All news

July 5 marks 75 years since start of history’s largest armor battle

Historian Alexei Issayev has prepared this comment for TASS regarding the combat operation has gone down in the military history of the world as the largest-ever battle of armored troops

MOSCOW, July 5. /TASS/. July 5, 2018, marks 75 years since the beginning a landmark operation of World War II, the Battle of the Kursk Salient. Historian Alexei Issayev has prepared this comment for TASS regarding the combat operation has gone down in the military history of the world as the largest-ever battle of armored troops.

By April 1943, the impulse for the offensive, which the Red Army received after the crushing defeat of Nazi forces near Stalingrad at the beginning of the same year was largely warn out and the Soviet troops went over to defensive operations at the recommendation of the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces, Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

Switching over to the defensive tactics seemed to be only correct decision. For the first time since the beginning of the war on the Soviet front, the Soviet military commanders received the data on the enemy’s plans. The German forces were preparing for an offensive under a plan codenamed Zitadelle [Citadel] that envisioned the leveling of a bulge in the German-held areas near the city of Kursk [530 km to the south of Moscow], the encirclement of Soviet troops there and a further breakthrough deep into the Soviet territory.

Hitler provided a general outline of Germany’s summer campaign in his directive No. 6 issued on April 15, 1943. Wehrmacht put stakes on the new armored technologies, which it hoped to use as a battering ram for breaking up the Red Army defense lines.

Time went on and on but the German offensive did not begin somehow. Some of the top Soviet commanders came up with proposals in spring 1943 to attack first but Joseph Stalin raised objections to them. "Stalin did not make a secret of his worries about the ability of our troops to withstand a strike by the large masses of Nazi tanks," Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky wrote in his memoirs later.

Stalin’s misgivings were quite grounded, as the results of shelling of captured Tiger tanks at Soviet testing ranges were bewildering. The gun of the Soviet T-34 tank did not pierce the Tigers’ side armor even from a distance of 200 meters.

"We don’t have the guns that could struggle with these tanks successfully enough," Artillery Marshal Nikolai Voronov admitted at a process meeting at Stalin’s office.

Hitler had to put off Operation Citadel because of the necessity to do personnel replacements on the frontlines and to put new hardware into service. As a result, Nazi forces launched the offensive on July 5, 1943.

They were astonished by the presence of expansive minefields the Red Army had managed to install literally weeks before the German tank offensive. Also, the long pause in active operations enabled the Soviet command to accumulate considerable reserves of munitions, including the shells for heavy artillery guns.

The Red Army strategists had some unpleasant surprises, too. Although they had knowledge of the overall German plan, the pattern of distribution of combat forces between the northern and southern flanks of the Kursk Salient was not anticipated.

The Supreme High Command believed the Nazis would deliver the most powerful strike at the units reporting to Gen Konstantin Rokossovsky but, in reality, the more powerful assault came at the southern flank and targeted the troops under the command of Gen Nikolai Vatutin.

While the attack on the southern flank involved 1,500 German tanks, the assault in the north involved an armor grouping of 1,000 tanks. Because of this gap in the defenses of the Voronezh Front appeared right on the first day of the German offensive. The efforts to rectify the situation required an immediate engagement of reserve units.

The Battle of Kursk Salient is associated by and large with armor operations and these associations are fully justified, as both warring sides used tanks and armored vehicles very extensively in it. The Soviet troops used tanks both in counteroffensives and in the role of ‘mobile strongholds’ cementing the defense. Particularly large tank battles unfolded near the villages of Prokhorovka and Yakovlevo on the southern flank of the salient and in the Soborovsky field on the northern flank.

The concept of the Soviet command for the summer of 1943 presuppose a combination of defense and the offensive. The defensive plans for the Voronezh Front on the southern flank and for the Central Front on the northern flank combined with the offensives to be conducts by the troops of the Western and Bryansk Fronts and, on a broader geographic plane, with the offensives in Donbass.

This tactics forced Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre to halt attacks and to dismantle the strike grouping hastily to repel the Red Army strikes along the Oryol section of the salient.

The Soviet operation received the codename ‘Kutuzov’ after the famous Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov who commanded Russian forces during the Napoleonic war of 1812. The opinion that Germany had to stop Operation Citadel because of the landfall of allied forces in Sicily does not have any documented confirmations. The most obvious causes for it were the Soviet offensives near Oryol and in Donbass.

Local fighting continued on the southern flank of the Kursk Salient for several days after July 12, 1943. The Soviet counteroffensive known as Operation Rumyantsev began in August 1943 and brought about heavy losses of Germany’s armor, which had to be evacuated from the battlegrounds following mine explosions and artillery shelling.

The Wehrmacht did not have enough time to repair the evacuated tanks. Eventually, these losses forced Army Group South to retreat hastily towards the River Dnieper.

In terms of chronology, the Battle of the Kursk Salient ended on August 23, 1943, the day when the Red Army liberated Kharkov, even though the combat actions under the plan of Operation Rumyantsev continued for another week as a minimum.

The battle became one the milestone events of World War II. It brought together 4 million men and officers on both sides, more than 10,000 tanks and 11,000 warplanes.

For the German commanders, Zitadelle became the last chance for intercepting strategic initiative and the failure in it entailed far-reaching consequences.

First, the reserves of armor accumulated over a long time turned out to be out of order - both in the course of this operation and the failed counteroffensive of Soviet troops.

Secondly, the repelling of Soviet attacks during Operation Kutuzov and Operation Rumyantsev inflicted sizable losses on manpower of Army Group Centre and Army Group South and reduced the fighting capability of infantry units dramatically.

In the light of it, the anti-Hitler coalition managed to seize strategic initiative.