This was the last and perhaps least written-about offensive on the Eastern front. It was July, 1943, and perhaps the greatest tank battle in history was about to be fought. Just under 2 million troops were involved on the Russian and German sides; four thousand aircraft were to fly over and around the battlefield, and no less than six thousand tanks were at the ready. Just these statistics should have been enough to encourage twenty Hollywood, European or Russian films to have been made of the conflict. I cannot trace even one.
Hitler had finally been beaten at Stalingrad (originally Volgograd named after the river); but the Fuehrer wished to regain the initiative, even after the expensive thrashing he had received. He was told there was a salient, perhaps one hundred miles deep and one hundred and fifty miles wide, near Kursk (taken again by the Red Army in February).
Hitler’s generals were tempted to place assaults from both the north and south, thus sealing the salient and cutting off five Soviet armies. But his enemy knew what Hitler would attempt, and what is more knew the details of the plan. Their efficient (as usual) intelligence services had told Stalin. Then there was a clash of minds: Marshal Zhukov, a superb soldier, wanted defence in depth to wear the Germans down little by little. Then he would call up large reserves. Stalin, a civilian politician in uniform, preferred a pre-emptive strike because he, unlike Zhukov didn’t care about loss of life and decimation of brigades. Luckily Zhukov won the face-off because Stalin was sensible enough to listen to the man of war.
There could not have been any doubt about the outcome: in the Kursk pocket were 40% of the Red Army, and 75% of its armoured vehicles. But if by some miracle the Germans won, they would be able to recover the south or move in an arc to the north-east behind Moscow.
The battle was scheduled for May, 1943 but had to be postponed while the Germans brought up more tanks. The Russians waited patiently, as is their wont, or so the historians would have us believe. They took advantage of these sixty days to build eight concentric lines of defence and mass more than a million troops in the salient. They had with them two fearsome new weapons, the huge SU 122 tank, and an even bigger anti-tank gun, the SU 152. The latter could take out the best of the German tanks, the Panther and Tiger.
The German Army attacked on 5th July but gained only six miles in the north. Von Manstein (q.v.), as could be expected did better in the south, advancing more than twenty miles before being stopped. On 12 July the Soviets counter-attacked, and Hitler (in Berlin we assume) ordered troops to be moved to the west because the Allies, with unusually good timing, had invaded Sicily on 10 July. It must have been sickening for Manstein because by the 23 July the Germans were back where they started and their ‘victory’ had changed into defeat with their armies in danger of being cut off by Soviet attacks north of the salient and south towards Karkov.
In this battle Hitler lost 70,000 (seventy-thousand) men, 300 tanks and 1400 aircraft. Soviet losses are not detailed but were probably less, but the difference is that the Russians could easily make up their losses while the Germans could not. The Wehrmacht had suffered as great a disaster as their failure at Stalingrad. With losses like these they could not mount any more offensives on the eastern front. Von Manstein executed a brilliant withdrawal to Poland and was dismissed by Hitler in March 1944. He was certainly the most able of all German high commanders, proposed as Commander-in-Chief when Hitler had removed von Brauchitsch, though this did not happen. After the War he was tried by a British-only military court in 1949, sent to prison for eighteen years, but released only four years later on health grounds.