After Citadel Part I

Despite limited success in the south, Citadel had clearly failed to achieve its objectives. With the Red Army launching its own attack in the north, and the Allies landing in Sicily, Hitler had to decide the offensive’s fate. As 12 July drew to a close, a tense situation existed throughout the front lines of the Kursk salient. It had been a day of thrusts and counter-attacks, a day of air and tank battles, a day of heavy casualties. It had been a day in which the 4th German Panzer Army had tried to break through the enemy’s defences and reach Kursk, but it had also been a day in which the Soviet forces had fiercely fought to prevent this happening. The Soviets launched major counter-attacks beginning on 12 July, and continued for the next few days. The tide had begun to turn. Despite heavy losses, Soviet forces would hit the Germans again and again and again. When 13 July dawned, it would bring a new day of fighting; more importantly, however, it would bring decisions that would have major consequences for the Germans and the Soviets.

Soviet and Germans troops clashed in both the northern and southern parts of the bulge. The fighting occurred in two different areas in the Voronezh Front’s sector. The XXXXVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps of the 4th Panzer Army struggled against the 5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank Armies in an effort to reach Prokhorovka from the south-west, -while Army Detachment Kempf s III Panzer Corps took on the 7th Guards and 69th Armies. On 11 July, the three divisions of the III Panzer Corps continued their march north. Because the Soviets were retreating, the 19th Panzer Division made good progress, advanced 15km (9 1/4 miles) along the Northern Donetz River. Further to the east, the 6th Panzer Division broke through the Soviet line and forced the 305th Guards Rifle and the 92nd Guards Rifle Divisions to withdraw 15km (9 1/4 miles) to Rzhavets. The 7th Panzer Division burst through the Soviet defences at Schliachovo, as it struggled to proceed northwards while protecting the 6th Panzer Division’s right flank. The III Panzer Corps’ advance stopped for the day with the 6th Panzer Division establishing the point position and the other two divisions providing flank protection. General Werner Kempf ordered the corps to prepare for a renewal of the advance towards Prokhorovka on 12 July.

During the first several days of the campaign. Army Detachment Kempf had inflicted heavy damages on the 69th Soviet Army as it moved north towards Prokhorovka. By 11 July, General V. D. Kriuchenkin, the 69th Army commander, was fighting a delaying action. Whenever possible, he withdrew weakened formations from the front line and deployed them in rear positions, where they constructed new defences. The Soviets’ elaborate system of defences had slowed the III Panzer Corps’ advance, but it had not stopped it. Because of his army’s distressing losses, Kriuchenkin feared that the 69th Army -would be unable to stop the German panzer corps when it resumed the fight on 12 July. During the evening, Kriuchenkin requested reinforcements from Nikolai Vatutin. The Voronezh Front commander contemplated his options and reported the situation to Stalin. At 0400 hours, Vatutin called General Pavel Rotmistrov, the commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, with distressing news about the situation to the south. The Army Detachment Kempf’s forward thrust had pierced the defences. The Germans’ advance units, which had already reached Rzhavets on the Northern Donetz River, were approximately 20km (12 1/2 miles) from Prokhorovka. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to transfer his reserve to the south immediately. The tank commander contacted General K. G. Trufanov and ordered him to proceed south with the reserve quickly. Once there, Trufanov had instructions to place the reserve in the path of the advancing German divisions.

Concerned about the III German Panzer Corps, Vatutin decided to plan an assault that would distract the enemy corps and prevent the continuation of its march on Prokhorovka. On the night 11/12 July, Vatutin issued new orders to General M. S. Shumilov, the commander of the 7th Guards Army. The next day, the 49th Rifle Corps would attack the right flank of Army Detachment Kempf in the region east of Razumnoe. If the assault went as planned, the III Panzer Corps would have to turn away from Prokhorovka and protect itself from being cut off from the rest of Army Detachment Kempf. On the morning of 12 July, as the III Panzer Corps resumed its movement, Kempf and the corps commander, General Hermann Breith, had one goal in mind: Prokhorovka. The III Panzer Corps commander issued instructions to his subordinates the night before. Breith ordered the forward 6th Panzer Division formations, with support from the 503rd Panzer Detachment Tiger tanks, to advance to the north quickly. He also identified their objectives: Rzhavets and key Northern Donetz River crossings. Breith ordered the 19th Panzer Division to advance along the river’s southern bank, to capture Krivtsevo and to connect with the 6th Panzer Division at Rzhavets during the night. Early the next morning, the 19th Panzers would help the 6th Panzer Division cross the river. Under cover of darkness, as the Soviet forces regrouped, Breith personally led the German column to Rzhavets. The Germans caught the 92nd Guards Rifle Division and the 96th Tank Brigade as they were regrouping. After a brief scuffle, the Soviet formations continued their move to the east. Elements of the reserve 375th Rifle Division remained behind to stop the enemy column. First Kriuchenkin, then Vatutin, received a desperate call for help.

Despite the daring rush to Rzhavets during the night, Prokhorovka was still 15km (9 1/4 miles) beyond the III Panzer Corps’ grasp by the end of the clay. Rzhavets was only one of the 6th Panzer Division’s goals for 12 July. The bulk of the division moved farther east to assault the high ground near Aleksandrovka, an area that the Soviets fiercely defended. The Soviet resistance at Aleksandrovka forced the 6th Panzer Division to abandon its drive towards Prokhorovka and go instead to the town. The 19th Panzer Division remained in the bridgehead, but did not continue the move north. By late afternoon, Rotmistrov’s reserves arrived and joined the battle against the 6th Panzer Division. The quick action taken by Vatutin and Rotmistrov prevented the III Panzer Corps from proceeding towards Prokhorovka on 12 July. Although Army Detachment Kempf could not resume the march to Prokhorovka that day, General Kempf took action during the evening to regain his forces’ lost momentum. Kempf assigned the 6th Panzer Division the task of eliminating the Soviet presence from the Aleksandrovka area on 13 July. He ordered the 7th Panzer Division to join the 19th Panzer Division in the bridgehead. The Army Detachment Kempf commander’s consolidation of his forces would reap certain benefits, but not enough to bring a successful conclusion to Operation Citadel.

Even as the 69th Army struggled to contain the III Panzer Corps, Vatutin had other problems in the Voronezh Front sector. Of particular concern was the 4th Panzer Army’s left flank, where Lieutenant General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XXXXVIII Panzer Corps was preparing to cross the Psel River and support the II SS Panzer Corps’ drive to Oboian. Recognising the danger, Vatutin planned to pre-empt Knobelsdorff s thrust.

On 11 July, the 11th Panzer Division had slowly driven north, pushing through strong Soviet resistance; by the end of the day, it had consolidated its position south of Oboian and begun preparations for the next day. The 3rd Panzer Division had knocked the VI Soviet Tank Corps out of the battle as it moved against Berezovka. The XXXXVIII Panzer Corps had made slow but steady progress against the Soviet defenders and threatened both Oboian and Prokhorovka. The night 11/12 July was a busy one for both Vatutin and Knobelsdorff as they completed plans for the next clay.

Knobelsdorff finalised plans for the push north by the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, which would coincide with the thrust towards Prokhorovka by II SS Panzer Corps. The Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division amassed its forces along the Oboian road, as well as west of it. The 3rd Panzer Division assumed control over the defence of the area between Berezovka and Verkhopen’e. While the 332nd Infantry Division established a position north of the Pena River near Rakovo, the 255th Division moved north towards Mikhailovka. As Knobelsdorff consolidated his forces for the attack, he weakened the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’ flank protection. Vatutin planned a counter-blow designed to surround and eliminate the enemy forces threatening Oboian and Prokhorovka. To implement his plan for 12 July, the Voronezh Front commander ordered reinforcements to the 1st Tank and 6th Guards Armies’ sectors. He instructed the commanders, General M. E. Katukov and General I. M. Chistiakov, to regroup their forces and prepare to attack.

Early on 12 July, Katukov completed the assembly of the 1st Tank Army forces for the scheduled attack. The X Tank Corps, supported by the 219th Rifle Division, waited near Noven’koe for daybreak, at which time it could begin its move towards the 3rd Panzer Division at Berezovka and Syrtsevo. General Kravchenko had orders for the V Guards Tank Corps to advance with the 184th Rifle Division to the 3rd Panzer Division’s position near Shepelovka. Positioned behind the V Guards Tank Corps, Getman deployed the XV Tank Corps, which had fewer than 50 tanks, behind the V Guards Tank Corps. Vatutin ordered the 6th Guards Army – the XXIII Rifle Corps, the III Mechanised Corps and the XXXI Tank Corps – to defend the eastern area along the Oboian road. Chistiakov’s army would only participate in the counter-attack if the Germans began to retreat. Zhadov received the same attack instructions for the 5th Guards Army.

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