“With the failure of “Citadel” we suffered a decisive defeat. The armoured formations, reformed and re-equipped with so much effort, had lost heavily in both men and equipment and would now be unemployable for a long time to come. It was problematical whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern Front… Needless to say the Russians exploited their victory to the full. There were to be no more periods of quiet on the Eastern Front. From now on, the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative.”
– German General Heinz Guderian.
The Russian Army launched a counter-offensive on today’s date, July 12 in 1943, code-named Operation Kutuzov (after the General who turned back Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia). And, as testified by General Guderian above, the German Army was at long last put on the defensive, and would remain so for the rest of the war. The tide of Nazi aggression which had begun being drawn back with the German defeat at Stalingrad was finally and decisively turned with this Russian onslaught.
The Wehrmacht Back On Its Haunches
Hitler’s prestige had taken an enormous blow with the defeat and capture of an entire German army, or rather it’s remains in the Battle of Stalingrad on January 31, 1943. He hoped to regain the initiative by closing off the Kursk salient, an enormous bulge of many miles in the lines centered around the city of Kursk, an important railroad junction north of the city of Kharkov. He hoped that the old tried and true
method of Blitzkrieg (“Lightening war”) would take the Russian defenders by suprise, and give his armies a much straighter and shorter line to defend – perhaps even allow for further attacks on Moscow. Unfortunately for Hitler and his armies, Russian Marshall Zukhov had as early as April seen that the Kursk salient was the obvious place for a German offensive, and had begun fortifying it with tons of armour, trenches and field mines. Hitler began pouring men and material into the theater, and delayed his planned offensive, code-named “Citadel” countless times. This was very contrary to the instincts of his commander, General von Manstein. Von Manstein was a brilliant tactician, and a proponent of attacking quickly. But Hitler wanted to wait until he had heavily reinforced his tank forces with Panther tanks and the new and fearsome “Tiger” tank.
The Russian’s Yak Fighter and the Mighty T 34!!
But the Russians countered with some weapons of their own. Russian industrial capacity had recovered from the damage suffered in the original German attacks of 1941, and had produced some very formidable weapons. The YAK series of fighters were simply built owing to the limitations of Russian industry, but they were highly maneuverable, and could withstand the rigors of the harsh Russian winter. And in the T-34 (pictured, above left), Russian industry produced what is judged by many military historians to have been the finest tank of the war. With it’s broad tracks and low ground bearing pressure, the T-34 could keep going on soft terrain where the heavier German tanks would frequently become bogged down. And very importantly the T-34 had been designed with armour that was everywhere possible sloped at 60 degrees to the angle of attack, thus doubling the protection of the armour carried without increasing it’s thickness or it’s weight. At a mere 31 tons the T 34 was a featherweight to the massive 56 ton Tiger, but was more maneuverable and was in the end, a better tank.
The Germans Attack the Kursk Salient
The German attack commenced on July 5. The idea was for simultaneous German attacks at the north and south ends of the salient to surprise the Russians and force a closure of the salient, thus trapping a large number of Russian forces. But as noted the Russians were not at all surprised.
In fact after some initial tactical successes in which the German forces penetrated deep into the Russian defenses particularly on the southern end of the salient, it became apparent that the offensive was running out of steam. When the Germans managed to push near the city of Prokhorovka, Zhukov decided to unleash his reserve forces on them. On this date – July 12, the Russians launched a counterattack. A ferocious tank battle — the largest tank engagement in military history — ensued. The lighter T34s were able to get in among the heavy German Tigers, denying them the kind of open country attack in which the Tiger specialized. Russian communiques spoke of knocking out 586 German tanks in one day. Even if this figure was inflated it was clear that the Germans were suffering losses on an unprecedented scale. This figure captured the imagination of the Russian people like nothing ever before had done. The fighting ground on until August 5. Although Russian losses were also quite extensive, coming as it did following the defeat at Stalingrad, and directly on the heels of Allied landings in Sicily, the blow to the mystique of the previously invincible Wehrmacht was terrible. Estimates are that the Germans lost over 70,000 men, 2900 tanks and 1300 planes. The Russian dictator Stalin triumphantly issued the following proclamation:
“Tonight at twenty-four o’clock, on August 5, the capital of our country, Moscow will salute the valiant troops that liberated Orel and Belograd with twelve artillery salvoes from 120 guns. I express my thanks to all the troops that took part in the offensive…Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in the struggle for the freedom of our country. Death to the German invaders!”
The long and grueling campaign to push the German attackers back from the very gates of Moscow all the way to the wreckage of Berlin had begun.
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“Panzer Leader” by General Heinz Guderian,E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1952.
“Russia at War” by Alexander Werth Carroll & Graf Publ. Inc., New York,1964′ pp 679-687
Tank: A History of the Armoured Fighting Vehicle – Kenneth Macksey & Jon H. Batchelor Ballantine Books, New York, 1971 pp. 113,119.
“World War II” by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publ., New York 1960 pp. 420,445.