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Issue # 1417      1 July 2009

Culture & Life

An anniversary worth remembering!

The beginning of July is the anniversary of the greatest tank battle of WW2, a titanic yet short-lived affair that sealed the fate of Hitler’s Germany once and for all: the Battle of Kursk, a battle that is usually ignored or belittled by capitalism’s historians, but which was and is of decisive importance.

In the [northern] Summer of 1943, the front line between the forces of Nazi Germany and those of the Soviet Union had a massive bulge in it. In the vicinity of Kursk, the Soviet forces had punched a dent that extended far to the west. This strategic bulge, or salient, was hemmed in by Hitlerite forces on the North, West and South.

The Nazi High Command saw the possibility that, if they could attack the base of the bulge, at its narrowest point, with sufficient force they might cut it off, surround and destroy the Soviet forces trapped within it, and surge through the resultant gap to destroy the Soviet South-Western Front.

From there the Wehrmacht would head north east and threaten Moscow with encirclement. Simultaneously, the bulk of Germany’s other forces in Russia would move north and over-run Leningrad.

It was an ambitious plan, and meticulous preparations were made for its execution. But the possibilities inherent in the Kursk Salient were also obvious to the Soviet Supreme Command, and they too made plans to deal with them.

The Nazis christened the coming battle “Operation Citadel”, and committed to it a staggering force: fifty full strength divisions, including sixteen panzer and motorised divisions, with what the Nazi leaders thought would be an over whelming quantity of heavy guns, tanks and planes.

The attack began on the July 5 against Soviet troops commanded by General Rokossovsky. On his sector of the front alone, the Soviet army was assailed by Nazi forces totalling 460,000 officers and men, with about 6,000 guns and mortars and around 1,200 tanks and assault guns. Large formations of Nazi bombers attacked overhead in successive waves.

The German plan was to commence the attack at 3am and take the Soviet side by surprise. However, learning of the time of the planned attack from scouts, the Soviet Command launched their own mini counter-offensive at 2.30am, with a massive artillery barrage and aerial bombardment of the German assembly areas.

The resultant losses and chaos forced the Nazi side to postpone their attack until dawn, to the advantage of Soviet gunners.

In the course of some five assaults during July 5, the Nazis managed to force Rokossovky’s forward defence line back some six to eight kilometres, but this was not enough to bring victory.

Nor did the Germans fare any better on the southern flank of the Kursk Bulge, despite stubborn fighting for several days. The German forces were able to advance only some ten to eighteen kilometres.

Meanwhile, overhead, intense air battles took place. Soviet historian Boris Solovyov notes in The Battle of the Kursk Salient that “over 2,000 aircraft were in action in an area measuring 20 kilometres by 60 kilometres. Quite often from 100 to 150 aircraft were simultaneously engaged in battles over this area.”

On July 12 the Wehrmacht launched a massive attack on Kursk from the south, the biggest tank battle of WW2, fought near Prokhorovka. “A total of up to 1,200 Soviet and German tanks and self-propelled guns came to grips in an extremely ferocious battle embracing a wide variety of forms of combat” notes Solovyov.

When it was over, the Germans had lost nearly 400 tanks and sustained heavy losses in manpower. The West German historian Walter Görlitz wrote of it: “The last units capable of offensive operations burned down to a cinder. The backbone of the German armoured forces was broken.”

The failure of the Prokhorovka assault marked the effective end of the Battle of Kursk for the Nazis. By the July 23, much diminished in men, materiel and morale, they were back where they had been before the battle began.

Let us never forget that, in the period from June 22, 1941, when the Nazis invaded the USSR, to Victory Day on May 9, 1945, a total of 607 Nazi divisions were destroyed or captured on the Eastern Front.

This is three and a half times more than the Nazis lost on all the other war fronts – in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe.

The last word on Kursk belongs to Marshall of the Soviet Union Alexander Vasilevsky: “Reading what several bourgeois authors have written about the Second World War, I could not help noticing that they do all they can to belittle the role of the Red Army’s victory in the summer of 1943.

“They seek to persuade the reader that the Battle of Kursk was only a minor episode in the Second World War. To this end, they either keep silent about the Battle of Kursk or give a very brief account of it.

“In such books I seldom found a true appraisal of Hitler’s plan for revenge in the summer of 1943 as an adventurist plan, or any recognition of the bankruptcy of the Nazi generals’ strategy. But, as the saying goes, deeds are stronger than words.

“Here I would like to quote the following elementary fact. When the Battle of Kursk reached its climax our allies landed in Sicily and on August 17 moved from there to Italy. Would they have managed to execute this operation, if they had been opposed by half the force we faced in the summer of 1943?

“I think the answer to this question is clear enough.”

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