The Buzz

Why the Battle of Kursk Might Just Be the Most Misunderstood World War II Battle

Pointing this out takes nothing away from the bravery and skill of the Red Army, any more that it disparages the Western Allies to point out that the Soviets fought and destroyed the bulk of the German army. But today, as America and Russia confront one another, it is worth remembering there was a time when both nations cooperated to save the world from a new Dark Ages.

The Tigers are Burning.

The title of Martin Caidin's 1974 history of the Battle of Kursk is still evocative, with its imagery of Nazi Germany's vaunted Tiger tanks in flames. Tigers burning brightly are just one legend of the epic July 1943 battle between Germany and Russia. There are many more: The Greatest Tank Battle in History, the Turning Point of World War II, The Death Ride of the Panzers, Russian tanks ramming German tanks in a mechanized orgy of destruction....

All very colorful, and all mostly or partly untrue.

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Kursk is the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny of World War II battles, whose popular history was constructed from German and Soviet propaganda, and based on early accounts lacking vital information buried in Russian archives until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kursk was indeed an epic battle, that pitted 3 million German and Soviet soldiers and 8,000 tanks, all crammed into a small portion of southern Russia.

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After the disaster at Stalingrad in February 1943, the Red Army pushed the Germans back all the way across southern Russia, until a Panzer counteroffensive in March halted the Russian advance. As spring mud and mutual exhaustion brought operations to a close, the front lines solidified with a 120-mile-wide Russian salient bulging into German lines near the city of Kursk.

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Germany had a choice: wait to be hammered by another offensive from the Russian steamroller, or take the initiative by launching its own offensive. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking after the November 1942 Western Allied landings in North Africa signaled that Germany would soon be forced to split its armies between Eastern and Western Europe.

In 1941, Germany had been strong enough to attack on a thousand-mile-front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Now the Germans could only muster enough troops to concentrate on a narrow sector.  An obvious target was the Kursk salient, so obvious in fact that any Russian general with a map could guess the German target (in addition, Moscow was tipped off by the "Lucy"). In effect, Kursk was the first Battle of the Bulge, but on a much larger scale than the Americans faced in December 1944.

Top commanders such as Erich Von Manstein wanted to attack in May, before the Soviets had time to dig in and reinforce the salient. But a nervous and indecisive Hitler decided to postpone Operation Citadel until July, to allow time to deploy his vaunted new Panther, Tiger and Elefant tanks. While the big cats lumbered off the railroad cars near the front lines, the Germans managed to amass nearly 800,000 men, 3,000 tanks, 10,000 guns and mortars, and 2,000 aircraft. It would be the last time the Germans could concentrate such an attack force (by comparison, at the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans had 400,000 men and 600 tanks). Yet as usual, the Germans were outnumbered. They faced 1.9 million Soviet soldiers, 5,000 tanks, 25,000 guns and mortars and more than 3,000 aircraft.

Citadel was a prophetic name for the German offensive. The Soviets used the extra time to build an incredibly dense defense system of multiple layers of fortifications, including trenches, bunkers, tank traps and machine gun nests 25 miles deep, as well as minefields that averaged more than 3,000 mines per kilometer.

Kursk was not an imaginative battle. The Germans attacked an obvious target, the Soviets fortified the obvious target, and the German offensive on July 4, 1943 was a traditional pincer move against the north and south base of the salient to cut off the defenders inside. Despite support by 89 Elefants (a Porsche version of the Tiger that the German army rejected), the northern pincer quickly bogged down after advancing just a few miles. But the southern pincer, led by the II SS Panzer Corps, managed to advance 20 miles to the town of Prokhorovka, until its advance was checked by the Soviet Fifth Guards Tank Army.

On July 10, Anglo-American troops landed on the beaches of Sicily. Two days later Hitler informed his generals that he was canceling the offensive and transferring the SS Panzer divisions to Italy, to repel any Allied landings on the Italian peninsula.

The German offensive was over. But the Soviets had only just begun. Stavka, the Soviet high command, used essentially the same trick that had worked at Stalingrad. It waited until the Germans had concentrated their forces at Kursk, and exhausted themselves against the Russian defenses. Then the Red Army launched a counteroffensive that punctured the weakly held German lines at Orel, north of Kursk, and Belgorod to the south. Thus the Germans found their pincer operation squeezed on either side by a Soviet pincers, in yet another masterful example of the Soviet gift for timing multiple offensives to keep the Germans off balance.

As they would do for the next 22 months, the Germans retreated. The Battle of Kursk was over. The battle over the history of Kursk was not.

So let's explode some of the hype about Kursk:

1. The Tigers didn't burn. Soviet tanks did:

There were lots of flaming tanks at Kursk. They were mostly Russian. Loss estimates for Kursk are fuzzy, but historians David Glantz and Jonathan House estimate the Germans lost 323 tanks destroyed, or about 10 percent of the tanks committed to the offensive (and a fraction of the 12,000  tanks and self-propelled guns the Third Reich built in 1943). Many German tanks damaged by mines or Soviet weapons, or that broke down, were subsequently recovered.

The Soviets lost at least 1,600 tanks, a 5:1 ratio in Germany's favor. The Germans probably lost 45 tanks at Prokhovoka, most of which were subsequently recovered and repaired. The Soviets may have lost 300 tanks destroyed and another 300 damaged, a 15:1 ratio in Germany's favor.

As for Tigers at Kursk, the Germans deployed 146. Only 6 were destroyed.

Given that the German offensive ran into perhaps the most extensive fortified zone in history, and then fought against the numerically superior Soviet tank force, Panzer losses were remarkably light. It was the German infantry, which as in most armies took the most casualties and received the least glory, that was roughly handled at Kursk.

2. Kursk was not a turning point of the war:

The Germans could blame their defeats at Moscow and Stalingrad on the Russian winter, overstretched supply lines and incompetent Rumanian and Italian allies. Kursk demonstrated that the Red Army could hold its own against fully rested and equipped German troops fighting in good weather. More important, Kursk showed that the momentum on the Eastern Front had changed. From June 1941 until July 1943, the tempo of the Russo-German war was mostly determined by German offensives and Soviet responses.  After Kursk, the Germans remained on the defensive, their elite Panzer divisions constantly moving up and down the Eastern Front to plug Soviet breakthroughs and rescue encircled German troops.

Yet the momentum on the Eastern Front had already shifted six months earlier at Stalingrad, where an entire German army, and several hundred thousand German and satellite troops, were erased from the Axis order of battle. Kursk was bloody: the German offensive alone cost 54,000 Germans and 178,000 Soviet casualties -- yet there were no major encirclements or surrenders. Kursk was a battle of attrition rather than decisive maneuver. Both armies were damaged yet both remained intact.

The Red Army had become too competent to let the German Panzers slice and dice them as in 1941. And unless Germany could win the sort of victories it achieved in 1941, and filled the POW cages with a million Soviet prisoners, it is hard to see how Kursk could have been decisive. If the Germans had destroyed a few Soviet divisions and eliminated the Kursk salient, the Soviets would merely have rebuilt their strength and attacked somewhere else. By 1943, there were simply not enough German troops to conquer the Soviet Union or to solidly defend a thousand-mile front.

3. Prokhorovka was not the Greatest Tank Battle in History:

The meeting engagement between the II SS Panzer Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka has been lauded as history's greatest tank battle, probably because it involved SS Panzer divisions and a handful of Tigers. The actual battle only pitted about 300 German tanks against roughly 800 Soviet vehicles. The biggest tank battle in history may be Dubna, in June 1941, where 750 German tanks defeated 3,500 Soviet vehicles.

4. The Red Army was still not as good as the German Army:

The Red Army in 1943 had come a long way since its pitiful performance in 1941-42. But despite the postwar propaganda, Kursk showed the Soviets still had a long way to go. As Russian Kursk expert Valeriy Zamulin demonstrates in "Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943," Soviet tactical performance was clumsy and troop morale was brittle. Though the Red Air Force was able to provide some support, its performance was also lacking: for example, a surprise strike on German airfields on July 5 quickly turned into a turkey shoot for the Luftwaffe fighter aces.

Military theory holds that the attacker should outnumber the defender three-to-one, and that fighting through dense fortifications will render an attack ever more costly. The fact was that the Germans were outnumbered at Kursk, and fought through multiple trench lines and minefields, yet inflict three times as many casualties and destroy three times as tanks and aircraft as the Germans themselves lost.

5. It was the Soviet counteroffensive that bled the Germans:

Accounts of Kursk tend to focus on the dramatic German attack and desperate Soviet defense. Yet as was the case throughout the war, German losses were relatively light as long as they remained on the offensive, where they could use their talents for battlefield flexibility and improvisation to the maximum. It was when the Germans were on the defense, where they had less room to maneuver and were vulnerable to massive artillery barrages, that they tended to take heavy casualties.

The Germans lost about 50,000 men during their attempted breakthrough. They may have suffered another 150,000 casualties during the dual Soviet offensives -- Operations Kutuzov and Rumyantsev -- in mid-July through August. German tank losses were not excessive during their offensive, but once the long retreat to the Reich began, equipment frequently had to be abandoned or blown up.

6. Soviet tanks didn't ram German tanks at Kursk:

The story is probably apocryphal. Even considering the Red Army's bravery and discipline, trying to ram another tank before it blows you to smithereens would be an act of battlefield Darwinism.

7. Kursk was an Anglo-American victory as well as a Soviet one:

Just as the SS Panzers were about to achieve a decisive breakthrough -- or so Von Manstein claimed -- an Anglo-American amphibious force landed on Sicily. Hitler called off Operation Citadel and transferred the SS Panzer divisions to Italy. The timing was coincidental. The Anglo-Americans didn't land on Sicily to support the Soviets at Kursk, nor could they have mounted a large amphibious invasion on such short notice. But the practical effect was to draw German troops from the Eastern Front at a critical time.

Pointing this out takes nothing away from the bravery and skill of the Red Army, any more that it disparages the Western Allies to point out that the Soviets fought and destroyed the bulk of the German army. But today, as America and Russia confront one another, it is worth remembering there was a time when both nations cooperated to save the world from a new Dark Ages.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Creative Commons. 

This first appeared last August.