Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk: The Turning Point of World War II

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9781400066773: Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk: The Turning Point of World War II

Book by Showalter Dennis E

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Chapter I

Genesis

“It’s time to write the last will!” one SS trooper grimly noted in his diary on July 5, 1943, while awaiting the order to advance. Across the line, Soviet soldiers swapped their own grim jokes—like the one about the tanker who reported that almost everyone in his unit had been killed that day. “I’m sorry,” he replied, “I’ll make sure I burn tomorrow.”

Everybody on the long-designated battlefield knew what was coming. In mounting Operation Citadel, Adolf Hitler and his generals were seizing a high-risk window of opportunity: a last, best chance to regain the initiative in Russia before Soviet material power grew overwhelming and before the Western Allies could establish themselves in Europe. The Russians faced a graduation exercise: a test of their ability to handle a major and intricate combined-arms battle against a first-class, heavily armored, and experienced enemy.

For weeks, the Germans and the Russians had been massing men, tanks, guns, and aircraft from every sector of the Eastern Front into and around a hundred-mile salient centered on the Ukrainian city of Kursk, about four hundred miles south of Moscow. All that remained indefinite were the starting time and the precise locations, which Soviet intelligence had been unable to determine. Adolf Hitler had postponed the date repeatedly. At least three times the Soviet high command, known as the Stavka, had issued false warnings. Then, on the evening of July 4, 1943, the Germans sent their men the infallible signal: a special ration of schnapps. An Alsatian serving in the Waffen SS promptly deserted—and convinced a high-status interrogation team, including Voronezh Front’s commander, General Nikolai Vatutin, and a forty-nine-year-old political adviser named Nikita Khrushchev, that the German offensive would be under way before dawn on July 5. Giving the Germans the advantage of tactical surprise might be fatal. Khrushchev promptly reported to Moscow. Joseph Stalin returned the call and—according to Khrushchev—asked for his opinion. Khrushchev replied that “we will make the enemy pay in blood when he tries to break through.” At 10:30 p.m., more than six hundred heavy guns and rocket launchers began the overture to the Battle of Kursk by blasting German artillery positions and assembly areas in Voronezh Front’s sector.

I

The groundwork for this epic armored battle had been laid almost two years earlier, when the Wehrmacht had failed to overrun the Soviet Union in the lightning campaign projected by Operation Barbarossa. The long list of specific German mistakes can be conveniently grouped under two headings: overextension and underestimation. Both reflected the general sense of emergency that had informed Hitler’s Reich from the first days of its existence. Time was always Adolf Hitler’s chief enemy. He believed that only he could create the Thousand Year Reich of his visions, and to that end he was willing to run the most extreme risks.

Hitler’s generals shared that risk-taking mind-set and accepted the apocalyptic visions accompanying it. That congruence shaped Barbarossa’s racist, genocidal nature. Worse than a crime, it was a mistake antagonizing broad spectrums of a population that could have been mobilized to work for and with the conquerors and in some cases even act against the Soviet system. But to behave differently would have required Nazis to be something other than Nazis—and, perhaps, German generals to be something other than German generals, at least when confronting Slavic Bolsheviks.

More directly significant was an operational plan that lacked a decisive point. Instead, Barbarossa’s armored spearheads were positioned on what amounted to a starting line sent in extrinsic directions toward Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev and increasingly worn down by being shifted from sector to sector to deal with emergencies as the Red Army fought back fiercely and effectively. Behind the front, the Soviet government mobilized resources and developed skills to frustrate the invasion, capture the initiative, and discredit the myth of an inherently superior German way of war.

The initial result was a stalemate as Soviet counteroffensives staggered the Wehrmacht but failed to shatter it. During the winter of 1941–42, both sides regrouped and reconceptualized. On April 5, 1942, Hitler issued Directive 41, outlining the operational plan for the summer of 1942. Its focus would be in the south: a major drive toward the Caucasus to destroy Soviet forces in the region and seize the oil fields vital to both Soviet and German war making. A secondary objective was Stalingrad—not for its own sake, but to cut the Volga River, isolate the Russians south of the industrial city, and cover the main assault’s flank.

The offensive’s aims were no less ambitious than Barbarossa’s had been. It would be launched on a five-hundred-mile front. Its objectives would create a salient, a bulge, of over thirteen hundred miles—something like the distance from New York City to the middle of Kansas. Road and rail networks would grow thinner as the Germans advanced. Scheduling the main attack for the end of June left at best four or five months before rain and snow put an end to major mobile operations. Even if the offensive succeeded, there was no guarantee that the Soviet Union would collapse or cease fighting de facto. It had other domestic sources of oil. It had as well the support of the United States and Great Britain, committed to keeping Russia in the war at all costs.

The operation nevertheless made sense to Hitler and his high command. It offered the opportunity to consolidate the Reich’s military and economic position against the establishment of a second front in Europe—something Hitler considered possible as early as 1943. It extended the land war into Asia Minor and beyond, where the immediate pickings and possibilities seemed somewhat easier. And it offered a second chance for the German army to do what it so far had done best: win a mobile campaign in a limited time.

Initially, Stalin and his principal military advisers expected the Germans to attack—but in the direction of Moscow, replicating their failed final drive of autumn 1941. The supreme leader, the Vozhd, proposed to respond by seizing the initiative as soon as possible with half a dozen local offensives across the entire front. His staff planners were less sanguine and less eager. Chief of Staff Boris Shaposhnikov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky, who assumed the post in May 1942 when Shaposhnikov resigned due to ill health, expected the Germans to attack again. Let them again break their teeth on Red Army defenses, then the Soviets would mount a full-scale counterstroke. Field commanders such as Semyon Timoshenko and Georgi Zhukov, who had bloodied and blunted the first German onslaught, were dubious about dissipating the strength of a still-rebuilding army, short of men and material at every level. But Zhukov was not, or not yet, the man to cross Stalin directly. And Timoshenko believed his Southwest Command Sector offered an opportunity for a major offensive to recapture the city of Kharkov, in German hands since October 1941. Stalin approved the plan.

By May 12, the men and material were in place. For the first few days, it achieved a series of local successes. Then German air and armored forces counterattacked. It took them three days to reduce the Red Army’s attack to prisoners and corpses: six hundred thousand casualties, two full armies, and two of the new tank corps destroyed, over twelve hundred tanks lost. German casualties totaled around twenty thousand—no bagatelle, but an exchange ratio suggesting strongly that Ivan was still no match for Hitler’s panzers at any level.

In fact, the Soviet offensive suffered as much from bad staff work, inadequate intelligence and reconnaissance, and chaotic logistics as it did from German tactical sophistication. For a Führer and a high command still concerned with straightening the line in the northern and central sectors, and with clearing the stubbornly defended Crimean Peninsula, Kharkov nevertheless seemed a sign from Bellona herself that even delaying the main offensive to clean up details and replace losses would have no consequences. Indeed, a later start might have advantages: the faster the pace, the less likely an effective Soviet response.

Operation Blue tore the southern front wide open beginning on June 28. Its plan was audacious to the point of recklessness. An armored spearhead, the Fourth Panzer Army, was to thrust toward the Don River and the rail hub and industrial center of Voronezh, then turn south to trap and finish off the Reds driven east by the First Panzer Army and its accompanying infantry. Meanwhile, the Sixth Army would advance to the Volga and Stalingrad, while the First Panzer Army struck down the Volga to Baku and the Caucasus.

Stalin and his high command, Stavka, responded by launching a series of offensives against German Army Groups North and Center and committing more of their steadily increasing reserve forces to successive offensives around Voronezh. These were not mere counterattacks, but parts of a systematic effort to regain the strategic initiative secured in December 1941 and now apparently slipping away. That effort was frustrated by consistently poor execution, operationally and administratively, at subordinate levels. Compensating by micromanaging only compounded the problem. The Germans consistently got within Red Army decision/implementation loops and just as consistently surged forward.

The problem was that they were surging to nowhere in particular. Instead, the offensive was pursuing two objectives simultaneously rather than sequentially, as in Blue’s original conception. This was no simple manifestation of Hitler’s unfocused, dilettantish interference in command decisions. Soviet pressure on the attack&rsq...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

One of America’s most distinguished military historians offers the definitive account of the greatest tank battle of World War II—an epic clash of machines and men that matched the indomitable will of the Soviet Red Army against the awesome might of the Nazi Wehrmacht.
 
While the Battle of Kursk has long captivated World War II aficionados, it has been unjustly overlooked by historians. Drawing on the masses of new information made available by the opening of the Russian military archives, Dennis Showalter at last corrects that error. This battle was the critical turning point on World War II’s Eastern Front. In the aftermath of the Red Army’s brutal repulse of the Germans at Stalingrad, the stakes could not have been higher. More than three million men and eight thousand tanks met in the heart of the Soviet Union, some four hundred miles south of Moscow, in an encounter that both sides knew would reshape the war. The adversaries were at the peak of their respective powers. On both sides, the generals and the dictators they served were in agreement on where, why, and how to fight. The result was a furious death grapple between two of history’s most formidable fighting forces—a battle that might possibly have been the greatest of all time.
 
In Armor and Blood, Showalter re-creates every aspect of this dramatic struggle. He offers expert perspective on strategy and tactics at the highest levels, from the halls of power in Moscow and Berlin to the battlefield command posts on both sides. But it is the author’s exploration of the human dimension of armored combat that truly distinguishes this book. In the classic tradition of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Showalter’s narrative crackles with insight into the unique dynamics of tank warfare—its effect on men’s minds as well as their bodies. Scrupulously researched, exhaustively documented, and vividly illustrated, this book is a chilling testament to man’s ability to build and to destroy.
 
When the dust settled, the field at Kursk was nothing more than a wasteland of steel carcasses, dead soldiers, and smoking debris. The Soviet victory ended German hopes of restoring their position on the Eastern Front, and put the Red Army on the road to Berlin. Armor and Blood presents readers with what will likely be the authoritative study of Kursk for decades to come.

Advance praise for Armor and Blood
 
“The size and the brutality of the vast tank battle at Kursk appalls, this struggle that gives an especially dark meaning to that shopworn phrase ‘last full measure.’ Prepare yourself for a wild and feverish ride over the steppes of Russia. You can have no better guide than Dennis E. Showalter, who speaks with an authority equaled by few military historians.” —Robert Cowley, founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History
 
“A fresh, skillful, and complete synthesis of recent revelations about this famous battle . . . As a myth buster, Armor and Blood is a must-read for those interested in general and military history.” —David M. Glantz, editor of The Journal of Slavic Military Studies

“Refreshingly crisp, pointed prose . . . Throughout, [Showalter] demonstrates his adeptness at interweaving discussions of big-picture strategy with interesting revelations and anecdotes. . . . Showalter does his best work by keeping his sights set firmly on the battle at hand, while also parsing the conflict for developments that would have far-reaching consequences for the war.” Publishers Weekly

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Description du livre Random House USA Inc, United States, 2013. Hardback. État : New. 236 x 152 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. One of America s most distinguished military historians offers the definitive account of the greatest tank battle of World War II--an epic clash of machines and men that matched the indomitable will of the Soviet Red Army against the awesome might of the Nazi Wehrmacht. While the Battle of Kursk has long captivated World War II aficionados, it has been unjustly overlooked by historians. Drawing on the masses of new information made available by the opening of the Russian military archives, Dennis Showalter at last corrects that error. This battle was the critical turning point on World War II s Eastern Front. In the aftermath of the Red Army s brutal repulse of the Germans at Stalingrad, the stakes could not have been higher. More than three million men and eight thousand tanks met in the heart of the Soviet Union, some four hundred miles south of Moscow, in an encounter that both sides knew would reshape the war. The adversaries were at the peak of their respective powers. On both sides, the generals and the dictators they served were in agreement on where, why, and how to fight. The result was a furious death grapple between two of history s most formidable fighting forces--a battle that might possibly have been the greatest of all time. In Armor and Blood, Showalter re-creates every aspect of this dramatic struggle. He offers expert perspective on strategy and tactics at the highest levels, from the halls of power in Moscow and Berlin to the battlefield command posts on both sides. But it is the author s exploration of the human dimension of armored combat that truly distinguishes this book. In the classic tradition of John Keegan s The Face of Battle, Showalter s narrative crackles with insight into the unique dynamics of tank warfare--its effect on men s minds as well as their bodies. Scrupulously researched, exhaustively documented, and vividly illustrated, this book is a chilling testament to man s ability to build and to destroy. When the dust settled, the field at Kursk was nothing more than a wasteland of steel carcasses, dead soldiers, and smoking debris. The Soviet victory ended German hopes of restoring their position on the Eastern Front, and put the Red Army on the road to Berlin. Armor and Blood presents readers with what will likely be the authoritative study of Kursk for decades to come. Advance praise for Armor and Blood The size and the brutality of the vast tank battle at Kursk appalls, this struggle that gives an especially dark meaning to that shopworn phrase last full measure. Prepare yourself for a wild and feverish ride over the steppes of Russia. You can have no better guide than Dennis E. Showalter, who speaks with an authority equaled by few military historians. --Robert Cowley, founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History A fresh, skillful, and complete synthesis of recent revelations about this famous battle . . . As a myth buster, Armor and Blood is a must-read for those interested in general and military history. --David M. Glantz, editor of The Journal of Slavic Military Studies Refreshingly crisp, pointed prose . . . Throughout, [Showalter] demonstrates his adeptness at interweaving discussions of big-picture strategy with interesting revelations and anecdotes. . . . Showalter does his best work by keeping his sights set firmly on the battle at hand, while also parsing the conflict for developments that would have far-reaching consequences for the war. -- Publishers Weekly. N° de réf. du libraire AAS9781400066773

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