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The German attack on the Kursk salient in the summer of 1943, which might or might not have been successful earlier, in late winter when von Manstein originally planned to attempt it, turned into a brutal and costly battle of attrition that achieved essentially nothing except to inflict significant losses on both sides. Since the Soviets were much more capable of sustaining those losses and replacing them, the battle turned out to be a significant defeat for the Germans, in addition to their failure to achieve even their limited battlefield goals.
Many German leaders, including rather uncharacteristically Hitler himself, were very hesitant to undertake the attack, and it was only the powerful persuasion of several of the generals who would be leading the attack that kept it moving forward on schedule. The primary argument of those generals was that if they did not proceed with the attack, then they would be ceding the strategic initiative to the Soviets, perhaps permanently. And no German general seemed to feel that the Wehrmacht had sufficient strength to undertake any sort of grand strategic offensive such as the initial Barbarossa invasion or the Fall Blau attack of the previous summer, hence the reduced scope and goals of Zitadelle.
Assume for the sake of this discussion that all of the German leaders, from Hitler in his headquarters to the generals in the field, recognized what a defensive death-trap the Kursk bulge really was. (It was, in fact, the most heavily fortified and densest troop concentration created by the field armies of any nation during the entire war.) Sensing this clearly, the Germans reluctantly cancel their plans for the Kursk offensive.
So what do they do now? They have managed to make good at least some of the losses of the previous winter, and their armored formations in particular have been largely rebuilt, and now possess substantially greater combat power than before, thanks to new and very potent armored vehicles. What choices, both offensive and defensive, would the Germans have had at this point? Were there any other areas in the Soviet Union where you feel that the Germans could have profitably launched a limited offensive of the sort they planned for Kursk? Was attacking just to “retain the initiative” a viable choice at all? Were there any goals they could reasonably hope to attain with an offensive that would have been worth the expenditure of this carefully restored combat power?
If not an offensive, then what defensive measures could they have undertaken to enhance their prospects against – or at least delay and diminish the effectiveness of – the inevitable Soviet attacks? One of the stated reasons for the historical cancellation of Operation Zitadelle was that the armored divisions involved in it were needed in the West, to respond to the invasions of the Allies in the Mediterranean. A number of these divisions were transferred, including the elite SS armored divisions. Might it have made a significant difference to the outcome of battles in the West if these divisions had been at full strength and well rested, rather than badly battered and depleted from over a week of some of the most intense fighting of the entire war?
In a purely tactical sense, the battle of Kursk was something of a draw. While the Soviets began and ended the battle in possession of the field, the Germans, despite being on the offensive, especially in the south, inflicted substantially greater casualties on the Soviets than they suffered themselves. But absent the sort of complete rupture of the Soviet lines the Germans hoped to achieve, merely inflicting casualties on the Soviet armies counted for little, as Soviet losses, no matter how severe, could be replaced relatively quickly. German losses, on the other hand, could not be replaced so easily.
There are a number of issues I would like you to consider in this portion of the discussion. First, and one that is not often discussed in accounts of the battle, is what could the Germans have reasonably expected to accomplish had they in fact easily penetrated the Soviet defenses and successfully isolated the forces in the Kursk salient. They came closer to achieving this than is often realized, particularly on the southern flank of the bulge. The Soviets were forced to deploy massive reinforcements to prevent a German breakthrough, including armies that had been intended as a counteroffensive force. Did the Germans in fact have sufficient forces available in the event of a decisive breakthrough of the Soviet positions to prevent the Soviet armies trapped in the pocket from breaking out, especially given the likelihood of strong Soviet attacks from their strategic reserves further east? In other words, even had they isolated the bulge as they planned to do, could they have destroyed or seriously damaged the forces trapped inside it? If not, then what purpose was served by conducting the attack in the first place?
Both the participating generals, as well as later historians, concluded that Kursk saw the shift of the strategic initiative from the Germans to the Soviets. Was this inevitable, or was there anything the Germans could have done to prevent this? Was this shift actually caused by the battle of Kursk and its outcome, or did the battle merely illustrate what had already become established fact?
What other consequences did this battle have, both for the fighting in the Soviet Union, as well as the larger war in Europe?
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