Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Robin Cross - The Battle of Kursk: Operation Citadel 1943

Stalingrad was the turning point of the World War Two on the Eastern Front. The destruction of the German Sixth Army marked a major change for the fight against Hitler. But the subsequent battle for Kursk, that developed out of the relative positions of the German and Russian armies at the end of 1942 was the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The German debacle at Stalingrad gave the Russians the opportunity to strike rapidly westwards, which they seized. But, as the German army recovered, the Russians lines were left with an enormous bulge, the Kursk salient, which stretched deep into German territory. This was a weak point for the Russian army, and the high-command were sure that German armies would be unable to resist attacking from the north and south in an attempt to behead the Red Army's troops within the salient.

Robin Cross details the extraordinary battle that followed. Firstly he shows how reluctant many of the German leaders were to engage in battle. After Stalingrad they had developed a healthy respect for their enemy's capabilities. Hitler too prevaricated, initially enthusiastic for Operations Citadel, he then began delaying it for weeks. In part this helped sow the seeds of defeat, for the Russians were able to pour enormous quantities of troops and material into the Salient, building up what is likely to have been histories greatest defence in depth. Millions of mines, thousands of guns and tanks, and above all millions of men.

Cross' descriptions of the build up to the battle are surprisingly readable, combining military history with the story of the various contrasting leadership styles. Hitler is increasingly unable to relinquish the reins of power, his inflexibility and in particular his terror at the idea of retreat, even tactically, condemns many men to death and armies to defeat. But by 1943 German industry was also problematic. The powerful Tiger tank could not, despite Hitler's fantasies, be produced fast enough to win the battle. But these weren't the only factors. The German army was also failing to learn lessons, and was preparing its Blitzkrieg for Kursk. Tactics that worked well in 1941 with the wide open spaces available during the opening assault on Russia, were inappropriate the what would be a close in style of warfare.

Nonetheless when the battle came, the Germans came close. The Russian airforce was initially driven from the skies and Cross relates terrifying eyewitness accounts of how, one after another, Russian T34 tanks were destroyed by the heavier German armour. But defence  in depth, and enormous Russian sacrifice, as well as brilliant commanding meant the Red Army could hold the attack. And then, unleash the counter-attack which the Germans had no expectation off. This counter-attack was to destroy German ability to engage in offensive attacks in the East and transform the situation post Kursk. German manpower and resources were reduced to nothing, a situation summarized by a leaflet dropped on the German defenders of Kharkov by the Russian airforce,

"Comrades of the 3rd Panzer Division, we know that you are brave soldiers. Every other man in your division has the Iron Cross. But every other man on our side has a mortar. Surrender!"

The German commander, General Manstein, met with Hitler and his subordinate, Hollidt presented the Fuhrer with figures that underlined the seriousness of the situation.

"My XXIX Corps has 8706 men left. Facing it are 69,000 Russians. My XVII corps has 9284 men; facing it are 49,500 Russians. My IV Corps is relatively best off - it has 13,143 men, faced by 18,000 Russians."

Hitler dodged the situation. More obsessed with Allied landings in Sicily and Italy he prevaricated and made impossible promises. The Red Army followed up the attack out of Kursk by driving the Germans across the Dnieper river. As one German German reflected "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."

The story of this crucial battle of World War Two is brilliantly told in this classic book. Robin Cross never fails to remind us though, that the battle which is inevitably described as history's greatest tank battle, was in reality a battle that involved millions of men. It is perhaps this approach that makes this such a readable work. But it is the scale of the battle itself that makes it so shocking, among all the troops movements described in achingly accurate detail, we are never able to forget that these are real men, fighting and dying.

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1 comment:


War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.