Building On the Past: Kursk

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-207-12 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Still reeling from their horrible losses at Stalingrad, the Third Reich planned another major offensive for the summer of 1943. During the winter, the Soviets created a bulge in the German lines on the Eastern Front. The Germans planned to exploit this bulge and attempt a giant pincer movement, effectively trapping a huge force at Kursk.

The numbers massed by both the German and Soviet forces before the battle are astounding. Like many large-scale battles, the numbers are still debated by historians. It is generally agreed that the Germans massed 900,000 soldiers, 10,000 artillery guns, 2,700 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft. Estimates put Soviet forces at 1,300,000 soldiers, 20,000 artillery guns, 3,600 tanks, and 2,400 planes. The Soviets also built a massive fortification system around Kursk, built largely by Russian civilians who helped repair roads and dig trenches.

On July 5th, 1943, Operation Citadel began. Although the Germans enjoyed some initial success, fighting was fierce and resulted in heavy casualties for both armies. The Luftwaffe and Red Army Air Force attacked enemy tank formations from the air, attempting to sway the advantage to their position. The Germans deployed their new Panther and Tiger tanks against the smaller T-34, which was poorly equipped to handle the heavy German tanks at long range. These German tanks were equipped with long barrels to give them a significant range advantage against enemy armor. By engaging the Tiger and Panther at point-blank range, Soviet commanders eliminated this range advantage and increased their chance of survival (Even so, the notion of engaging a Tiger at point-blank range is terrifying). Air support was impossible as pilots could not identify enemy tanks among the armor melee.

In successfully stopping the Germans, the Red Army took horrendous losses at Kursk. Despite these losses, the Red Army could afford to replace their soldiers and equipment where the Wehrmacht could not. The battle of Kursk marked the last major offensive by the Third Reich on the Eastern Front. Between losses at Stalingrad and Kursk coupled with the invasion of Sicily by the Western Allies, Germany was forced to remain on the defensive until the end of the war in 1945.

Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-207-12 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Source

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