- - Monday, September 30, 2013


By Dennis E. Showalter
Random House, $28, 345 pages, illustrated

Although Western readers have long recognized the critical role of the Russian front in World War II, their knowledge of specific campaigns is often limited. This situation may change. One of America’s prominent military historians, Dennis E. Showalter of Colorado College, has turned his attention to the greatest of all tank battles, the weeklong battle for Kursk in July 1943.

With the advantage of hindsight, the war in Russia had already begun to turn by that time. The Germans had failed, by a razor-thin margin, to capture Moscow in December 1941. A series of bungled Soviet attacks in 1942 served as a reminder of the political purges that had deprived the Red Army of thousands of its best officers.

The German soldier, dependent on a long supply line, remained the best-trained and best-equipped warrior in World War II. Recalling the easy German victories early in the war, he tended to underestimate his foe. But “Ivan” had undergone extensive military and ideological training during the long retreat to the outskirts of Moscow. And, in Mr. Showalter’s words, “Russian soldiers were drawn from a society and a culture where suffering pain and inflicting it were the stuff of every day.”

Then in the winter of 1942-43 came the campaign for Stalingrad, where Hitler’s insistence that the besieged city his forces had captured be defended to the death resulted in the destruction of an entire army and the surrender of more than 100,000 German soldiers.

While both sides labored to make good their losses after Stalingrad, Hitler sought a means of regaining the initiative. His attention turned to the Kursk salient, a 60-mile by 120-mile bulge in the Soviet front. Capture of the salient would net another huge crop of prisoners, would shorten the German defensive line, and, most important, help erase the memory of Stalingrad. The proposed German offensive, Operation Citadel, was repeatedly postponed so that more of the new Tiger tanks might be brought into line.

The Russians, however, were not idle. After considering and rejecting the idea of a pre-emptive attack, Marshal Zhukov chose to reinforce the Kursk salient with every available man and gun — more than a million men and some 3,400 tanks. The author notes that “Zhukov, Vasilevski, and the senior commanders on the ground were confident that the Red Army could hold the Germans and grind them down.”

The Germans, woefully ignorant of their enemy’s strength, attacked on July 5. The Ninth Army under Field Marshal Walter Model assaulted the northern shoulder of the salient, while Gen. Werner Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army attacked from the south. The Germans were confident, but the 700,000 men and 2,400 tanks they mustered fell far short of the traditional three-to-one ratio required for an attacking force.

The Germans initially made gains on both fronts. Then they encountered in-depth Soviet defenses, including the massed artillery with which the Soviets excelled. The Germans were drawn into a gigantic, brutal battle that allowed little scope for maneuver. On July 11, the Soviets threw their reserves into what had become the greatest tank battle of the war. “Accounts from both sides,” Mr. Showalter writes, “describe a steadily intensifying kaleidoscope of shell bursts, screaming rockets exploding bombs, tanks bursting into flame or slewing to a stop, crews desperately seeking to escape.”

Finally, Hitler had had enough. He ordered an end to Operation Citadel on July 13. Characteristically, he acknowledged no fault on his own part and probably repeated an earlier judgment that his field marshals’ horizons were “the size of a toilet seat.”

Kursk was an extremely costly Soviet victory. Total Russian casualties exceeded 320,000, while the Germans lost “only” 54,000. But the hundreds of German tanks destroyed or abandoned in the battle would be difficult to replace, whereas Russian industry was turning out thousands of the new T-54 tanks.

At Kursk, Hitler failed in his last great effort to regain the initiative in Russia. The remaining two years of the war would see a grinding advance of the Red Army that would terminate with the fall of Berlin.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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