Soldiers of the Waffen-SS Division “Das Reich” advance alongside a Panzer VI (Tiger I) tank at Kursk in Operation Citadel.
As Hitler reviewed Germany’s position in April 1943, the picture was not very bright. Wartime-related economic problems had begun to create discontent in Germany. In addition to Stalingrad, German forces had suffered defeat in North Africa at the hands of the British and the Americans, and Germany was losing the fight to maintain its success against the Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean. Neither Turkey nor Japan seemed willing or able to join the war against the Soviet Union, and allies such as Italy and Romania began to investigate -ways to abandon the apparently sinking ship. The war’s momentum appeared to be shifting to the enemy. In Hitler’s mind, losing the initiative on the Eastern Front would cause irreparable political damage.
The losses suffered in the 1942-1943 campaign, however, limited the Fuhrer’s options. The German High Command (OKH) realised that it could not mount a major strategic offensive on the Eastern Front. That did not mean, however, that it should abandon the idea of a summer offensive. Manstein and other commanders believed that, at the end of the winter campaign, the Germans had a slight advantage over the Soviets, and it was an advantage that should be exploited as soon as the rasputiza ended in late April or early May. As the German military staff studied a map of the front, a particular part of the line – the Kursk salient – looked increasingly attractive as a site for a limited offensive. The salient was 250km (155 miles) wide and 160km (100 miles) deep. Not only would the elimination of the salient shorten the front line by 250km (155 miles), but it would also release 18-20 Germans divisions for other operations elsewhere in the East or on some other front. The new Chief of the Army High Command, Colonel General Kurt Zeitzler, suggested an attack on the salient. If the Germans attacked the bulge at the shoulders, they could wipe out a large number of Soviet soldiers in a large battle of annihilation without becoming overextended. German troops could conceivably destory two Soviet fronts while opening a large hole in the line. The more the military leaders considered the possibilities offered by an offensive at Kursk, the more attractive it became. A victory at Kursk would open the door to the Caucasus and provide both natural resources and prestige, which would demonstrate to the world that Germany was still strong.
The planning for the summer offensive actually began in March. By the middle of the month, the leaders of the OKH issued Operations Order 5, in which they explained the basic premise behind the proposed offensive, which they named Operation Citadel. In devising the plan, the German High Command had to take a number of factors into consideration. First, the Soviets would be making their own plans for a summer offensive: the Germans had to strike before the Soviets were ready to attack. Therefore, Manstein advised launching their assault as soon as the rasputiza ended in late April or early May. Secondly, by attacking as soon as the spring thaw had ended, the Germans would have the added advantage of building on the momentum that they had begun to establish when they had pushed the Soviets to the east and recaptured Kharkov in March. Finally, army leaders had to take into account the manpower and equipment shortages that existed as a result of the campaigns of the previous two years. The battle of Stalingrad had caused losses that the Germans had not yet been able to replace. Therefore, the OKH recommended a plan that entailed troops holding most of the line while the armies in ACS delivered limited but powerful attacks. The proposed Operation Citadel offered the perfect option.
Although he accepted the OKH’s advice about an offensive against the Kursk bulge, Hitler did not immediately abandon the idea of a more extensive summer campaign. He entertained a series of operations, such as Habicht and Panther, that called for attacks designed to eliminate the Soviet presence in the industrial area of the River Donetz. Hitler eventually rejected these plans, as he decided that they would hinder the pursuit of Operation Citadel. He did, however, recognise the possibility of using Habicht and Panther for deceptive purposes to increase the chances of success at Kursk.
The principal strategic mission of Operation Citadel was the destruction of the Red Army’s large force in the Kursk region. Once the Red Army had been destroyed, the German Army could then turn to the north and advance on Moscow from the south. One German army would concentrate its forces around Orel to the north of Kursk and attack southwards, and a second force would amass near Belgorod and move north against the Soviet forces positioned south of Kursk. When the two forces met, they “would have effectively cut off Soviet troops in the Kursk salient. To accomplish this, the German armies -would deliver powerful, concentric blows from the Orel and Belgorod regions. In doing so, they would eliminate enemy forces along the line of the River Oskol and further north. Following the destruction of the Soviets within the salient, the Germans would bring up fresh reserves, turn to the north-east and surround Moscow from the south and south-east, in conjunction with an attack on the city from the west.
According to the plan, Army Group Centre (AGC) and Army Group South (AGS) were to assemble their panzer forces on the flanks of the bulge by mid- April. As soon as rasputiza ended, they would launch a two-pronged assault to close off the bulge. Operations Order 6, issued on 15 April, informed the commanders of the armies implementing Citadel to be ready to launch the offensive on six days’ notice, any time after 28 April. According to the order, the army groups involved had to complete their preparations in time to launch the offensive by the end of the month. The earliest date on which Citadel could begin was 3 May.
Once the German High Command had a plan, they had to make preparations. One of the most important aspects of the preparations was rebuilding the ground forces. The armies on the Eastern Front, however, needed more than manpower. They had suffered losses in tanks, vehicles, weapons, equipment and ammunition: the materials essential for waging war. None of these materials was easy to replace. As much as possible, the armies utilised captured weapons and equipment, but they were insufficient to replace the losses. In addition, using captured vehicles and equipment created the problem of finding replacement parts. Solving the supply problem fell to Albert Speer. With Hitler’s ultimate decision to bring total war to Germany, Speer received the job of implementing it in industry. Speer’s solution was to redirect industry to war production. In other words, Speer, as a representative of the government, demanded that factories produce larger quantities of the materials needed to pursue the war.
Government pressure resulted in the rise of production levels. German factories manufactured more than twice as many tanks and assault guns than they had produced a year earlier. The monthly production of rifles and machine pistols increased by almost 50 per cent, while that of machine guns and artillery pieces doubled. Along with increased production, industry felt the pressure to produce better tanks, artillery pieces and weapons of all types. Under Speer’s direction, industry rose to the challenge. In 1943, soldiers fighting at Kursk had the MG42, a new light machine-gun that was better than any they had previously used. They also had the benefit of heavier anti-tank guns. Two new tanks — the Tiger and the Panther – rolled off the assembly lines and onto the battlefields in 1943. The Germans used the heavier Tiger tanks to form special battalions that were designed to lead attacks. Tigers, which had heavy armour and 88mm (3.46in) guns, performed well against the Soviet tanks. The Panther tank began to replace the older Mark IV models as the foundation of the panzer divisions. Its 75mm (2.95in) gun gave the Panther the ability to destroy other tanks. In addition to the Tiger and the Panther, the Germans utilised two other tanks at Kursk: the Panzer III and the Panzer IV. While the Panzer III was equipped with a 50mm (1.97in) anti-tank gun, the Panzer IV had a high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) gun. Both types of tanks had proven themselves on the battlefield. The Germans also produced various assault guns, such as 105mm (4.13in) Wespe (Wasp) and 150mm (5.90in) Hummel (Bumblebee) howitzers, which provided support for the infantry during the offensive. Another new weapon was the 88mm (3.45in) armed Ferdinand (or Elefant) tank destroyer, -which was to prove ineffective. However, although German factories produced more than they had in previous years, they still could not manufacture enough to replace obsolete weapons and battlefield casualties, and the better quality weapons had to be used in conjunction with older ones. Despite the improvements in weaponry and firepower, the Germans could not match what the Soviets brought to the battle, particularly in terms of tanks and artillery.
During the period January to March 1943, German casualties on the Eastern Front numbered 689,260, while only 370,700 soldiers joined the forces on the front line. The leaders of the OKH, who began to address the problem as early as January 1943, realised that replacements from Germany alone could not solve the problem, particularly if they hoped to launch another offensive in the summer. They straightened out the front by eliminating several small salients. The troops that held these areas received orders to transfer to the south. Furthermore, the OKH revised its treatment of training companies. After receiving only eight weeks of preparation, the training companies joined training battalions for an additional eight weeks of instruction. These battalions then joined reserve divisions and helped to maintain order in occupied territories while they continued their preparations for front-line duty. German divisions situated in the West received orders transferring them to the East. Many of the divisions that had been sent to France for rest and rehabilitation returned to the Eastern Front. Between December 1942 and June 1943, Hitler removed all but one combat-ready division from France; he sent the rest to the Soviet Union. In addition, the divisions that remained in France underwent changes. The Wehrmacht sent older conscripts to France to replace the younger men, who were reassigned to divisions on the Eastern Front.
The mainstay of the German defensive force was the infantry, while the panzer forces held the offensive power in the German Army. However, both the infantry and the panzer forces needed men and supplies. The infantry frequently replaced the panzer and motorised divisions on the front line while these formations “were refitted with men, weapons and equipment. By May 1943, the Wehrmacht’s efforts to resolve its manpower problems resulted in the availability of 9.5 million men for all fronts. Consequently, the Wehrmacht would reorganise and rehabilitate its depleted forces. Despite the Wehrmacht’s efforts, however, many of the divisions participating in the summer offensive at Kursk remained under-strength. Many contained only six battalions, instead of the intended nine.
Several factors prevented the divisions from regaining their full strength. The high rate of casualties suffered by German armies in the spring of 1943 greatly exceeded the amount of reserves available to replace them. Instead of agreeing to combine divisions to increase their strength, Hitler dictated the creation of new divisions. The number of divisions available for battle remained more important to the Führer than their quality or combat strength. Consequently, the Wehrmacht had to find other ways, such as reorganisation, to enhance the capabilities of the divisions on the Eastern Front.
As the reorganisation progressed and the OKH prepared for Operation Citadel, the Germans fortified airfields and elevated positions on the Eastern Front, including those at Orel, Belgorod, Kharkov, Briansk, and Poltava. According to the OKH plan, Army Group Centre (AGO would be responsible for the attack against the northern part of the Kursk bulge. Under Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s direction, the AGC would concentrate 2nd Panzer Army, commanded by Colonel General Rudolf Schmidt, and 9th Army, by Colonel General Walter Model, near Orel, north of the bulge. These forces would be opposite the Soviets’ Western, Briansk and Central fronts. The 2nd Panzer Army, which included the LV, LIII and XXXV Army Corps, would establish a defensive position along the Kirov-Zmievka Front. The three corps of the 2nd Panzer Army each contained at least four infantry divisions, and the LIII Army Corps one panzergrenadier division.
The 9th Army consisted of five corps: the XXIII and XX Army Corps and the XXXXI, XXXXVI and XXXXVII Panzer Corps. Only one of the two infantry divisions in the XXIII Army Corps was at full strength with nine battalions. Three of the four divisions in the XXXXI and XXXXVI Panzer Corps were infantry divisions. The two corps had only one panzer division each. Unlike the other panzer corps, the XXXXVII Panzer Corps consisted of three panzer divisions. The 9th Army had 1450 tanks and assault guns to be utilised for the offensive. In addition, the Supreme High Command held 90 Ferdinand assault guns and 150 Tiger tanks in reserve.