'KURSK' RECONSIDERED: Testing an Alternative Approach to German Operations in 1943, Using the KURSK '71 July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario


Among those who study military events, few World War II battles are more famous than the one that was fought over possession of an obscure town in southern Russia, called Kursk, in July of 1943. And, although more than sixty years have passed since this titanic clash between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, the Battle of Kursk is still the subject of serious debate. In the eyes of many who have examined the battle, this German offensive — code named, “Zitadelle” — represented Hitler’s last chance in the East; and its failure doomed the Wehrmacht to almost certain defeat on the Russian Front. Over the years, students of military history have written a great deal about the bankruptcy of the simple “forehand blow” strategy under which the Germans initiated this, their last great summer offensive in Russia. And certainly, the generally accepted verdict that 1943 represented a critical inflection point for the German Army in the East is strongly supported by subsequent historical events. For this reason, almost from the day that it ended, the military details of the Zitadelle Offensive have been widely studied and critiqued.

That said, there is one issue relating to this subject that has received little attention, but which probably deserves more, and that is whether the Germans should have adopted a more nuanced offensive strategy in place of their decision to attack at Kursk; an alternative offensive approach that, conceivably, might have produced a better military outcome than Zitadelle for Hitler and his generals. In short, was the all-out attempt to cut off the Kursk salient the only, or even the best, option available to the Germans given the strategic situation in Russia during the spring and summer of 1943? When it comes to World War II "might have beens," this question recommends itself as being especially intriguing to those individuals with a serious interest in the Eastern Front.

Adolf Hitler and Members of the Oberkommando des Heeres

Of course, one way of exploring hypothetical military questions like this, is to use conflict simulations to manipulate otherwise complex sets of variables. This capacity of war games to allow players to revisit and even to experiment with historical events (however abstractly) is, after all, one of these games' most obvious appeals. Moreover, the fact that simulations have been, and are being used to study real world problems is also beyond dispute; therefore, it seems only logical that a simulation that models the Zitadelle Offensive would be an appropriate tool for testing alternative German strategic choices in 1943. Needless-to-say, because of popular interest in this subject, there have been a number of games published over the years that have attempted to simulate, at various levels of abstraction, the German 1943 Summer Offensive. However, when it comes to looking specifically at the question of German strategic options during this critical period on the Eastern Front, it can argued that the “original” KURSK — a game that was first published by SPI in 1971 — really comes into its own as a simple but flexible analytical resource. And despite the game’s age, its awkwardly written rules, and its dated, primitive graphics, it is a core premise of this essay that KURSK still stands out both as an instructive and useful historical simulation, and as a challenging game.

To meld the historical with the abstract, and to bring some order to this discussion, the essay that follows will begin with a consideration of the events leading up to the battle for Kursk, and of the problems confronting the German High Command in the spring of 1943. Then, employing, as a narrative vehicle, the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario from KURSK, the game, it will attempt to offer a plausible answer to the question posed earlier: was Zitadelle the only, or even the best, offensive choice for German combat operations in Russia during the summer of 1943?


The Wehrmacht, in the spring of 1943, was a very different force from the one that had invaded Russia in June of 1941. Heavy fighting during the months preceding Zitadelle had placed severe strains on the German Army in the East. The Russian winter offensive of 1942/43 had not only annihilated Paulus’ 6th Army at Stalingrad, it had also very nearly obliterated the rest of the German front in the South. Only Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s brilliant “back-hand blow” counteroffensive between the Donetz and the Dnieper — which had destroyed Popov’s advancing army group — had retrieved the situation for the Axis in southern Russia. Nonetheless, while the Wehrmacht had been badly mauled by the Red Army, it still remained a potent offensive force in 1943, and the German High Command continued to have complete confidence in the battlefield superiority of their mechanized formations. However, in spite of that confidence, the heavy Axis winter losses had dramatically underscored the need for German commanders in the East to find a means both of shortening their front and, at the same time, of inflicting substantial casualties on the Red Army during the coming spring and summer.

To achieve these goals, it was clear to the officers of the OKH (and to Hitler, as well) that the German High Command would have to choose between two very different strategies, and that they would have to do so before the arrival of the coming campaign season. One option called for the German Army to abandon any further attempts at territorial gains in favor of adopting a reactive defensive posture in Russia. To reduce the length of the German front, a strategic withdrawal could be made to a shorter, more defensible line anchored on the Dnieper River. Following this course of action would, supporters argued, allow the Wehrmacht to assemble the reserves of infantry and panzer forces necessary to immediately, and successfully, counterattack Soviet breakthroughs on this new, much shorter front. This operational posture, sometimes referred to as the “backhand blow” strategy, was a tacit acknowledgement that total victory was no longer possible in the East, and that the strategic goal of the Wehrmacht would have to be redirected towards achieving an indefinite stalemate on the Russian Front. The Führer, not surprisingly, vehemently rejected this option out of hand: not one inch of captured territory, the German dictator insisted, was to be abandoned without a fight. Moreover, Hitler reminded his generals that besides its other flaws, such a change in strategy would also immediately surrender the military initiative to the Soviets, perhaps for the foreseeable future. War, Hitler believed, was ultimately a battle of wills, and he had no intention of losing this battle to Stalin.

The other possible German strategy for 1943, called for a renewal of offensive operations against the Russians, but with an emphasis on smaller, more flexible engagements. This “limited forehand blow” or “small battles” approach would still, it was argued, conserve German forces, particularly armored units, through the coming summer. The Wehrmacht would continue to hold its existing front, but would now direct the majority of its combat operations towards shortening the front line. In addition, German mechanized forces would be concentrated so that they could immediately be dispatched to exploit Russian tactical mistakes, or to engage and defeat Soviet penetrations into German positions. This strategy, it was hoped, might also allow the Wehrmacht to maintain the initiative, at least until the coming winter. As an added benefit, it very likely would also create battlefield opportunities for the Wehrmacht, by virtue of its clear-cut superiority in mobile operations, to bleed the Red Army through the spring and summer — particularly its mechanized forces — and might even, if very successful, significantly sap the strength of the next Russian winter offensive. Perhaps most importantly, because this strategy demonstrated a commitment to future German victory, at least on its face, it was also palatable to Hitler. Moreover, a “limited forehand blow” approach was all the more acceptable to the OKH because, as the Red Army had grown both in rifle strength and combat efficiency, it had become increasingly clear to Hitler and his generals that large-scale, set-piece battles were no longer a militarily viable option for the Wehrmacht in 1943. In fact, even several of Germany’s most gifted and aggressive panzer commanders, including Colonel General Heinz Guderian and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, had come, albeit grudgingly, to acknowledge these situational constraints on future German operations. Given the preceding, it is probably not surprising that acceptance for the view that it was now necessary for the Wehrmacht to pursue a more limited, opportunistic offensive approach continued to gather adherents among Germany’s senior generals as time went on and the start of the next campaign season approached. And by spring of 1943, it seemed finally to have won at least lukewarm acceptance from the majority of the senior officers of the OKH and even from the Führer himself. Thus, with at least the basic outlines of the German strategy for the coming campaign season now apparently settled, Germany’s East Front generals turned their attention to situation maps of the Russian Front in order to identify vulnerable sectors in the Soviet line.

Field Marshall Erich von Manstein
By early March, the eyes of these German planners had been drawn to the large Russian salient around the city of Kursk; particularly because the shoulders of this Russian bulge threatened German positions at Orel in the north, and Belgorod and Kharkov in the south. If this Russian enclave could be pinched off and liquidated, it seemed clear that the German Army's front would be significantly shortened, substantial Soviet forces might be trapped and destroyed in the salient, and the Russians would be denied the rail junction at Kursk.

General of Infantry Kurt Zeitzler, the head of the OKH, was one of the earliest and strongest proponents of the Kursk offensive. However, Zeitzler early-on encountered opposition from an unexpected quarter: it turned out that the hero of the preceding winter, Manstein, was opposed to the Kursk operation. Instead, the always inventive Field Marshal von Manstein proposed an ambitious alternative plan of his own. His approach would be to draw Russian forces westward towards Nikopol and Kherson on the southern Dnieper. Once the Red Army had pushed deep into the Ukraine, Manstein then intended to smash through the northern Soviet flank with panzer forces concentrated near Kharkov, and crush the newly-trapped Russians against the Sea of Azov. Hitler, always suspicious of retrograde maneuvers even when recommended by his best generals, was unpersuaded and quickly vetoed his audacious Field Marshal's idea. Thus, it was only after his own plan had been rejected that Manstein swung his support in favor of an attack on Kursk. However, ever the proponent of speed and surprise, Manstein urged that the attack be launched against the base of the Kursk salient with whatever German mobile forces could be mustered as soon as mechanized operations were again possible in the East: in May, 1943, if feasible, but no later than June. Under no circumstances, Manstein warned, should the Soviets be allowed to consolidate and fortify their position in the salient once the spring rains had passed.

Chief of OKH General Kurt Zeitzler


Unfortunately for the Germans, Manstein's advice as to the timing of the Kursk offensive went unheeded; the German winter reversals and the disaster at Stalingrad had made Hitler and the Axis High Command chary of launching an early attack with limited forces. For this reason, the OKH and its chief, although now fully committed to an attack on Kursk, decided to build up German offensive strength in preparation for a more traditional, less ad-hoc assault. Thus, despite its earlier predisposition towards a limited, “small battles” offensive posture, the OKH had allowed itself to be backed, slowly but surely, into making preparations for a large-scale, conventional attack. Increased cautiousness on the part of Hitler, combined with the natural conservatism of the General Staff had transformed Zitadelle from a modestly-scaled, spring offensive into precisely the kind of operation that the German High Command had earlier hoped to avoid: a massive set-piece battle.

Ironically, even as the Germans assembled their forces for the impending attack, the Russian High Command (STAVKA), in its turn, shifted more and more troops, artillery, antitank guns, and armor into the areas around the Kursk salient. This Russian build-up was no accident. A Soviet intelligence agent, code-named “Lucy,” had learned of the plans for Zitadelle and had transmitted this crucial information to Moscow. Now, the OKH, besides squandering valuable time, had also lost any possibility of strategic surprise. Alerted to German intentions, the Red Army, just as Manstein had feared, hurried to dig itself in. In fact, the Russians were so industrious in constructing fieldworks in this sector that, by July, parts of the Soviet defensive zone around Kursk extended to a depth of well over one hundred and twenty kilometers.

While the Russians prepared their defenses, the Germans assembled their tanks and infantry. Step by step, and without really intending to, the OKH had entered into a race with STAVKA to see which High Command could reinforce this sector fastest. The two adversaries continued their preparations through May, and then through June. Finally, at the end of June, Hitler decided that any further postponement of the offensive would be fruitless and so, on July 4th, German forces were finally ordered to attack both shoulders of the Kursk salient in a major pincer action.

Manstein commanded the southern pincer of the attack and, although his assaulting forces took heavy casualties, he remained confident, right up until the end, that his panzer units could achieve a breakthrough if allowed to continue their attack. Unfortunately for German prospects, however, Field Marshal Walter Model’s northern pincer stalled after the first five days of the offensive and thereafter, Model proved incapable of making any further progress against the layers of Soviet defenses to his front. Still, the battle raged for eleven bloody days. In the end, and despite Manstein’s protests, Hitler ordered the offensive halted; Model's and Manstein's troops were ordered to abandon their hard-won gains and withdraw back to their own start lines. The German attack, quite possibly doomed before it even began, had failed with heavy losses.

The defeat at Kursk was a catastrophe, especially for the German mechanized forces. It would be the last major Axis offensive in the East, and it would set the Wehrmacht on a long westward march that would not end until the remnants of the German Army had retreated all the way back into the rubble-filled streets of Berlin.

Field Marshall Walter Model

In retrospect, it is easy to see why some officers in the German General Staff came to have doubts over the advisability of the July Zitadelle offensive, and why even Hitler was apprehensive about its chances for success. Prior to Kursk, most of the generals on the Eastern Front were still confident that, based on the summer battles of 1941 and 1942, German mechanized forces could quickly smash through any defensive line that the Soviets could throw up. However, as early as June, a few German commanders, including the blunt-talking Model, had begun to voice concerns about Zitadelle and its possible outcome. The reason for this increased skepticism among some senior generals was understandable. The defeat and destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad had stunned and chastened Axis commanders throughout Russia, and had instilled in them a new respect for the battle-worthiness of the Red Army. Moreover, the obvious quantitative inferiority of the German Order of Battle, particularly in terms of infantry rifle strength and artillery, and the great depth of the Russian defenses around Kursk (confirmed by aerial reconnaissance) could hardly have reassured any but the most blindly optimistic of Hitler’s field commanders.


Not surprisingly, when examining the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario in KURSK, the Axis player normally finds himself in much the same position — and with the same mental reservations — as Field Marshal Model. Faced with the initial Soviet possession of the city of Kursk, a numerically superior foe, and a seemingly impenetrable belt of enemy fortifications shielding the entire length of the Kursk salient, most German players count themselves fortunate to hold the Russian to a “marginal victory.” The regularity of this pro-Soviet outcome has produced an almost universal belief, especially among experienced KURSK players, that this particular scenario is both as predictably dull and hopelessly (if historically) imbalanced in favor of a competent Soviet player as the July 4th (Historical) Scenario is. This widely-held opinion has led a number of KURSK players to avoid the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario completely in favor of the seemingly better-balanced Aug 3rd (Free Deployment) variant. Unfortunately, although the Aug 3rd “No Zitadelle” Scenario is interesting, it is also the one operational alternative that — given the rapidly increasing Allied pressure against the Third Reich during this period — was militarily unacceptable to Hitler. In actuality, given their deteriorating strategic situation, the Germans simply could not choose inaction in the East in the summer of 1943.

In passing, it should be noted that however interesting an examination of the German “backhand blow” defensive strategy might otherwise be, such an experiment is impossible within the constraints of the KURSK Game System. Both the map scale and the time scale preclude it. However, just as important as the limits imposed by the simulation design, is the historical fact that, so long as Hitler was in absolute command of the Third Reich, large-scale strategic withdrawals by the Wehrmacht were simply not going to be allowed. On this point, at least, the evidence is clear. Thus, in the actual historical setting of early 1943, the German Army had two distinct strategic options, but the defensive, “backhand blow” approach was not one of them.

Several conclusions can be teased from the preceding analysis. First, that the defeat of the historical German offensive will tend to be repeated within the KURSK game setting, whenever the July 4th (Historical) Scenario is replayed. Second, that the Aug 3rd (No Zitadelle) Scenario, at least from the standpoint of history, was a non-starter for Hitler and his generals. Third, that despite the commonly perceived similarity to its “Historical” counterpart, the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario, because of its lack of significant deployment restrictions on German forces, could well offer an excellent vehicle for examining an alternative, more opportunistic German offensive approach to the formidable Soviet defensive arrangements present in the Kursk battle area.

Of course, experimenting with the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario as a means of testing the alternative to Zitadelle, assumes that the OKH could still execute the limited offensive option as late as July of 1943. But was that really the case, given the strategic balance between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in summer of 1943? Did the Germans actually have the capacity to switch their offensive focus away from the “pincer attack” against Kursk, as late as June or July? Several different historical sources — admittedly writing with the benefit of post-war 20/20 hindsight suggest that the answer to both questions might well be a qualified “yes.” Certainly, Model was in favor, right up until the end, of a change of plan; and, had the OKH decided to modify its offensive preparations in May, or even June, then it is highly possible that both Manstein and Kluge, and possibly others, would have been supportive of such a change.

Speed and Surprise: The “Small Battle” Alternative

Colonel General Heinz Guderian

Major events have a tendency to overwhelm the smaller historical details that surround them. For this reason, the final outline of the Zitadelle plan should not be allowed to conceal the fact that the Kursk offensive was originally envisioned as only one of a series of limited blows to be delivered across the fronts of both Army Group Center and Army Group South in spring and summer of 1943.

As already noted, the offensive posture urged in early 1943 by armored experts like the newly-appointed Inspector General of Panzer Forces, Heinz Guderian, focused on situational opportunism, and emphasized both operational speed and command flexibility. In keeping with this strategic approach, German operations were to be restricted primarily to limited-objective attacks and to rapidly-organized counterattacks against any summer Soviet penetrations of the Axis front. To revisit an earlier point:  this “small battles” offensive posture would, it was believed, both conserve the combat power of German mechanized forces and permit Axis rifle strength in Russia to be rebuilt in advance of the coming winter. Those offensive operations that the OKH did initiate were to be aimed at bleeding the Red Army’s mechanized forces, straightening the German front line, and most importantly, at sapping the strength of the inevitable Russian winter offensive. Such an operational strategy, however rough its outline, seems to have been generally accepted by the OKH at least as early as the beginning of March. Thus, the question that has been raised previously, can be rephrased: what would have happened if this approach — rather than the plan for a pair of massive armored blows to be delivered against the shoulders of the Kursk salient — had retained its appeal, and Hitler and the OKH had elected to continue with a more limited, opportunistic strategy in 1943?

On its face, a smaller-scale, less ambitious offensive strategy — had it actually been employed by the Germans in 1943 — would have offered the Wehrmacht a number of short-term benefits that might well have improved Axis fortunes in the East. To begin with, smaller-scale, situation-based operations would have given the OKH much greaert tactical flexibility: these attacks could be reinforced if successful, but could also be broken-off, before the Germans had sustained heavy losses in men and material, if met by a strong Soviet response. In addition, besides disrupting STAVKA’s own offensive preparations, these fast-moving mechanized attacks, or “small battles,” had the potential to be effective both at maximizing Russian casualties and, even more importantly, at drawing Soviet mechanized forces away from the shelter of their prepared positions and artillery support and into the fluid, mobile type engagements in which German armored tactics and doctrine continued to hold a clear advantage.

Still, the earlier question remains: would this more limited offensive strategy have succeeded any better than the one actually followed in the preparation and execution of Zitadelle? Stated another way: did Hitler and his generals squander their last opportunity in 1943 to achieve at least a strategic stalemate on the Russian front, or had the outcome already been pretty much fixed by previous events? As both a practical and economical means of addressing this question, it seems reasonable to use KURSK as a simple, but reasonably accurate historical model and, by so doing, to examine this question using the tools of conflict simulation.

The Opposing Armies: Strengths and Weaknesses

The KURSK Game System, as noted previously, represents a useable, if imperfect, vehicle for studying just the sort of historical puzzle that is the subject of this essay. It offers just enough simulation detail to make this type of inquiry possible, but not so much that it becomes unmanageable. However, before returning to the question of German strategy in 1943, a brief examination of the opposing forces that fought during Zitadelle is in order.

Not surprisingly, when examined in terms of the KURSK game’s map and components, a number of possible insights emerge regarding the strategic balance between the German and Russian armies in the summer of 1943. For starters, the differences between the postures and operational capabilities of the two armies — at least as represented by the game's designer — are both significant and very interesting. Obviously, the military postures of the two belligerents are different because one side (the Germans) is burdened with the requirement to attack, while the other side (the Russians) is tasked with defending the only territorial objective of any significance on the entire game map. Moreover, the Orders of Battle of the two armies — as depicted in the game — are quite instructive in their own right. In fact, the two armies that clashed at Kursk were different enough, in certain important particulars, to warrant a detailed examination of the several unique advantages enjoyed by each of these combat forces, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, as they are represented in the KURSK Jul 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario.

German Advantages

1. The geographical area covered by the KURSK simulation is large — approximately 440 miles from north to south — and the game map reflects this. Because of the scope of playing area, and the rules governing the initial Soviet set-up — even when playing with the “Free Deployment” scenario — the scenario’s requirements for Soviet starting positions virtually guarantee that a significant number of Russian infantry units will be hostage to the necessity of maintaining zones of control (ZOC) from one end of their very long fortified line to the other. This fact, when combined with the certain knowledge that a competent Russian player will provide an in-depth defense against Axis mechanized penetrations, means that the German player will have a pretty good idea of the Soviet infantry allocations even before he sees his opponent’s actual dispositions. In addition, the initial set-up rules also bar the Russians from deploying any units with a movement allowance of six or more in the Soviet fortified line hexes.

2. The German forces have a major qualitative edge in terms of their movement capabilities — particularly as regards the unique ability of the German mechanized units to slip through ZOCs and between enemy units even when those enemy units occupy Soviet fortified hexes.

3. The Axis player begins the game with a small, but clear-cut superiority in the air. Moreover, the slight German numerical advantage, in terms of air units, is enormously enhanced by the superior range of the Axis air units — an advantage that guarantees that the Germans can either swamp one section of the front with air power or, alternatively, strike the Russian air arm at will without any real risk of Soviet reprisal.

4. The victory conditions for the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario specifically exempt the German player from all but one territorial consideration. It is not which cities the Germans hold that count; but only the ratio of German to Russian casualties, and the possession of Kursk that matters in terms of victory points. Thus, the Wehrmacht is relieved of the necessity of conducting a static defense, and can withdraw in the face of powerful Soviet counterattacks in order to minimize German losses.

5. The German Army has the initiative by virtue of setting up second and moving first. Because of this singular advantage, the Axis forces can concentrate against a dispersed enemy. This permits the German player to focus his strength where it will be most advantageous and to control, at least initially, the odds he is facing. It can be a crucial edge.

Soviet Advantages

1. The Soviets possess both a significantly larger number of combat units and enjoy a marked advantage in terms of total combat power. And while this advantage, as it relates to mechanized units is minimal, it is telling in terms of infantry formations.

2. The Russian player has an important, if obvious advantage in the strength and depth of his fortifications, particularly in the region of the Kursk salient. These layered defenses, when properly utilized, severely restrict the Axis ability to deploy and attack effectively when operating in the Russian fortified zones.

3. The Russians begin the scenario with the only valuable — in terms of victory points — terrain objective safely in their possession: the city of Kursk. This initial advantage shifts the burden of attack squarely onto the Germans, while the short length of the scenario (six turns) insures that the Axis player will have only a limited time to overcome his (Kursk) victory point deficit by eliminating Soviet combat units.

4. The Russians occupy the central Kursk salient; because of this fact, the Soviet player will be able — through the proper positioning of his mechanized forces — to operate on interior lines for most of the game. The Germans, on the other hand, will have great difficulty in shifting their forces from one sector of the front to another once their forces have been committed to battle.

5. The final Soviet advantage derives from their being on the strategic defensive. Because the Russian player deploys first, he has the opportunity to carefully consider and plan for the optimal disposition of his forces. Simply stated: the Soviet player will always have complete knowledge of his initial set-up, while the German player will always be obliged to vary his dispositions, from one game to the next, based on the initial starting positions of the Russian units.

Without Zitadelle: A German Strategic Alternative

Based on the very different operational advantages possessed by each of the two opposing armies, it is reasonable to conclude that a major German July offensive against the Soviet forces shielding Kursk — with the primary goal of capturing the city — is, as was the case historically, virtually guaranteed to fail. The reasons for presupposing this outcome are obvious: such an assault maximizes both the Soviet edge in rifle strength and the defensive benefits of the Russian fortifications, while, at the same time, it negates the mutually-reinforcing German advantages of air superiority and mobility. Thus, it appears highly likely that a large-scale direct assault on the Russian fortified line will almost always produce a static battle of attrition: a combat situation that plays to Russian strengths and neutralizes those of the Germans. In view of these considerations, it seems clear, at least intuitively, that the key to achieving a German victory must rely on opportunistic aggressiveness; an approach that emphasizes Axis advantages and, at the same time, minimizes those of the Red Army.

German infantry advancing with a Tiger tank

Clearly, shifting the dynamic of the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario, to favor an Axis victory, will depend on the operational posture chosen by the German player. To win, it seems logical that the Axis commander must plan his attacks with the understanding that, if the preceding conclusions are valid, then they point to a rejection of the historical “forehand blow” offensive plan actually employed in 1943. In its place, these results point to the adoption of the alternative German “forehand blow” strategy that focuses on smaller-scale, limited assaults against multiple Russian positions: in essence, an Axis game strategy that emphasizes “small battle” mechanized attacks in lieu of the larger, historical set-piece battles.

Interestingly enough, this is precisely what experiments using the KURSK Game System tend to show. The results of multiple play-tests, using the “Free Deployment” scenario, repeatedly produced game outcomes that support this hypothesis. Major Axis offensive efforts, whether aimed at the shoulders of the Kursk salient or elsewhere, almost always degenerated into static battles of attrition. In fact, against a stubborn, well-organized Soviet defense; one that could also call on nearby Russian armor for support, this type of German game strategy rarely succeeded in preventing the Soviet player from achieving anything less than a “marginal” victory. In those “Free Deployment” scenario trials, on the other hand, in which the Axis player employed an offensive posture that favored multiple, small-scale, opportunistic attacks, the KURSK Game System tended to produce more fluid combat situations in which the panzers’ mobility and hitting power were often decisive. Thus, while the opportunistic, “small battle” German approach was not always successful, it nonetheless tended to generate — in the course of multiple play-tests — a significantly higher number of Axis victories, than did the large-scale, “historical” offensive strategy.

The “Small Battle” Strategy: An Overview

Of course, if the “small battles” approach really is the better German strategy, then it goes without saying, that other Axis players should be able to duplicate its success in their own play-tests of the July 4th (Free Deployment) Scenario. For those players who might wish to test this German strategy for themselves, what follows are a few observations and suggestions that, hopefully, will help them with their own experimental game trials.

To put this “small battle” strategy in motion, the German player should begin by examining the game map for terrain irregularities that weaken the overall Russian defensive position. Given the length of the Soviet fortified line, the supply rules, and the ZOC requirements for the initial set-up, certain sections of the Russian front will almost always be susceptible to first-turn “surrounded” German attacks. Offensive opportunities, based on terrain and map features, are virtually built into the game situation. Nonetheless, the German player should still display prudence in his tactical execution. The combat, terrain, and movement rules all pose challenges for both sides, not just for the Russians. For example, because Axis units may not advance after combat against Russian fortified hexes, the German commander must depend on his mechanized units’ superior mobility to slip through enemy ZOCs during the first few game turns. However, stacking limits are in effect during all of both combat phases, so the German player must be careful not to crowd units into likely retreat hexes lest he block the retreat of his own units. In addition, Axis infantry should always, if possible, be in a position to support their mechanized brethren in these initial attacks against fortified Soviet units because, even when attacking at 9 to 1 odds with air support, there still remains a one-third chance of either a one-half or full exchange combat result. And exchanging armor for infantry is always a bad idea — for either player.

In most games, possession of Kursk will be conceded to the Soviets from the game’s outset. Instead, it is the early destruction of significant numbers of Russian units that is absolutely crucial to German success. If the Axis player can destroy enough Soviet combat factors through exchanges and d elims in the first few game-turns to negate the Russian victory point advantage for Kursk, then the Red Army’s tank and mechanized corps will have no choice but to advance out of the shelter of the Russian fortified line and fight in the open with the more nimble German panzers. It is these mobile armored clashes that, barring a serious misstep on the Soviet player’s part, ultimately represent the most promising path to Axis victory.

The German View of the Battle Area
It is obvious that the initial disposition of Soviet units will always influence — from one game to the next — where the German Army chooses to actually strike. However, repeated experiments with this scenario have shown that there will almost always be at least four sectors of the Russian front that will be vulnerable to early-game attacks. For that reason, it is usually profitable to split the German mechanized forces into four quasi-historical panzer groups, each of approximately 40 combat factors: SS Panzer Detachment Kempf; 1st Panzer Army; 2nd Panzer Army; and 4th Panzer Army. All four panzer armies are accompanied by at least some infantry whose primary role is to absorb exchange losses for the mechanized units. In addition to the panzer armies, it is also — with another nod to history — useful to organize the remaining infantry divisions into three 20 combat factor infantry armies: the 2nd; the 4th; and the 9th. These infantry armies can best be used to garrison those sections of the German front line where the panzers are not operating. After these dispositions have been made, the German player will still have three infantry divisions left over that can either be assigned to reinforce the assaulting panzers, or can be held in reserve until they are needed.

Once the German player has organized his forces, he must then decide where and how to deploy his units. While the Russian initial set-up will always determine the German player’s starting dispositions, a few general observations are still possible.

The game map displays certain features that, when combined with the ZOC requirements and supply rules, make the design of an impregnable Russian defense virtually impossible. Thus, as previously noted, certain sections of the Russian line will almost always display weaknesses that can be exploited by the Germans during the first few game turns. Typically, the most promising targets for early-game German attacks will, assuming an effective Soviet set-up, show up regularly in at least four different sectors of the Russian front.

The first of these target areas is the northwestern-most portion of the Russian fortified line. This section of the front is vulnerable, not only because the defensive belt in this sector is shallow, but also because the map edge limits Soviet maneuver and unit depth. Moreover, this area, because of its distance from Kursk, will typically be far removed from Russian mechanized reserves, and for that reason, is often a good candidate for multiple German armored breakthroughs and isolation attacks. In fact, if the defender’s response to the German assault is either slow or anemic, the panzers may well be able to roll the Russian line up all the way to the Oka River or beyond.

The second and third areas that regularly fall prey to early German attacks are the northwestern and southwestern corners of the Kursk salient. Typically, these defensive zones are lightly garrisoned because of their multiple layers of fortifications, and because they do not directly screen either Kursk or any nearby Soviet supply lines. The curvature of the Russian defensive belt in these two sectors very often also creates opportunities for German armor to slip past and surround unsupported Russian infantry units. In most cases, the Axis player will attack in these areas for only a turn or two, or until sizeable numbers of Soviet mechanized units begin to arrive at the front. When the Russian armor shows up, it is usually time for the Germans to go elsewhere.

The fourth sector of the front that often presents promising first-turn targets for the Germans is the small southern bulge in the Soviet fortified line that pushes west towards Kharkov. Because the Russian defensive belt is shallow in this area, and also because an Axis breakthrough would quickly threaten one of the Soviet supply lines, the German player should not be surprised to see two or even three Soviet tank armies hovering nearby. For this reason, Axis attacks will usually be limited to the first turn or two. And as was the case with the forces attacking the Kursk salient, once the Soviet armor shows up, it is usually time for the Wehrmacht to pull back.

Needless to say, these four sectors are not the only areas that the Germans might profitably attack on the first few game-turns, but they are probably the most promising. Anything is possible, but, given a competent Russian set-up, some aspects of the Soviet defensive arrangements are going to be more likely than others. For example, the Soviet fortified zone around Kursk, properly defended (and it should be assumed that it will be), is virtually impregnable. Also, the obvious weakness of the shallow section of the Russian line to the north of the Kursk defensive belt is just as obvious to the Soviet commander as it is to the German. So, although an Axis breach of the Soviet line in this area would have a decisive effect on the course of the battle, it is far more likely that, instead of a breakthrough, the Germans will encounter a strong and well-organized infantry defense, closely backed-up by three or even four Russian tank armies.

After the first few game-turns, what happens next? In terms of the Axis “small battle” strategy, everything will depend on how successful the German attacks have been in destroying Russian infantry units. The Wehrmacht should at least be able to overcome the Soviet advantage for possession of Kursk and, with average luck, even begin to build a small lead in victory points. At this point, the Red Army will typically advance out of its fortified line and attempt to engage the Wehrmacht in the open. The ZOC rules and the greater mobility of the German Army can, however, make such a Soviet advance difficult if not done properly. It is this stage of the battle that usually offers the Wehrmacht its greatest opportunity for a decisive victory, but it is also this phase that creates the greatest risk of a crushing Axis defeat. So long as the more nimble German units can stay out of reach of the Soviet rifle units, then the Axis can do well; however, if Russian infantry can close with the German Army, then attrition can very quickly tip the victory point balance back in favor of the Soviets. [This Axis vulnerability to Russian infantry, by the way, underscores one of the main historical weaknesses of the KURSK game design: German Infantry units, unsupported by armor, are simply too weak and brittle to be able to offer any real resistance to a well-organized Soviet attack.] In any case, whatever happens during the first few turns, six game-turns does not provide a lot of time to maneuver; so both players should be prepared to move their armies quickly and aggressivly in order to win.

The Russian View

Russian machine gunners

The Russian commander, despite a significant advantage in raw combat strength, will have to spend the first few game-turns reacting to the German attacks. However, once the Axis assaults have been blunted, the Red Army will have the opportunity to counterattack. High odds attacks, preferably using both rifle and mechanized forces in concert, should be aimed at any German unit that can be reached. The Russians have infantry units to spare. The Wehrmacht, on the other hand, can ill-afford to trade infantry for infantry, and even less can it afford to exchange armor for infantry. For this reason, if the Russian rifle units can quickly be brought forward to support a mechanized advance, then combat attrition should rapidly decimate the Axis defenders. Unfortunately, the greater mobility of the German units, particularly the armor, will almost always make such an advance both complicated and risky. When the Red Army closes on German armored units, for instance, the Russian commander cannot allow any gaps to appear between his advancing units: such openings can be exploited by German mechanized units, and used to set up surrounded attacks on the Soviet line. The Russian player must always remember that, although the Red Army is powerful, when it leaves the shelter of its fortified line, it enters a realm where, even in 1943, the panzer is still a dangerous threat.


This essay began by asking several different, but interconnected questions: Did the OKH, when it finally settled on the Zitadelle Offensive, consider any other strategic options? Was the attack on Kursk actually the best military choice, given Hitler’s categorical refusal to consider a strategic withdrawal, left to Germany in the summer of 1943? If there were competing views of Germany’s strategic options in 1943, what were they? Why was the Zitadelle plan adopted, and how did it come to take its final shape? Finally, if there was a historically viable strategic alternative to Zitadelle, would its adoption have produced a more favorable outcome for the German army than the actual battle did?

In reviewing the historical record, it is clear that the OKH did, in fact, have a realistic appreciation of Germany’s strategic position in the spring of 1943, and that the Wehrmacht’s offensive posture was initially adjusted to reflect the military reversals of the previous winter. German options were, of course, always limited by Hitler’s insistence on retaining personal control over all major operational decisions. Still, history shows that even with the constant meddling of the Führer, the OKH did have strategic alternatives in 1943. Moreover, the Kursk offensive, when it was first proposed, was conceived of only as a simple front-straightening operation and was not expected to run into summer, or to require an especially large German force commitment. Attitudes within the OKH and events on the Eastern Front, however, combined to gradually derail German strategic planning for the 1943 campaign season. The Russian salient became a Soviet “tar baby” and, as spring turned into summer, it steadily drew more and more of the Wehrmacht’s precious mechanized units into the Kursk sector. The end result of all this was a massive set-piece battle of the sort that the German High Command had earlier sought to avoid.

In its aftermath, the Battle of Kursk represented not so much a failure of strategic vision, as it did a crisis of faith on the part of both the OKH and Hitler. The defeat at Stalingrad had failed to break the morale of the ordinary German soldier, but it had succeeded in severely shaking the confidence of the German generals and of their Führer. The German commanders of 1941 or 1942 would have attacked the Kursk salient in May, the generals in 1943 would not, and chose to wait instead. The defeat of Operation Zitadelle was the result.

Clearly, the German High Command seems to have planned to pursue a very different strategic course from that which they ultimately followed. The opportunistic, “small battles” approach, in retrospect, certainly seems to have offered an effective and very promising alternative to the conservative strategy that ultimately led to Zitadelle. After all, prior battles in Russia had already shown, time and time again, that the German mechanized forces were capable of extraordinary feats when they were able to capitalize on their superior skill in mobile operations. And only a few months before the Battle of Kursk, Manstein’s “back-hand blow” had destroyed an entire Soviet army group; and it is important to note that the brilliant Field Marshal had achieved this astonishing victory with a German force that was, at the height of the offensive, outnumbered by at least 8 to 1 by the Soviets. Zitadelle ended German hopes for victory or even a stalemate in Russia, but it is interesting to ponder what would have happened on the Eastern Front, in spring and summer of 1943, if the OKH had maintained its emphasis on small-scale, fast-paced mobile operations, and had not committed the bulk of Germany’s mechanized forces to the massive effort at Kursk.

Finally, it is probably unwise to make too much of the information drawn from a source as simple, limited, and artificial as a conflict simulation. Still, such tools do allow an observer to manipulate, however abstractly, historical events and the factors that influence them; and that capacity to juggle historical variables, in itself, should have some value. Moreover, if the assumptions underpinning the design of a game are generally valid, then it is reasonable to infer that, at least some of the information that the game generates might be useful. Such, I think, is the case with KURSK.

The results from the multiple play-tests noted previously, certainly don’t offer incontrovertible proof that the original German “small battles” strategy for operations in Russia in 1943 was the right one; or even that this approach, had it been followed, would have produced a better strategic outcome for the Wehrmacht than Zitadelle. Nonetheless, while the play-test results may not be incontrovertible, they seem — when viewed together with the historical record — to offer strong corroboration to the notion that the “small battles” strategy would actually have conserved German forces, inflicted greater casualties on the Red Army than occurred historically, and also would have probably established The German Army in a much stronger position in Russia than that in which it actually found itself in August of 1943.

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Reviews of these titles; both of which are strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU


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