Near Kursk, Russia · July 5, 1943

On this date in 1943 Germans and Soviets unleashed the largest tank battle in his­tory, the Battle of Kursk. Following the sur­ren­der of the Ger­man Sixth Army at Stalin­grad (Janu­ary 31, 1943), Soviet ad­vances during the first months of 1943 pushed deep into Ger­man-held terri­tory to recap­ture the Ukrai­nian city of Khar­kov (now Khar­kiv). The suc­cess­ful Ger­man counter­stroke at Khar­kov, which ended on March 15, 1943, in­spired Adolf Hitler to order new attacks near the town of Kursk, in the heart of the Soviet Union and 280 miles south­west of its capital, Moscow. Both sides marshaled gar­gan­tuan forces. Ger­man forces stood at 435,000 sol­diers, 9,960 artil­lery pieces and mor­tars, 3,155 tanks, and 1,860 air­craft. First-line Soviet defenses in­cluded one million sol­diers, 13,013 artil­lery pieces and mor­tars, and 3,275 tanks. Unknown to the Ger­mans, behind Soviet lines were half again as many men and pieces of equip­ment. Thus the Soviets enjoyed over a 2.5:1 man­power ad­van­tage, a 2:1 ad­van­tage in armored vehicles, and a 4:1 ad­van­tage in artil­lery. The Ger­mans were caught off­guard and out­matched before they could start Opera­tion Zitadelle (Citadel), the name they gave to their dis­astrous, self-defeating attack on Kursk. A brutal all-day tank battle invol­ving 1,200 armed vehicles ended in a draw on July 12, while in the air the Red Air Force pre­vented Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe from gaining air supe­ri­ority over the battle­field. The Soviet demand on the West­ern allies to open a second front in Europe mate­ri­al­ized when Hitler was forced to call off his offen­sive in the east (July 16) to move troops to Italy to meet the Anglo-Amer­i­can inva­sion of Sicily (Opera­tion Husky), which began on July 10, 1943. From July 12 on, starting with an opera­tion 100 miles north of Kursk at Orel (ending on August 18), Soviet armed forces were on the attack, driving their adver­saries west­ward with relent­less ground and aerial bom­bard­ments, which chewed up Axis resources and reserves. Kursk was the begin­ning of the end for the Third Reich. Italy and Roma­nia with­drew their East­ern forces, leaving the Ger­mans prac­ti­cally alone to fight a losing rear­guard opera­tion—in the east, in the south (Italy), and in the west (France). Kursk, it can be said, was the Soviets’ cri­ti­cal con­tri­bu­tion to winning the war against Hitler and his Third Reich.

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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) front lines and the Ger­man plan (Unter­nehmen Zita­delle; English, Opera­tion Cita­del) to elimi­nate the sali­ent, July 4–17, 1943. The Russian city of Kursk, 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 tanks and men, making it the arena for the greatest armored battle of World War II.

German tanks moving to Kursk salient, June 1943German 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 of the “Grossdeutsch­land Divi­sion” take up posi­tions in the Kursk sali­ent in early July 1943. The Gross­deutsch­land was con­sidered to be the pre­mier 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.

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

Left: Soviet armor advances to engage the enemy. The combined Voronezh and Steppe Fronts (Woronesh­front and Steppen­front on the map) 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 Battle of Kursk, July 10, 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 1943Soviet antitank riflemen take out enemy tank, July 20, 1943

Left: Soviet IL-2 combat aircraft attack an enemy for­ma­tion in the south­ern (Voronezh) sector of the Kursk salient, July 1943.

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 offen­sive had been defeated before it could break through enemy defenses and into its strategic depths.

The Battle of Kursk, July 1943