In March 1943, a major German counterattack broke the back of the Soviet offensives that had isolated and crushed Sixth Army at Stalingrad and for a time threatened to destroy Army Group South. As the spring thaw halted operations, both sides pondered what to do next. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein urged an offensive against the Kursk salient as soon as the ground had dried out. The objective would be to wreck as much of the Soviet army as possible.
Adolf Hitler accepted Manstein’s suggestion but postponed the attack until July so that a maximum number of newly produced tanks could reach the Eastern Front. But by delaying, Hitler allowed the Soviets to prepare their defenses, move in numerous reinforcements, and prepare the flanks of the Kursk salient with massive minefields and defensive works.
On July 5, the Germans struck on both sides of the salient to begin the biggest battle of World War II. From the first they ran into trouble. Their Ninth Army, after initial success, became entirely bogged down in its attack from the north. In the south the Germans enjoyed greater success. But even here German armor failed to gain operational freedom; instead, Soviet defenses tied the Germans into a massive battle of attrition not only on the ground but also in the air. Then, on July 12, the Soviets attacked the Orel salient and threatened Ninth Army directly. Confronted by the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily and the threat of an Italian collapse, Hitler decided to call off the operation. At great cost, including the loss of much of their armor, the Germans had failed, and the operational balance on the Eastern Front had swung entirely in favor of the Soviets.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.