The Battle of Kursk: Myths and Reality

 

The Battle of Kursk is one of the most familiar battles of the Eastern Front. Those casually acquainted with the Second World War usually know of only two battles between the Soviets and the Germans: Stalingrad and Kursk. Unfortunately, knowledge of the Battle of Kursk is only just now being improved. Despite a growing number of good analyses available to the public, the myths of Kursk are hard to put to rest. This essay will hopefully help this cause.

 

Background to the Battle

 

The Kursk salient that the Germans hoped to surround and destroy was a result of the battles in the winter and spring of 1943. After the Soviets surrounded Stalingrad and forced the Germans out of the Caucasus, their offensive did not stop. It continued westward, taking important cities such as Rostov and Kharkov. However, the Red Army overextended itself, and was ripe for a counterattack. The riposte destroyed many of the Soviet units and cleared much of the territory they had taken. This included Kharkov, but not much of the territory north of the city. Hence the Soviet salient protruding into German lines. The overall operational idea was to pause to rest and refit the forces that had participated in Manstein's counterattacks, to wait for the development of new equipment (Panther tanks, Elefant tank destroyers, and some other weaponry), and to build up new units. Then launch the attack to destroy the salient. The code name for the operation was "CITADEL".

 

From these plans, it is clear that CITADEL was purely operational. Even a complete German success would not have fundamentally changed the strategic situation on the East Front. At most, it would have delayed subsequent Soviet offensives, but it is hard to argue that a German success would have prevented them, or created some sort of long-term stalemate to allow the Germans to turn and defeat the Western Allies (the US and the UK). It simply was not big enough, although it surely represented the largest operation that the German Army could have launched. In fact, once launched it became clear that even CITADEL was outside the scope of what the Germans could accomplish.

 

Myths of CITADEL

 

There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about how CITADEL progressed. This misunderstanding is fueled by oft-repeated, but false, descriptions of the combat that took place. Perhaps no other author has contributed as much to these myths as Martin Caiden. His book, The Tigers are Burning was published in 1973 and quickly became a bestseller, and was a "selection of the month" for various book clubs. Due to its popularity it was reprinted in 1980. It is fairly safe to say that the main, if not only, source of information on CITIDEL for western readers was Caiden's book. This is unfortunate, because although his book is exciting to read (it ranks with Tom Clancy's best thrillers), it is almost entirely wrong. It is so wrong, that I have seen it stocked in the "fiction" section of used book stores, which is entirely appropriate.

 

Caiden's book is the product of Soviet propaganda. With no access to Soviet archives, and since he did no archival work in the (accessible) West German archives, it was inevitable that Caiden would be fooled. Indeed the predicable result was a foolish book. Why did Soviet propaganda need to inflate the significance of the Battle of Kursk? Why did it need to inflate the scope of the battle and the losses the Germans took? Because at the tactical level, the Red Army suffered greatly. Some units were almost completely wiped out. In order to justify the losses they took, particularly in the battle in front of Prokhorovka, the Soviets inflated the size, power, and losses of the German forces. Caiden, unable and unwilling to filter this deception out, simply spiced up the descriptions and inserted the Soviet figures directly into his book. Only lately, in the last 10 years or so, have we been able to gain a balanced analytical perspective on CITADEL. As a result, it is time to do some "myth busting".

 

Myth #1: CITADEL was one distinct battle, primarily between tank forces of both sides. Wrong! CITADEL was gigantic, both in terms of the forces involved and the areas fought over. And while the armored units of both sides did much of the glamorous fighting, ultimately the operation was won and lost by infantry divisions. Most of the division-sized units employed by both sides were infantry, not armored. Regarding the size of the operation, the "front lines" of CITADEL stretched for hundreds of miles, and the territory fought over spanned thousands of square miles. While some areas saw rather high concentrations of troops, CITADEL hardly follows the popular picture of units wedged together, with no room to maneuver. The size of the operation ensured that CITADEL was not "one battle". Considering that the Germans used three armies, one on the north portion, two on the south, it is baffling to think that some people envision CITADEL as a tactical fight.

 

Myth #2: The battle at Prokhorovka was the largest tank battle in history. This is probably the most-repeated claim about CITADEL. It is also misleading and almost certainly wrong. The typical claim is that the battle at Prokhorovka was massive, involving two thousand tanks. While a significant battle, it was nowhere near as large as the myth supposes. One way people arrive at inflated numbers is to assume that all three SS Panzergrenadier divisions participated. In fact, only one, the Liebsstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) fought this battle. The other two were on the flanks of the LSSAH (Totenkopf on the left, and largely across the Psel River, and Das Reich on the right) and were fighting their own separate battles. At the time of the battle, LSSAH had already been in combat for about a week and was substantially depleted. By July 11th and 12th, the two main days of the battle, LSSAH was down to about 100 tanks, assault guns, and tank destroyers (not including observation tanks). The Soviet units that participated in the battle at Prokhorovka were the 18th and 29th Tank Corps, along with a separate detachment under General Trufanov. These units combined were able to field about 421 tanks, assault guns, and tank destroyers. So, contrary to the popular claims of "thousands" of tanks fighting it out in front of Prokhorovka, we have about 517, of which 455 were actually "tanks". I have provided data for the number of on-hand (that is, ready to fight) armored fighting vehicles for July 10, 11, and 12. Note that these numbers fluctuate for a variety of reasons: temporary losses due to damage, permanent losses due to destruction, and returns from repair shops.

 

German AFVs On-Hand and Operational

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

Pz III

11

12

12

Pz IV

42

48

32

Pz VI Tiger

4

3

3

Marder III

20

19

19

StuG III

20

10

20

Pz I

2

2

2

Pz II

4

4

4

TOTAL

109

99

92

 

Soviet AFVs On-Hand and Operational

 

 

 

18th TC

 

 

29th TC

 

 

Trufanov

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

KV I

0

0

0

1

1

2

0

0

0

Churchill

18

18

8

0

0

0

0

0

0

T-34

50

68

26

122

123

20

35

35

27

T-70

49

58

35

82

81

29

9

9

6

SU-122

0

0

0

11

12

3

0

0

0

SU-76

8

8

7

8

8

4

0

0

0

TOTAL

125

152

76

224

225

58

44

44

33

 

Given these numbers, it is not likely that the battle at Prokhorovka was the "largest tank battle in history". In fact, it is smaller than a battle that took place between the French and the Germans in 1940. In front of Gembloux on May 14-15, two full-strength Panzer divisions (each with about 300 tanks) squared off with two full-strength French Light Mechanized Divisions (each with about 260 tanks).

 

Myth #3: Russian tanks rammed German ones. This fanciful notion has Soviet tanks, knowing that their guns would be ineffective against the tough German armor, close to point-blank range and begin to ram German tanks to knock them out. Hogwash! There is in fact no evidence of this. It never appears in any reports, German or Soviet. The stories of tank ramming typically focus on KV tanks ramming Tigers. Considering there were a grand total of 1 KV tank (most certainly a command tank) and only 4 Tigers, this is incredibly unlikely. Rather, these stories are a product of embellished accounts, and propagandized Soviet versions designed to "play up" the fierceness of the battle so as to justify their losses. Note too that hardly any of the German AFVs present (just the 4 Tigers) had armor that would be able to consistently withstand Russian firepower. The only documented instance of tank-ramming I am aware of is in Normandy, when a British Sherman rammed a German Tiger.

 

Myth #4: Prokhorovka was the "death ride of the Panzers" because the Germans lost so many tanks.

Traditional western sources, citing propagandized Soviet accounts, place tank losses at Prokhorovka for both sides at about 1200. Considering the fact that less than half that number even participated in the battle, this number is ridiculous. If it was anything, it was the death ride of the 29th Tank Corp, which experienced a 75% drop in its number of on-hand AFVs in one day. In fact, the Germans barely noticed the effects of the battle at Prokhorovka, while the Soviets had several units rendered ineffective in a matter of hours. Simply put, the Germans put a licking on the Red Army. I have provided data for the number of "damaged" and "destroyed/abandoned" AFVs July 10, 11, and 12.

 

German AFVs Out Of Action Due to Damage

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

Pz III

0

0

0

Pz IV

0

12

0

Pz VI Tiger

0

0

1

Marder III

0

1

0

StuG III

2

9

0

Pz I

0

0

0

Pz II

0

0

0

 

Soviet AFVs Out of Action Due to Damage

 

 

 

18th TC

 

 

29th TC

 

 

Trufanov

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

KV I

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Churchill

18

1

5

0

0

0

0

0

0

T-34

0

2

27

1

1

45

0

0

5

T-70

4

0

17

0

1

14

0

0

0

SU-122

0

0

0

1

0

1

0

0

0

SU-76

?

?

?

?

?

?

0

0

0

 

German AFVs Destroyed and Abandoned

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

Pz III

0

0

0

Pz IV

0

0

4

Pz VI Tiger

0

0

0

Marder III

0

0

2

StuG III

0

1

0

Pz I

0

0

0

Pz II

0

0

0

 

Soviet AFVs Destroyed and Abandoned

 

 

 

18th TC

 

 

29th TC

 

 

Trufanov

 

AFV

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

July 10

July 11

July 12

KV I

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Churchill

0

0

6

0

0

0

0

0

0

T-34

0

0

18

0

0

60

0

0

3

T-70

0

0

8

0

0

28

0

0

3

SU-122

0

0

0

0

0

8

0

0

0

SU-76

?

?

?

?

?

?

0

0

0

 

This hardly reveals a "death ride" for the Panzers. The LSSAH permanently lost a grand total of 7 AFVs. A further 25 were damaged and sent to repair shops, only 1 of which was a Tiger (note that no Tigers were destroyed). The Soviets, on the other hand, permanently lost at least 134 AFVs, more than 19 times the losses of the Germans. A further 125 were temporarily lost due to damage. Therefore total AFV losses due to combat at Prokhorovka come out to 32 German against 259 Soviet. It is no wonder the Soviets had to inflate the size and losses of the German force; they were beaten badly.

 

Myth #5: The weather at Prokhorovka was clear and dry. Most popular accounts of the battle at Prokhorovka feature swirling tank battles kicking up enormous clouds of dust. Nothing could be further from the truth. We already know that there were no swirling tanks battles at point blank range. Nor was there dust. The ground was waterlogged, and the weather during the battle featured occasional thunderstorms. According to the reports of LSSAH, July 9th was "dreary and rainy" and July 10th featured "heavy showers which hampered [the] division's movements". For July 11 and 12, the division reported that there were "heavy downpours which severely hampered combat operations" and that the roads were "in very poor shape". These are hardly the conditions that would allow for huge clouds of dust to be kicked up!

 

Myth #6: German forces were heavily supplied with Panthers, Tigers, and Elefant tank destroyers. While the Germans did decide to delay their attack so that more new weapons, such as the Panther and the Elefant, would be available, these weapons were not present in large numbers. A grand total of 119 Panthers went into battle with the Gross Deutschland Division (GD) on July 5th. After 65% of those went out of action, either damaged or destroyed, on the first day they ceased to play a crucial role in the remaining week's worth of combat. Note that there were absolutely no Panthers available to any other unit besides GD. The paintings and drawings of Panthers in battle at Prokhorovka are absolutely wrong: none of the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions used Panthers at Kursk. A total of 90 Elefants were available, and all of them were used by the 9th Army to help its divisions crack through the defensive lines on the north face of the Kursk salient. Despite the Soviet accounts which have Elefants participating in practically every battle on the north and south faces, Elefants were used only by the 9th Army, and only on the north face (primarily in the German assault on the town of Ponyri). Most of them were lost in the first few days of the fighting. Tiger tanks were equally rare. On the entire south face of the salient, only 89 Tigers started the battle. About half of these were in the heavy battalions of the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions and the GD. These four divisions started with 12 to 15 Tigers each, but by the second or third day of fighting, they were down to about 4 to 6 operational Tigers each. This situation remained until the end of the fighting. Popular drawings and paintings of waves of Tigers rolling toward the Russians are pure fantasy. The battle where Tigers are supposedly present in droves, at Prokhorovka, featured just 4.

 

Myth #7: Hitler called off CITADEL because the Americans and British landed on Sicily and the Germans needed to shift forces to the western front. This component of the overall myth of Kursk is undoubtedly due to western authors trying to increase the otherwise paltry contributions of the western allies in 1943. In actual fact, the German units on the southern face of the Kursk salient received new orders to renew their attacks several days after the landing on Sicily. Hitler called off CITADEL not because a couple of British and American divisions were attacking a strategically insignificant island in the Mediterranean, but because the Soviets had (1) blunted and stalled the German CITADEL offensive, and (2) launched their own massive offensives on the flanks of the German attack. These attacks soaked up reserves the Germans had planned on using to complete the destruction of the Kursk salient. Without them, the Germans were too weak to continue CITADEL and they began withdrawing their units.

 

Myth #8: The Germans almost won, or they could have won. Some authors would have us believe that the Germans could have won at least a partial victory in CITADEL. Certainly the Germans were not decisively defeated in CITADEL. While the 9th Army bogged down almost immediately on the north face, it was only forced back due to Soviet attacks on the German 2nd Army, protecting its flank and rear. On the south face, the Germans had won nearly every tactical battle, including at Prokhorovka. George Nipe has argued that given these tactical victories, the Germans could have continued to destroy the armored forces of the Soviet Union, and that Hitler called off CITADEL too early. Nipe offers no evidence that: (a) the Germans could have continued to win Prokhorovka-style battles; (b) the Germans could have continued moving forward at all; (c) that the XXIV Panzer Corps could actually have been committed. Let's examine these problems is turn.

 

While Prokhorovka offered the Germans a tactical victory, operationally it was a death knell for CITADEL. The 9th Army's advance had already stalled several days earlier. And even though it was defeated in the space of two days, the arrival of the 5th Guards Tank Army signaled the fact that the Russians were committing their armored reserves, and that from July 11 on the Germans would have to content with these. It is doubtful that the Germans could have continued to defeat these reserves, given the context of the problems with the rest of the operation. Even if a few more tactical battles were won, to what end? CITADEL, as an operation, had failed before the battle at Prokhorovka; there was no way that the north and south face could meet to encircle the Soviet forces. Continuing to attack would have wasted resources.

 

It is doubtful that the Germans could have kept moving forward at all anyway. The north face had degenerated into static warfare before the Germans even got through all the defensive lines. On the south face, the Germans enjoyed some forward progress, but at a tremendous cost. Loses in AFVs, vehicles, and men were high enough to soak up a significant portion of the offensive power of the German armored divisions. Further, the attack had been launched with insufficient infantry forces. The salient that the armored units pushed forward could not be adequately protected due to a lack of infantry divisions. Thus, the German offensive was contained and stalled. Having the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions move forward after the battle at Prokhorovka would have made things worse, not better, for the Germans.

 

Finally, Nipe identifies the XXIV Panzer Corps as an "uncommitted reserve" that Manstein could have used to force the attack forward, at least on the south face. This is only technically true. The XXIV Panzer Corps, made up of the 17th, 23rd, and SS-Wiking Panzer divisions was theoretically available as a reserve, to be used once a breakthrough had been achieved. This force was not useable for two reasons. First, no operational breakthrough had actually been achieved. Due to the depth and flexibility of the Soviet defenses, the German attack never achieved anything close to operational maneuver, despite the fact that it steadily moved forward on the south flank. There simply was no space to commit the XXIV Panzer Corps. Second, the Soviet attacks to the south of the Kursk salient, along the Mius river, required the commitment of this reserve. As part of the overall Soviet operational plan for the Summer of 1943, the Red Army would absorb the (obvious) German attack while simultaneously launching its own attacks against the 2nd Army (to the left and behind the 9th Army on the north face) and to the south of Kharkov (to outflank the 4th Panzer Army and Army Group Kempf). Given that the German lines had been stripped to provide reinforcements for CITADEL, the XXIV Panzer Corps was committed to blunt these southern attacks. As armored units were pulled out of CITADEL, they too were committed in a defensive role along the Mius. Had CITADEL been continued with the commitment of the XXIV Panzer Corps, the German lines along the Mius would almost certainly have been decisively penetrated, leading to operational disaster for the Germans. As it was, the Soviet attacks still forced the Germans out of the Ukraine, even with the use of Panzer forces on the defensive.

 

Conclusion

 

The myth of Kursk has been surprisingly resilient. Some of this undoubtedly is due to how long it remained unchallenged. Powerful counterarguments have only been published in the last 10 years or so. Even these are somewhat inaccessible: since they've been published by specialty presses they have high price tags and do not show up on the average bookstore's shelves.

 

It is certain that CITADEL failed and in no way were the Germans positioned to even score a partial victory. The Germans did not fail, however, due to a defeat at Prokhorovka. There was no "death ride of the panzers" on July 11 and 12. Nor was there a very big battle on those dates. It's time to put to rest the fanciful notions of waves of Tiger and Panther tanks riding across the dry, dusty plains to do battle with Soviet tanks at point-blank range.

 

It just didn't happen.

 


 

Some parts of this essay (maybe even all of it) may be at odds with what you have read or heard about the battle of Kursk. As a result, you may be skeptical of what I have written. I urge you to use this as an excuse to "dig deeper" into the history of the battle. As an aid, I suggest the following reading list:

 

Glantz, David, and Jonathan House. 1999. The Battle of Kursk. University Press of Kansas.

Newton, Steven. 2003. Kursk: The German View. DaCapo Press.

Zetterling, Niklas, and Anders Frankson. 2000. Kursk: A Statistical Analysis. Frank Cass.

 

For German and Soviet data on the south face, consult the Kursk Operation Simulation and Validation Exercise (KOSAVE) prepared by the U.S. Army Concepts Analysis Agency.

 

2004. Michael J. Licari