To support this mighty armoured phalanx, the Luftwaffe had assembled 1,800 aircraft, representing some two-thirds of all aircraft available in the east. In support of Ninth Army Luftflotte 4, had allocated 1st Luftwaffe Air Division, while the whole of Luftflotte 6 was available to support the southern thrust. On the crowded airfields around Orel, Belgorod and Kharkov were grouped the Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s of KGs 3, 27 and 55; fighter units were drawn from JGs 3, 51, 52 and 54, flying Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-5s and Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6s. Although the Soviet Air force had made great strides, the Luftwaffe still held the edge, both in the quality of its fighters and the expertise of its pilots. Of particular importance, was the first deployment, en masse, of the Schlachtgeschwader units flying Fw 190s and Henschel Hs 129s. ‘Citadel’ also saw the last, widespread use of the Stukagruppen in the classic dive-bomber role.
The German Luftwaffe, consisting of two Luftflottes (air forces) with a total of 2,050 aircraft, were made available. Because Operation CITADEL called for a two-prong attack against the Russian stronghold at Kursk, Army Group Center was supported by Luftflotte 6 commanded by General Ritter von Greim; Army Group South was supported by General Otto Desslach’s Luftflotte 4.
On the Russian side, three air armies were made available to defend the Russian salient. The Sixteenth Air Army under Marshal S. I. Rudenko supported the Central Front, the Steppe Front was supported by Fifth Air Army under Colonel General Goryunov, and the Voronezh Front was supported by Air Marshal S. A. Krasovski’s Second Air Army.
Air operations began the first day when long-range radar alerted the Germans to a preemptive attack by the Second Air Army on airfields around Kharkov. The Germans, preparing for preemptive strike of their own, were able to get all serviceable aircraft airborne. The Russian force of 450 airplanes, expecting to catch the Germans by surprise, took heavy losses when it ran into waiting German fighters, giving the Germans air superiority in that sector.
The Battle of Kursk saw Germans using aircraft to make up for losses suffered at Stalingrad and in Africa. Specialized Junkers Ju 87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129Bs were used as flying artillery to compensate for weak ground artillery. Their formations were responsible for killing hundreds of Russian tanks. On the Russian side, Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmoviks armed with 37mm cannons were used with devastating effect against German armor.
In addition to the flying antitank weapons, the Germans armed their Focke-Wulf Fw 190As with SD-1 and SD-2 antipersonnel containers that rained down fragmentation bomblets on infantry and artillery positions. The Russians concentrated on antitank operations and getting as many aircraft as possible into the fighting. In the end, quantity overshadowed quality. The Luftwaffe, unlike the Russians, did not have a steady supply of replacements for men and materiel. In order to bring the 1st Division to its pre-invasion strength, all other air units on the Eastern Front had to be stripped of every available aircraft.
By 9 July, with the German attack faltering on the northern prong of the offensive, 50 percent of Luftflotte 6’s forces were shifted southward to support a possible breakthrough. In the end, Operation CITADEL fell short of its goals, and the offensive was suspended with the U. S. invasion of Italy. The combat initiative passed into Soviet hands and was never relinquished.
Fourth Panzer Army/Army Detachment ‘Kempf’/Voronezh Front
Vatutin had already decided that the German offensive was imminent, following the advance of the whole of Fourth Panzer Army on the afternoon of the previous day to a new position that allowed them to place artillery observers overlooking the Soviet defences. As on the Central Front, interrogation of prisoners in the early hours of the 5th had elicited sufficient information to persuade Vatutin to order 6th and 7th Guards Armies at 0230 to loose off their own 600-gun barrage, to disrupt the assembling German units. At 0330 hours the German artillery replied with a tremendous barrage along the entire front of Fourth Panzer Army. Official reports later stated that the Germans fired more shells in this barrage than they had throughout the entire Polish and French campaigns combined.
As the first reports came in from Chistyakov’s 6th Guards, the numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft supporting the advancing Fourth Panzer Army clearly indicated that a major plank in the Soviet plan had gone awry. An attempt by 2nd Air Army to destroy Luftwaffe aircraft on their airfields around Kharkov only moments before they were due to take off was forestalled when a Freya long-range radar station registered the massive incoming air strike. The Fw 190s and Bf 109s of JGs 3 and 52 were scrambled at the very last minute and managed to catch the Russian air armada short of the bases. In what was to be the largest air battle of the war, a huge melee involving more than 500 aircraft began. Russian losses, though not grievous, were sufficient to give the Luftwaffe air superiority over the battlefield during the first day of the offensive. More than 2,000 sorties were flown on the 5th in support of Fourth Panzer Army.
At 0400 Fourth Panzer Army went over to the offensive along the entire thirty miles of its front between Belgorod and Gertsovka. The panzers rumbled over the paths through the minefields that the sappers had spent most of the night clearing. In all, the 700 tanks and assault guns of two panzer corps smashed a huge mailed fist at Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army in the hope of destroying it and driving through the Soviet defences by the end of the day. Such expectations quickly broke down in the face of the sheer scale of the Soviet defences and as a consequence of other factors beyond the control of the planning staffs.
II SS Panzer Corps – 5 July 1943
II SS Panzer Corps had broken through the anti-tank barriers and artillery positions of 52nd Guards Division and had penetrated some twenty kilometres into the defensive zone.
On the right wing of the Corps, in the fading light of the summer evening, assault units of SS Totenkopf supported by Tigers seized an important 69th Army command post in the village of Yakhontovo. Apart from amply demonstrating the elan associated with the Waffen-SS units, the comparatively rapid progress of the Corps through the Soviet lines was brought about by a remarkable combination of concentrated firepower on the ground and very close air support. Without doubt the 41 Tigers available to the Corps on the 5th endowed the Panzerkeil of the SS Panzer Corps with great destructive power.
Overhead, relays of ground-attack aircraft blasted a corridor for the advancing SS divisions. In the forefront of the German air strikes was a number of Ju 87Gs equipped with 37mm twin cannon, under the command of the famous pilot Hans Rudel. Apart from the ubiquitous Stuka, Fw 190s dropped SD-1 and SD-2 high-fragmentation bombs on the Soviet defences along the line of march, wreaking havoc among the anti-tank gun and artillery crews. In addition, Hs 129s armed with a belly-mounted 30mm cannon shot up Soviet armour and artillery positions. In this way the very heavily fortified Soviet villages of Berezov, Gremuchi, Bykovo, Kozma-Demyanovka and Voznesenski, all lying along the line of march of the SS Panzer corps, fell relatively quickly to the combined air and ground assault. The virtual air superiority enjoyed by the Luftwaffe over the southern part of the salient was a high price for the Soviets to pay for the failure of their preemptive strike on the German air bases earlier in the day. As dusk fell, the SS Panzer Corps was well placed to exploit its gains, but the Corps’ losses had been heavy, the ‘Leibstandarte’ alone losing some 97 killed and 522 wounded. Along the entire length of Fourth Panzer Army’s front the going had been very hard, but the Germans had managed to split 6th Guards Army’s front in two places. It looked as though Hoth’s plan, notwithstanding the slower than anticipated rate of advance, could still be carried out.