The German offensive code-named “Zitadelle” carried out in the area of Kursk on the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union led to the largest armoured battle fought during World War II. Thousands of tanks, guns, planes and almost 3 million soldiers stood in front of each other. It was also the first test for new German medium tanks – PzKpfw V Panther and a demonstration of the strength of heavy tanks, PzKpfw VI Tiger.
In order to attack the USSR, i.e. to execute Operation Barbarossa, the Germans threw four armoured groups of about 3,000 tanks against the Red Army. Initially the forces of the Third Reich quickly partook eastwards; already in September 1941 the German troops were close to Leningrad, and in November, the 2nd Panzer Army of General Guderian stood near Moscow. The Wehrmacht used its armoured fists perfectly, which, according to Blitzkrieg tactics, were quickly breaking the front and surrounding Soviet forces.
The harsh winter and poor Russian roads stopped the Germans, through which the states of some Hitler’s armoured divisions were reduced by up to 50%. The Red Army managed to lead a victorious counter-attack near Moscow, thus saving its capital and opening a new chapter in the history of the Soviet armoured forces. Both sides of the conflict noticed then that even the best armed German tank of that period, i.e. PzKpfw IV had little chance against the new Soviet tanks T-34/76 and KV. In order to take advantage of this dominance, the Soviet high command (Stavka) started frantic rearmament of the remaining units with these tank models, and the Germans accelerated the development work of the new later dominators of battlefields, i.e. the heavy tank PzKpfw VI Tiger and the medium tank PzKpfw V Panther.
The first major operation, where the Soviet army took advantage of the mass impact of the armoured units, was the surrounding of the German forces during the counter-attack at Stalingrad in November 1942. The Wehrmacht was in reverse, but the brilliant maneuver of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein enabled the Germans to retake Kharkiv, inflict serious losses on the Red Army and set the front as in the summer of 1942. Adolf Hitler and his generals were preparing a major offensive to enable them to regain their strategic initiative at the Eastern Front, which the Wehrmacht lost at Stalingrad.
The preparation of a great plan of operation code-named “Zitadelle” (Citadel) began. This operation assumed the launch of an attack in the Kursk region, the destruction of the Red Army units deployed there and a subsequent attack towards Moscow. However, the weaknesses of the plan were discovered at the very beginning: General Walther Model alerted the command that the Russians had prepared a solid, well-organized defence on the area of the planned attack, thus suggesting a change of plans. General Guderian directly asked Hitler:
“Do you think that people know where the Kursk is at all? It is completely indifferent to the world whether we have Kursk or not!”
Despite these arguments, the Führer was stubborn. Knowing that German soldiers would enter the fortified and well defended terrain, Hitler saw his chances in new tanks, Panthers and Tigers, which were supposed to dominate over the Soviet T-34s and outweigh the scales of victory on the side of the Third Reich. He did not even worry about further warnings of Guderian, who knew that the Panthers were then undergoing the so-called “childhood diseases”, i.e. a big failure resulting from the fact that it was a new, untested machine at that time. While waiting for the delivery of new tanks, Hitler was willing to postpone the day of the beginning of the great offensive.
Eventually, the date of commencement of the operation “Zitadelle” was set for July 5, 1943. The Germans were to attack Soviet positions from both sides. The group leading the attack from the north had at its disposal 747 tanks (including 31 Tigers) and 134 self-propelled guns (including 89 Ferdinands). The southern group was supported by 1303 tanks and 253 self-propelled guns. The operations on land were to be supported by two air fleets of about 1900 aircraft. The task of the Luftwaffe was to eliminate the Soviet aviation from the fight, and then to fight the Red Army’s armoured units.
The German command did not know that the Russians knew the exact content of the order recommending an attack on Kursk. In the Kursk region, units of the Central Front of General Konstantin Rokossovsky and the Voronezh Front of General Nikolai Vatutin waited for the Germans. Behind them, there were armies of the Steppe Front of General Ivan Konev. These forces had 3306 tanks and self-propelled guns.
The Red Army was dug in and prepared to repel the Wehrmacht’s attack, and then carry out a quick counter-attack. In the Kursk region the defenders dug 5000 kilometers of trenches and crossings, laid 4000 mines and stretched incredible amounts of barbed wire. Soviet positions even bent from anti-tank weapons, and the area in front of them was full of anti-tank mines. Wehrmacht tanks were supposed to drive straight into this zealously prepared trap, the success of which was supposed to change the fate of the entire Second World War.
Beginning of the fight
The Russians even knew where and when exactly the enemy would strike. On 5 July, the day the battle began, they were the first to pick up planes and try to attack German airports, where the Luftwaffe machines were ready to take off. The German air force managed to counteract, so an air battle took place, during which the Russians lost more than 430 planes and the Third Reich only 26 that day.
In the morning the German offensive near Kursk began, preceded by an intensive fire from the Red Army. Despite the initial losses, entanglements, trenches, barbed wire, mines and the number advantage of the enemy, the Wehrmacht broke through the Soviet defense in several places. Their disadvantage was the terrain, because the tanks got stuck in the mud, and their pulling out could last even many hours. Additionally, General Guderian’s warning was fulfilled – new medium tanks, Panthers, turned out to be extremely unreliable. An example can be two battalions: the 51st and 52nd, which in the morning of July 5th were equipped with 200 Panthers. On the evening only 40 of them remained in service! Luckily for Hitler’s armoured troops, they managed to repair another 100 overnight.
Another of Hitler’s armoured colossuses, i.e. Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger, proved their worth in the fight. Tigers from a platoon led by the famous Lt. Michael Wittmann near Kursk, started their combat march by eliminating the Soviet anti-tank defense point and breaking the first line of defense. Then they fought a short skirmish with the T-34 platoon, which was forced by them to retreat. During the attack on the second line of Soviet defence, Wittmann was summoned to help another German tank platoon, which was surrounded by several T-34. The tank ace sent two Tigers to attack the Soviet fortifications, and he himself took the course on the trapped platoon. In a few minutes he destroyed three enemy T-34. On that day Wittmann himself destroyed eight T-34 and eight anti-tank guns.
On the second day of the attack the German armoured fist started to lose its impetus. There were sections where Wehrmacht tanks and infantry had minefields in front of them, dug T-34 and anti-tank positions that could not be overcome. Despite this, the attacks led by the Tigers still allowed the Germans to break through the Soviet defense in some places. The tactics of tank formation, which resembled the shape of a bell, turned out to be quite effective. Its core and front consisted of heavy Tigers, and the sides were covered with medium tanks. The superiority of the new German tanks over the Soviet units was sometimes crushing – Michael Wittmann himself, on July 7, again carried death to the Soviet armoured troops and independently destroyed seven T-34 and 19 anti-tank guns.
On July 7, the Germans used a new method of destroying Soviet tanks going to the front. A 57 mm cannon was attached to the Stuka (Junkers Ju 87) dive bomber, and with their help the Red Army’s armoured columns were attacked. The effect exceeded the expectations of the commanders – after many such actions on the battlefield there were a few dozen smoking Soviet vehicles left.
The slow attack of the Germans was slowly losing its strength and the resistance of the Red Army was consolidating. These few days of fighting cost them huge amounts of equipment and resources. The human losses were significant, but still smaller than the Russians. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein decided to bet everything on one card and hit the Red Army with II SS Panzer Corps on Prokhorovka in order to break through in the direction of Kursk. This operation coincided with the Soviet counter-attack – on the order of Stalin, General Vatutin commanded an attack on the German Army Group South.
Tank Battle of Prokhorovka
It was around Prokhorovka that the biggest armored battle of World War II took place. Over a distance of 5 km, over a thousand tanks stood in front of each other, and their clashes were incredibly fierce. German vehicles tried to take advantage of their sniper advantage and keep enemy machines at a distance, but the Soviets were lucky and their tanks pushed forward and drove close to the Germans thanks to the dust that was hovering over the battlefield. Despite this, on July 12th for one destroyed German tank or cannon there were 4-5 lost Soviet armoured vehicles, although the Red Army had twice as much equipment advantage (300 tanks and guns against 600 – 800. Here you can find various data).
The ruthless fighting under Prokhorovka may be evidenced by the fact that the tanks lacking ammunition were battering each other.
Fighting as close as possible, the heavy Tigers could not maneuver as smoothly as the more agile T-34. Their powerful front and side armour was difficult to penetrate, but the Soviets tried to overlap and destroy them, avoiding the fire of the dreadful German 88 mm cannons.
Despite the high failure rate, the efficient Panther units proved to dominate the battlefield. Their accurate and powerful 75 mm cannon was able to break through any enemy tank present on the Kursk battlefield, and not a single hit on the front armour of any of the Panther turned out to be dangerous. As mentioned above, most of them failed due to numerous technical problems. On the German side in the battle took part also medium tanks – Panzer IV and a small number of Panzer III. The Soviets used mainly T-34, still in a weaker version with a 76 mm cannon, which did not give them a big chance in a normal battle against the Tigers and Panthers, but it managed well against Panzers IV.
It should not be forgotten that other vehicles and even animals showed up in the battle. On long distances the only worthy opponent for German armoured colossuses turned out to be the SU-152 self-propelled gun. The missiles fired from the 152 mm cannons had a terrible power – they were able to literally break German tanks in half. After the Battle of Kursk this destroyer was called “Zveroboy “, i.e. from the Russian “beast slayer”, bearing in mind how well it did against the new tanks of the Third Reich. The Germans also used a self-propelled Ferdinand cannon with an 88 mm cannon near Kursk. However, it had a small problem – the designers forgot to put machine guns in it, so it was easily destroyed by infantry.
Interestingly, one of the most effective weapons against the Wehrmacht and SS armoured units were… dogs with which the Russians attached explosives and sent them against German tanks.
The fall of the Citadel
On July 15 the bleeding German Army Group Centre was struck by the Soviet Western and Bryansk fronts. The troops of the Army Group South withdrew to the starting positions before the operation “Zitadelle” and started defending their positions. This was the end of the German offensive near Kursk, and Adolf Hitler himself contributed to its failure, sending some forces to Sicily on July 13, where the Allied landing had just taken place. On the Russian steppes the Third Reich lost 416 000 soldiers, and the Russians – as many as 1 680 000 people. The German armoured forces, supplemented with great difficulty and precisely prepared for the great battle, were incapable of carrying out any offensive actions.
The Red Army Command decided to seize the opportunity to attack the weakened, exhausted opponent. On August 3, a great offensive started through Belgorod and Kharkiv, which within 21 days pushed the Wehrmacht to the west for 140 km. As history has shown, the Russians did not return the strategic initiative to Hitler on the Eastern Front, and Stalin’s hordes ended their march westwards only two years later, in Berlin.