Table of Contents
How the Western Powers Paved Hitler’s
Road to War
Europe, 1936–1939 1
Between a Hard Place and Another Even
Poland, September 1939 8
The Silent Catastrophe of the Sitzkrieg
October 1939–April 1940 14
Blitzkrieg in the North
Scandinavia, April–June 1940 23
April 1940 34
The Blitzkrieg Comes of Age
France, May–June 1940 42
One That Got Away
Dunkirk, May–June 1940 52
Sure, Have the Uncommitted Run
German Military Intelligence
Germany, 1935–1945 58
We’ve Almost Won, So Let’s Change the Plan!
The Battle of Britain, August–September 1940 65
Sacrificing Africa and Greece
September 1940–April 1941 73
Good Ideas Turn into Dead Ends
April 1941–December 1944 80
The Battle of Crete
Eastern Mediterranean, May 1941 86
Germany Won’t Attack Us!
Moscow, Summer 1941 92
Battle of Moscow
September 1941–January 1942 100
The Not-So-Master Race Declares War
Berlin, December 1941 107
Battle of Stalingrad
Russia, August 1942–February 1943 115
Marshal Georgi Zhukov Loses a Battle
and the Soviets Cover It Up
Russia, the Rzhev Salient, November–December 1942 122
Battle of Kasserine Pass
Tunisia, February 1943 129
The Battle of Kursk
Russia, July 1943 136
Raids on Ploesti and Schweinfurt
August 1943 and October 1943 143
Battle of Ortona
Italy, December 1943 150
Nothing Goes Right in Italy
September 1943 and June 1944 156
Crossing the Rapido River
Italy, January 1944 161
Operations at Anzio
January–May 1944 167
The Bomber Will Screw Up . . . Most of the Time
February 1944 and July 1944 174
The Battle of the D-day Beaches
Normandy, France, June 1944 181
Battle of Normandy
France, June–July 1944 187
The Gap at Falaise
France, August 1944 193
The Battle of Arnhem
Netherlands, September 1944 199
Battle of Huertgen Forest
September–November 1944 206
Caught Napping, or Hitler’s Greatest Gamble
Allied and Axis Intelligence Failures
at the Battle of the Bulge, 1944 213
The Wehrmacht’s Last Gasp
Belgium, December 1944–January 1945 219
The Hand of God Protects the Führer
Germany, 1933–1945 226
Who Is Waiting in the FBI Headquarters’ Lobby?
Washington, D.C., December 1941 234
Aryan Competition Breeds Nazi Contempt
Germany, 1939–1945 243
United States Intelligence Failures
Europe, 1941–1944 255
Luftwaffe Pilot Training
Germany, 1939–1945 263
Tanks for the Memories
World War II’s Best and Worst Tanks 272
The Story of the Messerschmitt 262
Germany, 1944–1945 281
The Battle of Kursk
Russia, July 1943
The war on the Eastern Front was entering its second year.
It was supposed to be over and done in a six-month blitzkrieg.
Now it was a quagmire consuming four-fifths of the German
army. Losses were still exceeding replacements. The manpower
deficit was only growing with time. Hitler was looking for a
knockout blow in a war that resisted decision in a single battle.
His sense of what was possible was becoming increasingly impossible.
Stalin and his generals understood the war differently.
It would not be over in one battle, but many battles, each one
building a foundation for the next.
As both sides struggled to master events, the Eastern Front
careened chaotically after the fall of Stalingrad. Erich von Manstein’s
command of Army Group Don, and later Army Group South,
averted disaster. But the Russians still gained ground elsewhere.
North of Kharkov, an unsightly bulge in the German line
took shape. Centered on Kursk, the bulge measuring 100 miles by
150 miles, thrust westward. Its north shoulder rested on Orel; its
south flank brushed Belgorod.
The Russians were expected to attack in the spring. Von Manstein
offered Hitler two plans. The risky one involved giving
up ground, then striking the Russian offensive from the flank to
cut it off. The safer plan called for eliminating the Kursk Bulge
with two attacks from north and south.
Hitler panned the riskier plan, since he did not like giving up
ground already taken. He opted for attack on the bulge at Kursk.
April was the best time to launch the offensive, as mud season
gave way to dry ground, thus permitting mobile warfare. But Hitler
delayed. He wanted the newer Panther, Ferdinand, and Tiger
tanks to equip his panzer forces. Getting these new models in
great numbers from Germany to the front would take time. In
mid-June, an indecisive Hitler finally opted for Operation Citadel.
The attack was slated for July 5.
The Russians Are Not Stupid
If German planners spotted the “weakness” of the Kursk Bulge,
so did Russian generals. They used the spring to reinforce the
Kursk Bulge with six layers of fortified lines, each one fronted by
a mass of land mines. Within each fortified line were thousands
of smaller positions—each one a cluster of bunkers and foxholes,
held by an infantry platoon backed by a battery of antitank guns.
German armor would have to fight through each hard layer, suffering
losses with each breakthrough, only to face another tough
line. Soviet armor was kept in reserve, ready to deliver the decisive
counterstroke against the panzers. The Russians knew their
deadline was early July, thanks to a well-placed spy ring that kept
The north side of the Kursk Bulge was held by Center Front
under General Konstantin K. Rokossovskiy. He was facing Field
Marshal Walter Model’s Ninth Army, operating under Army Group
Center. The Voronezh Front, under General Nikolai F. Vatutin,
staked out the southern half of the Kursk Bulge. His forces faced
General Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, attached to von
Manstein’s Army Group South.
Rokossovskiy shrewdly used his time to identify likely lines
of a German attack, then crafted quick response plans. Captured
prisoners provided more information, allowing Rokossovskiy’s
intelligence department to fix the expected time of the Ninth
Army’s attack. Just one hour before the Germans started their attack,
Rokossovksiy ordered his six hundred artillery pieces to deliver
a hurricane bombardment against key road junctions where
the Ninth Army’s divisions were forming up. He was not going to
let Model get a clean start.
Model concentrated seven infantry divisions and one panzer
division along a narrow ten-mile front. His plan was simple: grind
through each Russian defense line with repeated waves of tank
and infantry attacks. Tigers and Ferdinands (a turretless tank also
mounting the deadly 88mm gun), were organized in battalionsized
task forces, followed by infantry on foot in open order,
then medium and light tanks plus more infantry mounted on
trucks or half-tracks.
Overhead, the Luftwaffe sent strike groups of fifty or one hundred
aircraft, looking to pound Soviet defenses. The Henschel
Hs–129, designed to deliver close air support, was making its debut,
while the Focke-Wulf Fw–190A fighter took to the skies to
drive away Russian aircraft and achieve air superiority. These two
newcomers would be backed by the war-proven workhorses of
the Luftwaffe—the Bf–109 fighters, Ju–87 Stuka dive-bombers,
and He–111 and Ju–88 medium bombers.
As soon as Model scored the breakthrough of the first defensive belt,
Rokossovskiy knew where the Ninth Army was going—
south to Ponyri, a major junction on the Kursk-Orel rail line. According
to plan, Rokossovskiy flooded the zone around Ponyri
with units from unthreatened sectors.
Rokossovskiy called Stalin for reinforcements.
None could be spared.
On July 6, Center Front’s forces fell back to a six-mile stretch
of prepared line packing three thousand guns, five thousand machine
guns, and more than one thousand tanks belonging to the
Second Tank Army. By July 7, Model was mustering ten infantry
and four panzer divisions to crack it. Mines took out the advancing
tanks. Red Army antitank brigades fought to the last gun and
the last man. In desperation, teams of Russian infantry hurled
Molotov cocktails and satchel charges at the enemy tanks. The
battle continued like this until the next day. Ponyri changed
hands several times.
Model’s attacks finally bumped against high ground—the
Sredne-Russki heights—after grinding through nineteen miles of
Russian defenses. Blitzkrieg it was not. On July 11, the Red Army
launched an attack on Orel, forcing Model to peel off units to
reinforce the Second Panzer Army. Model’s offensive was done.
If things were bad on the north side of the bulge, they were
worse down south. Vatutin stretched his forces thin, trying to
defend the whole line, but in the end defending nothing. Hoth’s
Fourth Panzer Army had a good day on July 5, forcing Vatutin to
commit reserves earlier than he wanted to blunt the blow. Active
defense robbed Hoth of over three hundred tanks and eighty aircraft,
plus ten thousand Germans killed in action. Vatutin’s line
beat off twelve separate attacks, but Voronezh Front was being
German columns were looking to score breakthroughs at
Obayan and Prokhorovka, thence northward toward Kursk. Vatutin
committed the First Tank Army and the Sixth Guards Army
(infantry) to block the way. Hoth massed his tanks into wedges of
sixty to one hundred, with Tigers and Ferdinands in the lead, followed
by Panthers and Panzer IVs. By July 9, the drive on Obayan
stalled just six miles shy of the town. The only other chance to
unhinge the Soviet defense line was at Prokhorovka.
When a Small Battle Decides a Large One
Hoth now massed his armor on a four to five mile stretch of
ground just west of Prokhorovka, a station town on the Belgorod-
Orel rail line. Defending were the Soviet Sixty-ninth and Seventh
Guards armies. Vatutin was holding back the Fifth Tank Army and
Fifth Guards Army as reserves to take on the Second SS Panzer
Corps, which was expected to renew the attack on Prokhorovka.
Vatutin planned to hit the Fourth Panzer Army from three sides,
hoping to surround and destroy it.
Stalin approved the plan. But Vatutin would not be allowed to
fix the crisis he created. Stavka sent Marshals Georgi Zhukov and
A. H. Konstantin Vassilevski to oversee the operation.
On July 11, Hoth renewed his drive. Second SS Panzer Corps
drove for Prokhorovka, flanked on the east by the corps-sized
Army Detachment Kempf (one panzer, two infantry divisions)
and to the west by two panzer and one panzergrenadier division
driving again on Obayan. Ground was gained, but no breakthrough
On July 12, the Russians struck back with the Fifth Tank Army,
sending 900 tanks to stop Hoth’s two panzer columns—one 600
tanks strong, the other 300. One hundred of those German tanks
were Tigers, each mounting a tank-killing 88mm gun that fired
farther than the Russian T–34’s 76mm gun. The Russians countered
this German advantage by literally charging their tanks into
the oncoming Tigers. At close range, the T–34’s gun was able to
hole any German tank, especially from flank and rear. For eighteen
hours the battle went on, leaving behind the burning wreckage
of 300 German and 450 Russian tanks.
For two more days, Hoth probed the Russian lines, looking for
another weak point to exploit. None could be found. By July 19,
Hitler called off Operation Citadel. Reinforcements were sent to
Italy from the Eastern Front, now that the Americans and British
had invaded Sicily.
The Blood Price of Defeat
Never again would Germany enjoy armored parity with the Red
Army, let alone superiority. Germany had been losing men faster
than it could replace them for two years. At Kursk, the last few
full-strength armored and infantry divisions were committed—
after stripping replacements expected by other divisions.
The Russians put German losses at 70,000 men killed in action,
about 2,900 tanks destroyed, plus another 200 assault guns
(turretless tanks), as well as 844 artillery pieces lost, about 1,400
planes shot down, and over 5,000 trucks destroyed. Panzer divisions
that typically fielded 150 tanks were severely depleted,
some mustering 17 tanks here, 30 tanks there.
The Germans counted 1,800 dead Russian tanks, 1,000 antitank
guns destroyed, and over 24,000 Russians captured. Russian sources
put manpower losses at close to 180,000, of which 70,000 were counted
as killed or missing. But the Russians could replace these losses.
Stalin and his generals converted the defensive victory at Kursk
into a southern offensive that took the Red Army to the banks of
the Dnieper River. The next two years would mark nothing short
of a full-court press, as anywhere from eleven to thirteen fronts
would go over to the offensive simultaneously.
And it would stay that way, all the way to Berlin.
Written By: William Terdoslavich