NEAR THE CITY OF KURSK in southwestern Russia on 18 August 1943, Soviet troops follow their tanks as part of a counterattack that thwarted a final German attempt to launch a strategic offensive on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
The battle of Kursk was part of Operation Citadel, a 50-day military engagement that followed the failure of Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler’s audacious plan to invade Russia. Once the German advance through the Soviet Union was halted at Stalingrad and reversed through a counterattack in the spring of 1943, Hitler took field marshal Erich von Manstein’s advice to shift the combat theatre to Kursk. Although Manstein and other top commanders wanted to begin the attack in May, Hitler chose to wait two further months in order to reinforce his army. Finally, on 5 July, the Germans attacked with nearly 800,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks, 2,000 planes and 10,000 guns and mortars.
The delay proved to be crucial. It allowed the Soviets ample time to strengthen their defences, and the Germans were outnumbered—facing 1.9 million soldiers, 5,000 tanks, 25,000 guns and mortars, and over 3,000 aircraft, as well as a dense network of fortifications. The Wehrmacht had some early success attacking in a pincer motion from both north and south, but the Red Army used the same tactics that had served it well during the siege of Stalingrad—exhausting the Germans through relentless defence, then counterattacking with a pincer movement of its own.
Hitler chose to retreat on 12 July, redeploying his tanks to Sicily, where Anglo-American forces had invaded. The Soviets followed the German forces, launching a battle of attrition that might have caused thrice as many German casualties as the initial offensive. It began a period of almost two years of near-constant retreat that punctured German morale, strengthened the Allies’ resolve and culminated in the fall of the Third Reich in June 1945.