Home » News/Views » 1943: The battle of Kursk

1943: The battle of Kursk

20 June 2023

T-34 monument at Prokhorovka, site of the Battle of Prokhorovka, a major armoured confrontation during the Battle of Kursk. Photo Alexander Persona Grata, (CC BY 2.0)

Raging ferociously from July to August 1943, Kursk was the most decisive battle of the Second World War, crucially transforming anti-fascist fortunes.

The battle was fought in south western Russia between two of the largest national armies ever seen, as the Soviet Union first blunted Nazi Germany’s invading forces then overwhelmed them and went on to the offensive.


The victory at Kursk was the culmination of two years of total dedication by the people and military forces of the Soviet Union in response to the German invasion. On 22 June 1941, fascist Germany unleashed without warning a blitzkrieg assault – an immense ground invasion along its western border and into Soviet territory.

Hitlerite Germany had already achieved great military success with lightning blitzkrieg tactics. It had taken out Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark with either minimal resistance or relative military ease. At that point the only opposition to the expansive imperial desires of German fascism had been the war in the skies during the Battle of Britain from July to October 1940.

Germany held the initiative at the start, but the Soviet Union quickly mobilised a multi-faceted defence of the country. Over 5 million army reservists were called up by the end of June 1941. More importantly, it responded quite differently than other countries had in the face of blitzkrieg.

From the off, it organised a dogged defence and total war, embracing both military and civilian populations. It was a Great Patriotic War, uniting the maximum number of citizens including those ones who hadn’t always supported the revolution.


During 1941 the Soviet Union was fighting for survival and refusing to capitulate. The aim was to slow down the brutal invaders before the main targets of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev.

The tactics were to blunt the enemy’s blitzkrieg strategy by a war of endless attrition and resilience. Strong defensive lines protected the targeted cities. And tenacious warfare allowed soviet society time to develop its strengths and potential.

This approach was complete opposite of the German Nazi military style of swift devastating strikes. Stalin and the Soviet leadership knew that the route to victory lay in-outproducing Germany and that it was never going to be just a military question.

‘Industrial capacity meant as much to eventual success as the greatest battles.’

For example, over 1,500 factories were moved more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow by November 1941; forward thinking on the economic front. This feat of evacuation and development of industrial capacity, meant as much to eventual success of the Soviet Union as the greatest battles of the war.

The result was that in 1942 the Soviet Union significantly outproduced Germany in key military equipment  – tanks, guns and aircraft. And the scorched earth policy of destroying anything of use in the path of the enemy made Germany’s supply line problems even worse.

In July 1941 Stalin said, “In the occupied areas intolerable conditions must be created for the enemy and his accomplices.” Within a year an estimated 90,000 partisans were operating behind enemy lines. Their irregular warfare unhinged the German enemy through ambushes, attacks and sabotage on lengthening lines of communication.

By December 1941 the Soviet Union was able to introduce new reserve armies into the Battle for Moscow. By early January 1942 the immediate threat to the capital of the Soviet Union was removed and much of the relentless German advance into Soviet territory was halted and blunted.

New culture

Through 1942 the military balance between the two sides was more even. There were still setbacks for the Soviet Union, notably in a failed attempt to recapture the key city of Kharkov. Yet, with experience a new culture took hold within the Red Army. It recognized the need to become more modern, strengthen operational techniques and improve warfare tactics.

The first major battle defeat for fascist Germany came with the Battle of Stalingrad, which ran for five months until February 1943. This was welcome evidence the tide was turning. In the space of a year the Soviet Union had gone from desperately defending Moscow to beating the Wehrmacht in a massive winter offensive.

Protracted war

By 1943 fascist Germany had been drawn into a protracted war completely at odds with its preferred military strategy. Even worse, it had also been dragged into a protracted industrial and economic contest that it was losing.

The growing disparity in the capacity of Germany and the Soviet Union to produce the means to wage war meant that the Soviet Union had attained superiority in military hardware, and the gap was widening.

After Stalingrad, fighting paused as the combatants regrouped. Both sides were planning for the next conflict, but the Soviet plans were better, more extensive and more feasible.

Both sides realised that the summer of 1943 would see a monumental clash of arms, because Soviet forces were gaining military confidence and offensive capability, whereas Hitlerite Germany had to muster a territorial gain to deter Soviet advance or they would be compelled into more retreats.


So in March 1943 Hitler and his military leaders planned a summer offensive, Operation Citadel, along classic blitzkrieg lines. The aim was to remove the Kursk Salient, a vulnerable 250 mile-long front jutting out beyond Soviet lines.

Using detailed intelligence reports of these intentions, in April the Soviet leadership decided not to make a pre-emptive strike beforehand but rather to “meet the enemy attack in a well-prepared defensive bridgehead, to bleed attacking German groupings dry, and then to launch a general offensive”.

Over the next three months they packed the salient with tanks and troops who dug in deeply and created a fortress. The plan was to draw the German Army in to a carefully devised trap, destroy much of its armoured power, and then launch a major strategic offensive.

Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counterattacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk. Photo Mil.ru, (CC BY 4.0)

To counter the panzer tank and dive-bomber attacks, extensive Soviet defences were constructed in great depth, hoping to snare the enemy in an intricate and extensive cobweb of defensive constructions.

More than 3,000 miles of trenches were dug, laid out in a crisscross pattern. Inside were deep and extensive entrenchments with strongly constructed anti-tank resistance points. Further defensive protection was provided by 500,000 anti-tank mines and 400,000 anti-personnel mines.

Importantly, there was a deeper-held reserve of supporting armies intended for decisive counterattacks when the advance stalled. The Soviet forces had over 1,900,000 men, close to double the strength of the German troops, tanks and aircraft and four times the number of guns and mortars.

The Soviet Union had developed its air force to better compete with the Luftwaffe and to provide a similar type of support for their own ground forces. But it was recognised that the enemy still had a technically superior air force, which could not be allowed to command the skies.


The Soviet preparations went further than fortifications and equipment. The army command structure and communications capabilities were improved in the waiting period.

All Soviet front line formations in the Kursk Salient received psychological as well as technical training to deal with the armoured threat and overcome the “tank panic” that had been in evidence since the German invasion began.

Intelligence gathering was stepped up – from captured German soldiers and partisans behind the lines. Young boys, specially trained in observation, proved very adept at spying. A well-rounded picture of the enemy was gained before battle commenced.

Partisan forces, around 250,000 strong by that stage, had developed their offensive capacity. For example they mounted over 1,000 attacks against the railways around Kursk during June 1943. Their activities tied up an estimated 500,000 German personnel.


On the morning of 5 July the German offensive began with a 50-minute bombardment of Soviet positions. German artillery fired more shells than they had during the campaigns in France and Poland combined. But the Germans were forced to attack frontally rather than using their planned blitzkrieg tactics, and after several days of intense fighting, had made no significant breakthrough

The Soviet defences were not breached. There was no disastrous fragmentation in the Red Army the Germans were relying on. And they needed more resources to continue the offensive.

After the 6 July the Luftwaffe was forced to prioritise air-support missions. It was unable to intercept all Soviet airstrikes and the balance of power in the air began shifting.

In some ways Soviet defence was stronger now than the opposing attack. The German military machine, the Wehrmacht, was not used to this situation. The Soviets aimed to wear the enemy out as the Germans were hit hard at each defensive obstacle.

Soviet forces stretched and complicated German lines of communication and supply within the nightmare of the salient. The panzer corps, the spearhead of the German forces, were never able to make decisive advances within the salient.


By 9 July the German army was contained. It could not make a breakthrough to Kursk, realising it probably never would. The Soviet air force was gaining dominance over the battle area too.

At this juncture the Soviet Supreme Commander Stalin conferred with Zhukov his Deputy. They directed a planned offensive against the German-held Orel salient on 12 July. A colossal battle took place lasting until the following day.

This time the Soviets were doing the attacking. On the 13th Hitler discontinued Operation Citadel in the north of the Kursk salient, although prolonging it in the south to prevent a rapid rout.

The Soviet army fed fresher divisions into the fray at this point, while the Germans had no reserves to call upon. Their attacks began to peter out and the German army withdrew from or were forced out of the salient.

‘For the first time during summer conditions, the Soviet army outperformed their enemy.’

German losses of manpower and armoured fighting vehicles at Kursk meant the Wehrmacht could not resist the Soviet counterattacks during July and August. For the first time during summer conditions, the Soviet army had outperformed and outmanoeuvred the Wehrmacht.

But victory came at a huge cost. Soviet casualties reached 177,847 during the battle of Kursk. The losses of tanks, guns and aircraft were high too.

The Battle of Kursk stripped the last vestiges of invincibility from the Wehrmacht. Nazi Germany was ruined on the Eastern Front. It never recovered, though it took nearly two more years before it was defeated.

“The defeat of the main grouping of German troops in the Kursk area,” Zhukov wrote in his memoirs, “paved the way for the subsequent widescale offensive operations by the Soviet forces to expel the Germans from our soil completely…and ultimately to crush Nazi Germany.”

Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, stated, “Stalingrad was the end of the beginning, but the Battle of Kursk was the beginning of the end.”

• A shorter version appears in the July/August 2023 edition of Workers.