Attacks and counterattacks create a huge bulge on the Eastern Front - the Kursk salient. German planning calls for an attack on this prominent area; if the Germans can cut off the armies in the salient, the war on the Eastern Front could again favor the Germans. Hitler orders all available units and equipment massed in preparation. On June 18, 1943, 900,000 men, 2,700 tanks, and 1,800 aircraft are ready for the attack. But even before the attack, the toll on the Germans is heavy. They have concentrated 70 percent of the tanks and 65 percent of their aircraft on the entire Eastern Front at Kursk, seriously weakening other units.
The Soviet plan is to soak up the German advance in a massive web of defensive positions, make them pay for every meter of ground, and then counterattack with armor. While Kursk is the largest tank battle of World War II, it is Soviet artillery and infantry that make the difference.
Stalinís spies provide the approximate time of the German attack - between July 3 and 6. Battlefield sources fix H-Hour at 0200 on July 5, so on the evening of July 4 the Soviets begin the largest counterpreparation barrage of the war. By the time the Fourth Panzer Army attacks in the south, their ranks are already shaken by the barrage. The attack itself is beset with problems. Many of the new Panther tanks break down with teething problems. The Panthers - still running, along with Tigers and Ferdinandsare met by coordinated antitank batteries that concentrate fire on one tank at a time. After five days of fighting, the Germans have advanced only 20 miles.
The story is worse on the north side of the Kursk salient. After five days of fighting, the Germans advance only 8 miles. The Soviets then begin to commit their armored forces; the Germans are forced back. By July 12, Hitler orders his forces to go over to the defensive; the Germans surrender the initiative on the Eastern Front for good. Between now and the end of the war, it will be one long fighting withdrawal for the German army; the Red Army wonít stop until it reaches Berlin.
The lessons of the Eastern Front are hard ones for both sides. The Germans have lost more than 1 million men; the Soviets have lost far more, but these are losses the Soviet Union can absorb and Germany cannot.
The impact of the fighting in Russia on Operation Overlord is undeniable. Many of the German units that will meet the Allies in Normandy have been transferred there to recuperate from the fighting in Russia. Other German divisions are conscripted from countries to the east and have little incentive to fight the Allies. Perhaps most importantly, the Eastern Front is a constant crisis the German high command must deal with throughout the Normandy campaign. When the Allies land, Germany has 59 divisions in France and the Low Countries; there are 190 German divisions on the Eastern Front.