Battle of Kursk

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  • Battle of Kursk
  • Operation Citadel
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-35, Schlacht um Kursk, Panzer VI (Tiger I).jpg
Panzergrenadiers with a Tiger I of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich advance through the southern Voronezh Front
Date German offensive phase: 5 – 20 July 1943
Soviet offensive phase: 12 July – 23 August 1943
Location Kursk, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Result Decisive Soviet victory; The Soviet Union won in part through information on German war plans from the German resistance. The Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, involving some 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft. It marked the decisive end of the German offensive capability on the Eastern Front and cleared the way for the Soviet invasions of 1944–45.
 Germany  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Operation Citadel:
780,900 men
2,928 tanks
9,966 guns and mortars
Operation Citadel:
1,910,361 men
5,128 tanks
25,013 guns and mortars

The Battle of Kursk or Kursk Campaign (5 July – 20 July 1943), also called Operation Citadel (German: Unternehmen Zitadelle) by the Wehrmacht, was a major battle on the Eastern Front of World War II, and the last German Blitzkrieg offensive in the east as well as the last German offensive of such scale in the war. The exact definition of the battle varies: the Germans saw it as comprising Operation Citadel only, while the Soviets considered (and Russians today consider) it to include Citadel and the subsequent Soviet counteroffensives, Operation Kutuzov and Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Overall, the campaign, which included the famous sub-battle at Prokhorovka, remains both the largest armored engagement and the most costly single day of aerial warfare to date.

Kursk is further notable for the deliberately defensive battle strategy on the Soviets part. Having good intelligence on Hitler's intentions, the Soviets established and managed to conceal elaborate layered defense works, mine fields, and stage and disguise large reserve forces poised for a tactical and strategic counterattack typical of defensive battle plans. Though the Germans planned and initiated an offensive strike, the well-planned defense not only frustrated their ambitions, but also enabled the Soviets to follow up with counteroffensives and exhausted the German abilities in the theater, thereby seizing the initiative for the remainder of the war. In that sense it may be seen as the second phase of the turning point that began with the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, whose aftermath set the scene by establishing the Kursk Salient (also known as the "Kursk Bulge"), the reduction of which was the objective of the German armies entering July. The subsequent counterattacks retook Orel and Belgorod on August 5, and Kharkov on August 23, pushing back the Germans across a broad front. This was the first successful major Soviet summer offensive of the war.

Kursk was a further demonstration that the conflict in the East contained the largest scale of warfare in history, in terms of manpower involved. So well designed was the Soviet defensive planning, that when entering the archetypal counterattack phase, the Soviets were able to attack along four separate axes of advance, and execute a planned stop at a phase line, thus avoiding the pitfalls of overextending during the counterattack and earning this battle's deserved place as a model campaign in war college curricula.


In the winter of 1942–1943, the Soviets conclusively won the Battle of Stalingrad. One complete German army under Friedrich Paulus had been lost, along with about 91,000 German and 144,000 Axis troops captured, seriously depleting Axis strength in the east. With an Allied invasion of Europe clearly looming, Hitler realized an outright defeat of the Soviets before the Western Allies arrived had become unlikely, and he decided to force the Soviets to a draw.

In 1917, the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, shortening their lines and thereby increasing their defensive strength. They planned on repeating this strategy in Russia 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 of 1943, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had completed an offensive during 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 200km (120mi) wide and 150km (90mi) deep Soviet-held salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and von Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south.

Preliminary Actions

An advance patrol of the Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Großdeutschland" takes to the road in an amphibian Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

It took four months before the Germans felt ready, by which time they had collected 200 of the new Panther tanks (only 40 available at the beginning of the battle due to technical problems with the new type), 90 "Elefant" Panzerjägers and every flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft, as well as 270 Tigers, late model Panzer Mark-IVs and even a number of captured T-34. In total they assembled some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 800,000 men. It formed one of the greatest concentrations of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.

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 Soviets' longed-for second front, the battle there did begin to tell, and in the last quarter of 1942 and the first half of 1943, the Luftwaffe lost over 40% of its total strength in the battles over Malta and Tunisia. German air superiority was no longer guaranteed. The Soviet Air Forces far outnumbered the Luftwaffe, and were quickly gaining in technology as well, with a very effective series of ground-attack aircraft capable of decimating German armor, such as the much feared Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.

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

Preliminary fighting started on 4 July 1943 in the south, as Fourth Panzer Army had elected to try to take the Soviet outposts prior to the main assault on July 5. Thus they deliberately sacrificed tactical surprise. However, the Soviet forward positions were on small hills overlooking German assembly areas, so it is likely surprise would have been lost in any case.

In the afternoon, Stuka dive bombers blew a two-mile-wide gap in the front lines on the north in a short period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Hoth'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 stiff resistance until assault troops equipped with flamethrowers cleared the bunkers and outposts.

At 22:30, the Soviets hit back with an artillery bombardment in the north and south. This barrage, by over 3,000 guns and mortars, expended up to one-half of the artillery supply 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 targeted. The result was much weaker German artillery fire on the opening day of the attack. Also, German units attacked at staggered times on July 5 due to the disruption caused by this bombardment. In the south, the Soviets 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.

The real battle opened on 5 July 1943. The Soviets, now aware even of the exact time of the planned German offensive, launch a massive attack by the Soviet Air Force on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area, in an attempt to turn the tables on the old German “trick” of wiping out local air support within the first hour of battle. The next few hours turned into possibly the largest air battle ever fought. Neither side was able to establish air superiority over the battlefield.

The Ninth Army attack in the north fell far short of its objectives on July 5. The attack sector had been correctly anticipated by the Soviet Central Front. Attacking on a 45-kilometer-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-control 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. Soviet units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying and inflicting losses on German engineers clearing mines manually. Thus German losses in the Soviet minefields were high.

For example, the German 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion began the attack with 49 Ferdinand self-propelled guns; 37 of them had been lost in the minefields before 17:00 on July 5. Although most of the lost vehicles were mobility kills rather than permanent losses, they were out of action until they could be repaired. While idle they added nothing to German combat power and were easier for Soviet artillery to knock out permanently. Since the Germans were advancing, any repairable vehicles could be fixed and put back into action.

There are a number of factors that explain Ninth Army’s lack of progress. The combination of Soviet defensive planning and, on the German side, the lack of concentration of force were the main factors. German armor was committed piecemeal rather than in strength and often without sufficient infantry support. 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. A major planning error by the Soviet Supreme High Command and the General Staff was their expectation that the main weight of the German attack would come in the north on the Central Front. Thus they concentrated more strength there. Also, the Central front chose to defend the tactical zone (to a depth of 20 km) very heavily, leaving far fewer units in the depths of the defense.

Model's army had fewer tanks than Manstein had in the south, and the Ninth Army also committed major units piecemeal due to some disruption caused by the Soviet pre-emptive artillery barrage. Finally, Ninth Army led with reinforced infantry divisions that were already in the line facing the Soviets, rather than attacking with uncommitted units.

Review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration shows clearly that the Soviet defensive tactics were succeeding. Beginning with a 45-kilometer-wide attack frontage on July 5, on the 6th, Ninth Army attacked on a 40-kilometer front. This dropped to 15 kilometers wide by July 7, and only 2 kilometers each on July 8-9. Each day, the depth of the German advance slowed: 5 kilometers on the first day, 4 on the second, never more than 2 km each succeeding day. By the 10th, Ninth Army was stopped in its tracks.

After a week, the Wehrmacht had moved only 12 km forward, and on the 12th the Soviets launched their own offensive against the Second Panzer Army at Orel. Ninth Army had to withdraw, their part in the offensive 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 in the period 5 to 14 July 1943. However, this failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matériel for the Red Army. Few Soviet guns were captured, and those Soviet units that did retreat did so on orders; they were not overrun. The German attack failed to penetrate beyond the Soviet tactical zone.

In the south, the Voronezh Front fared less well against the Fourth Panzer Army with its LII Corps, XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps. The II SS Panzer Corps attacked on a narrower frontage against two Soviet rifle regiments. The armored spearhead of Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army forced its way forward, and by the 6th had reached some 15 km past the lines. Again, Soviet planning played a big role. In the south the Soviets 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 kilometer 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.

The German forces made steady progress against the Soviet defenses, 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-kilometer-wide attack frontage on July 5, this dropped to 20-kilometers wide by July 7 and 15 km by July 9. Likewise, the depth of the penetration dropped from 9 km on July 5 to 5 km on July 8 and 2-3 km each day thereafter until the attack was cancelled.

Soviet 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 battle 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 battle with 118 Panzers. On July 10, 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 July 5.

Nevertheless, it was obvious that the threat of a German breakthrough in the south had to be reckoned with. The Steppe Front had been formed in the months prior to the battle as a central reserve for such an eventuality. Units of the Steppe Front began movement to the south as early as July 9. This included the 5th Guards Tank Army and other combined-arms armies.

The German flank, however, stood unprotected as the Soviet 7th Guards Army stalled Kempf's divisions, aided by heavy rain, after the Germans had crossed the Donets River. The Fifth Guards Tank Army, reinforced with two additional Tank Corps, moved into positions to the east of Prokhorovka and had started to prepare a counterattack of their own when II SS Panzer Corps arrived and an intense struggle ensued. The Soviets managed to halt the SS—but only just. Little now stood in the way of the Fourth Panzer Army, and a German breakthrough looked like a very real possibility. The Soviets therefore decided to deploy the rest of 5th Guards Tank Army.

On the morning of July 12, II SS Panzer Corps advanced on Prokhorovka at the same time that 5th Guards Tank Army launched a series of attacks as part of multi-front counteroffensive scheduled for July 12 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.

The battle can best be described as a very costly tactical loss but an operational draw for the Soviets. Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their missions that day. Tank losses have been a contentious subject ever since. Soviet losses have been claimed as low as 200 or as high as 822 tanks, but the loss records now show that they were probably from 150 to 300 complete losses, with a similar number damaged. Likewise, German loss claims have reached as low as 80 or into the hundreds, including "dozens" of Tiger Panzers. This number is impossible to establish because of the German philosophy in counting lost tanks. The number of complete losses for the period 10 July-13 July for the LSSAH and Das Reich divisions was three. Additional to that is an unknown number of damaged tanks, many of which would have been lost in repair depots during the subsequent retreat as a consequence of the Soviet post-Kursk counteroffensive Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Nipe puts the number of operational tank reductions in the whole Corps at 70-80, but it is unclear how many of these would have been in short-term or long-term repair. In any event, the losses for both the II SS Panzer Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army in the “greatest tank battle of all time,” fell short of the mythic proportions sometimes attributed to the Prokhorovka engagement.

Significantly, earlier in the battle the attacking German units had been squeezed into ever-narrowing frontages by the defenders. Elite Soviet Guards Airborne units were holding firm on the flanks of the very narrow German penetration. The Germans could not squeeze many units into this narrow front, nor did they have the combat power to widen the penetration. Thus as the attacking Corps moved forward, they continually lost strength due to the need to hold their own flanks.

While the German offensive had been stopped in the north by July 10, in the south the overall battle (of Kursk) still hung in the balance, even after July 12. German forces on the southern wing, exhausted and heavily depleted, nevertheless had 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). Soviet 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.

End of Battle

Field Marshal von Manstein believed the outcome of the offensive phase of Kursk to be much more grey than black and white. For although the Germans were forced to withdraw, the Germans “managed to, at least, partly destroy the mobile units of the enemy’s operational reserves.” However, despite the losses it suffered in the defensive phase of the battle of Kursk, the Red Army managed to go over to a very successful offensive within two weeks, pushing the Germans back to the Dnieper and towards western Ukraine, and Manstein saw the overall campaign as a disaster for the Germans.

By 22 August, utter exhaustion had affected both sides and the battle of Kursk ended. It was followed by a series of successful Red Army operations that led to the crossing of the Dnieper, and the liberation of Kiev during the autumn of 1943.

The campaign was a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped prior to achieving a breakthrough. The Germans, despite using superior armor, were unable to break through the in-depth defenses of the Red Army, and were surprised by the significant operational reserves available to the Soviets in this battle. This was an outcome that few confidently predicted, and it changed the pattern of operation 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.

German casualties listed in German sources during the battle proper (as opposed to the following Soviet counter-offensives north and south of the salient) in the period 5 to 20 July 1943 were between 50,000 and 57,000. German tank write-offs were between 278 and 323. 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 tank were damaged and not able to take part in the battle, at least temporarily. Soviet casualties were 177,847 as listed in Krivosheev. However, Restayn and Moller point out 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 only 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 Soviet casualties in this period would be approximately 235,000 (ie 177,847 plus 58,893). Soviet armor losses, again according to Krivosheev, were 1,614 tanks and assault guns destroyed.

From this point on, a new pattern emerged. The initiative had firmly passed to the Soviets, 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. Both sides had their losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully, as well as the increased aid from the American Lend-Lease program. 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. He continued his interference in military matters progressively, so that by war's end he was involved in tactical decisions. The opposite applied to Stalin, however. 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 Soviet Army gained more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.


Battle map

German Reich

  • 2,700 tanks
  • 800,000 infantry
  • 2,000 aircraft

Soviet Union

  • 3,600 tanks
  • 1,300,000 Infantry and supporting troops
  • 2,400 aircraft


German Reich

German Kursk Eastern Face:

  • 50,000 dead, wounded, or captured
  • 300 tanks
  • 200 aircraft

German Kursk Western Face:

  • 180,000 dead, wounded, or captured
  • 1,600 tanks
  • 1,000 aircraft

Soviet Union

Soviet Kursk Eastern Face:

  • 500,000 dead, wounded, or captured
  • 900 tanks
  • 200 aircraft

Soviet Kursk Western Face:

  • 607,737 dead, wounded, or captured
  • 1,500 tanks
  • 1,000 aircraft

See also

External links