You'd have to be living under a rock not to know that this is the 150th anniversary of both the Battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg. The American Civil War would drag on for nearly two more years but by this date in 1863 the eventual victor had been decided. It was only a matter of time for the Confederacy. On this date 70 years ago another historically significant battle was joined and the eventual winners and losers of a different war were decided. The Battle of Kursk sealed the fate of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Again, the war would continue for another two years, but after Kursk there could be no doubt that Germany would be defeated by the Soviet Union. Join me below for a look back at this critical campaign in southern Russia.
The Kursk Salient
In January of '43 the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad and their 6th Army destroyed. The Red Army went over to the offensive and recaptured some territory, but the Germans managed to stabilize the front. They recaptured Kharkov and established a defensive line. This defensive line had a large bulge, or salient, centered on the town of Kursk with shoulders at Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south. The German plan was to attack simultaneously from north and south forming a pincers that would encircle the Red Army forces in the salient and straighten out their defensive line. It would prove to be the Wermacht's last offensive on the Eastern Front.
In books and documentary films the Battle of Kursk is almost always referred to as "The Greatest Tank Battle in History" so a short digression on Armored Fighting Vehicles, or AFVs, is in order. The first thing to remember is that not every machine with tracks and a gun is a tank. A good rule of thumb is that a tank has a turret. A turret allows the gun to swivel, or traverse, to the left or right. Pictured here is the Soviet T-34 medium tank. Universally acknowledged to be the best tank to see action in the Second World War, the T-34 was cheap to manufacture, reliable and, like all Soviet equipment, robust and easy to maintain. It was designed for Russian conditions with wide tracks that allowed it to operate in snow and mud. Its diesel engine made it less likely than a gasoline engined machine to catch fire. The T-34 was the Red Army's primary AFV from 1942 on and more tanks of this type were manufactured during the war than any other.
The other type of AFV in use during the Great Patriotic War was the Self-Propelled Gun. Until the invention of the SPG artillery was horse-drawn. The role of artillery in the assault is to take out hard points and soften up the enemy. When mechanized armies were introduced it was clear the horse-drawn guns would not be able to keep pace with an assault. The Germans solved this problem by inventing the Sturmgeschütz, or assault gun. An assault gun is simply a tank chassis with a field gun installed instead of a turret. Shown here is an early German StuG III with a short barreled howitzer. All combatants developed SPGs of their own. In both Germany and the Soviet Union each new tank design spawned SPG variants. Early assault guns, like the StuG III or the Soviet SU-122, used howitzers, guns that lob their projectiles in an arc. Installing a direct fire cannon on a tank chassis yields another kind of SPG, the tank destroyer. These were mechanized anti-tank guns. Being turret-less, they were much cheaper than tanks to manufacture. They were usually used as defensive weapons, positioned to ambush enemy tanks as they advanced.
On to the battle ...
Defense in Depth
From the very beginning the war on the Eastern Front had been a war of encirclements. In the summer of '41, during the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, the German army executed several large encirclements, cutting off Red Army soldiers in the hundreds of thousands. Stalingrad had ended with an encirclement of the German 6th Army. Given these facts, one needn't be a military genius to glance at the map above and guess the Wehrmacht's next move, even without the red arrows. To make matters worse for the Germans, British cryptographers at Bletchley Park had figured out their top-secret Enigma code machine and were feeding the Soviets German communications via a spy ring in Switzerland. Red Army commanders had very good information about where and when to expect a German attack. The Soviet strategy was defense in depth. They planned to ensnare the German attack in a cobweb of defensive positions; to wear the Germans out before going over on the offensive. Three concentric belts were constructed, each consisting of as many as five parallel trench lines. Behind these another three were built as fall back positions. Civilian labor was conscripted and 3,000 miles of trenches were dug. There were gun positions, barbed wire, and wide anti-tank ditches. A million mines were laid. The depth of the first three main defensive zones was 25 miles and, counting all six defensive belts, the Germans faced as many as 90 miles of interlocking positions.
The German plan was called Operation Citadel and the two simultaneous attacks, north and south, were launched on July 5 at 5 a.m. The Red Army had learned from a captured German soldier the exact time of the attack and tried to disrupt the attack with an artillery bombardment at midnight. This bombardment was begun a little too early and the Germans were able to form up for the assault before beginning their a bombardment of their own. In the north, the Germans advanced 5 km. on the first day. On the second day they gained only 4 km. and the Soviets launched a counter-attack. There was heavy fighting around the town of Ponyri and as the Soviet defenses and counter-attacks began to take effect the German advance fizzled out. On the 10th of July with the attackers themselves threatened with encirclement, the Germans called off the northern part of the operation. They had not even breached the first defensive belt.
Elephants, Tigers and Panthers
While the Soviets produced huge numbers of AFVs, they concentrated on only a few different types. The Germans, on the other hand, were always developing new types hoping for a super weapon that could change the outcome of the war by virtue of its technological superiority. Two new German types made their debut at Kursk, the Panther, shown here, and the Ferdinand or Elefant. The Panther was a new design intended to counter the T-34. At Kursk it proved to be something of a "trailer queen" with many breaking down before they could even get into action. The Elefant was a 65-ton monstrosity of a tank destroyer. Fitted with the superb 88mm. gun it was capable of taking out a T-34 at over 3 miles. Alas, it was too heavy to get out of its own way and over half of the Elefants committed at Kursk were lost to mines or malfunctions in the first 4 days. The Germans were great believers in heavy tanks, they had another one called the Tiger that was also fitted with an 88. They would often attack in a "V" formation with Tigers and Panthers at the point and smaller tanks fanning out behind to left and right. Although they managed to achieve spectacular kill ratios against the T-34 the "breakthrough" tanks were a disappointment due to mine damage, mechanical difficulties and the Soviet tactic of concentrating numerous guns on a single target.
It was in the southern part of the salient, near the town of Prokhorovka, that the legend of the "Greatest Tank Battle in History" was born. The II SS Panzer Corps attacked northwards and by July 8 it had breached the first and second Soviet defensive belts. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army had been held in reserve and was committed on July 6. On July 12, after a 240 mile forced march, the 5thGTA attacked, slamming into the right flank of the Germans. Here's T-34 tank commander Vasili Bryukhov:
The distance between the tanks was below 100 meters - it was impossible to maneuver a tank, one could just jerk it back and forth a bit. It wasn't a battle, it was a slaughterhouse of tanks. We crawled back and forth and fired. Everything was burning. An indescribable stench hung in the air over the battlefield. Everything was enveloped in smoke, dust and fire, so it looked as if it was twilight ... Tanks were burning, trucks were burning.At the end the Red Army held. The third defensive line was not breached. On July 16 the Germans withdrew southwards to their original starting point. The Soviets suffered greater losses than the Germans but they had much greater reserves of men and equipment and much shorter supply lines.
The Red Army launched counter-offensives almost immediately. In the north Operation Kutuzov began on July 12 driving towards Orel. They had a tougher time of it in the south and didn't go over to the offensive until August 3. Belgorod was retaken on August 5 and Kharkov was permanently retaken on the 23rd. The Battle of Kursk was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. From the end of July 1943 until May of '45 the once mighty Wehrmacht fought a long series of desperate rear-guard actions that would only end on the steps of the Reichstag.
The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943 Lloyd Clark
Panzer Destroyer: Memoirs of a Red Army Tank Commander Vasily Krysov
The Forgotten Soldier Guy Sajer