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Casemate Kursk 1943: Last German Offensive in the East

ISBN Number:
978-1-61200-707-6
Published:
Monday, February 10, 2020
Publisher:
Casemate Publishing
Retail Price:
$24.95
Reviewed By:
Joseph McDaniel

Kursk 1943: Last German Offensive in the East

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General

Author: Ian Baxter

128 pages, with 155 black and white photos, 21 color profiles, 2 maps

Paperback, 7x10 inches

Casemate Illustrated Series

Published January 10, 2020

Author Ian Baxter's previous books in this series include: Hitler's Boy Soldiers; Nazi Concentration Camp Commandants; German Army on the Eastern Front - The Advance; German Army on the Eastern Front - The Retreat; The Crushing of Army Group (North); and the Waffen SS Division series including SS Leibstandarte Division and SS Totenkopf Division at War.

What's Between the Covers

There have been a number of books published about the Kursk battle, mostly based on German sources and participants in the battle. Mr. Baxter has done a credible job of summarizing planning by both the Germans and Soviets leadership, efforts to prepare the defensive belts by the Soviets and the German build-up of forces, and the attacks by Army Group Center and Army Group South.

This book is primarily focused on the German soldiers and vehicles, as demonstrated by there being two color plates showing Soviet T-34-76 tanks, one showing a Russian Tank Captain, and 19 color plates showing German armored vehicles and a Grossdeutschland armor NCO. German vehicles shown in the color plates (left side view only): Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. G and H (several); Panther V Ausf. D (several); Sd.Kfz 231; Sd.Kfz 250/8; Pz.Kpfw. I Ausf. F; Panzer III Ausf. M; Nashorn 8.8cm Pak 43; Panzerjager Tiger "Ferdinand" Elefant Sd.Kfz 184; Panzerfeldhaubitze 18M Hummel; Marder II Ausf. E; Pz.Kpfw VI Tiger Ausf. E; Stug III Ausf. G.

The black and white photos are likewise weighted towards German armor and troops - over 90 photos, while the Soviet weaponry is limited to eight photos, one of destroyed KV-1s, three of knocked out T-34s, and three of various Soviet artillery pieces and one Lend-Lease Bren Carrier used for reconnaissance. There are a number of photos of Soviet infantrymen and sappers in defensive positions or clearing mine fields; one photo is incorrectly captioned as an anti-tank rifleman, when in fact it is a prone sapper with a mine detector held in front of him, while his partner is shown stacking Teller mines.

As is the case with many photos from this era, some are blurry or faded, but for the most part there are plenty of details as to armored vehicle stowage, markings, camouflage, rail transport, artillery emplacements, and uniforms of soldiers, tank crews and artillerymen.

This is not an exhaustive coverage of the Kursk battle, nor could it be in 128 pages, but given the number of photos and color plates - although mostly German equipment - this is handy reference for the modeler and the historian who is interested in the Eastern Front.

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Table of Contents

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Timeline of Events

The Timeline of Events gives a synopsis of German and Soviet preparations in May and June 1943, followed by brief paragraphs describing the fighting from July 5 to July 15.

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Prelude to Disaster

In this chapter, the author describes German offensives leading up to the Stalingrad battle and destruction of the Sixth Army, followed by the German retreat and Soviet forces retaking Kursk and Belgorod, followed by a stalemate while both sides coped with the Russian winter and bringing up reinforcements.

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The Opposing Forces

This chapter describes the German soldier and his personal equipment and weapons in 1943, followed by a description of how the armored crewman's uniform had changed since the war's start. Several photos depict different German armor crewmen uniforms. This is followed by a description of the Soviet soldier's personal equipment and weapons, but no photos or reference to Soviet armor crewmen uniforms, beyond one color plate of a Tank Captain.

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Soviet Preparations for Battle

 This chapter describes what the Soviets knew about German plans for the Kursk offensive, thanks to spies and communications intercepts (Enigma) and their efforts to prepare the defensive positions and bring up overwhelming numbers of soldiers, tanks, artillery, and aircraft. A number of photos depict Soviet sappers collecting mines, anti-tank rifle crewmen firing at aircraft, laying an artillery gun, moving forward under fire, and preparing to fire a 120mm mortar. There are two T-34-76 M43 depicted in color plates, but only from the left-hand side, with brief captions describing colors and markings. Another color plate shows a "Captain, Russian tanker, 5th Tank Guards". A minor quibble, it should be 5th Guards Tank (Army). This is followed by the Red Army Order of Battle, Kursk 1943.

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German Preparations for Battle

This chapter describes German strength massed for the Kursk battle as over 780,000 men, almost 10,000 guns and mortars, 2,900 tanks and assault guns, and some 2,500 aircraft, and provides background as to why Hitler postponed the attack several times; even though he had reservations with going through with the attack, codename Zitadelle, he finally gave the go-ahead. Baxter gives a brief run-down of the composition of Army Group Center, to include "the entire production run of the Tiger panzerjagers, the 'Ferdinands', as well as 66 Sturmpanzer IVs, nicknamed the Grizzly Bear". This is followed by the units making up Army Group South, with reference to how many Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands were deployed. The chapter concludes with an assessment of how many armored vehicles the Germans had on paper and what they actually had on hand, the commonest armored vehicles being the workhorses, Pz.Kpfw. IIIs and IVs.

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The chapter's final four pages lay out the German order of battle, with the added touch of describing the divisional insignias used on the Eastern Front, or just for the Battle of Kursk, or the ones used for the entire war, regardless of front. In the second photo above, note that the map (one of two in the book) shows very general locations of Army-level units only, the Kursk bulge, and arrows depicting the general direction of attacks and counter-attacks.

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Army Group Center

"Kursk" always bring to my mind a picture of crawling, spitting, burning tanks and artillery barrages scything down troops in the open, while overhead tank-busting aircraft look for their next victims. The noise alone must have been overwhelming, and combined with the scenes of death and destruction - whew! And to think it went on for days ... one photo I saw a long time ago in another book showed a German artilleryman sitting on his gun's trail, head in his hands, the picture of utter exhaustion and defeat.

Although Army Group Center, commanded by Field Marshall von Kluge, consisted of three Armies (see above Order of Battle), only General Model's Ninth Army participated in this phase of the battle. Starting with 335,000 troops - 13 infantry divisions and four Panzer divisions, as well as an Assault Division, supported by the 45 Tigers of the attached 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, and an attached regiment of 83 Ferdinand tank destroyers, the battle began at 0430 hours on July 5th with a "massive artillery bombardment", joined by Luftwaffe ground attack aircraft. Almost immediately, the Soviet artillery and aircraft began their strikes against German troops in their start positions.

Baxter describes the limited successes of some units, but inevitably, Soviet resistance stiffened, especially around Ponyri, and the attack stalled. Although some units pushed as far as six miles into the Soviet defensive belt, the Germans had by this time lost almost a quarter of their men and armored vehicles. Over the next four days, the Germans continued probing attacks, but were repeatedly stopped by overwhelming Soviet artillery, minefields, and other tank obstacles. Although the Germans "inched forward", the Soviets began counter-attacking. The battle of Ponyri continued being "waged with unabated ferocity", and although Model continued to send fresh units into the  battle, they too were quickly attacked, in some cases surrounded and destroyed. Baxter notes "that German officers arriving to take over units soon discovered nothing to take over, because their commands had already been captured or annihilated". As a result of the terrible losses, Model pulled his units back into defensive positions, "He hoped that the southern thrust would draw off heavy pressure in the north".

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Army Group South

At the same time Army Group Center's artillery barrages began, Army Group South's artillery fired on Soviet defensive lines, and German army and Waffen-SS armored vehicles and soldiers waited for the signal to attack. Field Marshall von Manstein's Army Group South had more armored vehicles, infantry, and artillery than Army Group Center, to include three Waffen-SS panzer divisions. Baxter briefly describes the attack by elements of the II SS Panzer Corps and the XLVIII Panzer Corps, to include the debut of the Panther tanks, and their "flaming halt in the boggy ravines". Meanwhile, the three SS Panzer Divisions - Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), Das Reich, and Totenkopf, with 390 tanks and 104 assault guns total strength, attacked on a front 12 miles wide towards Bykova.

While Totenkopf's Tigers managed to reach the second defensive belt 13 miles into the Soviet lines, Das Reich was delayed by anti-tank guns. The next day, July 7, the SS panzer corps drive continued with Totenkopf advancing 30 miles, and Das Reich and LAH not far behind. But, as happened in Army Group Center's area of operations, the Soviets stiffened their resistance and then launched several counter-attacks. In the ensuing days, the Germans advanced, were stopped by the Soviets and in several areas, driven back, where the Germans reformed and renewed their attack, only to once again by stopped by counter-attacks. The battle moved to the area around Prokhorovka, where the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army's 500 tanks and self-propelled guns fought the Germans to a standstill. The Germans withdrew from the "Prokhorovka cauldron", realizing that the situation was deteriorating along with Army Group Center's situation. Although the German 7th and 19th Panzer Divisions conducted attacks towards Prokhorovka, it was clear by July 14 that Zitadelle could not succeed. Finally, Hitler, after consulting with von Manstein and Kluge, cancelled Zitadelle.

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Aftermath

Baxter concludes that the German defeat at Kursk resulted in Army Group South facing the heaviest Soviet offensive drive to date. Both the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts had massive local superiority against everything the Germans had on the battlefield. During August and September German forces in the South tried to hold back the Soviet tidal wave of men, tanks, artillery and aircraft; simultaneously, Army Group North and Army Group Center were desperately trying to hold back the Soviets. In the three months after Kursk, the Soviets pushed Army Groups Center and South back an average of 150 miles over a 650-mile front. von Manstein finally convinced Hitler to allow his forces to withdraw across the Dnieper River and attempt to stop the Soviet onslaught. The last German offensive in the Eastern Front was over.

 

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Further Reading and Index

Fourteen titles recommended for further reading:

Buffetaut, Yves, Casemate Illustrated: The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich (Translated by H. McAdams) Casemate, Havertown, 2017

Fey, Will, Armor Battles of the Waffen-SS 1943-45 (translated by H. Henschler), J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1990

Glantz, David M., When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2015

Guderian, Heinz, Panzer Leader, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1952

Healy, Mark, Zitadelle: The German Offensive Against the Kursk Salient 4-17 July 1943, The History Press, Stroud, 2016

Jentz, Thomas, Panzer Truppen: 1943-1945, Schiffer Publishing Ltd. (U.S.), Atglen, 1998

Lawrence, Christopher, The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, the Largest Clash of Armor in History, Stackpole Books, Mechanichsburg, Pennsylvania, 2019

Lucas, James, Das Reich: The Military Role of the 2nd SS Division 1941-45, Arms & Armor Press, London, 1991

Mattson, Gregory L., SS-Das Reich: The History of the Second SS Division 1941-45, Amber Books, London, 2002

Mellenthin, F.W. von, Panzer Battles: A Study of Employment of Armor in the Second World War, University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1956

Raus, Peter Erhard, Panzer on the Eastern Front 1941-1945, Greenhill, London, 2002

Toeppel, Roman, Kursk 1943: The Greatest Battle of the Second World War, Helion and Co., Solihull, 2018

Tucker-Jones, Anthony, Images of War: Armoured Warfare and the Waffen-SS 1944-1945, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2017

Williamson, Gordon, The Waffen-SS, Vols 1 & 2, Osprey, Oxford, 2003/4

 Highly Recommended for those interested in the Battle of Kursk. This book provides very good photo and color plate coverage of German armored vehicles. Although no towed artillery, half-tracks, or softskin vehicles are depicted in the color plates, there are several photos of them.

Thanks goes out to Casemate Publishers for this review book.

Reviewed by Joseph "Mac" McDaniel

 

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