The direct aspect of that development began on July 11. It involved a still-overlooked operation that is arguably better evidence of the Red Army’s progress than the so frequently cited battle to the south. When all is said and done, Kursk, seen from a Russian perspective, was a traditional Russian battle. Echoing Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, Friedland and Borodino, it was a test of endurance intended to enable the Red Army to begin setting the pace. Operation Kutuzov, the assault on the German-held salient that began on July 12, was something fundamentally different.
The German and the Russian ways of war approached operational art from opposite directions. The Prussian/German army had developed its version of operational art as a response to the constraining of campaign-level tactics in an age of mass armies. The Russians came to it through a developing understanding of how Russia’s vast spaces could complement the metastasizing armies made possible by industrialization and bureaucratization. Large forces executing major attacks on a broad front, cavalry masses breaking deep into an enemy’s rear, field armies coordinating offensives over hundreds of miles—all were integrated into theory and practice between the Crimean War and the Revolution of 1917. The Red Army had added the concepts of deep battle, and had evaluated the use of mechanized forces to exploit initial breakthroughs and the value of consecutive operations: coordinated attacks all across a front that might cover the Soviet Union from Murmansk to the Caucasus, mounted in such quick succession that the enemy had time neither to recover nor to shift reserves from place to place.
Predictably, each of these concepts had their turns in the barrel and their time in the sun. The political infighting of the 1920s and the purges of the 1930s further complicated internal, professional disputes on force configuration and strategic planning. Operation Barbarossa caught the Red Army in the midst of a complex reconfiguration with many contradictory aspects. What David Glantz aptly calls its rebirth was a two-year process. But one thing that remained consistent was Stavka’s—and Stalin’s—commitment to consecutive operations. From the winter 1941 counteroffensive to the Stalingrad campaign, the USSR’s ultimate goal was on a grand strategic level: a series of timed, coordinated offensives that would turn Russia into the Wehrmacht’s graveyard.
The problem lay in implementation on the operational level: communications, logistics, coordination. To date, the Soviets’ greatest offensive successes had been achieved with assistance from the weather. Snow and cold, mud and rain, had been as important as the new generations of generals and weapons. At Kursk, the Red Army had demonstrated it could match the Germans in high summer when standing on the defensive. Now for the first time it would show that it could implement consecutive offensive operations when the days were long and the sun quickly dried storm-saturated ground.
Preparations for Kutuzov were overseen and coordinated by Zhukov, and by another Stavka representative: Marshal Nikolai Voronov, chief of artillery—the latter assignment an indication of the tactics to be employed. As at Kursk, the operation involved two fronts. On the left, General Vasily Sokolovsky deployed the Eleventh Guards and Fiftieth Armies in the front line, with 1st and 5th Tank Corps in support: more than 200,000 men and 750 AFVs. On the right-hand sector, General Markian Popov’s Bryansk Front had, from left to right, the Sixty-first, Third, and Sixty-third Armies, supported by two tank and a rifle corps—170,000 men and 350 AFVs.
The plan was for Popov’s Third and Sixty-third Armies to hit the front of the salient, with the Sixty-first Army conducting a supporting diversion on the right. Sokolovsky would go in where the northern bulge began, break through, and extend east toward Orel, coordinating as the situation developed first with the Bryansk Front and then with Rokossovsky’s Southwestern Front, which on July 15—at least in theory—would attack north out of its positions around Kursk. Behind the Western Front, as a second-wave exploitation force, Stavka concentrated the Eleventh Army and Fourth Tank Army, the latter with another 650 armored vehicles.
The senior command teams were solid. The tables of organization were complete. The men were relatively rested. The sector had been quiet for months, and the front commanders applied maskirovka comprehensively to keep Army Group Center unaware of what was concentrating against it. At the operational and tactical levels, arguably the major German advantage was flexibility: the ability to respond to Soviet initiative by organizing ad hoc blocking forces that on paper and on the ground seemed fragile but that time and again had proven all too capable of delaying or derailing the Red Army’s best-planned initiatives.
Timing was even more critical than surprise. Rokossovsky had to bleed and fix Model’s Ninth Army at Kursk to a point where it could not redeploy in time to do any good. But if Kutuzov jumped off too late, even by a day or two, the Germans might be willing to write off Citadel, cut their losses, and be in a position to counter each Soviet attack in turn. The possibility that the planned Allied invasion of Sicily might draw German troops westward does not seem to have been factored into Stavka planning. Even if the British and Americans finally chose to act, the prospect of a few divisions probing the remote fringes of “Fortress Europe” hardly impressed a Red Army that saw itself as fighting a war of army groups on its own.
In developing Kutuzov, the Red Army confronted an obliging enemy. In terms of force structure, the Germans obliged by treating Army Group Center as an inactive sector. This was more a matter of practice than policy. It had begun gradually, and months earlier: it involved replacing full-strength divisions with those worn down elsewhere, then increasing their fronts and lowering their priorities for replacements. It also involved transferring air assets and heavy artillery and reducing mobile reserves. Secondary defensive lines and fallback positions were constrained because neither the men nor the material to develop them were available.
The situation was exacerbated by the distractions occasioned because Army Group Center’s headquarters, itself physically isolated, was in late 1942 and early 1943 the locus of a serious plot to arrest and execute or kill Hitler when he visited in March 1943. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge was disgusted by Germany’s behavior in Russia and believed declaring war on the United States had been a disastrous mistake. Although ultimately refusing to support the conspiracy, he was sufficiently aware of it and involved on its fringes that making the best of his army group’s tactical situation took second place. Pressing the Führer for reinforcements scarcely appeared on the field marshal’s horizon.
Two years earlier, under Heinz Guderian, the Second Panzer Army had led the drive on Moscow. On July 11, that army confronted Operation Kutuzov with fourteen ragged infantry divisions, most composed of inexperienced replacements and recovered wounded, a panzer grenadier division, and, ironically, a single panzer division. All told, a hundred thousand men and around three hundred AFVs, with only local reserves available. The order of battle showed pitilessly how the balance of forces had changed on the Eastern Front. Divisional sectors averaging twenty miles and more made a “continuous front” that was no more than a line on a map; reality was a series of strongpoints more or less connected by patrols. As an additional force multiplier, the Soviets achieved almost complete surprise. In evaluating the Red Army’s maskirovka, it is appropriate to ask whether it was that good or German intelligence was that bad. By this time under Reinhard Gehlen, Foreign Armies East, as the German intelligence operation on the Eastern Front was called, was better at gathering information than at processing it, and not particularly good at either. Certainly Gehlen’s service failed to discover the Soviet concentrations on Army Group Center’s left and against the salient’s nose. As late as mid-May, Army Group Center and the Second Panzer Army increased alertness in the front lines and carried out extensive mine and wire laying, but only as a commonsense effort to improve its readiness. Aerial reconnaissance was limited by a lack of planes. The attenuated front lines inhibited aggressive patrolling in favor of something like a “live and let live” approach. Russian partisans and reconnaissance units were less cooperative and more informative. By mid-July, both Western and Bryansk Fronts’ assault formations had up-to-date information on what they faced where in the projected attack sector.
Kutuzov’s exact launch time was determined by the successful German advance on Oboyan and Prokhorovka. Early on July 11, patrols were replaced throughout the attack zone by battalion-strength strikes on German outposts. That night, Russian bombers attacked bases throughout the salient. Fresh rifle units took over the line at 3:00 A.M. At 3:30, the artillery barrage began: the heaviest and best coordinated in the history of the Eastern Front. Two and a half hours later, the first assault waves and their supporting armor took position and the initial bomber and Shturmovik strikes went in. At 6:05 A.M., the main attack began. On Second Panzer Army’s left, six Guards rifle divisions hit the previously reconnoitered junction between two German divisions, breaking through easily enough that by the afternoon, the Eleventh Guards Army committed its second line to expand the breach and the two reserve tank corps were readying to exploit southward.
Airpower played a major role in the shifting tide of battle. Believing the Western Front’s attack was only a diversion, the Luftwaffe kept most of its aircraft in Citadel’s sector, to the east. Initially, the Red Air Force owned the sky on Eleventh Guards Army’s front, and Shturmoviks hammered the Landser unmercifully. By the afternoon, when 1st Air Division began diverting sorties north, the Eleventh Guards’ leading elements were safely under the cover of heavy forests. But Stuka Gruppen hit follow-up elements to such effect that small-scale counterattacks mounted by 5th Panzer Division were enough to delay 1st Tank Corps. The Eleventh Guards Army doubled down and committed 5th Tank Corps. Its T-34S were more than six miles into the German rear by nightfall, when 5th Panzer managed to slow their pace as well.
With the Stukas concentrating on the few roads passable by tanks, the army commander decided against a further blitz and ordered a set-piece attack for the next morning. Ivan Bagramyan had had his ups and downs since June 1941. His vigorous advocacy of the abortive Kharkov offensive of 1942 had led to his temporary eclipse. Restored to favor and combat command, he led the Sixteenth Army so successfully that it was renamed the Eleventh Guards Army and given a key role in Kutuzov. Bagramyan had learned from experience that against the Germans, a closed fist was preferable to a broken arm. But his decision to trade time for shock reflected as well the processing of German radio reports, specifically from 5th Panzer Division, that stated that immediate reinforcements were required to avert disaster in the northern sector. The only source of those reinforcements was Model’s Ninth Army. Give Fritz a few hours to sweat, decide, and begin moving tanks. Then, Bagramyan calculated, strike before they reached the field.
In the salient’s nose, Bryansk Front found the going tougher. The Germans there belonged to XXXV Corps, under Major General Lothar Rendulic. Rendulic paid attention to intelligence reports and aerial reconnaissance that confirmed a concentration against the junction of his two frontline divisions. He redeployed his infantry, concentrated his artillery and antitank resources, and on July 12 made Bryansk Front pay yard by yard for its gains.
Fourteen Soviet rifle divisions on an eight-mile front seemed ample for the task of breaking through—especially when supported by heavy tanks. These were KV-2s: a prewar design, obsolescent by 1943 standards, underpowered and undergunned for their weight. But their fifty-plus tons included enough armor to make them invulnerable to any gun smaller than three inches. Instead, the KV-2s ran onto an unreconnoitered minefield. By day’s end, sixty Soviet tanks were destroyed or disabled. The Germans had been forced out of their forward positions but were still holding the main line of resistance. They owed a good part of their success to the Luftwaffe. German fighter pilots were consistently successful in separating the Shturmoviks from their escorts, then scattering the escorts. Stukas and medium bombers struck repeatedly and almost unopposed, with VIII Air Corps diverting more and more aircraft from Oboyan and Prokhorovka to the Orel salient. The price was familiar: further overextension of already scarce ground-attack aircraft and already tired crews. One dive-bomber pilot flew six attacks in twelve hours. That kind of surge performance could not be continued indefinitely.
It was correspondingly obvious from Rendulic’s headquarters to Kluge’s that the sector could not hold without immediate reinforcements on the ground. That meant panzers. And the nearest concentration of panzers was in Ninth Army. In two sectors in a single day, Kutuzov confronted the Germans with a game-changing situation and very little reaction time. Model responded to the new crisis with a rapidity his principal English-language biographer, Steven Newton, calls suspicious. Newton argues that Model and Kluge were both expecting a major Soviet attack in the Orel salient, especially after the failure of Ninth Army’s attacks in Citadel’s northern sector. Rather than challenge Hitler and the OKH directly, they agreed, with a wink and a nudge, to commit to Citadel armor that would be more badly needed elsewhere in a matter of days. Certainly the divisions Kluge offered deployed slowly. Certainly, too, Model did not push the attack of XLVI Panzer Corps in the Ponyri sector on July 11. Late in the afternoon of July 12, Model flew to the headquarters of the Second Panzer Army and assumed its still-vacant command without relinquishing command of the Ninth. He and Kluge had previously agreed on this arrangement, which made Model directly responsible for the Orel salient and half the Kursk reentrant. It also gave him as free a hand to transfer forces over as wide an area as any senior officer of the Third Reich could expect.
Thus, on the morning of July 13, 4th Panzer Division’s commander was ordered to cancel his planned attack, shift to defensive mode, and take over the positions of his neighbor, 20th Panzer Division, which was redeploying north. Recent communication between Model and Kluge had been carried out by unlogged telephone calls and confidential face-to-face meetings. Kluge, Newton asserts, could thus tell Hitler he had not ordered the abandonment of the offensive against Kursk. Model was just doing what he was recognized for doing: responding decisively to an unexpected development, living up to the reputation as a “defensive lion” he had earned in the crisis winter of 1941.
It all makes for another fascinating and unprovable story among the many spawned in the Third Reich. What the records show is that by the night of July 13–14, Ninth Army’s 2nd Panzer Division and 8th Panzer from the high command’s reserve were moving into Rendulic’s sector. The 12th, 18th, and 20th Panzer were backing the sorely tried 5th Panzer against Bagramyan. That simple statement had a backstory. Emergency German redeployments on the Eastern Front might have become routine, but the process was anything but. The 12th Panzer had spent a week vainly seeking a breakthrough in the direction of Kursk. At 12:45 A.M. on July 12, it was ordered to the Orel sector. The order was a surprise, and its timing could not have been worse for all those trying to catch some sleep in the four hours before sunrise. But by 1:00 A.M., the 5th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and the reconnaissance battalion were on their way—eighty miles on dirt roads pounded to dust by weeks of military traffic. An hour later, the leading elements were taking position around Bolkhov, the previously anonymous spot on the map where army headquarters deemed their presence most necessary.
The tanks took longer. So did the rest of the division. The 12th Panzer moved ad hoc, by small improvised groups each going all out, each eroding as fuel tanks emptied, transmissions failed, and engines quit. To drive with windows and hatches open was to choke on the fine dust. To shut them was to broil in the heat. Vehicles were loaded and dispatched almost at random. Rest stops were equally random. A company commander took an unauthorized twenty-minute halt in Orel to check on the well-being of his aunt, a nurse in the local soldiers’ home. Roads were blocked by collisions and breakdowns. Tanks, each hulled in its own dust cloud, lost contact with one another. Less than half of 12th Panzer’s original starters made the finish line.
Model, predictably, lost his temper with the regiment’s commanding officer—and just as predictably gave him command of one of the battle groups the field marshal and his staff officers were throwing in as fast as they could be organized. By this time, everyone in Second Panzer Army’s rear areas was seeing Russians everywhere, and 12th Panzer was risking dismemberment as rear-echelon officers demanded tanks and men to restore their situations and calm their nerves.
The 5th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had been on the front line from the war’s first days. Poland, France, Barbarossa, Leningrad: its men had seen as much combat as any in the Wehrmacht. So when its veterans spoke of Bolkhov as “the threshold to battle hell,” it was more than retrospective melodrama. The regiment reached its assigned sector around midnight on July 12, and began advancing at 9:00 A.M. on July 13. At first all seemed routine: a steady advance against light opposition. Then suddenly “all hell broke loose.” Bryansk Front had sent in the Sixty-first Army and its supporting 20th Tank Corps. The strength, intensity, and duration of the supporting fire exceeded anything the regiment’s veterans had experienced: a “fire ball” that enveloped the entire front. Under the shelling, the panzer grenadiers’ advance slowed, then stopped, then inched forward again. First the Stukas, then twenty or so of the division’s tanks, sustained the momentum for a time, until dug-in tanks and camouflaged antitank guns drove the infantry first to ground, then to retreat.
As in the other sectors of the offensive, there was no breakthrough, but limiting the Soviet advance nevertheless took its toll on the defenders. Thus far, they had held—but for how long could another large-scale tactical stalemate be sustained? The reports and the recollections of the divisions that fought first in Ninth Army’s attack on Kursk and then in the Orel salient convey an unwilling, almost unconscious sense that this time there was something different about the Russians. It was not only the intensity of their artillery fire. It was the relative sophistication. It was not only the depth of the defensive positions or the determination of their defenders. It was a more general sense that the Red Army’s mass and will were being informed by improving tactical and operational sophistication—the levels of war making most likely to influence and frustrate German frontline formations directly, and in ways impossible to overlook.
That the German front in the Orel salient held more or less together reflected in good part Model’s disregard of Hitler’s order that no secondary defensive positions be established. Even before Kursk, Model had initiated the preparation of a series of phase lines that by the time of Kutuzov were more than map tracings. Model handled his sparse reserves with cold-blooded skill, committing them by batteries and battalions in just enough force to blunt and delay Soviet attacks. The decisive tool in his hand, however, was the Luftwaffe.
The 1st Air Division mounted over eleven hundred sorties on July 18 alone, almost half by Stukas and ground-attack planes. The next day, Bagramyan’s lead tanks emerged from the forest and the Germans struck at dawn. The Stukas, Henschels, and Fw 190s bored in at altitudes so low that one Hs 129 pilot flew his plane into the tank he was attacking. By this time, experience and rumor had taught the Russian tankers all they wished to know about German attack planes. Some crews undertook random evasive maneuvers, scattering in all directions. Others simply abandoned their vehicles. The 1st Air Division claimed 135 kills on July 19 alone. Soviet records admit that by July 20, 1st Tank Corps had only thirty-three tanks left. The pilots credited themselves with preventing a “second Stalingrad.” Model, never an easy man to impress, wired congratulations for the first successful halting of a tank offensive from the air alone.
On July 19, Bryansk Front threw the Third Guards Tank Army into the attack. Over seven hundred AFVs, supported by the full strength of the Fifteenth Air Army, advanced almost eight miles by nightfall and kept hammering. Despite Stalin’s direct “encouragement,” what was projected as a breakthrough became a battle of attrition. Model used his aircraft to compensate for steadily eroding ground strength. Luftwaffe medium bombers were flying as many as five sorties a day, and 88 mm flak guns pressed into antitank service claimed more than two hundred tank kills. Russian and German fighters grappled for control of the air, with one Soviet report describing a pilot landing near a downed Me-109 and capturing the pilot himself. What counted was that as 1st Air Division’s planes were ruthlessly shifted and ruthlessly committed, pilot judgment diminished and aircrew losses increased. A disproportionate number of them were among the veteran flight and squadron leaders, correspondingly irreplaceable at short notice.