The debate among historians goes on: What was the turning point, the singular point of reversion in World War II that sealed the fate of Nazi Germany?
Americans usually look to the massive Normandy Invasion. Certainly Allied heroics in the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world ranks right up there near the top.
But the Brits like to say Normandy was the beginning of the last chapter of the war. They cite as the turning point, Sicily, the first real crack in Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe, or the defeat of Rommel in North Africa, or even earlier, the Battle of Britain.
In recent years, especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resultant unsealing of hitherto secret or hidden documents, historians have looked to the Battle of Kursk in southern Russia as the two weeks that drained the Nazi war machine of its vitality. After Kursk, the prescient in the Third Reich began more openly to question the wisdom of their Fuhrer.
Of course, the exact turning point of the war is a question which always will defy a definitive answer. For who gets to decide?
Distinguished American military historian Dennis Showalter makes a resounding case for the Battle of Kursk in his recent book, “Armor and Blood,” and in doing so, he bursts some of the myths that grew up in the shadows of Soviet secrecy.
Kursk was fought on the Russian Steppes, near the Ukrainian border, not too distant from the area of East-West tension in recent weeks. Fighting began in earnest on July 5, 1943, and lasted for 10 days to two months, depending on how you calculate it, but the battle was decided in its first two weeks.
This was not two weeks of cat and mouse play, capped by a dramatic decisive battle. This was two weeks of unremitting battle, with the elite Nazi Panzer Corps and tens of thousands of crack, battle-hardened infantrymen, supported by 2,000 German fighter planes, throwing everything they had at a much larger but less sophisticated Soviet force.
Most of the Nazi elite were on the Eastern Front. Hitler was determined, despite some misgivings at High Command, to teach the Soviets a severe lesson. Joseph Stalin was just as determined. In the end, the Nazis, despite victory after victory, came away empty-handed and badly battered.
Hitler’s objective was to thrust through the Russian lines of defense simultaneously from the north and the south and capture, or more likely slaughter, a force of more than a half million men. Before it was over, Stalin had poured a staggering 1.3 million men into the operation against three-quarters of a million Germans.
Hitler imagined victory at Kursk would break the backbone of the Soviets and force Moscow into some kind of a stalemate agreement.
The offensive, called Operation Citadel, was developed by Gen. Erich von Manstein, the genius of German tank and tactical warfare. Manstein had the Fuhrer’s full confidence and the two stayed in constant communications.
One of the myths exploded by Showalter is that Hitler micromanaged Operation Citadel from the Oberkommando. Showalter demonstrates that the decisions were being made in the field, often accompanied by less than candid reports back to High Command.
On the other hand, Stalin had his finger firmly on this operation. He handed the overall command to Gen. Georgi Zhukov, who operated under the watchful eye of young party snitch Nikita Khrushchev. Zhukov would lead the battle for Berlin 20 months later.
Another myth attacked by Showalter is that Manstein and the Wehrmacht were outwitted and out-battled at Kursk. It appears the German High Command never fully understood how outnumbered they were.
Showalter documents the German mechanized forces and the deadly Stukas and Heinkels winning battle after battle at unknown towns and rivers, the names of which do not roll easily off Western tongues. Showalter insists Kursk was not the graveyard of the German tank divisions as has been portrayed, but instead became the junkyard of thousands of Russian tanks and self-propelled guns.
Then what happened?
In its simplest terms – and this is admittedly an oversimplification – when you attack an enemy on its own turf, nearly a thousand miles from home, anything short of reaching your objective is a loss.
What good are scores of miles of scorched earth behind you once it is determined you cannot reach your objective? Despite German win after win, there always were more Russian infantrymen, more tanks, even if many were hardly worthy of battle.
And in the end, the Nazi offensive was spent and the Germans still had not broken through the endless lines of defense. By 1943, the Russians had become adept at a different kind of war: Defend, thrust and defend. Bring up fresh reserves and thrust again; then defend.
Field Marshal Manstein still predicted eventual victory at Kursk when Hitler pulled the plug. The Fuhrer faced other problems. The Allies had just landed in Sicily and in Italy, Benito Mussolini was about to be deposed and the Italians were about to change sides.
This book plays directly into Showalter’s strongest suit. It is a battle book. It deals with commanders’ decisions, not their personalities. It deals with the big picture war-making of Hitler and Stalin, not an up-close look at the psyches of these two mass murderers. It deals with troop movements, tank placements, numbers of mines and the repositioning of anti-tank guns and pontoon bridges.
It might remind the reader of the many outstanding books on the Battle of Gettysburg, and the deadly chess match being played out by the opposing commanders. But Kursk is Gettysburg slaughter on a continental scale.
The geography of this region is not well-known in the West, so 11 battle maps accompany the running accounts. As useful as they are, at times they are too close up. One wonders how far away is Stalingrad, or Kiev or Berlin and Moscow for that matter.
The death and carnage within a hundred miles of Kursk are unimaginable, so much so that the numbers of men and machines, still disputed after 70 years, are almost meaningless in themselves. Kursk was 20th century war at its worst: Two behemoths face to face, killing each other until one ran out of ammunition or gasoline.
What is most significant is that Operation Citadel was Nazi Germany’s last offensive thrust, even though VE Day still was nearly 22 months away. There would be defensive thrusts, even major counterattacks like the Battle of the Bulge. But after Kursk, the energy of the Nazi blitzkrieg was spent.
After Kursk, the Wehrmacht’s priority was saving the homeland from destruction. After Kursk, it was clear the Third Reich would never see its 15th birthday, no less the thousand years promised by a power-crazed Hitler.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.
Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk
By Dennis E. Showalter
345 pages, $28