WWII’s Greatest Battle: How Kursk Changed the War

Perhaps the most important battle of World War II was a giant clash of tanks between Germans and Russians. By Andrew Roberts.

Hulton Archive/Getty,Hulton Archive

The statistics relating to the Battle of Kursk—the great showdown between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in July 1943—still have the power to astonish, even 70 years later. Almost 3 million men, a full eight thousand tanks, and nearly five thousand warplanes broke all records for both the costliest single day of aerial warfare and the largest tank battle in the history of mankind. If the Germans had broken through the Russian lines in the Kursk salient and scored a decisive victory over the Red Army, it is perfectly possible that they might have turned back the tide of war in their direction, despite their defeats at Moscow and Stalingrad in 1941 and 1942, respectively.

Yet compared with the battles of Guadalcanal, Midway, D-Day, Arnhem, and the Bulge, the great clash at Kursk is very little known in the West and hailed only by aficionados, despite its dwarfing each of those other battles in size and indeed in importance. The veteran historian Dennis Showalter, whose many excellent books on the war form a remarkable canon of military history writing, makes a convincing case in this well-researched and well-written book that Kursk should be seen as the key turning point of the war, even more important than Stalingrad in its long-term implications. “The battle of Kursk was the Eastern Front’s transition point,” Showalter argues with a conviction supported by well-deployed evidence, “and its point of no return.”

Kursk lies 315 miles south of Moscow and straddles the main Moscow-Rostov railway line. By the spring of 1943 it was the center of a Russian-held protuberance, or “salient,” jutting 120 miles wide and 90 miles deep into the German lines. Unfortunately for the Germans, even the most cursory glance at the map made it completely obvious where they would therefore attack. A pincer movement directly to the north and south of Kursk would have pinched off the salient, and lead to the destruction of Marshal Rokossovsky’s Central army in its north and Marshal Vatutin’s Voronezh army to the south.

Hitler flew to see Field Marshal Erick von Manstein on the front line for three days on Feb. 17, 1943, coming so close to the enemy that some Soviet T-34 tanks even got to within firing range of the airfield. Because the next move was so obvious to all, Manstein wanted to undertake it as early as possible, ideally in early March, but the go-ahead for Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel) was postponed by the Fuhrer until the ground had thoroughly thawed. Hitler, who had put Manstein’s recapture of Kharkov largely down to the new Tiger tank, of which he thought one battalion was worth a division of other tanks, also wanted to wait until the Tiger had come fully on stream before launching Citadel. As only a dozen were being produced per week at that time, this was a major impediment to the early action for which Manstein was rightly pushing. Meanwhile, the Russians made the salient virtually impregnable.

With the attack postponed by the Fuhrer time and again, by early July the Germans faced a truly forbidding task. In some sectors of the Russian defensive areas, artillery regiments outnumbered infantry by five to one, with more than 20,000 guns trained on the oncoming Wehrmacht tanks. These included more than 6,000 76.2mm anti-tank guns and 920 Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. Furthermore, the cannon and armor-piercing bombs of Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft posed a mortal peril for the German tanks. By employing the entire civilian population of the Kursk region, as well as the army, no fewer than 3,000 miles of trenches were dug by the Russians, and countless miles of barbed wire and obstacles, some of which were electrified were also in place, along with automatic flame-throwers. Some defensive zones were four miles deep, and no fewer than 2,200 anti-tank and 2,500 anti-personnel mines had been laid across every single mile of the front, a density four times that which had defended Stalingrad and six times that of Moscow. In all, more than half a million anti-tank mines and nearly 440,000 anti-personnel mines were laid. The Germans nevertheless attacked with bravery bordering on desperation, but were stopped after dogged Russian resistance.

After their defeat at Kursk, the Germans never again looked like they might win the war on the Eastern Front, the theater that held the key to overall victory in the war. Showalter puts forward some convincing explanations both for the Russian victory and the German defeat, in a book that—as its title implies—looks at both the hardware used and the individuals who employed it. When the Soviets brought out an updated version of the T-34 in April 1943, its 85mm gun was in the author’s opinion, “a battlefield match for the Germans’ big cats” (ie. the panzers and tigers). The JS-II tank, named after Joseph Stalin, was even better than the T-34, and mounted a 122mmm gun, the largest caliber of any tank of the war.

Yet in the end it came down to the men operating such machinery, and the speed with which they could adapt to the new tactics. Showalter commends but is under no illusions about the ordinary Russian defending his Motherland. “Russian soldiers were drawn from a society and culture where suffering pain and inflicting it were the stuff of everyday,” he notes, and by 1943 they were much better at inflicting pain on the Germans than they had been when Hitler invaded two years earlier. And there were many, many more of them.