78 years ago: 1943 – the year the tide turned in World War II


(May 8, 2018) – The peoples of Russia remember 1943 as the year that everything changed; a year of decisive battles that altered the course of the Great Patriotic War and World War II as a whole. It was the year of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of the Caucasus, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of the Dnieper. It began with the lifting of the siege of Leningrad and ended with the Red Army’s liberation of two thirds of the Soviet territory temporarily occupied by the Nazis – 38,000 localities, including 162 towns.

The year 1943 was unprecedented in terms of the scale, magnitude and intensity of fighting. Battling the main forces of Nazi Germany and its allies, the Red Army inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the aggressor, which led to a radical change in the balance of the world’s fighting forces long before the second front was opened in Europe. The decisive battles of 1943 showed that the Soviet Union was capable of defeating Germany and its satellites by itself. The Soviet Armed Forces resolved a fundamental problem of the war – they won and retained the strategic initiative. 

Evaluating the outcome of Operation Citadel, a German offensive operation in the Kursk salient, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein admitted: “[Operation Citadel] was our last attempt at regaining initiative in the East. When it did not succeed, which equalled a failure, initiative was completely ceded to the Soviets. Operation Citadel was the decisive turning point on the Eastern Front.”

The armed forces of the fascist bloc were forced to shift to a strategic defence not just on the Soviet-German front, but on all the fronts of the World War II. In November 1943, the Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW), Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, admitted that German forces had lost the strategic initiative and there was no way it could be snatched back from the hands of the enemy.

The events that unfolded on the Soviet-German front in 1943 conclusively demonstrated that it was still the main front of the World War II. In terms of the number of troops deployed there, the scale and outcome of the operations carried out and the losses inflicted on the armed forces of the fascist bloc, this front far exceeded the battle statistics of all the other fronts combined. Suffice it to say that between 193 and 203 German divisions and between 32 and 66 divisions of Germany’s allies (almost three quarters of all the troops of the fascist bloc) fought there, along with most of their military equipment and weapons. An OKW directive dated 3 November 1943 noted that: “The hard and costly struggle against Bolshevism during the last two and a half years, which has involved the bulk of our military strength in the East, has demanded extreme exertions.”

It was on the Soviet-German front that the enemy suffered almost 80 per cent of its total combat losses: 218 divisions of the Wehrmacht and its allies were destroyed, along with almost 7,000 tanks, 14,300 aircraft and around 50,000 weapons. It was impossible for the enemy to recover from such losses. 

The Red Army’s historic victories were a decisive factor in the further strengthening and expansion of the anti-Hitler coalition. At the height of the Battle of Kursk, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a special message to the head of the Soviet government, Joseph Stalin, which read: “Your forces have, during a month of tremendous fighting, by their skill, their courage, their sacrifices and their ceaseless effort, not only stopped the long planned German attack, but have launched a successful counter-offensive of far-reaching import.”

Immobilised on the Eastern Front, the German command was unable to seriously influence the outcome of fighting in other theatres of military operations or transfer significant forces there. This had a direct impact on the achievements of Anglo-American forces. In the North Atlantic, the Allied command secured complete control of the skies, which drastically reduced the ability of the Luftwaffe to strike at US and British ships and the German submarine fleet to provide support. In the Mediterranean theatre, the Western allies, having gained superiority over the enemy in terms of men, military equipment and weapons, were able, in 1943, to successfully complete operations in North Africa, seize Sicily, and land on the Italian peninsula. 

There is a tradition in Western historiography of comparing the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Kursk with the allied landing in Sicily, which also took place in July 1943. But it is impossible to compare these operations, whether in terms of scale, the forces and equipment involved, or outcome. Suffice it to say that the Sicilian operation, for example, involved around 720,000 men from both sides, while four million men took part in the Battle of Kursk. And while the former merely allowed for the landing of allied troops in continental Italy, the failure of Operation Citadel resulted in the complete collapse of the Wehrmacht’s offensive strategy. 

The defeats suffered by the large strategic enemy groupings on the Soviet-German front in 1943 were a serious blow to the entire fascist bloc that accelerated the collapse of Hitler’s coalition and Italy’s withdrawal from it. There were also domestic crises brewing in Hungary, Romania and other satellite countries of Nazi Germany, which had lost faith in their German ally and in any hope of victory. Japan’s position also changed significantly following the defeat of the Wehrmacht on the Soviet-German front: it became increasingly reluctant to enter into war with the USSR.

The expansion of military operations against the “Axis powers” led to an urgent need to directly coordinate the military policies and strategies of those involved in the anti-Hitler coalition at the level of its main powers’ heads of state.

Between 19 and 30 October 1943, the foreign ministers of the USSR, the US and Britain held a conference in Moscow. It was convened for the member countries of the anti-Hitler coalition to discuss the future of the war. The Declaration on General Security adopted at the conference was the first joint declaration outlining the unconditional surrender of the fascist states as a precondition for ending the war.

The Moscow Conference laid the groundwork for the first meeting between the leaders of the three allied powers held in Tehran between 28 November and 1 December 1943. The Tehran Conference was a major international event that took place as a direct result of the Red Army’s victories in the decisive battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, the Caucasus, and the Dnieper. The conference participants reached an agreement on the opening of a second front, as well as on the timing, scale and location of a European invasion.

Following the Stalingrad disaster, the realisation that a military defeat was inevitable began to spread throughout Germany. The defeat of Nazi troops in Kursk, meanwhile, along with the liberation of right-bank Ukraine from the occupying Axis forces, clearly demonstrated the inevitability of the Third Reich’s demise.

Strategic Culture

Yuriy Rubtsov is Doctor of History and Professor at the Military University, Russian Ministry of Defence

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Filed under Eurasia, Europe, History

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