Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although one of the shortest battles of World War II, the Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in the history of warfare and is considered a major turning point in the war. Although the Soviet Union lost nearly 200,000 troops to Germany’s 50,000, the battle was nevertheless a decisive Soviet victory. The German army lost its capacity to launch any further offensives on the Eastern Front, and it began a long tactical retreat, while a reinvigorated Soviet army began an advance that led to the gates of Berlin.

Summary of Event

Following the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, which ended on February 2, 1943, Adolf Hitler and the German general staff were desperate to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front. On May 3, Hitler met with Germany’s major generals in Munich to decide battle strategy. A plan conceived by General Erich von Manstein called for luring Russian forces to attack a 75-mile bulge in the German lines. A German retreat toward the Dnieper River would cause attacking Russian forces to overextend their lines. A reinforced German army would counterattack on the flanks, causing severe damage to Russian forces. Operation Citadel Kursk, Battle of (1943) Tanks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign [kw]Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces (July 4-12, 1943) [kw]Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces, Tank (July 4-12, 1943) [kw]Kursk Devastates German Forces, Tank Battle at (July 4-12, 1943) [kw]German Forces, Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates (July 4-12, 1943) Operation Citadel Kursk, Battle of (1943) Tanks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign [g]Europe;July 4-12, 1943: Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces[00860] [g]Soviet Union;July 4-12, 1943: Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces[00860] [c]World War II;July 4-12, 1943: Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces[00860] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 4-12, 1943: Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces[00860] [c]Military history;July 4-12, 1943: Tank Battle at Kursk Devastates German Forces[00860] Manstein, Erich von Zhukov, Georgy Zeitzler, Kurt Rokossovsky, Konstantin Model, Walter Hoth, Hermann Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Russian military campaign

Hitler, however, preferred a more aggressive plan in which Germany would strike first instead of waiting for a Russian attack. This plan was proposed by his chief of the Army General Staff, Kurt Zeitzler. It called for an attack by elite German divisions on a Russian 150-mile-wide bulge that stretched from the city of Kursk to north of the industrial city of Kharkov. A large and heavily mechanized force would attack Russian forces from three sides, surrounding them as German tanks, reinforced by new Panther and Tiger tanks, would launch blitzkrieg attacks on Russian forces from the north and south. Zeitzler’s plan, named Operation Citadel, received Hitler’s support after two days of debate. The attack was planned for May, so that the tank-slowing mud of the Russian spring thaw—which would be dry by May—would not present a problem.

Delays in production of Tiger tanks and tank-killing Ferdinand self-propelled guns (also called Elephants) caused Hitler to delay the start of Operation Citadel until July 4. Meanwhile, Russia’s spy network Espionage World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];military intelligence (code-named Lucy) Lucy (code name) was able to obtain many details about the operation. The Russian commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, ordered deep minefields, consisting of hundreds of thousands of antitank and antipersonnel mines, to be set along the salient (the area that extends into enemy territory) at Kursk. Antitank trenches were dug, and thousands of camouflaged antitank guns were moved into position. A force of thirty-one hundred planes, thirty-six hundred tanks, and 1.3 million Russian soldiers was in place to blunt the attack by an expected 900,000 German troops outfitted into fifty divisions (seventeen of which were armored). German forces were supported by about twenty-seven hundred tanks and eighteen hundred aircraft.

German forces attacked in two major groups, north and south, with thin lines in the middle. The battle commenced with preliminary attacks on July 4, as General Walter Model’s Fourth Panzer Division attempted to take Soviet outposts in the south; the Luftwaffe (German air force) bombed Soviet front positions in the north. By evening, both sides attempted to weaken each other by concerted artillery bombardment. The major clash came on July 5, as the Russian air force attempted to obliterate Luftwaffe bases. What is likely the largest air battle ever fought in a single day followed during the next few hours. The air battle proved to be a draw; neither side gained air superiority. However, the new Soviet IL-2 (a formidable ground-attack plane), the Yak-9 Soviet fighter plane, and the skill of Soviet pilots proved to be a match for the formidable German Luftwaffe.

Following the air battle, Army Group North launched a major frontal attack. In spite of the incredible depth of Russian defenses, Army Group North was able to penetrate nearly 6 miles into Russian defenses during the opening days of the battle. The penetration, though, resulted in the German tanks being open to close-range antitank fire from their more lightly armored sides. The commander of Russian Central Forces, General Konstantin Rokossovsky, responded by sending into the breach antitank and artillery brigades supported by 350 fighter planes. By July 7, the northern attack ground to a halt, as the Germans lost twenty-five thousand soldiers and two hundred tanks. Southern German forces under General Hermann Hoth, which consisted of six hundred tanks and 300,000 soldiers, pressed on the attack by swinging south of Russia’s defense line. The Southern Forces wound up 50 miles southeast of Kursk, near the small village of Prokhorovka. Their movements, however, were closely followed by the Russians.

On July 12, the largest tank battle in human history took place at Prokhorovka Prokhorovka, Battle of (1943) , as fifteen hundred tanks maneuvered to destroy each other at relatively close range in the middle of blinding dust. The situation nullified the advantage new German tanks had in armament and firepower over the Soviet T34 tank, the staple of the Russian army, which had not undergone significant improvement since the start of the war. Also working against Germany were the continual malfunctions of its new Panther tanks. The Panther’s design problems would not be corrected until the winter of 1943.

Instead of an organized conflict, the Battle of Kursk was a series of encounters in which necessity dictated tactics. German technical advantages were more than offset by Russian numerical advantages. By the end of the day on July 12, German forces had lost 350 tanks and ten thousand soldiers. A Russian counteroffensive led remaining forces under General Hoth to stage a tactical retreat. By July 23, Hoth’s forces were driven back to where the ill-fated Operation Citadel had begun. Meanwhile, continued attacks on the southern front led to the liberation of the city of Kharkov on August 23. On July 12 in the north, Zhukov had launched a counteroffensive against surviving German forces. Within three weeks Zhukov would retake the city of Orel.

Significance

The Battle of Kursk officially ended on July 12, and so did Germany’s capacity to launch major offensives on the Eastern Front. The date also marks the official beginning of the Russian juggernaut, which pushed German forces out of Russia and much of Eastern Europe back to the very gates of Berlin.

Also on July 12, Anglo-American forces were in their second day of marching through Sicily, unopposed by the Italian army, preparing to land on the Italian mainland. For Hitler this meant withdrawing key units from Russia to meet his newest crisis. Angered at the General Staff, which came up with the idea of the failed Operation Citadel, Hitler withdrew into increasing isolation. No longer trusting his generals, Hitler micromanaged most future troop movements. It was clear that the fall of the Third Reich was not a matter of if but of when.

The Battle of Kursk also stands as testimony to the Red Army’s coming of age. Defensive tactics perfected by the Russians were able to stop German blitzkrieg tactics. Russian counteroffensive tactics led to the retreat of German forces, providing the opportunity to plan strategic offensive maneuvers. In addition, the rapidly developing Russian air force proved that it could stand up to the famed German Luftwaffe, while Russian armored capabilities proved that Russia could smash Germany’s famed Panzer divisions by numerical if not by technological advantage. Operation Citadel Kursk, Battle of (1943) Tanks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Robin. The Battle of Kursk: Operation Citadel, 1943. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. A detailed and readable account of the battle and the overall operation. Contains an index and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glantz, David M., and Jonathan House. The Battle of Kursk. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. A massive scholarly study making use of Soviet and German archival sources. Maps, tables, illustrations, endnotes, comprehensive bibliography, and appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Provides excellent background to the role of the Russian army in World War II. Written for general readers but based on archival sources and appropriate for all students. Bibliography, index, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Healy, Mark. Kursk, 1943. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Close to a 100-page synopsis of the battle as well as troop movements of both German and Russian forces. Part of the Praeger Illustrated Military History series. Bibliography, index, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, Richard W., ed. The United States Army in a Global Era: 1917-2003. Vol. 2 in American Military History. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2005. Originally written and published in 1956 as a textbook for Army officers in training, this updated work provides a detailed history of the role of the Army in times of international strife. Includes many illustrations, maps, and photographs. Available at http://www.army.mil/cmh/. Click on image-link for the book.

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