The Battle of Kursk (Russian: Курская битва) refers to German and Soviet operations on the Eastern Front of World War II in the vicinity of the city of Kursk in July and August 1943. It remains both the largest series of armored clashes, including the Battle of Prokhorovka, and the most costly single day of aerial warfare to date. It was the last strategic blitzkrieg offensive the Germans were able to execute in the east. The resulting decisive Soviet victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative, which it would not relinquish for the remainder of the war.
Once the German forces had exhausted themselves against the in-depth defenses, the Soviets responded with their own counteroffensives, which allowed the Red Army to retake Orel and Belgorod on August 5, and Kharkov on August 23 and to push back the Germans across a broad front.
Though the Red Army had had success in winter, this was the first successful strategic Soviet summer offensive of the war. The model strategic operation earned a deserved place in war college curricula. The Soviet victory represented an important step in the defeat of Nazism in World War II.
In the winter of 1942-1943 the Red Army conclusively won the Battle of Stalingrad. One complete German army had been destroyed, along with about 800,000 German and Axis troops, seriously depleting Axis strength in the east.
In 1917, the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, shortening their lines and thereby increasing their defensive strength. They planned on repeating this strategy in the USSR and started construction of a massive series of defensive works known as the Panther-Wotan line. They intended to retreat to the line late in 1943 and bleed the Soviets against it while their own forces recuperated.
In February and March 1943, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had completed an offensive during the Third Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle lay a large 200km (120mi) wide and 150km (90mi) deep Soviet-held salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Von Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south.
Hitler, now desperate to end the war in the east before Allied military power could threaten German-occupied Europe from the west and south, planned to eliminate the large salient formed around Kursk and destroy the large Soviet forces deployed to defend it. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht hoped to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front.
The Kursk salient (also known as the Kursk bulge) was created in the aftermath of the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans hoped to shorten their lines by eliminating the salient, with pincers breaking through its northern and southern flanks to achieve yet another great encirclement of Red Army forces. However, the Soviets had good intelligence of Hitler's intentions. This and repeated German delays to wait for new weapons, including the Panther tank, gave the Red Army time to construct elaborate, layered defenses and position large reserve forces for a strategic counterattack.12 1314
Although often thought of as a tank battle, Kursk as a whole arguably demonstrated the triumph of artillery, infantry and engineers over armour. The Soviet plan was to soak up the German assault in a colossal web of defensive positions, and only then launch their armoured counter-attack. It was also an important air battle, in which the balance now shifted in the favor of the Soviets.15
Manstein pressed for a new offensive along the same lines he had just successfully pursued at Kharkov, when he cut off an overextended Red Army offensive. He suggested tricking the Red Army into attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming Sixth Army, leading them into the Donets Basin in the eastern Ukraine. He would then turn south from Kharkov on the eastern side of the Donets River towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the Red Army against the Sea of Azov.
OKH did not approve of Manstein's plan, and instead turned their attention to the obvious bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. Two Red Army Fronts, the Voronezh and Central Fronts, occupied the ground in and around the salient, and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's manpower. It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line, and recapture the strategically useful railway city of Kursk located on the main north-south railway line running from Rostov to Moscow.
In March the plans crystallized. Walter Model's Ninth Army would attack southwards from Orel while Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment "Kempf" under the overall command of Manstein would attack northwards from Kharkov. They planned to meet near Kursk, but if the offensive went well they would have permission to continue forward on their own initiative, with a general plan to re-establish a new line at the Don River several weeks' marching to the east.
Contrary to his recent behavior, Hitler gave the General Staff considerable control over the planning of the operation. Over the next few weeks, they continued to increase the scope of the forces attached to the front, stripping the entire German line of practically anything remotely useful for deployment in the upcoming operation. They first set the attack for May 4, but then delayed it until June 12, and finally until July 4 in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from Germany, especially the new Panther tanks. Hitler postponed the offensive several more times. On 5 May the launch date became 12 June. But due to the potential threat of an Allied landing in Italy, and delays in armor deliveries Hitler set the launch date to 20 June, and on 17 June it was pushed back to 3 July.1617 On June 21 he postponed it until July 3, and then later to July 5.18
The basic concept behind the German offensive was the traditional (and, for the Germans, hitherto usually successful) double-envelopment, or Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). The German Army had long favored such a Cannae-style method, and the tools of Blitzkrieg made these types of tactics even more effective. Blitzkrieg depended on mass, shock, and speed to surprise an enemy and defeat him through disruption of command and supply rather than by destroying all his forces in a major pitched battle.
However, such breakthroughs were easier to achieve if they hit an unexpected location, as the Germans had achieved attacking through the Ardennes in 1940, Kiev in 1941, and towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus in 1942. The OKH's plan for the attack on the Kursk salient, "Operation Citadel," violated the principle of surprise: anyone with the most basic grasp of military strategy could deduce that the Kursk salient was the most obvious target for any German attack. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Guderian.
The Red Army had also begun planning for their own upcoming summer offensives, and had settled on a plan that mirrored that of the Germans. Attacks in front of Orel and Kharkov would flatten out the line, and potentially lead to a breakout near the Pripyat Marshes. However, Soviet commanders had considerable concerns over the German plans.
The locations of all previous German attacks had caught the Red Army by surprise, but in this case Kursk seemed the obvious target. Moscow received warning of the German plans through the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland. This was almost unnecessary, since Marshal Zhukov had already correctly predicted the site of the German attack as early as April 8, when he wrote his initial report to Stavka (the Red Army General Staff), in which he also recommended the strategy eventually followed by the Red Army.
Stalin and some Stavka officers wanted to strike first, but in a letter Zhukov wrote to Stalin on 8 April 1943:
I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go over to the offensive in the very first days of the campaign in order to forestall the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhaust himself against our defences, and knock out his tanks and then, bringing up fresh reserves, to go over to the general offensive which would finally finish off his main force.19
The pattern of the war up until this point had been one of German offensive success. Blitzkrieg had worked against all opposing armies, including the Red Army. On the other hand, Soviet offensive actions during both winters showed their own offensives now worked well. However, the overwhelming majority of Stavka members, most notably Zhukov, advised waiting for the Germans to exhaust themselves first. Zhukov's opinion swayed the argument.
The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Red Army four months in which to prepare, and with every passing day they turned the salient into one of the most heavily defended points on earth. Two Fronts, the Central and Voronezh, manned the defensive lines, and the Steppe Front was available to act as a reserve. The Red Army and thousands of civilians laid about one million land mines and dug about 5000km (3000mi) of trenches, to a depth of 175km (95mi). In addition, they massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,792 aircraft. This amounted to 26 percent of the total manpower of the Red Army, 26 percent of its mortars and artillery, 35 percent of its aircraft 46 percent of its tanks.19 Due to the disparity in populations, industrial capability20, and continual German delays in tank production, the Red Army could build up forces faster than the Germans; each month they pulled further ahead in men and matériel. The Germans also received reports of rapid and powerful Soviet concentrations in the Kursk area, and delayed the offensive to allow for more Panther tanks to reach the front line.21Red Army Maxim machinegun crew in action.
Set in the larger vista of the war on the Eastern Front, Kursk is significant because it demonstrated the Soviet high command and staff now worked more effectively than OKH-largely due to the fact that Stalin was finally prepared to act on the advice of his professional intelligence and staff officers, while Hitler was systematically ignoring his. This was evidenced by the defeat of the Blitzkrieg in summer campaigning weather and the ability of the Red Army forces to move from defensive to offensive operations due to better staff work, larger reserves and better planning. In these senses Kursk, and not Stalingrad, can be viewed as the turning point in the war: certainly the initiative passed decisively from Wehrmacht to the Red Army.
The Soviet Air Arm played a significant role in hampering the German preparations. On April 17, 1943 a raid on the German airfield at Orsha-South destroyed five Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft from 1.(F)/100 and 4.(F)/121, and then three Do 17s/Do 217s of 2.Nachtaufklarungsstaffel. Three days later another ten high-level reconnaissance aircraft were destroyed on the ground. As a result the only operational strategic reconnaissance Staffel was 4.(F)/1422 The Luftwaffe also had a hand in trying to weaken the position of its opponent before the main operation. The Tank factory at Gorkovskiy Avtomobilniy Zavod (GAZ) was subjected to a series of heavy attacks throughout June 1943. On the night of June 4/5 He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 1, KG 3, KG 4, KG 55 and KG 100 dropped 179 tons of bombs, causing massive destruction to buildings and production lines. All of GAZ No. 1 plant's 50 buildings, 9,000 metres of conveyers, 5,900 units of equipment and 8,000 tank engines were destroyed.23 However, the Germans made an error in target selection. The GAZ plant No. 1 produced only the T-70 light tank. Factory No. 112 was the second-biggest producer of the more formidable T-34, and continued production undisturbed. Soviet production facilities were repaired or rebuilt within six weeks. In 1943 Factory No. 112 produced 2,851 T-34s, 3,619 in 1944, and 3,255 in 1945.23 The Luftwaffe had also failed to hit the Gorkiy Artillery Factory (No. 92) or the aircraft plant where the Lavochkin La-5 and La 5FN were made.23 The Luftwaffe failed to disrupt the Soviet preparation for the coming battle.
It took four months before the Germans felt ready, by which time they had collected 200 of the new Panther tanks (only 40 were available at the beginning of the operation due to technical problems with the new type), 90 Elefant Panzerjägers and all 79 flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft24, as well as 270 Tigers, late model Panzer Mark-IVs and even a number of captured T-34s.25 In total they assembled some 3,000 tanks and assault guns, 2,110 aircraft262 and 900,000 men. It formed one of the greatest concentrations of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.
The start date for the offensive had been moved repeatedly as delays in preparation had forced the Germans to postpone the attack. Finally, on July 1, the orders were issued to attack on July 5. The following day, Marshal Vasilyevskiy warned the Front commanders (N. F. Vatutin, K. K. Rokossovskiy and I. S. Konev) that the long-awaited German offensive would begin sometime between July 3 and July 6. For months, the Soviets had been receiving detailed information on the planning of the offensive from their Red Orchestra (German: Rote Kapelle, and the "Lucy Group") espionage organization, whose sources included officers in Hermann Göring's aviation ministry and other parts of the Nazi administration.27
Preliminary fighting started on July 4, 1943 in the south, as Fourth Panzer Army had elected to try to take Soviet outposts prior to the main assault on July 5. Thus they deliberately sacrificed tactical surprise. Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin, after receiving reports that the German offensive was imminent, ordered Voronezh Front to bombard German positions on the night of July 4.28
In the afternoon, Stuka dive bombers blew a two-mile-wide gap in the Soviet front lines on the north in a period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Hoth's armored spearhead, the III Panzer Corps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Zavidovka. At the same time, the Großdeutschland Division attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the 11th Panzer Division took the high ground around Butovo. To the west of Butovo, the going proved tougher for Großdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division, which met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure their objectives until midnight. The II SS Panzer Corps launched preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again met with strong resistance, until assault troops equipped with flamethrowers cleared the bunkers and outposts.
At 2:30, the Red Army hit back with an artillery bombardment in the north and south. This barrage by over 3,000 guns and mortars expended about half of the artillery ammunition for the entire operation. The goal was to delay and disorganize the German attack. In the northern face, the Central Front artillery fired mostly against German artillery positions and managed to suppress 50 of the 100 German batteries they attacked, resulting in much weaker German artillery fire on the opening day of the attack. This bombardment disrupted German units and caused them to attack at different times on July 5. In the south, the Red Army chose to fire largely against the German infantry and tanks in their assembly areas. This was partially successful in delaying the German attack, but caused few casualties.
Main operations - the northern face
The real operation opened on July 5, 1943. The Red Army, now aware even of the exact time of the planned German offensive, launched a massive attack by the Soviet Air Force on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area, in an attempt to counter the classic German tactic of eliminating local air support within the first hour of operation. The next few hours turned into possibly the largest air operation ever fought.
The Red Army co-ordination of the attack had failed: Red Air Force fighters were dispatched too soon, arriving over German airbases too early and having to withdraw before the arrival of their bombers due to lack of fuel. The German fighters had nothing to prevent them from taking off and engaging the approaching attackers;29 the Red Air Force lost 120 aircraft.30
The Luftwaffe directed an all-out effort against Red Army positions on the northern flank during the first day of the operation, while Soviet deployment errors granted the Luftwaffe initial air-superiority.
On July 6, huge air battles raged over the Northern sector. However, there was a lack of Soviet air-to-ground liaison officers, and effectiveness suffered. Counter-attacking Red Army units often took ground very quickly, and there was no effective system in place to inform the Soviet air fleets in time; as a result Soviet bombers attacked areas now occupied by Soviet forces, inflicting casualties. The initial air battles enabled the Luftwaffe to at least maintain a balance in numbers, if not air superiority, over the area held by 47 PanzerKorps. The Luftwaffe concentrated most of its 1 Fliegerkorps units to this sector. The Soviet 17th Guards Rifle Corps reported "Appearing in formations of 20-30 or even 60-100 aircraft at a time, the enemy air force played a vital role in the battle".31 The Soviets suffered heavily on the first day, 16 VA losing 91 aircraft (including 22 Sturmoviks, nine A-20 Havocs, and 60 fighters). The air support the Germans gave their army was crucial. The War Diary of the Soviet 19th Independent Tank Corps noted;
The enemy met our attacking tanks with fire from artillery and heavy tanks located in shelters as well as with air attack in which up to 100 aircraft took part. Consequently, and owing also to the losses they suffered, the brigades were withdrawn from combat and received orders to occupy a defense… along the line32
However, the Soviets did gain a notable success on July 6. The 299 ShAD of the 16 VA, equipped with the Sturmovik, arrived over the front when the German fighters had returned to base. The 47 Panzerkorps had broken cover and attacked the 17th Guards Rifle Corps and the 16th Tank Corps, and were out in the open and vulnerable to air attack. The Soviet attack was devastating to the tanks of 47 Panzerkorps. Flying as low as six metres the Soviets destroyed as many as 20 in this action, and 40 damaged, for the loss of one IL-2.33 The Luftwaffe was also experiencing fuel shortages, and as a result the number of Stuka and bomber sorties were declining from as early as the July 6. On July 5 these groups had flown 647 and 582 sorties, by July 6, this had dropped to 289 and 164 missions. Most of the German combat missions were flown by fighters; although they continued to heavily outscore the Soviets, the continual pressure of Soviet aviation began to take its toll on the Luftwaffe and the Heer.34
On July 7 the Soviet 16 VA flew fewer sorties than the German 1. Fliegerdivision (1,687 to 1,185), but the Soviets, with a few exceptions, were able to prevent further heavy losses, and inflicted serious damage to German ground formations. Soviet losses in the air of bombers and ground attack aircraft on 7 July were light. Total Soviet losses on July 7 were 30 aircraft, for six German (all Fw 190s), on the Northern sector.35
The Luftwaffe also conducted effective operations at low cost, claiming to destroy 14 Soviet tanks, 60 motorized vehicles, 22 artillery pieces and eight ammunition stores. A further 22 tanks were claimed damaged and 25 artillery guns "silenced."36 In the first three days of fighting over the northern flank Luftflotte 6 lost a total of 39 aircraft against Soviet losses of 386.37
Northern ground battle
The 9th Army attack in the north fell far short of its objectives on July 5. The attack sector had been correctly anticipated by the Red Army Central Front. Attacking on a 45-kilometer-wide front, the Germans found themselves trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire. Although a few Goliath and Borgward remote-control engineering vehicles were available to clear lanes in the minefields, they were not generally successful. Even when the vehicles cleared mines, they had no on-board marking system to show following tanks where the cleared lanes were. Red Army units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying German engineers clearing mines manually; German losses in the Red Army minefields were high. For example, the German 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion began the attack with 49 Ferdinand self-propelled guns; 37 of them had been lost in the minefields before 17:00 on July 5. Although most of the lost vehicles were mobility kills rather than permanent losses, they were out of action until they could be repaired. While idle they added nothing to German combat power and were easier for Red Army artillery to knock out permanently. Since the Germans were advancing, any repairable vehicles could be recovered, repaired, and put back into action.
The Germans also noted a fundamental flaw in their armored vehicles, particularly the Elefant. Although excellent against any Soviet tank at long to medium range, they lacked secondary armament and were vulnerable to attacks from Soviet slit trenches once separated from the heavy machine gun protection of the lighter tanks, vehicles and infantry. Guderian noted in his diary:
Once they had broken through into the enemy's infantry zone they literally had to go quail-shooting with cannons. They did not manage to neutralize, let alone destroy, the enemy's rifle and machine guns, so that our own infantry was unable to follow up behind them. By the time they reached the Soviet artillery they were on their own38
Review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration shows clearly that the Red Army defensive tactics were succeeding. Beginning with a 45-kilometer-wide attack frontage on July 5, the next day the German 9th Army attacked on a 40-kilometer front. This dropped to 15 kilometers wide by July 7, and only 2 kilometers on July 8-9. Each day, the depth of the German advance slowed: 5 kilometers on the first day, 4 on the second, never more than 2 km each succeeding day. By 10 July 9th Army was stopped in its tracks.
A great deal of the Soviet defensive success was down to its method of fire control, known to the Germans as Pakfront. This relied upon a group of 10 or more anti-tank guns under a single commander, which would fire at a single target at a time. These positions were protected with heavy concentrations of mortar and machine-gun nests, which were ordered to fire on German infantry only.39 For these reasons the Germans were only able to advance slowly and at heavy cost.
On July 26, Model ordered a withdrawal from the Orel salient, to avoid another "cauldron." Soviet forces captured the city on 5 August, and two days later had wiped out the salient altogether. As German forces retreated they applied the "Scorched earth" policy, destroying everything of use to the advancing Soviets.40
Luftwaffe operations in the Orel Bulge, July 16-31
After a week of heavy fighting, the Wehrmacht had advanced only 12 km. On July 12 the Soviets launched their own offensive against the Second Panzer Army and the German Ninth Army at Orel. The situation became critical for the German forces: the Soviet 11th Guards Army could cut off both German Armies.
The Luftwaffe was called upon to halt the offensive, and its actions proved decisive to saving the German armies from encirclement. The Luftwaffe organized a massive aerial offensive to blunt the threat. On July 16, the Luftwaffe flew 1,595 sorties, double that of the previous days.41 In daylight hours the Sturzkampfgeschwader and Schlachtgeschwader attacked Red Army armored units while the Kampfgruppen targeted the rear supply lines.
On July 17 further attempts to intervene on the battlefield were hindered by the arrival of an overwhelming Soviet aviation force. This forced German bombers to operate from higher altitudes, and bombing accuracy suffered. The Soviet 16 VA had greatly improved its organization and ground control methods, and its pilots were now improving their tactics. The Soviets took advantage of their superior strength to initiate a series of huge aerial offensives against German positions, using waves of up to 350 aircraft per strike.42 The offensive resulted in large-scale air battles. The limited engagement of the German bomber and ground attack units resulted in only 24 Soviet tanks and 31 lorries being destroyed. However the German fighter units destroyed 90 Soviet aircraft on that date, for 12 losses. 1. Fliegerdivision had carried out 1,693 sorties that day.4344
Another 1,100 sorties were flown on July 18, and the Junkers Ju 87 units took a heavy toll of Red Army tank forces; Ju 87s of StG 3 destroyed at least 50 tanks.45
On July 19 the Luftwaffe initiated the aerial operation that, alone, would stop a Soviet breakthrough at Khotynets, which would have taken out a vital rail link, and severed the connection between the two German armies. Some Stuka pilots flew up to six missions on this date. The Fw 190 equipped SchG 1 also contributed to the attacks with 250 kg bombs. Mixed formations of Hs 129s and Ju 87s attacked the Soviet tank formations in three days of "relentless" action against the Is Tank Corps and 70th Tank Brigade. Oberfeldwebel Hans Hans Krohn, a radio operator of a II./StG 3 Ju 87 recalled:
Our "cannon aircraft" took a terrible toll of Soviet armor. We attacked at very low altitude… and my pilot opened fire at a distance of only 50 metres. Most of our attacks were made against the side of the tanks, because in that way they offered the largest targets. I know that some pilots attacked from behind because that was where the armor was weakest, but that also meant the target was so small that it was difficult to hit. By this time Soviet tank crews appeared to be well aware of the potency of our "cannon planes." Whenever we appeared, the tanks would start wild evasive maneuvers. Occasionally we could see tank crews jump out of the hatches and abandon their tanks when we dived to attack them.46
The Soviet losses were so heavy that they were forced to retreat. Tanks that had managed to reach German positions had been quickly routed. 1.Fliegerdivision had claimed 135 tanks put out of action on 19 July, with a total of 66 destroyed. The 1st Tank Corps had only 33 tanks remaining on 20 July.4647 Realizing the German armies were about to escape the trap, the Stavaka ordered the 3rd Tank Army to pursue the encirclement, and at least catch and destroy the German 35. Army Corps. Once again the Luftwaffe contributed decisively. The Soviet fighter units in the area were disorganized due to constant redirections along the front, and as a result were overwhelmed by a concentrated attack by Luftwaffe forces throughout the day. Over 1,500 sorties were flown, and 38 Soviet tanks, 85 vehicles, eight tank transporters and ten pontoon bridges were destroyed for 13 losses.48 Model sent a message to von Greim thanking him: "the Luftwaffe's intervention was absolutely decisive to prevent a second, more disastrous Stalingrad".46
The end in the north
The 9th Army had to withdraw, their part in the offensive over. Because the German armor was not concentrated and used with the same intensity as in the South, the German armor losses were comparatively light-143 armored vehicles were total losses in the period July 5 -14 1943.49 However, this failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matériel for the Red Army. Few Red Army guns were captured, and those Red Army units that did retreat did so on orders. The German attack failed to penetrate beyond the Red Army tactical zone.
Main operations - the southern face
Air battlesThe German advance in the South
The offensive opened, as in the north, with a mass of air activity. German air attacks helped badly maul the Soviet 57th and 67th Guard Divisions. As the Luftwaffe shifted its attention against the 6th Tank Corps, it left the skies empty over the 4. Panzerarmee. As a result of Soviet superiority in the air, reinforced Soviet defenses, and a lack of heavy air support, the Großdeutschland Division