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Kursk 1943: Edge of Hell

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Operation Citadel

The battle for Prokhorovka in paint. The struggle in the southern part of the salient was costly for both sides, when Waffen SS and Soviet Guards divisions engage in a climactic battle for Kursk.

The battle for Prokhorovka in paint. The struggle in the southern part of the salient was costly for both sides, when Waffen SS and Soviet Guards divisions engage in a climactic battle for Kursk.

The plan codenamed Operation Citadel, comprised of a simple pincer movement, with one army attacking from the North (Ninth) and another army driving toward Kursk from the South (IV Panzer).

The plan codenamed Operation Citadel, comprised of a simple pincer movement, with one army attacking from the North (Ninth) and another army driving toward Kursk from the South (IV Panzer).

The German Plan

On February 10,1943, Hitler decided to request the formation of a new military formation primarily drawn from Hitler Youth volunteers born in 1926 he would name it the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugen. He planned to use it on the western steppes of the Soviet Union near Kursk. Hitler had always shown a keen interest in the young, who were more ideologically malleable than their elders. Having grown up under Hitler's rule and political indoctrination, they proved to be fanatical soldiers on the battlefield.

The plan, codenamed Operation Citadel, comprised of a simple pincer movement, with one army attacking from the North and another army driving toward Kursk from the South. Once the two German army groups met the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. After months of delays Hitler finally ordered the offensive to be set in motion. The force would amount to nearly three-quarters of a million men, 2,400 tanks and assault guns, 7,500 guns and mortars, and 1,800 aircraft.

The largest of the two German forces consisted of three panzer corps attacking from the south of Kursk. This massive force included elite Waffen SS armored divisions and would form the armored fist of Citadel. Hoth's 4th Panzer Army was the most powerful concentration of German tanks under a single command during the entire Second World War, with over 850 tanks which included 102 Tiger tanks.

These SS divisions in general had more and better equipment than their counterparts in the regular German Army and fielded a force of over 15,000 men. In 1943 a typical Waffen SS division had 150 tanks, a battalion of self-propelled guns and enough armored half-tracks to mount all of its infantry and reconnaissance troops. These troops were suited for a rapid breakthrough on the vast grasslands of the Soviet Union.

For the first time, the German air force used its special tank-busting Stukas, armed with twin-mounted 3.7cm cannon whose armor-piercing shells proved devastating against the lightly armored engine decks of the Soviet tanks. Hans Rudel tested the first Stuka equipped with a 37mm cannon under each wing on July 12, 1943. Rudel attacked a column of T-34 tanks with his new cannon equipped Stuka destroying four enemy tanks, by the end of the day his tally would be twelve. Like birds of prey, Rudel's Stukas howled down upon Soviet tanks blasting away at their vulnerable rear armor.

Soon after the battle of Kursk the Luftwaffe would create an entire squadron of tank-buster Stukas with Rudel as their leader. Both sides would use tank-buster aircraft during the battle of Kursk to devastating effect.

Hitler Commits to Kursk

After numerous delays Hitler sets his plan in motion at Kursk. He hoped his new Tiger and Panther tanks would turn the tide on the Eastern Front. His fascination with new weaponry cost his general's precious time.

After numerous delays Hitler sets his plan in motion at Kursk. He hoped his new Tiger and Panther tanks would turn the tide on the Eastern Front. His fascination with new weaponry cost his general's precious time.

Hs 129 Tank Buster

Heinz Guderian

Guderian was in charge of re-organizing German armor in 1943, he considered the offensive near Kursk doomed. It was becoming painfully clear that Germany didn't have the industrial capacity to win the war. The lack of high-grade steel was a factor.

Guderian was in charge of re-organizing German armor in 1943, he considered the offensive near Kursk doomed. It was becoming painfully clear that Germany didn't have the industrial capacity to win the war. The lack of high-grade steel was a factor.

Red Army Plan

The Soviet preparation of the Kursk salient was astonishing. Red Army commanders were well aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. At that point in time the defenses surrounding Kursk had become the strongest fortress in the world. More than 300,000 Russian civilians had dug over 6,000 miles of trenches, with mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, which were laid out to channel German tanks into the sights of anti-tank strongholds.

The first line of defenses extended from the front-line rearwards to a depth of three miles and was composed of five parallel lines of deep entrenchments. The forward edge was protected by very deep, and a vast expanse of barbed-wire fences, ditches, mines, steel anti-tank teeth, dammed rivers littered with over 500,000 anti-tank mines and over 400,000 anti-personnel mines. Trenches were laid out in crisscross patterns to enable Soviet troops to move from one firing position to another. Most troops were below ground and protected from German artillery and air attacks. The salient was made into one broad tank-killing ground.

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At the point when German tanks do breakthrough Soviet defenses, Red Army commanders would throw their immense reserve of tanks, the elite 5th Guards Tank Army with over 850 tanks which consisted of 500 T-34s. The T-34 with its sloped armor and 76mm main gun proved more than a match for German tanks.

As the war progressed the Red Army became more mobile than Nazi forces with the help of American lend lease halftracks and trucks. Red Army commanders learned the art of mobile warfare from the Nazi adversaries. German divisions still relied on horses for transporting artillery and supplies due to lack of tracked transports and trucks. The American 6x6 Studebaker (200,000) was used for towing artillery of up to 150-mm caliber and transporting goods and personnel for the Red Army. In addition, some Studebakers were modified with a Katyusha-type rocket launcher, the BM-31-12 (nicknamed "Andryusha").

The Soviet T-34

T-34-85 mod. 1944 tank as a war memorial in Kursk, Russia. It proved to be the best tank of the Second World War. Over 85,000 were built during the war.

T-34-85 mod. 1944 tank as a war memorial in Kursk, Russia. It proved to be the best tank of the Second World War. Over 85,000 were built during the war.

Interior view of the Soviet T-34-85.

Interior view of the Soviet T-34-85.

The Night Witches of Soviet Union

Clash of Titans at Prokhorovka

In the north of the Kursk salient Model's exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking through into the open, having only penetrated Soviet defenses nine miles. Soviet casualties were heavy, but they didn't prevent Red Army commanders from launching an offensive on the northern sector of the salient. From July 11 on Model was hard pressed to contain a Soviet breakthrough much less aid Von Manstein's thrust from the south.

Soviet commanders' attention was soon drawn to the southern flank of the Kursk salient, where the 4th Panzer Army with the cream of the German Army's armor blasted its way through Soviet defenses. The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich divisions pushed eastward through three lines of Soviet defenses and were already on the outskirts of Prokhorovka on July 9th. The 4th Panzer Army thrust toward the railway at Prokhorovka threatened to break the main Soviet defensive line near Kursk. The troops of the Waffen SS divisions had received Hitler's order this was to be a battle of supreme importance. Its soldiers fought like devils behind their massive Tiger tanks smashing through Soviet defenses regardless of losses. Soon two massive tank armadas would clash for control of the battlefield surrounding Kursk.

The Waffen SS armor pushed toward Prokhorovka in large, armored wedge formations tipped with Tiger tanks. German Stukas hovered over the battlefield giving them added support. Tiger tanks took a key role in the attack, virtually invulnerable to T-34s except from the flanks or rear. Soviet commanders realize how critical the situation had become and committed their tank reserves to check the German advance. Over 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s with 5th Guards Army Tank Army riflemen piled on top, raced wildly toward the advancing German tanks. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance to minimize the long-range superiority of the German tank crews. Many Soviet tankers rammed Nazi tanks in an awkward attempt to gain the advantage.

Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas supporting Waffen SS tanks. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters ripped into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky above. Soon over 1,600 Soviet and German tanks were locked in desperate close quarters combat. The battle was intense and relentless; thousands of dead and dying laid motionless among burning tanks. Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off their burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, Soviet tankers bravely sped on until tanks from both sides sliced through each other. Fighting was hand to hand. Tank shells at such a close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor of German Tiger tanks causing horrific injuries to man and machine.

Soviet losses were extremely high, the battlefield near Prokhorovka was littered with as many 650 Soviet tanks. German losses were surprisingly light, possibly fewer than 100 tanks among all three divisions of the SS Panzer Corps. The bold Soviet counterattack was expensive in men and tanks but took the steam out of the German attempted breakthrough. As the sun disappeared beyond the horizon of Kursk, hundreds of burning tanks were left strewn about the fields, smoldering in the darkness, south and southwest of Prokhorovka. Germany's chance of victory over of the Soviet Union also set with the sun that day.

Hitler shocked by the loss of men and machines would call off the offensive at Kursk on July 23, 1943. With the Allies landing in Italy on July 10th, Hitler transferred his Waffen SS Panzer Corps to Italy to counter the new threat to his empire which was shrinking by the day. In reality the vast, roadless spaces of the Russian steppe and Soviet perseverance defeated Hitler's geopolitical vision of Lebensraum (living space).

Michael Wittman: Waffen SS Tank Commander

Soviet Tanks Advance

Red Army troops attack at Kursk supported by T-34s.

Red Army troops attack at Kursk supported by T-34s.

Disabled German MKIV at the battle of Kursk. The Red Army would win the battle of attrition in 1943. After Kurk Nazi forces would be overwhelmed by waves of attacking T-34s.

Disabled German MKIV at the battle of Kursk. The Red Army would win the battle of attrition in 1943. After Kurk Nazi forces would be overwhelmed by waves of attacking T-34s.

Kurt Knispel: Panzer Ace of Aces

Sources

Clark, Lloyd. The Battle of the Tanks: Kursk, 1943. Gove Press 154 West 14th Street New York, NY 10011. 2011

Gilbert, Adrian. Waffen-SS: Hitler's Army at War. Hachette Book Group, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104. 2019

Keegan, John. The Second World War. Penguin Random House LLC, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY, 10014. 1989

© 2022 Mark Caruthers

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