The 11th Guards Army and the 50th Army would attack from the north. The I Tank Corps and V Tank Corps would provide additional tank support. The force had the combined strength of more than 200,000 men, almost 750 tanks and self-propelled guns, and approximately 4300 mortars and guns. According to the plan, the Western Front forces would move south and cut the Briansk-Orel railway line near Karachev. Sokolovsky’s armies would then surround and eliminate enemy forces between Orel and Briansk, before proceeding south and east. The 11th Guards Army, commanded by General Ivan Bagramian, would lead the attack. Two armies – the 11th Tank Army and the 4th Tank Army – remained in reserve. They would support Bagramian’s advance as needed. The 4th Tank Army held 652 tanks and self-propelled guns in reserve. General Popov had orders to launch a two-pronged attack from the east. The 3rd and 63rd Armies, commanded by Generals A. V. Gorbatov and V. I. Kolpakchi would lead the main assault against the tip of the salient before heading to Orel. The armies would bring 170,000 men and more than 350 tanks and self-propelled guns to the battle. The I Guards Tank Corps and the XXV Rifle Corps would provide support. The 6lst Army, supported by the XX Separate Tank Corps, would initiate a secondary attack against the Germans situated east of Bolkhov. Prepared to exploit the main thrust from Novosil to Orel, the 3rd Guards Tank Army, under General Pavel Rybalko, with more than 700 tanks and self-propelled guns, would remain in reserve. Eventually, more than 433,000 men would participate in the Orel battle on the Briansk Front.
The 2nd Panzer Army, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt, had the responsibility of defending the Orel bulge. Fourteen infantry divisions of the LV Army Corps, LIII Army Corps and XXXV Army Corps manned the main defensive lines, while the 5th Panzer Division remained in reserve. Schmidt’s failure to keep his opinions regarding the Nazi regime quiet cost him his job shortly before the Soviet offensive began. After the Gestapo arrested General Schmidt on 10 July, Hitler gave command of the 2nd Panzer Army to General Model. The German Army High Command (OKH) had few reserves that it could commit to the salient. The activity to the south had commanded most of its attention.
At 0330 hours on 12 July, a furious Soviet artillery barrage began, and lasted almost three hours. The bombardment had a devastating effect on the tactical defences of the 2nd Panzer Army. The forward rifle and tanks formations moved into position during the last 10 minutes of the artillery assault. At 0605 hours, the front exploded as all of the first echelon forces from both the Western and Briansk fronts opened fire, creating a deafening noise. Through the rising smoke, the Soviets charged the German defenders. Six guards rifle divisions of Bagramian’s 11th Guards Army hit the German defences between the 211th Infantry Division and 293rd Infantry Division and burst through the line. By the afternoon, Bagramian had widened the hole in the German positions with a second line of rifle divisions. He ordered the I and V Tank Corps to move through the gap and advance to the south. Late in the day, the 5th German Panzer Division launched a series of counter-blows and slowed the advancing enemy. Bagramian countered by committing the V Tank Corps to the fray. Commanded by General Sakhno, the V Tank Corps pushed forward 10km (6 1/2 miles) and reached the Germans’ second line of defences by nightfall. Another counter-blow by the 5th Panzer Division prevented further advance on 12 July.
While Bagramian’s 11th Guards Army thrust its way through the German defences, the 6lst, 3rd, and 63rd Armies attacked the point of the salient. The advance by the Briansk Front forces did not go well, as Popov had failed to mask the build-up of his armies near the front lines. The XXXV German Army Corps commander, General Lothar Rendulic, discovered the concentration of 3rd and 63rd Army forces opposite the area where the defences of the 56th and 262nd Infantry Divisions met. Rendulic correctly deduced that the Soviet armies intended to attack where they believed the line was weakest. The German general used radio intercepts and aerial reconnaissance to remain apprised of the enemy’s movements and made his own preparations. Rendulic’s force included 24 infantry battalions, 42 artillery battalions and 48 heavy anti-tank guns. He committed 6 infantry and 18 artillery battalions, as well as half of his guns, to the narrow junction between the 56th Infantry Division and 262nd Infantry Division. As a result of the general’s preparations, the 3rd and 63rd Soviet Armies failed to achieve a rapid breakthrough of the German defensive line. Rendulic succeeded in disrupting the Soviet advance and in forcing Stavka to commit its operational armoured force early than it had intended. Although not totally surprised by Operation Kutuzov, German forces still failed, to prevent Bagramian’s 11th Guards Army from achieving a penetration deep into their defences.
As the day ended and he examined the situation along the Orel salient, Model knew that the next day would bring new attacks. Rendulic had successfully thwarted the Soviets, but Model did not know how long the general’s forces could hold the 3rd and 63rd Armies. While Model contemplated his options, Bagramian and Popov prepared to resume the attack in the morning. As the Germans and the Soviets struggled around Orel on 13 July, Manstein and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, the commanders of Army Group South (AGS) and Army Group Centre
(AGC), respectively, arrived at the Wolfsschanze to meet with Adolf Hitler. The result of the meeting would have important consequences. The Führer informed the two army group commanders that he had decided to cancel Operation Citadel and provided his reasons for doing so. First, there was the situation at the Orel salient. It appeared likely that the Soviets would soon overrun the German defenders there, Secondly, the concentration of Soviet troops posed a threat to the 1st Panzer and 6th Armies, which were protecting the Donetz basin and the area south of Kharkov. Thirdly, the cost of Operation Citadel was too high. Between 5 and 12 July, the 9th Army had suffered 20,000 casualties. The Soviet attacks north and east of Orel were forcing Model and Kluge to commit an increasing number of exhausted and understrength infantry and armoured forces to the struggle. Finally, there was Sicily. As the Italian Army was proving ineffective against the Allies’ advance, it was up to Germany to supply troops for the defence of Italy. In addition, the possibility of an Allied threat to the Balkans required the presence of more German troops in the region. In order to meet these dangers, Hitler argued that he would have to transfer forces from the Eastern to the Mediterranean and Balkan fronts.
Ironically, during the discussion that followed, the opinions of Kluge and Manstein both reflected a change from their original approaches to Operation Citadel. Kluge had been one of the offensive’s strongest proponents, but the situation on the AGC front had caused him to re-evaluate the feasibility of continuing the fight. Kluge had to consider two very important factors. First, the 9th Army had failed to accomplish the goals set out in the Citadel plan. The likelihood of the 9th Army succeeding in the near future was virtually non-existent. Secondly, while the Soviet offensive had thus far been moderately successful, it had the potential of developing into a nightmare for the Germans. Consequently, Kluge found himself agreeing with the Führer that the best possible course would be the abandonment of the Citadel offensive. Its continuation could very well result in the loss of the AGC and possibly the entire field army. Although he had not been as vocal as Model or General Heinz Guderian, Manstein had initially been an opponent of the German offensive. Now, however, he argued that a continuation of Operation Citadel could bring victory. According to Manstein, the Army Group South forces had already defeated Soviet forces south of Kursk. A breakthrough to Kursk remained possible; therefore, he intended to use his operational reserve – the XXIV Panzer Corps – to renew the assault against the enemy, who was about to crack. In preparation for a new attack, Manstein had deployed the XXIV Panzer Corps to the region around Kharkov. When Manstein suggested that the 9th Army resume the offensive, Kluge argued that the army could not comply. In fact, he stated that the current situation on the 9th Army front dictated a retreat within the next few days.