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David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House. The Battle of Kursk.
Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.  xiii + 472 pp. Maps,
tables, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 (cloth),
ISBN 0-7006-0978-4.
Reviewed for H-War by Milton Goldin <MiltonG525@AOL.COM>, National
Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS)
The Fabled Battle of Kursk
In this latest account of what was arguably World War II's most
critical European engagement David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House
buttress two earlier understandings.  The first is that although
there was no clear-cut Soviet victory, the ultimate result was that
the Red Army's gained military dominance in Eastern Europe.  The
second is that Berlin ultimately believed that the Germans needed to
inflict a massive beating upon the Red Army in order to permanently
intimidate them as well as to persuade wavering allies to remain in
the war.  As it turned out, the Russians were not intimidated, and
Italy dropped out the war days after Hitler ordered the withdrawal
of Nazi forces from the Kursk salient.
This brings us to the value of this book. The book is based, in
part, on recently-available Soviet sources.  Scholars [knew] that
key World War II Red Army documents must exist, but Moscow denied
requests to open archives, and no one knew with any certainty
exactly what information they contained.  What was known about the
battle came from German documents and memoirs of generals on both
sides. German sources were incomplete because the Soviets had carted
off a large number of German documents after the war and,
unsurprisingly, the memoirs of generals on both sides tended to be
self-serving.
Glantz and House offer an accumulation of details missing from
earlier accounts. They provide exhaustive examinations not only of
German and Soviet preparations for the battle, but also of the
singular determination of Soviet Marshal G. K. Zhukov. Zhukov
emerges as a military leader who outworked his peers, was ruthless
toward his subordinates, and devastated his troops. With respect to
Soviet casualties, consider just one detail which teaches us
something about Zhukov: "The frontal hammer blows [on the Soviet
Voronezh and Steppe Fronts following Kursk], so characteristic of an
operation planned by Zhukov, produced over 250,000 Soviet
casualties, more than one quarter of the initial Soviet force" (p.
252).
To begin, the authors remind us that Citadel, the German code name
for the Kursk operation, was not Hitler's idea.  It sprang from the
brain of "the brash, loud-mouthed" Colonel General Kurt Zeitzler,
Chief of the Army General Staff, "although in truth the idea was so
obvious that anyone at the [German conference] table might have
proposed it."  The idea was for "two different forces [from the
north and from the south] to converge on Kursk, pinching off...[a]
salient...that bulged westward into the German center"  (p. 1).
It apparently never occurred to Hitler and his generals, who first
discussed the operation in Munich on 3 May 1943, that "the German
plan for Citadel was as obvious to the Soviets as it was to the
Germans."  Having already learned at unspeakable cost how to think
about prospective enemy thrusts, "the central question for the
Stavka was how to respond to near-certain German offensive action"
(p.  28).  Stalin and aggressive front commanders argued for
preemptive strikes against massing German formations, but Zhukov,
Marshal of the Soviet Union G. M.Vasilevsky, and other senior
officers recommended that the Red Army wait until the Germans
exhausted themselves and then launch massive counter-offensives.
Zhukov and his adherents prevailed. Meanwhile, on both sides,
preparations for the battle took on an intensity almost unmatched
earlier in the conflict. Hitler postponed the attack from 4 May to
12 June and finally to 5 July to allow the maximum number of
deliveries of tanks and self-propelled guns. On the morning of the
first day of battle, the German side deployed 780,900 men and 2,696
tanks. Despite their horrendous losses earlier in the war, the
Soviets deployed 1,272,219 men and 5,040 tanks, a force which, as
the authors note, "actually outnumbered the attackers by about 2.5
to 1 in men and exceeded the Germans in tanks and guns" (p. 64).
What then comes as a surprise is the extent to which both sides used
obsolescent equipment and that the Germans suffered from
insufficient logistical support.  Glantz and House maintain that the
Luftwaffe's Sixth Air Fleet, tasked with supporting the attack in
the north, was equipped with three groups of aging JU-87 Stuka
dive-bombers among its 730 combat aircraft and "generally received
only two-thirds of its required levels of aviation fuel...." (p.54).
The Fourth Air Fleet, supporting the attack in the south, had 1,100
aircraft, including Hungarian assets, and "seven groups of...Stukas
had to provide the bulk of close air support in an increasingly
hostile air defense environment" (p. 54).
The Germans had fully tested neither their Panther nor Tiger tanks
when the battle began. Mechanical breakdowns would render some
useless, and rounds from aging 37mm anti-tank guns employed by
Wehrmacht infantry units were not effective against late-model
Russian T-34s.  In the north, most of the Ninth German Army's 590
tanks were "primarily obsolescent Panzer III and IV vehicles...."
(p. 51).
On the Soviet side, the authors find that infantry units were still
using "the embarrassingly obsolete PTRD 14.5mm antitank rifle."
Rounds could "penetrate the thinner side armor of older German tanks
at very close ranges, [but] the lack of a modern lightweight
antitank weapon made the Russian infantry particularly vulnerable to
German tank attack" (p. 38). In the air, Red Air Force pilots were
now equipped with fighter aircraft the equal of standard Luftwaffe
types, but the authors contend that "Soviet pilots were often able
to achieve significant results. . . only at great cost of men and
machines"  because the stolid tactics employed by the Red Air Force
had changed little since the war began.
Glantz and House describe what happened at Kursk between July 5 and
July 12 in great detail, and in some instances, hour-by-hour.
Still, and this is no criticism of the authors, it seems impossible
to convey the incredible fury of the combat. Consider the words of
Lieutenant General P.A.  Rotmistrov on the tank battle at
Prokhorovka:  "The tanks of both sides were in the closest possible
contact.  There was neither time nor room to disengage from the
enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation.  The
shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also
the frontal armor of the fighting vehicles.  At such range there was
no protection in armor, and the length of the gun barrels was no
longer decisive" (p. 188).
The authors further contend that when the battle of Kursk ended,
neither Hitler nor his generals fully grasped either the resources
Soviets still had available or the Red Army's resilience.  The
"Dnieper River [was] the next logical defensive line for Army Group
South," the authors tell us, and Hitler expected that the Soviets
would not be able to establish bridgeheads. As it developed, Red
troops did establish bridgeheads and, only 21 months after Kursk,
Red armies arrived at the gates of Berlin.  It turned out that
Soviets did not wage war the way Germans did, but in sheer maniacal
determination they were more than a match for Nazi legions.  And,
they were not intimidated.
Again, the value of The Battle of Kursk turns on new and critical
details relating to Soviet perspectives.  But no work is perfect,
and Glantz and House leave a number of questions unanswered. How
much, for example, did the Stavka know of the extent to which German
operations at Kursk were being supported by Russian volunteers, just
as had been the case at Stalingrad? How important to Soviet survival
did the Stavka consider the 10 July Anglo-American invasion of
Sicily? And surely not least, how much did Stalin know about
Anglo-American military and political plans for the Balkans in
mid-1943?  Did his concerns in this regard affect the speed of the
Red Army post-Kursk sweep?
These shortcomings excepted, Glantz and House are to be
congratulated for their diligent scholarship. Their readings in
previously unavailable sources have yielded a more detailed account
of this critical battle, and for that, all students of World War II
on the eastern front should be grateful.
Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 06/06/2000
Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk
S D Stein

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