Near Kursk, Russia July 5, 1943

The pivotal year of the war in Europe was 1943. Early February saw Gen. Fried­rich Paulus’ German Sixth Army, the largest army the Wehr­macht (armed forces) fielded in the war, surrender at Stalin­grad (modern-day Volgo­grad) in Southern Russia. Some 850,000 service mem­bers from German, Italian, Roma­nian, Hun­garian, and Croatian armies were wounded, killed, or captured; 100,000 survivors entered Soviet captivity where most died.

Several months later, in April 1943, the German high com­mand began planning its main sum­mer offen­sive, Opera­tion Citadel (Unter­nehmen Zita­delle). Citadel’s aim was to envelop and destroy Soviet forces in the Kursk salient, a bulge measuring 120–160 miles from north to south and a depth of up to 90 miles (see map below), which both sides saw as a likely spring­board for the Soviets’ recon­quest of Nazi-held Ukraine, which lay to the east and south. By elimi­nating the salient, the Germans would straighten their lines of defense on the Eastern Front, nullify Soviet numeri­cal superiority in crucial sectors, and reignite offen­sive strategic operations halted at Stalingrad.

Soviet intelligence was wise to Operation Citadel. Rather than attempt a pre­emp­tive strike, the Soviet high com­mand saw an oppor­tunity to lure the Germans into the horse­shoe, wait for their attack to exhaust itself in the face of stout resis­tance, then crush the enemy with counter­blows of over­whelming strength. Indeed, the mili­tary balance on Germany’s Eastern Front was all in the Soviets’ favor, though ratio esti­mates between the bellig­erents vary among histo­rians: the Red Army had well over a 2‑to‑1 advan­tage in men, nearly a 7‑to‑1 advan­tage in armored vehicles, and a 5‑to‑1 advan­tage in guns and mor­tars. The Battle of Kursk, which began on this date, July 5, 1943, none­theless turned into a stunning knock-down, drag-out fight.

Little happened as either side had planned. In the single-most signi­fi­cant fighting, namely, the Battle of Prokho­rovka fought on July 12–13, 294 German tanks of the II SS Panzer Corps engaged nearly three times that number fielded by the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army. It was one of the largest tank battles in mili­tary history, with the Soviets losing two-thirds of their tanks to the loss of the Germans’ 43. Soviet tanks losses mattered little anymore. In July and August 1943, Soviet fac­tories churned out 4,000 tanks out of the 13,000 pro­duced that year, which were more than suffi­cient to replace the 1,600 or so lost during the entire Kursk operation.

Adolf Hitler called off Operation Citadel on July 13. Citadel, it turned out, was the last major German offen­sive on the Eastern Front. Allied landings in Sicily, Italy (Oper­a­tion Husky), three days earlier forced Hitler to move troops and equip­ment to the Medi­ter­ranean Thea­ter to prop up his Axis partner, Benito Mus­so­lini, whose grip on power appeared precar­ious at best. In the mean­time, the Soviets launched their own summer offen­sive, never to let up until they stood in the rubble of the dead tyrant’s capital in April 1945.

Battle of Kursk, July 5–16, 1943: Death Bell Tolls for Third Reich

Kursk, Russia, July 1943: German plan of attack

Above: Kursk salient (bulge) frontlines and the Ger­man plan, Opera­tion Cita­del, to elimi­nate the bulge, July 4–17, 1943. The Russian city of Kursk, a transpor­ta­tion node 280 miles south­west of Moscow, lies imme­di­ately to the left of the blue up and down arrows (Zentral­front on the map). The bulge sucked in huge numbers of opposing men and armor. Initial German combat strength stood at 518,271 soldiers, 7,417 artil­lery pieces and mortars, and 2,465 tanks spread over a fighting front more than 300 miles in length. Soviet defenses included 1,426,352 soldiers, 31,415 artil­lery pieces and mortars, and 4,938 tanks. In addi­tion there were 2,400 anti­tank and 2,700 anti­personnel mines per active-mile front. Behind Soviet lines were half again as many men and pieces of equip­ment. The Germans had nothing like that in reserves.

German tanks moving to Kursk salient, June 1943Battle of Kursk: German tanks take up positions in Kursk salient, July 1943

Left: German Tiger IIIs and IVs on the move near Bel­gorod directly to the south and outside the Kursk sali­ent, June 21, 1943. Their aim: penetrate and eliminate the Kursk salient.

Right: German tanks and men of the “Grossdeutsch­land Divi­sion” take up posi­tions as part of the Fourth Panzer Army in the Kursk sali­ent in early July 1943. The Gross­deutsch­land was con­sidered to be the pre­mier combat unit of the German Army, receiving equip­ment before almost all other units. The new Panthers model D that the divi­sion received on the eve of the Battle of Kursk were plagued by tech­ni­cal prob­lems, suf­fering from engine fires and mechan­i­cal break­downs, with many becoming disabled before reaching the battlefield.

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

Left: Soviet armor advances to engage the enemy. The Red Army fielded Soviet-built T‑34 and U.S.-supplied M3 Lee medium tanks at Kursk. The Soviets managed to pro­duce a total of 84,000 T‑34 medium tanks. This meant that as tens of thou­sands of them were lost against the Germans, they would actu­ally be replaced in even greater num­bers than before, thus winning the battle of attri­tion over the Wehr­macht’s mas­sively expen­sive and over-engi­neered tanks. Exten­sively up­graded year after year, T‑34s were one of a hand­ful of mili­tary vehi­cles to see contin­uous produc­tion and use through­out the Soviet involve­ment in what they called the Great Patriotic War, right up to climac­tic Battle of Berlin, April 16 to May 2, 1945.

Right: A Waffen-SS Tiger I heavy tank scores a direct hit on a T‑34 tank during the Battle of Kursk, July 10, 1943. The quality of advanced opti­cal sights on the Tiger I and the high velo­city 88mm gun it mounted allowed it to devas­tate targets at long range with great accu­racy. The German Army Weapons Agency pro­vided infor­ma­tion to turret gunners on the best locations for disabling and destroying Soviet armor.

Battle of Kursk: II SS Panzer Corps advancing on Prokhorovka, July 11, 1943Battle of Kursk: Soviet antitank riflemen take out enemy tank, July 20, 1943

Left: Vehicles of II SS Panzer Corps advance toward Prokhorovka, July 11, 1943. The tank battle at Prokho­rovka, part of the Battle of Kursk, was a German tactical victory; for the Soviets, it could be seen as either an opera­tional stale­mate or an opera­tional victory. In any event, after Kursk the Soviets gained territory along a 1,200‑mile-wide front.

Right: Soviet antitank riflemen take aim at an enemy tank after the Battle of Kursk had wound down, July 20, 1943. The Battle of Kursk was the first battle in which a Blitz­krieg (“lightning war”) offen­sive had been defeated before it could break through enemy defenses and into its strategic depths.

Tank Battle of Prokhorovka, July 12–13, 1943