The largest tank battle in history

The Battle of Kursk

Soviet troops counterattacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka on July 12
(Photo: Unknown photographer)

Most people in the West see the Eastern Front through the optics of the bloody Battle of Stalingrad and the dreadful two-and-a-half-years-long siege of Leningrad. The battle of Kursk, while recognized as the largest tank battle in military history, is often considered as something of secondary importance. Today’s article is about the battle, which began 80 years ago, on July 5, 1943.
 
Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, relied on knocking Stalin’s regime out of the fight quickly, before the country’s massive manpower and industrial capacity could be brought to bear against the smaller German army. The simultaneous drives toward Moscow and Leningrad were intended to deliver such a blow, and were off to a good start. The Red Army was in constant retreat, trying to buy time for the country to mobilize for war. Entire factories in the path of German advance were dismantled, transported to the safety of the Ural Mountains and beyond, and reassembled – all the while unable to churn out weapons and other necessities.

A Soviet artillery factory during the war
(Photo: ww2-weapons.com)

The Wehrmacht reached both cities in the summer and early fall of 1941, but failed to deliver a rapid blow due to tenacious Soviet defense. Unable to knock the Soviet Union out of the war, Hitler turned his forces southeast, toward the oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains, since a lack of sufficient oil reserves was one of the great hamstrings of the German war machine. That advance, in turn, was bogged down at Stalingrad in mid-1942.

A Soviet anti-tank rifle crew during the Battle of Kursk
(Photo: RIA Novosti)

With all three German advances stalling out, initiative started to slip away from Hitler. The factories saved from the Germans had been reassembled and were putting out an ever-increasing amount of materiel, including the T-34 tanks that gave German Panzer IIIs and IVs (Read our earlier article: the German workhorse – Panzer IV) a nasty surprise earlier in the campaign.
 
The Battle of Stalingrad ended in early 1943 with a Soviet victory
(Read our earlier article - The field marshal who surrendered). The Red Army began to push the invaders back west, putting several German army groups in jeopardy. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein met Hitler on February 6, 1943, and convinced him to authorize a major counteroffensive to stop the Soviet advance and regain the initiative. In late February and early March, Manstein managed to retake the Ukrainian city of Kharkov (today Kharkiv), and the frontline stabilized near the Russian city of Kursk, some 420 miles (670 km) northwest of Stalingrad and 286 miles (460 km) south of Moscow. Kursk lay in the middle of a Soviet salient – a “bulge” in the frontline (very much like that one the Battle of the Bulge was named after) pushing into German-held territory. The spring thaw and the resulting rasputitsa, the mud season which rendered most vehicular traffic impossible, froze the front for the spring, giving both sides time to prepare for a renewal of the fighting once the ground became traversable again.

A German transport vehicle designed specifically for Russian conditions carrying materiel shortly before the Battle of Kursk
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Germany had bled heavily during the fighting in Russia, and its army was 470,000 men understrength: any successful operation had to depend on tanks as the primary force. The bulk of the tank force was going to be obsolete Panzer IIIs and the Panzer IVs, which were still a decent match for the original version of the T-34. (The Soviet Union would roll out an improved version, the T-34-85, but not until early next year). A large number of turretless assault guns, mainly StuG IIIs, were also present for the operation. Though originally designed to support infantry, these vehicles turned out to be effective tank killers – as long as the target was directly ahead of them.
A Soviet machine gun position during the battle
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Hitler, however, pinned his hopes on newer tanks: the Tiger I heavy tank, the Panther medium tank (which would first see combat at Kursk), and several dozen of the new Ferdinand (also known as Elephant) heavy tank destroyers, which also made their debut in the upcoming operation. This vehicle was specifically designed to take out T-34s from a long range, while it was protected by extremely thick armor.

A Ferdinand tank destroyer at the Battle of Kursk
(Photo: worldwarphotos.info)

In contrast, the Soviet tank force facing the Germans mainly comprised T-34s, which, beyond not being a match for German heavy tanks, also suffered from inexperienced crews. This force was supplemented by KV-1 heavy and T-70 light tanks, both of which were obsolete by this stage of the war. A large number of American M3 Lee and British Churchill (Read our earlier article – The tortoise in the race), Matilda and Valentine tanks were also present thanks to Lend-Lease.

A T-34 in a burning village during the Battle of Kursk
(Photo: unknown photographer)
On April 15, Hitler issued an operational order for the attack, codenamed Zitadelle (“Citadel”) to begin on or shortly after May 3. It was going to be a double envelopment: one German force would strike at the salient from the north, moving south, while another would attack from the south and head north. The two forces would meet at Kursk, “pinching off” the city and the Red Army units there. Time was of the essence: the German planners knew that the longer they wait, the more time the Soviets will have to build up defenses.
 
And yet, preparation quickly devolved into a waiting game. The Tiger and Panther tanks that were to play a key role just weren’t ready yet – in fact, some of the Panthers haven’t even been built, and the ones ready were plagued with mechanical problems from being rushed through production. The weather was also deemed unsuitable for an attack, giving more cause for delays.
New Panther tanks being loaded for transport to the front in 1943
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Weeks of waiting turned into months, and German leadership was split on what to do. Walter Model (Read our earlier article – Hitler’s fireman) suggested abandoning Operation Citadel altogether, and using the assembled tank force the blunt the Soviet offensive that was bound to occur eventually. Manstein wanted to attack early to deprive the Soviets of time to prepare, but asked for two additional infantry divisions, which just weren’t available. Tank tactics pioneer Heinz Guderian considered the attack pointless, while Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer pointed out that the German industry would be hard-pressed to replace the tanks lost in the operation. In one private conversation with Guderian, Hitler himself said “The thought of [the attack] turns my stomach.” And yet, preparation went on, with multiple delays, until early July.
 
Meanwhile, the Soviets turned the Kursk area into an impenetrable fortress. They deduced the general intention of the Germans, and even received confirmation of the specific routes of advance from two sources: the British code breaking center and Bletchley Park was reading all of the German transmissions, and the government has forwarded the gist of the messages to the Soviets. Meanwhile, a Soviet spy also sent home the direct transcripts.
John Cairncross, the Soviet double agent who relayed some of the intelligence to the Soviet Union
(Photo: spartacus-educational.com)
Stalin wanted to attack first to preserve the initiative, but recently-promoted Marshal Georgy Zhukov convinced him to stay on the defensive, as it would allow the Red Army to draw the Germans into a trap and cause disproportionately high losses. Using 300,000 civilian laborers, the Soviets built multiple defensive belts, each comprising minefields, trenches, anti-tank ditches, tank barriers, bunkers and tanks dug into the ground for additional protection, with only their turrets sticking out. Each belt had two more behind it so that defenders could fall back to additional defensive lines should they be dislodged. Additional belts were built further to the east to stop a potential German breakthrough at Kursk. To put the effort in perspective: the total length of trenches dug was around 5,700 miles (9,200 km) – in contrast, the total length of the trench system of the Western Front in World War I was about 475 miles (764 km) (though not accounting for multiple trenches, which were the norm).
German combat engineers preparing to blow up a Soviet anti-tank ditch during the Battle of Kursk while their comrades move past
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The Soviet Air Forces also stepped up their supply drops to partisans working behind German lines, and even supported them with air attacks. In June alone, partisan attacks destroyed 300 German trains, 1,200 railway wagons and 44 bridges. Soviet soldiers were promised a bounty of 1,000 rubles for each tank taken out, and underwent special training to overcome the fear of tanks that previously plagued the Red Army. The exercise, nicknamed “ironing,” had soldiers huddle in a trench while tanks were driven over their heads over and over again until all signs of fear were gone.
A T-34 tank passing over Red Army soldiers in a trench
(Photo: Mark Markov-Grinberg)
The battle eventually started in the evening of July 4, when German forces occupied several areas of high ground along the southern face of the salient to use as observation outposts. The northern forces were slated to begin their advance in the early hours of July 5. Zhukov knew the exact time, and ordered a massive artillery strike to hit the arrayed German forces shortly before they could move out. This delayed the attack, but failed to disrupt the German timetable or cause the heavy losses Zhukov was hoping for.
 
On the same morning, the Soviet Air Forces launched a raid on German airfields, hoping the cripple the already diminished Luftwaffe before it could join the battle. This attempt was a failure, and ended in the loss of 176 Soviet planes against 26 German ones (even though superior Soviet numbers won out in less than a week).
German tanks during the Battle of Kursk
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The battle was bloody, grinding and vast. Counting combat troops only, 518,000 German soldiers and 5,000 tanks faced 1,426,000 Soviet servicemen and 5,000 tanks. The Ferdinand tank destroyers fared well against Soviet armor, but many of them were immobilized by mines, and their total number was only a drop in a bucket, anyway. Additionally, the vehicles were originally not equipped with machine guns, which made them easy targets for any Soviet infantry that managed to get close to them. The Panthers fared well against enemy armor in actual combat, but they were plagued by frequent breakdowns and only made up some 7% of the German tank force.
 
The northern attack managed to breach the first defensive belt, but eventually ground to a halt by June 9 after a Soviet counterattack by Konstantin Rokossovsky
(Read our earlier article – The man with iron will and metal teeth) and heavy house-to-house fighting in a local town.
German troops preparing to move out
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The attack in the south fared better, advancing faster and farther despite heavy losses. The Soviet defenders used “Pakfront” tactics: camouflaged anti-tank guns used radio communications to coordinate fire and have all guns attack the same enemy tank, causing “catastrophic kills” that minimized the chances of the crew escaping. The Germans effectively countered this with an arrowhead formation where heavily armored Tigers went in the front and soaked up Soviet fire while more vulnerable vehicles stayed behind them. By the evening of July 6, German forces were threatening to break through the last Red Army defense line and advance into the Soviet rear area. Up to this point, Soviet High Command wanted to keep the strategic reserves out of the battle as possible, as they wanted to use it in a massive counterattack once the Germans ran out of steam. This time, however, they felt they had to break up the reserve and release some of it to plug the gap. General Ivan Konev objected to this deviation from the plan, and only a personal phone call from Stalin made him relent.
Panzer III and IV tanks along the southern face of the salient at the beginning of the battle
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The reserves met the German advance at the village of Prokhorovka, 52 miles (84 km) south of Kursk, in the morning of July 12. Several Soviet units intended to strike simultaneously, but poor communications led to piecemeal attacks. About 300 German tanks and assault guns fought 600 Soviet armored vehicles over the course of the day. Combatants on the German side included SS Sturmbannführer (major) Joachim Peiper, who would go on to massacre several groups of Allied POWs during the Battle of the Bulge (Read our earlier article – Hidden stories of the Battle of the Bulge); Tiger tank ace Michael Wittmann, who would savage a numerically superior group of British tanks at the Battle of Villers-Bocage in Normandy, and SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the son of German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop. German forces made good use of local air superiority and managed to hold several strategically located hills until evening. The village of Prokhorovka, however, remained in Soviet hands, and while Red Army units suffered high enough casualties to infuriate Stalin, the Germans were completely exhausted and could not advance any further. The German advance in the south was stopped by the day’s fighting near the village, and would never get going again.
A German SS armored force advancing on the village of Prokhorovka on July 11 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
On the same day, the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, a counteroffensive against the similarly exhausted German forces in the north; Operation Rumyantsev, would follow suit in the south in the first days of August.
 
Operation Citadel died on that day. Western Allied forces had landed in Sicily two days earlier, and Hitler was afraid that further landings in Italy or France might soon follow. The Kursk operation was called off so that surviving units could be sent to Europe. Manstein believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough; he argued for and was given a final chance to break Soviet lines, but the vain attempt was abandoned three days later.  Hitler’s dream of regaining initiative on the Eastern Front was in tatters.
Memorial to the Russian tankers at Prokhorovka
(Photo: Reddit)
Casualty figures for the Battle of Kursk are hard to come by due to the seizing of German records at the end of the war, and also due to a difference in how the Germans and the Soviets interpreted “casualty.” It’s estimated that some 54,000 German and 178,000 Soviet soldiers have died by July 12, and many more in the Soviet counteroffensives afterward.
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