Central Front. Aircraft from the 16th Air Army support a counter-attack of the tanks of the 2nd Tank Army.



Before the Stalingrad pocket was finally liquidated on 2 February 1943, the Red Army switched to the offensive operations along the whole front from the Caucasus to Leningrad. The Germans started withdrawal of their troops hazarded into the Caucasian Mountains yet on the New Year day. Under the growing pressure of the Soviet troops only part of their forces managed to reach Rostov on Don. The rest switched to Taman peninsula opposite to Crimea, and more precisely opposite its satellite Kerch peninsula. On 12 February they had to abandon Krasnodar. But they were firmly holding the approaches to Novorossiysk and eagerly stormed the bridgehead created in the south to the city by the Soviet marines. The fights on those positions were to last for several months. The German command wanted to hold positions in Taman at any cost; they secured Crimea from the east and created a basis to plan a counter-attack against the rear of the Soviet troops operating on lower Don.

Meanwhile another large offensive was launched in the upper stream of the river by the forces of the Voronezh Front and part of forces of the Bryansk Front. It began on 13 January 1943; it surrounded and annihilated the 8th Italian Army, including its elite bersaglieri corps, and led to the liberation of Voronezh on 25 January. As it gained momentum it rolled further to the west. On 8 February was liberated Kursk, and on 9 February - Belgorod, located on the same meridian with Kharkov some hundred kilometres north to it. The German Army Group B was falling apart. On 16 February Soviet troops making their way through snowdrifts reached Kharkov and destroyed the remnants of the German defence there. Simultaneously the South-Western Front moved on 20 January and within four days liberated substantial part of the Donbass, and on 5 February the troops of the Southern Front struck from Stalingrad, crossed lower Don, liberated Rostov and reached Mius river. Nevertheless General Sergei Shtemenko in his book Soviet General Staff at War critically examines decisions made during first months of 1943:
The general behaviour of the Germano-fascist forces in the south of Voronezh and down to the Black Sea was viewed by many front commanders and the Stavka as a forced withdrawal beyond Dnieper, in order to consolidate their defence on the west bank of this serious riverine barrier. It was assumed without doubts that the strategic initiative we grasped in the battle of Stalingrad had been held firmly and the enemy had no chance to retake it. Moreover, it was assumed that it was hardly possible that the hitlerite army would launch any significant strategic operations in the left-bank Ukraine or in the centre of the strategic front.

From this assessment of the situation came out the cardinal operational directive: attack without a pause, because any waste of time on our side would give the enemy a chance to strengthen its defence lines. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]
It often happens that victory causes daze. Apparently in February 1943 it happened to some Soviet commanders. After all they had achieved a brilliant victory; their offensive destroyed dozens of German and satellite divisions. But many front and army commanders failed to overview the general situation. The Soviet forces operating in the 400km wide front had advanced some 300 - 360 kilometres away from their supply bases and started to suffer severely from the lack of ammunition and fuel. Their combat value was also deteriorating, since reinforcements could not reach them in time. On top of that the decreased efficiency of the air support, because old airfields were left in the deep rear, while newly seized ones were not operable yet. Meanwhile the Germans, according to Shtemenko,
did not even consider any retreat of their troops beyond Dnieper. While pulling out and defending their advanced positions, they planned a counter-offensive. The debacle by Kotelnikovskiy only temporarily deprived them of the ability to conduct full-scale combat actions. The enemy did not abandon plans to take revenge for Stalingrad and to regain strategic initiative. Quite a contrary, the heavy defeat they suffered in the steppes of Don, the collapse of the Army Group "B" by Voronezh, and its consequences made the highest nazi leadership to undertake extraordinary measures.

As they had not enough forces in the immediate rear to carry out full-scale offensive operations, they combined the assault grouping by reinforcements from other sectors of the front, as well as from West Europe. This however required time. To gain time, to hold Donbass and to secure good initial positions for the further counter-offensive, Germans decided to assume defence along river Severskiy Donets and downstream Don. The main battleground, as the hitlerite generals called the focal zone of defence efforts, was on river Mius. The troops deployed on that position under the command of Manstein comprised the Army Group "Don". Its core was made of troops, which previously operated in the Stalingrad direction and partly of those pulled out from the North Caucasus. Most notably there were deployed the 4th and 1st Tank Armies, which constituted enemy's powerful assault fist. Manstein also had at his disposal substantial air forces, wisely deployed on airfields and well supplied with fuel.

On top of that the build-up of the Army Group "Don" went unnoticed. The translocation of enemy columns was still seen as escape, as attempt to avoid fights in Donbass and to get to the right-bank Ukraine as soon as possible. The command of the South-Western Front had stubbornly stuck to that erroneous point of view and refused to consider facts, which had already emerged and should have alerted them. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]
The German command, having support of the forces withdrawn from Caucasus, formed two strong armoured groups, which at the end of February struck against the right wing of the South-Western Front. The troops of the front could do little to stop them and had to retreat. Simultaneously another hastily formed German group attacked the left wing of the Voronezh Front, rolled it, and took Kharkov on 15 March and Belgorod on 18 March. Those were the logical consequences of the light-heartedness so rightfully criticized by Shtemenko. It was a grave mistake to underestimate just beaten enemy and to neglect formation of sufficient reserves beyond the thin, in this case too thin, line of own troops.

During defence fights had notably distinguished themselves in the battle of Sokolovo battalions of the Czechoslovak Corps under command of the future president of Czechoslovakia General Ludvik Svoboda. The commander of a company from one of the battalions, 2nd Lieutenant Otokar Jaroš, became the first foreigner dignified with the title of the hero of the Soviet Union.

The German counter-attack was eventually halted on Severskiy Donets. The enemy failed to achieve its main goals - to destroy Soviet forces in Donbass and in the vicinity of Kursk. The Voronezh Front also managed to consolidate and hold its right wing, which formed the southern part of so-called Kursk salient. Very soon it would become the scene of the battle of tremendous importance.

To reinforce troops fighting in the south, the Soviet General Headquarters in February and March shifted there substantial reserves, formed by pulling out some divisions from the central sector. It had fatal consequences as the Kalinin, West, Central and Bryansk Fronts failed to destroy the Army Group Centre and to liberate Smolensk. The Soviet advance in the direction of Moscow reached on 1 April Dukhovshchina and Spass-Demyansk, long before Smolensk, and stalled there. Anyway it liberated Gzhatsk, Rzhev and Vyazma and pushed the front some 300 kilometres westward. The immediate menace of the capital was finally dismissed. Then the front stabilized and the Russians started gradual preparations for the next offensive in the west.

And while in the Russia's south were waged battles of Stalingrad and Kharkov, while in the west the Germans were gradually pushed back from positions menacing Moscow, also in north Russia situation changed to their worse. On 12 January 1943 moved the 67th Army of the Leningrad Front. It had to meet the 2nd Assault Army of the Volkhov Front and thus break the blockade of Leningrad (Petersburg), the city being besieged and mercilessly destroyed by air raids and artillery fire for sixteen months. Around the city were deployed 25 German and 5 Finnish divisions while in the city civilians took part in the defence alongside the troops. After a week of bloody fights, the troops of both Soviet fronts met in the vicinity of historic Schlusselburg (Oreshek). It was not yet the end of the siege, but certainly a relief for the city. The success by Leningrad also contributed to more successes in the north. The advance driven on 15 February by the divisions of the North-Western Front brought the quick retaking of Demyansk, from where the Germans menaced Kalinin (Tver). All that allowed Shtemenko to estimate the outcome of the winter campaign quite favourably:
The overall results of the winter campaign 1943, despite some mistakes and vain hopes, were very substantial to the Soviet armed forces. They completed the liquidation of the 300,000-strong Paulus' army encircled by Stalingrad. They annihilated the forces sent to the eastern front by Hitler's Italian allies. Also other allies of the fascist Germany suffered severe defeats.

That winter was also remarkable for the breakthrough in the Leningrad blockade and establishment of communication between the hero-city and the Big Land. The enemy was dislodged from the vicinity of Demyansk, from Vyazma and Rzhev, and pushed far away on the southern wing. Soviet troops liberated 480,000 square kilometres of native soil, and in some sectors moved forward even 600 to 700 kilometres. As it was later confirmed by the enemy itself, that winter only Germans lost in Russia about 1,200,000 soldiers and officers, and together with satellite armies even 1,700,000 men. Large numbers measure the enemy's material losses as well: 24,000 pieces of artillery, 7400 tanks, and 4300 aircraft.

Our successes could have been probably bigger if the failures I described above had not occurred. Where were the sources of those failures? I think that having achieved great victories in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad, some senior commanders, including members of the Stavka and the General Staff, nursed well known tendency to underestimate the enemy. It had negative influence on operational planning. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]
Anyway those final months of 1942 and especially the first months of 1943 brought the profound reversal of the situation in the whole huge front from the Arctics to the Black Sea. The Germans were losing their strategic initiative and coming months were about to bring them yet another disastrous defeat.

In spring 1943, when the winter campaign extinguished, the Russians held in the vicinity of Kursk a large, almost rectangular area of 22,000sq.km. This area, encircled from the west by the large arch of the front positions, is nowadays known as the Kursk Salient, Kursk Bulge or Kursk Arch (Kurskaya Duga). On the opposite ends of the salient were concentrated German troops, which also held two big cities located on the same meridian with Kursk - Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south. The distance between them was about two hundred kilometres, while Soviet positions were established within 100-150 km to the north, west and south of Kursk. The German command got the obvious idea to strike from both ends of the Arch towards Kursk and to destroy Soviet forces within the salient. However the German initiatives were closely watched from the other side of the hill, in witness whereof another excerpt from Gen. Shtemenko's memoirs:
In the beginning of May enemy's counter-offensive was deemed quite realistic.

Intelligence reported that Hitler had been going to gather the leadership cadres of his armed forces for the final decision on the offensive in the Soviet-German front. This summit indeed took place on 3 and 4 May in Munich. (...) Within those two days the draft of the operation "Zitadelle" was finally completed and accepted. Now it was time to watch up. A surprising enemy attack, with all the tanks and air forces it amassed on our Kursk Arch, could bear unpredictable consequences.

Since the beginning of May the General Staff used to take advantage of every possible chance to remind fronts' staffs about the necessity to stay vigilant. On behalf of the Stavka it particularly recommended them to restrain from complicated troops' regrouping, which could even temporarily affect their combat readiness.

By May 8th various sources reported to the General Staff, that a major enemy advance in Orel - Kursk and Belgorod - Kursk directions was expected around May 10th - 12th. I promptly reported it to A. M. Vasilevskiy, who at that time was in Moscow. He already had got directives from Stalin - alarm the troops as necessary. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]
The attack however did not take place on 10 or 12 May. Neither did it take place later that month, about 19 - 26 May. The reason being that, according to one of Hitler's staff members, General Kurt von Tippelskirch, in this operation Hitler wanted to use a large number of Panther tanks, whose mass production had been started shortly before the battle and on which he pinned particularly high hopes. [Tippelskirch K. von (1959).] Indeed, to the Kursk front were sent not only new, powerful medium tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-V Panther, but also mighty heavy tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-VI Tiger and new 88mm self-propelled gun-carriers Sd.Kfz.184 Elefant mounted on Tigers' carriers. Hitler wanted to form the strongest assault grouping possible, but due to partisan activities on transport routes between the Reich and eastern front, shipments of equipment were substantially disorganized. So he procrastinated. It was not until 1 July that he summoned the commanders of the operation Citadel and ordered to launch it on 5 July. The attack had to be a surprise of course. The German leadership could not even think that the Soviet command had been closely watching German preparations and had even established the exact date of the offensive. On 2 July at 2:15 General Alexei Antonov issued, and Joseph Stalin signed, the third directive to the troops amassed in the south. The directive was brief and read:
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.
Indeed, the battle started on 5 July. From Orel to Kursk, across the positions of the Central Front, rushed seven armoured, two mechanized and eleven infantry divisions; from Belgorod, against the lines of the Voronezh Front - and of course farther to Kursk - struck ten armoured, one mechanized and seven infantry divisions. Strong Luftwaffe formations bombed the railway node in Kursk itself. Altogether half a million men were engaged under the command of Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. This day you are to take part in an offensive of such importance, addressed Hitler to his soldiers, that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome. More than anything else, your victory will show the whole world that resistance to the power of the German Army is hopeless. [Caidin M. (1980).] The meeting point of the German armoured wedges was assigned several kilometres east to Kursk, in the town of Tim. But it never came to that meeting.

Nowadays militarymen and historians call the German operation trivial, banal and testifying to the lack of imagination on the side of its authors. The strike was carried out according to unfailing so far formulae of the lightning war, with massive armoured assault forces thrown against the opposite ends of the Soviet salient. But the times, when such strikes would literally disembowel the defence, were gone. The Russians had learnt how to neutralize such attacks and they had attached particular attention to those vulnerable sectors. It is enough to say, that the Central and Voronezh Fronts concentrated about 1,300,000 soldiers, about 20,000 guns and mortars, 3600 tanks and self-propelled gun-carriers, and 2370 aircraft. Apart from the two fronts engaged in battle, also the forces of the West, Bryansk and Steppe Fronts were kept in reserve. The command was carried out by generals, who had gained two years of experience in the war with Germany. The General Headquarters assigned Marshals Georgiy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevskiy to co-ordinate operations in the Kursk Salient.

On 5 July at dawn German troops deployed against the Soviet positions were covered by the artillery barrage so heavy, that the movements of armoured and mechanized troops were delayed two hours. It was not until 5:30 that the Germans started their barrage, and at 6:00 the first tank units moved towards the Soviet lines. The blow was forceful, but during the first stage of the battle it brought only limited success: in the north they advanced 12km into the Soviet defence positions, in the south - as far as 35km. Considering the power of the German build-up, those were rather lousy effects and they cost them four days of bloody fights. On the fifth day the advance of the German northern grouping stalled. The southern grouping, where the 4th Armoured Army and the Operation Group Kempf fought under command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, achieved better results. The command of the Voronezh Front miscalculated the direction of the main German effort and dispersed front's forces. In result Manstein overcame Soviet defence in several sectors. Therefore the forces of four armoured armies were introduced to plug the breach in the front. It was there, that on 12 July in the vicinity of Prokhorovka village it came to a great tank battle, in which both sides engaged up to 1,100 tanks and self-propelled gun-carriers. Both sides suffered horrible casualties, but the German advance was ultimately halted.

And the same day, 12 July, started the second stage of the battle. To the north of Orel the West and Bryansk Fronts started an offensive with the bulk of their forces. They were supported by 10,000 guns and mortars, as well as the 1st Air Army. Within two days the German front was broken through and Soviet troops incurred as far as 25 kilometres westward. Exploiting the success of the neighbours, the Central Front went to counter-offensive on 15 July and within three days restored its initial positions. Positions were restored also in the south where the Germans started their withdrawal on 16 July. The Voronezh Front, with the Steppe Front introduced to fights two days later, started pursuit. In face of a serious failure Hitler launched a major purge of his command; among others he sacked the commander of the 2nd Armoured Army, General Rudolf Schmidt. But no purges could prevent the failure from transformation into a great disaster. By the night of 3 and 4 August Soviet troops got to the suburbs of Orel and started street fights. Meanwhile troops of the Steppe Front approached Belgorod. Both cities were liberated on the same day, 5 August. By 18 August the Central, Bryansk and Western Fronts completed the liquidation of the left wing of German forces menacing the Kursk Salient from the north. The front stabilized in the vicinity of Bryansk. Meanwhile in the south another important operation had been prepared and the unusual planning procedure applied has been noted in Gen. Shtemenko's memoirs:
After a great deal of calculation and consideration of various proposals, the General Staff reached its filan conclusion: the germans' Belgorod - Kharkov concentration must first of all be cut off from its supply of reserves from the west. This could be done with the two tank armies in readiness north of Belgorod, which must smash and disorganise the whole enemy defence system, slash it to pieces with deep thrusts. Only after that could the enemy be disposed of piecemeal. This new operation was code-named General Rumyantsev.

The fighting had never actually ceased. Our switch to the counter-offensive was not preceded by a long pause, and so the elaboration of the plan of this operation was somewhat unusual. Most of it was done on the spot. (...)

I have no knowledge of any comprehensive written or diagrammatic record connected with the General Rumiantsev operation. There were none. For GHQ and the General Staff this code name signified not a document but the coordinated actions of the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts and some of the troops of the South-Western Front in August 1943, united by a common aim and single leadership.

The aim of the operation was to smash the enemy in the Belgorod - Kharkov area, after which the way would lie open for Soviet troops to reach the Dnieper, seize crossings there and prevent the enemy's withdrawal from the Donbas to the west. The whole thing promised great operational advantages. [Shtemenko S. M. (2001).]
The main effort aimed at the town of Bogodukhov, north-west to Kharkov. The troops designated for that operation began their operation yet on 3 August, before liberation of Belgorod. On 8 August they took Bogodukhov and continued to advance. The whole Germans' Kharkov - Belgorod grouping got cut in halves. They started hectic regrouping of their forces towards Bogodukhov, where they eventually concentrated seven armoured and four infantry divisions, and launched a counter-attack on 11 August. Despite heavy losses, the Voronezh Front held its positions around the town while the Steppe Front, commanded by Gen. Ivan Konev, approached to Kharkov from the east and liberated it on 23 August.

According to Soviet historians, the battle on the Kursk Salient, which led to the liberation of Kharkov and Orel, was the Red Army's third strategic counter-offensive since the outbreak of the war. Its intensity and efficiency outshone both the battle of Moscow and the battle of Stalingrad. The battle of Moscow engaged 700,000 Soviet soldiers; the battle of Stalingrad saw already a million of them; in the battle of Kursk took part over two million men. At Moscow the Russians were outnumbered by the enemy; in Stalingrad both sides were more or less in balance; on the Kursk Salient for the first time the Russians had superiority over the enemy. The counter-offensive at Kursk, concluded Marshal Zhukov, unlike those at Moscow and on the Volga, was a predetermined and well backed up deep-thrusting action. [Zhukov G. K. (1971).] The battle of Kursk was one of the greatest battles of the Second World War. It lasted fifty days. It brought annihilation of 30 German divisions, including seven armoured ones. The Germans lost over half a million of soldiers, about 3000 tanks and over 3000 aircraft. Since then the Russians had seized superiority in the air. But above all they completely grasped the strategic initiative.