The Battle Of Kursk: 75th Anniversary // Part One: Games & Background

July 3, 2018 by oriskany

In just about any wargaming genre, there is an “ultimate” place - a highest, grandest, singular moment. For Fantasy it might be the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Star Wars has the Battle of Endor, BattleTech has the Battle of Tukayyid, and I’m sure Warhammer has some kind of universe-ending apocalypse in either the 30K or 40K eras.

Wargaming Kursk Part One A

For historical wargaming, this is the Battle of Kursk, fought between the Germans and Soviets in the summer of 1943. Quite simply, in the entire sweep of human warfare, this is the largest battle there has ever been. As we reach the 75th anniversary of this tectonic event, let’s take a wargamer’s look as this true “mother of all battles.”

War In The East

Summary Background

To set the scene very quickly, let’s take a look at how this gigantic clash came about.

World War II changed forever in the summer of 1941 when the Third Reich, despite a nearly unbroken string of victories in western, northern, and southern Europe, decided to turn to their full attention to the east and attack their most hated ideological enemy, the Soviet Union.

This was Operation Barbarossa, still one of the largest invasions in the history of man. Striking on 22nd June 1941, the Germans and a wide array of European allies would eventually come within a hair’s breadth of toppling the Soviet Union and winning World War II right then and there.

Wargaming Kursk Part One B

But the Soviets, by some miracle, held out and the war in the East dragged into 1942. Again Hitler gathered nearly everything he had for a second titanic push to crush Stalin’s Soviet Union for good. This was “Case Blue,” and again came desperately close until the Germans met catastrophic disaster at the Battle of Stalingrad.

There would be no “grand third try.” Two years of appalling bloodshed, probably unmatched since the Black Plague and capped off by the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad, had finally destroyed Germany’s ability to launch invasions spanning over a thousand miles. For 1943, the Germans would have to be more selective in their choice of target.

The Kursk Salient

The Perfect Target - Too Perfect

As fate would have it, the Germans had just such a target available: the Kursk Salient.

In the wake of Stalingrad, Soviet armies had surged forward all across southern Russia until they were slammed to a halt by Field Marshal Manstein’s expert (and desperate) “Backhand Blow” at the Third and Fourth Battles of Khar’kov (Feb-March 1943).

Wargaming Kursk Part One C

The battle line in southern and central Russia was thus left jagged and uneven, with a huge bulge of Soviet-held territory pushed deep into ground still occupied by the Germans. This is called a “salient,” always a dangerous place on a battlefield because a salient offers springboards for future attacks, but is also extremely vulnerable.

For their limited 1943 offensive, the Germans resolved to hit this salient (centred on the Soviet town of Kursk). Rather than strike all across the front like they had in 1941 or only in the centre and south as in 1942, the Germans would focus everything they possibly could just on this one relatively small section (about 150 miles across).

Wargaming Kursk Part One D

The plan was called Operation “Citadel.” Huge armies would hit this salient in the sides, striking from north and south to cut off the bulge and encircle any Soviet armies caught within. With the rest of German efforts throughout Russia and the West “on hold,” the amount of firepower they could focus here at Kursk was simply gigantic.

The Soviets, however, also saw the Kursk Salient as an obvious target. They decided to let the Germans attack them here, taking months to build up some of the strongest, deepest defences in the history of warfare. Once German forces had exhausted themselves, vast Soviet tank armies would counterattack and push them clear out of Russia.

Wargaming Kursk Part One E

Both sides saw this battle coming. Both sides needed a win here, and with the Eastern Front precariously balanced after Stalingrad, were prepared to pay dearly for it. Both sides had months to prepare. Well over four million men would eventually take part. The stage was set for a battle the likes of which the world had simply never seen …

… and God willing, we will never see again.

Wargaming Kursk

If You Think You’re Ready …

We’ll make a more detailed analysis of the armies, plans, generals, equipment, vehicles, and individual engagements that make up the Battle of Kursk in succeeding articles, but for now I wanted to “put gaming first” and take a look at just some of the options available for wargaming this incredible clash of arms.

Wargaming Kursk Part One F

If you’re looking for a broad perspective that really digs into how these battles actually work, consider an operational-scale wargame. These are usually computer, zone, or hex-based, where each piece represents divisions or corps of 10-50,000 men each. Turns represent days, and game zones can measure between five and twenty miles across.

Of course, such games aren’t for everyone. But they represent an important part of the hobby, especially for those interested in command-level military ideas and questions. When asking whether battles like Kursk really could have “gone the other way,” and what solutions may have led to such outcomes, the answers are best explored here.

We should also note that these kinds of wargames are really the only way to realistically grapple the sheer scale of battles like Kursk. Including the Soviet counterstrike that followed the German “Citadel” attack, close to five million men and tens of thousands of tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces were engaged across nearly 200 miles of ground.

Wargaming Kursk Part One G

Operational wargames are also where logistical planning, resource management and command structure are really explored. It almost sounds heretical to say, but wars aren’t won by heroes. They’re not won in “cinematic moments,” or even on battlefields at all. As the saying goes: “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.”

For those interested in these more scientific recreations of how large-scale warfare really behaves (and on the Eastern Front, everything is “large scale”), consider titles like Ty Bomba’s Drive on Kursk: July 1943 (Decision Games 2008), actually an update of an old SPI title from the 1970s and featured in Strategy & Tactics Magazine (Issue 253).

Wargaming Kursk Part One H

In short, you can really belly up to the general’s table and put your “theorycraft” to the test. It’s one thing to argue “what-if” options with other History Channel commandos – but the proper operational-scale wargame challenges players to stage a real “thought experiment” and make your plan work on the battlefield.

Tactical Wargaming At Kursk

If You Think You’re Ready …

Zooming in from the operational level, we have what I call “command tactical” level, or scaled tactical or unit tactical. Basically, this is any tactical wargame game where the pieces are units, rather than individual men or vehicles, which I discuss as a separate category because of fundamental differences in the math driving the games.

There are hundreds of “command tactical” titles that can be used for engagements at Kursk. We’ll be using one of my favourites for this article series, a modernized update of the classic 1970 Avalon Hill title PanzerBlitz.

Wargaming Kursk Part One I

Another option is PanzerGrenadier, an absolutely massive title over a hundred supplements, some of which deal specifically with Kursk. There are also miniature games for command-tactical systems, like the classic GMT Micro Armor series and Command Decision: Test of Battle.

Generally what these games have in common is a platoon-based structure (i.e., one piece is a platoon or similar sized unit). This allows players to field battalions, regiments, or even brigades at historically-accurate scales and numbers, without fielding thousands of minis or renting warehouses for gaming floors hundreds of feet wide.

Wargaming Kursk Part One J

At this level, there is none of the “scale compression” or “telescoping range” we often see in more conventional “WYSIWYG” mini-games. You’ve got the elbow room for hundreds of tanks, thousands of men, and miles of steppe, which you always need for the Eastern Front and definitely need for an apocalyptic battle like Kursk.

Flames Of War

Kursk At 15mm

Moving into 15mm “pure” tactical miniature games, Flames of War immediately pops up as a good candidate for Kursk because of how well the system handles large tank battles and large volumes of artillery. Kursk also saw large, combined arms, set-piece assaults against heavily dug-in Soviet defenders, which Flames of War also does well.

Features like minefields and especially concealed antitank guns in ambush positions need to feature heavily in the Soviet player’s list. Especially in its opening days (as we’ll see in future articles), Kursk wasn’t so much a tank vs. tank battle as German tanks vs. thousands of fiendishly well-camouflaged, heavily fortified Soviet antitank guns.

Battlegroup

Kursk At 20mm

I don’t think its any secret on Beasts of War that my favourite World War II miniatures game is Battlegroup. In fact, the first supplement to come out for Battlegroup was specifically called Battlegroup: Kursk, a gaming resource so solid it was nominated for Beasts of War 2014 Historical Wargame of the Year.

Wargaming Kursk Part One K

The miniature wargames in this series will all be played with Battlegroup: Kursk (albeit in 15mm, the game supports multiple scales), so I won’t spill an ocean of ink on it here. Suffice it to say that the guidelines provided for list construction ensure fantastic historical accuracy while still preserving plenty of freedom player choice.

The book also presents detailed historical scenarios, tons of historical background if you’re interested, notes on terrain features found at Kursk, and a great mini-campaign centred on the climactic battle of Prokhorovka (we’ll get into that in Part Four of this series).

Bolt Action & Chain Of Command

Kursk At 28mm

Although Kursk is best known as “the greatest of all tank battles,” this is only a very small part of what actually happened. Infantry battles were, in many ways, even more, important at Kursk, and this is where I feel the larger scale of 28mm (and the wargames that use that scale) really shines.

The Soviets had months to prepare their defences at Kursk. They laid something like four million mines in front of thousands of antitank guns, fortified infantry strongholds, artillery pits, AA positions, and trenches. These positions had to be breached first by German “pionier” assault engineers and infantry before the tanks could roll forward.

Wargaming Kursk Part One L

Many of these positions were braced on the dozens of fortified villages and state farms that dotted the landscape, nasty little shooting galleries that would make great 28mm strongpoints to be assaulted by German Wehrmacht or Waffen SS grenadiers. In short, don’t let the tanks fool you, 28mm infantry games fit into Kursk exceedingly well.

Next Week...

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first very quick look at wargaming the Battle of Kursk. Next week we’ll actually start the battle, with Battlegroup and PanzerBlitz games recreating some of the epic engagements that raged along the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient.

Meanwhile, add your comments, questions, and feedback in the comments below! Have you ever tried a wargame on the Eastern Front? What’s the largest scale wargame you’ve ever tried? What kind of tactics do you use in these “unstoppable force hits an immovable object” scenarios?

"...as we reach the 75th anniversary of this tectonic event, let’s take a wargamer’s look as this true “mother of all battles""

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"Have you ever tried a wargame on the Eastern Front?"

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