Operation Roland

This was the German offensive, rapidly planned by the staff of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, for an advance toward the line of the Psel river once Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee had broken through the Soviet defences on the southern shoulder of the Kursk salient in ‘Zitadelle’ (14/17 July 1943).

On 13 July, after the Battle of Prokhorovka in the southern part of the Kursk salient, Adolf Hitler summoned von Manstein and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', to his 'Wolfsschanze' headquarters near Rastenburg 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 Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army in the northern face of the Kursk salient on 12 July, and the strength of the Soviet attacks at Prokhorovka on the same day had persuaded Hitler that the time was now right for 'Zitadelle' to be terminated in order that substantial forces would be available for redeployment from the Eastern Front 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. von Manstein, on the other hand, was severely disappointed and argued that his forces were now on the verge of achieving a major breakthrough on the southern face of the salient. As he saw it, with General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps about to link with SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps at Prokhorovka, and with General Walter Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps available as his operational reserve, Hitler’s decision would halt the offensive just at the moment when a major victory was in hand. With his eyes focussed to the west , however, Hitler was unwilling to continue the offensive.

von Manstein nonetheless 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 agreed to continue offensive operations in the southern part of the salient until von Manstein’s goal had been achieved.

von Manstein now hastily assembled a plan for 'Roland', realising that he had only a few days to conduct the operation before he lost the II SS Panzerkorps. The plan called for SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' to attack to the east and south and link with the III Panzerkorps, which would attack to the north-west. SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ were to anchor the western and northern flanks of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'. Once the link between the two Panzer corps had been achieved and the Soviet forces encircled, the Soviet defence would be crippled and Prokhorovka would likely fall shortly thereafter to the combined forces of the two Panzer corps.

The goal of the operation was to destroy the Soviet armoured reserves massed in the southern part of the Kursk salient, and thereby check Soviet offensive capacity for the rest of the summer.

The orders for 'Roland' were issued late on 13 July. After his meeting with von Manstein, however, Hitler countermanded the deployment of the XXIV Panzerkorps to the Kursk salient, on 14 July sending the corps to support Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee on the southern part of the Eastern Front.

The 'Roland' assault began at 04.00 on 14 July as, after a brief artillery bombardment, the 4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment 'Der Führer' of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' advanced toward the high ground to the south-west of Pravorot, evicting the remnants of General Major Aleksei S. Burdeiny’s II Guards Tank Corps of General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front from the village of Belenikhino in vicious house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment fought off a series of counterattacks and forced the Soviets to withdraw to the east in order to establish a new line. Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, who was co-ordinating the Soviet forces in the southern part of the Kursk salient, ordered the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade of General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps to reinforce the line. Generalmajor Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision of the III Panzerkorps established contact with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich', but General Major Kuzma G. Trufanov, deputy commander of General Leytenant Pavel A. Rostmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army and heading the Soviet forces in the gap, was aware of the threat and conducted a fighting withdrawal.

The linking of the two German corps thus did not trap the Soviet forces, though they abandoned a substantial number of their anti-tank guns. 'Roland' therefore failed to produce a decisive result for the Germans, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' began to pull back from its positions the north of the Psel river in accord 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 Front launched a major offensive, the 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation', across the Mius and Donets rivers against the southern wing of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, smashing into Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Armyand von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee. Early in the afternoon of 17 July, 'Roland' was terminated with an order for the the II SS Panzerkorps to begin withdrawing from the Prokhorovka sector toward Belgorod. Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteiling 'Kempf' had anticipated the order and began executing it as early as the evening of 16 July. The armoured fighting vehicles of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' were distributed between the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' as the division was hastily redeployed to Italy, while the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' were despatched to the south to meet the new Soviet offensive.