Nevertheless, Grossdeutschland endured a difficult morning, and the Wehrmacht was forced to confront a reality that they had not expected. The formation’s official history – disparaging of the Zitadelle plan, although understandably fulsome in its praise for the troops – admits:
It was enough to make one sick. Soldiers and officers alike feared that the entire affair was going to pot. The tanks were stuck fast, some bogged down to the tops of their tracks, and to make matters worse the enemy was firing at them with antitank rifles, antitank guns, and artillery. Tremendous confusion breaks out. The Fusiliers advance without the tanks – what can they do? . . . [and] walked straight into ruin. Even the heavy company suffered 50 killed and wounded in a few hours. Pioneers were moved up immediately and they began clearing a path through the mine-infested terrain. Ten more hours had to pass before the first tanks and self-propelled guns got through.
On the release of his division from the minefield’s clutches, and desperate to regain impetus, Hoernlein ordered the Fusiliers and tanks forward to restart the attack on eastern Gertsovka. This time his force was halted below the village by the marshy ground surrounding the swollen Berezovyy stream. Sensing another opportunity, the Soviet airforce endeavoured to put pressure on XLVIII Panzer Corps, leading its commander, Otto von Knobelsdorff, to report to Manstein:
Soviet air forces repeatedly attack the large concentrations of tanks and infantry near the crossings at Berezovyy. There are heavy losses, especially among the officers. Grossdeutschland’s Command Post received a direct hit, killing the adjutant of the grenadier regiment and two other officers.
As the stricken armour awaited rescue by recovery vehicles, the Grenadier Regiment on the division’s right advanced more successfully towards Butovo. Leading the way were Tigers, which were employed in a classic arrow formation (Keil ), with lighter Panzer IIIs, IVs and assault guns fanning out to the rear. They were followed by the infantry and engineers. These would support the armour by attacking anti-tank teams, destroying obstacles and clearing Soviet trenches. Near Cherkasskoe, Ukrainian machine-gunner Mykhailo Petrik waited in a bunker that he had constructed out of earth, wood and some metal sheeting:
Now was the moment that we had been waiting for. The Germans came. First, their shells and then their armour and infantry. Tanks and men across the front. With the noise of the shells exploding the sound of the attack was muffled. A fellow standing next to me looked over with a blank face, said something that I could not hear, and then looked back out over the parapet . . . We were nervous in our trench but readied ourselves. Ammunition and grenades at our elbow. We did not expect to survive and now we knew death was arriving and I could not catch my breath.
Striking the first blow and blazing a trail that others would follow placed a great deal of responsibility on the tank crews. Many panzer commanders preferred to use hand signals between themselves in battle to communicate, but on this occasion the dust and smoke obscured vision to such an extent that they had to rely on radios. Commanders listened to unit instructions and gave clipped orders to their own crews over the intercom. Each member of the team was addressed by his job title for clarity and was expected to remain silent unless he had something of importance to say. There was no time for distracting chit-chat in battle. The formation remained concentrated until the enemy was sighted, and then widened out but kept its shape. The commanders scanned the ground for threats. Dug-in armour was difficult to spot, and the low profile of anti-tank guns made them particularly tricky to pick up if covered by camouflage. Working in a minimum of pairs, and often in clutches of four or five, anti-tank guns could be devastating to most tanks at close range. The Tigers were well protected and had the critical role of winkling out and destroying these potentially destructive weapons. It was such a difficult job that, according to experienced tank commanders, the elimination of an antitank gun ‘counted twice as much’ as a tank kill.
Attacking ground troops would request an air strike while they were still a safe distance from the enemy. The request was radioed to a control centre by Luftwaffe liaison officers in the front line. It was an excellent system, for as Major-General Hans Seidemann, the commander of Fliegerkorps VIII, has testified:
Providing quick and effective ground support necessitated smoothly functioning communications between the attacking armies, corps, and divisions and the headquarters at Fliegerkorps VIII. The Luftwaffe had maintained a corps of liaison officers since the beginning of the war, composed of men who had strong experience in ground support operations. As usual during this offensive, we attached these teams directly to Army Group South’s corps and division headquarters, and they accompanied their units directly onto the field of battle. There the Luftwaffe officers also acted as dive-bomber and fighter guides, using their radios to direct approaching formations to their targets indicated by the ground commanders, correct their fire, and provide updates on the current tactical air situation in the local area.
These arrangements were far better than the Soviet system, which depended on air-support signals being sent to an officer at a remote headquarters, where he had little understanding of the developing battle and could not assist the accuracy of any subsequent strikes. Thus while the Soviet airforce maintained its reputation for launching attacks on its own troops, waves of Stukas were expertly rolled on to their targets. They circled for around 20 minutes as each aircraft individually dived at 370 miles per hour at an angle of between 60 and 90 degrees and released its 550lb fuselage bomb and two wing-mounted 110lb bombs at around 1,500 feet. As one wave finished its work, another would arrive to replace it, and so it continued until the enemy had been neutralized or destroyed. Such attacks aided the advance of the tanks and grenadiers on the right of Grossdeutschland, which swept through Butovo in cooperation with Major-General Mickl’s 11th Panzer Division and by the early afternoon was threatening Cherkasskoe. Chistyakov had reinforced the village that morning as soon as the Germans had shown their hand. His troops now engaged the approaching tanks and infantry with venom and the confrontation was brutal. Mykhailo Petrik fought for his life, his machine gun ripping through ammunition at an enormous rate, but his battle came to a sudden end:
We had the enemy pinned down, but there was little cover and they tried to attack. Every time they moved, we shot them. A small pile of casualties grew. But then we saw that they had a mortar and before I could open fire, we had been hit. That mortar round knocked me unconscious and, in so doing, saved my life. When I came to that evening my partner was dead and I was covered in blood from a bad head wound. I was a mess. Deaf, confused and unable to stand. Despite this I can still recall the mixture of damp earth, cordite and blood which filled my nostrils as I assessed my situation. Clearly the Germans had passed by thinking us both dead . . . That evening, having gathered myself, I headed north through the German lines and into the arms of comrades where I was patched up, given a rifle and sent to a trench. I did not last long. It was only hours later that I collapsed again. A shard of metal had, unknown to me, entered my neck from the mortar. My battle was over.
Cherkasskoe fell that afternoon. Swiftly redeployed Fusiliers and Panthers from Grossdeutschland’s stalled attack advanced along with a detachment of Flammpanzer IIIs (flame-thrower tanks). Their blazing fuel oil suppressed the Soviet defences to allow combat engineers and the infantry to break in and mop up. Under intense pressure, the defenders buckled and the survivors fell back to the second line under covering fire, a 15 man rearguard fighting from the village’s smoking ruins. The capture of Cherkasskoe, when added to the success of the 3rd Panzer Division on Hoernlein’s left flank, which had managed to seize both Gertsovka and Korovino, meant that a considerable hole had been torn in the Soviets’ first line of defence.
On XLVIII Panzer Corps’ right, linked by 167th Infantry Division, which was held around Trirechnoe, was the second part of Hoth’s main strike force – Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps. Up against the 52nd Guards Rifle Division were the three SS-Panzergrenadier divisions: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), Das Reich and Totenkopf. All three were strong, élite, highly motivated divisions with fearsome reputations. Indeed, Lieutenant-General I.M. Chistyakov, commander of the 6th Guards Army, had warned his men: ‘Be careful, comrades! Before you stands Hitler’s guard. We must expect one of the main efforts of the German offensive in this sector.’ Expecting Hoth’s main effort to be towards Pokrovka (not to be confused with Prokhorovka 25 miles to its northeast) the Soviets sent considerable reinforcements south of the town in June, to add ballast. One of them, gunner Michail Khodorovsky, recalls:
I was not afraid of going into battle, but I did fear the SS or, rather, I feared being captured by the SS. Days before the battle we had received a lecture from our political officer warning us that the SS tortured prisoners and were likely to treat anyone that fell to them very badly. We were advised to fight to the last man, defend our comrades from these fascists. It fell to us, we were told, to stop Nazism rampaging across Mother Russia. We believed it. Every word of it, and so we fought like we had never fought before.
Confident in their business and utilizing tactics that were reminiscent of German stormtroopers in 1918, the infiltrating SS grenadiers had secreted themselves in no-man’s-land during the night of 4–5 July. Having cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields, they sprang into action as their guns bombarded the Soviet front line at dawn, and they fell on the battered positions before the defenders had time to regain their poise. Led by a Keil of 42 Tigers, 494 tanks and assault guns attacked across a seven and a half mile front and slammed into the Soviet line. Totenkopf, the strongest of Hausser’s divisions, screened the right flank of the attack with an advance to Gremuchii; LAH on the left advanced towards Bykovka and Das Reich moved in between via Berezov. Martin Steiger, commander of a Totenkopf Mark III, recalled the advance of the Tigers in front of him:
It was 4:15 am. A rustle, a hiss, a whistle! Columns of smoke rose like gigantic organ pipes into the sky. Artillery and mortars open the battle. A few minutes later heavy veils of smoke from the artillery explosions darkened the early morning sun. Stukas came and came, twenty-seven . . . eighty-one . . . we lost count. Stukas, heavy bombers, fighters, long-range reconnaissance planes; it was as if the air itself had begun to sing and hum. Finally, the order came: ‘Panzers marsch!’ Our attack was under way!
In LAH, SS-Untersturmführer Roger Hoch felt the tension in his platoon. After a busy evening in which he had little sleep, he was pleased to get into battle:
I could not stand another delay and was delighted when we were told that the attack was on . . . The men looked relieved when I told them and there were a few brutish comments about what they would do with the enemy when they caught up with them. Much of it was bravado, I could tell that they were nervous. I would use the word ‘frightened’, but that was a concept that the men liked to see attached only to the others – the non-SS troops. But we all felt fear, I am sure, and the only way to banish it was to face it and defeat it by going into battle . . . As soon as we crossed the line, nerves vanished, anxious thoughts were dissolved, our minds were on the task in hand.
Although some of the tanks found the going difficult initially due to areas of wet ground, the corps gained momentum quickly. The main road to Bykovka was bordered by flat ground, which was covered by lanky, wavering, silvery-grey grass along with wheat and rye crops – the colour of the armour’s recently prescribed yellow-olive-red-brown camouflage. The corps soon reached the cleared lanes of the minefield and as it advanced, the defenders’ artillery, anti-tank guns and machine guns opened fire. As with XLVIII Panzer Corps, the three divisions were supremely well supported by the Luftwaffe, which sent high explosives and fragmentation bombs cascading into the Soviet positions. The Soviets did not panic, despite the speed of the onslaught and the razor-sharp metal splinters jagging through the air. Several guns took direct hits and lay in twisted heaps beside their mangled crews. Those gun crews who remained active found that their rounds failed to penetrate the Tigers’ armour and, having given away their positions, they became victims of the tanks’ 88mm guns.
For the Germans, it was crucial that the infantry moved quickly to clear the area, for as Wilhelm Roes, a Tiger radio operator, argues: ‘The worst was the anti-tank hunting detachments which came in between T-34 attacks. You had to pay them particular attention – if they got through you were finished. An explosive charge and up you went.’ Mansur Abdulin was a member of one such team, armed with magnetic mines, sticky bombs and Molotov cocktails. He advised: ‘You should always act in pairs. The tank must ride over you, over your trench, then one soldier fires at the accompanying infantrymen, while the other throws the bottle or grenade.’ The tanks defended themselves from the threat posed by these teams by rolling up to trenches, turning on the spot and collapsing the earth walls on to their occupants. Combat engineers and grenadiers undertook the gruesome business of demolishing obstacles and emptying trenches. This phase of the battle had something of 1918 about it as well, for the SS men often eschewed their rifles in favour of hand-to-hand fighting with entrenching tools, bayonets, knives, pistols and grenades. Where available, flame-thrower teams led the way, as Hans Huber testifies:
[W]e worked our way forward into the trenches ahead of us. I fired a burst of flame as we approached every zig-zag in the trench and every enemy strong point. It was a strange feeling to serve this destructive weapon and it was terrifying to see the flames eat their way forward and envelop the Russian defenders. Soon I was coloured black from head to foot from the fuel oil and my face was burnt from the flames which bounced back off the trench walls or which were blown back at us by the strong wind. I could hardly see. The enemy could not fight against flame-throwers and so we made good progress, taking many prisoners.
When there were no flame-throwers available, the infantry jumped down into the traverses and cleared the trenches systematically, using well-rehearsed drills. SS-Mann Stefan Witte has said:
I left my heavier kit and advanced with a fighting knife and grenades . . . Dropping into a trench system, my section threw grenades around the corners and into dug-outs which were then cleared out by men with sub-machine guns . . . My knife was my only personal weapon and I used it once when I came across a Russian desperately trying to load his rifle. Without thinking I lunged forward and drove my knife into his stomach and twisted it, just as we had been trained. The man screamed, dropped to his knees and then fell onto his face. I moved on.