Kursk, Battle of

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The Battle of Kursk comprised a failed German offensive operation and a successful Soviet defensive-offensive operation, 5 July to 23 August 1943, on the eastern front in World War II. One of the largest and most decisive confrontations of the war, Kursk marked Adolf Hitler's last serious attempt to regain the strategic initiative against Joseph Stalin's Red Army.

Soviet failures to crush German Army Group South after the victory at Stalingrad, along with the annual spring thaw, imposed an operational pause as both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army regrouped for the campaigns of 1943. To regain the initiative, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein successfully lobbied for an offensive against the Kursk salient, a prominent Soviet bulge in the German lines between Orel and Belgorod. However, Hitler delayed the offensive, code-named Citadel, until July to permit a buildup of German armor and assault guns. Thanks to this delay and also to good intelligence, possibly including information from Enigma intercepts passed to Stalin by the British, the Soviets were able to anticipate Manstein's attack. As the Germans built up their forces and means, the Soviets reinforced their defense in depth with as many as six belts of field fortifications. Once the Germans had spent their offensive momentum, Stavka, the Soviet Headquarters of the Supreme High Command, planned to surprise them with an immediate and powerful counteroffensive. Accordingly, the Soviets concentrated about 1.3 million troops within the salient and on its shoulders. These troops were arrayed in five fronts (army groups) with 19,000 guns, 3,500 tanks and self-propelled guns, and about 2,000 aircraft. Another front lay in reserve, with the entire complex of multifront operations coordinated by two of Stavka's best commanders, Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky. Against these forces, Manstein marshaled the assets of Army Groups Center and South, with some 900,000 troops, 10,000 guns, 2,700 tanks and self-propelled assault guns, and 2,000 aircraft.

Manstein's offensive began on 5 July against the shoulders of the salient, with his primary assault groups making slow and painful headway as they fought their way through successive and well-defended Soviet defensive belts. The attack stalled almost immediately in the north with slight gains, while German offensive momentum culminated in the south on 11–12 July at the village of Prokhorovka, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Kursk. There, a meeting between armored units flared into the largest tank battle of World War II, with more than twelve hundred tanks engaged. The Soviets fought the Germans to a bloody, flaming standstill. With losses of 400 tanks and more than 10,000 killed in this single encounter, Manstein withdrew to regroup and possibly renew the offensive. However, mindful of requirements to counter the growing allied threat in Sicily, Hitler ordered redeployment of II SS Panzer Corps to the west and bade Manstein to go over to the defensive.

It was at this point that Vasilevsky and Zhukov unleashed their counteroffensive operations, code-named after two imperial Russian great captains, Kutuzov (north) and Rumiantsev (south). Between 12 July and 18 August, the three Soviet fronts (Western, Bryansk, and Center) involved in Kutuzov assailed German Army Group Center in the north to liberate Orel and approach Bryansk. Between 3 and 23 August, the two Soviet fronts (Voronezh and Steppe) involved in Rumiantsev inflicted severe losses on Manstein's Fourth Panzer Army, and, with the assistance of Southwest Front, enveloped and occupied Kharkov. Before these Soviet counteroffensive operations had spent their momentum, both opened wide breaches in the German lines, with penetrations of nearly 120 kilometers (75 miles) in the north and 160 kilometers (100 miles) in the south.

With Manstein's defeat at Kursk, the strategic initiative on the eastern front passed irrevocably into Soviet hands. Because the Red Air Force now possessed air superiority, German losses became ever more telling. Altogether, the operations at Kursk and its environs cost the Germans about a half million casualties and incurred losses of 1,500 tanks, 3,700 aircraft, and 3,000 guns. The Soviets counted about 850,000 casualties, including a quarter million dead and invalided.

For the Soviets, Kursk marked an important stage in the maturation of the conduct of operations. Representatives of Stavka gained additional experience with the coordination of multifront operations, while the entire Soviet strategic design reflected a calculated emphasis on serial defensive-offensive operations, initially to exact loss, then to harvest decisive gain. The Red Army had competently constructed and defended positions in depth, to include the development of effective counterattacks. On the offensive, Soviet operations demonstrated the ability to attain mass at decisive points, to accomplish breakthroughs and hold their shoulders, and to exploit those breakthroughs either for encirclement or for penetration into the German operational depths.

Because of its scale and implications for both positional and mobile warfare, Kursk has been the subject of numerous historical treatments, ranging from Manstein's memoirs to the ponderous and lessthan-forthcoming Soviet-period official histories. Primarily because of accessibility, Western treatments relied heavily on German materials until the last several decades of the twentieth century, when the appearance of more complete Soviet and Russian materials gave rise to a more balanced perspective. The full intelligence story remains to be told.

See alsoKharkov, Battles of; Stalingrad, Battle of .


Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. London, 1983. Reprint, London, 2003.

Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence, Kans., 1995.

Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Edited and translated by Anthony G. Powell. Chicago, 1958.

Vasilevsky, A. M. A Lifelong Cause. Translated by Jim Riordan. Moscow, 1981.

Bruce W. Menning