The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House presents an opposing view of Kursk as compared to classic German perspectives thanks to the availability of Russian archive sources. It is maybe best viewed as “the other side of the story” to oppose classical German accounts like F.W. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles (Ballantine Books, 1971).
…and Now, the Rest of the Story
When I was growing up my neighbor was a representative of Ballantine Books. Knowing I was a huge military history fan he would throw boxes (and I mean boxes) of paperback books over the fence to me. Some copies were advance reader editions, some were first prints, and more than a few had the front covers torn off. It didn’t matter to me as I read them all. As I was also a budding wargamer with my first game, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979) I really paid attention to the World War II books. One particular title I remember is Panzer Battles by F.W. von Mellenthin. Indeed, books like Panzer Battles written by German officers after the end of the war shaped much of the “view” of the Eastern Front not just for me but for many readers and historians throughout the Cold War. However, once the Wall fell, some western historians like David Glantz gained access to Russian archives to discover what they had to say. The result was a “new” view of the Ostkreig (East War) and significant engagements like the Battle of Kursk.
In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz and House take aim at the “mythology” of the namesake battle:
German generals who participated in the violent struggle wrote memoirs that concentrated primarily on assessing political and military blame for the unprecedented German defeat, whereas Soviet general placed the battle within the context of the inexorable Soviet march to victory. Single volumes, too, have tackled the task of describing the immense battle….
Yet the sheer drama of the battle juxtaposed against the limited quantities of exploited Soviet source materials has given rise to a certain mythology that has surrounded the battle. This mythology has accepted the German framework and defintion of the battle and maintains that it took place from 5 to 23 July 1943. In doing so, it ignores the essential Soviet framework for Kursk, which placed the defensive battle in the Kursk salient within the proper context of the Soviets’ two-month-long Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation.The Battle of Kursk, Preface p. xi
Reading The Battle of Kursk
The Battle of Kursk turned out to be a bit more difficult to read than I expected. First, it took me some time to get used to the methodology Glantz uses to refer to units. Soviet units are referred to by unit designation (5th Tank Corps in text, 5 TC on maps) whereas German units are often referred to using Roman numerals (XXXXVIIIth Panzer Corps) or by name (Totenkopf). This can get real challenging when looking on the maps when you have 2/2 PzGrenR in 2 SSPzGrenR of the SSAH PzGrenD of II SSPzC under 4 PzA (whew). Add to that the fact the maps have subdued backgrounds making reading locations difficult – at best.
Second, though presented as a single volume overview of the Battle of Kursk, the book The Battle of Kursk devolves into a very in-depth play-by-play description of the engagements at or around Prokhorovka on 12 July. That is, in-depth at least from the Soviet point of view as German viewpoints are less used to describe the action.
If I have one criticism of The Battle of Kursk it is the poor maps. Yes, there are maps int he book but they are gray-scale and difficult to read. When the narrative of the battle gets the most involved the maps seem to be the least helpful. Personally, a good map can be a work of art and a useful map is worth many words. Alas, the maps force one to depend on the narrative alone vice both working to help each other.
At the end of the day, The Battle of Kursk is a very emotional book. Emotional in that it tries so hard to show the Soviet perspective that it becomes maybe a bit too one-sided; that is, Glantz tries so hard to show that the Soviets have a viewpoint that the vast majority of the book becomes that viewpoint and the German side drops off (is ignored?) in places. In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz certainly destroys the German mythology of the battle, but I am unconvinced that in doing so he doesn’t accidentally creates a counter-myth.
The first few and later chapters of The Battle of Kursk present the strategic situation. As such, they are very useful for studying the battle using games like Trevor Bender’s The Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020). Indeed, I had my Battle for Kursk map out while reading The Battle of Kursk to help me better visualize the strategic situation.
I don’t have any real operational-scale wargames on the Battle of Kursk so I couldn’t game out any using the book. [I have now preordered The Eastern Front Operational Battles Quad from Compass Games so that problem is solved!] That said, The Battle of Kursk piqued my interest in the logistics of tank repair and replacement on the Eastern Front. Not all tanks destroyed in battle stay destroyed, and not all tanks were lost to battle damage. This is a point that often gets lost in lower-level tactical games.
I have several tactical wargames on that can depict battles in and around Kursk. What I found most interesting about the battle while reading The Battle of Kursk is that, regardless of the game system used, the impact of terrain and weather is far greater than most games give credit to. Indeed, while titles like Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2018) and Panzer by Jim Day (GMT Games, 2012+) are good tactical armored games, they might actually be too small-scale for this battle. I actually found another title in my collection, Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front by Frank Chadwick from GDW (1993) a slightly better fit as it uses 250m hexes and platoon-level units vice 100m/hex and individual tanks and squads.
Glantz, David M. & Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.