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Within the historiography of the German-Soviet side of the Second World War, the battle of Kursk occupies a unique place. A gigantic material battle, marked by an armor clash of unprecedented magnitude, it represents one of those turning points of World War II. In Kursk the Wehrmacht ofHitlerThe year 1943 played out. Success would have enabled her to shorten the front she was holding and thus free up reserves while undermining still uncertain Soviet morale. With its victory, the Soviet Union proved to the whole world that the German armored weapon (Panzerwaffe) was not invincible. There, she acquired the serenity necessary for the great liberating offensives of 1944.
Operation Citadel, a new Hitler bet
In the spring of 1943, the strategic options of the Hitler Reich were limited. Faced with the Western allies, since the Casablanca conference (January 1943), it is no longer possible to hope to negotiate. Stalin who may have saved his regime in Stalingrad, is in a strong position. On a material and industrial level, Germany faces the specter of a war of attrition that it cannot win. It is therefore condemned to play its all in a new offensive.
The latter, for obvious reasons (80% of German resources are concentrated in the East) can only intervene against the Soviets. It is first of all a question of erasing the trauma of the catastrophe of the Battle of Stalingrad, but also of reassuring the allies of Germany in difficulty (whether Italy, Hungary or from Romania). With a new victorious offensive in the east, Hitler also intends to bleed dry a Soviet Union which he considers weakened by two years of war and thus build up a strategic reserve capable of protecting "fortress Europe" (Festung Europa).
A factor likely to reinforce the optimism of Berlin, the real start of the war economy (the famous Totaler Krieg of the speech of Goebbels of February 43) organized by Speer. This notably made it possible to reconstitute the German offensive weapon par excellence: the armored troops. Under the leadership of the general Guderian (now inspector general of armored vehicles), it strengthened and reorganized itself, drawing lessons from clashes with Soviet armored formations (and their famous T-34). Hitler has high hopes for new materials like tanks Tiger or the chariotPanther (which nevertheless suffer from numerous mechanical defects), able to face the most powerful Soviet tanks.
Once the decision was made to return to the offensive in the east in 1943, it was still necessary to determine where. A quick examination of the map of the front at this time offers a quick and obvious answer: to Kursk. Indeed there is a rectangular salient of about 180km (north-south) by 140 (east-west), the result of the Soviet winter offensives. In the center, the city of Kursk, an important railway junction, offers an excellent starting point for a Red Army attack whether it is to the south (Kharkov) or the north (Orel).
By attacking Kursk in a somewhat preventive manner, the German general staff intends operationally to deprive Stalin of his best units (Center Front and Voronezh Front) and shorten his front by almost 280km (i.e. a saving of some twenty divisions ). Given the shape of the salient, Operation Citadel will take the classic form of a pincer attack. The southern clamp is the responsibility of the Marshal's army group Von Manstein. Manstein, who enjoys Hitler’s confidence due to his ability to turn the most desperate situations around, has some impressive lineups on paper. On the left the 4th Armored Army ofHermann Hoth : 10 divisions (including the elite armored and mechanized formations like the SS armored corps of Raise), 200,000 men and around 1,100 tanks. On the right the army detachment Kempf which aligns in particular 3 armored divisions. The north clamp is the responsibility of the only 9th army of the general Model. Popular with his men, but particularly brutal Model, who is an expert in the defense, lines up 21 divisions (including 7 armored and mechanized) that is 335,000 men and nearly 900 armored vehicles.
Due to the temperament of the two leaders concerned and the disproportion of their forces (and the air support that a Luftwaffe can offer already reduced by the lack of fuel), it quickly appears that the main part of the offensive effort will be borne by Manstein's units. Unlike Model, the winner of Sevastopol believes that even the fortifications and the depth of the Soviet defensive system will not be able to stop his tanks. Unfounded optimism, due in large part to the inadequacies of German intelligence ...
A recurring fact of the German-Soviet war, German military intelligence seriously underestimates the power of the Red Army. On the other hand, if the Soviets are masters in the art of disinformation, they are fully aware of German intentions thanks to the partisans and to a sophisticated listening system. They will thus be able to set up a formidable defensive system. In March 1943, troops and civilians (over 300,000!) From the Kursk region established eight lines of defense 300 km deep. Trenches, minefields, fortified points are supposed to channel the German attack formations, which it will be up to armored reserves to destroy. Everything is concealed using proven techniques from maskirovka, which will explain that the Germans will never be aware of the defensive potential deployed against them. There is no doubt that if Model had known that his 9e army would have to deal with 80,000 mines, 2,800 artillery pieces and 537 multiple rocket launchers, he would have thought twice before launching the assault.
It is clear that Stalin; which now leaves more latitude to the Soviet generals, allocated considerable resources to the defense of the Kursk salient. It is that the master of the USSR intends to make this salient a point of attachment for the best German units, so that his own offensives can develop serenely (primarily Operation Kutusov towards Orel). North facing Model the General Rokossovsky (of Polish origin and victim of the 1937 purges) leads the central front. A brilliant officer, he has several armies to carry out his task (the Soviet armies, as well as their divisions are smaller than their German equivalents), i.e. a total of 700,000 men and 1,800 tanks (not all T34s, far from it, however. ). If Model must break through in two days, Rokossoskvi has time on his side and the possibility of using the reserves wisely accumulated in his rear by Stalin.
Against Manstein, it is the Voronezh Front of the young general Vatutin (42 years old) who is aligned. Native of the region and knowing his opponent well, Vatoutine has 6 armies (two of which will not be attacked and will act as a reserve). The whole represents 625,000 men and 1,700 tanks. Not enough to prevent Manstein's offensive from unfolding, but enough to prepare for a deadly counterattack ... Indeed, Vatoutin like Rokossovsky, knows that in the long run he can benefit from the help of two accumulated reserve groups (including the Front de la Steppe) behind the salient. In order to coordinate their action, the STAVKA (Soviet High Command) will dispatch to Kursk its two best officers the brutal Zhukov and calm Vasilyevsky. A shock duo that complement each other wonderfully, quite able to compete with its Germanic opponents.
Two weeks to change the course of the war
After several postponements, partly due to Hitler's desire to equip his armored formations with the most recent equipment (Panthers tanks among others), the start date of Operation Citadel was set for July 4, 1943. Having enjoyed a Careful preparation of 4 months, it begins at 4 p.m. with the entry into the running of the Luftwaffe Stukas. It is a matter of preparing the push of Hoth's 4th Armored Army which opens the way on the ground. Faced with the brutality of the mechanized assault Vatutin is not surprised and reacts calmly. The Soviet defense which leans on heights is fierce. Soviet counter-battery fire is precise, minefields deadly. In the air, red-star planes greatly hamper a Luftwaffe crippled by lack of fuel. The height of bad luck for Hoth, the 200 Panthers who are his spearhead are victims of repeated mechanical troubles. On the evening of July 6, its breakthrough reached only a few kilometers, where in 1941 it would have reached several dozen.
For Model, the situation is even more painful. The leader of the 9e The army has cautiously opted for the Soviet method: assault by infantry, then exploitation by tanks (as Hoth rushes forward with his tanks in the lead… German style). However, late in the night of the 4th to the 5th the establishment of these units was complicated by the activity of an admirably informed Soviet artillery (by deserters among others). As in the south, the resistance of the Red Army is vigorous and the minefields considerably delay the German advance. On the evening of July 5, the 9e army has driven a wedge 20km wide by 7 deep, at the cost of nearly 10% of its potential (the equivalent of the reserves that can reach it). It’s too expensive and too little, considering that 6 Rokossovsky is already launching its counteroffensive. The assault lacked coordination and represented a bloodbath for the Soviets, but the 9e army loses 24 more hours. Enough for Rokossovsky to learn from his failure and reorganize his system.
The Battle of Kursk, the last of the great German offensives in the east
In the south July 6 finally brings good news to the Germans. The 2e SS Armored Corps (Hausser) has the chance to strike in a relatively undefended area and pierces towards Prokhorovka. On the 7th, the breakthrough extended to the rest of Hoth's army and the 2e the Soviet line of defense was crossed everywhere. A real crisis is playing out within Vatutin's staff, which obtains from Stalin a massive dispatch of reserve formations, particularly the 5the Romistrov's Guard Tank Army (coming from Voronezh). Despite Vatutin's concerns, Stalin has some reason to view the continuation of the operations with optimism. The Kempf Army Detachment has not had the same success as the Hoth Armored Army, and to the north Model is hardly advancing.
It must be said that the 9e The army suffered the full brunt of the wear and tear of its formations, which were increasingly exposed to Soviet aircraft. On July 9, Model, who failed to maneuver and was locked into a logic of frontal assault, also gave in the strongest sectors of Rokossovsky's device. A defense specialist, Model quickly realized he couldn't break through. Worried about his northern flank (the final preparations for Operation Kutusov were beginning to be spotted by the Germans), his superior Marshal Von Kluge (Army Group Center) ordered him to start a withdrawal from July 12. The Soviets then won half of the Battle of Kursk.
So it’s up to Von Manstein to make the difference. He is optimistic, certainly because he ignores the importance of the reserves that the Soviets will throw in his way. From 9 to 12 due to the disposition of the Soviet forces, Hoth ended up directing his effort towards Prokhorovka, whose route seemed to have been cleared by the SS Panzers. He intends to destroy the armored reserve of Vatoutine there, which would open the road to Kursk for him. Yet he will be surprised, just like Hausser and his SS, by the assault on the Tanks of the Romistrov.
On July 12, on a front of 8 km on either side of the local railway line, the cream of Soviet and German armored weapons will face each other. Extremely tough fight, Prokhorovka, magnified by Soviet propaganda, if according to the most recent research does not constitute the " Panzerwaffe swan song », However, represents very bad news for Manstein. The SS tanks admittedly obtained a measured defensive victory there, but they suffered heavy losses and were unable to seize their objective at the Prokhorovka railway junction.
The 13th Hitler summons Manstein and Kluge to his HQ in Rastenburg in East Prussia. Hausser's failure has worried him, but he's even more concerned about more news. 3 days earlier the Western allies landed in Sicily and seized Syracuse. Faced with the ineffectiveness of the Italian defense, the island can be considered lost in the short term. Hitler therefore had no choice but to assemble a reserve army to secure the southern flank of Fortress Europe. The latter must rely on politically secure elements: Hausser's SS. Deprived of his spearhead, Hoth would therefore no longer be able to advance significantly. Citadel was therefore suspended and came to a definitive end on the 17th. The Führer lost his bet and the initiative on the Eastern Front. All the German armies have to do is retreat ...
A turning point in the second world war
The German failure to capture Kursk and wipe out the Center and Voronezh Fronts there represents a serious setback for the Hitler Reich. The eastern front has not been shortened and the constitution of a strategic reserve will only come at the expense of the operational situation vis-à-vis the Red Army. Worse, Operation Citadel, despite the losses it entailed for the Red Army (255,000 men, against 60,000 Germans) will not prevent the Soviets from launching Operation Kutousov on July 12. In Kursk the myth of the invincibility of the German armored weapon is dead once and for all. It was with a new spirit and reinforced by its confidence in its own abilities in mechanized combat that the Red Army entered the summer of 1943. Victory could no longer escape it.
- Kursk: The forty days which ruined the Wehrmacht (July 5 - August 20, 1943) of Jean Lopez. Economica, 2008.
- Kursk: The biggest tank battle in the history of François de Lannoy. Heimdal, 1998.
- Erich Von Manstein: The strategist of Hitler by Benoît Lemay. Tempus, 2010.
- The Battle of Kursk by Yves Buffetaut. History and Collection, 2000.