Breaking into the Northern Kursk Salient III

On 8 July, the Ninth Army persisted with its attempts to take the Olkhovatka heights, focusing attention on Teploe and Ponyri. Model, offering more of the same, hoped that the Soviets would begin to wilt. Of the five panzer divisions that attacked that morning, only the 4th was fresh, drawn from the reserve. The 300 Tigers, Mark IIIs, IVs and assault guns advanced into a breaking dawn and were greeted by the Soviets as they had been on the previous three mornings of Zitadelle. Newly laid minefields stalled the tanks while artillery, Katyusha batteries and heavy mortars began the destruction. With poor weather severely limiting air operations on this day, it soon became clear that nothing less than heavy and sustained pressure on the Soviet defences would succeed in opening them up. By 0800 hours, some formations had begun to make progress. Although the 2nd Panzer Division was stalled as it began to climb the high ground towards Olkhovatka, the 20th Panzer Division had managed to overwhelm Samodurovka. In so doing, the formation had created the opportunity for the 4th Panzer Division to attack Teploe and, by exploiting the weakness inherent at the junction between the 70th and 13th Armies, gain access to the high ground beyond. The Soviets, of course, did everything in their power to stop the Germans from achieving their goal and were already moving reinforcements into the area as the first assaults on Teploe began. The series of attacks on the village were overseen by General van Saucken, 4th Panzer Division’s commander, who later wrote of the first attack:

Artillery, mortars, Stalin organs, machine guns, and sharpshooters but especially extensive anti-tank guns spewed fire and doom. Packs of enemy tanks with all muzzles ablaze sallied forth again and again to counterattack. In the open terrain, our tanks, some of them Tigers, drove at full speed to make it harder for the enemy guns to hit them. The grenadiers could not keep up this pace and hung far back. The enemy strong points that our tanks had rolled over resumed firing, forcing us to give ground. Some tanks had to turn back to give them protection.

However, such was the unrelenting force with which the new division’s 101 tanks struck the two rifle divisions defending the village that they fractured. The acting commander of the 4th Panzer Division’s 33rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment recalls the final push into the objective:

At the head of my men, I stormed the village, which was already within reach. We could do it! With covering flanking fire from [1st Company], the men reached the edge of the village. In bitter hand-to-hand combat, one house after another was taken. My sub-machine-gun chattered along with those of the squad leaders as they stormed the houses and wiped out the Red Army soldiers firing from the window openings and the cellars. The fighting in the town lasted about an hour before the last Russian defenders were eliminated.

However, the Germans did not have the momentum then to take the high ground beyond Teploe. Observing the attempt to capture an elevated position later that day by 2nd Battalion, 33rd Grenadier Regiment, an officer later wrote:

The Russians laid down a curtain of defensive fire. After a few hundred yards, the German grenadiers lay pinned to the ground. It was impossible to get through the Soviet fire of a few hundred guns concentrated on a very narrow sector. Only the tanks moved forward into the wall of fire. The Soviet artillerymen let them come within five hundred, then four hundred yards. At that range even the Tigers were set on fire by the heavy Russian anti-tank guns. But then three Mark IVs overran the first Soviet gun positions. The grenadiers followed. They seized the high ground. They were thrown back by an immediate Russian counterattack.

The Soviet version of the same event came from the defending 3rd Anti-Tank Brigade:

At a little over 700 yards, the Soviet anti-tank guns open fire; in a little while the battery was left with only one gun and three men alive, who managed to knock out two more tanks. His remaining gun was destroyed along with its crew by a direct hit from a bomb and the battery was totally wiped out . . . The brigade commander [Rokuseyev] finally signalled Rokossovsky: ‘Brigade under attack by up to 300 tanks. No. 1 and No. 2 battery into action. Request ammunition. I either hold on or will be wiped out. Rokuseyev.’ The 3rd Brigade did both: it held on but was destroyed to a man.

By later writing that the anti-tank brigade had ‘particularly distinguished themselves’ in this battle, Zhukov was acknowledging that the denial of access to the Olkhovatka heights on the 8th was critical to the Central Front’s continuing health. Indeed, such was the determination of the Soviets to protect the position that, in a staggering effort, the Germans were pushed back out of Teploe. It must have been another moment of intense frustration for Generals Model and Lemelsen for, yet again, after a supreme effort and some fine tactical work, the way forward had been sealed by troops moving into pre-prepared positions and striking back with assurance. Over the next five days, Teploe changed hands several times as each side fought a battle that became a sister to the ongoing struggle at Ponyri.

All along the line, the Ninth Army was held on the 8th and continued to be held in the days that followed. Attempts to take Olkhovatka by the concerted efforts of the 2nd Panzer and 6th Infantry Divisions were broken on the slopes in front of the village with heavy losses. Even the arrival on the battlefield of the 3rd Company of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion, direct from the railhead, failed to swing proceedings in the Germans’ favour. By 12 July, the front line had barely moved in this sector, despite Lemelsen’s dedication to the task of destroying the 75th Guards Rifle Division and its supporting formations. The same was true at bloody Ponyri, where the 292nd Infantry Division, supported by the 9th and 19th Panzer Divisions and eventually joined by the 10th Panzer Grenadier Division from the Ninth Army reserve, could not dislodge its redoubtable defenders.

However, by the end of the first week of Zitadelle, the Ninth Army had long since given up on the idea of reaching Kursk by means of a rapid breakthrough. As early as the evening of the fourth day of battle, Model, in his headquarters, had articulated serious doubts about the Ninth Army’s ability quickly to develop the circumstances in which they could make a dash to Kursk. Having reached a maximum depth of just 10 miles for the cost of 50,000 casualties and 400 inoperable tanks, the German advance in the north had been anything but dramatic. Indeed, a Soviet report concluded ‘after fierce battles along this axis, German forces were unable to achieve significant success’.

On 9 July, a conference held at the headquarters of XLVII Panzer Corps and attended by Kluge, Model, Harpe and Lemelsen agreed that they had no hope of achieving an immediate breakthrough but, in order to assist the southern attack, the Ninth Army would ‘continue to maintain offensive pressure’ on the Soviets. Model would attack, but as the context of his attack was changing so he moved inextricably towards more protracted operations along the Olkhovatka heights. On 11 July the OKW War Diary noted after another unfavourable day for the Ninth Army: ‘it is now essential to inflict high losses on the enemy while keeping our own losses as low as possible.’ There was to be, in effect, ‘a rolling battle of attrition’ aimed at maintaining pressure on the Soviets and, therefore, assisting Manstein’s continuing attempts to penetrate Vatutin’s defence in the south. This was a turning point in Operation Zitadelle for it was an acknowledgement that Model’s attempt to reach Kursk had run into the ground, that his decision to drip-feed his armoured formations had backfired and given the Central Front the time and space that Rokossovsky needed to fend off whatever the Ninth Army threw at it.

The failure of the Germans to threaten Kursk severely from the north after nearly five days of fighting was, of course, not lost on Stalin. During the afternoon of 9 July, the Supreme Commander called his deputy and argued the case for launching the planned offensive into the German-held Orel salient towards Briansk. Zhukov agreed because he was confident that Model no longer posed a potent danger, saying, ‘Here, on the sector of the Central Front, the enemy no longer has at its disposal forces capable of breaking through our defences.’ Stalin consequently authorized Zhukov to launch Kutuzov on 11–12 July. Not only would the attack relieve pressure on the Central Front as Model would be faced with the enemy to his rear, but it would raise the morale of the Soviet troops in and around the salient while demoralizing the Germans. In the meantime, the Soviets continued to pin back the Ninth Army’s increasingly desultory offensive, which, by locking itself into Rokossovsky’s defences, played straight into their hands.

After days of slog and grind there was, all of a sudden, a far greater sense of urgency across the front than there had been since 4–5 July. Even though Rokossovsky received reports that Model was disengaging in the north as the Briansk Front prepared to attack the Second Panzer Army in the Orel salient, it was on the south that German and Soviet eyes were so inextricably fixed. Here the destiny of Zitadelle would finally be decided. Would the two German spearheads converging on Prokhorovka cripple the 5th Guards Tank Army and breathe new life into Zitadelle, or would the Soviets use the opportunity to kill off the German offensive and destroy the Wehrmacht’s ability to launch offensive operations in the area? It was a question that consumed Manstein’s headquarters and had a particular poignancy after Anglo-American forces began their invasion of Sicily on 10 July. With the soft underbelly of Europe under Allied attack, it was only a matter of time before German armour would need to be removed from the East to confront this new threat to the overstretched Reich. The Eastern Front’s post-Zitadelle strength had taken on a new and more florid complexion. A pivotal moment in the Second World War had arrived.

Zitadelle’s continued potency, therefore, rested heavily on the shoulders of Manstein and the efforts of the Fourth Panzer Army in particular. If the formation could create a breach in the defences of the Voronezh Front and achieve the operational freedom that its commander so desired, the Germans could even yet unhinge the Soviets’ defences and fall on Kursk. First, however, Hoth had to deal with Soviet armour that was massing on his flanks.

Partisans complemented the Soviet aim of stretching the German forces and wearing them down wherever and whenever possible. ‘They were a constant menace,’ recalled infantryman Felix Dresener. ‘They slowed our ability to supply the front line and forced us into clearing operations, which took troops away from the front line . . . Our platoon provided protection for several convoys, which kept us from the real battle for over a week. During that time we lost eight men and goodness only knows how many trucks. It was a simple Russian tactic, but effective.’ The partisans and Red Air Force targeted the Wehrmacht’s lines of communication with extensive and methodical attacks. Railway lines leading towards Kursk were systematically bombed and disrupted, as were roads from railheads and various depots. The Luftwaffe would ordinarily have offered protection, but its resources continued to decrease as calls on its support grew. By the fifth day of the battle, Zitadelle was being ground down from the outskirts of Kiev to the front line at Kursk. The whole operation was absorbing precious resources at an alarming rate as Model and Manstein continued to be confronted by complex defences, a tenacious enemy and some trying weather. On 7 July, for example, Model called on Zeitzler to supply 100,000 more rounds of tank ammunition ‘immediately’. On the following day, the Fourth Panzer Army lost another 125 tanks, taking Hoth’s total of inoperable machines to 405 since 5 July.

Even so, the Wehrmacht continued to batter away at the Red Army in the salient, because it was still not clear who would emerge the victor. Nevertheless, Operation Zitadelle was rapidly moving towards its final act. Although Model’s offensive in the north had been contained, rendering the Ninth Army capable of little more than maintaining pressure on the Olkhovatka heights, Manstein’s attack in the south remained strong, and still had great potential. If the Fourth Panzer Army could overcome Major-General A.L. Getman’s 6th Tank Corps south of Oboyan, it could then focus its attention on facing the massive Soviet forces that were beginning to assemble around Prokhorovka.

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