Zitadelle Ends II

Here is a photo of “231” during ‘Operation Zitadelle’ in the Belgorod area of Russia. Early August 1943. The 503rd (attached to XI. Armeekorps), took part in Operation Zitadelle, an offensive operation meant to destroy the Kursk salient.

Leutnant Zabel… reported this attack near Ssemernikovo kolkhoz:

The combat group Sander had to face a very strong enemy when attacking the collective farm west of Ssemernikovo. The Tiger attacking as advance platoon left the lighter tanks behind, and attracted all the enemy fire. The tanks received hits on the front and to the right-hand side. The enemy, with tanks, AT guns and AT rifles opened fire at a great distance. My Tiger received a 7.62cm hit in the front of the driver’s position. The spare track links fixed there with an iron rod were ripped off. In the tank we noticed a bang and a slight shaking. The nearer we came, the stronger the bangs and shaking from the 7.62cm hits became.

At the same time we noticed considerably high dust clouds from artillery ground impacts near the tank. Further on, the crew noticed a somewhat lighter bang followed by a burst of yellow smoke, most likely a hit from an AT rifle.

A short time later we received a hit from a 4.5cm AT gun on the cupola. The brackets of the bullet-proof glass were smashed. The glass vision block jammed and became opaque caused by heat from the explosion. A further hit destroyed the brackets and the hatch fell into the turret interior. There was dense smoke in the fighting compartment and the area became very hot. The loader’s hatch was jammed and stood slightly open and it received a number of hits from AT rifles demolishing the hinges and brackets.

After the battle two 4.5cm AT guns and 15 AT rifle hits were counted on the cupola.

On both days of the attack the enemy destroyed our machine guns. The smoke dischargers on the turret were also destroyed. The smoke in the turret caused so much trouble that the Tiger was not ready for action for some time… … all crew members nerves were frayed, we lost our sense of time. We felt neither hunger nor any other needs. Despite the fact that the attack lasted for more than six hours, all men in the tank felt the time had gone by in a flash. After a further 7.62cm hit on the mantlet the gun mounting bolts sheared off. The recoil brake lost its fluid and the gun barrel remained in rear (recoiled) position. Due to electric problems the breech block could not be shut. Due to shocks inflicted by further hits the radio system failed and the steering levers were jammed. When the exhaust cover was destroyed, the engine caught fire.

This fire could be extinguished by the fire-fighting system. Further hits loosened some turret ring screws. The turret traversing system failed temporarily… We counted 227 hits by AT rifles, 14 hits by 5.7cm AT guns and 11 hits by 7.62cm AT guns. The right suspension was heavily damaged by shelling. The connecting pieces for several running wheels were ruined, two torsion bars were broken. A rear idler wheel bearing was damaged.

In spite of this damage the Tiger was able to be driven for further 60km. The hits inflicted cracks to some weld seams. A fuel tank began leaking due to the heavy shocks. We noticed a number of impacts in the track links, which however did not particularly impair mobility.

Subsequently, it can be said that the armour on the Tiger had come up to our expectations…

Signed Lt. Zabel

German penetration during the attack on the Kursk salient and Soviet counteroffensive in the northern sector.

On the 15th Das Reich’s panzer regiment finally made contact with Kempf’s III Panzer Corps when it joined hands with elements of 7th Panzer Division. Their junction accomplished the encirclement and destruction of substantial enemy forces in the Gostishchevo-Liski area, but these tactical successes could not salvage the strategic failure of Zitadelle. Events outside the Kursk salient were now moving faster, and assuming greater importance, than the continuing effort to destroy Vatutin’s reserves. Two days after meeting Hitler at Rastenburg, Manstein told Hoth and Kempf what was rapidly becoming obvious, that Zitadelle, as it had originally been planned, was no longer possible, principally due to the lack of progress made by Model’s Ninth Army and the counteroffensive now beating on its rear. Far from ordering a withdrawal, however, Manstein announced his intention of bringing Fourth Panzer Army up to the line of the Psel. It was noted that Hoth seemed pleased that the southern half of the operation was to be carried forward, albeit in a restricted form, rather then being completely abandoned.

Two days later the game was up. On 17 July a powerful Soviet attack on the German defences in the south, along the Mius line, was launched by Colonel-General Tolbukhin’s South-Western Front which fielded five infantry armies, two mechanized corps, three tank brigades and a cavalry corps. On Tolbukhin’s right Malinovsky’s South-Western Front attacked First Panzer Army across the Donets south of Izyum. North of the Kursk salient Model was undertaking a ‘planned withdrawal’ from the Orel salient to escape being cut off by Kutuzov, which, by 19 July, had smashed through his first and second defence belts to achieve a penetration forty miles deep and eighty miles wide. Model, with about 600,000 men, 492,300 of them combat troops, was facing a second Stalingrad. By 18 August he had avoided encirclement and withdrawn to the temporary safety of the Hagen line, a system of field fortifications running across the neck of the Orel salient.

On 17 July Hitler directed that II SS Panzer Corps be withdrawn from the front line; within twenty-four hours Hoth was also obliged to relinquish control of Grossdeutschland, which was sent to assist Army Group Centre. On the 19th the OKW war diarist noted that ‘operation Zitadelle is no longer possible on account of the violence of the enemy’s counter-offensive’. By then II SS Panzer Corps’s headquarters had been established in Kharkov; by 23 July Fourth Panzer Army had withdrawn to its start line. Over Manstein’s objections, XXIV Panzer Corps, which had moved up behind Hoth in the closing stages of Zitadelle and was the only reserve with which to exploit success, was moved south to reinforce First Panzer Division against Malinovsky’s counter-offensive.

In spite of the collapse of Zitadelle, Hitler’s principal preoccupation remained the situation in Italy. On 19 July he met Mussolini near Feltre, talking uninterruptedly for two hours until a message arrived informing the Duce that Rome was under heavy air attack. Later that day Mussolini wrote in his diary:

‘He [Hitler] told me that the Italian crisis was a leadership crisis, and hence a human one. He would send reinforcements for the air force and new divisions to defend the peninsula. He declared that the defence of Italy is also in Germany’s highest interests. His choice of words was friendly at all times, and we parted on the best of terms. The Führer’s aircraft took off soon afterwards.’

A more realistic view of the strategic dilemma confronting the Axis was taken by Marshal Vittorio Ambrosio, Chief of the Italian General Staff, who took the opportunity at Feltre to ask Keitel about the situation on the Eastern Front. Keitel would say no more than that the Russians were being worn down. ‘This’, replied Ambrosio, ‘is not an active programme, but the renunciation of the initiative in operations. In substance the Axis is besieged; it is in a closed ring; it is necessary to get out. What prospects have you got for doing this?’ Keitel gave no reply.

On 25 July Mussolini was deposed by the Fascist Grand Council. Convinced that Italy was about to drop out of the war,(4) Hitler ordered Zeitzler to withdraw II SS Panzer Corps for transfer to the West. The extraction of the Corps, however, did not follow immediately nor, when all the moves were completed, did the whole Corps travel to Italy. At the end of July II SS Panzer Corps was still needed in the East to stem the Russian offensive on the Mius, now threatening to engulf Hollidt’s Sixth Army which had been reformed after the débâcle at Stalingrad.

On the night of 13 July Rotmistrov drove Zhukov to the headquarters of 29th Tank Corps. On the way Zhukov stopped the car several times to view the sites of recent tank battles. Rotmistrov wrote: ‘It was an awesome scene, with battered and burned-out tanks, wrecked guns, armoured personnel carriers and trucks, heaps of artillery rounds and pieces of tracks lying everywhere. Not a single blade of grass was left standing on the darkened soil.’ At one point Zhukov left the car to peer at a burned-out Panther which had been rammed by a T-70. A few yards away a Tiger and a T-34 were locked in a crazy embrace. ‘This is what a head-on clash is like,’ murmured Zhukov, doffing his cap in tribute to the Soviet tank crews who had died in the fighting on the 12th.

In the years after the war Prokhorovka achieved almost mythic status as a dramatic symbol of Russian armoured renaissance and as a convenient rationalization of German defeat by overwhelming numbers – the ‘steamroller’ of Russian military legend. An examination of Fourth Panzer Army’s daily tank returns, however, suggests that, for all the violence of the encounter, German armoured losses at Prokhorovka were relatively slight. If, as the Russians claimed, over 400 tanks were dug up from the fields around Prokhorovka after the war, the great majority of them must have been the T-34s of 29th and 18th Tank Corps.

At Kursk Fourth Panzer Army suffered its worst losses in the first six days of the fighting before the climactic encounter at Prokhorovka. Tank figures are hard to pin down because of the regular replenishment of front-line units as damaged vehicles were repaired and brought back into action. On the 13th Vasilevsky was informed by a German prisoner-of-war that, after two replenishments in the first week of fighting, the strength of Das Reich stood at 100 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army’s daily returns show that, between 11 and 13 July, its armoured strength fell from 530 vehicles (on the 11th) to 505 (on the 13th), a loss of only twenty-five tanks after the clash at Prokhorovka. Many more tanks may have been lost at Prokhorovka, to be replaced by a surge of repaired vehicles on the evening of the 12th; this seems unlikely, however, given that, after the 13th, Fourth Panzer Army’s strength remained relatively stable, dropping to 466 on the 15th and then recovering to 530 on the 16th and 591 on the 17th.

Perhaps the real significance of Prokhorovka lay in the fact that – heavy losses or not – Fifth Guards Tank Army stopped II SS Panzer Corps in its tracks. The effect of this was felt not so much on the aggregate of German armour as on the morale of Fourth Panzer Army’s elite troops for whom this must have seemed like the last straw. The fact that, in the subsequent fighting at Kursk, German losses remained relatively low suggests that the terrible slog through Vatutin’s echeloned defences had sapped morale to the point where the will to press home attacks against continuing strong Russian resistance was ebbing away. After 12 July even elite units had had the stuffing knocked out of them. Significantly, on the 15th Rotmistrov noted a change of German tactics in the Prokhorovka sector. Rather than commit forces in dense combat formations, the SS divisions sent out small reconnaissance groups of three to five heavy tanks, supported by motorized infantry, in the hope of drawing anti-tank fire and locating the weak points in the Russian defences. These probing attacks were followed by artillery and mortar preparation for more frontal attacks, all of which were repulsed. By the evening of the 15th the fighting had died down around Prokhorovka. According to Rotmistrov, ‘the enemy gave up their attacks and did not even harass our troops with artillery fire’.

Even as Zhukov was muttering his tribute to the Soviet soldier on the battlefield at Prokhorovka, Central and Voronezh Fronts’ tank losses at Kursk had reached 1500 vehicles, nearly half the tank fleet with which they had begun the battle. Fourth Panzer Army claimed to have destroyed 185 in the fighting on 8 July alone. These losses, however, were rapidly made good by the almost superhuman efforts of the Russian field-repair shops. By 3 August Soviet tank strength in the Kursk sector had risen to 2750. The immediate problem for Zhukov and Vasilevsky was not the number of missioncapable tanks but the replacement of crews killed in the battle.

German losses had also been high. Fourth Panzer Army’s twenty-five-mile advance had cost it some 330 tanks and assault guns; 3rd Panzer Division was down to thirty vehicles by 17 July. Fourth Panzer Army’s losses assume a grim significance when one considers that this was almost the exact figure for Germany’s monthly tank production, which had not achieved the 1000 a month scheduled for 1943. By the end of July 1943 total German tank losses on the Eastern Front would reach 645 tanks and 207 assault guns. As a result the central armoured reserve on which the Ostheer had previously been able to draw in a crisis was now dissipated and could not be built out of current production which was committed to the replacement of normal losses. The panzer arm would continue to inflict heavy punishment on clumsily led Russian tank masses, but Soviet tank production, which would reach 2500 a month in 1944, kept steadily ahead of losses, enabling the Red Army remorselessly to increase its net complement of armoured formations.(5) Henceforth the Ostheer would be deprived of the means of seizing the initiative which, as General Ambrosio observed, had passed to the Soviet Union.

Nor had Zitadelle netted a huge haul of Russian prisoners to be marched back to the Reich and there worked to death as slave labour. Army Group South took approximately 24,000 prisoners, a fraction of the millions who had fallen into German hands in 1941-2. In the immediate aftermath of Kursk the Soviet formations which had borne the brunt of the onslaught were seriously weakened. But the power of the Red Army continued to grow, drawing on a total force of 6.5 million men with another half million in reserve.

In contrast, the Ostheer was a shrinking asset. At the end of August Manstein was complaining that, for the 133,000 casualties sustained by Army Group South in July and August, there had only been 33,000 replacements. Even in an elite division like Grossdeutschland which usually received favoured treatment when it came to replacements, the manpower shortage was becoming acute and the rate at which junior officers were killed or wounded very high. Between 26 July and 5 September 1943 the division’s 6th Grenadier Company went through ten commanders, of whom two were NCOs. Two months after Zitadelle the average size of a Grossdeutschland company was about twenty men while the division’s 2 Grenadier Battalion consisted of just three officers and twenty-two men. The assault infantry divisions which had laboriously been brought up to strength in the weeks preceding Zitadelle had been smashed up: in Army Detachment Kempf 106 Division had lost 3224 officers and men, 320 Division 2839 and 168 Division 2671. John Ellis has pointed out that, in terms of the combat infantry in each division, these losses represented casualty rates of, respectively, 38, 29 and 27 per cent, each suffered within a fortnight. In 1944 the worst-hit British divisions in north-west Europe took six months to match such casualty rates.

Conceived, planned and executed by the heirs of the Great General Staff, Zitadelle had been a complete failure on the part of the professional military class which Hitler so despised. Mussolini’s overthrow by his generals only increased the Führer’s isolation and paranoia. A Materialschlacht – clash of machines – had been sought at Kursk in the full knowledge that the attacking forces were inferior to the enemy and that there were insufficient reserves to exploit any success to the hilt. The operation seems to have been planned on the assumption that, as had invariably happened before, the Russians would collapse at the first impact. Little thought was given to what might happen if they did not, although Model had a pretty clear idea of the consequences. Dash, and the dismissal of the enemy as Slavic Untermenschen, was no longer enough. When the enemy stubbornly refused to disintegrate, and then began to pick apart both Hoth’s and Model’s weakly held left flanks, the folly of the exercise was starkly revealed. Poor German intelligence at every stage of the operation and the masterly placing and handling of the Russian strategic reserve had ensured the failure of Zitadelle.

The failure of Zitadelle was compounded by Manstein’s schizophrenic approach to the likelihood of a Russian counter-blow following a German withdrawal. On the one hand he had warned Hitler of the danger to his Army Group’s southern flank. On the other he had informed Hoth that Zitadelle would be concluded by moving up to the Psel, a course of action which suggests that Fourth Panzer Army had not suffered the grievous losses which characterize the received view of Prokhorovka. The rest of the summer would be spent straightening the line and transferring the weight of German armour southward, ‘to iron out things in the Donets area’, in preparation for a Russian counter-offensive in the winter.

Thus the rhythms of the Eastern Front would be preserved: German gains in the summer followed by a Russian riposte after the autumnal rasputitsa. Further evidence of the German belief that the blow dealt to Russian armour would not be repaired until the winter is provided by the insistence on a rigorous tank inspection programme which took in all vehicles in need of repair and sent them back to maintenance depots in Kharkov and Bogodukhov. This created such a logjam that, after 1 August, tanks and assault guns were being sent as far west as Kiev, even for minor repairs to the running gear and gunnery-control equipment. In this way much of Manstein’s armoured strength was dissipated.

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