The image of a Russian steppe filled with the hulks of burning Panther and Tiger tanks is the first thing that comes to mind when the Battle of Kursk is mentioned. Yet, many historians agree that image may be a wrong one.
Don’t get me wrong, Kursk was one of the greatest battles in human history, which saw more than three million men and approximately 8,000 tanks squaring off on a small patch of southern Russia. The battle lasted for almost two months if we add the Russian counter-offensive and included some epic tank clashes, like Prokhorovka battle, which is lauded as the greatest tank battle in history. This is just another myth about Kursk, which was ultimately proven wrong.
The reason for so many inaccuracies was that the original reports on the battle were heavily influenced by propaganda from both sides. Russians tried to make their victory even more significant, while Germans needed an excuse for the defeat they suffered. Only when the secret Soviet archives were opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, did the truth came out. Before we dwell into that, let’s see some background.
After the debacle at Stalingrad, the German army was in full retreat in southern Russia. The gap in German lines caused by the Soviet offensive threatened to collapse the entire front. It was only when Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was appointed the commander of the newly formed Army Group South and reinforced with the fresh II SS Panzer Korps from France that the Soviet steamroller was stopped, with massive casualties at both sides. The new front lines created a huge salient around Kursk, separating Army Groups Center and South.
German High Command, faced with allied landings in North Africa and an imminent threat of a second front opening up in Europe, was faced with a dilemma. It needed a victory on the Eastern front, a one that would allow it to prepare for the invasion of France and hopefully repulse Allied forces with enough losses that another invasion would be unthinkable. Manstein first proposed a defensive plan, one that would wait for the inevitable Russian attack and then flank it, destroying the enemy’s mechanized forces. Hitler rejected this, fearing the political repercussions of the defensive stance against Soviets.
Mainstein then proposed a plan that would ultimately become Operation Citadel, although even he wasn’t convinced Wehrmacht had enough strength left to carry it out. The plan envisioned two trusts at the Kursk salient, aimed at cutting it off and destroying it, thus opening a wast breach in Soviet defenses, which would be exploited by the fast-moving German panzers.
What German planners didn’t take into account is that anybody with a map could see that Kursk is the obvious target of the German attack and Soviets have spared no effort in creating the largest fortified area the world has ever seen. Miles after miles of fortifications spread across the steppe, blocking every possible line of attack. Not only that, but massive reserves were placed just behind the front lines, ready to pounce once the German offensive has exhausted itself.
To make things worse for Germans, Hitler refused to order the attack in May, deciding instead to wait for the new German tanks to reach the frontlines, thus granting Soviets another month to fortify, which they used to full effect.
Once newly minted Panthers, Tigers, and Elephants were in position, Germany unleashed its panzers. In total, some 800,000 men, 3,000 tanks, and almost 10,000 artillery pieces sprang into action on a vast Russian steppe. They were met with 1.9 million men, more than 5,000 tanks, and 25,000 artillery pieces on the Soviet side. In the air, 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft fought for the air supremacy against roughly half that of the VVS.
The northern pincer didn’t fare so well, becoming bogged down on the first day, despite having 89 new Elephant tank destroyers. The southern pincer, led by the II SS Panzer Korps managed to breakthrough the Soviet defense after a bloody battle, only to be met by the Soviet Fifth Guards Tank Army near the village of Prokhorovka. Some 290 German tanks clashed with more than 600 Soviet tanks in the morning of the July 12th. The result of the two-day battle was a clear German victory, who lost less than 50 tanks while managing to destroy between 300 and 400 Soviet ones. Furthermore, Germans were left in the possession of the battlefield, meaning that they managed to salvage a vast majority of both their and Soviet damaged tanks, reducing their losses even more. It was the events almost 2,000 miles away that decided the fate of the Kursk battle.
On July 10th 1943, Allied forces began the invasion of Sicily. Panicking, Hitler decided to transfer all SS and many Wehrmacht panzer divisions from Russia to Italy, in order to protect Germany’s southern flank, thus effectively ending Operation Citadel.
Soviet then started their counteroffensive, with fresh troops and tanks and managed to push Germans back on 2,000 kilometers wide front, inflicting heavy losses on Germans and forever ending Hitler’s dreams of conquering the Soviet Union.
In the end, it is worth saying that allies didn’t plan Operation Husky and landings on Sicily in support of the Soviets during the Battle of Kursk. It was a mere coincidence that two battles happened simultaneously, yet the effect was immediate and expected one. A significant portion of the German troops, especially very valuable panzer units, were transferred to Italy, thus allowing Soviet counteroffensive to be so successful. Of course, without the bravery and sacrifice of the Red Army, none of it would be possible in the first place.
Another popular myth about the Battle of Kursk is that Prokhorovka is the largest tank battle in history. That title goes to Battle of Brody, where in June 1941, 3,500 Soviet tanks tried to counter-attack German forces consisting of 750 tanks, only to suffer a defeat and heavy losses of more than 800 tanks.
The bottom line is that, while Battle of Kursk is a significant German defeat, it didn’t play such a vital role as propagandists on both sides wanted us to believe. One thing is true, it was the last major German offensive on the Eastern front. After Kursk, Germany was never in a position to amass such quantities of men and equipment as to challenge the Red Army.