Belgorod-Bogodukhov Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet southern component of the 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' strategic offensive to retake the area to the south of Kursk from which the Germans had launched the southern part of 'Zitadelle' (3/27 August 1943).

During 'Zitadelle', the German armoured formations of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' operating in the area to the south of the Kursk salient had failed in their task of penetrating the Soviet defences between the General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front in the Belgorod sector. In parallel with 'Kutuzov' as its element to the north of the Kursk salient, the Soviet 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev' operation now followed 'Zitadelle' and included as its southern objective the swift liberation of Belgorod, a task allocated to the Voronezh Front in the north-western part of the operational area and the Steppe Front in its south-eastern part.

Flanked on their left by the divisions of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps and General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Corps, on 23 July the forces of General Erhard Raus’s XI Corps fell back to their well fortified pre-'Zitadelle' positions on each side Belgorod. These formations' combat strength, it should be noted, had been reduced by as much as 50% by the end of 'Zitadelle'.

At a time early on 3 August, the forces of the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front (eventually using, from north-west at Sumy on the Psel river to south-east along the Donets river, the 40th, 27th, 1st Guards Tank, 6th Guards, 5th Guards, 5th Guards Tank, 53rd, 69th and 7th Guards Armies) began to advance on a front 110 miles (175 km) wide between Sumy and Volchansk, crossed the Vorskla river. The three primary Soviet formations were the 6th Guards Army in the van, and the 5th Guards Army and 69th Army, and these quickly penetrated the defences of Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 332nd Division and Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division to a depth of 60 miles (100 km) between Tomarovka and Belgorod on the northern flank, and as far to the south-west as Bogodukhov, in the process sweeping aside the weakened 19th Panzerdivision commanded by Generalleutnant Gustav Schmidt and from 7 Augst, after Schmidt’s suicide, Generalleutnant Hans Källner. By 5 August Belgorod, which was defended by General Erhard Raus’s XI Corps, was also being surrounded and isolated, requiring attempts by General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' and Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee to relieve the garrison, which Adolf Hitler ordered must be held at all costs.

While the German intention was to pinch out the Soviet offensive at the shoulders of the penetration between Borisovka and Graivoron to the south of Vorskla river, the high rate of the Steppe Front’s and Voronezh Front’s offensive meant that by the time the counterattacks had been readied and put into motion, on 6 August, Belgorod had been evacuated and the German forces were now defending Kharkov farther to the south. The German mobile forces were now heading into a meeting with the main thrust of the Soviet tank armies. The German counterattacks were carried out by General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps of the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' in the area of Olshany, and General Dietrich von Choltitz’s XLVIII Panzerkorps of the 4th Panzerarmee in a pincer manoeuvre in the areas of Krasnokutsk and Akhtyrka. In the course of the fighting, which occurred on each side of the Merla and Merchik rivers, the superiority of the German Panzer divisions was clear despite the fact that they had been involved in non-stop combat operations since 5 July. While SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s 5th SS Panzerdivision 'Wiking' and Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision fought what were primarily defensive operations, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s 3rd SS Panzerdivision 'Totenkopf' in repeated attacks blunted the Soviet efforts in the area to the south of the rivers and Bogodukhov.

As at Prokhorovka in 'Zitadelle', the Russians had a very considerable superiority in their number of tanks. Both General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army and General Leytenant A. Pavel Rotmistrov’s (from 9 August General Leytenant Mikhail D. Solomatin and from the very next day General Leytenant Vasili T. Volsky’s) 5th Guards Tank Army moved into action with more than 500 tanks each, while the SS divisions had no more than 30 to 50 tanks each at any time during August. In spite of this, all Soviet attempts to penetrate to the all-important railway line were repulsed with severe losses in men and huge losses in tanks. The thrusts of Katukov’s 1st Tank Army to the south of the Merchik river were cut off and destroyed on several occasions by the III Panzerkorps. The attempts by Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army Army to penetrate to the railway line from east of Bogodukhov were frustrated by the 3rd Panzerdivision and the 5th SS Panzerdivision 'Wiking', and significant defensive fighting was undertaken by elements of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich'. The 3rd SS Panzerdivision 'Totenkopf' undertook a masterly attack which cut off armour and infantry elements of the 27th Army & 6th Guards Army in the area to south of Krasnokutsk and then drove down the Soviet line of communication from Kolomak, in the area to the south of Konstantinovka. After this, a number of German attacks encircled disorganised elements of several Soviet divisions and destroyed major parts of them in short order. Subsequently, the 3rd SS Panzerdivision 'Totenkopf' drove forward to the Merla river and forced a crossing to link with the spearheads of the 4th Panzerarmee at Parchomovka. Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s Division 'Grossdeutschland' was forced to withdraw from that town by Soviet pressure against it northern side, however, so the success of the Panzer divisions could not be expoited.

After Belgorod had been retaken on 6 August by the 69th and 7th Guards Armies of the Steppe Front, the Soviets were now in the position to start the concentration of forces for their 'Kharkov Offensive Operation'.