Seventy years ago, the Soviet Union’s Red Army - in a colossal tank battle - smashed Nazi Germany’s last major offensive operation, changing the balance of forces in the world...
AFTER THE Soviet Union’s victory at Stalingrad there was a pause while both sides prepared for the next phase of the armed conflict. By early April 1943, information from Red Army intelligence and the “Lucy” spy network indicated what German intentions were. In an attempt to get back the strategic initiative, the German Wehrmacht intended to assemble two huge Panzer concentrations in order to pinch out the vulnerable Kursk Salient, which projected like a fist from the rest of the Soviet front line.
Memorial: Russian tanks that fought at the Battle of Kursk on display at the site of the world’s largest tank battle.
Photo: Byelikova Oksana/shutterstock.com
By mid-April Marshall Zhukov and Stalin had formulated a plan to thwart Nazi goals. Thinking it would be risky for Soviet forces to go over to the offensive in order to pre-empt the enemy offensive, they opted to wear out the German army on the Soviet defences, smashing their tanks and then, by introducing fresh reserves, going over to a general offensive and beating them.
The Wehrmacht assembled a huge military force: 50 divisions (16 Panzer or motorised ones including 9 of the German army’s finest divisions) comprising about 900,000 men with around 10,000 guns and mortars and nearly 3,000 tanks, 2,000 aircraft including elite Luftwaffe units and another 20 divisions deployed on the flanks as reinforcements.
But the scale of Soviet preparations was even greater. To defend the salient, immense numbers of troops were concentrated in and behind it. Elaborate defence lines were constructed of a complexity and depth far exceeding those which had protected Moscow in 1941 (see Workers October 2011). The system was not only frontally strong, but strong in depth, stretching for 110 miles from front to rear.
Behind the salient, in the ‘Steppe’ Reserve Front, was a further defensive system, and beyond that another line of defences on the east bank of the River Don.
Inside the salient were the Central Front and the Voronezh Front, whose combined artillery totalled 19,300 guns plus 920 of the devastating rocket mortars (“Stalin organs” or “Katyusha”). Their combined armoured divisions had 3,306 tanks and assault guns. And 2,650 Soviet aircraft were committed to the battle.
The salient defence system was based on six belts of concealed anti-tank strongpoints containing barbed-wire fences, anti-tank ditches, deep entrenchments full of infantry, anti-tank obstacles, dug-in armoured vehicles and machine gun bunkers. In front of and in between these strongpoints were minefields.
Some 503,663 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines were laid, mostly in the first belt of defence. In addition, trenches totalling more than 6,000 miles were dug in the salient. Around 300,000 civilians from the Kursk area worked on all these constructions.
The Soviet plan was to progressively wear down the German panzer spearheads by forcing them to attack through a vast interconnected web of minefields and defensive strong points – by far the most extensive defensive works ever built. The plan worked, with the defence proving to be more than three times the depth necessary to contain the furthest extent of the German attack.
A new railway was built to improve the access of supplies to the Voronezh Front, while more than 250 bridges and 1,800 miles of road were repaired, mostly by civilian labour. And the German build-up was disrupted by partisan guerrilla attacks and air bombardments against German supply routes. More than 4,900 attacks hit German railways between February and July 1943, diverting large numbers of German units from front-line duties and preventing some ever being committed to the battle.
Soviet military might was formidable. Newly trained, excellently equipped armies were added to the salient and reserve areas, as Soviet heavy industry was now fully mobilised for war – manufacturing a custom-built range of reliable, proven hardware and weapons in huge numbers.
The II-2 “Shturmovik” proved to be an outstanding ground attack aircraft, far more versatile than German planes. The Soviet T-34 medium tank and KV heavy tank had admirable streamlined design and rolled off assembly lines at up to 2,000 a month; whereas German Panther tanks were often beset with mechanical problems and experienced huge spare parts problems. Monthly production of the German tank Pzkw IV (itself inferior to the T-34 in every respect except in the gun-power of its latest version) only topped 100 in October 1942.
The German attack began on 5 July; by 12 July it had been ground down and halted in the north of the salient; in the south, by 23 July. Soviet counter offensives began and continued until early November. The Red Army broke out of the salient, retook Kiev and crossed the River Dniepr. German losses at Kursk were greater than at Stalingrad (see Workers January 2010).
A whole 11 months before the allied landings in France, the Soviet victory at Kursk sealed the outcome of the Second World War. After defeats at Moscow and Stalingrad, Germany had managed to rally and inflict some reverses; after Kursk, Hitler’s armies were forced into an almost continuous retreat.
At Kursk, on ground of Germany’s choosing, the Red Army beat and hurled back the Wehrmacht in high summer, hitherto Germany’s best campaigning season. The superiority of socialism was confirmed in that most exacting test, war. ■