WAS KURSK DECISIVE?

Germany clearly suffered a crushing defeat at Kursk. The Wehrmacht did not destroy sizeable enemy forces and didn’t eliminate STAVKA’s intention to conduct a major offensive in 1943. Neither did the German Army achieve freedom of action nor consolidate their line. Germany had also used up much of its reserves. But was Kursk a decisive defeat or just another step in a series of defeats suffered by the Wehrmacht? To adequately address this, we must look at a number of strategic issues. These include attrition and replacement rates of men and armor, intelligence, ability of each side to focus their effort and political issues.

There is some speculation about German losses at Kursk being a decisive factor to the final outcome of the war. Total German losses at Kursk “were 56,827 men, which amounted to roughly 3 percent of the total 1,601,454 men the Germans lost in Russia during 1943”. The ability to reform the units suffering these losses was the real problem: “The armored 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”. Colonel General Heinz Guderian goes on to write: “It was problematic whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern front”. It is difficult to argue with the fact that the attrition of German forces and consequently, the loss of an available strategic reserve allowed the Soviets to quickly capitalize and overwhelm the German at specific points following Kursk.

Another often discussed reason that Germany was unable to defeat the Red Army was the incredible Russian capacity to generate forces, albeit poorly trained, but in this case quantity made up for what it lacked in quality. The Red Army, although often clumsy and awkward, had one thing going for it: nearly inexhaustible manpower. It “took the form of successive waves of newly mobilized armies, each taking its toll of the invaders before shattering and being replaced by the next wave. Its mobilization capability saved the Soviet Union from destruction in 1941 and again in 1942”.

As efficient a killing machine the Wehrmacht was, even it had its limits to the men and machines it could destroy—one would be hard pressed to find a better example of attrition on a massive scale. It is important to point out, however, that even with the amazing capacity for the Soviets to generate man and machine in huge numbers, the assumption that the Wehrmacht would lose to a battle of attrition was not a foregone conclusion. The effectiveness of the Wehrmacht at destroying Soviet forces had not dropped off significantly in 1943. The German army continued to destroy Russian armor and men at an alarming rate. Even in 1943, this rate was disproportionate to Germany’s own losses by a wide margin. Zetterling and Frankson show total German losses for 1943 at 1,803,755 (1,442,654 in combat) versus Russian losses for the same period at 7,857,503. Additionally this source shows Wehrmacht tank and assault gun losses on all fronts to be 8,067 in 1943 while the Red Army lost 23,500. Meanwhile, replacement numbers for tanks and assault guns were 10,747 for the Germans and 24,006 for the Russians. Although these figures do not reflect Lend-Lease equipment delivered to the Red Army, they still offer a strong argument that attrition and replacement numbers alone did not give the Russians a decisive advantage in the war. In fact, according to Zetterling and Frankson, attrition rates favored Germany: “it was the Red Army which could be expected to run out of men first”. This attrition argument, however, is only valid if the Germans, like the Soviets, could focus all their resources on the Eastern Front.

The Wehrmacht had other demands on their military resources. The Wehrmacht’s would increasingly need to dilute their limited forces over a several fronts, while the Russians could continue to focus their entire effort against the Wehrmacht. This was because Stalin was able to ignore Japan as a threat. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its ensuing war with the United States “eased Soviet concerns over her eastern borders and permitted wholesale shifting of reserves from the Far East, Trans-Baikal, and Siberia to help relieve the military crisis at Moscow”. Also “The Red Orchestra”, or Soviet Intelligence had ascertained through Richard Sorge (code named Ramzaia) that Japan had no intention of attacking Russia.

The factors working against Hitler’s Germany were multiple. To point to a battle such as Kursk as the decisive action in the war ignores many other factors, some of which are enumerated above. Yes, the German offensive at Kursk wore down the German ability to respond to the Soviet counteroffensive and consequently accelerated the Wehrmacht’s destruction on the Eastern Front, but this in itself is not decisive. Webster’s Dictionary defines “decisive” as “having the power or quality of determining”. In this light, we must look at two other fateful events on the Eastern Front: the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow in December of 1941, and the fateful siege of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in 1942. If any one of these clashes could be ruled as decisive, it would probably be Stalingrad, because after Stalingrad, German victory over the Soviets was highly improbable. It follows then that in the spring of 1943, Germany’s fate was already sealed. After Kursk, we see a cascade of crushing defeats of the Wehrmacht from which it never recovered. In this context, however, we can say that the Battle of Kursk was pivotal, defined as “of critical importance”, because it marked a clear turning point where the Germans lost the strategic initiative and the Soviets gained it.

Although in the summer of 1943, the German High Command had no real chance of turning the tide against the Soviets, it clearly had options that in large part could have altered the course and severity of their defeat. The prospect of a major “offensive on the scale of 1941 and 1942” was now a lost dream. There were three courses of action available to Hitler: (1) go on a localized offensive while the remainder of the front employed a static defense; (2) conduct a static defense along the entire front; or (3) employ a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense.

The first option, and the one chosen by Hitler and which we have discussed in some detail was to go on the offensive in powerful localized attacks while the remainder of the front maintained a static defense. Manstein put it this way: “in dealing the enemy powerful blows of a localized character which would sap his strength to a decisive degree”. As we have noted, this approach was very risky at best and thus had unrealistic expectations of success. The result has been recorded in the annals of history.

The second option would have been a static defense along the entire front. However, to defend a 2,000-kilometer front with limited forces would have been a monumental undertaking. The idea of a static defense along the entire front was not realistic. There were simply not enough German divisions to do this effectively.

The third option would be to employ a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense. If successful this could bleed the Russians to the point where they could be amenable to a negotiated stalemate or at the least severely frustrate and delay the attacking Red Army. This option will now be discussed in some detail.

General Gunther Blumentritt, Deputy Chief of Staff under Chief of Staff Franz Halder describes the concept of “delaying action battle” where: “There are strategic and tactical situations, in which it can be shown that the battle, in the total sense, should be conducted neither offensively nor defensively but primarily in a ‘delaying manner’ “. In a situation where opposing forces are pressing a weakened front “it is logical to order this front to conduct operations in a delaying manner and thereby to avoid exposing themselves to defeat or to heavy losses” and in order to preserve the army’s strength “they should be led to a secure and well consolidated position”. The concept of “delaying action battle” is not unlike the Soviet concept of elastic defense previously discussed where as defensive lines are overrun by attacking forces the defending forces merely withdrawal to prepared defensive lines behind the first. This action attrites the attacking forces while preserving the combat capability of the defending force. Blumentritt explains “two suppositions have to be made”. One, a compelling leader willing to accept responsibility and two, a high command that will permit such freedom of action. Blumentritt goes on to state that the German High Command from 1939-1945 did not permit such flexible actions.

The idea of a strategic line of defense was considered a way to secure the Eastern Front as the balance-of-forces were more and more in favor of Russia. General Olbricht, Chief of the General Army Office, submitted a proposal in January 1942 advocating “immediate construction of a strategic defense line in the East, utilizing extensively the manpower of the replacement army”. This 2,000 kilometer “deeply echeloned defense line” would consist of reinforced positions primarily along the Dniepr River. Olbricht’s proposal required 250,000 men and 100 days to complete. These men would not be front line troops but supplemental labor and soldiers that weren’t fit for frontline combat duty. Hitler forbade such preparations in a letter written around the end of March 1942: “our eyes are always fixed forward,” Hitler had said. Olbricht had also been told that Hitler believed the frontline troops would be tempted to withdraw to such a line. Olbricht later had said of the letter: “a historical document that may once be very important to us”. Arguably, such a line of defense would have delayed the Russian advance significantly and reduced the immense suffering incurred by the German people in the hands of a vengeful Red Army.

Major offensives along the scale of 1941 & 1942 were no longer tenable due to the loss of major German formations. However, the idea of limited offensive actions at critical times and places to hinder and frustrate the efforts of the Russians were not only possible but probably the most efficient use of limited forces to confound Russian offensive efforts and the best way to slow the Russian advance or even to force a stalemate. The best way to time these offensive actions was to strike where the Red Army was most vulnerable: at the culmination of an offensive attack and then “to hit them hard on the backhand at the first opportunity”.

A stalemate was certainly entertained by some Generals such as Manstein. The attrition rates of the Russians even in 1943 were incredible. It’s not unreasonable to assume after two long years of horrible losses that the Russians would have considered such a prospect if the German attack at Kursk was successful. However, the feasibility of a negotiated ceasefire or peace is difficult to ascertain. It is doubtful that this was a real possibility, especially after the Allies decision, in 1942, to force the Third Reich into unconditional surrender. Additionally, after all the suffering the Wehrmacht inflicted on Russia and her people, wasn’t Stalin bent on pounding the Germans back into Berlin?

Such ideas were all for naught in 1943 or any other time during the Russian campaign. Hitler’s “refusal to accept that elasticity of operations which, in the conditions obtaining from 1943 onwards, could be achieved only by a voluntary, if temporary surrender of conquered territory”, showed his lack of appreciation for such operations. “A ‘Fanal’ or beacon to the world of German resolve” maybe a sound strategic goal, but no longer consistent with military reality. Trying to reconcile the reality of the battlefield with this lofty strategic goal was not sound reasoning. Finally, Hitler’s repeated rejection of a mobile defense and a strategic line of defense simply because he didn’t want to give up any ground had no relevance to sound military strategy.

After Stalingrad, it became apparent that the Wehrmacht would probably not achieve decisive victory over the Red Army. In light of this, the Wehrmacht should not have dedicated so many of its precious and limited forces to an attack that had only a limited chance of success. The war was taking its toll on the Wehrmacht; from 22 June 1941 – 1 July 1943 the German Army had lost 3,950,000 men on all fronts. Germany was running out of options. They had succeeded in angering the most powerful nations in the world into a total war footing aimed at smashing the Third Reich into unconditional surrender. The United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain and all the resources these nations could muster proved to be too overwhelming; even for the Wehrmacht, arguably one of the most well trained, equipped and disciplined armies that the world has ever seen. Hitler’s attempt to make the Kursk offensive a “shining beacon” of German resolve, a lofty strategic goal, was unattainable on the battlefields of the Eastern Front in 1943. The best the Wehrmacht could have hoped for in the summer of 1943 was to delay the advance of the massive Red Army and reduce the impact of Germany’s defeat. This would have been best achieved by a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense. It is apparent that Hitler would have none of this sound strategic reasoning.

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