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Minutely detailed study of epic battle
on 3 April 2001
The Battle of Kursk, or Operation Citadel, was the third great German offensive of the Second World War on the Eastern Front. This book, using sources from the Russian side that have become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union, seeks to examine some of the 'myths' of Kursk and aims to provide a comprehensive narrative of the campaign's operations.
The work is certainly highly detailed, with voluminous notes, battle orders and the like. This makes it, inevitably, difficult to follow at times. The sheer numbers of formations involved can be extremely difficult to grasp. This book is never going to be a best seller like "Stalingrad"; it is too technical in nature.
Having said that, there are some very readable, insightful passages in the book.
The traditional argument for the failure of Citadel - strongly put in the post war memoirs of the leading German High Command survivors - is that the assault failed because Hitler forced the Germans to delay, allowing the Soviets to build up hugely formidable defences and concentrate reserves within the Kursk bulge. This book shows it was not as simple as that.
The Wehrmacht had achieved tactical penetration of Russian lines twice before - during the initial onsalught in 1941 and in the drive towards the south in 1942 - only to fail at the 'strategic' level, hundreds of miles beyond their jump-off point. Thus, the authors argue, it was not so stupid to limit the offensive and seek to 'pinch off' the Kursk salient before attempting other manouveres. There was a wide expectation - on both sides - that the Germans would succeed in this, though the Soviets knew this would be the acid test of their ever-improving Red Army. If they could hold at Kursk, the tactical - as well as the strategic - initiative would pass to Stalin.
The Germans, particularly Hitler, placed much store on the 'new weapons' - the Panther and Tiger tanks and the 'Elefant' self-propelled gun, but these proved either unreliable, too few or inappropriately designed in the battle itself.
The authors maintain that the Kursk battle marked the 'end of blitzkreig' as the Russian lines - for the first time anywhere in Europe up to that point - withstood the first German onslaught. It is difficult to reconcile this analysis with the stark contrast in the Citadel operation - the pinching off of a fortified salient in a static line - to the previous large-scale German operations - the 'schwerpunkt' penetration of an extremely extended front line to a rear area that allowed freedom of armoured movement (see "To Lose A Battle" by Alistair Horne, for example.) I feel this shows that the term 'blitzreig' - so well-beloved of writers seeking to explain the various Allied collapses - is so loose as to be fairly meaningless in a 1943 context.
Kursk, with twenty-twenty hindsight, can be seen as a gifted middleweight finally realising he was trying to knock down a super-heavy. The Russians constantly moved formations in then front of Model's Ninth Army and, in particular, Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army. As defenders, they took losses of three-to-one, but they could afford them. The Germans could not.
This is a painstaking book that requires close examination. There are easier books on the Eastern Front (Alan Clark's "Barbarossa" springs to mind), but, at present, there is none so detailed on this critical and informative campaign.