Battle of Kursk : The greatest tank confrontation in history

Battle of Kursk : The greatest tank confrontation in history
At Kursk, the German Army attempted to trap the Soviet forces and destroy the Russian Army caught in the middle, decisively turning the war in the East back in Germany’s favor after the disaster at Stalingrad. But the Germans met with fierce resistance.

Operation “Citadel,” also known as the Battle of Kursk, was scheduled for the first part of May, with the Russians not having the opportunity to rebuild their troops.

Although advised to start the operation, Hitler decided to postpone it several times, hoping to improve the ground forces by equipping the new Panther tanks, which were in production and which were to replace the Tiger tanks, tanks for which the construction costs were enormous. The objective was to encircle and destroy the Soviet troops.

On the 4th of July, on the eve of the attack, the confidence of the Germans is huge, and it is due to the new Panthers and the superiority of the Tiger tanks. In the early hours of July 5, the attack began. 

German forces near Kursk numbered over 900,000 soldiers, 10,000 guns, 2,700 tanks and 2,000 aircraft. It was the tanks that led the attack. 

Panther, for the first time in action

The new Panthers, an answer to the devastating Soviet T-34 tanks, are quickly proving their superiority alongside the Tiger tanks

Battle of Kursk : The greatest tank confrontation in history
Panther Tank

The high-velocity cannon, the sloping and thick armor, and the mobility were all enormous advantages that seemed very effective.

The battle begins with the right for the Germans and Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Southern Army, which has most Tiger tanks and all the new Panthers, advancing almost 10 miles.

This is the first time Panther tanks have seen action. Their firepower proved very effective, but there was one big problem caused by the haste in which they were manufactured: with an extremely powerful and complex engine, Panther tanks were always breaking down. The complexity of Panther tanks made it almost impossible to repair them directly in the field.

Soviet defensive lines

While tank reliability was a real problem for the Germans, they were also to discover that the Russians had many defensive lines. The delay of Operation “Citadel” and the information obtained by the Russian secret services allowed the Red Army to prepare for the Nazi attack, building a vast line of defense to repel the attack. Russian fortifications stretched more than 200 km behind the front. The Germans had to cut their way through well-developed defensive lines, through trenches, tank traps, and casemates.

Along the defensive line at Kursk, the Russians outnumbered troops, guns and tanks by a ratio of 3 to 1. In scenes reminiscent of the First World War, the Russians were prepared to throw more and more soldiers and vehicles into battle, confident that they could be replaced.

Prokhorovka, the biggest tank battle

Six days after the start of the operation, on July 11, 1943, Marshal Erich von Manstein’s army destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks with little loss. The Germans were euphoric. They believed that the power of the German army could not be defeated. The superiority of German weapons and tactics seemed to have broken through the Soviet defenses, and the road to Kursk was open. They were wrong.

On July 12, 1943, the largest single-field tank battle took place near the town of Prohorovka. The German tanks are again outnumbered more than three times while dozens of Soviet tanks launch the attack. Russian losses are terrible. Almost 200 tanks in one day, while the Germans only lost five.

Even as the Germans shoot down scores of T-34s south of Kursk, in the north, the Red Army launches a massive operation with over 1,000,000 soldiers and 3,500 tanks. 

Regardless of the huge losses suffered by the Soviets, Hitler had the feeling that their resources were unlimited. The situation would worsen as a new threat arose to the South.

In July 1943, British and American forces landed in Sicily, Italy. There was a danger that Italy, Germany’s ally, would be overwhelmed and defeated. Hitler is forced to make a radical decision on strategy and withdraw units from the East. Marshal Erich von Manstein is aware that such a decision would endanger success at Kursk, but the Fuhrer’s decision is final, considering a much greater strategic danger for Germany. After all, Sicily was much closer to Berlin than distant Kursk.

Battle of Kursk : The greatest tank confrontation in history

Operation “Citadel” canceled

Thus, the operation “Citadel” is canceled.  At Kursk, the Germans lost nearly 57,000 soldiers, compared to nearly 178,000 Russians. But they still fail to achieve their goal.

Hitler dismissed Marshal Erich von Manstein in March 1944. After the war, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for war crimes but was released after four years. He would die in 1973.

The Battle of Kursk witnessed a total and devastating war. For all their German technological superiority, they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Soviet troops and Stalin’s determination to sacrifice whatever was necessary to stop them.

Nazi Germany would never again advance in the East.

The Battle of Kursk marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.