Field Marshal Erich von Manstein with Tiger I Tanks
The victories at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus initially encouraged the Soviet High Command to plan a major offensive on a front extending from north of Smolensk to the Black Sea. But the price of success had been high. The Germans, against expectations, had come back strong and added a new high card to their order of battle in the SS Panzer Corps. The second front long promised by the western Allies still consisted of promises and substitutes. Significant evidence indicates Stalin seriously considered the prospects of a separate peace with Hitler, or with a successor government willing to respond. Tentative contacts, most of them indirect, began in Sweden during the spring of 1943 and continued for most of the year.
By any rational calculation, the Reich’s short-term prospects of total victory in Russia were close to zero. The concluding volume of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweiten Weltkrieg summarizes a project begun thirty years ago by suggesting that without Hitler’s iron determination, Germany would probably have been ready to conclude peace in 1943. But by that time the National Socialist Führer State had so far eroded the principal institutions of state, Wehrmacht, and party, that neither institutional nor personal forums for discussing the issue existed. No one but Hitler was responsible for the whole. No one—above all no one in the military—was willing to risk considering the whole and acting on the results. Like many a plan before it, Operation Citadel would take on a pseudolife of its own.
Postwar historians in general have followed the generals’ memoirs in blaming Kursk on Adolf Hitler. He is indicted, tried, and convicted first for refusing to accept the professionals’ recommendations and shift to an operational defensive, temporarily trading space for time while making good the losses of the winter campaign, allowing the Red Army to extend itself in a renewed offensive, then using the refitted panzer divisions to “backhand” it a second time. Once having accepted the concept of an offensive, Hitler is described as first delaying it while the Russians reinforced the sector, then abandoning it when, against the odds, the generals and the Landser were on the point of once more pulling the Reich’s chestnuts from the fire.
Reality, as might be expected, is a good deal more complex. Hitler badly needed a major victory to impress his wavering allies—perhaps even to convince Turkey to join the war. And his argument that south Russia’s resources were significant for sustaining Germany’s war effort could not be simply dismissed. The army high command, moreover, was not precisely of one mind on the issue. Guderian, restored to power and favor, argued against any major offensive during 1943 in favor of rebuilding a panzer force stretched to the limits by the fighting at the turn of the year. Wait until 1944, he urged, then strike with full-strength panzer divisions built around Panthers and Tigers, with increased numbers of half-tracks and assault guns and a mobile reserve strong enough to hold any second front the British and Americans could open.
For his part, Manstein believed Guderian took no account of time. His often-cited advocacy of an elastic defense taking full advantage of German officers’ mastery of mobile warfare and German soldiers’ fighting power has gained credibility with hindsight. But the concept was barely articulated in early 1943. To the extent that it existed, it was Manstein’s brain child, tested over no more than a few months, for practical purposes unfamiliar even in the panzer force. Experience would show that elastic defense was by no means a panacea. Its success depended on an obliging enemy—and the Red Army of 1943 was anything but obliging.
Manstein himself saw elastic defense in the existing strategic contest as essentially a temporary expedient, to wear down Soviet forces and prepare for a grander design. Manstein initially intended a combined general offensive by his Army Group South and Army Group Center against a hundred-mile bulge around the city of Kursk, driven into the German lines during the winter fighting. A double penetration would cut off Soviet forces in this Kursk salient, and draw Soviet reserves in that sector onto the German anvil in the fashion of 1941. With Kursk eliminated and the German front shortened by 150 miles, reserves could more readily be deployed for future operations against the Soviet flanks and rear.
Manstein described this ambitious operation as a “forehand stroke” that must be made quickly, while the Germans could take advantage of the dry season and before Soviet material power grew overwhelming and the Western allies could establish themselves on the continent. It was correspondingly disconcerting when Kluge’s Army Group Center replied that it lacked the resources to participate in the kind of assault he projected. Paradoxically, that refusal made Manstein’s commitment to the Kursk operation even firmer. He considered it a high-risk window of opportunity that must be seized even with limited resources.
Army Chief of Staff Kurt Zeitzler was also attracted by the prospects of eliminating the Kursk salient, albeit for less ambitious reasons than his subordinate. He considered weakening the Russians in the southern sector and shortening the front quite enough to be going on with.
By default the generals’ debate kicked the decision upstairs, to Hitler. On March 9 his Operations Order No. 5 provided for a spring offensive with the purpose of denying the Russians the initiative. After a couple of false starts, it became the basis for Operation Citadel, whose scope was defined in an order of April 15. The opening paragraph of Operations Order No. 6 spoke of “decisive significance . . . a signal to all the world.” In sharp contrast to the far-reaching objectives set in 1941 and 1942, however, the operational geography was so limited it requires a small-scale regional map to follow. That did not make Kursk a limited offensive. Success offered a chance to damage the Red Army sufficiently so as to at least stabilize the Eastern front and perhaps develop a temporary political solution to a militarily unwinnable war.
The operation was militarily promising. Strategically even a limited success would remove a major threat to German flanks in the sector and limit prospects for a Soviet breakout of the Dnieper. The experiences of Operations Barbarossa and Blue indicated that the Germans won their victories at the start of campaigns and ran down as they grew overextended. Citadel’s relatively modest objectives seemed insurance against that risk. This time, forward units would not be ranging far beyond the front in a race to nowhere in particular. There were no economic temptations like in the Ukraine in 1941 or the Caucasus in 1942. Kursk would be a straightforward soldiers’ battle. As for what would come next, sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. It was a line of thinking—perhaps a line of feeling—uncomfortably reminiscent of Ludendorff ’s approach to the great offensive of March 1918: punch a hole and see what happens.
Kursk seemed to be the kind of prepared offensive that had frustrated the Soviets from division to theater levels for eighteen months. Geographically, the sector was small enough to enable concentrating overstretched Luftwaffe assets on scales unseen since 1941. Logistically, the objectives were well within reach. Operationally, the double envelopment of a salient was a textbook exercise. Tactically, from company to corps, the panzer commanders were skilled and confident. For the first time since Barbarossa they would have tanks to match Soviet quality.
But would there be enough of them—indeed, enough armor of any kind? As had been the case throughout the war, the tip of the upside-down pyramid was the panzer arm. By the end of the winter fighting, the eighteen panzer divisions on the Russian Front had a combined strength of only around 600 serviceable tanks. The shortages of trucks and other supporting vehicles were even greater. Refreshing the divisions in situ meant fresh demands on men already bone tired.
Friedrich von Mellenthin, widely accepted as a final authority on panzer operations, declared the “hardened and experienced” panzer divisions to be ready for another battle once the ground dried. But Mellenthin was a staff officer, a bit removed from the sharp end. Some divisions of his own XLVIII Panzer Corps were down to fewer than two dozen tanks apiece. Fourth Panzer Army’s old pro Hermann Hoth informed Manstein on March 21 that men who had been fighting day and night for months now expected a chance to rest. Even hard-charging company and battalion commanders were reporting widespread apathy.
Operations Order No. 6 emphasized speed. But Army Group South reported that its panzers could not be ready for battle until the first half of May. Army Group Center complained that partisan attacks and air strikes were seriously delaying rail movements. Walther Model, whose 9th Army would carry the weight of the northern arm of the proposed pincers, insisted postponement was necessary. Perhaps even that aggressive general had lost faith in the operation’s prospects. Certainly he was well aware of the overall weakness of Army Group Center’s front. Shifting its resources southward invited a repetition of Rzhev, where the Soviets had come far too close to a victory under similar conditions.
Hitler was having his own second thoughts. He postponed the attack until May 9, partly with the intention of bringing as many Panthers and Tigers on line as possible. When the overworked assembly lines failed to deliver, Hitler postponed the attack again, then again, and finally set the date for July 5. The delay was later widely criticized among the soldiers. Some of this was reflex; “ask of me anything but time” was a military axiom long before Napoleon aphorized it. Some was second-guessing, typically expressed by Mellenthin’s assertion that the Russian position at Kursk was vulnerable in May. It might indeed have been—to the kind of attack the Germans delivered in July. The postponements enabled doubling Citadel’s strength, bringing the order of battle to a quarter million men and over 2,500 armored fighting vehicles for a 60-mile front. The postponements enabled refitting the panzer divisions, bringing them to near full strength of 150 or so tanks. Approximately 150 Tigers and 200 Panthers were included in the inventory—most of them concentrated in a few units.
The panzers would be sporting new coats. After over eighteen months, higher headquarters had become officially aware that the dark gray with which the armored force had gone to war was poor camouflage in the greens and browns of rural Russia. The new scheme authorized in January 1943 was a base color of dark yellow, with crews at liberty to apply olive green and red brown mottling to suit specific conditions. As spring broke out, would-be artists employed spray guns and brushes.
Eighteen hundred aircraft, two-thirds of the Luftwaffe strength in Russia, were available to support the operation—a number enhanced by the high quality of the air and ground crews compared to a Red Air Force still learning its craft. The now-legendary Stuka would make its last appearance in a dive-bomber role and its first as a tank-buster with two 37mm cannon mounted below the wings. The Stukas were joined by five ground-attack squadrons equipped with Fw 190s, and by five more squadrons of specialized antitank aircraft: the Henschel Hs 129, whose twin engines, heavy armor, and 30mm cannon made it the ancestor of the US Air Force’s well- known A-10 Thunderbolt, and no less formidable in action.
Delaying the attack also gave the old hands in the panzer divisions the breathing space they so badly needed. It gave them time to welcome returned wounded, to integrate replacements, to learn the individual characteristics of the Panzer IIIs and IVs most of them were still riding. It gave them opportunity to experience a buildup like few had ever seen. Reactions, even among the old hands, oddly resembled those widespread in the BEF in the weeks before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There was just too much of everything for anything to go seriously wrong.
The catch-22 was that the Red Army had been steadily countering the German buildup with one of its own—one whose scale escaped both German intelligence and German reconnaissance. Its strategic matrix, as mentioned above, was offensive. Its operational intention was to break the Germans and advance to the line of the Dnieper. And tactically it would begin on the defensive—by design. Intelligence sources, including Western-supplied ULTRA information, and common sense alike indicated the Germans would attack rather than wait to be overrun. And this time there was only one sector of the entire front offering anything like a favorable opportunity. The question was not “where” but “whether” the offensive could be stopped.
Preparation began in mid-April to make Kursk a fortress and a killing ground. The salient was configured as a combination of battalion defensive sectors, antitank strong points, barbed wire, and minefields. The forward belt alone included 350 battalion positions, each a network of mutually supporting trenches and bunkers. There were seven more of them, with a depth extending over 100 miles. Minefields averaged over 2,500 mines per mile. These active and passive defenses were structured to steer the panzers against antitank strong points largely built around combinations of antitank rifles and light 45mm guns. Both were long obsolescent and correspondingly expendable. Both were useful only at point-blank ranges. Both were proof of Stavka’s commitment to replicating Stalingrad in the steppe.
Manning the fixed defenses were some of the best infantry of the revitalized Red Army, including a number of Guard divisions who had earned the honorific the hard way. Supporting them was a mass of artillery, heavy mortars, and rocket launchers—close to 20,000 barrels, many organized in complete divisions, working with calibrated ranges. Behind the salient, the sword to the shield was a striking force under Ivan Konev, who would finish the war second to none in the Red Army as a master of operational art. His Steppe Front included over 4,000 tanks commanded by some of the best of a new generation of Soviet armor generals: M. E. Katukov of 1st Tank Army, A. G. Rodin of 2nd, and a dozen others forgotten to history but familiar enough to the Germans.
Overall responsibility in the northern sector rested with Central Front’s Konstantin Rokossovsky. Polish born, he had spent three years in the Gulag during the Great Purge. Released in 1940, his lost teeth replaced by the best Soviet metal, he showed his own mettle from Moscow to Stalingrad. Facing off against Manstein, Voronezh Front’s N. F. Vatutin had demonstrated his capacity for high command since the start of the war. A leader from the front, respected by his subordinates and his soldiers, Vatutin was a risk-taker who appreciated staff work: an uncommon but welcome combination in the Red Army.
No less significant was the synergy between the geographic scale of Kursk and the Red Army’s command and control methods and capacities. Since Barbarossa, those had developed in contexts of top-down battle management, reflecting both the Soviet principle that war is a science and the fact that Soviet commanders at all levels were essentially the product of experience. At this stage of the war, and arguably much later, senior Soviet officers resembled their counterparts in the armies of Napoleon: both lost effectiveness when operating independently. Previous German offensives had found no difficulty in getting inside Soviet decision loops, generating increasingly random responses that frequently collapsed into chaos. Kursk’s small scale enabled timely response to German moves as the defense slowed the German pace. It also enabled a level of management absent in previous major battles, cresting in turn a confidence at all levels of headquarters that a culture of competence had replaced a culture of improvisation from desperation.
Those were significant force multipliers, in a situation arguably not needing them. It is a familiar axiom of modern war, expressed mathematically in something called the Lanchester equations, that an offensive requires three-to-one superiority. Soviet doctrine reduced that to 3:2, assuming superior planning, staff work, and fighting power. By the time the preparations for Kursk were complete, the Soviet defenders outnumbered the attackers in every category of men and equipment, in almost every sector. The average ratio was somewhere between 1:1.5 and 1:2.5. On paper the outcome seemed assured. But wars are won in the field, and the panzers had made a habit of defying odds.
Given the respective rates of buildup, it seems reasonable that an attack mounted by the forces available in April or May would have lacked the combat power to overcome the salient’s defenses even in their early stages. The Germans’ only chance was the steel-headed sledgehammer they eventually swung in July. And that highlights the essential paradox of Kursk. The factors that made the battle zone acceptable in operational terms also made it too small to allow for the application of the force multipliers the panzers had spent a decade cultivating. Geographically Kursk offered no opportunity for operational skill and little for tactical virtuosity. Militarily the strength of the defensive system meant the German offensive had to depend on momentum sustained by mass—which is another way to describe a battle of attrition, the one type of combat the German way of war was structured to avoid.
Hitler’s panzers thus faced a second paradox. Not only were they the tip of an inverted strategic pyramid, operationally and tactically they were required to match the Red Army’s strengths at the expense of their own. And once the fighting started, a third paradox developed. One of the tactical advantages initially considered in planning Kursk was that the limited geography would enable the infantry to remain close to the armor and assume responsibility for mopping up. But the Reich’s systemic and increasing shortages of replacements favored giving priority to the panzers—army and SS alike. The advantage was often marginal: Leibstandarte’s ranks were in part refilled by unceremoniously transferred Luftwaffe ground crews. But infantry divisions already chronically understaffed were in the process of being reduced to six battalions instead of the original nine.
The resulting formations were easier to handle. New weapons like the MG 42 enhanced their firepower. But they lacked staying power when pitted against defenses like those of Kursk. As a consequence the panzers were increasingly constrained to use their own resources—tanks as well as panzer grenadiers—to secure the ground they captured at the expense of sustaining offensive momentum.
On the right half of the German pincer, Army Group South deployed Hoth and 4th Panzer Army on its right. With six army panzer divisions and the SS Panzer Corps, plus an independent regiment including all 200 available Panthers, this was the largest armored force ever previously put under a single commander. Its mission was correspondingly straightforward. Screened on his left by the three panzer divisions of Army Detachment Kempf ’s III Panzer Corps. Hoth was to break through and join forces with Army Group Center’s 9th Army attacking from the north. Model had another six panzer divisions, one of panzer grenadiers, and seven infantry divisions which he proposed to use to open the way for his mobile forces. Sixty miles separated Model and Hoth. It would be the longest distance in the history of Hitler’s panzers.
“It’s time to write the last will and testament!” one SS trooper wrote in his diary while awaiting the order to advance. Across the line Soviet soldiers swapped their own grim jokes—like the one about the tanker who reported almost everyone in his unit had been killed that day. “I’m sorry,” he concluded, “I’ll make sure I burn tomorrow.”