Although they reflected the opinions of General Hoth and General Kempf, Manstein’s arguments fell on deaf ears. Hitler believed that the time had come to end Operation Citadel, but he did make certain concessions. The Führer agreed to a continuation of the AGS offensive for a few days. During that time, he expected AGS forces to eliminate the enemy’s operational reserves and, as a result, his ability to launch a summer counter-offensive. Hitler issued new orders to Model, who was now the commander of the 2nd Panzer Army, as well as of the 9th Army. Not only did Model’s forces have to stop the Soviet offensive, but they also had to return the front line to its original position. On 17 July, Hitler issued orders that signalled the end of Operation Citadel, even though the fighting continued for a while longer. Hitler instructed Manstein and Hoth to remove the II SS Panzer Corps from the front lines and prepare it for transfer to the West. Orders for the transfer of several Army Group South divisions to the Army Group Centre area followed.
The fighting on the Eastern Front did not cease while Hitler met with Manstein and Kluge. On 13 July, the struggle along the Orel salient broke out again. In the Western Front’s sector, Bagramian’s 11th Guards Army attacked in conjunction with the 50th Army, which was commanded by General I. V. Boldin. By mid-afternoon, Butkov’s I Tank Corps, followed by the 1st Guards Rifle Division, moved through the hole in the German defences that had been created by the 11th Guards Army the day before. At first, the I Tank Corps had difficulty moving forwards, but a short time later the I Tank Corps and V Tank Corps burst through the Germans’ second line of defences. Once through the line, the pace of the two tank corps increased. By the end of the day, the Soviets had created a wedge in the German position that was 15km (9 1/4 miles) deep and 23km (14 1/2 miles) wide. Although the 5th Panzer Division contested the Soviet advance, it could not stop it. Without fresh reinforcements, the northern flank’s collapse was imminent. That night Model sent three panzer divisions – the 12th, 18th and 20th – to bolster the German defences.
Popov’s Briansk Front forces failed to make dramatic advances against the tip of the Orel salient due to Rendulic’s XXXV Army Corps’ defences. The day before, when the 3rd and 63rd Armies attacked the junction between the 56th Infantry Division and 262nd Infantry Division, the column did not progress as planned; KV-1 heavy tanks without infantry support advanced into a minefield. The Germans then shelled the exposed enemy tanks with anti-tank guns. When fighting ceased on 12 July, the Soviets had lost 60 tanks and only breached the first line of Rendulic’s defences.
However, fighting resumed the next day, and A. V. Gorbatov and V. I. Kolpakchi, the 3rd Army and 63rd Army commanders, threw their follow-up rifle divisions into the narrow breach. By midday, General Pankov received orders to send the 207 tanks of his I Guards Tank Corps through the gap. Throughout the day, casualties mounted, but the 3rd and 63rd Armies made little progress. Model sent some reinforcements to Rendulic, and during the night 13/14 July, Rendulic received two panzer divisions from the OKH reserve: the 2nd and the 8th Panzer Divisions. They met the I Guards Tank Corps when it renewed the attack on 14 July, and stopped the Soviet corps from making a major penetration forward into the German line.
As a result of the limited movement made by the 3rd and 63rd Armies, Popov repeatedly appealed to Stavka for control of the 3rd Guards Tank Army. Commanded by General Pavel Rybalko and possessing more than 700 tanks and self-propelled guns, this reserve force was situated behind the front. Late on 13 July, Popov received control of the powerful tank army, but Luftwaffe activity restricted its movement to forced marches at night. After two nights, Rybalko’s exhausted force was in position near the eastern end of the salient, but by that time, the opportunity for a breakthrough by the 3rd and 63rd Armies had passed and, giving in to Stavka’s pressure, Popov re-routed 3rd Guards Tank Army’s attack. Instead of attacking Orel from the north and west, Rybalko’s tank army was to come from the south-west.
Rybalko analysed the situation before issuing new orders to the 3rd Guards Tank Army. A man of action, he decided that an attempt to take advantage of the 3rd and 63rd Armies’ assaults on the German defences would take too long: Rendulic’s forces were firmly entrenched. He therefore decided to punch a new hole in the enemy’s line with his powerful armoured force. More than 470 of the army’s tanks were T-34s; the self-propelled guns numbered 32. However, he had neither the artillery nor the engineers necessary for a frontal assault. In addition, two fresh panzer divisions, almost two full infantry divisions, and several Tigers and Ferdinands were defending the German line. However, determined as he was to achieve a breakthrough, Popov agreed to Rybalko’s plan.
On the morning of 19 July, a Soviet long-range bomber group prepared a path for the 3rd Guards Tank Army’s advance. Supported by the bombers and artillery, the XII and XV Tank Corps burst out of their positions at 1030 hours. Once over the Oleshen River, the two corps pushed against the enemy defenders. The Germans tried to stop them with air and tank attacks and although this resistance slowed the Soviet advance, the corps had travelled 12km
(7 1/2 miles) into the German position by the end of the day. For five days, Rybalko’s army manoeuvred in and around the German defences, changing direction whenever they received new orders from Popov. By 25 July, the 3rd Guards Tank Army cut the Orel-Kursk railway line. Despite repeated efforts, Rybalko failed to find a -weak spot in the German defences, and the ensuing battle of attrition took its toll on the Soviet attackers and German defenders.
While the Germans in the Orel salient struggled against attacks from the north and east, a new threat came from the south. According to Hitler’s orders of 13 July, Model’s goals in the Orel bulge were to stop the Soviet advances, and restore the front to its previous position. As the general discovered, he could not achieve either. Moreover, on 15 July, forces from Rokossovsky’s Central Front attacked the southern part of the salient and, although they made little progress in this area, forced Model to shift his forces in an attempt to contest another offensive. For a week, the Soviets exerted pressure in the area while the Germans desperately defended it. On 16 July, in an effort to prevent the collapse of the salient’s defences, Model prepared for a new line of defences that would permit a slight retreat. On 20 July, Hitler sent him an order forbidding this. Model contacted Kluge, who persuaded the Führer to reconsider. The next day, the 11th Army joined the 50th Guards Army and 11th Guards Army’s attack against the northern shoulder of the Orel salient. On 22 July, Hitler approved an ‘elastic defence’, which allowed Model to begin to withdraw the 2nd Panzer Army. Hitler was now willing to accept limited -withdrawals on the Eastern Front. His decision signalled the beginning of Germany’s retreat westwards.