After the devastation of the Battle of Stalingrad, which ended in February 1943, the Soviets and Germans took more than four months to regroup. Though forced to abandon the Caucasus region, the Germans continued to hold the Ukraine, with their forces concentrated to the west of the city of Kursk in western Russia. Hitler, determined to avenge his humiliating defeat at Stalingrad, formulated a plan known as Operation Citadel. Both the Germans and Soviets built up heavy armor, artillery, and air forces prior to the attack. The Soviets also created an incredible line of trenches, mines, and anti-tank barriers to slow the Germans.
The clash between German and Soviet forces began on the night of July 4, 1943, on a 200-mile front with a total of roughly 5,000 tanks and 4,000 aircraft in place—one of the largest armored conflicts in history. The Germans proved surprisingly effective at removing and neutralizing the Soviet minefields. After several days of escalation, the central episode of the battle took place on July 12 at the village of Prokhorovka, where nearly 2,000 tanks clashed at once.
In sharp contrast to Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk was over in only a few weeks. By July 14, Germany was in retreat, with the Soviets pursuing them close behind. On August 5, the Soviets liberated the city of Orel, which lay to the north of Kursk, closing another major gap in the front. From this point forward, the USSR had the initiative and commenced a long offensive push that would slowly drive the Germans back to the west.
During the late summer and autumn of 1943, the Soviets advanced steadily, achieving a series of victories as they pushed the Germans westward across the Ukraine. The first major victory came on August 22, when the Red Army retook the city of Kharkov. Meanwhile, the Germans were planning the construction of a massive defensive wall all the way from the Gulf of Finland in the north to the Sea of Azov in the south. To be called the Panther Line, it was meant to be analogous to the Atlantic Wall that the Germans were building near Normandy, France (see The Allied Invasion of France, p. 59 ). The wall was never built, however, for the Soviets advanced too quickly for the construction site to be held.
On September 25, Stalin’s forces retook the city of Smolensk, which was a keystone in Germany’s defense effort. Dnepropetrovsk fell on October 25, followed by the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on November 6. Germany’s southern army group was now in full-scale retreat and would be expelled from Soviet territory early in 1944.
The city of Leningrad, meanwhile, was still starving under the crippling German siege that had begun all the way back in September 1941 (see Kiev and Leningrad, p. 30 ). The city was completely encircled by German troops, aside from a sliver of land that allowed access to nearby Lake Ladoga. Although the situation for those trapped in the city was grim, Russians were able to get some food and medical supplies into the city via trucks driving across the frozen lake. The task was dangerous, as many trucks fell victim to German shelling or broke through the ice and sank, but the supplies helped Leningrad’s population endure the Germans’ brutally long siege.
On January 27 , 1944, the siege of Leningrad was finally broken, roughly 900 days after it had begun. The combined forces of the Red Army pushing in from the outside and Soviet troops and resistance fighters pushing out from the inside broke the German siege line. Within days, the German forces surrounding the city were forced out of the Leningrad region entirely.
The liberation of Leningrad was a tremendous victory for the Soviets, both literally and symbolically. More than 600,000 Russians died from starvation, exposure, or disease during the siege, and the rest were kept alive only barely by the supplies delivered across Lake Ladoga. Throughout the siege, Soviet forces trapped within the city had stood firm and prevented German forces from ever entering.
With the Leningrad siege broken, all German forces on Soviet territory, except for the Crimea, were in active retreat during early 1944. With each passing month, more and more Soviet cities and towns were liberated, and the Germans lost more and more of the ground they had seized in 1941 and 1942. The retreat was nonetheless brutal as the Germans stepped up their murder campaigns to a frenzy. As the Nazi forces abandoned their positions, they executed any remaining Jewish slave laborers and Soviet prisoners, along with anyone even remotely suspected of partisan involvement. In Belorussia, entire towns were burned to the ground together with their residents.
Although the Red Army kept pushing, it was not until the summer of 1944 that a major Soviet offensive took place. Operation Bagration began three years to the day after Germany’s initial invasion of Russia, on June 22, 1944. The objective was to drive out completely the German forces centered in Belorussia and central Russia. The Soviets advanced with nearly 2 million troops and thousands of tanks and within days had broken the German front line in two. On July 3, Soviet forces took the Belorussian capital of Minsk, and less than two weeks later, the Red Army reached the Polish border.
As the Red Army advanced west into Europe via Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, they uncovered a growing body of evidence concerning German atrocities. On July 24 , 1944, Soviet soldiers moving through Lublin, Poland, captured the Majdanek extermination camp before its German operators could destroy the evidence of what had taken place there. Upon arrival, they found hundreds of dead bodies, along with gas chambers, crematoria, and thousands of living prisoners in varying states of starvation. Although the West had received reports of such atrocities for some time, this Soviet discovery was the first absolute proof.
At the same time, an active Polish insurgency continued to fight against the Germans in Warsaw and throughout western Poland. The Allies had limited success in their efforts to airdrop supplies and other means of support to these insurgents. The Soviet government refused to assist in these airdrops and even actively discouraged them, claiming that they would have negligible effect on the war and were a waste of time. However, as the Red Army made its way deeper into Poland, Stalin’s intentions became clearer, as reports surfaced in the West that Soviets “liberating” Polish territory were actually arresting members of the Polish insurgency in large numbers.
Germany’s defeat at Kursk in July 1943 was almost simultaneous with the Allied invasion of Sicily, and Hitler was forced to withdraw some generals and forces to fight the new threat in Italy. This multi-front war began to take a serious toll on Germany’s capability to control the territory it had seized over the previous four years. As Soviet forces advanced farther west during early 1944, the German military leadership also had to prepare for the expected British and American invasion of France. Consequently, Germany withdrew still more forces from the collapsing eastern front. Although Hitler was still far from giving up, his conquests were clearly in decline and his war machine gradually collapsing.