The greatest armored battle in history and one of the largest battles ever fought. The limited success of the Soviet Orel-Briansk offensive operation under General Konstantin Rokossovsky in February and March, along with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s successful southern operations ( DON and the Third Battle of Kharkov ), set the lines of the Kursk bulge, a Soviet salient that projected 100 miles deep into German lines. The Wehrmacht built up unprecedented forces around Kursk from March to June. The great mass of German armor was ordered to the area, to ready to slice off the salient. Meanwhile, the Red Army also built up huge forces inside the bulge as well as along its wider flanks. The Soviets knew of the German plans and intended to meet them with even larger, well-hidden tank and air formations under Marshal Georgi Zhukov. These were deployed in a deep defensive field designed to absorb and bog down the German assault in its earliest stages. After strategically overreaching and failing in December 1941–February 1942, and again in January–March 1943, Joseph Stalin and the Stavka had at last recognized a deep truth about the war: it was fundamentally an exercise in sustained attrition necessary to wear down the Wehrmacht before any decisive thrust could be made into the vitals of Nazi Germany. Soviet forces therefore deployed in an extraordinarily deep set of seven defensive belts designed to absorb, bog down, and kill German armored thrusts at price of massive but accepted Soviet casualties and loss of equipment. The armor, artillery, infantry, and air combat that ensued combined to form the largest battle ever fought. Some 3.5 million troops in total fought at Kursk, nearly half the 8.5 million positioned that summer along a 1,500-mile long Eastern Front.
The German offensive plan, ZITADELLE, was delayed several times from April to July, partly for technical reasons and to refit on the German side but also because of the spring rasputitsa. During the postponements German and Soviet casualties dropped significantly. But there was also a building sense of violent tension as each side waited for the summer explosion into combat. Where Adolf Hitler grew evermore cautious and dubious about ZITADELLE as time passed, the Stavka had to restrain Stalin’s urge to attack prematurely. Zhukov’s plan was to draw the German armor into the Soviet defensive belts, in some places 175 miles deep. Only then would he spring a great trap around the Panzer columns with simultaneous counteroffensives on either side of the salient. For that, he held back huge Fronts whose presence was hidden from B-dienst and the Abwehr by some of the most elaborate and successful maskirovka operations of the war. In the south, the counteroffensive was given the additional task of retaking Kharkov and Belgorod, which had been lost to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the SS 2nd Panzer Corps in March. Soviet intelligence was unusually good at Kursk, although it mistook the Schwerpunkt as the north side of the salient whereas the Germans believed it was in the south and concentrated their effort there. Information came from multiple sources that allowed the VVS to catch the Luftwaffe on the ground, attacking forward airfields in a set of pre-emptive strikes carried out from May 6–8. And it then gave the Stavka three days advance notice of the precise hour of the German assault. That enabled Soviet artillery to hammer the armor spearheads at their jump-off points before dawn on July 5. Shelling massed Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations just 10 minutes before they were set to attack the first defense belt according to the usual, precise German instructions staggered the attacking troops, upset timetables, and shook the confidence of Hitler and the OKH. The armor and artillery battles that followed, as Panzer columns cut into the salient and through the first defensive belts, were bloody and destructive. The climax came in an armor battle at Prokhorovka, still the single greatest armored battle in history. From that point, Kursk became a vast and chaotic Kesselschlacht —or rather, a great kotel —that engaged over 5,000 tanks and lesser armored vehicles, thousands of guns, several thousand combat aircraft, and several million troops.
The Battle of Kursk saw Germans using aircraft to make up for losses suffered at Stalingrad and in Africa. Specialized Junkers Ju 87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129Bs were used as flying artillery to compensate for weak ground artillery. Junkers Ju 87G Stuka was the most successful version was the Ju 87G1. This close-support aircraft’s armament consisted of two 37mm BK Flak 18 or Flak 36 cannons mounted under the wing. As German air superiority faded, the thinly armored, slow-moving Stuka was relegated to occasional ground attacks. Their formations were responsible for killing hundreds of Russian tanks. On the Russian side, Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmoviks armed with 37mm cannons were used with devastating effect against German armor.
In addition to the flying antitank weapons, the Germans armed their Focke-Wulf Fw 190As with SD-1 and SD-2 antipersonnel containers that rained down fragmentation bomblets on infantry and artillery positions.
The air battle was also huge. The Red Army suffered about 70,000 casualties of all types in the fighting at Kursk, excluding the wider Soviet counteroffensives on either side of the salient, which cost another 100,000 men. The Soviets lost nearly 500 aircraft and more than half the armor force they deployed, or over 1,600 tanks. In the main battle the Germans lost 57,000 men and considerably fewer tanks and planes, about 300 and 200, respectively. However, they lost so many tanks and planes in the related Soviet counteroffensives that followed Kursk—Operations KUTUZOV and RUMIANTSEV —that the Wehrmacht never again launched a strategic offensive operation on the Eastern Front. Instead, it surrendered the initiative and was confined to local counterattacks. Germany was already being out-produced in major weapons systems. Despite temporarily regaining a technical advantage with its Panthers and Tigers, it was out-produced in armor in such quantities by the Soviet Union and Western Allies that it never recovered its relative position from the loss of combat power in men and war machines suffered in the summer of 1943. For that reason, Kursk is often identified as the major turning point along the Eastern Front, more so even than Stalingrad. The Red Army for the first time at Kursk succeeded in physically blunting a major German offensive, rather than just defending desperately against it until the Wehrmacht ran out of momentum, as happened before at Moscow in December 1941, and at Stalingrad in November 1942. Then the Stavka launched a set of massive counteroffensives, which completely fooled the Germans in their direction, intentions, and timing. Kursk was, in Heinz Guderian’s expert estimation, the decisive defeat for Germany to that point in the war. After Kursk, the Soviets took the strategic offensive, starting a long and bloody drive that ended only with Hitler’s death in the “Führerbunker” beneath the ruins of Berlin in May 1945.
And yet, arms and aircraft production for both armed forces increased to the end of 1943 and again in 1944, while enlistments swelled new divisions, armies, and army groups. Most casualties suffered along the Eastern Front in World War II still lay in the future. Kursk no doubt massively accelerated the pace of destruction of German military power. But it cannot be argued that, had the Soviets lost at Kursk, the final outcome of the war would have been placed in grave doubt. Not even the greatest battle ever fought was sufficient to decide the larger armed struggle between mighty industrial empires. To decide the war in the east it would take a series of additional battles—a full campaign—fought hard to the end of 1943, then more savage campaigns along several axes of Soviet advance and German counterattack in 1944, and yet more thrusts and fighting and destruction over the first four months of 1945. Meanwhile, the air war continued over Germany and heavy fighting took place in Italy, while the Western powers did not invade France until mid-1944, after which there remained 11 months of fighting in the west. While it cannot really be said, therefore, that Kursk was “the” decisive victory or defeat of World War II, it certainly numbered among its greatest battles and did much to confirm and accelerate the trajectory of attrition that led to ultimate Soviet victory and German defeat.
Suggested Reading: Walter S. Dunn, Kursk: Hitler’s Gamble, 1943 (1997); David M. Glantz and Harold S. Orenstein, eds., The Battle for Kursk, 1943 (1999).