|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
SS Panzergrenadiers with a Tiger I of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich during the Battle of Kursk
|Nazi Germany||Soviet Union|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
Operation Citadel:[lower-alpha 5]
Battle of Kursk:[lower-alpha 7]
Operation Citadel:[lower-alpha 5]
Battle of Kursk:[lower-alpha 7]
The Battle of Kursk was a World War II engagement between German and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front near Kursk (450 kilometres or 280 miles southwest of Moscow) in the Soviet Union in July and August 1943. The German offensive was code-named Operation Citadel (German language: Unternehmen Zitadelle) and led to one of the largest armoured clashes in history, the Battle of Prokhorovka. The German offensive was countered by two Soviet counteroffensives, Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev (Russian: Полководец Румянцев) and Operation Kutuzov (Russian: Кутузов). For the Germans, the battle represented the final strategic offensive they were able to mount in the east. For the Soviets, the decisive victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative for the rest of the war.
The Germans hoped to weaken the Soviet offensive potential for the summer of 1943 by cutting off a large number of forces that they anticipated would be in the Kursk salient assembling for an offensive. By eliminating the Kursk salient they would also shorten their lines of defence, taking the strain off of their overstretched forces. The plan envisioned an envelopment by a pair of pincers breaking through the northern and southern flanks of the salient. It was thought that a victory here would reassert Germany's strength and improve her prestige with allies who were considering withdrawing from the war. It was also hoped that large numbers of Soviet prisoners would be captured to be used as slave labour in Germany's armaments industry.
The Soviets had intelligence of the German intentions, provided in part by British intelligence service and Enigma intercepts. Aware that the attack would fall on the neck of the Kursk salient months in advance, the Soviets built a defence in depth designed to wear down the German panzer spearheads. The Germans delayed the start date of the offensive while they tried to build up their forces and waited for new weapons, mainly the new Panther tank but also larger numbers of the Tiger heavy tank. This gave the Red Army time to construct a series of deep defensive lines. The defensive preparations included minefields, fortifications, pre-sighted artillery fire zones and anti-tank strong points, which extended approximately 300 km (190 mi) in depth. In addition, Soviet mobile formations were moved out of the salient and a large reserve force was formed for strategic counteroffensives.
The Battle of Kursk was the first time a German strategic offensive had been halted before it could break through enemy defences and penetrate to its strategic depths. Though the Soviet Army had succeeded in winter offensives previously, their counter-offensives following the German attack were their first successful strategic summer offensives of the war.
- 1 Background
- 2 Opposing forces
- 3 Operation along the northern face
- 4 Operation along the southern face
- 5 Termination of Operation Citadel
- 6 Soviet counteroffensives
- 7 Results
- 8 Analysis of Citadel
- 9 Notes
- 10 Citations
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
As the Battle of Stalingrad slowly ground to its conclusion, the Soviet army moved to a general offensive in the south, pressuring the depleted German forces. Hitler's belief that his own iron will would be the deciding factor in the conflict resulted in German forces being tied down in a rigid defence that did not permit them the liberty to move. Since December Manstein had been strongly requesting "unrestricted operational freedom" to allow him to use the forces in a fluid manner, a request which put him at odds with Hitler. Time and again Hitler's policy of holding at all costs resulted in forces being left until their position was untenable, and they were being cut off and destroyed. By January 1943 a 160 to 300 km (99 to 186 mi) wide gap had been created between Army Group B and Army Group Don. The advancing Soviet armies threatened to cut off all German forces south of the Don River, including Army Group A operating in the Caucasus. Meanwhile Army Group Centre was under significant pressure as well. Kursk fell to the Soviets on 8 February, and Rostov on the 14th. The Soviet Bryansk and Western Fronts, along with the newly created Central Front, prepared for an offensive which envisioned an encirclement of Army Group Centre extending between Bryansk and Smolensk.
On 12 February the remaining German forces were reorganized. To the south, Army Group Don was renamed Army Group South and its units placed under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Directly to the north Army Group B was dissolved, and its forces and areas of responsibility were divided between Army Group South and Army Group Centre. With this restructuring Manstein inherited responsibility for the massive breach in the German lines. January 1943 saw the arrival of the II SS Panzer Corps from France, refitted and up to near full strength. Other armoured units from the 1st Panzer Army, part of Army Group A, which had slipped out of the trap of the Caucasus, further strengthened Manstein's hand.
By February the Wehrmacht was in crisis. Adolf Hitler arrived at Army Group South headquarters at Zaporizhia hours before the fall of Kharkov on 18 February. Hitler's decided distrust of the officers of the General Staff, and of Manstein in particular, put him at odds with the erstwhile commanders of the Wehrmacht. Though Hitler secretly wished to relieve Manstein and saddle him with the blame for Stalingrad and the subsequent battles, he soon realized he could ill afford to lose the man largely regarded as the most capable commander in the Wehrmacht. Instead Hitler grudgingly gave him the freedom he had requested. Once given freedom of action, Manstein explained how he intended to concentrate his forces and make a series of counterstrokes to exploit the Soviets' overstretched lines, with the goal of destroying the Soviet spearheads and retaking Kharkov and Kursk. The Third Battle of Kharkov commenced on 19 February, spearheaded by the three SS divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps. Manstein's manoeuvre offensive cut off the Soviet spearheads, and then encircled and destroyed their main force. The Germans retook Kharkov on 15 March and Belgorod on 18 March. The German offensive wrested the initiative from the Soviets. An attack by the Central Front against Army Group Centre, launched 25 February, had to be abandoned by 7 March as forces had to be redeployed south to counter the threat of the advancing forces under Manstein. Operations ceased by the end of March due to the onset of the spring rasputitsa and the exhaustion of the Wehrmacht. The exhaustion was mirrored in the Red Army. The counteroffensive left a salient extending into the German area of control and centred around the town of Kursk.
German plans and preparation
Heavy losses sustained by the German army in the winters of 1941/42 and 1942/43 resulted in a marked shortage in artillery and infantry. Units along the eastern front were 470,000 men below their establishment levels. For the German army to take offensive action in 1943 the burden would have to be carried by the panzer arm. In view of the exposed position of Army Group South, Manstein proposed that the German army should take the strategic defensive. He anticipated that a Soviet offensive would attempt to cut off and destroy Army Group South by a move across the Donetz River toward the Dnieper. In February he proposed waiting for this offensive to develop and then deliver a series of counterattacks into the exposed Soviet flanks. Hitler, concerned about potential political implications of taking a defensive stance and preoccupied with the economic potential of holding the Donetz basin, rejected this plan. On 10 March Manstein presented Hitler with an alternative plan whereby the German forces pinched off the Kursk salient with an offensive commencing as soon as the spring rasputitsa had subsided. On 13 March, Hitler signed Operational Order No. 5, which outlined the intended launch of several offensives, including one against the Kursk salient. As the last enemy resistance in Kharkov was reduced, Manstein attempted to persuade Günther von Kluge of Army Group Centre to immediately attack the Central Front, which was defending the northern face of the salient, to keep the Soviets off balance and maintain the momentum. Kluge refused, noting that his forces were too weak to launch such an attack. Manstein's SS Panzer Corps pushed on northwards and took Belgorod on 18 March, but further advance was blocked by Soviet forces that had been shifted down from the Central Front to an area north of Belgorod. By mid-April, amid poor weather and with the German forces exhausted and in need of refitting, the offensives of Operational Order No. 5 could not be undertaken.
Hitler's Operational Order No. 6, issued 15 April, called for the Kursk offensive operation to begin on 3 May or shortly thereafter. Kurt Zeitzler, the OKH Chief of Staff, provided the logistical planning for the operation. Zeitzler was a resourceful organizer of strategic moves, and had an exceptional capacity to solve movement problems. For the plan to succeed it was deemed essential to attack before the Soviets had a chance to prepare extensive defenses or launch an offensive of their own. The plan was code named Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel). According to some military historians, the operation envisioned a blitzkrieg,[lower-alpha 10] but some other military historians and many of the German participants, including von Manstein, made no mention of blitzkrieg in their characterization of the operation.[lower-alpha 11] The plan for the operation consisted of a double envelopment that was directed at Kursk to surround the majority of the Soviet defenders and seal off the salient. Kluge's Army Group Centre was to provide General Walter Model's 9th Army to form the northern pincer and cut down through the northern face of the salient, driving to a location to the hills east of Kursk, securing the rail line from Soviet attack. Manstein's Army Group South would commit the 4th Panzer Army under Hermann Hoth and Army Detachment Kempf under Werner Kempf to penetrate the southern face of the salient, driving northwards to meet 9th Army upon the heights east of Kursk. Mainstein's main attack was to be delivered by Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, spearheaded by the II SS Panzer Corps, commanded by Paul Hausser. Driving north to its left was the XLVIII Panzer Corps, commanded by Otto von Knobelsdorff. The right flank of the drive was to be covered by Army Detachment "Kempf", under the command of Werner Kempf. The western face of the salient was to be controlled by the 2nd Army, under the command of Walter Weiss.
On 27 April Model met with Hitler to review the reconnaissance and express his concerns. He argued that the longer the preparation phase continued, the less the operation could be justified. He recommended Citadel be completely abandoned, allowing the army to await and defeat the coming Soviet offensive. Failing that, he believed that Citadel should be radically revised. Though in mid-April Manstein had considered the Citadel offensive profitable, by May he shared Model's misgivings. He again asserted that the best course of action would be for the German forces to take the strategic defensive, ceding ground to allow the anticipated Soviet forces to extend themselves and allow the German panzer forces to counterattack in the type of fluid, mobile battle that they excelled at. Convinced that the Red Army would deliver its main effort against Army Group South, he proposed to keep the left wing of the army group strong while moving the right wing back in stages to the Dnieper River, followed by a counterattack against the flank of the Red Army advance. The counteroffensive would continue until the Sea of Azov was reached and the Soviet forces were cut off. This idea was rejected by Hitler, as he did not want to give up so much terrain, even temporarily. Zeitzler, Chief of Staff for OKH and the operational planner for Citadel, was profoundly concerned with the delay of the offensive till the second week of June, but he was still in support of the offensive.
In early May Hitler called together his senior officers and advisors to Munich for a meeting. Hitler spoke for about 45 minutes on the current situation and the plans for the offensive. Model then spoke, and produced reconnaissance photos revealing some of the extensive preparations the Russians had made in preparation for the attack. A number of options were put forth for comment: going to the offensive immediately with the forces at hand, delaying the offensive further to await the arrival of new and better armour, radically revising the operation or cancelling it all together. Manstein spoke against the offensive, but not forcefully. Albert Speer spoke of the difficulties of rebuilding the armoured formations and the limitations of German industry to replace loses. Guderian argued strongly against the Citadel operation, stating "the attack was pointless." The conference ended without Hitler having voiced his decision, but Citadel was not aborted. Three days later OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Hitler's conduit for controlling the military, postponed the launch date for Citadel to 12 June.
Following this meeting Guderian continued to voice his concerns over an operation that would likely degrade the panzer forces that he had been attempting to rebuild. He believed that the offensive as planned was a misuse of the panzer forces, as it violated two of the three tenets he had laid out as the essential elements for a successful panzer attack.[lower-alpha 12] In Guderian's opinion the limited German resources in men and materiel should be conserved, as they would be needed for the pending defence of Western Europe. In a meeting with Hitler on 10 May he asked: "Is it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east this year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is? The entire world doesn't care if we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason that is forcing us to attack this year on Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front?" Hitler replied: "I know. The thought of it turns my stomach." Guderian concluded, "In that case your reaction to the problem is the correct one. Leave it alone."[lower-alpha 13]
Despite reservations, Hitler remained committed to the offensive. He and OKW, early in the preparatory phase, were hopeful that the offensive would revitalize German strategic fortunes in the East. As the challenges offered by Citadel increased, he focused more and more on the expected new weapons that he believed were the key to victory: principally the Panther, but also the Elefant tank destroyer and greater numbers of the Tiger heavy tank. He postponed the operation to await their arrival. Receiving reports of powerful Soviet concentrations behind the Kursk area, he delayed the offensive again to allow for more equipment to reach the front. With pessimism for Citadel increasing with each delay, in June Alfred Jodl, the Chief of the Staff at OKW, instructed the armed forces propaganda office to portray the operation as a limited counteroffensive when the offensive finally did get underway. Due to concerns of an Allied landing in the south of France or Italy and delays in deliveries of the new tanks, Hitler postponed again, this time to 20 June.[lower-alpha 14] On 17–18 June, following a discussion where the OKW Operations Staff suggested abandoning the offensive, he further postponed until 3 July. Finally on 1 July Hitler announced that 5 July would be the launch date.
As the Soviets waited and the Germans attempted to build up their forces, a three-month quiet period descended upon the eastern front. The Germans used this period for specialized training of their assault troops. All units did unit training and combat rehearsals. The SS had built a full scale duplicate Russian strong point that was used to practice the techniques for neutralizing these positions. During the lull the panzer divisions continued to try to replace equipment shortfalls and get up to strength. The total German forces to be used in the offensive included 12 panzer divisions and 5 panzergrenadier divisions, four of which could boast of tank strengths greater than their neighboring panzer divisions, but the force was markedly deficient in infantry divisions, which were essential to hold ground and secure flanks. By the time the Germans initiated the offensive the forces arrayed amounted to about 777,000 men, 2,451 tanks and assault guns (70 per cent of the German armour on the Eastern Front), and 7,417 guns and mortars.[lower-alpha 15]
Soviet plans and preparation
In 1943, an offensive by the Soviet Central, Bryansk, and Western Fronts against Army Group Centre was abandoned shortly after it began in early March, when the southern flank of the Central Front was threatened by Army Group South. Soviet intelligence received information about German troop concentrations spotted at Orel and Kharkov as well as details of an intended German offensive in the Kursk sector through the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland. The Soviets verified the intelligence via their spy in Britain, John Cairncross at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, who clandestinely forwarded raw decrypts directly to Moscow. Anastas Mikoyan wrote that on 27 March 1943 he was notified by Stalin about a possible German attack in the Kursk sector. Stalin and some senior officers were eager to strike first once the rasputitsa ended, but a number of key officers, including Deputy Supreme Commander Georgiy Zhukov, recommended a strategic defensive before going on the offensive. In a letter to Stavka and Stalin on 8 April, Zhukov wrote:
In the first phase the enemy, collecting their best forces—including 13–15 tank divisions and with the support of a large number of aircraft—will strike Kursk with their Kromskom-Orel grouping from the north-east and their Belgorod-Kharkov grouping from the south-east... I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go over to an offensive in the near future in order to forestall the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhaust himself against our defences, and knock out his tanks and then, bringing up fresh reserves, to go over to the general offensive which would finally finish off his main force.
Stalin consulted from 12 to 15 April 1943 with his front-line commanders and senior officers of the General Staff, and in the end he and Stavka agreed that Kursk was the likely German target. Stalin believed the decision to defend would give the Germans the initiative, but Zhukov countered that the Germans would be drawn into a trap where their armoured power would be destroyed, thus creating the conditions for a major Soviet offensive. They decided to meet the enemy attack by preparing defensive positions to wear out the German groupings before launching their own offensive. Preparation of defences and fortifications began by the end of April and continued until the German attack in early July. The two-month delay between the German decision to attack the Kursk salient and its implementation allowed the Red Army ample time to thoroughly prepare.
The Voronezh Front, commanded by Nikolai Vatutin, was tasked with defending the southern face of the salient. The Central Front, commanded by Konstantin Rokossovsky, defended the northern face. Waiting in reserve was the Steppe Front, commanded by Ivan Konev. In February 1943 the Central Front had been reconstructed from the Don Front, which had been part of the northern pincer of Operation Uranus, responsible for the destruction of the 6th Army in the Stalingrad pocket.
The Central and Voronezh Fronts each constructed three main defensive belts in their sectors, with each subdivided into several zones of fortification.  The Soviets availed themselves of the labour of over 300,000 civilians.[lower-alpha 16] Fortifying each echelon was an interconnected web of minefields, barbed-wire fences, anti-tank ditches, deep entrenchments for infantry, anti-tank obstacles, dug-in armoured vehicles, and machine gun bunkers. Behind the three main defensive belts were three more belts prepared as fallback positions; the first was not fully occupied or heavily fortified, and the last two, though sufficiently fortified, were mostly not occupied. The combined depth of the three main defensive zones was about 40 kilometres (25 mi). The six defensive belts on either side of Kursk were 130–150 kilometres (81–93 mi). If the Germans managed to break through these defences they would still be confronted by additional defensive belts to the east, manned by the Steppe Front. These brought the total depth of the defences to nearly 300 kilometres (190 mi).
Red Army combat engineers laid 503,663 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines, with the highest concentration in the first main defensive belt. More than 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi) of trenches were dug, laid out in criss-cross pattern for ease of movement. The minefields at Kursk achieved densities of 1,700 anti-personnel and 1,500 anti-tank mines per kilometre, about four times the density used in the defence of Moscow. The 6th Guards Army of the Voronezh Front, spread out over nearly 64 kilometres (40 mi) of front, was protected by 69,688 anti-tank and 64,430 anti-personnel mines in its first defensive belt and another 20,200 anti-tank and 9,097 anti-personnel mines in its second defensive belt.
Mobile obstacle detachments were tasked with laying more mines directly in the path of advancing armoured formations. These units, consisting of two platoons of combat engineers with mines at division level and one company of combat engineers normally equipped with 500–700 mines at corps level, functioned as anti-tank reserves at every level of command.
In his letter of 8 April, Zhukov warned that the Germans would attack the salient with a strong armoured force:
We can expect the enemy to put [the] greatest reliance in this year's offensive operations on his tank divisions and air force, since his infantry appears to be far less prepared for offensive operations than last year ... In view of this threat, we should strengthen the anti-tank defences of the Central and Voronezh fronts, and assemble as soon as possible.
Nearly all artillery, including howitzers, guns, anti-aircraft and rockets, were tasked with anti-tank defence. Dug-in tanks and self-propelled guns further strengthened the anti-tank defences. Anti-tank forces were incorporated into every level of command mostly as anti-tank strong points, with the majority concentrated on likely attack routes and the remainder amply spread out in elsewhere. Each anti-tank strong point typically consisted of four to six anti-tank guns, six to nine anti-tank rifles, and five to seven heavy and light machine guns. They were supported by mobile obstacle detachments as well as infantry with automatic weapons. Independent tank and self-propelled gun brigades and regiments were tasked with cooperating with the infantry during counterattacks.
Soviet preparations included increased activity of partisans, who attacked on German communications and supply lines. The attacks were mostly seen behind Army Group North and Army Group Centre. For June 1943 alone, in the occupied area behind Army Group Centre, 298 locomotives, 1,222 rail wagons, and 44 bridges were destroyed by partisans, while in the Kursk sector there were 1,092 partisan attacks against railways. These attacks delayed the build-up of supplies and equipment, and required forces to be diverted to suppress the partisans, delaying their training for the offensive. Many of these attacks were coordinated through the Central Partisan Headquarters. Soviet Air Forces flew in supplies and provided communication and sometimes even air support for major undertakings.
Special training was provided to the infantry manning the defences to help them overcome the tank phobia that had been evident since the German invasion. Soldiers were packed into trenches and tanks were driven overhead until all signs of fear were gone.[lower-alpha 17] The soldiers were also promised financial rewards for each tank destroyed, with the People's Commisariat of Defense providing 1,000 rubles for destroyed tanks. In combat the soldiers would spring up in the midst of the attacking infantry to separate them from the spearheading armoured vehicles, which could then be disabled or destroyed at point-blank range. These types of attacks were most effective against the Ferdinand tank destroyers, which lacked the secondary armament of a machine gun. If they could be separated from their supporting infantry they became vulnerable to infantry armed with anti-tank rifles, demolition charges and Molotov cocktails.
The Soviets employed maskirovka (deception techniques) to mask defensive positions and troop dispositions and to conceal the movement of men and materiel. These included camouflaging gun emplacements, constructing dummy airfields and depots, generating false radio traffic, and spreading rumours among the Soviet front line troops and the civilian population in the German-held areas. Movement of forces and supplies to and from the salient was carried out only at night. Ammunition caches were carefully concealed to blend in with the landscape. Radio transmission was restricted and fires were forbidden. Command posts were hidden and motor transport in and around them were forbidden.
According to a Soviet General Staff report, 29 of the 35 major Luftwaffe raids on Soviet airfields in the Kursk sector in June 1943 were on dummy airfields. So successful were Soviet efforts at deception that German estimates issued in mid-June placed total Soviet armoured strength at 1,500 tanks. The result was not only a vast underestimation of Soviet strength, but a misperception of Soviet strategic intentions.
The Soviets preferred tank was the T-34, and they attempted to concentrate these in their mobile formations. Also in service with their armoured formations were large numbers of T-70 light tanks. The 5th Guards Tank Army had roughly 270 T-70s and 500 T-34s. In the salient itself the Soviets also made use of large numbers of lend lease tanks, including U.S. manufactured M3 Lees, and British built Churchills, Matildas and Valentines, but the T-34 still made up the greatest share of Soviet armour. Without including the deeper reserves organised under the Steppe Front, the Soviets had massed about 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, and 2,792 aircraft to defend the salient. This amounted to 26 per cent of the total manpower of the Red Army, 26 per cent of its mortars and artillery, 35 per cent of its aircraft, and 46 per cent of its tanks.
Contest for air superiority and air support of the ground forces
Both the Luftwaffe and the V.V.S. (the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily, or "Military Air Forces"), were air forces designed with support of the ground forces as their principal mission. Though always numerically inferior, in the early part of the campaign in Russia the Luftwaffe achieved complete air superiority, had inflicted huge losses upon the V.V.S. and was able to provide extensive air support to the ground forces, checked only when the advance of the army pushed beyond the range of the most forward airfields. Efforts by the Luftwaffe to resupply isolated army units over the winters of 1941-42 and more recently in the resupply effort for the 6th Army at Stalingrad resulted in significant losses in equipment and pilots. These were not easily replaced.
In 1943 the Luftwaffe was still able to achieve local superiority, but the strength of the Luftwaffe was clearly weakening. At Kursk the Luftwaffe was further hindered by general problems the Germans were having with supply shortfalls. Partisan activity had slowed the rate of re-supply and cut short the Luftwaffe's ability to build-up stockpiles of essentials in POL (Petrol, Oil, Lubricants). To alleviate the supply shortages the Luftwaffe greatly curtailed its operations in the last week of June. Despite this husbanding of resources the Luftwaffe's ability to fly sorties over the course of the battle was limited. The high intensity of sorties in the early going meant that by 9 July the number of sorties that could be flown were markedly decreased, just as the battle was approaching its decisive moment.
An operational change by the Luftwaffe reflected the changing strengths of the two opponents. In previous offensive campaigns the Luftwaffe typically would raid opposing airfields at the outset of an operation to help gain air superiority. By this point in the war the Soviet reserves in equipment were extensive. The Germans were aware of this, and realized whatever aircraft they could destroy on the ground could be replaced in a few day's time, making these efforts futile. In addition Luftwaffe medium range bombers would typically range well behind the front line to interdict reinforcements moving up to the front. These operations were abandoned during Citadel. The limited strength of the Luftwaffe resulted in it being forced to direct its air efforts during Operation Citadel entirely to the direct support of the ground forces.
For its part, the V.V.S. had a numerical advantage over the Luftwaffe from the start of the war. This advantage persisted despite the heavy losses suffered during the first two years of the conflict, but by 1943 the advantage the V.V.S. held in numbers was clear. In addition, the V.V.S. was gaining in quality as well. Such designs as the Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-5 fighters gave the Soviet pilots near parity in equipment, and large numbers of ground attack aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and the Pe-2 were available as well, along with huge quantities of lend-lease supplied aircraft, fuel and ammunition, all of which aided the Soviet effort to re-equip. Soviet pilot training had improved to some degree over the course of the first two years as well.
Both air forces possessed effective ground-attack aircraft. The Soviet air force fielded the above mentioned Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and the Petlyakov Pe-2. The Germans continued to make use of the Junkers Ju 87G Stuka. A new development was the Bordkanone 3,7 cm calibre cannon, one of which could be slung under each wing of the Stuka in pods. Half of the Stuka groups were equipped with these weapons. The air groups were also buttressed by the recent arrival of the Henschel Hs 129, with its 30 mm MK 103 cannon, and the "jabo" or ground attack version of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
For their attack, the Wehrmacht used three armies and a large proportion of their tanks on the eastern front. The 9th Army in the north had 335,000 men (223,000 combat soldiers), and in the south the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment "Kempf" had 223,907 men (149,271) and 100,000 men (66,000) respectively, a grand total of 778,907 men (518,271) for all three armies.
Von Manstein's Army Group South was equipped with more armoured vehicles, infantry and artillery than von Kluge's Army Group Centre to the north. The 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment "Kempf" had 1,377 tanks and assault guns, while the 9th Army possessed 988 tanks and assault guns.
The two new Panther battalions, the 51st and 52nd, which the offensive had been delayed for, were attached to the Großdeutschland Division in the XLVIII Panzer Corps of Army Group South, adding an additional 200 tanks. Arriving just before the launch of the offensive, they had little time to perform reconnaissance or to orientate themselves to the terrain, steps the panzerwaffe considered essential for the successful use of armour. Though led by experienced panzer commanders, many of the men were new recruits and had little time to become familiar with their new tanks and their temperamental transmissions, let alone train together to function as a unit. The two battalions came direct from the training ground and had no unit experience in combat. In addition, the requirement to maintain radio silence until the start of the attack meant that the Panther units would have little training in radio procedures. The new Panthers were still experiencing problems with their transmissions, and proved mechanically unreliable. By the morning of 5 July the units had lost 16 of their 200 Panthers from mechanical breakdown, leaving 184 available for the launching of the offensive.
|Order of battle: Army Group Centre (Field Marshal Günther von Kluge)|
|Army||Army Commander||Note||Corps||Corps Commander||Divisions|
|9th Army||Walter Model||XX Army Corps||R. von Roman||45th, 72nd, 137th, and 251st Infantry Divisions|
|XLVI Panzer Corps||H. Zorn||7th, 31st, 102nd, and 258th Infantry Divisions|
|XLI Panzer Corps||J. Harpe||18th Panzer Division; 86th and 292nd Infantry Divisions|
|XLVII Panzer Corps||J. Lemelsen||2nd, 9th, and 20th Panzer Divisions; 6th Infantry Division|
|XXIII Army Corps||J. Frießner||216th and 383rd Infantry Divisions; 78th Assault Division|
|Army Reserve||4th and 12th Panzer Divisions; 10th Panzergrenadier Division|
|2nd Panzer Army||Erich-Heinrich Clößner||XXXV Army Corps||L. Rendulic||34th, 56th, 262nd, and 299th Infantry Divisions|
|LIII Army Corps||F. Gollwitzer||208th, 211th, and 293rd Infantry Divisions; 25th Panzergrenadier Division|
|LV Army Corps||E. Jaschke||110th, 112th, 134th, 296th, and 339th Infantry Divisions|
|Army reserve||5th Panzer Division|
|Army Group Reserve||8th Panzer Division (joined 2nd Panzer Army on 12 July 1943)|
|Luftflotte 6||I Flieger Division|
|Order of battle: Army Group South (Field Marshal Erich von Manstein)|
|Army||Army Commander||Note||Corps||Corps Commander||Divisions|
|4th Panzer Army||Hermann Hoth||LII Army Corps||General E. Ott||57th, 255th, and 332nd Infantry Divisions|
|XLVIII Panzer Corps||O. von Knobelsdorff||3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions; 167th Infantry Division: Panzergrenadier Division Großdeutschland|
|II SS Panzer Corps||General P. Hausser||1st (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), 2nd (Das Reich), and the 3rd (Totenkopf) SS Panzergrenadier Divisions|
|Army Detachment Kempf||Werner Kempf||III Panzer Corps||H. Breith||6th, 7th, and 19th Panzer Divisions; 168th Infantry Division|
|Corps "Raus"||E. Raus||106th and 320th Infantry Divisions|
|XLII Army Corps||F. Mattenklot||39th, 161st, and 282nd Infantry Divisions|
|Army Group Reserve||XXIV Panzer Corps||W. Nehring||5th SS (Wiking) Panzergrenadier Division and the 17th Panzer Division|
|Luftflotte 4||VIII Fliegerkorps|
The Red Army used two Fronts, the equivalent of army groups, for the defence of Kursk, and created a third front behind the battle area which was held as a reserve. The Central and Voronezh Fronts fielded 12 armies, with 711,575 men (510,983 combat soldiers) and 625,591 men (446,236) respectively. In reserve, the Steppe Front had an additional 573,195 men (449,133). Total manpower available to the Soviets for the battle was 1,910,361 men (1,426,352).
|Order of battle: Central Front (Army General Konstantin Rokossovsky)|
|13th Army||Nikolai Puchov||17th Guards Rifle Corps||6th, 70th, and 75th Guards Rifle Divisions|
|18th Guards Rifle Corps||2nd, 3rd, and 4th Airborne Guards Rifle Divisions|
|15th Rifle Corps||8th, 74th, and 148th Rifle Divisions|
|29th Rifle Corps||15th, 81st, and 307th Rifle Divisions|
|48th Army||Prokofiy Romanenko||42nd Rifle Corps||16th, 202nd, 399th, 73rd, 137th, 143rd, and 170th Rifle Divisions|
|60th Army||Ivan Chernyakhovsky||24th Rifle Corps||42nd and 112th Rifle Divisions|
|30th Rifle Corps||121st, 141st, and 322nd Rifle Divisions|
|Independent Divisions||55th Rifle Division|
|65th Army||Pavel Batov||18th Rifle Corps||69th, 149th, and 246th Rifle Divisions|
|27th Rifle Corps||60th, 193rd, 181st, 194th, and 354th Rifle Divisions; 37th Guards Rifle Division|
|70th Army||Ivan Galanin||28th Rifle Corps||132nd, 211th, 102nd, 106th, 140th, 162nd, and 280th Rifle Divisions|
|2nd Tank Army||Alexei Rodin||3rd Tank Corps|
|16th Tank Corps|
|Front Assets (Independent Units)||9th Tank Corps|
|19th Tank Corps|
|16th Air Army||General Sergei Rudenko||3rd Bombing Air Corps|
|6th Fighter Air Corps|
|6th Mixed Air Corps|
|Order of battle: Voronezh Front (Army General Nikolai Vatutin)|
|6th Guards Army||Ivan Chistyakov||22nd Guards Rifle Corps||67th Guards Rifle Division, 71st Rifle Division and the 90th Guards Rifle Division|
|23rd Guards Rifle Corps||51st and 52nd Guards Rifle Divisions; 375th Rifle Division|
|Independent Divisions||89th Guards Rifle Division|
|7th Guards Army||Mikhail Shumilov||24th Guards Rifle Corps||15th, 36th, and 72nd Guards Rifle Divisions|
|25th Guards Rifle Corps||73rd, 78th, and 81st Guards Rifle Divisions|
|Independent Divisions||213th Rifle Division|
|38th Army||Nikandr Chibisov||50th Rifle Corps||167th, 232nd, and 340th Rifle Divisions|
|51st Rifle Corps||180th and 240th Rifle Divisions|
|Independent Divisions||204th Rifle Division|
|40th Army||Kirill Moskalenko||47th Rifle Corps||161st, 206th, and 237th Rifle Divisions|
|52nd Rifle Corps||100th, 219th, and 309th Rifle Divisions|
|Independent Divisions||184th Rifle Division|
|69th Army||Vasily Kryuchenkin||48th Rifle Corps||107th, 183rd, and 307th Rifle Divisions|
|49th Rifle Corps||111th and 270th Rifle Divisions|
|1st Guards Tank Army||Mikhail Katukov||6th Tank Corps|
|31st Tank Corps|
|3rd Mechanized Corps|
|Front Assets (Independent Units)||35th Guards Rifle Corps||92nd, 93rd, and 94th Guards Rifle Divisions|
|2nd Guards Tank Corps|
|3rd Guards Tank Corps|
|2nd Air Army||Stepan Krasovsky||1st Bombing Air Corps|
|1st Assault Air Corps|
|4th Fighter Air Corps|
|5th Fighter Air Corps|
|Elements of the 17th Air Army|
|Order of battle: Steppe Front (Ivan Konev)[lower-alpha 18]|
|5th Guards Army||Alexei Zhadov||32nd Guards Rifle Corps||13th and 66th Guards Rifle Divisions; 6th Airborne Guards Rifle Division|
|33rd Guards Rifle Corps||95th and 97th Guards Rifle Divisions; 9th Airborne Guards Rifle Division|
|Independent Divisions||42nd Guards Rifle Division and 10th Tank Corps|
|Independent 10th Tank Corps|
|5th Guards Tank Army||Pavel Rotmistrov||5th Guards Mechanized Corps|
|29th Tank Corps|
|5th Air Army||S. Gorunov||7th Mixed Air Corps|
|8th Mixed Air Corps|
|3rd Fighter Air Corps|
|7th Fighter Air Corps|
Comparison of strength
German offensive phase
|German offensive phase (Citadel)||Men||Tanks||Guns|
|Frieser[nc 1]||1,426,352||2.8:1||518,271||4,938[nc 2]||2:1||2,465||31,415||4:1||7,417|
Soviet offensive phase
|Soviet offensive phase||Men||Tanks||Guns|
|Frieser[nd 1]||1,987,463||3.2:1||625,271||8,200||3:1||2,699[nd 2]||47,416||5:1||9,467|
|Glantz[nd 3]||2,500,000||2.7:1||940,900||7,360[nd 4]||2.3:1||3,253|
Preliminary fighting started in the southern face of the salient on the evening of 4 July 1943, when German infantry forces launched attacks to seize high ground for artillery observation posts prior to the main assault scheduled for 5 July. Infantry from the XLVIII Panzer Corps stormed a number of Soviet command and observation posts positioned on the high ground of the first main belt of defence. By 16:00 on 4 July, elements of the Panzergrenadier Division "Großdeutschland", 11th and 3rd Panzer Divisions had seized the village of Butovo. They then stormed Gertsovka, which was secured before the first hour of 5 July. At around 22:30 on 4 July Vatutin ordered 600 guns, mortars, and katyushas of the Voronezh Front to bombard the forward German positions, particularly those of the II SS Panzer Corps.
To the north at Central Front headquarters, reports of the anticipated German offensive came in. At around 02:00 Zhukov ordered his preemptive artillery bombardment to begin. The hope was to catch the German forces concentrating for the attack, but the effect of the bombardment was less than hoped for. The bombardment delayed the German formations, but failed in the goal of disrupting the German schedule or inflicting substantial losses. The Germans began their own artillery bombardment at about 0500. This lasted 80 minutes in the northern sector and some 50 minutes in the south. After the barrage the ground forces jumped off, aided by the close air support of the Luftwaffe.
During the early morning the Red Air Force launched a large raid against the German airfields, hoping to catch the Luftwaffe on the ground. This effort failed, and the Soviets suffered considerable losses.[lower-alpha 19] The Red Air Force lost 176 aircraft in the attack to 26 aircraft lost by the Luftwaffe. The losses of the 16th Air Army were lighter than those suffered by the 2nd Air Army. Though the Luftwaffe was able to gain and maintain air superiority over the southern portion of the battle, the control of the skies over the northern face was evenly contested throughout. Over the course of the offensive, the Luffwaffe's chronic shortage of fuel, lubricants and spare parts began to hamper serviceability of their aircraft and limited their ability to fly sorties. In addition, the need to provide the ground forces with assistance in defeating strong points and knocking out Soviet artillery positions meant that missions could not be flown to attack Soviet airfields to help gain air superiority, giving the much more numerous Red Air Force the opportunity to have greater presence over the battlefield. The consequences of the greater numbers of Red Air Force aircraft over the Luftwaffe was enhanced by the fact that by mid-1943, the Luftwaffe no longer held as great a technical superiority as it once held over its adversary.
Operation along the northern face
Model's main attack was delivered by XLVII Panzer Corps, to which was also attached 45 Tigers of the 505 Heavy Tank Battalion. Covering the left flank of the main attacking corps was XLI Panzer Corps, to which was attached a regiment of 83 operational Ferdinand tank destroyers, and covering the right flank was XLVI Panzer Corps, which was only a panzer corps in name – consisting of four infantry divisions and just nine tanks and 31 assault guns. To the left of XLI Panzer Corps was XXIII Army Corps which consisted of a reinforced assault infantry division – the 78th – with two regular infantry divisions. The corps had no tanks, but it did have 62 assault guns. Therefore from west to east, the 9th Army's attacking force was positioned as follows: XLVI Panzer Corps, XLVII Panzer Corps, XLI Panzer Corps and XXIII Army Corps. Opposing the 9th Army was the Central Front, deployed in three main heavily fortified defensive belts.
Model had decided not to employ his armoured force at the start of the offensive in order to prevent it from being worn out while breaking the Soviet defences. Therefore his initial attack force, tasked with breaking the first line of defence was primarily infantry, working with artillery and Luftwaffe support. His plan was that once a breakthrough was achieved, the panzer divisions would used to exploit it on a drive south to Kursk. Jan Möschen, a major in Model's staff, later commented that Model expected a breakthrough on the second day, but that his corps commanders thought it would be extremely unlikely. Given Model's tactics of infantry first followed by the armour, even if a breakthrough did occur the briefest delay in bringing the panzer divisions up would give the Soviets time to react and plug the gap.
Following a preliminary bombardment the 9th Army opened its attack on the north face of the salient at 05:00. The attacking force comprised nine infantry divisions reinforced with assault guns and a regiment of Ferdinand tank destroyers. There were also two companies of Tiger tanks from the 505 Heavy Tank Battalion, and the 20th Panzer Division. Both companies of Tigers were attached to the 6th Infantry Division and were the largest single grouping of Tiger tanks employed that day. Defending in the path of the attack were the 70th and 13th Armies of the Central Front.
The 20th Panzer and 6th Infantry divisions, operating in close cooperation, spearheaded the advance of the XLVII Panzer Corps. Behind them the remaining two panzer divisions followed to exploit any breakthrough. The heavily mined terrain and fortified positions of the troops of the 15th Rifle Division slowed the attack down. At 08:00 safe lanes had been cleared through the minefield. That morning information from the intelligence staff of the attacking divisions, obtained via prisoner interrogation, had identified a weakness at the boundary of the 15th and 81st Rifle Divisions caused by the German preliminary bombardment. The Tigers struck towards the area. Their advance was countered by a Soviet counterattack of about 90 T-34s. In the resulting three-hour battle, the Soviets lost 42 tanks for the loss of two Tigers, with five more immobilized due to damage to their tracks. Although the counter-attack was defeated, resulting in the breach of the Soviet first defensive belt, but delayed the advancing panzer troops long enough for the rest of 29th Rifle Corps behind the first line to seal the breach. After a bloody engagement 6 to 8 miles (9.7 to 12.9 km) into the Soviet defences, the XLVII Panzer Corps was held up.
The 9th Army attacked on a 45-kilometre (28 mi) wide front, and soon found themselves delayed in the extensive minefields the Russians had laid. Engineer units were brought forward to clear paths through the fields, but were hampered by Russian fire. Goliath and Borgward IV remote-controlled engineer mine clearing vehicles were brought forward to clear lanes through the minefields, but met with limited success. Red Army units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying the German engineer teams clearing the mines manually. Losses amongst the engineers were high.
Of the 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion's 45 Ferdinands, all but 12 of them were immobilized by mine damage before 17:00 on 5 July. Most of these were later repaired and returned to service, but recovery of these very large vehicles was difficult. During the first day of the offensive, German units penetrated 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) into the Soviet lines, but suffered the loss of 1,287 killed and missing and 5,921 wounded.
The following day the Central Front under Rokossovsky launched a counterattack against the German XLVI Tank Corps. The Red Army attacked with the 2nd Tank Army and the XIX Tank Corps. The Soviet counterattack was stopped by the Tiger tanks of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, which knocked out 69 tanks from the 107th and 164th tank brigades. After the encounter with the German Tigers, Rokossovsky decided to dig in most of his remaining tanks to minimize their exposure.
The next two days of the attack saw heavy fighting around the strong point of Ponyri (on the Orel–Kursk railway), which was one of the most heavily fortified positions in the northern sector. Both sides saw this area as a vital point. The Soviets had placed 70 anti-tank guns per kilometre in this region. The German 86th and 292nd Infantry Divisions attacked Ponyri and captured the town after intense house-to-house fighting on 7 July. A Soviet counterattack forced a German withdrawal and a series of counterattacks ensued by both sides, with control of the town being exchanged many times. By the evening of 8 July the German units had secured most of the town. The Ferdinands were called into action to take Hill 253.5 and succeeded on 9 July. This attack developed into a battle of attrition, with heavy casualties on both sides. The historian John Keegan called Ponyri "the new Douaumont", a reference to Fort Douamount – a central part of the battle of Verdun in World War I. The German frontline units were exhausted, while the Soviets brought up their reserves.
Model paused to reorganize his units and renewed his attack with air support on 10 July, but the gains were small. Fresh Soviet formations had arrived to repel the German attacks and only limited penetrations were achieved. The diary of the 9th Army describes the heavy fighting as a "new type of mobile attrition battle".[lower-alpha 20] On 9 July a meeting was held at the command quarters of the XLVII Panzer Corps between von Kluge and Model. It was clear to both commanders that the Germans lacked the strength to obtain a breakthrough, but von Kluge wished to maintain the pressure on the Soviets in order to aide the German offensive to the south. He issued orders to cover continued assaults for 10 July. The Soviet defensive strongpoints were to be bypassed and the schwerpunkt was to shift to XLVI Panzer Corps. He also decided to use the uncommitted 12th Panzer Division, but both the German and the Soviet commanders realised that the die was cast.
On 12 July the Soviet's launched their counter-offensive upon the Orel salient, Operation Kutuzov. The attack threatened the flank and rear of Model's 9th Army. Two Fronts, the Bryansk Front and the Western Front commenced the attack along the thinly held north and northeast sectors of the salient, held by the 2nd Panzer Army. The Western Front assault was led by the 11th Guards Army under Lieutenant General Hovhannes Bagramyan, supported by the 1st and 5th Tank Corps. The Soviet spearheads sustained heavy casualties but pushed through, in some areas achieving significant penetration. The Soviet forces established a deep penetration, threatening not only the supply routes but the encirclement and destruction of 9th Army. With the threat of being cut off, the 9th Army was compelled to withdraw.
A review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration shows the success of the Red Army defensive tactics. While it began with a 45-kilometre-wide (28 mi) attack front on 5 July, the next day the German 9th Army's front was reduced to 40 km. This dropped to 15 km wide by 7 July and to only 2 km on 8–9 July. Each day, the depth of the German advance slowed: five km on the first day, four on the second, never more than two km on each succeeding day. By 10 July the advance of the 9th Army had been stopped.
Operation along the southern face
At around 04:00 the German attack commenced with a preliminary bombardment. Mainstein's main attack was delivered by Hoth's 4th Panzer Army. Manstein organized his attacking formations into densely concentrated spearheads. Opposing the 4th Panzer Army was the Soviet 6th Guards Army, which was composed of the 22nd Guards Rifle Corps and 23rd Guards Rifle Corps. The Soviets had constructed three heavily fortified defensive belts to slow and weaken the attacking armoured forces. Though they had been provided superb intelligence, the Voronezh Front headquarters had still not been able to pinpoint the exact location where the Germans would place their offensive weight.
The panzergrenadier division Grossdeutschland, commanded by Walter Hörnlein, was the strongest single division in the 4th Panzer Army. It was supported on its flanks by the 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions. Großdeutschland division's Panzer IIIs and IVs had been supplemented by a company of 15 Tigers, which were used to spearhead the attacks. At dawn on 5 July, the Grossdeutschland Division, backed by heavy artillery support, advanced on a two-mile front upon the 67th Guards Rifle Division of the 22nd Guards Rifle Corps. The Panzerfüsilier Regiment, advancing as the left wing of the division stalled in a minefield and 36 Panthers were immobilized. The stranded regiment was subjected to a barrage of Soviet anti-tank and artillery fire. Combat engineers were moved up and cleared paths through the minefield, but suffered casualties from the persisting Soviet artillery fire. Heavy casualties were sustained in the ensuing battle, including the commander of the Panzerfüsilier Regiment, Colonel Kassnitz. The Panzerfüsilier Regiment resumed its advance towards Gertsovka once safe paths were cleared through the minefields, but became bogged down again just south of the village by marshy ground surrounding the Berezovyy stream.
The panzergrenadier regiment of Großdeutschland, advancing on the right wing of the division, pushed through to the village of Butovo. Leading the way were the Tigers, which were employed in a classic arrow formation, with the lighter Panzer IIIs, Panzer IVs and assault guns fanning out to the rear. They were followed by infantry and combat engineers. Attempts by the Red Air Force to impede the advance of the XLVIII Panzer Corps were repulsed by the Luftwaffe. 
The 3rd Panzer Division, advancing on the left flank of Großdeutschland, made good progress and by the end of 5 July had taken Gertsovka and advanced past it to reach Mikhailovka. The 167th Infantry Division on the right flank of the 11th Panzer Division also made sufficient progress, advancing to the vicinity of Tirechnoe by the end of the day (5 July). By the end of the first day a wedge had been created in the first line of the Soviet defence.
II SS Panzer Corps
To the east, during the night of 4–5 July SS combat engineers had infiltrated no-man's land and cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields. At dawn the three divisions of II SS Panzer Corps – SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf – attacked the 6th Guards Army's 52nd Guards Rifle Division. The main assault of the corps was led by a panzerkeil headed by 42 Tigers; in total 494 tanks and assault guns attacked across a seven and half-mile front. The 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, the strongest of the three divisions, advanced towards Gremuchhi and screened the right flank . The 1st SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler on the left flank advanced towards Bykovka and in the center advanced the 2nd SS Panzer Division. The advance was well supported by the Luftwaffe, which greatly aided in breaking Soviet strong points and artillery positions. The infantry and combat engineer units followed the armoured spearhead closely, coming forward to demolish obstacles and clear trenches.
By 0900 hours on 5 July, the II SS Panzer Corps had advanced deep into the Soviet first line of defence along its entire front. While probing positions between the first and second Soviet defensive belts, at 1300 hours, the 2nd SS Panzer Division's vanguard came under fire from two T-34 tanks, which were quickly dispatched, but soon 40 more engaged the division. It was not long before a battle between units of the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 2nd SS Panzer Division was underway. The battle lasted four hours, ending with the withdrawal of the 1st Guards Tank Army. However, the battle bought time for units of the 23rd Soviet Guards Rifle Corps lodged in the Soviet second line to prepare itself and be reinforced with more anti-tank guns. By the early evening of 5 July, 2nd SS Panzer Division had reached the minefields that marked the outer perimeter of the Soviet second line of defence. The 1st SS Division, operating on the 2nd SS Panzer Division's left, had secured Bykovka at 1610 hours and pushed forward towards the second line of defence at Yakovlevo, but attempts to breakthrough were rebuffed. By the end of the day, the 1st SS Division had sustained 97 dead, 522 wounded, 17 missing and lost about 30 tanks. Together with the 2nd SS Panzer Division, it had forced a wedge far into the defences of the 6th Guards Army.
The 3rd SS Division, operating as the right flank of II SS Panzer Corps made very limited progress, which meant that the corps' developing penetration was precarious. The division managed to isolate the 155th Guards Regiment of the 52nd Guards Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps) from the rest of its parent division, but attempts to sweep the regiment eastward into the flank of the neighbouring 375th Rifle Division (of the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps), failed when the regiment was reinforced by the 96th Tank Brigade. The advance of the 3rd SS Division was impeded by a tributary of the Donets river. Hausser, the commander of II SS Panzer Corps, requested aid from the III Panzer Corps to his east, but III Panzer Corps was unable to assist as it was facing serious challenges of its own. By the end of 5 July, the 3rd SS Division's attainment was short of expectation, leaving the right flank of the 2nd SS Panzer Division exposed.
Army Detachment "Kempf"
Facing the Army Detachment "Kempf" was the 7th Guards Army, dug in on the high ground on the eastern bank of the Northern Donets. The III Panzer Corps and Corps "Raus" (commanded by Erhard Raus) (both of Army Detachment "Kempf"), were tasked with crossing the Northern Donets, smash through the 7th Guards Army and support the right flank of the 4th Panzer Army. The 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion – equipped with 45 Tigers – was also attached to the III Panzer Corps, split up so that one company of 15 Tigers was attached to each of the three panzer divisions of the III Panzer Corps. Although the river was bridged during the night of 4 July by combat engineers, the crossing points were targeted by the Soviet artillery during the preemptive bombardment.
At the Milkhailovka bridgehead just south of Belgorod, eight infantry battalions of the 6th Panzer Division (of the III Panzer Corps) assembled there were subjected to heavy artillery fire during the Soviet preliminary bombardment. Eventually most of the infantry got across to the eastern banks, but when a company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion began to cross the bridge in order to support the infantry, it too was targeted by Soviet artillery and the bridge was destroyed. Although some of the tanks of the company managed to get across, the rest of the 6th Panzer Division had to be redeployed southward to another crossing. Clemens Graf Kageneck, battalion commander, described it thus:
Suddenly, a red sunrise arose on the far side as hundreds of Stalin's organs hurled their rockets exactly onto the crossing site. The bridge was totally demolished and the engineers, unfortunately, suffered heavy losses. Never have I hugged the dirt so tightly as when these terrible shells sprayed their thin fragments just above the ground.
With the need for redeployment of 6th Panzer Division to another crossing, it became clear that the division was falling behind schedule. The predicament was further aggravated when it was reported to Walther von Hünersdorff, commander of the 6th Panzer Division, that the designated crossing was already clogged with traffic. Failing to find another crossing, the 6th remained on the western bank of the river on 5 July. Meanwhile, those units of the 6th Panzer Division that had succeeded in getting onto the eastern bank of the river through the original crossing launched an attack led by Tigers on Stary Gorod, but it stalled due to poorly cleared minefields and strong resistance.
To the south of the 6th Panzer Division, the 19th Panzer Division successfully crossed the river but was delayed by mines which damaged some of the Tigers spearheading the advance. The division later recovered and managed to advance to a depth of about five miles by the end of 5 July. Further south infantry and tanks of 7th Panzer Division managed to cross the bridges but the Tigers could not, due to their weight. Attempts were made to drive the Tigers across the river to relieve the infantry and lighter tanks that were already taking a tremendous pounding on the opposite bank, but that was unsuccessful due to their weight and the massive Soviet artillery bombardment. Eventually, combat engineers constructed bridges strong enough to take the Tigers across, where they relieved the beleaguered infantry. Despite a poor start, the 7th Panzer Division eventually broke into the first line of the Soviet defence and pushed on between Razumnoe and Krutoi Log, advancing about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) by the end of 5 July, which was the best achieved in Army Detachment "Kempf"'s sector for the day.
Operating to the south of 7th Panzer Division, were the two infantry divisions – 106th and 320th Infantry Divisions – of Corps "Raus". The two formations advanced across a 20-mile front, and devoid of tanks, apparently only made little progress. The advance began well with the successful crossing of the river and a swift advance against the 72nd Guards Rifle Division. The Soviet defenders were taken by surprise with the speed of the advance. Erhard Raus, later wrote:
The advancing infantry surprised them and had no difficulty ferreting them out. But when the infantry reached the two to three-mile deep zone of the battle positions prepared in the preceding months, they had to make extensive use of hand grenades in order to mop up [a] maze of densely dug-in trenches and bunkers, some of which were a dozen or more feet deep. At the same time, artillery and flak fired counter-battery missions against the enemy heavy weapons that had resumed fire from rear positions. They also fired on reserves infiltrating through the trench system, as well as against Russian medium artillery.
After a fierce battle involving some hand-to-hand fighting, Corps "Raus" took the village of Maslovo Pristani, punching a hole in the first Soviet line of defence. However, the lodgement was nearly lost when a Soviet counterattack supported by about 40 tanks crashed into the corps. The counterattack was eventually rebuffed with the assistance of artillery and flak batteries; however, having suffered about 2,000 casualties since the start of the offensive that morning and still facing considerable resistance, the corps could penetrate no further and therefore dug-in for the night of 5 July.
By the end of 5 July, Army Group South's attack against the Voronezh Front had penetrated the first defensive line of the Soviets. Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf had all broken through the Soviet first line of defence by 0900 and were driving to crack the second line. Some though, particular the divisions of Army Detachment Kempf, had barely breached the first line.Along the entire southern face of the salient, the German thrust had been slowed, allowing the Soviets time to prepare their second line of defence to meet the German attack on 6 July. The 7th Guards Army, which had soaked up the attack of III Panzer Corps and Corps "Raus", was reinforced with two rifle divisions from the reserve, the 15th Guards Rifle Division was also moved up to the second line of defence right in the path of III Panzer Corps. The 6th Guards Army, which had absorbed the attack by XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps, was reinforced with tanks from the 1st Tank Army, along with reinformcements from the 2nd Guards Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Corps. The 51st and 90th Guards Rifle Division were moved up to the vicinity of Pokrovka (not to be confused with Prokhorovka 25 miles to its northeast,) right in the path of the 1st SS Division. Behind them, the 93rd Guards Rifle Division was deployed along the road leading from Pokrovka to Prokhorovka.
The battle progresses
The steady progress of the German units forced the Soviet leaders to commit some of their strategic reserves, as nearly all operational reserves were in action. The Steppe Front had been formed in the months leading up to the operation as a central reserve. As early as 6 July, Stavka decided to send the 2nd and 10th Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army to the southern sector. A day later, other formations got their marching orders. Vatutin planned an operational counterstrike against the German units, but decided to cancel learning of the failure of the northern counterattack. Over Zhukov's objection, Vatutin ordered tanks to be dug in.
German officers reported being slowed by the "silent tanks" (Schweigepanzer) – tanks dug into fortified emplacements. Not all the Soviet tanks were dug-in, and a number of Soviet units launched counterattacks. On 7 July a German Tiger I commanded by SS Unterscharführer Franz Staudegger met a group of about 50 T-34s. In the ensuing battle, Staudegger knocked out 22 T-34s; he was the first Tiger commander to be awarded the Knight's Cross.
Though the German advance in the south was slower than they desired, it was much faster than what the Soviets had expected. The first German units reached the Psel River on 9 July. The next day the first infantry units crossed the river. Despite the deep defensive system and minefields, German tank losses were low. At this point Hoth turned the II SS Panzer Corps from a northward heading directed toward Oboyan to a northwest heading to drive upon Prokhorovka. The main concern of Manstein and Hauser was the inability of Army Detachment "Kempf" to advance and protect the eastern flank of the II SS Panzer Corps. On 11 July Army Detachment "Kempf" finally achieved a breakthrough. The 6th Panzer Division took a bridge over the Donets with a surprise night attack. Once across Breith made every effort to push troops and vehicles across the Donets for an advance on Prokhorovka from the south. A link up with the II SS Panzer Corps would result with the Soviet 69th Army becoming encircled. It appeared the hoped for breakthrough was at hand.
Hausser had expected to continue his advance on Prokhorovka, and late on the evening of 11 July had issued orders for a classic maneuver battle for the following day's attack. The attack would begin north of the Psel river with 3rd SS Panzer division driving northeast until reaching the Karteschewka-Prokhorovka road. Once there they were to strike southeast to attack the Soviet positions at Prokhorovka from the rear. 1st and 2nd SS Panzer divisions were to wait in readiness until Totenkopf's attack had destabilized the Russian positions at Prokhorovka. Once the Soviets at Prokhorovka were under attack from the rear by Totenkopf the Leibstandarte was to join in on the attack, advancing through the main Soviet defenses on the west slope before Prokhorovka. To Leibstandarte's right, the Das Reich division was to advance eastward to the high ground south of Prokhorovka, then turn south to roll up the Soviet line and open a gap. Unbeknownst to Hausser, on the night of 11/12 July Rotmistrov had moved his 5th Guards Tank Army up to an assembly area just below Prokhorovka in preparation for a massive armoured attack the following day. Throughout the night the German troopers could hear the ominous sounds of Russian tank engines to the east as the 18th and 29th Tank Corps moved into their assembly areas.
At 0615 the Russian artillery barrage began, and at 0630 Rotmistrov radioed to his tankers: "Steel, Steel, Steel!", the order to commence the attack. Down off the west slopes before Prokhorovka came the massed armour of five tank brigades from the two Soviet tank corps. They had been ordered to approach at high speed. Rotmistrov, fearing that German Tiger tanks made up a large component of his opponents forces, had instructed his tankers to move forward at speed to close range quickly, firing on the move in an attempt to obtain a flank or rear firing position on the German tanks. Firing while moving with the tanks of the day was highly inaccurate, particularly if the tank was moving at high speed. Soviet intelligence estimates fixed the number of German Tiger tanks in the Prokhorovka area at approximately one hundred. In actuality the three divisions of the II SS Panzer corps had fifteen Tiger tanks between them, with ten of those to the north of the Psel river with Totenkopf. Leibstandarte had only four Tigers operational, while Das Reich had but one.
Leibstandarte, which was to wait on Totenkopf's attack, was just getting started on the day and was taken completely by surprise. As the Russian tankers roared down the corridor they carried with them the 9th Parachute Division, who had the unenviable job of being carried into battle by holding onto rails on the tops of the tanks. At the base of Hill 252.2 was a Soviet dug anti-tank ditch. At the firing of purple warning flares all across the front the 1st SS Panzer Battalion's Rudolf von Ribbentrop stated he knew at once that a major attack was at hand. He ordered his company of seven Panzer IVs to start up and follow him over a pionere built bridge across the ditch and onto the lower slope of Hill 252.2. Above him Joachim Peiper's 2nd SS Panzergrenadiers and their armoured half-tracks on the crest of Hill 252.2 were being overrun. As Ribbentrop's tankers fanned out on the lower slope he looked up to the crest of the hillside. "In front of me appeared fifteen, then twenty, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there were too many of them to count. The T-34s were rolling toward us at speed, and carrying mounted infantry." The Soviet tankers charged down the west slope of Hill 252.2, firing as they went. A hotly contested tank battle ensued, and the Panzer IV to Ribbentrop's right was set ablaze. Soon the company was swamped by the seemingly endless number of Russian tanks coming down the hill. The advance of Soviet armour was held up when they reached the tank ditch at the base of the hill. Heavy firing went on between the Soviet armour and the other two companies of the 1st SS Panzer Battalion on the opposite side of the ditch, while the Russian tanks searched for a route across. Meanwhile, with the passage of the first waves of Russian tanks Peiper's surviving panzergrenadiers emerged from trench lines to engage the Soviet paratroopers and attack the Russian tanks with magnetic shaped charges. Twenty of the battalion's half-tracks were lost in the fighting, some destroyed when they attempted to ram the much heavier Russian tanks in an effort to stop them from destroying the company.
To the east the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf was engaged by the Soviet 33rd Guards Rifle Corps. Although the German formation held, it lost half of its armour in a prolonged engagement; although many of these losses were repairable. The Soviet 18th and 29th tank corps had been stopped by the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, while 2nd SS Panzer Division had held the line to the south against the 2nd Tank Corps and the 2nd Guards Tank Corps.
The 4th Panzer Army repulsed all attacks by the 5th Guards Tank Army on 12 July without losing any ground. By early afternoon it was clear that Rotmistrov's attack had failed. Luftwaffe air superiority over the battlefield contributed to the loss, partly due to the VVS being directed against the units flanking II SS Panzer Corps. Hs 129s and Ju 87s inflicted significant losses on the 5th Guards Tank Army. Although Soviet tank losses are not disclosed, a report from the 29th Tank Corps reported "heavy losses in tanks through enemy aircraft and artillery [attacks]. [...] due to continuous air attacks, they were unable to advance further and shifted to the defence". The Soviets fell back to their start positions.
The battle may best be described as a tactical defeat for the Red Army, which suffered heavy tank losses, but operationally a draw. Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzer Corps accomplished their objectives for the day. Though the Russian counterattack resulted in the Soviet's being thrown back onto the defensive, they did enough to stop a German breakthrough. Tank losses in the battle have been a contentious subject. Red Army losses have been given from 200 to 822 tanks, but the records show about 300 complete losses and as many damaged. German losses have been reported to be as low as 54. The Soviets claimed enormous German losses, with 400 tanks destroyed and 3,500 soldiers killed. Research suggests only about 500 deaths and much lower tank losses, with only a few completely destroyed and about 40–80 damaged. 1st SS Panzer and 2nd SS Panzer divisions specified 186 panzers, assault guns and panzerjaegers serviceable on the eve before the battle, and 190 available on 13 July.
Termination of Operation Citadel
On the evening of 12 July Hitler summoned his two Army Group Field Marshals, von Kluge and von Manstein, to his headquarters in East Prussia at Rastenburg. The Allied landings on Sicily 10 July and the implicit threats to Italy and southern France caused him to believe it was essential to move forces from the Kursk offensive to Italy. He stated he was forced to discontinue the offensive. Von Kluge welcomed the news as he was aware that the Soviets were initiating a massive offensive against his sector, but von Manstein was less welcoming. His forces had just spent a week fighting through a maze of defensive works and he believed they were on the verge of breaking through to more open terrain which would allow him to engage and destroy the Russian armoured reserves in a mobile battle. Said Manstein "On no account should we let go of the enemy until the mobile reserves he had committed were completely beaten." Hitler agreed to temporarily allow the continuence of the offensive in the south part of the salient, but the following day he ordered Manstein's reserve formation, the XXIV Panzer Corps, to move out of the sector to support the 1st Panzer Army to the south, thus removing the formation that Manstein had hoped to use to exploit the position.
On 16 July, German forces withdrew to their start line. The following day, on 17 July, OKH ordered the entire SS Panzer Corps to be withdrawn and transferred to Italy. The strength of the Soviet reserve formations had been greatly underestimated by the German intelligence. In early August the German forces were faced with Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, a major Soviet offensive against the German forces in the Belgorod–Kharkov area. Belgorod fell on 5 August, and on 23 August, Kharkov fell, despite fierce resistance from German forces.
Controversy over the termination of the operation
Hitler's decision to call off the operation at the height of the tactical battle has been strongly criticized by the German generals of the day, by more recent German officers in the Bundeswehr, and by a number of historians. The issue of needing forces in the west to respond to actions of the Western Allies was anticipated by Manstein and Guderian, and was a prominent part of their argument against the operation being undertaken in the first place. Manstein argued that transferring forces from Army Group South, taking away Luftwaffe support and transferring the reserve XXIV Panzer Corps to the 1st Panzer Army deprived 4th Panzer Army of its striking power just as it was reaching the decisive point in the battle. Whether the battle would have played out as Manstein hoped is hard to prove. Certainly the extent of Soviet material in reserve was far greater than Manstein realized at the time. These were used to re-equip the decimated 5th Guards Tank Army for Operation Rumyantsev, but such re-equipping would take a couple of weeks time. Regardless, Hitler's unwillingness to accept risk translated into his unwillingness to concentrate and commit all available forces and forbade his commanders from being able to fight a mobile battle as Manstein had done quite successfully just a few months before. Hitler's tight reign over the control of his military constrained the freedom of action of his commanders, and pushed his military into a battle of attrition which they had little chance of winning.
In the north: Operation Kutuzov
The Soviets had offensive operations of their own planned for the summer of 1943, one of which, Operation Kutusov, was launched on 12 July against the German forces (Army Group Centre) in the Orel salient north of Kursk. It kicked off before the German attack on Kursk had concluded. Two Soviet Fronts, the Bryansk Front under the command of Markian Popov and the Western Front commanded by Vasily Sokolovsky, attacked the eastern and northern faces of the Orel salient respectively, which was defended by the 2nd Panzer Army. The southern face of the salient was also attacked, and German forces were withdrawn from the Kursk offensive to meet Operation Kutuzov.
Operation Kutuzov was successful in diverting German reserves earmarked for Operation Citadel. The Soviets also reduced the Orel salient and inflicted substantial losses on the German army, setting the stage for the liberation of Smolensk. Although Soviet losses in the operation were heavy, they were better able to replace them. Operation Kutuzov allowed the Soviets to seize the strategic initiative, which they held through the remainder of the war.
In the south: Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev
Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev was intended as the main Soviet offensive for 1943. Its aim was to degrade the German 4th Panzer Army and cut off the extended southern portion of Army Group South. After the heavy losses sustained by the Voronezh Front during Operation Citadel, the Soviets needed time to regroup and refit, delaying the start of the offensive until 3 August. Diversionary attacks launched two weeks earlier across the Donets and Mius Rivers into the Donets Basin drew the attention of German reserves and thinned the defending forces in the path of the main blow. The offensive was initiated by the Voronezh Front and Steppe Fronts against the northern wing of Army Group South. They drove through the German positions and made broad, deep penetrations past their lines. By 5 August the Soviets had taken Belgorod, and by the 12th they had reached the outskirts of Kharkov. The advance was finally checked by a counter-attack on 12 August by the 2nd SS "Das Reich" and 3rd SS "Totenkopf" divisions. In the ensuing tank battles the Soviet armies were checked, suffering heavy losses in their armour. After this setback the Soviet troops focused on Kharkov and captured it after heavy fighting on 23 August. The battle is usually referred to as the Fourth Battle of Kharkov by the Germans and the Belgorod–Kharkov offensive operation by the Soviets.
The campaign was a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before achieving a breakthrough. The Germans, despite using more technologically advanced armour than in previous years, were unable to break through the in-depth Soviet defences, and were surprised by the significant operational reserves of the Red Army. This was an outcome that few had predicted, and it changed the pattern of operations on the Eastern Front. The victory had not been cheap; the Red Army, although preventing the Germans from achieving their goals, lost considerably more men and materiel than the Wehrmacht.
With the failure of Zitadelle we have suffered a decisive defeat. The armoured formations, reformed and re-equipped with so much effort, had lost heavily in both men and equipment and would now be unemployable for a long time to come. It was problematical whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern Front... Needless to say the Russians exploited their victory to the full. There were to be no more periods of quiet on the Eastern Front. From now on, the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative. — Heinz Guderian
From this point on the initiative had firmly passed to the Red Army. For the remainder of the war the German army was limited to reacting to Soviet advances, and were never able to regain the initiative. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting some of Germany's resources and attention. Both sides suffered great losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never regained the initiative after Kursk and never again launched a major offensive in the East.
Though the location, plan of attack and timing were determined by Hitler, he blamed the defeat on his General Staff. Unlike Stalin, who gave his commanding generals the liberty to make important command decisions, Hitler's interference in German military matters progressively increased, while his attention to the political aspects of the war decreased. By the end of the war he was attempting to make tactical decisions on battlefields of which he had no direct knowledge. The German Army went from loss to loss as Hitler attempted to stubbornly hold on to every inch of ground that had been captured, with little understanding of the benefits of a mobile defence, nor regard to the loss of life in his army. His attempts to manage the day-to-day operations were increasingly limiting as Germany's conflict expanded into a three-front war. The opposite was true for Stalin. Throughout the Kursk campaign he trusted the judgment of his commanders, and upon these plans justified on the battlefield he came to trust their military judgment more and more. He stepped back from operational planning, only rarely overruling military decisions. The Red Army gained more freedom of action and became more and more fluid as the war continued.
The casualties between the two combatant nations are difficult to determine, due to several factors. In regard to the German army, equipment losses were complicated by the fact that the German army had an aggressive tank recovery and repair program. Tanks knocked out one day from mine damage often appeared again a day or two later once the tracks or running gear had been repaired. Personnel losses are clouded by the loss of access to German unit records, which were seized by the victors following at the end of the war. Many of these records were taken to the United States national archives and not made available until 1978, while others were seized by the Soviets, who declined to even confirm their existence.
Grigoriy Krivosheyev, who based his figures on the Soviet archives, is considered by David Glantz as the most reliable source for Soviet casualty figures. Krivosheyev calculates total Soviet losses during the German offensive of Operation Citadel at 177,877 casualties. This is broken down from the three Soviet Fronts or army groups as follows: the Central Front suffered 15,336 of what the Soviet's termed irrecoverable casualties. It also lost 18,561 medical casualties for total casualties of 33,897 men. The Voronezh Front suffered 27,542 irrecoverable casualties and 46,350 medical casualties, for a total of 73,892, and the Steppe Front suffered 27,452 irrecoverable casualties with 42,606 medical casualties, for a total of 70,085.
For the Soviet counter-offensives, Soviet losses during Operation Kutuzov at 112,529 irrecoverable casualties and 317,361 medical casualties, for a total loss of 429,890 men. The Western Front reported the loss of 25,585 as irrecoverable casualties and 76,856 medical casualties. The Bryansk Front suffered 39,173 irrecoverable casualties and 123,234 medical casualties. The Central Front lost 47,771 irrecoverable casualties and 117,271 medical casualties. Soviet losses during Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev were 255,566 men, with 71,611 listed as irrecoverable casualties and 183,955 as medical casualties. Between the Fronts involved the casualties broke down as follows: the Voronezh Front lost 48,339 irrecoverable casualties and 108,954 medical casualties, for a total of 157,293. The Steppe Front lost 23,272 irrecoverable casualties and 75,001 medical casualties, for a total of 98,273. The total Soviet casualties for their two counter-offensives were 685,456 men.
Soviet materiel losses during the German offensive operations at Kursk amounted to 2,586 tanks and self-propelled guns. This represents over a 50% loss of the 3,925 vehicles committed to the battle, roughly seven times the number of German losses. Materiel losses during Operation Kutuzov totaled 2,349 tanks and self-propelled guns. This is out of an initial strength of 2,308, over 100 percent. The materiel losses in the Polkovodets Rumyantsev operation were also heavy. Krivosheyev's numbers of 1,864 tanks and self-propelled guns out of 2,439 engaged also reflect well over a 50 percent rate of loss. The loss ratio was roughly 5:1 in the Germans' favour.
Large reserves of equipment and the high rate of Soviet production enabled the Soviet tank armies to rapidly replace lost equipment and maintain their fighting strength. Frieser supports Krivosheyev's casualty figures for men and armour.
According to Christer Bergström, Red Air Force losses amounted to 677 aircraft on the northern flank and 439 on the southern flank of the bulge during the German offensive. Other unit casualties are uncertain. Bergström's research indicates total Soviet air losses between 12 July and 18 August during the German offensive and the Operation Kutuzov counteroffensive were 1,104.
German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser, who reviewed the German archive record, calculated that the Wehrmacht suffered 54,182 casualties in total during the German offensive of Operation Citadel. Of these 9,036 personnel were killed in action, another 1,960 were reported missing and 43,159 wounded. The German 9th Army (under the command of Army Group Centre) suffered 23,345 casualties while Army Group South suffered 30,837 casualties.
For the Soviet counter-offensives Frieser reports 86,064 German casualties, with 14,215 killed, 11,300 missing (presumed killed or captured), and 60,549 wounded during Operation Kutuzov. For Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev, Frieser states the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units suffered 25,068 casualties, including 8,933 killed and missing. Total casualties for the three battles were about 170,000 men.
In terms of equipment losses, Frieser reports the Wehrmacht lost 252 tanks and assault guns during the German offensive of Operation Citadel. Army Group South submitted losses of 161 tanks and 14 assault guns by 16 July. The 9th Army reported the loss of 41 tanks and 17 assault guns up to and including 14 July. Among these were 10 Tigers and 42 Panthers, as well as 19 Elefant heavy tank destroyers. Other losses included 109 Panzer IVs, 38 Panzer IIIs, three flame tanks and 31 assault guns.
As stated above, the number of tank losses for the German offensive of Operation Citadel and the Soviet counter offensives is difficult to establish. Frieser gives the number of 1,331 tanks destroyed for the entire Eastern Front for July and August, and estimates the number of tanks destroyed during the Battle of Kursk at 760.
Frieser reports German aircraft losses totalled 524 planes, with 159 lost during the German offensive of Operation Citadel, while 218 were destroyed during Operation Kutuzov and a further 147 during Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev.
Christer Bergström established similar numbers on review of the reports of the Generalquartiermeister der Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe reported losses of 681 aircraft lost or damaged from 5 to 31 July (335 for Fliegerkorps VIII and 346 for Luftflotte 6). Of this total 420 were written off; 192 from Fliegerkorps VIII and 229 from Luftflotte 6.
Analysis of Citadel
Analysis of northern assault
A number of factors explain the 9th Army's lack of progress, mainly the combination of Soviet defensive planning and German lack of concentration of force. German armour was committed piecemeal rather than in strength, and often without sufficient infantry support. Soviet defensive preparation was also a major factor. The Central Front under Marshal Rokossovsky had correctly anticipated the likely areas of German attack and had fortified those areas very heavily. The 13th Army, which bore the brunt of the German attack, was far stronger in men and anti-tank guns than the other Central Front units and held the strongest defensive positions in the salient.
Model's decision not to use his panzer divisions as a concentrated force can be seen as the most significant reason for the poor penetration of the northern pincer. His army did not have as many tanks as had been supplied to Manstein in the south, and Model was well aware of Soviet forces to the north that were preparing for an attack. As a result, he placed his most powerful corps, Gruppe "Esebeck" comprised of the 2nd Panzer Division and 10th Panzer Grenadier Division, in a reserve position behind the front to use as a "fire brigade" against a Soviet attacks upon his flank.
Analysis of southern assault
The German forces made steady progress, but, as in the north, attack frontage width and penetration depth dropped as the attack proceeded, though the trend was not as marked as in the north. A 30-kilometre-wide (19 mi) attack frontage on 5 July became 20 km (12 mi) wide by 7 July and 15 km (9.3 mi) by 9 July. The depth of penetration dropped from 9 km (5.6 mi) on 5 July to 5 km (3.1 mi) on 8 July and 2–3 km (1.2–1.9 mi) each day thereafter until the attack was cancelled.
Red Army minefields and artillery were successful in delaying the German attack and inflicting losses. The ability of dug-in Red Army units to delay the Germans allowed their own reserves to be brought up into threatened sectors. Over 90,000 additional mines were laid during the operations by small mobile groups of engineers, generally working at night immediately in front of the expected German attack areas. There were no large-scale captures of prisoners nor any great loss of artillery, indicating that Soviet units were giving ground in good order.
Military historian opinions
Historian Karl-Heinz Frieser points out these reasons for the failure of Operation Citadel:
- The Soviets had numerical superiority. Frieser points out that the biggest problem of the OKW was the shortage of infantry. The OKH had no operational reserve, while the Red Army could field an entire front (Steppe Front) as reserve. That the Red Army had more tanks than the Wehrmacht had less influence on the outcome, according to Frieser.
- Repeated delays by Hitler gave the Red Army enough time to turn the bulge around Kursk into an enormous fortress. Senior officers like Manstein and Zeitzler pushed for a fast attack to catch the Red Army unprepared and low on morale after the third battle of Kharkov. The overlap with the Allied invasion of Sicily made Hitler's date for the attack the "most adverse possible".
- The German defeat at Kursk did not come about by the "often-exaggerated numerical superiority" of the Soviet armed forces. The principal factor at Kursk was the revolution in Soviet command, staff, operational and tactical techniques. The General Staff had learned lessons from previous battles and disseminated "war experience" based on an "exhaustive" analysis of battles, operations and campaigns. These lessons were added to Soviet doctrine (Soviet deep battle), producing new procedures. Glantz and House have asserted the tank strength was almost even, between 1:1 and 1.5:1 in the Soviets' favour.
- The Soviets introduced new operational and tactical techniques, and had solved many of the problems of integrating arms and services into "a true combined arms operation". He emphasizes "sophisticated understanding of intelligence, deception, and anti-tank defence". Similar improvements were made in the combined use of artillery, tanks, engineers and infantry to break German defences on a narrow front. At Prokhorovka, and in the Kutuzov operations, the Red Army gained experience with mobile armoured formations and mechanized corps that became the hallmark of Soviet deep operations. These formations demonstrated their ability to match the best efforts of the German Panzer force. Operations still needed to be perfected to reduce huge casualties. Nevertheless, the German command recognized that at Kursk they faced an entirely new and more competent Red Army than in earlier battles.
- Defensive tactics had improved. Skilful use of anti-tank artillery in strong points and the use of separate tank brigades, tank regiments and self-propelled gun units to support them offered mobile defence support. These units participated in wearing down tactical attacks against enemy spearheads. The transitional year of 1943 was decisive for the Soviet war effort. Operational and tactical techniques tested and smoothed out in 1943; they would be refined further and perfected in 1944 and 1945. "The elementary education the Red Army received in 1941–42 gave way to the secondary education of 1943. In 1944 and 1945 the Soviets would accomplish university-level and graduate study in the conduct of war"
Military expert Steven Zaloga offers these insights about the Red Army at Kursk:
- The popular perception of Soviet victory "by numbers" was a myth created by German generals in their memoirs written in the 1950s. He rejects the caricature of the Red Army relying on mass rather than tactical skill, but accepts that at the tactical end (the platoon and company level), the Red Army was not particularly impressive and received significantly poorer training. Zaloga points out that there were still many tactical lessons to be learned, but by 1943 the gap between Soviet and German tank crew training had "narrowed greatly", and the Soviets were soon at a comparable level with the Germans.
- The Soviets, in terms of operational art, were adept at using mobile tank formations. Zaloga asserts that Soviet operational methods were superior, allowing Soviet field commanders to bluff, baffle and overwhelm their opponents.
Historian Richard Overy makes the following observations:
- The quality of the two air forces were even. The Soviets had introduced air-to-ground communications, radar, a proper maintenance system, and depots for forward fuel reserves. This allowed aircraft to fly twenty missions in the heat of the battle (while the Luftwaffe suffered shortages).
- The Soviet tanks were not inferior in quality. Although the T-34 model (with its 76 mm main gun) was out-ranged by the German Tiger I and the Panther, the T-34 was faster and more manoeuvrable than the Tiger, and the latter had too many mechanical difficulties at the Battle of Prokhorovka. To counter the Tiger tank, the Soviets used their tanks in a "hand-to-hand" combat role. Crews were ordered to close the distance so that range would not become an issue. According to Glantz and House, the Soviet tanks pressed home their initial attacks despite significant German advantages: the range of the German tanks' 88 mm gun, German air superiority and attacking a well-dug-in enemy in flat rolling terrain. Even so, the loss ratio was less than 2:1 – 320 German and 400 Soviet AFVs.
Sir Harry Hinsley, a World War II historian who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, has said:
- Information decrypted by Ultra was given to the Soviets, which helped them prepare for the offensive. The Soviets had a spy at Bletchley Park (John Cairncross), who was giving them decrypts of German military communications. Hinsley said that some speculate that without Ultra, Germany would have won at Kursk, and "Hitler could have carved up Russia". Ultra decrypts were also given to the Soviets concerning German plans for Stalingrad.
- "With the final destruction of German forces at Kharkov, the Battle of Kursk came to an end. Having won the strategic initiative, the Red Army advanced along a 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) front." Taylor & Kulish 1974, p. 171.
- "After Kursk, Germany could not even pretend to hold the strategic initiative in the East." Glantz & House 1995, p. 175.
- The breakdown as shown in Bergström (2007, pp. 127–128) is as follows: 1,030 aircraft of 2nd Air Army and 611 of 17th Air Army on the southern sector (Voronezh Front), and 1,151 on the northern sector (Central Front).Bergström 2007, p. 21.
- The breakdown as shown in Zetterling & Frankson (2000, p. 20) is as follows: 1,050 aircraft of 16th Air Army (Central Front), 881 of 2nd Air Army (Voronezh Front), 735 of 17th Air Army (only as a secondary support for Voronezh Front), 563 of the 5th Air Army (Steppe Front) and 320 of Long Range Bomber Command.
- Operation Citadel refers to the German offensive from 4 to 16 July, but Soviet losses are for the period of 5–23 July.
- The breakdown as shown in Frieser (2007, p. 154) is as follows: 9,063 KIA, 43,159 WIA and 1,960 MIA.
- The whole Battle of Kursk refers to the period of the German offensive (Operation Citadel) and the subsequent Soviet counteroffensives, from 4 July to 23 August.
- The breakdown as shown in Krivosheev (1997, pp. 132–134) is as follows: Kursk-defence: 177,847; Orel-counter: 429,890; Belgorod-counter: 255,566.
- The breakdown as shown in Krivosheev (1997, p. 262) is as follows: Kursk-defence; 1,614. Orel-counter; 2,586. Belgorod-counter; 1,864.
- Some military historians consider Operation Citadel, or at least the southern pincer, as envisioning a blitzkrieg attack or state it was intended as such. Some of the historians taking this view are: Lloyd Clark (Clark 2012, p. 187), Roger Moorhouse (Moorhouse 2011, p. 342), Mary Kathryn Barbier (Barbier 2002, p. 10), David Glantz (Glantz 1986, p. 24; Glantz & House 2004, pp. 63, 78, 149, 269, 272, 280), Jonathan House (Glantz & House 2004, pp. 63, 78, 149, 269, 272, 280), Hedley Paul Willmott (Willmott 1990, p. 300), and others. Also, Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson specifically considered only the southern pincer as a "classical blitzkrieg attack" (Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 137).
- Many of the German participants of Operation Citadel make no mention of blitzkrieg in their characterization of the operation. Several German officers and commanders involved in the operation wrote their account of the battle after the war, and some of these postwar accounts were collected by the U.S. Army. Some of these officers are: Theodor Busse (Newton 2002, pp. 3–27), Erhard Raus (Newton 2002, pp. 29–64), Friedrich Fangohr (Newton 2002, pp. 65–96), Peter von der Groeben (Newton 2002, pp. 97–144), Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin (Mellenthin 1956, pp. 212–234), Erich von Manstein (Manstein 1958, pp. 443–449), and others. Mellenthin stated: "The German command was committing exactly the same error as in the previous year. Then we attacked the city of Stalingrad, now we were to attack the fortress of Kursk. In both cases the German Army threw away all its advantages in mobile tactics, and met the Russians on ground of their own choosing." (Mellenthin 1956, p. 217) Some of the military historians that make no mention of blitzkrieg in their characterization of the operation are: Mark Healy (Healy 2008), George Nipe (Nipe 2010), Steven Newton (Newton 2002), Dieter Brand (Brand 2000), Bruno Kasdorf (Kasdorf 2000), and others.
- Guderian developed and advocated the strategy of concentrating armoured formations at the point of attack (schwerpunkt) and deep penetration. In "Achtung Panzer!" he described what he believed were essential elements for a successful panzer attack. He listed three elements: surprise, deployment in mass, and suitable terrain. Of these, surprise was by far the most important.Guderian 1937, p. 205
- "I urged him earnestly to give up the plan of attack. The great commitment certainly would not bring us equivalent gains."Guderian 1952, p. 308
- Source includes: German Nation Archive microfilm publication T78, Records of the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) Roll 343, Frames 6301178–180, which confirms Hitler's teleprinter messages to Rommel about reinforcing southern Italy with armoured forces that were already destined to be used for Citadel.
- According to Zetterling & Frankson (2000, p. 18) these figures are for 1 July 1943 and accounts for only units that eventually fought in Operation Citadel (4th Panzer Army, part of Army Detachment "Kempf", 2nd Army and 9th Army). The figure for German manpower refers to ration strength (which includes non-combatants and wounded soldiers still in medical installations). The figures for guns and mortars are estimates based on the strength and number of units slated for the operation; the figure for tanks and assault guns include those in workshops.
- Over 105,000 in April and as much as 300,000 in June, according to Zetterling & Frankson (2000, p. 22).
- Nikolai Litvin, a Soviet anti-tank gunner present at the battle of Kursk, recalls his experience during the special training to overcome tank phobia. "The tanks continued to advance closer and closer. Some comrades became frightened, leaped out of the trenches, and began to run away. The commander saw who was running and quickly forced them back into the trenches, making it sternly clear that they had to stay put. The tanks reached the trench line and, with a terrible roar, clattered overhead ... it was possible to conceal oneself in a trench from a tank, let it pass right over you, and remain alive." Litvin & Britton 2007, pp. 12–13.
- This order of battle does not show the complete composition of the Steppe Front. In addition to the units listed below, there are also the 4th Guards, 27th, 47th and 53rd Armies. Clark 2012, p. 204. Perhaps the order of battle below represents only the formations relevant to Operation Citadel.
- The air operation is misunderstood in most accounts. The German Freya radar stations at Belgorod and Kharkov in 1943 had only picked up Soviet air formations approaching Belgorod and were not responsible for the failure of the entire Soviet preemptive air strike on the eve of Operation Citadel. Bergström 2007, pp. 26–27.
- KTB AOK9 9 July (Daily war diary of the 9th Army). Frieser 2007, p. 110.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 338.
- Glantz & House 1995, p. 165.
- Bergström 2007, pp. 123–125. Figures are from German archives. Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv, Freiburg; Luftfahrtmuseum, Hannover-Laatzen; WASt Deutsche Dienststelle, Berlin.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 337.
- Bergström 2007, p. 127–128, figures are from Russian archives; Russian aviation trust; Russian Central Military Archive TsAMO, Podolsk; Russian State Military Archive RGVA, Moscow; Monino Air Force Museum, Moscow..
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 20.
- Frieser 2007, p. 154.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 276.
- Clark 2012, p. 408.
- Frieser 2007, p. [page needed]. A rough estimation by Frieser since no numbers are available
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 116, 117. For all participating German armies in the Kursk area, there were 203,000 casualties for July and August Cite error: Invalid
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- Frieser 2007, p. 201. Exact numbers are unknown; the entire German eastern front lost 1,331 tanks and assault guns for July and August, so the number of 760 is an estimate.
- Bergström 2008, p. 120. Figures for 5–31 July, as given by the Luftwaffe logistics staff (Generalquartiermeister der Luftwaffe). Cite error: Invalid
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- Krivosheev 2001, Kursk.
- Krivosheev 2001, Kursk equipment Cite error: Invalid
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- Frieser 2007, p. 150.
- Krivosheev 1997, pp. 132–134.
- Krivosheev 1997, p. 262.
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 1.
- Healy 2008, p. 90.
- Nipe 2010, p. 6.
- Healy 2008, p. 42.
- Healy 2008, p. 65.
- Newton 2002, p. 12.
- Dunn 1997, p. 94.
- Kasdorf 2000, p. 16.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 64–67.
- Glantz 1989, pp. 149–159.
- Glantz & House 1995, p. 167.
- Glantz 2013, p. 184.
- Glantz 1986, p. 66.
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 189.
- Healy 2010, p. 26.
- Healy 2010, p. 27.
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 210.
- Kasdorf 2000, p. 7.
- Clark 2012, p. 167.
- Clark 2012, p. 176.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 11.
- Kasdorf 2000, p. 8.
- Dunn 1997, p. 61.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 13.
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 198.
- Clark 2012, p. 177, according to Joseph Goebbels's diary..
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 63.
- Clark 2012, p. 177.
- Kasdorf 2000, p. 10.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 11, 13.
- Clark 2012, p. 178.
- Healy 2008, p. 43.
- Manstein 1983, p. 445.
- Manstein 1983, p. 446.
- Clark 2012, p. 184.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 14.
- Clark 2012, p. 186.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 354.
- Clark 2012, pp. 178, 186.
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 57.
- Clark 2012, p. 187.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 25.
- Newton 2002, p. 13.
- von Mellenthin 1956, p. 218.
- Clark 2012, pp. 194,196.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 51–53.
- Clark 2012, p. 197.
- Clark 2012, p. 194.
- Healy 2010, p. 79.
- Clark 2012, p. 193.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 1–3. Cite error: Invalid
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- Manstein 1983, pp. 480–482.
- Healy 2008, p. 83.
- von Mellenthin 1956, p. 216.
- Guderian 1952, p. 307.
- Zetterling & Frankson 2000, p. 10.
- Glantz 2013, p. 183.
- Clark 2012, p. 192.
- Barbier 2002, p. 39.
- Guderian 1952, p. 308.
- Healy 2010, p. 86.
- Clark 1966, p. 327.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 55.
- Kursk Press releases July 1943 — Retrieved 2 June 2013
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- Innovation News 2011.
- Copeland, Colossus.
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- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 28–29, mentions Nikolai Vatutin and Mikhail Malinin.
- Clark 2012, p. 189, mentions Stalin.
- "Разгром фашистских войск на Курской дуге". The defeat of the Nazi troops on the Kursk Bulge. http://militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/zhukov1/17.html. Retrieved 17 June 2013. "на первом этапе противник, собрав максимум своих сил, в том числе до 13–15 танковых дивизий, при поддержке большого количества авиации нанесёт удар своей орловско-кромской группировкой в обход Курска с северо-востока и белгородско-харьковской группировкой в обход Курска с юго-востока."
- Google Books preview – The memoirs of Marshal Zhukov. This is for the verification of the presented English translation of the original Russian text. 1971. http://books.google.ca/books?id=bcpBAAAAIAAJ&q=Belgorod-Kharkov#search_anchor. Retrieved 8 May 2013.
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- Clark 2012, p. 202.
- The Front's history.
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- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, pp. 41, 49.
- Glantz 1986, p. 19, Glantz states 1,500 anti-tank mines per kilometre and 1,700 anti-personnel mines per kilometre..
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 65, Glantz states there were 2,400 anti-tank and 2,700 anti-personnel mines per mile..
- Healy 1992, p. 31, Healy states there were 2,400 anti-tank and 2,700 anti-personnel mines per mile..
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 39.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 67.
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 290.
- Glantz 1986, p. 20.
- Glantz 1986, p. 24.
- Healy 2010, p. 74.
- Clark 2012, p. 208, Clark states 300 locomotives instead of 298..
- Barbier 2002, p. 58.
- Glantz & House 1995, p. 90.
- Clark 2012, p. 267.
- Healy 2008, p. 113.
- Clark 2012, p. 268.
- Clark 2012, p. 210.
- Gerwehr & Glenn 2000, p. 33.
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 241.
- Healy 2010, p. 78.
- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, p. 135.
- Healy 2010, p. 77.
- Clark 2012, p. 222.
- Healy 2008, p. 172.
- Clark 2012, p. 204, provides similar but more specific figures.
- Liddell Hart 1948, p. 192.
- Healy 2008, p. 104.
- Healy 2008, p. 103.
- Healy 2008, p. 105.
- Bergström 2007, pp. 79–81, 102, 106, 114, 118.
- Clark 2012, p. 196.
- Frieser 2007, p. 112.
- Clark 2012, p. 237.
- Healy 1992, p. 41.
- Healy 2008, p. 201.
- Nipe 2010, p. 143.
- Healy 2008, p. 205.
- Clark 2012, pp. 475–477, The 2nd Panzer Army and 2nd Army are not included in the order of battle in the source. The 2nd Panzer Army did not take part in Operation Citadel, but played a significant part in Operation Kutuzov. The 2nd Army was tasked with pushing the western face of the salient once the encirclement was completed, but never got do so since the northern and southern pincers failed to meet at Kursk..
- Clark 2012, pp. 475–477.
- Clark 2012, pp. 478–484.
- Frieser 2007, p. 100.
- Frieser 2007, p. 91.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 346.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 345.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 81.
- Barbier 2002, p. 59.
- Clark 2012, p. 224.
- Clark 2012, p. 226.
- Clark 1966, p. 329.
- Newton 2002, p. 77.
- Clark 2012, pp. 227, 233.
- Glantz & House 2004, pp. 84–86.
- Clark 2012, p. 236.
- Clark 2012, pp. 236, 263.
- Clark 2012, p. 281.
- Clark 2012, p. 201.
- Clark 2012, p. 195.
- Clark 2012, p. 261.
- Clark 2012, p. 264.
- Clark 2012, p. 308-309.
- Clark 2012, p. 265.
- Clark 2012, p. 266.
- Clark 2012, pp. 120, 266.
- Münch 1997, pp. 50–52.
- Frieser 2007, p. 108.
- Glantz & House 2004, p. 93.
- Rokossovsky, p. 266.
- Piekalkiewice, Unternehmen Zitadelle, p. 154.
- Keegan 2006, p. 72.
- Healy 2008, p. 286.
- Healy 2008, p. 287.
- Rendulic, Die Schlacht von Orel, p. 134.
- Frieser 2007, p. 185.
- Frieser 2007, p. 111.
- Overy 1995, p. 205.
- Overy 1995, pp. 204–205.
- Overy 1995, p. 204.
- Clark 2012, p. 238.
- Clark 2012, p. 240.
- Clark 2012, p. 242.
- Clark 2012, p. 241.
- Clark 2012, p. 68.
- Clark 2012, p. 246.
- Clark 2012, p. 247.
- Clark 2012, p. 248.
- Clark 2012, pp. 308–309.
- Clark 2012, p. 250.
- Clark 2012, pp. 252–253.
- Clark 2012, p. 254.
- Clark 2012, p. 255.
- Clark 2012, p. 256.
- Clark 2012, p. 257.
- Clark 2012, p. 258.
- Clark 2012, p. 259.
- Clark 2012, p. 260.
- Healy 2008, p. 210.
- Healy 2008, p. 216.
- Glantz House, p. 102.
- Frieser 2007, p. 116.
- Wendt p.18
- Geheime Kommandosache
- Healy 2008, pp. 301-302.
- Newton 2002, p. 7.
- Nipe 2010, p. 311.
- Nipe 2010, p. 324.
- Nipe 2010, p. 310.
- Nipe 2010, p. 276.
- Bergström 2007, p. 77.
- Brand 2003, p. 8.
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- Brand 2003, p. 7.
- Brand 2003, p. 9.
- Nipe 2010, p. 320.
- Nipe 2010, p. 321.
- Nipe 2010, p. 322.
- Nipe 2010, p. 341.
- Newton 2002, p. 24.
- Brand 2003, p. 11.
- Bergström 2007, pp. 79–80.
- Brand 2003, p. 12.
- Brand 2003, p. 1.
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- Brand 2003, p. 14.
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- Healy 2008, p. 354.
- Healy 2008, p. 355.
- Clark 1966, pp. 337–338.
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- Manstein 1983, p. 504.
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- Engelmann, Zitadelle p. 5.
- Manstein & 1983 p.449.
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- Glantz & Orenstein 1999, pp. 276–277.
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- Frieser 2007, pp. 150, 200, and the pages onward.
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