The Salient Question


The strategy of pinching off a salient, or bulge, created by the last surge of the Soviet army’s central front’s winter offensive was not a bad one. Some action that would punish and slow the relentless advance of the Soviet army was a necessity. Since Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht had been reacting to the Russian army, and they knew that their first priority had to be to get the initiative back. Russian tank production was beginning to peak at so many tanks per month that that German high command did not believe the figures. Worse yet, German production had hit a snag. They had stopped some of the production of their work-horse panzer IVs in favor of building the Panther and Tiger models. A problem was neither of those tanks could be produced in numbers sufficient to replace the Mark IVs lost. In the month that the German tank industry changed over to producing the two new and much more powerful tanks, only twenty-five Tigers were manufactured. The Panthers also continued to have such severe reliability problems that, as Heinz Guderian bluntly noted in his memoir Panzer Leader, they were “simply not ready for the front yet.” But Hitler, seeing the war effort crumbling on every side, put inordinate faith in his new “super weapons,” among these the Panther and Tiger tanks and the ME262 jet fighter/bomber.

There were really only two choices for the German army. Many of the most experienced field commanders, including Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, master of the Blitzkrieg, wanted to continue as they were. This was to use the superior tactics and skills of the German forces by forming mobile reserves that responded to and destroyed every Soviet army penetration. If they could crush enough tanks and their supporting infantry, both the numbers and the skill level of their opponents would fall. Just as in World War I, when the Russian soldiers felt they were being wasted, they revolted.

The chief of staff, General Zeitler, had a more ambitious plan. He wanted to return to the sweeping encirclement of 1941. His idea was to draw the Russian army in and destroy them in one large battle. This was, not surprising, a form of the decisive battle fallacy found all through history. He felt that he had found the ideal location for such a confrontation. The Russians had pushed forward into the German position and formed a deep bulge located in almost the center of all of the German positions. On one flank of the penetration, the Wehrmacht held the city of Orel, and on the other, Kharkov. Both cities were major rail centers and so ideal locations for the buildup of forces needed to pinch off the salient. The German armies would encourage the Soviets to place, in or near Kursk, as many tanks and soldiers as possible. Then they would pinch it off by converging on Kursk in the center, trapping so many Russians that their offensive capability would be crippled. This plan is shown on the map (see page 320). The reality would have much shorter lines for the German advances: barely showing in the north and half as long in the south.

Hitler wanted a decisive victory, and one at Kursk both would be dramatic and had a better chance of knocking Russia out of the war. So on May 4, 1943, Hitler decided on Zeitler’s plan, dubbed Operation Citadel, and ordered it be implemented. At this point, it became his plan and so it was sacrosanct and unchangeable by anyone else. The war was going badly on all fronts. Hitler had become, at best, unstable and tended to irrational screaming fits or worse. Just telling him what he did not want to hear was risky. He was still the absolute dictator of the Reich.


The Battle of Kursk

Two problems appeared immediately. The first was that the Russians were already preparing a defense in depth of the salient. Line after defensive line was being prepared with antitank guns, machine guns, and fortifications. The Russian tanks, which were the target of the exercise, were being placed farther back. This meant that before there could be Blitzkrieg, the German panzers would have to slug through miles of fixed defenses. Experienced panzer general von Mellenthin saw the aerial photos of those defenses and correctly described the attack as being a “Totenritt,” a death ride. Field Marshal Guderian tried to get Hitler to cancel the attack. According to Guderian, the Führer admitted that thinking about the plan made his stomach turn, but he refused to cancel it. Hitler wanted a decisive victory that would change the war and give him the victory he thought he had in 1941.

The second problem was there simply were not enough of the new Tiger tanks to guarantee a victory. The T-34 and KV-1 Russian tanks had sloped and thick frontal armor. The 75mm cannon on the Mark IVs had difficulty penetrating it. The 88mm gun on the Panthers and the Tigers cut through the Russian sloped armor and were effective at twice the range of the guns on the Soviet tanks. Hitler counted on his secret weapon tanks to counterbalance the far superior numbers of Soviet armor. But there were far fewer than 100 Tigers ready on May 4, when the plan was agreed to. Optimistically, assuming that the incredibly slow production of the new tanks would accelerate given time, Hitler solved this problem by delaying the attack until July 4.

This delay ignored two realities. To break through and encircle the Russians west of Kursk, the panzers had to fight through the defenses being prepared. The two-month delay benefited both sides, but the Russians more. Waiting for enough Tigers meant allowing two more months of Russian construction on the defenses. The delay also gave the Soviets two more months of tank and assault gun production. According to Jane’s World Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the Soviets were manufacturing almost 2,000 tanks and a few hundred assault guns each month in 1943. This compared with no more than 1,000 a month for the Germans, with only a small percentage of those being the Tiger. So the longer the battle was delayed, the greater the German inferiority in the number of tanks grew. There were also an estimated 44,000 tanks the Americans and British built in 1943. Time was not on the Nazis’ side, but still Hitler ordered a delay of two months. It is no wonder that thinking about the battle for Kursk upset Hitler’s stomach.

Just to make sure things went badly, there was also a Russian spy network, code name Lucy, that extended all the way up into the German high command. It made sure Stalin was apprised of the plan and any changes right up to and during the battle itself. It also allowed Stalin and Zhukov to know the numbers and plans for Citadel. It is significant that, knowing all this, they actually waited for the German Kursk offensive and even held out large formations from that battle for counterattacks once it failed. It seemed everyone but Hitler knew his offensive was doomed to failure. But Hitler was the only one who could stop it.

At midnight on July 4, two hours before Operation Citadel’s scheduled jump-off time, a massive Soviet barrage hit the German assembly areas on both flanks. This put every Wehrmacht soldier on notice of what their commanders already knew. There would be no surprise for the long-planned and -prepared attack. Within the Kursk bulge, the Russians had placed 20,000 artillery pieces, many of them antitank guns grouped by the dozens and protected by earth and concrete defenses. Inside or near the salient were 3,600 tanks, 2,400 aircraft, and 1.3 million soldiers. Every square mile of the bulge had been saturated with more than 5,000 land mines evenly split between personnel and antitank. Civilians drafted from the nearby cities had dug thousands of miles of trenches and ditches deep enough to slow or trap a tank.

The two German attacks consisted of 10,000 guns, 2,700 tanks, 2,000 airplanes, and 900,000 soldiers. These men all came from the best-equipped and most-experienced veteran divisions left to the Wehrmacht. Even with the loss of surprise and knowing about the defense they faced, the sheer size of the attack force gave the German commanders some degree of optimism. General Mellenthin stated, “No offensive was ever prepared as carefully as this one.”

The two prongs of the German attack took some time to recover from the disruption caused by the surprise Soviet barrage. At 4:30 AM, rather than 2 AM as scheduled, both armies began their attack. At first the Germans, at high price, managed to break through the defenses. But it was slow going, with losses mounting. In the north the Ninth Army was able to push forward only six miles at the cost of two-thirds of its tanks. The Ninth’s losses after six days were 25,000 men and 200 tanks. In the south, the Fourth Panzer had more men and tanks and was comparatively more successful. But by July 12, the only way to continue their attack had been by committing all of the German reserves to it. By that day, the southern attack had lost half its tanks, and to continue attacking, it gathered the 600 tanks that remained into a single force.

Marshal Zhukov realized that the northern penetration had been stopped and that the Germans were just about played out. He released his reserve, the Fifth Guard Tank Army, in an attack on the massed German tanks, which were still spearheading the Fourth Army’s attack. The two tank forces met about fifty miles from Kursk. The day was foggy and the tanks had intermingled by the time the Fourth Panzer was aware of the 1,500 Russian tanks. A wild melee followed, with some tanks fighting literally barrel to barrel. The Germans lost more than 300 tanks, and by nightfall, the Fifth Guard Tank Army was torn and in ruins. But those German tank losses made it impossible for the offensive to continue. The Battle of Kursk was over.

Within days, Russian offensives on both sides of the Kursk bulge began. These really did not stop until Berlin. By betting it all on a “decisive battle” that even he must have realized his army could not win, Hitler completely ceded the initiative to Russia for the rest of the war. Germany was never again able to make up for the tanks and trained crews lost attacking Kursk. Had the limited counterattack plan, which was the alternative, been chosen, the Wehrmacht might have retained enough tanks and planes to slow or stop the Soviet army. Without those lost tanks, even the most valiant and brilliant tactics could do no more than cause local delays. The Battle of Kursk was a mistake that sealed the defeat of Nazi Germany and guaranteed the Soviets control of eastern Europe.

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