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World War-II: How battle of Kursk shattered Hitler’s dream of conquering Russia

By Harsh Thakor* 

This year we commemorated the 80 th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk (5-16 July 1943). Its climax, the Battle of Prokhorovka (12 July), was possibly “one of the fiercest tank battles in military history.”
The Battle was a turning point – a Soviet victory which ended the Wehrmacht’s ability to wage offensive war in the East. Soviet forces thwarted a huge Nazi counter-attack, after Adolf Hitler's troops had suffered a colossal defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43.Kursk gave a final death blow to the fascists, being the most decisive battle of the 2nd world war.
The Battle of Kursk occurred in July 1943 around the Soviet city of Kursk in western Russia. as Germany launched Operation Citadel,. It was Hitler’s thirst for revenge to his humiliating defeat by the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Stalingrad. The battle was Germany’s last chance to redeem its self and re-establish its stranglehold on the Eastern Front during World War II and would be their final blitzkrieg offensive.
Despite a massive planned assault on Soviet troops using heavy tanks, artillery and air power, postponements by German dictator Adolf Hitler gave the Soviets ample time to prepare for the onslaught. Ultimately, Germany’s plan to extinguish the Red Army forever failed, but not before both sides experienced heavy casualties.

Germany Unprepared for Russian Winter

By June 1942, Hitler had trampled into the Soviet Union and hoped to grab the strategic city of Stalingrad. In retaliation Stalin heroically rallied both Russian troops and civilians who relentlessly pledged to fight to the very end.
When the German Sixth Army reached Stalingrad in September, they were unprepared for the well-fortified b Red Army. Ferocious fighting erupted as the Germans marched through the city,being met with heavy resistance.
By mid-November, the Germans found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, extremely low on food and medical supplies and surrounded by Russians. They anticipated their impending doom or fate and had a chance to escape but Hitler commanded they “hold their positions to the last man and the last round…” He also promised additional provisions – provisions that never arrived.
The Germans were unprepared for Russia’s brutal winter and suffered freezing temperatures, starvation and disease. Left with little choice, German General Friedrich Paulus disobeyed Hitler’s orders and surrendered his weakened troops to Russia on February 2, 1943, an act which Hitler later called treason.
Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad forced the Germans to retreat to southern Russia and left them fragile and on the defensive. It also demonstrated to the world the myth of their invincibility and deeply humiliated Hitler, who in vengeance planned a massive counter offensive attack to silence hsi Soviet counterparts.

Kursk Bulge

Germany and Russia arrived at an impasse by the winter of 1943 from Leningrad to the Black Sea. And at the centre of the disputed area, a year’s worth of fighting had created a massive salient (an outward-protruding bulge of land on a battle line) approximately 150 miles from north to south and 100 miles from east to west. At the centre of the salient lay the Russian city of Kursk.
The salient became known as the Kursk Bulge and was a strategic location for Germany. Hitler needed to prove to his allies, the Axis Powers, and to the world that Germany was still a giant power in control of proceedings of the Eastern Front. He also wanted the tactical advantage of controlling Kursk’s railways and roads.

Germany and Russia Prepare for the Battle

By 1943, Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s invasion of Russia), the Battle of Stalingrad and other engagements had weakened Hitler’s army by almost two million men. Desperate to replenish the void, he recruited World War I veterans up to age 50 and young men from the Hitler Youth program previously exempt from serving on the front lines.
In March 1943, after crushing Russian resistance in Belgorod and Kharkov near the south of the Kursk Bulge, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein wanted to capitalise on the battle-weary Russian army and attempt to seize Kursk. But the Wehrmacht – Germany’s unified military forces – chose to prepare for a later campaign along the Kursk Bulge instead so they lost their potential edge.
Over the next few months, Germany accumulated and stockpiled over 500,000 men, 10,000 guns and mortars, 2,700 tanks and assault guns and 2,500 aircraft to mount an attack on the Kursk Bulge and take Kursk. However the Soviets anticipated the German move and put their war machine into full gear producing top-of-the-line tanks, artillery and aircraft.
The Red Army plunged itself and amassed a formidable arsenal which included almost 1,300,000 men, over 20,000 guns and mortars, 3,600 tanks, 2,650 aircraft and five reserve field armies of another half million men and 1,500 additional tanks.
At the north of the Kursk Bulge was Germany’s 9th Army, comprising of three Panzer divisions and over 300,000 men; at the south was their 4th Panzer Army, also with over 300,000 men and a combination of Panther and Tiger tanks. To the west was Germany’s 2nd Army with around 110,000 men.
By the time Operation Citadel had set off both sides were heavily armed, well-equipped and prepared to annihilate the other in hopes of turning the course of the war.

Hitler Prolongs the Battle of Kursk

Germany was known for its blitzkrieg tactics–shock campaigns that concentrated firepower in a narrow area and bewildered and mowed down the enemy. They planned blitzkrieg attacks north and south of the Kursk bulge and then aimed to meet at Kursk in the middle of the salient.
Despite warnings from some of his generals to withdraw Operation Citadel due to the Red Army’s significant consolidation, Hitler was determined to proceed forward, but not right away. The original start date was May 3, but Hitler chose to wait for better weather and the delivery of his new, state-of-the-art Panther and Tiger tanks, even though they’d never been field tested.
Russia completely capitalised on the delay by establishing its defensive zones around Kursk which included tank traps, barbed wire snares and nearly one million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. With the help of Kursk civilians, they also dug a vast network of trenches extending at least 2,500 miles.
To counter the panzer tank and dive-bomber attacks, Soviet defences were fortified or intensified, hoping to send shivers down the spine of the enemy in a complex and extensive chain of defensive constructions.
More than 3,000 miles of trenches were dug, organised in a crisscross pattern. Inside were deep and extensive entrenchments with strongly constructed anti-tank resistance points. Further defensive protection was provided by 500,000 anti-tank mines and 400,000 anti-personnel mines.
A successful blitzkrieg needed the element of surprise and by the time Germany was ready to launch Operation Citadel, they’d lost that advantage.

Operation Citadel

In the early morning hours of July 5, 1943, amidst the beautiful, yellow wheat fields that encircled the Kursk Bulge, Operation Citadel was ready to embark.
But before Germany could strike, the Soviets unleashed a bombardment hoping to counter the German offensive. It delayed the Germans for about an hour and a half but didn’t have a major impact.
The Germans unleashed their own artillery assault on the northern and southern parts of the salient, followed by infantry strikes on the ground supported by the Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force). Later that morning the VVS (the Soviet’s air force), attacked German airfields but were unsuccessful.
Still, the Red Army’s ground defences prevented German tanks from making deep inroads in the north and piercing the heavily-armoured salient. By July 10, the Soviets had halted the 9th Army’s northern advance.

Battle of Prokhorovka

In the south, the Germans had more success and defiantly made their way to the small settlement of Prokhorovka, some 50 miles southeast of Kursk. On July 12, the tanks and self-propelled artillery guns of Russia’s 5th Guards Tank Army clashed with the tanks and artillery guns of Germany’s II SS-Panzer Corps.
The Red Army suffered huge losses but still managed to prevent the Germans from capturing Prokhorovka and breaching their third defensive belt, which morally overcame the German offensive.

The Russian Offensive Begins

On July 10, Allied troops landed on the beaches of Sicily, forcing Hitler to withdraw Operation Citadel and reroute his Panzer divisions to Italy to thwart additional Allied landings. The Germans launched a minor offensive in the south known as Operation Roland but were unable to overpower the Red Army’s might and withdrew after a few days.
In the meantime, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive, Operation Kutuzov, north of Kursk on July 12. They broke through German lines at the Orel salient and by July 24th forced the Germans to retreat beyond Operation Citadel’s original launching point.

Battle of Kursk turning Point

The Soviets won the Battle of Kursk and shattered Hitler’s dream of conquering Russia. Germany won the tactical battle but was unable to penetrate the Red Army’s fortifications and so lost the advantage.
Soviets won at great cost. Despite outnumbering and outgunning the Germans, they suffered many more casualties and loss of armament It is estimated there were up to 800,000 Soviet casualties compared to some 200,000 German casualties.
Anticipating the German attack, the Soviets armed themselves in a complex range of trenches and minefields. Large numbers of anti-tank guns were strategically positioned to shoot the German Panzer (tanks) to pieces.
Longer-range artillery covered the approaches. Infantry lay in hiding, nervously smoking and downing their “frontline 100 grams” of vodka in anticipation of what was to come. Soviet T-34 tanks stood concealed, ready to lead the counter-strike.
Germany never recovered on the Eastern Front or could replenish their loss of manpower and armor. Hitler and his Wehrmacht soon became reactive instead of proactive as they were trapped in fighting battles on multiple fronts.
In July 1943, witnessing a moment of respite amid the heavy fighting taking place all around him, Soviet tank man Lev Nikolaevich Malinovskii wrote from the Kursk battlefield to his brother: “The fighting today lasted five hours. Together with our artillery we burned and destroyed twenty-one German tanks.”
On 5 July, after many delays, the Germans finally attacked – 2,730 Panzer advanced, including the fearsome new Panther and Tiger tanks. They were supported by just under a million men and 10,000 pieces of artillery, creating the impact of a Tsunami .Aircraft pelted the Soviet defenders with bombs and machine-gun fire. By 9 July the German army was unable to traverse Kursk, realising it probably never would. The Soviet air force was getting the upper hand over the battle area too.
At this juncture the Soviet Supreme Commander Stalin conferred with Zhukov his Deputy. They staged a planned offensive against the German-held Orel salient on 12 July with a fierce battle emerging which took place till the following day.
This time the Soviets were on the offensive. On the 13th Hitler withdrew Operation Citadel in the north of the Kursk salient, although persisting it in the south to prevent a rapid rout. For the first time during summer conditions, the Soviet army had overpowered the Wehrmacht.
An immensely brutal but inconclusive local engagement turned into a strategic defeat of the invaders. From then on, the Germans waged a costly retreat and the Red Army soon advanced into what Soviet propaganda called the “lair of the fascist beast.” In the spring of 1945 Stalin’s soldiers would capture Berlin and end the Second World War in Europe.
“Our 3rd airborne brigade,” wrote the later film director, Grigorii Chukhrai, “was transferred to Belarus, to the city of Slutsk. Through the windows of our rail cars we saw the traces of a grandiose battle.
“The gun barrels of gutted tanks protruded from the marshes. Burned out turrets and spilled tracks were everywhere. A lot of corpses,too. Our train passed the site of the recent battle of Kursk.” After this introduction, Chukhrai goes on to spend four pages of his memoirs describing a battle he had not seen himself.

Why Russia Won

The Soviets emerged victorious because of their overwhelming superiority of human and material resources. During the battle of Kursk, the Red Army had deployed twice as many men, guns and machines than the Germans.
This massive superiority was made possible by the immense potential of the Soviet economy to produce standardised tanks, guns, and other equipment, and the capability of the Soviet state to garner or tap the huge human resources of the largest country in the world. Both of these abilities were the product of the Stalinist mobilisation and industrialisation drive of the 1930s.
The military potential of the Soviet warfare state was further boosted by its alliance with the largest economy on earth; the United States sent food supplies, tools, two-way radios and trucks – supplies which closed crucial gaps in Soviet production.
The Soviet preparations transcended beyond mere fortifications and equipment. The army command structure and communications capabilities were improved in the waiting period. All Soviet front line formations in the Kursk Salient received psychological as well as technical training to combat the armoured threat and overpower e the “tank panic” that had been prevalent since the German invasion began.
Intelligence gathering was escalated – from captured German soldiers and partisans behind the lines. Young boys, specially trained in observation, proved very effective at spying. A well-comprehended picture of the enemy was gained before battle commenced.
Partisan forces, around 250,000 strong by that stage, had elevated their offensive capacity. For example they mounted over 1,000 attacks against the railways around Kursk during June 1943. Their activities tied up an estimated 500,000 German personnel.
Most historians today argue that Hitler’s army had no chance whatsoever. However, it took over three and a half years of bloody fighting, untold suffering and unparalleled destruction to prove this point.
Germany never re-established control on the Eastern Front or replenished their loss of manpower and armour. Hitler and his Wehrmacht soon became reactive instead of proactive as they found themselves trapped in waging battles on multiple fronts.German tanks deploy during the Battle of Kursk, July 1943.
As David Stahel of UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy, a leading operational historian of the Wehrmacht in the East, highlighted a few years ago: “Ultimately, whether a hundred extra German tanks went this way or that, does that really determine the outcome of the battle? I think not.”
What played a more decisive role were overall economic factors, in particular the ability of both sides to produce the means of destruction, to field men and war machines in large quantities. Here, the Soviets were far superior to the Germans.

Consequences

The Battle of Kursk extinguished any remnant of invincibility from the Wehrmacht. Nazi Germany was torn to pieces on the Eastern Front. It never resurrected, though it took nearly two more years before it was defeated.
“The defeat of the main grouping of German troops in the Kursk area,” Zhukov wrote in his memoirs, “paved the way for the subsequent widescale offensive operations by the Soviet forces to expel the Germans from our soil completely…and ultimately to crush Nazi Germany.”
Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, stated, “Stalingrad was the end of the beginning, but the Battle of Kursk was the beginning of the end.”
---
*Freelance journalist

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