Turning Point of the War?
The battle of Kursk in July and August 1943 is still regarded as the largest land battle in military history. On both sides, a total of more than four million soldiers were employed together with 69,000 guns and mortars, 13,000 tanks and self-propelled guns as well as almost 12,000 aircraft. Another (dubious) distinction of Kursk is that it is surrounded by perhaps more legends than any other operation of the war. Below I will concentrate on its first stage, namely the German offensive, code-named ‘citadel’, which lasted from 5 to 16 July. The outline will follow five questions commonly found in the scholarly literature on the battle.
Question I: What was the force ratio like?
The Soviet superiority was much greater than previously assumed, especially if the entire area of Kursk Orel is taken into consideration. In terms of personnel and tanks, the advantage was 3:1; of aircraft, 4:1; and of guns, 5:1. However, one has to bear in mind that the German inferiority in all the other areas of the Eastern Front was even greater because almost all formations that were fit for an attack had been concentrated at Kursk. In the course of the operation, the Red Army threw several additional armies from its reserves into the battle. It also launched various offensives in other areas of the Eastern Front so that several German armoured divisions had to be withdrawn from Kursk.
Question II: Was the tank battle of Prokhorovka decisive?
The Germans planned a pincer attack against Kursk. The advance from the north was soon halted, whereas the southern group penetrated successfully. As a result, the Red Army had to commit major parts of its strategic reserves within only a few days, beginning with the 5th Guards Tank Army. On 12 July, it clashed with 2nd SS-Panzerkorps at Prokhorovka. For several historians, this tank battle marked the turning point of the Second World War. 800 German and 850 Soviet tanks are reported to have rolled directly towards one another like two avalanches of steel.
During this battle, 400 German tanks are said to have been destroyed on 12 July. This duel is supposed to have ‘finished’ the German armour. True? Well, on the Soviet side, about 750 tanks and assault guns were fighting, on the German side, 186; a ratio of 4:1. After looking at both the German and the Russian archive files, I have come to the conclusion that the battle of Prokhorovka was a fiasco for the superior Soviet formations. The German total losses amounted to three tanks to the 239 Soviet ones.
Question III: Did Hitler stop the offensive due to dramatic losses?
The German total losses during Operation Citadel from 5 to 16 July numbered merely 252 tanks and assault guns as well as 159 aircraft. The casualties in personal amounted to about 54,000 dead, wounded and missing in action. In contrast, the Red Army lost (according to official data) more than 1600 tanks and assault guns, about 460 aircraft and 178,000 men. However, these numbers clearly seem to be too low. More recent Russian studies as well as German comparative calculations come up with a figure of almost 2000 tanks and assault guns, nearly 2000 aircraft and more than 300,000 men. At any rate, the losses of the Red Army at Kursk were several times higher than those of the Wehrmacht, although the Germans had to attack a deeply echeloned web of defensive positions.
Question IV: What was Hitler’s real reason to call off the offensive?
Although there were several reasons, the main factor in Hitler’s decision was the landing of American and British troops on Sicily. Several years ago in Moscow I read a paper about the battle of Kursk in which this hypothesis was dismissed. German sources nevertheless reveal that Hitler declared, before the start of the operation, that he would immediately halt the offensive if the Western Allies landed in Italy. For him, Italy was of greater strategic importance than the Kursk salient. The following comparison is instructive here.
In July and August 1943, the German Luftwaffe lost 702 aircraft on the entire Eastern Front. During the same period of time it lost 3504 aircraft on all the other fronts, most of them in Italy. Although this figure includes numerous accidents not caused by enemy action, it was five times higher than in Russia alone.
Question V: Did Kursk mark the turning point – i.e., the decisive battle – of the second World War?
The clear answer is no. At the time of the battle, Hitler and the German general staff were fully aware of the fact that it was no longer possible to achieve a decisive victory on the Eastern Front, certainly not in a single battle. Therefore, the Army High Command only pursued two limited objectives with this operation:
* On the one hand, it wanted to establish a shorter defensive line by ‘pinching off the Kursk bulge in order to gain troops for deployment against the expected second front in the West; on the other
* It sought to weaken the Red Army concentrated on the Kursk salient by delivering a preventive blow before it could start its expected summer offensive. Launch an attack, in other words, before the avalanche would start rolling. In contrast to the previous summers of 1941 and 1942, the German Wehrmacht in 1943 did not embark on a strategic offensive, but rather dealt an operational preventive blow from the strategic defensive. In this respect, Germany achieved a partial success since the Red Army lost a total of 6064 tanks and assault guns in the area of Kursk in July and August 1943. This decisively weakened the punch of the Soviet summer offensive that followed.
At Kursk, the German units were superior not only in terms of tactics. For the first time, German armour was also able to take the technological lead with the new Panther and Tiger heavy tanks as well as Ferdinand assault guns, which were clearly superior to the Soviet T-34. However, it was not by tank duels that the battle of Kursk – or even the Second World War – was won, but by the production battle in the factories. Thus it was not crucial either that the Red Army (according to official data) took total losses amounting to 96,500 tanks and assault guns during this war. Compare the following numbers: the German arms industry produced 25,000 main battle tanks during the Second World War, whereas the Allies produced more than 200,000 main battle tanks. The German Reich had lost the production battle long before the first shot was fired at Kursk in July 1943. In this respect, the titanic struggle at the Kursk salient was not the turning point of the Second World War, nor even the decisive battle of the Russo-German war.
Colonel Karl-Heinz Frieser is Head of Second World War Studies, Military History Research Institute, Potsdam, Germany
Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Oct 2003
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