The debate in the German High Command about what to do in the summer of 1943 was between two options, the realistic option and the enthusiast-optimist option:
- The realistic option, supported by Guderian and Manstein, the best German field commanders, and by others, suggested to compensate for the large Russian numerical advantage by fully utilizing the superiority of the German commanders and soldiers in tactics, command, and fighting, by a strategy of dynamic mobile defense that would cause great losses to the Russiansin a series of local clashes. The realistic goal was to stop and delay the Russians, as decisive victory was no longer achievable.
- The enthusiast-optimistic option, proposed by General Zeitzler, chief of staff of the German army, suggested to concentrate almost all German tanks, and other forces, to a major decisive battle against a large portion of the Russian armor, in order to destroy them and by doing so hopefully regain the initiative. The most suitable place for such a battle, as Zeitzler proposed, was the Kursk salient, a wide region around the city of Kursk, about half way between Moscow and the black sea, where the Germans surrounded the Russians from three sides. It was obvious that the Russians will keep a large tank force there, and the plan was to encircle them in a classic Blitzkrieg style pincer movement of German tanks from North and South and destroy them. Zeitzler’s plan was code named Operation Citadel.
The major problem with Zeitzler’s plan to attack the Kursk salient, was that aerial photos clearly revealed that the Russians were building dense and deep fortifications there in order to counter such an attack, and that many Russian tanks were moved deeper behind the front line. Instead of an open battlefield Blitzkrieg, it was going to be a direct charge on dense anti-tank defenses. General von Mellenthin warned that such a direct attack will be a “Totenritt”, a ride to death, for the German tanks. In response to Guderian’s worries, Hitler himself admitted that whenever he think of this planned attack, his guts turn.
The major problem with Guderian’s option was that it lacked the charm, enthusiasm, and optimistic hope for a major change in the war that Zeitzler’s plan had. So the enthusiast Hitler decided in favor of Zeitzler’s plan, and calmed his worries of it by ordering to delay the attack for a while in order to incorporate more of the brand new advanced German tanks and tank destroyers in it. The date was set to July 4, 1943.
Once the order was given, the Germans prepared as best as they could. The entire region was photographed from above, the German commanders visited the front line to observe their intended routes, and the Germans concentrated all available forces in two armies, North and South of the Kursk salient, leaving minimal forces along the rest of the long Russian front.
The German force included a total of 50 divisions, including 17 armor and mechanized divisions. These included the most powerful and best equipped German divisions, such as the Gross Deutschland (Great Germany) division and the Waffen-SS tank divisions Leibstandarte (Hitler’s bodyguards), Totenkopf (Death skull), and Das Reich (The Reich). The Germans concentrated all their new armor, the Tiger and Panther tanks, and the mighty new Elefant tank destroyers, which had a front armor thicker than a battleship’s armor. They also concentrated all available air units and artillery, and despite the problems of the German plan it was a formidable concentrated mobile armor force with great offensive potential.