Battle of Kursk: The Largest Tank Battle in History

The Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943 was one of the biggest battles in World War II, if not history, with over 8,000 tanks being deployed.

Jan 31, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
battle of kursk

 

With the loss of over 600,000 soldiers, the Battle of Stalingrad was an unmitigated disaster for the German war effort against the Soviets. With dwindling supplies, logistical nightmares, and an increasingly powerful enemy, the Germans knew they needed to achieve a spectacular victory to keep the Soviets from advancing westwards.

 

In June 1943, the Germans threw the dice in their last gamble. Gathering all the forces they could muster, with thousands of tanks and almost one million men, the Germans struck the Soviet line along the Kursk salient.

 

Meeting them in combat was a determined and well-organized force that outnumbered them two to one. This was the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history.

 

Background to the Battle of Kursk

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The situation around Kursk in the summer of 1943, via Emerson Kent

 

Fighting on the front line in 1943 saw the development of a Russian salient, extending westwards around the city of Kursk. For the Germans, keeping their offensive alive was a desperate task after the crushing defeat at Stalingrad. The Germans devised Operation Citadel, where they would enact a pincer movement. This push would involve advancing northward from Belgorod and southward from Orel to meet up in Kursk in the middle of a 160-mile stretch. This action would create a cauldron and cut off all the Soviet soldiers within it, forcing the surrender of a significant portion of the Soviet army.

 

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The Germans wanted to launch the offensive in April, but the terrible supply situation pushed this date back to July, when the Germans finally finished their preparations. They had, according to military historian David M. Glantz, amassed an army of 780,000 troops, 2,928 tanks, and 7,417 artillery pieces. These were arranged into a total of 37 infantry and panzer divisions and were supported by 1,800 aircraft.

 

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The plan for Operation Citadel, the German attempt to encircle the Soviets by capturing Kursk, via tarnmoor

 

The months of German buildup to the offensive gave the Soviets plenty of time to prepare, and they had a good idea of what the Germans were trying to do. After ditching an idea for a pre-emptive attack, the Soviets prepared defensive fortifications and dug in.

 

They laid minefields and built anti-tank ditches and bunkers. They prepared for likely avenues of attack and created defenses to funnel the enemy into kill zones. With all the defensive positions prepared and covered and with masses of reserves ready, the Soviets had almost two million soldiers, 5,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 3,500 aircraft to defend the salient.

 

Both German and Soviet numbers would increase during the battle as more reserves arrived, boosting the strength of both armies.

 

The Battle Begins

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Marshals Konstantin Rokossovsky (left) and Georgy Zhukov (right), who led the Soviet efforts at Kursk, via russiainphoto.ru

 

On July 4, 1943, the German attack began in the south with efforts to capture the high ground. These actions were successful, and the Germans managed to establish artillery positions. Late in the evening, the Soviets launched a major artillery and rocket barrage of the German forward positions, focusing on the II SS Panzer Corps.

 

In the north, a major artillery duel started, but the Soviets failed to completely disrupt the German forces, and after a particularly heavy artillery preparation, the Germans began their advance.

 

The Soviet Air Force (VVS) launched a pre-emptive strike on the Luftwaffe airfields but failed to obtain any significant results. On the southern flank, the Luftwaffe had air superiority for several days after the initial start of the operation, while in the north, the air forces were evenly matched.

 

The Battle Develops

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Soviet soldiers during the Battle of Kursk, via the Moscow Times

 

On the morning of July 5, the major offensive began. In the north, Field Marshal Walter Model’s 9th Army pushed southwards with ten divisions. Leading the advance were the unmatched and formidable Tiger tanks.

 

Minefields slowed the advance, as did a Soviet counterattack which was thoroughly defeated. The German attack penetrated about six miles before stalling. Soviet artillery bombardments and minefields slowed the German advance to a crawl.

 

The following day, the Red Army counterattacked. Poor coordination, however, hampered the attempt, and of 200 Soviet tanks committed to the attack, the Germans knocked 69 of them out of action.

 

The Germans then launched attacks of their own against Soviet troops at Olkhovatka and Ponyri, but the rugged defense forced the Germans back with heavy losses. Taking these towns, however, was vital for the German advance, and renewed efforts started on July 7. The Soviets, under Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, viewed these settlements as equally vital, and forces were pulled from other areas to reinforce the defenses there.

 

The battle for Ponyri went back and forth several times, with the Germans finally taking the town on July 10. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

 

Heavy German attacks on Olkhovatka, however, failed. With high losses, the German command realized they lacked the necessary power to achieve a breakthrough. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge decided to keep up the pressure to draw more Soviet defenses away from the southern front where it was hoped a breakthrough could be achieved.

 

The Voronezh Front

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Members of the SS Division Totenkopf during the Battle of Kursk, via Second World War the Military Photo Archive

 

On July 5, at the same time as the advance in the north had commenced, the battle for the southern flank opened, with Field Marshal Von Manstein in command of the German forces. The Soviets were prepared, and opposing the Germans were three lines of defense that formed the Voronezh front.

 

The Germans attacked along a two-mile front and quickly ran into trouble. The left wing of the attack comprised the Panzerfüsilier Regiment, which ran into a minefield and stalled. Immobilized and subjected to severe artillery barrages, the regiment suffered heavy casualties. Engineers were brought up to clear a path through the minefield, and under heavy fire, the regiment managed to get going again, only to be bogged down again in marshy terrain south of the village of Gertsovka.

 

On the right wing, the Großdeutschland Panzergrenadier regiment achieved much more success, pushing forward and supported by the Luftwaffe, which repulsed attempts by the VVS to slow down the advance. This success made it possible for other elements to advance, and Gertsovka, along with several other settlements, was captured as the Germans achieved a successful strategic wedge through the Soviet defenses. To the east of this advance, another penetration was made by three divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps. With strong support from the Luftwaffe, the SS Panzer spearhead achieved significant success and was followed by infantry ready to exploit the weakened Soviet defenses. The advance, however, slowed down as stiff resistance, difficult terrain, and bad weather hampered progress.

 

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An artist’s impression of Stuka dive bombers during the Battle of Kursk, via Smithsonian Magazine

 

To the southeast of this advance, the III Panzer Corps and Corps Raus launched their operation across the Donets River in support of the southern attack. The initial progress was slow, and bridges had to be built to support the weight of the heavy Tiger tanks. The Luftwaffe’s help was questionable and caused significant damage by accidentally bombing their own troops. Traffic jams, destroyed bridges, and Soviet artillery barrages added to the woes. Once across the river, however, the situation got better for the Germans. With two infantry divisions joining the fight, the Germans broke through the first line of defense and repelled a Soviet counterattack.

 

The slow progress of this advance, however, allowed the Soviets to prepare significant resistance along the second line of defense.

 

The accumulation of German forces along the Voronezh front prompted the Soviets to deploy virtually all their reserves to the area. The situation was critical for the Red Army.

 

With all the airpower available on the Voronezh front, the Soviets launched a counterattack comprising almost 600 tanks and self-propelled guns. This massive attempt to stop the advance of the II SS Panzer Corps was poorly coordinated, and the elements arrived in a piecemeal fashion. Disaster ensued as the Soviet counterattack was destroyed by the German defense. Anti-tank guns and the Luftwaffe made short work of their enemies, inflicting massive casualties and destroying hundreds of tanks.

 

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A destroyed T-34 and one of its unfortunate crewmen, via Second World War the Military Photo Archive

 

By July 8, II Panzer Corps had broken through the second line of defense and advanced 18 miles since the start of the Battle of Kursk. They pushed straight for the key target of Prokhorovka, a town directly in front of them. The Soviets, anticipating this move, bolstered their defenses by the town and prepared to receive the attack from Germany’s crack troops. They understood that if II SS Panzer Corps and the 6th Panzer Division, which had seized a bridge across the Donets, were to link up, the Soviets would lose the 69th Army, and the battle would shift dramatically towards a German victory. Prokhorovka had to be defended at all costs.

 

II Panzer Corps advanced, with plans to split and attack the flank of the Soviet defenses at Prokhorova before launching the main frontal assault. Before they could attack Prokhorova, however, the Soviets had moved into position and launched a counterattack. At 8:00 on the morning of July 12, the Soviet barrage began, and half an hour later, the rumble of tanks moved toward the II Panzer Corps. Five tank brigades smashed into the German defenses, and furious battles raged for the entire day. By nightfall, the Soviets had suffered grievous losses, but they had managed to slow II Panzer Corps down enough to stop the Germans from achieving a breakthrough.

 

This was enough for Hitler to call an end to the offensive. Sicily had been invaded two days earlier, and forces needed to be transferred to Italy.

 

The Soviets, however, were not finished with the Germans at Kursk.

 

The Soviet Offensives: Operation Kutuzov and Operation Rumyantsev

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Map of the Soviet offensives after the failure of Operation Citadel, via Researchgate

 

Taking full advantage of the stalled German offensive, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive that had been planned for the eventuality of a stalled German offensive in the Kursk salient.

 

To the north of the Kursk salient was the Orel salient, held by the Germans. From the north, south, and east, Soviet attacks (Operation Kutuzov) struck at the German positions, threatening to encircle the German 9th army. Completely overwhelmed, the German forces pulled back and went on the complete defensive.

 

In the south, the main offensive (Operation Rumyantsev) planned for the summer operations took place. The Soviets launched diversionary attacks to tie down the German forces, which comprised the northern wing of Army Group South. The Soviet advance liberated Belgorod on August 5 and Kharkov (Kharkiv) by August 23.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of Kursk

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Soviet troops inspecting a damaged Tiger, via Second World War the Military Photo Archive

 

The Battle of Kursk broke the German offensive opportunities and forced the Germans into a defensive position along the entire Eastern Front.

 

It is difficult to determine the exact losses of the Battle of Kursk, and the subject is argued over by many notable historians. A rough estimate puts the casualties at 200,000 German soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, while the Soviets suffered around four times that amount. In terms of armor, the Germans lost 1,200 tanks and assault guns, while the Soviets lost over 6,000.

 

As the war continued, the effectiveness of the Soviet armies would improve, and the ratio would even out as Soviet soldiers and equipment achieved par with the Germans.

 

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Photograph of a T-34 tank, via Sputnik / Yuriy Kaver

 

The Germans achieved nothing with the Kursk offensive. For the Soviets, while the casualties were high, they proved that they could defeat the Germans without the aid of the weather or any other external factors. It was, however, also a good opportunity to turn the victory into an exercise in propaganda to mobilize the Soviet people.

 

The Germans remained on the defensive for the rest of the war on the Eastern Front, and slowly the Soviets whittled away at their enemy, finally achieving the breakthrough they needed to begin a full strategic offensive towards the heartland of Europe and their ultimate destiny.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.