What is the straight dope on Kursk 'The Greatest Tank Battle in History' (or maybe not)

I’m currently reading ‘The Third Reich in Power’ by Richard J. Evans and one section made me raise my eyebrow. The author states that the myth of a titanic battle between German and Soviet tanks is a myth, and more than it never happened it was actually a cover-up to hide enormous Soviet losses.

Evans states that as a Soviet reinforcement of hundreds of tanks approached the German positions around Prokhorovka they ended up falling into a massive tank trap that had been dug earlier, the mostly drunk drivers panicked and caused a pile up where the Germans picked them off with ease at a loss of only three German tanks to about two-hundred Soviet tanks.

Stalin was initially furious but he tacitly agreed to a cover-up because he was the one that had demanded the reinforcements to be sent. So a military debacle was turned into a mythical glorious victory.

Its the first time I ever read that, what is the current state of generally accepted opinion on the subject?

The Soviets may have lost a few hundred tanks here and there to German traps and their own incompetence, but considering the scale of combat on the Eastern Front, two hundred destroyed tanks were barely a statistical blip. Hardly a “debacle”; it was just the cost of doing business.

Prokhorovka, on the south side, has long been known to have been a significant Soviet loss. Nothing new there. Sure Stalin liked his people to punch things up. Welcome to wartime propaganda. Stalin never had to explain to the public any losses. If something was unpleasant, it just wasn’t mentioned. The Ivan on the street didn’t know what the losses were.

The overall battle was a Soviet strategic victory. I.e., they held in most places, eventually pushed the Germans back, gained some (esp, on the north side), and that set up later offensives that liberated some key cities.

Note that it was on the north side of the bulge that the biggest stuff happened.

Also, quite often a “lost” tank wasn’t a complete write-off. All sides got really good at bringing back into service banged up tanks at the front.

As usual, with most major Eastern Front battles the Soviet losses were amazing. But that was par for the course for the whole war.

The Germans knew they lost big time. It was their first major summer offensive that didn’t do anything other than cost them men and material.

And not always their own. The Germans used the term Beutepanzer for enemy tanks they captured and slapped a new coat of paint on.

It was a typical Soviet victory - incur heavier losses than the Germans, throw lives and equipment away, but still win by attrition.

Isn’t the Battle of Brody technically a larger tank battle than Kursk?

As for the two hundred tanks in a trap - by mid-1942 (a year earlier,) Germany had already destroyed (or encountered?) 35,000 Soviet tanks. (Re: the Hitler-Mannenheim conversation) Two hundred was nothing. However, a guy like Stalin can still get pissed about the waste of it, not the actual magnitude of the loss - just like how someone earning $35k a year would still be mad about losing $200 for nothing.

And Kursk essentially sealed Germany’s fate, although the tide had already turned a year earlier at Stalingrad. From Kursk onwards, Germany was always in defense, never truly on offense again. The Soviets were always on offense from then on. Kursk was the official last nail in the coffin.

I do know the earlier Operation Mars in 1943 was a massive failure that was apparently covered up by claiming it was a diversion for German forces from Stalingrad when it was actually suppose to be a two-front thing alongside the Stalingrad operation, mainly to hide the fact more Soviets died in that “diversion” than in actually taking back Stalingrad.

Yeah I think it’s the accepted wisdom that the idea of an overwhelming German defeat, versus gradual attrition in the face of massive well organized soviet resistance, is a product of soviet misinformation.

Though my understanding is that misinformation came from soviet generals not wanting give bad news to Stakin (i.e. wanting to stay alive )

Some specifics as I just noticed I havethis book in front of me. The soviets claimed to have destroyed 2,800 German tanks, the actual value is 250. The soviets lost 8x more vehicles, and 6x more men than the Germans.

But none of that changes the fact it was a victory for the soviets and a loss for the Germans, and one that marked the begining of the end for the Reich. The Germans failed to the take their objectives, and the soviets held the field. The Germans could not replace their losses, the soviets could.

And the general who talked up the German losses to avoid Stalin’s wrath (and whose later accounts the fanciful narrative of a German tactical defeat come from) was Pavel Rotmistrov

It was seen as so important a battle, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the Russians named a sub after it. Things didn’t end well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_submarine_Kursk_(K-141)

Kursk wasn’t that momentous in terms of the land gained or lost, or even in terms of casualties.

What was momentous is that the Germans lost the strategic initiative after Kursk. The Russians dictated at a strategic level when and where the Germans would fight for the rest of the war.

Thanks for the answers everyone!

I thin the ideas that the Soviets only destroyed 250 German tanks at Kursk, or that it was some drunken cover-up, are controversial. Mainstream historical thought has tended to support the idea that Kursk was indeed a titanic battle.

Two things of note: firstly, while there were tank vs tank clashes (especially the giant one at Prokhorovka mentioned above), a lot of the fighting at Kursk consisted of German armor attacking a vast, 100-mile-deep belt of trenches, strongpoints and antitank traps the Soviets had spent a long time preparing. The Soviets intentionally let these defenses (and the infantry and antitank artillery manning them) absorb the impetus of the German assault before committing their own armor. in a new tactical twist, Soviet antitank guns were organized to fire several guns at one target in salvoes, in an attempt to overcome the armor.

Secondly, the reason the Germans lost the strategic initiative after Kursk was that, at that point in the war, normal combat on the vast Eastern Front destroyed tanks as fast as the Germans could build them – production was only replacing losses. The “strategic reserve” of tanks that could be committed en masse for a major offensive like Kursk was a one-time thing – if lost, it could not be accumulated again from production. Kursk dissipated this mass of armor and the Germans were never* able to recreate it.

*Careful management allowed them to accumulate tanks for the Battle of the Bulge in the West, but all the units were understrength, the total mass of armor was smaller than Kursk anway, and it was only achieved by starving the Eastern Front of replacements.

Wonder why the Germans didn’t use a “bypass-the-Maginot-Line” approach. If they knew there were these rings of heavily built up defenses, surely they should have gone behind or around or somewhere further at the side to attack the Kursk salient. Somewhere to still encircle them or frankly, attack at another point entirely rather than slam one’s hand onto the porcupine’s quills.

A key factor that relays how momentous the battle was in the course of the war was the Soviets didn’t commit their available reserves during the opening half of the battle. That was their plan but in past major battles, there would come a point when they would have to send in the reserves to hold some critical point in the line. And while you can win a battle that way, you won’t be able to exploit your victory.

At Kursk, the Germans launched their attack and the Soviets held. The Germans sent in their reserves and the Soviets still held. The Germans finally had to call off their advance. And then the Soviets were able to launch their attack with the unused fresh reserves.

Without those reserves, Kursk would have still been a Soviet victory by virtue of having held their ground and stopped the German advance. But the reserves made it a strategic victory by enabling the Soviets to launch an attack against an exhausted German army.

The geography wouldn’t have worked. The point of attacking a salient like Kursk is to take advantage of the geography. You’re attacking an army from two sides so it has very limited room to maneuver or retreat. If you attack an army along a normal front line, it can fall back and if you follow it, you’re leaving open flanks where it can counter-attack your advance.

Or attack earlier, that’s what von Manstein wanted to do, but couldn’t get the forces or the signoff.

It does seem a little crazy in retrospect for the Wehrmacht to have engaged in such a set-piece battle when they knew that the Russians knew where they planned to attack.

Velocity said,

“Wonder why the Germans didn’t use a “bypass-the-Maginot-Line” approach. If they knew there were these rings of heavily build up defenses, surely they should have gone behind or around or somewhere further at the side to attack the Kursk salient…”

You aren’t the only one who thought that. Most the top German generals also thought the attack plan should be modified or redirected or cancelled. However the supreme commander, Hitler, ordered the offensive to go forward as planned. Recon and intelligence made it clear exactly what kind of situation the German forces would face. Hitler, at this point in the war, held the belief that he was a superior military strategist and tactician than his generals and very often rejected their advice. Generals who disagreed with Hitler too strongly often found themselves “retired”.

You’ll sometimes hear it said the greatest Allied general of WWII was Adolf Hitler. He made some catastrophically terrible choices.

I’ve said before that one of the factors that determined the outcome of World War II was that every time the Germans lost a battle it made Hitler less willing to listen to his generals next time while every time the Soviets lost a battle it made Stalin more willing to listen to his generals next time.

The Germans knew they Soviets had really beefed up their defenses around the salient. But the number of layers surprised them. The Soviets had never gone this deep before (or even this strong out in the tullies).

It was an obvious place to attack. It was stupid to attack there. (It was stupid to attack at all. The Germans would have been better served to let the Soviets attack and then respond with their superior mobility.)

It almost worked. At least on the south side. The north side was in deep trouble.