To the Kursk Salient. Soviet infantry and tanks on their way to the front.

The Soviet command faced a dilemma: to attack or to assume defence? All the options and every scenario had been thoroughly examined. It was the collective wisdom, the creative work of experienced, seasoned during two years of the war military commanders and staffs, from the front level to the Supreme Command, that helped to adopt the only proper solution. While analyzing intelligence data on the enemy's preparations, fronts, General Staff and the General Headquarters gradually came to the idea of switching to a deliberate defense. That issue had been discussed many times in late March and early April at the State Defence Committee and the General Headquarters. We discussed the issue thoroughly and comprehensively by telephone with Deputy Supreme Commander G. K. Zhukov, who was on the Kursk Salient, at the headquarters of the Voronezh Front. As a result, on April 8th, G. K. Zhukov sent to the Supreme Commander a detailed report assessing the situation, and outlining considerations for the plan of action in the Kursk Salient. There, in particular, he noted:

I do not believe it is necessary for our forces to mount a preventive offensive in the next few days. It will be better if we wear the enemy out in defensive action, destroy his tanks, and then, taking in fresh reserves, by going over to an all-out offensive we will finish off the enemy's main grouping. [50]

I happened to be with J. V. Stalin when he received that report. The Supreme Commander knew that the General Staff shared the Zhukov's view. After reading Zhukov's report, Stalin said: It is necessary to consult with the commanders of the fronts, and he ordered to seek the opinion of the fronts.

Stalin asked the General Staff to summon a special meeting to discuss the plan for the summer campaign of 1943. He called N. F. Vatutin and K. K. Rokossovsky himself, asking them to present before April 12th an assessment of the front-line situation and a plan for upcoming activities of the fronts. In their reports commanders communicated that with regard of the enemy forces and their intentions of their opinion coincided with the opinion of G. K. Zhukov and the General Staff. As to the action plan of the troops, the command and headquarters of the Central Front called for combined efforts of the Western, Bryansk, and Central fronts to destroy the enemy's Orel, while it was still not prepared for the attack, and thereby prevent the enemy from using it to strike through Livny to Kastornoye simultaneously with an attack from Belgorod. [51] The command of the Voronezh Front evaluated only the intentions of the enemy. [52]

On April 12th in the evening a meeting was held at General Headquarters, which was attended by J. V. Stalin, G. K. Zhukov who came from the Voronezh Front, I and the Deputy Chief of General Staff A. I. Antonov. There was made a provisional decision on deliberate defence. Stalin worried, and he did not conceal it, whether our troops would withstand the strike of large masses of the fascist tanks.

However, it was not 1941 any more. The Red Army had been hardened in battles, gained tremendous combat experience, was well armed and had excellent military equipment. Now the fascists were afraid of us. And the waverings were brushed aside. Careful analysis of the situation, and anticipation of events led to the correct conclusion: the main effort must be concentrated to the north and south of Kursk in order to exhaust the enemy there in a defensive battle, and then go on the offensive and make the enemy routed. Later on the Red Army was meant to unfold a general offensive, dealing main blows in the direction of Kharkov, Poltava and Kiev. Incidentally, the meeting foresaw also another course of action: to move Soviet troops into action in the event if the fascist command did not take any offensive at Kursk in the near future and postponed it till a later date.

Following the decision of deliberate defence with the subsequent transition to the offensive, there started a comprehensive and thorough preparation for the upcoming action. Simultaneously continued reconnaissance of the forces and intentions of the enemy; in result the Soviet command knew pretty accurately what was the time-frame of the enemy attack, which Hitler postponed three times. Speaking here on the plan of the battle of Kursk, I would like to stress two points.

First, the fact that this plan was the central part of an overall strategic plan, adopted by the General Headquarters for the 1943 summer-autumn campaign; and second, that the highest organs of the strategic leadership - the Supreme Command and the General Staff - played the decisive role in the development of that plan. Until recently, the issue of planning and preparing for the Battle of Kursk was not covered entirely accurately in military and historical literature, both scientific and especially memoiristic - wittingly or unwittingly, the big creative and organizational activity of the General Headquarters, and its working body - the General Staff, has been played down, while the role of front-line instances, and especially the military council of the Voronezh Front, was exaggerated. These distortions, in my opinion, resulted from the fact that authors who spoke on this issue, for a long time had no access to the documents which fully cover the planning of the Battle of Kursk. In addition, a number of important details generally has not been reflected in any documents, as they were discussed at the highest offices in a narrow circle of persons who controlled the preparation for the Battle of Kursk. This applies, apart from J. V. Stalin, to G. K. Zhukov, A. I. Antonov, the author of these lines, and some other comrades during the war years working at the State Defence Committee, General Headquarters, and the General Staff.

It is difficult to describe the whole range of major actions, undertaken by the State Defence Committee, General Headquarters, and the General Staff, as well as the offices of the People's Commissariat of Defense, while preparing for the battle of Kursk. To do this would require a special work. It was truly a titanic work of our state. In particular, it included such an activities as creating an echeloned defence in the Kursk sector with a total depth of 250-300 km; deploying a powerful strategic reserve of the General Headquarters - the Steppe Front - in the area east of Kursk; carrying out the largest wartime concentration of the troops and materiel in the area of Kursk; organization of special air operations to disrupt enemy communications and gain command in the air; activating partisan operations in order to carry out mass sabotage behind enemy lines and to obtain critically important intelligence information; and carrying out a large set of measures to ensure political backing of the upcoming Red Army operations.

In mid-April the General Headquarters verified on the ground, through the General Staff and the commanding personnel of the People's Commissariat of Defence, preparations for the summer campaign in the front of the Kursk sector. By then, according to our data, the enemy concentrated against the troops of the Central and Voronezh Fronts up to 16 tank divisions, well-equipped with fighting vehicles. The most powerful group was identified in front of the Voronezh Front. There, according to intelligence reports, were concentrated 11 tank and 20 infantry fascist divisions. That particular worried the Supreme Commander, and he decided to hear directly from the commander of the Voronezh Front a report on troops training the front's needs. I was ordered to notify the members of the military council of the front about that, and then call the commander it to the Supreme Headquarters.

So, what was our line of the deliberate defense? On the eve of the enemy offensive  the picture was as follows. Along the Don, from Lebedyan to Zadonsk, to Khlevnoye, Semiluki, Liski and Pavlovsk to the Verkhniy Mamon, there was so-called "state line of fortifications" (GRO). In front of it were deployed the strategic reserves of the Soviet troops. Farther to the north, in the rear of the left wing of the Western Front, as well as the Bryansk Front, they included the 11th (at Kaluga), 4th Guards (at Tula) and the 3rd Guards Tank (at Verkhoupye) Armies, and in addition - a number of units in the area of Mosalsk, Meschovsk, Plavsk and Yefremovo. West to the GRO was deployed the Steppe Front (the 27th Army from Krasnaya Zarya to Livny, 53rd Army at Kastornoye, 5th Army of Guards from Srednyaya Apochka to Gniloye, as well as a number of units west to Voronezh and at Stary Oskol).

Farther to the south were deployed strategic reserves in the rear of the South-Western Front: the 47th Army from Limarevo and Krivonosovka, 5th Tank Army of Guards from Ostrogozhsk to Rossosh, and a number of units at Pavlovsk, Novaya Kalitva, Markovka and Valuiki. From Livny, along the River Kshen, and on to the headwaters of the Seym stretched defences of the Steppe Front. Along the line Verkhovye - Livny - Evlanova - Dolgaya - Tim - Skorodnoye - Chernyanka - Budyonnoye ran the third echelon of defence, which almost traversed the Kursk Salient. The second echelon was made farther to the west, from Yevlanovo, turning to Pervaya Vorobyovka, then skirting Kursk from the the west, through Solntsevo to Manturovo, and from there to Gniloye, Volokonovka and Valuiki. The first line of the front ran through Olkhovatka, Fatezh, Lyubimovka, Maryino, Korocha, Shebekino and Kupyansk. Closer to the frontline, almost repeating its shape, stretched the third, the second, and the main line of defence. In the second echelon of the fronts were deployed the 1st and the 2nd Tank, and the 69th Armies. Front reserves included the 2nd and the 5th Armies of Guards, 9th and 19th Tank Armies, 35th Rifle Corps of Guards, artillery units, and units deployed at Ponyri, Olkhovatka, Kursk, Beloye, Ivni, Oboyan, Rzhava, Prokhorovka, Alexandrovskoye, Skorodnoye and Korocha.

The sole list above shows how seriously the country's leadership took the problem of planning and supporting the deliberate defence. Even if the enemy had broken through (which he had not), he would have met on its way not an operational space, but insurmountable obstacles, and large military barriers.

Given the continuous and active participation of the fronts of the Kursk sector in preparations to repel the enemy attack and to switch them to the counter-attack, the General Staff continued to deal simultaneously with the development of another operation that was closely associated with the plan of operations in the Kursk sector, which was codenamed Kutuzov. Its objective was to strike at the enemy's Orel grouping at the time most advantageous to us, and take the city of Orel through the efforts of the left wing of the Western Front and the bulk of the forces of the Bryansk Front (50th, 11th Guards, 61st, 3rd, and 63rd Armies), in close collaboration with the actions of the Central Front.

The Supreme Commander attached big importance to the operation Kutuzov. In mid-May he instructed me to leave for the Bryansk Front and the left wing of the Western Front, to verify on-site whether the troops understand their tasks, and how preparations to implement them were going on. I started with the left wing of the Western Front, and here is what I reported to the Supreme Commander in the report dated May 21st, from the headquarters of the 61th Army (Lieutenant-General P. A. Belov) of the Bryansk Front, where I had just arrived from the 11th Guards Army (Lieutenant-General I. Kh. Bagramyan) of the Western Front:
  1. Over May 19th and 20th with comrades Sokolovsky and Bulganin we inspected the preparation for operations of the 11th Army of Guards of comrade Bagramyan. In comparison to the Bryansk Front there was a lot of work done to prepare commanding staffs, as well as the troops in general, and we only needed to work out specific details and move, upon receiving orders, to the initial positions. Shortages in tanks and aircraft. The Front command allocated for Bagramyan two available tank assault regiments and four independent tank brigades. For rebuilding their strengths the 1st and 5th Tank Corps received only 100 tanks. It would be highly desirable to reinforce them with another two tank assault regiments. With regard to aviation, comrade Novikov reported that by decision of the General Headquarters it has been reinforced, but, regretfully, till June 15th, that is after the expected commencement of the operation.
  2. In the evening of May 20th back to Belov. Here, as well as at Kolpakchi's [53] works are under way to master co-operation with regiment and battalion commanders in the field. Front's readiness is hampered by slow delivery of the munitions and delay in arrival of the 7th Artillery Corps.
  3. I think that the troops as a whole will be ready to assume initial positions on May 28th. Assuming initial positions and deployment of artillery will take up to five days.
  4. While preparing the operation, special attention has been paid to the readiness of our defence and especially in the sectors of Spas-Demyansk, Zhizdra and Belev.
Next, I reported that, according to the air, army and partisan intelligence data, the enemy continued to bring in infantry and tanks to the former two sectors. In the vicinity of Spas-Demyansk partisans have identified one armoured division transferred from the west. While the existence of assault groupings allowed for more or less reliable protection of the sectors of Kaluga and Tula, I still thought it appropriate to move the 19th Rifle Corps from the area in Gzhatsk to Yukhnov, leaving it in the 10th Army of Guards. With the same purpose, I proposed to transfer the 4th Infantry Division of the Moscow Military District from Zagorsk to Maloyaroslavets. [54]

The same night the Supreme Commander summoned me to Moscow. Hard work continued at the General Staff and General Headquarters. In early June to the post of the commander of the Bryansk Front, instead M. A. Reyter was appointed Colonel-General M. M. Popov.

Markian Mikhailovich Popov was a man of great military talent; he was an expert in operational and strategic issues. I used to meet him frequently on the front during major strategic operations. The war found him on the position of the commander of the Northern, and then Leningrad Front, then his professional career happened to be volatile, as nobody else's. As he took the command of the Bryansk Front, he proved an apt commander, and soon was appointed the commander of the 2nd Baltic Front. It is also known that M. M. Popov was the commander of two armies and the deputy commander of the Stalingrad and South-Western Fronts.

So, during the war M. M. Popov used to move up and down the career hierarchy. After he entered the war as the commander of the Leningrad Front, he ended it as the chief of staff of the same Front. The same happened with his military rank. He met the war in the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1944 was promoted to Army General, and ended the war as a Colonel-General. And all that with his exceptional abilities, and the fact that he was versatile, educated militaryman, an interesting conversationalist and also a very kind person. But propensity to drinks became his misfortune and grief. It was just painful to see him, a willed commander he was, losing control of his behaviour. The Supreme Command valued M. M. Popov; the Politburo of the Central Committee used to have serious talks with him. Yet, strong misdemeanors and promises to change helped only for some time.

I do not think I will make a mistake if I say that only this problem prevented M. M. Popov from showing his military talent in full.

I left for the Bryansk Front, to elaborate on-site the tasks of the troops of his front with M. M. Popov. Within four days I have been in the 61st, 63rd and 3rd Armies. Together with the new commander, we once again checked the state of defences and preparations for the upcoming action. The enemy still remained idle.

At night to June 10th I came back to Moscow again, so that after a short pause at the General Headquarter's advise leave for the Voronezh Front. I was given the task to co-ordinate operations of the troops of the Voronezh and South-Western Fronts, while G. K. Zhukov - Central, Bryansk and Western Fronts. That proved once again how Supreme Command ensured precision of the operational command. Through its representatives the General Headquarters controlled the chain of command in main sectors.

At this critical moment, the Soviet command put strict requirements to the intelligence cells. And I must say it was excellent and rendered a lot of help to us. During the first two years of the war, we, the officers of the General Staff, often heard justified reproaches from the Supreme Commander addressed to the Intelligence Executive. In 1943 there were hardly any such comments. No matter how the enemy strove to keep offensive plans secret, no matter how he tried to divert the attention of the Soviet intelligence from the areas of concentration of their assault groupings, our intelligence succeeded in identification not only of the enemy's general design for the summer 1943, direction of the strikes, composition of the assault units and reserves, but also in establishing of the time of the beginning of the fascist offensive. As a matter of fact, in May, by initiative of the General Staff, fronts of the Kursk direction were twice warned of the possibility of the enemy offensive during the coming days. Yet, in neither case an enemy attack followed. But it happened, as it turned out later, due to no fault of our intelligence, but to the fact that Hitler was seeking to strengthen further the grouping concentrated at Kromy and Borisovka, and postponed the commencement of the offensive.

On May 8th the General Headquarters sent to the commanders of the Bryansk, Central, Voronezh and South-Western Fronts the following directive:

According to information received, the enemy may take offensive May 10-12 on Orel-Kursk Sector or Belgorod-Oboyan Sector, or on both sectors at once. Supreme Command GHQ orders: by morning of May 10 all troops of the first line of defence and of the reserves shall be fully prepared to meet an enemy attack. Special attention shall be given to our air force to ensure that in the event of an enemy offensive not only will their air attacks be repelled but air supremacy will be achieved from the first moment of active operations.

The directive the General Headquarters sent the same night to the Steppe Military District read: Troops of District to be brought up to strength with all possible speed and by morning of 10.5 have all its available troops in battle readiness both for defence and for active operations on orders of GHQ. Special attention to be paid to the readiness of the aviation to meet possible attacks of the enemy aviation against our airfields and troops. [55]

On 20 May the General Staff, based on newly acquired information about the enemy, having consent of the Supreme Commander, sent to the front commanders the warning that the fascist offensive was expected no later than on 26 May. After the first warning, which did not prove right, the military council of the Voronezh Front perceived that as hesitation, or may be a complete renunciation of the offensive on the part of the enemy, and sought from the Supreme Commander a decision regarding feasibility of a preventive strike. J. V. Stalin seriously considered that proposal and to us - Zhukov, I and Antonov - it took some effort to convince him not to do it.

In the mid-June Zhukov, as the first deputy people's commissar for defence,
[56] was again among the troops on the Kursk Salient. In result of incessant and the most thorough reconnaissance of the enemy on the Voronezh as well as Central Fronts, and also according to all sorts of the intelligence data, we knew exactly that the fascists were fully prepared for an offensive. Yet still, for some reasons, they did not commence it. And those very "some reasons" troubled us a lot, and even upset some comrades. The commander of the Voronezh Front, N. V. Vatutin, started showing particular irritation. In our discussions Nikolay Fyodorovich not once used to put forward the question of necessity to start our own offensive, so not to miss the summer season. My arguments that the beginning of the enemy's offensive against us were just a matter of coming days, and that our offensive would only do service to the enemy, did not convince him.

"Alexander Mikhailovich! We'll oversleep, we'll miss the moment," he used to persuade me with agitation. "The enemy isn't attacking, it's autumn soon, and all our plans will go awry. Let's stop digging the soil and strike first. We have enough forces."

From everyday conversations with the Supreme Commander it transpired to me that he worried too. Once he told me that Vatutin had called him and insisted that we begin our offensive no later than in the beginning of July; furthermore Stalin said that he considered that idea worth most serious attention; that he had ordered Vatutin to prepare and report his considerations concerning the Voronezh Front to the General Headquarters. As to me, I was instructed to 1) help Vatutin, and 2) call in the commander of the South-Western Front R. Ya. Malinovsky so he in his turn would work out and present to the General Headquarters proposals of his front. Stalin added that he was looking forward to discuss that question with Zhukov the same question regarding the Central Front of K. K. Rokossovsky. I answered that instructions would be carried out, and added that for us it would have been more advantageous if the enemy had gone with his advance, expected, by all data, in the nearest time, ahead of us. At the end of the conversation Stalin told me to arrive in Moscow no later than on 22 June.

Next day i communicated the instructions of the Supreme Commander to R. Ya. Malinovsky and the member of the military council of the South-Western Front A. S. Zheltov, who came to me. From the conversation with G. K. Zhukov I had afterwards I learned that with him J. V. Stalin did not discuss the matter yet. We both were convinced that within the next week the enemy would strike first. With such thoughts I left the Voronezh Front on 22 June. By then, in result of all the measures and efforts a strong grouping of the troops of the Voronezh and Central Fronts was deployed on well-prepared positions. It numbered more than 1,336 thousand troops, 19.1 thousand guns and mortars, 3,444 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 2,172 aircraft (and even 2,900 aircraft, including long-range planes of the 17th Air Army, South-Western Front, and night bombers Po-2). Behind it assumed its positions the Steppe Military District, which numbered 573 thousand troops, 7,401 guns and mortars, and 1,551 tanks and self-propelled guns. Both warring parties were in place awaiting the great events to come.

On the night of 2 July the information received at the General Staff from our intelligence section told us that in the next few days, at any rate no later than on 6 July, the enemy's offensive on the Kursk Front was bound to begin. I instantly reported that to Stalin, and asked permission to alert the fronts immediately. Then I read to him the project of the following directive of the General Headquarters I had prepared beforehand:

According to information received, the Germans may take the offensive on our Front between July 3 and 6. Supreme Command GHQ orders:
    1. Intensify reconnaissance and observation of the enemy to make sure of detecting their intentions in good time.
    2. Troops and aircraft must be ready to repel a possible enemy attack.
    3. Report any issued instructions. [57]
Stalin approved the text of the directive during the night of the 2 July and it was dispatched to the commanders of the Western, Bryansk, Central, Voronezh, South-Western and Southern Fronts. On the same day I left for the Voronezh front. In the evening I was at the commanding post of "Nikolayev" (Vatutin's nom de guerre. For the purpose of deception from 15 May 1943 till 1 June 1944 the noms de guerre of commanding staff of the Red Army were changed again. Stalin became Ivanov, Zhukov - Yuriev, I - Alexandrov; front commanders: V. A. Frolov - Valeryanov, L. A. Govorov - Leonov, K. A. Meretskov - Kirillov, P. A. Kurochkin - Ptitsyn, S. K. Timoshenko - Timofeyev in the north and Fyodorov i the south, A. I. Yeremenko - Ivanenko, V. D. Sokolovsky - Vasilenko, M. A. Reyter - Maximov, M. M. Popov - Markov, K. K. Rokossovsky - Kostin, R. Ya. Malinovsky - Rodionov, I. Ye. Petrov - Yefimov, I. S. Konev - Stepin, F. I. Tolbukhin - first Fyodorov, and later Obukhov).

The day of 3 July on the Voronezh and Central Fronts past, just like all other last days, uneventfully. And beginning of 1600hr on 4 July the enemy had been conducting reconnaissance by battle with approximately four battalions and 20 tanks, artillery and air force (about 150 sorties). All enemy attempts to wedge into our first line were repelled. A German captured in fights, a soldier of the 168th Infantry Division, testified that the troops were given food rations and vodka, and that on 5 July they are supposed to attack. From a telephone conversation with Zhukov I learned that the same was confirmed by the German defectors, who came over to us on 4 July on the Central Front. After consulting Vatutin, we decided to carry out on 5 July the planned air and artillery bombardment, which, as it occurred later, brought an exceptional effect. Enemy troops, deployed on the initial positions for advance, suffered heavy losses in manpower and equipment. Our barrage had disorganized their system of artillery fire and communications. Enemy air forces lost a lot of planes on the airfields, and their communications with the army command were disrupted. Many fascist commanders took our barrage for the beginning of our offensive. But even without knowing all those details of the effects of our barrage, we experienced the feeling of deep satisfaction of its general results. Instead of beginning their offensive on 5 July at 3 a.m., the Nazis were merely able to do it three hours later.

Thus unfolded the great battle on the Kursk Salient.
  1. Zhukov G. K. Memoirs of Marshal G. Zhukov.
  2. Archives of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, vol. 233, file 2307, doc. 3, page 29-33.
  3. Archives of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, vol. 48-А, file. 1147, doc. 2, page 4-7.
  4. Commander of the 63rd Army, Lieutenant-General V. Ya. Kolpakchi.
  5. Archives of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, vol. 48-A, file. 1691, doc. 233, page 288-290.
  6. Archives of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, vol. 132-A, file. 2642, doc. 13, page 184, 183.
  7. In May 1943 by decision of the State Defence Committee the people's commissar for defence was left only two deputies - G. K. Zhukov and me; G. K. Zhukov on top of that also remained the deputy Supreme Commander.
  8. Archives of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, vol. 132-A, file. 2642, doc. 34, page 164.