Breaking into the Northern Kursk Salient I

Even as Army Group South was attempting to deliver a strong armoured punch to the Voronezh Front’s jaw, Model’s Ninth Army began its attack in the northern salient with a series of lighter jabs. Here, nine infantry divisions, strengthened with assault guns and two companies of Tigers, were joined by a single panzer division to break through the defences of the Central Front’s 70th and 13th Armies. Although this attack carried less armoured weight than Manstein’s, the format was the same – a preliminary bombardment was followed by an airstrike against the Soviet defences in support of the ground attack. Without the mailed fist of armour, the first two phases of the attack were essential if the Ninth Army was to fracture Rokossovsky’s defences. It was a gamble, as a junior officer on Model’s staff recalls:

We were not convinced that the choice of an ‘infantry first’ attack was wise. This was not just because the Soviet positions were known to be tough, but because – I was told – Model expected a breakthrough on the second day and possibly earlier. [The Corps commanders] thought this extremely unlikely and, even if it did occur, what was that success to be exploited with? The armour would take far too long to bring forward and charge through. The Soviets would fill the gap.

Major Max Torst, a company commander in the 6th Infantry Division, was unaware of the friction at headquarters concerning the plan, but in later life, as a student of the First World War, he noted distinct similarities between that plan and strategies employed in the battles of his father’s generation:

On the Western Front it was Germany that was defending and on the Somme [in 1916] we developed strong defences in depth to capture the British attack. This is what the Soviets had done to stifle our offensive [at Kursk]. We now played the part of the British and threw ourselves at those defences and bounced off . . . It does not take much imagination to transfer the scene from northern France to Russia. Put simply, defence was now stronger than the attack – and we were not used to that.

These astute observations are not at odds with the events that unfolded in the Ninth Army sector on 5 July, although German casualties were far lighter than those suffered by the British on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, due to their accomplished tactics and the success of their aerial artillery.

The primary attack was by the two central corps – General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzer Corps and General Joseph Harpe’s XLI Panzer Corps. Their flanks were to be covered by General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzer Corps on the right and Johannes Freissner’s XXIII Corps on the left. Zorn’s 31st and 7th Infantry Divisions just managed to break the Soviets’ first line by the evening of 5 July, as did Freissner’s 78th Assault Division, but on the outer faces of the two corps, neither the 258th nor the 36th Infantry Division made any valuable penetrations. Despite the importance attached to these formations taking the Soviets’ second line on the first day – including the key local communications hub of Maloarkhangelsk – the two corps were held several miles from it. Thus the anchors provided by the two formations ultimately lacked the depth required for XLVII and XLI Panzer Corps to advance unhindered by the concern about creating an obvious salient. Lemelsen’s formation sought to crack the enemy’s first and second lines between the Teploye and Olkhovatka axis using Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzer Division and Horst Grossmann’s 6th Infantry Division with two panzer divisions being brought forward to exploit their success at the appropriate time. However, defences here were as strong as anything in the south. Minefields protected a mixture of carefully placed infantry, artillery and tanks in deep, mutually supportive positions. Indeed, the 15th Rifle Division’s mines immediately slowed Lemelsen’s strike divisions and it was not until 0800 hours that lanes had been cleared and the attack could progress.

From the outset, Soviet artillery pounded the advancing units, but unlike in the south, the fight for control of the skies above the battlefield was more even. The 16th Air Army suffered lighter losses in their pre-emptive airstrike than their 2nd Air Army colleagues. Indeed, Koba Lomidze, a rear gunner in an Il-2, recalls:

We made several sorties against the German panzers that morning although our fighters continually struggled to give us the time and space that we required. We were given specific orders to target the spearheads, but more than once we found Stukas dive bombing our artillery batteries trying to do the same . . . The Stukas would mass above the target and our fighters would break them up. We did not have long before the German fighters arrived and so made our attack and left the area as quickly as we could. We were chased by Bf-109s on two occasions. The first winged us and the damage was not too bad, but on the second occasion, despite my best efforts, we were badly hit in the tail when he dived out of the sun. We limped home and made an ungainly landing. Overnight the damage was repaired and we were airborne again by dawn the following morning.

Meanwhile, on the ground, crossing through the minefield both divisions walked into what Max Torst has called a ‘storm of steel’:

I had not seen anything like it. It was a marvel that any of my company survived. Shells, bombs, mortars, machine gun fire and rifle fire fell on us like in a furious onslaught. Of my ninety men, six fell – two dead – but one of them was a young platoon commander. A softly spoken, gentle lad who hated the war and knew that he would not last the duration. It is perhaps because of that premonition that a senior NCO immediately stepped in to fill his shoes without a thought. He had been primed for the event . . . And so we struggled on, desperate to get into a position where we could engage the defenders and dislodge them.

The two companies of 505 Heavy Panzer Battalion attached to the 6th Infantry Division, and leading the way, formed the largest single group of Tigers committed to battle on 5 July. Working well with the infantry, they stormed through the outpost zone in cooperation with the 20th Panzer Division and then pushed towards the first line between Podolyan and Butyrki. Airstrikes were called down when a stubborn obstacle was identified by a unit commander or when compelling information was obtained from the enemy. One intelligence officer feeding reports to the 6th Infantry Division testifies:

We put an emphasis on taking prisoners, quickly interrogating them at battalion and passing important information up the chain as quickly as possible. This was critical [now] as it became clear that we knew far less about the Soviet defences than we thought we did . . . However, the skill was getting the information out of the prisoner and to where it was needed quickly. The material was time sensitive . . . Flooding headquarters with inappropriate material or providing it too slowly always led to lost opportunities.

One prisoner taken early that morning identified the boundary between the 15th and 81st Rifle Divisions as having suffered particularly badly during the preliminary bombardment. Within 40 minutes of the intelligence having left the man’s lips, Stukas were en route to strike the area with Tigers following up. The arrival of German tanks immediately provoked the Soviets to send 90 T-34s to plug the gap in the line and block the heavy panzers’ advance. During the resultant three-hour tank battle, the Soviets lost 42 tanks for two destroyed Tigers and five more with broken tracks. Even so, in common with events 100 miles to the south, the Red Army had successfully slowed the Wehrmacht’s momentum. Here it was at the cost of the Germans breaching the 13th Army’s first line of defence between Podolyan and Butyrki, which gave the Mark IIIs and IVs of the 20th Panzer Division the opportunity to push forward on the right while the 6th Infantry Division pushed forward on the left. But the Soviets did not disintegrate. They understood that each line was merely an obstacle and not a final defensive line. The aim was to wear the enemy out as they endeavoured to surmount each obstacle, and to stretch their lines of communication as exposed salients were created within their defences. Thus, almost as soon as Lemelsen’s corps had reorganized in preparation for their attack on Bobrik, Stepi and Saborovka on the Sevana, the 29th Rifle Corps engaged them from positions along a low ridge in front of the second line. The bloody confrontation that took place here was witnessed by a Soviet observer, who wrote:

The sky blackened from smoke and heat. The acrid gases from the exploding shells and mines blinded the eyes. The soldiers were deafened by the thunder of guns and mortars and the creaking of tracks . . . All of the weapons of the infantry, and the anti-tank strong points and artillery groups supporting the [15th and 81st Rifle Divisions] entered the battle to repel the enemy blows. Soviet soldiers heroically struggled with the attacking groups of enemy. The infantry skilfully destroyed his tanks with grenades and bottles filled with mixtures of fuel. Under a hurricane of fire they stole up to the enemy vehicles, struck them with anti-tank grenades, set them on fire with incendiary bottles, and laid mines under them.

Here, up to six miles into the Soviet defences, XLVII Panzer Corps was held.

The Ninth Army’s progress on 5 July was not limited to General Lemelsen’s corps, though. The impression it made in the Soviet line was simultaneously broadened by Harpe’s XLI Panzer Corps on Lemelsen’s left flank. The 292nd Infantry Division supported by a detachment of Ferdinands from 656 Anti-Tank Battalion, together with the 86th Infantry Division, strengthened by a panzer regiment from the 18th Panzer Division and two Ferdinand detachments, aimed to advance to a line extending either side of Ponyri in the enemy’s second line. The divisions breached the minefield in front of the 29th Rifle Corps’ trenches with the assistance of demolition vehicles of Funklenk Company 313, comprising three command StuG IIIs and 12 Borgward B.IVs. These teams could clear routes through the area quickly, ameliorating the time-consuming and dangerous business of mass human involvement, and so speed the Wehrmacht on its way.

When mines were located, the first small, light-tracked demolition vehicle was driven forward to the launch spot. Attracting considerable fire, its driver then left the vehicle and by means of radio control delivered it to the target. On its arrival, a 500kg charge was dropped, the vehicle was withdrawn and an explosion produced via a delayed detonation. The percussion caused by that explosion tripped the mines and so created the first section of cleared path through the obstruction, which was immediately extended by the next demolition vehicle.

The breach having been made, the Ferdinands proceeded to engage the Soviet first line. In common with all Soviet front-line formations in the salient, the defenders here had received psychological as well as technical training to deal with the armoured threat and overcome the ‘tank panic’ that had been in evidence ever since the Germans invaded. Fyodor Onton recalled his instruction when, in June, he was ordered into a trench and a captured German tank was driven towards him: ‘It was a frightening moment as the metal beasts came clanking and squeaking towards us but we were ordered to hold fast. A couple of my infantry colleagues looked grey and ready to flee but managed to keep a hold on their instincts. I heard later that the men had seen German tanks in action before and were the only survivors of one particularly desperate episode.’ Nikolai Litvin had a similar experience and wrote in his memoir:

The tanks continued to advance closer and closer. Some comrades became frightened, leaped out of the trenches, and began to run away. The commander saw who was running and quickly forced them back into the trenches, making it clear they had to stay put. The tanks reached the trench line and, with a terrible roar, passed overhead . . . it was possible to conceal oneself in a trench from a tank, let it pass right over you, and remain alive. Lie down and press yourself to the bottom of the trench, and shut your eyes.

This training seems to have worked. Paul Carell noted: ‘Everything had been done to inoculate the troops against the notorious tank panic [and] the result was unmistakeable.’ Both the 15th and 81st Rifle Divisions allowed the armour to clatter over their heads, popping up in the midst of the following infantry and separating the tanks from their support. With their thick armoured plate and large guns, the sluggish Ferdinands were most effective when supported by infantry who could protect them from close-quarter threats. As a battle erupted behind them, the armour was engaged by anti-tank guns and ‘tank killer teams’. Thoroughly isolated, the weaknesses of the Ferdinands became obvious. Heinz Guderian had always understood that the clumsy tracked guns lacked not only the finesse that he would have liked, but also some basic technical features, and so they were left:

[i]ncapable of close-range fighting since they lacked sufficient ammunition (armour-piercing and high-explosive) for their guns and this defect was aggravated by the fact that they had no machine-gun. Once [they] had broken into the enemy’s infantry zone, they literally had to go quail shooting with cannon. They did not manage to neutralize, let alone destroy, the enemy infantry and machine-guns, so that our infantry was unable to follow up behind them. By the time they reached the Russian artillery they were on their own.

Crews were consequently forced to fire their stored MG-42s down the barrel of their 88mm guns. Some brave commanders used pistols to stave off the defenders’ attacks. Trapped and exposed, the armour was picked off. The anti-tank guns scored some successes by penetrating the Ferdinands’ rear armour, but often they targeted the tracks and by disabling them allowed teams to attach their demolition charges or turn the guns into giant fireballs with their Molotov cocktails. Onton says that these crude weapons were very effective:

We could make Molotovs extremely quickly. Each unit was issued with hundreds of glass bottles, gasoline, wadding and paraffin. Bottles were filled to the neck with the gasoline and the screw caps replaced. When required the caps were removed and the paraffin-soaked wadding was inserted into the bottle openings and ignited . . . We had to be extremely careful how they were stored and where they were lit because these were very basic weapons and accidents were not uncommon . . . When a tank or assault gun was identified as a target, the Molotovs were simply thrown at them. Ideally they would land on the engine compartment and gravity would send burning fuel into the vehicle. But if all we could do was throw them at the front of the turret, that was what we would do . . . When the fuel’s vapour ignited there was a boom sending black smoke into the sky and the tanks quickly caught alight . . . It was amazing how those hunks of metal burned, but they did. The paint seemed to catch fire and, I assumed, the fuel entered the tank and set light to fabrics and ammunition. We knew that within a matter of seconds the crew would try to evacuate and we waited, picking them off as they appeared through the hatches. Sometimes our victim was finished off with grenades.

For much of the morning, tanks and infantry fought to regain the mutual cooperation on which the Wehrmacht depended. Although by noon the villages of Alexsandrovka and Butyrki had been taken and Harpe’s attack had broken the first line of defences across four miles, it lacked the energy to create a clean breakthrough. Thus both XLVII and XLI Panzer Corps were brought to a halt, resting on the outposts of the Soviets’ second-line defences. Their fatigued divisions now had to reorganize, resupply and update their plans after their recent exertions. It was at this point that Model’s armoured reserve might have been unleashed in order to exert pressure on the withdrawing enemy. Second-line defences could have been attacked before they were properly set. Indeed, Mortimer von Kessel believed that a fleeting opportunity was missed and later argued:

Far ahead of the [20th Panzer Division] lay a massif [the Olkhovatka heights] on which we could see movement by the Russians. If the tanks had rolled through then, we would perhaps have reached the objective of Kursk, because the enemy was completely surprised and weak. Valuable time was lost which the enemy used to rush in his reserves.

As many on the Ninth Army staff had feared, the four panzer and panzer grenadier divisions that might have been able to burst through the Soviets at this stage were assembled too far to the rear to be of any use. Model had clearly not planned on the critical moment occurring so early in the battle.

The day’s events left the Ninth Army with a broad but shallow lodgement in the Soviet defensive system, which did not cause Rokossovsky any undue concern. He had expected Model to make his main thrust towards Maloarkhangelsk, since its capture would have provided the Germans with access to the major roads in the sector, and his defences against the two strike corps sent to accomplish the task held firm. Moreover, the relatively weak showing of XXIII Corps allowed Rokossovsky to contain its threat comparatively easily, which enabled him to focus his attention on the stronger advance in the enemy’s centre. Like Vatutin, the Central Front’s commander had great faith in his second line of defences and did not believe that his plan had been endangered by the events of 5 July. He consequently ordered three armoured corps of General Rodin’s 600 tank, 50,000 man 2nd Tank Army north to screen the approaches to his second line from Teploye through Olkhovatka to Ponryi, and backed them with the 17th Guards Rifle Corps. The 18th Rifle Corps was sent to reinforce the defences of Maloarkhangelsk. Model’s offensive, in the same way as Manstein’s, was to be robbed of all momentum, ground down and snuffed out.

Operation Zitadelle was finely poised by nightfall on the first day. The main German strike groupings were leaning on the outposts of the Soviet second-line defences in both the north and south, but their advance had not been as devastating as either Model or Manstein had hoped. The two men had carefully massed and prepared their forces for the great offensive, and they must have been disturbed that, having largely exhausted the element of surprise, the enemy had not been more fundamentally dislocated. They would also have noted that both Soviet Fronts were well prepared to meet their offensive and seemed more resilient than they had in the past. As Raus has written: ‘Higher headquarters had been hoping the troops would encounter an enemy weakened in his power of resistance. This proved to be a delusion. The Russians appeared materially prepared . . . as well as morally inoculated against all symptoms of deterioration.’

The first day of Zitadelle had not resulted in the disastrous fragmentation of the Red Army, as had the opening of Barbarossa two years earlier, and Stalin must have been reassured by this, especially as he had handed the initiative to the Germans. Yet although the Supreme Commander was keen to learn about the progress of the ground battle, once he had been reassured about the steadfastness of the salient’s defences, he wanted to know about the situation in the air. The Soviet airforce had lost around 250 aircraft to the Germans’ 45, and he was anxious that the Luftwaffe had attained freedom of the sky. That evening, Lieutenant-General Sergey Rudenko, commander of the 16th Air Army, which was supporting the Central Front, explained to Rokossovsky that the air battle would be every bit as attritional as the Red Army’s battle. When Stalin telephoned the headquarters to quiz Rokossovsky about the situation, he pressed the Central Front’s commander for an unambiguous response, as Rudenko recalls:

‘Have we gained control of the air or not?’ That proved to be his main interest! Rokossovsky replied: ‘Comrade Stalin, it is impossible to tell. There have been very hard combats in the air and both sides have suffered heavy losses.’ But Stalin just retorted: ‘Tell me precisely, have we won in the air or not? Yes or no?’ Rokossovsky spoke again: ‘It is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question, but tomorrow we shall solve this positively.’

The attention Stalin was giving to the aerial battle was not misplaced. He understood that the Wehrmacht’s methods, and consequently their plans, were dependent on command of the skies. But no definitive pronouncement could be made on the air battle that evening, just as no definitive verdict on the ground battle had been reached – the Luftwaffe had the edge but the army was being held. The battle was still evenly balanced. Despite this, Stalin probably had more reason to sleep soundly that night than he’d had for many weeks.

At the Wolfsschanze, Hitler also had cause for optimism. Reports from the front confirmed that the Soviet defences had been pierced, and General Zeitzler said that the Führer was ‘cautiously optimistic’ – relieved, perhaps, that there was still hope after the first day. The German High Command expected its forces to deepen and widen their penetrations in the next few days, and to retain most of their cohesion and strength. Indeed, German losses had been relatively light for a break-in battle. The Ninth Army had suffered 7,295 casualties and lost around 150 tanks (although many were repairable) and the Fourth Panzer Army, its casualties unknown, had lost just 51 tanks. The Luftwaffe had been able to go about its business with confidence after the failure of the Soviets’ early morning strike against its airfields.

Yet the opening day of Zitadelle had more in common with the grand set-piece battles of the First World War than with the dynamic manoeuvres that had marked out the Wehrmacht’s greatest successes over the previous three years. In July 1943, the Germans had been forced to attack the enemy frontally, in a manner that demanded patient tenacity and plentiful resources – a style that crippled blitzkrieg and suited the waiting Soviets ensconced within their deep and complicated lair. The Wehrmacht needed a breakthrough and needed it fast.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking into the Northern Kursk Salient I

  1. “Crews were consequently forced to fire their stored MG-42s down the barrel of their 88mm guns.”

    It is amazing how the designers of the Ferdinand forgot to include a hull-mounted machine gun to repeal enemy infantry as part of the design.

    Like

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