The battle of Kursk, also called Operation Citadel, gives its name to a series of armed clashes that took place between July and August 1943 in the region of the same name in Russia in the context of the Second World War. In it, the troops of the German army would make the last offensive effort on the eastern front, grouping the bulk of its armored forces and its most modern weapons, through the most powerful units and its most prestigious generals, facing against the troops of the Red Army of the Soviet Union.
The operation is considered one of the largest battles in history, involving some three million troops, more than 6300 tanks (more than in any other battle) and some 4400 aircraft. The battle was the final strategic offensive the Germans were able to launch on the Eastern Front. Because the Allied invasion of Sicily had begun, Adolf Hitler was forced to divert training troops in France to meet the Allied threat in the Mediterranean, rather than use them as a strategic reserve for the Eastern Front. Hitler called off the offensive at Kursk after only a week, in part to divert forces to Italy. Germany”s heavy losses of men and tanks ensured that the Soviet Red Army enjoyed the strategic initiative for the remainder of the war.
The Germans hoped to weaken Soviet offensive potential by the summer of 1943 by cutting off forces they anticipated would be in the Kursk pocket.The pocket or salient was 250 kilometers long from north to south and 160 kilometers long from east to west.The plan called for an envelopment of a pair of pincers running across the northern and southern flanks of the salient. Hitler believed that a victory here would reaffirm German strength and improve its prestige with its allies, who were considering withdrawing from the war. It was also expected that a large number of Soviet prisoners would be captured for use as slave labor in the German armaments industry.
The Soviet Government had prior knowledge of German intentions, provided in part by British intelligence and Tunny”s intercepts. With months of anticipation that the attack would fall on the neck of the Kursk pocket, the Soviets built a defense in depth designed to wear down the German armored spearhead. The Germans delayed the offensive while they tried to build up their forces and awaited new weapons, primarily the new Panther tank, but also a greater number of the Tiger heavy tank. This gave the Red Army time to build a series of deep defensive belts. The defensive preparations included minefields, fortifications, artillery firing zones and anti-tank strongpoints, extending approximately 300 km deep. Soviet mobile formations were pulled out of the pocket and a large reserve force was formed for strategic counteroffensives.
The Battle of Kursk was the first time in World War II that a German strategic offensive was stopped before it could break through enemy defenses and penetrate their strategic depths. The maximum depth of the German advance was 8 to 12 kilometers in the north and 35 kilometers in the south. Although the Red Army had been successful in winter offensives before, its counteroffensives after the German attack at Kursk were its first summer strategic offensives of the war.
As the Battle of Stalingrad slowly reached its conclusion, the Red Army moved into a general offensive in the south, pressing the exhausted German forces that had survived the winter. By January 1943, a gap 100 to 200 miles wide had opened up between Army Group B and Army Group Don, and the advancing Soviet armies threatened to cut off all German forces south of the Don River, including Army Group A operating in the Caucasus. Army Group Center also came under significant pressure. Kursk fell to the Soviets on February 8, 1943, and Rostov fell on February 14. The Soviet Bryansk, Western, and newly created Central Fronts prepared for an offensive that envisaged the encirclement of Army Group Center between Bryansk and Smolensk. By February 1943, the southern sector of the German front was in strategic crisis.
Since December 1942, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had been vigorously requesting “unrestricted operational freedom” to allow him to use his forces in a free-flowing manner. On February 6, 1943, Manstein met with Hitler at Rastenburg headquarters to discuss the proposals he had sent earlier. He received an approval from Hitler for a counteroffensive against the advancing Soviet forces in the Donbass region. On February 12, 1943, the remaining German forces were reorganized. To the south, Army Group Don was renamed Army Group South and placed under Manstein”s command. Directly to the north, Army Group B was disbanded, with its forces and areas of responsibility divided between Army Group South and Army Group Center. Manstein inherited responsibility for the massive breach in the German lines. On February 18, Hitler arrived at Army Group South headquarters in Zaporizhia, hours before the Soviets liberated Kharkov and had to be hastily evacuated on the 19th.
Once granted freedom of action, Manstein attempted to use his forces to conduct a series of counterattacks on the flanks of the Soviet armored formations, with the aim of destroying them while retaking Kharkov and Kursk. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps had arrived from France in January 1943, reconditioned and almost in full strength. Armored units of the 1st Panzer Army of Army Group A had withdrawn from the Caucasus and further strengthened Manstein”s forces.
The operation was hastily prepared and was not given a name. Later known as the Third Battle of Kharkov, it began on February 21, when General Hoth”s 4th Panzer Army launched a counterattack. German forces cut off the Soviet mobile spearheads and continued the drive northward, retaking Kharkov on March 15 and Belgorod on March 18. A Soviet offensive launched on February 25 by the Central Front against Army Group Center had to be abandoned on March 7 to allow the attacking formations to withdraw and redeploy southward to counter the threat of advancing German forces under Manstein. The exhaustion of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, coupled with the loss of mobility due to the onset of the spring rasputitsa, resulted in the cessation of operations for both sides in mid-March. The counteroffensive left a salient that extended into the German area of control, centered on the city of Kursk.
German plan and preparation
The heavy losses suffered by the German Army since the opening of Operation Barbarossa had resulted in a shortage of infantry and artillery. The units were in total 470 000 men short of strength. For the Wehrmacht to undertake an offensive in 1943, the burden of the offensive, both attacking the Soviet defenses and holding ground on the flanks of the advance, would have to be carried primarily by panzer divisions. In view of the exposed position of Army Group South, Manstein proposed that his forces should take the strategic defensive. He anticipated that a Soviet offensive would attempt to cut off and destroy Army Group South by a movement across the Donets River toward the Dnieper. In February, he proposed to wait for this offensive to develop and then deliver a series of counterattacks on the exposed Soviet flanks. Hitler, concerned about the political implications of taking a defensive posture, and anxious to hold the Donbass, rejected this plan. On March 10, Manstein presented an alternative plan whereby German forces would meet the Kursk pocket with a rapid offensive to begin as soon as the Rasputitsa spring had ceased.
On March 13, Hitler signed Operational Order No. 5, which authorized several offensives, including one against the Kursk pocket. When the last Soviet resistance at Kharkov petered out, Manstein tried to persuade Günther von Kluge, commander of Army Group Center, to immediately attack the Central Front, which defended the northern face of the salient. Kluge refused, deeming his forces too weak to launch such an attack. Further Axis advances were blocked by Soviet forces that had been moved from the Central Front to the area north of Belgorod. In mid-April, amid bad weather and with German forces depleted and in need of readjustment, the Operational Order No. 5 offensives were postponed.
On April 15, Hitler issued Operational Order No. 6, which called for the Kursk offensive operation, called Zitadelle (“Citadel”), to begin on May 3 or shortly thereafter. The directive was drafted by Kurt Zeitzler, the OKH chief of staff. For the offensive to succeed, it was considered essential to attack before the Soviets had a chance to prepare extensive defenses or launch an offensive of their own. Some military historians have described the operation using the term blitzkrieg (other military historians do not use the term in their works on the battle.
Operation Citadel called for a double envelopment, aimed at Kursk, to encircle the Soviet defenders of five armies and seal it off. Army Group Center would provide General Walter Model”s 9th Army to form the northern pincers. It would cut across the north face of the pocket, driving south to the hills east of Kursk, securing the rail line from Soviet attack. Army Group South would commit the 4th Panzer Army, under Hermann Hoth, and the Kempf Army Detachment, under Werner Kempf, to pierce the south face of the pocket. This force would drive north to meet the 9th Army east of Kursk. Von Manstein”s main attack was to be executed by Hoth”s 4th Panzer Army, led by II SS Panzer Corps under Paul Hausser. The XLVIII Panzer Corps, commanded by Otto von Knobelsdorff, would advance on the left, while the Kempf Army Detachment would advance on the right. The 2nd Army, under the command of Walter Weiss, would hold the western part of the salient.
On April 27, Model met with Hitler to review and express his concern over reconnaissance information that showed the Red Army building up very strong positions on the shoulders of the salient and withdrawing its mobile forces from the area west of Kursk. He argued that the longer the preparation phase, the less the operation could be justified. He recommended either abandoning Operation Citadel altogether, allowing the army to wait for and defeat the coming Soviet offensive, or radically revising the Citadel plan. Although by mid-April Manstein had considered Citadel to be profitable, in May he shared Model”s misgivings. He asserted that the best course of action would be for German forces to take the strategic, yielded defensive position to allow the anticipated Soviet forces to spread out and allow German panzer forces to counterattack in the kind of fluid mobile battle in which they excelled. Convinced that the Red Army would make its main effort against Army Group South, he proposed to hold strong the left wing of the panzer group while moving the right wing toward the Dnieper River, in stages, and then a counterattack against the flank of the advancing Red Army. The counteroffensive would continue until the Sea of Azov was reached and the Soviet forces were eliminated. Hitler rejected this idea; he did not want to give up so much ground, even temporarily.
Hitler called his senior officers and advisors to Munich for a meeting on 4 May. Hitler spoke for about 45 minutes about the reasons for postponing the attack, essentially reiterating Model”s arguments. Several options were presented for comment: going on the offensive immediately with the forces on hand, further delaying the offensive to await the arrival of new and better tanks, radically revising the operation, or canceling it altogether. Manstein argued for an early attack, but requested two additional infantry divisions, to which Hitler replied that none were available. Kluge spoke forcefully against postponement and discounted Model”s reconnaissance materials. Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production, spoke of the difficulties in rebuilding armored formations and the limitations of German industry in replacing losses. General Heinz Guderian argued forcefully against the operation, stating that “the attack would be futile.” The conference ended without Hitler making a decision, but Citadel was not aborted. Three days later, the OKW, Hitler”s conduit for controlling the army, postponed the launch date for Citadel to June 12.
After this meeting, Guderian continued to express his concern about an operation that was likely to degrade the panzer forces he had been trying to rebuild. He considered the offensive, as planned, to be a misuse of panzer forces, since it violated two of the three principles he had laid down as essential elements of a successful panzer attack. In his view, the limited German resources in men and materiel should be conserved, as they would be needed for the pending defense of western Europe. In a meeting with Hitler on May 10, he asked:
Is it really necessary to attack Kursk, and even the East this very year? Do you think anyone knows where Kursk is? The whole world does not care whether we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason forcing us to attack this year in Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front?
Hitler replied, “I know. The thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. Guderian concluded, “In that case, your reaction to the problem is the right one. Leave it alone.”
Despite reservations, Hitler remained committed to the offensive. He and the OKW, early in the preparatory phase, were hopeful that the offensive would revitalize German strategic fortunes in the east. As the challenges offered by Citadel increased, he focused increasingly on the new weapons he believed were the key to victory: primarily the Panther tank, but also the Elefant tank destroyer and a greater number of Tiger heavy tanks. He postponed the operation to await their arrival. Receiving reports of powerful Soviet concentrations behind the Kursk area, Hitler further delayed the offensive to allow more equipment to reach the front.
With pessimism over Citadel increasing with each delay, in June, Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff in the OKW, instructed the armed forces propaganda office to describe the upcoming operation as a limited counteroffensive. Due to concerns of an Allied landing in southern France or Italy and delays in the deliveries of new tanks, Hitler postponed again, this time until June 20. Zeitzler was deeply concerned about the delays, but still supported the offensive. On June 17 and 18, after a discussion in which the OKW operations staff suggested abandoning the offensive, Hitler postponed the operation until July 3. Finally, on July 1, Hitler announced July 5 as the date for launching the offensive.
A three-month lull descended on the Eastern Front as the Soviets prepared their defenses and the Germans attempted to build up their forces. The Germans used this period for specialized training of their assault troops. All units underwent training and combat rehearsals. The Waffen-SS had constructed a large-scale duplicate Soviet strongpoint that was used to practice techniques for neutralizing such positions. The panzer divisions received replacement men and equipment and attempted to regain strength. The German forces to be used in the offensive included 12 panzer divisions and 5 panzergrenadier divisions, four of which had tank forces larger than their neighboring panzer divisions. However, the force was markedly deficient in infantry divisions, which were essential for holding ground and securing the flanks. When the Germans launched the offensive, their strength amounted to some 777,000 men, 2451 tanks and assault guns (70 percent of the German armored forces on the Eastern Front), and 7417 guns and mortars.
Soviet plan and preparation
An offensive by the Soviet Central, Bryansk and Western fronts against the Central Army Group was abandoned in 1943 shortly after it began in early March, when the Southern Army Group threatened the southern flank of the Central Front. Soviet intelligence received information about observed German troop concentrations at Orel and Kharkov, as well as details of a German offensive in the Kursk sector through the Lucy spy network in Switzerland. The Soviets verified intelligence information through their spy in Britain, John Cairncross, at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, which they sent decrypts directly to Moscow clandestinely. Cairncross also provided Soviet intelligence with identifications of Luftwaffe airfields in the region. Soviet politician Anastas Mikoyan wrote that on March 27, 1943, Comrade Iosif Stalin notified him of a possible German attack in the Kursk sector. Stalin and some senior officers were eager to attack first once rasputitsa was over, but several key officers, including Deputy Supreme Commander Georgy Zhukov, recommended a strategic defensive before going on the offensive. In a letter to the Stavka and Stalin on April 8, Zhukov wrote:
In the first phase, the enemy, gathering his best forces, including 13-15 tank divisions and supported by a large number of aircraft, will attack Kursk with his Kromskom-Orel grouping from the northeast and his Belgorod-Kharkov grouping from the southeast…. I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go on the offensive in the near future to prevent the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhausted against our defenses, and knock out his tanks and then, raising new reserves, move to the general offensive which would finally wipe out his main force.
Stalin consulted with his front-line commanders and senior General Staff officers on April 12-15, 1943. In the end, he and the Stavka agreed that the Germans would probably aim for Kursk. Stalin believed that the decision to defend would give the Germans the initiative, but Zhukov replied that the Germans would be caught in a trap where their armored power would be destroyed, thus creating the conditions for a major Soviet counteroffensive. They decided to meet the enemy attack by preparing defensive positions to wear down the German groupings before launching their own offensive. The preparation of defenses and fortifications began in late April and continued until the German attack in early July. The two-month delay between the German decision to attack the Kursk salient and its implementation gave the Red Army ample time to prepare thoroughly.
The Voronezh Front, commanded by Nikolai Vatutin, had the task of defending the southern face of the salient. The Central Front, commanded by Konstantin Rokossovsky, defended the northern face. On standby in reserve was the Steppe Front, commanded by Ivan Konev. In February 1943, the Central Front had been reconstructed from the Don Front, which had been part of the northern pincer of Operation Uranus and had been responsible for the destruction of the 6th Army at Stalingrad.
The Central and Voronezh fronts each built three main defensive belts in their sectors, each subdivided into several fortification zones. The Soviets employed the labor of more than 300,000 civilians. Fortifying each belt was an interconnected network of minefields, barbed wire fences, anti-tank ditches, deep infantry entrenchments, anti-tank obstacles, armored vehicles and fortified machine gun nests. Behind the three main defensive belts were three more belts prepared as backup positions; the first was not fully occupied or heavily fortified, and the last two, although sufficiently fortified, were unoccupied with the exception of a small area in the vicinity of Kursk. The combined depth of the three main defensive zones was about 40 kilometers. The six defensive belts on both sides of Kursk were 130-150 kilometers deep. If the Germans managed to break through these defenses, they would still be confronted by additional defensive belts to the east, held by the Steppe Front. These brought the total depth of the defenses to almost 300 kilometers.
The Voronezh and Central fronts dug 4200 kilometers and 5000 kilometers of trenches respectively, laid out in a criss-cross pattern to facilitate movement. The Soviets built more than 686 bridges and approximately 2000 kilometers of roads in the pocket. Red Army combat engineers laid 503 663 anti-tank mines and 439 348 anti-personnel mines, with the highest concentration in the first main defensive belt.The minefields in Kursk reached densities of 1700 anti-personnel mines and 1500 anti-tank mines per kilometer, approximately four times the density used in the defense of Moscow.For example, the 6th. For example, the 6th Guards Army of the Voronezh Front stretched over almost 64 kilometers of front and was protected by 69 688 anti-tank and 64 430 anti-personnel mines in its first defensive belt with 20 200 anti-tank and 9097 anti-personnel mines in its second defensive belt. In addition, mobile obstacle detachments had the task of placing more mines directly in the path of advancing enemy armored formations. These units, consisting of two platoons of combat engineers with mines at division level and a company of combat engineers normally equipped with 500-700 mines at corps level, functioned as anti-tank reserves at all levels of command.
In a letter dated April 8, Zhukov warned that the Germans would attack the salient with a strong armored force:
We can expect the enemy to rely more in this year”s offensive operations on his tank and air force divisions, as his infantry seems to be much less prepared for offensive operations than last year…. In view of this threat, you should reinforce the anti-tank defenses on the Central and Voronezh fronts, and assemble as soon as possible.
Nearly all artillery, including howitzers, guns, antiaircraft, and rockets, provided antitank defense. Buried tanks and self-propelled guns further strengthened antitank defenses. Antitank forces were incorporated at all levels of command, primarily as antitank strongpoints, with most concentrated on potential attack routes and the remainder spread widely elsewhere. Each antitank strongpoint typically consisted of four to six antitank guns, six to nine antitank rifles, and five to seven heavy and light machine guns. They were supported by mobile obstacle detachments as well as infantry with automatic firearms. Independent tanks and self-propelled gun brigades and regiments were responsible for cooperating with the infantry during counterattacks.
Soviet preparations also included increased Soviet partisan activity, which attacked German supply and communications lines. The attacks were mostly behind Army Group North and Army Group Center. In June 1943, partisans operating in the occupied area behind Army Group Center destroyed 298 locomotives, 1222 railroad cars, and 44 bridges, and in the Kursk sector 1092 partisan attacks on railroads were recorded. These attacks delayed the buildup of German supplies and equipment, and required the diversion of German troops to suppress the partisans, delaying their training for the offensive. Partisan headquarters coordinated many of these attacks. In June, the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) flew more than 800 night sorties to resupply Partisan groups operating behind Army Group Center. The VVS also provided communication and sometimes even daytime air support for major Partisan operations.
Special training was provided to the Soviet infantry who were in charge of the defenses, to help them overcome the phobia of tanks that had been evident since the beginning of the German invasion. The soldiers were packed into trenches and the tanks were driven over their heads until all signs of fear had disappeared. This training exercise was colloquially referred to by the soldiers as “planking.” In combat, the soldiers would emerge in the midst of the attacking infantry to separate them from the armored vehicles leading the attack. The separated armored vehicles, now vulnerable to infantry armed with antitank rifles, demolition charges, and Molotov cocktails, could be damaged or destroyed at point-blank range. These types of attacks were mostly effective against Elefant tank destroyers, which lacked machine guns as secondary armament. Soldiers were also promised financial rewards for each tank destroyed, and the People”s Defense Commissariat provided one thousand rubles for destroyed tanks.
The Soviets employed maskirovka (“military deception”) to mask defensive positions and troop dispositions and to conceal the movement of men and materiel. This included camouflaging gun emplacements, constructing false airfields, guns and depots, generating false radio transmissions, and spreading rumors among front-line Soviet troops and the civilian population in German-controlled areas. The movement of forces and supplies to and from the pocket took place only at night. Ammunition dumps were carefully concealed to blend in with the landscape. Radio transmission was restricted and campfires were forbidden. Command posts were concealed and transportation in and around them was prohibited.
According to a Soviet General Staff report, 29 of the 35 major Luftwaffe raids against Soviet airfields in the Kursk sector in June 1943 were against dummy airfields. According to historian Antony Beevor, in contrast, Soviet aircraft apparently managed to destroy more than 500 Luftwaffe aircraft on the ground. Soviet deception efforts were so successful that German estimates published in mid-June placed the total Soviet armored strength at 1500 tanks. The result was not only a gross underestimate of Soviet strength, but also a misperception of Soviet strategic intentions.
The main tank in the Soviet catalog was the T-34 medium tank, on which the Red Army tried to concentrate production. In addition they also contained large quantities of the T-70 light tank. For example, the 5th Guards Tank Army contained approximately 270 T-70s and 500 T-34s. In the stock exchange itself, the Soviets assembled a large number of tanks obtained through the Lend-Lease program. These included M3 Lee made in the United States, as well as Churchill, Matilda II and Valentine built in the United Kingdom. However, the T-34 constituted the bulk of the Soviet tanks. Not including the deeper reserves organized under the Steppe Front, the Soviets amassed about 1.3 million men, 3600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2792 aircraft to defend the highlights. This represented 26 percent of the Red Army”s total manpower, 26 percent of its mortars and artillery, 35 percent of its aircraft and 46 percent of its tanks.
The changing forces between the two opponents led the Luftwaffe to make operational changes for the battle. Previous offensive campaigns had begun with Luftwaffe attacks against opposing airfields to achieve air superiority. At this point in the war, Red Army equipment reserves were extensive and Luftwaffe commanders realized that aircraft could be easily replaced, making such attacks futile. Therefore, this mission was abandoned. In addition, previous campaigns had made use of medium bombers flying well behind the front line to block the arrival of reinforcements. This mission, however, was rarely attempted during Operation Citadel.
The Luftwaffe command understood that its support would be crucial to the success of Operation Citadel, but problems with supply shortages hampered its preparations. Partisan activity, particularly behind Army Group Center, slowed the rate of resupply and reduced the Luftwaffe”s ability to build up essential reserves of gasoline, diesel, lubricants, engines, spare parts, ammunition, and, unlike Red Army units, it had no reserves of aircraft that it could use to replace aircraft damaged in the course of the operation. Fuel was the most significant limiting factor. To help build up supplies for Citadel support, the Luftwaffe greatly reduced its operations during the last week of June. Despite this conservation of resources, the Luftwaffe did not have the resources to sustain an intensive air effort for more than a few days after the operation began.
For Citadel, the Luftwaffe limited its operations to direct support of ground forces. In this mission, the Luftwaffe continued to make use of the Junkers Ju 87, the famous “Stuka”. A new development of this aircraft was the 37 mm caliber “Bordkanone” cannon, one of which could be hung under each wing of the Stuka inside an armament container. Half of the Stuka groups assigned to support Citadel were equipped with these Kanonenvogel (literally “bird-gun”) aircraft. The air groups were also strengthened by the recent arrival of the Henschel Hs 129, with its 30 mm MK 103 cannon and the ground-attack (jabo) version of the F subtype of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
In the months leading up to the battle, Luftflotte 6 supporting Army Group Center noted a marked increase in the strength of the opposing VVS formations. The VVS formations encountered showed better training, and were flying improved aircraft with greater aggressiveness and skill than the Luftwaffe had previously seen. The introduction of Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-5 fighters offered the Soviet pilots to be almost on par with the Luftwaffe in terms of equipment. In addition, a large number of ground attack aircraft, such as the Ilyushin Il-2 “Shturmovik” and Pe-2, were also available. The Soviet Air Force also sent large numbers of aircraft supplied through the Lend-Lease program. The huge stockpiles of supplies and ample reserves of replacement aircraft meant that the Red Army and VVS formations could conduct an extended campaign without diminishing the intensity of their effort.a
For the operation, the Germans used four armies along with a large part of the total armored strength of the Eastern Front. On July 1, the 9th Army of Army Group Center, on the northern side of the salient, had 335,000 men (in the south, the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment “Kempf” of Army Group South had 223,907 men (149,271 combat troops) and 100,000-108,000 men (66,000 combat troops) respectively. The 2nd Army, which occupied the western side of the salient, had an estimated strength of 110,000 men. In all, the German forces had a total contingent of 777,000 men, of which 438,271 were combat strength. In addition, they had 180,000 men in reserve. Army Group South was equipped with more armored vehicles, infantry and artillery than the 9th Army: While the 4th Panzer Army and the Army Detachment “Kempf” had 1377 tanks and assault guns, the 9th Army possessed 988 tanks and assault guns.
German industry produced 2816 tanks and self-propelled guns between April and June, of which 156 were Panzer VI Tiger and 484 Panzer V Panther. A total of 259 Panther tanks, some 211 Tiger and 90 Ferdinand tanks were used at Kursk.
The arrival of two new Panzer battalions (the 51st and 52nd, with 200 Panther), arriving on June 30 and July 1, caused the delay of the offensive; they joined the Großdeutschland Division in the XLVIII Army Corps of the Southern Panzer Group. Both units had little time to conduct reconnaissance and orient themselves to the terrain they were in, which was a violation of Panzerwaffe methods considered essential to the proper use of tanks. Although led by experienced Panzer commanders, many of the tank crews were new recruits and had little time to familiarize themselves with their new tanks, much less train together to function as a unit. Both battalions came straight from boot camp and lacked combat experience. In addition, the requirement to maintain radio silence until the start of the attack meant that both units had little training in battalion-level radio procedures. Furthermore, the new Panzers were still experiencing problems with their transmissions and proved to be mechanically unreliable. By the morning of July 5, the units had lost 16 Panzers due to mechanical breakdowns, leaving only 184 available for the launch of the offensive.
July and August 1943 saw the highest German ammunition expenditures on the Eastern Front up to that time, with 236,915 tons consumed in July and 254,648 in August. The previous peak had been 160 645 tons in September 1942.
The Red Army used two fronts (Group of Armies) for the defense of Kursk, and created a third front behind the battle area which was kept as a reserve. The Central and Voronezh Fronts deployed 12 armies, with 711 575 men (510 983 combat soldiers) and 625 591 men (446 236 combat soldiers) respectively. In reserve, the Steppe Front had an additional 573 195 men (449 133). Thus, the total size of the Soviet force was 1 910 361 men, with 1 426 352 actual combat soldiers.
The Soviet armored force included 4869 tanks (including 205 heavy KV-1 heavy tanks) and 259 self-propelled guns (including 25 SU-152, 56 SU-122 and 67 SU-76). Overall, one third of the Soviet tanks at Kursk were light tanks, but in some units this proportion was considerably higher. Of the 3600 tanks on the Central and Voronezh fronts in July 1943, 1061 were light tanks such as the T-60 and T-70. With very thin armor and a small caliber gun, they could not effectively attack the frontal armor of German medium and heavy tanks.
The most capable Soviet tank at Kursk was the T-34. The original version was armed with a 76.2 mm gun, a weapon with which it fought the Panzer IVs, but the frontal armor of the Tiger and Panther was essentially impenetrable to this weapon. Only the SU-122 and SU-152 self-propelled guns were capable of destroying the Tiger at close range, but the Tiger I”s 88 mm gun was more effective at long range and there were very few SU-122s and SU-152s at Kursk.
The fighting began on the south face of the salient on the afternoon of July 4, 1943, when German infantry launched attacks to seize elevated positions for artillery observation posts prior to the main assault. During these attacks, several Red Army command and observation posts were captured along the first main defense belt. By 16:00, elements of the Panzergrenadier Division “Großdeutschland”, 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions had taken the village of Butovo and proceeded to capture Gertsovka before midnight. At around 22:30, Vatutin ordered 600 Katiusha guns, mortars and rocket launchers from the Voronezh Front to shell the forward German positions, in particular those of the II SS Panzer Corps.
To the north, at the headquarters of the Central Front, reports of the anticipated German offensive came in. At about 02:00 on July 5, Zhukov ordered the preemptive artillery bombardment to begin. The hope was to disorganize the German forces massing for the attack, but the result was less than expected. The bombardment delayed the German formations, but failed to disrupt their timetable or inflict substantial losses. The Germans began their own artillery bombardment at about 05:00, which lasted 80 minutes on the north face and 50 minutes on the south face. After the barrage, the ground forces attacked, aided by close air support provided by the Luftwaffe.
In the early morning hours of July 5, the VVS launched a major raid against German airfields, hoping to destroy the Luftwaffe on the ground. This effort failed, and Red Army air units suffered considerable losses. On July 5, the VVS lost 176 aircraft, compared to 26 aircraft lost by the Luftwaffe. The losses of the 16th VVS Airborne Army operating on the north side were lighter than those suffered by the 2nd Airborne Army. The Luftwaffe was able to gain and maintain air superiority over the south side until 10-11 July, when the VVS began to gain ascendancy, but control of the skies over the north side was evenly contested until the VVS began to gain air superiority on 7 July, which it maintained for the remainder of the operation.
Model”s main attack was launched by XLVII Panzer Corps, supported by 45 Tiger from the attached 505th Heavy Tank Battalion. Covering its left flank was XLI Panzer Corps, with an attached regiment of 83 Ferdinand tank destroyers. On the right flank, XLVI Panzer Corps consisted at this time of four infantry divisions with only 9 tanks and 31 assault guns. To the left of XLI Panzer Corps was XXIII Corps, which consisted of the reinforced 78th Assault Infantry Division and two regular infantry divisions. While the corps contained no tanks, it had 62 assault guns. Opposing the 9th Army was the Central Front, deployed in three heavily fortified defensive belts.
German initial advance
Model chose to make his initial attacks using infantry divisions reinforced with assault guns and heavy tanks, and supported by artillery and the Luftwaffe. In doing so, he sought to maintain the armored strength of his Panzer divisions to be used for exploitation once the Red Army defenses were breached. Once a breakthrough had been achieved, the Panzer forces advanced toward Kursk. Jan Möschen, an important member of Model”s staff, later commented that Model expected a breakthrough on the second day. If a breakthrough occurred, the shortest delay in bringing up the Panzer divisions would give the Red Army time to react. His corps commanders thought it was an extremely unlikely breakthrough.
After a preliminary bombardment and counterattacks by the Red Army, the 9th Army began its attack at 0530 on July 5. Nine infantry divisions and a Panzer division, with attached assault guns, heavy tanks and tank destroyers, advanced. Two Tiger I tank companies were attached to the 6th Infantry Division and were the largest Tiger I grouping employed that day. In front of them were the 13th and 70th Armies of the Central Front.
The 20 Panzer and 6th Infantry Divisions of the XLVII Panzer Corps led the advance of the XLVII Panzer Corps. Behind them followed the remaining two panzer divisions, ready to exploit any breakthrough. The heavily mined terrain and the fortified positions of the 15th Rifle Division slowed the advance. By 0800 hours, the safe paths had been cleared through the minefield. That morning, information obtained from the interrogation of prisoners identified a weakness on the boundary of the 15th and 81st Rifle Divisions caused by the German preliminary bombardment. The Tiger I”s were redeployed and attacked into that area. Red Army formations countered with a force of about 90 T-34s. In the resulting three-hour battle, the Red Army armored units lost 42 tanks while the Germans lost two Tiger I”s and five more pinned down by track damage. While the Red Army counterattack was defeated and the first defensive belt was broken, the fighting delayed the Germans long enough for the rest of the 29th. The Red Army minefields were covered by artillery fire, which made efforts to break through the fields difficult and costly. The Goliath and Borgward IV remote-controlled demolition vehicles had limited success sweeping mines. Of the 45 Ferdinand of the 653rd Panzerjäger Heavy Battalion Panzerjäger sent into battle, all but 12 of them were immobilized by mine damage before 17:00. Most of these were repaired and returned to service, but recovery of such large vehicles was difficult.
On the first day, the XLVII Panzer Corps penetrated 9.7 km into the Red Army defenses before halting, and the XLI Panzer Corps reached the small heavily fortified town of Ponyri, in the second defensive belt, which controlled the roads and railroads leading south to Kursk. On the first day, the Germans penetrated 8 to 9.7 km into the Red Army lines for the loss of 1287 men killed and missing and another 5921 wounded.
Rokossovsky ordered the 17th Guards and the 18th Guards Rifle Corps with the 2nd Tank Army and the 19th Tank Corps, backed by close air support, to counterattack the German 9th Army the next day, July 6. However, due to poor coordination, only the 16th Tank Corps of the 2nd Tank Army began the counterattack in the early morning of July 6 after the preparatory artillery barrage. The 16th Tank Corps, deploying some 200 tanks, attacked the XLVII Panzer Corps and ran into the Tiger I tanks of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, which eliminated 69 tanks and forced the rest to retreat to the 17th. Later that morning, the XLVII Panzer Corps responded with its own attack against the 17th Guards Rifle Corps dug in around the village Olkhovatka in the second defensive belt. The attack began with an artillery bombardment and was led by the 24 Tiger I”s of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, but it failed to break the Red Army”s defense at Olkhovatka, and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Olkhovatka was on high ground that offered a clear view of much of the front line. At 18:30, the 19th Tank Corps joined the 17th Guards Rifle Corps further strengthening the resistance. Rokossovsky also decided to bury most of the remaining tanks to minimize their exposure. Ponyri, defended by the 307th Rifle Division of the 29th Rifle Corps, was also attacked in concert on July 6 by the German 292nd and 86th Divisions, the 78th Assault Infantry and the 9th Panzer Division, but the Germans were unable to drive the defenders out of the heavily fortified town.
Ponyri and Oljovatka
For the next three days, July 7-10, Model concentrated the Ninth Army effort on Ponyri and Olkhovatka, which both sides considered vital positions. In response, Rokossovsky drew forces from other parts of the front to these sectors. The Germans attacked Ponyri on July 7 and captured half the town after heavy house-to-house fighting. A Soviet counterattack the next morning forced the Germans to withdraw, and a series of counterattacks by both sides ensued with control of the town exchanged several times over the next few days. By July 10, the Germans had secured most of the town, but Soviet counterattacks continued. The battles back and forth for Ponyri and nearby Hill 253.5 were battles of attrition, with heavy casualties on both sides. The troops called it a “mini-Stalingrad.” The 9th Army war diary described the heavy fighting as a “new type of mobile battle of attrition.” German attacks against Olkhovatka and the nearby village of Teploe failed to penetrate the Soviet defenses; including a powerful concerted attack on July 10 by approximately 300 German tanks and assault guns of the 2nd, 4th, and 20th Panzer Divisions, supported by all available Luftwaffe aircraft on the north side.
On July 9, a meeting was held between Kluge, Model, Joachim Lemelsen and Josef Harpe at XLVII Panzer Corps headquarters. It was clear to the German commanders that the 9th Army lacked the forces to make a breakthrough, and their Soviet counterparts had also realized this, but Kluge wanted to keep up the pressure on the Soviets to help the southern offensive.
While the operation on the north side of the salient began with an attack front 45 kilometers wide, by July 6 it had been reduced to 40 kilometers wide. The next day, the attack front was reduced to 15 kilometers wide and in the July 8 and 9 penetrations of only 2 kilometers wide occurred. By July 10, the Soviets had completely halted the German advance.
On July 12, the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, their counteroffensive against the Orel Salient, which threatened the flank and rear of Model”s Ninth Army. The 12th Panzer Division, hitherto held in reserve and scheduled to commit to the north side of the Kursk salient, along with the 36th Motorized Infantry, 18th Panzer Division and 20th Panzer Division redeployed to engage the Soviet spearheads.
Around 4:00 on July 5, the German attack began with a preliminary bombardment. Manstein”s main attack was launched by Hoth”s 4th Panzer Army, which was organized in densely concentrated spearheads. Opposing the 4th Panzer Army was the Soviet 6th Guards Army, which was composed of the 22nd Guards Rifle Corps and the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps. The Soviets had constructed three heavily fortified defensive belts to slow down and weaken the armored attacking forces. Although they had been provided with excellent intelligence, the Voronezh Front headquarters had still not been able to identify the exact location where the Germans would place their offensive weight.
German initial advance
The panzergrenadier division Großdeutschland, commanded by Walter Hörnlein, was the strongest individual division in the 4th Panzer Army. It was supported on its flanks by the 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions. The Panzer III and Panzer IV of the Großdeutschland had been supplemented by a company of 15 Tiger I”s, which were used to spearhead the attack. At dawn on July 5, the Großdeutschland, backed by heavy artillery support, advanced on a three-kilometer front on the 67th Guards Rifle Division of the 22nd Guards Rifle Corps. The Panzerfüsilier Regiment, advancing on the left wing, stalled in a minefield and subsequently 36 Panzers were pinned down. The stranded regiment was subjected to a Soviet artillery bombardment and antitank fire, which inflicted heavy casualties. The engineers moved and cleared roads through the minefield, but suffered casualties in the process. The combination of fierce resistance, minefields, thick mud and mechanical breakdowns took its toll. With the roads cleared, the regiment resumed its advance toward Gertsovka. In the ensuing battle, numerous casualties were suffered, including the regimental commander, Colonel Kassnitz. Due to the fighting and the swampy terrain south of the village, which surrounds the Berezovyy stream, the regiment once again became bogged down.
The Großdeutschland panzergrenadier regiment, advancing on the right wing, pushed through the village of Butovo. The tanks were deployed in an arrow formation to minimize the effects of the Soviet Pakfront defense, with the Tiger I”s in front and the Panzer III, IV and assault guns deploying on the flanks and in the rear. They were followed by infantry and combat engineers. VVS attempts to prevent the advance were repulsed by the Luftwaffe.
The 3rd Panzer Division, advancing on the left flank of the Großdeutschland, made good progress and by the end of the day had captured Gertsovka The 167th Infantry Division, on the right flank of the 11th Panzer Division, also made sufficient progress, reaching Tirechnoe by the end of the day. By the end of July 5, a wedge had been created in the first belt of Soviet defenses.
To the east, during the night of July 4-5, SS combat engineers had infiltrated into no man”s land and cleared paths through the Soviet minefields. At dawn on July 5, the three divisions of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps-1st SS Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division, 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich and 3rd SS Totenkopf Division-attacked the 52nd SS Panzergrenadier Division. SS Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division, the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich and the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division – attacked the 52nd Guards Rifle Division of the 6th Guards Army. The main assault was led by a spearhead of 42 Tiger I, but in total 494 tanks and assault guns attacked on a twelve kilometer front. Totenkopf, the strongest of the three divisions, advanced towards Gremuchhi and selected the right flank. The 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division advanced along the left flank towards Bykovka. The 2nd SS Panzer Division advanced between the two formations in the center. Following closely behind the tanks were the infantry and combat engineers, advancing to break down obstacles and clear trenches. In addition, the advance was well supported by the Luftwaffe, which greatly assisted in breaking Soviet strongpoints and artillery positions.
By 09:00, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps had broken through the Soviet first defense belt along its entire front. While investigating the positions between the Soviet first and second defense belt, at 13:00, the vanguard of the 2nd SS Panzer Division was attacked by two T-34 tanks, which were destroyed. Forty new Soviet tanks soon engaged the division. The 1st Guards Tank Army engaged the 2nd SS Panzer Division in a four-hour battle, which caused the Soviet tanks to retreat. However, the battle had bought enough time for units of the 23rd Soviet Guards Rifle Corps, housed in the Soviet second belt, to prepare and reinforce with additional antitank guns. By early afternoon, the 2nd SS Panzer Division had reached the minefields marking the outer perimeter of the Soviet second defense belt. The 1st SS Division had secured Bykovka by 16:10. It then advanced toward the second defense belt at Yakovlevo, but its attempts to break through were repulsed. By the end of the day, the 1st SS Division had suffered 97 killed, 522 wounded and 17 missing and lost some 30 tanks. Together with the 2nd SS Panzer Division, it had forced a wedge into the defenses of the 6th Guards Army.
The 3rd SS Panzer Division advanced slowly. They succeeded in isolating the 155th Guards Regiment, of the 52nd Guards Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps), from the rest of their main division, but attempts to sweep the regiment eastward into the flank of the neighboring 375th Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps) had failed when the regiment was reinforced by the 96th Tank Brigade. Hausser, the commander of the II SS Panzer Corps, requested help from the III Panzer Corps on his right, but the Panzer Corps had no units to spare. By the end of the day, the 3rd SS Division had made very limited progress due in part to a tributary of the Donets River. The lack of progress undermined the advance made by its sister divisions and exposed the corps” right flank to Soviet forces. Temperatures reaching over 30 degrees Celsius and frequent thunderstorms made combat conditions difficult.
The 6th Guards Army, which faced the attack of the XLVIII Panzer Korps and the II SS Panzer Korps, was reinforced with tanks from the 1st Tank Army, the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Corps. The 51st and 90th Guards Rifle Divisions moved to the vicinity of Pokrovka (not Prokhorovka, 40 kilometers northeast), in the path of the 1st SS Panzer Division. The 93rd Guards Rifle Division was deployed further back, along the road leading from Pokrovka to Prokhorovka.
Kempf Army Detachment
In front of the Kempf Army Detachment, consisting of the III Panzer Corps and the Raus Corps (commanded by Erhard Raus), was the 7th Guards Army, dug in on the high ground on the eastern bank of the northern Donets. The two German corps were tasked to cross the river, break through the 7th Guards Army and cover the right flank of the 4th Panzer Army. The 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion, equipped with 45 Tiger I”s, was also attached to III Panzer Corps, with a company of 15 Tiger attached to each of the corps” three Panzer divisions.
At the Mikhailovka bridgehead south of Belgorod, eight infantry battalions of the 6th Panzer Division crossed the river under heavy Soviet bombardment. Part of a Tiger I company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion was able to cross before the bridge was destroyed. The rest of the 6th Panzer Division was unable to cross further south due to a bottleneck at the crossing, and remained on the west bank of the river throughout the day. Those units of the division that had crossed the river attacked Stary Gorod, but could not break through due to poorly cleared minefields and heavy resistance.
South of the 6th Panzer Division, the 19th Panzer Division crossed the river, but was delayed by mines, advancing 8 kilometers by the end of the day. The Luftwaffe bombed the bridgehead in a friendly fire incident, wounding the commander of the 6th Panzer Division, Walther von Hünersdorff and Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski of the 19th Panzer Division. Further south, infantry and tanks of the 7th Panzer Division crossed the river. A new bridge had to be built specifically for the Tiger I”s, causing further delays. Despite a poor start, the 7th Panzer Division finally broke through the first Soviet defense belt and advanced between Razumnoe and Krutoi Log, advancing 10 kilometers, the farthest Kempf during the day.
Operating south of the 7th Panzer Division were the 106th Infantry Division and the 320th Corps Infantry Division Raus. The two formations attacked on a 20-mile front without armor. The advance started well, with the crossing of the river and a rapid advance against the 72nd Guards Rifle Division. Corps Raus took the village of Maslovo Pristani, penetrating the Red Army”s first line of defense. A Soviet counterattack supported by about 40 tanks was defeated, with the help of artillery and anti-aircraft batteries. Having suffered two thousand casualties since morning and still facing considerable resistance from the Soviet forces, the corps holed up for the night.
Delaying Kempf”s progress gave the Red Army forces time to prepare their second belt of defense to meet the German attack on July 6. The 7th Guards Army, which had absorbed the attack of the III Panzer Corps and the “Raus” Corps, was reinforced with two rifle divisions from the reserve. The 15th Guards Rifle Division moved up to the second defense belt, in the path of III Panzer Corps.
Development of the battle
By the evening of July 6, the Voronezh Front had committed all its reserves except for three rifle divisions under the 69th Army; however, it could not decisively contain the 4th Panzer Army. The XLVIII Panzer Corps along the Oboyan axis, where the third defensive belt was almost entirely unoccupied, now had only the Red Army”s second defensive belt blocking it from penetrating the unfortified Soviet rear. This forced the Stavka to commit its strategic reserves to reinforce the Voronezh Front: the 5th. Ivan Konev objected to this piecemeal early commitment of the strategic reserve, but a personal call from Stalin silenced his complaints. In addition, on July 7, Zhukov ordered the 17th Air Army, the air fleet serving the Southwestern Front, to support the 2nd Air Army in service to the Voronezh Front. On July 7, the 5th Guards Tank Army began advancing toward Prokhorovka. The commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, Lieutenant General Pavel Rotmistrov, described the journey:
By midday, dust rose in dense clouds and settled in a solid layer over bushes, grain fields, tanks and trucks. The dark red disk of the sun was barely visible. Tanks, self-propelled guns, artillery tractors, armored personnel carriers and trucks moved forward in an endless stream. The soldiers” faces were dark with dust and exhaust fumes. It was intolerably hot. The soldiers were tortured by thirst and their shirts, wet with sweat, stuck to their bodies.
The 10th Tank Corps, later subordinated to the 5th Guards Army, overtook the rest of the army, reached Prokhorovka on the night of 7 July and the 2nd Tank Corps reached Korocha, 40 km southeast of Prokhorovka, on the morning of 8 July. Vatutin ordered a powerful counterattack of the 5th. Guards, 2nd Guards, 2nd and 10th Tank Corps, in all fields of 593 tanks and self-propelled guns and with the support of most of the available air power of the Front, whose objective was to defeat the II SS Panzer Corps and thus expose the right flank of the XLVIII Panzer Corps. Simultaneously, the 6th Tank Corps was to attack the XLVIII Panzer Corps and prevent it from breaking through to the free Soviet rear. Although intended to be concerted, the counterattack turned out to be a series of partial attacks due to poor coordination. The attack by the 10th Tank Corps began at dawn on July 8, but ran into antitank fire from the 2nd and 3rd SS Divisions, losing most of its forces. Later that morning, the attack by the 5th Guards Tank Corps was repulsed by the 3rd SS Division. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps, masked by the forest surrounding the village of Gostishchevo, 16 km north of Belgorod, with its presence unknown to the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, advanced towards the 167th Infantry Division. But it was detected by German air reconnaissance just before the attack materialized, and was then decimated by a German ground attack aircraft armed with MK 103 anti-tank guns and at least 50 tanks were destroyed. This marked the first time in military history that an attacking tank formation had been defeated by air power alone. Although it was a fiasco, the Soviet counterattack managed to slow the advance of the II SS Panzer Corps throughout the day.
By the end of July 8, II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced some 29 kilometers from the start of Citadel and had broken through the first and second defensive belts. However, the slow progress of XLVIII Panzer Corps caused Hoth to shift elements of II SS-Panzer Corps to the west to help XLVIII Panzer Corps regain its momentum. On July 10, the entire corps effort returned to its own forward progress. The direction of their advance now shifted from Oboyan northward to the northeast toward Prokhorovka. Hoth had discussed this move with Manstein since early May, and it had been part of the 4th Panzer Army”s plan since the beginning of the offensive. By then, however, the Soviets had changed the reserve formations in their path. The defensive positions were occupied by the 2nd Tank Corps, reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and the 301st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, both of the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps.
Although the German advance in the south was slower than planned, it was faster than the Soviets expected. On July 9, the first German units reached the Psel River. The next day, the first German infantry crossed the river. Despite the deep defensive system and minefields, German tank losses remained lower than those of the Soviets. At this point, Hoth diverted Oboyan”s II SS Panzer Corps to attack northeast toward Prokhorovka. Manstein and Hausser”s main concern was the inability of Army Detachment Kempf to advance and protect the eastern flank of II SS Panzer Corps. On July 11, Army Detachment Kempf finally made a breakthrough. In a surprise attack at night, the 6th Panzer Division seized a bridge over the Donets. Once on the other side, Breith did his best to push troops and vehicles across the river for an advance on Prokhorovka from the south. A connection with II SS Panzer Corps would result in the Soviet 69th Army being surrounded.
Battle of Prokhorovka
Throughout July 10 and 11, II SS Panzer Corps continued its attack on Prokhorovka, reaching within 3 kilometers of the settlement on the night of July 11. That same night, Hausser issued orders for the attack to continue the next day. The plan was for the 3rd SS Panzer Division to drive northeast until they reached the Karteschewka-Prójorovka road. Once there, they were to attack southeast to attack the Soviet positions in Prokhorovka from the flanks and rear. The 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions were to wait until the 3rd SS Panzer Division had destabilized the Soviet positions in Prokhorovka; and once on the move, the 1st SS Panzer Division would attack the main Soviet defenses dug into the slopes southwest of Prokhorovka. On the division”s right, the 2nd SS Panzer Division was to advance eastward, then turn south away from Prokhorovka to roll up the Soviet lines opposing the advance of III Panzer Corps and force a breach. During the night of July 11, Rotmistrov moved his 5th. Guards Tank Army to an assembly area just behind Prokhorovka in preparation for a massive attack the next day. At 5:45, Leibstandarte headquarters began receiving reports of the sound of tank engines as the Soviets moved into their assembly areas. Soviet artillery and Katiusha regiments redeployed in preparation for the counterattack.
At around 08:00, a Soviet artillery bombardment began. At 08:30, Rotmistrov radioed his tank crews, “Steel, steel, steel!” the order to begin the attack. Down the western slopes, before Prokhorovka, came the concentrated armor of five tank brigades of the Soviet 18th and 29th Tank Corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army. The Soviet tanks advanced down the corridor, bringing infantrymen of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on top of the tanks. To the north and east, the 3rd SS Panzer Division was occupied by the 33rd Soviet Guards Rifle Corps. Tasked with outflanking the Soviet defenses around Prokhorovka, the unit first had to repulse a series of attacks before they could go on the offensive. Most of the division”s tank losses occurred in the late afternoon as they advanced through minefields against well-hidden Soviet antitank guns. Although the 3rd SS managed to reach the Karteschewka-Prójorovka road, its hold was weak and cost the division half of its tanks. Most of the German tank losses suffered in Prokhorovka occurred here. To the south, the Soviet 18th and 29th Tank Corps had been driven back by the 1st SS Panzer Division. The 2nd SS Panzer Division also repulsed attacks by the 2nd Tank Corps and the 2nd Guards Tank Corps. The Luftwaffe”s local air superiority over the battlefield also contributed to Soviet losses, in part because the VVS was directed against German units on the flanks of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps. By the end of the day, the Soviets had returned to their initial positions.
Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the 2nd SS Panzer Corps achieved their objectives. Although the Soviet counterattack failed with heavy losses, throwing them back on the defensive, they did enough to stop a German advance.
On the afternoon of July 13, Hitler summoned Marshals Kluge and Manstein, in charge of Operation Citadel, to his headquarters Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. He expressed to them the intention to suspend the operation, since the 9th Army could not advance further north of the salient, the Allied invasion of Sicily on the night of July 9-10, in which Hitler declared “the cowardice of the Italians opens the way for the enemy to fortress Europe from the south,” the subsequent Soviet counteroffensive of Operation Kutuzov toward Orel on July 12, threatening the rear of General Walter Model”s 9th Army north of Kursk, combined with the constant Soviet attacks south of the salient at Prokhorovka, would make Hitler to suspend the offensive, Von Kluge agreed, as he was aware that the Soviets had initiated a massive offensive against his sector and insisted on withdrawing to the previous positions, on the other hand, Von Manstein was very disappointed and advocated the continuation of the battle. Pointing out that it was first necessary to defeat the Soviet troops on the Kursk ledge, otherwise a threatening situation would arise not only in Donbass but also near Kursk. He proposed to advance from the south to Kursk and then turn to the west, force the Soviet troops on the Kursk ledge to fight with a reverse front and crush them. At the same time, Kempf”s group was to attack in an easterly direction, as well as by simultaneous actions together with the 4th Army to destroy the enemy at the junction of two formations. Hitler disagreed, but Manstein insisted: he argued that his forces were now on the verge of a breakthrough in his southern sector. As he saw it, with his III Panzer Corps about to link up with II SS-Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka, and with XXIV Panzer Corps available as his operational reserve, they would be stopping the offensive just at the moment when victory was in hand. Hitler gave his consent, agreed to continue offensive operations, until Manstein”s objective was achieved.
After the meeting with Hitler, Manstein hastily put together the plans for Operation Roland, bearing in mind that he only had a few days to carry out the operation before losing II SS-Panzer Corps due to redeployment. On July 15, II SS Panzer Corps and Detachment “Kempf” finally succeeded in linking up south of Prokhorovka. On July 17, II SS Panzer Corps received orders to withdraw from combat and prepare to move west. Those orders were never carried out, because on that day the expected Soviet counterattack began in the south of the salient and further south between the Mius and Donets rivers against the southern wing of Army Group South, pressing the 6th Army and the 1st Panzer Army. The II SS Corps would still have to make a bloody counterattack to stop the Soviet onslaught. Nevertheless, in General von Manstein”s opinion a final effort would win the battle, this time he was totally wrong, the situation was already untenable. This marked the end of Operation Roland. The Wehrmacht Command signals the termination of the operation only by July 19 and to create reserves by shortening the front in view of the fierce Soviet offensives. On July 26, the II SS Panzer Corps was ordered to move to the Rome region, but only one SS corps was transferred without tanks and other heavy weapons, despite Hitler”s decision, the other two remained on the Eastern Front to eliminate numerous crises in the “Southern” zone. The strength of the Soviet reserve formations had been greatly underestimated by German intelligence, and the Red Army soon went on the offensive. In his postwar memoirs, Verlorene Siege (“Victories Lost”), Manstein was highly critical of Hitler”s decision to call off the operation at the height of the tactical battle. The veracity of Manstein”s claims of a near victory is debatable. The extent of Soviet reserves was far greater than he believed. These reserves were used to re-equip the 5th Guards Tank Army, which launched Operation Rumyantsev a couple of weeks later. The result was a battle of attrition for the Germans, which they were ill-prepared for and had little chance of winning.
During defensive preparations in the months leading up to Citadel, the Soviets also planned and prepared counter-offensive operations to be launched after the German offensive had been halted.
Operation Kutuzov in the South
Soviet offensive operations were planned for the summer of 1943 to begin after the Kursk offensive had dissipated the strength of the German forces. As the German momentum in the north waned, the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov on July 12 against Army Group Center in the Orel pocket, directly north of the Kursk salient. The Bryansk Front, under the command of Markian Popov, attacked the eastern side of the Orel pocket, while the Western Front, under the command of Vasily Sokolovsky, attacked from the north. The Western Front assault was led by the 11th Guards Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Hovhannes Bagramyan, and was supported by the 1st and 5th Tank Corps. The Soviet spearheads suffered heavy casualties, but pushed them back and in some areas achieved significant penetrations. These thrusts endangered German supply routes and threatened the 9th Army with encirclement. With this threat, the 9th Army was forced to go completely on the defensive.
The 2nd Panzer Army, slightly stretched, opposed this Soviet force. The German commanders had been wary of such an attack and the forces quickly withdrew from the Kursk offensive to meet the Soviet offensive.
Operation Kutuzov reduced the Orel pocket and inflicted substantial losses on the German army, paving the way for the liberation of Smolensk. Soviet losses were heavy, but they were replaced. The offensive allowed the Soviets to take the strategic initiative, which they retained for the rest of the war.
Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev to the South
Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev was the main Soviet offensive for 1943. Its objective was to destroy the 4th Panzer Army and the Army”s Kempf Detachment, and to cut off the southern portion of Army Group South. After heavy losses suffered by the Voronezh Front during Operation Citadel, the Soviets needed time to regroup and readjust, delaying the start of the offensive until August 3. Distraction attacks, launched two weeks earlier across the Donets and Mius rivers in the Donbass, drew the attention of the German reserves and reduced the defensive forces that would face the main blow. The offensive was initiated by the Voronezh Front and the Steppe Fronts against the northern wing of the Southern Army Group. They drove through the German positions, making wide and deep penetrations. By August 5, the Soviets had liberated Belgorod.
By August 12, the outskirts of Kharkov had been reached. The Soviet advance was finally halted by a counterattack by the 2nd and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions, and in the tank battles that followed, the Soviet armies suffered heavy armor losses. In the tank battles that followed, the Soviet armies suffered heavy losses in armor. After this setback, the Soviets turned their attention to Kharkov. After heavy fighting the city was liberated on August 23. The Germans refer to this battle as the Fourth Battle of Kharkov, while the Soviets refer to it as the Belgorod-Kharkov offensive operation.
The campaign was a strategic Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before a breakthrough was achieved. The Germans, despite using more technologically advanced armor than in previous years, were unable to break through the deep Soviet defenses and were surprised by the Red Army”s substantial operational reserves. This outcome changed the pattern of operations on the Eastern Front, with the Soviet Union gaining the operational initiative. The Soviet victory was costly, with the Red Army losing considerably more men and materiel than the German Army. However, the Soviet Union”s greater industrial potential and manpower pool enabled them to absorb and replenish these losses, without affecting their overall strategic strength. Guderian wrote:
With the failure of Citadel we have suffered a decisive defeat. The armored formations, so painstakingly reformed and refitted, had lost much in both men and equipment and would now be unemployed for a long time. Whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern Front was problematic…. Needless to say, they exploited their victory to the full. There would be no more periods of silence on the Eastern Front. From now on, the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative.
With victory, the initiative passed firmly to the Red Army. For the rest of the war, the Germans were limited to reacting to Soviet advances, and were never able to regain the initiative or launch a major offensive on the Eastern Front. Western Allied landings in Italy opened a new front, further diverting Germany”s resources and attention.
Although the location, plan of attack, and timing were determined by Hitler, he blamed the defeat on his General Staff. Unlike Stalin, who gave his commanding generals the freedom to make major command decisions, Hitler”s interference in German military affairs progressively increased, while his attention to the political aspects of the war decreased. The opposite was true for Stalin; throughout the Kursk campaign, he trusted the judgment of his commanders, and as their decisions led to success on the battlefield, his confidence in their military judgment increased. Stalin withdrew from operational planning, and rarely overruled military decisions, resulting in the Red Army gaining more freedom of action during the course of the war.
The casualties suffered by the two combatants are difficult to determine, due to several factors. With respect to the Germans, the equipment losses were complicated by the fact that they made determined efforts to recover and repair tanks. For example, tanks disabled one day often turned up one or two days later repaired. German personnel losses are clouded by the lack of access to German unit records, which were seized at the end of the war. Many were transferred to the U.S. National Archives and were not available until 1978, while others were taken by the Soviet Union, which refused to confirm their existence.
During the two Soviet offensives, total casualties amounted to 685,456 men. During Operation Kutuzov, Soviet losses amounted to 112 529 irrecoverable casualties and 317 361 medical casualties, for a total loss of 429 890 men. The Western Front reported 25 585 irrecoverable casualties and 76 856 medical casualties. The Bryansk Front suffered 39 173 irrecoverable casualties and 123 234 medical casualties. The Central Front lost 47 771 irrecoverable casualties and 117 271 medical casualties. Soviet losses during Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev totaled 255 566 men, with 71 611 recorded as irrecoverable casualties and 183 955 as medical casualties. The Voronezh Front lost 48 339 irrecoverable casualties and 108 954 medical casualties, for a total of 157 293. The Steppe Front lost 23 272 irrecoverable casualties and 75 001 medical casualties, for a total of 98 273.
Soviet equipment losses during the German offensive amounted to 1614 tanks and self-propelled guns destroyed or damaged out of 3925 vehicles engaged in the battle. Soviet losses were approximately three times greater than German losses. During Operation Kutuzov, 2349 tanks and self-propelled guns were lost out of an initial strength of 2308; a loss of more than 100 percent. During Polkovodets Rumyantsev, 1864 tanks and self-propelled guns were lost out of 2439 employed. The loss ratio suffered by the Soviets was about 5:1 in favor of the German military. However, the large Soviet equipment reserves and their high tank production rate enabled the Soviet tank armies to soon replace lost equipment and maintain their fighting strength. The Red Army repaired many of its damaged tanks; many Soviet tanks were rebuilt up to four times to keep them in the fight. Soviet tank strength returned to 2750 tanks on August 3 due to the repair of damaged vehicles.
According to historian Christer Bergström, Soviet Air Force losses during the German offensive amounted to 677 aircraft on the northern flank and 439 on the southern flank. Total casualties are uncertain. Bergström”s research indicates that total Soviet air losses between July 12 and August 18, during the German offensive and the Operation Kutuzov counteroffensive, were 1104.
Karl-Heinz Frieser, who reviewed the German archival record, estimated that 54 182 casualties were suffered during Operation Citadel. Of these, 9036 were killed, 1960 were reported missing and 43 159 were wounded. The 9th Army suffered 23 345 casualties, while Army Group South suffered 30 837 casualties. Throughout the Soviet offensives 111 114 casualties were suffered. Facing Operation Kutuzov, 14 215 men were killed, 11 300 were reported missing (presumed dead or captured) and 60 549 were wounded. During Polkovodets Rumyantsev, 25 068 casualties were incurred, including 8933 killed and missing. The total casualties of the three battles were about 50 000 killed or missing and 134 000 wounded (according to German military medical data).
During Operation Citadel, 252 to 323 tanks and assault guns were destroyed. By July 5, when the Battle of Kursk began, there were only 184 operational Panther tanks. Within two days, this was reduced to 40. On July 17, 1943, after Hitler ordered a halt to the German offensive, Heinz Guderian sent the following preliminary assessment of the Panther:
Due to enemy action and mechanical failures, the combat force sank rapidly during the first few days. By the evening of July 10, there were only 10 operational Panthers on the front line. Twenty-five Panther were lost as total penalties (23 were hit and burned and two caught fire during the approach march). 100 Panther were in need of repair (56 were damaged by hits and mines and 44 by mechanical breakdown). Sixty percent of the mechanical failures could be easily repaired. Approximately 40 Panther had already been repaired and were on their way to the front. The repair service had yet to recover about 25….. By the night of July 11, 38 Panther were operational, 31 were total cancellations and 131 were in need of repair. A slow increase in combat strength is observable. The large number of hit losses (81 Panther as of July 10) testifies to the hard fighting.
By July 16, Army Group South claimed to have lost 161 tanks and 14 assault guns. As of July 14, the 9th Army reported losing a total of 41 tanks and 17 assault guns. These losses broke down to 109 Panzer IV, 42 Panther, 38 Panzer III, 31 assault guns, 19 Elefant, 10 Tiger I and three flamethrower tanks. Before the Germans ended their offensive at Kursk, the Soviets began their counteroffensive and succeeded in pushing the Germans into a steady retreat. Thus, a report on August 11, 1943 showed that the total number of Panther cancellations increased to 156, with only 9 in operation. The German Army was forced to retreat in combat and increasingly lost its tanks in combat, as well as by abandoning and destroying damaged vehicles. 50 Tiger I tanks were lost across the Eastern Front during July and August, with some 240 damaged. Most of these occurred during their Kursk offensive. Between 600 and 1612 tanks and assault guns were damaged in the period from July 5 to July 18.
The total number of German tanks and assault guns destroyed during July and August on the entire Eastern Front amounts to 1331. Of these, Frieser estimates that 760 were destroyed during the Battle of Kursk. Beevor writes that “the Red Army had lost five armored vehicles for every German tank destroyed.”
Frieser reports Luftwaffe losses of 524 aircraft, with 159 lost during the German offensive, 218 destroyed during Operation Kutuzov and 147 more lost during Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. In reviewing the Luftwaffe quartermaster reports, Bergström presents different figures. Between July 5 and July 31, Bergström reports 681 aircraft lost or damaged (335 for Fliegerkorps VIII and 346 for Luftflotte 6) with a total of 420 cancelled (192 from Fliegerkorps VIII and 229 from Luftflotte 6).
According to German historian Rüdiger Overmans, in July and August 1943, the Germans lost 130,429 dead and missing. However, according to Soviet data, from July 5 to September 5, 1943, about 420 000 Germans were killed and missing (3.2 times more than Overmans” data) and about 38 600 people were taken prisoner. Russian Historian; Samsonov A.M. estimated the German casualties, from July 5 to September 5, 1943 at 500 thousand total losses.