GERMANS FACE CALAMITY AT KURSK

Kursk, Soviet Union · July 13, 1943

On this date in 1943 Operation Citadel (Zitadelle), Adolf Hitler’s gambit to retake the impor­tant Soviet rail hub of Kursk, south of Moscow, and straighten the Ger­man line on the East­ern Front failed with devas­tating losses on both sides, but espe­cially to Ger­man stra­tegic armored reserves. A day earlier a gigan­tic clash of arms approaching mythic status—upwards of 6,000 tanks, 4,000 air­planes, and two million men—ended in a draw near the village of Prokhorovka.

Never­the­less, the eleven-day Battle of Kursk was evi­dence that Ger­man for­tunes were shifting toward the Soviet Union in that coun­try’s Great Patri­otic War. In the course of three major engage­ments between July 4 and August 23, 1943, the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) suffered over 200,000 casu­al­ties and lost an esti­mated 760 tanks and assault guns and more than 680 air­craft. Soviet losses were many times higher for the same period; for example, over 863,000 ca­su­al­ties alone. But the Wehr­macht had grown power­less to stanch or keep pace with the steady in­flux of Red Army sol­diers (some drafted from retaken terri­tories) and new mate­riel arriving on the East­ern Front, much of the equip­ment provided by Allied Arctic convoys and overland shipments through Iran.

Further­more, Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin’s long-standing call for a second front materi­alized three days earlier, on July 10, 1943. The Anglo-Ameri­can landings in Sicily (Opera­tion Husky) engaged more troops than were in­volved in the Nor­mandy landings eleven months later (Opera­tion Over­lord). The Sicily landings were followed by those on the Ital­ian main­land in Septem­ber (Opera­tions Avalanche, Bay­town, and Slap­stick). Taken together, events in the Mediter­ra­nean Theater forced Hitler to rede­ploy forces from the East­ern to the Italian Front. From the con­clu­sion of the Kursk clash of men and armor to the end of the war in Europe less than two years later, Stalin’s armies advanced relent­lessly west­ward across a broad front. In a series of vicious ham­mer blows, the Soviets deci­mated Hitler’s Army Group Center in Bela­rus (Opera­tion Bagra­tion), anni­hilated Army Group South in the Ukraine, and inflicted crushing casual­ties while knocking Axis part­ners Roma­nia and Hun­gary out of the war. (In early 1943, after Stalin­grad, Hitler’s comrade-in-arms, Benito Musso­lini, with­drew his armed forces from the East.) By Febru­ary 1945 both Hitler’s Wehrmacht and his Thousand-Year Reich lay at death’s door.





The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943–1945

Map of Eastern Front, August 1943–December 1944

Above: Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, August 1943 to December 1944.

Soviet tanks move to engage enemy, Kursk salient, mid-1943 Tiger I tank takes out a Soviet T-34, Kursk, 1943

Left: Soviet armor advances to engage the enemy during the Battle of Kursk. The com­bined Voronezh and Steppe Soviet fronts deployed about 2,418 tanks and 1,144,000 men.

Right: A Waffen-SS Tiger I tank scores a direct hit on a Soviet T‑34 medium tank during the Ger­man offen­sive at Kursk, Russia, July 5–16, 1943. The quality of the optics of the Tiger I and the high velocity 88mm gun it mounted allowed it to devastate targets at long range with great accuracy.

Soviet IL-2 attack enemy, Kursk 1943 Soviet antitank riflemen take out enemy tank, July 20, 1943

Left: Soviet IL-2 combat aircraft attack an enemy formation in the south­ern sec­tor of the Kursk sali­ent, July 1943. The Soviet offensive lasted from July 12 to August 23, 1943.

Right: Soviet antitank riflemen take aim at an enemy tank after the Battle of Kursk had wound down, July 20, 1943. The 11‑day Ger­man offen­sive at Kursk was the first time a Blitz­krieg (“lightning war”) had been blunted before it could break through enemy defenses and into its stra­tegic depths. Kursk was the Soviets’ criti­cal contribution to winning the war against Hitler and his Third Reich.

Turning the Tables on Nazi Germany: The Battle of Kursk, July 1943