Though the Soviets had crushed the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad, they had not yet managed to push back a summer offensive by the Wehrmacht. Could it be that the Red Army was trapped in a disturbing pattern of victory in the winter (at the Battle of Moscow in 1940/1 and Stalingrad in 1942/3) and defeat in the summer (during the initial invasion in 1941 and Operation Blue in 1942)? This was the question that many observers were asking, and which would only be definitively answered at Kursk in the hot summer of 1943.
It didn’t take a sophisticated military analyst to spot where the German offensive was likely to come in 1943. West of the city of Kursk in south central Russia there was a large bulge where the Red Army had advanced into the German front line – nearly 20% of all Soviet forces were contained there.i A German attack from the north and south would obviously cut off and encircle large numbers of Soviet forces and threaten the city of Kursk with capture – and then the road to Moscow lay open to the Germans, with the capital 400 miles away to the north.
So Stalin called for a Soviet offensive to pre-empt any possible German attack. But in April 1943 Marshal Zhukov compiled a report which cast severe doubts on the idea. The Soviets were already receiving intelligence reports which showed that a German offensive was likely. Why not prepare for it, Zhukov argued, and then launch a counter attack into the unsuspecting Germans as they advanced? Once again, just as he had been during the planning of Operation Uranus, Stalin was prepared to listen to expert advice. His own idea of an offensive was quietly dropped and the Red Army prepared its line of defence.ii
The Soviets received detailed information about German intentions from a whole variety of sources – not least their own spy, John Cairncross, who worked at the secret British decoding centre at Bletchley Park. Armed with this valuable intelligence, the Soviets constructed six separate lines of defence behind their own front line, laid 4,000 mines and dug an incredible 3,000 miles of trenches. More than 1,300,000 Soviet troops now waited for the German attack.iii It was to be the largest single battle in the history of the world, fought over an area the size of Wales.
As a result of the military intelligence the Soviets had received, the German offensive, of course, had now completely lost the element of surprise – a problem that was compounded by the fact that ‘Operation Citadel’ (as the Germans called the attack) was postponed a number of times, partly because Hitler wanted the new Panther tanks to take part.
Marshal Zhukov was finally told from intelligence sources that the Germans planned to launch the offensive at 3 o’clock in the morning on 5 July 1943. So Zhukov called for massive Soviet air and artillery attacks to be launched just one hour before the German advance in order to disrupt their plan. From that moment onwards the Germans struggled to regain the initiative.
‘The Russians shot – we’d never experienced it before – such an initial barrage,’ says Alfred Rubbel, a German tank commander who fought at Kursk. ‘It was so dense… We crossed the river and immediately afterwards we came into a minefield. All fourteen vehicles got stuck in there. The second company never had a very good reputation, so twelve Tiger tanks were gone.’
By 9 July the German advance had been held in the north and three days later the Soviets counter-attacked. But in the south the Red Army found the battle harder. Despite all the military intelligence they’d received, the Soviets hadn’t learnt that the Germans had recently strengthened the southern sector. And it was here, in the south, around the town of Prokhorovka, that an enormous tank battle was fought – with 600 Soviet tanks facing 240 German.iv
‘It was non-stop shooting,’ says Wilhelm Roes, who fought at Prokhorovka with the SS Leibstandarte. ‘We at the time were not aware it was a huge tank battle, be we thought, ‘God! How many tanks are shooting off?’ When a [Soviet] T34 tank explodes the turret flies off and a huge ring of smoke goes up, [and] we saw these rings of smoke coming up. We thought: ‘How many more are coming? All these rings of smoke going up to the sky!’’
The German panzers, though outnumbered, were superior to the Soviet T34 tanks. But the Soviets dealt with the greater range of the German tanks by charging close towards them. ‘Everywhere burning tanks,’ says Roes, ‘smoke everywhere, smell of ammunition, smell of burning corpses. It was like an inferno. It was Hell.’
By the middle of July the battle was over. Both sides were bloodied – the Soviets losing 300,000 dead, the Germans 100,000. Overall, it was a fiercely fought draw. The Germans had not been able to achieve their objectives, and the Soviets had been prevented from mounting a decisive counter attack to push the Germans as far back as they had hoped.
But whilst militarily the honours might have been even, psychologically this was a huge victory for the Red Army. They had stood up to the might of the Wehrmacht when both the terrain and the weather seemed to suit the tactics and expertise of the Germans. As a result, the morale of the Soviet soldiers grew ever stronger.
Mikhail Borisov, who fought with the Red Army at Kursk, says it was ‘a love’ of his country that made him want to ‘fight to the last breath. That is how we were brought up. And this feeling remained with us for the rest of our lives. I keep saying to myself, ‘If Russia finds itself in hard times again, even now I can do something to defend it.’… I come from a Cossack family and my ancestors were all Cossacks. And love for the Motherland and love for weapons came with a mother’s milk.’
Stalin promised in a speech, later in 1943, that Kursk would mark the last great offensive the Germans would make on the Eastern Front.v And he was right. It was the Soviets who would mount the next massive summer offensive, in June the following year – Operation Bagration. And in the process the Red Army would finally drive the Germans out of the Soviet Union.
i See Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, The Nazis and The West, BBC Books, 2009, p. 208
ii See William Spahr, Zhukov: The Rise and Fall of a Great Captain, Novato, 1993, pp. 119-120
iii See Niklas Zetterling, ‘Loss Rates on the Eastern Front During World War II’, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 9, issue 4, 1996, pp. 895-906
iv These latest estimates taken from Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, Macmillan, 2007, p. 583
v Speech made by Stalin on 6 November 1943, on the anniversary of the October Revolution
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