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The greatest tank battle in history began with an air battle.

While German and Soviet tanks slugged it out on the plains of Kursk, the air above was a hornet’s nest of activity as the Luftwaffe and Red Army Air Force fought for aerial supremacy. The Soviets were able to put up more planes, but the Germans, relying on more-experienced pilots and better tactics, gained initial success. Soon, however, the sheer weight of the Soviet aerial onslaught began to turn the tide.

Kursk, the greatest tank battle in history, actually commenced with an air battle. Already aware of the July 5, 1943, jumping-off date for the German Kursk offensive, that same day the Red Army Air Force launched a pre-dawn raid by more than 400 aircraft against five Luftwaffe airfields near Kharkov. The Germans, however, spotted the attackers on their field radar and prepared to intercept. The Luftwaffe commanders had all their bombers laden with ammunition, bombs and fuel but wisely chose to keep them on the ground, clearing the airstrips to launch Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters. The gamble paid off, as they downed 120 Soviet planes without a single bomb hitting the German airfields.

With the Red Army Air Force reeling from that first encounter, the Luftwaffe dominated the skies. New to the German air arsenal were Junkers Ju-87G Stuka dive bombers equipped with a 37mm cannon under each wing. The experimental craft proved lethal in the hands of experienced pilots.

Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel, commanding a special squadron of nine Junkers Ju-87G-1 tank-busting Stukas, flew in support of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. During Rudel’s first sortie of the campaign, four Soviet tanks exploded under his cannons’ hammer blows; by that evening his tally had risen to 12. “We are all seized with a kind of passion for the chase from the glorious feeling of having saved much German bloodshed with every tank destroyed,” Rudel proudly commented after the battle.

As the land battle developed, the German armies, with all available armor committed to their frontal drives, became more and more dependent on the Luftwaffe to protect their flanks. On the southern end of the Kursk bulge, the Soviets decided to send a tank task force against the open right flank of the II SS Panzer Corps advancing toward Prochorovka.

On July 8, Captain Bruno Meyer was flying his Henschel Hs-129B-2 tank destroyer over the battlefield when he spotted a mass of Soviet armor advancing out of a forest. Meyer radioed to base that he saw at least 40 tanks and “dense blocks of infantry, like a martial picture from the middle ages.” The Luftwaffe immediately scrambled four squadrons, a total of 64 Hs-129s, to Meyer’s coordinates. Using high-velocity 30mm cannons specially designed for armor piercing, the planes swept the forest, pumping shells into the rears of the tanks, where their armor was thinnest. Within minutes the aerial assault destroyed six tanks and sent the Soviet infantry desperately scrambling for cover.

Focke Wulf Fw-190 fighters joined the fray, strafing infantry and bombing wherever the Soviets were clustered. The survivors quickly retreated into the forest. The Soviet armored assault had been blunted solely through air power.

It was a victory that could not be easily repeated. Soviet mobile anti-aircraft guns were brought forward to accompany the tanks into battle, reducing the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness. During the tank battle at Prochorovka, the Luftwaffe was rendered practically useless because the tanks churned up huge clouds of dust, obstructing the pilots’ view of the battlefield.

By the time Hitler decided to abandon the Kursk offensive on July 13, the Red Army Air Force was already beginning to wrest the air above Kursk from the Luftwaffe. If the German ground offensive had been allowed to continue and had succeeded, the Luftwaffe would not have been caught in the Soviet counteroffensive. It would have been afforded a rest after the Soviet front stabilized. Thus, Hitler’s July 13 decision doomed the Luftwaffe to fighting a war of attrition it could not win.