The 'Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation' was the Soviet defence of the Kursk salient and otherwise known as the Battle of Kursk, in which the main hostilities took place on the north-eastern and south-eastern faces of the Kursk salient and which was carried out with the object of defeating the German 'Zitadelle' offensive intended to pinch out the salient (5/16 July 1943).
After the conclusion of the battle for the Donets river and as the spring rasputitsa (mud) season came to an end in the spring of 1943, the Germans and the Soviets each took stock of their plans for future operations. On the Soviet side, Iosef Stalin and some senior officers wanted to seize the initiative first and attack the German forces on the Eastern Front, but were soon convinced by a number of key commanders, including the deputy supreme commander, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, that it would be better to assume a defensive posture as this would allow the Germans to weaken themselves in attacking prepared positions, after which the Soviet forces would be able to respond more effectively with a counter-offensive.
Strategic discussions also occurred on the German side, with Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein arguing for a mobile defence that would yield territory and allow the Soviets to advance, while the German forces launched a series of sharp counterattacks against their flanks to inflict heavy attritional losses. But for political reasons, Adolf Hitler insisted that the Germans take the offensive, and the Kursk salient was selected as the area for the attack. On 15 April, Hitler ordered the start of preparations for 'Zitadelle'.
'Zitadelle' called for a double envelopment, directed at Kursk, to surround the five Soviet armies defending the area and seal off the salient. Generalfeldmarschall Günther Hans von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was to provide Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army as the northern pincer, which was to strike through the north-eastern end of the salient, drive to the south and south-east to the hills lying to the east of Kursk and secure the railway lining Orel and Kursk from Soviet attack. Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was to commit Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' to pierce the south-eastern corner of the salient. These two formations were then to drive north and north-east to meet the 9th Army in the area to the east of Kursk. von Manstein’s main attack was to be delivered by the 4th Panzerarmee, spearheaded by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps. General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' were to advance on the left and right respectively. General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army was to contain the western portion of the salient.
The German object in 'Zitadelle' was thus to pinch out the large Soviet westward-facing salient centred on Kursk, for this would shorten the German front, so allowing the diversion of troops to other sectors of the Eastern Front, and to take Kursk, which was the birthplace of the T-34 tank and an extremely important development and manufacturing component of the USSR’s war industries.
'Zitadelle' was originally to have been launched at the beginning of May, but was postponed several times as the German leadership reconsidered and vacillated over its prospects, and also used the time to bring forward more formations and units as well as more, and in some cases, more modern weapons and equipment.
As soon as the German high command had issued the order for 'Zitadelle', which ordained that the operation should be ready to start at six days' notice after 28 April, the 9th Army, which was to head the offensive in the zone of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', protested that its deployment could not be completed by 3 May. At a meeting on 3 May, Hitler conferred with von Manstein, von Kluge, Model, General Kurt Zeitzler in his capacity as chief of the army general staff, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian in his capacity as inspector general of armoured troops, Albert Speer in his capacity as minister of armaments and munitions, and Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek in his capacity as the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe’s chief-of-staff. There followed a discussion on the problems which Model expected the 9th Army might encounter in breaking through a 'well-fortified' Soviet front line and the inability of the PzKpfw IV battle tank to stand up to the newest Soviet anti-tank weapons. Hitler closed the meeting without giving any decision, but indicated privately to Model that 'Zitadelle' was be postponed. von Manstein, von Kluge, Zeitzler and Jeschonnek all objected to the idea of any delay, and Guderian and Speer objected to 'Zitadelle' being executed at all because they argued that even if successful the offensive would entail heavy tank losses and upset plans for an overall increase in armoured strength for the army. Hitler decided to let 'Zitadelle' wait until June, by which time he expected to have tanks of newer models available in quantity. On 6 May, the Oberkommando des Heeres announced the postponement of 'Zitadelle' to 12 June.
On 10 May, Guderian was summoned to Berlin for a discussion on the production of the new PzKpfw V Panther battle tank, and potential delays in its programme. After the conference, Guderian asked for meeting with Hitler, in which Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s general staff, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Thomale, Guderian’s chief-of-staff, and Karl Saur, the state secretary of the armaments ministry, were also present. Guderian asked Hitler why he wished to attack on the Eastern Front at all and how many people even knew where Kursk. According to Guderian, Hitler responded that Guderian was quite correct and that when he thought about the attack his stomach turned over. Hitler assured Guderian that there was as yet no inevitable commitment to the operation. However, at a May meeting of Nazi party officials, Hitler compared the current situation in the Eastern Front to the predicament of the party in 1932, when it seemed to go down in political defeat at the hands of Franz von Papen and Hindenburg. He stated that 'In 1932, we attained victory only by stubbornness that sometimes looked like madness; so, too, we will achieve it today.'
In the first weeks of June, the forces for 'Zitadelle' were at their peak. On 18 June, the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, which was not in fact responsible for operations on the Eastern Front, submitted a proposal that 'Zitadelle' be abandoned, and that all the forces which could be spared should be redeployed into strategic reserve for the defence of Italy and the Balkans, as well as of Germany proper. On the same day, Hitler responded that while he fully appreciated the opinion of the operations staff, he had decided to proceed. Two days later, he scheduled the start of 'Zitadelle' for 5 July.
The Soviet supreme command had learned from its intelligence agencies and foreign sources about the German plan, and therefore the multiple German delays provided it with considerable time to prepare the defences of the Kursk salient. Sensibly opting for defence in great depth, the Soviets constructed a series of defensive lines to wear down the attacking Panzer formations. Three primary belts, each comprising large minefields, anti-tank ditches and anti-tank gun emplacements, were created. Behind those were an additional three belts, which were mostly unoccupied and less well fortified. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front was tasked with defending the salient’s southern face, and Rokossovsky’s Central Front was ordered to defend its northern face. Waiting in reserve was General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. It is worth noting that in February 1943, the Central Front had been reconstructed from the Don Front, which had been part of the northern pincer of 'Uran' and had been responsible for the destruction of Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army at Stalingrad.
The 'Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation' was fought in to geographically separate but operationally and chronologically interlinked sub-operations: on the northern face of the Kursk salient was the 'Orel-Kursk Defensive Operation' (5/11 July), and on the salient’s southern face the 'Belgorod-Kursk Defensive Operation' (5/23 July).
The Soviet defence of the Kursk salient was the task of two fronts. In the north was Rokossovsky’s Central Front, whose 61st Army, 3rd Army, 53rd Army, 3rd Guards Tank Army, 48th Army, 13th Army, 2nd Tank Army, 70th Army, 6th Army and 60th Army held the line southward from Belev to Ponyri, then westward to Dmitrovsk Orlovsky, and finally southward to the Seim river at Korenevo. In the south was Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, whose 38th Army, 40th Army, 27th Army, 1st Tank Army, 6th Guards Army, 5th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army, 53rd Army, 69th Army and 7th Guards Army held the line southward from the Seim river to the Sumy area, then eastward to the Belgorod area and finally southward to Volchansk.
The German attack on the Central Front was that of von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of Model’s 9th Army, and on the Voronezh Front was that of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' in the form of Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf'.
It is often claimed that the repeated postponement of the start date for 'Zitadelle' from times in May to June and finally to July 1943 was a major contributor to the German defeat in that year’s summer. For example, Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist argued after the end of World War II that 'the Germans were four weeks late in launching the Battle of Kursk, [and] that was our opinion before the start of the fighting', and a similar opinion was expressed by von Manstein. These German views reflect the belief of many that in May the Soviet forces in the Kursk region were too weak, in both men and matériel, to have withstood 'Zitadelle'. However, this belief conflicts with details of the Soviet supreme command’s plan for the summer campaign and the Soviet reinforcement, retraining and resupply effort
Zhukov later noted that 'until 12 April, the headquarters had not yet worked out a specific decision on the methods of action of our troops in the spring and summer period of 1943 in the Kursk Bulge area.' On 12 April, in the course of a meeting between Iosef Stalin, Zhukov (deputy supreme commander), Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky (chief of the general staff) and General Polkovnik Aleksei I. Antonov (first deputy chief of the general staff), drew on the evidence provided by political intelligence (as early as April the British intelligence officer and double agent had warned the USSR that a German offensive was to be made) and the strategic and front-line intelligence services to conclude that the Germans, in the period following the hardening of the ground after the spring thaw early in May, would launch an offensive with the aim of eliminating the westward-facing salient centred on Kursk. The Soviet politico-military leadership therefore reached a preliminary decision to switch to strategic defence.
At this time, it should be noted, the Germans had only the 'Draft Plan for Operation Zitadelle' of 12 April.
By the end of the month, the Soviet leadership had decided to implement a major preparation of Rokossovsky’s Central Front and Vatutin’s Voronezh Front in the form initially of increased planning by their military councils in co-operation with the general staff. On 25 and 28 April, the commanders of both fronts reported that the completion of their allotted tasks was essentially concluded. The Soviet supreme command approved the general scheme of the Kursk strategic defensive operation presented by Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and ordered the full preparation by 10 May of the two fronts' forces to repel the German attack that was now known to be in the offing, and also set the date for the Soviet forces' possible transition to the offensive no later than 1 June.
It was thanks to the implementation of far-sighted decisions of 12 April that by the end of the first days of May the Soviets were basically ready to conduct defensive battles near Kursk with the forces that the Germans currently possessed in the Kursk area, and by the beginning of June the Central Front and Voronezh Front had the numbers of men that would prove decisive in after the launch of 'Zitadelle'.
On 20 March, Rokossovsky’s Central Front had 304,464 men, but by 5 May this total had increased to 365,641, representing 78% of its manpower strength at the beginning of the Battle of Kursk. At the same time, the number of men in General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, which was the formation of the Central Front that was to take on the main blow of Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army on the north-eastern shoulder of the salient, during the same time increased by 42,552 men to 114,456 men, which was 86% of its strength on 5 July. The increase was the result primarily of the arrival of three infantry divisions, and the reinforcement of its current divisions by some 18% from averages of 6,378 to 7,527 men. For Pukhov’s army, April was the month in which it received the largest replenishment of manpower in the entire period of preparation for summer battles. By 29 May the 13th Army had received another 14,701 men for a strength of 129,157 men, representing 97% of the manpower strength on 5 July. By the end of May, the Central Front had 451,179 men, or 97% of the total at the beginning of 'Zitadelle'.
So far as armoured vehicle strength was concerned, on 3 May the Central Front had 674 tanks and 38 self-propelled guns, or 40% of the availability of such vehicles on 5 July, and the 13th Army possessed 137 tanks, or 64% of the number it had at the beginning of the battles. At the start of May, the Central Front was significantly inferior to the Voronezh Front: on 15 May, the Voronezh Front had 1,380 tanks, or 76% of the number that it would field by the beginning of the Battle of Kursk, and the Central Front only half as many. By the end of this month, however, the situation had started to change, and on 5 June the Central Front had 1,216 tanks, or 72% of the number available to it on 5 July, including 171 tanks, or 80 of its 5 July total, in the 13th Army.
Just as rapid was the reinforcement of Vatutin’s Voronezh Front. On 5 April, it had 208,391 men and on 5 May 351,459 men, an increase of 143,068 men, and 84% of its planned strength on 5 July. During this period, the forces sent to General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, on the probable axis of the Germans' main attack on the south-eastern shoulder of the Kursk salient, totalled 30,262 men to increase the army’s strength to 72,836 men: the average strength of the army’s infantry divisions rose by 28% from 5,982 to 7,666 men. In General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, which lay farther to the south-east and on the probable axis of a German subsidiary attack, received 9,407 men to increase its total to 67,231 men, representing a 27% boost in divisional strengths from 5,965 to 7,600 men. By 30 May, the Voronezh Front’s men had increased in number to 409,785, or 98% of those available on 5 July. By 5 June the 6th Guards Army and 7th Guards Army had 79,937 men (about 100%) and 71,332 men (93% ) respectively.
The Soviet mobile formations and units if the Voronezh Front and South-West Front operating in the winter and early spring of 1943 had suffered very heavy losses. In the various corps, tank numbers were no greater than those of full-strength battalions. As a result, at the end of March, the Soviet supreme command decided to replenish these formations at a matter of the highest priority. During April, the bulk of new vehicles delivered from Soviet factories was delivered for the reconstitution of these formations: between 1 and 15 April, the Voronezh Front received 219 new armoured vehicles and 6,432 men for its tank corps and brigades: while on 9 April the Voronezh Front had 276 serviceable tanks, on 21 April it had 540 such machines. At the same time, the repair of damaged combat vehicles was under way at an emergency pace by the front’s own repair facilities. In addition, on 28 April, the Stavka transferred to Vatutin General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, which had arrived in the Kursk region from the North-West Front in March, as well as several separate tank units. By 5 May, Katukov’s army was almost completely equipped with armoured vehicles, including 481 tanks, and by 5 July it would receive another 61 such vehicles.
Thus, both the German and Soviet strategic formations were almost completely ready for the Battle of Kursk. At the same time, for example, the 9th Army early in May did not receive the minimum that was promised before the start of 'Zitadelle',and at that time its infantry divisions and tank formations had not been fully restored and could not provide the answers required for the German summer campaign. By May, on the other hand, the Soviets were in the position to defeat the German assaults on the salient north-east and south-east shoulders. Thus von Manstein’s assertion that by the end of May the Soviet forces holding the salient were not fully combat-ready are far from the reality of the situation.
There is a military axiom that the success of a strategic offensive operation the attackers must possess a 3/2 superiority over the defenders.
As on 4 May, von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', of which the 9th Army was the key element, had a mere 442 PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks, but no examples of the new PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tank. Of these 442 tanks, only 314 (71%) were serviceable. von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had 1,087 tanks, of which 728 (67%) were serviceable. In May, therefore, the Soviet/German ratio in the north of the Kursk salient was 1.5/1, and in the salient’s south 1.3/1. This unfavourable ratio remained for the Germans right through to the start of 'Zitadelle'. Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck, who commanded the 7th Panzerdivision in 'Zitadelle', criticised the German offensive plan as 'idiotic' and argued that the whole 'future operation violates the basic rules of troop command': it is hard to disagree with him.
It has been argued that Model made a fundamental mistake, resulting from faulty intelligence when calculating the ratio of forces of armoured strength between his own and Rokossovsky’s forces, when early in May he reported to Adolf Hitler that contrary to German intelligence estimates, only about 1,000 tanks and assault guns were deployed on the Central Front late in April or early in May, rather than 1,500. This was a fundamental mistake that largely explains why Model insisted on postponing the offensive. With 800 tanks against 1,500, the army commander had the right to argue that additional armoured strength was badly needed for the offensive. If Model realised that the Soviet superiority in armour was about 200 vehicles, he would have had a greater desire to act at that time. During the period of the delay in May and June, the 9th Army increased the number of its tanks by 25%, while the Soviets almost doubled their number of such vehicles.
However, this argument has been countered by assessment of the relevant figures, which indicate that at the beginning of May Model did not have 800 tanks: there were only about half of this total on the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and Rokossovsky’s front outnumbered Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in tanks by 674 to 442. To break through the Soviet defence, therefore, at the beginning of April Model differed from von Manstein in opting to rely on infantry reinforced by artillery, self-propelled guns and engineers.
This approach remained unchanged until the beginning of 'Zitadelle', and thus as the front of the Central Front was strengthened, Hoth, commander of the 4th Panzerarmee, became increasingly concerned: 'Will the first-echelon troops be able to break through the main and second lines of the Soviet defence so that the armour can penetrate into the operational space?'
Given his task of achieving a deep breakthrough, in May Model had at his disposal only a minimum allotment of armoured vehicles. And in order to achieve a decisive breakthrough of the Central Front’s defences, Model considered it necessary to field only heavy tanks which, being heavily armoured and possessing a powerful main gun, would in the first stage open the way for the infantry, destroy the best sited and most strongly constructed Soviet firing positions, and defeat any counterattacking Soviet tanks. On 3 May, however, Model had not a single such tank at his disposal, although in April the Oberkommando des Heeres had assured him that PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks would be delivered before the end of the month.
Model therefore demanded not only an increase in the number of armoured vehicles in his army, but insisted that his army received Tiger heavy ranks, PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks and Panzerjäger Tiger (P) (Elefant and later Ferdinand) heavy tank destroyers. Also of paramount importance for the 9th Army was the need for its infantry divisions to be brought up to full strength from their current depleted state. This latter was so difficult that on 20 April the Oberkommando des Heeres ordered a postponement of the start date for 'Zitadelle'.
Thus no credence can be given to the notion that Model was ready to commit his army in an assault toward Kursk as early as May. Model was in fact an opponent of 'Zitadelle': he was one of the few senior German commanders who not only understood its futility and was also unafraid to speak openly about it with Hitler.
In the German eastward-facing Orel salient to the north of the westward-facing Soviet Kursk salient, von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe Mitte' had General Heinrich Clössner’s 2nd Panzerarmee, whose three corps were located in the northern sector and did not become involved in 'Zitadelle', and Model’s 9th Army in the southern sector. As the heart of the Germans planned offensive to reach Kursk from the north-west, this latter had five major subordinate formations: General Rudolph von Roman’s XX Corps with four infantry divisions, General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps with four infantry (sic) divisions, General Josef Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps with one Panzer and two infantry divisions, General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps with three Panzer and one infantry divisions, and General Johannes Friessner’s XXIII Corps with three infantry divisions. In reserve the 9th Army had two Panzer and one Panzergrenadier divisions. In all, the Germans fielded about 460,000 men, 1,200 tanks, assault guns and tank destroyers, and about 6,000 pieces of artillery and mortars.
Air support for the 9th Army was provided by Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte Vi which, at the end of June in aid of 'Zitadelle', had some 730 aircraft allocated to the squadrons of the Jagdgeschwader 51 and JG 54 fighter wings, the Schlachtgeschwader 1 fighter-bomber wing, the Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 close support wing, and the Kampfgeschwader 1, KG 4, KG 51 and KG 53 bomber wings. In addition there were one or two short-range reconnaissance squadrons and one liaison squadron.
Rokossovsky’s Central Front comprised General Leytenant Prokofi L Romanenko’s 48th Army, Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s 70th Army, General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov’s 65th Army, General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 65th Army and General Leytenant Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army. Facing the attack sector of the 9th Army was Pukhov’s 13th Army, and the front’s reserve comprised General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army, the IX Tank Corps, the XIX tank Corps, and other reinforcement elements. Rokossovsky’s forces totalled 711,575 men, 1,785 tanks and self-propelled guns, 5,284 pieces of artillery, 5,792 mortars and 1,034 aircraft. Excluding four reconnaissance aircraft, these last were the equipment of six fighter divisions (455 fighters), two assault divisions (241 assault aircraft) and four bomber divisions (260 day bombers and 74 night bombers).
A very important role was played for the Soviets on the northern face of Kursk salient by Polkovnik Mikhail F. Ioffe’s 16th Mechanised Engineering Brigade which, in collaboration with the Central Front’s organic engineering units, before the start of 'Zitadelle' developed and constructed a large and comprehensive system of field fortifications and obstacles, and during the battle created specialised mobile obstacle detachments for deployment to threatened sectors. Between April and June, as many as 3,100 miles (5000 km) of trenches and communication trenches were dug in the Central Front’s area of operations, and 237,000 anti-tank mines, 167,000 anti-personnel mines, 63 radio-controlled land mines, and 500 miles (805 km) of barbed wire were installed. In just the sector of the 13th Army, engineers laid 50,000 anti-tank mines, 30,000 anti-personnel mines, about 1,000 land mines and 46 delayed-action mines.
Despite his basic disbelief on the whole concept of 'Zitadelle', Model was bound by his orders and the strictures of Hitler and planned his part of the German offensive as best he could. The 9th Army's strike force was to deliver the main attack from the north to the south in the general direction to Kursk, a target some 45 miles (75 km) distant. Model planned that the main part of the 9th Army's operation would proceed in two echelons: in the first were two Panzer and seven infantry divisions, and in the second four Panzer, one Panzergrenadier and one infantry divisions. The protection of the strike group’s flanks and limited offensive/defensive actions on these flanks were to be the tasks of six infantry divisions in the sector between Troyena and Sevsk, and two infantry divisions in the sector between Zmievka and Malo-Arkhangyel’sk.
The greatest density of the Soviet defence was on the Central Front’s right flank: 17 infantry divisions of the 70th Army’s left flank, the 65th Army, the 60th Army and four infantry brigades were to continue their defence of the 125 miles (200 km) of the front’s defences round the rest of the northern and western faces as far round as the Seim river, where the Central Front met the Voronezh Front.
Vasilevsky, the chief of the Soviet general staff, was all too aware of the danger inherent in any lengthy operational pause: 'As a result of…observation of the [Germans] on both the Voronezh and Central Fronts, as well as according to…intelligence, we already knew for sure that the [Germans] were fully prepared for the offensive. But for some reason the offensive did not start. This…bothered us a lot, and even unbalanced some. Vatutin began to show particular impatience…[and]repeatedly put before me the question of the need to start an offensive…My arguments that the [Germans'] transition to the offensive against us was a matter of the coming days and that our offensive would certainly be beneficial only to the [Germans], but he was not convinced…Alexander Mikhailovich! We will oversleep, we will miss the moment… The [Germans] are not coming, soon autumn and all our plans will fail. Let’s quit digging in and start first. We have enough strength for this. From daily negotiations with the supreme commander-in-chief, I saw that he was also restless. Once [Stalin] told me that Vatutin called him and insisted that our offensive should be launched no later than the first days of July…Stalin also said that he considered this proposal deserving of the most serious attention.'
Finding no support from the general staff, Vatutin decided to find it in the person of Rokossovsky, who much to Vatutin’s surprise demurred categorically with the words '…After all, you yourself suggested launching an offensive without waiting for the Germans to start it in order to thwart their plans!.
'I considered it possible and necessary before the deployment of [German] troops and bringing them into readiness for the offensive. The moment has passed. Now we just have to wait for the Germans to advance and meet them as expected.
'Are you sure that the Germans will start it in the near future?
'Absolutely sure! In less than a week, the Germans will strike in two directions at once – on Olkhovatka and on Oboyan. It will be hot for me and for you.
'Why are you so sure of this?
'The commander must be a psychologist! We must be able to think about and for the [Germans].
'But we must do something!
'A good effect will be given by pre-emptive artillery preparation against reconnoitred targets just before the start of the [Germans'] offensive. I am preparing such a surprise for him.
'I’m ready to join. But the risk is great.'
'It will justify itself.'
The combination of reasonable risk, based on a large quantity of intelligence, and the transfer of his main strength into the area of the Germans' intended strikes gave Rokossovsky confidence in the success of the defensive part of the operation, and this was soon confirmed by events.
In the 13th Army, four options were outlined, with the German infantry and tanks accounting for only 17% of the pre-planned targets to be hit, the rest and essentially the main targets were artillery and observation posts. It has rightly been claimed that 'the choice of the moment to open fire in counter-preparation is perhaps the most difficult decision that the commander must make. Only with careful reconnaissance can the natural uncertainty in this case be avoided.'
The battle on the axis between Orel and Kursk unfolded on a 25-mile (40-km) front and achieved an advance of 7.5 miles (12 km) in the course of a 13-day battle.
Model disposed two of the 9th Army's weakest mobile elements in the first echelon: these were Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision with 50 tanks and one regiment of Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben’s 18th Panzerdivision with 69 tanks. This meant that the majority of the 9th Army's armoured strength was farther to the rear in separate parts of the high-quality reinforcement which Model had planned on the basis of units of the XLI Panzerkorps such as the 656th Panzerjägerregiment with vehicles such as the Panzerjäger Tiger (P) heavy tank destroyer and the 177th Sturmgeschützabteilung and 244th Sturmgeschützabteilung with assault guns. This amounted to a total of 233 tanks and self-propelled guns.
To support the offensive of Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps, Model deployed both companies of the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung with Tiger heavy tanks and the 245th Sturmgeschützabteilung and 904th Sturmgeschützabteilung with assault guns, in total 93 armoured fighting vehicles; to the support of Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps he allocated 40 tanks and assault guns' and to the the support of Friessner’s XXIII Corps he allocated 62 assault guns. In total, the 9th Army committed 542 armoured fighting vehicles (57.7% of all such vehicles) into the battle as part of the Germans' first echelon on 5 July. On the axis of the main attack, in the zone of the XLVII Panzerkorps, the density of tanks was 18 vehicles per kilometre, and in the zone of the XLI Panzerkorps in was 25 vehicles per kilometre after the 18th Panzerregiment entered the battle.
Fighting on the southern face of the salient began during the evening of 4 July as German infantry launched attacks to seize high ground for artillery observation posts before the start of the main assault, and in the course of these attacks a number of Soviet command and observation posts along the first main belt of defence were captured. By 16.00, elements of Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland', Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Johann Mickl’s 11th Panzerdivision had seized the village of Butovo and advanced to capture Gertsovka before 24.00. At about 22.30, Vatutin ordered 600 of his front’s guns, mortars and Katyusha rocket launchers to bombard the forward German positions, particularly those of the II SS Panzerkorps.
To the north, at the headquarters of the Central Front, reports of the long-anticipated German offensive’s start started to arrive. At about 02.00 on 5 July, Zhukov ordered the start of the pre-emptive artillery bombardment in the hope of disrupting the concentration of the German forces earmarked for the attack, but this was not notably successful. The bombardment did serve to delay the German formations, but failed in its goal of disrupting their schedule or inflicting substantial losses. The Germans began their own artillery bombardment at about 05.00, and this lasted 80 and 50 minutes on the northern and southern faces respectively. After the barrage, the ground forces attacked with the support of Luftwaffe attack aircraft and fighter-bombers.
Early in the morning of 5 July, the Soviet air forces launched a major raid against German airfields, hoping to destroy the Luftwaffe on the ground. This effort failed, however, and the Soviet air units suffered considerable losses. On 5 July, the Soviet air forces 176 aircraft and the German air forces only 26 aircraft. The losses of the 16th Air Army operating over the salient’s northern face were lighter than those of the 2nd Air Army over the southern face. The Luftwaffe was able to gain and retain air superiority over the southern face until 10/1 July, when the Soviet air forces began to assert themselves more capably and obtain the aerial ascendency, but the control of the skies over the northern face was evenly contested until the Soviet air forces began on 7 July to gain air superiority, which they kept for the rest of the operation.
Model’s main attack was delivered by the XLVII Panzerkorps, which for this undertaking was supported by 45 Tiger heavy tanks of the attached 505th schwere Panzerabteilung. Covering the left flank of the primary assault was the XLI Panzerkorps, with an attached regiment of 83 Ferdinand tank destroyers. On the right flank, the XLVI Panzerkorps comprised at this time of four infantry divisions with just nine tanks and 31 assault guns. To the left of the XLI Panzerkorps was the XXIII Corps, which comprised Generalleutnant Hans Traut’s reinforced 78th Sturmdivision and two normal infantry divisions. While the corps contained no tanks, it did have 62 assault guns. Opposing the 9th Army was the Central Front, deployed in three heavily fortified defensive belts.
Model chose to make his initial attacks using infantry divisions reinforced with assault guns and heavy tanks, and supported by artillery and the Luftwaffe. In doing so he sought to maintain the strength of his Panzer divisions for the exploitation phase of the offensive after the Soviet defences had been breached. Once a breakthrough had been achieved, which Model thought would happen on the second day, the Panzer formations were to move through and advance toward Kursk. If a breakthrough did occur, the briefest delay in bringing up the Panzer divisions would give the Soviets sufficient time to react. It is worth noting, however, that the 9th Army's corps commanders believed that a breakthrough was most unlikely.
Following a German preliminary bombardment and a Soviet counter-bombardment, the 9th Army began its attack at 05.30 on 5 July. Nine infantry divisions and one Panzer division, with attached assault guns, heavy tanks and tank destroyers, pushed forward. Two companies of Tiger tanks were attached to Generalleutnant Horst Grossmann’s 6th Division, and represented the largest single grouping of Tiger tanks employed that day. Opposing them were the Central Front’s 13th Army and 70th Army.
Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision and Grossmann’s 6th Division spearheaded the advance of the XLVII Panzerkorps. Behind them followed the corps' other two Panzer divisions, ready to exploit any breakthrough. The heavily mined terrain and fortified positions of the 15th Division slowed the German advance, and by 08.00 safe lanes had been cleared through the minefield. That morning information which had been obtained from prisoner interrogation identified a weakness at the boundary between the 15th Division and the 81st Division as a result of the German preliminary bombardment. The Tiger tanks were therefore redeployed and struck toward this area. Soviet formations countered with a force of some 90 T-34 medium tanks, and in the three-hour battle that followed the Soviets lost 42 tanks while the Germans lost a mere two Tiger tanks and another five were immobilised by track damage. While the Soviet counterattack was defeated and the first defensive belt breached, the fighting had nonetheless delayed the Germans long enough for the rest of the 13th Army’s XXIX Corps, initially deployed behind the first belt, to move forward and seal the breach. The Soviet minefields were covered by artillery fire, making efforts to clear paths through them both difficult and costly for the Germans. Goliath and Borgward IV remotely controlled engineer mine-clearing vehicles met with only limited success. Of the 653rd schwere Panzerjägerabteilung's 45 Ferdinand vehicles committed, no fewer than 33 were immobilised by mine damage before 17.00. Most of these machines were later repaired and returned to service, but the recovery of these very large and clumsy vehicles was a difficult task.
On the first day, the XLVII Panzerkorps achieved a penetration of 6 miles (9.7 km) into the Soviet defences before stalling, and the XLI Panzerkorps reached the small but very heavily fortified town of Ponyri, in the second defensive belt: Ponyri was of singular importance as it controlled the roads and the railway leading south to Kursk. In the first day, the Germans penetrated 5 to 6 miles (8 to 9.7 km) into the Soviet lines for the loss of 1,287 men killed and missing, and another 5,921 men wounded.
Rokossovsky ordered the XVII Guards Corps and XVIII Guards Corps, together with the 2nd Tank Army and XIX Tank Corps, backed by strong close air support, to counterattack the 9th Army on the following day. As a result of poor co-ordination, only the XVI Tank Corps of the 2nd Tank Army began the counterattack at dawn on 6 July after the preparatory artillery barrage. This corps, fielding about 200 tanks, attacked the XLVII Panzerkorps and ran into the Tiger tanks of the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung, which destroyed or immobilised 69 of the Soviet tanks and forced the rest to withdraw toward the XVII Guards Corps of the 13th Army. Later in the same morning, the XLVII Panzerkorps responded with its own attack against the XVII Guards Corps entrenched around the village of Olkhovatka in the second defensive belt. The attack began with an artillery barrage and was spearheaded by the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung's 24 serviceable Tiger tanks, but failed to break the Soviet defence at Olkhovatka, where the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Olkhovatka was on high ground that provided a clear view of much of the front line. At 18.30, the XIX Tank Corps joined the XVII Guards Corps, and this marked a significant increase in the strength of the area’s Soviet defence. Rokossovsky also decided that most of his remaining tanks should now be dug in to minimise their exposure. Defended by the 307th Division of the XXIX Corps, Ponyri came under further heavy attack on 6 July by Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Kluge’s 292nd Division, Generalleutnant Helmuth Weidling’s 86th Division, the 78th Sturmdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Scheller’s 9th Panzerdivision, but the Germans were unable to dislodge the defenders from this terrain-favoured and heavily fortified village.
Over the next three days, between 7 and 10 July, Model concentrated the 9th Army's efforts on Ponyri and Olkhovatka, which each side saw as vital. In response, Rokossovsky pulled forces from other parts of the front to these sectors. The Germans attacked Ponyri on 7 July, and captured half of the village after intense house-to-house fighting. A Soviet counterattack in the morning of the following day compelled the Germans to withdraw, and there then developed a series of counterattacks by each side: control of the village passed back and forth several times over the next few days. By 10 July, the Germans had secured most of Ponyri, but Soviet counterattacks continued. The see-saw fighting for Ponyri and the nearby Hill 253.5 was attritional, with heavy casualties on each side, and became known to the troops as a 'small Stalingrad'. The 9th Army's war diary described the heavy fighting as a 'new type of mobile attrition battle'. German attacks on Olkhovatka and the nearby village of Teploye failed to penetrate the Soviet defences, and there was a powerful concerted attack on 10 July by about 300 tanks and assault guns of Generalleutnant Hans-Karl von Esebeck’s 2nd Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Dietrich von Saucken 's 4th Panzerdivision and von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision supported by all of the Luftwaffe’s air power available on the northern face of the salient.
On 9 July, von Kluge, Model, Lemelsen and Harpe met at the headquarters of the XLVII Panzerkorps as it had become clear to the German commanders that the 9th Army lacked the strength to obtain a breakthrough. It was also clear that the Central Front’s leaders had also come to the same conclusion, but von Kluge desired to maintain the pressure on the Soviets in order to aid the southern offensive.
While the operation on the northern side of the salient began with an attack frontage of 28 miles (45 km), by 6 July this had been reduced to 25 miles (40 km). On the following day the attack frontage was reduced still further to 9.3 miles (15 km), and on both 8 and 9 July the Germans achieved penetrations of only 1.25 miles (2 km). By 10 July, the Soviets had completely halted the German advance.
Between 5 and 11 July, the Central Front lost, in total, 33,897 men (15,336 killed or missing, and 18,561 wounded or taken ill). By 19 July, the Soviets had taken 7,165 men prisoner, 822 defectors, 1,060 tanks, 136 guns, 265 anti-tank guns, 20 anti-aircraft guns, 198 mortars, 690 machine guns, 19 aircraft, 626 machine guns, 339 anti-tank guns, 2,470 rifles, 19 Nebelwerfer rocket launchers and one flamethrower.
Thus, it took only one week for the Central Front to slow and then to halt the Germans, on whom its troops inflicted severe losses. As the Central Front reported it: 'Having met the [Germans] with a wall of smashing metal, Russian staunchness and tenacity, the troops of the Central Front exhausted the [Germans] in continuous fierce eight-day battles and stopped his onslaught. The first stage of the battle is over.' Thus the scene was set for the Soviet counter-offensive on the northern face of the Kursk salient:this was the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation', otherwise 'Kutuzov', which began on 12 July and whose two sub-operations were the 'Volkhov-Orel Offensive Operation' (12 July/18 August) and the 'Kromy-Orel Offensive Operation' (15 July/18 August).
The hostilities of the 'Kursk Strategic Defensive Operation' triggered by 'Zitadelle' on the southern face of the Kursk salient became known as the 'Belgorod-Kursk Defensive Operation'. This began on the same day as the 'Orel-Kursk Defensive Operation' but lasted longer to end on 16 July, one day before the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front began their own counter-offensive.
On 12 July the Soviets launched 'Kutuzov', otherwise known as the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation', as their counter-offensive upon the Germans' eastward-facing salient centred on Orel, and this quickly threatened the flank and rear of the 9th Army. Generalleutnant Erpo Freiherr von Bodenhausen’s 12th Panzerdivision, hitherto held in reserve and slated to be committed to the northern side of the Kursk salient, together with Generalleutnant Hans Gollnick’s 36th Division (mot.), Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben’s 18th Panzerdivision and von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision were redeployed to face the new Soviet threat.
On the other face of the Kursk salient, at about 04.00 on 5 July, the German attack began with a preliminary bombardment. von Manstein’s main attack was delivered by Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, which was organised into densely concentrated spearheads. Opposing the 4th Panzerarmee was Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, which comprised the XXII Guards Corps and XXIII Guards Corps. These Soviet forces occupied three heavily fortified defensive belts to slow and weaken the attacking armoured forces. Although it had been provided with superb intelligence about the Germans' strength and overall intention, the Voronezh Front’s headquarters had not yet been able to pinpoint the exact location where the Germans would commit their offensive weight.
Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' was the strongest single division in the 4th Panzerarmee, and was supported on its flanks by Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Johann Mickl’s 11th Panzerdivision. The PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV tanks of the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' had been supplemented by a company of 15 Tiger heavy tanks, which were to spearhead the attack. At dawn on 5 July, the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland', backed by heavy artillery support, advanced on a 1.85-mile (3-km) front against the 67th Guards Division of the XXII Guards Corps. Advancing on the left wing of its parent division, the Füsilierregiment 'Grossdeutschland' entered a minefield and became stalled, and subsequently 36 Panther battle tanks were immobilised. The stranded regiment was subjected to a barrage of Soviet anti-tank and artillery fire, which inflicted numerous casualties. Engineers moved forward and cleared paths through the minefield, but suffered casualties in the process. The combination of fierce resistance, minefields, thick mud and mechanical breakdowns took its toll. With paths cleared, the regiment resumed its advance toward Gertsovka. In the fighting which followed, the numerous German casualties included the regimental commander. As a result of the fighting, and the marshy terrain to the south of the village on the Berezovy stream, the regiment once more became bogged down.
Advancing on the right wing, the Grenadierregiment 'Grossdeutschland' pushed through to the village of Butovo. The tanks were deployed in an arrow formation to minimise the effects of the Soviet so-called Pakfront defence, with the Tiger heavy tanks leading and the PzKpfw III, PzKpfw IV and assault guns fanning out to the flanks and rear. The armour was followed by the infantry and combat engineers. The Soviets made strenuous efforts to slow if not to halt the German advance, but their efforts were stymied by German close support aircraft.
Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision, advancing on the left flank of the Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland', made good progress and by the end of the day had captured Gertsovka and reached Mikhailovka. Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division, on the 11th Panzerdivision's right flank, also made good progress, reaching Tirechnoye by the end of the day. On 5 July, therefore, the Germans had driven a wedge into the first belt of the Soviet defences.
To the east, during the night of 4/5 July, Waffen-SS combat engineers had infiltrated no-man’s land and cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields. At dawn on 5 July, the three formations of Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps (SS-Oberstgruppenführer Joseph Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', SS-Obergruppenführer Walter Krüger’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Gruppenführer Max Simon’s 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf') attacked the 6th Guards Army’s 52nd Guards Division. The main assault was led by a spearhead of 42 Tiger heavy tanks, but in total 494 tanks and assault guns attacked across a 7.5-mile (12-km) front. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', the strongest of the three divisions, advanced toward Gremuchy and screened the right flank. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' advanced on the left flank toward Bykovka. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' advanced between the two formations in the centre. Following closely behind the tanks were the infantry and combat engineers, coming forward to demolish obstacles and clear trenches. In addition, the advance was well supported by the Luftwaffe, which greatly aided in destroying Soviet strongpoints and artillery positions.
By 09.00, the II SS Panzerkorps had broken through the Soviet first defensive belt along its whole front. While probing positions between the first and second Soviet defensive belts, at 13.00 the leading elements of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' came under fire from two T-34 tanks, which were destroyed, but soon after this another 40 Soviet attacked the division. The 1st Guards Tank Army clashed with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' in a four-hour battle, as a result of which the Soviet army pulled back. However, the battle had bought the Soviets enough time for units of the XXIII Guards Corps,positioned in the Soviet second defensive belt, to ready itself and receive a reinforcement of more additional anti-tank guns. By a time early in the evening, the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' had reached the minefields marking the forward edge of the Soviet second defensive belt. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' had secured Bykovka by 16.10 and then drove forward toward the second defensive belt at Yakovlevo, but its attempts to break through were rebuffed. By the end of the day, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' had suffered the loss of 97 men dead, 522 wounded, and 17 missing, and had lost about 30 tanks. Together with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich', it had forced a wedge deep into the defences of the 6th Guards Army.
The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was making slow progress, and had isolated the 155th Guards Regiment of the 52nd Guards Division of the XXIII Guards Corps from the rest of its parent division, but its attempts to sweep the regiment eastward into the flank of the neighbouring 375th Division of the same corps had failed when the regiment was reinforced by the 96th Tank Brigade. Hausser requested aid from General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps to his right, but the latter could spare nothing. By the end of the day, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had made very limited progress , in part as a result of the fact that a tributary of the Donets river lay in its path. The division’s lack of progress undermined the advance made by its sister divisions and exposed the corps' right flank to Soviet counterattack. The temperature, reaching more than 30° C (86° F), and frequent thunderstorms made fighting conditions difficult.
Facing attack by the XLVIII Panzerkorps and II SS Panzerkorps, the 6th Guards Army was reinforced with tanks from the 1st Tank Army, the II Guards Tank Corps and the V Guards Tank Corps. The 51st Guards Division and the 90th Guards Division were moved up to the vicinity of Pokrovka (some 25 miles [40 km] to the south-west of Prokhorovka, location of a huge tank battle in the near future, and with which it is often confused) and into the path of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. The 93rd Guards Division was deployed farther to the rear, along the road linking Pokrovka and Prokhorovka.
Facing Armeeabteilung 'Kampf', which comprised Breith’s III Panzerkorps and General Erhard Raus’s Generalkommando zbV 'Raus', were Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, whose formations and units had entrenched themselves on the high ground on the eastern bank of the Severny Donets river. The two German corps were tasked with crossing the river, breaking through the 7th Guards Army and covering the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee. The 503rd schwere Panzerabteilung, operating 45 Tiger heavy tanks, was also attached to the III Panzerkorps, with one company of 15 Tiger tanks attached to each of the corps' three Panzer divisions.
At the Mikhailovka bridgehead, just to the south-east of Belgorod, eight infantry battalions of Generalleutnant Walther von Hünersdorff’s ]6th Panzerdivision crossed the river under heavy Soviet artillery fire. Part of a company of Tiger tanks was able to cross before the bridge was destroyed, but the rest of the 6th Panzerdivision was unable to cross farther to the south as a result of traffic congestion at the crossing, and remained on the western bank of the river throughout the day. The division’s units which did succeed in crossing the river attacked Stary Gorod, but were unable to break through in the face of poorly cleared minefields and strong resistance.
To the south of the 6th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Gustav Schmidt’s 19th Panzerdivision crossed the river but was then delayed by mines, moving forward 5 miles (8 km) by the end of the day. Luftwaffe bombed the bridgehead in a 'friendly fire' incident, wounding von Hünersdorff and Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, commander of the 11th Panzerregiment. Farther still to the south, tanks and infantry of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision crossed the river. A new bridge had to be built specifically for the Tiger tanks, and this caused further delays. Despite a poor start, the 7th Panzerdivision eventually broke into the first belt of the Soviet defence and pushed forward between Razumnoye and Krutoi Log, advancing 6.2 miles (10 km), which was the deepest penetration achieved on this day by Armeeabteilung 'Kampf'.
Operating to the south of the 7th Panzerdivision, were Generalleutnant Werner Forst’s 106th Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Röpke’s 320th Division of the Generalkommando zbV 'Raus'. The two formations attacked across a 20-mile (32-km) front without armoured support. The advance began well as the two divisions crossed the river and advanced swiftly against the 72nd Guards Division. The Generalkommando zbV 'Raus' took the village of Maslovo Pristani, penetrating the first Soviet defence line. A Soviet counterattack, supported by about 40 tanks, was beaten off with the support of the guns of artillery and Flak batteries. After having losing some 2,000 men killed and wounded since the morning and still facing considerable Soviet resistance, the Generalkommando zbV 'Raus' dug in for the night.
Delaying the progress of the [a]Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' allowed gave the Soviet forces the time to complete the preparation of their second belt of defence to meet the German attack on 6 July. The 7th Guards Army, which had absorbed the attack of the III Panzerkorps and the Generalkommando zbV 'Raus', was reinforced by two rifle divisions from the reserve. The 15th Guards Division was moved into the second belt of defence, in the path of the III Panzerkorps.
By the evening of 6 July, the Voronezh Front had committed all of its reserves other than three infantry divisions under the 69th Army, but was unable to effect a decisive containment of the 4th Panzerarmee. Moving along the axis toward Oboyan, on which the third defensive belt was mostly unoccupied, the XLVIII Panzerkorps now had only the Soviet second defensive belt blocking it from breakthrough into the unfortified Soviet rear. This forced the Stavka to commit its strategic reserves to reinforce the Voronezh Front: this reinforcement took the form of the 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army, both from the Steppe Front, as well as the II Tank Corps from General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front, which was holding the front to the south of the Voronezh Front. Konev objected to this premature and, he considered, piecemeal commitment of the strategic reserve, but a personal call from Stalin silenced his complaints. In addition, on 7 July Zhukov ordered General Leytenant Vladimir A. Sudets’s 17th Air Army, part of the South-West Front’s forces, to support General Leytenant Stepan Ya. Krasovsky’s 2nd Air Army in supporting the Voronezh Front. On 7 July, General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army began advancing toward Prokhorovka.
The X Tank Corps, then still subordinate to the 5th Guards Army, was rushed ahead of the rest of the army to reach Prokhorovka on the night of 7 July, and the II Tank Corps arrived at Korocha, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south-east of Prokhorovka, by the morning of 8 July. Vatutin ordered a powerful counterattack by the V Guards Tank Corps, II Guards Tank Corps, II Tank Corps and X Tank Corps, in all fielding about 593 tanks and self-propelled guns, and supported by most of the front’s available air power, against the II SS Panzerkorps, who defeat would expose the right flank of the XLVIII Panzerkorps. At the same time, the VI Tank Corps was to attack the XLVIII Panzerkorps and prevent it from breaking through into the Soviet rear. Although intended as a nicely co-ordinated effort, the counterattack turned out to be a series of piecemeal attacks as a result of poor co-ordination. The X Tank Corps' attack began on the dawn of 8 July but ran straight into the anti-tank fire of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' and 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', the Soviet corps losing most of its strength. Later in the morning of the same day, the V Guards Tank Corps' attack was repelled by the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf'. The II Tank Corps joined the Soviet counterattack during the afternoon and was also repelled. The II Guards Tank Corps, masked by the forest around the village Gostishchevo some 10 miles (16 km) to the north of Belgorod and therefore undetected by the II SS Panzerkorps, advanced toward Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division. The Soviet corps was then detected by German air reconnaissance just before the attack had materialised, and was subsequently decimated by German ground-attack aircraft armed with heavy cannon and lost at least 50 of its tanks: this was the first time that an attacking tank formation had been defeated by air power alone. Although a failure, the Soviet counterattack did succeed in stalling the advance of the II SS Panzerkorps throughout the day.
By the end of 8 July, the II SS Panzerkorps had advanced about 18 miles (29 kn) since the start of 'Zitadelle' and broken through the first and second Soviet defensive belts. However, slow progress by the XLVIII Panzerkorps caused Hoth to shift elements of the II SS Panzerkorps to the west to help the XLVIII Panzerkorps regain its momentum before, on 10 July, the full weight of the corps was shifted back to its own advance. The direction of the advance now shifted from north in the direction of Oboyan to the north-east in the direction of Prokhorovka. Hoth had discussed this move with von Manstein since a time early in May, and it had been part of the 4th Panzerarmee's plan since the start of the offensive. By this time, however, the Soviets had shifted reserve formations onto its the army’s new axis. The defensive positions were manned by the II Tank Corps, reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and the 301st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, both elements of the XXXIII Guards Corps.
Though the German advance in the south was slower than has been planned, it was nonetheless faster than the Soviets had expected. On 9 July, the first German units reached the Psel river, which the first German infantry crossed on the following day. Despite the depth of the Soviet defensive system and its associated minefields, German tank losses remained lower than those of the Soviets. This was the point at which Hoth turned the II SS Panzerkorps away from Oboyan toward Prokhorovka. The primary concern of von Manstein and Hausser was the inability of Armeeabteilung 'Kampf' to advance and thereby shield the eastern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps. On 11 July, Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' finally achieved a breakthrough. In a surprise night attack, the 6th Panzerdivision seized a bridge across the Donets river and, once over this waterway, Breith’s corps made every effort to push troops and vehicles across the river for an advance on Prokhorovka from the south as the establishment of a physical link with the II SS Panzerkorps would result with the encirclement of the 69th Army.
On the evening of 9 July, the II SS Panzerkorps was ordered to realign the axis of its advance from due north to the north-east, toward the settlement of Prokhorovka. Hoth had designed this move, and had discussed it with von Manstein since a time early in May, as he expected major Soviet armoured reserve forces to arrive from the east, and wished not to have this corps caught at it crossed the Psel river when the Soviet reserves arrived. The original German plan had envisaged that elements of the XLVIII Panzerkorps and III Panzerkorps would join the attack toward Prokhorovka, but this could not now be realised. The Soviet command, however, interpreted the change in direction to be a response to the heavy resistance the German forces had faced driving toward Oboyan, and incorrectly believed the change indicated that the German armoured forces had been severely weakened.
Soviet intelligence reports on 8 and 9 July reported that defensive works were being constructed by German infantry on the flanks of the 4th Panzerarmee, and that there were no German armoured formations n these locations, despite the fact that Soviet armoured formations were situated opposite these flanks. The headquarters of the Voronezh Front came to the conclusion that the Germans must be reaching their limit, and on 10 July decided to set its counterattack to coincide with 'Kutuzov', which was the Soviet counter-offensive on the northern side of the Kursk salient, planned with a start date of 12 July.
On the morning of 10 July, the II SS Panzerkorps began its attack toward Prokhorovka. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' attacked across the Psel river and secured a bridgehead, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' captured Komsomolets State Farm and Hill 241.6, and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' defended the corps' flank from Soviet armoured counterattacks.
The II SS Panzerkorps continued its attack toward Prokhorovka on 11 July. The advance of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' was checked by the II Tank Corps, which had been reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 301st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, both from the XXXIII Guards Corps. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was resisted by the XXXI Tank Corps, the XXXIII Guards Corps' 95th Guards Division and the 11th Motorised Brigade of the X Tank Corps. To the south of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', the II Guards Tank Corps and the XLVIII Corps' 183rd Division opposed the advance of 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'.
By the end of 11 July, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' had advanced deep into the Soviet third defensive belt. It had driven up the Psel river corridor, cleared Soviet resistance at the 'Oktyabrsky' State Farm, crossed an anti-tank ditch 15 ft (4.6 m)-deep at the base of Hill 252.2 and seized the hill itself after a short but bloody battle, leaving it a mere 1.85 miles (3 km) south of Prokhorovka. To the north-west, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had seized a bridgehead across the Psel river and sent tanks across the river, but had yet to take Hill 226.6 and there was a 3.1-mile (5-km) gap between the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. To the south of the latter, the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' had also met stiff resistance and lagged by about 2.5 miles (4 km). Given its deeper advance, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' was exposed on each of its flanks.
Late on 11 July the 5th Guards Tank Army prepared for its forthcoming counterattack. The advanced of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' had interfered with this Soviet army’s preparations, as the assembly areas Rotmistrov intended to use for the tank army’s XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps were in German hands by the end of the day, forcing him into a hasty revision of his plans as he had to select new positions. The arrival of the 5th Guards Tank Army just days earlier had drawbacks: the tank unit commanders had not been accorded any opportunity to reconnoitre the terrain across which they would be travelling, and the supporting artillery had not been able to site and spot their fire.
At a time late in the evening of 11 July, Hausser issued his orders for the next day’s advance on Prokhorovka. It was known that the Soviets had dug in many anti-tank guns on the south-western slopes of Prokhorovka, rendering very difficult a direct attack by the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. The plan was for the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' to take Hill 226.6, advance to the north-east along the Psel river to the road linking Kartashёvka and Prokhorovka, and then strike to the south-east into the flank and rear of Soviet forces at Prokhorovka. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' was to make a limited advance and secure Storozhevoye and Lamki just outside Prokhorovka, and then with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' wait until the attack of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had disrupted the Soviet positions, after which the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' was to attack the main Soviet defences on the south-western slopes of Prokhorovka. To the right of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', elements of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' were also to advance to the east onto the high ground to the south of Prokhorovka, then turn to the south away from Prokhorovka to roll up the Soviet defences opposing the III Panzerkorps' advance and prise open a gap. Fliegerkorps VIII's aircraft were to concentrate their efforts on the support of the II SS Panzerkorps' advance, while more limited air strength was allocated to the support of the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west.
The 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army of the Steppe Front had been brought up from reserve and reassigned to the Voronezh Front on 8 and 11 July respectively. On 11 July, Vatutin ordered the armies of the Voronezh Front to go over to the offensive on the following day. This Soviet counterattack on the southern side of the Kursk salient was planned to coincide with the start of 'Kutuzov', the offensive against Orel. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to destroy the German forces near Prokhorovka with his 5th Guards Tank Army, and at all costs to prevent the German forces from any withdrawal to the south.
Rotmistrov ordered his armour to advance and engage the German armour at high speed in order to offset the advantages the Tiger heavy tanks possessed in terms of the range and firepower of their 3.465-in (88-mm) KwK 36 L/36 main gun over the T-34s' 3-in (76.2-mm) main gun. Rotmistrov believed that his T-34 medium tanks' greater speed and manoeuvrability would allow them to close on their opponents quickly to outmanoeuvre the German heavy tanks and fire on their more vulnerable flanks. Soviet intelligence had in fact greatly overestimated the numbers of Ferdinand heavy tank destroyers and Tiger heavy tanks, both armed with 88-mm guns (KwK 36 L/36 and Pak 43/2 L/71 respectively), on the strength of the II SS Panzerkorps, and fact there were no Ferdinand tank destroyers with the 4th Panzerarmee or indeed the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' all of these vehicles were deployed on the northern side of the Kursk salient with the 9th Army. Soviet tank crews frequently mistook the variants of the PzKpfw IV battle tank armed with the 2.95-in (75-mm) KwK 40 anti-tank gun, which also had extra armour on their turrets, for Tiger heavy tanks: Soviet reports therefore tended to overestimate the number of Tiger tanks employed by the German side during the Battle of Kursk.
Soviet air support in the southern part of the salient was provided by General Leytenant Stepan A. Krasovsky’s the 2nd Air Army and General Leytenant Vladimir A. Sudets’s 17th Air Army. However, the bulk of the air support was committed in support of Soviet units attacking the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west of Prokhorovka and the III Panzerkorps to the south-east, and only limited numbers of aircraft were available to support the attack of the 5th Guards Tank Army.
Rotmistrov’s plans for a counterattack were threatened by events to the south. The III Panzerkorps managed to cross the Severny Donets river at Rzhavets on the night of 11 July, and was about 11 miles (18 km) to the south-east of Prokhorovka and advancing to the north. The danger of this advance jeopardised Rotmistrov’s entire plan by threatening the flank and rear of the 5th Guards Tank Army. At a time early on 12 July, Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to send reinforcements to the 7th Guards Army and 69th Army facing the III Panzerkorps. Rotmistrov accordingly organised a task force under the command of his deputy, General Major Kuzma G. Trufanov: this comprised the 26th Guards Tank Brigade from the II Guards Tank Corps, the 11th and 12th Guards Mechanised Brigades from the V Guards Mechanised Corps, and the 53rd Guards Tank Regiment from the 5th Guards Tank Army. Other units of the Voronezh Front also joined the group on its way to the south. In doing this, Rotmistrov committed more than half of his army’s reserves before the Battle of Prokhorovka had begun.
The German forces involved in the Battle of Prokhorovka were of the three Waffen-SS divisions of the II SS Panzerkorps, whose strength in terms of serviceable tanks on the evening of 11 July was 294 tanks and assault guns including 15 Tiger vehicles. The armoured strength of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was 77, 95 and 122 tanks and assault guns respectively. Of the Tiger tanks, 10 were to the north of the Psel river with the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', four were with the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' and only one with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'.
The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' had advanced the most deeply toward Prokhorovka and was situated in the centre of the German position. A railway line, with a railbed some 30 ft (9.15 m) high, divided the zone of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' into northern and southern sectors. Most of the division was positioned to the north of the railway line, and this portion included the 1st SS Panzerregiment and 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment as well as the divisional reconnaissance, artillery and command units; and to the south of the railway line was the 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment, along with the 1st SS Panzerjägerabteilung. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was positioned to the south of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' and protected the southern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was positioned to the north-west of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', and its 3rd SS Panzerregiment had largely crossed the Psel river in preparation for the assault. The 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' placed its lightly armed 1st SS Panzeraufklärungsabteilung in the 3.1-mile (5-km) gap between its parent division and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' to provide at least a measure of flank protection. On 12 July, the battalion was buttressed by the division’s four remaining Tiger tanks, which were commanded by SS-Untersturmführer Michael Wittmann.
The main Soviet armoured formation involved in the battle was the 5th Guards Tank Army, which by 12 July had command of five corps, of which two of which were guards formations: these were the II Guards Tank Corps, II Tank Corps, General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps, General Major Boris S. Bakharov’s XVIII Tank Corps and General Major Ivan F. Kirichenko’s XXIX Tank Corps. In total, these fielded 793 tanks as well as between 37 and 57 self-propelled guns for a total of some 840 armoured fighting vehicles. About two-thirds of the tanks were T-34 machines, while the remainder were T-70 light tanks and between 31 and 35 Churchill heavy tanks. Not all of the 5th Guards Tank Army was present in the Prokhorovka area during the battle, for part of the army had been sent to the south to check the advance of the III Panzerkorps . The Soviet armour of the 5th Guards Tank Army, including the newly attached II Guards Tank Corps and II Tank Corps,as well as the V Guards Mechanised Corps held in reserve, that faced the II SS Panzerkorps on 12 July was about 616 tanks and self-propelled guns. In addition, five artillery regiments, one artillery brigade and one anti-aircraft artillery division were attached to the 5th Guards Tank Army for the assault.
The 5th Guards Tank Army’s main attack was undertaken against the 1st Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' by the fresh XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps, which had been brought up from the Soviet strategic reserve. These two tank corps together fielded the greatest number of tanks in the attack: the XVIII Tank Corps had 190 tanks and self-propelled guns, and the XXIX Tank Corps 212 tanks and self-propelled guns. Infantry support for these two tank corps was provided by the 9th Guards Airborne Division. Part of the XVIII Tank Corps was directed against the eastern flank of the 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Theodor von Eicke' of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf'. On the 5th Guards Tank Army’s south-eastern wing, Rotmistrov deployed the 120 tanks of the II Guards Tank Corps. Later on 12 July, during the battle, the 26th Guards Tank Brigade of that tank corps, with its estimated 40 tanks, was sent to the south to face the III Panzerkorps. The remainder of the II Guards Tank Corps, supported by the remnants of the II Tank Corps, was to attack the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' supported by the infantry of the 183rd Division. The 5th Guards Tank Army’s western flank, which faced the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', was defended by the infantry of the XXXIII Guards Rifle Corps' 42nd Guards Division and 95th Guards Division, which were supported by the remnants of the XXXI Tank Corps and the heavily depleted XXIII Guards Corps' 52nd Guards Division. The forces of the V Guards Mechanised Corps which had not been sent to the south were held as a reserve in the area to the north-west of Prokhorovka, and numbered about 113 tanks and self-propelled guns.
Vatutin ordered the air units allocated to his front to commit their main effort toward checking the III Panzerkorps' advance to the north, and to support the attack on the XLVIII Panzerkorps. Missions were also flown in support of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s attack, but only to a more limited extent. The 2nd Air Army had some 472 serviceable aircraft on 12 July, while the 17th Air Army had 300 serviceable aircraft.
At 05.45 on 12 July, the headquarters of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' began to receive reports of the sound of many tank engines as the Soviet tanks moved into their pre-attack assembly areas. At around 06.50, elements of the division’s 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment edged forward and drove the Soviet infantry out of Storozhevoye, while elements of the division’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment fanned out from the 'Oktyabrsky' State Farm. The Soviet forces began a preparatory artillery barrage at around 08.:00 and, as the last shells fell at 08.30, Rotmistrov radioed the code phrase 'Stal! Stal! Stal!' to start the attack.
In total, about 500 tanks and self-propelled guns of the 5th Guards Tank Army attacked the positions of the II SS Panzerkorps on 12 July, doing so in two waves, with 430 tanks in the first echelon and 70 in the second.
The massed Soviet armour charged down from the slopes in front of Prokhorovka with five tank brigades of the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps, firing as they came at the positions of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. As the Soviet armour poured down the slopes, they carried the men of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on their hulls as tank desant infantry. The troops of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' were not due to go into action until later in the day and, exhausted from the previous week’s fighting, many of them were only just starting their day as the Soviet attack crashed toward them. As the Soviet armour appeared, German outposts all across the corps' front began firing purple warning flares signalling a tank attack. SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop, commander of a Panzer company under the 1st SS Panzerregiment, stated that he knew at once a major attack had begun, and ordered his company of seven PzKpfw IV tanks to follow him over a bridge across an anti-tank ditch. Crossing the bridge, they fanned out on the lower slope of Hill 252.2, on whose crest SS-Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper’s 3rd SS Panzergrenadierabteilung of SS-Obersturmbannführer Hugo Kraas’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment was being overrun.
As von Ribbentrop’s tanks spread out, he and the 1st SS Panzerregiment were suddenly faced by Soviet tanks of the XXIX Tank Corps' 31st Tank Brigade and 32nd Tank Brigade. Firing on the move, the Soviet armour charged down the western slopes of Hill 252.2 into the Panzer company, and a fierce battle followed. Rotmistrov’s tactic to close at high speed disrupted the control and co-ordination of the Soviet tank units and also greatly reduced the accuracy of their fire. In a three-hour battle, the 1st SS Panzerregiment engaged and drove back the Soviet tanks, reporting that it had destroyed about 62 of them. At a time later in that same afternoon, tanks from the 31st Tank Brigade and the 53rd Motorised Brigade overran elements of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung and reached the 'Komsomolets' State Farm, threatening the German division’s lines of communication and command post on Hill 241.6. The Soviet tanks attacked the division’s 1st SS Artillerieregiment, killing some of the gunners before they themselves were destroyed by the direct fire of anti-tank teams.
Wittmann’s group of four Tiger tanks provided support to the reconnaissance battalion in its effort to protect the division’s left flank, and confronted the XVIII Tank Corps' 181st Tank Brigade as it advanced. In a three-hour battle the Tiger tanks engaged the Soviet tanks at ranges from 1,095 yards (1000 m) down to point-blank, inflicting heavy losses on the Soviet tanks and driving back their attack. None of the Tigers was lost. Elements of the 170th Tank Brigade later engaged the 1st SS Panzerregiment, which was already fighting the 31st Tank Brigade and 32nd Tank Brigade. Despite losing its commander and about 30 tanks, by a time early in the afternoon the 170th Tank Brigade had forced the 1st SS Panzerregiment back to the 'Oktyabrsky' State Farm and reached the position of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung. At about 18.00, the 170th Tank Brigade and 181st Tank Brigade penetrated the German line connecting the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. Tanks and assault guns supporting the 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Theodor Eicke' of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' repelled the Soviet attack and re-established the line, forcing the Soviet tanks to pull back to the village of Andreyevka.
The advance of Soviet armour down Hill 252.2 was disrupted when it reached the anti-tank ditch at the base of the hill. A number of tanks crashed into the ditch, which was 15 ft (4.6 m) deep, while others moved along the edge in search of a point at which to cross. Heavy fire was exchanged between the Soviet tanks and two companies of a Panzergrenadier battalion on the opposite side of the ditch. Peiper’s surviving Panzergrenadiers engaged the Soviet infantry and attacked the Soviet tanks with magnetic anti-tank grenades. Peiper’s battalion lost 20 of its half-tracks, some of them while ramming the much heavier Soviet tanks. Eventually, the combination of heavy Soviet pressure and dangerously exposed flanks, compelled the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' to pull back from the 'Oktyabrsky' State Farm and establish firmer defensive lines 0.6 miles (1 km) farther to the south.
Between the, the 2nd Air Army and the 17th Air Army flew 893 sorties to Fliegerkorps VIII's 654 sorties over the southern part of the salient. Of note, and as mentioned above, the majority of the Soviet sorties flown on this day were flown against the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west and the III Panzerkorps to the south. Low cloud during the morning and thunderstorms during the afternoon inhibited each side’s air operations over Prokhorovka, where the Germans gained control of the air. Formations of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka warplanes, a few of them of the Ju 87G-2 variant experimentally equipped with twin 37-mm Bordkanone BK 3,7 cannon in underwing pods, and commanded by Hauptmann Hans-Erich Rudel, a Staffelkapitän in the III/Stukageschwader 2, attacked the Soviet formations. They were joined by Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single-engined fighter-bombers and Henschel Hs 129 twin-engined ground-attack aircraft, both equipped with 30-mm anti-tank cannon. In particular, the Hs 129 formations of the Schlachtgeschwader 1 inflicted great losses on Soviet tanks. The StG 2 and StG 77 Stuka wings made their weakest contribution, just 150 sorties, to the Kursk operation since the 5 July: this was down from the 1,071 sorties flown on 5 July, but the small Ju 87G-2 force proved effective. Luftwaffe liaison officers allotted to the ground forces were able to guide the close air support units to carry out pinpoint attacks. The SG 1 and Panzerjägerstaffel/Jagdgeschwader 51 flew 248 sorties, almost all of them in support of the II SS Panzerkorps.
The XXIX Tanks Corps' 31st Tank Brigade reported that it had suffered heavy losses in tanks from German artillery and aircraft. At 10.30 its tanks reached the 'Komsomolets' State Farm, but as a result of continuous air attacks, it was unable to advance any further and shifted to the defence. The tank also reported that its own air cover was fully absent until 13.00. The 5th Guards Tank Army reported that German aircraft almost literally hovered over the Soviet combat formations throughout the entire battle, while Soviet aircraft, and particularly the fighter element, were totally insufficient.
German domination of the air over Prokhorovka was the result of several factors. During the battle’s initial stages it was Soviet tanks that were hit and burned, obscuring the battlefield with smoke that rendered it difficult for Soviet commanders to develop a clear picture of the situation. Added to that was the Soviet failure to provide air liaison teams to operate alongside the ground forces, which were then unable to call for air support when the German assault formations first appeared. Whereas Fliegerkorps VIII assembled powerful concentrations over Prokhorovka, the 17th Air Army spread its forces thinly, to support other sectors: the Soviets had air superiority of the 4th Panzerarmee's flanks, leaving the skies over Prokhorovka clear, and the 2nd Air Army’s fighter strength had been reduced to 266 aircraft, and these were used in the fighter escort role rather than the air superiority role. The battle of Prokhorovka absorbed the Fliegerkorps VIII's combat capability to the extent that the air corps was unable to intervene to support the XLVIII Panzerkorps, enabling the Soviet defences to defeat the German forces' attempted breakthrough in this corps' sector.
The posture, dispositions and tactics evident on 12 July led to few air combat losses on either side in. Fliegerkorps VIII reported 19 aircraft damaged and destroyed, of which only one was lost in combat with Soviet fighters while the rest were victims of Soviet ground-fire. The 2nd Air Army reported 14 fighters damaged and destroyed, of which German fighters claimed only seven. Soviet bomber losses are unknown.
At the end of 12 July, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' still held Hill 252.2, but had been exhausted by the effort of turning back five Soviet tank brigades. To its left, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had succeeded in capturing Hill 226.6 and had advanced along the northern bank of the Psel river to reach the road linking Karteschevka and Prokhorovka some 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west of Prokhorovka in accordance with Hausser’s plan, and was thus in a position to outflank the Soviet forces at Prokhorovka, but at the same time was itself under pressure from Soviet attacks and had only a tenuous grip on the forward ground. Forced onto the defensive by the attacks of the II Guards Tank Corps and II Tank Corps, the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was unable to conduct its planned offensive movements.
On the Soviet side, all the tank units of the 5th Guards Tank Army involved in the battle on 12 July had suffered heavy losses. Rotmistrov later wrote that on 12 July the XXIX Tank Corps and XVIII Tank Corps had lost 60% and 30% of their armour respectively. A Soviet general staff report recorded that 'Thus on 12 July, the 5th Guards Tank Army failed to accomplish its assigned mission. As a result of the frontal attack, the army’s corps fought heavy battles against large [German] tank forces during which they were forced to assume defence.' Rotmistrov was forced to shift the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps over to the defensive and also to reinforce them with infantry. They Soviets now created more trenches, dug in some of their tanks, laid new minefields, prepared anti-tank strongpoints and massed their artillery. The 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade
and the 24th Guards Tank Brigades of the V Guards Mechanised Corps made preparations to drive back the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' in the morning of the following day.
Stalin was very disappointed and also infuriated by the early reports of heavy Soviet losses, and during the evening of 12 July telephoned and berated Rotmistrov. During that same evening, Stalin despatched Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, who had been overseeing 'Kutuzov', to Vatutin’s headquarters as Stavka representative to assume control of co-ordinating the operations of the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front. A commission was also despatched to investigate the cause of the Soviet forces' great losses and the role of Rotmistrov and his plans in the battle: the commission’s findings were completed and submitted to Stalin two weeks later. After initial consideration of dismissing Rotmistrov and hauling him before a military tribunal, Stalin eventually changed his mind after the intercession of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff.
On the night of 12/13 July, Vatutin ordered his forces to prevent any further German advance toward Prokhorovka, destroy the German forces which had advanced along the northern bank of the Psel river, and prevent the III Panzerkorps from making farther progress. Orders issued by the German command for 13 July instructed the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' to consolidate its gains of the previous day and then attack into the flank and rear of the Soviet forces around Prokhorovka; the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' was to strengthen its front line and co-ordinate its attack on Prokhorovka from the south with the attack of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' from the north-west; and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was to consolidate and strengthen its front and ready itself for an offensive to link with the III Panzerkorps.
During the morning of 13 July, the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade and the 24th Guards Tank Brigade, in co-operation with the infantry of the 95th Guards Division and 52nd Guards Division, launched attacks on the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf'. These Soviet attacks preoccupied German formation and prevented it from attacking toward Prokhorovka. At about 12.00, the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung was ordered to attack to the north in the direction of the Psel river to consolidate its front with the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', while the armoured units of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' were to attack toward the Soviet positions to the north-east of the 'Oktyabrsky' State Farm toward Prokhorovka.
The 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung attacked the defensive positions held by the 42nd Guards Division and the remaining armour of the XVIII Tank Corps, while the German armoured units attacked the defences of 9th Guards Airborne Division and the XXIX Tank Corps. These German attacks were repelled by concentrated anti-tank artillery fire. The XXIX Tank Corps responded with a counterattack and penetrated the German lines, reaching the 'Komsomolets' State Farm before being beaten back by direct fire of German artillery. During the afternoon, the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was ordered to abandon its positions to the north-west of Prokhorovka and fall back to defensible positions around Hill 226.6. Soviet attempts to sever the narrow salient were unsuccessful, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' had completed its withdrawal by the fall of night.
On 13 July Hitler summoned von Manstein and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', to his Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia. The Allied 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily on the night of 9/10 July, combined with the Soviet 'Kutuzov' counter-offensive against the flank and rear of Model’s 9th Army on the northern side of the Kursk salient on 12 July, and the attacks by strong Soviet forces at Prokhorovka during the course of the same day had finally persuaded Hitler to call an end to 'Zitadelle' and begin the redeployment of forces to the Mediterranean theatre.
von Kluge welcomed the decision, as he was already in the process of withdrawing elements of the 9th Army from the northern side of the Kursk salient to deal with Soviet attacks on his flank. On the other hand, von Manstein was deeply disappointed, for he argued that his forces were now on the verge of achieving a major breakthrough on the southern side of the Kursk salient. As von Manstein saw it, with his III Panzerkorps on the verge of linking with the II SS Panzerkorps at Prokhorovka, and with the XXIV Panzerkorps available as his operational reserve, Hitler’s decision would result in the halting of the offensive at just the moment when victory was at hand. With his strategic instincts focussed on the west, however, Hitler was unwilling to continue the offensive. von Manstein persisted, proposing that his forces should at least destroy the Soviet reserves in the southern part of the Kursk salient before 'Zitadelle' was finally terminated so that the Soviet fighting capacity in the sector would be depleted for the rest of the summer. Hitler then agreed that offensive operations should be continued in the southern part of the Kursk salient until von Manstein’s goal had been achieved.
After the meeting with Hitler on 13 July, von Manstein hastily put together the plan for 'Roland', realising that he only had a few days in which to to conduct the operation before he lost the II SS Panzerkorps to Hitler’s planned redeployment. 'Roland' called for the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' to attack to the east and to the south south and link with the III Panzerkorps, which would be attacking to the north-west. The 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte' were to anchor the western and northern flanks of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' respectively. Once the link had been achieved and the Soviet forces encircled, Prokhorovka would then be attacked shortly thereafter by the combined forces of the II SS Panzerkorps and III Panzerkorps. The operation’s object was the destruction of the Soviet armoured reserves massed in the southern sector of the Kursk salient, and thereby check Soviet offensive capacity for the rest of the summer.
The orders for 'Roland' were issued in the late hours of 13 July. But after meeting with von Manstein, Hitler countermanded the redeployment of the XXIV Panzerkorps to the Kursk salient, sending it on 14 July to support the 1st Panzerarmee farther to the south. The German assault began at 04.00 on 14 July as, after a brief artillery barrage, the 4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Der Führer' of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' struck out for the high ground to the south-west of Pravorot, evicting the remnants of the II Guards Tank Corps from the village of Belenikhino following house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting. The 2nd SS Panzerregiment of the same division fought off a series of counterattacks and forced the Soviet units to withdraw to the east and a new defensive line. Zhukov ordered the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade of the V Guards Mechanised Corps to reinforce the line. von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision of the III Panzerkorps established contact with the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich, but Trufanov, commanding the Soviet forces in the gap, was aware of the threat and conducted a fighting withdrawal. The link of the two German forces thus failed to trap the Soviet forces, though the latter abandoned a substantial number of their anti-tank guns. 'Roland' failed to produce a decisive result for the Germans, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' began withdrawing from its positions to the north of the Psel river in accordance with orders issued late on 15 July, even as the II SS Panzerkorps assumed a defensive stance along its entire front.
On 17 July the Soviet South-West Front and South Fronts launched their major 'Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation' across the Mius and Donets rivers against the southern wing of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', pressing upon the 6th Army and 1st Panzerarmee. In the early afternoon of 17 July, 'Roland 'was terminated with an order for the II SS Panzerkorps to begin a withdrawal from the Prokhorovka sector back to Belgorod. The 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf' had anticipated the order and started to pull back as early as the evening of 16 July. The tanks of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' were redistributed to the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf while the division itself was hastily redeployed to Italy even as the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' were despatched to the south for commitment against the 'Donbas Strategic Offensive Operation'.
It is difficult to establish each side’s loss on 12 July. German tank losses vary considerably, in part as a result of the German army’s methodology for counting and reporting matériel losses: only equipment that could not be repaired or that had to be abandoned were counted as losses, but damaged equipment that could be recovered and repaired were simply listed as such. Likewise, reliable figures for Soviet tank and personnel casualties in the Battle of Prokhorovka are difficult to establish.
The II SS Panzerkorps reported 842 men killed, wounded, or missing for 12 July, and 2,672 for the period between 12 and 16 July. As the Germans controlled much of the Prokhorovka battlefield until 17 July, they were able to recover most of their disabled armoured vehicles.The II SS Panzerkorps' logistics report for 12 July recorded no confirmed permanent tank losses. Other German sources show that three tanks of the II SS Panzerkorps (two PzKpfw IV and one Tiger vehicles) that were immobilised in the battlefield could not subsequently be recovered and therefore the permanent losses can only be adjusted to a possible maximum of three tanks for 12 July. A US study attributed six permanent tank losses, not counting PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks and German assault guns, if any. Archival files of the II SS Panzerkorps and the 4th Panzerarmee show that the II SS Panzerkorps suffered the permanent loss of 17 tanks and assault guns between 12 and 23 July, which therefore represents the maximum permanent losses the formation could have incurred for the engagement on 12 July up to the end of 'Roland'.
Archival data of the II SS Panzerkorps show that this formation had 294 serviceable tanks and assault guns on the evening of 11 July, and 251 on the evening of 13 July. Allowing for the possibility that some repaired tanks were returned to service on 13 July, these numbers indicate that at least 43 tanks and assault guns became inoperable during this period, which includes all 10 Tiger tanks of the 3rd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and one such vehicle of the 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. Something between 60 and 80 tanks and assault guns of the II SS Panzerkorps were damaged or destroyed in combat on 12 July. By the end of 16 July, the II SS Panzerkorps had 292 serviceable tanks and assault guns, almost the same number it had at the beginning of the battle on 12 July.
On 12 July, Schlachtgeschwader 1 of Fliegerkorps I reported 11 aircraft damaged, all by Soviet anti-aircraft artillery, of which six were totally wrecked.
A document prepared on 17 July by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Tank Army summarised the formation’s combat losses between 12 and 16 July for all of its five corps, as well as smaller units directly subordinated to the army headquarters. The document reported irrecoverable losses as 222 T-34, 89 T-70 and 12 Churchill tanks, eight SU-122 and three SU-76 self-propelled guns, and 240 support vehicles, and damaged vehicles still under repair as 143 T-34, 56 T-70 and seven Churchill tanks, three SU-122 and three SU-76 self-propelled, but provided no figures for support vehicles. The same document reported personnel casualties as 2,940 killed in action, 3,510 wounded in action, and 1,157 missing in action. Thus the overall totals were 334 tanks and self-propelled guns lost irrecoverably, and 212 tanks and self-propelled guns under repair, and 7,607 casualties.
Soviet personnel losses at Prokhorovka on 12 July have been estimated to have been as great as 5,500 men. For equipment damaged or destroyed. Another estimate has put the 5th Guards Tank Army’s losses as at least 400 tanks in its attacks on 12 July.
Debate continues about the significance and outcome of the Battle of Prokhorovka. The German forces destroyed many Soviet tanks and temporarily degraded the striking power of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but were unable to take Prokhorovka or to break through into open ground before developments elsewhere forced the termination of 'Zitadelle'. For the Soviets, the massive armoured attack of 12 July failed to destroy the II SS Panzerkorps, but did succeed in exhausting the Germans and eventually contributed to checking their advance. Thus neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzerkorps achieved their objectives.