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Nine Days that Shook the World: The Death of the Kursk Offensive

By Robert M. Citino
3/23/2011 • Fire for Effect

Last time out we began a discussion of the “death” of Operation Citadel, the German offensive at Kursk in the summer of 1943. At the time, Hitler claimed his decision was due to the invasion of Sicily. Ever since, a lot of people who study the war have scoffed. Call off “the greatest tank battle of all time” because of Italy? Preposterous!

But maybe, just maybe, Hitler was telling the truth for once. Let’s start by looking at a “snapshot”—a very brief 9-day interval in what was a very long and very complex war:

Monday, July 5th. The Wehrmacht launches its assault against the Kursk bulge, with 9th Army attacking from the north and 4th Panzer Army coming up from the south. The aim is a concentric maneuver on the city of Kursk, a link-up there, and a signature Kesselschlacht against all Soviet forces inside the salient. Instead, over the next three days, the operation locks itself into a materiel-intensive Stellungskrieg, just the sort of battle the Germans cannot afford. It is a shattering disappointment to Hitler and the staff, given that this will be the major German offensive effort, indeed, the only effort, of this campaigning season. They have been slaving and arguing and wrangling over Citadel for months. It had been scheduled and canceled and rescheduled over and over again, one of the principal reasons being that it was clear the Allies were about to land an amphibious blow somewhere in the West, and no one wanted to be embroiled too deeply at Kursk when the Allies came ashore. Finally, they had taken the plunge, and ran into a wall. It is more than a lost battle. It is a year wasted.

Friday, July 9th. General Hermann Hoth, 4th Panzer Army commander, receives re-ports of large Soviet armored reserves heading into the salient and toward the front. They turn out to be the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army (General P. A. Rotmistrov). Using the traditional German prerogatives of independent command, Hoth decides to wheel his army away from its northward orientation and turn it to the northeast, intending to intercept the Soviet reserves near the town of Prokhorovka.

Near midnight, the first report come into German headquarters of U.S. and British airborne landings on the island of Sicily.

Saturday, July 10th. In the early morning, the long awaited Allied invasion of the European continent begins, as two Allied armies land on the southern coast of Sicily. Operation Husky answers thorny questions that have been the subject of intense debate within the German high command for months: the timing, place, and size of the initial Allied blow against Europe. Hitler is surprised, since he has been expecting a blow against the Balkans, but optimistic that the island can be held, and so is his “Supreme Commander-South” (Oberbefehls- haber-Süd), FM Albert Kesselring.

At noon, initial reports have thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Italian soldiers abandoning their posts, fading away into the interior, or surrendering to the Allies. The first attempt to drive the Allies into the sea, an attack on the U.S. beachhead by the Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, fails.

That night, the largest port in Sicily, Syracuse, falls to elements of the British 8th Army without a fight.

Sunday, July 11th. A second and better-prepared assault against the U.S. beachhead in Sicily, near the small port of Gela, also fails. Virtually the entire Italian 6th Army in Sicily, over 200,000 men, has ceased fighting, leaving the entire defense in the hands of a mere two German divisions, the Hermann Göring and 15th Panzergrenadier.

Sunday, July 11th. The southern pincer at Kursk—4th Panzer Army and its flank guard to the right, Armee-Abteilung Kempf—begin to make progress to their front. It isn’t much, but it is something. Army Group Center’s contribution to Citadel, the northern pincer under General Walther Model’s 9th Army, has come to a complete standstill after a tiny penetration of just 12 miles. The northern face of the salient is now relatively quiet.

Monday, July 12th. A great clash of armor takes place at Prokhorovka, with Hoth’s spearhead, the II SS Panzer Corps, running headlong into the 5th Guards Tank Army. There is carnage. On the flanks, XXXXVIII Panzer corps (on the left) and III Panzer Corps (on the right) engage in equally intense fighting with Soviet forces to their respective fronts. While the first reports speak of heavy Soviet losses, it is clear that there is going to be no quick breakthrough at Kursk.

The same day, the first reports come into Rastenburg of a Soviet counteroffensive north of Kursk, where the Germans hold a salient of their own around the city of Orel. The target is the German 2nd Panzer Army, which, despite its name, hardly owns a single tank. Its mission has been essentially static, protecting the deep flank and rear of Model’s 9th Army. Operation Kutuzov thus represents a clear and present danger to 9th Army, and indeed to all German forces around Orel. Kluge orders Model, the 9th Army commander, to remove two panzer divisions from the attack towards Kursk and devote them to warding off this new danger.

Also on July 12, Field Marshal Kesselring visits Sicily to view the situation for himself. Reversing the optimism he held just 24 hours before, he quickly decides that the situa-tion is hopeless. The defenders cannot hold the island and planning must start for an evacuation across the Strait of Messina. To avoid a complete breakdown in the defense while preparations for the evacuation get underway, he contacts OKW to demand the immediate transfer of another German division, the 29th Panzergrenadier, to Sicily. Hitler agrees. He also decides to call off Citadel, and summons both Manstein and Kluge to a meeting the next day, July 13th.

Next week: let’s analyze this microhistory. And let us ask the question, which is more important? Operations or strategy?

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16 Responses to Nine Days that Shook the World: The Death of the Kursk Offensive

  1. Irv says:

    Very good analysis of this battle and the effect of the Western Allied invasion of Sicily.

  2. Patrick Hays says:

    So Hitler was thinking somewhat rationally! More likely he was feeling that Citadal was going to fail and he was using Scily and the Orel salient attack to cover his decision to end a battle that was not going to result in a spectacular encirclement of Soviet forces. At least at this point he had not issued any stand and die orders at Krusk or Sciliy.

  3. Luke Truxal says:

    Around this time the Luftwaffe had withdrawn most of its forces into Germany, because of the Combined Bomber Offensive. The Americans were starting to step up the pace of operations in July and this would continue until the end of August. Only around 20% of the German Air Force was available to support Citadel. That was according to intelligence presented in May 1943. As American air operations increased so too would the focus on defending the German homeland.

  4. Irv says:

    Besides the needed Luftwaffe planes for defense of the homeland there was also the about one million German ground troops that were used to operate the search lights, radar, and AA guns from the coast line all the way to Berlin. Even a few hundred thousand extra German troops on the ground during that battle might have made a deference to the outcome of Citadel but probably not to the outcome of the war.

  5. Bill Nance says:

    You have a great point on the huge manpower requirements for homeland defence that no doubt constituted a drag on the German’s ability to field new, or reinforce old, formations.

    However, I don’t think that a few hundred thousand rear-echelon troops were going to make much difference in the meat-grinder that was Kursk. When your best troops are getting chewed up to gain at the pace of maybe a km a day, a bunch of flak troopers aren’t going to do any better.

    You have to consider how you’re going to equip and supply these guys deep inside Russia. The Germans could barely equip the units they had on the front line with all the necessary equipment. Sometimes adding more troops just means adding more burden on logistics without any added value on the battlefield.

    Also, considering that the Soviets launched TWO Army group level offensives right after the Germans culminated in CITADEL tells me that the Soviets were not terribly stressed during the fighting and had plenty of reserves for later.

    • Irv says:

      You are probably right about the few extra hundred thousand troops but in history I always think about the what if. But probably the only effect on the Soviets was going to be using up ammo on useless and hopeless troops.

  6. Paul Penrod says:

    The German High Command were banking that the American/British invasion of Sicily would go the way of Narvik, Dunkerque, Greece, Crete, or Dieppe. They had committed the bulk of combat assets, i.e. panzers, mechanized troops, ground attack aircraft for all theaters to Citadel. Once it appeared that the Italians were going tgo throw in the towel (it had to be wishful thinking to assume that they wouldn’t), there was no alternative but to call off Citadel and stave off the Allied surge with elements of the same carefully hoarded blue chip combat units origanally allocated for Citadel. I fault German intelligence for not only underestimating US/British capabilities but also for overestimating the same of their own ally. They were the king of wishful thinking on this one!

    • Irv says:

      You can thank the British use of Ultra for the underestimating done by the German intel people.

  7. Luke Truxal says:

    Can you really fault German intel after the time it took the Allies complete the North African campaign?

    • Irv says:

      I am not blaming the German intel for their problem in figuring out Allied plans. No matter how long it took for the North African campaign to be finished. The British use of Ultra kept the Germans in the dark and confusion most of time. Please read the excellent book “Bodyguard Of Lies” that explains in detail just how effective Ultra was in this and through most other campaigns and battles.
      In most cases the Germans knew only what the British wanted the Germans to know.

  8. Bruce says:

    Screw Sicily. Manstein had them beat on the southern face of Kursk. The Germans would have broken through. The Soviets had nothing left in reserve. He just might have created another Kharkov had the offensive been allowed to continue. Hitler could have diverted divisions from somewhere else for Sicily. One doesn’t cancel such an offensive right at the crucial point. Bad generalship from A.H., what else is new.

    • Bill Nance says:

      Bruce, while I appreciate your lack of enthusiasm for ol’ Adolph, I question your facts. The fact of the matter is that it was the Germans who were out of reserves at Kursk. The Soviets launched TWO army group level offensives within days of Prokorovka. Thus, they had plenty of combat power in reserve. The Germans, on the other hand, had to committ II SS Panzer Korps, their exploitation force just to achieve the limited objectives they could have seized. And to do this, they gutted their best formations.

      Finally, where would they have broken through to? As already noted, the Germans had already committed (and had burned through) their reserves in the fighting to the south. Thus, they could have perhaps penetrated the final Soviet line, then collapsed from exhaustion and casualties. The more probable line of events assuming a continued German penetration would have been a stretched out Wehrmacht in an extremely narrow salient, ripe for getting cut off and destroyed in detail.

      • Erik H says:

        Bill, I totally agree.
        To Bruce’s credit- yes- if Mr.von Manstein was allowed to finish off the movement and the breakthrough of the third(and most formidable) defence line a minor tactical victory would probably be within reach.
        But to what gain?
        And what would be the result of this eventual small tactical success?
        One thing is quite certain, with the forces at his disposal July 13., Mr. von Manstein would not be able to close off the salient from the south alone.
        Henceforth, if necessary, the larger part of the russian troops within the salient would be able to regroup/withdraw.
        On the contrary, large russian forces north of the salient threatened to crush in on Model’s left flank, forces vastly superior to Model’s army.
        Furthermore, in the backwater Mius region way south of the Kursk salient the russians launched an attack consisting of a whole army group(front), almost for decoy reasons and to take pressure off from other parts of the eastern front.
        As Bill says, this says something about the strategical reserves the russians actually had at disposal.
        The germans, on the other hand, had absolutely no strategical reserves.

        Operation Citadelle seen in retrospect simply didnt stand any chance to succeed whatsoever give or take a couple of miles closer to the city of Kursk. The resources were simply inadequate, the manpower, the logistics, the armour.

    • pavel rennenkampf xocoyotzin says:

      Ah, no, The Soviets had a huge defensive line that extended well beyond the salient, and an enormous reserve under K.K. Rokossovsky that never even got involved in the actual fighting in the salient (it was these forces that went on to launch Rumiantsev). Hitler diverted only one division to Sicily, and that was a Waffen-SS division. The other two stayed and this helped to contribute to the slowness of Soviet gains at the start of Rumiantsev as the Germans were still able at this point to make local reinforcements and the Soviets were not yet able to launch sufficiently skilled offensives, having spent most of the war in improvised survival today and to Hell with tomorrow defensive battles.

  9. pavel rennenkampf xocoyotzin says:

    Manstein was inadvertently baiting a trap for the Germans had his offensive continued. The Soviets were already attacking in the northern element of the Kursk bulge before the attack in the south was fully halted, and most histories of the battle, even Russian ones, prefer to overlook the continual hammerings on the German flank, as well as the crude reality that the Soviets could afford much more losses than the Germans did, so saying the Soviets lost more is a bit of a distorted way of looking at it.

    The Soviets only had to be better than the Wehrmacht, and as Kursk showed in a set-piece battle it was the Soviets, not the Germans, who had the resources and the ruthlessness and cruelty both to use them well.

    In any event I’ve never understood the fanboyism for a man who deliberately wrote his memoirs to make himself look good and cover up how much he participated in zealously carrying out Hitler’s orders to machine-gun Russian civilians. I suppose there’s something to be said for history being kind to them who write it.

    • bobe says:

      Correct, KURSK was a trap, ZHUKOV wanted to finish the germans right there for good, CITADEL was a fiasco because after STALINGRAD the germans lacked infantry, ZHUKOV had information about almost every german formation, he knew they lacked infantry so this offensive were to use massive number of tanks instead to achieve its goal.
      The Red army at KURSK was a different army from year before they were well equipped and trained and also had first time more than 300 000 radios for better communication, also they were well fed, although i believe they didn’t have yet matched the skill of german army, much superior but outnumbered.
      Kursk was a slaughter house, a stalemate but the germans survived, had a tactical victory because they were outnumbered but caused much larger losses to the soviets in airplanes/tanks and men killed , although not achieving any single strategic objective.
      Zhukov had to use its reserves 5th guards army sooner and he had to take charger of the area were the Waffen SS panzer divisions were achieving some success so his Plan A failed, ROTMISTROV’s tanks were decimated, the ones that survived took defense positions, i don’t know why STALIN didn’t hang ROTMISTROV, maybe he didn’t know the extent of soviet tank losses compared to the germans, that is when we get the soviet propaganda inflating german losses to cover their own.
      This was for long accepted by most historians even today, it bears to absurd the soviet propaganda saying that german tank losses were so high that if true not one german tank would have survived the KURSK BATTLE.On july 7th the Soviet Information Bureau or soviet propaganda claimed that 250 TIGER tanks were destroyed in the first day of battle then another 70 and other tanks, so after 3 days they claimed 1,539 german tanks destroyed, just absurd lie.
      Anyway Manstein was surprised by the soviet defenses, in this aspect the soviets mastered deception while gathering so much information about the german formations, he also had hope to achieve a victory in order to bring the soviets to the table and negotiate an armistice or sort of, he knew in his seat the big picture that after STALINGRAD they had no chance of wining in USSR.

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