On 12 July at 0900 hours, Katukov began the assault on the German forces. The V Guards Tank Corps, commanded by Kravchenko, crashed through the defences of the 332nd Infantry Division, starting a fierce struggle that lasted until late afternoon. The tank corps hit the German infantrymen again and again. Although Kravchenko’s force reached Rakhovo by 1700 hours, it did not have the tank strength to drive the 332nd Infantry Division into the Pena River. Small Soviet formations began clearing away enemy defenders as the 1st Tank Army slowly drove the 3rd Panzer Division back. A rifle brigade pushed the Germans from their outposts near Noven’koe and proceeded towards Verkhopen’e. By 1700 hours, advance forces had travelled 12-15km (7 1/2 to 9 1/4 miles) and reached the western approaches to Verkhopen’e. The arrival of two tank brigades allowed the riflemen to propel the 3rd Panzer Division further back to the outskirts of Verkhopen’e and Berezovka. Despite launching counter-assaults in the late afternoon, the 3rd Panzer Division failed to regain its lost territory. When the fighting ended, the panzer division had fewer than 40 tanks at its disposal and the flank defences of the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps were in danger of collapse.
While the 3rd Panzer Division unsuccessfully struggled against the Soviet advance, the 204th Rifle Division and the 86th Tank Brigade attacked Grossdeutschland Division forces west of Kalinovka. Unable to proceed towards Oboian, the division turned to meet the new threat. Although it probed its front lines, the 11th Panzer Division did not receive orders to advance. The sounds of the battle, which came from the east and the west, grew increasingly louder, but the division remained in place. In the late afternoon, however, the battle came to the 11th Panzer Division, as tank-supported Soviet forces attacked. A heated struggle ensued, but the Soviets failed to pierce the defences of the panzer division. Casualties mounted as the fighting continued. Darkness fell, a thunderstorm hit and the fighting ended for the day. The Soviets had effectively stopped the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’ advance.
On the night 12/13 July, Vatutin, Alexander Vasilevsky and Rotmistrov pondered their next step. By this time, they were aware that US and British forces had landed on Sicily, but it was too soon to ascertain whether or not Hitler would transfer forces from the Eastern Front to the Mediterranean theatre. In addition, the Soviet operation near the Orel salient had begun. The three Soviet commanders admitted, however, that the threat to the Voronezh Front region still existed. Vatutin and Vasilevsky concluded that they had to maintain the pressure on the Germans throughout the front. Vatutin ordered his forces to contain the Germans and to prevent a resumption of the enemy’s drive for Prokhorovka. Because he feared the Germans would renew the attack in the morning, Rotmistrov ordered his forces to strengthen their defences and to replenish their dwindling supplies, including fuel and ammunition.
Manstein, the Army Group South (AGS) commander, wanted to continue the offensive on 13 July. Several factors, including Sicily and Orel, complicated the situation. Although Army Detachment Kempf had made some remarkable gains, in spite of the Soviets’ efforts, Soviet attacks had surprised the 4th Panzer Army and hindered its movement. While the enemy appeared to have limitless reserves, each day the Germans suffered irreplaceable losses in machines and manpower. As General Walter Model had done in the north, Colonel General Hermann Hoth set more moderate objectives for the next day. The orders issued by Manstein and Hoth to Army Detachment Kempf and the 4th Panzer Army -were still not necessarily realistic. The commanders expected the II SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps to surround and eliminate nearby enemy forces.
Heavy rains ushered in 13 July, a new day for fighting. On the II SS Panzer Corps front, the Totenkopf Division’s thrust had created a narrow salient that cut deep into the enemy’s defences. General Paul Hausser ordered the Leibstandarte and Das Reich Divisions to advance to Prokhorovka. According to Hausser’s reasoning, the arrival of the two panzergrenadier divisions in the city’s outskirts would intensify the threat to the Soviet’s flank by the Totenkopf Division. The II SS Panzer Corps commander hoped that would be enough to persuade the Soviets to abandon Prokhorovka. Following the capture of the city, the II SS Panzer Corps could connect with the III Panzer Corps and, as a result, the German advance would regain its lost momentum. Repairs gave the II SS Panzer Corps access to almost 250 tanks and assault guns for the 13 July operation. As Hausser’s force completed its preparations, Manstein received a summons to meet Hitler at the Wolfsscbanze (Wolfs Lair).
Although Vatutin and Rotmistrov decided not to resume the attack on the 1st Tank Army’s front, small units carried out reconnaissance missions beginning at 0730 hours on 13 July. Two concerns drew their attention away from the blood-soaked fields south of the Psel River: the Totenkopf salient north of the river and the resumption of the III Panzer Corps attacks from the south. During the night, the Soviets began harassing actions against the Totenkopf Division. In the morning, Rotmistrov launched a full-scale attack against the II SS Panzer Corps division with the 10th Guards Mechanised and 24th Guards Tank brigades, forcing Hausser to revise his plans.
Hausser ordered the Leibstandarte Division to carry out two attacks: one against the enemies north of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm, the other from Andreevka and Mikhailovka along the Psel River. At 1200 hours, the division commenced both assaults. Vatutin and Rotmistrov had made provisions to counter such actions by the Germans. Withering fire slowed the division’s forward elements. A ridge ran north-west of the state farm. After a short skirmish, a panzer group captured one hill. A solid wall of antitank defences, supported by entrenched tanks, stopped the panzer group in its tracks. A German reconnaissance battalion entered Miknaiiovka, but horrific anti-tank and artillery fire and Soviet counter-blows forced it to retreat. By mid-afternoon, powerful Soviet armoured attacks had now got underway in both areas.
The Leibstandarte Division’s attacks did not breach the Soviet defences and the Totenkopf advance failed. By the afternoon of 13 July, the constant Soviet counter-attacks against the II SS Panzer Corps’ flanks and front forced the Germans units to retreat to the positions they had occupied at the start of the day. The Das Reich Division did not participate in the II SS Panzer Corps struggle. Instead, it reinforced its defences and regrouped its formations. The division prepared its move to link up with the III Panzer Corps for an assault planned for 14 July.
As the battle played out in the Voronezh Front area in the south, Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Central Front forces in the north continued to thwart the 9th German Army’s attempts to break through its defences. After the first days of the campaign, the Central Front forces had engaged the enemy in an attritional battle, which Model’s 9th Army was losing. Each day of battle further weakened the 9th Army and limited its options. By the night 10/11 July, Rokossovsky and Vasilevsky made plans to attack German forces occupying the Orel salient, which was north of the Kursk bulge. The two Soviet commanders chose that day for the counter-attack by the Briansk and Western Front forces because they believed that Model’s army could not resume the offensive on 12 July. The Stavka members – who had previously devised the Orel offensive (named Operation Kutuzov) – revised it as the 2nd Tank and 13th Armies fought to stop the German advance from the north. According to the plan, General Vasily Sokolovsky’s Western Front forces would attack the northern part of the salient, while Briansk Front formations, commanded by General Markian Popov, hit the northern shoulder to the tip of the salient. When the situation in the Central Front sector was right, Rokossovsky’s armies would move against the southern part of the salient.