After having lost the entire German 6th Army in Stalingrad in February 1943, Hitler, the German Army staff and frankly, the German people were shocked. Of course propagandists made little of the set back and the German population most likely didn’t know the extent of the loss. Still, just a few months later, Eric Von Manstein pulled off a miraculous win against Soviet Red Guards in the south at Kharkov. It was called “Manstein’s Miracle” and demonstrated that even wounded, the spirited Wehrmacht could quickly recover and still inflict immense damage on opponents. Hitler, having learned nothing, and still high on the wins over France and England was convinced that one last push and the Soviets would soon capitulate. But the Wehrmacht was exhausted still, and their supply lines were becoming attenuated. Army Group North alone needed thirty trainloads of new supplies a day. The German high command almost to the last man highly recommended against another major Corp level invasion. Hitler would have none of it. He wanted a major offensive to take Kursk in between Orel and Kharkov.
Heinz Gurderian, Hitler’s number one tank commander confronted him and said “ How many people even know where Kursk is? It is of profound indifference to people of the world whether we hold Kursk or not.” Hitler replied, “I agree. Just thinking about this attack turns my stomach.” Hitler was simply looking to shore up gains made at Kharkov and of course to save face for the embarrassing defeat at Stalingrad. It was he, after all, who insisted that Von Paulus not retreat even an inch. The disaster for better or worse, was really on his own hands. Guderian, Von Manstein, Hoth, all of his generals realized that they needed to regroup, but Hitler ordered plans for the massive attack further East. It was Hitler in advance of Barbarossa who said of the Soviet Union, “all we have to do is kick the door in and the whole rotten structure will coming tumbling down.” Germans believed in the racist anti Bolshevik propaganda that the typical Russian was a sub human, more Neanderthal than modern man. Of course, only the German soldiers knew the difference between what propagandists claimed and what the facts of the case on the ground.
It’s important to remember also that Stalin purged senior commanders of the Soviet Army in 1937. The commanders he killed or imprisoned were very good blooded field commanders and those left behind to conduct combat operations were not up to snuff. The result of this was a massively bad start for the Soviets who had Corp sized armies surrounded and taken prisoner until over a million Russians had been marched back towards Germany into new concentration camps. The Nazis paid little attention to this cause and effect and assumed that the Russians would continue, save for Stalingrad, to perform poorly.
Army Group Center, under Hoth and Guderian held off a massive Russian counter attack at Orel. In between Kharkov and Orel Russian troops moved westward until a bugle appeared in the line between the two cities, and about 60 miles west of Kursk. This was known as the Kursk Salient. Both Guderian and German General Zietsler wrote a battle plan to attack Kursk from the north and the south in a pincer to envelope the Russian Army again, as they did in Kiev and Smolensk. The plan was called Operation Citadel.
SPIES, WEAPONS, SURPRISES.
Bletchley Park outside of London was the British spy center. There cryptographers had broken the coding for the German Enigma machine and rightfully kept it very quiet. The spy ring feeding this information the Red Army was called the Lucy spy ring. Soviet commanders didn’t know where the information was coming from but they knew it was accurate. All the time that the Nazis were planning Operation Citadel the Russians knew it. Fortunately for the Russians, the May 1943 invasion was pushed back to July. Hitler wasn’t happy about that but you cannot squeeze blood out of a turnip. This was a major undertaking and required massive logistics to supply armies this big, create and hold airfields and even feed 1.3 milion Wehrmacht soldiers for three months before the attack.
Georgi Zhukov, The Soviet General who successfully defended Stalingrad was in charge of the defense of Kursk, and Stalin, unlike Hitler listened to his commanders. While Hitler expected the Soviets to cave in, the Soviets were planning to create a war of attrition to grind down German armor assets and severely hamper the Wehrmacht’s ability to sustain offensive operations. Because they had a basic idea of the German attack routes, Zhukov knew how to build what would amount to a brick wall of defensive structures that stretched around and even defined the Kursk salient, over 150 miles long. Zhukov and Stalin were able to enlist the help of Russian civilians who would dig five rows of tank traps five miles deep throughout the entire western edge of the skirmish line. They laid over a million anti tank mines and placed strong anti tank artillery positions where intelligence was telling them that they would be attacked. Between anti tank mines and anti personnel mines, there were 500 mines placed for every mile they defended.
Also, it is important to remember that the Gemans had just seen the new Russian tank, the T-34, in quite large numbers. It had 45mm of armor plating, a 76 mm gun which could penetrate German armor at close range, three 7.62mm machine guns, wide tracks suited for the frozen and often muddy terrain, sported a 5 man crew, and moved at 30 miles per hour. The 26 ton T-34 also was quire reliable, not as complicated or prone to breakdown as the highly engineered Panzer tanks. The Russians also had an extremely heavy tank called the KV-1. The KV-1 weighed 43 tons, needed a 5 man crew, carried a 76 mm gun, two 7.62mm machine guns, and had 110mm of armor plating. All told, the Russian had 800 tanks to bring to bear at Kursk, while the Wehrmacht had 500 tanks, both light and heavy. The Russian T-34 and KV-1 had a reliable diesel engine and there was plenty of diesel fuel around.
The Germans had three main tanks, the two that really made a difference were the Panzer Mk 5, which weighed 45 tons, has a 75mm gun, two MG34 machine guns, and required a four man crew. It was more spacious than a T-34, but also more difficult to maintain. They also had the Tiger One, or the Panzer Mk 6, many considered the very best tank of WWII. It moved at 24 mph, weighed 55 tons, and fired the unbeatable 88mm gun that did more damage to US and Russian armor that any tank in the war. The German Panzers ran on gasoline that had to be loaded into the tank by a chain of men pouring it from gas cans. It could take hours to refuel a Panzer tank. The Germans also had a heavy tank called the Ferdinand, built by Porsche. This tank had a longer 88mm gun, weighed 68 tons, and was protected by200mm of armor plating which could withstand any tank round in the world. The tanks weighed so much, had such a poor suspension, and no machine guns on it. The Russians later learned that this tank could be approached on foot and disabled rather easily.
By war’s end, the Russians had built 40,000 T-34s. The Germans never made more than 1300 Mk 6 Tigers and only 787 Mk 7 King Tigers. While the Germans went for fine engineering, the Russians went for simplicity and usability. Stalin once said “Quantity is a quality all its own.”