Battle of Kursk remembered, July 1983
Updated: Jul 30
Marshals of the Soviet Union remember the great triumph of the Red Army in July-August 1943 that ended all Nazi hopes for victory on the Eastern Front and in the war.
Soviet tanks going into action at Kursk
The Battle of Kursk where the soldiers of the Red Army emerged victorious at tremendous cost and turned the tide once and for all on the Eastern Front raged from July 5 until August 23 1943. From July 5 to July 12 was the German offensive and final attempt to take back the strategic initiative in the East after the catastrophe of Stalingrad. From then until August 23 marked the Soviet counter-offensive that resulted in the ultimate Soviet victory.
Published in English in 1983 for the 40th anniversary of the battle this is a collection of reminisces of the battle from some of the Soviet Marshals involved including the great military genius Zhukov.
We republish it in full including its accompanying photos. This year marked the 80th anniversary.
"One of the major battles of the Second World War took place 40 years ago, in July 1943 in the area of Kursk. The crushing defeat the Soviet Army inflicted on the German troops in the Battle of Kursk definitively quashed the plans of Hitler's Command to turn the tide of the war in its favour. Nazi Germany found itself faced with the real prospect of defeat and retribution for its adventurist policy, for all its crimes against humanity."
Hitler's Wehrmacht lost the strategic initiative after the historic victory of the Soviet armed forces in the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43. This was followed by a lull in the fighting all along the Soviet-German front, which both sides used as an opportunity to build up strategic reserves and to prepare for the summer campaign. As was expected, the decisive events of the summer of 1943 took place in the Kursk region, where, in the course of the war, a major salient had been formed. This has gone down in the annals of history as the Kursk Salient or the Kursk Bulge.
Since the end of March this salient had been defended by Soviet troops of two fronts -- the Central Front and the Voronezh Front. Its operational and strategic importance was in the fact that enormous nazi troop concentrations lay to the north and south of it.
All this determined the plan of the nazi Command to launch two pincer attacks at the salient, protruding west-wards, to encircle and, subsequently, destroy the Soviet forces defending it. Hitler's Germany mustered a powerful striking force to carry out this plan, which was code-named Operation Citadel. The force was over 50 crack divisions strong, including 16 armoured and motorized divisions, had a fighting force of approximately 900,000 officers and men, up to 10,000 guns and mortars, more than 2,000 aircraft and approximately 2,700 tanks.
Not only did Soviet reconnaissance manage to establish the reason for this build-up of nazi forces in the Kursk area, it also uncovered the entire design of the German Command: to strike concentric blows at the Kursk Salient, using two major groupings -- one, the forces of Armies Group Centre, was to strike out from the south of the city of Orel along the northern section of the salient, while the other, Armies Group South, was to strike out from the north of the city of Kharkov along the southern part of the salient. The ultimate aim of these moves was to surround Soviet troops lying inside the bulge and wipe them out. On successful completion of the operation, the German Command intended to push north-eastwards, towards Moscow.
This was the Hitler Command's conception of the "German Stalingrad", designed to remove the stigma from the honour of the German Wehrmacht for the defeat it had suffered in the Battle of Stalingrad on the Volga River. Hitler placed great hopes on this plan as a means of restoring his people's faltering belief in nazi Germany's victory and of raising the flagging spirits of its satellite states. At a meeting in the Imperial Chancellery Hitler boasted that the Kursk victory would fire the imagination of the world.
In this issue, the Soviet Army commanders who took part in the Kursk fighting tell of the outcome of Operation Citadel, of the great battle at the Kursk Salient, and the historic significance of the Soviet Army's victory there.
HOW COULD OPERATION CITADEL BE SMASHED!
When the plans of the German Command for the summer campaign of 1943 were discovered, the Soviet Supreme Command was faced with the difficult task of deciding what line to take. Two options were open to it. The first was to forestall the enemy attack and strike the first blow. The second -- to wait a while and force Hitler's Command to begin its attack so as to wear out the enemy forces, bleed them white in defensive battles along fortified defence lines, then to launch a counter-offensive and complete the rout of the enemy. Apart from the Central and Voronezh Fronts defending the salient, the troops of the Western, Bryansk, Steppe and South-Western Fronts were to take part in the counter-offensive.
From the Memoirs of Georgy ZHUKOV, Marshal of the Soviet Union.
During the period of the Battle of Kursk G. Zhukov was the representative of the Soviet Supreme Command General Headquarters. He was appointed Deputy of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces and put in charge of coordinating Soviet fronts in the Battle of Kursk:
I proposed wearing enemy out on our defence, knocking out his tanks, and then, by throwing in fresh reserves, to launch an all-out offensive and complete the rout of the main enemy grouping.
After a great deal of discussion Joseph V. Stalin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief, consented to the German offensive being met with all-out fire from our deep lines of defence.
General Headquarters and the fronts managed to establish the exact time of the enemy's planned attack - July 5, at 5 a.m. The Soviet Command gave the order to begin the artillery and air counter-preparation two and a half hours before the German offensive was due to begin.
The mighty "symphony" of the major battle in the area of the Kursk Salient began at 2.20 a.m. When the counter-preparation was under way Stalin phoned and asked me whether it had begun and how the enemy was reacting. I reported that the enemy had tried to retaliate with detached batteries but had quickly broken off. Stalin said that was fine and that he would ring back.
And so, our artillery barrage inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, but we had expected better results. By observing the course of the battle and interrogating German prisoners I came to the conclusion that we had begun too early, while the enemy was still sleeping in trenches, dug-outs and ravines and his tanks were still hidden in special zones. We should have begun our artillery barrage not more than half an hour before the enemy was to have launched his offensive.
However, our artillery did inflict certain material losses on the enemy. This was seen from the fact that he attacked at 5.30 a.m., not at 5 a.m. as planned, and that his assault was rather disorganized at that.
The Germans made five furious assaults in the course of July 5 trying to penetrate our defences. However, they were unable to achieve any substantial results. Sustaining heavy losses they managed to advance 10 km over July 5 and 6, but failed to break through our tactical defence.
At this time more than 500 tanks attacked the Soviet defence lines in the northern sector and up to 1,000 in the southern sector of the Kursk Salient. Fierce fighting went on for another 3 days.
July 10. The sixth day of the battle. Having lost most of the tanks which Hitler had pinned his hopes on, the German troops did not advance one kilometre. Stalin, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, phoned me at the command post during the battle on July 9. Having learned of the situation he asked whether it was not time the Bryansk Front and left wing of the Western Front be brought into the fighting as the plan had envisaged.
The H.Q. strategic plan proposed that once the enemy had been worn out in self-defence, the troops of the left wing of the Western Front, the Bryansk and Central Fronts should launch their offensive, followed by that of the troops of the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts and the right wing of the South-Western Front. An offensive was to strike out west and south-west in order to drive the enemy out of the Left-bank Ukraine and Kuban and to free Eastern Byelorussia. It was planned to strike the main blow in the directions of the cities of Kharkov, Poltava and Kiev.
I reported that the enemy no longer had the forces to break through our defences on this sector of the Central Front and that we should lose no time in launching an all-out offensive by the troops of the Bryansk Front and left wing of the Western Front so as not to give him the time to organize his defence. The Central Front would not be able to carry out the planned counter-attack without the participation of the two other fronts.
When I had finished, Stalin agreed that the Bryansk Front should be brought into action and asked when it would be possible to do this. I told him that the Bryansk Front could start the offensive on July 12 and he consented.
A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW OF THE SAME EVENTS
From the reminiscences of Sergei RUDENKO, Marshal of Aviation. During the Battle of Kursk S. Rudenko was Commander of the 16th Air Force Army:
Tanks concentrated over a small area are always a tempting target for aircraft. So, when two or more enemy tank divisions were discovered hidden in a small grove south of Orel even before the action at Kursk began, I immediately reported to the Commander. General Rokossovsky (Rokossovsky was Commander of the troops of the Central Front during the Battle of Kursk) heard me out, then began to reason with me.
"OK. Supposing we do inflict losses on two German divisions, but we will reveal what we know. Right now it's more important to convince the enemy that we don't know his intentions. So we mustn't alarm the Germans prematurely. Once the offensive starts, you can go ahead and knock them for six in the thickets. But it's hardly likely that their tanks will still be there. We must follow their movements."
I could do nothing but agree with him. On July 5 about 200 dog-fights and one-to-one encounters took place in the air on both sectors of the front and, as a result, 260 enemy planes were shot down.
A powerful counter-blow was planned for July 6. Two tactical options were open to us: to send our aircraft out at equal intervals, or almost the entire airforce in one mass formation. The latter gave rise to a number of questions: how could bombers and fighter-bombers be covered? How could entire squadrons of planes be mustered and how could the safety of the planes be guaranteed?
The solution was soon found. All formations of bombers and fighter-bombers were to fly at a standard height. One fighter squadron was specially designated to clear the air of enemy aircraft.
I had been at the observation post since dawn. Several black dots appeared on the horizon. It was an "air-clearing" squadron. Other new dots arose in the wake of the first. Bombers and fighter-bombers soon became visible. Planes were streaming to the front. Whereas on July 7 about 1,200 enemy air raids were registered on our front, this dropped to 350 two days later.
At the same time our Air Force made a total of 28,000 raids on the enemy during defensive battles over Kursk and brought down more than 1,500 enemy planes. Hitler's Luftwaffe suffered irreversible losses, and at the same time, lost its supremacy in the air.
THE SAME EVENTS FROM THE ARMOURED FORCE'S POINT OF VIEW
From the reminiscences of Kirill MOSKALENKO, Marshal of the Soviet Union. During the Battle of Kursk K. Moskalenko commanded the troops of the 40th Army of the Voronezh Front:
At 6 a.m. on July 5, hundreds of enemy tanks and assault guns, followed by infantry, came sweeping down on our defence under cover of fire of thousands of guns and mortars. They were supported by hundreds of aircraft. The enemy strike force was made up of the Second Armoured Corps, composed of the "Reich", "Adolf Hitler" and "Totenkopf" armoured divisions and the 48th Armoured Corps, composed of 2 armoured divisions and the "Gross Deutschland" motorized division. Our defence repulsed the enemy attack.
The enemy resumed his offensive on the morning of July 6. His attacks came in waves. His tanks succeeded in breaching our first line of defence and he managed to force his way into our second defence line.
On the third day of their offensive the Hitlerites managed to drive a wedge several kilometres long into our second defence line. However, they failed to breach it, despite having flung 400 tanks, hundreds of aircraft, thousands of guns and mortars into the attack against us.
Fighting was no less intense on July 8. According to the plan of the Hitler Command, its tanks were to have taken Kursk before that day was out.
Yet another attempt was made to break through to Kursk on the morning of July 9. The enemy had already concentrated up to 500 tanks on a sector 10 kilometres wide. He did not, however, meet with success, only managing to break through to the rear of our defence, where his offensive was crushed once and for all.
In all, the Hitlerite Command flung 2,700 tanks and assault guns from the south and north into its offensive on Kursk. The Soviet Command met the enemy with an even mightier armoured force. By the beginning of our defensive battles at the Kursk Salient the Central and Voronezh Fronts had more than 3,500 tanks and self-propelled artillery guns at their disposal. The tank units, having taken up defence positions together with the infantry on the second defence line, formed a kind of armoured shield which the enemy attacks crashed into and were subsequently shattered to smithereens.
The might of the Soviet armoured troops was seen even more clearly in the counter-offensive, when, together with the infantry and artillery, they breached the strong enemy defence, securing the offensive of the Soviet Army.
A STRATEGY OF SUCCESS
There were two main stages in the Kursk events, each aiming to solve some specific tasks of the general strategic plan of the Soviet Supreme Command for routing the enemy. The first stage -- that of defence -- lasted from July 5-12. The second -- that of the counter-offensive -- lasted five times as long, ending on August 23.
From the Memoirs of Georgy ZHUROY, Marshal of the Soviet Union:
July 12. The troops of the Bryansk Front began the counter-offensive. Our troops broke through the enemy's technically strong and deep defence on the first day of the operation and began their advance towards Orel.
As was expected, the enemy fell into disarray on the Orel bridgehead. It began to withdraw part of the troops fighting against the Central Front and hurl them at the Bryansk Front. The Central Front took advantage of this and went over to the counter-offensive on July 15.
Thus, it was here in the Orel region that the Hitlerites' offensive, which they had carefully prepared, suffered a crushing defeat. The German troops felt the might of the Soviet weapons forged by the Soviet people to defeat its powerful and experienced enemy.
(In 1943 alone, the USSR's war industry produced 130,000 guns, mortars and rocket launchers, 24,000 tanks and self-propelled guns and about 35,000 aircraft. Whereas in June 1941, there were 1,475 tanks and 1,540 aircraft in the arsenal of the Soviet Army and 4,300 tanks and 4,980 aircraft in that of Hitler's army, the corresponding figures for May 1942 were 3,900 tanks and 2,200 aircraft on the Soviet side and 3,230 tanks and 3,400 aircraft on Germany's side. The picture was quite different in July 1943: the Soviet Armed Forces had 12,200 tanks and field-pieces and 10,200 aircraft, while the corresponding figures for the German troops were 5,850 and 2,980.)
However, on July 12, the first day of our offensive, Stalin phoned me at the command post of the Bryansk Front and ordered me to fly immediately to the Prokhorovka sector, where a fierce tank battle was being waged, to appraise the situation there and assume control and coordination of the operations of the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts.
From the reminiscences of Kirill MOSKALENKO, Marshal of the Soviet Union:
July 12. Exceptionally severe battles were being waged to the south-west of Prokhorovka. It was difficult to make out who was on the offensive and who on the defensive. So many tanks were engaged in the battle that they did not have room to manoeuvre. Settlements and key heights changed hands several times.
The German Command pinned all its hopes on the Panther and Tiger tanks, along with the Ferdinand-type 88-mm self-propelled guns with solid armour. However, their new technology didn't justify their hopes. The enemy was dealt a crushing blow. The Tigers, Panthers and Ferdinands -- the pride and hope of the Wehrmacht -- were turned into scrap metal. It was not only the strategic reserves of the German Command which were buried under their debris --so also were the German nazis' hopes of revenge.
Prokhorovka spelled the complete failure of the summer campaign of the German nazi troops in the Kursk region. On July 13 Hitler was forced to order his Command to terminate Operation Citadel. This day marked the beginning of the retreat of the Wehrmacht which, from that moment on, suffered only reverses right up till the end of the war.
THE DEFEAT WHICH TRIGGERED OFF THE AGONY
From the reminiscences of Ivan KONEV, Marshal of the Soviet Union. Konev commanded the troops of the Steppe Front during the Battle of Kursk:
The fierceness of the battle in the area of the Kursk Salient was due to a number of political, economic and strategic factors. The war had reached an important turning-point by the summer of 1943. The blow dealt by the Soviet troops in the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941/42 had already frustrated the fascist blitzkrieg plan. It suffered another crushing defeat one year later in the Battle of Stalingrad. The en masse expulsion of the invaders from Soviet soil had begun.
The Hitlerite Wehrmacht's final attempts to revenge itself for these defeats and to gain a decisive military victory at any price were frustrated in the battles at the Kursk Salient. The entire offensive capacity of the enemy strike force was exhausted just one week after he had begun his attack on the Kursk Salient. The Operation Citadel plan was wrecked within a short period of time.
The failure of the enemy's summer offensive at Kursk exploded the Hitlerite propaganda myth of the "seasonal prevalence" of Soviet strategy, i.e., that Soviet troops were capable of successful offensive action only in winter conditions. In fact, it turned out that the Soviet Army could win in all weathers.
The Battle of Kursk was of international significance. When this battle was over, the prestige of the Soviet Union as a decisive force in the struggle against nazi Germany was greatly enhanced. The Kursk victory revived the hopes of the peoples in the countries occupied by Hitler's troops of their coming liberation from the fascist yoke and stirred up their activities against their invaders. This battle definitively quashed nazi Germany's hopes of dominating the world.
FACTS VERSUS FICTION
From the reminiscences of Alexander VASILEVSKY, Marshal of the Soviet Union. A. Vasilevsky was Chief of General Staff of the Soviet Army during the Battle of Kursk. As representative of the Supreme Command General Headquarters he coordinated front activities in the Battle on the Kursk Salient and in the Donets Basin.
The battle at Kursk, in comparison with the other major battles of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), was over very quickly. It is sufficient to recall that the battles at Moscow and Stalingrad, for the Dnieper and the Right-bank Ukraine were fought over a period of seven months; the battle for the Caucasus lasted more than fourteen months, while the battle for Leningrad lasted over two years. Could it be because of this that the Western falsifiers of the history of the Second World War go to all lengths to belittle the victory of the Soviet Army in the summer of 1943? They repeatedly maintain that the Battle of Kursk was a minor episode in the Second World War. Authors such as these either pass over the Battle of Kursk in silence, or just mention it briefly in passing.
However, in doing so, they have a definite aim in mind -- to conceal the adventuristic nature of Hitler's plan for revenge in the summer of 1943 and also the unsoundness of the strategy of the nazi generals.
The Battle of Kursk con-firmed that the victories of the Soviet Army at Moscow and Stalingrad were not accidental, and dispelled the legend that these and the subsequent victories over the German nazi aggressor were mere flukes.
However, it is precisely this that the falsifiers of history do not want to recognize. Their main aim is to depreciate the military art of the Soviet Army and, consequently, belittle the contribution made by the USSR in delivering mankind from the horrors of fascist slavery. They believe that all means are justified. For instance, they even go so far as to declare such battles as the operation of the British troops at El Alamein in North Africa, or the battle for Tarawa Atoll in the South Pacific (a battle of local significance, also fought in 1943, with approximately 20,000 troops on each side) as "great campaigns" of the Second World War. Yet, the Battle of Kursk, in which a total of 4 million men were involved, in which more than 69,000 guns and mortars, more than 13,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and more than 11,000 combat aircraft participated, is simply not mentioned.
However, even passing over the facts in silence does not suit some bourgeois historians. They consider this sort of falsification to be too passive. Hence, the downright distortion of facts. Thus, they maintain that Hitler in his Operation Citadel had only limited aims. The failure of this operation, according to them, therefore, cannot be regarded as being of strategic significance. How then do they explain the orders given by Hitler himself? On the eve of the offensive, in his address to the soldiers of the Eastern Front, he declared that their victory in the forthcoming battle might decide the out-come of the whole war, and that it might shake the Soviet army to its very foundations.
All this is evidence that the strategy of the German Wehrmacht was buried once and for all at the titanic Battle of Kursk. The Hitlerites did not succeed in taking the strategic initiative from the Soviet Command. This also meant that they failed to create the conditions necessary for their armed forces to continue the war effort in the East. The Battle of Kursk had resounding international repercussions. It showed the whole world that the Soviet Union had brought Hitler's Germany to the brink of inevitable disaster.
From the book The Battle of Kursk, Nauka Publishers, 1970 (in Russian). Republished translated into English in Socialism: Theory and Practice Magazine, July 1983.
For another Soviet account of the battle see: The Battle of Kursk Begins, July 5, 1943 (theleftchapter.com)