Whatever the means that secured them, the improvements in Soviet Intelligence enabled Stavka’s planning for the summer to proceed more or less in parallel with the German. However, the planners were soon confronted by the disconcerting discovery that the new German Tiger I heavy tank was far superior to their prized KVs and T-34s because of its thicker armour, superior binocular sights and much longer-range and greater-calibre 88mm gun. Tempting fate, the Germans in late 1942 had sent a small pre-production batch of the new Henschel Tiger Is to the Leningrad front, where one became bogged in marshland and was captured. However, the Red Army’s tank and artillery specialists were preoccupied at that time with the situation around Stalingrad, so the encounter then attracted little attention. In December a battalion of Tigers was included in Hoth’s force that attempted to lift the siege of Stalingrad, then in early April 1943 some damaged Tigers were captured near Belgorod.
Tests conducted on 25–30 April, using various calibre anti-tank, field, tank and anti-aircraft guns, showed that armour-piercing shells from the 76.2mm F-34 gun then standard on the T-34-76 and KV-1 could not pierce even the side armour of a Tiger at more than 200 metres, while the Tiger’s 88mm shells could penetrate 110mm of armour at up to 2 kilo metres (1.25 miles). The thickest frontal armour on Soviet tanks was 100mm on the KV1 and 45–60mm on the T-34-76; therefore all would be vulnerable for the time it took them to get within killing distance of a Tiger. Even if they could cover the 1.8 kilometres (about 1.1 miles) at full speed, it would take them over two minutes; a Tiger could fire several rounds in that time, with a good prospect that one of them would score a direct hit.
Nor was the Tiger the only threat to Soviet tanks. The Ferdinand assault gun had an even more powerful 88mm gun than the Tiger, and thicker frontal armour, while the new medium Mark V Panther tank and newer examples of the older Mark IV mounted a long-barrelled 75mm gun, shells from which could penetrate the frontal armour of a KV at 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) and of a T-34 at 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). In addition the late G and H models of the Mark IV had been fitted with extra sheets of armour-plate at the front and over the tracks, and even many of the obsolescent Mk III tanks had been retrofitted with a long-barrelled 50mm gun, shells from which could also penetrate the armour of a T-34 at over a kilometre. Furthermore, the Zeiss binocular sights fitted in the new and up-gunned older tanks ensured more accurate fire than Soviet tank crews could achieve.
The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.
Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.
Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.
Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.
Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.
On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.
Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’
The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.
Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.
While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.
Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, 824 in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.
Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.
As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions, each including a battalion of 45 Tigers, that the elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.
Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.
The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.
German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943
As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.
For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.
Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.
Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front, but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.
The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.