Kursk, Soviet Union July 13, 1943

On this date in 1943 Operation Citadel (Unternehmen Zitadelle), Adolf Hitler’s delayed 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, over 38,000 pieces of heavy artil­lery, and two mil­lion men (figures vary by source) com­pressed into a grassy plain of roughly three square miles of smoldering tank, gun, and human carcasses—ended in a draw near the village of Prokhorovka.

That said, the eleven-day Battle of Kursk was evi­dence that German for­tunes were shifting inex­o­ra­bly 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 (323 beyond repair or recovery) and assault guns, the majority to Soviet tanks and dug-in anti­tank guns. The Luft­waffe lost more than 680 out of 2,000 air­craft, 159 between July 5 and 16 (Battle of Kursk). Soviet losses were many times greater for the same eight-week period: over 863,000 casu­al­ties, nearly 180,000 between July 5 and 16, or more than three times greater during those deci­sive eleven days. For every German tank destroyed, the Soviets lost more than five. 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 fresh sup­plies of first-line planes, tanks, jeeps, cargo trucks, tractors, gaso­line, and food arriving on the East­ern Front, much of it provided by Allied Arctic convoys and over­land ship­ments through Iran. As it turned out, Oper­a­tion Cita­del was the last great offen­sive in Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union. Thus, the horrific battle fought at Kursk, in which the Germans bled them­selves dry on ground of their own choosing, emerged as a more stra­tegic set­back for Hitler and his Third Reich than even the German disaster at Stalingrad six months earlier.

The long-standing call by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for a second Allied 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, plus Mus­solini’s Salò Republic, squeezed by the Western Allies into the northern part of Italy, lay at death’s door.

The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Losing War, 1943–1944

Map of Eastern Front, August 1943–December 1944

Above: Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, August 1943 to Decem­ber 1944. The Kursk sali­ent in Russia is the white bulge half the size of Eng­land, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, in the tan area of the colored portion of the map. The Soviets looked upon the sali­ent as the spring­board for the recon­quest of terri­tories and popu­la­tion centers (Orel and Bryansk) to the north­west and, to the south­west, the fertile farm­lands of the Ukraine, with its capital of Kiev, the third largest city in the Soviet Union. Red Army defenders were delighted that the Germans had chosen to target the Kursk sector, where since March huge con­cen­tra­tions of Soviet troops, armor, and artil­lery (the Red Army’s pro­claimed “god of war”) had been amassed, in some places stretching as deep as 65 miles from the front lines. (Soviet supe­riority in the Kursk sector was 3:1 in man­power and 1.5:1 in armor.) On July 13, 1943, Hitler aborted Oper­a­tion Citadel, having failed to put more than a couple of dents in the Kursk bulge. It proved to be the turning point in the war in the east. Over the next months the Wehr­macht, attrited of men, machines, equip­ment, and inter­dicting air­craft, was repeatedly rolled up by Red Army oper­a­tional and stra­tegic reserves after first being mauled, ground down, and dis­located by powerful Soviet formations along a very broad front.

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

Left: Soviet armor advances to engage the enemy during the Battle of Kursk, July 5 to 16, 1943. The com­bined Voronezh and Steppe Soviet fronts deployed about 2,418 tanks and 1,144,000 men. Red Army person­nel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with com­bat losses between 20 and 70 per­cent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehi­cles irrep­a­ra­bly destroyed. After heavy fighting lasting 10 days, Soviet striking power had not appre­cia­bly dimin­ished. In fact, it seemed to German obser­vers to have increased. German Army Group Center and Army Group South—the two army groups at Kursk—lost 323 tanks and assault guns irrep­a­ra­bly destroyed. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing.

Right: A Waffen-SS Mark VI Tiger I heavy tank scores a direct hit on a Soviet T‑34 medium tank during the German offen­sive at Kursk. 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. Hitler post­poned Oper­a­tion Cita­del for two months in part to give German arma­ment manu­fac­turers time to rush to the Eastern Front new Tiger I heavy tanks and Mark V Panther medium tanks, both con­sidered supe­rior to tanks of equi­va­lent class the Soviets pos­sessed. The delay gave the Red Army time to roll half a mil­lion rail­cars into the Kursk sali­ent, pouring in divi­sion after divi­sion, tank after tank, arti­llery piece after artil­lery piece. More than 300,000 civil­ians, mostly women and old men, helped Soviet sol­diers dig trenches and build forti­fi­ca­tions. The southern shoulder of the sali­ent alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine den­si­ties of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to chan­nel German pan­zers into the cross­fire of anti­tank strong­holds. By July 1943 Kursk became the strongest for­tress in the world. German morale was high at the start of the con­flict because they had little idea what they faced.

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

Left: Three Soviet Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik ground-attack aircraft assault enemy troops in the south­ern sec­tor (Voro­nezh Front) of the Kursk sali­ent, July 1943. The Soviet offen­sive lasted from July 12 to August 23, 1943. Some 36,183 of these superb two-seater, single-engine, armor-plated mono­planes were produced during the war, mostly to the east of the Ural Moun­tains away from the Luft­waffe’s long reach. Nick­named “The Flying Tank” by intimi­dated German ground troops, the IL‑2 was armed with two 23mm cannons, two machine guns, and loaded with up to 1,300 lb of bombs and 12 rockets. The war­plane also could be fitted with small-caliber (3.3 lb) bomb­lets in its bomb bay that, when dropped in a carpet of bombs, could deci­mate entire enemy columns and also “kill” thick-armored Panther Mark V and Tiger I German tanks. In a mass attack on July 7, 1943, IL‑2s were credited with destroying 70 German tanks in 20 minutes. A proto­type of the Ilyushin IL‑2 first flew in October 1940, and Red Army units began receiving deliveries in May 1941. In combi­nation with its faster, more maneu­ver­able succes­sor, the Ilyushin IL‑10 intro­duced in 1944, a total of 42,330 Ilyushins were built, making it the single most-produced military aircraft design in aviation history.

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