The Eastern front in WW2 (or as the Russians referred to it, the Great Patriotic War) was known to be notoriously bloody. After the battle of Stalingrad, the Nazis were in full retreat. Hitler, in his infinite wisdom (there’s some sarcasm there) decided to mount an offensive attack to recover his losses in what the Germans called Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel). This would be a just one part in the largest tank battle of WW2, the Battle of Kursk.
The sheer size and importance of the Battle of Kursk cannot be overstated. The Nazis entered the engagement with over 900,000 men, while the Soviets had more than twice as many at more than a whopping 1.9 million men. When it was all said and done, the Soviets suffered a huge number of casualties from the the technologically and tactically superior Nazis, but simply overwhelmed their enemy by numbers, who at this point had taken a hit to morale after the loss at Stalingrad.
The German attack began when the Nazis launched two simultaneous thrusts against the Soviet salient (a line in the defense that juts out to form an angle) in the north and south, effectively carrying out a pincer attack. However, the Soviets had already received notice of the impeding attack thanks in part to British intelligence. Since the Soviets had months to prepare for attack, they designed their defenses to be layered, much like a hockey team sets up the neutral zone trap, in an effort to wear down any armored spearheads by having overlapping fields of fire. Also the Soviets were able to move a lot of units out of the salient and were also able to set aside a large reserve force to use for the eventual counter-attack.
When the initial battle started, both sides opened up with artillery barrages, after which German ground forces began their advance along with Luftwaffe close air support. This combined arms tactic that was the trademark of the Nazis used earlier in the war proved very effective against static defenses. While the skies of the northern part of the battle were always up for grabs, the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority through out the battle. That was, until they started running low on supplies. The German planes were also greatly outnumbered and newly modified Soviet planes, such as the Ilyushin Il-2, closed the technological gap between their adversaries. Unlike the Nazis, the Soviets had unbroken supply chains, and any aircraft on the ground that may be destroyed by a German air raid could be replaced within days.
While having air superiority is nice, battles typically can’t be won by air power alone. After the Soviets had whittled Nazi forces down to a more manageable size during Operation Citadel, the time was ripe to launch a pair of their own counter-offensives: Operation Kutuzov in the north and Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev in the south.
In the north, the Soviets made deep penetrations in the thinly spread German forces, paving the way for the liberation of Orel and Smolensk. In the south, large tank skirmishes took place. The Soviets encountered heavy resistance, received heavy casualties and armor losses, and had to pull back to regroup and attack once more. It was the size advantage of the Soviet forces that allowed them to achieve a decisive victory.
The number of casualties that both sides received is staggering. The Germans had almost 200,000 men KIA, MIA, or wounded. The Russians had significantly higher numbers, with more than 250,000 killed, missing, or captured and an additional 600,000 wounded or sick. Despite their heavier losses, the Soviets prevailed. While Americans often view the invasion of Normandy as the turning point of the European campaign, it was the Soviet victory at the Battle of Kursk that broke the Nazi back.
Much of this blog post’s information comes from the studies of David M. Glantz, who wrote in great detail concerning Soviet tactics of World War 2, with the Battle of Kursk: Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk.