Archive for July 5th, 2009

The spring of 1943 saw a growing disquiet among Germany’s Generals and Field Marshals.  North Africa had been lost, and an invasion of Italy via Sicily was looking more and more like a possibility.

In the east, Stalingrad, after nearly being captured, had been lost, together with nearly a million men and massive amounts of equipment.  The tactics of Blitzkrieg, so successful against smaller countries, were vastly more difficult to execute in a country the size of Russia, where there was lots of “room for error” and plenty of time for the opposition to learn and adapt.

But in spite of all this, there was still reason for Teutonic optimism.  The Germans still had a solid front that ran from Leningrad and the Baltic Sea in the north to Rostov and the Black Sea in the south.  If you can find those two points on a map and draw a line between them, you essentially have the line of demarcation.

But towards the south, there was a curious depression in the line that looped to the west around the city of Kursk.  It became even more pronounced when Field Marshal Erich von Manstein recaptured Kharkov in March.  It was quickly decided to straighten the line, capture Kursk (and a bunch more Russians), and then make a concerted move toward the Don River.

The offensive, originally set for early May, was postponed numerous times and the reasons were all legitimate.  First, there were newer, more powerful tanks just starting to roll off the assembly line.  The Tiger and the Panther, both serious upgrades over the current marks, would clearly make a difference around Kursk, where the flat terrain was ideally suited for mechanized warfare.  And then the fall of Africa caused attention to be diverted as it was assumed that Italy would be invaded.

By the time all was said and done, March (when Kharkov was lost) had become early July.  This was particularly good news for the Russians, because they had access to the same maps as their counterparts.  And they could see the same salient around Kursk.  And they could pretty much guess the next target.  And espionage groups were giving them lots of good information.  And they were now experienced in Blitzkrieg warfare.  And they knew how to respond.

The area around Kursk became one of the most heavily defended places on the planet.  The Russians placed 1.3 million men in the salient, along with 3,600 tanks and nearly 3,000 aircraft.  Civilians helped bury a million anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.  Artillery pieces were everywhere.  The Russian plan was to give ground slowly, avoid the Blitzkrieg “pincer and encirclement” tactics, and simply grind down their German opponents before striking.

And on July 5, 1942, the Germans got an unpleasant 2:00am “wake up call” as the Russians unleashed a massive artillery bombardment (though they didn’t move forward).  The Germans now knew that the Russians knew what was coming…and that was probably a pretty bad feeling.  At 5:30am, the Germans (after collecting their wits), launched Operation Citadel with nearly a million men, more than 3,000 tanks, and aircraft numbering more than 2,000.  The area of dispute, a circle roughly 90 miles by 100 miles, would contain more firepower per square mile than nearly any battle in history.

The battle for the Kursk salient was on, and it would be one for the ages.

Recommended Reading:  Kursk 1943 – These Osprey books are small, but pack a great informative punch.

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