Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book review - Kursk 1943: A Statistical analysis

The battle of Kursk in 1943 has always fascinated historians. It has been called the greatest tank battle of WWII, the deathride of the Panzers, the battle that sealed the Soviet victory etc etc. After the summer victories of 1942 the Germans had suffered a great defeat in Stalingrad and they were barely able to extract their units from the Caucasus back to the Ukraine in early 1943. In the summer of 1943 the whole world watched as the new German offensive aimed to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient and cripple the Red army.

Both Germany and the Soviet Union had concentrated huge forces for this battle, including their most advanced tanks and armored vehicles. Initially the Germans made a breakthrough but they did not achieve their goals and when the Soviets counterattacked, in the north and south of Kursk with fresh forces, the offensive was cancelled.

The outcome of the battle was presented by Soviet historians as a great victory with crushing losses for the German side. According to the popular version the fast T-34 tank was able to defeat the heavy Tigers by ramming them or maneuvering to their flanks. Prokhorovka was supposed to be the grave of German armor.

How realistic are these statements? Unfortunately both German and Russian sources agree that the popular version was completely made up.

Several books have appeared that completely destroy the Kursk myth but the first one to exhaustively debunk the myth was ‘Kursk 1943: A Statistical analysis’ by Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson.

This book looks at all the important aspects of the battle such as the assembly of forces, strength and loss statistics, performance of tanks, operational plans, what if scenarios. The greatest strength of the book lies in the use of official German records for all the statistics concerning the German forces.

German sources are used for German strength and loss statistics and Soviet sources for the Soviet numbers. This is the only way to ensure reliability since using Soviet numbers for German losses (and vice versa) leads to exaggerations.

The authors first explain the strategic situation in the East and then devote chapters for the forces that took part, their structure and strength, the performance of tanks, the airwar over Kursk, the outcome of the battle and possible alternatives for Germany.

Although Kursk was not a German victory losses between German and Soviet units were roughly 3-1 in favor of the Germans. German tank losses were not heavy nor was Prokhorovka a Soviet victory.

Some important aspects of the battle are dealt with in detail since they have been misrepresented in postwar accounts:

 1). German strength: Soviet sources, repeated by Western authors, gave inflated accounts of the German strength at about 900.000 men, 2.700-3.200 tanks and assault guns and 2.800 planes.

The real numbers were roughly 780.000 men, 2.500 tanks/SPG’s and 1.800 planes. The manpower statistic refers to iststarke (actual strength) which includes all men that are part of the unit's composition. Men on leave or temporarily detached to other units are included. Also men sick or wounded are included if they are assumed to return to service within eight weeks. Thus, despite its name, this strength category does not give the actual number of men available for service with the unit at the given time.

So obviously the true strength at the front was less than that. In comparison the Soviets had in the Central, Voronezh and Steppe fronts 1.900.000 men , 5.128 tanks/SPG’s and 3,549 planes (17th Air Army and Long Range Bomber Command included).

2). Overall losses: A Soviet General Staff study of the Kursk operation says that ‘in the defensive battles of Kursk from 5 through 15 July 1943 enormous losses in personnel and equipment were inflicted upon the Germans. During the period of their offensive, the German Kursk-Orel and Belgorod-Kharkov groupings lost a total of 70.000 men killed and wounded, and 2.952 tanks, 195 self-propelled guns, 844 field guns, 1,392 aircraft, with more than 5.000 motor vehicles damaged or destroyed’. Similar figures have been given in various books published postwar.

The correct figures were 55.000 men (killed, missing, wounded) and 300 tanks/SPG’s which can be compared with 177.000 men and 1.600 tanks/SPG’s for the Soviet side.

3). Prokhorovka: According to the ‘official version’ the forces that clashed in Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 had about 1.200-1.500 tanks (most accounts give 800 Soviet vs 400 German or 800 Soviet vs 700 German). This supposedly was the ‘largest tank battle of the war’ and resulted in heavy losses for the Soviet side but also the crippling of the German tank units (400 Soviet vs 320 German).

The reality was very different. Depending on how one defines the battle of Prokhorovka there were about 294 German and 616 Soviet vehicles or a maximum of 429 German and 870 Soviet vehicles. Losses were overwhelmingly in favor of the Germans with 334 Soviet vehicles destroyed versus at most 54 German tanks and assault guns. In fact the ratio should be higher since the authors state that ‘more German units are included in this calculation than actually took part in the Prokhorovka battle, while not all Soviet units are included’. [A recent article by Zamulin in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies:’ Prokhorovka: The Origins and Evolution of a Myth’ gives the following numbers: in the Prokhorovka area 516 Soviet vs 206 vehicles of II SS Panzer Corps plus in the South 150 Soviet vs 100 German of III Panzer Corps].

Prokhorovka was not the deathride of the Panzers but rather the deathride of the 5th Guards Tank Army!

4) The Panther tank at Kursk: The Panther tank was introduced in the Battle of Kursk and suffered from mechanical breakdowns (mainly faulty fuel pumps) due to having been rushed into service (however according to a German report 60% of the mechanical problems could be fixed easily). These problems were fixed in later versions.

However the battle of Kursk was not a complete failure for the Panther since it proved its worth as a tank killer. Up to 15 July the XLVIII Panzer Corps claimed 559 enemy tanks with 269 claimed by Panther units. Although these are German claims and not verified kills what matters is the ratio between Panther units and other vehicles. The range that these kills were achieved was also impressive since on average the distance was 1.500-2.000 meters.

5). Possible alternatives: Instead of attacking at Kursk in July there were two possible alternatives

a). an attack before the Soviets had a chance to consolidate

b). a mobile defense in the Ukraine.

The authors explore both possibilities. In the first case it is true that the postponement of the operation till July gave the Soviets the opportunity to fortify the area and move new units there. However the Germans also built up their strength and most importantly introduced weapon systems that were superior to the Soviet equivalents (Pz IV and Stug III with the 75mm KwK 40 gun plus Panther and Tiger tanks). For example on 10 April ’43 they had 982 of these vehicles but on 30 June that number had gone up to 2.095.

The second choice is more complicated. On the one hand Army Group South was the only Group in the East that had a large number of mobile units and thus could, in theory, engage in a mobile defense. On the other hand this would involve surrendering ground to the Soviets. German generals might not be alarmed by such a decision but Hitler did not want to give up ground and he had good reasons to support his position. The Ukraine had areas with vast coal and steel deposits (Donets Basin) and losing them would not only hurt the German war effort but also greatly improve the output of Soviet armaments. Moreover a successful offensive operation was needed for political reasons as the German Allies were beginning to look for ways to exit the war.  

6). Importance of the battle: The battle of Kursk has been presented as the second most important victory after Stalingrad. In reality for both Germans and Soviets it did not have long lasting effects.

German manpower losses suffered during operation Citadel were only 3% of the total for 1943 while the similar percentage for the Soviets was 2.3%. Both sides were able to replace these losses.

German tank losses have been called excessive and General Guderian says in his memoirs: ‘By the failure of Citadel we had suffered a decisive defeat. The armored formations, reformed and re-equipped with so much effort, had lost heavily both in men and in equipment and would now be unemployable for a long time to come.’ This is obviously wrong since the Panzer units did not suffer heavy casualties. Total losses were roughly 300 tanks and SPG’s and they were not hard to replace since in July 1943 511 tanks and 306 SPG’s left German factories. The German mobile formations were not ‘unemployable for a long time to come’ on the contrary they were used against the Soviet counterattacks in the Ukraine.


This book not only debunks one of the enduring myths of WWII but is filled with interesting statistics and has an outstanding analysis of the long term factors affecting the German and Soviet forces.

At the same time it is an indictment of the poor state of WWII historical research. The only thing needed to debunk the Kursk myth was to go through the original German reports and unfortunately the vast majority of ‘professional’ historians were unwilling (or unable) to do so...


  1. Thanks for that info, Christos.

  2. They only had to read 1 or 2 books in fact by Sylvester stadler and h klink das gestez des handels

  3. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  4. "This is obviously wrong since the Panzer units did not suffer heavy casualties."

    'equipment' includes much more than tanks. The shortage of motor vehicles suitable for use at the front (such as Opel Blitz 3 ton lorries) had been severe since late 1941 and the refreshing of the fast divisions was as much about scrounging up tanks and personnel as it was about scrounging up lorries. French, Czech and many German lorry types (including Ford V8 lorries) were practically unsuitable for army division use.