At the Battle of Kursk, the Nazis Learned You Can’t Win a Tank Battle without Air Power


Every thing appeared to tilt within the Luftwaffe’s favor on July 5, 1943, the opening day of World Warfare II’s Battle of Kursk.

The German pilots of their Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke-Wulf Fw-190s had a discipline day towards their Soviet adversaries and their inferior Yakovlev fighters. The Germans reported 367 victories that day. When it comes to numbers, that made it the Luftwaffe’s best day of air fight in the complete conflict. But regardless of this preliminary success, the seeds for a German defeat at Kursk had already been sown, within the air and on the bottom.

The Kursk battle is most frequently remembered as a huge tank conflict, when German Tigers, Panthers and Ferdinands crashed into Soviet defensive traces that bulged westward across the Russian metropolis. That is how Adolf Hitler considered it. Even in February 1943, 5 months earlier than the battle started, Hitler spoke of his new tanks as a “gigantic focus of the most recent offensive weapons” that will restore German superiority on the Jap Entrance. Tanks alone weren’t sufficient, although. With out air energy, the Germans lacked an important ingredient for his or her projected Blitzkrieg.

As Operation Citadel advances, Junkers Ju-87Ds overfly an advancing armored unit within the Belgorod-Oryol area as they return from an in depth help mission on July 10, 1943. (Imperial Warfare Museum HU 40710)

The Luftwaffe had confirmed important throughout the Third Battle of Kharkov in March 1943, a German counteroffensive that made the July assault on Kursk doable. “The enemy is once more attacking us closely together with his air drive,” mentioned one Soviet report that emphasised the significance of German air energy. One other famous that “the motion of enemy tanks takes place beneath the duvet of his plane.” This shut cooperation between the Germany Military and Luftwaffe was the linchpin of Germany’s complete conflict machine, and thus the important thing to any chance of victory within the deliberate assault on the Kursk bulge, known as Operation Citadel.

The issue for the Germans was that the Luftwaffe was not what it had been within the early days of the conflict. German plane, particularly fighters, have been now not cutting-edge and the introduction of recent tools had suffered catastrophic delays. German manufacturing chiefs have been starting to panic. The deliberate piston-engine successor to the ever-present Me-109, the Me-209, had been cancelled in favor of a technological breakthrough, the Me-262 jet fighter. But lower than a month earlier than the assault on Kursk, manufacturing of the Me-262 had not superior past the dialogue section. For the second, Germany must wrestle for air superiority with the Me-109 and the Fw-190, though neither airplane might match their British and American opponents.

The planning for German bombers had in the meantime misplaced all contact with actuality. Manufacturing of the antiquated fixed-undercarriage Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, the technological reverse of the Me-262, was deliberate to proceed at a gradual price of 150 a month till September 1945. The plans didn’t point out how Nazi Germany supposed to outlive that lengthy. In July 1943, the one place the Stuka might fly in daylight was within the East; on different fronts it was little higher than an aerial goal.

Heinkel He-111s search out logistical targets within the southern Soviet Union in 1943. (Bundesarchib Bild 101I-641-4527-17 Picture: Heinz Ritter)

Even now, greater than 75 years after the conflict, the true extent of Germany’s manufacturing disaster stays obscured. The total set of German month-to-month plane supply reviews from 1939 to 1943, just lately found in a German federal archive, reveals simply how few superior plane the Luftwaffe accepted from factories in June 1943, on the eve of battle. This included a mere six Heinkel He-177 heavy bombers, none of them fight prepared. The one new kind on the verge of mass manufacturing was the Messerschmitt Me-410, initially supposed to switch the out of date Me-110 within the function of bomber destroyer. In apply, all 52 of the brand new Messerschmitts have been delivered as quick bombers, since Germany desperately wanted one thing higher than the Stuka. Crew coaching had not stored up both, so solely a small variety of Me-410s entered fight in June and these went to the Mediterranean as reconnaissance planes, within the hope that their greater efficiency would permit them to evade the swarms of quick Allied fighters. Any of the “latest offensive weapons” the struggling German plane business produced went to combat Britain and America. The forces at Kursk must make do with what that they had.


The impact of the manufacturing debacle was bolstered by the strategic one. Probably the most pressing reinforcement precedence in Germany’s air conflict lay far-off from the low hills round Kursk. The African marketing campaign had led to Could in a disaster worse than Stalingrad, with not solely the give up of a Ger-man military, however the close to annihilation of Axis air and naval forces. German air models within the Mediterranean barely existed. For instance, one fighter group had an official power of 40 pilots and 52 Me-109s, however the truth is it had solely 19 pilots and three operational Messerschmitts. To ensure that the remaining pilots at the least had plane to fly, the Mediterranean wanted each airplane that Germany might ship. For each fighter allotted to the Soviet-German entrance, two went to the Mediterranean. Within the West, the necessity for reinforcements was additionally pressing, as Anglo-American air forces primarily based in Britain have been instantly menacing Germany’s heartland. In consequence, the Jap Entrance obtained lower than a 3rd of the whole variety of plane that had change into out there in June, and fewer than a fifth of all Fw-190s. For the Luftwaffe, the East grew to become the bottom precedence among the many three theaters of the air conflict over Europe. Sometimes for Hitler’s haphazard method of conflict, his plan of assault, to encircle the Kursk salient, existed in a strategic vacuum. With out adequate Luftwaffe forces, Citadel was on the point of failure even earlier than the assault started.

With different fronts robbing the East of reinforcements, the Luftwaffe might depend on just one,787 plane at first of the battle, together with 354 fighters. It reached this quantity by stripping different sectors of the Jap entrance of virtually all air models. Of the eight fighter teams concerned, one arrived from the Leningrad sector on July 2 and one other two flew in from the Kuban bridgehead within the far south on July 3 and 4.

Dealing with the Germans have been the 2nd, sixteenth and seventeenth Soviet air armies with 3,028 plane, of which 1,414 have been fighters. Thus, the Soviet aspect possessed a 4-to-1 superiority in fighters from the primary second of the battle. As well as, the first and fifteenth air armies, the ninth air protection corps and nearly all bombers of the Soviet long-range bomber drive would quickly be despatched into the battle. These accounted for one more 2,900 plane, together with 1,070 fighters. Due to this fact, the Soviet air drive had greater than thrice as many plane because the Luftwaffe within the Kursk and Oryol sectors, and 7 instances as many fighters. Even with out understanding the small print of Soviet power, it ought to have been apparent to the German command that its forces at finest have been adequate for cellular defensive warfare. As an alternative, it made an all-out gamble, making an attempt to compensate for its grotesque numerical inferiority by forcing pilots to fly and combat to the boundaries of their power.

The Luftwaffe’s weak spot was not obvious on July 5, the primary day of the assault. This was as a result of Stalin’s army machine relied on the ruthless exploitation of numerical superiority. Coaching pilots to combat and, extra vital, survive and combat one other day was not a precedence. Most Soviet pilots entered fight after a really brief time in flight colleges. Regardless of many exaggerated claims concerning the efficiency of Soviet plane, the info present that within the East, not like within the West, Germany retained an amazing technological lead. The engine of the commonest Soviet fighter at Kursk, the Yak-9, was a 1,180-hp Klimov V-105PF. By comparability, the Me-109G’s Daimler-Benz DB 605 supplied 1,455 hp, an influence superiority of 23 %.

Adam Tooby Illustration

The Soviet mixture of barely educated pilots with inferior plane led to the Luftwaffe’s triumph on July 5. For instance, within the southern sector, Hauptmann Johannes Wiese of I Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 52 (I./JG 52) flew 5 sorties and reported taking pictures down 12 Ilyushin Il-2 assault plane. One other indication of how overmatched the Soviet pilots have been on the primary day of battle is that the typical altitude of fight was simply 4,265 toes, because the Russians sought security at low altitudes.


The actual extent of Soviet plane losses on July 5 remained unknown as a result of many Russian major sources stay hid by obsessive state secrecy, however the pilot losses have been counted right here, for the primary time. A complete of 166 pilots died or went lacking in motion, 111 of them junior lieutenants, the bottom Soviet officer rank, and one other 22 sergeants. Each ranks have been obtained by graduates of flying colleges on the finish of their coaching. The tragedy of those younger Soviet pilots was that their sacrifice meant little to the regime they served, as a result of Stalin’s army might at all times discover others to switch them.

Flying the brand new Lavochkin La-5 fighter, Soviet ace of aces Ivan Kozhedub scored his first of an eventual 62victories throughout the Kursk marketing campaign. (Sputnik)

For the Luftwaffe, the lopsided victories created an phantasm that that they had secured air superiority. In actual fact, the price of German victory was too excessive. It’s typically written that the Germans misplaced solely 26 plane, however this depend consists of solely these reported that day. When all losses have been tallied, German losses totaled 55 plane and 20 pilots. These of the fighter drive, which was already too small for its assigned job, included 23 plane and 12 pilots killed or lacking.

Hans Grünberg, a German ace who flew on July 5, reported that his day started when he was urgently known as again to his residence airfield from an early morning scramble. The bottom was beneath assault from “gentle furnishings vans,” the disparaging nickname German fighter pilots used for the Il-2. Grünberg claimed 4 of those. But, the Soviet air drive had so many planes that they merely stored on coming. Later that day, the German ace watched as waves of Soviet plane “rolled over our tank and infantry advance columns.”

In direct help of the bottom troops, the Luftwaffe’s efforts have been additionally distinctive and inadequate. On July 5, German pilots flew 3,359 sorties to assault floor targets, 1,942 of them within the southern sector. With this help, SS divisions broke by means of two of the three Soviet most important protection traces. But by the night of the following day, the commander of the Fourth Panzer Military within the south, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth, requested the Luftwaffe to assign most forces to help the forty eighth Panzer Corps, combating instantly to the west of the SS troops, as a result of the military formation lacked adequate assist from the Luftwaffe and was advancing very slowly. Clearly, Germany’s air drive was stretched too skinny. From the beginning, it might assist just some Panzer models whereas others needed to handle with insufficient air help. This was true within the northern sector as nicely. On July 7, a German corps attacking from the north was already reporting “bomb assaults by sturdy enemy air formations” as a pillar of the Soviet protection.

July 7 was the day when the Luftwaffe admitted its power was fading. Its plane have been flying too many missions with not sufficient time for required upkeep. Fewer and fewer airplanes remained mission prepared.

Adam Tooby Illustration

On this gigantic tank battle, it didn’t assist that the Luftwaffe had solely a handful of tankbusters. By the tip of June, German business had managed to supply a mere eight Ju-87 and 16 Me-110 tankbusting plane, each with 37mm anti-tank weapons. At Kursk, each varieties noticed service solely within the northern sector, with one exception. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Germany’s best-known floor assault pilot, stored his private Ju-87G and used it within the south. On the opening day of the battle, Rudel destroyed 12 Soviet tanks together with his twin 37mm weapons, typically getting into so low his Stuka was scorched by the explosions. However Rudel was an exception. In apply, the one militarily vital tankbuster was the armored Henschel Hs-129 with its 30mm gun. All 4 squadrons operated within the south, and it was solely on July 8 that they made their first profitable deployment. Of the whole of 1,380 assault sorties flown within the space that day, Hs-129s flew solely 53. The Germans reported destroying a complete of 84 tanks by all of the totally different plane varieties, “11 of those set on fireplace.” Even when that was not an exaggeration, it was only a minor break within the rising metal tide of Soviet armor.

By July 9, on the fifth day of the offensive, the German military was already on the cusp of failure. Within the north, there was discuss was of a “non permanent pause within the offensive,” whereas within the south Basic Hoth complained that “the operation has quickly run out of steam.” The reality was not so ambiguous. The Luftwaffe, particularly, was exhausted. It might solely handle 481 assault sorties within the north that day, a 3rd of what it had achieved on July 5. In an indication of desperation, reconnaissance plane employed as improvised bombers flew 110 of those sorties. Particular person pilots have been exhausted and overwhelmed. As the long run highest-scoring Soviet ace, Ivan Kozhedub, remembered it, Russian pilots routinely flew three or 4 sorties a day on the peak of the combating, whereas the outnumbered Germans flew much more. A German bomber pilot, Oberleutnant Martin Vollmer, had a very unhealthy time. Already affected by an absence of sleep, he remembered that “idiotic flying in unhealthy climate” made issues even worse. On his third mission on July 8, Vollmer not solely failed to seek out his goal, he fully misplaced his bearings. He finally obtained fireplace from a Soviet anti-aircraft battery and bombed it as a goal of alternative. He barely made it again to base.

Hans-Ulrich Rudel (left) flew 2,530 fight missions, largely in Ju-87s. Edmund Rossmann of JG 52 scored 93 victories in 630 missions earlier than being taken prisoner on July 9. (left- Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-502-0183-08 right-Courtesy of Eddie Nielinger)

Within the south, Unteroffizier Edmund Rossmann of III./JG.52, an ace with 93 victories, led a climate reconnaissance mission on July 9. In confused fight in heavy clouds, one pilot was shot down and the Me-109 of one other, 25-victory ace Feldwebel Ernst Lohberg, was broken. Lohberg made a compelled touchdown and Rossmann touched all the way down to rescue his wingman. The pilots thought they have been 12 miles west of Oboyan, however they have been the truth is nearer to twenty miles west and solely a mile or so from a Soviet communications battalion. Soviet troopers rushed out, shot Lohberg useless and knocked Rossmann out with a rifle butt. The Soviets captured each Messerschmitts. The Soviet air drive was capable of take a look at Lohberg’s however Soviet ace Captain Ivan S. Kravtsov destroyed Rossmann’s, a brand new Me-109G-6 mannequin, whereas trying to take off. Rossmann was fortunate to outlive six years in Soviet camps.

Someplace, extra forces needed to be discovered to bolster the exhausted Luftwaffe, however none may very well be spared from different fronts. Solely a single unit resting in Germany, a bomber group flying long-obsolete Heinkel He-111s, may very well be spared, and solely as a result of it had already been deliberate to ship it to the northern sector of the Jap entrance. It was despatched to the Oryol bulge as an alternative.

A Ju-87D-3 from StG 2, Rudel’s command, involves grief on the Russian steppes at Kharkov. (Nationwide Archives)

This may not be sufficient, so a call was made that basically admitted that the German plan had collapsed. By July 10, all of the Hs-129 tankbusters have been ordered to the Oryol space, leaving Rudel as a one-man anti-tank air drive within the southern sector. With no different reinforcements out there, the Germans might reinforce solely one of many two pincers of the Citadel plan, that means victory was unattainable. Clearly, German commanders didn’t want to face this actuality, so in apply the Hs-129 models have been nonetheless flying within the south as late as July 12. They flew north two days later.

By then the Battle of Kursk had change into irrelevant to German technique. On July 10 the Allies landed in Sicily. Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, commanding the northern sector of the Kursk bulge, realized the implications. A message he despatched to all his troops (which was intercepted and included in a German intelligence report) learn, “The Allies have landed on the island of Sicily. The commander of the protection salutes you. Maintain your positions, victory will likely be ours.”

Rokossovsky was right. The Germans had no extra reserves for his or her forces within the East. The total weight of Anglo-American army energy now aimed toward Germany and Italy. Stalin’s calls for for a second entrance had been totally met nearly a yr earlier than the Normandy landings, although the Soviet dictator would by no means acknowledge this. The battle for Kursk was over. One of the best that German forces might now hope for was to keep away from a repeat of the Stalingrad catastrophe within the Oryol bulge to the north, the place a Soviet counter-offensive was about to start.

Dan Zamansky is a British-Israeli impartial historian, educated at Oxford and King’s School London. Fluent in English and Russian and with a working data of German, the main target of his analysis lies in re-evaluating modern historical past utilizing newly out there sources. He suggests for additional studying: Thunder at Prokhorovka: A Fight Historical past of Operation Citadel by David Schranck; and The Luftwaffe: A Full Historical past 1933-1945 by E. R. Hooton.

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