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A Symphony From Hell: The Battle of Kursk


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This is a short essay I wrote for my third year WWII history class.


With the arrival of spring in 1943, Russian-German picture was much different in the Eastern Front. The Red Army had stunned Germany and most of the world with its encirclement of General Paulus' 6th Army. It was Russia's first significant victory, but it did not come easy or extinguish the German threat. Germany was still undefeated in summer conditions, and German counter offensives in March 1943 around Kharkov were an important reminder that the Reich was not out of the war. (1) The result of fighting in February and March was that Russia held Kursk, but a large portion of its army was between German forces to the north and south. The Russian position created a large bulge, which Hitler wanted to address as soon as weather permitted. (2) This would lead to the Battle of Kursk, which would become the largest tank battle in history. The significance or this battle in the Eastern Front cannot be denied. Hitler would take a huge gamble, committing a vital portion of his forces to the attack. This gamble, combined with military mistakes, would initiate a defeat that the Wehrmact could not recover from. The German failure also was linked to the Russian strategy and ability to hold off the enormous offensive. Zhukov's planned counter attack would seal Germany's fate, as it would begin in Kursk and lead a Soviet offensive towards Germany. Militarily the battle was critical for both sides success. Many argue that Stalingrad is what shifted the war; it was a significant victory, but it was truly Kursk that turned the tide for Russia and her allies.

            After the Russian victory in Stalingrad, Hitler felt that the best means of a defence against Soviet forces was a limited offence after the winter thaw. He saw the elimination of the Red Armys offensive capability as a priority in the East. (3) Hitler had not given up his aspirations in Russia, and he was still committed to achieving his goal of taking Moscow. The large Russian forces at Kursk had to be dealt with first, and Hitler figured once he cut off the Red Army in the bulge, he would have a clear path to the Russian capital. (4) The German Army also needed to capture men to reduce Russias fighting force and take badly needed equipment. Finally, for morale purposes, a victory at Kursk was needed to restore the Wehrmact's reputation after the Stalingrad defeat. (5) The codename of the offensive was Citadel. Hitler went against the advice of his technical staff and decided to commit all the heavy tanks he could spare. (6) Hitler was well aware that the operation was a huge gamble, in which defeat would cripple the German Army, but he was hoping to acquire a quick and necessary victory before the Anglo-Americans landed in the West. (7) This gamble would not pay off though, as Hitler would make costly errors that would fatally hinder the Kursk offensive, and inevitably put an end to his dream of Lebensraum.

            Problems with Operation Citadel arose from the beginning, as it was frequently postponed. The cause of the delays was due to the unfavorable terrain tied in with the slow replenishment of German forces. (8) Since so much hinged on the offensive, Hitler did not want to engage his forces until he was completely confident. He found a source of confidence with Germany's newly developed Tiger and Panther tanks. (9) The Soviet general, Zhukov, noted this by stating, The enemy particularly pinned his hopes on the Tiger and Panther tanks apparently believing they would stun Soviet forces and make them buckle under. (10) Unfortunately for the German Army, the attack upon Kursk was delayed because of the slow arrival of the new tanks. Waiting for the new tanks in the end would hurt Germany more, as the all-important element of surprise was lost. The most critical mistake that Hitler and the OKW made was in its assessment of the Red Army. German high command had almost no idea that Russia was ready to assume the offensive after defending Kursk. (11) The strong defensive position that Russia had stunned Germany, and it was this, which would lead to the critical counter attack. The Germans lack of preparation was exposed. One German corporal stated, "Our medical staff were unable to cope with all the wounded. One medical orderly told me that the dressing station was like a slaughter house to look at." (12) Unprepared, the German Army sustained losses that they could not recover from. In soldiers alone Germany lost 500,000 men at Kursk. (13) Hitlers plans had failed, and the threat of a renewed assault on Moscow was removed. (14) These mistakes were not the only reason for German failure and Russian success, as it was also Russias ability to finally wage an effective war that played a key role.

            Even with the victory at Stalingrad, Stalin had his doubts about whether or not Russian troops could withstand a massive German attack. (15) This was understandable, as one victory could not erase the series of terrible losses that the Soviets had endured since 1941. Apart from Stalingrad, the Red Army had not been very successful in dealing with Germany. The situation had significantly changed by the time of Kursk though, as the Red Army was finally beginning to look like a formidable fighting force. Soviet combat strategies had improved, and Russian casualties could finally be held at supportable levels. The rate of causalities at Kursk was half that of Moscow. (16) The Red Army was also much more prepared for Kursk then it had been in previous defensives. This was partly due to the time that Germany allowed for the defenses to be formed, but it was also due to the quality of strategy and amount of supply that Russia had. There were two defensive fronts lead by Rokossovski and Vatutin, with a vitally important reserve front under Konev in the rear. (17) The Russian defence system was immense. There were 3 000 miles of trenches, 400 000 mines laid, and so many artillery and anti-tank guns that a curtain of fire would meet the attacking German armour. When the defence was set, there were 1 336 000 men, 3 444 tanks, 2 900 aircraft and 19 000 guns within the Kursk salient. (18) In order to supply such a enormous force, the Red Army's logistics were truly tested. Fortunately for Russia, the Soviet war machine by this time was finally meeting the production needs. In three months prior to the battle, 500 000 railway wagons were loaded with equipment had been brought to Kursk. (19) For the first time, the Soviet air force was well supplied. Kursk would be the first battle where the Soviets could put up more planes in the skies than the Luftwaffe. (20) Zhukov also acknowledged the supply advantage later in his memoirs and wrote, "Although Nazi Germany continued to draw material resources from the majority of the European countries, it could no longer, after such  heavy fighting on the Eastern Front, compete with the Soviet Union whose economic and military might was on the increase." (21) With the sheer numbers and elaborate defenses, the Germans chance of success was minimal.

            The German offensive began on July 5th, and already by July 10th, Rokossovski in the north held up General Kluges advance. The southern Russian section was not faring as well though, and the reserve line had to be called in. This ended any German advance in the south, and by July 12th, Kursk was a clear Russian victory. (22) The Red Army had gambled 40% of its manpower, and 75% of its armoured forces. (23) Like the Germans, it was a huge risk for the Soviets to take, but it would prove to be a risk worth taking. With Germany losing its last chance for success in the East, the massive Russian counter offensive could begin.

            Hitlers misperception of the Red Army and its ability to mobilize for a massive counter offensive would drastically hurt the German forces chance for recovery. This, combined with Russian preparation, turned a counter attack at Kursk into a general Soviet offensive. Once the Russians held off the German attack on Kursk, Zhukov knew that the counter offensive was just around the corner as his plans were falling into place. (24) Before the battle took place, Russian high command saw the Kursk salient as their springboard for their massive counter offensive. (25) By July 9th, the German forces had extended themselves as far as they possibly could go. The Russian counter offensive was timed for July 12th, and when it was launched, the German attack crumbled. On July 13th, Hitler officially cancelled Operation Citadel. Zhukov and Vasilevsky then activated their plan, which was titled Operation Kutuzov. The object was to destroy German concentrations around Orel and Briansk, which would unhinge the whole German central front. (26) The Russians were also able to launch an effective counter offensive because of their ability to repair their T-34 tanks. The Red Army did sustain heavy damage from the German attack, but they were able to repair lightly damaged tanks by the end of July. On July 5th, they had 3 800 tanks at their disposal. With heavy fighting, by July 13th, they only had fewer than 500 active tanks. This was a considerable loss, but by August 3rd with repairs, they were able to bring the number of tanks back up to 2 750. (27) The Soviets finally had the advantage in the war, and on August 25th, Zhukov was summoned to HQ to discuss further objectives with the Soviet offensive, which was gaining significant momentum. (28)

            Both sides had taken huge military risks at Kursk, each gambling huge portions of their fighting force. The failure of Operation Citadel marked the beginning of the lengthy period of continuous retreat for the Wehrmacht. (29) The German Reich would not be able to expand anymore in the East, and it also had to worry about guarding its western territory from the other Allies. Germany had to send fourteen divisions and other reinforcements from other fronts to the East, leaving defenses more exposed in France and Italy. (30) Kursk turned the tide of the war, as the German Army was spread too thin. German morale was beginning to suffer, " by the late summer of 1943 the morale of the whole Wehrmacht from top to bottom, had suffered permanent change... hope was tainted, and humanity where vestiges of it remained, was extinguished." (31) In Russia morale soared, as it was becoming evident that the German invaders had been stopped and were retreating. Russia made considerable gains within the year, as after five months of continuous campaigning, almost two thirds of the area occupied by Axis forces had been cleared. (32) Hitler would only see defeat after defeat until his death in 1945.

            The battle of Kursk had ended Germanys expansion and would dictated its fate in the war. It is one of the most militarily significant battle in the whole Second World War. As the largest tank battle in history, it is not only important because of the numbers of manpower and resources involved, but it critically wounded Germany beyond recovery. Hitler knew he had to gamble his Eastern forces in order to stop the Red Armys mobilization, which was starting to finally come around, before the Western Allies made their landing. Unfortunately for Germany, they made costly mistakes before the battle, while Russia was doing the opposite. Soviet production had finally increased, which contributed to the vast defence prepared and the Red Army's strategy had vastly improved. Finally, the fact that Hitler ruled out a Russian summer counter offensive from happening, was his gravest mistake. Not prepared for such a massive Russian offensive on the heels of Kursk, the Wehrmacht would begin its long retreat back to Berlin. Kursk had not immediately won the war for the Soviets and its allies, but since it was able to destroy such a large portion of the German Army in a relatively quick time, while recovering quickly itself, it could launch an immediate counter offensive that would give the Red Army the military advantage all the way back to Berlin, brining an end to the Third Reich.

[1] Richard Overy, Russias War (New York, 1997), 187.

[2] Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, Total War (London, 1972), 478.

[3] Albert Seaton, The Russo-German War 1941-45 (London, 1971), 354.

[4] Calvocoressi and Wint, 478.

[5] Seaton, 354.

[6] Ibid., 357.

[7] Ibid., 367.

[8] Alexander Werth, Russia at War 1941-45 (New York, 1964), 680.

[9] Alan Clark, Barbarossa (New York, 1965), 323.

[10] G.K. Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (London, 1971), 466.

[11] Seaton, 367.

[12] Werth, 479.

[13] Calvocoressi and Wint, 479.

[14] Harold Shukman, Stalins Generals (London, 1993), 189.

[15] Ibid., 282-3.

[16] Overy, 214.

[17] Calvocoressi and Wint, 478.

[18] Overy, 201.

[19] Werth, 681.

[20] Calvocoressi and Wint, 479.

[21] Zhukov, 466.

[22] Calvocoressi and Wint, 479.

[23] Overy, 201.

[24] Zhukov, 466.

[25] Werth, 679.

[26] Overy, 204, 210.

[27] Clark, 345.

[28] Zhukov, 477.

[29] Rolf-Dieter Muller and Gerd R. Ueberschar, Hitlers War in the East 1941-1945 (Oxford, USA, 1997), 127.

[30] Zhukov, 476.

[31] Clark, 366.

[32] Overy, 211, 220.




Calvocoressi, Peter and Guy Wint. Total War. London: Penguin Press, 1972.


Clark, Alan. Barbarossa. New York: Quill, 1965.


Muller, Rolf-Dieter  and Gerd R. Ueberschar. Hitlers War in the East 1941-1945. Oxford, USA:          

            Berghahn Books, 1997.


Overy, Richard. Russias War. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.


Seaton, Albert. The Russo-German War 1941-45. London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1971.


Shukman, Harold. Stalins Generals. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 1993.


Werth, Alexander. Russia at War 1941-45. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1964.


Zhukov, G.K. The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1971.