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Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk

By Dennis E. Showalter. 368 pp. Random House, 2013. $28.

On July 5, 1943, the German summer offensive, Operation Citadel, finally kicked off after many delays. The elite units of the Soviet and German armed forces— armor, infantry, artillery, and air—squared off in a relatively confined battle space, a pincer attack against the seemingly vulnerable Kursk salient. Anyone with even a passing interest in the Eastern Front knows something of Kursk: the German spearheads grinding through sophisticated, multi-layered Soviet defensive belts; the dramatic “death ride” of the II SS Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka on July 12; and the battle’s status as a major turning point of the war. Yet many details of the operation, and Citadel’s relationship to the wider conflict, have disappeared into the haze of postwar myth-creation.

If Dennis Showalter is not the best historian of the German military active today, he is certainly in the top three. And reappraising Kursk is a task ready-made for his talents. He leverages recent work on statistical and tactical details of the battle, new biographies, and appraisals of German and Soviet operational performance. He combines these with his own scholarship to create a grand synthesis.

Looking back to the origins of Soviet and German operational art, he traces the evolution of each army’s combat performance in the early years of the Eastern campaign. Vibrant portraits of the key senior commanders—especially Erich von Manstein and Walther Model for the Germans, and Aleksander Vasilevsky and Nikolai Vatutin on the Soviet side— humanize and clarify the decision-making that shaped the battle as well as our postwar understanding of it.

In a gentle but firm counter to those who argue that the Red Army was fully a match for the German by the time of Citadel, Showalter deftly demonstrates that the Red Army was still very much paying in blood to hone its craft in mid- 1943. In terms of the effective employment of combined arms and tactical air power, and in the flexibility and initiative of its battlefield commanders, the Red Army had much to learn. Learn it did, but its education remained, Showalter writes, “months and miles, and many dead bodies and burned out tanks, ahead.”

Kursk was hardly the graveyard of the Panzer force; Soviet tank losses probably outstripped the German by as much as eight to one. But it was no less a turning point. The Soviets absorbed the best the Wehrmacht could throw at them, and the Red Army’s offensive power surged as its opponent reluctantly abandoned the Blitzkrieg tactics of its glory years and reinvented itself as a defensive force. All of this rich narrative and analysis is executed with dry wit—the fabled Tiger tank is described as “sophisticated as a knee in the groin”—and sensitivity to human frailty—both Showalter trademarks.

Even the most familiar events yield fresh insights when a master craftsman revisits and reinterprets them. Armor and Blood is revisionist history in the best sense of that often-misused term.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.