- James Houser
July 5, 1943 - The Battle of Kursk
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
July 5, 1943. After four months of buildup, Nazi Germany throws the dice and unleashes its final effort to defeat the Soviet Union. Two enormous mechanized armies chop into either end of the salient around Kursk. The Soviets are ready, and waiting: this will be the decisive battle of the war, the moment they stop the Fascist offensive in its tracks. This is the largest land battle in human history.
The great German-Soviet contest, the apocalyptic struggle between the warring ideologies of fascism and communism, had been going on for two years. The Germans had twice failed – in 1941 and 1942 – to destroy the Red Army and secure their objectives. In the bleak winter of 1942, the Germans not only failed to defeat the Reds, but suffered their own disaster. The Soviets surrounded and destroyed a German 6th Army at Stalingrad, splitting the whole German war effort wide open.
As the Nazis’ frontline in Ukraine and southern Russia collapsed, it seemed like the whole war effort in the East might be verging on disaster. Soviet tank and cavalry forces surged into the open gap created by the loss of 6th Army. It looked like only a miracle could save the Wehrmacht from total defeat, but the Germans had a miracle-worker on hand. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the wunderkind who had planned the German blitzkrieg into France, assumed command in the south. Mixing immense strategic competence with a tendency to ignore Hitler’s orders when they didn’t make sense, Manstein somehow strung the Eastern Front back together.
In February 1943, Manstein had recovered enough panzer forces to lash out at the Soviets, who had moved forward too quickly in the euphoria of victory after Stalingrad. Manstein recovered much of the lost ground and annihilated a large Soviet force. The cutting edge of Manstein’s counterattack was the SS Panzerkorps, a lavishly equipped elite unit that was famous for both fanatic fighting ability and a truly murderous record of war crimes. The SS Panzerkorps drove the Soviets back from the city of Kharkov, but also massacred hundreds of wounded Soviet prisoners in the city’s hospital.
Horrifyingly common German war crimes aside, Manstein had saved the Eastern Front from collapse in early 1943. The “Miracle on the Don,” though, was incomplete. The Germans had held on, but that was not the same thing as winning. Manstein wanted to continue the attack – to slice behind a large Soviet bulge in the lines around the city of Kursk. His troops, though, were exhausted after a full winter of hard fighting. They needed reinforcement, replenishment, and refitting before a serious attack could be launched.
So it was that in March 1943, Manstein presented a broader plan to Hitler and the German High Command. The plan called for a pincer attack on the Kursk bulge, one attack coming from the north and the other from the south. The idea was for a rapid penetration that would cut off and destroy the Soviet troops in the tip of the bulge, capture Kursk, and open the way to (possible) further attacks later in the year. The German High Command took the plan and decided to make it a much bigger offensive than the quick, light blow that Manstein had intended – they wanted to turn it into Germany’s major effort in 1943. It was codenamed Operation Citadel.
The truth was that Germany was in serious trouble in 1943, and attacking Kursk probably wasn’t going to help. Hitler had been badly shocked by the German defeat at Stalingrad, as well as Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein in North Africa. The Americans had troops assembling in force in the European theater, and the Soviets were stronger than ever. The German military was only getting weaker as it bled to death in the Soviet Union and died by a million cuts fighting the Americans and British. The tide of the war was clearly turning against Germany.
Even as they went ahead with the planning, no general or minister – or even Hitler himself – could really explain what Citadel was supposed to accomplish. How was this meant to bring Germany closer to victory? What would destroying a small part of the Soviet Army and capturing a single city do to win the war? No one really had an answer. The German answer to everything was…attack. They didn’t know what else to do, so they would attack.
As Manstein’s original plan ballooned from a quick jab to a haymaker, the numbers of troops and tanks involved ballooned as well. As the Germans prepared, pumping out huge amounts of tanks to send to the front – including the new, troubled Tiger and Panther – time passed. The offensive, originally scheduled for April, got postponed to May, then June, until July 5 was finally the start date – all to make time to raise one more division, bring in another handful of tanks, or wait until more aircraft could be freed up from France or Italy.
These delays were working against the Germans. The simple fact was that the Soviets knew they were coming, and they were also preparing. What the Germans were getting ready to do was incredibly obvious; one only had to look at a map to see the great Red Army semicircle bulging out around Kursk, extending 99 miles west of the Soviet line and 160 miles wide from north to south. The two great planners of the Soviet war effort, Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky, had to convince Stalin of their plan. Rather than kicking off 1943 with an attack of their own, they pitched a different idea: let the Germans come impale themselves on the Kursk salient, then once they had spent their strength, *then* the Russians would attack.
Zhukov and Vasilevsky had together built up Stalin’s trust in their judgment, and Zhukov was one of the only people in Moscow who could tell Stalin he was wrong without being gulaged. Stalin agreed. The Red Army began to pack the Kursk salient with men, tanks, and artillery pieces. The Germans had launched a successful blitzkrieg every year since 1939. It was time to break their winning streak.
So the German delays, as Hitler insisted that he wanted maximum numbers of the new tanks ready for the attack, only helped the Soviets. Before July 5, the Red Army had amassed almost 2,000,000 men in the 9,000 square miles of the Kursk salient, along with 5,000 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces. They prepared meticulously for the defense of Kursk, laying multiple trench lines stretching back almost 190 miles, with layered minefields, antitank strong points, artillery fire plans and deep fortifications – including tunnels running between strongpoint villages. The Soviet soldier was drilled in tank fighting, given millions of high-explosive grenades and lavishly equipped with automatic weapons. If the Germans broke through the lines at Kursk, it would NOT be because the Soviets failed to prepare.
As German planning crept towards the day of the attack, many in the high command expressed grave doubts. Manstein, seeing what his original plan had turned into, had become dead-set against the Kursk attack. General Heinz Guderian, the founder of the panzer forces who Hitler had fired in 1941 and brought back in 1943, had worked for months to rebuild his precious panzer divisions, retrain them and reequip them. Now he was convinced that the painstakingly rebuilt Wehrmacht, still sore after Stalingrad, was about to be thrown away in a frontal assault against a fortress.
In a conference in May, Guderian asked Hitler if the attack was really necessary, and why he wanted to attack in the East that year at all. Hitler replied, “I know. The thought of it turns my stomach.” Nevertheless, he told Guderian that the attack would still go through. Hitler was obsessed with the idea that Germany needed to recover its lost prestige, impress its allies, and recover the initiative from the Soviets. Even though almost everyone involved knew it was going to be a bust, the plan had acquired a life of its own. A sense of fatalism crept into the Nazi high command. The real indicator of how the high command felt was when Goebbels’s propaganda described the attack as a “limited counteroffensive” rather than a war-winning move.
The Germans had assembled almost 800,000 men for the attack and 3,000 tanks – of course, they were outnumbered almost 2 to 1, but they believed their qualitative edge would tell in the end. The soldiers were not convinced. “It’s time to write the last will,” one SS trooper noted in his diary on July 4.
For Germany, Kursk was the last opportunity: a high-risk roll of the dice to regain the initiative over Russia before the Soviets’ material power grew overwhelming and before the Western Allies landed in Europe. For the Soviet Union, Kursk was a thesis defense, a graduation exercise: a test of their ability to stop and throw back a first-class, heavily armored, and experienced enemy. Twice the Germans had driven deep into Soviet territory, and twice the Soviets had to wait until winter to defeat them. This was the test – could they do it in summer? Could they break the Nazi winning streak?
On the evening of July 4, the Germans sent their men in the frontlines the definite signal that the attack was imminent: a special ration of schnapps. One SS man promptly deserted over to the Soviet side. He was brought to a headquarters tent and interrogated by several generals and a little-known political advisor named Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev promptly called Moscow, and Stalin asked for his opinion. Khrushchev replied that “we will make the enemy pay in blood when he tries to break through.” Khrushchev then phoned Zhukov, who immediately authorized his subordinates to tell his boys to brace for impact. This was no drill.
At 10:30 pm on July 4, more than 600 heavy guns and rocket launchers lit up the sky – from the Soviet side. The Germans waiting in their trenches for the morning attack must have felt their stomachs drop. This sudden outburst of fire meant only one thing: the Russians knew they were coming, and they were taunting them about it.
At 3:25 am, the German attack lurched forward. Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles ground across the Ukrainian steppes, preceded by their own artillery and the shrieking of Stuka dive-bombers as they pummeled the Soviet lines. Soon Soviet planes appeared in the broad blue sky, and they tangled with the German fighters as the battle on the ground was joined.
Field Marshal Model’s Ninth Army made up the northern pincer, and they smashed into the Soviet lines near Ponyri. As they ran through cleared lanes through the minefields, the German soldiers soon found the going heavy. They only advanced a mile in the hail of fire and smoke before being driven back by fierce Soviet counterattacks. The tanks, channeled into tight areas by the immense minefields and ditches of the Soviet defenses, were ambushed by men emerging from holes and tunnels to toss sticky bombs or Molotov cocktails into their tracks.
Each hill was a miniature fortress, many supported by tanks buried to the turret to make small pillboxes. The Germans, though, had developed a remote-controlled wire-guided tracked vehicle capable of carrying a thousand pounds of explosives - known as the “Goliath.” They used their limited numbers of these to clear particularly troublesome Soviet positions. The Germans were making headway – but slow, painful headway, not at all like the sudden, shattering strikes they had achieved in previous years. This was a different Soviet soldier they were fighting.
Field Marshal Manstein’s southern pincer stove in on the Soviet line near the town of Belgorod. The heavy Tiger tanks lumbered forward as the spearhead of the offensive, and the Germans bit deep. Even the fanatic, suicidal resistance of the Soviet soldiers and their careful preparations were eventually overwhelmed as the massive German steamroller clawed forward. Soviet tank and infantry counterattacks could slow down and throw back the Nazi advance, but they were fighting some of the best troops in Hitler’s armed forces – the vicious, brutal and effective SS Panzerkorps. The big guns of the Tigers left a mass of burning Soviet tanks in their wake.
But success was local, and limited. Nowhere did the Soviet lines collapse, and nowhere did the Red Army’s soldier run. Everywhere the Germans turned, a new tank was rolling out from behind cover, or a new infantry platoon had infiltrated behind them to strike at the rear echelon troops. After each trench line that the German soldier paid in blood to conquer, a new one was waiting for them. The Panther tanks, rushed off the production lines at Hitler’s orders without proper shakedowns, all broke down on their way into battle; even the fearsome Tigers no longer struck outright fear into the Russians. Cadres of Soviet soldiers stayed hidden as the attack waves swept over them, then emerged from the maze of trenches to toss satchel charges down the crew hatch.
Model in the north had sent 500 tanks into action on July 5, and by the end of the day about half of them were out of action. Many of them could be repaired, but the effect on morale was obvious – this was only Day 1! The German infantry suffered, its sharp edge dulled by the loss of their leaders and veterans. The advance was by yards rather than by miles as the Germans staggered only deeper into a labyrinthian defense system swept by some of the most intense fire of the war.
The day was dreadfully hot, a simmering dry heat that hung over the three million men locked into the death struggle at Kursk. Germany’s last great offensive looked nothing like the great Blitzkrieg victories of the past. It was now a grapple, a tight-fisted struggle for endurance rather than a lightning success. Poland 1939, France 1940, Operation Barbarossa – those days were long over. The enemy had learned, and now it was time for payback.
The Germans ground forward towards Kursk, gaining ground but at terrible cost. The climax would come on July 12 with the largest tank battle in history on the field of Prokhorovka – which I will talk about on that day. But in a sense, they had lost Kursk before it even began. In the critical year of the war, with their last chance on the line, the German high command could think of nothing better than to slam their head into a brick wall. They were all out of ideas, and the circle was closing in. Kursk was the beginning of the end – unless somehow the Germans won.
I’ll see you in seven days, July 12, on the field of Prokhorovka to wrap up the epic of Kursk. Where I get to talk all about tanks again.