Reviewed by: Michael Jones Author: Lloyd Clark Publisher: Headline Price (RRP): £25
The battle of Kursk was the last great German offensive on the Second World War’s eastern front.
The Wehrmacht had been rebuffed at Moscow and badly mauled at Stalingrad. In July 1943 Hitler threw into the fray his new ‘wonder weapons’ – the Tiger and Panther tank and the Ferdinand self-propelled gun – and launched a massive new assault on Soviet positions.
This was an epic encounter, involving over four million men, some 69,000 guns and mortars,13,000 tanks and 12,000 aircraft. But in a week of furious fighting the führer’s forces were unable to breach formidable Red Army defences.
Hitler’s last gamble had failed, and news of the Allied landings in Sicily forced him to scale down and finally call off his attack. The military initiative firmly passed to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s soldiers would never again relinquish it.
This extraordinary clash is done full justice in Lloyd Clark’s fine book on the battle. Clark, a lecturer at Sandhurst, takes a long view, putting Kursk properly in the context of the origins of the war in the east and the first two years of that bloody and terrible conflict.
The preparations for the offensive are thoroughly described and the atmosphere on the ground perceptively evoked, Clark making particularly good use of veteran testimony.
The battle unfolds with a pulverising barrage of fire. “I was knocked off my feet as though hit by a heavyweight boxer,” one German lieutenant recalled. “A Soviet round struck me in the shoulder, shattering the bone and leaving me gasping for air.”
Clark displays a confident grasp of the broader strategic picture, and his narrative flows seamlessly from the command post to the tank turret. The German attempt to destroy the Red Army’s last defence line at Prokhorovka – a desperate fight that took place, as Clark rightly points out, over several days – forms a fitting finale.
German losses during this ferocious tank battle were subsequently inflated by Soviet propaganda and, as Clark makes clear, the Red Army suffered higher casualties and lost more equipment. But these losses were made good by Stalin’s ruthless war machine, which by 1943 had the greater industrial capacity and reserves in manpower to win a war of attrition against the Nazi regime.
Clark leaves the reader in no doubt of the impact of Hitler’s failure to destroy his opponent – the tide of war had decisively turned.
Clark’s book would have benefited from some of the new archival material unearthed by Russian historian Valeriy Zamulin, in his studies of the battle. But this is an excellent account – lucid and poignant – of ‘the beginning of the end’ of Hitler’s ambitions in the east.
Michael Jones is the author of Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin (John Murray, 2011)