Could the Germans have won the Battle of Kursk?

Zach – Today we’re tackling a popular topic of WWII history: could the Germans have won the battle of Kursk? With us we have my co-host, Anna Komemne: Byzantine princess and historian. Then we have Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces during the American Revolution. Next we Mulan, woman warrior of ancient China. And last and least, we have Gaspar Correia, Conquistador and winner of “Most unreliable Historian” contest.
(Door opens and Olga of Kiev bursts in.)
Olga – Have you started? I not late, no?
Zach – Umm…no, you’re not late.
Olga – Very good! Olga no miss talk about Mother Russia!
(Olga sits down next to an uncomfortable looking Cornwallis and a smiling Gaspar. )
Gaspar – We ordered some Thai food.
Olga – What is this so called, Thai? I want borsht!
Mulan – Just see if you like it first.
Olga – I will taste this “Thai” food and then throw it on ground and demand real food.
Anna – Let’s remember our manners, please.
Zach – Anyways…today’s topic is the Battle of Kursk, the largest clash of armored vehicles featuring two of the largest armies every deployed in history. One of them wins title of the largest. I’ll give you a hint, Olga really likes them and they drink a lot of vodka. So we have a titanic battle of 780,000 men, 9,900 artillery guns and 2,928 tanks on the German side: versus, 1,920,000 Russians, 25,000 big guns and their 5,128 tanks. It was a gigantic battle as you can see and stretched over hundreds of miles.
Anna – Let’s give a little backstory, shall we?

Photo of WWII by Gaspar Correia.

Cornwallis – Let us begin with the previous winter of 1942. The Russians had lured the Germans into Stalingrad where they could surround and destroy an entire German army. The German command refused to surrender Stalingrad and let their forces be decimated. At that time the Russian army lacked leadership with any experience or knowledge of how to wage war due to Stalin having killed all his generals out of paranoia. I must say that killing all of one’s experienced generals before a battle is a poor tactic and I do not recommend it.
Olga – I’m sure they deserved to die. Besides, we won, dah?
Cornwallis – Yes, you won at Stalingrad only because the Germans could not be resupplied sufficiently.
Olga – That’s their dumb fault.
Mulan – Let me say something about the soldiers. The German soldiers were all veterans of the western and African campaigns. Their leaders were Prussians with centuries of military experience. The Russian troops were conscripted peasants that deserted in the thousands. Many Russians viewed the Germans as liberators due to the harsh and murderous regime of the Soviet Union. Only when the Germans proved worse than the Russians did the mass desertion end and the people began to fight back. At Stalingrad they charged in mass formations with only one of every other soldier having a rifle. Then the winter came and both armies stayed put to lick their wounds and get ready for the spring offensive. The Germans will find a very different Soviet army waiting for them.

Good old Russian propaganda.

Gaspar – Very true. The Russian army had spent their time wisely. They produced hundreds of T-34’s and other tanks and ramped up their industrial capabilities.
Zach – Oh, good. For a second I thought he’d make up something about…
Gaspar – And they also put into service their prototype Mechs, the Lenin Mk III and Mk IV. The legged war machines were capable of massive destruction.

See? I even have pictures to prove it!

Zach – Well, the Russians did make many improvements. They, for example, realized that tactics and strategy might work over simply running at the enemy. In fact, they became quite clever. They knew the Germans would renew their offensive in the spring and they began to prepare an ambush on a strategic scale. They knew the German plans would be to cut off the bulge in the Russian line at Kursk.

They would move two armies in behind and cut the Russian army off while two other armies moved in from the front.

Olga – Russians no fall for that! Russians say “hey! Let Fascists come to us and we build ditches for tanks and plant lots of land mines like flowers.”
Zach – Correct, Olga. They prepared massive defensive positions in a checkerboard pattern. Each one was a tank’s nightmare. The land around Kursk was open steppe and perfect for fast, armored warfare. The Russians knew that if the Germans were good at one thing, it was blitzkrieging with lots of tanks. So the Russians made their plans to cancel the Germans’ advantage. And they disguised their strong points with camouflage and made their weak points look strong. This was to trick the Germans into attacking the strongest Russian positions… which they did.
Anna – Russians can be quite sneaky when they’re not busting a bottle of vodka over your head.
Olga – Dah! Is why I had all you rooms bugged! (awkward silence.) Just kidding.
Mulan – Now, I know that this battle is famous for its tank battles, but let me remind you that it was the humble infantryman that won the day. The Russians had over a million soldiers. A few hundred tanks were not the deciding factor.
Cornwallis – Agreed, lady Mulan. But let me also add that the battle was won because of logistics, a topic we’ve discussed previously. The German tanks were arguably superior, but they were difficult to produce and harder to maintain. The Russian tanks were built much faster and simpler to repair. Also, when ….oh, dear me….the German high command, (Don’t want to use the “H” word, now do we?,) decided to invade Russia, the Russians were supplying almost 2/3 of their oil. Without that oil from the Russians the Germans were on a very tight schedule.
Zach – That’s right. The Germans had to attack and make a decisive victory. They had to blitzkried the Soviet army. The “German High Command” had prevented a blitzkrieg the previous year to disastrous effect. Now the Germans wanted to knock out the Russian army. In short, they had to attack or they’d run out of gas. So, they chose Kursk and threw everything they had at them. The Germans took troops that could be spared from every area of the war and delayed the attack so new weapons could be brought up. They were going big or going home.
Anna – There was a problem though. Blitzkrieg depends on tanks spearheading a weak and suspecting point in enemy defenses. The Russians were prepared and waiting to break that spear.
Olga – And Russians make Katyusha rockets! When Fascists throw away bad made artillery shells, Russians put then on rockets and launch them at enemy! We don’t waste like Germans.

Olga – This is Katyusha rocket. Very pretty, dah? Simple to make. Simple to use. Make big boom. I want one.

Mulan – The Germans were sending in their best Wehrmacht units and their elite Waffen SS units. This was the best of the German army going up against a newly reorganized Russian one. But with the delays in the offensive, the Russians had more than enough time to prepare for their unwanted guests. When the German surprise attack came, nobody was surprised except for maybe the Germans. They were surprised to find entire armies waiting for them with disciplined and trained troops and lots of heavy guns pointed at them. The only equality the two armies had were their air forces. At this point neither side had air superiority. The Germans called this entire offensive: Operation Citadel.
Zach – Fighting began on July 4th with aerial bombardments and artillery duels. Then the offensive began on July 5th. The Germans moved in under heavy rain, which I’m sure sucked. But more importantly, it slowed them down. The Russians then countered with the largest artillery barrage I’ve heard of. Over 3,000 cannons and mortars fired on the Germans and slowed and confused their offensive. This massive barrage expended half the entire Soviet supply of shells for the battle. The German armored divisions charged forward, right into a whole nest of mine fields and anti-tank ditches. The Russian artillery was already zeroed in on these sites and opened fire. The spear point wasn’t doing very well.
Mulan – I will point out another flaw in the German army. Many of their armored vehicles, especially their tank destroyers, were lacking secondary weapons: machine guns for anti infantry. It seems like a small problem. But it made a big difference when the Russian infantry swarmed a German tank and the tank had no way to fight them off.
Cornwallis – The Russians moved in with their tanks but suffered heavy casualties. Apparently the Germans were better at tank warfare. The Russians withdrew their tanks. A wise decision under the circumstances I believe.
Olga – Next few days was lots of combat. Back and forth, back and forth. Lots of tanks blowing each other up!
Zach – As losses began to mount, the Germans had a hard time replacing what they lost. They were great at recovering and repairing damaged tanks, but the Russians flooded their armies with new equipment. The Germans had fewer men and machines and couldn’t replace them as fast as the Russians. It was a simple math problem.
Anna – The German insistence on attacking only strong points didn’t help their side either.

A Tiger tank putting a hurt down on something. As you can see, there’s not a lot of cover around. The Russians had had months to prepare fighting positions to hide behind.

Cornwalis – The Panther tanks did not perform up to standard. Most spent more time in the repair shop than the battle field. That reminds me of this time I was fighting in New York and…
Gaspar – Food’s here!
(Gaspar charges out of room and comes back with armful of thai food in styrofoam boxes. He hands them out and passes out chopsticks. Olga takes bite.”
Olga – This is…how do you say? Interesting.
Gaspar – This stuff rocks. Love it. Where were we? Oh yes. The Germans, suffering heavy casualties, used forbidden dark arts to bring their soldiers back to life. The new zombie divisions took the center while the Waffen SS took the flanks.

Anna – Gaspar! That is simply not true!
Gapar – Prove it. I bought the food so I say its true.
Anna – That’s not how history works.
Gaspar – (shrugs and continues eating noddles.)

Zach – On July 12, yes, they’ve been fighting for many days now, the Germans gathered their armor for one massive push near the town of Prokhorovka. Here was a massive tank battle. There were more than just tanks, there were mobile cannons and tank killers as well.

Here’s a Tank Destroyer. Not a tank, but it has light armor and a big gun. Cheaper to make. This is a Jagdpanther, a German tank destroyer.

Zach – The Russian infantry and lighter tanks had to move in close to the German Tigers in order to hit them in the sides. Their front armor proved too hard to penetrate. So the fighting was close in and very nasty. But in the end, the Russians held and the Germans retreated.
Anna – Now here I must warn the reader, the losses on each side are highly debated and range from minimal to horrendous. But here’s what we as a collective panel believe: It seems that the German losses were much less than the Russians claimed but at the same time those losses were much harder to replace. The Russians took massive losses as the Germans showed that numerical superiority wasn’t enough to take them out. Stalin was furious so they quickly played the propaganda as a major German loss with hundreds and hundreds of German tanks destroyed.
Zach – Maybe the actual numbers don’t matter because what happened was that after this battle, the Germans retreated and retreated back towards Germany while the Red Army moved forward, exacting revenge the entire way. It was the turning point of the war.
Cornwallis – Indeed. The battle cost the Germans the war. But could they have won?
Mulan – Yes, if they had planned and orginized it in a completely different manner. If they attacked in the early spring they might have found an unprepared Red Army. As it was, they gave the Russians all the time they needed to prepare in terms of defense, logistics and training.
Olga – And they fought Russians on Russian soil. Not good idea. (grabs tray of Thai food from Anna and begins eating it. Anna opens her mouth but Olga pulls out a grenade. Anna backs down.)
Zach – As always, we encourage you to look it up and draw your own conclusions. Maybe we’re wrong. You’ll find a lot more stories from this massive battle. We simply couldn’t tell it all here. So, go find out for yourself.

12 comments on “Could the Germans have won the Battle of Kursk?

  1. Excellent commentary. I really enjoy the way you teach history. it is highly amusing and informative. Keep up the awesome work!

  2. Joe in PNG says:

    Also, it didn’t help that Hi…er, that one dude with the ugly ‘stash started firing any general that disagreed with him. Imagine if Guderian was in charge of the battle…

  3. Desert Rat says:

    Great post, Zach. There isn’t enough good commentary about the Russian front during WWII.

  4. Adam says:

    The “Photo of WWII by Gaspar Correia” killed me. Great post!

  5. Countess Matilda of Tuscany says:

    No, too many fundamental situations would have to change for the Germans to be able to win at Kursk. So, no, the Germans could not have won. They’d had to have started months earlier but then they wouldn’t have had the weapons and you’d have to make the Russians not know every move the Germans were making. Even if they had won it wouldn’t have made a difference.

  6. Suicidal Idiot says:

    Gaspar Correia is a priceless addition to your Historian’s Gang. I do have one disagreement, however. The ‘mech is obviously a captured and modified Yamato Agromech.

    It was originally designed and built for Japan, where agriculture is done on terraced mountainsides, where wheeled vehicles are impossible to use.

    The left hand used to hold a chainsaw, which would have disintegrated the first time it hit armor.

    The right appears to be a standard 88mm Howitzer. The arm it replaced was a fully articulated gripper that could lift a small car (with a skilled operator and a good sense of balance). Reloading had to be a major bitch, but it would have been nasty while the ammo lasted.

    Very few of these were ever used, and none survived. Russian mud is hell on tanks, and walkers were often swallowed whole. Requiring rail or truck transport, the Russians quickly realized it would be smarter to simply mount guns instead of a marginally useful armored robot on the transports.

    Ruble for ruble, an artillery battery was a better buy, and produced far more German corpses dependably.

    • Suicidal Idiot says:

      Japan, of course, is well drained and very mountainous. Perfect terrain for mechs, which is why they’re so common over there today.

      There are rumors that Emperor Hirohito actually arranged for the capture of some poorly maintained ‘mechs, just to bleed Soviet R&D funds.

      The German high command, when offered, took one look at the tech and said “Nein, danke”.

    • Ben Gunn says:

      There isn’t any such thing a an 88 howitzer standard or otherwise. All 88 mm weapons were long barreled artillery pieces commonly referred to as Guns, howitzers being short barreled artillery pieces. Guns are high velocity flat trajectory weapons intended for use at long range or for anti aircraft use. Howitzers, being short barreled low velocity high trajectory weapons for use at medium ranges.

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