Implications for Military and Strategic Thought

Implications for Military and Strategic Thought

Bellamy, Christopher

The great Battle of Kursk, which began just over sixty years ago, is often thought of, simplistically, as the greatest ever ‘tank battle’. Such a conclusion is naive, although it did, indeed, include the greatest ever clash of tanks, at Prokhorovka field on 12 July, one of just three historic ‘fields’ in Russian military history, along with Kulikovo (1380) and Borodino (1812). But it was so much more.

The battle, overall, involved huge ground and air forces in an area 600 kilometres across, including the Kursk salient, focus of the Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation from 5 to 23 July 1943, and the two Soviet counter-offensive operations on the north and south faces, from 12 July to 18 August and 3-23 August, respectively. In total, it was a battle on the same scale as the combined Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel and the Israeli response in October 1973.

Kursk was, at both the tactical and operational levels, a combined-arms battle, par excellence. It was also an important air battle, when air superiority shifted decisively from the Germans to the Soviet forces. Strategically, grand-strategically and politically it was far more complex than the simple, symmetric clash between Soviet and German regular forces often portrayed. Pro-Soviet partisans waited until the Red Army launched its counterattack before striking behind German lines when the Germans were at their most vulnerable, as they withdrew. Partisans fighting for Ukrainian independence, and opposed to the Soviets, formed a hazard behind advancing Soviet troops and succeeded in ambushing and fatally wounding the commander of the Voronezh Front (Army Group), General Nikolay Vatutin (1901-43). The very nearly successful precision air attack on General Rokossovsky’s billet in the village of Svoboda indicates spies were active on both sides.

At the grand-strategic level, the two phases of the battle coincided pretty exactly with the western Allied capture of Sicily, which diverted German troops away from the Eastern Front. By the time the Soviet counter-offensive operations ‘Kutuzov’, in the north, and ‘Rumyantsev’, in the south were complete, on 18 and 23 August 1943, respectively, the western Allies had completely captured Sicily and were poised to move onto the Italian mainland.

Looked at in this way, the Battle of Kursk begins to look more like a model for the complex integrated operations of our own time. Both the Germans and the Soviets were involved in their own ‘two-block war’: the symmetric clash with the regular enemy and the Bandenbekampfung – anti-partisan operations, and territorial occupation, or re-occupation – on both sides, by the Wehrmacht and SS, by the Red Army and NKVD. The third block humanitarian operations – was rather less pronounced than it might be today.

If you are one of those people who believe that in military planning and strategy ‘manoeuvrist’ is always ‘good’ and ‘attrition’ is always ‘bad’, then look away now. Neither side looks very ‘manoeuvrist’. The Germans were determined to cut out the huge bulge or salient around Kursk, partly so they could shorten the frontage they had to defend, and partly because, in so doing they hoped to encircle and destroy the largest single grouping of Soviet troops and so much hardware that the Soviet Union would be dealt a mortal blow. As the Soviet General Staff’s appraisal of the German plan analyzed it:

By accomplishing this principal strategic mission, the German command counted on raising the Army’s prestige, strengthening the bloc of Axis powers, and reestablishing the undermined authority of Hitler’s leadership in Germany and that of Quisling governments in the occupied European countries.1

In other words, it was meant not only to tidy up the battlefront and to achieve decisive attrition but, by so doing, strike a massive psychological blow. Its ultimate aim was psychological ‘shock and awe’, or, as we now call it, ‘Effects-Based Warfare’.2

Subsequently, the Germans apparently intended to regroup, bring up reserves, and develop the offensive to the north-east to envelop Moscow from the south. It is difficult to see how feasible this would have been, as they had already committed 70 per cent of their tanks and 65 per cent of their aircraft on the Eastern Front for the Kursk operation.3

Furthermore, for the first time ever, the Soviets were able to deploy an entire Front – the Steppe Front, under Marshal Koniev – as a reserve, in case of such an eventuality.

The Soviet strategy was not traditionally ‘manoeuvrist’ either. If two words spring to mind, they are position and attrition. The official Soviet General Staff study on the battle, now released and available in English, confirms that in March 1943 the Stavka of the Supreme High Command decided

to meet the enemy attack in a wellprepared defence bridgehead, to bleed attacking German groupings dry, and then to launch a general offensive. The defeat of enemy shock groups created favourable prerequisites for developing new, extensive offensive operations. Thus, our defence was prepared with the intention of a subsequent shift to the offensive.4

Thus, the Soviet command adopted a deliberate policy of attrition. For my inaugural lecture, in a fit of political incorrectness, I decided to examine attrition through military history.5 It seems to me there are three types of attrition which can be plotted on as shown in figure 1. Type 1 we might call proportional attrition. To wear the enemy down in battle accepting a substantial, equal or even greater rate of attrition yourself knowing that in spite of that you will last longer. This type of attrition is exemplified by the Union in the American Civil War.6 Type 2 attrition is unbalanced. You inflict a vastly greater rate of attrition on the enemy through vastly superior technology and planning. This is the policy of countries like the US and UK today, exemplified by the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars, the 1999 war over Kosovo, and the 2001 campaign in Afghanistan. Type 3 attrition I will call asymmetric or, as the French might say, dissymmetric. This is the strategy used by the weaker side, whether numerically, technologically or both. It is used to stretch and tire the enemy using ‘hit and run’ tactics before finally engaging him. Most guerrilla and terrorist strategies use type 3 attrition, but so, too, did Prussia’s Frederick the Great.

In this model, the Soviet strategy for Kursk lies somewhere between Type 1 and Type 3. They suffered greater casualties than the Germans, but knew they could afford them (Type 1). At the same time, they struck asymmetrically where they could, with the use of pro-Soviet partisans, for example, and knowing that superior German technology, such as the Tiger tank, was in very short supply.

In order to achieve this the Soviet command fortified the salient as shown in figure 2, with five to six defensive ‘belts’ each three to five kilometres deep. Most of the engineering effort went into the first thirty kilometres the ‘tactical zone’, with field defences, mines and anti-tank guns, often cleverly sited in enfilade positions.7

The Germans managed to penetrate a maximum of 13 km in the north, and about 30 km in the south, as far as Prokhorovka. The defence in the north was particularly successful, in part because the commander of the Central Front, holding the north face, General (later Marshal) Konstantin Rokossovsky concentrated more than a third of his available artillery barrels on the one-tenth of his front where he knew, from good intelligence, the Germans were bound to attack.8 Two key lessons emerge here. First, the importance of intelligence. The Soviets knew of the imminence and configuration of a German attack in fair detail from the Lucy spy ring. In addition, battlefield intelligence enabled them to pinpoint the exact time of the attack – in the case of the north face, to 0200 on 5 July. Although some authorities assert the Soviets fired their artillery ‘counter preparation’, to smash up the Germans as they were deploying to attack, too early, there is no doubt that the pre-emptive artillery bombardment severely dislocated the German attacks.

The second key point concerns delegation and Auftragstaktik. Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, Stalin’s deputy, was the representative of the Soviet High Command (the Stavka) with the role of co-ordinating the operations of the fronts. When Rokossovsky explained his daring concentration of defensive force, Zhukov simply said ‘fine’. There was no need to interfere.

In terms of how the Battle of Kursk was fought, the new information from the Soviet General Staff study and the seminal work on Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses, The ‘Secret’ Stamp is Lifted,9 have provided much new and reliable detail. The tank clash at Prokhorovka on 12 July appears to have been overemphasized. As the Germans -in the form of II SS Panzer Corps -reached their deepest point of penetration, Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank army – from the reserve Steppe Front – smashed into them. While this represented the culminating point of the whole battle, the Soviet General Staff Study dismisses the episode coolly. ‘On 12 July, 5th Guards Tank Army failed to accomplish its assigned mission’.10 Furthermore, the total number of tanks in the area has been exaggerated. The General Staff study says 1200-1300: David Glantz, in his note, revises the figure down to 600 Soviet from the engaged corps of 5 GTA, and 250 German from the three divisions of II SS Panzer Corps. Soviet losses were around 400 and German losses about 70.11

As the Soviet period was drawing to its close, Soviet military planners were encouraged to develop a more ‘defensive’ model of military strategy, to replace the somewhat intimidating stance the Soviet Union had taken during the Cold War. In 1988, Major General Valentin Larionov and one of the new breed of Russian civilian defence analysts, Andrei Kokoshin, published a seminal article in which they set out four ‘defensive’ models.12 The first was a pre-emptive attack. Not really very defensive. The second was initial defence, within your own territory, and then a counter attack, into enemy (-held) territory. The Batle of Kursk was the chosen model. The third was an attack to encircle and destroy the enemy entirely within one’s own territory. The chosen model was Zhukov’s great encirclement of Japanese forces within the boundary claimed by the Soviets and Mongolians at Khalkin Gol in 1939. The fourth model was truly ‘defensive defence’ – a Maginot-line type strategy.

Had Kokoshin and Larionov been writing now, they would, of course, have had to consider a fifth option, inserted at the top – even less ‘defensive’ than a pre-emptive strike. That would have been not just pre-emptive – attacking an enemy posing an overwhelming and imminent threat – but preventive. Attacking an ‘enemy’ who might pose a threat at some time in the future. An ‘enemy’, for example, who might launch chemical and biological weapons at forty-five minutes’ notice. Even if he hasn’t got any, yet…

On that note, I shall conclude. The Battle of Kursk still offers many key lessons for current strategic and doctrinal debate, as we can see. It perhaps underlines the old saying that ‘there is nothing quite so dangerous as a Russian on the defensive’.


1. David M Glantz and Harold S Orenstein (eds.), The Battle for Kursk 1943. The Soviet General Staff Study (London: Frank Cass, 1999), p. 54.

2. See Proceedings of Effects-Based Warfare. Tri-Service Conference at Heythrop Park, 7-9 May 2003. Proceedings to be published by joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre (forthcoming).

3. Glantz and Orenstein, op. cit, p. 54.

4. Ibid., pp. 28-29, emphasis in original.

5. In Praise of Attrition. Prof Christopher Bellamy, Inaugural lecture, Cranfield University, Shrivenham, 14 June 2001.

6. Ibid. Note the secretary’s summary of President Abraham Lincoln’s remarks after the Battle of Fredericksburg in late December 1862. ‘If the same battle were to be fought over again, everyday, through a week…the war would be over…at a smaller cost of life than… if the week of lost battles must be dragged out through yet another year of camps and marches and deaths in hospitals… No general yet found can face the arithmetic… ‘ Peter Tsouras (ed.), The Greenhill Dictionary of Military Quotations, (London/Stackpole, Pennsylvania: Greenhill Books, 2000), p. 48.

7. The author has visited both the north and south faces of the salient four times with those of his students taking the Russian elective module on the Cranfield Global Security MSc.

8. Glantz and Orenstein, op. cit., diagram on p. 165. Rokossovsky had 86.4 tubes per km on this crucial 32 km of front, making 2764 barrels. On the remaining 276 km he had about 4,300 barrels. The Voronzh Front, on the south face, concentrated a maximum of 50.6 tubes per kilometre over 115 km.

9. Col-Gen G F Krivosheyev, Grif sekretnosti snyat. Poteri vooruzhennykh sil SSSR v voynakh, boyevykh deystviyakh I voyennykh konfliktakh (Voyenizdat, Moscow, 1993), trans. As Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century (London/ Stackpole, Pennsylvania: Greenhill Books, 1997).

10. Glantz and Orenstein, op. cit., p. 226.

11. Ibid., pp. 102, 128. It is worth remembering that all the great ‘field’ battles – Kulikovo, Borodino-and, it seems, Prokhorovka, were not really Russian victories, but heroic draws.

12. Andrei Kokoshin and Maj-Gen Valentin Larionov ‘Extracts from the Book Problems of Preventing War’, in Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya (World Economy and International Relations), (MEMO), 6, 1988, pp. 23-31.

Christopher Bellamy is Professor of Military Science and Doctrine and Director of the Security Studies Institute, Cranfield University

Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Oct 2003

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