Operation Citadel, which resulted in the Battle of Kursk took place in July 1943 around the Soviet city of Kursk in western Russia, as Germany launched their last great offensive of the war. After the devastating defeat at the hands of the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Stalingrad, it was the last chance to get the initiative back on the Eastern Front.
Despite horrendous casualties, the Soviets not only held the Germans from advancing but pushed them back and by battle’s end had taken the German positions from which they launched their attacks. The Germans would never again seize the initiative. And their Panzer Armies were smashed with losses they could ill afford to replace.
Prelude to the Battle: After the brutal winter of 1942-43 and the Battle of Stalingrad where the German Sixth Army was annihilated, the spring of 1943 turned the melting snow in a sea of mud and the rivers, frozen over during the winter, were now virtually impassable. The exhausted German and Soviet armies took the respite to rest and refit. The German officers knew that the summer of 1943 would hold the key to the war in the east. They were beginning to believe that a long war against the Soviet war machine with endless supplies of men and equipment was a losing proposition.
The planning staff of the OKH was hoping for an outcome in 1943 that would force the Soviets to a draw and where a political solution to the war. The Germans turned their attention to the area around Kursk. There was a bulge in the German lines of about 250 miles across but only about 70 miles at its base. The land area of the Kursk salient was approximately half the size of England.
Both the Germans and Soviets saw Kursk as the key figure in the summer of 1943. The Germans had a great opportunity during the winter when, after the debacle at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein won big victories by crushing the Russians at Belgorod and Kharkov, he was in the position to move against the salient. But Hitler ordered him to stop. They lost their advantage of speed while both sides prepared for the huge battle that was to follow.
Plans of Both Sides: The Germans spent the spring beefing up their Panzer forces for the upcoming assault. General Heinz Guderian, brought back to be the Inspector General of the Panzer Forces was adamantly against the move at Kursk as he knew the Soviets were preparing for the assault. He was also against the rushing into action of the new “Panther” tank. It was perhaps the best tank of the war, but its’ teething troubles in the early transmissions would prove to be problematic at Kursk.
The Germans planned a double envelopment of the Soviet salient. Walter Model’s 9th Army would drive from the north and take the rail lines in Kursk. The 4th Panzer Army in the south under General Hermann Hoth was to drive north and link up with Model’s forces in Kursk. Meanwhile, the main attack from von Manstein would drive into the center of the Soviet line from Hoth’s forces in the south.
Model went to Hitler in April and asked to cancel Citadel, citing massive Soviet buildup in the area with defenses up to 110 miles in depth. By May, von Manstein also agreed. He told Hitler that the Germans should go on the defensive, let the Soviets come to them and then use the mobile battle operations that the German Army excelled in.
Hitler waffled and the operation kept getting pushed back first from May until early June then 23 June. Hitler postponed it again stating that the offensive would begin on 5 July.
The Soviets, meanwhile, thru their “Lucy” spy ring in Switzerland with agents at Bletchley Park in England, reported that the Germans were planning a major offensive aimed at Kursk in early March.
The Soviet commander Marshal Georgi Zhukov had the same basic plan that von Manstein had. The Soviets would build up their defenses, allow the Germans to attack, then bleed their armor forces dry while bringing fresh armies from the east to initiate a massive counterattack
The Soviet defenses, which was aided by the labor of over 300,000 civilians constructed massive fortification belts with each having several different zones. There were three main fortification belts, each heavily fortified with minefields, barbed-wire fences, anti-tank ditches, entrenchments for infantry, anti-tank obstacles, dug-in armored vehicles, and machine-gun bunkers. Behind those lay three more belts, the first two unmanned to give the Soviet defenders a fall-back position.
With thousands of miles of trenches and obstacles already dug by June, the Red Army combat engineers laid 503,663 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines with the majority in the first defensive belt to slow the German advance.
On the eve of battle, the Germans were able to mass 500,000 men, 10,000 guns and mortars, 2,700 tanks and assault guns and 2,500 aircraft. The Soviets dug into excellent defensive positions had 1,300,000 men, over 20,000 guns and mortars, 3,600 tanks, 2,650 aircraft and five reserve field armies of another 500,000 men and 1,500 additional tanks. The die was cast and the Germans were locked into a battle they could not win.
Opening Moves: The Germans sent sappers out on the evening of July 4 to begin clearing Soviet minefields. Several were captured, one POW revealed that the offensive was to begin the next morning at 0330. The Soviets didn’t wait. All of the artillery in the Soviet 13th Army opened fire on the German positions at 0220 hrs.
This unexpected barrage raised havoc with the German units still assembling assault units. The German artillery opened up at 0430 with the main attack with tanks and assault guns began at 0500. The Germans soon learned, however, that their artillery barrage did little to the Soviet defenses, so painstakingly constructed.
German infantry, with tank support, had good initial success and cracked a portion of the Soviet positions three miles deep. The Germans tried to exploit the advance by pushing a force of two companies of Tiger tanks which the Soviets threw 90 of the T-34s into the breach. A slugfest ensued. Two Tigers were destroyed, five others disabled with track damage but they left 42 of the T-34s smoking on the rye and wheat fields. But their delaying action gave Zhukov time to throw two Guards divisions into the hole and the German advance was stopped.
After the first day, the Germans advanced only about six miles. The Soviets counterattacked the next morning. However, due to poor coordination, the attack consisted of only the 16th Tank Corps, with about 200 tanks, they attacked the XLVII Panzer Corps in the 9th Army area. The Germans were able to field the Tiger tanks at much longer ranges than the T-34 and they decimated the Russian armor. The battalion of Tigers destroyed 69 tanks, forcing the rest to withdraw. A German attack followed with the Tigers then taking a beating with heavy casualties from the built-up Soviet defenses around Olkhovatka.
Battle of Prokhorovka: By July 11th, the Germans had continued to advance, the German II SS Panzer Corps was going against the 5th Guards Tank Army. The Germans were preparing to attack the Russian positions but Soviets weren’t waiting. At 0800, they attacked the Germans with the 18th and 29th Tank Corps. Riding on the tanks were the 9th Guards Airborne Infantry Division.
The Germans held, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that they could begin their attack. Dug-in and well concealed, the Russian anti-tank defenses knocked out half of the German armor. Both sides returned their starting positions by the end of the day, but the Soviets had stopped cold the German advance. Nearly 700 tanks from both sides littered the battlefield at the end of the day. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost 50 percent of their troops and equipment. The Germans lost 300 tanks, 88 guns and hundreds of trucks. It was a free-for-all slaughter on both sides. It would be the end of the German offensive.
Hitler Calls it Off: Back at the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, Prussia, Hitler was very concerned by the Allied invasion of Sicily. He was worried that following that, an invasion of Italy or Southern France was next. He ordered that the offensive cease and moved that some units be transferred to Italy.
Von Manstein was livid. After his troops had suffered horrible casualties fighting thru the deep Soviet defenses, he felt his troops were close to a breakthrough to open terrain where the German penchant for mobile warfare was well known.
The Soviets then took the respite to launch a huge counter-offensive of their own. Operation Kutuzov, north of Kursk began on July 12. The Soviets broke through German lines at the Orel salient and by July 24 had the Germans retreating. Through heavy fighting, they pushed them back beyond Operation Citadel’s original launching point.
At the end of the bloody fighting, the Soviet Army won a resounding victory, they seized the initiative from the German Army in the East, one they would never relinquish. The Germans never would be on the offensive again on the Eastern Front. Despite horrendous casualties, rumored to be in excess of 700,000, the Soviets could easily replace those men.
In contrast, the Germans loss of 200,000 casualties were men that they could not spare as they were forced to move men and material to Italy. Despite knocking out Soviet tanks at a rate of nearly 5:1, the Panzers were irreplaceable. Soviet tank losses were difficult to ascertain, (as with both sides), but it is thought their losses were nearly 6000, however many knocked out tanks were repaired and lived to fight again. They lost nearly 50 percent of their tank forces on the Eastern Front.
German tank losses were estimated to be 1331, of which, again, many were repaired and went back into action.
In the air, once again, despite heavy losses, the Soviets were able to wrest away air superiority over the Germans. As more and more German aircraft were being pulled from the front to counter the heavy British and American bombing of German cities, they could not keep up with the Soviet numbers in the east.
Russian aircraft losses were between 1600- 1961, while the Germans 681. But the Russian losses were quickly replaced as their factories in the East poured material back into the fray, including much equipment from the Allies in the Lend-Lease deal.