Operation Citadel & The Battle Of Kursk: Biggest Tank Clash of All Time

No battle of World War II has been more discussed – or debated – than the Battle of Kursk, which was part of Hitler’s “Operation Citadel.”

Launched by the Germans in July 1943 against the Soviets, this battle would prove to be the first time that Adolf Hitler didn’t manage to break through Allied defense systems. It was a huge defeat for him.

A cursory glance at entries on Google for books about this battle lists more than 25 published and still in print.

Such books include: “Kursk: Hitler’s Gamble,” by Walter S. Dunn, Jr.; “The Battle of Kursk,” by David Glantz, and “Citadel: The Battle of Kursk,” by Robin Cross.

The number of Ph.D. theses written by history students is likely more than triple that.

A Jagdpanzer 38(t). Armed with a 75mm main gun and sloped armor plate, the Jagdpanzer tank destroyer was more than a match for most Allied armor. Photo: Lyle CC BY-NC 2.0
A Jagdpanzer 38(t). Armed with a 75mm main gun and sloped armor plate, the Jagdpanzer tank destroyer was more than a match for most Allied armor. Photo: Lyle CC BY-NC 2.0

For decades, Historians argued about the massive conflict between Russian and German forces at Prochorovka, Russia, where the Kursk salient, or bulge, was located. This was because new and relevant information continued to come to light until the 1980s

Previously classified documents came out long after “expert reports” about the conflict emerged. For years, those reports were accepted as the complete and accurate truth.

Some facts about the battle are indisputable. The Kursk conflict is often referred to as “the greatest tank battle of all time.”

At Operation Citadel’s height, there were about 6,000 tanks, two million soldiers and 4,000 planes fighting. The Germans intended to seize a 70-mile section of the Eastern Front that led to a passage to the west.

While Hitler hoped to decisively defeat Soviet troops here, he and his military leaders made gross miscalculations that ultimately cost him the entire Eastern Front.

Initially, three SS Divisions attacked Prochorovka. The land proved very difficult to advance across.

Somewhere between 500 and 700 German Mark V Panther tanks slowly but forcefully made their way across the terrain. They were met by Soviet T-34 tanks, which were better able to cope with the maneuvering the land demanded.

For hours, the tanks and infantries fought hard and at great cost to both sides.

Vehicles of II SS-Panzer Corps advancing toward Prokhorovka on 11 July.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-022-2924-14 / Kipper / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Vehicles of II SS-Panzer Corps advancing toward Prokhorovka on 11 July.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-022-2924-14 / Kipper / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Germans hope to defeat more than five Russian armies during this siege. But they underestimated the strength and tactical acumen of the Soviets.

On July 12, at about dawn, Soviet tanks and troops left Prochorovka and descended on the German lines.

The German tanks were led by 2nd Lieutenant Michael Wittmann, considered the most skilled and experienced tank commander in all the German forces. But the Germans simply were not prepared for the massive number of the Soviet troops.

Wittmann, lauded by the Nazi propaganda during his lifetime, became “the hero of all Nazi fanboys” after the war.
Wittmann, lauded by the Nazi propaganda during his lifetime, became “the hero of all Nazi fanboys” after the war.

The Germans did make some gains during the conflict, which lasted almost the whole summer of 1943.

But little did they know that the Soviets had advanced intelligence, provided by the British: the Russians knew that Operation Citadel was about to happen, so they were ready for it.

The Germans fought hard, but they were outnumbered. In addition, Hitler made a critical mistake: he siphoned off troops to fight at the front in Italy.

German motorized troops prepare to move out.
German motorized troops prepare to move out.

He abruptly called off the Battle of Kursk after one week. During the time they’d been fighting, the Germans just couldn’t seize the town itself.

Their progress to Prochorovka was eventually slowed, then stopped entirely by the massive number of Soviet troops.

Soviet PTRD anti-tank rifle team during the fighting. 
Soviet PTRD anti-tank rifle team during the fighting. 

Read another story from us: The Forgotten Tank Battle – Senno

No matter who tells the story of the “greatest tank battle of all time,” details vary from a little to a lot.

Were there really two million soldiers fighting? Or “only” 1.9 million? Like many important stories of war, the answer depends on who you ask.

Soviet soldiers neutralizing anti-tank mines following the Battle of Kursk, August 1943. Photo: Cassowary Colorizations CC BY 2.0
Soviet soldiers neutralizing anti-tank mines following the Battle of Kursk, August 1943. Photo: Cassowary Colorizations CC BY 2.0

In the end, what matters is that the Soviets (and therefore the Allies) won the battle for Prochorovka, the Battle of Kursk, and the war itself.