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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