Kursk - could the outcome have been different?

Discussion in 'WWII History, Weapons and Tactics' started by ASLSARGE, Mar 19, 2017.


    ASLSARGE Active Member

    Jan 6, 2008
    Re-reading an interesting book on the Kursk battle. Some thought-provoking viewpoints are put forth, and some age-old excuses are debunked. With that said....could the Germans have won a tactical, or even a strategic victory at Kursk?
    The author cites and puts forth reasons and the excuses used after the war by the German general staff for the failures of Citadel. The first was that the operation was begun too late in the year, allowing the Soviets to build up their defenses in greater depth. The Germans needed that extra time to rebuild their badly depleted units to even contemplate a massive attack in 1943. Another excuse was that Hitler demanded the delay as he wanted his new Panthers and Elephants to participate in the battle. While that is partly true, both of these weapons systems were not even close to being ready for combat and the design teams knew it but would not contest Hitler on this. The Panther suffered more losses to mechanical breakdowns than combat losses.....and the Elephants were not equipped to deal with the Soviet anti-tank teams of infantry and were used at the lead in the assaults rather than being used in overwatch positions where their long 88mm guns could inflict maximum damage at minimal risk.
    The Germans also had insufficient artillery ammunition available for the many probes they launched in Citadel. Many times the artillery had to ration what support they could provide, else they would have totally depleted their on hand supply of shells.
    The main reason for Citadel's failure, given by the author, was that the Germans continued to use tactics that worked well in 1939 - 1942. But by the time 1943 rolled around, the Soviets had slowly learned some very costly lessons on how to deal with "blitzkrieg". They still bumbled many opportunities to deal the Germans a fatal blow beginning as early as July 11, but the massive numbers of reserve units at the Soviet's disposal made whatever the Germans achieved almost meaningless. It did not matter if the Germans destroyed 200 Soviet tanks in one day. The Soviets simply brought up a couple more tank brigades and rapidly replaced all their losses. That is something the Germans could not do. The Germans also did not have nearly enough infantry divisions available for Kursk. The Soviets repeatedly assaulted the flanks of the Germans spearheads, and with no infantry to stop the flank threats, the Germans were forced to pull panzer and elite units out of the attack and switch over to the defensive roll.....greatly lowering the strength of their attacks. 2nd SS and Gross Deutchland were two prime examples.
    The Soviets "knew" where the Germans would attack during 1943....it was obvious even to a schoolchild that the bulge at Kursk was as tempting as a store full of candy to a kid. What if the Germans had not taken the "bait" and had, instead, attacked way north or south of the Kursk bulge with the intent of driving deep into the Soviet rear areas and destroying the Soviet reserves in their staging areas before they could be committed to battle?
    Lastly, the poor use of air support by the Germans and Soviets. The Germans had insufficient air units available to provide support to all the German attacks....they had to pick and choose where they could support, so not all units got the benefit of air support. The Soviets were just beginning on the upward curve of learning how to employ aircraft in a combined arms force that employed ground attack aircraft, tanks, artillery, and infantry to stop, penetrate, exploit, and destroy German units. The Germans were unprepared for this "new" tactic by the Soviets.
    So.....the question is......what, if anything, could the Germans have done differently at Kursk to have gotten a more positive end result? And, was a more positive result even a possibility given all the difficulties surrounding Citadel? Thoughts?
    vetsurg likes this.
  2. Yuri0352

    Yuri0352 Active Member Silver Supporting Member

    Nov 21, 2014
    25-30 Hexes
    Out of curiosity,which 'Kursk' book/author are you referring to?
  3. Paul M. Weir

    Paul M. Weir Well-Known Member

    Apr 3, 2004
    Oh dear! How much storage does GS have on hand for posts?

    The Germans started WW2 with insufficient resources for their war aims. Without Czechoslovakia Germany would have been bankrupted pre-war. Poland, Belgium, Holland and France provided some of the resources needed for the non-West part of its delusional dreams.

    The initial Barbarossa impulse relied upon a superior tactical and operational method of war and had success. The problem was that the sheer shock and momentum was a force in itself but once that momentum faded before Moscow the Germans were screwed. Whilst some actions, like Mikhail Katukov's 4th Tank Brigade under Dmitry Lelyushenko's 1st Guards Special Rifle Corps at Mtsensk are rightly celebrated, any such Soviet defensive success had the ability to fatally derail the German thrust. Fall Blau had the success it had in good part because the Soviets misinterpreted the strategic direction that the Germans were going to take in '42. Once the Germans had used up their 'surprises' or previously unexplored directions, they only had enough force to maintain a single operation in a year, if even that.

    They might have gotten a better result if they had switched to attacking the face rather than the flanks of the Kursk bulge, but honestly I feel their best approach would have been to sit on their hands and await the inevitable Soviet offensives. Still, that would only have delayed the inevitable. Any German offensive, anywhere, would just have depleted the German combat power further below their ability to slow the Soviets.

    The Germans had their best chance, if they had any at all, in '41 with Barbarossa. They had doctrine, tactics and most importantly confidence on their side and were faced by a Red Army that had been gutted by the Great Purge and was transitioning from a '30s to a '40s force. After that the Soviets painfully found their feet and once that temporary advantage was lost the Germans had lost the war.

    While try to avoid any calling on my supposed better than average knowledge of WW2 to back me up, I have over the years reading gone from "Germans some chance" to "Germans almost no chance". I have come around to the opinion that the USSR could have defeated Germany on its own, undoubtedly a lot longer war and at much greater cost, but pretty inevitably.

    To remind us of the trends.
    '41: USSR existential crisis, but German thrust stopped, the first time in WW2, by anybody.
    '42: Sole major German offensive, not only stopped but eventually completely rolled back.
    '43: Sole major German offensive stopped in it's tracks, start of roll back of German Barbarossa gains.
    '44+: No German gains whatsoever, some temporary defensive successes that only delayed the Soviets a little.

    The whole German war aim (domination of Europe) was fatally compromised by the German lemming like Drang Nach Osten, fuelled by ridiculous racial superiority idiocy and arrogance fed by success in the West and Balkans (victory disease). Not as bad a dose as the Japanese had, but still fatal. The next time a neo-Nazi or White Supremacist talks about the superiority of the Nordic 'race', remind them of Mtsensk, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Bagration when the Slavic untermensch cleaned their clocks.
    aiabx, Yuri0352, Eagle4ty and 2 others like this.
  4. Jazz

    Jazz Well-Known Member Staff Member Moderator

    Feb 3, 2003
    What Paul said so eloquently. His timeline for the trends nails the situation perfectly.

    What would have been the result of a tactical, or even major victory at Kursk? The Germans would still have been stalled in the middle of Russia without enough muscle or momentum to come anywhere close to knocking Russia out of the war. It just would have delayed the inevitable.

    Germany lost any chance at winning the war in Russia when they imposed their racial policies and drove the mass of the Russian population into the arms of Stalin....a place where they (or an appreciable portion) arguably were not on June 21, 1941.
    aiabx, Bob Walters and Paul M. Weir like this.
  5. Bob Walters

    Bob Walters Active Member

    The Germans should have never attacked. It was a giant obvious trap.
    Paul M. Weir likes this.
  6. Bob Walters

    Bob Walters Active Member

    That is not a popular opinion in many Western countries as they like to think that they were responsible for winning the war, however, you are absolutely correct. About the only way Germany would have had a chance is if they could have gotten the Japanese to intervene in the East and after Nomonhan there was not a snowball's chance in hell of that happening.
    Paul M. Weir likes this.
  7. Paul M. Weir

    Paul M. Weir Well-Known Member

    Apr 3, 2004
    Bob, I grew up with the same widespread opinion. The British on their own were capable in holding the Germans, but not to defeat them. In combination with the US (or the US on its own) they could have done that without the USSR. Both the Soviet and Western blocks were capable, each in their own right, of doing that. In combination they were unstoppable and together shortened the war.

    The only way the Germans could have won would have been a failure of will on the Soviet's part. The success of Barbarossa would have been the only cause of that. I feel it is important to not only evaluate simple possible combat strength but tempo of operations in gauging relative strengths. If a side can keep its opponent always on the back foot, it has a very significant advantage that can be used at what it regards as critical points. In physics momentum = mass * velocity and can be used as a parable for the '41 USSR situation. The Soviets had the greater mass, but the Germans had a great velocity advantage and used that to smash the Soviets. However once the velocity dropped (resistance, logistics, exhaustion, etc), the German advantage disappeared. Sheer tempo is a weapon in its own right, something that I feel is too often under appreciated.

    While Japanese intervention in the Soviet Far East might have made the German position a bit better, I seriously doubt that it would have changed the outcome. In such a situation the Soviets would not have been able to repeat Khalkhin Gol for some time, but the Japanese would not have had the strength to seriously weaken the Soviets. The Soviets did take units from Siberia. However Siberia as an entity is bigger than the whole US. Where the Soviets fought the Japanese in '38-'39 was regarded by the Soviets as the Soviet Far East. So a 'Siberian' division could be recruited many hundreds of miles from the nearest Japanese. The Soviets kept from 1 to 1.5 million troops in the Soviet Far East 'just in case'. While they did syphon off better units for use in the West, they seemed to do so only after building fresh units which would be sufficient.

    There was some previous discussion on the matter and rather than repeating, I will refer to my part at http://www.gamesquad.com/forums/ind...st-tank-of-the-war.118625/page-6#post-1697711.
    aiabx, Bob Walters and kcole4001 like this.
  8. Eagle4ty

    Eagle4ty Active Member

    Nov 7, 2007
    Eau Claire, Wi
    As to ASL Sarge's original query "Could The Outcome Have Been Different" you must first ask yourself, to what degree are you speaking? If you are talking about the outcome of the war in general as to what Paul & Bob are speaking to it is certainly true that even a favorable conclusion of CITADEL would have had only a mitigating effect. That Adolf Hitler would have done anything to the contrary than to conduct an offensive that he personally thought could win him the war (or at least give him favorable terms in the East) is pure bunk given his psychological make up (as evidenced by his insistence to conduct Wacht-am-Rhein a year later). However, it seems as if Sarge's question was on the feasibility of a successful conduct of the engagement given the weapons systems and tactics employed.

    To this end it could have been at least possible to have had a different outcome in my estimation. Had the German field commanders been given more latitude in deployment of their resources, timing of the operation, and operational and tactical use of their combat elements (including the untimely withdrawal of the SS Panzer Corps), the actual tactical (or grand tactical if you will) outcome could have been materially different. One of the biggest failings that I think the Germans made was the lack of a unified command structure for the conduct of the operation. To say that there was anything close to a unified command, or even a unified operational directive beyond the initial objectives of Citadel is only wishful thinking as OKO/OKH became uncommonly detracted from the conduct of the battle once commenced. In the end, given the Soviet's material superiority, Operational and Strategic alternatives and their excellent knowledge of German intentions, the deck was significantly stacked against the Germans from accomplishing much more than a local and tactical initiative or stalemate at best (not a win for old Adolf by any means).
  9. Indeed, Hitler was counting on that failure of will (the "kick the door in and the whole rotten house of cards will collapse" idea).
    It didn't work with England, and he supremely underestimated the Russian's capacity for enduring hardships.
    I mean, what else had they been doing for generations but enduring one deprivation after another.
    The Brits are stubborn, and the Russians are even more stubborn when pressed.

    The Germans were outnumbered, and had nothing like the material superiority they needed to overcome their lack of manpower.
    Better training and doctrine only go so far, and when those better trained leaders and soldiers are killed and wounded, then you're just outnumbered.
    The Japanese naval air arm was a perfect example, and their Pacific strategy was essentially the same: gambling on a quick victory.
  10. Regarding Kursk alone, once the element of surprise was lost, since the whole operation was known to the Russians through superior espionage, and the timing delayed giving the Russians plenty of time to set up their defences in great depth, I believe the operation was doomed.
    Better to have canceled and either tried somewhere else, or not to have attacked at all and prepared a more advantageous defensive line, since a Soviet offensive was clearly on the way.

    I think the biggest reason for Zitadel's failure was the fact that the Russians knew where and when the blow was coming and prepared accordingly.
  11. bendizoid

    bendizoid Official ***** Dickweed

    Sep 11, 2006
    Viet Nam
    Yeah, they bombed the staging areas before the attack even started. Even though it was doomed from the start the Germans (in the south) did better but enevitable failed.
  12. Proff3RTR

    Proff3RTR Well-Known Member

    Jun 15, 2014
    It would not of mattered if the German pincers had meet up just East of kursk as planned, and the whole of the Soviet forces within the Kursk 'Bulge' had been wiped out, It would of only delayed the total collapse of the German war machine in the East, which would of meant the end of ww2. This will put a lot of noses out of joint, but my view is even more extreme than Paul's. The war could of been won by the Soviet Union on it's own, the western Allies helped, sure, but even without them Ivan would of beaten the Germans in the end, it may of taken a few more years, but the out come was a done deal 'BEFORE' Stalingrad, hell, i would say Before operation Typhoon.

    The Germans Tactically won Kursk in the south, in the North they failed utterly, Now let me explain that stand point, from Armee Gruppe Sud's PoV, they attacked a dug in enemy, well fortified and were outnumbered in large amount.
    They managed to chew through almost 4/5ths of the defense lines and almost broke through to open country, In the process they smashed up the best part of two guards Armies (6th & 7th) and two tank Armies (1st & 5th Guards Tank), and when told to pull back did so in fairly good order (anyone who knows about military tactics know's a withdrawal in contact is hard to accomplish).
    They lost a fair amount of men, but Tank wise, not as much as the vaunted title 'Death Ride of 4th panzer Army' would suggest, look to the books of the past claiming 100's of German Panzer knocked out and 100's of Tigers KO'd! hell, there was not even roughly 100 (97 to be exact IIRC) in the whole of 4th Pz Army (GD's Tiger Kompanie, the 3 SS Tiger Kompanies and 502nd Heavy panzer battalion attached to III Pz Korps).
    compare to the Soviet Tank losses and the state of some of their units afterwards, Tactically i would claim kursk in the south as a German Victory, albeit a pyrrhic one.
    So IMHO in the south a form of Tactical Victory took place, but it meant nothing, even when Von Manstien tried to claim at such buy inflicting more damage onto the Soviet units to 'Draw' the teeth of the expected counter attack is taken into account.
    and as said, even if the had succeeded it would of meant nothing due to the simple fact the Soviets had so much in reserve they could of almost replaced everything they had lost straight away, it may of meant a slow down of any Soviet counter offensive or even a major delay until later in 1943, but that would of been it at the most.

    all the best

    Paul M. Weir likes this.
  13. Paul M. Weir

    Paul M. Weir Well-Known Member

    Apr 3, 2004
    Eagle4ty rightly brought us back the original question, from which others and I had deviated. My deviation was quite deliberate in that I wanted to hammer home the strategic force disparity that would have not only have gone against any possibility of success, but would have quickly nullified any transient success anyway.

    While we all can think of the climatic battle of Prokhorovka as being the turning point (12th July '43) of the Kursk operation, on the exact same day the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov against the German Northern flank forces. The whole Zitadelle operation had already failed as the most famous sub-battle started!

    It must be emphasised again and again, that the German divisions were in many, many cases well below authorised strength. As a glaring example, Hitler's pet three divisions of the SS Pz Corps only had roughly a single Panzer Abteilung (tank battalion) each, rather than the two that they should have had. That might have been fine for the middle to end of an operation, but seriously not enough to start an offensive with.
    The possible or even likely outcome of not withdrawing the Southern German forces, including the SS Pz Corps, as Manstein wanted, would have been the pocketing of the Southern arm. At the very least they would have had some great difficulty in extracting same, an earlier version of Korsun-Cherkassy. While Hitler used Sicily as an excuse, the cancellation of Zitadelle was the only sane decision.

    Let us not forget that long before Zitadelle started that Hitler said that the thought of it made his stomach churn. So clearly the Germans regarded that operation as particularly chancy.
    Eagle4ty likes this.
  14. Eagle4ty

    Eagle4ty Active Member

    Nov 7, 2007
    Eau Claire, Wi
    But boy, it sure gives historians & wargamers a great point in history to wrestle with!:mad::D
  15. Bob Walters

    Bob Walters Active Member

    I guess what I don't like about Kursk is that from the beginning it was a totally obvious pointless waste of resources. So as the OP said it is interesting to discuss what conditions would have been necessary for the Germans to have been able to win.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2017
  16. Bob Walters

    Bob Walters Active Member

    I have to disagree. At Nomonhan in 1939 Georgy Zhukov made very good use of combined arms against the Japanese. I think it depends on the capabilities of the people planning and executing the particular engagement.
  17. Brian W

    Brian W Well-Known Member

    Jan 29, 2003
    What if the Soviets had done better and chopped up the southern thrust without having to introduce the 5th Gds Tank Army as they did historically? Could they have launched their summer counter-attack even earlier and with 5th Gds un-bloodied and an even greater replacement pool to draw upon? Manstein's success was in part due to the poorer quality of troops in the area attacked, and the relatively weaker fortifications.

    I think that the Soviets would not have been able to switch over to the offensive that quickly, and the SS panzer corps that left for the Mius would not have left if they had. Still, a better Soviet defense in the south may have had serious repercussions in August.

    ASLSARGE Active Member

    Jan 6, 2008
    This particular book is "The Battle of Kursk" David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, University of Kansas Press, 1999. It is one of several books on that battle I have. This one provided some possible answers as to why Citadel failed so badly.

    ASLSARGE Active Member

    Jan 6, 2008
    Fully agree, Germany's war aims were beyond their reach no matter what. What I wanted discussed was what, if anything, could the Germans have done differently to have altered the outcome of Citadel. Thanks for all the great discussion so far. Gonna grab a bag of popcorn and wait for for further posts. :)
  20. What they could have done was what they were actually good at: shift the impetus of the attack somewhere else that didn't have a built up defensive zone that could have offered some benefit from a local envelopment, and do it quickly so the Russians couldn't have countered in time.

    They admitted that the attack was basically only a political move and had to have limited goals due to the lack of resources available.
    There should have been contingency plans in place for just such an eventuality, they had plenty of time to work them up alongside the main operation.

    Sticking doggedly to an obviously flawed plan never leads to success.
    There was really no chance of any success around Kursk since the Russians knew the plan due to their successful intelligence operations.

Share This Page