Battle of Kursk
5 July - 23 August 1943

The Battle of Kursk, considered one of the largest tank battles in history, was the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front.

Soviet Advantage Before the Battle of Kursk

The German plan was to perform a pincer movement from the north and the south of the salient which had formed around the Russian town of Kursk, encircling the Soviets in a large pocket.

  • the German 9th Army, commanded by Walther Model, was to attack from the north;
  • the 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Hermann Hoth, and Army Detachment Kempf, led by Werner Kempf, were to attack from the south.

The Soviets had learned about the German intentions especially from the British "Ultra" intelligence, obtained by breaking the German encrypted signals. Before the German offensive, the Soviets placed thousands of antitank guns in depth on several defensive lines, dug antitank ditches and planted a huge number of AT mines.

The Soviet forces which would participate in the Battle of Kursk consisted of three fronts:

  • the Central Front, commanded by Konstantin Rokkossovski, in the north of the Kursk salient; 
  • the Voronezh Front, commanded by Nikolai Vatutin, in the south; 
  • the Steppe Front, commanded by Ivan Konev, in reserve.

By Alexpl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Operation Citadel

Operation Citadel, which was the code-name of the German offensive, began on July 5, 1943. On the first day, the Germans advanced only 6 miles (9.6 km) in the northern sector. The Tiger I tanks suffered losses as a result of the strong Soviet defenses, and the Ferdinand tank destroyers proved inadequate, many being destroyed by the Soviet infantry at close range due to the error of not being equipped with machine guns. After eight days of fighting in which had managed to take a few settlements, the 9th German Army did not penetrate more than 12 miles (19.3 km).

In the southern sector, the Germans had concentrated their crack troops - the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the Grossdeutschland Division. Here the Germans advanced 15 miles (24 km) on the first day, but the minefields led to the loss of many tanks. The German plan was that Hoth's forces to link up with those of Kempf near the village of Prokhorovka.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-34 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Battle of Prokhorovka

On July 12, about 850 Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns and 290 German tanks and assault guns clashed like in a huge tournament on the fields near Prokhorovka. Army Detachment Kempf had failed to arrive on time, being unable to support the 4th Panzer Army.

RIA Novosti archive, image #225 / F. Levshin / [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet tanks advanced at full speed towards the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division, losing any coordination. At the end of the day, although the Soviets had lost many more tanks, the huge clash did not tilt the balance decisively in one direction or other at operational level.

Immediately after the Battle of Prokhorovka, Hitler ordered the closing of Operation Citadel. In addition to the modest progress and losses, another important reason was the Allied invasion of Sicily which prompted the Germans to withdraw some elite units that fought at Kursk. Germany had lost the last significant opportunity for changing the course of the war and, from this moment, the Red Army would dictate the initiative on the Eastern Front. 

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