The Wehrmacht was weakened by the loss of men and
equipment in the battle of Stalingrad, but the army still could put
more than three million troops in the field, and Hitler was eager to prove the German army was still formidable. After months
of delay, Hitler decided to put his troops to the test in one great
offensive that he said “will shine like a beacon around the world.”
Operation Citadel was aimed at eliminating the Red
Army at Kursk. The town itself was of minor significance; it was chosen
because it was situated in a bulge between the fronts of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's Army Group South and Field Marshal Hans
Gunther von Kluge's Army Group Center. Hitler believed the attack
would destroy five Soviet armies and thereby prevent the Soviets from
mounting any offensives for at least the remainder of the year. Success
in battle would also allow Hitler to direct more resources to the Mediterranean
Originally, the offensive was to quickly follow the
successful recapture of Kharkov, but bad weather, indecision, and distractions
on other fronts postponed the attack. When the Germans were finally
ready to go, the Soviets had been given time to prepare. Approximately
570,000 German soldiers faced nearly one million Russians protected
by more than 6,000 miles of trenches interspersed with an average of
2,400 antitank and 2,700 antipersonnel mines for each mile of front.
The German attack began on July 5 and moved steadily
for four days before stiff resistance stopped it. The Russians counterattacked
and began to reverse the German gains. Suddenly, Hitler called off Citadel
to divert troops to meet the Allied forces that had just landed in Sicily.
What made the defeat particularly damaging to the
German war effort was the loss of equipment. The fight for Kursk involved
the largest tank battle in history, a total of 6,000 tanks, and the
German loss of approximately 3,000 was devastating because new ones
were not manufactured quickly enough to replace them. The air battle
was equally fierce, with 4,000 aircraft in combat. The Germans bore
the brunt, losing nearly 1,400.
The Russians were not about to give the Germans a break.
On August 3, 1943, the Red Army attacked Kursk and overwhelmed the troops
that had been on the attack a month earlier. The Germans were on the
run. Ignoring pleas for reinforcements, Hitler instead ordered the creation
of a fortified line, the East Wall — not to give his troops a
place to fall back to and hold, but rather to prevent a retreat. German
forces never again threatened Moscow and, from that point on, the Russians
seized the initiative and did not let up until reaching Berlin.