Memorial to the Battle of Kursk in Kursk, Russia.

The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk occurred in the summer of 1943. It marked the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front. Furthermore, it was also one of the largest tank battles in history. For these reasons and more, the Battle of Kursk is important to consider when assessing the Second World War. Germany invaded the Soviet Union (USSR) on June 22, 1941. For this campaign, the German Army (the Wehrmacht) split into three groups: Army Group North, which was tasked with capturing Leningrad; Army Group Center, which attempted to take Moscow; and Army Group South, whose goal was Ukraine and then the Caucasus. These prongs initially all made rapid progress. Army Group North reached Leningrad by late August, Army Group Center made it to Moscow by late October, and Army Group South quickly captured Ukraine before attacking southern Russia. However, the latter two groups then faced trouble, with the Center being pushed from Moscow in the winter of 1942 and the South getting bogged down in Stalingrad before being repelled in early 1943. This set the stage for an attempted counteroffensive in the summer of 1943. 

The Beginning Of The Battle

The Kursk offensive.
 A Raupenschlepper Ost, designed in response to the poor roads of Russia, moves materiel up shortly before the Kursk offensive.

Adolf Hitler initially wanted to retake Kursk, a city in southwestern Russia, at the beginning of May. But, poor weather forced him to delay the attack by two months. This proved to be a massive disadvantage for the Germans since the nature of their Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics required the element of surprise. Indeed, the Soviets used this time to set up barbed wire, mines, and tank traps all around the city. Furthermore, the British had cracked the German code and provided the Red Army with even more information about the Wehrmacht’s plans. All this meant that by the time Germany was ready to launch Operation Citadel on July 5, the Soviets were also prepared and hit them with a pre-emptive artillery barrage.

The Battle

Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counterattacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk
Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counterattacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk. Image credit:, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite quickly recovering from the Soviet artillery, the Germans found themselves halted north of Kursk on July 10. Finding more success in the south, the Wehrmacht reached Prokhorovka, a village about 50 miles from Kursk, on July 12. The battle for this village was brutal, with both sides using hundreds of tanks and assault guns. Ultimately, the Red Army managed to prevent the Wehrmacht from taking Prokhorovka. This failure was particularly devastating to Germany since, on July 10, the Allies invaded Sicily--thereby forcing Hitler to divert troops to Italy and necessitating a change of approach on the eastern front. However, the Soviets allowed for no time to reassess, launching a counteroffensive in the north on July 12. By July 24, they had pushed the Germans back further than where they were at the beginning of the battle. The Soviet counteroffensive finally stopped on August 23 once they had liberated Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city almost two hundred miles from Kursk. 

The Aftermath

Memorial to the Battle of Kursk in Kursk, Russia. 

Despite having won the battle, the Soviets suffered up to 800,000 casualties, whereas the Germans suffered about 200,000 casualties. Nonetheless, from this point in the war, the Germans were consistently on the defensive. As the Soviets made steady progress in the east, the British and Americans rapidly liberated Sicily, resulting in Benito Mussolini being ousted as Italian Prime Minister. The new Italian government then quickly surrendered, leading to Germany occupying the country and spreading its forces even thinner. By the time the Allies invaded France in the summer of 1944, it was only a matter of time before the war was over. Ultimately, Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945, and Germany surrendered about a week later.  

In conclusion, the Battle of Kursk was a crucial chapter in the Second World War. One of the largest tank battles in history, it was also the last major German offensive in the east. Furthermore, while the Soviets won the battle, they suffered significant casualties. Due to these factors and many others, this battle looms large in popular historical memory. 

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