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Battlefield: Kursk

World War II saw one of the most epic tank battles in history, as the Germans and the Soviets clashed near Kursk. Julian Humphrys tells the story…
FIRE OF WAR A German Tiger I tank storms through a burning Soviet village


With thick armour and a powerful gun, the German Tiger I was a monster. But it was expensive to build and fewer than 1,500 were produced during the war.

The biggest tank battle in history?

The summer of 1943 saw the German army mount a risky operation that made even Hitler nervous. “Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over,” he told a subordinate. Soviet advances after the Battle of Stalingrad and subsequent German counteattacks had left a huge salient, or bulge, sticking out into the Germanheld territory around Kursk in the Ukraine. Hitler’s plan, which was codenamed Operation Citadel, was to mount attacks from the north and south in order to cut off and surround the Russian troops in the salient. Success would also give the overstretched German army a shorter front line to man.

To build up the force to carry out this ambitious plan, the Germans brought in troops, tanks and planes from other sectors of the front. In the end, 70 per cent of all their tanks and nearly two-thirds of their aircraft in the east were committed to the operation. But would it be enough? Conventional military wisdom states that, to have a chance of success, an attacking force needs to outnumber the defender by three-to-one but, at Kursk, the invaders had no such advantage. Despite their efforts, the Germans around Kursk were still heavily outnumbered.

Hoping quality would defeat quantity, the Germans put their faith in their new tanks – medium Panthers, heavy Tigers and monstrous ‘Ferdinand’ self-propelled guns (essentially a huge gun fixed to a tank chassis). They hoped these cutting-edge war machines would overwhelm the Russian defences, creating a breakthrough that the rest of their armoured force could then exploit.

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The January 2016 issue of History Revealed