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.
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.