Kursk Battle


1. Background

The Soviet 1942-1943 winter offensive resulted in the destruction of the great German striking force in theStalingradarea, including the entire German 6th Army, some elements of the German 4th Panzer Army, the Italian 8th Army, the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies.

In total, more than 43% of the German forces on the Eastern Front was lost in the Soviet 1942-1943 winter offensive, including 68 German divisions, 19 Romanian divisions, 10 Italian divisions, and 10 Hungarian divisions.  Such huge loss completely transformed the scene on the Eastern Front. For the first time in the World War II, Hitler lost the strength to launch multiple attacks on the Eastern Front.

In the spring of 1943, the Eastern Front looked like a straight line, extending from Baltic to theBlack Sea. However,  in theKurskarea, the straight line jutted out westwards, with heavy Soviet army concentrated in this area. From this favorable position, the Soviet army could either launch an attack into the flank of theGermanArmyGroupCenter, or the flank of the German Army Group South.

Since the German army on the Eastern Front had been significantly weakened in the 1942-1943 winter, Manstein proposed to pull back first, and then attack the Soviet army while they are advancing, which is definitely a smart strategy. However, Hitler did not like the idea to withdraw from the Eastern Front, and was determined to fight the Soviet army head-on!Kurskwas choosen as the battle field to teach Stalin a lesson.


2. Forces

German forces: Hitler allocated 50 divisions to theKurskoffensive, including 16 armored divisions, accounting for 1/3 of the entire German strength on the Eastern Front. The reports on the number of soldiers and equipments allocated vary:

0.7 million soldiers, 2400 tanks and assault guns, and 1800 aircraft (Barbier, 2002).

0.9 million soldiers, 2,700 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft (Pierce, 1987).

Soviet forces: Stalin amassed 20% of his total manpower, 36% of his tanks, and 27% of his aircraft inKurskarea (Pierce, 1987).


3. Battles

OnJuly 1, 1943, at a meeting of the principal German commanders at Rastenburg, East Prussia, it was decided that the Kursk Offensive was to be launched on July 5. On the next day, Soviet intelligence learned about the decision and all forward Soviet units were alerted about the imminent German attack.

The German offensive plan was a simultaneous attack by two titanic armored forces, in order to quickly pinch off the Kursk salient.

German Army Group Center’s attack in the north

On  July 5, German 9th Army attacked in the north, against Soviet Central Front. The latter had correctly anticipated German attack areas and heavily fortified the areas. Soviet 13th Army, the strongest in Soviet Central Front, bore the brunt of German attack. During the Kursk battle, Soviets used a new tact: a group of anti-tank guns would only fire at one German tank at a time, and then move to the next German tank. The new tact proved effective. German 653rd Heavy Tank Battalion lost 37 of its 49 Ferdinand (Elefant) heavy tank destroyers in one day.

On the first day, German 9th Army’s attack front was 50 km wide, and advanced 8 km.

On  July 6, Soviet Central Front counterattacked with the 2nd Tank Army and the XIX Tank Corps, but was no match of the formidable German Tiger I tanks and suffered heavy losses. Rokossovsky, commander of Soviet Central Front, quickly cancelled the counterattack and ordered his tanks to dig in to be used as anti-tank guns, in order to reduce losses in front of Tiger I’s deadly 88mm guns.

On the second day, German 9th Army’s attack front was 40 km wide, and advanced 4 km.

On July 7, German 86th and 292nd Infantry Divisions captured Ponyri. Soviets counterattacked and the town changed hands many times. In the evening of 8 July, the Germans captured most of the town.

On July 7, German 9th Army’s attack front was 15 km wide, and advanced less than 2 km. German 9th Army’s attack front further reduced to 2 km wide on July 8-9.

On 10 July, Model realised that a break-through of the strong Soviet defensive lines became impossible. Soviet 3rd Tank Army and 11th Guards Army attacked the rear of 9th Army, protected by German 2nd Panzer Army. Soviets quickly outnumbered German 2nd Panzer Army, achieved a deep penetration, and threatened to cut off German 9th Army’s supply routes and encircle it from behind. German 9th Army was forced to withdraw to avoid being encircled. The offensive in the north was over.

German Army Group South’s attack in the south

Manstein's troops in the south were better equipped than Model's in the north. The 4th Panzer Army and Army Group Kempf had 1,377 tanks and assault guns, including 102 Tiger I tanks and 200 Panthers, while the 9th Army possessed 988 tanks and assault guns.

The 4th Panzer Army attacked with the 48th Panzer Corps and the 2nd SS Panzer Corps as spearheads. Their flanks were protected by the 52nd Corps on the left and Army Group Kempf on the right. Their opponent was.

In the south, Soviet Voronezh Front did not pinpoint German attack sectors, and had to disperse their forces evenly, but with a higher proportion of forces in deeper positions. Soviet Voronezh Front was weaker than Soviet Central Front.

On 5 July, Manstein’s attack front was 30 km wide, and advanced 9 km. In the first two days, 5-6 July, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps penetrated 25 km into Soviet defensive lines and took Jakovlevo. Vatutin planned an operational counterattack, but cancelled it after the failure of Soviet Central Front’s counterattack, and ordered his tanks to dig in.

On 7 July, Manstein’s attack front reduced to 20 km wide. German Tiger I commander Staudegger met about 50 T-34 tanks and knocked out 22 of them. He became the first Tiger I commander awarded the Knight's Cross.

On 9 July, the Allies invaded Sicily, Italy. On 12 July, Hitler called off Operation Zitadelle, but gave Manstein a few more days to continue the offensive. On the same day, Manstein’s attack front further reduced to 15 km wide, and advanced only 2 km.

On 11 July, Army Group Kempf achieved a breakthrough, and its 3rd Panzer Corps (6th, 7th and 19th Panzer Divisions) penetrated deep into Soviet lines. The next night the 6th Panzer Division took a bridge over the Donets with a surprise attack. The 3rd Panzer Corps then advanced to Prokhorovka from the south and the 2nd SS Panzer Corps from the west, almost trapping the Soviet 69th Army. Manstein thought the final breakthrough was coming, but he was wrong.

To stop German advance, strong Soviet tank reserves started to move toward.  On 12 July, Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army attacked Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army head on, which was also attacking, in its full force. A great tank war started. Germans had 494 tanks and assault guns, while Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army had 630 tanks and assault guns. Soviet T34 tanks rushed wildly towards German Tiger tanks as fast as possible to engage their weak side armor in close distance. Germans were forced to turn into defensive and suffered heavy losses. The advance of German Panzer Divisions was finally stopped. Manstein only penetrated two defensive lines of the seven Soviet defensive lines. On 16 July, Hitler ordered a withdrawal and the SS Panzer Corps were transferred to Italy.


4. Heavy Tank Battalions in Kursk

In 1943, before theKurskbattle, Hitler declared total war and the industry turned to war production. German factories manufactured more than twice as many tanks than they had produced a year earlier. In addition to quantity, the quality of German tanks also improved. Three new tanks , i.e. Tiger, Panther and Ferdinand (Elefant) tank destroyer, rolled off assembly lines in 1943. Panther tank began to replace Panzer IV as the foundation of the panzer divisions. The Tiger tanks were concentrated in a few special units, heavy tank battalions, to lead attacks. The heavy tank battalions were used as army level units, not assigned to Panzer Divisions. During WWII, only 14 heavy tank battalions were formed (11 belonged to the army, and 3 belonged to the SS).

Heavy tank battalions only have one type of tank – Tiger. Although Panzer III can be used for scouting, liaison, evacuation of wounded and resupply of Tigers, transportation of Panzer III replacement parts in addition to Tiger replacement parts would only reduce the efficiency of the repair staff. In addition, previous battles had shown that Soviets tended to fire at the Panzer III tanks rather than Tigers to destroy them quickly.

Two heavy tank battalions participated in the Battle of Kursk. S.Pz.-Abt. 503, with 45 Tigers, was attached to Army Group South (III Panzer Corps, part of Army Detachment Kempf). The other was s.Pz.-Abt. 505, with a similar strength, attached toArmyGroupCenter.

S.Pz.-Abt. 503 destroyed 72 Soviet tanks from the 5 to14 July 1943, and only lost 4 Tigers This meant that the battalion achieved a kill ratio of 18 to 1.

S.Pz.-Abt. 505 destroyed 42 Soviet tanks on 5 July, and 67 Soviet tanks the next day. In total, S.Pz.-Abt. 505 destroyed 164 Soviet tanks duringKurskbattle, and only lost 5 Tigers. The battalion achieved a kill ratio about 33 to 1.

On 5 July, S.Pz.-Abt. 505 easily penetrated the defence of the 15th Rifle Division, leading to the complete collapse of the Soviet 15th Infantry Division. The employment of the 2d Panzer Division at that time, not as scheduled on the following day, would have destroyed the whole front!

On 6 July, S.Pz.-Abt. 505 encountered two soviet tank brigades. In a few minutes, the Germans destroyed 46 of the lead brigade’s 50 tanks, and 23 of the supporting tank brigade.


References

David M. Glantz and Harold S. Orenstein, eds., TheBattleforKursk, 1943

Taylor, A.J.P., Kulish, V.M., 1974. A History of World War Two, Octopus Books,London.

David Irving, 1977. Hitler's War, Viking Press,New   York.

John Erickson, 1983. The Road toBerlin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,London.

Kerry K. Pierce, 1987.KursK: A Study in Operational Art, Thesis, School of Advanced Military Studies,

U.S.Army Command andGeneral Staff College,Kansas.

Walter Dunn, 1997.Kursk: Hitler's Gamble, 1943, GreenwoodPress,Westport.

Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (London: The Belknap Press ofHarvardUniversityPress, 2000)

Barbier, M.K., 2002.Kursk: the Greatest TankBattle, MBI Publishing,St. Paul,USA.

Newton, S.H., 2003.Kursk: The German View, Westview Press,Cambridge.

Chris Bellamy, 2007. Absolute War: SovietRussiain the Second World War, Pan Macmillan,London.

 

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