Kursk, 1943: the biggest tank battle in history?
The Second World War saw one of the most epic tank battles in history, as the Germans and the Soviets clashed near Kursk. Julian Humphrys tells the story…
The summer of 1943 saw the German army mount a risky operation that made even Hitler nervous. “Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over,” he told a subordinate. Soviet advances after the battle of Stalingrad and subsequent German counter-attacks had left a huge salient, or bulge, sticking out into the German-held territory around Kursk in Ukraine. Hitler’s plan, which was code-named Operation Citadel, was to mount attacks from the north and south in order to cut off and surround the Russian troops in the salient. Success would also give the overstretched German army a shorter front line to man.
To build up the force to carry out this ambitious plan, the Germans brought in troops, tanks and planes from other sectors of the front. In the end, 70 per cent of all their tanks and nearly two-thirds of their aircraft in the east were committed to the operation. But would it be enough? Conventional military wisdom states that, to have a chance of success, an attacking force needs to outnumber the defender by three-to-one but, at Kursk, the invaders had no such advantage. Despite their efforts, the Germans around Kursk were still heavily outnumbered.
With thick armour and a powerful gun, the German Tiger I was a monster. But it was expensive to build and fewer than 1,500 were produced during the war.
Hoping quality would defeat quantity, the Germans put their faith in their new tanks – medium Panthers, heavy Tigers and monstrous ‘Ferdinand’ self-propelled guns (essentially a huge gun fixed to a tank chassis).
They hoped these cutting-edge war machines would overwhelm the Russian defences, creating a breakthrough that the rest of their armoured force could then exploit.
But the Russians were ready for them. The salient had always seemed the obvious place for the Germans to attack, and Russian intuition was confirmed by intelligence passed to them by their western allies.
In order to build up his forces and allow the new German tanks to join his army, Hitler delayed the push. The Russians used their extra time well, constructing some of the most formidable field defences ever put in place by a defending army.
Before they could get anywhere near the Russian fortifications around Kursk, the attacking Germans would have to fight their way through miles of anti-tank ditches, minefields and barbed wire entanglements all while doing battle with thousands of tanks and facing fire from the 25,000 guns the Russians had assembled in the area. In key places, there were anti-tank guns every 10 metres.
The German attacks began in earnest early on 5 July and, almost immediately, it became clear they had underestimated their Russian adversaries. A massive Soviet counter-bombardment began shortly before the attack was due to start, confirming the Germans had achieved no surprise whatsoever, and the extensive field defences in their path ensured progress was painfully slow.
While it was true that the heavy German tanks often proved impervious to the Soviet antitank guns – one Russian soldier described how 45mm shells bounced off the Tiger tanks like peas – their tracks remained vulnerable to the anti-tank mines. Another threat came from the Soviet soldiers, who ran forward with spare mines to place in the attacker’s path, or to throw grenades, Molotov cocktails and satchels of explosives at the advancing German tanks.
Lacking a hull-mounted machine gun, the Ferdinands fared particularly badly, as they were unable to repel these primitive-but-effective infantry attacks.
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Rain or shine
The weather during the battle alternated between blazing heat and pouring rain, coating the combatants in dust on one day, bogging them down in mud the next. Inside the scorching tanks, heat exhaustion was commonplace as sweating crewmen struggled to load the tank guns with their heavy shells. Many debilitated Germans kept going by taking Pervitin. Nicknamed Panzerschokolade or ‘tank chocolate’ by the soldiers, these highly addictive pills contained methamphetamine, helping to fight fatigue and increase self-confidence. More than 200 million were handed out during the war.
Never before or since have so many armoured vehicles – more than 800 in all – clashed at pointblank range
After four days’ heavy fighting, the German attack from the north, led by Field Marshal Walter Model, began to run out of steam. His men had inflicted terrible casualties on the Russians, having destroyed hundreds of tanks, but the Soviet numerical advantage was just too great. No sooner had the Germans destroyed a unit of Russian tanks than another appeared in its place. Russian reserves of men and equipment seemed limitless.
Key playersBetween them, these four men commanded around 2.8 million men, 8,000 tanks and 4,200 aircraft…
Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein
Commander of the southern German pincer. He had been key in the defeat of France in 1940 and, earlier in 1943, had stabilised the front after German failure at Stalingrad.
Field Marshal Walter Model
Commander of the northern German pincer. Nicknamed the Führer’s Fireman, Hitler considered Model one of his best generals. He committed suicide at the end of the war.
General Nikolai Vatutin
Soviet Commander of the southern sector of the Kursk salient. He was mortally wounded in an attack by Ukrainian nationalists in February 1944.
General Konstantin Rokossovsky
Soviet Commander of the northern sector of the Kursk salient. He had survived arrest, torture and imprisonment during Stalin’s purge of army officers in 1937.
To make matters worse, the Germans were now coming under fire from ground-attack aircraft. After advancing a mere eight miles, the German attack ground to a halt.
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s forces in the south ran into the same difficulties but, after a slow start, the pace of their advance began to pick up. On 7 July, it briefly looked as though von Manstein’s troops might break through the main Russian defence zone. But the Soviets rapidly deployed reinforcements, and the German advance slowed once again.
Even so, they pushed on and, by 11 July, the armoured divisions of the elite II SS Panzer Corps had reached the outskirts of the small town of Prokhorovka, 50 miles south east of Kursk.
That night, as the German forces rested in a forest before attacking Prokhorovka, they heard an ominous sound – the rumble of hundreds of tank engines. The Russians were planning a counterattack of their own.
The following day, the two sides clashed in what has often been described as the largest tank battle in history. In fact, other battles had involved more tanks, but never before or since have so many armoured vehicles – more than 800 in all – clashed at pointblank range.
That this was the case was down to the Russians. They believed that if they fought at a distance they would simply be picked off by the German tanks’ superior guns. This, they believed, was their only chance to get in close where their own guns would be more effective.
As the German tanks emerged from the forest and moved into open ground, General Rotmistrov, Commander of the Russian 5th Guards Tank Army gave the code word “Stal, Stal, Stal” (‘Steel, Steel, Steel’), and 600 Russian tanks charged towards the Germans.
Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the son of the German foreign minister, commanded a company of tanks in the battle, and he later described the scene: “We halted on the slope and opened fire, hitting several of the enemy. A number of Russian tanks were left burning… I looked around as was my habit. What I saw left me speechless. From beyond the shallow rise about 150-200 metres in front of me appeared 15, then 30, then 40 tanks. Finally there were too many to count. The T-34s were rolling towards us at high speed.”
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Soon the battle degenerated into a confused melee; tanks burned on all sides and all command was lost. Some tanks rammed each other, others exploded as their ammunition caught fire, sending their turrets flying into the air.
Crewmen escaped from their blazing tanks with their clothes on fire and desperately rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames. Others were less fortunate and died, screaming, in their blazing iron coffins. When dusk finally brought an end to the fighting, the two sides pulled apart.
The fields had become a tank graveyard; they were littered with burned-out hulks, some still pouring black, oily smoke into the air. Despite having lost some 200 tanks to the Germans’ 50, the Russians remained unbeaten.
The following day Hitler called off the operation. The Russians were already counter-attacking north of Kursk and, with the news that the Allies had invaded Sicily, Hitler needed to withdraw troops from the eastern front to defend Italy.
When the Russians also began a counter-attack south of Kursk, the exhausted Germans had no choice but to carry out a fighting retreat – they fell back 150 miles on a 650-mile front in two-and-a-half months. The great German gamble had failed.
What happened next?
In their failed bid to eliminate the Kursk salient, the Germans had suffered disastrous losses in men, tanks and planes. While Soviet casualties had been much heavier, they were better able to make good their losses. Unlike the Germans, they enjoyed a vast pool of manpower, plus their arms industry wasn’t hampered by a shortage of raw material nor was it regularly disrupted by enemy bombing.
The Germans were now firmly on the defensive, and defeat was only a matter of time. Though they would continue to win local successes, the Germans were steadily pushed back by the sheer numbers that the Russians deployed against them. The following summer, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, a major offensive in Belorussia (today, Belarus). The German front caved and, in just five weeks, the Russians advanced over 435 miles to the outskirts of Warsaw. Eight months later, they were at Berlin’s door.
The appearance of the Soviet T-34 tank in 1941 had come as a major shock to the German high command. The T-34 was superior to their own tanks and its effectiveness was only really restricted by the poor training of its crews.
Faced with this challenge, the Germans quickly began work to improve the design of their existing tank models and produced new tanks that could take on and beat the T-34. One of the most famous was the Mark V Panther. With better armour and a more powerful gun than the T-34, the highly useful tank was more than a match for its Russian enemy on the battlefield. But it was not without its problems. Rushed into service without proper testing, it could be unreliable and many Panthers broke down before they even reached the action.
Hitler's Praetorian Guard: the Waffen-SS
The Waffen-SS was the military wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – the Nazi party’s vast paramilitary organisation. Though under operational control of the German army, the Waffen-SS remained a separate entity, ultimately responsible to Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS.
Normally identifiable by the lightning flashes or skulls on their collars, or their mottled camouflage combat uniforms, these soldiers held a fearsome fighting reputation at the time of the battle at Kursk. Three SS divisions fought there, and many of the members captured by the Soviets were shot out of hand.
Action in the air
Kursk may be known for the size of its tank battles, but the clashes in the skies were also some of the largest in history. Both sides had assembled thousands of planes, which duelled in the air, attacked enemy airfields and swooped down to bomb and machine-gun enemy targets on the ground.
Though their orders were to concentrate on ground targets, the Luftwaffe initially took a heavy toll of the Soviet air force. But they were hampered by a lack of fuel and gradually the Russians gained air superiority. Soon they were bombing German airfields on a nightly basis.
Julian Humphrys is a British military history expert
This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed magazine