WWII has been rightly described as the deadliest conflict in human history. Yet to the extent that WWII history is taught at all, it is largely based on the Western and Pacific theaters of the war. The “Ostfront” is less well understood, at least in the West: the war as it was fought between the Soviet Union and Germany, on the Eastern theater of the war.
It may have been governments who started the war. It was the every-day “Fritz” and the “Ivan” down the street, who did the fighting and the dying.
The greatest tank battle in history started this day on the Eastern Front. It began as a “Battle of a Bulge”, six months before the last German offensive began in the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes. The five-months long Battle for Stalingrad had ended with a decisive Soviet victory in February of that year, resulting in a “Bulge”, or salient in the Soviet lines, near the city of Kursk.
The Germans planned to shorten their battle lines by eliminating the Kursk salient, and commenced a series of strategic attacks in March, retaking Kharkov and Belgorod. Offensive operations ceased by the end of March due to the onset of the spring “rasputitsa” (mud season) and the exhaustion of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein sent to Germany for massive reinforcements of Panther medium and Tiger heavy tanks, while Soviet forces prepared the “Defense in Depth” strategy which would prove decisive in July.
The Kursk salient was of little or no strategic value to the German war effort. Both Manstein and General Walter Model argued for a tactical defense. Even Heinz Guderian, arguably the father of modern armored tactics, argued against the offensive, but Hitler would not hear of it. Der Fuhrer was going to have his offensive.
“Operation Citadel” started with a series of two offensives beginning on July 5. The Soviet’s defensive preparations began to take their toll almost immediately.
Minefields, fortifications, pre-sighted artillery fire zones and anti-tank strong points extended over 190 miles into the Soviet perimeter. By July 13, the Red Army had regained the offensive. Accounts of the battle vary wildly, with most estimates around 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft being involved in the fight.
Estimated losses are difficult to learn, due to the obsessive secrecy of both Nazis and Communists. Sources indicate over a quarter of a million German casualties and four times that number on the Soviet side. 1,083 tanks & assault guns were lost to the German side, over 8 times that number for the Russians.
The battle is considered to be a decisive victory for the Soviet union, representing the final German initiative of the Eastern Front. Though Soviet losses were far higher than those of Germany, the vast resources of the Soviet Union were far better positioned to replace those losses than that of the 3rd Reich.
Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war. Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII. The war on the Ostfront, was yet to grind out another year.