Slowly but surely, the SS divisions made their way through the first Soviet defensive line, but the defenders, recognizing that nothing was to be gained from surrendering, fought on. It was a violent tussle, as one observer describes:
The Tigers rumbled on. Anti-tank rifles cracked. Grenadiers jumped into trenches. Machine-guns ticked. Shells smashed sap trenches and dug-outs. The very first hours of fighting showed that Hausser’s divisions were encountering a well-prepared and well-functioning opposition.
Even so, by 0900 hours the II SS Panzer Corps had cracked the Soviets’ first line of defence. The final breakthrough occurred so quickly that Chistyakov, who was enjoying a ‘second breakfast’ of vodka and scrambled eggs in the open, was forced to flee to the relative safety of Lieutenant-General M.E. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army. By 1100 hours, the three divisions were busy engaging the positions between the Soviets’ first and second main lines. It was a methodical advance – the artillery was brought forward, the tanks reorganized and the infantry sent forward to skirmish, identify Soviet positions and begin eliminating them. A war correspondent who was attached to the Tigers that were leading SS-Gruppenführer Walter Kruger’s Das Reich, wrote of the subsequent advance:
This is the hour of the tank. Unnoticed we assembled at the bottom of a balka, the Tigers flanked by medium and light companies. Our field glasses searched the horizon, groping in the smoke that covers the enemy bunkers like a curtain. The leader of the Tiger half company, an Obersturmführer from the Rhineland whose calmness ennobles us, gives the order to attack. The tank engines begin to howl as we load the guns. The heavy tanks slowly roll into the battle zone. At 200 metres, the first anti-tank fires at us. With a single round, we blow it up. All was quiet for a while as we rolled over the abandoned enemy trenches. We waved to our brave infantrymen from our open hatches as we passed them. They were taking a short rest after having just stormed the enemy heights. We then moved into the next valley.
As the tanks continued their surge, isolated Soviet infantrymen scattered. The correspondent’s report continued:
Our machine gunners fired on [the enemy] and forced them to take cover. As both of our machine guns rattled, approving shouts of the crew accompanied the aim of the fire. A heavy enemy truck was seen in the woods on our right attempting to escape. We fired upon it and it burst into flames.
In this way, the divisions moved forward, carefully, but maintaining momentum. The tank commanders, their heads swivelling slightly as they scrutinized the terrain through open hatches, eventually spied the approach of enemy tanks. At 1300 hours Das Reich’s armour came under fire from two T-34s, and although they were quickly despatched, 40 more appeared over the horizon, firing on the move. Several Tigers were hit but not damaged. Reacting quickly and taking up firing positions, the German armour selected targets and sent their armour piercing rounds hurtling towards the enemy. Red Army tanks burst into flame as the panzers moved to new locations, stopped and repeated the process. After an hour of fighting, the field was covered in blazing hulks. Any survivors of the initial calamitous shell strike had just seconds to evacuate the tank before it was engulfed in flame, which threatened to ignite the fuel and ammunition. Nikolai Zheleznov was knocked to the turret floor when his T-34 was hit. The white-hot explosion had shattered his driver’s head, torn the loader’s arm from his body and sent scores of large metal shards into the gunner’s unprotected body. A fire sucked the oxygen out of the compartment and set light to Zheleznov’s uniform as he struggled to open the commander’s hatch. Eventually pushing it free as the flames leapt up around him, he fought to pull himself out of the void but his left leg had been broken at the knee. Passing comrades pulled him clear of the tank just before it exploded but he had sustained horrendous burns.
Soviet tank man Vladimir Alexeev recalled that the panzers were very efficient: ‘move, pause and fire – a very lethal combination’. Powerful guns, mounted on fast-moving, motorized turrets, gave the Tigers a considerable advantage while the thickness of their armour provided excellent protection. This led Ivan Sagun to suggest that any contest between T-34s and Tigers was unequal:
I had an encounter with just such a tank. He fired at us from literally one kilometre away. His first shot blew a hole in the side of my tank, his second hit my axle. At a range of half a kilometre I fired at him with a special calibre shell, but it bounced off him like a candle; I mean it didn’t penetrate his armour. At literally 300 metres I fired my second shell – same result. Then he started looking for me, turning his turret to see where I was. I told my driver to reverse fast and we hid behind some trees.
The Soviets sought to negate the Tigers’ advantages by fighting at close quarters, but without radios, keeping overall control was extremely difficult. Tactics had to be simple. Vladimir Alexeev told his T-34 platoon, ‘Follow me – do as I do.’ Yet without intercom, crews found it difficult to carry out their commander’s orders – particularly in the heat of battle – and so they had to improvise a method of communication. Ivan Sagun developed a simple system: ‘I directed the driver by tapping him on the shoulder with my foot. On the right shoulder meant go right, on the left shoulder go left. A prod in the back meant stop.’ When battle was joined, he made signals to the gunner with his hands: ‘A thumb up meant an armour-penetrating shell, two fingers for a shrapnel shell. The index finger also meant I needed a shrapnel shell; if we were facing another tank, he often knew which shell to use.’
Das Reich’s battle with the T-34s lasted four hours. Although the 1st Guards Tank Army had failed to halt the division’s advance, this had not been its aim. The tanks had been tasked with slowing the enemy’s onslaught and, having achieved this, they withdrew. The ‘armoured speed bump’ had bought the time the second line of defence needed to prepare itself – the infantry was reinforced and more anti-tank guns were brought up – and plans were tweaked to take account of the challenge that now faced the 23rd Guards Rifle Corps. Das Reich, having had its sting drawn by the initial thrust, probed forward once more in the early evening, and was soon confronted by the minefield protecting the Soviets’ second line.
Meanwhile, SS-Gruppenführer Wisch’s LAH, operating on Das Reich’s left, had taken Bykovka at 1610 hours and pushed on towards the Psel and Oboyan. Among the LAH Tiger commanders was SS-Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann. The 29-year-old Bavarian’s skills had been honed during nine years in the army. He had seen action with LAH in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Russia. A recent graduate of officer and tank school in Germany, he had returned to the Eastern Front and by the launch of Zitadelle was commanding a platoon of five Tigers. In common with Das Reich’s armoured spearhead, LAH had been involved in intense tank combat throughout the day. Although Wittmann’s tank had been hit several times during a battle in the late morning, it had not been immobilized and he had charged several antitank guns and crushed them before registering his first tank kill: ‘The T-34’s turret was blown clear of the rest of the vehicle, and flames enveloped the wreck.’ Already drained by their efforts, Wittmann and his crew could not afford to rest and in the afternoon went to the aid of a fellow platoon, which had been cut off by several T-34s. One well-aimed shot smashed his Tiger’s track and wounded his driver, requiring the replacement of both. Wittmann surged on and by the end of the day he and his crew had notched up eight Soviet tank kills and destroyed seven anti-tank guns.
By that time, the leading elements of LAH had moved up to the second line at Yakovlevo, just south of Pokrovka, but attempts to break through and make a dash to the Psel were rebuffed. The day’s work had cost the division 97 dead, 522 wounded, 17 missing and around 30 tanks. But with Das Reich, the division had forced a wedge deep enough into Chistyakov’s defences that it could, with care and some good fortune, be used to split the front wide open.
The limited success of SS-Gruppenführer H. Priess’s Totenkopf on the right of II SS Panzer Corps, however, meant that Hausser’s position was not as useful as it might have been. After taking Gremuchii, the division needed to press on to dominate the ground north of Belgorod and protect the corps’ developing penetration. However, having detached the 155th Guards Regiment from the 52nd Guards Rifle Division, Totenkopf ’s attempt to drive it into the flank of the neighbouring 375th Rifle Division failed. Taking a stand on the Belgorod–Oboyan line, the regiment was reinforced by 96th Tank Brigade and held on. T-34 gunner Nicolai Andreev describes the scene:
We sped westwards to assist the right flank of the division [375th Guards Rifle Division] and fought a tough battle to stop the Nazis from enveloping them . . . The battlefield was already littered with burning wrecks by the time that we arrived but we held them. By targeting the tracks on the Tigers we could at least stop them and their lighter tanks did not prove so much of a problem to destroy . . . We worked closely with the infantry who seemed to be everywhere. That was our strength – numbers. Whenever the enemy thought that they were about to break through, we plugged the gap.
Its northern movement stifled by a tributary of the Lipovyi–Donets and movement farther east fiercely contested by the Soviets’ armoured reinforcements, Totenkopf ’s attainments on 5 July fell far short of what had been expected of it. Hausser called on III Panzer Corps on his right flank to lend some support but was told that this was unlikely because Army Detachment Kempf had significant problems of its own. This formation had to cross the Northern Donets before it could engage the 7th Guards Army’s defences. Although bridged overnight by engineers, the crossing points were targeted by the Soviet guns during Vatutin’s pre-emptive bombardment, which was particularly punishing in this area. At the Mikhailovka bridgehead just south of Belgorod, the one place where Kempf had already established a crossing, eight infantry battalions from III Panzer Corps’ 6th Panzer Division were subjected to a disconcertingly heavy bombardment. Then, when a company of Clemens Graf Kageneck’s 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion – split one company per panzer division – began to cross the 24 ton Mikhailovka bridge, it too was targeted by the Soviet artillery. Kageneck watched aghast as the front exploded before him:
[S]uddenly, a ‘red sunrise’ arose on the far side as hundreds of Stalin’s organs hurled their rockets exactly onto the crossing site. The bridge was totally demolished and the engineers, unfortunately, suffered heavy losses. Never have I hugged the dirt so tightly as when these terrible shells sprayed their thin fragments just above the ground.
It became clear immediately that Kempf’s plans had been compromised, and enjoying first-class observation from high ground on the east bank of the Northern Donets, the Soviets were in a strong position to unhinge his attack. The Tigers managed to cross and link up with the beleaguered battalions waiting for them on the east bank, but the remainder of 6th Panzer Division had to redeploy and try to use a bridge supporting the southern part of the bridgehead. The formation’s commander, Major General Walter von Hünersdorff, was already anxious that he was falling behind the agreed timings but he became incandescent with rage when he found the designated bridge was already clogged with traffic. The formation went in search of another crossing, but failing to find one suitable, remained on the west bank of the river on 5 July.
Meanwhile, at the original crossing point, the Tiger-led attack on Stary Gorod (east of Belgorod) ran into a poorly cleared minefield and strong resistance, and stalled. It was a similar story farther along the line where the 19th Panzer Division crossed the river and ran immediately into Soviet mines, which ensnared a dozen of the attached Tigers. Kageneck was furious at what he deemed to be the ‘widespread bungling’ that had placed his tanks in such great danger. He cited unmapped Soviet minefields, commanders using inadequately marked maps and poor staff work. The division did recover to advance to a depth of five miles on its left, but the 19th Panzer Division’s attack was not impressive and some aspects were indeed incompetent. The same charges could be levelled initially at 7th Panzer Division, whose bridges were strong enough to carry Mark IIIs and VIs but not the Tigers. Everywhere Kageneck looked, his assets seemed to be hamstrung by either enemy action or poor preparation. Attempts were made to drive the 60 ton monsters across the river to support the infantry and lighter tanks that were already taking a tremendous pounding on the opposite bank, but that plan was unsuccessful, as Tiger gunner Gerhard Niemann explains:
The Russian artillery opens fire. We drive through a village. We are to cross a river via a ford near Solomino . . . The leading tank has reached the ford. The others remain under cover. All around shells burst from enemy artillery. ‘Stalin’s Organ’ also join in. It’s a hellish concert. The lead Tiger, number 321, disappears to above its fenders. Slowly it pushes through the water. Then it becomes stuck on the far bank. Its attempts to get free fail. The marshy terrain is impassable for the sixty-ton tank. Widely spaced, the Tigers take up positions on the open plain before the Donets. The Russian artillery is concentrating on the crossing point . . . The first wounded infantry are coming back. They can’t comprehend that the Tigers are still here standing around inactive.
The company eventually crossed the river in the afternoon, following some swift work by engineers who constructed a bridge strong enough to take their tanks’ weight. Engineer Rolf Schmidt ‘worked like the devil himself’ to ensure that the crossing was completed in ‘record time’:
The Tigers were extremely anxious to cross and put us under tremendous pressure saying things like ‘men are dying over there. Faster, faster!’ Some of the crews assisted us with some of the cables but on two occasions we were left waiting for sections that were held up in the rear. We later heard that enemy shelling had caused all sorts of delays . . . In the end we finished the bridge extremely quickly considering the conditions. We lost two men to Soviet shells that afternoon . . . When we gave the all clear to cross, the Tigers were all ready in a line, their engines running.
Once they had crossed the Northern Donets, the heavy tanks found the grenadiers pinned down by enemy fire and immediately set about destroying the Soviet bunkers. Niemann continues:
My foot presses forward on the pedal of the turret-traversing mechanism. The turret swings to the right. With my left hand I set the range on the telescopic sight; my right hand cranks the elevation handwheel. The target appears in my sight. Ready, release safety – fire. The target is shrouded in a cloud of smoke. ‘Driver advance!’ A slight jolt and already another picture presents itself. The first Red Army soldiers appear ahead of the tank. Masses of brown clad uniforms rise up. Standing and kneeling, they fire against the tank’s steel armour. The machine-gun opens fire. One after another, high explosive shells detonate among them. They throw their arms in the air and fall. Only a few find cover in a depression in the earth. They are overrun by the following infantry.
Despite a poor start, the 7th Panzer Division eventually broke through the first defensive line and pushed on between Razumnoe and Krutoi Log. At six miles the division’s advance was the best achieved by Army Detachment Kempf. On its right, the two infantry divisions of Corps Raus – spread over 20 miles and devoid of tanks – had little success. The advance began well with the river successfully crossed and the spearheads of the 106th and 320th Infantry Divisions deftly negotiating the cleared lanes in the minefield to fall hard and fast on the 72nd Guards Rifle Division. With the two front lines so close together at this point, the defenders had little time to ready themselves in the outposts, as Erhard Raus later wrote:
[T]he advancing infantry surprised them and had no difficulty ferreting them out. But when the infantry reached the two- to three-mile deep zone of battle positions prepared in the preceding months, they had to make extensive use of hand grenades in order to mop up the maze of densely dug-in trenches and bunkers, some of which were a dozen or more feet deep. At the same time, artillery and flak fired counter-battery missions against the enemy’s heavy weapons that had resumed fire from rear positions, on reserves infiltrating through the trench system, as well as against Russian medium artillery.
The first Soviet line and the village of Maslovo Pristani were taken after a fierce battle with some hand-to-hand fighting. The lodgement was nearly lost when a Soviet counterattack supported by 40 tanks clattered into the tired Germans, but it was eventually rebuffed with the assistance of divisional artillery and medium flak batteries. However, still facing considerable resistance and having suffered 2000 casualties during the day, the divisions could penetrate no farther and dug in for the night.
By the end of 5 July, Manstein’s attack against the Voronezh Front had not achieved anything like the success it needed for the Soviets to be psychologically damaged and their defences irretrievably dislocated. In some places the attacking formations had barely breached the first Soviet line, and although the two main attacking corps had blown gaps in the defences, they remained short of the Soviets’ second line, were not joined up and displayed vulnerable flanks. The Germans had significantly underestimated Vatutin’s defences and this immediately undermined Manstein’s timetable, despite Zhukov’s displeasure at the results of the pre-emptive bombardment.
Across the front, Army Group South’s thrust had been slowed, which allowed the Soviets time to react as soon as Manstein’s intentions had been confirmed. Vatutin and his commanders were able to prepare their second echelons to meet the expected renewed German onslaught on 6 July. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army was reinforced with two rifle divisions from the reserve while the 15th Guards Rifle Division was moved into position behind the second-line defences opposite III Panzer Corps. The 6th Guards Army, meanwhile, moved two divisions in front of Pokrovka – the 51st Guards Rifle Division to the east, and the 90th Guards Rifle Division to the west – while 1000 tanks of the 1st Tank Army and the separate 2nd Guards and 5th Guards Tank Corps were brought forward to add an armoured backing to Chistyakov’s rifle divisions. Behind them, the 93rd Guards Rifle Division was positioned astride the Pokrovka–Prokhorovka road. These deployments made Vatutin’s priority extremely clear – the enemy would be denied the roads and communications hubs necessary to maintain his impetus, and reinforcements would be moved forward as needed to provide unremitting pressure on his main axes. Manstein’s offensive was to be robbed of all momentum, ground down and snuffed out.