This was the Soviet offensive, more formally known as the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation' and incorporating the ‘Volkhov-Orel Offensive Operation’ (12 July/18 August) and ‘Kromyv-Orel Offensive Operation’ (15 July/18 August) as its primary components, designed and implemented in order to eliminate the German salient centred on Orel (12 July/18 August 1943).
Undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the German disaster in ‘Zitadelle’, this offensive capitalised on the failing capabilities of the German forces on the Eastern Front to emphasise that the strategic and operational initiatives had passed irrevocably into the hands of Soviet forces which were growing monthly in strength and skill.
As the end of the rainy reason’s rasputitsa neared in the first part of 1943, the Soviet high command started to plan its next steps. Iosif Stalin had a strong desire to seize the strategic and operational initiatives on the Eastern Front and therefore to take the offensive against the German forces, but was convinced by his senior military commanders initially to adopt a defensive posture and allow the Germans to weaken themselves in offensives against Soviet prepared defensive positions, and only after this to order the Soviet forces to go over onto the offensive. Within this strategic thinking, ‘Kutuzov’ was the offensive planned for the Soviet forces to the west of Moscow against Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. ‘Kutuzov’ was to be undertaken by three Soviet army groups in the form of the West Front, Bryansk Front and Central Front, and was to be directed into the area lying to the north of the Soviets’ westward-bulging Kursk salient, which was the eastward-bulging re-entrant centred on Orel and held in the north by the 2nd Panzerarmee. ‘Kutuzov’ was therefore to drive to the south and west, and then to the south-west, with the object of cutting behind and thereby trapping the 9th Army in the southern part of the Orel re-entrant for destruction against the northern face of the Kursk salient.
The Germans had spread their forces thinly all along the length of the Eastern Front in an effort to gather as much manpower and matériel as possible for their ‘Zitadelle’ operation to pinch out the Kursk salient. Holding the front through which ‘Kutuzov’ would burst were General Heinrich Clössner’s 2nd Panzerarmee and elements of Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army. The Orel re-entrant had been held by Germans for almost two years and despite Adolf Hitler’s admonition that defensive works behind the front were not to be constructed as these would engender defeatism, some preparations had in fact been made. Work had been started on a defensive line some 3.1 to 4.3 miles (5 to 7 km) deep, and the planned defences were based on minefields, interconnected trench systems and strongpoints. Wherever they could, the Germans seized the defensive opportunities provided by natural features such as streams, ravines and gullies, but these interim defensive positions were only thinly held.
The Stavka planned two offensives as part of a huge general offensive along the length of the Eastern Front, and of these ‘Kutuzov’ was the northern element with the object of eliminating the Orel re-entrant, falling on the rear of the 9th Army even as it was fully engaged in the northern part of the ‘Zitadelle’ offensive round Kursk, cutting its lines of communication, isolating it and finally destroying it. In doing so the Stavka hoped to trigger a general collapse of the German front in the USSR. ‘Kutuzov’ was to start once the German armoured formations engaged in ‘Zitadelle’ were fully committed in combat and weakened by their offensive on the northern face of the Kursk salient. The initial phases of the offensive were to be made simultaneously on the northern and eastern faces of the Orel re-entrant by the West Front and Bryansk Front respectively, with the Central Front then being committed along the southern face of the re-entrant as well as soon as the northern component of ‘Zitadelle’ had been brought to a halt.
German intelligence revealed the massive nature of the Soviet force being grouped opposite the 2nd Panzerarmee, and this was a matter of great concern for both von Kluge and Model. The In overall terms, including forces which arrived in the course of ‘Kutuzov’, the Soviet armies earmarked for the operation totalled 1.286 million men, 2,400 tanks, 26,400 pieces of artillery and 3,000 warplanes.
The Soviet offensive was usefully aided by partisan attacks in the area to the rear of the German front line. Here some 100,000 partisans were working in a programme co-ordinated by the Soviet high command to disrupt the German efforts to supply and reinforce their front-line forces. Thus the entire German process of moving ammunition and reinforcements was disrupted throughout the operation by attacks on the German lines of communication and supply, most especially the limited and all-important railway lines, most notably that from the west to Orel and that on a north/south alignment through Bryansk and Nalya, which were the only channels along which significant numbers of men and quantities of matériel could be moved swiftly in an areas largely devoid of good road communications.
It was on 12 July that a heavy artillery barrage marked the launching of the ‘Kutuzov’ offensive. The armies of General Vasily D. Sokolovsky’s West Front were, from north-west to south-east, General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army and General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 11th Guards Army, while those of General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front were, from north-west to south-east, General Leytenant Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 11th Guards Army supported by General Leytenant Vasili V. Butkov’s I Tank Corps and General Leytenant Andrei G. Kravchenko’s V Tank Corps, General Leytenant Vasili M. Badanov’s 4th Tank Army, General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army, General Leytenant Aleksandr V. Gorbatov’s 3rd Army, General Leytenant Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 63rd Army and General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army. In the the south General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front controlled General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 48th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s (later General Leytenant Semyon I. Bogdanov’s) 2nd Tank Army and General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s 70th Army. The 50th, 11th Guards, 61st, 3rd, 53rd and 3rd Guards Tank Armies attacked along the 2nd Panzerarmee’s northern and north-eastern flanks at the start of ‘Kutuzov’, the main assault being delivered by the 11th Guards Army.
The plan was for Gorbatov’s 3rd Army and Kolpakchy’s 63rd Army of the West Front to drive directly to the west from the area of Novosil across the Susha river and through the junction of the 2nd Panzerarmee and 9th Army to take the city of Orel, thus pinning the Germans in this area while Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army passed through to exploit farther to the west. At the same time Bagramyan’s 11th Guards Army of the West Front was to push straight to the south from the area of Belev to crush the left shoulder of the German salient and so permit Badanov’s 4th Tank Army to push through and cut off the 2nd Panzerarmee.
The Germans were well served by their intelligence system, and from photo-reconnaissance and radio intercepts developed a clear picture of what the Soviets were planning. Though their lack of strength made impossible any counterattack, they were thus able to prepare defences in depth, especially in the sector of General Dr Lothar Rendulic’s XXXV Corps, which faced the main assault by the 63rd Army.
The Soviets attacked in overwhelming strength: along one 10-mile (16-km) sector near Ulyanovo, six Soviet infantry divisions attacked two German infantry regiments. The German defences, between 3.1 and 4.3 miles (5 and 7 km) deep, presented an obstacle more formidable than the Soviets had expected. The Soviet spearheads therefore suffered heavy losses but nonetheless drove through and in some areas achieved significant penetrations. The German defenders had been overwhelmed by the afternoon of this first day of ‘Kutuzov’ as the 11th Guards Army advanced a maximum of 14 miles (23 km). Generalmajor Ernst Felix Fäckenstedt’s 5th Panzerdivision attempted to close the breach, but was met by Soviet armour moving forward in support and driven back.
The initial attacks on the re-entrant’s eastern face by the Bryansk Front were less successful, but even so the 61st, 3rd and 63rd Armies advanced 5, 8.7 and 9.3 miles (8, 14 and 15 km) respectively. On the following day General Friedrich Gollwitzer’s LIII Corps undertook a counterattack and halted the Bryansk Front. As fact which quickly became evident was that the open nature of the terrain favoured the longer-ranged artillery of the Germans. von Kluge and Model had anticipated the Soviet offensive, moreover, and quickly organised the transfer formations and units from the Kursk area to reinforce the German defence, and the rapid arrival of these formations and units helped to check the Soviet advance.
Farther to the north the 11th Guards Army continued to force its way through the German defences, and in this area the Germans lacked the reserves to block these penetrations. With the danger of a breakthrough and subsequent encirclement of their forces, the situation soon become serious for the 2nd Panzerarmee, and by the end of the second day of ‘Kutuzov’ Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had transferred operational command of the 2nd Panzerarmee from Clössner to Model. As the later was already commanding the 9th Army committed to the north portion of ‘Zitadelle’, the transfer of command meant that Model now controlled all German formations in the Orel area.
Three days later the second phase of ‘Kutuzov’ started with attacks on the 9th Army by several Soviet armies, and it was at this stage of the offensive that the Soviet strength peaked at 1,286 million men, who were by 2,409 tanks and 26,379 pieces of artillery. The Soviets now broadened their offensive, adding supporting attacks by the 50th Army to the north of the 11th Guards Army. Between the 50th Army and the Bryansk Front was a thrust by General Leytenant Ivan G. Lazarev’s XX Tank Corps aimed at Bolkhov, along with a push by the Central Front on the offensive’s southern face. To increase the weight of their effort, the Soviets now committed the 3rd Guards Tank Army and 4th Tank Army from the reserves. The 3rd Guards Tank Army drove straight for Orel, attempting to develop the eastern attack, while the 4th Tank Army drove from the north along the wider breach made by 11th Guards Army. These fresh armies thereby threatened to trap the German forces defending the eastern face of the Orel re-entrant. The German defensive effort was now hampered still further by partisan attacks on their railway lines of communication and supply.
As Soviet breakthroughs developed the German situation became increasingly difficult, and the whole of the 9th Army now faced the threat of being cut off. Model sent nearly all of his Panzer units to aid the 2nd Panzerarmee, whose northern front was on the verge of collapse, while to the north Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 4th Army of von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ redeployed Generalmajor Hans Junck’s 253rd Division. These emergency measures aided the Germans in achieving a stabilisation of the front, albeit only a temporary stabilisation, while the 9th Army began to pull back its formations. The formations of the Central Front followed the German retreat, initially only with hesitation, but increased the intensity of their attacks from the ground and the air. By 18 July the 9th Army was back at its starting points of 5 July.
Despite the commitment of more Soviet armies, the Soviet advance was slowly checked, but then political events elsewhere in Europe took a hand, for on 26 July Adolf Hitler heard of the fall of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and called von Kluge to Germany for orders to evacuate the Orel salient and withdraw to the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ as a means of saving troops for service in an increasingly threatened western Europe. von Kluge objected, but Hitler was adamant, especially after the German intelligence services listened to a radio telephone conversation between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the imminent defection of Italy from the Axis camp.
There now developed in the Orel sector a series of engagements between arriving German reserves and Soviet tank formations. Though Hitler expressly forbade retreat, the Soviets gradually gained ground. By 26 July, the Germans were forced to abandon their Orel major base of operations and begin their ‘Hagen-Bewegung’ withdrawal to the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ position: centred on Bryansk, past whose eastern edge it passed, the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ was a north/south lines extending from a point to the south-west of Zhidra in the north to Sevsk on the north-western should of the Kursk salient in the south. As their 11th Guards Army reached the outskirts of Karachev, about half way between Orel and Bryansk, the Soviets threatened to cut the main railway line which was the Germans’ main west/east supply line. On 29 July the Soviet forces liberated Bolkhov, and on 4 August there began the battle for Orel, which was liberated after one day of hard fighting. With their position untenable, the Germans were forced to pull back to the only half-prepared positions of the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ on receipt of Hitler’s orders for an immediate withdrawal on 1 August, and by 18 August the Soviets had reached the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ to the east of Bryansk at the base of the Orel re-entrant. With this German defeat, the Soviet offensive began to grow into a general offensive.
The Soviet forces, it should be noted, were ably supported on their attacks on German ground positions by the Soviet air forces working in close conjunction with the preliminary artillery bombardment. General Leytenant Mikhail M. Gromov’s 1st Air Army and General Leytenant Nikolai F. Naumenko’s 15th Air Army flew 360 sorties against the German rear areas, dropping some 210 tons of bombs.
In the southern sector of ‘Kutuzov’, the Germans flew more than 1,000 sorties on the first day while the 15th Air Army responded with 737 sorties. The Luftwaffe destroyed some 35 tanks, 14 pieces of artillery and 50 motor vehicles of the Bryansk Front, slowing their progress. By the end of the first day the Soviets had failed to breach the first line of the German defences. While the 2nd Panzerarmee was driven steadily backward, the Luftwaffe battled the Soviet air forces over the land battlefield, on 13 July destroying 94 Soviet aircraft including 50 Ilyushin Il-2 ‘Shturmovik’ ground-attack machines.
In this southern region of the battle Generalleutnant Paul Deichmann’s 1st Fliegerdivision of Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI maintained air superiority above the 9th Army, inflicting on the Soviets significant aircraft losses in the period between 13 and 16 July. After six days of heavy fighting, however, the strength of the Luftwaffe began to decline. The 1st Fliegerdivision flew a mere 74 interception sorties against the 868 sorties of the 16th Air Army, for example. Thus while the Soviets continued to lose in tactical air engagements, their overall presence in the air was dominant, and signally aided the 11th Guards Army in its breakthrough.
‘Kutuzov’ was the bloodiest of the three major operations during the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet losses in ‘Kutuzov’ were about 112,529 men killed and 317,361 wounded, 2,585 armoured fighting vehicles, 890 pieces of artillery, and between 1,015 and 1,705 aircraft, while those of the Germans were in the order of 86,455 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner, unknown numbers of armoured fighting vehicles and guns, and 220 aircraft. The Soviet tank and assault gun losses were notably high, with 2,586 such vehicles destroyed or damaged in ‘Kutuzov’. The German tank losses are not available for this battle, but Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ is known to have lost 343 armoured fighting vehicles in ‘Zitadelle’ and ‘Kutuzov’.
Some of the Soviet commanders were unhappy with the results, complaining that an even greater victory might have been won. Agreeing with the opinion of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces, Rokossovsky later wrote that ‘Instead of enveloping the enemy, we only pushed them out of the bulge. The operation would have been different if we had used our force for two heavy punches which met at Bryansk.’ However, ‘Kutuzov’ was successful in diverting German reserves earmarked for ‘Zitadelle’, and the Soviets both reduced the Orel re-entrant and inflicted substantial losses on the Germans. Moreover, the Soviet victory set the stage for the battle of Smolensk, known as ‘Suvorov’ (otherwise the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’), several weeks later. With ‘Kutuzov’, the Soviets completed the Soviet seizure the strategic initiative which they had began in the defeat of ‘Zitadelle’, which they would hold for the rest of the war.
There was to be no respite for the Germans, moreover, for at this time Zhukov was completing the final plans for the series of Soviet offensives which, from 23 August, was to push the German forces back along the whole length of the front from Nevel south to the Black Sea in the operational areas of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’.