The Kursk campaign
Col. (Res.) Dr. Benny Michelson
The Battle of Kursk,” Operation Citadel” as it was called by the Germans, lasted eight days and was the final German offensive on the Eastern Front in World War II. This operation took place in July 1943 following Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein’s counter-attack on the Donets in February-March of the same year. This operation allowed the Germans to reconquer large parts of the territories they had lost in the Battle of Stalingrad, following the Russian counterattack, including the cities of Kharkov and Byelgorod. This success of Von Manstein had another achievement – disruption of the planned attack of the Soviet army against German Army Group Center. The deployment of Army Group South threatened the Russian center which was forced to move four armies from the center to the south thus cancelling the planned attack in the center.
Field-Marshal General Erich von Manstein, commander of German Army Group South, recommended learning from the previous success, to go onto the defensive at the operative level, and to take advantage of the vast South Russian spaces to wage mobile warfare - to retreat and pull the Red Army forces deep into the open territory and then to hit them again with a counter-attack that would go as far as the Sea of Azov east of the Russian Army and would advance eastward and southward, and then destroy the German forces who would be cut-off from their sources of supply and reinforcements. His recommendation was not accepted due to Hitler's fear of giving up territory. It was finally decided to launch a pincer attack against the Soviet forces in the Kursk Bulge. This bulge was formed following the success of Manstein's counterattack, which penetrated to a depth of 160 km west and width of 240 km with the town of Kursk at its center. The Germans intended to launch an offensive immediately at the beginning of spring in early May 1943.
The planning and preparations
Soviet intelligence was able to properly analyse German intentions and according to the situation assessment carried out by the Moscow High Command, the conclusion was that the Germans were planning an offensive on the Kursk Bulge. There was still no information on the date of the attack. Following this, the Red Army began accelerated construction of defense systems, mainly in the north of the salient and in the south. These were fortifications and barriers (mostly anti-tank barriers).
Air patrols and other German intelligence sources discovered this engineering effort and many senior officers began to raise doubts about carrying out an attack against a fortified area where the enemy was waiting for them. Doubts reached Hitler's desk and he decided to postpone the attack until the German forces could be equipped with the latest model tanks and assault guns that were about to come down from the production lines in early June.
These new armored combat vehicles were: the 60-ton Tiger tank, armed with an 88 mm cannon and two machine guns .Its front armor was 150 mm thick and the sides 88 mm thick. The medium-sized "Panther" tank, weighing 45 tons, was armed with a 75 mm long cannon and one machine gun. Its front armor was 85 mm thick and the sides 40 mm. At the time of Operation Citadel this tank still suffered from technical growing pains; the ”Ferdinand" (also called "The Elephant") self-propelled assault gun which weighed 70 tons and was equipped with an 88 mm cannon with a high rate of fire (without a machine gun). Its front armor was 200 mm thick, on a "Tiger" chassis.
The appearance of these improved armored combat vehicles instilled in the German Command a sense of technological superiority over the Soviet Army. However, finally these vehicles were supplied only at the beginning of July. At a meeting with Hitler, on July 1, 1943, it was decided to carry out Operation Citadel on July 4 and 5, 1943. This two-month postponement allowed the Russians more valuable time to construct obstacles and fortify the Kursk Bulge. Along many kilometres 5 defensive strips were prepared of more than 5 kilometers, which included up to 12 zones of a depth of up to 5 km and more per strip.
The German planners began to look for solutions to outflank the Soviet defences in the strongest places or to attack eastwards beyond the Kursk enclave, but there was no time left for such drastic deployment changes and finally the Germans attacked the defense systems frontally. The German High Command estimated that time was running out and if they did not attack soon, the Russians would attack first or a Second Front would open in the West and then they would no longer be able to concentrate significant forces for an attack in the East. Another disadvantage of the Germans was that the balance of forces was to their detriment and they knew it. The Germans managed to concentrate only 3 armies for the expected attack with about 2,000 tanks and 500 fighter aircraft.
The Russians concentrated two Fronts inside the Kursk enclave, the center under General Rokossovsky and Voronezh under General Vatutin. In the rear the "Steppes Front" under the command of General Ivan Konev was held as a Front reserve- a total of 18 Russian armies with a strength of close to 2 million soldiers, 5,130 tanks and 3,200 aircraft.
The course of the battles
The Kursk campaign was conducted by the Germans in two separate efforts, north and south. The allocation of forces, including air support, was also made in advance and did not change during the fighting. The commanders of the Army Groups, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, Commander of Army Group Center, in the north, and Manstein in the south, as well as the commanders of the attacking forces, General Model and Hoth were senior and experienced and did not permit the High Command, which was responsible for the Eastern Front, to interfere in the course of the battle.
The Soviets learned from intelligence sources and interrogations that the date of the German attack was July 5, 1943, but did not know the exact time of the attack. They were therefore surprised when Manstein and Hoth preceded the opening of the campaign in the south by 12 hours to 15:00 on July 4, 1943. In both sectors, the Russians preceded the Germans with heavy artillery barrages, a few hours before the time of the German offensive. The aim was to destroy most of the German in their deployment area and for this purpose huge numbers of rocket -launchers and artillery were massed, but these barrages struck when the German forces were not in the deployment areas but most were still in the assembly areas so were hardly harmed by this creative action. The German offensive began as planned. Heavy rains, which fell on the night between July 4 and 5, made the ground muddy and impeded the mobility of the German armor.
The attack from the north
The Army Group Center, with the assistance of Air Fleet 6, began the attack led by the 9th German Army which advanced slowly and during the first two days managed to penetrate only to a depth of 14 km within the Russian defences.
On the second day, stubborn Soviet counter-attacks began, which continued unabated until July 9, when the advance of the German 9th Army was completely halted, only 18 km from the starting lines. When the Russian counter-attack was launched ("Operation Kutuzov") on July 12th , in full force, in the Orel sector, the continuation of the German offensive in the north was completely cancelled due to the need to transfer forces for defense against the threatened zones and so forces from the German 2nd Panzer Army were invested in the combat.
The offensive from the south by Army Group South which attacked with the 4th Panzer Army -the “Army Detachment Kempf” - had more impressive successes. 4th Army forces, the three armored divisions of the 48th Corps (3rd, 11th and the "Grossdeutschland") managed to penetrate about 5 km into the Soviet defense system already on the first day. The SS Panzer Corps on the right and the 23rd Panzer Division on the left, managed to advance in their sectors.
Unlike the model in the North, Manstein and Hoth launched their attack, with the armor formations leading the way. They kept the infantry formations for battles in the built-up and fortified areas. In the first stage, progress was difficult and slow. The leading Panther tank brigade suffered from many technical faults (as predicted by General Guderian) which led to delays in the first attack wave. However, already in the morning the German forces began to reach their first objectives.
Apart from the ground effort, the opening of the campaign in the south was also accompanied by a concentrated air effort by the German Air Force. The Soviets, who knew in advance of German intentions, tried to carry out a pre-emptive air strike on the Luftwaffe airfields while the planes were still parked on the ground. However, German use, almost for the first time, of the Freya model radar prevented the desired surprise from being achieved. This allowed the German Air Force to make 2,400 sorties in support of the ground effort, against Soviet concentrations. The Germans also used two new weapons in their airstrikes: a new type of fragmentation bomb directed by dive bombers and the use of a 20 mm cannon by "Henschel 129" attack aircraft (both of which caused great destruction to Soviet armor concentrations).
South of Bielgorod, that same morning, ”Army Detachment Kempf“ also attacked with a Panzer armored Corps and an infantry corps in a north easterly direction. The force, at the beginning of the battle, managed to create a bridgehead north of the Donets River.
All in all, on the first day of the fighting, the German forces made considerable achievements, but the Soviet forces facing them did not break and retreated in an orderly fashion to new positions.
On the second day of the battle, July 6th, the Russians pushed forward most of the sector armored reserves from the First Armored Army. In order to improve the survival of the tanks, in the face of the superior German anti-tank guns, the Soviet Sector Command (Zhukov and Khrushchev) decided to place a considerable number of tanks into fixed dug-in positions. This later restricted their tactical mobility to mount counter-attacks, where most needed. On July 7th-8th, the Germans continued to advance in the face of determined Soviet resistance in each of the three sub-sectors: the 48th Panzer Corps in the direction of Obion, where it reached up to 25 km from it, in the center the SS Panzer. Corps advanced in the direction of Prokhorovka, while the "Kempf Army" broke north, to try and secure the right wing of the advancing armor.
On July 9, the German advance reached its greatest depth, in most sectors. On the same day, the Soviet Supreme Command approved the using the strategic reserve from the "Steppes Front" forces, and those destined for the southern sector began a fast approach march. To this sector was allotted the 5th Guard Armored Army and the 5th Guard Army. The first moved from the left of the Prokhorovka area and the second to its right. On July 11-10, mostly local battles took place, without the Germans making further progress.
On July 11, the 4th Panzer Army attained a complete break though of the Russian lines about 50 km south of Kursk and was about to begin advancing to the region's capital beyond the defence lines.
On the same day, the Fifth Guards Armored Army arrived at the combat sector and prepared for an attack on the SS Panzer Corps, the next morning, July 12, 1943. That morning at 04:00, Soviet force commanders met with the front commander, Vatutin and the zone’s political commissar. Khrushchev, and these approved the plan of attack and ordered the destruction of enemy armor.
The Battle of the Prokhorovka Corridor, during July 12, 1943, is considered to be the largest and most brutal of World War II armored battles. The two Soviet armies attacked the eastern wing of the German army. Despite the superiority of Soviet forces, they lost a large amount of tanks in the fighting on that day. As a result of this they were forced to halt their attack. On the other hand the Germans lost a surprisingly small amount of tanks .The SS 2nd Panzer Corps which bore the brunt of the German attack lost only five tanks out of a total of 273 which took part in the fighting on that day. However the German infantry forces suffered much heavier losses.
The Battle of Prokhorovka was most hard and bitter and both sides tell of the heroism of the tank crews, of the armored infantry crews and of the rescue teams. Neither side showed any mercy to the crews who abandoned their tanks when they were hit. They shot them or tried to run them over. On the Soviet side there was wireless communications only in the Command tanks. So, at the opening of the battle the German tanks directed their fire at those Soviet tanks which had antennas thereby to hamper the command ability and control of the opposite side.
At the end of the day the armor battle in the Prokhorovka sector on the 12th of July 1943 brought no decisive victory to any of the sides—each regarded itself as the victor. The fighting on that day also did not make any significant difference to the land deployment .None of the sides captured significant territories and the Germans were still poised to advance towards Kursk. Both sides were ready to resume the attack the following day.
Today it is known that the Germans had a better chance of success on the 13th of July because the 4th Panzer Army planned to advance towards the defended area despite its infantry losses the day before. The Kempf Army Detachment, by means of a ruse (using captured Soviet tanks to lead the attack) succeeded in advancing on the eastern wing and could have intervened on this wing with the renewal of the fighting .Von Manstein - Commander of Army Group South still had a reserve of two divisions in the framework of the 24th Panzer Army which was ready to enter the battle at the appropriate moment.
However matters developed differently. The Allies landed in Sicily on July 10th and opened a Second Front in Europe. The Germans feared that the Allies would also invade the Balkans at the same time .Therefore Hitler decided to halt the Battle of the Kursk Bulge on the night of the 13th of July.
Manstein obtained from Hitler confirmation to try to exploit what he saw as a success. However the 4th Air Fleet and the 2nd SS Panzer Corps were the first to receive the order to break off contact and to prepare the move towards Italy and the Balkans after Field Marshal Von Manstein thanked them for their resourcefulness and courage. Withdrawal of the 4TH Air Fleet from the combat had a dramatic effect on German capability to continue the offensive. As Air–Ground coordination was a key element in the German gains
The losses of both sides in the Battle of Kursk did not lead to the destruction of the German armor. The Germans lost 262 tanks out of 2OOO whereas the Red Army lost 1614 tanks. In the Russian counter-attacks launched in the wake of Operation Citadel in the Orel Front and in Bielograd the Russians lost 4450 tanks and assault guns.