Monday, February 11, 2008

The hell of Kursk

The battle of Kursk was not only the greatest armored confrontation in History, but also the turning point at World War II. From this point, Hitler's Germany ceased to hold the initiative in the East and passed to defend, which would not change during the rest of the war.

Barbarossa

The invasion of Russia -operation Barbarossa, started on 22th June 1941 and planned to be a rapid conquest, before winter arrived- had gone well for the Germans in the first months of campaign. Despite the too late beginning of the campaign -Russian winter would arrive anyway- and underestimating the defensive power of the Soviet Union, the German army was far more ready and had better logistic support. The surprise factor, air support and Soviet lack of organization allowed an advance of 50 daily kilometers. In August, the Wehrmacht was almost 100 km from Leningrad, Kiev and Smolensk. But an unexpected planning changement altered the course of the invasion.

Hitler had always believed himself a militar genius, and some strategic achievements during the war -largely, taking big risks- convinced him to personally take the command of the Eastern front troops. The initial plans of the campaign were, besides conquering Leningrad, to send the Southern Army sector to take control of the rich Caucasus oil wells, and the Central one to Smolensk and directly towards Moscow, which should be occupied before the winter. However, Hitler took a dicsoncerting decision, against the opinion of the whole High Command: he made stop the advance to the capital to reinforce the Southern Army, fighting harshly in Kiev.

Hitler had in mind that the Ukrainian city had to be taken, but due to the rugged resistance from the population, the siege finally lasted until October, slowering the whole progress towards the Caucasus oil fields. The result was that, upon the winter arrival, the important access to the oil had not been achieved. At the same time, the bulk of the Central sector, the 4th Wehrmacht Army, was at the gates of Moscow, but weakened because of this unexpected reinforcement, had wasted too long time in Smolensk, and also lacking of supplies, could advance no more.

From attackers to attacked

After the Soviet re-organization, the expulsion of the nazis from Moscow, and relative stabilization of the front during the winter, in 1942 the Germans finally tried to occupy the Caucasus. However, new conflicts between Hitler and the High Command made the Operation Blue to become a clumsy advance that eventually trapped the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad, where they lost their major elite force, the 6th Army.

Field marshal Von Manstein managed though to counteract the counteroffensive from Stalingrad, and even advancing on Kharkov during March 1943. He then proposed the High Command to tend a trap that, attracting the Red Army to the rests of the German 6th Army, would make an evolving movement that would envelop the Russians at the Donets Basin. Hitler, reluctant to envolving attacks, did not approve the plan and centered in Kursk, an area entering in the straight Russian front.

The objective was too obvious: the Russians predicted the attack, and the delay to July gave them further advantage -Hitler wanted the new Panther tanks to arrive to the front-. Generals Rokossovsky and Vatutin had set up tens of deffensive belts, and had progressive retreat plans while the Germans would be advancing. The Russians knew the offensive would come from the huge amount of tanks there accumulated. When they started Operation Citadel on 5th July, more than one million antitank mines decimated the armored columns. Russian artillery and air force, after two years of campaign, were comparable in number and readiness to the German ones, and destroyed the German artillery support.

Although Panzers were still a formidable weapon supported by the Luftwaffe, they lacked the proper infantry support, and Russian soldiers were able to easily destroy them with antitank guns or simple molotov cocktails. Besides, the new models -Tiger and Panther- were very scarce and did not whos the expected results. More than half were out of operation the first day because of problems with their cooling system.

On 12th July, the Germans believed to be near the end of the Russian defensive belts. However, when entering Prokhorovka, the SS-Panzerkorps found itself in front of a whole armored division of Soviet T-34. The greatest armored combat in History (400 German tanks against 900 Soviet ones) ended up as a technical draw, but was a huge moral defeat for the Nazis, who thought to be close to victory. On 17th July, when the Wehrmacht soldiers saw all the Panzers being retired and moved to the new Sicily front, they realised that they would pass to a defensive role. Soviet counterattacks started immediately. The attackers became attacked.

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