In 1941, the German war machine seemed invincible. The French, British and Polish armies were all destroyed by “blitzkrieg”, combining highly mobile mechanized ground armies with air support. To further his plan of world domination, however, Hitler had to destroy the Soviet Union, the stronghold of Communism, and from the Nazi point of view, the only ideological competitors with any significant chance of making their mark on the future history of the world.
The invasion was called Operation Barbarossa. Initially the Germans enjoyed the same kind of stunning success they had experienced in Poland. The winter of 1941-1942, however, went badly for the Germans, and the following winter, they met with disaster at Stalingrad. Hitler’s Field Marshall, Erich von Manstein, had managed to salvage Army Group South from the Stalingrad debacle and recaptured Kharkov in March, 1943. Hitler needed a stunning victory, however, to offset Stalingrad. The Italians were waivering. He named the proposed offensive “Zitadelle”.
From the Soviet side, it was assumed that Nazis would once again go on the offensive as soon as summer dried up the spring mud. The questions was, where? There was a salient or bulge in the line 500 miles south of Moscow near the rail center of Kursk. Soviet intelligence confirmed that the Germans planned an offensive for Kursk, and the Red Army massed enormous defensive resources there.
By 1943, the Soviets had moved their heavy industry far to the East, in the Ural Mountains, and were churning out thousands of T-34 tanks. The T-34 was the fastest tank on the field, with a top speed of 30 miles per hour. The engine was diesel, efficient, giving the tank a range of up to 260 miles. It did not blow up in combat, like the Germans' gasoline powered Panzerkampfwagen Mark III and IV tanks. The Germans had new tanks, the Mark V “Panther” and Mark VI “Tiger”, which were heavily armored and could out-gun the T-34, but they were heavy, complex, largely untested, and not available in great numbers. The Germans also had a turretless mobile gun, the Ferdinand or “Elefant”, with an enormous gun and the heaviest armor ever, designed specifically to kill T-34’s, but they were cumbersome and few. The Soviets, for their part, concentrated vast quantities of men and weapons into the Kursk salient, and waited for their chance to counterattack. Compared to the Red Army which the Germans smashed in the summers of 1941 and 1942, they had better radios, automatic weapons, antitank guns and huge numbers of mines. Entire divisions of artillery were formed and packed into the front. Brand new air wings of new Yak and Sturmovik fighters were assembled. The Sturmoviks, in particular, made excellent ground attack aircraft for killing tanks.
Altogether, the Battle of Kursk engaged more than 4 million soldiers, 69 thousand pieces of artillery, 13 thousand armored vehicles, 11 thousand aircraft. However, the engagement that makes historians call Kursk "the greatest tank battle of all time" was the clash of elite, heavy armored units near the village of Prokhorovka.
Hitler concentrated his most fanatical and experienced units in one armored corps, which included three elite SS Panzergrenadier (mechanized infantry) divisions: the “Liebstanderte Adolf Hitler” (“Hitler’s Guards”), “Das Reich” (The Empire) and “Totenkopf” (“Death’s Head”). When Hollywood likes to portray really scary Nazis (regardless of historical accuracy) they dress them in the “Totenkopf” uniform, decorated with grinning skulls and “SS” runes. Field Marshall Von Manstein was directing the progress of this corps against the southern side of the Kursk salient, hoping to bite through the bulge and encircle the massed Red Army units.
The Red Army had held in mobile reserve the Fifth Guards Tank Army. When the Second SS Panzer Corps seemed likely to pinch off the Kursk salient, the Fifth Guards wheeled in to stop it.
On July 11, 1943, a dreary, rainy day, the Waffen-SS divisions, equipped with their new monster tanks, were working their way up a gap between the Psel River and the main rail line to the village of Prokorovka, when they ran into the Soviet 29th and 18th Tank Corps. The Red Army threw wave after wave of tanks at the Nazis, and both sides conducted devasting air assaults with airplanes designed for killing tanks. Casualties were heavy on both sides. However, at this point, the Red Army was getting bigger by the day, while German losses in men and machines were not being replaced. The offensive ground to a halt. On July 10, 1943, the Allies had invaded Sicily, and Hitler withdrew the 1st Panzergrenadier division, (“Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler”) to Italy and called off the offensive. “Zitadelle” had lasted from July 5 to July 12, 1943. It was the last major Nazi offensive on the eastern front. From the Battle of Kursk onward, the Nazis were in a strategic retreat.