Armor and Blood recounts the details of history’s greatest armored battle and a turning point of World War II, bringing it into sharp focus and out of the mists of propaganda and myth. For the Germans, this propaganda taught that Kursk was a victory against the superior but unsophisticated Soviet hordes lost only by Hitler’s micromanagement; for the Soviets, the propaganda was that of a victorious battle, a glorious embodiment of the new Soviet scientific way of war.
But what was Kursk really? One of America’s most prominent military historians, drawing on a multitude of sources old and new, reveals the answer in this magisterial treatment of the armored Armageddon of the Eastern steppes.
In 1943, is was clear that the Soviet Union was not going to be defeated in a repeat of the lighting war that felled Poland only a few years earlier. German forces in Russia had been stalemated by the Red Army after a series of offensives. Part of the reason for the failure of Barbarossa was overexertion of German resources and underestimation the Red Army, the twin results of their easy success in Poland and racial delusions about the Slavs. No doubt thinking that the Red Army would fall in a few weeks of blitzkrieg shock and awe, planners of Barbarossa did not include decisive operational points.
But the Soviet Union was not Poland: The Red Army absorbed the German spearheads by diverting them, causing the Wehrmacht to lose momentum and become exhausted. With each shift from one sector to another, a quick victory was slipping out of grasp.
By the winter of 41-42, both armies were brooding over the stalemate. Both fighting forces were also evolving and the Red Army was becoming ever a more competent force while the Wehrmacht was losing its earlier synergies. While cognizant of the growing power of the Red Army, Hitler remained committed to actions that would secure his gains in the East at all costs, which is why he refused to countenance retreat of even the limited kind. If he could stabilize the Russian front, he could shift attention west, should the second front threat materialize. New winter offensives followed but for the Germans this spurt of war ended in the disaster at Stalingrad while the Soviets carved a 100-mile bulge around the Ukrainian city of Kursk. This salient became the last chance for a German victory in the East.
Things were growing bad for the Nazis not only in the East. Overall, the Nazi war effort was also in trouble globally: Africa and the Atlantic U-boat campaigns were failing to deliver results. Constant Allied bombing of the German homeland was cramping the war effort. Then there was the growing danger of a second front, the cross-channel invasion of Europe. The situation in terms of men and material was also growing increasingly desperate.
The Eastern Front became by 1942 a giant grinder of men and machines, absorbing on the German side hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of tanks, artillery and vehicles and more than 10,000 aircraft. This wound needed to be dealt with decisively and soon because, incredibly, the Soviet Army was growing in power while Germany’s ability to replace loses was nearing limits. The Kursk salient became the place where the Wehrmacht would either score a game-changing victory or be defeated and the Eastern Front lost.
Not everyone thought about mounting yet another offensive. Guderian and Manstein counseled waiting and controlled retreat. But should Hitler have accepted the recommended controlled retreat and dispensed with the dream of one more stab at victory? That Hitler should have listened to his generals was certainly the judgment of historians. According to their view, Hitler should have accepted an operational defensive posture, replace the losses he suffered during the winter campaign while trading time for space through a controlled retreat.
Guderian counseled waiting until 1944, when new heavy tanks were ready, and then attacking while creating a mobile force to hold off any Allied landing in the west. Manstein thought an elastic defense would be more productive: it would wear down Soviet resources while the Germans could come up with a grand strategic design to turn the war around. Both ideas were problematic. Waiting ran the twin risks of growing Soviet power and a second front opening. By 1944, even the new wonder weapons might not make a difference. The notion of elastic defense was untried: its success also depended on the Red Army’s continued weakness. But the skill and power of the Red Army was growing. Just how much the Soviets had gotten better, Hitler’s generals were yet to learn.
There were larger strategic issues impinging on the decision about Kursk. A controlled retreat would mean giving up territory that might never be taken back. Hitler could not countenance the idea of giving up the territory or the potential resources of Russia after expanding so much to attempt to secure both. Such a choice would mean that the losses that had already been suffered would be permanent; a new offensive gave hope that these losses could be wiped out by a victory. But a victory at Kursk would dramatically change the war: it could lead to favorable peace with Stalin, a peace that there is strong evidence he was considering, which would dramatically alter the prospects of an Allied second front in Hitlers favor. With Stalin out of the war, the prospect of a second front would dim because Hitler could put more resources into defending the French coast.
But unbeknownst to Hitler and his generals, it was already too late to change the tide on the Eastern Front. By then, the Red Army had already became too sophisticated to permit any victory, even in such a relatively easy by Eastern Front standards operation: thought Kursk was logistically, operationally and tactically eminently doable, the Soviets by 1943 had become too strong for it to succeed. The unexpected element turned out to be a byzantine, “scientific” defense fortifications that the Soviets constructed around Kursk.
One of the themes that emerges from the telling of the story of Kursk is a growing sophistication of the Soviet Army and the increasing breakdown of the Wehrmacht as an effective fighting force. These processes were largely driven by the different approaches to war fighting. For the Soviet Army, war could be fought scientifically. Soviets envisioned war as a chess game, relished planning and were in fact leaders in mobile operations theory. The Wehrmacht saw war as more of an art. Crisis figured differently in each instance: for the Soviets, crisis was an opportunity for learning; for the Wehrmacht, crisis could only lead to breakdown as improvisation could not keep up with talent for planning.
The biggest lesson that emerges from the whole Eastern Front experience is the Wehrmacht’s ultimate lack of knowledge of the enemy. While the Soviets were substantially larger an opponent and there were few, if any, classic military strategies which could have assured a victory over them, the Soviet regime was vulnerable in other ways that Hitler or the German generals, for all their skill, did not even see. There are always asymmetric options. Had the Nazis been more humane to the civilian population, for example, they could have easily sparked a revolution inside the Soviet Union against Stalin’s brutally oppressive regime and won the war without even trying. Of course, the box in which the Nazis existed precluded the notion of capitalizing on Stalin’s greatest weakness as a key strategy.