The Battle of Kursk, Germany’s last grand offensive on the Eastern Front and the largest ever tank battle the world’s ever seen, began 5 July 1943.
The industrial city of Kursk, 320 miles south of Moscow, had been captured by the Germans in November 1941, during the early stages of the Nazi-Soviet war, and retaken by the Soviets in February 1943. Now held by the Soviets, Kursk and the surrounding area comprised a salient, or a ‘bulge’, 150 miles wide and 100 miles deep, into German-held territory.
‘My stomach turns over’
German Field-Marshall Erich von Manstein wanted to recapture Kursk as early as March 1943 by ‘pinching the salient’ from the north and south, thereby cutting it off from the rest of the Soviet territory. ‘Operation Citadel’ would also provide, argued Manstein, an immediate morale booster following the German humiliation suffered at Stalingrad, but Hitler wanted to have a new generation of tanks ready before doing so. The normally bellicose Hitler was unusually nervous about the planned offensive, confessing to his general, Heinz Guderian, ‘Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over’. Three times he delayed the date of attack. The delays were to prove fatal.
Intelligence had forewarned the Soviets of Nazi intentions and coupled with the delays on Hitler’s part, by the time the Germans did launch their counterattack, starting at 3 am on 4 July 1943, Kursk was fully fortified and prepared. One German soldier, on the eve of the attack, thought the mission suicidal, writing bleakly, ‘It is time to write out the last will and testament’. Almost a million men, 2,000 German tanks and supporting aircraft attacking, as originally planned, from north and south of the salient, were more than matched by the Soviets.
‘Furious hail of bombs and shells’
The Soviets had built a line of defence up to 200 miles deep, stretching over 3,800 miles. Hundreds of anti-tank guns were put in place, half a million mines were laid in the first trench alone – the equivalent to two mines per German soldier. 1.3 million men were waiting on the Soviet side, a further million in reserve. Leading the defence at the Battle of Kursk was Stalin’s top commander, Georgi Zhukov, pictured, defender of Moscow and Leningrad. As the Red Army let ripped its barrage on the German lines, even Zhukov felt a degree of pity for the enemy ‘hiding in holes, pressed to the earth to escape from the furious hail of bombs and shells’.
The Germans’ hope for a blitzkrieg victory, which depended on the element of surprise, had already evaporated with Hitler’s dithering, and as the Russians held out and engaged the Germans into a war of attrition, greatly favouring the Soviets, any hope of a German victory soon faded. Instead of blitzkrieg, the German soldier found himself fighting hand-to-hand, trench-by-trench. It was akin to the fighting of the First World War. Initial German gains, modest as they were, were soon lost as the Soviets counterattacked. The closest the two German attacks, north and south, got to one another was 40 miles.
The climax of the Battle of Kursk took place near a village called Prokhorovka on 12 July, when one thousand tanks and a thousand aircraft on each side clashed on a two-mile front, fighting each other to a standstill. The melee was intense as tanks bumped into each other, the German tanks liable to burst into flames as their engines overheated. The Battle of Kursk dragged on for another month but with the German lines continuously disrupted by partisan activity and the Russian capacity of putting unending supplies of men and equipment into the fray, the Germans ran out of energy and resources.
Losses on both sides were huge (70,000 Germans and probably an equal if not greater number of Soviets) but with the Soviet Union’s vast resource of manpower and with huge amounts of aid coming in from the US, Stalin could sustain his losses. Hitler, however, could not. Germany never again launched an offensive in the East.
Hitler, on hearing that the Western Allies had landed in Sicily, ordered a withdrawal. The Battle of Kursk came to an end on 23 August 1943.
Meanwhile, the Soviet march west had begun.
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