The Germans had been driven from Kursk, a key communications center between north and south, back in February. By March, the Russians had created a salient, a defensive fortification, just west of Kursk in order to prevent another attempt by the Germans to advance farther south in Russia. In June, the German invaders launched an air attack against Kursk; on the ground, Operation Cottbus was launched, ostensibly dedicated to destroying Russian partisan activity, but in reality resulting in the wholesale slaughter of Russian civilians, among whom Soviet partisan fighters had been hiding. The Russians responded with air raids against German troop formations.
By July, Hitler realized that the breaking of the Russian resistance at Kursk was essential to pursuing his aims in Soviet Russia and the defense of Greater Germany, that is, German-occupied territory outside prewar German borders. “This day, you are to take part in an offensive of such importance that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome,” Hitler announced to his soldiers on July 4. But on July 5, the Russians pulled the rug out from under Hitler’s offensive by launching their own artillery bombardment. The Germans counterattacked, and the largest tank battle in history began: Between the two assailants, 6,000 tanks were deployed. On July 12, 900 Russian tanks clashed with 900 German (including their superior Tiger tanks) at Prokhorovka—the Battle of Kursk’s most serious engagement. When it was all over, 300 German tanks, and even more Russian ones, were strewn over the battlefield. “The earth was black and scorched with tanks like burning torches,” reported one Russian officer. But the Russians had stopped the German advance dead in its tracks. The advantage had passed to the East. The Germans’ stay in Soviet territory was coming to an end.