The winning war was over, the losing war had begun. I saw the white stain of fear growing in the dull eyes of German officers and soldiers… When Germans become afraid, when that mysterious German fear begins to creep into their bones, they always arouse a special horror and pity. Their appearance is miserable, their cruelty sad, their courage silent and hopeless. That is when the Germans become wicked.
Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt, 1948
We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.
General Heinz Guderian, July 19431
Between Field Marshal Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad in early February 1943 and the battle of Kursk five months later, the Soviets forced their way across the Donets river. Yet despite his men being massively outnumbered, sometimes by seven to one, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein counter-attacked between 18 February and 20 March, winning the third battle of Kharkov and recapturing the city on 14 March in one of the great military achievements of the war.2 Although the Soviet winter offensive had regained much of the territory lost the previous year, and inflicted around one million German casualties, Manstein had halted it.
Erich von Manstein was born in 1887, the tenth son of an aristocratic Prussian artillery officer, General Eduard von Lewinski, but he was given away at birth to his mother’s childless brother-in-law, the aristocratic Prussian infantry lieutenant-general Georg von Manstein, whose surname he took. Since both his grandfathers and an uncle had also been Prussian generals, and Paul von Hindenburg was married to his aunt, it was a natural career path for Erich to be commissioned into the cadet corps aged thirteen, and six years later into the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards. His study at the Berlin War Academy was interrupted within a year by the outbreak of the Great War, in which he served bravely on both fronts, and he was severely wounded in Poland in November 1914. He then took a series of Staff positions until the end of the war, and stayed on in the Regular Army into peacetime, becoming head of the Operations Section of the General Staff (OKH) in 1935. The following year, by then a Generalmajor (brigadier-general), he became deputy to the Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck.
In the purge of the Army following the dismissal of General von Fritsch in February 1938, Manstein – who was known to despise the Nazis, largely on social grounds – was relieved of his post in the Staff and given command of the 18th Infantry Division. It was as chief of staff to General von Leeb that he took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and as chief of staff to General Rundstedt in the invasion of Poland the following year that he first distinguished himself as a fine strategist. By then he had also, much to Beck’s chagrin and contempt, stopped criticizing the Nazis, arguing that soldiers should stay out of politics, a stance that was to serve his promotion prospects well.
As has already been seen in Chapter 2, it was Manstein who, as chief of staff of Rundstedt’s Army Group A, in May 1940 masterminded the Sichelschnitt manoeuvre, also known as the Manstein Plan, which, by concentrating on attacking through the Ardennes, crossing the Meuse and fighting in the ideal tank country of the rolling plains of northern France, brought such a rapid victory in the west. Hitler showed his gratitude by promoting him to full general and awarding him the Knight’s Cross. In March 1941 Manstein was given the command of LVI Panzer Corps for Operation Barbarossa, in which he led the advance on Leningrad, advancing more than 50 miles a day and capturing vital bridgeheads. When in September 1941 a vacancy occurred for the command of the Eleventh Army in the Crimea – the previous occupant’s plane having crashed in a Russian minefield – Manstein was the obvious choice, and he captured Sevastopol on 4 July 1942 after a long and gruelling siege. Hitler telephoned ‘The Conqueror of Sevastopol’, as he called him, to announce his promotion to Generalfeldmarschall (field marshal).
It was as commander of Army Group Don in November and December 1942 that Manstein tried but failed to relieve Stalingrad, but he was appointed to command Army Group South nonetheless. ‘He was arrogant and intolerant at times, and something of a martinet,’ wrote the British field marshal Michael Carver, ‘but he was highly intelligent, with a clear, quick brain. Beneath a cold, reserved exterior, he was an emotional man, who kept his feelings under strict control… He was respected for the speed and sharpness with which he analysed the essentials of a problem, for the brevity and clarity of his orders, and for the calm, cool calculation by which he arrived at his decisions.’3 The greatest of all the strategists of the Third Reich, Manstein had a better understanding of mechanized weaponry than any of the German generals outside the tank school itself, and Keitel thrice urged Hitler to give Manstein his own job as chief of staff of OKW.4 This was ignored, but was one of the best pieces of advice the Führer ever received.
The city of Kursk lies 315 miles south of Moscow and straddles the main Moscow–Rostov railway line. By the spring of 1943 it was the centre of a Russian-held protuberance, or salient, jutting 120 miles wide and 90 miles deep into the German lines. Kursk had once been famed for its nightingales; bird-singing competitions had been hosted there since the nineteenth century. In July 1943, however, all that could be heard in the city were the decibels of war. Kursk had been captured by the Germans on 2 November 1941, after which the Wehrmacht shot 15,000 people, transported 30,000 for slave labour in Germany, destroyed 2,000 buildings and generally stripped the region bare, even transporting back to Germany thousands of tons of the region’s sticky, jet-black, highly fertile soil. Kursk was recaptured by the Russians soon after Paulus’ surrender.
After Stalingrad, Manstein had stabilized Army Group South’s front, and Army Group Centre under Field Marshal von Kluge, who had replaced Bock in December 1941, had retained Orel to the north. Mutually exhausted, both sides settled into a period of little activity, as fresh troops were brought up for the coming summer offensive. Yet time was not on the Germans’ side, with Lend-Lease distributing large quantities of equipment to the Russians, totalling by the summer of 1943 some 2,400 tanks, 3,000 planes and 80,000 trucks.5 An historian of the Eastern Front estimates that Western aid contributed 5 per cent of the USSR’s war effort in 1942 and 10 per cent in 1943 and 1944, invaluable help in such a close-run fight.6 The Americans provided the Russians with 15 million pairs of boots, for example.
Unfortunately for the Germans, even the most cursory glance at the map made it completely obvious where they would attack. A pincer movement directly to the north and south of Kursk would pinch off the salient, and thus lead to the capture of Rokossovsky’s Central Front in the north and General Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front to the south. That was certainly what would have happened in 1941, when the Germans were still capable of pulling off such coups. Hitler flew to see Manstein on the front line at Zaporozhe for three days on 17 February 1943, coming so close to the enemy that some T-34 tanks even got to within firing range of the airfield.7 Yet the Führer was now a very different man from the Supreme Warlord of the days before Stalingrad. As Guderian recorded of a meeting four days later: ‘His left hand trembled, his back was bent, his gaze was fixed, his eyes protruded but had lost their former lustre, his cheeks were flecked with red. He was more excitable, easily lost his composure and was prone to angry outbursts and ill-considered decisions.’8 This description matched Senger’s impressions during the Monte Cassino battle. Because the next move was so obvious to all, Manstein wanted to undertake it as early as possible, ideally in early March, but the go-ahead for Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel) was postponed by Hitler until the ground had thoroughly thawed, and Zeitzler had called a Staff conference at OKH headquarters, which on 11 April submitted a plan for General Walther Model’s Ninth Army to attack from the north simultaneously with Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army from the south of the salient. Yet Hitler, who had put Manstein’s recapture of Kharkov largely down to the new Tiger I model E tank, of which he thought one battalion was worth a division of Panzers, wanted to wait until the Tiger had come fully on stream before launching the offensive. As only twelve were being produced per week at that time, this was a major impediment to the early action for which Manstein was pushing.
Internal dissension in OKH and OKW further exacerbated the problem, leading to further postponements of Zitadelle. Jodl opposed it outright because of the impending danger of Allied landings in the Mediterranean. Guderian, who was then inspector-general of tanks, responsible for overhauling Germany’s armoured forces, was equally opposed because he knew that the Russians were expecting and preparing for it. Kluge – who hated Guderian and in May even asked the Führer if he could challenge him to a duel – was very much in favour, as was Zeitzler who claimed it was his brainchild, at least until it went wrong. Model was dubious, but when he argued that the Stavka knew it was coming, Zeitzler responded with a weirdly circular argument, saying that the very fact that the Russians expected it ‘was an admission that the area chosen was of vital importance, and would result in a substantial part of the Russian armour being brought to battle’, where it could be destroyed.9 As time dragged on, Manstein slowly turned against the whole operation. Frederick von Mellenthin’s estimation was the correct one: that if it had been undertaken early it might have worked, but by the time of its actual launch Zitadelle had become ‘an operation in which we had little to gain and probably a great deal to lose’.10
At yet another conference on 3 May, Guderian and Speer spoke out against Zitadelle, Zeitzler and Kluge enthusiastically in its favour, and Manstein stated that it was hard to say whether its moment had not passed. Only a hundred Panthers had been delivered to the front, despite Speer having promised 324 by the end of May. Nonetheless, 13 June was agreed as the date the operation would take place. A week later a famous exchange took place between Hitler and Guderian, when the Inspector-General asked, ‘My Führer, why do you want to attack in the East at all this year?’ and Hitler replied: ‘You are quite right. Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over.’11 Although Keitel believed that Germany needed to attack Kursk, which was by then one of the best-defended fortresses in the world, out of prestige, Guderian pointed out that few people had even heard of the city.12 As Keitel ought to have learnt from Stalingrad, prestige is rarely a good enough reason for conducting a military operation.
Meanwhile, at the end of April the Stavka had sent Zhukov to the city to assume day-to-day control of the battle, always a sign that Stalin took a particular front extremely seriously. Zhukov had sent a report warning about the salient’s vulnerability on 8 April, but had persuaded Stalin not to follow his initial instinct of striking first. Writing to Stalin (codenamed Comrade Vasil’ev), Zhukov (codenamed Konstantinov) said: ‘I consider it inexpedient for our forces to mount a preventative offensive in the near future. It will be better if we wear out the enemy in our defence, destroy his tanks, and then, having introduced fresh reserves, by going over to an all-out offensive, we will finish off the enemy’s main grouping.’13 That was the plan the Stavka adopted, and it was substantially what was to happen.
Marshal Alexandr Vasilevsky went down to Kursk with Zhukov and together they easily spotted that the Schwerpunkt for the Germans was going to be the point between Belgorod and Kursk defended by Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, which they reinforced with the Twenty-first and Sixty-fourth Armies (renamed the Sixth and Seventh Guards Armies) that had been blooded at Stalingrad, and one of the best Soviet tank formations, the First Armoured Army. To the north, Rokossovsky’s Central Front was massively reinforced as well, until it consisted of no fewer than five infantry armies. As well as the 1.3 million men under Vatutin and Rokossovsky, leaving nothing to chance Zhukov created a half-million-man Stavka Reserve Force under General Ivan Konev, later called the Steppe Front, consisting of five tank armies, several tank and mechanized corps and a number of infantry divisions.14 This front was, in the view of one historian of the Eastern Front, ‘the most powerful reserve accumulated by the Soviet Union at any time during the war’.15 If for any reason the Germans did manage to pinch off the salient, it would be able to form an entirely new front, preventing them from exploiting their victory eastwards.
With the attack postponed yet again from 13 June, by early July the Germans faced a forbidding task. In some sectors of the Russian defence, artillery regiments outnumbered infantry by five to one, with more than 20,000 guns trained on the oncoming Wehrmacht. These included over 6,000 anti-tank guns of 76.2mm calibre and 920 Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. Furthermore the cannon and armour-piercing bombs of Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft posed a mortal peril for the German tanks. By employing the entire civilian population of the Kursk region, as well as the Army, 3,000 miles of trenches were dug, and ‘countless miles of barbed wire and obstacles, some of which were electrified’, put in place, along with automatic flame-throwers.16 Overall, around 2,700 German tanks – more heavily armed and usually of higher-calibre weaponry – faced around 3,800 Russian. But it was down to the German tanks – as well as the huge Ferdinand self-propelled assault guns (Sturmgeschütze) – to try to break through the formidable Soviet defences. ‘The main defensive zones were three to four miles deep,’ recorded one historian,
consisting of battalion defence areas, anti-tank areas and support points, and systems of obstacles, consisting of three lines of trenches (up to five lines in most important sectors), interconnected by communication trenches. Second zones, six to eight miles from the leading edge of the zone, were laid out in similar fashion. Rear defence zones were situated at about twenty-five miles from the leading edge of the defence zones… The whole system consisted of no fewer than eight defensive belts existing over a depth of between 120 and 180 miles.17
Furthermore, 2,200 anti-tank and 2,500 anti-personnel mines had been laid across every single mile of the front, a density four times that which had defended Stalingrad and six times that of Moscow. In all, 503,993 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines were laid by the Red Army prior to the battle of Kursk. Lieutenant Artur Schütte, a tank commander in the Grossdeutschland Division, was pardonably exaggerating when he said that the minefields he had to cross were laid so densely ‘that it would have been impossible to put even a medal between them’.18 Mellenthin recorded that the Russians could lay 30,000 mines in two or three days and that ‘it was no rare thing to have to lift 40,000 mines a day in the sector of a German Corps’.19 This was laborious, time-consuming and dangerous work for the German engineer corps but vitally necessary, though it could never be 100 per cent successful.
The hundred days of waiting before the German attack also gave the Red Army plenty of time to build miniature fortresses, reconnoitre the battlefield, gauge the depths of fords and strengths of bridges, and to train day and night. By the time they had finished, noted the chief of staff of XLVIII Panzer Corps, they had ‘converted the Kursk front into another Verdun’.20 Furthermore, Mellenthin complained that the terrain in the southern sector across which his 300 tanks and 60 assault guns had to attack was not good tank country, with ‘numerous valleys, small copses, irregularly laid out villages and some rivers and brooks; of these the Pena [river] ran with a swift current between two banks.’ Walking the battlefields of Kursk and taking the journey known as the Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army alert one to the fact that Mellenthin slightly exaggerated the ‘valleys’, which are little more than undulations. As he himself admitted elsewhere, ‘It was not good “tank country”, but it was by no means “tank proof”.’21 The ground rises slightly to the north between Belgorod and Kursk, further aiding the defender.
It was an unusual luxury for the Russians to be able to prepare to this extent. ‘At the beginning of the war everything was done in a hurry,’ commented a Red Army tank captain, ‘and time was always lacking. Now we go calmly into action.’22 The Luftwaffe’s aerial reconnaissance, even allowing for Russian camouflage, ought to have been enough for Hitler to have stuck to his original instincts and look for somewhere else to fight, especially as Manstein hardened his view against the attack as time went on. Yet the all-powerful ‘Greatest Warlord of All Time’, as Goebbels’ propaganda machine was still describing Hitler, seems to have been persuaded by Keitel, Zeitzler and Kluge to set H-Hour for dawn on 4 July. ‘Independence Day for America’, complained Mellenthin afterwards, ‘and the beginning of the end for Germany.’ As a tank purist and theorist, Mellenthin could not bear to see the way that the Wehrmacht was fighting to Russian strengths, in the same way that had led to Stalingrad, rather than to its own, in the way that had led to the sweeping victories of 1941. ‘Instead of seeking to create conditions in which manoeuvre would be possible,’ he complained, ‘by strategic withdrawals or surprise attacks in quiet sectors, the German Supreme Council could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent Panzer divisions against Kursk, which had now become the strongest fortress in the world.’23 It was as though they had chosen deliberately to attack the Maginot Line head-on in 1940, rather than skirting around it. Like Napoleon, who by the time of Borodino no longer cared about the lives of his men, too many decision-makers at OKW – principally of course Hitler himself – had given up worrying about how to husband troop numbers. A Materialschlacht (war of attrition) was precisely what the Germans had to avoid after Stalingrad, but it was what they got with their constant postponements of Zitadelle. Before Hitler kept putting off the attack, Kursk was an undefended town set in hundreds of miles of virgin countryside; by the time it took place it was indeed a citadel.
The ‘bad news’ of the death of the Polish Prime Minister General Sikorski as well as his liaison officer, the Tory MP Victor Cazalet, in a plane crash at Gibraltar was broken to the War Cabinet by Churchill on 5 July 1943. Portal reported that the Czech pilot was still alive, but it was ‘impossible to say at the moment what happened’ beyond the fact that it was a ‘very serious loss to Poland and to us’. Churchill said it was the ‘Moment [for the Poles] to try and patch it up with the R[ussians]’, but the Minister Resident in the Middle East, the Australian diplomat Richard Casey, thought General Anders, though a good soldier, had ‘no political sense’ and so was unlikely to do this. ‘I’ll say something in the House,’ said Churchill, ‘quite out of the ordinary.’24 The fact that the War Cabinet privately thought Sikorski’s death a blow implies that the conspiracy theory that SIS had assassinated him (along with a Conservative MP) is absurd.
‘Soldiers of the Reich!’ read the Führer’s message to his troops for Zitadelle on Monday, 5 July 1943. ‘This day you are to take part in an offensive of such importance that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome. More than anything else, your victory will show the whole world that resistance to the power of the German Army is hopeless.’25 Although probing attacks did begin on the afternoon of 4 July, the main German assault in the south was not finally unleashed until 05.00 the next day, and in the north half an hour later. The Russians had already heard from a Czech deserter from an engineering battalion of LII Army Corps that all ranks had been issued with a five-day schnapps and food ration, so the Germans did not even enjoy the advantage of tactical surprise. The Lucy spy ring operating from Switzerland had also furnished the Stavka with reasonably accurate reports of German capabilities and intentions, as did Ultra decrypts from Bletchley Park delivered in a suitably opaque form by the British Ambassador to Moscow. Vatutin could thus further disrupt the opening stage of Zitadelle by ordering a bombardment of the areas where the Germans were forming up, just prior to the assault.
The German attacks above and below the salient were almost mirror images of each other. In the north, Model’s Ninth Army drove southwards from Orel towards Kursk on a 35-mile-wide front against Rokossovsky’s Central Front. In the south, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army attacked northwards from Belgorod towards Kursk on a 30-mile-wide front against Vatutin’s Voronezh Front. Zhukov decided deliberately to allow the attack to get well under way before counter-attacking its exposed flanks. The German Army elsewhere in Russia had been denuded of armour in order to provide the seventeen Panzer divisions necessary to spearhead this formidable fifty-division assault, leaving Hoth’s Panzer army ‘the strongest force ever before put under a single commander in the German Army’.26 Yet their hopes for victory due to the combination of Stuka dive-bombing, fast tank advances and close infantry support – Blitzkrieg, in effect – failed to take into account the fact that by July 1943 their enemies had finally learnt all about the tactics that had proved so devastating against Poland in 1939, France in 1940 and Russia herself in 1941–2. Furthermore, one of the essential elements of Blitzkrieg – surprise – was entirely missing from the mix.
Because the Red Army had learnt to fight on even when penetrated by Panzer formations, the Germans were forced to adopt a Panzerkeil (armoured wedge) tactic of having the heaviest tanks, such as Tigers and Panthers, in the middle of a formation with the others, such as Mark IVs (by then the majority of Panzers), on the wings, supported by infantry, grenades and mortars behind the centre of the wedge. The Russians responded to Panzerkeil tactics with what the Germans termed Pakfront, where up to ten Russian guns welded into a single unit would concentrate all their fire on one tank before moving on to the next. ‘Neither minefields nor Pakfronts could be detected until the first tank blew up,’ recalled Mellenthin, ‘or the first anti-tank gun opened fire.’27 Red Army mortar operators were particularly feared: a skilled one could put a third bomb into the air before the first and second ones landed.
The sheer numbers involved, as well as its crucial outcome, make Kursk a remarkable battle. The Germans had around 900,000 troops, 2,700 tanks and self-propelled guns, 10,000 artillery pieces and 2,600 aircraft.28 Facing them, Rokossovsky, Vatutin and Konev had around 1.8 million men, 3,800 tanks and self-propelled guns, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,100 aircraft.29 Kursk therefore fully justifies its popular designation as the greatest tank battle in history. Despite their two-to-one superiority in numbers of troops, it was nonetheless a terrifying sight for the Red Army when the German tanks, in Alan Clark’s words, ‘clambered out from the sunken lanes and dried-up balkas where they had been lying and moved slowly forward, hatches closed, across the billowing yellow-green corn of the upper Donets valley’. (The heat inside the tanks in Russia’s summer weather was stifling.) Hoth deployed no fewer than nine of the best Panzer divisions in the German Army – from west to east the 3rd Panzer, Gross Deutschland, 11th Panzer, SS Leibstandarte (Lifeguard) Adolf Hitler, SS Das Reich, SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head), 6th Panzer, 19th Panzer and 7th Panzer – all across a mere 30 miles of front.
‘The whole front was a girdle of flashes,’ recalled a Tiger tank radio operator Sergeant Imboden; ‘it seemed as if we were driving into a ring of flame… We thanked the Fates for the strength of our good Krupp steel.’ When German tanks were disabled by mines or by special Red Army squads hiding in slit trenches in the middle of minefields, their crews were ordered to stay inside and give covering fire for the rest of the battle. This was a virtual death sentence for them, as their becalmed tanks were almost always hit only a matter of minutes afterwards. Those Waffen-SS Panzer crewmen who did get out immediately ripped the death’s-head insignia off their uniforms, as those wearing it were almost never allowed the luxury of being taken prisoner.
Although the long, slim 76.2mm Russian anti-tank gun could knock out a Tiger’s frontal armour only at point-blank range, it was effective against the Mark IVs, and anyway there was plenty of point-blank-range fighting at Kursk. Mines accounted for many German tanks, and there was only so much the Panzergrenadiere – who fought throughout the night – could do against well-entrenched Russian anti-tank groups that no longer turned and ran as in earlier days. As Konstantin Simonov recorded in his novel Days and Nights, Red Army veterans had learnt by experience that ‘Under mortar fire it is no more dangerous to move forward than to stay where you are. They knew that tanks most often kill soldiers who are running away from them, and that German automatic rifle fire from two hundred metres away is always intended more to frighten than to kill.’30
Although Hoth broke through the first line of Soviet defence on the first day of the assault, fire from the second and strongest line had been pre-ranged and self-propelled guns had been dug in so that their hulls were pointing downwards, the best defensive positions for fire. Between 6 and 7 July, Hoth’s force was reduced in the fierce fighting from 865 operative vehicles to 621.31 Lieutenant Schütte complained to his commander after capturing a village only to take heavy losses from pre-registered artillery fire that ‘Having driven Ivan out, we should have withdrawn ourselves and let him bomb the place out of existence. Then we could have moved the armour forward relatively safely.’32 This is what Schütte did successfully at a hamlet the following day, though losing several tanks to mines because there was ‘no time for laborious mine-clearing’. Schütte recalled this period before the Soviet counter-attack as being characterized by a desolate battlefield, with ‘miles of devastated corn, dozens of destroyed tanks and dead bodies swelling obscenely in the summer heat’. On one occasion his company commander looked up in a small copse to see the face of what he thought was an enemy sniper. He fired a full clip of his pistol into what turned out to be ‘a bodiless head, which had been blown off by an artillery blast and tossed up into the tree, where it had lodged’.33
After a week of continual fighting, Hoth could boast only a rectangular salient 9 miles deep by 15 across in the Voronezh Front’s line, and no immediate prospect of breaking through to Kursk itself. As Alan Clark noted of the Waffen-SS: ‘These men were face to face with the Untermensch and finding to their dismay that he was as well-armed, as cunning, and as brave as themselves.’34 On 9 July the Soviets went on to the counter-offensive, having drawn in the Germans across their defences in a way most expensive to the Wehrmacht, with a barrage so long and heavy that Schütte said it felt like ‘a continual earthquake’. Meanwhile, in the northern part of the salient, Model’s Ninth Army managed only to penetrate the 6 miles to Ponyri, and had ground to a halt by the night of 11 July, with the Soviets counter-attacking the next day. A major problem overtook the vast Ferdinand assault gun, which XLVII Panzer Corps had hoped would be a battle-winning weapon. Although they had very thick armour-plating, these monsters had no machine guns, and were therefore defenceless against Russian soldiers who would bravely run up to them, board them with flame-throwers and incinerate everyone inside through the engine’s ventilation shafts. Guderian had spotted that using Ferdinands to fight infantry was akin, in his words, to ‘going quail-shooting with cannons’, but the requisite changes had not been made.35 In the first two days of fighting at Kursk, forty of the seventy Ferdinands were destroyed, and, because they failed to silence Russian machine-gun emplacements, Lieutenant-General Helmuth Weidling’s infantry could not support those that did break through. It was a classic example of a foreseeable design defect leading to disaster, and the assault guns had to be refitted with machine guns before being sent to Italy to oppose the Anzio landings.
The Russian assault against the Orel salient to the north of the Kursk bulge, Operation Kutuzov, led by General Marian Popov’s Bryansk Front and General Vasily Sokolovsky’s West Front, which Zhukov had held off until the most opportune moment, forced Kluge to withdraw four divisions from the spearhead of the Ninth Panzer Army, thereby effectively condemning its chances of breaking through. Zhukov was thus in the enviable position one week into Zitadelle of having blocked Model in the north and slowed Hoth in the south, and so was able to send an elite part of his uncommitted mobile reserve, the 793 tanks of General Pavel Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, into action against XLVIII Panzer Corps and SS-General Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps, which were working their laborious way across the Donets river to the rail junction at Prokhorovka, hoping to outflank Vatutin and find a way to Kursk north-eastwards. The crossing of the Donets by Lieutenant-General Werner Kempf’s detachment with two Panzer corps has been described as ‘the only element of surprise in the entire operation’.36 ‘Success at Prokhorovka’, writes an historian of Zitadelle, ‘would ensure the encirclement and destruction of the two main Soviet groupings in the southern half of the salient and open a new road to Kursk, bypassing the stronghold of Oboyan to the east.’37
Yet motoring towards Prokhorovka just as fast as the Germans was Rotmistrov, who vividly recalled the first day of his army’s 200-mile drive up to the front line:
It grew hot as early as 08.00 hours and clouds of dust billowed up. By midday the dust rose in thick clouds, settling in a solid layer on roadside bushes, grain fields, tanks and trucks. The dark red disc of the sun was hardly visible through the grey shroud of dust. Tanks, self-propelled guns and tractors (which towed the artillery), armoured personnel carriers and trucks were advancing in an unending flow. The faces of the soldiers were darkened with dust and exhaust fumes. It was intolerably hot. Soldiers were tortured by thirst and their shirts, wet with sweat, stuck to their bodies.38
It was about to get an awful lot hotter.
It was the eight-hour tank battle of Prokhorovka on Monday, 12 July that was described by Mellenthin as the ‘veritable death ride of the 4th Panzer Army’. The army had begun Zitadelle with 916 mission-capable vehicles, but was down to 530 by 11 July. The II SS Panzer Corps meanwhile had dropped from 470 to about 250. The numbers of tanks involved in the battle of Prokhorovka is a complex historical problem, as sources differ, politics and propaganda become involved, and the geographical extent of the battlefield is disputed, but the best estimate is that 600 Soviet tanks fought 250 German.39 If one includes the units in the areas of Prokhorovka and Jakovlevo, not all of which saw action that particular day, the numbers swell to 900 German (including about 100 Tigers) versus just under 900 Russian, which does indeed make it the largest tank battle in history.40 Whereas the Germans had been fighting for a week, found it hard to refuel under fire and were having engineering problems with the Panther tanks’ propensity to break down, the Russians were fresh into battle, and as well as T-34/76 tanks they deployed the SU-85, a self-propelled gun with an 85mm armour-busting shell built on the chassis of the T-34. Fighting with one basic make of tank meant spare parts were far easier to find, whereas the Germans had five different types – the Panzers Marks III and IV, the Panther, Ferdinand and Tiger – with all the concomitant supply problems which that implied. Many Panther tanks at Kursk ‘went into action belching flame from unproven engine systems’, and others broke down with transmission problems.41 In all, as many as 160 tanks of the Fourth Panzer Army simply broke down on the battlefield, which with German output numbering only 330 tanks a month – much less than the 1,000 Speer had promised the Führer – was disastrous, and a far cry from the much lauded Teutonic industrial miracle of wartime and post-war myth.
A vast dust cloud was flung up by the hundreds of tanks and self-propelled guns on both sides as they clashed head-on at the rail junction at Prokhorovka, a battlefield of only 20 square miles. ‘We found ourselves taking on a seemingly inexhaustible mass of enemy armour,’ recalled Sergeant Imbolden; ‘never have I received such an overwhelming impression of Russian strength and numbers as on that day. The clouds of dust made it difficult to get help from the Luftwaffe, and soon many of the T-34s had broken past our screen and were streaming like rats all over the old battlefield.’42 The T-34s and some KVs needed to get into close quarters as soon as possible with the larger, more powerful German tanks – especially considering the 88mm gun on the Tiger – and there are accounts of Russian tanks deliberately ramming into German ones.43 ‘Once at close range with scores of machines churning about in individual engagements,’ writes John Erickson, ‘front and side armour was more easily penetrated, when the tank ammunition would explode, hurling turrets yards away from shattered hulls or sending up great spurts of fire.’44
The Luftwaffe failed to support the tanks enough during this vicious, pell-mell, close-quarter battle; indeed, when considering the campaign as a whole one historian has noted that its ‘loss of supremacy in the air is as important and interesting as the Wehrmacht’s loss of supremacy in armour’.45 Occasionally almost lunatic bravery was shown by the Russian Air Force: on 6 July, Lieutenant Alexei Gorovets, flying an American Airacobra, single-handedly engaged twenty German aircraft, destroying eight (or possibly nine) before being shot down himself.46 His impressive memorial can be seen today near the spot where he crashed on the battlefield. In all, the Germans lost 702 planes over the Eastern Front in July and August 1943, a number they could ill afford.
Kursk was the first major engagement where the Russians were able to put up more aircraft than the Luftwaffe, which showed, as with so many other aspects of that battle, the shape of things to come. The Second and Seventeenth Air Armies flew 19,263 sorties from Kursk over the southern sector, in much larger formations than hitherto. One author has subtitled his chapter on the battle ‘A New Professionalism’, and in many ways it did exemplify how much the Soviet armed forces had adapted and learnt from the débâcles of 1941.47 For all that, however, II SS Panzer Corps (comprising the Leibstandarte, Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions) inflicted more damage than it received in the mêlée at Prokhorovka – indeed the Soviet tank force suffered more than 50 per cent casualties – but by then it did not matter.48 By the end of the day the Russians had lost around 400 tanks against around 300 German (including 70 Tigers).49 What was later dubbed the Prokhorovskoe poboische (slaughter at Prokhorovka) by Russian propaganda had been mutual, but anything less than a stunning breakthrough was now a disaster for the Germans by that stage of the conflict; pyrrhic victories were of no use to the Reich. The Germans kept possession of the field until ordered to retreat from it, but Zitadelle had clearly completely fizzled out, and the salient was in no danger of being ‘pinched out’. The 3rd, 17th and 19th Panzer Divisions started the operation with 450 tanks, and now had barely 100 between them.50 Like a boxer who has won his last bout on points but is unable to fight another because of the battering he has received, the Wehrmacht was too damaged after Prokhorovka to undertake another major offensive.
Hitler summoned Manstein and Kluge to Rastenburg on 13 July and ordered Zitadelle to be closed down. The Allies had landed in Sicily three days earlier and part of II SS Panzer Corps, including the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, needed to be transferred to Italy forthwith. This was easier to order than to carry out, for as Mellenthin put it: ‘We are now in the position of a man who has seized a wolf by the ears and dare not let him go.’51 Kluge, in the words of Liddell Hart, ‘had sufficient moral courage to express his views frankly to Hitler, yet he also refrained from pressing his views to the point of being troublesome.’52 In that he was not unlike a number of German generals, who knew that there were always many well-qualified men eager to take their places.
Manstein believed that, since Zhukov had now committed his mobile reserves in the shape of the Fifth Guards Tank Army, the offensive should be carried on, but he was overruled by Hitler. By 23 July, Army Group South – weakened by the loss of the Grossdeutschland Division being sent to Kluge – had been forced back to its starting lines for Operation Zitadelle.53 Konev’s fresh Steppe Front took over the positions held by the heroic but exhausted Voronezh Front on 3 August, and confused tactical fighting took place until 17 August, with the Germans withdrawing to the Hagen Line across the base of the Orel salient in the north and the Soviets pushing on in the south to recapture Kharkov – the most fought-over city in the Soviet Union – which fell on 23 August when Manstein finally abandoned it (against Hitler’s orders) and fell back to the Dnieper river.54 Four distinct and bloody battles over one city emphasizes the nature of war on the Eastern Front, and by the time of Kharkov’s last fall the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts had suffered over 250,000 casualties.55 This places in stark perspective the battles that were taking place in Sicily at the time, which were all puny by comparison.
In a war of men and machines, the Russians were out-producing the Germans in both. German, Hungarian, Italian and Czech factories produced a total – when added to the tanks captured in France – of 53,187 tanks and self-propelled guns of all kinds throughout the war, whereas between 1941 and 1945 the USSR produced 58,681 T-34s alone, 3,500 IS-2s (which had a 122mm cannon with a 2.5-kilometre accurate range) and 3,500 SU-100 self-propelled guns, not including the KV range of tanks. By 1943 the Russians were also turning out huge numbers of the excellent 122mm M-30 howitzers, and their standard hand grenade was as good as Germany’s M-24 classic stick grenade, which had not undergone any major improvement since 1924.
The Russian performance at Kursk, especially in the area of co-operation between different arms, brought the losses down to tolerable levels (albeit still much higher than the German). It created a new military theory and ethos for Russia, one that afforded her a glimpse of victory. The casualty rate at Kursk was half that of the Moscow battles of late 1941, and the rates for 1944 were to be one-quarter of it. ‘The reconstruction of an almost entirely new army on the ruins of the collapse of 1941’, reckons Richard Overy, ‘ranks as the most remarkable achievement of the war.’56 The Soviets had combined their arms, applied new techniques to offensive operations, exploited successes quickly and learnt how to defeat Blitzkrieg. They were still losing more men than the Germans, it was true, but they had reduced the ratio to three for two, at which proportion it was to stay until the end of the war. As a result, ‘German defeat simply became a matter of blood and time.’57 The Germans had little of either; the Russians now had plenty of both.
In the two months of fighting at Kursk, it is estimated that the Germans lost half a million men killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing, as well as 3,000 tanks, 1,000 guns, 5,000 motor vehicles and 1,400 planes.58 Soviet losses were half as heavy again, at three-quarters of a million men, but the German retreat from Prokhorovka meant that it was a defeat, since the Russian population and levels of production ensured that the USSR could absorb the losses in a way that the Reich no longer could. Konev was thus right to describe Kursk as ‘the swan-song of the German armoured force’.59
A growing problem for the Germans was getting matériel to the front line. By the end of 1942 the pro-Soviet partisans – hitherto almost ignored by the Stavka – were being supplied with officers, mine-experts and engineers, who were parachuted in to them with orders to disrupt the German lines of communication. With thousands of miles of railway track between German factories and regimental depots deep inside Russia, the partisans were able to cause massive dislocation of supplies. They meanwhile invented instruments which could adjust Russian machine-gun barrels to the size of captured German ammunition, and special steel bars that could be welded on to railway tracks in order to derail trains, examples of which can be seen in the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow today. In the month of June 1943, against Army Group Centre alone, partisans blew up forty-four railway bridges, damaged 298 locomotives and 1,233 wagons and disrupted rail traffic 746 times.60 This had severely hampered the Germans’ ability to reinforce their fronts just prior to Kursk, and afterwards it was to get much worse, despite the extremely harsh German reprisals against local populations. By contrast, Russian matériel was flooding into the Red Army by 1943. That calendar year the Soviets produced 24,000 tanks, twice the number of Germany, and the firepower they deployed in the Kursk salient that summer underlined their immense achievement in taking losses but surviving them and replenishing their numbers.61 They had 3,800 tanks when the German attack began on 5 July, and were down to 1,500 when it was called off on 13 July, yet by 3 August the Red Army was up to 2,750 in that sector.
The outcome of the battle of Kursk was superb for Russian morale, and correspondingly bad for German. Zhukov and the Stavka had timed and placed their counter-punch perfectly. German invincibility had been shown to be a myth at Stalingrad, but at Kursk the Russians turned back a fifty-division, full-scale attack. Not only had the Germans shown that they were capable of losing the war, but just as crucially the Russians had demonstrated that they – despite their appalling losses of experienced combat commanders – were developing the tactics necessary to win it. Zhukov’s strategy in the immediate aftermath of Kursk of not over-extending a counter-attack so much as to invite a counter-counter-attack is still taught in military colleges as a model example. ‘The three immense battles of Kursk, Orel and Kharkov, all in the space of two months,’ wrote Churchill, ‘heralded the downfall of the German army on the Eastern Front.’ Germany had lost the initiative on by far the most important front of the war, and was never to regain it. Intelligent Germans, and even some not so intelligent ones such as Keitel, recognized that the war in the east could not now be won. On the walls of the Hall of Glory in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow there are the names of no fewer than 11,695 Heroes of the Soviet Union, winners of the Red Star medal.
Rumours about what was happening to Russian POWs in German captivity had percolated back to the Red Army, were sedulously spread by Soviet propaganda and left the Russian soldiers understandably disinclined to surrender whatever the circumstances. This was yet another example of how Nazi fanaticism actually weakened Germany’s military position.
To visit the battlefield of Prokhorovka today, and see the furthest point that the German armour reached on their final great offensive on the Eastern Front – the last gasp of Nazi aggression, as it were, before the Reich was turned on to the defensive – is a profoundly moving experience. These undulating fields saw the furthest expansion that Hitler ever achieved in his dreams of world conquest. Its forces having been turned back at Moscow, then defeated at Stalingrad, for Nazism Prokhorovka was the beginning of the end. The bell atop a tall campanile that today tolls six times every twenty minutes on those windy flat cornfields effectively tolled the death knell of Operation Zitadelle. OKW hoped Kursk would be a turning point for them, but on the battlefield of Prokhorovka – although the Russians lost more men and machines than the Germans – history failed to turn.