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Battle of Kursk or the Kursk Bulge (see article)
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-35, Schlacht um Kursk, Panzer VI (Tiger I).jpg
Soldiers of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich advance through the southern Voronezh Front
Date German Kursk: 4 – 20 July 1943
Soviet Kursk: 4 July – 23 August 1943
Location 51°30′4″N 36°3′5″E / 51.50111°N 36.05139°E / 51.50111; 36.05139Coordinates: 51°30′4″N 36°3′5″E / 51.50111°N 36.05139°E / 51.50111; 36.05139
Kursk, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Result Strategic Soviet victory[nb 1][nb 2]
Nazi Germany Germany  Soviet Union
Nazi Germany Erich von Manstein
Nazi Germany Günther von Kluge
Nazi Germany Hermann Hoth
Nazi Germany Walther Model
Nazi Germany Hans Seidemann
Nazi Germany Robert Ritter von Greim
Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov
Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovskiy
Soviet Union Nikolay Vatutin
Soviet Union Ivan Konev
435,000 men[3]
3,155 tanks[3]
9,966 guns and mortars[3]
2,110 aircraft[4][nb 3]
1,087,500 men[3]
3,275 tanks[3]
25,013 guns and mortars[3]
2,792 aircraft[5][nb 4]
Casualties and losses
Operation Zitadelle:[nb 5]
54,182 men [nb 6]
323 destroyed[8] tanks and assault guns
159 aircraft[9]
~500 guns[10]
Battle of Kursk:[nb 7]
170,000 men [11]
720 tanks and assault guns[12]
681 aircraft[13]
Guns unknown
Operation Zitadelle:[nb 5]
1,614[15] – 1,956[16] tanks and assault guns
>459[15] – 1,961[17] aircraft
3,929 guns
Battle of Kursk:[nb 7]
863,303 casualties[nb 8]
6,064 tanks and assault guns[nb 9]
1,626 [15]- 4,209 aircraft[nb 10]
5,244 guns[15]
The eastern front at the time of Operation Citadel. Orange areas show the destruction of an earlier Soviet breakthrough that ended with the Kharkov offensive operation. Green areas show German advances on Kursk.

The Battle of Kursk refers to German and Soviet operations on the Eastern Front of World War II in the vicinity of the city of Kursk in July and August 1943. It remains both the largest series of armoured clashes, including the Battle of Prokhorovka and the costliest single day of aerial warfare. It was the last strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount in the east. The resulting decisive Soviet victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative for the rest of the war.

The Germans hoped to shorten their lines by eliminating the Kursk salient (also known as the Kursk bulge), created in the aftermath of their defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad. They envisioned pincers breaking through its northern and southern flanks to achieve yet another great encirclement of Red Army forces. However, the Soviets had excellent intelligence of Hitler's intentions. This and German delays to wait for new weapons, mainly Tiger and Panther tanks,[21][22] gave the Red Army time to construct elaborate, layered defenses and position large reserve forces for a strategic counterattack.[23]

Although often thought of as a tank battle, Kursk as a whole arguably demonstrated the triumph of artillery, infantry and engineers over armour. The Soviet plan was to soak up the German assault in a colossal web of defensive positions and only then launch their armoured counter-attack. It was also an important air battle, in which the balance shifted in favour of the Soviets.

John Keegan [24]

Once the German forces had exhausted themselves against the defence-in-depth, the Soviets responded with their own counteroffensives, which allowed the Red Army to retake Orel and Belgorod on 5 August and Kharkov on 23 August, and push back the Germans across a broad front.

Though the Red Army had had success in winter, this was the first successful strategic Soviet summer offensive of the war. The model strategic operation earned a place in war college curricula.[nb 11][25] The Battle of Kursk was the first battle in which a "Blitzkrieg" offensive had been defeated before it could break through enemy defences and into its strategic depths.[26]



In the winter of 1942–43, the Red Army had conclusively won the Battle of Stalingrad. The German Sixth Army had been lost, along with about 800,000 German and other Axis troops, seriously depleting Axis strength in the east.

In 1917, the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, shortening their lines and thereby strengthening their defense. They planned on repeating this strategy in the USSR and started construction of a massive series of defensive works known as the Panther-Wotan line. They intended to retreat to the line late in 1943 and bleed the Soviets against it while their own forces recuperated.

In February and March 1943, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had won the Third Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle lay a large 200 km (120 mi) wide and 150 km (90 mi) deep Soviet-held salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Kharkov in the south.

Most of the German front commanders agreed a defensive stance should be the priority, to contain Soviet offensives and deliver counter blows. Hitler accepted this advice. Erich von Manstein insisted first strike was still an option and an offensive to pinch out the Soviet bulge at Kursk would be achievable before moving further south to recover more lost territory. Manstein wanted to attack in May but owing to the poor tank strength of the German Army, Hitler delayed it until July when newer tanks minimized the risk of defeat. The High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) hoped to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front.[27]


German plans

Manstein pressed for a new offensive along the same lines he had just successfully pursued at Kharkov, when he had cut off an overextended Red Army offensive. He suggested tricking the Red Army into attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming Sixth Army, leading them into the Donets Basin in eastern Ukraine. He would then turn south from Kharkov on the eastern side of the Donets river towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the Red Army against the Sea of Azov.

German Army High Command (OKH) did not approve of Manstein's plan and instead turned their attention to the obvious bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. Two Red Army Fronts, the Voronezh and Central Fronts, occupied the ground in and around the salient and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's manpower. It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line and recapture the strategically useful railway city of Kursk, located on the main north-south railway line from Rostov to Moscow.

In March, the plans crystallized. Walter Model's 9th Army would attack southwards from Orel while Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment "Kempf" under the overall command of Manstein would attack northwards from Kharkov. They planned to meet near Kursk but if the offensive went well, they would have permission to continue forward on their own initiative, with a general plan to re-establish a new line at the Don River, several weeks' march to the east.

Contrary to his recent behavior, Hitler gave the OKH considerable control over the planning of the operation. Over the next few weeks, they continued to increase the scope of the forces attached to the front, stripping the German line of practically anything remotely useful for deployment in the operation. They first set the attack for 4 May, but delayed in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from Germany, especially the new Tiger and Panther tanks. Hitler postponed the offensive several more times. On 5 May, the launch date became 12 June. Due to the potential threat of an Allied landing in Italy, and delays in armour deliveries, Hitler set the launch date to 20 June. On 17 June, he further postponed it until 3 July, and then later to 5 July.[28][nb 12][29] The concept behind the German offensive was the traditional (and for the Germans usually successful) double-envelopment, or Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). The German Army had long favored such a Cannae-style method and the tools of Blitzkrieg made these types of tactics even more effective. Blitzkrieg depended on mass, shock and speed to surprise an enemy and defeat him through disruption of command and supply rather than by destroying all his forces in a pitched battle.

Such breakthroughs were easier to achieve by attacking in unexpected locations, as the Germans had done in the Ardennes in 1940, Kiev in 1941 and towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus in 1942. The OKH's plan for the attack on the Kursk salient, "Operation Citadel", violated the principle of surprise: anyone with a basic grasp of military strategy could deduce that the Kursk salient was the most obvious target for a potential German attack. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Guderian, who asked Hitler:

"Was it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east that year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is? The entire world doesn't care if we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason that is forcing us to attack this year on Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front?"
Perhaps more surprisingly, Hitler replied:
"I know. The thought of it turns my stomach."[30][31]

The German force numbered fifty divisions, including 17 Panzer and Panzergrenadiere, among them the elite Wehrmacht Großdeutschland Division as well as Waffen-SS divisions 1st SS PzGrenDiv Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS PzGrenDiv Das Reich and 3rd SS PzGrenDiv Totenkopf grouped into the II SS Panzer Corps. The High Command concentrated all their armor, the Tiger and new Panther tanks and the new Ferdinand tank destroyer, being used as assault guns. They also massed a high proportion of their available air units and artillery and despite the problems of the German plan it was a formidable concentration of armor.

The German deception plan included defensive-sounding names for major formations. For example, the 9.Armee was given the name "Festungsstab II", Fortress Staff II. Model ordered that recordings were to be made of massed German tanks' engines. This noise was to be played on loudspeakers to confuse the Soviets as to the whereabouts of German armour concentrations.[32] Many German AFVs were painted with new divisional insignia used only for this campaign. These deception measures were generally unsuccessful.

Soviet plans

To the West! calls this Soviet poster, while a Soviet soldier destroys the German To the East! sign

The Red Army had also begun planning for their summer offensives, and had settled on a plan that mirrored that of the Germans. Attacks in front of Orel and Kharkov would flatten the line and potentially lead to a breakout near the Pripyat Marshes. Soviet commanders had considerable concerns over the German plans.

The locations of all previous German attacks had caught the Red Army by surprise but in this case, Kursk seemed the obvious target. Moscow received warning of the German plans through the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland. Marshal Zhukov had already predicted the site of the German attack as early as 8 April, when he wrote his initial report to Stavka (the Red Army General Staff), in which he also recommended the strategy eventually followed by the Red Army. However, Anastas Mikoyan wrote in his memoirs that he was notified about the attack in general details by Stalin on March the 27th. [33]

The pattern of the war up until this point had been one of German offensive success. Blitzkrieg had worked against all opponents, including the Red Army. On the other hand, Soviet results during both winters had shown that their own offensives were now effective. Stalin and some Stavka officers wanted to strike first. However, the overwhelming majority of Stavka, most notably Zhukov, advised waiting for the Germans to exhaust themselves. Zhukov wrote in a letter to Stalin on 8 April 1943:

I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go over to the offensive in the very first days of the campaign in order to forestall the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhaust himself against our defences, and knock out his tanks and then, bringing up fresh reserves, to go over to the general offensive which would finally finish off his main force.[34]

The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Red Army four months in which to turn the salient into one of the most heavily defended areas on Earth. Two fronts, the Central and Voronezh, manned the defensive lines and the Steppe Front was available as a reserve. The Red Army and thousands of civilians laid about one million land mines and dug about 5000 km (3000 mi) of trenches, to a depth of 175 km (95 mi)[citation needed]. They massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,792 aircraft. This amounted to 26% of the total manpower of the Red Army, 26% of its mortars and artillery, 35% of its aircraft and 46% of its tanks.[34] Due to the disparity in populations, industrial capability[35] and continual German delays in tank production, the Red Army could build up forces faster than the Germans; each month they pulled further ahead in men and matériel. The Germans also received reports of rapid and powerful Soviet concentrations in the Kursk area and delayed the offensive to allow for more Panther tanks to reach the front line.[36]

Many of the forces assigned to the defense of the salient were recent veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad but the Red Army also added over one million new men in the first half of 1943. Thus, the Red Army was larger than in 1942, even after the losses at Stalingrad. The long delay between the identification of the likely site of the German attack and the beginning of the offensive gave the new units an unusually long time to train.

The density of artillery in the salient was unusual; there were more artillery regiments in the salient than infantry regiments. The Red Army was determined to grind down attacking German units with a combination of mines and artillery fire. Indirect fire from howitzers would stop the German infantry, while direct fire from 45mm (1.7"), 57mm (2.24"), and 85 mm (3.3") towed anti-tank guns and 76.2mm (3") divisional field guns would destroy the tanks. In the 13th Army sector (facing the German 9th Army on the northern face of the salient) the density of anti-tank guns was 23.7 guns per kilometre of defended front. In the 6th and 7th Guards Army sectors in the south the density was lower, about 10 guns per kilometre.

Red Army machinegun crew in action.

The preparation of the battlefield by Red Army military engineers was thorough. Reports indicate 503,993 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines were laid in the defended area. On average, 1,500 anti-tank and 1,700 anti-personnel mines were laid per kilometre of front. In the sectors eventually attacked, densities were never lower than 1,400 per kilometre and sometimes reached as high as 2,000 per kilometre. Red Army engineers also constructed miles of trenches, laid barbed wire, built anti-tank obstacles, and constructed thousands of gun and mortar positions. Soviet deception plans, like the German were most elaborate; unlike the German plans, the Soviet deceptions were generally successful. Dummy positions were constructed and dummy aircraft were placed on false airfields and false radio traffic sent to confuse German intelligence. Camouflaging of actual positions and minefields was excellent; the first warning most German units had of the presence of Soviet minefields or dug-in guns was their own vehicles exploding.

State of the Red Air Force

The Red Air Force (VVS) had lost over 36,900 aircraft in 1941-1942. However the Soviet aircraft industry had replaced losses in machines and had now rearmed and dispensed with obsolete types such as the I-16, MiG-3 and the LaGG-3. The most widely used Soviet fighters in the Kursk battle were the Yak-1, Yak-7B and La-5. The La 5FN was considered to be a match for both the Bf 109 and Fw 190.[37] Pilot training was short and lacked thoroughness. The 13,383 Soviet pilots who were trained in 1942 received 13–15 flight hours before combat. Shturmovik and bomber pilots received just 18 and 15 hours respectively. Of the Soviet bomber and ground attack units, just seven percent of its pilots had seen action prior to Kursk.[38] Most Soviet pilots were forced to train on the type they would fly in combat. As a result the Soviets lost 10,600 aircraft to accidents up until the summer of 1943.[39] At senior command, the Soviets possessed highly skilled leaders, such as Colonel General Aleksandr Novikov, Commander-in-Chief of the VVS in the Kursk region. A lack of experience at lower levels led to costly losses.[38] In the aftermath of Kursk, Soviet aviation rapidly improved its coordination with the ground forces. Its pilots also received a rapidly improving training program. As a result, the Soviets were able to build the Red Banner units of highly skilled fighter pilots. Just six months after Kursk, the ratio of Soviet to German aircraft losses had fallen from 4:1 to 3:2.[40]

Opposing forces

Strengths by David M. Glantz and Karl Heinz Frieser
Zitadelle Men Tanks Guns
Soviet Ratio German Soviet Ratio German Soviet Ratio German
Frieser[nb 13] 1,426,352 2,8:1 518,271 4,938[nb 14] 2:1 2,465[nb 15] 31,415 4:1 7,417
Glantz[nb 16] 1,910,361 2,5:1 780,900 5,128 1,7:1 2,928

For the attack, the Wehrmacht used three armies and a big proportion of their tanks on the eastern front. The 9th Army in the north had 335,000 men ( 223,000 combat troops) , the 4th Panzer Army had 223,907 men ( 149,271 combat troops ) and Armydetachment Kempf had 100,000 men ( 66,000 combat troops) for a grand total of 778,907 men ( 518,271 combat troops )

The red army used 2 Fronts ( Armygroups ) for the defence and one Front as reserve. The Central and Vornonez Front fielded 12 armies. Central front had 711,575 men (510,983 combat troops ), Voronez front had 625,591 men (446,236 combat troops ) and the Steppe front had 573,195 men (449,133 combat troops ) for a grand total of 1,910,361 ( 1,426,352 combat troops )

Strengths by David M. Glantz and Karl Heinz Frieser
Kursk Men Tanks Guns
Soviet Ratio German Soviet Ratio German Soviet Ratio German
Frieser[nb 17] 1,987,463 3,2:1 625,271 8,200 3:1 2,699[nb 18] 47,416 5:1 9,467
Glantz[nb 19] 2,500,000 2,7 940,900 7,360[nb 20] 2,3:1 3,253

When the Red Army launched their counteroffensive in the north, the German 2nd Panzer Army was attacked by two Soviet fronts, namely the Brijansk- and Westfront.The 107,000 men of the 2nd Panzeramry and some reinforcement in the south brought the Wehrmacht troops to approximately to 950,000 men ( ~650,000 combat troops ). The two Soviet fronts brought the Red Army to 2,629,458 men ( 1,987,463 combat troops ).

Sub-operations and nomenclature

Battle of Kursk

For Wehrmacht's OKH, the Battle of Kursk was a part of the strategic Operation Citadel Offensive (German: Unternehmen Zitadelle).

For the Soviet historians the series of operations conducted as part of the Summer-Autumn Campaign of 1943 (1 July – 31 December) include[49]:

Orel-Kursk Defensive Operation (5–11 July)
Belgorod-Kursk Defensive Operation (5–23 July)
Denial air operations over the Kursk Bulge (5–23 July)
Air superiority operations in Operation Kutuzov
Volkhov-Orel Offensive Operation (12 July – 18 August)
Kromy-Orel Offensive Operation (15 July – 18 August)
Air superiority operations in Operation Rumyantsev
Belgorod-Bogodukhov Offensive Operation (3–23 August)
Belgorod-Khar'kov Offensive Operation (3–23 August)
Battle of Prokhorovka (12 July 1943)
Zmiyev Offensive Operation (12–23 August)

The exact definition of the operations varies. The Germans saw it only as the Operation Citadel offensive, while the Soviet and Russian historians continue today to combine Citadel and the subsequent Soviet counter-offensives, Operation Kutuzov and Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev as a single strategic event.



The VVS played a significant role in hampering the German preparations. On 17 April 1943, a raid on the German airfield at Orsha-South destroyed five Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft from 1.(F)/Aufklärungsgruppe 100 and 4.(F)/121, and then three Do 17s/Do 217s of 2. Nachtaufklärungsstaffel. Three days later, another ten high-level reconnaissance aircraft were destroyed on the ground. As a result, the only operational strategic reconnaissance Staffel was 4.(F)/14.[50]

The Luftwaffe was also busy before the main operation. The tank factory at Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (GAZ) was subjected to a series of heavy attacks throughout June 1943. On the night of 4/5 June, He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 1 (KG 1), KG 3, KG 4, KG 55 and KG 100 dropped 179 tons of bombs, causing massive destruction to buildings and production lines. All of GAZ No. 1 plant's 50 buildings, 9,000 metres (30,000 ft) of conveyers, 5,900 pieces of equipment and 8,000 tank engines were destroyed.[51] However, the Germans made an error in target selection. The GAZ plant No. 1 produced only the T-70 light tank. Factory No. 112, the second-biggest producer of the more formidable T-34 , continued production undisturbed: 2,851 in 1943, 3,619 in 1944, and 3,255 in 1945.[51] Soviet production facilities were repaired or rebuilt within six weeks. The Luftwaffe had also failed to hit the Gorkiy Artillery Factory (No. 92) or the aircraft plant where the Lavochkin La-5 and La 5FN were made.[51] The Luftwaffe failed to disrupt the Soviet preparation for the coming battle.


Waffen-SS soldiers assemble in preparation for the attack.
Ground operations begin as Operation Citadel is launched. The new Panther tank made its combat debut at Kursk, pictured here in formation leading the German assault.

It took four months before Hitler allowed Manstein to attack, by which time the Germans had added 90 Ferdinand Panzerjägers, all 79 flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft[52], as well as 270 Tigers, late model Panzer Mark-IVs and even a number of captured T-34s.[53] In total, they assembled some 3,000 tanks and assault guns, 2,110 aircraft[4][nb 3] and 435,000 men. It formed one of the greatest concentrations of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy[citation needed].

By this time, Allied action in Western Europe was beginning to have a significant impact on German military strength. Although actions in North Africa hardly constituted the Red Army's longed-for second front, the operation there did begin to tell on the Germans, and in the last quarter of 1942 and the first half of 1943, 40% of Luftwaffe losses occurred in the battles over Malta and Tunisia. German air superiority was no longer guaranteed. The Soviet Air Force outnumbered the Luftwaffe, and were gaining in technological quality as well. Both air forces possessed very effective ground-attack aircraft types capable of decimating armour: the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and the German Junkers Ju 87G (Initially Ju 87D-3/5 with a pair of added Bordkanone 37 mm gunpods).[54][nb 21]

The start date for the offensive had been moved repeatedly as delays in preparation had forced the Germans to postpone the attack. Finally, on 1 July, the orders were issued to attack on 5 July. The following day, Marshal Vasilyevskiy warned the Front commanders (N. F. Vatutin, K. K. Rokossovskiy and I. S. Konev) that the long-awaited German offensive would begin sometime between 3 and 6 July. For months, the Soviets had been receiving detailed information on the planning of the offensive from their Red Orchestra (German: Rote Kapelle), and the "Lucy Group" espionage organization, whose sources allegedly included officers in Hermann Göring’s aviation ministry and other parts of the Nazi administration.[56]

Preliminary fighting started on 4 July 1943 in the south, as 4th Panzer Army had elected to try to take Soviet outposts prior to the main assault on 5 July. Thus they deliberately sacrificed tactical surprise. Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin, having received reports that the German offensive was imminent, ordered Voronezh Front to bombard German positions on the night of 4 July.[57]

In the afternoon, Stuka dive bombers blew a two-mile-wide gap in the Soviet front lines on the north in a period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Kempf's armored spearhead, the III Panzer Corps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Zavidovka. At the same time, the Großdeutschland Division attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the 11th Panzer Division took the high ground around Butovo. To the west of Butovo, the going proved tougher for Großdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division, which met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure their objectives until midnight. The II SS Panzer Corps launched preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again met with strong resistance, until assault troops equipped with flamethrowers cleared the bunkers and outposts.

At 2:30, the Red Army hit back with an artillery bombardment in the north and south. This barrage by over 3,000 guns and mortars expended about half of the artillery ammunition for the entire operation. The goal was to delay and disorganize the German attack. In the northern face, the Central Front artillery fired mostly against German artillery positions and managed to suppress 50 of the 100 German batteries they attacked, resulting in much weaker German artillery fire on the opening day of the attack. This bombardment disrupted German units and caused them to attack at different times on 5 July. In the south, the Red Army chose to fire largely against the German infantry and tanks in their assembly areas. This was partially successful in delaying the German attack, but caused few casualties.

Main operations — the northern face

German onslaught

Tiger I tanks spearhead the assault in the northern sector.

The 9th Army attack in the north fell far short of its objectives on 5 July. The attack sector had been correctly anticipated by the Red Army Central Front. Attacking on a 45-kilometre-wide front, the Germans found themselves trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire. Although a few Goliath and Borgward remote-controlled engineering vehicles were available to clear lanes in the minefields, they were not generally successful. Even when the vehicles cleared mines, they had no on-board marking system to show following tanks where the cleared lanes were. Red Army units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying German engineers clearing manually; German losses were high.

For example, the German 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion began the attack with 49 Ferdinand self-propelled guns; 37 of them were lost in the minefields before 17:00 on 5 July. Although most of the lost vehicles were mobility kills rather than permanent losses, they were out of action until they could be repaired. They were also easier for Red Army artillery to knock out permanently. However, since the Germans were advancing, any repairable vehicles could be recovered, repaired, and put back into action. After the first day of attack, the German units penetrated 8 km deep into the Russian lines for the loss of 1,287 killed & missing and 5,921 wounded.[58]

The Germans also noted a fundamental flaw in their armoured vehicles, particularly the Ferdinand. Although excellent against any Soviet tank at long to medium range, they lacked secondary armament and were vulnerable to attacks from Soviet slit trenches once separated from the heavy machine gun protection of the lighter tanks, vehicles and infantry. Guderian noted in his diary:

Once they had broken through into the enemy's infantry zone they literally had to go quail-shooting with cannons. They did not manage to neutralise, let alone destroy, the enemy's rifle and machine guns, so that our own infantry was unable to follow up behind them. By the time they reached the Soviet artillery they were on their own.[59]

At the second day the Central-Front under Rokossovskiy started a counter-attack against the German 9th Army especially the XLVI Tank Corps. The Red Army attacked with the 2nd Tank Army and the XIX Tank Corps. But this operational counter-attack was launched too early.[58] Soviet tanks saw their first combat with Tiger tanks of the s.Pz.Abt 505 and sustained heavy losses. The 107th and 164th Tank Brigade lost 69 tanks and the Soviet attack was stopped.[60] After the encounter with German Tigers Rokossovskiy decided to dig in most of his tanks and use them as static anti-tank guns.[61]

The next two days of the attack brought heavy fighting around the strong point of Ponyri (on the Orel-Kursk railway), which was one of the most fortified positions in the northern sector. Both sides saw this area as a vital point and so the a very intense battle took place. The German tanks were awaited by 70 antitank guns per km.[62] On 7 July the 86th and 292nd German Infantry Divisions attacked Ponyri and captured the town after intense house to house fighting. The Soviets counter-attacked and forced the German troops to withdraw temporarily; many counter-attacks by both sides followed and the town changed hands many times. Not before the evening of 8 July did the German units capture most of the town. The heavy Ferdinands were called into action to take hill 253,3 and succeeded on the 9th. It developed into a battle of attrition with heavy casualties for both sides; Keegan called Ponyri "the new Douaumont".[63] German units were exhausted while Russian reserves were committed.

Model decided to pause the attack to rearrange his units.[64] On 10 July he renewed his attack with additional air support but his gains were minor. Fresh Soviet formations repelled German attacks and only limited penetrations were achieved; the diary the 9th Army describes the heavy fighting as a "new type of mobile attrition battle".[nb 22] Model canceled the new attack.

The cancellation of the attack changed the German plans; Model accepted that his forces did not have enough power to advance directly through the Soviet strongpoints. He decided to bypass the heights of Ol'chovatka and shift the schwerpunkt to XXXXVI Panzercorps. He also decided to use the uncommitted 12th Pz.Div. For the first time in the northern sector, a heavy concentration of tanks was planned. Model's hesitation to use the concept of concentration, which is described as the decisive element of an armoured attack,[66] led to a slow advance of the 9th army. Because of the limited action of the tank units, only 63 tanks and assault guns were written off by 12 July.[67]

Soviet formations, including the 3rd Tank Army and the 11th Guards Army, attacked the German 2nd Panzer Army, which were positioned in the rear of 9th Army. The outnumbered 2nd Panzer Army had trouble with the Soviet attack. Soviet formations made a deep penetration and threatened German supply routes. With their advance on Orel the encirclement of the 9th army was possible.[68][69]

The end of "Zitadelle" in the north

The 9th Army had to withdraw, and did so through the window of opportunity created for them by the Luftwaffe. Their part in the offensive was over. Because the German armor was not concentrated and used with the same intensity as in the South, the German armor losses were comparatively light – 143 armored vehicles were total losses between 5 and 14 July.[70] Central Front losses were 526 tanks.[nb 23] However, this failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matériel for the Red Army. Few Red Army guns were captured, and those Red Army units that did retreat did so on orders. The German attack had nearly broken through the main Soviet defence zones, but stalled. The Soviet counter-offensive compelled Model to withdraw or risk the destruction of both German Armies.[72]

Northern analysis

A number of factors explain the 9th Army’s lack of progress, mainly the combination of Soviet defensive planning and German lack of concentration of force. German armor was committed piecemeal rather than in strength, and often without sufficient infantry support.[73] Soviet defensive preparation was also a major factor. The Central Front under Marshal Rokossovskiy had correctly anticipated the likely areas of German attack and had fortified those areas very heavily, holding other areas more thinly. The 13th Army, which bore the brunt of the German attack, was far stronger in men and anti-tank guns than the other Central Front units, and indeed held the strongest defensive positions in the entire salient.

Model's army had fewer tanks than Manstein had in the south, and the German 9th Army also committed major units piecemeal because Model was afraid of the Bryansk Front, which stood ready for counterattack in the north of his army. Model decided to place his most powerfull corpsgroup, Korpsgruppe Esbeck (2 Pz.Div and 1 Pz.Gren.Div), far behind the frontline to use it as "firebrigade" against a possible onslaught of the Bryansk Front. Model's refusal to use his Panzerdivisions as a concentrated force can be seen as the most significant reason for the poor penetration of the northern pincer.[74] Finally, the 9th Army led with reinforced infantry divisions that were already in the line facing the Red Army, rather than attacking with uncommitted units.

Review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration clearly shows the success of the Red Army defensive tactics. While it began with a 45-kilometre-wide attack front on 5 July, the next day the German 9th Army's front was reduced to 40 kilometres. This dropped to 15 kilometres wide by 7 July, and to only 2 kilometres on 8–9 July. Each day, the depth of the German advance slowed: 5 kilometres on the first day, 4 on the second, never more than 2 km each succeeding day. By 10 July, the 9th Army had been stopped in its tracks.[75]

Much of the Soviet defensive success is attributable to its method of fire control, known to the Germans as Pakfront. This relied upon a group of 10 or more anti-tank guns under a single commander, which would fire at a single target at a time. These positions were protected with heavy concentrations of mortar and machine-gun nests, which were ordered to fire on German infantry only.[76]

Main operations — the southern face

German onslaught

A Waffen-SS Tiger I engages enemy armor. The Tiger's advanced optics and accurate main gun allowed it to effectively hit targets at extended ranges.
The crew of a Pz.Kpfw. III tank assigned to the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich rest after heavy fighting near Belgorod.

Von Manstein's troops in the south were better equipped than Model's in the north. The 4th Tank Army and Armygroup Kempf had 1,377 tanks while the 9th Army possessed "only" 988 tanks.[77] The 1,377 tanks included 102 Panzer VI and 200 Panzer V.

The 4th Tank Army ( Hoth ) attacked into two directions with the XLVIII Panzer Corps and the II SS Panzer Corps. The flanks of the spearheads were protected by the LII Corps on the left and by the Armygroup Kempf on the right. The XXXXVIII Tank Corps should be the lead spearhead so it got the 200 Panthers attached. Their opponent was the Voronezh Front

At 4.00 am the attack began and nearly all units advanced with good speed despite well prepared defensive positions and minefields. From the beginning, Manstein's tanks were much more successful than their northern counterparts. The main reason for this is his better usage of tanks as concentrated spearheads.[77] Moreover in the south, the Red Army had not been able to pinpoint the German attack sectors; this forced them to spread out their defenses more evenly. For example, three of the four armies of the Voronezh Front had about 10 antitank guns per kilometre of front; this contrasts sharply with the Central Front's distribution of guns, which was twice as heavy in the active sectors. Also, the Voronezh Front made the decision to hold the tactical zone much more thinly, leaving a much higher proportion of units in deeper positions compared to the Central Front. Finally, the Voronezh Front was weaker than the Central Front, yet it faced much stronger German forces.

Many eyes were focused on the newly arrived Panther tanks, which failed to perform up to expectations. The Panthers' ability to fight was hampered by reliability problems. When the new tanks moved into their assembly areas, 45 out of 200 experienced mechanical problems requiring repair.[78] When the remaining Panthers launched their attack they got immediately stuck in a minefield, and many tanks were lost as mobility-kills.

In the first two days the II SS Tank Corps penetrated 25 km deep into the Russian lines and took Jakovlevo. The XXXXVIII Tank Corps to the left had a bit more trouble; many of their 200 Panthers spent more time in the workshops than fighting the enemy. Armygroup Kempf, which task was to assist the II SS Tank Corps, was overchallenged and had problems crossing the Donec.

The steady progress of the German units forced the Russian leaders to commit some of their strategic reserves after nearly all operational reserves were already in action. The Steppe Front had been formed in the months prior to the operation as a central reserve for such an eventuality. As early as 6 July Stavka decided to send the II, X Tank corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army to the southern sector; one day later other big formations got their marching orders. Vatutin planned a big operational counterstrike against the German units, but decided to cancel it after he got news about the complete failure of the northern counter-attack. Instead of seeking open battle against the German tanks Vatutin let his tanks dig in as Rokossovskiy did in the north.[79] Zhukov protested against this use of the tanks but it was Vatutin's decision.

German officers reported that they were slowed down by the so called "Schweigepanzer" (silent tanks), because it cost much time to take out these camouflaged "bases".[80] Despite the order to dig in many of their available tanks, enough tanks remained to launch little counterattacks. On 8 July a remarkable incident occurred when a single German tank, commanded by SS Unterscharführer Franz Staudegger, met a group of about 50 T-34s. In the following battle, Staudegger knocked out 22 T-34s; he was awarded the first Knights Cross for a Tiger commander.[81]

The German tanks were slowed but moved steadily. On the 9 July the first German units reached the Psel River. The next day the first infantry units crossed the Psel. Until 10 July, German units in the south lost 166 tanks. Despite the deep defensive system and big minefields, the German tank losses were remarkably low.[82] The 11th of July was a successful day for German units; Armygroup Kempf achieved a breakthrough, the III Panzercorps penetrated deep into Russian lines. The next night the 6th Pz.Div took a bridge over the Donec with a coup de main.[83] The Russian 69th Army was almost trapped between the III Panzercorps and II SS Panzercorps, when Kempf's units advanced to Prokhorovka from the south and the II SS Panzercorps from the west. At this moment Manstein thought he had achieved the final breakthrough and could now operate freely and destroy the Russian reserves.[84] Meanwhile the Red Army planned a huge counterattack to destroy the spearheads of Heeresgruppe Süd.


Accounts of this battle remain shrouded in controversy and dispute. The original Soviet account of a brave but reckless if ultimately successful mass Red Army assault on heavy German armour is now generally discounted; the most recent revisionist accounts suggest a complete Soviet debacle, with the Soviet charge on German armour being disrupted not by German tanks but fundamentally because so many T-34s fell down a Soviet anti-tank ditch.[85]

What is generally not disputed though is that the Red Army did enough, at very high cost, to stop any German breakthrough here. In that sense this remains a crucial turning point of the battle and indeed of the Great Patriotic War: here the blitzkrieg was ground to a halt, albeit at a huge cost.

Memorial on Prokhorovka Field

On the morning of 12 July, Hoth, determined to push for a breakthrough, scraped together the available reserves of the 4th Panzer Army and advanced on Prokhorovka at the same time that the 5th Guards Tank Army launched a series of attacks as part of multi-front counteroffensive scheduled for 12 July and in an attempt to catch the Germans off balance. The SS and Guards units collided west of Prokhorovka in open country punctuated by farms, rolling hills and gullies. What happened next is open to debate with the release of new information from archives.

In stifling heat, an eight-hour battle began. The German units had 494 tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces in the attack, with 90% operational.[86] The men of the 5th Guards Tank Army had not yet been committed to battle, so they were fresh. The German force found itself heavily outnumbered. After the battle was over, the Soviets held the area, and were able to recover their disabled tanks and wounded crews.[87][88]

The battle can best be described as a very costly tactical loss, but an operational draw for the Red Army. Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their missions that day.

The air battle was also intense: von Manstein had intended it to be the decisive blow against the Red Army forces, preventing a breakthrough to Oboyan and Kursk. The 5th Guards Tank Army had moved mainly at night, bringing 593 tanks and 37 self-propelled artillery pieces into position at Staryy Oskol.[89] Sturmoviks from 291 ShAD attacked the II. SS Panzer Division throughout the day, causing significant damage to German armoured formations. Simultaneously, waves of Hs 129s and Ju 87s caused losses to the 69th Army and 5th Guards Army. Although Soviet tank losses are unknown, a report from the 29th Tank Corps reported "heavy losses in tanks through enemy aircraft and artillery". It also mentioned losses were so heavy that the advance had to be halted, and a switch to the defensive ordered.[90] The Luftwaffe had complete air superiority over Prokhorovka, due to the VVS being concentrated over the flanks of the 4.Panzerarmee. However the Soviet 31 Guard Tank Corps, and the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps fought the II SS Totenkopf to a standstill, employing the tactic of getting in close to German armour and attacking the vulnerable sides of the Tigers. The II SS was soon forced onto the defensive. Although the German formation held, it lost 50 percent of its armour in a prolonged engagement. By the night of 11–12 July, the only success the Germans had to show for their losses was a captured bridgehead over the Donets river at Rzavets. The LSSAH had been stopped by the Soviet 18 Tank Corps; III Panzerkorps and Das Reich were checked by the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and two more Soviet reserve corps.[91]

Tank losses have been a contentious subject ever since. Red Army losses have been stated to be as low as 200 or as high as 822 tanks, but the loss records now show about 300 complete losses, with a similar number damaged. Likewise, German losses have been reported to be as low as 80 and as high as several hundred. This number is impossible to establish because of the German way of counting lost tanks. 60 to 70 German tanks are thought to have been total losses.[92]

The end of "Zitadelle" in the south

While the German offensive had been stopped in the north by 10 July, in the south the overall situation still hung in the balance, even after 12 July. German forces on the southern wing, exhausted and heavily depleted, had nevertheless breached the first two defensive belts and believed (wrongly) that they were about to break through the last belt. In fact at least five more defensive zones awaited them, although they were not as strong as the initial belts (and some of them did not have troops deployed). Red Army defenders had been weakened, and major parts of their reserve forces had been committed. Still, the available uncommitted Red Army reserves were far larger than the few available German reserves.

On 16 July, German forces withdrew to their start line. Severely depleted, the Germans then had to face Operation Rumyantsev, an offensive launched to smash the German forces in the Belgorod-Kharkov area on 3 August. Belgorod fell on 5 August, and on 23 August, Kharkov fell, despite fierce resistance from German forces. With the capture of Kharkov, the Soviets considered the Battle of Kursk over.[93]

Southern analysis

The German forces made steady progress, but, as in the north, attack frontages (width) and penetration depth tended to drop as the attack proceeded. The trend was not as marked as in the north, however. Beginning with a 30-kilometre-wide attack frontage on 5 July, this dropped to 20-kilometres wide by 7 July and 15 km by 9 July. Likewise, the depth of the penetration dropped from 9 km on 5 July to 5 km on 8 July and 2–3 km each day thereafter until the attack was cancelled.

Red Army minefields and artillery were again successful in delaying the German attack and inflicting losses. The ability of dug-in Red Army units to delay the Germans was vital to allow their own reserves to be brought up into threatened sectors. Over 90,000 additional mines were laid during the operations by small mobile groups of engineers, generally working at night immediately in front of the expected German attack areas. There were no large-scale captures of prisoners nor any great loss of artillery, again indicating that Soviet units were giving ground in good order.

German losses can be seen in the example of the Großdeutschland Division, which began the operation with 118 tanks. On 10 July, after five days of fighting, the division reported it had 3 Tigers, 6 Panthers, and 11 Pzkw-III and Pzkw-IV tanks operational. XLVIII Panzer Corps reported, overall, 38 Panthers operational with 131 awaiting repair, out of the 200 it started with on 5 July.

Hitler cancels the operation

On the night of 9–10 July, the Western Allies mounted an amphibious invasion of Sicily. Three days later, Hitler summoned von Kluge and von Manstein to his Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia and declared his intention to "temporarily" call off Operation Zitadelle. Von Manstein attempted to dissuade him, arguing that Zitadelle was on the brink of victory: "on no account should we let go of the enemy until the mobile reserves which he had committed were decisively beaten". In an unusual reversal of their roles, Hitler gave von Manstein a few more days to continue the offensive, but on 17 July, he ordered a withdrawal and cancelled the operation. He then ordered the entire SS Panzer Korps to be transferred to Italy.[94]

Hitler's decision to call off the operation at the height of the tactical battle has since been strongly criticized by German generals in their memoirs,[95] and also by some historians.[96] For example, it has been pointed out that the SS Panzer Korps would have taken three months to be transferred to Sicily, and thus could not possibly have affected the outcome there, while its contribution to the Kursk operation was vital.[97]

In any event only one German division, 1st SS Panzer Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, departed for Italy, and without their equipment. The others remained behind to try to stem the Red Army counteroffensive launched in the wake of the failed German offensive.

Reasons for the failure of "Zitadelle"

According to the German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser there are five main reasons for the failure of Operation Zitadelle:

  • Soviet numerical superiority. Frieser points out that the biggest problem of the OKW were the shortage of infantry. The OKH had no operational reserve while the Red Army could field an entire front (Steppe Front) as reserve. That the Red Army had more tanks than the Wehrmacht had less influence on the outcome according to Frieser.[98][99][100]
  • Delays: The repeated delays by Hitler gave the Red Army enough time to fortify the bulge around Kursk to an enormous fortress. High officers like Manstein and Zeitzler pushed for a fast attack to catch the Red Army unprepared and low on morale after the third battle of Kharkov. The allied Operation Husky made Hitler's date for the attack the "most adverse possible termin.[101]

Frieser's conclusions are disputed by American military historian and Soviet military expert David Glantz:

  • Glantz asserts the German defeat at Kursk did not come about by the "Often-exaggerated numerical superiority" of the Soviet armed forces. The principal cause of Kursk was the revolution in Soviet command, staff, operational and tactical techniques. The General Staff had learned from the lessons of previous battles and disseminated "war experience" based on "exhaustive" analysis of battles, operations and campaigns. These lessons were added to Soviet doctrine (Soviet deep battle), producing new procedures.[102] Glantz and House have asserted the tank strength was even, between 1:1 and 1.5:1 in the Soviets favour.[103]
  • Glantz contends the Soviet introduced new operational and tactical techniques. They worked out many of the difficulties of integrating arms and services into "a true combined arms operation". Glantz emphasises "sophisticated understanding of intelligence, deception, and anti-tank defence". Similar improvements were made in the combined use of artillery, tanks, engineers, infantry to break German defences on a narrow front. At Prokhorovka and in the Kutzov operations, the Red Army gained experience with mobile armoured formations and mechanized corps that became the hallmark of Soviet deep operations. These formations demonstrated their ability to match the best efforts of the German panzer force. Operations still needed to be perfected to reduce huge casualties. Nevertheless, the German command recognised that at Kursk they faced an entirely new and more competent Red Army.[102][104]
  • Glantz points out the defensive tactics had also improved. Skillful use of anti-tank artillery in strong points and the use of separate tank brigades, tank regiments and self-propelled gun units to support them offered mobile defence support. These units participated in wearing down tactical attacks against enemy spearheads. The transitional year of 1943 was decisive for the Soviet war effort. By the year's end Soviet doctrine had perfected its force structure. Operational and tactical techniques tested and smoothed out in 1943 would be refined further and perfected in 1944 and 1945. "The elementary education the Red Army received in 1941-42 gave way to the secondary education of 1943. In 1944 and 1945 the Soviets would accomplish university-level and graduate study in the conduct of war".[105]

Steven Zaloga also refutes Frieser's opinions about the Red Army at Kursk:

  • Zaloga contends the popular perception of Soviet victory 'by numbers' as a myth created by German Generals and the memoirs in the 1950s. Zaloga rejects the caricature of the Red Army relying on mass rather than tactical skill. Zaloga accepts that at the very small tactical end ("platoon" and "company" level), the Red Army was not particularly impressive and received significantly poorer training.[106] Zaloga points out that there were still many tactical lessons to be learned, however by 1943 the gap between Soviet and German tanker training "narrowed greatly", and was at a comparable level with the Soviets.[107]
  • Zaloga asserts that the Soviets, in terms of operational art, were adept at using mobile tank formations.[107] Zaloga asserts that Soviet operational methods were superior, allowing Soviet field commanders to bluff, baffle and overwhelm their opponents.[108]

Richard Overy:

  • Points out that the quality of the two air forces were even. The Soviets had introduced air-to-ground communications, radar, a proper maintenance system and depots for forward fuel reserves. This allowed aircraft to fly twenty missions in the heat of the battle (while the Luftwaffe suffered shortages).[109][110]
  • The Soviets were not, as commonly interpreted, inferior in the quality of their tanks. The T-34 model (only a few of which were equipped with 76 mm tubes), was out-ranged by German Tiger and Panther tanks but was faster and more manoeuvrable.[111] Instead, at the Battle of Prokhorovka, the Soviets used their tanks in a "hand-to-hand" combat role. Crews were ordered to close the range so that it would not become an issue.[112] According to Glantz and House the Soviet tanks pressed home their initial attacks despite two significant German advantages; the range of the German tanks' 88mm gun, German air superiority and attacking a well dug-in enemy while covering flat rolling terrain. Even so, the loss ratio was less than 2:1, 320 German and 400 Soviet AFV.[113]

Russian counterattacks

In the north: Operation Kutuzov

Operation Kutuzov, was launched on the 12 July against the southern wing of Army Group Centre. The counterattack was launched before the Germans had stopped their attack, so Operation Kutuzov had a bigger effect to the outcome of Zitadelle compared to the southern counter, which was launched after the cancellation of Zitadelle.

The Briansk front (Popov) and parts of the Western front (Sokolovskij) attacked the largely undefended German north falnk of the 2nd Panzer Army on 12 July. The 2nd Panzer Army was weakened as many tanks were given to other armies before Zitadelle. On 12 July the attacking forces numbered 487,111 men (combat troops only) supported by 1,401 tanks and 15,109 guns.[114] Three days later the second phase of Kutuzov started and several Russian armies attacked the German 9th Army. The combined troops deployed for Kutuzov now numbered 1,286,049 men supported by 2,409 tanks and 26,379 guns.[115]

The Operations of the Briansk front marked the beginning of the Russian summer offensive. The artillery barrage was described as very heavy and the first German lines were overrun. German defensive lines were deeper than expected and many Russian spearheads were slowed, sustaining heavy casualties,[116] but in some areas the Russian units achieved deep penetrations.[117] The Germans lacked reserves to block these penetrations, so the situation became very dangerous for the 2nd Panzer Army.[117] On 13 July Army Group Centre gave command of the 2nd Panzer Army to Model, who had already commanded the German 9th Army. Model now was in control of all German units in the Orel area.

The situation for the Germans worsened and Russian breakthroughs threatened the entire 9th Army. Model sent nearly all of his Panzer units to aid the 2nd Panzer Army whose northern front was about to collapse, while the 4th Army in the north sent the 253rd Infantry Division. German units achieved a temporary stabilization of the front but meanwhile the 9th Army started to withdraw from the captured ground. Initially, the Russian Central Front followed hesitantly, but then started their attack with heavy air support.[117] On 18 July the 9th Army was at the same position as on 5 July, before Zitadelle.

Russian tank formations failed to achieve an operational breakthrough despite their numerical superiority.[118] Red Army tank armies repeated their attacks against the same positions with the same methods and suffered heavy casualties in men and tanks. For example, the 4th Tank Army lost 84% of their T-34s and 46% of their light tanks within a few days.[119] After two weeks of fighting the 3rd Guards Tank Army had lost half of their 800 tanks.[119]

The German armies conducted a fighting withdrawal to Hagen-Stellung.[120] German movements were consistent hampered by partisans, who numbered about 100,000.[121] Partisans tried to disrupt German supply routes, especially railway lines. On 3 August partisans launched a large operation against the German rear, the so called "Railway-war". Organized by the Red Army, the partisan activities supported the Russian operation.

By shortening their line the Wehrmacht freed 19 divisions, which could be used elsewhere or as reserve.[120] Nevertheless, the Soviets achieved a complete breakthrough. The Soviets massed a high density concentration of artillery and tanks on small narrow fronts and used sophisticated artillery techniques to defeat German fortified positions despite tenacious German defences. Operation Kutzov "was a perfect example of the newly sophisticated Soviet way of war".[122] On 5 August the 3rd Guards Tank Army entered Orel and by 18 August, the Briansk Front had reached the city Briansk, "completely eliminating the German salient in the region".[122]

The battle in the Orel-sweep, which is the German name for this battle, was the bloodiest of the three major operations during the Battle of Kursk. German losses were 86,064 men,[120] the Red Army lost lost 112,529 killed and 317,361 wounded.[123] The Red Army losses were particularly high for tanks and assault guns, 2,586 of them were written off during Kutuzov.[124] German tank losses are not available for this battle, but Heeresgruppe Mitte lost 343 during Zitadelle and Kutuzov.[120]

Some of the Soviet command were displeased, complaining that an even greater victory might have been won. Marshall Rokossovskij says, "Instead of encircling the enemy, we only pushed them out of the bulge... The operation would have been different if we had used our force for two heavy punches which met at Brijansk". Zhukov held a similar opinion.[125] Stalin instead thought encirclement tactics could wait: "It is our task to push them from our territory. We can trap them when they are weaker".[125]

In the south: Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev

To the south, the Red Army needed more time to re-group after the losses sustained in July, and could not launch its offensive again until 3 August when Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev commenced. STAVKA planned Operation Rumyantsev as the major thrust of their summer offensive. The aim was to destroy Manstein's 4th Army and Army Group Kempf and later the southern wing of Heeresgruppe Süd (Army Group South). The German 1st Tank Army and newly formed 6th Army were to be trapped by an advance to the Black Sea.[126] The Russian Southern Front and the Southwest Front attacked as early as 17 July.

The Voronez Front and the Steppe Front deployed about 1,144,000 men[127] supported by 2,418 tanks[128] and 13,633 guns and rocket launchers [128] for their attack. At the start of "Rumyantsev" the Germans fielded only 237 tanks and assault guns. The reasons for a lack of German armour were twofold; Manstein believed that the Soviets were incapable of launching an offensive in the southern sector, and dispatched his reserves (II SS Panzerkorps, XXIV Korps and XXXXVIII Panzerkorps) southward to deal with Soviet offensives across the Dnieper and Mius Rivers. The Soviet operations in those regions were actually carefully planned diversion operations. The Soviet plan worked, and removed German reserves from the critical Kharkov axis (conforming to Maskirovka)[122] The tactical-operations across the Mius were unsuccessful, but achieved their primary aim of diverting German forces further away from Kharkov, although by Soviet accounts, the STAVKA had wished for more.[129]

For the Kharkov offensive the Red Army focused enormous firepower on a 30 kilometre front. The 5th and 6th Guards Army, two elements that had borne the brunt of the German offensive, and the Soviet 53rd Army. The artillery concentration was necessary to puncture the first five German defence lines between Kursk and Kharkov. The 1st Tank Army and 5th Guards Army, supported by two additional mobile Corps', would act as a mobile-operational unit to encircle Kharkov from the north and west. To the west, four separate tank corps' would support the 27th and 40th Armies would make supporting attacks. To the east and south-east, the 69th and 7th Guards Armies, followed by the 57th Army of the Southwestern Front, would also support the attack.[130]

On 3 August the initial attack demonstrated the growing sophistication of Soviet tactical art. Heavy and long-range artillery bombarded German positions, supported by anti-tank shock-groups, ready to repel counter attacks. The German defence was tenacious, and two tank armies had to enter the battle to secure a penetration. By the 5th August the Soviets had broken deep into the German rear and captured Belgorod, advancing some 60 kilometres into German lines. Each combined-arms army pressed the German defences from the north and east.[131]

German reserves were rushed from the Orel sector and north from the Donbas regions (where Soviet Maskirovka operations had diverted them) and tried to break up Soviet attacks. The only success was achieved by the Grossdeutschland Division, which suceeded in delaying the 40th Army on 6–7 August. Four infantry divisions and seven panzer and motorised divisions were assembled under the III Panzerkorps. Manstein tried to repeat the success of Third Battle of Kharkov. However, this time the Soviets were alert to the danger, and it was the German forces rather than the Soviets that were worn down and overextended.[132] On 11 August, the 1st Tank Army engaged Waffen SS units near Bogodukhov, 30 kilometres northwest of Kharkov. Initially the Germans stopped the advance, "mauling" three brigades of the 1st Tank Army. The 5th Guards Army sent reinforcements, and between 13 and 17 August the Germans were fought to a stalemate. For the first time a major German counter offensive had failed to destroy a Soviet exploitation force. Kharkov fell on 28 August. The battle is usually referred to as the Fourth Battle of Kharkov by the Germans and Belgorod-Kharkov offensive operation by the Soviets.[133]

Soviet casualties are uncertain. Between 1 March and 23 August 1943, 71,611 Soviet soldiers were killed and 183,955 wounded in the Belgorod-Kharkov sector. A further 1,864 tanks were lost in this sector during this time, while a further 423 artillery guns were also lost.[123]


The battlefield grave of a German soldier, Heinz Kühl. The Third Reich did not recover from the losses sustained at Kursk and found itself in a strategic retreat for the remainder of the campaign in the east.
The Prokhorovka Cathedral on the former battle field commemorates the Red Army losses and victory in the battle of the 5th Guards Tank Army.

The campaign was a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before achieving a breakthrough. The Germans, despite using more technologically advanced armor than in previous years, were unable to break through the in-depth defenses of the Red Army, and were surprised by the significant operational reserves of the Red Army. This was an outcome that few had predicted, and it changed the pattern of operations on the Eastern Front. The victory had not been cheap however; the Red Army, although preventing the Germans from achieving the goals of Citadel, lost considerably more men and matériel than the Wehrmacht .

Heinz Guderian wrote in his diary:

With the failure of Zitadelle we have suffered a decisive defeat. The armoured formations, reformed and re-equipped with so much effort, had lost heavily in both men and equipment and would now be unemployable for a long time to come. It was problematical whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern Front... Needless to say the Russians exploited their victory to the full. There were to be no more periods of quiet on the Eastern Front. From now on, the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative.[134]

German casualties listed in German sources during the operation proper (as opposed to the following Red Army counter-offensives north and south of the salient) in the period 5 to 20 July 1943 were between 50,000[135] and 57,000.[136] German tank write-offs were between 278[137] and 323.[8] Yet the numbers of destroyed tanks alone does not tell the entire story. For example, Zetterling and Frankson list only 33 tanks destroyed for the three divisions of the SS Panzer Corps as of 17 July, but the number of operational tanks on 17 July as of 19:15 had dropped by 139, leading one to assume that 106 tanks were damaged and not able to take part in the battle, at least temporarily.[138]

Red Army casualties were 177,847 as listed in Krivosheev.[135][139] However, Restayn and Moller point out[139] that Krivosheev's figures for Central Front strength show a decline in strength during the period 5 to 11 July 1943 of approximately 92,700, of which 33,897 are accounted for as dead or wounded with no explanation given for the further 58,893 losses. Restayn and Moller consider that the missing 58,893 should be accounted for as casualties, in which case total Red Army casualties in this period would be approximately 235,000 (ie 177,847 plus 58,893). Red Army armor losses, again according to Krivosheev, were 1,614 tanks and assault guns destroyed.[135][140]

From this point on, a new pattern emerged. The initiative had firmly passed to the Red Army, while the Germans spent the rest of the war reacting to their moves. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting some of Germany's resources and attention.[93] Both sides had their losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never regained the initiative after Kursk and never again launched a major offensive in the East.

Moreover, the loss further convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his General Staff. His interference in military matters progressively increased, so that by the end of the war he was involved in tactical decisions. However, the opposite was true for Stalin. After seeing Stavka's planning justified on the battlefield, he trusted his advisors more, and stepped back from operational planning, only rarely overruling military decisions.

Predictable results ensued for both sides: the German Army went from loss to loss as Hitler attempted personally to micromanage the day-to-day operations of what soon became a three-front war, while the Red Army gained more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.


  1. ^ With the final destruction of German forces at Kharkov the Battle of Kursk came to an end. Having won the strategic initiative, the Red Army advanced along a 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) front.[1]
  2. ^ After Kursk, Germany could not even pretend to hold the strategic initiative in the East.[2]
  3. ^ a b figures from German archives. Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv, Freiburg; Luftfahrtmuseum, Hannover-Laatzen; WASt Deutsche Dienststelle, Berlin.
  4. ^ 1,030 of 2. VA, and 611 of 17 VA on the Southern flank, and 1,151 on the Northern sector,[6] figures from Russian archives; Russian aviation trust; Russian Central Military Archive TsAMO, Podolsk; Russian State Military Archive RGVA, Moscow; Monino Air Force Museum, Moscow
  5. ^ a b Operation Zitadelle means the time of the German attack from 4–16 July, Soviet losses are for the period of 5–23 July
  6. ^ 9,063 KIA 43,159 WIA 1,960MIA[7]
  7. ^ a b The whole Battle of Kursk means the time of the German attack and the two Soviet counterattacks from 4 July to 23 August
  8. ^ kursk-defence; 177,847 ,orel-counter; 429,890 ,belgorod-counter; 255,566 [18]
  9. ^ Kursk-defence; 1,614. Orel-counter; 2,568. Belgorod-counter; 1,864.[19]
  10. ^ Luftwaffe claims until 24th autumn, note: this excludes accidents and aircraft losses due to anti air[20]
  11. ^ When the week of combat around Kursk had ended, the perceived infallibility of blitzkrieg was destroyed, along with the hopes of the German Army for victory or even stalemate in the east. Kursk announced to the world that for every offensive theory, there is a suitable defensive one available to those who devote the requisite thought necessary to develop it.
  12. ^ Source: German Nation Archive microfilm publication T78, Records of the German High Command(Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) Roll 343, Frames 6301178-180 confirms Hitler's teletype to Rommel about reinforcing southern Italy with armoured forces destined to be used for Zitadelle.
  13. ^ Frieser uses combat strengths[41]
  14. ^ Frieser counts only operational tanks[42]
  15. ^ Frieser counts only operational tanks[43]
  16. ^ Glantz uses total strengths[44]
  17. ^ Frieser uses combat strenghts[45]
  18. ^ Frieser counts only operational tanks[46]
  19. ^ Glantz uses total strengths[47]
  20. ^ Glantz does not count reinforcements [48]
  21. ^ The air operation is misunderstood in most accounts. The German Freya radar stations established in Belgorod and Kharkov in 1943 had only picked up Soviet formations approaching from Belgorod and were not responsible for the failure of the strike.[55]
  22. ^ KTB AOK9 9 July ( Daily war diary of the 9th Army)[65]
  23. ^ 651 knocked out tanks, 526 write offs, primary source: CAMO (Ministry of Defence of Russia)[71]
  1. ^ Taylor and Kulish 1974, p. 171.
  2. ^ Glantz and House 1995, p. 175.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Glantz & House 1995, p. 165.
  4. ^ a b Bergström 2007, pp. 123–25.
  5. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 127–28
  6. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 21
  7. ^ Frieser p. 154.
  8. ^ a b Glantz & House, p. 276.
  9. ^ Frieser p. 154. Luftflotte 6 45 losses Luftflotte 4 144 losses
  10. ^ No numbers available , estimation by Frieser
  11. ^ Zetterling/Frankson Kursk 1943 pages 117, 116 and endnote 18. For all participating armies in the Kursk area there are 203,000 casualties for the July and August
  12. ^ Frieser p. 201. Exact numbers are unknown, the entire "ostfront" lost 1,331 tanks and assault guns for July and August so the number of 720 is an estimation.
  13. ^ Bergstrom 2008, p. 120: Figures for 5–31 July, as given by the Generalquartiermeister der Luftwaffe
  14. ^ Krivosheev Kursk
  15. ^ a b c d Krivosheev Kursk equipment
  16. ^ Frieser p. 150.
  17. ^ Frieser p. 150
  18. ^ Krivosheev p.188-190
  19. ^ Krivosheev p.370
  20. ^ Frieser p. 202.
  21. ^ Dunn 1997, p. x
  22. ^ Kasdorf, p. 16
  23. ^ Glantz 1989, pp. 149–59
  24. ^ Keegan 2006.
  25. ^ Glantz, Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk.
  26. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 167.
  27. ^ Overy 1995, p. 87.
  28. ^ Kulish & Taylor 1974, p. 170.
  29. ^ Mulligan 1987, p. 239.
  30. ^ Clark 1966, p. 275.
  31. ^ Clark 1966, p. 325.
  32. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 16.
  33. ^
  34. ^ a b V.M Kulish & A.J.P Taylor 1974, p. 168.
  35. ^ Clarke 1966, p. 313.
  36. ^ Clarke 1966, p. 327.
  37. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 22.
  38. ^ a b Bergström 2007, p. 23.
  39. ^ Bergström, Mikhailov, Dikov & Antipov 2000, p. 16.
  40. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 44.
  41. ^ Frieser 2007 p 100.
  42. ^ Frieser 2007 p 91.
  43. ^ Frieser 2007 p 91.
  44. ^ Glantz p 338.
  45. ^ Frieser 2007 p 100.
  46. ^ Frieser 2007 p 91.
  47. ^ Glantz 2004 p 346.
  48. ^ Glantz p 342.
  49. ^ pp.82-113, Glantz (1990)
  50. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 16-17.
  51. ^ a b c Bergström 2007 p. 20
  52. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 124–25.
  53. ^ Töppel 2002, p. 33–34.
  54. ^ Bergström 2007 p. 79-81; 102; 106; 114; 118.
  55. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 26–7.
  56. ^ Mulligan 1987, pp. 236, 254.
  57. ^ Clarke 1966, p. 329.
  58. ^ a b Frieser p. 108.
  59. ^ Clarke 1966, p. 333
  60. ^ Glantz p. 93.
  61. ^ Rokossovskiy p. 266.
  62. ^ Piekalkiewice, Unternehmen Zitadelle p. 154.
  63. ^ Keegan p. 72.
  64. ^ Frieser p. 110.
  65. ^ Frieser p. 110
  66. ^ Guderian, Achtung-Panzer!
  67. ^ Frieser p. 111.
  68. ^ Frieser p.111
  69. ^ Overy 1997, p. 205.
  70. ^ Restayn and Moller 2002, pp. 333–36.
  71. ^ Frieser p. 111
  72. ^ Overy 1997, pp. 204–5.
  73. ^ Restayn and Moller 2002, p. 333.
  74. ^ Frieser p.107
  75. ^ Overy 1997, p. 204.
  76. ^ Clark 1966, pp. 331–32
  77. ^ a b Frieser p. 112
  78. ^ Frieser p. 113.
  79. ^ Glantz/House p. 102.
  80. ^ Frieser p. 116
  81. ^ Wendt p.18
  82. ^ Geheime Kommandosache
  83. ^ Frieser p. 118
  84. ^ Manstein p. 500
  85. ^ Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War, London, Allen Lane, 2008, p. 488.
  86. ^ Frankson, p. 30.
  87. ^ Clark 1966, p. 337.
  88. ^ Healy 1992, pp. 76–7.
  89. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 77.
  90. ^ Bergström 2007, pp. 79–80.
  91. ^ Healy 1992, p. 84–7.
  92. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 81.
  93. ^ a b Taylor & Kulish 1974, p. 171.
  94. ^ Clarke 1966, pp. 337–38.
  95. ^ Manstein, Verlorene Siege p. 504
  96. ^ Engelmann, Zitadelle p. 5
  97. ^ Carell,
  98. ^ Frieser p.149
  99. ^ Krivosheev p. 188-190
  100. ^ Zetterling/Frankson p. 116,117
  101. ^ Magenheimer, die Militärstrategie Deutschlands 1940-1945 p.244
  102. ^ a b Glantz & House 1995, p. 176.
  103. ^ Glantz & House 1995, pp. 149-150.
  104. ^ Glantz 1991, pp. 132-133.
  105. ^ Glantz 1991, pp. 136-137.
  106. ^ Zagola 1989, p. 6.
  107. ^ a b Zagola 1989, p. 18.
  108. ^ Zagola 1989, p. 7.
  109. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 48–9.
  110. ^ Overy 1997, p. 192.
  111. ^ Overy 1997, p. 207.
  112. ^ Overy 1997, pp. 207-209.
  113. ^ Glantz & House 1995, P. 167.
  114. ^ Koltunov p. 80.
  115. ^ Koltunov p. 82.
  116. ^ Rendulic, Die Schlacht von Orel, p. 134.
  117. ^ a b c Frieser p. 185.
  118. ^ Rotmistrov, The Role of Armoured Forces p. 173.
  119. ^ a b Sutov/Ramanicev p. 277
  120. ^ a b c d Frieser p. 188.
  121. ^ Frieser p. 187 ,according to Soviet numbers
  122. ^ a b c Glantz & House 1995, p. 168.
  123. ^ a b Glantz & House 1995, p. 297.
  124. ^ Krivosheev p. 278.
  125. ^ a b Zhukov p. 188.
  126. ^ Glantz/House p. 241
  127. ^ Krivosheev. p190
  128. ^ a b Koltunov p. 81
  129. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 352.
  130. ^ Glantz & House 1995, pp. 168-169.
  131. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p.169.
  132. ^ Glantz & House 1995, pp. 169-170.
  133. ^ Glantz & House 1995, p. 70.
  134. ^ Bergström 2007, p. 121.
  135. ^ a b c Glantz & House, p. 275.
  136. ^ Zetterling & Frankson, page 112
  137. ^ Zetterling & Frankson, adding tables 8.8 and 8.10 on pages 121-122
  138. ^ Zetterling & Frankson, pp. 187–88.
  139. ^ a b Restayn & Moller, Volume II, p. 341.
  140. ^ Mawdsley, p. 267.


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