At the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets held a salient near the town of Kursk, 125 miles north of Kharkov. If this bulge could be eliminated, a great encirclement could be accomplished on the scale of the 1941 battles. Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1943 realized that he had to crush the Red Army before it completely surpassed the Wehrmacht in size and quantity.
But at OKH there was considerable disagreement on how to do that. Due to production delays, the new Panzer pzkpfw Mark V Panthers and Mark VI Tigers were not coming off the lines in time for a planned assault. Hitler himself vacillated over the time and place of the attack. His generals pleaded for the operation to be called off, since the Soviets knew of the buildup.
Finally, Hitler approved Operation Zitadelle (Citadel). The Führer hoped it would be a “beacon of victory that would shine around the world.”
The Soviets' ability to turn out large numbers of quality tanks in a short time was a key factor in building up a large force that turned the tide against the Germans. The T-34 and KV-1 heavy tanks were easier to manufacture, more reliable, and less complicated than their German counterparts. Both countries had developed the heaviest tanks the world had ever seen, and were now pitting them against each other.
The battle began on July 4, 1943. Two large German pincers would involve the Ninth Army attacking from the north and the Fourth Panzer Army in the south. By July 11 it had bogged down and the Soviets counterattacked.
Hitler's generals were right. The Soviets, beginning to master mobile warfare, noted the buildup of the German forces and began to plan their own counterattack. The battle was marked by German Stuka Ju-87D “tankbuster” warplanes, armed with 37mm cannon, destroying Soviet tanks and Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik “flying tanks” attacking German panzers with bombs and guns.
In the battle of Prokhorovka on July 12, 600 German tanks and 850 Red Army tanks clashed while a furious air battle raged overhead. The battle became a nightmare of attrition, as tanks were burned out in fierce tank-on-tank fighting. Both sides called in reinforcements.
On July 13, Hitler began to order a withdrawal, as the American landings in Sicily that day worried the German High Command about a landing in Italy. On July 17 the Germans began a full-scale retreat, leaving 70,000 dead and 2,950 wrecked tanks on the battlefield. The Soviets also lost many tanks, but since they claimed the battlefield, many of their losses were repaired and returned to battle within a few months. The Soviets immediately began a counteroffensive.
These losses, coming so soon after Stalingrad, ended the German initiative in the East. It would take time for the Russians to go over to the full offensive, but the Germans had mounted their last drive to conquer the Red Army and were now on the defensive.