A competing version of the Tiger that was made by Porsche was not accepted for production, but was converted into an assault gun without a turret, dubbed the Ferdinand or Elephant. By May 12, 1943, ninety of these heavily armored monsters with long L71 88mm guns, compared to the less powerful L56 88mm on the Tiger tank, were ready and organized in two heavy tank hunter battalions. The two battalions (653rd and 654th) were assigned to the 9th Army. Designed to destroy tanks from positions behind the leading edge, the Ferdinand had only one ineffective machine gun for use against the infantry. The lack of a turret-mounted machine gun for all around defense made them vulnerable to infantrymen carrying explosives and short- range antitank rocket launchers. Of the eighty-nine available on July 1, 1943, thirty-nine were lost during the month of July, but most losses came after July 12 when the Kursk offensive had been terminated in the north because of the Soviet offensives against Orel.
The Ferdinand was a defensive weapon that was of limited use in an attack. In attacks, the Ferdinands remained at the rear of the panzer wedge and used their long-range 88mm gun to dispatch Soviet antitank guns before they could fire effectively on the Tigers and Mark IVs. Any Soviet tanks that appeared could be destroyed by the Ferdinands before the guns on the Russian tanks were able to fire on the other German tanks.
Even as Soviet artillery opened its attack in the early morning hours of 5 July, the Soviet Air Force attempted to catch the Luftwaffe’s aircraft on the ground. German radar warned of the approaching enemy aircraft. The Soviet Air Force suffered heavy losses and failed to knock out the Luftwaffe and its bases. Consequently, German aircraft were able to provide the initial ground attacks with the necessary air support.
Before dawn on 5 July, the German summer offensive began. At 0430 hours, after the completion of Central Front’s counter-preparation barrage, the 9th German Army commenced its own artillery bombardment, which lasted for 80 minutes. General Model, the commander of 9th Army, concentrated the artillery fire on the first 4km (2 1/2 miles) of Soviet defensive positions. In coordination with the artillery barrage from the ground, the 1st Air Division dropped bombs on the same positions and on Soviet airfields around Kursk. In an effort to thwart the enemy’s artillery attack, General Pukhov, the commander of 13th Army, ordered the resumption of the counter-preparation, which began at 0435 hours. Despite the weight of fire from 967 Soviet guns and mortars, the Soviets failed to defeat the German artillery preparation and, at 0530 hours, the forward elements of Model’s 9th Army began their advance towards the enemy line. The German ground and air bombardment continued periodically in support until 1100 hours.
In order to limit the vulnerability of his armoured vehicles, Model ordered dismounted infantry to accompany the armoured spearheads. While this tactic did result in a reduction of tank losses, it also caused much higher infantry casualties. Having studied aerial photographs of the Soviet defences, Model tried to devise tactics best suited to bringing success in a frontal assault against an entrenched enemy. For his initial assault, Model concentrated nine infantry divisions and a panzer division, with Tiger tanks and Ferdinand assault guns, into small, but powerful, battalions. The German commander basically planned a battle of attrition. He intended to wear down the defenders by continually committing new units to the fray. According to Model’s plan, six infantry divisions and one panzer division would launch the main assault in a 16km (10 mile) area. Tiger and Ferdinand units would support these divisions while smashing through Soviet defences.
The Germans began the ground attack with a diversion. Situated on the 9th Army’s eastern flank, XXIII Corps, commanded by General Johannes Freissner, launched an infantry assault to distract the Soviets’ attention away from the real point of the German attack. Freissner’s XXIII Corps hit the line between the Soviets’ 13th and 48th Armies in an effort to capture the road junction at Maloarkhangel’sk, which would allow German forces to advance rapidly on Kursk from the north, east and west. Although the XXIII Corps pushed about 1.5km (1 mile) into the line, three Soviet rifle divisions – the 148th and 8th of 13th Army, and the 16th of 48th Army – not only stopped the Germans’ initial attack, but also used counter-attacks to hinder their progress towards Maloarkhangel’sk. Freissner’s corps failed to make a significant penetration of the Soviet defences.
Following XXIII Corps’ diversion, the XXXXVII Panzer and XXXXI Panzer Corps launched the main attack, which met with more success. Supported by air strikes, three panzer and four infantry divisions attacked the defences in the area north-west of Ponyri, which were held by the 15th and 81st Rifle Divisions of the XXIX Rifle Corps. With its 120 tanks and assault guns, the 20th Panzer Division of the XXXXVII Panzer Corps broke through the 15th Rifle Division’s forward defences by 0900 hours on 5 July. Commanded by Major General Mortimer von Kessel, the division succeeded in advancing 5km (3 miles) with the help of intense artillery support, and it captured the village of Bobrik. The 6th Guards Rifle Division of the XVII Guards Rifle Corps stopped the XXXXVII Panzer Corps’ advance at that point.
Other elements of Pukhov’s 13th Army felt the might of the enemy assault. The 676th Rifle Regiment held the right flank of the 15th Rifle Division. Helped by two Tiger tank companies from the 505th Heavy Panzer Detachment, the German 6th Infantry Division smashed through the 676th Rifle Regiment’s defences and threatened to envelop the 81st Rifle Division on its left flank. The 81st Rifle Division’s right flank was also in danger from one of XXXXI Panzer Corps’ formations, the German 292nd Infantry Division, which received support from the 653rcl Anti-Tank Detachment’s Elefants. If the German 6th and 292nd Infantry Divisions continued their rapid movement around the 81st Rifle Division, they would succeed in collapsing its defensive front.
The XXXXI Panzer Corps continued to apply pressure to the defences held by 13th Army. The 86th Infantry Division, with help from a 18th Panzer Division regiment and the 653rd and 654th anti-tank detachments’ Elefants, pushed southwards along the Ponyri railroad line. In an effort to provide much needed support for the endangered 81st Rifle Division, Pukhov committed his 129th Tank Brigade and his 1442nd SU (Self-propelled) Artillery Regiment to the battle. During fierce fighting on 5 July, the XXIX Rifle Corps repelled the German attack on four separate occasions. The fifth assault, however, forced the forward regiments of the corps to withdraw. In order to prevent an exposed flank and a weakened line, the 148th Rifle Division, which protected the area next to the corps, also retreated. As the two forces continued to fight, the German XXXXVI Panzer Corps began its attack in the area west of the main struggle to support XXXXI Panzer Corps. The fighting intensified as German troops attempted to advance further into the Soviet defences. The Soviets gave little ground.
General Rokossovsky sent the 13th Army reinforcements. More than 300 Soviet aircraft bombed and strafed the enemy. In addition, Rokossovsky transferred certain Central Front reserve forces – the 13th and 1st Anti-Tank Brigades, an artillery brigade and the 21st Separate Mortar Brigade – to Pukhov’s control. Situated behind XV Rifle Corps, the 74th Rifle Division, which protected MaloarkhangePsk, moved forward to prevent further German penetration. Pukhov moved up two mobile obstacle detachments, the 27th Guards Tank Regiment from his reserve and most of 13th Army’s combat engineer units, in an effort to halt the German penetration. This same pattern would be repeated frequently throughout the fighting in the northern part of the Kursk salient. Pukhov and Rokossovsky would consistently meet the German advance by throwing an apparently endless stream of armoured, anti-tank, artillery and engineer forces into the battle. The fighting in the north quickly became an attritional conflict, but only one side could sustain the losses and not collapse. The Soviet Union appeared to have a limitless supply of men and equipment; the Germans did not. In order to achieve freedom of movement, the Germans had to break through all layers of the Soviet defence. Model was determined to do so; his opposing commanders – Pukhov and Rokossovsky – were equally resolved to stop him.
Morning turned into afternoon, and German troops inflicted serious damage on the 15th Rifle Division as it retreated to the high ground west of Ponyri. During the withdrawal, the 676th Rifle Regiment found itself surrounded and it had to fight its way out to the 6th Guards Rifle Division in the second line of defences. In addition, the 70th Army’s right flank became exposed, something which the Germans quickly recognised. Picking the -weakest part of the 70th Army’s line, the XXXXVI focused a ground and air attack against the 132nd Rifle Division, which was commanded by Major General T. K. Shkrylev. Heavy losses forced Shkrylev to order his division to retreat in front of the pursuing 7th and 31st Infantry Divisions. Dense minefields and intense anti-tank fire forced an end to the pursuit.
The battle continued to rage and casualties mounted. The intense fighting on the ground was also played out in the air over the battlefield. In the early afternoon, 150 German bombers, protected by at least 50 fighters, arrived and dropped their loads on troop installations, as well as on Soviet forces. Maloarkhangel’sk Station took a severe beating. After the initial attack, waves of German aircraft released their bombs over the front every 15 minutes. By 1100 hours, Soviet defences had received hits from approximately 1000 German sorties. Consequently, the commander of the 16th Soviet Air Army decided to deviate from the original Stavka plan. Soviet fighters launched an air campaign against the attacking enemy aircraft. By noon, however, they had only succeeded in flying 520 sorties against the Germans. Neither this campaign nor the original plan, to which the 16th Air Army returned within a short period, succeeded in disrupting the German air offensive on 5 July, despite the heroic efforts of the Soviet Air Force. In addition, the cost in terms of Soviet aircraft lost was high.
Despite the losses, Model’s forces had breached the first line of defences by the end of the clay on 5 July. The Germans ruptured the connection between the 13th and 70th Armies and opened a gap 15km (9 1/3 miles) wide and approximately 8km (5 miles) deep. The intense fighting resulted in heavy losses in men and equipment for both participants. The Soviets lost almost 100 aircraft over the Central Front alone. Although they claimed to have shot down more than 100 German aircraft, the Soviet air forces could not disrupt the enemy’s close air support. General Model used more than 300 tanks and assault guns to mount his attack against the Central Front. Enemy fire and mechanical failures put approximately two-thirds of them out of commission. Even though the Germans repaired some of them during the night, the losses reduced Model’s total armoured striking power by 20 per cent on the first day. Likewise, the strength of his troops, which was at its peak on 5 July, declined significantly. That was not the case for the Soviet forces. The Germans would face a much stronger opponent than expected when fighting resumed the next day because of the Soviets’ ability to transfer rapidly reinforcements to the front.
Although the Soviets suffered significant losses and setbacks, they were not willing to relinquish large amounts of territory to the Germans as they had in the offensives of the previous two years.