The Battle of Kursk in World War II was Adolph Hitler's last great attempt to take down the Soviet Union. With his army struggling around the world and slowly losing ground to the Russians, the Führer ordered his armies to hold the line at Kursk in the western Soviet Union. Additionally, they were to launch a massive offensive to reverse the tides and serve as a beacon to German forces around the world.
Operation Citadel, as it was named, called for two German Army groups with hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks to use a pincer attack to cut off a large Russian salient, a 100-mile deep and 160-mile wide section of Soviet territory that jutted into the German lines. This would give the Germans control of important rail lines and hopefully destroy five Soviet Armies, about 30 divisions worth of soldiers.
A German Tiger tank rolls forward in the Battle of Kursk. (Photo: German Army archives)
The leader of the operation, Field Marshal Erick von Manstein, wanted to launch the offensive as quickly as possible because he believed the Russians would see it coming. Hitler went to the battlefield to personally discuss the plans with Kluge and insisted that the operation be halted until more Tiger tanks were available.
So the calendar crawled forward from February to July of 1943 with no offensive actions from the Germans. Meanwhile, the Soviets turned the lines into some of the most well-defended territories in the war. They planted over 2,200 anti-tank mines and 2,500 anti-personnel mines per mile of the front while citizens and soldiers dug 3,000 miles worth of trenches and positioned 20,000 artillery pieces. Soviet tanks arrived as well, bringing Soviet armor up to 5,000 or so.
Soviet soldiers man an anti-tank rifle in the chaos of the Battle of Kursk. (Photo: RIA Novosti archive)
On July 5, 1943, 38 German divisions with approximately 570,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks, and thousands of planes finally headed east for the counteroffensive. Soviet planes with inexperienced pilots were on their way to attack German airfields and the two forces stumbled into each hour in the early morning. The Battle of Kursk was on.
Historians debate the exact numbers of troops and vehicles in the battle due to the fact that military leaders on each side exaggerated their numbers, but by almost every count Kursk was the largest tank battle ever fought.
The Germans had much to celebrate in the first four days. They quickly established air superiority and, despite the heavy defenses at Kursk, both the north and south advances in the pincer attack were moving forward slowly but steadily.
Josef Stalin himself was concerned about the air situation at Kursk and became agitated when he learned that the Germans still held the advantage. Both sides used dive bombers and other ground attack planes to hit enemy tanks on the ground as well as help direct artillery and conduct reconnaissance.
It was an air victory on July 9 that allowed the Soviets to first gain the initiative. The Soviets had been picking away at German pilots for the first few days and finally were able to force the Stukas to drop below 500 sorties, half of what they launched on the first day of fighting. Importantly, many of those killed were heroes of the Third Reich like Karl Fitzner and Bernhard Wutka, both Knight's Cross holders.
Soviet soldiers advance behind a T-34 tank through thick smoke. (Photo: public domain)
On the ground, the fighting was truly hellish. Columns of oily smoke rose from burnt out wrecks as shells and bombs burst among the tanks on both sides. Russian infantrymen were known to launch near-suicidal attacks through the smoke, running up to German tanks with mines in their hands and hurling them under the enemy treads.
While the Soviets were losing more men and material than the Germans, the Germans were running out of fuel and men more quickly. When von Manstein asked for reinforcements, Hitler finally decided that they were losing too many men to reclaim too little territory.
He ordered the Panzer units to withdraw on July 13 and the Soviets resumed their own march west towards Berlin. While the German tanks that survived the battle were able to delay Soviet advances, they were never able to regain the initiative. The Allies invaded Italy the next month, and by the next summer, they were knocking down the doors of Fortress Europe.