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.