The Battle of Kursk was Germany’s last attempt to launch an offensive attack in Russia during World War II. Although the number of tanks that were used in the battle has been disputed, it is generally believed that more tanks were used during the Battle of Kursk than in any other battle in history.
By mid-1943, Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad, its loss of North Africa and a series of defeats in the Atlantic were causing the country to lose prestige and were damaging the morale of Germany’s allies, Italy and Romania.
In order to restore respect, and to discourage Britain and the US from providing more support to the Soviets, German command decided to attack the Kursk salient, a bulge in the Soviet defense, centered around the city of Kursk, which protruded into German lines. The campaign was codenamed Operation Citadel.
The Germans planned to attack the Kursk salient from the north and from the south at the same time, cutting off the base of the salient in a pincer movement.
An important aspect of Operation Citadel was the introduction of new, more powerful weapons. In fact, the Germans delayed the operation in order to make sure that there was enough time for the new weapons, which included the Panzer V (Panther Tank) Panzer VI (Tiger Tank) and the Elephant/Ferdinand Heavy Tank Destroyer, to reach the front.
Although Operation Citadel was originally supposed to have been launched on May 3, 1943, the campaign did not begin until July 4 of that year.
Meanwhile, Soviet intelligence had learned of the German plan, and the delay gave the Soviets time to build a strong defense.
The Soviets placed a huge amount of reserves in the Kursk bulge, dug trenches and laid down anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The Soviet force is believed to have consisted of 1.3 million soldiers, 2,400 planes and 3,600 tanks – including T-34s, KV-1s, T-70s, and some British Churchill tanks.
The Soviets set up an elastic defense – three lines consisting of anti-tank strongpoints with gaps in between them.
The battle began on July 5, with German artillery attempting to break through Soviet lines while an air battle raged above. The attacking force is estimated to have included 900,000 soldiers, 2,000 planes, 10,000 artillery guns and 2,700 tanks – Panzer Is, IIs, IIIs, and IVs, and Panthers and Tigers. The majority of the German tank force consisted of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs.
Although the Tiger and Panther tanks were used effectively against the Soviets – many Soviet anti-tank weapons would simply bounce off the hulls of these tanks- there were not enough of these tanks to have a significant effect on the Soviets.
Although Soviet guns might not have been able to hurt Panther or Tiger tanks, they could destroy the other panzers that were supporting the Panthers and Tigers.
As the German tanks advanced, many were destroyed by mines or became stuck behind obstacles.
By the end of July 5, the Germans had torn gaps in the Soviets’ first line of defense. However, the Germans had suffered many losses and about one fifth of the German panzers were out of action.
About 80 percent of the Panthers were out of service. These tanks often broke down and problems with the cooling system sometimes caused them to catch fire.
On July 6, two more Panzer divisions and a new detachment of Tigers arrived at the front.
Near Ponryi Station, a brigade of 50 Soviet tanks ran into a group of Tiger tanks. The Tigers put 46 of the Soviet tanks out of action.
This escalated to a four-day long tank battle, which is said to have involved more than one thousand armored vehicles.
The Germans were able to press deeper into Soviet positions. However, as Tiger and Panther tanks either were knocked out or broke down, the German advance slowed down.
By the end of the day, the Germans had lost about two fifths of the tanks that they had committed each day.
On July 7, the Germans received reinforcements and some of the damaged panzers were repaired and returned to action. However, by this time the Soviets also had more resources.
In addition, the Soviets were starting to win the air battle, decreasing the amount of air support that could be provided to German forces on the ground.
The Germans attacked again the following day. However, the Soviets continued to receive reinforcements. The panzers had to contend with more Soviet T-34s and anti-tank guns.
Although the Germans were able to move forward, defensive moves by the Soviets took a heavy toll.
Some German formations had to take defensive positions in order to deal with Soviet counterattacks.
On July 10, Soviet tanks and infantry were able to push the northern German forces back to its start line.
The Soviets then saw that the battle had turned in their favor, and they began increasing the force of their counterattacks.
On July 12, an enormous tank battle took place at Prokhorovka.
It has been claimed that the Battle of Prokhorovka was the largest tank battle in history, with between 800 and 850 Soviet tanks battling from 500 to 700 German tanks; however, the number of tanks involved has been disputed, with some saying that there were larger tank battles during the war.
During the fighting, many tank attacks took place at close range, making it easy for armor to be penetrated.
Consequently, both sides lost many tanks. However, the Germans had fewer reserves, so the loss of tanks hurt them more than it hurt the Soviets.
On July 13, Hitler decided that Operation Citadel was costing too much money and distracting the German army from dealing with other issues. He created a new goal – to eliminate Soviet reserves so that they could not launch a counteroffensive. On July 13, he gave an order to end the Operation Citadel.
On July 15, the Soviets launched an attack, using KV-1 tanks, in the Orel region on July 15. The KV-1s ran into a minefield. They were then attacked by German antitank guns. 60 Soviet tanks were destroyed.
Nevertheless, this victory did not help the Germans in the long run, and over the next few days, they were pushed back.
Operation Citadel officially ended on July 16.
On July 22, Hitler gave permission for the Germans to set up an elastic defense like the one that the Soviets had used.
By August 5, the Soviets had taken the city of Orel back from the Germans.
The Soviets took back the city of Kharkov on August 23, 1943. That event is considered to mark the end of the Battle of Kursk.
An estimated 50,000 to 200,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded or were missing in action during the Battle of Kursk.
Estimates of Soviet casualties range from 670,000 to 860,000.
The Soviets lost many more tanks than the Germans as well.
Nevertheless, the Soviets had many more reserves than the Germans and the battle took a much greater toll on the Germans, who were also fighting in Western Europe, than on the Soviets.