A Review Essay: Books on the Battle of Kursk

Introduction

The Battle of Kursk, which took place during the first half of July 1943, remains the subject of fascination for many readers.  Most likely this is due to its description as the "largest tank battle in the world".  It is indeed quite possible that it was (and/or is still) the largest tank battle.  Yet to describe it that way clouds many facts about the operation (titled "Citadel" or Zitadel in German).  Misconceptions of the battle abound in the general literature on East Front.  Seaton (The Russo-German War), Clark (Barbarossa), Erickson (The Road to Berlin), and Even Glantz and House (When Titans Clashed) all inflate the number of tanks involved and give an inaccurate description of much of the combat.  These of course are classic books that have been read widely.  The resultant myth of the Battle of Kursk has several features.  First, Citadel was not "one" battle.  Many corps and armies were involved, on both sides, and divisions (and even regiments and battalions) often fought their own, independent fights.  In fact, to call it a "battle" gives Citadel an artificial tactial "feel".  It of course was an operational-level plan.  Second, the area covered by the battle was huge: the popular image of thousands of tanks jammed onto a tiny portion of land is patently false.  Third, there is the persistent myth that the clash in front of the town of Prokhorovka was indeed the "largest tank battle" with thousands of tanks smashed into a space no larger than a few square miles.  Most early accounts of Kursk vastly over-estimate the number of tanks that took part in this clash.  Further, most early accounts drastically misrepresent the nature of the clash and its implications.  This is due to various reasons, the most important of which is the reliance on propagandized Soviet accounts.  Since the Soviets lost badly at Prokhorovka, their reports and accounts dramatically inflated the number of German tanks, in order to make their losses seem more reasonable.  Fourth, there are misconceptions about why the Germans finally abandoned Citadel.  Some argue that the Allied landings in Sicily forced Hitler to worry about the Mediterranean theater and caused him to withdraw units from the east to guard the west.  Others argue that the vast number of tanks the Germans lost at Prokhorovka forced the Germans on the defensive.  Neither argument is correct, as some of the authors reviewed here point out.

Martin Caidin:  The Tigers are Burning

The Tigers are Burning is one of the main sources of the fascination, and the mythology, of the Battle of Kursk.  The book is exciting, and reads like an adventure novel.  In fact, it is an adventure novel posing as history.  Mercifully out of print, used bookstores now stock it in the fiction section where it belongs.  Unfortunately, Caidin's book (originally written in 1973 and reprinted in 1980) was for a long time the most widely read on the subject, and its claims and descriptions were not effectively challenged until the 1990s.  Thus, the book produced a skewed version of the battle for an entire generation of readers.  Caidin directly fueled the myth of Citadel as "one big battle", with thousands of tanks from both sides finally clashing in a small area at Prokhorovka.  He filled out his descriptions of the battles with fanciful notions of tanks ramming each other (in fact there is no evidence of this tactic), and of the Germans suffering staggering losses in tanks (in fact there is no evidence of this either).  Caidin repeatedly gets unit identification wrong, he misidentifies weaponry and vehicles, and he even makes mistakes in terms of battlefield conditions (terrain and weather).  As history, this book is pure garbage.  As an exciting adventure novel, the book is quite good.  Put it in the stack of bathroom reading material, but not on your bookshelf.

Robin Cross: The Battle of Kursk; Operation Citadel 1943


This book is a reprint of his 1993 book Citadel: The Battle of Kursk.  It is intended to be a general overview of the operation, including background of the military situation leading to the battle, as well as its aftermath and immediate consequences.  The first part is devoted to the development of the Kursk "bulge" as a result of Soviet offensives in the first weeks of 1943 and Manstein's counter-offensive in the early spring.  Cross also examines the German and Red armies, as well as German and Soviet military leaders.  These background treatments are workmanlike and not particularly noteworthy.  The description of the actual battle is disjointed and lacks depth.  A few divisions move here, others move there, a breakthrough was gained in one place, and the Soviets stood firm somewhere else.  There is little to bring all of these movements some coherence to reflect the overall plans of the Germans and the Soviets.  Cross also feels free to jump from sector to sector or forward and backward through time without much more than a new paragraph.  The depiction of the progress of the battle lacks any depth beyond where a division might be at a given time.  Descriptions of the nature of the fighting are almost completely lacking; even the various methods used by the Germans to break through the defensive "belts" warrant only passing comment.  The raw "facts" of the battle are mostly correct, and Cross's errors are of omission.  There is very little detail or analysis.  This is particularly problematic since Cross tried to write a comprehensive account of the operation.  Thus, those who read this (and nothing else) will falsely assume they have all of the relevant information.

Despite these problems, Cross's book is significant for a couple of reasons.  First, he is the first to directly question the myth of the battle of Prokhorovka.  By showing a chart of German daily tank strength during Citadel, Cross demonstrates that the clash at Prokhorovka barely registers, especially when compared to losses during the first few days when the defensive belts were being cracked.  Unfortunately, Cross does not do much to seriously press home this finding.  Second, he assesses the landings on Sicily and finds them to be irrelevant to our understanding of the progress of Citadel.  Cross notes that several days after the landings, the units on the southern face of the Kursk bulge were issued new offensive orders.  He also notes that the Germans were far more concerned with Soviet attacks on the flanks of the German units involved.  This is what prompted the German halt and withdrawal.

Walter Dunn: Kursk, Hitler's Gamble 1943

This is a frustrating book for many readers.  It is not a combat or battle history, which I think most people expect when reading "military" history.  Rather, this book is an analysis of the institutions that fought the battle: the German and Soviet militaries.  Thus, Dunn emphasizes their force structures, their resources, their leadership, and their plans.  Very little of the book is focused describing the actual battles; this is why, to the dismay of some readers, there are no maps.  It's as if Dunn wanted to drive home the point of his book by forcing the reader away from "this division moved there and fought that unit on this day" types of military history.

Dunn's book is valuable because it provides information about the problems in the German military.  His conclusion is that the Germans were doomed to fail before the battle even began.  They knew little of Soviet planning.  They had inadequate forces, and relied excessively on new untried weapon systems to plug the gap.  Constant delays only aided the Soviets.  Conversely, Dunn shows that the battle went very much according to Soviet plans.  Their lines were defended in a flexible manner (limiting casualties and prisoners), their reserves were committed in good time, and the Germans were forced to grind their way forward rather than achieving a true breakthrough.  Dunn's book also echoes Cross's in that it challenges earlier accounts, which had massively overestimated German tank losses, as well as Soviet infantry losses.  If you are looking for a battle history, this is not the right book.  However, if you are interested in military institutional performance, this is a great book.

David Glantz and Jonathan House: The Battle of Kursk

This is the definitive book on the battle of Kursk.  It is by far the most complete assessment of the battle that has yet been offered.  The authors do an excellent and thorough job of establishing the context of the battle (battlefield events up to the summer of 1943, as well as the situations that both armies were in, and what their leadership was trying to accomplish).  Glantz and House offer a very detailed description of the fighting, often identifying regimental or battalion-level units.  The description of combat is not particularly vivid or exciting, but if the reader is looking to find out where a particular regiment was and what enemy unit it was fighting on, say, July 12, the book is likely to have the answer.  In this sense, the sheer volume of detail and factual material is enough to allow me to judge the book a success; it contains information that could otherwise be gained only by consulting many different sources.

That said, the real value of the book is in its assessment of several important analytical questions.  Due to Glantz's unprecedented (at least on this topic) access to Soviet archives, the book is the first real assessment of Soviet troops, tactics, and plans.  While Dunn was able to offer some of this, Glantz and House are able to go much further.  They are able to show how the Soviets used their knowledge of German plans to set their own plans.  Glantz and House are also able to convincingly demonstrate, with Soviet archival sources, that the German delays did not change the result.  Had they attacked earlier (May 1943), they still would have lost.  Furthermore, they convincingly show that the initial period of defense against the German attack was but one step in an overarching operational plan to launch an offensive in the late summer of 1943.  This defense was cleverly laid out, with deep lines to be defended flexibly, and with powerful reserves located in the rear/center to blunt breakthroughs quickly.  It was the classic elastic or mobile defense; the Soviets were good at making war by this time and the authors make this clear.  This is juxtaposed against Glantz and House's analysis of German leadership.  They demonstrate that Citadel was proposed not by Hitler, but by his generals.  The battle was fought and lost by the generals, not by Hitler, although he got the blame after the war.  These are important assessments, because the implication is that the Soviets by this time were simply better at making war than the Germans.  Finally, Glantz and House go much further than Cross in putting the clash at Prokhorovka in perspective.  Through their battle descriptions, it becomes obvious that the "clash" was instead a series of very disjointed, independent, small-unit battles.  Caidin's story (and the popular myth) of the epic charge of tanks across the plains resulting in the swirling melee of combat vehicles at point-blank range never appears.  Through detailed examination of orders of battle, tables of organization and equipment, and unit strength reports, Glantz and House show that the "clash" is probably best thought of as a draw rather than the Soviet victory that is usually described.  The Germans nearly destroyed the 18th and 29th tank corps in front of Prokhorovka, in exchange for negligible losses.  Yet, to the Germans this signaled the arrival of the large Soviet reserves at a time when their own divisions were bogging down (due primarily to a lack of infantry divisions).  It was also at this time (or shortly before) that the Soviets launched their own offensives on the flanks of the German armies involved at Kursk.  Thus, the authors show that the inability to affect a true breakthrough, combined with Soviet attacks of their own, forced the Germans to abandon Citadel.  This is essentially the argument offered by Cross, but Glantz and House are much more effective.  Further, due to the wealth of Soviet information, their book is much more complete.  Skip Cross's book and proceed directly to Glantz and House.  If you own but one book on Kursk, it should be this one.

Mark Healy: Kursk 1943, The Tide Turns in the East (Osprey Campaign Series)

Healy's book is like most others in the Osprey series: it is a bland, somewhat uneven overview of the battle, and contains several important errors.  Healy includes some "thumbnail sketches" of the German and Soviet commanders (including the erroneous assertion that Zhukov was undefeated, when his Operation Mars was badly beaten in the winter of 1942).  He also includes a broad overview of the forces involved, offering much more detail for German units than Russian (indicating a lack of effort on Healy's part to do archival research, which is inexcusable for a book published in the 1990s).  The description of the battle is so brief that many of the important features (the German lack of infantry, the Soviet elastic defense, the German decisions during the battle, and the Soviet counteroffensive on the flanks) go untouched.  The reader thus gets a very narrow perspective, which is even more focused by the highlighting of three clashes (at Ponyri on the north face, the Grossdeutschland break-in with its ill-fated Panthers, and the clash at Prokhorovka).  The rest of the battle of Kursk gets very short shrift, and thus the three highlighted battles are completely without context.  Further, it is apparent that Healy relied on Caidin to describe the events at Prokhorovka, and much of the information provided is thus incorrect.  This causes a curious contradiction, as Healy correctly identifies tank strengths for the Germans early in the book, yet massively overstates those strengths later.

Despite these problems, the "3D" maps that are the selling point of this series are quite good.  Further, my comments above may not be completely fair, as this book (and the series as a whole) is aimed at wargamers.  For the purposes of setting up scenarios and games, the book will do an adequate job.  The 3D maps will provide information for creating a battlefield on the tabletop, and the orders of battles will provide opposing forces to "duke it out".  Beyond this, however, the book is of marginal utility, and wargamers should not rely on it to provide historical information and analysis.

David Glantz and Harold Orenstein (editors): The Battle for Kursk 1943, The Soviet General Staff Study

For anyone seriously interested in the Battle of Kursk, this book is a must-read.  It is essentially the raw analysis the Soviets did of their efforts in the Battle of Kursk.  Everything is here: how they established their defensive zones (even down to the number of mines laid and length of trenches dug); where fuel dumps were and how large they were; where reserves were stationed and why, what the artillery, infantry, armor, and airpower plans were; troop and weapon density; and finally a brutal assessment of how well (or poorly) everything worked.  From this document, it is obvious that the Soviets knew of German plans from a very early date (in March, several months before the attack started).  Thus, even if the Germans had attacked in May, as they originally intended, the Soviets still would have had a month to prepare.  The book shows that in this month, they had developed more than adequate defensive positions and reserves.  Although some Soviet propaganda appears (particularly in inflated German losses), and there are factual errors that the editors do not vigorously correct ("Ferdinands" appear everywhere in the operation, despite the fact that there were only 90 of them, all located in a narrow sector of the north face of the Kursk bulge), much of the text is very raw.  The book was not intended for general Soviet public consumption, so it is more or less an honest evaluation.  Harsh assessments are given to the leaders of the air force, and it is plainly obvious from the book that the Red Air Force did not live up to expectations.  Nor did many armor units, which while blunting German spearheads, suffered tremendously high losses.  The book is essentially of two parts.  First, the plans and preparations are laid out in explicit detail.  Second is an assessment of how well those plans and preparations worked.  This study is therefore not of the battle itself, and descriptions of fighting exist primarily to serve as examples and illustrations of (in)effective plans and preparations.

This is not intended for the general reader.  Only somebody who is very interested in the technical details of military planning, or someone who is interested in military institutional effectiveness will appreciate this book.  It is a technical report and reads as such.  That said, it is a valuable primary document, and it provides us with a veritable treasure trove of data and information about Soviet conduct in the Battle of Kursk.

Steven Newton: Kursk, The German View

This is a unique book.  Newton has collected, translated, and extensively annotated reports of Citadel written by German commanders (mostly corps-level).  As such, it is a valuable collection of primary source material and sheds light on many of the command decisions that went into the battle.  The primary contribution of the book is to completely strip away any lingering portions of the myth that had the Germans kept pressing they would have won the battle.  In fact, the reports plainly show that the Germans were never even close to achieving victory.  Additionally, Newton's notes, analysis, and the reports themselves demonstrate that many of the German failures were due to bad tactical decisions.  This convincingly strips away some of the sheen from German tactical commanders, who generally are portrayed in histories as being of uniform excellence.  Newton's book shows that some commanders, particularly on the south face, made some extremely poor decisions.  The attack of the Panthers in Grossdeutschland's sector gets attention in other sources mainly due to the popularity of that tank and its teething troubles.  Newton instead focusses on the poor tactical handling of them, which single-handedly almost derailed all of Grossdeutschland's attack.  Poor decisions in Army Group Kempf also get attention (e.g. the dismantling of an infantry division near Belgorod), as do the decisions to delay taking of key hills overlooking Soviet positions until just before the attack (when they could have been useful as artillery observation and intelligence positions).  Another valuable addition the book provides is that the German command had from the start planned to "turn" units attacking the southern face to the north-east prior to proceeding north, in order to deal with expected arrivals of Soviet reserves.  This lead to the clash at Prokhorovka, which thus was not necessarily "unexpected" by the Germans.  The problem for the Germans turned out to be a lack of infantry divisions as well as the slow progress of Army Group Kempf.  The reports also reveal the failure of using increased artillery, airpower, and new armored vehicles to make up for the deficiencies in infantry units.

Newton's book also hammers home the point that Citadel was doomed, particularly in the north, because the 9th Army had insufficient protection on its flanks.  When the Soviet offensive was launched against the Orel sector, 9th Army was immediately forced on the defensive (it had already bogged down anyway).  Soviet offensives in the south forced the application of the few German reserves (including the SS Wiking Division), thus sucking them away from being able to reinforce Citadel.  Newton's book leaves the reader with the clear impression that German tactics were flawed in many respects, that the Soviets were able to disrupt the flow of the attack, and that the Germans were never near accomplishing the goals of Citadel, even though units in the south did continue to press northward after meeting the 5th Guards Tank Army in front of Prokhorovka.  An excellent book to accompany the Soviet General Staff Study, but not one for the general reader as Newton's book assumes familiarity with the details of the battle.

Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson: Kursk 1943, A Statistical Analysis

As its title implies, this book is primarily a collection and presentation of data - hard numbers - about the battle of Kursk.  Zetterling and Frankson do an impressive job of compiling orders of battle, unit strengths (particularly on all sorts of armored vehicles, and not just tanks), casualties, air sorties, equipment losses, ammunition expenditures, and the like.  Unit structures for both the Germans and Soviets are presented in detail.  An entire chapter is devoted to airpower and its effects on the battle.  With the all the data, the authors present a relatively brief chronology and overview of the battle, limited to a re-telling of the facts.  This drives home the point the authors are trying to make: rather than rely on personal recollections, impressions, and story-telling, we can better understand how the Battle of Kursk went through data on the forces involved and what happened to those forces.

This book is incredibly useful to those wishing to reconstruct opposing forces, for those who study combat via empirical methodology, and for those looking to test other authors' assertions and conclusions of the battle.  By itself, however, the book is not particularly valuable.  Zetterling and Frankson choose to mostly let the numbers speak for themselves.  As such the book is devoid of analysis of German and Soviet planning, decision making, leadership, or tactics.  These, of course, are the factors that drive the generation of the statistics presented by the authors.  Casualties, ammunition expenditures, equipment losses, etc. are the direct result of planning, decision making, leadership, and tactics.  Furthermore, historians search for the meaning and implications of these statistics.  They ask and try to answer the question of "so what"?  Numbers rarely speak for themselves, and this is something that Zetterling does not understand (to see my point, read his book on Normandy).  Zetterling and Frankson's book is quite valuable, but not as a stand-alone, and only as a companion to other material (e.g. Glantz and House).  Wargamers will also find the book useful, as detailed tables of organization and equipment along with very thorough orders of battle are plentiful.

Conclusions

With the exception of Caidin, and possibly Healy, these books reviewed here represent a good set of knowledge on the Battle of Kursk.  With two of the more formal studies above (Dunn and Glantz & House), any more serious reader will be able to become an "armchair expert" on Citadel, and will certainly have an updated view representing the current state of the literature on the subject.  For the reader casually interested in the battle or World War II, I recommend Cross's book.  Dunn will disappoint those looking for a "blow-by-blow" story, and Glantz and House's book has too much detail.  For readers looking for more analysis, or those who are approaching the subject from a more technical or scholarly angle, the books by Newton, Glantz & Orenstein, and Zetterling & Frankson can be added.  These three are not for the uninitiated, nor for those not interested in Citadel beyond the combat.  I recommend Healy only to the wargamer looking to set up one or two scenarios on the sand table, but who otherwise does not have a particular interest in the battle.

For those looking for more technical information and who may be interested in doing some of their own analysis, I recommend Glantz's study "Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk" and the Kursk Operation Simulation and Validation Exercise (Phase II).  The first is a 70 page analysis of how the Soviets established their defense in the Kursk bulge.  It is incredibly detailed, building from the lowest levels (individual battalion positions), up through regiments, divisions, corps, armies, and fronts.  Thus, it assesses the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, and is a handy companion to the Soviet General Staff Study edited by Glantz and Orenstein.  This paper is available as Combat Studies Institute Report 11 at http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/csi.asp for no charge.  The second, known by its acronym of KOSAVE, is a report and data set prepared by the U.S. Army Concepts Analysis Agency.  It was designed to be a historical data set, so analysts could build combat simulations and compare results.  It was also intended to be a stand-alone data set for historians.  The data presented can be overwhelming: the report itself is hundreds of pages long, and includes detailed breakdowns of ammunition usage, unit attachments, weapon and equipment quantity and availability, manpower, casualties, force dispositions and advance/retreat rates, aircraft types and sorties, and even unit postures.  The only unfortunate part is that KOSAVE only covers the southern face of Kursk.  Thus, it does not make the book by Zetterling and Frankson obsolete, as they provide statistics for the north face as well.  The KOSAVE project is still incredible; along with the report are about 12.5 megabytes worth of spreadsheets containing the raw data, and, amazingly, daily reports from divisions and corps (and even some regiments) detailing their positions, combat situations, and strengths.  KOSAVE has already generated several analyses of combat models and simulations, which have been prepared by students at the Naval Postgraduate School and are available at http://www.nps.navy.mil/orfacpag/resumePages/theses/lucasth.htm for no charge.

We thus have a wealth of information and analysis on Citadel.  There should be no excuse for the perpetuating the myths of the battle.  The Germans did not suffer horrible tank losses at Prokhorovka, causing them to pull back.  The Germans did not pull back due to Allied landings in Sicily.  The Germans did manage the battle badly.  It was not Hitler's initial decision to attack or his fault that the Germans lost.  The Germans did not almost win; in fact they had lost before the battle even started.  The Soviets did use a flexible defense.  The Soviets did see the initial German attack as simply one phase in an overall plan to go on the offensive in the summer of 1943.  The Soviets did suffer horrible tank losses at Prokhorovka.  The armor of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army did not charge across the dusty plains to ram the German Tigers in a swirling melee containing thousands of tanks.  In fact, on the day of the battle, the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division (the principle German unit at Prokhorovka) had just 5 operational Tigers, and barely 100 operational tanks and tank destroyers total.  The Soviets did win the battle through excellent defensive planning and well-timed counteroffensives on the German flanks.

Although the state of the literature now gives us a more accurate picture of Citadel, the Battle of Kursk remains interesting.  Although it may not have been the "turning point" of the war, it represents the point where the Red Army took away, for good, the initiative from the Germans.


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