Most people know the Battle of Kursk as the largest tank battle ever. Over 6,000 tanks saw action and the battle itself would be the last major offensive on the Eastern Front for the Third Reich. What is little known is this: had the Germans attacked in March of 1943, they would have defeated the Red Army. The delay to July of 1943 allowed Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army, and the Soviet population to build massive earthworks at Kursk and to set the trap of all traps.
Following the defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, German commanders thought it would be best to take a defensive position for the year, regroup, and rebuild the army. Hitler would have none of it. After Stalingrad, the Germans still held most of the western portion of the Soviet Union. From Leningrad to the Black Sea, the Germans had placed more than one million men along the front. In the wake of Stalingrad, the Red Army tried to advance in the early summer of 1943. After a German defensive victory at Kharkov, Hitler felt emboldened for another offensive. He turned to Erich von Manstein, the man who won at Kharkov that March.
Many of Hitler’s high command were against an attack on the Eastern Front. Blitzkrieg inventor Heinz Guderian asked Hitler:
Was it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east that year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is? The entire world doesn’t care if we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason that is forcing us to attack this year on Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front?
It would be four months before Hitler would allow von Manstein to attack the bulge in Soviet line. Delay after delay plagued the Germans while Zhukov organized the one of the greatest earthwork defense systems the world has ever known. Using the local population, Zhukov designed a system that would act like quicksand in the middle of the USSR. Despite the blitzkrieg, the earthworks proved as powerful as any offensive weapon.
What Hitler did not know was British intelligence had broken the Enigma code and the British were passing down all the orders from Germany to the Eastern Front. It got so specific that Zhukov knew the day, time, and place that von Manstein would launch the offensive. As a result of knowing every move, Zhukov strategically placed reserves away from Kursk but close enough to call up in a hurry.
On July 4, 1943, the Battle of Kursk began. Over the course of the next 16 days, the Red Army stood its ground and went toe to toe with Panzer and Tiger Tanks. With about a million land mines and 3000 miles of trenches, the Germans faced artillery units in these earthworks rather than infantry. The resulting firepower reshaped the battlefield. Like Stalingrad where house to house urban warfare did not suit the German fighting style, Kursk quickly took Blitzkrieg out of the German playbook.
Ilyushin IL 2 planes also played a big role in the battle. Their heavy armor used for low to the ground fighting allowed Zhukov a lot of flexibility in attacking the tanks, but also German troops and guns.
Within two weeks, the German advance had reached a crawl. On July 20, the advance ended. Although fought in two sectors, the north and the south, the USSR would take back Karkhov in the south in August and the slow march to Berlin would begin. Although the Germans did not suffer the casualties of a Stalingrad, the mental capacity of the German Army was at a low. The Red Army, however, was at an all time high. Over the course of the next two years, the Red Army would retake the steppes and crush the Germans all the way back to Berlin.