It is 75 years since the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. More than 3,000,000 men and 8,000 tanks met, 400 miles south of Moscow. Yet today, once again, German tanks are facing Russian tanks, just a few hundred miles from the site of that battle.
The Battle of Kursk turned the war on the eastern front. In the aftermath of the Red Army’s bloody resistance at Stalingrad, Hitler believed that a victory would reassert German strength. The Germans hoped to cut off and envelop Soviet forces in the Kursk salient, a 160-mile-long bulge of Soviet-held land.
The battle began with Operation Citadel (Zitadelle) on July 5, 1943. The Germans had delayed the offensive while they tried to build up their forces, giving the Red Army time to construct a series of concrete bunkers and minefields and establish a large reserve force for counter-offensives. The Germans threw themselves on these defences, suffering massive losses. After the German offensive stalled in the north, the Soviets attacked their rear and the south, leading to the Battle of Prokhorovka, an armoured clash between the 5th Guards Tank Army and the II SS Panzer Corps. At terrible Soviet cost, this stalled the advance of the Panzer Corps.
Describing the events as a Russian victory, historian Antony Beevor wrote:
“The German army had received a severe battering… the Germans had no choice but to withdraw to the line of the River Dnepr and start to pull their remaining forces out from the bridgehead.”
It was Hitler’s final offensive on the eastern front.
The allied invasion of Sicily began shortly afterwards, and German reinforcements intended for the eastern front were diverted to the Mediterranean. Germany’s loss of men and tanks ensured that the Red Army held the strategic initiative for the rest of the war. When the dust settled and the thunder of combat was silenced, the Kursk salient was an apocalyptic wasteland of smoking steel carcasses, soaked in the blood of dead soldiers and scattered with bones. More than 200,000 families would never be the same again.