Walter Model, German Commander At Kursk
Kursk was also a battle fought with what today we would call close air support. The Junkers 87 dive bomber, with it’s attack siren and steep diving attitude struck fear into ground troops. During the battle of Kursk, the Germans used them to good effect, particularly by removing bomb bays and installing 37mm cannons.
But the Russians weren’t without air support. The Ilyushin 2 was a match for the Junkers. It carried two 37mm cannons and two 7.62mm machines one front facing, one rear facing. It could fly over 200mph and at very low levels was a dangerous and effective anti armor plane. The Russians gave as good as they got.
Not to be lost in this history, the Russians had 3000 aircraft and the Germans had 2000 aircraft. As the battle gathered, the Germans had 800,000 soldiers and the Russians had 1.3 million men on the line and 500,000 in reserve! The Germans had 10,000 artillery pieces and the Russians had 25,000. But the salient point about the Battle at the Kursk Salient is this: Zhukov out smarted the Germans. He arranged his troops into defensive postures that could inflict devastating damage upon the advancing Wehrmacht and still have defensive positions to retreat to. Zhukov also had fresh reserve forces just waiting to pounce on the Russians. The Germans had no reserves, all of their forces were committed to the action and they would have to succeed or fail with what they had on the battlefield. This was Zhukov’s Rope-A-Dope. He intended to let the Germans throw themselves at these lines until they had nothing left to penetrate the lines, and then he intended to hit them with reserves.
Party Commissars who represented the dictatorial and brutal Stalinist regime are often blamed for the massive confusion and wholesale surrender of Russians in the early part of Barbarossa. However the Russians were fighting in their own backyard, and to some extent when you are defending home you don’t have to be motivated. Stalin also used firing squads for any Russian who defected or God knows, or even moved in the wrong direction. Stalin was a master at manipulating people and used propaganda well in redirecting the patriotism that he knew didn’t exist for the Communists to the love of mother Russia which did indeed inundate the peasant farmers and working class. Yes, the Russians did have to threaten locals to show up and dig tank traps that stretched 150 miles. But they also knew that a Soviet dictator was a far lesser evil than the Nazi war machine that laid waste to anything it touched. The very fact that peasants dug five rows of defensive positions stretching 150 miles reminds us that this manpower was a resource that the Germans did not have and it made a huge difference. While the Germans were great combat engineers, they were doing well just to survive and keep fighting at this pace much less dig ditches. The Russians on Zhukov’s side also laid rail lines to bring up supplies and evacuate wounded, and made internal lines of communication robust so that Russian commanders could redirect resources very quickly as needed.
The Germans who were fighting at Kursk had themselves been fighting for over a year, many without R&R and many of them still had indelibly stamped into their own psyche the immense distances they had traveled to get to Kursk; the steppes, the open plains with hardly even a telegraph wire anywhere to be seen. To many what must have seemed to be a vast and infinite country meant that it had vast and infinite resources and they would soon discover that just when you thought you had the Russians beaten, just when you had killed and captured tens of thousands of Red Guard soldiers, there was another 10,000 just behind them, all fresh faced, newly equipped and all grimly determined to kill you right back, as comedian Ron White might say. Keep in mind also that the Germans by June 1943 had also lived through the harsh mistress of Russian invaders, the arctic winter. They deeply hoped that this venture of kicking the door in and seeing the whole rotten edifice collapse would come to pass. Because they had certainly kicked the door in but like Napolean, they were learning that one takes the Russians lightly at your own risk. Surely the Wehrmacht soldiers who so longed for home could imagine that the Russians they faced did as well. Surely the Germans must have known that the Russians hated them as much as they hated the Russians. That said the Russians also knew that no matter how badly you wounded the Germans they would come back fighting with everything they had; and they did indeed bring to bear the finest weapons and the best trained soldiers probably in the world at the time. Like Japan, Germany was a relatively small country, but a well-trained and highly motivated army can wreak havoc upon the entire world. As the launch date got closer, both sides knew that this battle would be fought ferociously and without mercy. The Germans relied on their reputation and the Russians relied upon their resources.
Georgi Zhukov, Soviet Commander At Kursk
ORDER OF BATTLE.
To the north of the salient, west of the massive defensive lines was Walter Model with five army Corps. They would head southeast into the elbow of the salient line nd head to wards Kursk. To the southwest of the salient, Kemfp and Hoth would move four panzer armies north east owards Kursk. They all thought that when the two massive armies met up, there would be yet another envelopment that had succeeded for the Wehrmacht in the previous two years.
Of course, it is hardly possible to deploy forces this large on both sides of a battlefield in secret. German reconnaissance aircraft had photographed the entire Russian defensive line. The Russians had also successfully planted fake gun emplacements and decoy anti tank stations just to confuse the Germans. Remember also that the Lucy spy ring had informed the Russians of the exact time of the attack and where the attacks would start. The battle for Kursk was more like a cage match than a typical battle. The Germans wanted to win big and end of the conflict, and the Russians were eager to shed German blood for destroying so much of their own country.
The German commanders and planners were all WWI veterans who had stayed in the Wehrmacht even after the Treaty of Versailles that limited the size of the German army. They had all seen Hitler’s rise to power from a charismatic firebrand in a beer hall to an absolute monarch in 1933. Among them was the architect of Kursk, Kurt Zeitsler. A WWI infantry soldier who rose through the ranks a huge advocate for the newly forming tank warfare. As all German commanders came from the Prussian school of maneuver, tanks promised maneuver in ways that horses could not possibly deliver. Zeitsler helped the Germans win at Diep and so earned Hitler’s respect. In fact he was one of those commanders who could openly disagree with the Fuhrer and not only keep his head, he kept his job as well. Eric Von Manstien commanded Army Group South which would move north through Zhukov’s lines was a meticulous planner and a stand offish nose in the air lead from behind a desk Nazi commander. You can argue the merits of his comportment, but you could hardly argue with the results. He had himself planned most of Barbarossa, which was not just an amazing success, outside of Stalingrad, it was arguably the largest battle in history. Von Mastein had tried to relieve Von Paulus’ entrapped 6th Army at the end of Stalingrad. He failed at this but of course it was an almost impossible task to begin with. Also commanding at Army Group South was Herman Hoth, a leader armor commander who led one of the largest tank formations to Moscow and alongside Heiz Guderian captured more prisoners probably than any commander in history. Hoth was a WWI veteran who led the invasion of Poland. He commanded the 18th Panzer division into France as well. Hoth at one time was a professor of tactics at German war colleges.
Map of Battle of Kursk
From the North was Walter Model, a WWI veteran who held various positions and also taught history and tactics. Later in the war Model would lead the Germans through the Ardennes Forest in another famous bulge…the Battle of the Bulge. One month after that battle started Model realized the end of the war was near, that his was the last massive Wehrmacht force ever to be assembled, and in January 1945 he put a Luger in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Model earlier led the 3rd Panzer division and helped to capture Kiev. Heinz Guderian commanded from Army Group North even though his title was simply Inspector General. Hitler embued people with titles and authority in the blink of an eye and understood that people will fight and die just for the glory of a promotion. Von Kluge also led tank divisions from the North and was given the 9th Panzer.
The grand architect of the defense of Kursk was Georgi Zhukov, a quick-tempered task master who at one time was threatened by Stalin with imprisonment, and his relationship with Stalin was not like George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. Hired one day, fired the next and hired again after that. He made a name for himself in history forever for delivering to the Russians and to the world, the first ever major defeat of the Germans in WWII. Kursk would be his victory or defeat. Also commanding the Russian defenses was Konstantinn Rokovsky, a Soviet General who had actually spent time in prison during the purges of the 1930s. He defended Moscow and was credited with a successful defense even though it was mostly due to Hitler’s last minute decision to forget Moscow and go after Stalin’s namesake city. He held the center of the line at Kursk as he held the center of the line at Moscow. The Red Guard’s 5th Tank Army was under Pavel Rotmitsov. He was quiet and subdued, not given to bragging, but given instead to an unbreakable will and demonstrated no small amount of courage under fire. Defending the salient reserves and left flank was another quiet but aggressive Soviet commander named Ivan Koniev.
Germans Advance At Kursk
Before the battle began, both Russians and Germans conducted raids on each other’s lines to capture prisonersand extract information. The Germans began making preemptive strikes on Soviet air assets and made some gains by once again, catching the Russians off guard.
On July 4th, 1943 the battle began on all fronts across the lines. Zhukov began with an artillery barrage towards the Wehrmacht under Model. Model’s artillery shot back. Most of the Russian rounds missed and the German’s found their marks. It helped Model in the first few days, but only a little. Model invaded from the North and made some headway into the northern elbow of the salient. By mid day on July 5th Model realize that he had hit a brick wall. His tanks were bogged down into killing zones and many of his new Mk 5s and Mk 6s fell victim to anti tank mines. His forces fought fiercely and penetrated the first line of defense. But at the end of the second day had only penetrated six miles. Model’s goal the first few days was to make it to a town just inside the defenses called Ponyri. But even that would be changed to a town a bit closer called Olkhavatka. He made his lesser goals in a few days, but the cost was so high, Model wondered what it would mean to even capture Kursk. At the end of the first ten days, Model only advanced 12 miles, far short of any reasonable operational success.
In the South, Hoth’s army did much better. He actually surprised the Red Guard by attacking hours earlier than he had originally planned, and he and his commanders kept switching directions making it difficult for Soviet armor to know where to go. Hoth did penetrate thee first three defensive ditches, but again, at a cost so high that he wondered how long he could keep moving east.
Battle Of Kursk
Hoth also organized his armor into what he called the Panzer Kiel. It was a wedge with the Tiger’s at the front and the Mk 5s at the rear corners and all the light tanks inside the wedge. Hoth and Kempf must have realized that there was a spy ring and so kept their plans off the radio networks. Once 20 miles inside the Soviet defensive lines, Hoth’s tanks hit mines and burned. He was furious and frustrated. Worse, the dreaed Tottenkof SS division attached to his units crossed the Donetz river only to be jumped on by T-34s and KV-1s from the 5th Red Guards. Hoth could barely believe it. after all this fighting, he was facing a fresh army with tanks that could, at close range, stop German Panzers.
Overhead, Stuka dive bombers and Il-2s were dueling for air supremacy. There were moments when the air and ground battles were so intense and the smoke so thick that neither air force could accurately pick out their targets and so headed back to airfields to re arm and wait for instructions.
On July12th, the largest tank battle to date occurred on the south end of the salient near a town called Prokhorovka. It was massive free for all where lines merged, and both sides saw tanks that had enemy armored vehicles both in front and behind them. Infantry played a huge role here as Russian infantrymen made quick work of the lumbering Ferdinands which had no machine guns. The battle royal that ensued was just what the Russians wanted. Muhammed Ali’s trainer Ferdie Pacheco once quipped “you box a brawler and you brawl a boxer”. The boxers were the German’s orderly tankers and the brawlers were the Russians peasant army. By nightfall, both sides had lost huge amounts of armor and men, and they both tried to salvage what they could, The Germans also discovered something about the Russian tankers that they could hardly believe. Russian T-34s would ram into Tiger tanks and destroy both vehicles. The Germans couldn’t replace their assets but the Russians could.
By the 20th of July, the Russians committed their reserves. Soon both Orel and Kharkov were back in Russian hands and the Germans were retreating westward. Then the Allies invaded Sicily. This was a game changer for Hitler as he had to borrow the manpower from the East to halt the advance in the Mediterranean. The diminishing German war assets meant that the Allies had the advantage in choosing where to strike and the Axis forces could only move pieces around like a chess-board to shore up holes in the line. Operation Citadel was called off.
By the end of August 1943, the Russian lines were 100 miles west of Kursk. It all ended two years later at the German Chancellory on April 30th, 1945.