Battle of Kursk
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Sovietic T34 battle of kursk.jpg
Disabled Soviet T-34 being towed by a turretless armored recovery tank, under enemy fire.
Date German Kursk :July 4 – July 20, 1943
Soviet Kursk : July 4 – August 23, 1943
Location Kursk, USSR
Result Decisive strategic Soviet victory
Flag of Germany 1933.svg
Nazi Germany
Flag of the Soviet Union 1923.svg
Soviet Union
Erich von Manstein
Günther von Kluge
Hermann Hoth
Walther Model
Georgiy Zhukov
Konstantin Rokossovskiy
Nikolay Vatutin
Ivan Konyev
2,700 tanks
800,000 infantry
2,000 aircraft
3,600 tanks
1,300,000 infantry and supporting troops
2,400 aircraft
German Kursk :
50,000 dead, wounded, or captured
300 tanks
200 aircraft ,
Soviet Kursk :
500,000 dead, wounded, or captured
900 tanks
200 aircraft
German Kursk :
180,000 dead, wounded, or captured
1,600 tanks
1,000 aircraft ,
Soviet Kursk :
607,737 dead, wounded, or captured
1,500 tanks
1,000 aircraft
Eastern Front
BarbarossaFinlandLeningrad and BalticsCrimea and CaucasusMoscow1st Rzhev-Vyazma2nd KharkovStalingradVelikiye Luki2nd Rzhev-SychevkaKursk2nd SmolenskDnieper2nd KievKorsunHube's PocketBelorussiaLvov-SandomierzBalkansHungaryVistula-OderKönigsbergBerlinPrague

Battle of Kursk
KurskKutuzovProkhorovkaPolkovodets RumyantsevBelgorod4th Kharkov

The eastern front at the time of the Battle of Kursk. Orange areas show the destruction of an earlier Soviet breakthrough that ended with the Third Battle of Kharkov. Green areas show German advances on Kursk.

The Battle of Kursk or Kursk Campaign (July 4July 20, 1943), also called Operation Citadel (German: Unternehmen Zitadelle) by the German Army, was a major battle on the Eastern Front of World War II, and the last German blitzkrieg offensive in the east. The exact definition of the battle varies: the Germans saw it as comprising Operation Citadel only, while the Soviets considered (and Russians today consider) it to include Citadel and the subsequent Soviet counteroffensives, Operation Kutuzov and Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Overall, the campaign, which included the famous sub-battle at Prokhorovka, remains both the largest armored engagement and the most costly single day of aerial warfare to date.

Kursk is further notable for the deliberately defensive battle strategy on the Soviets' part. Having good intelligence on Hitler's intentions, the Soviets established and managed to conceal elaborate layered defense works, mine fields, and stage and disguise large reserve forces poised for a tactical and strategic counterattack typical of defensive battle plans. Though the Germans planned and initiated an offensive strike, the well-planned defense not only frustrated their ambitions, but also enabled the Soviets to follow up with counteroffensives and exhausted the German abilities in the theater, thereby seizing the initiative for the remainder of the war. In that sense it may be seen as the second phase of the turning point that began with the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, whose aftermath set the scene by establishing the Kursk Salient (also known as the "Kursk Bulge"), the reduction of which was the objective of the German armies entering July. The subsequent counterattacks retook Orel and Belgorod on August 5, and Kharkov on August 23, pushing back the Germans across a broad front. This was the first successful major Soviet summer offensive of the war.

Kursk was a further demonstration that the conflict in the East contained the largest scale of warfare in history, in terms of manpower involved. So well designed was the Soviet defensive planning, that when entering the archetypal counterattack phase, the Soviets were able to attack along four separate axes of advance, and execute a planned stop at a phase line, thus avoiding the pitfalls of overextending during the counterattack and earning this battle's deserved place as a model campaign in war college curricula.[1]


In the winter of 19421943 the Soviets conclusively won the Battle of Stalingrad. One complete German army had been lost, along with about 800,000 German and Axis troops, seriously depleting Axis strength in the east. With an Allied invasion of Europe clearly looming, Hitler realized an outright defeat of the Soviets before the Western Allies arrived had become unlikely, and he decided to force the Soviets to a draw.[citation needed]

In 1917, the Germans had built the famous Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, shortening their lines and thereby increasing their defensive strength. They planned on repeating this strategy in Russia and started construction of a massive series of defensive works known as the Panther-Wotan line. They intended to retreat to the line late in 1943 and bleed the Soviets against it while their own forces recuperated.

In February and March 1943, German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein had completed an offensive during the Third Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle lay a large 200 km (120 mi) wide and 150 km (90 mi) deep Soviet-held salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Von Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south.

German plans[]

Von Manstein pressed for a new offensive along the same lines he had just successfully pursued at Kharkov, when he cut off an overextended Soviet offensive. He suggested tricking the Soviets into attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming Sixth Army, leading them into the Donets Basin in the eastern Ukraine. He would then turn south from Kharkov on the eastern side of the Donets River towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the Red Army against the Sea of Azov.

OKH did not approve von Manstein's plan, and instead turned their attention to the obvious bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. Three Soviet armies occupied the ground in and around the salient, and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's manpower. It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line, and capture the strategically useful railway town of Kursk located on the main north-south railway line running from Rostov to Moscow.

In March the plans crystallized. Walter Model's Ninth Army would attack southwards from Orel while Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment "Kempf" under the overall command of Manstein would attack northwards from Kharkov. They planned to meet near Kursk, but if the offensive went well they would have permission to continue forward on their own initiative, with a general plan to create a new line at the Don River far to the east.

Contrary to his recent behavior, Hitler gave the General Staff considerable control over the planning of the battle. Over the next few weeks, they continued to increase the scope of the forces attached to the front, stripping the entire German line of practically anything remotely useful for deployment in the upcoming battle. They first set the attack for May 4, but then delayed it until June 12, and finally until July 4 in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from Germany, especially the new Panther tanks.

The basic concept behind the German offensive was the traditional (and, for the Germans, hitherto usually successful) double-envelopment, or Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). The German Army had long favored such a Cannae-style method, and the tools of Blitzkrieg made these types of tactics even more effective. Blitzkrieg depended on mass, shock, and speed to surprise an enemy and defeat him through disruption of command and supply rather than by destroying all his forces in a major pitched battle.

However, such breakthroughs were easier to achieve if they hit an unexpected location, as the Germans had achieved attacking through the Ardennes in 1940, and towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus in 1942. The OKH's plan for the attack on the Kursk salient, "Operation Citadel", violated the principle of surprise: anyone who could read a map could confidently predict the obvious point of attack. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Guderian, who asked Hitler:

Was it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east that year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is? The entire world doesn't care if we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason that is forcing us to attack this year on Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front? Perhaps more surprisingly Hitler replied: I know. The thought of it turns my stomach.

The interview ended inconclusively; Operation Citadel was postponed until mid-June.

The German force numbered 50 divisions, including 17 panzer and panzergrenadier, among them the elite Wehrmacht Großdeutschland Division, and the Waffen-SS divisions 1st SS Panzer Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzer Das Reich, and 3rd SS Panzer Totenkopf grouped into the II SS Panzer Corps. The High Command concentrated all their armor, the Tiger and new Panther tanks, and the new Elefant assault guns. They also massed a high proportion of their available air units and artillery, and despite the problems of the German plan it was a formidable concentration of armor.

Soviet plans[]

To the West! calls this Soviet poster, while a Soviet soldier destroys the German To the East! sign

The Red Army had also begun planning for their own upcoming summer offensives, and had settled on a plan that mirrored that of the Germans. Attacks in front of Orel and Kharkov would flatten out the line, and potentially lead to a breakout near the Pripyat Marshes. However, Soviet commanders had considerable concerns over the German plans.

Stalin and a handful of Stavka officers wanted to strike first[citation needed]. The pattern of the war up until this point had been one of German offensive success. Blitzkrieg had worked against all opposing armies, including the Soviets'. None had succeeded in stopping a German breakthrough. On the other hand, Soviet offensive actions during both winters showed their own offensives now worked well. However, the overwhelming majority of Stavka members, most notably Zhukov himself, advised waiting for the Germans to exhaust themselves, first. Zhukov's opinion swayed the argument.

The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Soviets four months in which to prepare, and with every passing day they turned the salient into one of the most heavily defended points on earth. Two Fronts, Central and Voronezh, manned the defensive lines, and the Steppe Front was available to act as a reserve. The Red Army and thousands of civilians laid about one million land mines and dug about 5000 km (3000 mi) of trenches, to a depth of 175 km (95 mi). In addition, they massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft. The Red Army could build up forces faster than the Germans; each month they pulled further ahead in men and material.

Many of the troops assigned to the defense of the salient were recent veterans of the Stalingrad battle, but the Red Army also added over one million new men to its ranks in the first half of 1943. Thus, the Soviet Army was larger than in 1942, even after the losses at Stalingrad. The long delay between the identification of the likely site of the German attack and the beginning of the offensive gave the new units an unusually long time to train.

The density of artillery in the salient was unusual; there were more artillery regiments in the salient than infantry regiments. The Soviets were determined to grind down attacking German units with a combination of mines and artillery fire. Indirect fire from howitzers would stop the German infantry, while direct fire from 45mm (1.7"), 57mm (2.24"), and 85mm (3.3") towed anti-tank guns and 76.2mm (3") divisional field guns would destroy the tanks. In the 13th Army sector (facing the German Ninth Army on the northern face of the salient) the density of anti-tank guns was 23.7 guns per kilometer of defended front. In the 6th and 7th Guards Army sectors in the south, the density was lower at about 10 guns per kilometer.

The preparation of the battlefield by Soviet military engineers was thorough. Reports indicate 503,993 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines were laid in the defended area. On average, 1,500 antitank and 1,700 anti-personnel mines were laid per kilometer of front. In the sectors eventually attacked, densities were never lower than 1,400 per kilometer and sometimes reached as high as 2,000 per kilometer. Soviet engineers also constructed miles of trenches, laid barbed wire, built anti-tank obstacles, and constructed thousands of gun and mortar positions. Dummy positions were built to attract German artillery fire. Camouflaging of these positions and minefields was excellent; the first warning most German units would have of the presence of Soviet minefields or dug-in guns would be their own vehicles exploding.

Germans to Soviets.

Operation Citadel[]

Preliminary Actions[]

Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers and Tiger tanks of the Totenkopf Division during the start of Operation Citadel

It took four months before the Germans felt ready, by which time they had collected 200 of the new Panther tanks (only 40 available at the beginning of the battle due to technical problems with the new type), 90 Elefant Panzerjägers and every flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft, as well as 270 Tigers, late model Panzer Mark-IVs and even a number of captured T-34s. In total they assembled some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 800,000 men. It formed one of the greatest concentrations of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy.

By this time, Allied action in Western Europe was beginning to have a significant impact on German military strength. Although actions in North Africa hardly constituted the Soviets' longed-for second front, the battle there did begin to tell, and in the last quarter of 1942 and the first half of 1943, the Luftwaffe lost over 40% of its total strength in the battles over Malta and Tunisia. German air superiority was no longer guaranteed. The Soviet Air Forces far outnumbered the Luftwaffe, and were quickly gaining in technology as well, with a very effective series of ground-attack aircraft capable of decimating German armor, such as the much feared Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.

The start date for the offensive had been moved repeatedly as delays in preparation had forced the Germans to postpone the attack. Finally, on July 1 the orders to attack on July 5 were issued. The following day, Marshal Vasilyevskiy warned the Front commanders (N. F. Vatutin, K. K. Rokossovskiy and I. S. Konyev) that the long-awaited German offensive would begin sometime between July 3 and July 6. For months, the Soviets had been receiving detailed information on the planning of the offensive from their Red Orchestra (German: Rote Kapelle) espionage organization, whose sources included officers in the Nazi administration, among others in Hermann Göring’s aviation ministry.

Preliminary fighting started on 4 July 1943 in the south, as Fourth Panzer Army had elected to try to take the Soviet outposts prior to the main assault on July 5. Thus they deliberately sacrificed tactical surprise. However, the Soviet forward positions were on small hills overlooking German assembly areas, so it is likely surprise would have been lost in any case.

In the afternoon, Stuka dive bombers blew a two-mile-wide gap in the front lines on the north in a short period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the pounding. Hoth's armored spearhead, the III Panzer Corps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Zavidovka. At the same time, the Großdeutschland Division attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the 11th Panzer Division took the high ground around Butovo. To the west of Butovo the going proved tougher for Großdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division, which met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure their objectives until midnight. The II SS Panzer Corps launched preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again met with stiff resistance until assault troops equipped with flamethrowers cleared the bunkers and outposts.

At 22:30, the Soviets hit back with an artillery bombardment in the north and south. This barrage, by over 3,000 guns and mortars, expended up to one-half of the artillery supply for the entire operation. The goal was to delay and disorganize the German attack. In the northern face, the Central Front artillery fired mostly against German artillery positions and managed to suppress 50 of the 100 German batteries they targeted. The result was much weaker German artillery fire on the opening day of the attack. Also, German units attacked at staggered times on July 5 due to the disruption caused by this bombardment. In the south, the Soviets chose to fire largely against the German infantry and tanks in their assembly areas. This was partially successful in delaying the German attack, but caused few casualties.

Main Battle[]

The Northern Face[]

The real battle opened on 5 July 1943. The Soviets, now aware even of the exact time of the planned German offensive, launch a massive attack by the Soviet Air Force on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area, in an attempt to turn the tables on the old German “trick” of wiping out local air support within the first hour of battle. The next few hours turned into possibly the largest air battle ever fought. Neither side was able to establish air superiority over the battlefield.

The Ninth Army attack in the north fell far short of its objectives on July 5. The attack sector had been correctly anticipated by the Soviet Central Front. Attacking on a 45-kilometer-wide front, the Germans found themselves trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire. Although a few Goliath and Borgward remote-control engineering vehicles were available to clear lanes in the minefields, they were not generally successful. Even when the vehicles cleared mines, they had no on-board marking system to show following tanks where the cleared lanes were. Soviet units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying and inflicting losses on German engineers clearing mines manually. Thus German losses in the Soviet minefields were high. For example, the German 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion began the attack with 49 Ferdinand self-propelled guns; 37 of them had been lost in the minefields before 17:00 on July 5. Although most of the lost vehicles were mobility kills rather than permanent losses, they were out of action until they could be repaired. While idle they added nothing to German combat power and were easier for Soviet artillery to knock out permanently. Since the Germans were advancing, any repairable vehicles could be fixed and put back into action.

There are a number of factors that explain Ninth Army’s lack of progress. The combination of Soviet defensive planning and, on the German side, the lack of concentration of force were the main factors. German armor was committed piecemeal rather than in strength and often without sufficient infantry support.[2] Soviet defensive preparation was also a major factor. The Central Front under Marshal Rokossovskiy had correctly anticipated the likely areas of German attack and had fortified those areas very heavily, holding other areas more thinly. The 13th Army, which bore the brunt of the German attack, was far stronger in men and anti-tank guns than the other Central Front units, and indeed held the strongest defensive positions in the entire salient. Ironically, a major planning error by the Soviet Supreme High Command and the General Staff was their expectation that the main weight of the German attack would come in the north on the Central Front. Thus they concentrated more strength there. Also, the Central front chose to defend the tactical zone (to a depth of 20 km) very heavily, leaving far fewer units in the depths of the defense. Model's army had fewer tanks than Manstein had in the south, and the Ninth Army also committed major units piecemeal due to some disruption caused by the Soviet pre-emptive artillery barrage. Finally, Ninth Army led with reinforced infantry divisions that were already in the line facing the Soviets, rather than attacking with uncommitted units.

Review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration shows clearly that the Soviet defensive tactics were succeeding. Beginning with a 45-kilometer-wide attack frontage on July 5, on the 6th, Ninth Army attacked on a 40-kilometer front. This dropped to 15 kilometers wide by July 7, and only 2 kilometers each on July 8-9. Each day, the depth of the German advance slowed: 5 kilometers on the first day, 4 on the second, never more than 2 km each succeeding day. By the 10th, Ninth Army was stopped in its tracks.

After a week, the Wehrmacht had moved only 12 km forward, and on the 12th the Soviets launched their own offensive against the Second Panzer Army at Orel. Ninth Army had to withdraw, their part in the offensive over. Because the German armor was not concentrated and used with the same intensity as in the South, the German armor losses were comparatively light - 143 armored vehicles were total losses in the period July 5 -14 1943.[3] However, this failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matériel for the Red Army. Few Soviet guns were captured, and those Soviet units that did retreat did so on orders; they were not overrun. The German attack failed to penetrate beyond the Soviet tactical zone.

Southern Face[]

File:Kursk south.svg

German advance in the South

In the south, the Voronezh Front fared less well against the Fourth Panzer Army with its LII Corps, XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps. The II SS Panzer Corps attacked on a narrower frontage against two Soviet rifle regiments. The armored spearhead of Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army forced its way forward, and by the 6th had reached some 15 km past the lines. Again, Soviet planning played a big role. In the south the Soviets had not been able to pinpoint the German attack sectors; this forced them to spread out their defenses more evenly. For example, three of the four Armies of the Voronezh Front had about 10 antitank guns per kilometer of front; this contrasts sharply with the Central Front's distribution of guns, which was twice as heavy in the active sectors. Also, the Voronezh Front made the decision to hold the tactical zone much more thinly, leaving a much higher proportion of units in deeper positions compared to the Central Front. Finally, the Voronezh Front was weaker than the Central Front, yet it faced much stronger German forces.

The German forces made steady progress against the Soviet defenses, but, as in the north, attack frontages (width) and penetration depth tended to drop as the attack proceeded. The trend was not as marked as in the north, however. Beginning with a 30-kilometer-wide attack frontage on July 5, this dropped to 20-kilometers wide by July 7 and 15 km by July 9. Likewise, the depth of the penetration dropped from 9 km on July 5 to 5 km on July 8 and 2–3 km each day thereafter until the attack was cancelled.

Soviet minefields and artillery were again successful in delaying the German attack and inflicting losses. The ability of dug-in Red Army units to delay the Germans was vital to allow their own reserves to be brought up into threatened sectors. Over 90,000 additional mines were laid during the battle by small mobile groups of engineers, generally working at night immediately in front of the expected German attack areas. There were no large-scale captures of prisoners nor any great loss of artillery, again indicating that Soviet units were giving ground in good order.

German losses can be seen in the example of the Großdeutschland Division, which began the battle with 118 tanks. On July 10, after five days of fighting, the division reported it had 3 Tigers, 6 Panthers, and 11 Pzkw-III and Pzkw-IV tanks operational. XLVIII Panzer Corps reported, overall, 38 Panthers operational with 131 awaiting repair, out of the 200 it started with on July 5.

Nevertheless, it was obvious that the threat of a German breakthrough in the south had to be reckoned with. The Steppe Front had been formed in the months prior to the battle as a central reserve for such an eventuality. Units of the Steppe Front began movement to the south as early as July 9. This included the 5th Guards Tank Army and other combined-arms armies.

The German flank, however, stood unprotected as the Soviet 7th Guards Army stalled Kempf's divisions, aided by heavy rain, after the Germans had crossed the Donets River. The Fifth Guards Tank Army, reinforced with two additional Tank Corps, moved into positions to the east of Prokhorovka and had started to prepare a counterattack of their own when II SS Panzer Corps arrived and an intense struggle ensued. The Soviets managed to halt the SS—but only just. Little now stood in the way of the Fourth Panzer Army, and a German breakthrough looked like a very real possibility. The Soviets therefore decided to deploy the rest of 5th Guards Tank Army.

Main article: Battle of Prokhorovka

Memorial on Prokhorovka Field

On the morning of July 12, II SS Panzer Corps advanced on Prokhorovka at the same time that 5th Guards Tank Army launched a series of attacks as part of multi-front counteroffensive scheduled for July 12 and in an attempt to catch the Germans off balance. The SS and Guards units collided west of Prokhorovka in open country punctuated by farms, rolling hills and gullies. What happened next is open to debate with the release of new information from archives.

The battle can best be described as a very costly tactical loss but an operational draw for the Soviets. Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their missions that day. Tank losses have been a contentious subject ever since. Soviet losses have been claimed as low as 200 or as high as 822 tanks, but the loss records now show that they were probably from 150 to 300 complete losses, with a similar number damaged. Likewise, German loss claims have reached as low as 80 or into the hundreds, including "dozens" of Tigers. This number is impossible to establish because of the German philosophy in counting lost tanks. The number of complete losses for the period 10 July-13 July for the LSSAH and Das Reich divisions was three. Additional to that is an unknown number of damaged tanks, many of which would have been lost in repair depots during the subsequent retreat as a consequence of the Soviet post-Kursk counteroffensive Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev. Nipe puts the number of operational tank reductions in the whole Corps at 70-80, but it is unclear how many of these would have been in short-term or long-term repair. In any event, the losses for both the II SS Panzer Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army in the “greatest tank battle of all time,” fell short of the mythic proportions sometimes attributed to the Prokhorovka engagement.

The End in the South[]

Significantly, earlier in the battle the attacking German units had been squeezed into ever-narrowing frontages by the defenders. Elite Soviet Guards Airborne units were holding firm on the flanks of the very narrow German penetration. The Germans could not squeeze many units into this narrow front, nor did they have the combat power to widen the penetration. Thus as the attacking Corps moved forward, they continually lost strength due to the need to hold their own flanks.

While the German offensive had been stopped in the north by July 10, in the south the overall battle (of Kursk) still hung in the balance, even after July 12. German forces on the southern wing, exhausted and heavily depleted, nevertheless had breached the first two defensive belts and believed (wrongly) that they were about to break through the last belt. In fact at least five more defensive zones awaited them, although they were not as strong as the initial belts (and some of them did not have troops deployed). Soviet defenders had been weakened, and major parts of their reserve forces had been committed. Still, the available uncommitted Red Army reserves were far larger than the few available German reserves.

Hitler cancels the operation[]

On the night of July 9/10, the Western Allies mounted an amphibious invasion of Sicily. Three days later, Hitler summoned von Kluge and von Manstein to his Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia and declared his intention to "temporarily" call off Operation Zitadelle. Von Manstein attempted to dissuade him, arguing that Zitadelle was on the brink of victory. Hitler gave von Manstein a few more days to continue the offensive, but on 17 July he cancelled the operation and ordered the entire SS Panzer Korps to be transferred to Italy.

Hitler's decision to call off the operation at the height of the battle has since been strongly criticized by German generals in their memoirs, and also by some historians. For example, it has been pointed out that the SS Panzer Korps would have taken three months to be transferred to Sicily, and thus could not possibly have affected the outcome there, while its contribution to the Kursk operation was vital.[4] Other scholars however, are of the opinion that Zitadelle had already clearly failed and that Hitler was right in canceling the operation, if not for the right reasons.[citation needed]

In any event, only one German division, 1st SS Panzer Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, departed for Italy, the others remaining behind in the USSR to try and stem the Soviet counteroffensive launched in the wake of the failed German offensive.

Soviet counteroffensives[]

Main articles: Operation Kutuzov and Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev

Operation Kutuzov, the Soviet counteroffensive at Orel, decisively changed the situation. German Ninth Army units had to be redeployed to resist this attack instead of continuing their own offensive; units from the southern pincer were given warning orders on July 15 to withdraw back to the start lines held on July 4. The purpose of the withdrawal was to shorten the front, enabling the Germans to re-form a reserve.

To the south the Red Army needed more time to re-group after the losses sustained in July, and could not launch their counteroffensive again until 3 August when Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev commenced. Aided by diversionary attacks on the Mius river further south, they took von Manstein's hard-won Belgorod. Fireworks in Moscow marked the capture of Belgorod and Orel, a celebration that henceforward became an institution with the recapture of each Soviet city. On 11 August the Red Army reached Kharkov, a city Hitler had sworn to defend at all costs. The German units had reduced manpower and shortages of equipment.

Battle ends[]

File:Prokhorovka Cathedral.jpg

A cathedral on the Field of Prokhorovka. It commemorates the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kursk.

Field Marshal von Manstein believed the outcome of the offensive phase of Kursk to be much more grey than black and white. For although the Germans were forced to withdraw, the Germans “managed to, at least, partly destroy the mobile units of the enemy’s operational reserves.” However, despite the losses it suffered in the defensive phase of the battle of Kursk, the Red Army managed to go over to a very successful offensive within two weeks, pushing the Germans back to the Dnieper and towards western Ukraine, and Manstein saw the overall campaign as a disaster for the Germans.

By 22 August, utter exhaustion had affected both sides and the battle of Kursk ended. It was followed by a series of successful Red Army operations that led to the crossing of the Dnieper, and the liberation of Kiev during the autumn of 1943.

The campaign was a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped prior to achieving a breakthrough. The Germans, despite using superior armor, were unable to break through the in-depth defenses of the Red Army, and were surprised by the significant operational reserves available to the Soviets in this battle. This was an outcome that few confidently predicted, and it changed the pattern of operation on the eastern front. The victory had not been cheap however. The Red Army, although preventing the Germans from achieving the goals of Citadel, lost considerably more men and matériel than the Wehrmacht.

German casualties listed in German sources during the battle proper (as opposed to the following Soviet counter-offensives north and south of the salient) in the period 5 to 20 July 1943 were between 50,000[5] and 57,000.[6] German tank write-offs were between 278[7] and 323.[8] Yet the numbers of destroyed tanks alone does not tell the entire story. For example, Zetterling and Frankson list only 33 tanks destroyed for the three divisions of the SS Panzer Corps as of 17 July, but the number of operational tanks on 17 July as of 19:15 had dropped by 139, leading one to assume that 106 tank were damaged and not able to take part in the battle, at least temporarily.[9] Soviet casualties were 177,847 as listed in Krivosheev.[10] However, Restayn and Moller point out[11] that Krivosheev's figures for Central Front strength show a decline in strength during the period 5 to 11 July 1943 of approximately 92,700, of which only 33,897 are accounted for as dead or wounded with no explanation given for the further 58,893 losses. Restayn and Moller consider that the missing 58,893 should be accounted for as casualties, in which case total Soviet casualties in this period would be approximately 235,000 (i.e. 177,847 plus 58,893). Soviet armor losses, again according to Krivosheev, were 1,614 tanks and assault guns destroyed.[12]

From this point on, a new pattern emerged. The initiative had firmly passed to the Soviets, while the Germans spent the rest of the war reacting to their moves. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting some of Germany's resources and attention. Both sides had their losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully, as well as the increased aid from the American Lend-Lease program. The Germans never regained the initiative after Kursk and never again launched a major offensive in the East.

Moreover, the loss further convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his General Staff. He continued his interference in military matters progressively, so that by war's end he was involved in tactical decisions. The opposite applied to Stalin, however. After seeing Stavka's planning justified on the battlefield, he trusted his advisors more, and stepped back from operational planning, only rarely overruling military decisions.

Predictable results ensued for both sides: the German Army went from loss to loss as Hitler attempted personally to micromanage the day-to-day operations of what soon became a three-front war, while the Soviet Army gained more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.


  1. When the week of combat around Kursk had ended, the perceived infallibility of blitzkrieg was destroyed, along with the future hopes of the German Army for victory or even stalemate in the east...Kursk stands like an object lesson to those who would stand in awe and fear of current offensive threats. Kursk announced to the world that for every offensive theory, there is a suitable defensive one available to those who devote the requisite thought necessary to develop it.Glantz, Colonel David M.. "Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk, July 1943". U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Soviet Army Studies Office Combined Arms Center Combat Studies Institute (CSI Report No. 11). 
  2. Operation Citadel, Volume 2: The North, by Restayn and Moller, page 333
  3. Operation Citadel, Volume 2: The North, by Restayn and Moller, pages 333-336
  4. Carell, Paul - Hitler Moves East, Volume 2 Scorched Earth.
  5. Glantz & House,page 275
  6. Zetterling & Frankson, page 112
  7. Zetterling & Frankson, adding tables 8.8 and 8.10 on pages 121-122
  8. Glantz & House, page 276
  9. Zetterling & Frankson, pp. 187-188
  10. quoted in Glantz & House at 275 and Restayn & Moller, Volume II, at page 341
  11. page 341 of Vol II
  12. cited in both Glantz & House at 275 and Mawdsely, at page 267


  • Glantz, David M., Jonathan M. House (2004). The Battle of Kursk. University Press of Kansas.
  • Glantz, David M., Harold S. Orenstein (1999). The Battle for Kursk 1943: The Soviet General Staff Study. Frank Cass.
  • Krivosheev, Grigoriy (1997). Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the twentieth century. London: Greenhill Books.
  • Manstein, Erich von (2000). Verlorene Siege (in German). Monch.
  • Mawdsley, Evan (2007). Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945. A Hodder Arnold Publication.
  • Mulligan, Timothy P. (1987). "Spies, Ciphers and 'Zitadelle': Intelligence and the Battle of Kursk, 1943" (pdf). Journal of Contemporary History 22 (2): 235–260. doi:10.1177/002200948702200203. 
  • Newton, Stephen H. (2003). Kursk: The German View. Westview Press.
  • Nipe, George (1996). Decision In the Ukraine, Summer 1943, II. SS and III. Panzerkorps. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc..
  • Restayn, J., N. Moller (2002). Operation "Citadel", A Text and Photo Album, Volume 1: The South. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc..
  • Restayn, J., N. Moller (2006). Operation "Citadel", A Text and Photo Album, Volume 2: The North. J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing Inc..
  • Robbins, David L. (2004). Last Citadel. Orion mass market paperback.
  • Zetterling, Niklas, Anders Frankson (2000). Kursk 1943: A statistical analysis. Routledge.

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