After Kursk: The Soviet Riposte

Before the German army’s assault on the Kursk Salient ran out of steam, the Soviet army struck back. Southwest Front launched its counteroffensive on 17 July, 1943. The Steppe Front jumped off on 19 July. Army Group Center’s gains in the northern part of the Kursk bulge evaporated quickly and the German High Command ordered the withdrawal from Orel on 26 July. Army Group South’s gains provided the Soviets with a tougher nut to crack. Soviet forces, weakened in the battles before Oboyan and Prokhorovka, struggled to push back.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Armies took Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south by 5 August. These actions threatened Kharkov. Eventually, the Soviets forced the German evacuation of Kharkov and it fell on 23 August. This development endangered the entire southern wing of the German front.

During the summer offensive of 1942, as the German army attacked Stalingrad, the main reason for taking Stalingrad was to protect the German thrust into the Caucasus. History’s concentration on the struggle for Stalingrad minimizes Hitler’s main objective: the Caucasus oil fields. Army Group A was within forty kilometers of Grozny at it’s farthest extent. At the end of December 1942 the Soviet attacks began. Stalingrad Front and Transcaucasus Front drove Army Group A, back to Krasnodar, halting on the lower Donets River on 17 January, 1943. On 4 February the Soviets landed units on the Black Sea coast near Novorossiysk, behind German lines, attempting to cut off Army Group A. This move hastened the withdrawal of the Germans into the Kuban Peninsula. A thrust at Rostov cut off the German withdrawal north of the Sea of Azov. Krasnodar fell to the Soviets on 12 February and Rostov on 14 February. Although the battle for the Kuban Peninsula continued, the Soviets made few gains during the summer. If the Germans could be forced out of the bend of the Dnieper River, Army Group A would be trapped in the Crimea.

Meanwhile, to the north, a great battle force gathered for the liberation of Smolensk. Army Group Center possessed 850,000 officers and men, 8,800 guns and mortars, 500 tanks and assault guns, and 700 aircraft. Their defensive positions, 130 kilometers deep, consisted of up to six defensive belts occupied by German forces experienced in defending against Red Army attacks. Soviet forces included 1,253,000 officers and men, 20,600 guns and mortars, 1,400 tanks, and 900 aircraft.

On 7 August, even as the battle for Kharkov developed, the West Front attacked Army Group Center. Kalinin Front launched its attack on 13 August in support. West Front took Yelnya on 30 August and Dorogobuzh on 1 September. Bryansk Front’s 50th Army struck toward Bryansk, hoping to outflank it on the north and south. But the Germans surrendered ground reluctantly, and forced a pause in the Soviet attack. The Soviets used this time to re-provision and reorganize.

On 14 September the attack resumed. In days the Kalinin Front and the West Front swept forward across a 250 kilometer front penetrating the German defenses to a depth of forty kilometers. Kalinin Front took Dukhovshchina on 19 September and Demidov on the 21st. West front took Yartsevo on the 16th and overran the Smolensk/Roslavl railway on the 23rd. Bypassed on the north and the south the Germans had no choice but to evacuate Smolensk, which was taken on 25 September, with Roslavl falling on the same day.

Sources: Kursk: The Clash of Armor, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, New York

Forgotten Campaign: The Caucasus, Ivan Zhabkin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

The Liberation of Smolensk, Colonel Vasily Istomin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

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