As I discuss in a previous post, Trevor Bender’s wargame Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 found in C3i Magazine Nr. 34 (RBM Studios, 2020) is a bit of a misnamed game. While I expected the game to be focused on the actual Battle of Kursk, popularly cited as taking place from July 5 to August 23, 1943, I instead found a game about the summer and fall 1943 campaign season on the center and south portions of the Eastern Front. Now that I learned the mechanics of playing the Battle for Kursk I figure it’s time to start really exploring the Battle of Kursk. To do so I decided to mix both reading history and playing wargames together.
This History to Wargame series focuses on two books, The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and The Battle of Prokhorovka by Christopher Lawrence (Stackpole Books, 2019). The feature wargame is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020).
Lead Up to Citadel (March – June 1943)
The Glantz book is an excellent overview of the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to the Battle of Kursk. Indeed, the Battle for Kursk wargame closely mirrors Glantz’s discussion of the lead up to the battle in terms of the units discussed and the area focused upon. Having the Battle for Kursk game map out while reading Glantz helps immensely with understanding the geography.
One part that caught my attention for a possible “what if” was the plans for Operations Habicht and Panther (Glantz, p. 25) which were intended as follow-on attacks from Citadel. But “what if” one reversed the plan? What if the Germans launched Habicht/Panther in May 1943 (Turn C) before the Soviet fortifications in that area are complete with orders to seize Kuyansk and cut the rail line from the south into the Kursk salient?
At several points in the lead up to the battle, Glantz discusses the “correlation of forces.” He first discusses this on page 65 and again when he shows a German Staff Estimate on page 75. Now I wonder if I need to bounce these figures off another Lawrence book, War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) which makes extensive use of data from the Kursk campaign.
One aspect of the lead up to Operation Citadel that Lawrence emphasizes is the political aspects of the offensive, especially Hitler’s concern about his allies. Lawrence asserts that the need to prop up Italy was an important distraction. Now I better understand one of the alternate starting scenarios in WW2 Deluxe: European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018) which has the “Citadel and Avalanche (Summer 1943)” start scenario. These two offensives were not only linked temporally but politically as well.
Lawrence also goes much deeper than Glantz into the discussion of the different tanks and how tank production by the Germans in many ways drove the start date of Citadel. For all the different tanks discussed it is interesting to see how few actual tanks were in a given unit. It is also interesting to see all the different models that were thrown into battle at Kursk. The tank vs. tank battles are certainly played up in the wargames Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) but Lawrence reminds us that there were many other tanks on the battlefield, including more than a few designed for infantry support.
A possible “what if” scenario that jumped out at me from Lawrence’s preparations was an idea rejected at the June 27 pre-battle commander’s conference. At that meeting Hitler, “rejected a recent memo from Army Group Center to evacuate the Orel bulge so as to create an operational reserve. He also again rejected the idea of a “backhand” strike. He decided it would be better to seize the initiative and attack” (Lawrence, 29). This could be recreated in Battle for Kursk by having the Germans chose a “Reposition” or maybe a “Deploy” Posture on Turn D and evacuating the Orel bulge by realigning forces along the 1800 hex column. This would shorten the front lines in this area from 7 hexes to four hexes. More importantly, the four Infantry Corps and four Panzer Corps within the Orel bulge would take over the new line (4x Infantry Corps?) leaving four Panzer Corps to become that “operational reserve.” It might still be possible to launch Citadel on Turn 1 and not lose the initiative to the Soviets. [In Battle for Kursk if the Germans do not attack by Turn 1 they “lose the initiative” to the Soviets as the German bonus VP marker on Kursk turns Soviet and is placed in Kiev.]
Battle for Kursk – Alternate Preparations
I decided to play out an alternate start for Battle for Kursk. German High Headquarters ordered Operation Habicht/Panther starting on April 12 (Turn B) while at the same time ordering the evacuation of the Orel bulge. The weather is non-randomized (uses Mud turns as printed on Turn Track).
Why Turn B when I talked Turn C above? First off, the Soviet Fortifications in this area were expected to be completed on Turn C so rather than have the Germans attack into the fortifications the offense jumped-off a turn earlier. Of course, Turn C was historically Mud; maybe I should of used random weather?
FAILURE – Although 1st and 4th Panzer Army were able to cross the Donets, progress was immediately stymied by a stubborn Soviet defense. The Soviets strengthened the Southwest Front to limit further German penetrations. The rasputitsa (Mud on Turn C) brought the offensive to a complete halt.
DISASTER – German 2nd Panzer Army realigned allowing the 9th Army to go into operational reserve. By mid-July (Turn 2) the Soviets had strengthened the West and Bryansk Fronts which broke through the German lines at Bryansk and eventually led to the collapse of the northern part of Army Group Center and the capture of Smolensk (VP). The commitment of the new German operational reserve (9th Army) to the defense of Gomel (VP) provided an opportunity for the Soviets to remove the Belgograd salient in August into September (Turns 3-5) by retaking Belgograd, Kharkov (VP), and Sumy from Army Group South.
Army Group Center proved unable to hold Vitebsk (VP) in the north. The German 9th Army attempted to defend Gomel (VP) but was ground down and the city lost. 4th Panzer Army was beaten up withdrawing from the Belgograd salient and rendered combat ineffective. The 1st Panzer Army and 6th Army withdrew in fair order across the Dnieper. Final score = +5 German Operational Victory.
Missed the Backhand
In my post-game AAR, it dawned on me that, acting as the staff of Army Group Center, I had totally failed my von Manstein-check and employed my operational reserve in a very poor way. Rather than taking inspiration from General von Manstein and looking for a chance to use the German operational reserve to deliver a ‘backhand blow’ and cut off the deep penetration advances of the Soviet, I instead committed them to a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, defensive stand in front of Gomel.
Next Time – Part 3 Tactical Choices
Feature image “Manstein with tanks” courtesy weaponsandwarfare.com