Codenamed Operation Citadel, the battle of Kursk was the last German offensive of the Eastern Front. More than sixty percent of German armored forces in the east were sent into action on July 5, 1943. By the end of the battle, on July 23, most of the German forces managed to withdraw in the face of overwhelming Soviet power. Soviet losses were somewhat higher, but overall Soviet strength was larger still, and the victory at Kursk ensured that the Soviets would retain the initiative for the remainder of the war.
Strategically, the Germans found themselves in a difficult position after the winter of 1942-43. The loss of an entire Army Group at Stalingrad left them with a greater imbalance in forces than before; the mobilization of greater Soviet reserves and the increasing activity of the Western Allies ensured that the imbalance would only grow with time. The Germans concluded that a decisive action was needed in order to redress this imbalance, even partially.
German military thinking has traditionally had to deal with the prospect of enemy numerical superiority; the expedients of speed and surprise that have traditionally characterized Blitzkrieg are in large measure a response to this prospect. By surprising the enemy and striking hard against particular targets, it is possible for a smaller force to defeat a larger foe. The favorite strategy of German military planners was Kesselschlacht, a battle of encirclement inspired by Hannibal’s success against a larger Roman force at the battle of Cannae. Many of Germany’s successes in the early years of World War II, including those against the Soviets in 1941, are a result of the policy of Kesselschlacht.
Given this thinking, the Ukraine was an obvious choice of location for a decisive battle in 1943. Large forces were concentrated there on both sides as a result of the previous winter’s Stalingrad campaign. Even more importantly, the Soviets occupied a large salient around Kursk, and salients are dangerous because it becomes relatively easy for the enemy to encircle them. The Germans decided that the Kursk salient was precisely the sort of opportunity they needed.
The main problem with attacking a salient is the interlocking nature of front lines. On a large enough scale, the existence of a salient on one side presupposes a salient on either side of it for the opponent. If the scale of operations is large enough, the battle of encirclement can be turned around against the attacker, and the size of the Red Army ensured that the scale of operations was indeed large enough. The battle of Stalingrad had been just such an operation: the German Army Group South had managed to surround the Soviets at Stalingrad almost fully, only to discover that much larger Soviet forces had succeeded in encircling it.
The Germans were not ignorant of the danger. The very capable Field Marshal von Manstein, commanding Army Group South in a salient around Kharkov, wished to maintain a defensive posture, prodding the Soviets into a risky offensive and then capitalizing on their overreach. Hitler insisted on an offensive, instead, and tasked General Model’s Ninth Army from Army Group Center (occupying a salient around Orel) with the northern sweep of the intended pincer movement.
The plan miscarried from the start. Ninth Army was not ready for a spring offensive, and Army Group South, too, was in need of supplies. It was also decided to use the new Panther tanks, specifically designed in response to Soviet T-34’s, and these needed to be delivered to the front. In short, the Soviets were well aware of the German preparations, and the German commanders argued that the plan should be abandoned, given the total failure of secrecy. Hitler refused these requests, albeit with some trepidation on his own part, and ordered an attack on July 5.
Soviet Marshal Zhukov had much the same instinct as Manstein; he wished to wait, allow the enemy to make an offensive, and then mount a devastating counterattack. In his case, however, Stalin and his advisors were willing to accept his recommendations. Zhukov knew that he had more than enough men and firepower to halt the German attack; unbeknownst to German intelligence, he had an entire Front (a Soviet organization similar to an Army Group, only somewhat smaller) waiting in reserve. Moreover, morale was high in the Red Army after the victories of the previous winter, and the Soviet government was abandoning the stark and proletarian style of Trotsky’s Red Army in favor of honorifics, medals and other morale-boosters. Zhukov could afford to wait and react.
The Germans launched the attack on July 5 with a powerful aerial assault that combined innovative ground attacks by the new Henschel 129B aircraft as well as the last use of Stuka dive bombers in their classic mode of attack. Ninth Army and Army Group South began their pincer attack, and met with some initial successes, but even these proved slower than anticipated, and every deviation from the schedule made success more unlikely. The Soviets had had time to organize an effective defense, including large swathes of mines and powerful batteries of artillery. Moreover, the Soviet air forces had done much to redress earlier losses. The Soviets were as capable of ground attack at Kursk as the Germans, while Soviet fighters took a heavy toll on German bombers, especially the Stukas. Even the weather hampered German progress.
By July 10, Ninth Army was stalled just north of Olkhovatka, far from its original goals. Army Group South made small progress in its northward push for another couple of days, but it too had reached the limit of its capability. Then, on July 12, the Soviets proceeded with their counterattack. Army Group Center was hit hard with multiple attacks converging on Orel, threatening Ninth Army’s rear. Soviet progress was far more modest in the south, but no less dramatic; the largest tank action played out near the train station of Prokharovka when 800 Soviet tanks engaged upwards of 600 German tanks under new Waffen SS organization. The fighting was fierce; perhaps as many as half of these vehicles were lost. The Soviets accounted for well over half of the losses, but they retained control of Prokhorovka.
Oddly enough, Army Group South actually made some minor gains on the 13th in the face of the Soviet offensive, but it was in no condition to press these gains, and Hitler canceled the operation that same day. After this, the Germans were largely in a defensive mode, in fact pursuing the mobile defense at which both Manstein and Model excelled. By July 23, German forces in the south had resumed their starting positions, while Army Group Center prepared a new defensive line beyond the salient that it had occupied at the beginning of the attack.
It can be difficult to define the end of the battle of Kursk. Operation Citadel ended on July 13. Its gains were erased by July 23. Fighting in the Ukraine had not ended, however, and Soviet counterattacks would continue through most of August. Some sources mark the end of the battle as late as August 17, when Army Group Center had assumed its new position west of the Hagen Line. Such distinctions are technical matters at best; once the battle opened on July 5, the battle zone in the Ukraine took on a very fluid character, and this character continued until September, when the Germans began their retreat from the Ukraine.
The real significance of Kursk is that it was the last time that the Germans went on the offensive against the Soviets. After Kursk, the Germans adopted a mobile defense as they gradually pulled back from Soviet forces; meanwhile, the Soviets were free to mount offensives of their own, pushing the Germans through Byelorussia and Poland in 1944, and preparing for the drive on Berlin in 1945. The war in the east had seen several other watersheds, above all Moscow in 1941 and Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, but from an operational perspective, the battle of Kursk was the turning point.
Badsey, Stephen, ed. The Hutchinson Atlas of World War II Battle Plans: Before and After. Helicon, 2000.
Healy, Mark. Kursk 1943. Osprey, 1993.
Parrish, Thomas ed. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
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