Zitadelle Launched: 5 July, 1943 – Breaking In the Southern Front I

Lieutenant Raimund Rüffer’s previous experience with 78th Assault Division had been in a series of hastily arranged attacks during the winter, which had achieved mixed results. But the 20-year-old found Zitadelle very different.

Ivan bullets zipped around us, I could hear them flying past my ears. I expected to be cut down any moment or blown to smithereens by the shells that slammed about. This was not my first action, but it felt like it. We had been waiting. Oh, what a tortuous wait! As the day arrived our nerves jangled although we tried not to show it. By dawn I was cold, tired and – I don’t mind admitting it – very frightened. We had not seen the enemy since March and in the meantime our bodies and minds had acclimatised to a war of training and fatigue parties. I enjoyed it. The comradeship in our platoon was sublime and, enjoying plentiful rations in the sunshine, it was easy to forget the coming storm.

But as the weeks passed it became increasingly difficult to ignore the inevitable and my thoughts turned increasingly to my parents back in Köln. I was concerned for their safety as Allied raids had been devastating. I had witnessed the destruction during my last home leave and had sobbed as I walked through shattered streets that were barely recognisable. At dinner my mother had tried to engage me in conversation about family matters, but it was clear that she was worried sick about me. She had good reason to be concerned for there were just 10 ‘originals’ drawing breath in my 35 man platoon. She wanted to know about my war – which was understandable – but I grew angry at her questions which reminded me of the inquisitions that she had subjected me to after a day at school. I gave little away and altered the subject. She said that I had changed which made me furious, but my father calmed the situation saying that I was the same as ever, just tired. As a veteran of the trenches he recognised his son’s reticence to talk about his life at the front. I sloped off to the garden and sat smoking – distracted. After a couple of hours my father found me. We sat together for a while and although we did so in silence and without our eyes meeting, a fresh connection had been made. Rising after a few minutes he put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed gently and left me to my thoughts. He understood.

Now, nearly nine months later with 78th Assault Division, I struggled on to the platoon objective, my muscles screaming and uniform drenched with sweat. We worked together without words, a glance was enough, covering the ground as quickly as possible. I heard my old friend Ernest panting seconds before his right arm was torn from his body by an explosion that flung his rifle at my feet. He whimpered as I moved towards him, but was silent by the time that I was at his side. A movement to my right. I twisted to see a camouflaged cover being thrown off a trench.

I instinctively yelled a warning, dropped to one knee and squeezed the trigger of my rifle. The butt kicked and a round was sent hurtling towards a faceless Soviet soldier. In that same instant I was knocked off my feet as though hit by a heavyweight boxer. A Soviet round had struck me in the shoulder, shattering the bone and leaving me gasping for air.

By 0500 hours on the morning of 5 July, despite the Soviet attempt to disrupt the opening of Zitadelle, the Ninth Army was attacking in the north, and the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf in the south. The offensive began with the Germans’ own preliminary bombardment, with the artillery and massed nebelwerfer batteries targeting the trenches and bunkers of the Soviet forward defences. The aim was not so much to destroy Soviet positions and kill the defenders – the 50 minute bombardment was far too short for that – but to dislocate and unbalance the enemy. Model and Manstein wanted to ensure that Soviet guns were neutralized, their command and control was disrupted and the infantry’s heads were tucked firmly below the parapet as their tanks and infantry began to attack. Nevertheless, by the time the bombardment lifted, the artillery had fired more shells than they had during the campaigns in France and Poland combined. ‘At last,’ says heavy gunner Johan Müller, ‘we were taking the initiative. After weeks and months of map work and firing tables, it was good to be in action again. We had plenty of shells to fire and got through them quickly. We were told that our work had been tremendously successful and its accuracy had been remarked upon by headquarters.’ The attacking formations eased themselves forward, covered at first by the ground-based artillery and then by the Luftwaffe in the form of He-111 and Ju-88 medium bombers. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Air Force to destroy the German aircraft on the ground that morning, ground-support missions were being flown in support of the offensive with near impunity.

The Luftwaffe had been alerted to the Soviet threat by the enemy’s early preliminary bombardment, and then by seeing aircraft approaching their airfields on the radar. The 800 aircraft of Luftflotte 4 were spread over several airfields and in the process of being fuelled and loaded with bombs for their first sorties of the day when the sirens began to wail their warnings at 0330 hours. Many of the aircrews were in briefings or at breakfast but they immediately rushed to their machines and took off into the breaking dawn. Oberstleutnant Walter Lehwess-Litzmann, the commander of a German bomber group, recalls:

I had just gathered my commanders to assign them with their last instructions when I received an excited phone call which gave me revised orders. We were to take off immediately, although it was still dark, and attack the Soviet artillery positions.

The sky quickly filled with German aircraft. Over the radio, crews were told about the approach of a massive raid – it actually comprised 132 Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft with a close escort of 285 La-5 and P-39 fighters. The German fighters were to intercept the Soviets, and the aircraft detailed to support the offensive were to start their missions immediately. So began the crucial battle for air superiority on 5 July. Within minutes, Miklós Keyneres, a Hungarian pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109, was locked in combat with Il-2s as German flak burst among the Soviet aircraft. He recalled:

In their great excitement, the flak gunners don’t pay any attention to the close proximity of our own aircraft. But we ignore their fire. We have our eyes only for the four red-starred aircraft . . . The machine [a twin-seat Il-2 with a rear gunner] on the left side peels off from the rest, with me in hot pursuit. The hunt begins. The Russian pushes close to the ground and escapes, hopping over trees. But we remain clung to his tail. On my right hand side, three Germans are pursuing too. One of the Germans dives on it, but fails to bring it down. Now my turn has come. I pull up slightly and, from the far side, I aim ahead of the engine but hold my fire for another moment. The distance is still too great. Then I squeeze both firing buttons. I pull up in an instant to avoid colliding. I skid out to the right. I get on its left side again and from above and behind I shoot at the cockpit. By now the Russian gunner does not return fire. From a close distance I open up with the cannon. The machine shudders and hits the ground with its right wing tip. It slides along a creek, violently burning.

German anti-aircraft defences caused the incoming Soviets considerable problems, as Nikolay Gapeyonok, the pilot of a Pe-2 dive bomber, remembers, when they attacked an airfield west of Belgorod: ‘We ran into a heavy AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] barrage, which disrupted our bombing. Two Pe-2s exploded in mid-air as a result of direct hits, and a third bomber was damaged.’ It was a similar situation in the north where Senior Lieutenant T. Simutenkov, flying an Il-2, ran into a curtain of fire:

As we approached our target I could see the anti-aircraft fire ripping through the sky. I held my course and could just make out some enemy aircraft taking off. This was a shock as we were convinced that we would achieve surprise and record a major success, but before I had a chance to make my attack my aircraft was hit in the fuselage and then the right wing. Smoke began to seep into the cockpit and I struggled to remain in control . . . I feared that the engine would burst into flames but it did not, but it stuttered and lost power. I instinctively swung the aircraft south and within seconds was making a forced landing somewhere within our lines . . . It was still dark and I hit the ground with a fearsome crash which ripped the undercarriage off. But the aircraft skidded to a halt in a field and I was able to push back the cockpit and walk away shaken, but unharmed.

The Soviets had hoped to catch the Luftwaffe cold but instead took considerable losses in an air battle that developed into one of the greatest of the war. The Germans gained air superiority that morning and destroyed 176 enemy aircraft for, perhaps, as few as just 26 machines of their own fleet. Rather than removing a crucial element of the Wehrmacht’s offensive ability, Stalin’s airforce had provided the Germans with the opportunity to weaken the Red Army’s defences. This meant that the Luftwaffe was able to fly nearly 4,500 sorties in support of the ground forces on 5 July, and despite flying 3,385 sorties of their own, the Soviets could not breach the German fighter screen in any numbers. A Moscow-sponsored report into the situation commented later in the year: ‘Our aviation fought air battles primarily against enemy fighters along the approaches to the battlefield, while enemy bombers were operating almost continually against our defending forces immediately over the battlefield along the main axis.’

As the fight for the sky unfolded, Hitler’s army began what was to become its own titanic attempt to crack the Red Army’s defences. In the south, XLVIII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps threw themselves at the 6th Guards Army at the junction of the 22nd and 23rd Rifle Corps. Hoth expected the first two lines of Soviet defences – held by the 67th and 52nd Guards Rifles Divisions – to be broken that day, and by the end of the next day to have broken through the third line and advanced half the distance to Kursk. The Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division was the main attacking force, supported on its flanks by the 3rd and 11th Panzer Divisions. The Grossdeutschland’s 384 tanks included the usual Panzer IIIs and IVs, but also a heavy company of 15 Tigers and 200 Panthers.

However, these new medium tanks had only just arrived at the front – Battalion 52 on 30 June and Battalion 51 on 1 July – and had had very little opportunity to orientate themselves and conduct the reconnaissance that they required. In line with Guderian’s warning that the tanks were mechanically unreliable, two Panthers were lost to engine fires at the railhead and another six before they crossed the front line. To make matters worse, the two battalions not only lacked combat experience but had conducted just platoon-level battle training and had received no instruction in battalion level radio procedure. The situation led driver Gerd Küster of Battalion 51 to recall:

We arrived for the battle with just hours to spare. We were extremely tired and had to spend all the time available to us arming and servicing our Panther. We had received our tank just a week before and were still learning about its quirks. We were impressed with what we had learned but nervous as we had spent so little time training in her . . . It is very important for any soldier, but particularly a tank crew, to have faith in their weapons. We knew about the reliability issues – and were very aware that the engine could burst into flames – but what worried us most was a lack of ‘feel’ for the tank. How it would manoeuvre, where it could and couldn’t go and the support that we would receive from the infantry and the air . . . In a sense, arriving at the front so late gave us little time to worry about such things. I spent the night [4–5 July] refuelling, lugging shells and trying to overcome a steering problem . . . We went into battle with weary eyes, splitting headaches and not the faintest clue what the battlefield had in store for us.

Backed by a heavy barrage from the artillery and led by 350 tanks supported by infantry, the Grossdeutschland Division advanced on a two-mile front towards the outpost villages of Gertsovka, Butovo and then Cherkasskoye in the first Soviet line. It was an awe-inspiring sight as the formation rumbled towards their enemy’s defences. A German war correspondent described these as typical of the salient:

The Guards Rifle Division [the 67th] dug in here believed that they were safe in their strong fortifications echeloned in depth. They were aware that swampy hollows and valleys, wide mine belts, wire entanglements, flamethrower barriers and tank ditches were in front of them. They also could see that they were deployed in a labyrinth of trenches and bunkers, anti-tank positions, rifle pits and mortar emplacements. Behind them a network of small strong points and defensive works were spread over the countryside.

Advancing into this web over open ground was the division’s Fusilier Regiment, the bulk of the Panthers and a battalion from the panzer regiment. After an initial burst, the attack faltered when 36 Panthers plunged into a minefield. A series of explosions broke a number of tracks, which immediately halted the beasts and rendered them vulnerable to a wall of Soviet anti-tank and artillery fire. What little momentum the division had gained was taken from it as the battlefield was deluged with exploding shells and shrouded in a dense haze. The scene was observed by an officer in the division’s artillery:

Everything is shrouded in dust and smoke. The enemy observation posts certainly can’t see anything. Our barrage is now over . . . it has wandered from the forward trenches farther to the rear. Are the infantry there? We can see some movement, but nothing specific . . . General depression! My high spirits are gone.

The mines needed to be removed and the tank tracks repaired before the advance could continue. Paul Carell, the pseudonym of SS Obersturmbannführer Paul Schmidt, wrote of the mine clearers in his vivid history, Scorched Earth:

The job needed a steady hand and calm nerves. Each anti-tank mine, when the earth had been cleared away around it, had to be lifted carefully just a little way because many of them were additionally secured against lifting by being anchored to a peg by a short length of wire. Yard by yard the parties crept forward – probing, clearing the mines with their hands, lifting them carefully, removing the detonators, and putting the death-traps aside. Down among the engineers crashed Soviet mortar shells. Over their heads screamed the deafening 8.8cm shells of their own Tigers.

The Germans had been trying to remove mines under cover of darkness throughout June. Henri Schnabel was section commander of a hastily trained team that had been specially formed for Zitadelle and sent to the southern salient at the end of May:

The task was time-consuming and without end. The Soviets had sown thousands upon thousands of mines and we could never remove all of them and those that we removed were replaced. We worked at night up to the day of the attack. It was dangerous work because the Soviet mines were unreliable. Many of the mines we found were duds, but some were so poorly made that the slightest movement set them off . . . My team was set to work under heavy fire on the morning of 5th July. We were working with detectors under shell and machine gun fire with the tanks covering us the best that they could. A colleague lifted a mine . . . and it exploded killing him, and sent dirty fragments into my left leg as I worked beside him. I was attended to by a daring medic and continued my work . . . It was understood that each man would continue in his task until he was physically incapable of doing so.

Such was the density of the minefield that clearing it took several hours. The infantry, meanwhile, tried to advance across it, keen to get to grips with the enemy who was delighting in causing the men of Grossdeutschland such distress. Their casualties were heavy and included the Fusiliers’ commander, Colonel Kassnitz, who was leading the attack on the division’s left. Those tanks and troops that could be pulled back to the start line were quickly withdrawn. For Lieutenant-General Walter Hoernlein, the Grossdeutschland’s frantic commander, the situation was intolerable and yet he was powerless to do anything but look on and allow his subordinates to do their jobs. As one of his staff officers, Hauptmann Gunar Francks, has testified:

We understood that this attack was going to be unlike our previous successes in France and Russia back in 1941 when we had moved far and fast. We had made many representations to Corps and Army that the defences were likely to sap our power, that for an armoured bludgeon to work it needs to be swung – it needs a run at the defences – but we were told that we had to make the best of the situation. I do not believe, however, that our superiors believed that the attack would be anything other than a bloody struggle.

Had the Red Air Force enjoyed air supremacy as expected, the carnage would very likely have been much worse. As it was, most Soviet aircraft seeking to target the German advance either failed to break through the Luftwaffe’s fighter cordon or were prevented from conducting sustained attacks. Thus, although XLVIII Panzer Corps reported that morning: ‘The entire corps sector is under heavy attack by Soviet Il-2 ground-attack planes and bombers’, this was only relative to what it was used to facing. Moreover, many more enemy aircraft were repelled than managed to break through and those that caused initial concerns were swiftly chased away by the arrival of Bf-109s.