of life. Although specific numbers are still debated amongst historians, it’s estimated the Battle of Kursk caused around 800,000 Soviet casualties and 200,000 German casualties.
After Kursk, Hitler’s forces were on the defensive, constantly reacting to events and slowly being pushed back to Berlin.