World War II: Kursk--Operation Citidel / Zitadelle (July 5-17, 1943)

World War II Kursk
Figure 1.--A German soldier took this snapshot near Kursk in 1942. Notice the flat land scape. I'm not sure what the children are sitting on, proably some part of a wrecked military vehicle. After Kursk in 1943 we no longer see many photographs like this.

The Battle of Kursk has been described as the greatest land battle in human history. Other battles are better known, but like Stalingrad were spread overs weeks if not months. The Battle of Kursk ocuured on one single day--July 5, 1943. The defeat in North Africa was punishing, but it was on the Eastern Front against the Soviets that the great bulk of the Wehrmacht was deployed. The Germans after Stalingrad fell back, but began amassing their forces for a third summer offensive of the Russian campaign. The offensive this time was even more limited than in 1942. The target was a buldge in the Soviet line--the Kursk salient. The effort was code named Citidel. The fighting on the huge Eastern Front involved vast armies in some of the most savage fighting ever recorded and Kursk may well have been the most vicious fighting of the War. Hitler delayed the offensive until the Wehrmacht could be equipped with the new Panzer Mark IV tanks. The Mark IV could take on the Soviet T-34, but it was a mich more complicated tank. Not only could it not be produced in the numbers of T-34s, but it required much more intensive maintenance than the T-34. The Offensive was overseen by von Manstein. Guderian objected to the plan for the battle approved by Hitler. It was to be a set piece battle. Guderian argued that the battle plan deprived the Panzers from the mobility which was their greatest advantage. The Soviet defense was planned by Zukov. The delays in the Germany preparations gave the Soviets the time to lean of the German plans and to prepare both defenses and to reinforce the forces around Kursk. The result was the largest tank battle in history. Although D-Day was a year in the future, the estern Allies played a major role in the battle. Not only was American Lend Lease playing a major role in supplying Soviet armies, but the Allied strategic bombing campaign had forced the Luftwaffe to devote substantial resources to defend German cities. Thus Luftwaffe support for the German offensive was limited. Although not yet on the Continent, the Allied invasion of Soicily caused Hitler to pull our of the offensive two key SS armoured divisions (Das Reich and Toten Kompf). While quickly returned to the battle when the offensive bogged down, the loss of position and tactical advantage was considerable. At Kursk, the Wehrmacht suffered losses from which they never recovered. Red Army losses were much larger, but could be replaced. It was the Germans last important offensive on the Eastern Front. Without the Soviet defeat of the Wehrmacht, the Western Allies would have been hard pressed to contain the Germans or cross the Channel. A victorious Russian ally, however, meant that peace following the War would be far from ideal and leave the peoples of Eastern Europe locked into a new totalitarian dictatorship for a half a century.

The Mediterranean Theater

The defeat in North Africa was punishing. This was in part because Hitler rush the Wehrmach's limited strategic reserve in a doomed effort to save Tunisia. Here the Luftwaffe's limited air lift capability had to be use to rush in and supply German troops at a time the position in Stalingrad was deteriorating. While the German deployment in Tunisia, Sicily, and Itlaly are a fraction of the Wehrmacht's strength on the Eastern Front, when combined with the need to strengthen the Atlantic Wall along the Chnnel coast, the Germans wee unable to bring the full force of their military strength to bear on the Red Army in the East. And it was on the Eastern Frount that World War II would be decided.

Stalingrad (September 1942-February 1943)

The battle of Stalingrad is generally seen as the turning point in the Second World War. The German summer 1942 offendive spearedheaded by the 6th Army aimed south at the Ukraine, the Causeses, and reaching the Volga at Stalingrad. Here in a giant pincer movement, Marshll Zukov surrounded and destroyed the 6th Army--the strongest formation in the German order of battle. Göring's pledge to supply the 6th Army by air proved hollow. The men and equipment that the Wehrmacht loss were impossible to replace. At the same time, the Soviets and Western Allies were steadily building their forces and equipment. The loss of the 6th Army tore a huge hole in the German lines. The Germans had to withdraw from the Caucauses and withdraw into the Ukraine.

Stabilizing the Eastern Front (Spring 1943)

The Wehrmacht in furious fighting following the 6th Army's surrender in Stalingrad managed to stabilize the Eastern Front (Spring 1943). The Germans even managed to take back some Ukranian cities such as Karkov. NAZI propaganda proclaimed the successes as if they were major accomplishments. Goebbels propaganda stressedcvthese victories. Veterans of the effort to retake Karkov were pictured being hosted by the Goebbels family (June 1943). Newspapers and radio broadcasts gave no hit of the desperate plight. Goebbels began talking about secret weapons. Germans couldm however, read the map. and everywhere German armies were giving ground to the Allies. The Red Army had been stopped, but had in some places advance more than half the distance to the Reich and from the West the Allied bombing was intensifying..

German Summer Offensives

The conduct of World War was largely determined by Hitler and the Wehrmact through a series of Summer offensives. The War was launched by Hitler in the September offensive in Poland (1939). Next came the Western Offensive that defeated the French Army and gave Hitler control of Western Europe (1940). This was followed by two massive offensives in the East to destroy the Soviet Union. First came Barbarossa (1941) and then the southern offensive (1942). Both of the two German offensive in the Soviet Union ended disastrously, but the NAZIs stull geld much of the western Soviet Union. The Western Allies began to take the iniative with the victory at El Alemain (October 1942) and the Torch landings (November 1942). The bulk of the Wehrmacht, however, was still deployed on the Eastern Front and the NAIs still had the strength for one final massive summer offensive. This time it was only sufficent for one sector of the front in the south.

Third Summer Offensive in the East

It was on the Eastern Front that the fate of the Third Reich would be decided. The Wehrmact after Stalingrad fell back, but began amassing their forces for a third summer offensive of the Eastern campaign. Hitler badly needed a victory after the successive defeats (El Alemaine, Stalingrad, and Tunisia). He needed to regain the initiative on the vital Eastern Front. North Africa was a side show. Hitler knew very well that the War would be decided in the Eastern Front. The effort decided to rev erse the string of defeats was code named Citidel--Zitadelle. he Battle of Kursk has been described as the greatest land battle in human history. Other battles are better known, but like Stalingrad were spread overs weeks if not months. The Battle of Kursk ocuured on one single day--July 5, 1943. No other single-day battle of similar size or intensity has ever been fought or will probably ever be fought in the future. The course of the Eastern Front and thus the War was basically decided by the Red Army Winter Offensive before Moscow (December 1941) which defeated Barbarossa. It was further confirnmed at Stalingrad (Seoptember 942-February 1943).

The Kursk Bulge

The offensive this time was even more limited than in 1942. This time Hitler did not have the resources for even a renewed general offensive in the south. He had to pick one sector of the southern front. The target was a bulge in the Soviet line--the Kursk salient. The Red Army offensive following Stalingrad pushed westward, liberating important cities such as Rostov and Kharkov. There the Red army soldiers witnessed the results of German brulatity. The Red Army overextended itself in the drive west. This presented Manstein with the opportunity to counterattack. The result was substantial Soviet losses and retaking cities like Kharkov. The Red Army, however, held on to much of territory north of the city. As a result, the Soviet salient protruded deep into German lines. The bulge or salient was located around the western Russian city of Kursk.

German Planning

The German planning was to pause to rest while Manstein's forces waited to be resupplied and requipped. New equipment like the Panther tanks, Elefant tank destroyers, and other weaponry flwed east from German factories. New units were created and deployed. The Wehrmact generals had misgivings about the offensive. The famed Panzer commander Heinz Guderian, reasonably questioned committing the Wehrmacht's remaining strength to a goal of such limited importance. Hitler was, however, adament. He delayed the offensive until the Wehrmacht could be equipped with the new Panzer Mark IV tank--the renowned Panther. It was arguably the best tank of the War. The Mark IV could take on the Soviet T-34, but it was a much more complicated tank. Not only could it not be produced in the numbers of T-34s, but it required much more intensive maintenance than the T-34. The Offensive was overseen by von Manstein. Guderian objected to the plan for the battle approved by Hitler. It was to be a set piece battle. The plan was to cut through the bulge from north and south and catch the Red army units in the Bulge in a giant kessel. Guderian argued that the battle plan deprived the Panzers from the mobility which was their greatest advantage. Zitadelle was Hitler's last desperate gamble to reverse the course of the War that he has set in motion. The Wehrmacht by this time was battered, but still a formidable force.

Soviet Planning

The Soviet defense was planned by Zukov. The fighting on the Eastern Front after Stalingrad ws basically a duel between Zukov and Manstein and Kursk was the most important of the battles fought by these two highly capble military commandrs. The delays in the Germany preparations gave the Soviets the time to learn of the German plans and to prepare both defenses and to reinforce the forces around Kursk. And while men and equipped flowed from the reich to the German forces, even more Soviet reinforcements poured into the area. What the German seemed to have failed to grasp was that the Soviet Union by this time had a much lsrger capability to create new units and equip them them Germany had. And in addition, American Lend Lease material was now reaching the Soviets in lrge quantity. The result was the largest tank battle in history.

Soviet Intelligence

One of the least understood apects of World War II is Soviet intelligence. We know a great deal about Western intelligence and the cracking of the Enigma Machies. We also know about German intelligence. The piece of the puzzle that we do not know about is Soviet intelligence. Yet the Soviets had perhaos the most effective intelligence operation of the War. Incredibly, Soviet intelligence even informed Stalin about Barbarossa. He chose not to believe the reports. We know that the Soviets were well informed about the planning or Operation Citedel. Much information came from battlefield intelligence. The Soviets, however, had much more information and were able to prepare defenses in depth for the German offensive. And because Kursk involved considrable lengthy preparations by the Germans, giving the Soviets time to learn about the German plans and prpare for the German offensive. As far as we know, the Soviets/Russians have never revealed the sources of information and cthe sctual intelligence which helped them prepare for Citadel. We know some of the information. First, there was battlefield information. They could interogate captured Germans. The Soviets had learned to predict the Schwerpunkt by pinpoiting the position of the elire German divisions. And by the phase of the war, the Red Air Force could provide photo reconisance. Partisan unis also provided information from behind German lines. Second, Ultra code breakers must have learned a great deal. And Ultra information was provided to the Sovirts. And while the source was disguised, Soviet spies in Britain had reported that the Allies had cracked Enigma. Some authors believe that the Siviets may have also cracked Ultra, but the Soviets/Russians have never opened this section of their World War II archive. Third, Soviet spy rings were active in Germany. Little actual information is available here. There has been endless speculation about posible Soviet moles.

Western Allies

Although D-Day was a year in the future, the Western Allies played an important role in the battle. Not only was American Lend Lease poring massive quantities of supplies into the Soviet Union to supply The Red army, but the Allied strategic bombing campaign had forced the Luftwaffe to devote substantial resources to defend German cities. Thus Luftwaffe support for the German offensive was limited. In addition, huge numbers of potential anti-tank guns instead of being deployed in the East afainst Soviet tanks, were positiined in the Reich and pointed up to defend German cities from Allied air raids. Although not yet on the Continent, the Allied invasion of Sicily (July 9) caused Hitler to pull our of the offensive two key SS armoured divisions (Das Reich and Toten Kompf). While quickly returned to the battle when the offensive bogged down, the loss of position and tactical advantage was considerable.

The Battle (July 5, 1941)

The Battle of Kursk developed into the geatest land battle of World War II and the greatest tank battle of all time. It ws the the largest armored clash until the Persian Gulf battles which liberated Kuwait (1991). One one savage day, two million men, 6,000 tanls 35,000 artillery pieces, and 5,000 aircraft collied on the Kursk battlefield. [L. Clark] The fighting on the huge Eastern Front involved vast armies in some of the most savage fighting ever recorded and Kursk may well have been the most vicious fighting of the entire War. The Wehrmacht from the beginning were a formidable military force. They now faced an increasinbgly competent and well equipped Red Army. Kurksk was primarily a tank bettle, but it was different from earlier battles. At the beginning of the War tanks could only be stopped by other tanls or anti-tank artillery. Two things had changed by the time of Kursk. First, infantry tactics and weapons had been developed to the point that tanks now had to be protected from the infantry. Second, the Red Air Force had recovered and now had a substantial tank killing capability. At the same time, demands of other fronts, including protecteting the Reuch from Allied bombers, were making sunstantial demands on the Luftwaffe which could not concentrate all of its strength in the Est. German Panzer forces struck north and south to seal off the Kursk salient. The meant stiff Soviet resistance from well prepared defensive positions. There are many accounts describing the ferocity of the fighting. One author writes, "For the Germans, it was crucial that the infantry moved quickly to clear the area, for as Wilhelm Roes, a Tiger radio operator, argues: 'The worst was the anti-tank hunting detchments which came in between T-34 attacks. You had to pay them particular attention--if they got through you were finished. An explosive charge and up you went.' Mansur Abdulin was a member of one such team, armed with magnetic mines, sticky bombs and Molotov cocktails. He advised:'You should always in pairs. The tank must ride over yiu, over your trench, then one soldier fires at the accompnying infantrymen, while the other throws the bottle or grenade.' The tanks defended themselves from the threat posed by these teams by rolling up to trenches, turning on the spot and collapsing the earth walls on to their occupants." [L. Clark] A Rusian tank commander writes, "I was astonished by the panorama opening uo in front of me: crops were on fire, a little further away I saw burnung villages, and the battle was already taking its toll--tanks and vehickes were ablaze too. Clouds of smoke hung low over the field., Suddenly I saw aight German T-IIO tank emerge out of a similar ravine about 200 meters from me. At first I was taken back by the suddeness of its appearance--I had not expected to see the enemy at such close qyuarters. But I braced myself quickly, let it get into open space and then successfully destroyed it with the first shell." [Bryukhov] The Germans pressed forward although encountering serious losses in men and armor. The climax came at the village of Prokhorovka. An amazing 1,000 tanks smashed into each other, often firing at point-blank range. [Seidler] The scale, desperation, and horror of the fighting was stagering even for the Eastern front.

Hitler Ends the Offensive (July 17)

Stalingrad was fought out over nearly a 3 month period. Kursk would be settled in only 2 weeks. Von Manstein had led the German southern pincer. He managed to achieve most of the initial goals. In doing sobhe sustanined very substantial losses, although the southern pincer inflicted far more substantial results on the opposing Soviet forces. Marshal Georgy Zhukov commanding the Soviet forces praised Manstein as a commander. [Zukov] The German northern pincerled by Günther von Kluge and Walther Model failed to make much progress. The deep Soviet reseeves and fortifications repulsed the norther pincer. The Germans battered by the fighting and losses in 1942 did not have the men for needed infantry support and an operational reserve to exploit Panzer advances. Then after a week of fighting, the Allies launched Operation Husky and began landing on Scily (July 10). This seemed to have unserved Hitler. Hitler summoned Von Kluge and Manstein to the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia for a confrence on Zitadelle (July 13). Hitler was apauled by the German losses reported by his commanders. At the time Manstein's southern pincer was still pressing forward and he argued that he had suceeded in destroying a substantial part of the Red Army's offensive capability and was on the brink of victory. He told hitler, " ... on no account should we let go of the enemy until the mobile reserves which he had committed were decisively beaten." Hitler was ready to end the offensive, but gave von Manstein a few days to achieve the promised victory. Manstein as was the continued German failure had no concept of the size and potential of Red Army reserves. Hitler cancelled Zitadelle and ordered a withdrawal (July 17). He ordered the entire SS Panzer Corps to be transferred to Italy. [A. Clark, pp. 337-38.] In fact only the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler was redeployed to Italy. German Generals after the War anxious to blame Hitler for their failure often point to this dession. [Manstein, p. 504.] Most modern historians believe that while the Soviet had sustained major losses, the Germans no longer had adequate reserves to exploit any gains or even close the pincers and complete the encirclement while the Soviets still had substantial reserves. [Murray and Millet, p. 298.]

Results

Kursk was the last of three German summer offences in the Soviet Union. The myth of Germn invincibility in summer campaigning died at Kursk. [Seidler] This time the Red Army emerged victorious and without the winter snows. The Wehrmacht suffered massive losses from which they could never begin to replace. The Soviets suffered substantially greater losses despite being in defensive positions. One author claims that the Soviet casualties were an incredible seven times those of the Germans. [Clark] That seems high. The Soviets could, however, replce their losses, the Germns could not. It was the Germans last important offensive on the Eastern Front. By the time of Kursk, substabtial quantities of American Lend Lease aid had begin to reach the Soviets in addition to their expanding domestic arms production. After Kursk the American assistance essentialy enabled Soviet commanders to remake the Red Army. American trucks in particular gave the Red Army a mobility that the Whermacht did not have at the oeak of its power, That mobility woukd enable the Red Army to do in 18944 what the Whermacht failed go don in 1941, largely destroy the enemy's field armies. Without the Soviet defeat of the Wehrmacht, the Western Allies would have been hard pressed to contain the Germans or cross the Channel. A victorious Russian ally, however, meant that peace following the War would be far from ideal and leave the peoples of Eastern Europe locked into a new totalitarian dictatorship for a half a century.

Sources

Bryukhov, Vasiliy. Red Army Tank Commander: At War in a T-34 on the Eastern Front (2013), 224p.

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941–1945 (New York: William Morrow, 1966).

Clark, Lloyd. The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 (2011), 496p.

Davidson, The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (The University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Domarus, Max. Hitler: Reden: und Proklamationen 1932-1945 kommentiert von einem deutschen Zeitgwenossen, 2 vols, (Würzburg, 1962-63).

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1973), 844p.

Manstein, Erich von. Verlorene Siege [Lost Victories]. (München: Monch, 1955/83).

Murray, Williamson and Allan Reed Millet. War To Be Won (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2000).

Schneider, Franz, Charles Gullans, and S. L. Marshall. Last Letters from Stalingrad (Greenwood Publishing Group June, 1974).

Seidler, Hans. Images of war: Bttle of Kursk 1943 (2011).

Zhukov, Georgy. Жуков Г К. Воспоминания и размышления (В 2 т. М.: Олма-Пресс, 2002).






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Created: 9:57 PM 9/9/2005
Last updated: 9:33 PM 2/26/2014