The Battle Of Kursk: 75th Anniversary // Part Five: Zhukov Strikes Back

July 30, 2018 by oriskany

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For the past four weeks, we’ve been taking a wargamer’s look at the Battle of Kursk, marking the 75th anniversary of the largest single battle fought in the sweep of human history. At last, we’ve arrived at the end, but if you thought the Battle of the Kursk was over, Marshal Georgi Zhukov and a few million of his Soviet countrymen beg to differ.

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If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out the previous articles in this series.

In short, the Battle of Kursk was fought between the Soviet Union and Germany on the Eastern Front of World War II. Starting in July of 1943, it opened with a gigantic, all-out German attack (Operation Citadel) on the Kursk Salient, a bulge of Soviet-held territory the size of Northern Ireland, pushing into German-occupied Russia.

Stopping Operation Citadel

To meet this threat, the Soviets had a three-stage plan. One, build some of the strongest, deepest defensive belts in the history of warfare. Two, let the Germans hit these belts and grind themselves down in brutal frontal assaults. Three, when the Germans were exhausted to the point of collapse, hit back with enormous armoured reserves.

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In Parts Two and Three, we saw the Germans launch Operation Citadel against the Kursk Salient. In Part Four we saw the Soviet plan nearly fail when the Germans almost broke through. The Soviets were forced to commit some of their counterattacking reserves, setting up the clash at Prokhorovka, the largest tank battle the world has ever seen.

Now in the devastating wake of Prokhorovka, the Germans had been finally and resolutely halted. Making matters worse, British and American troops had just landed in Sicily (Operation Husky, 10th July 1943). Finally, Operation Citadel, Germany’s last real attempt to regain the initiative in the East, had failed.

This is where the Battle of Kursk “ends” in most histories published in the West. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As gigantic as this battle had already been, for Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov (overall Soviet battlefield commander), the Battle of Kursk had yet to truly begin.

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Put another way; this is where Zhukov leans over the map table, picks up a handful of dice, and with a toothy grin that is wholly unpleasant, whispers to his opponent …

“My turn...”

Operations Kutuzov & Rumyantsev

The massive Soviet counterblow was unleashed in two overall phases. First, the Soviets struck to the north with Operation Kutuzov, smashing into the German Second and Ninth Armies in the area around Orel just north of the Kursk Salient. The attack struck on 12th July, the same day the Germans were halted in the south at Prokhorovka.

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The German Second Army soon buckled under the onslaught, falling back toward Orel and Bryansk. This threatened the flank and rear of the more powerful Ninth Army, still trying to push south towards Kursk and thus badly out of position to meet the new threat.

Needless to say, Colonel-General Model was forced to give up his stalled attack toward Kursk, pull out of his southward attack, and pivot against Operation Kutuzov. He was soon reinforced by units stripped from Fourth Panzer Army south of Kursk, including the crack (but exhausted) “Grossdeutschland” panzergrenadier division.

The engagements of Grossdeutschland Division near Orel will be the basis for our wargames in this article. Part of the division fought at Karachev, where they desperately tried to delay the Soviet advance on a key rail junction the Germans needed to evacuate larger units of Ninth Army before they were cut off and lost “Stalingrad style.”

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No sooner had the Germans thus weakened Fourth Panzer Army to send these reinforcements, however, that the Soviets hit Fourth Panzer Army south of Kursk with the second phase of their counterattack, Operation Rumyantsev.

This attack soon smashed the German gains in the southern wing of Operation Citadel, retook Belgorod and Khar’kov, and pushed Army Group South clear out of Russia and across the border into Ukraine. The Germans struck back with local counterattacks that eventually stabilized the line, but some tremendous damage had been done.

Together, Operations Kutuzov and Rumyantsev lasted until August, crushed any remaining offensive capability of German Army Groups Centre and South, retook hundreds of miles of Soviet territory, and decisively ended the overall Battle of Kursk.

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Most importantly, the Battle of Kursk showed that the Red Army could beat the Germans in summer (so far all their victories had been in the frigid Russian winters), and won for the Soviets the battlefield initiative they would not lose until 1945. There would be pauses, but never a full stop in their advance from now on, all the way to Berlin.

Delaying Action At Karachev

Of course, the sheer scale of the individual engagements of Operations Kutuzov and Rumyantsev make them even more challenging to recreate on the miniature tabletop than the German offensives of Operation Citadel. With a careful approach, however, you can still stage Kutuzov-Rumyantsev themed games that are fun and impactful.

First up, these later operations see more varied equipment. For Kursk, both sides were desperately shoving out new weapons and vehicles. In the Citadel phase, most of it appeared only in very small numbers (e.g., the ISU-152 assault gun), or didn’t work properly (PzKpfw V Panther), or didn’t really appear at all (SU-85 assault gun).

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Later on in July and especially in August, however, more of this equipment started to make a more meaningful impact on the battlefield, a factor we’ll strive to feature in our Kutuzov-themed 15mm staging of PG Division Grossdeutschland vs. leading spearheads of the 11th Guards Army.

Also, the Germans didn’t have vast field fortifications with which to resist the Soviet offensives, as the Soviets had against Operation Citadel. Therefore, the movement in these post-Prokhorovka games tends to be much more fluid, with rampaging Soviet spearheads hurled against agile German counterattacks and mobile defence.

As we did with PanzerBlitz, we’ll look at a kampfgruppe of the “Grossdeutschland” PG Division facing off against the 11th Guards Army at the vital Karachev rail line. German units include a platoon of PzKpfw IVGs and another of Hs (never neglect these workhorses), and a single Tiger from III. Battalion, PzRgt “GD” (Tiger Abteilung).

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Another thing to never neglect is infantry. In fact, Battlegroup insists you include a solid infantry component in your game, requiring a certain number of platoons in your force depending on the scale of game you’ve selected. German panzergrenadiers are very good, especially if you spend a few extra points to equip them with antitank grenades.

The Soviet force is a little more complex because 11th Guards Army was a huge force and I wanted to include the “flavours” of many unit types historically included in its order of battle. For my bedrock infantry, I picked the 75th Guards Rifle Regiment of the 26th Guards Rifle Division (11th Guards Rifle Corps).

Now everyone reading this probably knows I love Battlegroup as a system. One of the very few points where I slightly disagree with the game, however, is its treatment of Soviet Guards, which they go out of their way to say are not “elite.” While I would agree they’re not automatically elite, they’re not basic grunts, either.

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“Guards” units were call-back to the Imperial Russian Army that had defeated Napoleon in 1812. Initially outlawed as “bourgeois” by the Communists (although even they had their “Red Banner” formations), they were brought back late in 1941 as the Soviet government sought to leverage patriotic love for the Motherland against the Germans.

Guards units were awarded that title for meritorious action in heavy engagements. So by definition, they’re not conscripts, but at least blooded veterans. All this said I can partially understand why Battlegroup treats them as normal Soviet soldiers, for a few basic reasons.

One, the unit often took such horrific losses winning its “Guards” status that although the unit was “veteran,” individual troops were often green replacements. Guards soldiers didn’t usually receive additional training on an individual basis, although on a unit basis they often had extra attached specialist units like engineers.

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Two, higher-level Guards units (especially armies) often had non-Guard component units plugged into their order of battle. So a major formation like 11th Guards Army here at Karachev is going to have regiments, brigades, divisions, and even corps that aren’t necessarily Guards and shouldn’t be treated as such.

All that said, having done the research and found that even down the regiment level, these units at the front of 11th Guards Army’s advance really were “Guards,” I have cranked up their point cost slightly to give them all at “veteran” status for the Battlegroup game.

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If nothing else, upgrading your Soviet Guards rifle units allows them to be pitted against veteran German panzer grenadiers. We all love our tanks, but a hard-core matchup between two veteran infantry forces is the stuff of legend, not only for Battlegroup but also Flames of War and especially infantry-heavy games like Bolt Action.

Thank You!

Well, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You have survived yet another of Oriskany’s article series. The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, being the largest single battle in the history of human warfare, was definitely a subject I wanted to not only publish on Beasts of War but really present to the utmost of my meagre ability.

As always, I really want to offer my heartfelt thanks to the Beasts of War team. This includes Ben and Sam for the publishing support, Lance for the front page graphics presentations, Tom for the web support, and of course Warren for encouraging me to publish “deep dive” historical wargaming content on Beasts of War.

Most of all, I need to thank all of you who’ve read these articles, been so supportive over the years, and left so many great comments and questions the article threads. Hopefully, I’ve provided some insight into wargaming “through the eyes of military history,” or even inspired some of you to try out some “harder-edged” historical wargaming.

In the end, I just hope I’ve provided a few minutes of entertainment to a great community.

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For now, I’ll be taking just a short break from publishing on Beasts of War. I’d like to free up some time to participate more fully in the site’s great Projects area, and perhaps explore some other ways I can contribute to on-going Beasts of War content, especially in the historical arena.

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts and insights on the Battle of Kursk? Have you ever given thought to an Eastern Front wargame? Although Battlegroup: Kursk was specifically written for the Battle of Kursk, there’s no reason at all why systems like Flames of War, Bolt Action, or Chain of Command wouldn’t work for this setting.

So leave your battle cry is “Panzers East!” or “Glory to the Motherland!” Post your comments, questions, and feedback below and keep the conversation going! A topic like this is too big for a mere article series to do it any justice!

"...this is where Zhukov leans over the map table, picks up a handful of dice, and with a toothy grin that is wholly unpleasant, whispers to his opponent “My turn...”"

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"Another thing to never neglect is infantry. In fact, Battlegroup insists you include a solid infantry component in your game..."

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