CANADIAN FORCES COLLEGE / COLLÈGE DES FORCES CANADIENNES
CSC 30 / CCEM 30
THE BATTLE OF KURSK JULY & AUGUST 1943
By /par Maj I J Phillips REME
This paper was written by a student attending La présente étude a été rédigée par un the Canadian Forces College in fulfilment of stagiaire du Collège des Forces canadiennes one of the requirements of the Course of pour satisfaire à l'une des exigences du cours. Studies. The paper is a scholastic document, L'étude est un document qui se rapporte au and thus contains facts and opinions which the cours et contient donc des faits et des opinions author alone considered appropriate and que seul l'auteur considère appropriés et correct for the subject. It does not necessarily convenables au sujet. Elle ne reflète pas reflect the policy or the opinion of any agency, nécessairement la politique ou l'opinion d'un including the Government of Canada and the organisme quelconque, y compris le Canadian Department of National Defence. gouvernement du Canada et le ministère de la This paper may not be released, quoted or Défense nationale du Canada. Il est défendu copied except with the express permission of de diffuser, de citer ou de reproduire cette the Canadian Department of National Defence. étude sans la permission expresse du ministère
de la Défense nationale.
The Soviet victory at the battle of Kursk inevitably led to German defeat throughout
Europe. It was the most decisive event of World War 2. An examination of Soviet and
German Fighting Power before, during and after Kursk demonstrates the newly acquired
Soviet ascendancy on the Eastern Front and therefore the ultimate importance of this
battle. At Kursk, the lack of operational surprise and the time to prepare enabled the
Soviets to destroy key German equipments, capture important transportation centres and
gain crucial offensive experience on the way to this victory. Continued qualitative
improvement of the Red Army thereafter, combined with sustainable and unparalleled
mobilisation and military production, ensured that this success marked the beginning of
the end for Hitler and the Third Reich. Events including Stalingrad, Pearl Harbour and
Operation Overlord are presented for comparison. All prove to be strategically important
but only Kursk can be described as decisive in the defeat of Germany in Europe.
There has been no instance yet in the history of wars of the enemy jumping into
the abyss of himself. To win a war one must lead the enemy to the abyss and
push him in to it.
Joseph Stalin, Order of the Day, 23 February 1944
Just five years after Germany‟s astounding infiltration through the Ardennes and
their breath-taking demonstration of „Blitzkrieg‟, Hitler committed suicide and Germany
1 How did this stunning reversal of fortune surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
come about? Without doubt many strategically important events occurred in the
intervening period; the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, the German invasion of the
Soviet Union and the D Day landings to name but a few. Was there one particular event,
more than any other, which ultimately led to the Axis‟ downfall? It is easy for the
Western World to exaggerate the importance of its efforts, overlooking events elsewhere.
Even some modern books that summarise this war fail to mention the battle for
Prokhorovka, “the Greatest Tank Battle in World War 2” and an element of the battle of
23Kursk. Yet in scale and ferocity, the fighting on the Eastern Front was unparalleled.
This paper will demonstrate that, during the battle of Kursk, Germany irretrievably lost
the moral, physical and conceptual advantage over its enemies and as a result, their total
defeat in Europe was inevitable.
Before we can discuss the strategic importance of the battle of Kursk, it is
important to clarify the events that constituted it. “The term battle of Kursk can be
1 United Kingdom, Department of War Studies, Conventional Operations, (The
Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Autumn 1996), 7-5.
2 Otto Chaney, Zhukov, (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press,
1996), 267. The modern books which fail to mention Prokhorovka are: Michael J. Lyons, rdWorld War II, A Short History, 3 Edition, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999) and Robert AC Parker, The Second World War, A Short History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
3 Richard Overy, Why The Allies Won, (London: Pimlico, 1996), 321.
interpreted at least two ways” largely because the German and Soviet perspectives span
4 For the purposes of this paper, the battle will be defined in different planning timelines.
5its broadest sense and therefore in accordance with official Soviet history. That is to say,
it began on 5 July 1943 when Germany launched Operation Citadel to capture the Kursk
salient and concluded on 23 August 1943 after Soviet forces had completed two counter
offensives, Operations Kutuzov and Rumyantsev, which re-established Soviet control in
6Orel and Kharkov respectively.
British and Australian military doctrine uses the term „Fighting Power‟ to define
7and thereby estimate a state‟s “ability to fight.” This measure provides the ideal framework for a detailed analysis of Kursk. “Fighting Power is the result of the
integration of three interdependent components: the intellectual [conceptual] component
provides the knowledge to fight; the moral component provides the will to fight; and the
8physical component provides the means to fight.” In short, a states total Fighting Power is derived from the summation of the moral, physical and conceptual components.
To demonstrate that Germany lost the advantage during Kursk, this paper will
begin by defining each component of Fighting Power before describing how events
dramatically changed their balance during July and August 1943. Having thereby
4 Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, A Statistical Analysis,
(London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000), 115.
5 Ibid, xiii.
6 United Kingdom, Department of War Studies, Conventional Operations, … 9-7
and Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, …xiii.
7 United Kingdom, Ministry of Defence, Design for Military Operations, The British Military Doctrine, AC 71451, (1996), 4-3.
8 Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Army), Land Warfare Doctrine 1: The
Fundamentals of Land Warfare, (1998), 5-1.
established that the Soviets held the advantage in all respects after Kursk, the paper will
then show that the situation was irretrievable. Contrasting the strategic implications of
this event with Stalingrad, Pearl Harbour and the D Day landings will reiterate that the
battle of Kursk alone made German defeat in Europe inevitable.
As already outlined, the moral component of Fighting Power concerns the ability
to get people to fight. “[It] has three fundamental elements: the motivation to achieve the
task in hand; effective leadership from those placed in authority; and sound management
9of all personnel and resources. Together they produce the will to fight.” Analysing these elements, it is apparent that the Soviets shifted the moral balance during Kursk by
leadership and management only. Motivation was not a factor in this regard since the
intensity of emotion inherent within both sides changed little during the war. “[The
relationship] between Germany and the Soviet Union had always been one of undisguised
10hatred and fear…. No war had ever been as brutal as this.” This was Nazism versus
11Communism in what Hitler described as a “war of annihilation.”
The capability gap between the German and Soviet leaders had narrowed
markedly during the two years of fighting prior to Kursk. For Germany, regular
operational success achieved through well understood, tried and tested methods had made
12them intellectually stale and arrogant. As a result there was no tangible impetus to
improve. “The German commanders who prepared for Kursk thought of their opponents
9 United Kingdom, Ministry of Defence, Army Field Manual, ADP-5 Soldiering, The Military Covenant, AC 71642, (February 2000), 1-3.
10 Phil Grabsky, The Great Commanders, (London: Boxtree Limited, 1993), 165-166.
11 Len Deighton, Blood, Tears and Folly, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), 473.
12 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 269.
as tenacious but inept fighters who had difficulty coordinating the many ingredients for
13 In contrast, by 1943 the Soviet leadership had overcome many of the modern warfare.”
effects of „Stalin‟s purges‟. Walter Dunn Jr, a military historian, describes this recovery
as a product of both battle experience and defeat.
Improved [Soviet] leadership resulted for the most part from the experience of
two years in combat. Inept generals were weeded out, talented junior
commanders were promoted to higher commands, and officer schools turned out
thousands of junior grade officers to command the new companies and 14battalions.
However, in order to continue its development and thereby gain leadership superiority,
the Red Army still needed self-belief. “[Soviet] commanders … were haunted by the
terrible realization that never before had the Red Army halted a determined German
offensive short of the strategic depths. At Kursk this was the unprecedented mission
15assigned to them.”
In his book „On War‟, Clausewitz highlights the importance of self-belief particularly in situations with great uncertainty. “With uncertainty in one scale, courage
16and self-confidence must be thrown into the other to correct the balance.” In hindsight
then, the Soviets‟ best chance of victory and therefore gaining self-belief, was to fight in a „set-piece‟ campaign. The unique circumstances at Kursk, in particular a lack of
operational surprise, provided precisely that situation.
13 Ibid, 33.
14 Walter S. Dunn Jr, Kursk, Hitler’s Gamble, 1943, (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1997), 19.
15 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 32.
16 Karl von Clausewitz, On War, trans and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret
(Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 86.
“The German plan for Citadel was as obvious for the Soviets as it was for the
17 The large, Soviet-held, Kursk salient presented both a serious threat to the Germans.”
two German Army Groups positioned along this sector as well as an opportunity for the
18Germans to encircle a sizeable enemy force and hence shorten the Front. Among Soviet
leaders a consensus also emerged, supported by solid intelligence, that Kursk was the
19place where Germany would launch its next assault. Moreover, “from two years‟ experience of German operational planning, Soviet commanders predicted with
20remarkable accuracy how German forces would begin the attack.” The Soviets were
ready. Two hours before Citadel was launched, the Red Army began a massive
bombardment onto the German assault positions. After only nine days the German attack
had been ground to a halt. Victory in this unique, set-piece battle then gave the Soviet
leadership the self-confidence needed for subsequent operational success, even in less
certain circumstances. In short, after Kursk, the Soviets had leadership superiority.
One important effect of Operation Citadel failing to reach its goals was that the
Red Army now knew that they could withstand a German summer offensive….
Thus the Red Army became more secure and confident in its conduct of 21operations.
Having demonstrated that, with self-belief, the leadership balance swung in the
Soviets favour, we can now consider how the Soviets improved and gained the upper
hand in the management of resources. In the winters of both 1941/42 and 1942/43, the
Soviets had learnt harsh lessons from over-extending their lines of communication.
17 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 28.
18 Otto Chaney, Zhukov, … 260.
19 Richard Overy, Why The Allies Won, … 87.
20 Ibid, 87-88.
21 Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, …148.
[In 1941/42], the winter thrusts of the Leningrad, Volkhov, and Northwestern
fronts bogged down because they lacked the men and materiel needed to crack the
German defences. For the same reason, the offensive by the Southern and 22 Southwestern fronts were also short-lived.
Similarly, early success for the Soviets on Operation Gallop in February 1943 turned
rapidly into defeat. “Having come so far so quickly, the Soviets were stretching their
supply lines to the limit…. The [German counter] attack was remarkably successful;
23within days, the two wings met up, mauling three Soviet armies in the process.”
With these failures fresh in their memory, the Soviet approach to each task
became thorough and painstaking. “Goaded on by nervous senior commanders, staff
officers and commanders at every level methodically worked out the myriad of
24problems.” As a result, the two Soviet counter offensives at Kursk, Operations Kutuzov
and Rumyantsev were meticulously planned and much more sensible in scope. More
25importantly perhaps, “Stalin was more receptive to advice.” He had begun to listen to
26his commanders and moderate his short-term ambitions.
In contrast, Axis forces had not learnt how to manage attacks without exposing a
weak flank. At Stalingrad in 1942, the Soviets took advantage of the comparative
weakness of the Romanian armies on the flank. “Not only were they ill-equipped, they
27were not even up to strength.” Similarly, at Kursk, “the vulnerability of German
defences in these [flanking] regions had only been increased as German forces gravitated
22 Otto Chaney, Zhukov, … 201.
23 United Kingdom, Department of War Studies, Conventional Operations,…9-4.
24 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 32.
25 Richard Overy, Why The Allies Won, … 87.
26 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 266.
27 Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad, (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 183.
28 By comparison then, the German towards the Kursk bulge prior to and during Citadel.”
leadership did not control resources as well as their Soviet counterparts at Kursk. David
Glantz highlights this newly acquired Soviet advantage in resource management as
follows: “What astonished the Germans most about these massive and numerous Soviet
offensives was the fact that the defenders of Kursk were able to go from a desperate
29defensive to a full-fledged offensive in a matter of days.”
During the battle of Kursk then, through better leadership and management, the
Soviets had stolen the moral advantage on the Eastern Front. Can the same be said for the
physical component of Fighting Power?
The physical component [of Fighting Power] is the means to fight. It is the
equivalent of the term „Combat Power‟, defined in NATO as: „the total means of
destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply
against the opponent at a given time.‟ The total means include … manpower, 30equipment, logistics and training.
Many would expect the balance of manpower and training to be central to most
discussions concerning decisive battles, this is not the case at Kursk. Neither manpower
or training were crucial factors in the battle itself, nor did this battle substantially alter the
manning balance for future encounters.
Given the different interpretations regarding what constitutes Kursk, it is difficult
to be certain of the relative manning levels at the start of this battle. Figures given for the
Germans range from 777,000 to 900,000. Facing them, consensus suggests, were 1.3
28 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 227.
29 Ibid, 229.
30 United Kingdom, Ministry of Defence, Design for Military Operations, … 4-6.
31 with another 600,000 in million Soviets in the Central and Voronezh fronts combined
32the Steppe front as a strategic reserve. At first glance then the Soviets seem to have a
useful manning advantage. However, remembering that the German divisions were
experienced and the level of Russian training was low, for qualitative reasons it is
33generally accepted that this manpower advantage was not significant. “Red Army commanders understood that in previous German offensives they had outnumbered the
Germans; yet in no instance had the defenders halted the German advance short of
Similarly, casualty figures for Kursk had little bearing on future battles. Although
Soviet losses at Kursk were about 3.4 times higher than German losses, total casualty
35figures were comparatively small. “Certain basic facts can sometimes demonstrate that
a battle produced losses or a situation from which one side could not recover. This can
hardly apply to Kursk, since neither German nor Soviet casualties … were particularly
31 The Central and Voronezh fronts were the fronts that bore the brunt of
32 777,000 Germans were committed to Operation Citadel according to Niklas
Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, …18. There were 780,900 German against the 1.9 million Soviets in the Central, Voronezh and Steppe (573,195) fronts according to
David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 65. There were 900,000 German facing 1.3 million Soviets in the Central and Voronezh fronts according to
Richard Overy, Why The Allies Won, … 90.
33 Walter S. Dunn Jr, Kursk, Hitler’s Gamble, 1943, … xv.
34 David Glantz and Jonathan House, The Battle of Kursk, … 64.
35 56,827 Germans were killed, wounded or missing at Kursk compared to 1.6
million during 1943 on the Eastern Front. Similarly, 177,847 Soviets were killed,
wounded or missing compared to 7.8 million casualties suffered during 1943 by the Red
Army. Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, …118.
36 Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, Kursk 1943, …145.