The counter-offensive

There’s been a fair bit of criticism lately of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and its failure to make rapid progress. Western allies are now making noises about withholding support unless they see some progress. With some justification the Ukrainian government has responded by saying every “square centimetre of Ukrainian soil has to be retaken with blood”. So why is progress so slow and bloody? I reckon the answer can be found at the Battle of Kursk in 1943.

‘The biggest tank battle of all time’

Regularly referred to as ‘the biggest tank battle of all time’, this battle took place in 1943 when the German summer offensive tried to snip off a salient that the Russians had punched into their lines before the previous winter. The German attack was a pincer movement from the north and south, which was pretty predictable, and the Russian had known it was coming for months, so they had prepared for it.

Multiple defence lines

The Russians had created three lines of defence all the way around the salient, consisting of an interconnected mesh of minefields, anti-tank ditches, barbed wire bunkers, trenches and tank traps, all manned by a forest of anti-tank guns and with a couple of Guards tank brigades in reserve. The three main lines of defence were protected by about a million mines, and there were another three lines behind them as fall-back positions.

Bogged down

The German attack quickly ground to a halt as panzers were disabled by mines and hit by anti-tank guns, as well as infantry with demolition charges and Molotov cocktails. The supporting infantry had to move carefully to avoid anti-personnel mines while under artillery fire, air attack and machine gun fire from entrenched Russian infantry.

The last offensive

So the Germans dashed their elite armoured forces against an impenetrable wall of in-depth defence. When the Russians counter-attacked, the Germans were overwhelmed and had to cancel the offensive. That was the last major offensive the Germans ever launched, excepting the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1944, and that one only lasted a week too.

So, the similarity?

The Russian army sitting in southern Ukraine has replicated the defences of the Kursk salient, creating multiple dense defence lines with the highest concentration of land mines ever seen. The only way to penetrate the lines is to clear a path through the minefields, and lacking modern mine-clearing equipment, the Ukrainians are doing this mostly by hand.

Let’s unpack that expression ‘by hand’.

That means crawling along on your stomach in a minefield, poking a bayonet into the dirt trying to hit a mine. Then when you find one you have to dig it up and work out how to defuse it without setting it off. And of course there are anti-personnel mines in amongst the tank mines, so if you hit one of those you’re going to be killed or wounded. You’re probably doing this alone, because if you make a mistake you don’t want to blow up the rest of your squad as well as yourself. Did I mention that you have enemy drones hovering overhead directing mortar fire onto you, and infantry firing machine guns over your head?

The meaning of courage

Assuming you clear a path through the first line of defences and your tanks and infantry charge through. Then you have to do it again at the second line. And if you survive that, again at the third. Who would volunteer for this duty? The men (and presumably women) doing this job have got to be bravest people on the planet. If I were one of them I’d be wanting to take my time too.

The Germans abandoned their offensive at Kursk after a week. Ukraine is still going.


  1. Paul says:

    This comparison is really interesting Will. Thanks. Its interesting (and depressing) to see this grinding, attritional type of conflict, with obvious echoes of earlier wars, happening in 2024. Not clear whats going to end the stalemate. Change at the top in Moscow or Wahington? Washington seems more likely unfortunately. But then Trump said he could ‘fix it on a day’…

    • Will Belford says:

      Hey Paul,
      The notion of Trump fixing anything in a day, let alone a ground war in Europe, is laughable. If his idea of fixing it is to withdraw US support, and Europe fail to step up to fill the gap, then I expect Ukraine will eventually be forced to surrender on some kind of terms, lose a lot of territory, and Russia will find themselves occupying a country full of partisans. If that happens then the remaining nations bordering Russia, whether in NATO or not, will be very nervous. Washington and NATO are intent on staying right out of it, so Putin’s death is probably the only thing that has nay chance of really ending it.

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