Battle of Kursk | World War II

Battle of Kursk | World War II

Overview

The Battle of Kursk was fought between Soviet forces and German on the Eastern Front near Kursk (450 km southwest of Moscow) in July and August 1943. On July 5, the German onslaught Operation Citadel started to cut off the Kursk salient from north and south. Operation Kutuzov (Russian: утуов) was launched against the rear of the German forces on the same side after the German offensive stopped. On the southern front, the Soviets launched massive counter-attacks on the same day, leading to the Battle of Prokhorovka. Finally, on August 3, the Soviets launched Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev against the German soldiers on the southern side of the significant.

A victory here, Hitler hoped, would reestablish German strength and strengthen his standing among his allies, whom he feared was considering withdrawing from the war. As a result, the Soviets built a series of deep defensive belts and established a large reserve force for counter-offensives months before the attack.

The fight marked the end of the Germans' Eastern Front strategic push. Because the Allied conquest of Sicily began during the war, Hitler called off the offensive at Kursk after barely a week to divert forces to Italy. Despite having previously succeeded in winter offensives, the Red Army's counter-offensives following the German attack at Kursk were the war's first successful summer offensives.

Background

As the Battle of Stalingrad came to a close, the Red Army launched Operation Little Saturn, a sweeping onslaught in the south. All German powers south of the Don River, including Army Group A operating in the Caucasus, were endangered by the advancing Soviet soldiers. Army Group Center also came under severe strain. The Soviets retook Kursk on February 8 and Rostov on February 14. The Soviet Bryansk, Western, and newly constituted Central Fronts planned to encircle Army Group Centre between Bryansk and Smolensk.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein asked for "unrestricted operational independence" since December 1942. On February 6, 1943, Manstein met with Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters to discuss his plans. Hitler gave his permission for a counter-offensive against the advancing Soviet soldiers in Donbass. Army Group Don was retitled Army Group South and commanded by Manstein. Army Group B was disbanded to the north, its forces and responsibilities split between Army Groups South and Centre. Hitler landed at Army Group South headquarters in Zaporizhia just hours before the Soviets captured Kharkov and evacuated on the 19th. The II SS Panzer Corps had attained from France in January 1943, refitted and near full power. Armoured units from the 1st Panzer of Army Group A had dragged out of the Caucasus and strengthened Manstein's forces. The operation was quickly planned and unnamed. The 3rd Battle of Kharkov began on February 21st with a counter-attack by General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army. An offensive launched by the Central Front on Army Group Centre on 25 February had to be abandoned by 7 March to allow attacking formations to unfasten and redeploy to the south to counter the risk of the advancing German forces under Manstein.

German Plans and Preparation

For the Wehrmacht to launch an offensive in 1943, the panzer divisions would have to attack the Soviet defences and hold ground on the flanks of the advance. The Kursk salient was one of several offensives authorized by Hitler's Operational Order No. 5 on March 13. As the last Soviet resistance in Kharkov faded, Manstein tried to persuade Günther von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, to attack the Central Front, which was defending the northern face of the salient. However, in mid-April, due to bad weather and exhaustion of the German forces, Operational Order No. 5 offensives were postponed.

By Operational Order No. 6, Hitler ordered the Kursk attack, codenamed "Citadel," to begin on or about May 3. The OKH Chief of Staff, Kurt Zeitzler, drafted the directive. The Soviets had to be attacked before preparing extensive defences or launching their offensive for the offensive to succeed.

Army Group Centre's 9th Army was to form the northern pincer in Operation Citadel. Army Group South would obligate the 4th Panzer Army, under Hermann Hoth, and Army Detachment Kempf, under Werner Kempf, to perforate the southern face of the salient. The 4th Panzer Army, led by Paul Hausser's II SS Panzer Corps, delivered Manstein's primary. With Otto von Knobelsdorff in charge of the XLVIII Panzer Corps and Walter Weiss in command of the 2nd Army, the 2nd Army would contain the western portion of the salient.

On April 27, the Model met with Hitler to discuss his concerns about reconnaissance reports showing the Red Army building strong positions at the salient's shoulders and withdrawing mobile units west of Kursk. Manstein thought the Citadel offensive was profitable in mid-April, but May shared Model's concerns.

On May 4, Hitler summoned his top officers and advisors to Munich. It was suggested to be launched immediately with the available forces; delayed longer to allow for the arrival of new and better tanks; dramatically revised, or cancelled entirely. Kluge spoke out strongly against rescheduling and discounted Model's reconnaissance materials. Albert Speer, Minister of War Production and Armaments, spoke about the difficulties of rebuilding armoured formations and the boundaries of German industry to replace losses. The session finished without Hitler deciding, but Citadel was not cancelled. Three days later, OKW, Hitler's military control agency, postponed the launch date to June 12. Guderian continued to express his reservations about an operation that would undoubtedly weaken the panzer units he was trying to rebuild. The process, as planned, broke two of the three precepts he had spelt out as necessary conditions for a successful panzer attack. On May 10, he begged Hitler,

"Is it necessary to strike Kursk and the east this year? Do you believe anyone knows Kursk? Nobody cares if we capture Kursk or not. So what forces us to strike Kursk this year, or even more, on the Eastern Front?"

"In that case, your attitude to the problem is correct. Therefore, leave it alone," Hitler said.

Hitler went on the offensive despite his doubts. Early in the planning phase, Hitler and the OKW hoped the offensive would revive German strategic fortunes in the east. Then, however, he postponed the operation to await the arrival of new weapons he believed would be the key to victory: the Panther tank, the Elefant tank destroyer, and more Tiger heavy tanks. With each delay, pessimism about Citadel grew. Finally, in June, Alfred Jodl, the OKW's Chief of Staff, ordered the military propaganda office to portray the next operation as a limited counter-offensive.

The Eastern Front was quiet for three months as the Soviets prepared their defences and the Germans tried to build up their forces. The Germans used this time to train their attack troops. The Waffen-SS created a full-scale replica of a Soviet strongpoint to practice disarming it. The panzer divisions got reinforcements and tried to regain power. The attacking German troops included 12 panzer divisions and five panzergrenadier divisions, four of which had more robust tanks than their neighbours. When the Germans launched the onslaught, it had only 777,000 men, 2,451 tanks and assault guns (70 per cent of German armour on the Eastern Front), and 7,417 guns and mortars.

Soviet Plans and Preparation

During the Kursk sector offensive in 1943, the Soviet Central, Bryansk, and Western Fronts were forced to abandon their offensive against Army Group Centre as Army Group South threatened the southern flank of the Central Front. The Soviets corroborated the intelligence through their British agent, John Cairncross, who supplied raw decrypts to Moscow. Cairncross also provided information about Luftwaffe airfields in the area to Soviet intelligence. On April 8, Zhukov wrote to Stavka and Stalin:

In the first phase, the enemy will attack Kursk from the northeast with their Kromskom-Orel grouping and from the southeast with their Belgorod-Kharkov grouping. It is unwise for forces to go on the offensive to fend off the adversary. It is better to make the opponent exhaust himself against defences, knock out tanks, and then go on the general assault to kill off.

From April 12 to 15, 1943, Stalin met with his battlefield commanders and General Staff members. Stalin believed defending would give the Germans the initiative. At the same time, Zhukov countered that the Germans would be drained into a trap where their armoured might would be destroyed, allowing for a significant Soviet counter-offensive. The Voronezh Front, led by Nikolai Vatutin, defended the salient's southern front. The Central Front protected the northern face. Finally, the Steppe Front, led by Ivan Konev, had been reconstructed in February 1943 from the Don Front, which had formed part of Operation Uranus' northern pincer and had destroyed the 6th Army at Stalingrad.

The Central and Voronezh Fronts built three main defensive belts in their sectors, each subdivided into several fortification zones. The Soviets employed almost 300,000 civilians to fortify each belt (25 mi). On either side of Kursk, six defensive belts were 130–150 kilometres (81–93 miles) deep. The total depth of the defences was over 300 kilometres (190 mi). The Voronezh and Central Fronts dug 4,200 km and 5,000 km of trenches, respectively, laid out in a crisscross pattern for movement. In addition, the Soviets built over 686 bridges and about 2,000 km (1,200 mi) of roads in the salient. A powerful armoured force will attack the salient, Zhukov warned on April 8th.

Because his infantry appears to be less prepared for offensive operations than last year, we should expect the enemy to rely heavily on his tank divisions and air force this year. Faced with this menace, we must quickly create antitank defences on the Central and Voronezh fronts. Antitank parties were included into every level of command, mainly as strong antitank points, with the majority focused on likely attack routes and the remainder amply spread out elsewhere. Movable obstacle detachments and soldiers backed them up with automatic weapons. In June 1943, partisans operating in the engaged area behind Army Group Centre destroyed 1,222 railway wagons, 298 locomotives, and 44 bridges, and in the Kursk sector, 1,092 partisan attacks on railways. The VVS flew over 800-night missions to resupply partial elements behind Army Group Centre in JUNE.

Soldiers were crowded into trenches, and tanks were determined overhead until all signs of fear were gone. The soldiers referred to this training exercise as "ironing". The exposed armoured vehicles might then be disabled or destroyed at close range by infantry armed with antitank rifles, demolition charges, and Molotov cocktails.

The Soviets used maskirovka (military deception) to conceal defensive positions, troop dispositions, and movement of men and equipment. Ammunition caches were meticulously hidden to blend with. Fires and radio transmission were prohibited. Command posts were disguised, and motorized traffic was restricted around them. The Soviet deception efforts were so effective that German estimates issued in mid-June put the total Soviet armoured strength at 1,500 tanks.

The T-34 medium tank was the main of the Soviet tank arm. The tank arm also had many T-70 light tanks. The 5th Guards Tank Army, for example, had 270 T-70s and 500 T-34s. In addition, the Soviets assembled many lend-lease tanks in the salient. M3 Lees from the US and Churchills, Matildas, and Valentines from Britain. The Soviets gathered around 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, and 2,792 aircraft to defend the salient. It amounted to 26% of the Red Army's total workforce, 26% of its mortars and artillery, 35% of its aircraft, and 46% of its tanks.

Contest for Air Superiority

By June 1943, only 38.7% of the Luftwaffe's total aircraft remained in the east, after Stalingrad and the siphoning of resources to North Africa. The Luftwaffe's goal remained unaltered. In the land war, the German air fleets prioritized gaining air superiority, isolating the battlefield from enemy reinforcements, and providing close air support. The Luftwaffe had to adjust tactics because of the opponents' varying strengths. Previous offensive campaigns began with Luftwaffe raids on enemy airfields to obtain air supremacy. It was already late in the war, and the Luftwaffe commanders realized that aircraft could be cheaply replaced, making such missions pointless. So this mission was aborted. In earlier campaigns, medium bombers were used to keep reinforcements from arriving well behind the lines. During Citadel, this operation was rarely attempted. The Luftwaffe command knew their help was vital to Operation Citadel's success, but supply issues delayed their preparations. In addition, unlike Red Army units, the Luftwaffe had no aircraft reserves to replace damaged aircraft over the operation.

For Citadel, the Luftwaffe limited its efforts to direct ground support. The "Bordkanone" 3,7 cm calibre cannon could be slung under each wing of the Stuka in a gun pod. Pre-battle, Luftflotte 6 supporting Army Group Center saw a notable rise in the enemy VVS formations' strength. The VVS formations met had superior training and were flying better equipment with more aggressiveness and skill than the Luftwaffe had experienced previously. Also, many ground-attack aircraft, including the Ilyushin Il-2 "Shturmovik" and the Pe-2, were now available. The Soviet Air Force also used a lot of lend-lease aircraft. Ample supplies and aircraft reserves allowed the Red Army and VVS formations to fight longer without losing intensity.

Opposing Forces

Germans

The Germans utilized four armies and a significant amount of their Eastern Front tank power for the operation. According to the 1 July count, the 9th Army of Army Group Centre had 335,000 men (223,000 combat soldiers) while Army Detachment "Kempf" of Army Group South had 100,000–108,000 men (66,000 combat soldiers). The 2nd Army, on the western side of the salient, held around 110,000 men. Army Group South had more armoured vehicles, infantry, and artillery than Army Group Center's 9th Army. The 4th Panzer Army had 1,377 tanks and assault guns, while the 9th Army had 988.

Germany produced 2,816 tanks and self-propelled guns, 156 Tigers, and 484 Panthers between April and June. Kursk saw 259 Panthers, 211 Tigers, and 90 Ferdinands.

The offensive was postponed for the two new Panther battalions, the 51st and 52nd, deployed in the XLVIII Panzer Corps to the Großdeutschland Division. The 51st and 52nd Battalions arrived on 30 June and 1 July, leaving little time to conduct surveillance or familiarize themselves with the terrain. Although led by veteran panzer commanders, many tank crews were fresh recruits who had little time to get accustomed to their new vehicles, let alone train together as a unit. Moreover, due to the requirement to maintain radio silence until the attack began, the Panther units had no training in battalion-level radio procedures. As of July 5, only 184 Panthers remained due to mechanical failures. The Germans spent the most ammunition on the Eastern Front in July and August 1943, at 236,915 tons in July and 254,648 tons in August. In September 1942, it reached 160,645 tons.

Red Army

The Red Army defended Kursk with two fronts and a reserved front behind the battle area. The Central and Voronezh Fronts had 12 armies, with 711,575 (510,983) and 625,591 (446,236) troops. The Steppe Front has 573,195 soldiers in reserve (449,133). The Soviet force totalled 1,910,361 men, of whom 1,426,352 were combatants. The Soviet armour at Kursk included 4,869 tanks (205 KV-1 heavy tanks) and 259 SPGs (25 SU-152s, 56 SU-122s, and 67 SU-76s). In July 1943, 1,061 T-60 and T-70 tanks were deployed on the Central and Voronezh Fronts. They couldn't engage the frontal armour of German medium and heavy tanks or AFVs with their thin armour and small weapons. The T-34 had a 76.2mm cannon, which struggled against up-armoured Panzer IVs, while the frontal armour of Tigers and Panthers was virtually impenetrable. However, they could not match the Tiger's 88mm gun at long range, and there were few SU-122 and SU-152s at Kursk.

Preliminary Actions

Several Red Army command and observation stations along the first central belt of defences were taken during these operations on the southern face of the salient on July 4, 1943. By 22:30, Vatutin ordered 600 guns, mortars, and Katyusha rocket launchers from the Voronezh Front to bombard the German front positions, particularly the II SS Panzer Corps. The anticipated German attack reached Central Front HQ in the north. Zhukov authorized his preemptive artillery bombardment at 02:00 on July 5. The goal was to disperse German attack forces, but disappointing the result. The bombing of the German troops caused no significant losses or delays. The German artillery bombarded the northern and southern faces for around 80 minutes in the early morning. After the barrage, the ground forces confronted, aided by Luftwaffe close air support. The VVS conducted a massive operation against German airfields on July 5th, seeking to eliminate the Luftwaffe on the ground. Compared to the Luftwaffe's 26, the VVS lost 176 aircraft on 5 July. The damages of the VVS 16th Air Army functioning in the northern face were lighter than those of the 2nd Air Army.

Operation Along the Northern Face

XLVII Panzer Corps led the main offensive, accompanied by 45 Tigers from the attached 505th Heavy Tank Battalion. The XLI Panzer Corps was XXIII Army Corps, strengthening two regular infantry divisions and the 78th Assault Infantry Division. The Corps had no tanks but 62 assault guns.

Initial German Advance

Model attacked with infantry divisions bolstered by assault guns, heavy tanks, artillery, and the Luftwaffe. So he could use his panzer divisions' armoured strength once the Red Army's defences were breached. After a breakthrough, the panzer forces would proceed into Kursk. Model's staff major, Jan Möschen, later stated that Model predicted a breakthrough on the second day. If a breakthrough occurred, the Red Army would have time to react. However, his corps leaders doubted a breakthrough. The 9th Army attacked at 05:30 on July 5th, after a pre-attack bombardment and Red Army counter-attacks. Nine infantry divisions and one panzer division advanced, accompanied by assault guns, heavy tanks, and tank destroyers.

The XLVII Panzer Corps' 20th Panzer and 6th Infantry Divisions led the charge. The remaining two panzer divisions are tracked, ready to exploit any breakthrough. The 15th Rifle Division's heavily mined terrain hindered the attack. The Tigers were redeployed and hit towards this region. By 08:00, safe pathways had been cleared through the minefield. The Red Army replied with roughly 90 T-34s. While the Red Army counter-attack was beaten and the first defensive belt broke, the fighting delayed the Germans extensive enough for the rest of the 29th Rifle Corps of the 13th Army to move forward and seal the breach. However, Goliath and Borgward IV have had minimal success clearing mines. Before 17:00, all but 12 of the 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion's Ferdinands were crippled by mines. Most were restored and returned to operation, although huge trucks were difficult to recover. Fortressed Ponyri, in the second defensive belt, controlled the roads and railways leading south to Kursk. The Germans speared 5 to 6 mi (8.0 to 9.7 km) through the Red Army lines, losing 1,287 men killed or missing and 5,921 wounded.

Red Army Counter-Attack

On July 6, Rokossovsky ordered the 17th and 18th Guards Rifle Corps, alongside the 19th Tank Corps and 2nd Tank Army, to counter-attack the German 9th Army. However, due to poor management, only the 16th Tank Corps of the 2nd Tank Army launched the counter-attack at dawn on July 6. The 16th Tank Corps attacked the XLVII Panzer Corps and ran into the Tiger tanks of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, knocking out 69 tanks and forcing the rest to extract to the 13th Army. The attack began with an artillery barrage, but it failed to interrupt the Red Army defence at Olkhovatka, and the Germans underwent heavy casualties.

Ponyri and Olkhovatka

From July 7 to 10, the Model concentrated the 9th Army's effort at Ponyri and Olkhovatka, which both sides deemed crucial positions. In response, Rokossovsky shifted forces from other front areas to these sectors. The next day, a Soviet counter-attack forced the Germans to evacuate, and both sides counter-attacked, with control of the town changing hands many times. The Germans held most Ponyri by July 10, but the Soviets counter-attacked. A powerful concerted attack on Olkhovatka and the nearby village of Teploe by some assault guns and 300 German tanks from the 2nd, 4th, and 20th Panzer Divisions, sustained by every available Luftwaffe air power in the northern failed to penetrate Soviet defences. Even though the 9th Army lacked the strength to make a breakthrough, Kluge wanted to keep the pressure on the Soviets to aid the southern onslaught. The offensive front on the northern side of the salient began at 45 km (28 mi) but by July 6 had shrunk to 40 km (25 mi) (25 mi). The attack frontage shrank to 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) the next day and 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) on July 8 and 9. By July 10, the Soviets had stopped the German offensive. On July 12, the Soviets started Operation Kutuzov towards the Orel salient, threatening Model's 9th Army's flank and rear. The 12th Panzer Division, previously held in reserve and slated to be committed to the northern side of the Kursk salient, was redeployed to meet the Soviet spearheads.

Operation Along the Southern Face

The German invasion began at 04:00 on July 5 with a preliminary bombardment. The Soviet 6th Guards Army composed the 22nd Guards Rifle Corps and the 23rd Guard Corps. The Soviets had built three fortified defensive belts to slow and weaken the attacking armoured forces.

Initial German Advance

XLVIII Panzer Corps: The 4th Panzer Army's panzergrenadier division Großdeutschland (Walter Hörnlein) was the strongest. The 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions flanked it, and a company of 15 Tigers spearheaded the attack. The Panzerfüsilier Regiment, moving on the left-wing, halted in a minefield, immobilizing 36 Panthers. The trapped regiment was hit by antitank and artillery fire from the Soviet Union, causing many losses. Engineers were sent in to clear the minefield but sustained losses. Fights with armed opponents and mechanical failures took their toll.

Nevertheless, the regiment resumed its march towards Gertsovka. Colonel Kassnitz, the regimental commander, was killed in the ensuing combat. The unit became entangled in the battle and the marshy terrain south of the settlement, surrounding the Berezovyy creek. The Luftwaffe repelled attempts by the VVS to halt the advance.

The 3rd Panzer Division, moving on Großdeutschland's left flank, made considerable progress, capturing Gertsovka and reaching Mikhailovka by day's end. On July 5, a wedge was formed in the first Soviet defence belt.

II SS Panzer Corps: On July 5, the three divisions of II SS Panzer Corps attacked the 52nd Guards Rifle Division Army. Totenkopf pushed towards Gremuchhi and screened the strongest three divisions' right flank. The 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division moved on Bykovka's left side.

The 2nd SS Panzer Division surged between the two units in the middle. The Luftwaffe backed the offensive by shattering Soviet solid points and artillery batteries. At 13:00, while probing positions between the first and second Soviet defensive belts, the 2nd SS Panzer Division lead came under fire from two T-34 tanks destroyed. Soviet tanks eventually surrounded the division. After a four-hour struggle, the Soviet tanks withdrew. The engagement allowed the 23rd Soviet Guards Rifle Corps to prepare and reinforce its antitank guns in the Soviet second defence belt. By early evening, the 2nd SS Panzer Division had reached the minefields around the Soviet second defence belt. The 1st SS Division had lost 97 men, 522 wounded, 17 missings, and around 30 tanks by day's end.

The 3rd SS Panzer Division moved slowly. After isolating the 155th Guards Regiment, 52nd Guards Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps), the division's attempts to sweep the regiment eastward into the flank of the 375th Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps) were foiled when the 96th Tank Brigade reinforced the company. On Hausser's right, the III Panzer Corps had no units to spare. The 3rd SS Division had made very little headway due to a Donets River tributary by day's end. The division's slow march exposed the corps' right flank to Soviet forces. The 6th Guards Army was strengthened by tanks from the 1st Tank Army, 2nd Guards Tank Corps, and 5th Guards Tank Corps. The 90th Guards and 51st Rifle Divisions were deployed near Pokrovka (not Prokhorovka, 40 km north-east), in the pathway of the 1st SS Panzer Division.

Army Detachment Kempf: The 7th Guards Army faced Army Detachment Kempf, composed of the III Panzer Corps and the Raus Corps (commanded by Erhard Raus). The two German Corps were to cross the river, smash through the 7th Guards Army, and support the 4th Panzer Army's right flank. This battalion consisted of 45 Tigers, with one company of 15 Tigers assigned to each of the III Panzer Corps' three panzer divisions. Eight infantry battalions under the 6th Panzer Division crisscrossed the river at Milkhailovka, just south of Belgorod. The bulk of the 6th Panzer Division was unable to travel farther south owing to a traffic jam at the crossing and stayed on the western bank of the river throughout the day. The division's battalions that had crossed the river attacked Stary Gorod but were halted by minefields and fierce opposition. The 19th Panzer Division, south of the 6th Panzer Division, crossed the river but was held up by mines, moving 8 km (5.0 mi) that day. In a friendly fire incident, the 6th Panzer Division commander Walther von Hünersdorff and Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski of the 19th Panzer Division were wounded. A new bridge erected for the Tigers added to the delays. Despite a slow start, the 7th Panzer Division drove through the initial Soviet defence belt between Razumnoe and Krutoi Log, advancing 10 km (6.2 mi). The 106th and 320th Infantry Divisions of Corps Raus flanked the 7th Panzer Division. Without armour assistance, the two formations struck over a 32 km (20 mi) front. Penetrating the first Red Army defence line Corps, Raus took the village of Maslovo Pristani. A counter-attack from the Soviets of around 40 tanks was repulsed by artillery and flak batteries. After 2,000 fatalities and significant Soviet resistance, the Corps dug in for the night. Delaying Kempf's progress allowed Red Army forces to prepare for the German onslaught on July 6. In response to the offensive by III Panzer Corps and Corps "Raus", the 7th Guards Army received two reserve rifle divisions. The 15th Guards Rifle Division was progressed up to the II Panzer Corps' second defence ring.

Development of the Battle

The Voronezh Front had committed all of its reserves by the evening of July 6th, except for three rifle divisions under the 69th Army, yet it could not decisively contain the 4th Panzer Army.

Sun's dark red disc was hardly visible. There was an endless stream of tanks, SPGs, artillery vehicles, APCs, and trucks. Dust and exhaust fumes covered the soldiers' faces. It was too hot. Soldiers were afflicted by dehydration and sweat-soaked clothes. Vatutin ordered a powerful counter-attack by the 5th Guards, 2nd Guards, 2nd and 10th Tank Corps, fielding some 593 tanks and self-propelled guns supported by most of Front's available airpower. Sixth Tank Corps was to attack XLVIII Panzer Corps and stop it from reaching the free Soviet rear. The 10th Tank Corps attacked early on July 8th but ran right into the antitank fire of the 3rd  and  2nd SS Divisions, losing most of its men. This offensive was foiled later that morning by the 3rd SS Division. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps pushed towards the 167th Infantry Division, disguised by the woodland at Gostishchevo, 16 km north of Belgorod. However, German ground-attack aircraft with MK 103 antitank cannons decimated the attacking tank formation, destroying 50 tanks. It was the first time in military history that an attacking tank formation had been defeated only by air power. Thunderclouds above the field. Heavy rains generated mud and marsh, making travel difficult.

By the end of July, the II SS-Panzer Corps had advanced about 29 km (18 mi) since Citadel began, breaking past the first and second defensive belts. On July 10, the Corps refocused its efforts on its progress. Their advance shifted from Oboyan to Prokhorovka, to the northeast. Since the battle, the 4th Panzer Army had planned this manoeuvre, but the Soviets had placed reserve formations into its path. The 2nd Tank Corps was reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and the 301st Anti-tank Artillery Regiment of the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps. The German advance in the south was sluggish than predicted but faster than the Soviets expected. The German infantry crossed the river the next day. At this point, Hoth revolved the II SS Panzer Corps away from Oboyan to strike toward the northeast in the direction of Prokhorovka. Manstein and Hausser was the incapability of Army Detachment Kempf to advance and cover the II SS Panzer Corps' eastern flank. Finally, on July 11, Army Detachment Kempf made a breakthrough. Breith pushed men and vehicles across the river to march on Prokhorovka from the south in a surprise night offensive by the 6th Panzer Division. The Soviet 69th Army would be encircled with the II SS Panzer Corps.

Battle of Prokhorovka

The II-SS Panzer Corps attacked Prokhorovka on 10 and 11 July, getting within 3 km (1.9 mi) of the settlement by the night of 11 July. The 3rd SS Panzer Division was to drive northeast to the Karteschewka-Prokhorovka route. Next, they were to strike southeast, flanking and reversing the Soviet positions at Prokhorovka. Finally, the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer divisions were to attack the main Soviet lines dug in on the slopes southwest of Prokhorovka after the 3rd SS Panzer Division had destabilised the Soviet defences. The 2nd SS Panzer Division, to the division's right, was supposed to move east, then swing south away from Prokhorovka to roll up the Soviet lines blocking the III Panzer Corps' advance and creating a gap.

A Soviet artillery barrage began around 08:00. The Soviet 29th and  18th Tank Corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army advanced into the corridor, carrying mounted foot soldiers of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on the tanks. The unit had to repel several attacks before going on the offensive to flank the Soviet defences surrounding Prokhorovka. Amid minefields and Soviet antitank weapons, the division's tanks were mainly destroyed late afternoon. Despite reaching the Karteschewka-Prokhorovka road, the 3rd SS lost half of its armour. The majority of German tank losses occurred here. The 1st SS Panzer Division pushed back the Soviet 18th and 29th Tank Corps to the south. The Luftwaffe's local air superiority over the battlefield also contributed to Soviet losses, partly due to the VVS being directed against the German formations on the flanks of II SS Panzer Corps.

Neither the II SS Panzer Corps nor the 5th Guards Tank Army succeeded. Nevertheless, despite significant losses, the Soviet counter-attack stopped a German advance.

Termination of Operation Citadel

On July 12, Hitler called Kluge and Manstein to his Rastenburg headquarters in East Prussia. Allied landings in Italy or southern France convinced Hitler to pause the offensive and shift soldiers from Kursk to Italy. Kluge was pleased since the Soviets launched a big counter-offensive against his sector, but Manstein was less pleased. Armees under Manstein had just spent a week pushing their way through defensive works, and he believed they were nearing open ground where they could engage and destroy Soviet armoured reserves in mobile combat.

Operation Roland, launched on July 14, continued the onslaught in the south. Finally, on July 17, after three days of offensive operations, the II SS Panzer Corps was ordered to retire, ending Operation Roland. However, the strength of the Soviet reserve formations had significantly been underestimated by German intelligence, and the Red Army soon went on the offensive. These reserves were utilized to re-equip the devastated 5th Guards Tank Army, which began Operation Rumyantsev a few weeks later.

Assisting in 27,221 combat missions, the Luftwaffe suffered 193 combat losses (a 0.709 per cent loss rate per sortie). From July 5 to 8, Soviet troops flew 11,235 sorties, losing 556 aircraft (4.95 per cent per sortie). However, the Wehrmacht lacked strategic reserves. Due to Allied air raids on Italy and Germany, just 25% of Luftwaffe day fighters were on the Eastern Front in 1943.

Soviet Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation

During the months leading up to Citadel, the Soviets planned and prepared counter-offensive operations to counter the German offensive.

In the North: Operation Kutuzov

The Soviet offensive operations for summer 1943 began once the German forces were depleted by their Kursk attack. The Soviets started Operation Kutuzov against Army Group Centre in the Orel salient, located north of the Kursk salient, on July 12. The Bryansk Front, led by Markian Popov, attacked the Orel salient's eastern face, while Vasily Sokolovsky led the Western Front from the north. The 11th Guards Army, directed by Lieutenant General Hovhannes Bagramyan, was backed up by the 1st and 5th Tank Corps. The Soviet spearheads took terrible losses but persisted in penetrating several locations. These thrusts jeopardized German supply streams and encircled the 9th Army, forcing it to the defensive. The 2nd Panzer Army stood in the way of the Soviets. Fearing such an attack, the German leaders drew soldiers from the Kursk operation to meet the Soviet offensive. Operation Kutuzov decreased the Orel salient and caused significant German military losses, allowing Smolensk to be liberated. Soviet losses were considerable but were replaced.

In the South: Operation Rumyantsev

The primary Soviet offensive for 1943 was Polkovodets Rumyantsev. The Soviets required time to recover and refit after the catastrophic losses suffered by the Voronezh Front during Operation Citadel. Thus the onslaught began on August 3. The Voronezh and Steppe Fronts launched diversionary operations two weeks earlier across the Donets and Mius Rivers into Donbass, distracting German reserves and reducing the defending forces that would face the major blow. They tilled through the German positions, broad and deep. Belgorod was liberated on August 5. On August 12, they reached Kharkov's outskirts. The 2nd and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions launched a counter-attack on the Soviet advance. After this setback, the Soviets intensive on Kharkov. The city was liberated on August 23rd. The Germans call this fight Kharkov IV, whereas the Soviets call it the Belgorod–Kharkov offensive operation.

Results

It was a strategic Soviet victory. While using more advanced armour than in previous years, the Germans could not break through the deep Soviet defences and be caught off guard by the Red Army's significant operational reserves. As a result, the Soviet Union gained active initiative on the Eastern Front. The Red Army lost far more troops and equipment than the German Army in the Soviet triumph. The Soviet Union's more significant industrial potential and labour pool allowed it to absorb and replace its losses. The hard-fought-for armoured formations had lost men and equipment and would remain unemployed for a long time. Rehabilitating them in time to defend the Eastern Front was doubtful. Naturally, they reaped the benefits of their win. There would be no more peace on the Eastern Front. The opponent had the initiative from now on.

With the victory, the Red Army took the initiative. As a result, the Germans were enforced to react to Soviet advances for the rest of the war, never regaining the initiative or launching a significant offensive on the Eastern Front.

Hitler chose the site, attack strategy, and time but blamed his General Staff for the defeat. Unlike Stalin, who trusted his commanders' judgment throughout the Kursk campaign, Hitler's interference in German military matters grew as his attention to the war's political aspects waned. Stalin delegated operational planning and rarely overruled military choices, allowing the Red Army greater functional independence.

During the Kursk Battle, 239 Red Army soldiers were awarded the Soviet Union's highest honour, Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU). In addition, guard Senior Sergeants Mariya Borovichenko and Zinaida Mareseva were posthumously awarded the HSU for their battle medic gallantry. Borovichenko served in the 13th Guards Rifle Division, 5th Guards Army, and Mareseva in the 73rd Guards Rifle Division, 214th Guards Rifle Regiment, 7th Guards Army.

Casualties

Several factors make determining the two combatants' casualties challenging. First, German losses were exacerbated by their determination to salvage and repair tanks. Second, the lack of access to German unit records acquired at the end of the war clouds the picture of German personnel casualties. Third, others were kidnapped by the Soviet Union, which refused to admit their existence.

Soviet Losses

Russian military historian Grigoriy Krivosheyev, who based his estimates on Soviet archives, is the most reputable source for Soviet casualty figures by historian David Glantz. The Central Front suffered 15,336 irrecoverable and 18,561 medical casualties, for 33,897. Krivosheyev placed total Soviet losses during the German attack at 177,877. The Voronezh Front suffered 73,892 total casualties, 27,542 irrecoverable and 46,350 medical. The Steppe Front suffered 70,085 overall casualties, 27,452 irrecoverable and 42,606 medical. During the two Soviet offensives, 685,456 men died. During Operation Kutuzov, the Soviet Union suffered 112,529 irrecoverable and 317,361 medical losses, totalling 429,890. The Western Front suffered 25,585 irrecoverable and 76,856 medical losses. It sustained 39,173 irrecoverable and 123,234 medical losses. During Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, the Soviet Union lost 255,566 troops, 71,611 irrecoverable and 183,955 medical. The Voronezh Front suffered 157,293 total casualties, 48,339 irrecoverable and 108,954 medical. The Steppe Front suffered 98,273 total casualties, 23,272 irrecoverable and 75,001 medical.

During the German offensive, 1,614 Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns were destroyed or damaged out of 3,925 vehicles committed to the battle. Soviet damages were roughly three times those of the Germans. Two thousand four hundred thirty-nine tanks and self-propelled guns were lost during Polkovodet Rumyantsev. However, due to sizeable Soviet equipment reserves and high tank production rates, the Soviet tank armies quickly replaced lost equipment and maintained fighting strength. Repairs brought Soviet tank strength up to 2,750 by August 3.

According to historian Christer Bergström, the Soviet Air Force lost 677 aircraft on the northern and 439 on the southern flanks. The death toll is unknown. According to Bergström's research, the Soviets lost 1,104 aircraft during the German counter-offensive between July 12 and August 18.

German Losses

According to Karl-Heinz Frieser, who studied the German archives, 54,182 people died in Operation Citadel. Nine thousand thirty-six were murdered, 1,960 were missing, and 43,159 were injured. During the Soviet offensives, 111,114 losses were suffered by the 9th Army and 30,837 by Army Group South. During Polkovodets Rumyantsev, 25,068 casualties were inflicted, including 8,933 killed and missing. In addition, the three fights resulted in around 50,000 killed or missing and 134,000 wounded (German military medical figures).

Operation Citadel destroyed 252 to 323 tanks and assault guns. On July 5, only 184 Panthers were functioning. After Hitler halted the German offensive on July 17, 1943, Heinz Guderian put in the following early appraisal of the Panthers: Combat strength quickly dwindled due to enemy action and technological failures. By the evening of July 10, just 10 Panthers were operating. Total write-offs of 25 Panthers (23 were hit and burnt, and two had caught fire during the approach march). 100 Panthers needed repair (56 from hits and mines, 44 from mechanical faults), 60% of which could be easily fixed. Around 40 Panthers had been repaired and were sent to the front. On July 11, 38 Panthers were operational, 31 were total losses and 131 needed repairs. The combat strength is slowly increasing. The high amount of hits (81 Panthers up to July 10) reflects the fierce battling.

Army Group South lost 161 tanks and 14 assault weapons by July 16. By July 14, the 9th Army had written down 41 tanks and 17 assault guns. The losses were 109 Panzer IVs, 42 Panthers, 38 Panzer IIIs, 31 assault guns, 19 Elefants, 10 Tigers, and three flame tanks. On August 11, 1943, 156 Panthers were reported written off, with only nine functioning. On the Eastern Front, fifty Tiger tanks were lost in July and August, with 240 damaged. From July 5 to 18, between 600 and 1,612 German tanks and assault guns were destroyed. The overall number of German tanks and assault guns destroyed in July and August on the Eastern Front is 1,331. According to Beevor, "for every German panzer destroyed, the Red Army lost five armoured vehicles".

According to Frieser, the Luftwaffe lost 524 aircraft, 159 during the German onslaught, 218 during Operation Kutuzov, and 147 during Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Bergström reports 681 lost or damaged aircraft (335 Fliegerkorps VIII and 346 Luftflotte 6) and 420 written off (192 Fliegerkorps VIII and 229 Luftflotte 6).

Last updated: 2022-January-12
Tags: History World War II
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