On July 5, 1943, the greatest land battle in history began when Nazi and Red Army forces clashed near the town of Kursk, on the western border of the Soviet Union. Code named Operation Citadel, the German offensive would cut through the bulge in the eastern front that had been created following Germany's retreat at the battle of Stalingrad. But the Soviets, well informed about Germany's plans through their network of spies, had months to prepare. Two million men supported by 6,000 tanks, 35,000 guns, and 5,000 aircraft convened in Kursk for an epic confrontation that was one of the most important military engagements in history, the epitome of total war. It was also one of the most bloody, and despite suffering seven times more casualties, the Soviets won a decisive victory that became a turning point in the war.
With unprecedented access to the journals and testimonials of the officers, soldiers, political leaders, and citizens who lived through it, The Battle of the Tanks is the definitive account of an epic showdown that changed the course of history.
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The Origins of Annihilation I
(Germany and the Germans 1918–41)
The day dawned stormy and was to become shocking. On the morning of 12 July 1943 the Germans thrust towards the village of Prokhorovka some 50 miles southeast of Kursk. Acutely aware that his Tiger company would take the initial shock of any enemy counterattack, 29-year-old SS-Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann's senses were heightened to any movement before him. His commanders stood in their open turrets scanning the featureless steppe through their field glasses, but it was Wittmann who alerted them to the dust cloud thrown up by the approaching enemy armour.
There was no panic – well-rehearsed drills led to a smooth reaction. Crisp orders were issued and immediately followed by experienced crew who understood that vacillation and panic led to confusion and death. The Tigers advanced, their engines whining as they climbed a low rise before juddering to a halt. The 100 tank Soviet wave sped towards them in an attempt to get close enough for their guns to penetrate the panzers' armour before the powerful German 88mm guns had an opportunity to pick them off. The Tiger gunners peered down their optical sights at the olive-green armour a mile away, but even as their cross hairs settled on a target, the T-34s dipped into a gentle fold in the ground like an armada sailing on a rolling sea. A tense minute passed before the enemy rose again and now they were just half a mile away. Anticipating the breaking wave, the Tiger commanders gave the order to fire. The 63 ton beasts jerked as their high-velocity guns blasted off their armour-piercing rounds.
The T-34s were devastated. An intense white explosion stopped one dead, another slew to the right before coming to a blazing stop while a third was ripped apart and disembowelled with appalling ease. The German intercoms were alive with impassioned voices as commanders sought to break up the enemy formation and the five-man crews fought for their lives. The T-34s plunged on as the Tigers found new fire positions and unleashed more destruction. Wittmann's skilful gunner, Helmut Gräser, took rapid aim and loosed off. The round buried itself into a victim and dislodged the turret. The Tiger was re-positioned, the gun erupted, another hit.
The Soviets closed to within a couple of hundred feet and returned fire on the move. Wittmann's Tiger was hit twice – the tank, ringing like a bell, was saved by two inches of steel – and four from his company were disabled. The field was littered with burning wrecks sending plumes of black smoke into the steel grey sky. The officer of one T-34 lay dead, slumped across his hatch as flames licked around the turret and his crew screamed from within. The acrid air hung heavy over the charred corpses and the broken bodies of the wounded.
The clash of arms at Prokhorovka was the greatest tank battle of the Second World War and was indicative of a new 'totality' to the fighting on the Eastern Front by 1943. The fathers of those who fought that summer in the Kursk salient had participated in the previous shattering conflict, which had been meant to safeguard the future of the next generation. Yet from the ruin of the Great War two new edifices to war arose. Their tyrannical architects – Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – were guided by fervent ideologies and driven by unbridled ambition and a quest for supreme power.
The very idea of fighting another war was abhorrent to most Germans in 1918 for the nation was on its knees, the people starving, the armed forces broken, the economy crushed and politics in crisis. The decline from a strong, confrontational war-maker to feeble, tentative peace-maker was so abrupt that it destabilized the nation and left its population reeling. Although the dénouement was overseen by the military dictatorship of Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, as the Allies advanced irrepressibly towards Germany during the autumn of 1918, the population's angst focused more and more on Kaiser Wilhelm II. The increasingly peripheral head of state was a reform-shy, anti-democratic figure. He had led Germany into the war but by the end of October 1918 was effectively confronted with a notice of eviction. It was served by a series of mutinies, which initially centred on the ports of Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, where rumours had spread that the fleet was to be sent into a final battle against the Royal Navy. The uprisings encouraged Communists, such as Richard Krebs, who later wrote in his autobiography, Out of the Night:
Then came stirring news. Mutiny in the Kaiser's Fleet ... I saw women [in Kiel] who laughed and wept because they had their men in the Fleet. From windows and doors in the front of the food stores sounded the anxious voices: 'Will the Fleet sail out? ... No, the Fleet must not sail! It's murder! Finish the war!' Youngsters in the street yelled, 'Hurrah.'
As mutinies rolled across Germany, soldiers' and workers' councils seized power in numerous cities to the cry of 'peace and democracy'. The abdication of the Kaiser on 9 November and the announcement of an armistice two days later successfully diluted the venomous radicalism that the status quo so feared, but there was too much momentum to thwart some change. The result was a very orderly and restrained revolution, which led to the establishment of the Weimar Republic and moderate coalition governments clutching at little more than hopeful democratic intentions with which to undertake the rebuilding of Germany. Unimpressed and frustrated, Communists and Nationalists fought each other on city streets. In January 1919, Berliner Hilda Brandt wrote to an English friend:
Most of us just want peace. To take up the wretched strands of our lives and move on. To have fighting on our doorstep – so much uncertainty – is too much to bear. I have lost Gerd [husband] and Friedrich [son] and for what? It is as though the barbarity of the fighting front has seeped into our souls without us knowing ... We are hurting, still grieving and feel helpless. We yearn for leadership and stability, not thugs and more conflict.
Yet there was one thing about which the political extremists agreed: the 'vacuous' Weimar Republic committed an act of treachery when it signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
The treaty – which was designed by the victorious Allies – formally brought the Great War to an end and significantly shaped Europe's future. It punished Germany by emasculating the country's military forces – disbanding the general staff, abolishing conscription, the airforce and panzer force, and limiting the army to 100,000 men and the navy to 15,000 personnel with just six battleships. Any military threat to the West was further undermined by the demilitarization of the Rhineland, while humiliation was heaped on the vanquished, not to mention economic purdah, by the loss of 13 per cent of German territory, 12 per cent of its population and all its colonial possessions. Yet even though these provisions were far-reaching and intended to hurt, no aspect of the treaty attracted more contempt in Germany than Article 231, which asserted German culpability for starting the war and was used as a lever to extract war-damage reparations amounting to 136,000 million gold marks. It was scant compensation to be told by the Allies that the treaty was a 'restrained compromise', which the outraged German press called a 'diktat'. Reflecting the national mood, Deutsche Zeitung reported on 28 June 1919:
Today in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the disgraceful Treaty is being signed. Do not forget it! The German people will, with unstinting labour, work to regain the place among the nations to which it is justly entitled. Then will come vengeance for the shame of 1919.
The Germans were not the only ones who believed that the Treaty of Versailles was fatally flawed and would lead to future conflict. The French press, for example, thought the settlement too lenient. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch opined: 'This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.' British economist John Maynard Keynes agreed, not because the treaty was too lame but because the reparations were too great for Germany to bear. He argued: 'The treaty, by overstepping the limits of the possible, had in practice settled nothing.'
Although the fledgling republic was checkmated and had little option but to agree to abide by the treaty's provisions, right-wing politicians, Nationalists and some ex-military leaders lambasted the new regime for their complicity in signing the document, criticized the left for disrupting an 'undefeated army' with their 'selfish uprisings' and the 'greedy Jews' for engaging 'in profiteering, careless of whether Germany won the war or not'. These 'November criminals' who had 'stabbed Germany in the back' would, the disillusioned suggested, be made to pay for their disloyalty and subversion. Such an argument was central to the developing ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during the 1920s.
Although Hitler later wrote that he became politicized while a 'coffee-house dreamer' during his five years in cosmopolitan Vienna before the Great War, his political awareness really developed while he was serving in the German army on the Western Front. During his time as a junior soldier, his drifter's life found a purpose and he became attracted to extreme nationalism. Drawing on his experience of dislocation, struggle and loneliness in the capital of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler bored his comrades with mini-lectures about the benefits of territorial expansion after the unification of German-speaking peoples. He also harangued Communists, Jews and sectors of the home front whom he believed to be undermining the nation's ability to win the war. Hitler immediately knew where to point the finger of blame, therefore, when the war was lost. Receiving the news in hospital while recovering from wounds received in a gas attack, he later wrote:
Everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow ... And so it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations ... Miserable and degenerate criminals! ... There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was lost ... In these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed ... I, for my part, decided to go into politics.
Hitler remained in the army after the war and was posted to Munich, a hot-bed of right-wing extremism. He became active in what was soon to become the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) or Nazi Party. Attracted to the organization's devotion to Germany and aspirational leanings towards imperialistic nationalism, which were intertwined with anti-Semitism, by the time Hitler left the army in April 1920 he had become the meagrely supported party's leading orator. His poorly prepared but passionately delivered diatribes pandered to the workers with vague suggestions of socialist ideas (which were later dropped) and became increasingly well received by audiences that grew steadily from dozens to thousands. Hitler connected particularly well with former soldiers and one of them, fellow Nazi Gregor Strasser, later wrote:
[W]e became nationalists on the battlefield ... we could not help coming home with the brutal intention of gathering the whole nation around us and teaching them that the greatness of a nation depends on the willingness of the individual to stand up for the nation.
By the summer of 1921, Hitler was chairman of the party with unlimited powers and supreme self-confidence. He worked increasingly hard to give the impression that he lived to represent the common man, but as his private secretary during the Second World War was to later write, Hitler was 'a man whose honourable façade hid a criminal lust for power'. This aspect of his personality, when coupled with an impatience for national recognition, led to Hitler undertaking a classic (if somewhat desperate) political stunt. In late 1923, as Germany was gripped by hyperinflation and unable to fulfil its Versailles reparations commitments, he decided to seize power in Munich. On 8 November, Hitler, assisted by the Nazis' thuggish, brown-shirted private army, known as the Stormabteilungen (SA), hijacked a political meeting in a Munich beer hall and, firing a pistol above his head, announced, 'The National Revolution has begun!' A stupefied audience listened as the scruffy rebel declared:
The Government of the November criminals and the Reich President are declared removed. A new National Government will be nominated this very day here in Munich ... We can no longer turn back; our action is already inscribed on the pages of world history.
It was a precipitate and poorly organized affair, so woefully supported that when the Nazis marched on Munich the following day, they were crushed by waiting police and troops. Yet the publicity generated by the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler's subsequent trial did succeed in announcing the arrival of the Nazis on the political scene. Hitler devoted a significant proportion of the 13 months that he spent in gaol to dictating Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This turgid, rambling and undistinguished fusion of autobiography and political treatise failed to set literary tongues wagging, but it did provide an insight into Hitler's irrational mind, his ideology and his future ambitions – including his intentions for the Soviet Union.
Mein Kampf was not just about Hitler's struggle, but the ongoing struggle he perceived between strong pure races and mixed weak ones. It was a fight that, he argued, the strong would win, as was nature's way. Consequently, Hitler believed that if Germany developed into a pure Aryan race – 'the highest species of humanity on the earth' – it would defeat and rule over inferior races. Yet this destiny, he contested, was threatened by the 'corrupting influence' of Jews and Marxists. He wrote that 'Marxism itself systematically plans to hand over the world to the Jews' while 'The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principles of Nature and replaces the external privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight.' Once 'Jewish Marxism' had been identified as the cause of Germany's post-war ills, it was a simple step to pinpoint the elimination of Jews and Marxists as necessary. '[T]here are only two possibilities,' Hitler suggested, serving up a common enemy upon which Germany could focus its suspicions, concerns and distress, 'either victory of the Aryan or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.'
The ideas expressed in Mein Kampf did not have shocking implications just for Germany, but also for Europe and the wider world. Hitler emphasized that war was 'quite in keeping with nature' and should be 'embraced'. In seeking to abolish the Treaty of Versailles, reinvigorate German militarism, establish a Reich of German-speaking peoples and attain Lebensraum (living space) in eastern Europe for 'racially pure', self-sufficient Germans, Hitler did not shy away from the idea of a war in general, and a war against the Soviet Union in particular. The preparation of a nation fit and ready to undertake such a programme would need careful direction and, the Nazis argued, this should be done by an authoritarian government led by a dictator whose wishes would be obediently fulfilled. On his release from prison, Hitler immediately began to plan a route to power and the realization of his political ideals.
Throughout this period Hitler refined his political skills and two distinct sides to his personality emerged. In private he was awkward, undistinguished, irresolute and dull, but in public he became dominant, charismatic, decisive and prone to tirades. Hitler's rages were a political instrument that he turned on and off as necessary, but he was capable of completely losing control. Indeed, one party official suggested that Hitler had to work hard to 'conquer his inhibitions' and explained 'how necessary to his eloquence were shouting and a feverish tempo'. He had a horror of appearing ridiculous and began to spend considerable amounts of time practising his carefully choreographed speeches. Starting slowly, gently and quietly, he would increase the intensity, the volume and his gesticulations until he was shouting and thumping the lectern. Meeting Hitler for the first time, industrialist Paul Weber was surprised by the outward ordinariness of the small dark man who greeted him in Munich during 1928:
Here was an unassuming man with a weak handshake dressed in a slightly ill-fitting dark suit ... We were ushered into a private meeting room where Hitler took an age to decide who should sit where. He seemed nervous, but as the room filled with 10 and then 20 others, his back straightened, he snapped orders to his acolytes and brought the meeting to order. He then embarked on a 20 minute lecture ... before inviting others to speak. Throughout the three-hour meeting I am not sure that Hitler was moved by one word that anybody said although he listened intently ... When he disagreed with an individual, his dark eyes bored into the speaker, which, I am sure, was most off-putting. Occasionally, he would hit the table and pace the room in frustration. I got the impression that Hitler entered the meeting with his mind already made up and that the evening was just a great act – but I am not sure. What I do know is that Hitler was a master of manipulating decisions and events to get what he wanted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Battle of the Tanks"
Copyright © 2011 Lloyd Clark.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae xxi
1 The Origins of Annihilation I: Germany and the Germans 1918-41 1
2 The Origins of Annihilation II: The Soviet Union and the Soviets 1918-41 35
3 Invasion: Barbarossa: December 1940-September 1941 67
4 Heading South: Moscow to Stalingrad: October 1941-early February 1943 117
5 Uneasy Calm: Zitadelle Preliminaries: February-July 1943 165
6 Breaking In: Zitadelle Launched: 5 July 219
7 Breaking Through: Zitadelle: 6-8 July 261
8 Anticipation: Zitadelle: 9-11 July 309
9 Finale: Zitadelle: 12 July and After 341
Order of Battle 448
Rank Equivalents 457