On the 60th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin, we began a series of articles on the epoch- making achievements of the Soviet Union. In March we reproduced a survey of Stalinâ€™s life by Andrew Rothstein, a very prominent leader of the then-revolutionary CPGB, first published in the Daily Worker, in March 1953. We continue the series with an analysis of the epic Battle of Kursk, where the Soviet victory thoroughly ensured that the hopes of the Hitlerite fascists were completely thwarted and they were forced to retreat.
The greatest turning point in the second world war that virtually everyone agrees on as such was the battle of Stalingrad. Until that momentous event the German political and military machine believed itself to be invincible. They had never even realised that nearly every step they had taken into the USSR had been read, analysed and prepared for beforehand by the Soviet leadership. The usual method of blitzkrieg that had been so successful everywhere else with fast mobile pincer movements breaking through a static line and claiming victory within a short time had been made impossible in the Soviet Union. The Soviet forces had met the German blitzkrieg with multiple fluid lines pulling back and giving up ground sucking the Nazis further in, making them always fight another battle instead of the swift victories they had become used to, stretching them further and further from all their supplies and reserves. Nothing was left in the ‘abandoned’ land that the Nazis could use, factories were dismantled or destroyed, food was hidden and vast units of partisan fighters were organised to make life behind their lines hell for the German invaders.
When the order came at Stalingrad to take not one more step back, the Soviets had used their time of retreat well and had built up a mighty army of well trained, fresh fighters supplied with plenty of the latest equipment, armour and air support. When this mighty, steel-clad military colossus was unleashed it smashed into the German troops and by April 1943 had pushed the shaken German troops back some thousand kilometres (600-700 miles). The front line now stretched from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle lay a large 120 mile wide by 93 mile deep Soviet-held salient, or bulge, centred roughly round the town of Kursk between German forward positions near Orel in the north, and Belgorod in the south. Once again, unknown to them, the trap was being set for the fascist forces. The spring thaw turned everything into a veritable bog and the two armies dug in facing each other.
For the German high command, desperate to regain the impetus and raise the spirits once again of their soldiers (and themselves) here was an opportunity almost heaven-sent. The salient, by its very shape, lent itself to the classic blitzkrieg pincer manoeuvre, with high-speed determined simultaneous thrusts of armour supported by mobile infantry and heavy air cover from both Orel and Belgorod would cut off thousands of Soviet troops who could be destroyed or captured putting the Soviets on the back foot and have the effect of restarting the Nazi push for much needed Soviet oil fields and the ultimate crushing of the socialist republics. This was to be ‘Operation Citadel’ revenge for the massive defeat of German forces at Stalingrad.
Reinforcements were dragged up from everywhere, Panzer divisions, troops and aircraft were shifted from Western Europe and anywhere else where they weren’t literally engaged in fighting at that time. By the end of June the fascists had amassed a force of 900,000 infantrymen, 10,000 artillery guns, 2,700 tanks and 2000 aircraft both fighters and bombers. General Ehrfurt of the German Army Staff reflecting after the war said ” The entire offensive force that the German Army could muster was hurled into action to expedite Operation Citadel.”
Operation Citadel was quite a simple plan, basically Walter Model’s 9th Army would attack southwards from Orel while General Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army and Army Group Kempf under the overall command of Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein would attack northwards from Belgorod. They planned to meet at Kursk, cutting off a good sixth of the Soviet forces and straightening their front line.
On the Soviet side, Marshal Georgi Zhukov had already predicted the site of the German attack as early as 8 April and in a letter to Stalin said: ” I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go over to the offensive in the very first days of the campaign in order to forestall the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhaust himself against our defences, and knock out his tanks and then, bringing up fresh reserves, to go over to the general offensive which would finally finish off his main force. ” After consulting other Soviet military leaders and studying the evidence Stalin agreed with Zhukov and the defences were ordered.
Waiting for the German offensive were 1300,000 Soviet infantrymen, around 20,000 artillery pieces, some 3,450 tanks and the Soviet air power in the region numbered 2,172 aircraft very many of which were the Ilyushin Il-2ground attack aircraft nicknamed ‘flying tanks’ because of their heavy armour which meant that they could do low-level strafing runs virtually impervious to fire from the ground . There were more artillery regiments than infantry regiments in the salient. Many minefields were laid by the Soviet engineers through the spring, some minefields as deep as 25 miles (somewhere in the region of 504,000 anti-tank mines and 440,000 anti-personnel mines were laid to protect the infantry in their extensive trench systems) and as the spring moved to early summer corn grew around the mines making the minefields, not to mention the trenches and anti-tank guns, very hard to spot. Deception also played a big part in the Soviet defences with dummy planes on dummy airfields, dummy arms and fuel depots, formations of dummy tanks, false messages sent on radio frequencies that it was known the Germans could intercept. Defence was the first stage of the Soviet plan and the Red Army was determined to grind down the advancing Panzer formations with artillery and anti-tank obstacles in order to slow, stop, and eventually counterattack them.
Some of the Soviet tanks were dug into positions with just the turret above ground and used in a static role as artillery. Taking nothing for granted the Soviet command had waiting in reserve for the Germans, if they should manage to breach the Soviet lines, the Steppe Front consisting of 4th and 5th Guards, 27th, 53rd and 57th Armies, and the 5th Guards Tank Army. The Soviets had not only had it confirmed that the Germans had taken the bait from a spy ring working in Switzerland with a contact in the German High Command but a captured German soldier, taken on 4th of July told them that the offensive would start the next day, 5th July.
At Sunrise on the 5th July ‘Operation Citadel’ began along a 35 mile stretch on the North of the salient trying to push south. During the next two days they would manage to advance 7 miles only into the salient while the push from Novgorod heading North fared not much better. By the 9th July a dent of some 20 miles had been made in the salient. Not quite the speedy rush through enemy lines that the Germans had planned/hoped for. The first Soviet communiqué to the world stated that “Our troops have crippled or destroyed 586 enemy tanks…203 enemy planes have been shot down.” Once again, the Soviet leadership had the Germans doing exactly what they wanted them to do. The more fuel and ammunition that the fascist invaders used up in the early days the easier it would be to crush them when the Soviets decided that the time to do so was right.
There is a popular misconception re the Battle of Kursk that comes from the fact that this is referred to as the largest tank battle in history.
It is the largest tank battle in history but this leads some to think of it as the tanks of both sides milling about in a life and death struggle in one place until one side was victorious. The battle was waged at different points in and around the whole salient at different times. It was a massive infantry and artillery battle as well, not to mention the dog-fights going on overhead or planes strafing columns of soldiers in armoured carriers, the bombers dropping their loads of incendiary or high explosive bombs and even some quieter sections awaiting their turn, and it is only when we lump them altogether under the heading of the ‘Battle of Kursk’ and look at the sheer volume of forces pitted against each other that we can appreciate just how extended and how huge this battle was. The type of battle that people often imagine Kursk to be, that of the tanks ‘milling’ around each other in a great melee with guns ablaze and tanks exploding did happen at certain points but not all the time, probably the most famous of these battles within a battle was at Prokhorovka in the south of the salient.
This was on the 12 July as 600 panzers under the command of General Hoth tried to break through the Soviet lines. He was met by 850 Soviet tanks commanded by Lt-General Rotmistrov. These two generals had faced each other before at Stalingrad when Hoth had led forces trying to break through to relieve the trapped Germans. Rotmistrov had denied him on that occasion as well.
The two armies met on a narrow strip of land between the river Psel and a rail embankment. The area would have been quite pleasant to look at in peace time with its little hills, ravines and gullies and containing orchards and cornfields, but on that day, those cornfields contained anti-tank mines and Soviet anti-tank batteries using the Zis-11 57mm guns that could penetrate 140mm of armour at a range of 160ft. The two forces fought fiercely for eight hours amid burning wrecks and smoke so thick that tanks would often collide as drivers struggled to see anything at all. Both the Luftwaffe and the Red Airforce coming to the assistance of their respective ground forces found that they simply could not distinguish friend from foe and so simply fought each other in the skies above mirroring the carnage destruction and ferocity that was being enacted below in what became the costliest single day of aerial warfare in history . At the end of the eight hour struggle as night fell, the German forces that remained withdrew with not an inch of land ceded by the Soviet defenders. The events of this day have been the subject of many pictures by Soviet artists who have been faithful in their images to the reality of that epic fight.
On 16 July, German forces withdrew to their start line. Severely depleted, the Germans then had to face the wrath of the Soviets. The Soviet troops had done all that their leaders had asked of them and had soaked up everything that the Germans could throw at them suffering many casualties as a result but now it was their turn! An offensive was launched to smash the German forces in the Belgorod-Kharkov area which was launched on 3 August. Belgorod fell on 5 August, on the same day the Soviet 3rd Guards Tank Army entered Orel and by 18 August, the Bryansk Front had reached the city Bryansk. On 23 August, Kharkov fell. With the capture of Kharkov, the Soviets considered the Battle of Kursk over.
From now on the Germans would never launch another offensive operation in the East. The only tactics that would serve them now was defence and retreat all the way back to Germany.
Marshal Stalin paid tribute to this new outstanding victory in a special order of the day. A salute of guns in Moscow honoured the gallant troops who had liberated Orel and Belgorod. Since then salutes of guns in Moscow in celebration of victories became a regular wartime practice.
The defeat of the Germans at Kursk affected the whole subsequent course of the war. “If the Battle of Stalingrad presaged the decline of the German fascist army,” Stalin said, ” the Battle of Kursk brought it to the brink of disaster.”
Many books have been written on the Battle of Kursk, curiously very many of them by British ‘historians,’ ‘military experts’ and various other nonentities and charlatans. If you read any of these books (or all if you have some strange masochistic desire to dull your brain completely) you will be amazed that the Soviets won this battle or anything else.
We are told by some of our experts that if the Germans had struck sooner they would have won but that is ignoring reality as, of course, the Germans had to wait for reinforcements arriving before they could do anything because Stalingrad and the fierce drive of the Soviet fighting machine that created the Kursk salient had depleted their forces a little.
Another tall tale that is told is that the German Tiger tanks were so good that the Soviet T34s couldn’t match them and had to ram the Tigers in order to defeat them. The truth is that the Soviet tanks were not inferior in quality. Although the T-34 (mark 1) with its 76mm main gun was out-ranged by the German Tiger which had an 88mm gun, it was much faster and more manoeuvrable than the Tiger and so getting within range, where its canon was quite up to the job of destroying the Tiger, wasn’t a great problem. This was especially so during those eight hours outside of Prokhorovka when the whole day was spent fighting close up. It is also true, as is stated earlier, that during that close tank battle with burning oil creating thick black smoke everywhere, collisions happened but that has nothing to do with Soviet guns being useless. There is only one evidenced example of a T34 ramming a Tiger on that day and that was done by the driver of a hit tank whose wounded turret crew had baled out. The Tiger was bearing down on his wounded comrades and the driver rammed his burning tank at full speed into the side of the enemy after which there was an explosion that destroyed both tanks.
Apart from trying to rubbish the world leading military equipment of the Soviet Union another ploy is to ridicule the training and expertise of the Soviet soldiers. Let it be said that as far as expertise goes, many of the Soviet soldiers involved in the Battle of Kursk were also veterans of Stalingrad. As for their training, they held their lines against the German onslaught and then counter-attacked chasing their enemy all the way to Berlin. That speaks volumes for their training.
‘It was mistakes by Hitler and the German High Command that lost the war rather than the Russians winning it’ is another little gem we are often treated to but if they were so incompetent why could no-one else beat them until after the Soviets had kicked the stuffing from them?
Tied to this is the story that Hitler called a halt to ‘Citadel’ just as it was about to be successful because the British and Americans had landed in Sicily. This is utter rubbish! The Sicily landing took place on 10 July, if ‘Citadel’ was to be abandoned because of this, surely that was the point to do it, not wait until your forces had been terribly mauled in further battles? This has been a convenient but easily seen through excuse, Citadel was abandoned simply because the Germans couldn’t break the Soviet defences and to continue trying was just throwing away yet more troops and equipment.
One insufferable British ‘scholar’ of war on the Eastern Front went so far as to say that ‘The Battle of Kursk was no great victory, if even a victory at all, for the Soviets although it was a decisive defeat for the Germans!’
The last point that I would use here is the numbers of dead that are claimed by these ‘experts’. Every book has different figures quoted, one even having the number of Soviet dead at double that of the German. None are included in this presentation as the question is not as important in war as who has the impetus, the strategy, the initiative and the final victory.
Let us salute those heroes of the Soviet Union who fought to expel the German fascist invaders. Both those who gave their lives and health while doing so and those who saw it through to the bitter end.
Georgi Zhukov explained how the Soviet strategists approached the question of armed conflict and showed why they were able to beat the Nazi beast that had been considered by everyone else as unbeatable when he said:
“War is a science, a group of math problems, to be resolved by men and guns, in the time and space” .
Yet this is only half the story. A leadership that is totally organised constantly evaluating and re-evaluating on the basis of experience and information gained is excellent but it also needs a people totally committed to the defence of their land and their political system that gave them the real freedoms so desired by the vast masses of humanity. The Soviet people had total faith in their system and leadership and they fought a total war.