This was the German strategic offensive leading to the Battle of Kursk and then the Battle of Prokhorovka, the decisive encounters which lost the Germans the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, and indeed all realistic hope of regaining it (4/16 July 1943).
The Battle of Kursk, fought in an area about 280 miles (450 km) to the south-west of Moscow, was a climactic clash of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and culminated in the Battle of Prokhorovka, one of the greatest armoured clashes in history. With the German ‘Zitadelle’ offensive halted, it was then countered by two Soviet counter-offensives, ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ or, as they were more formally designated, the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’ and ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’. ‘Zitadelle’ also represented the final strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount in the Eastern Front, and their victory gave the Soviets the strategic initiative for the rest of the war on the Eastern Front.
The strategic situation was set by the Soviet successes during the winter of 1942/43, when they had decisively won the Battle of Stalingrad: the Germans had lost a whole army of some 500,000 Germans and some of their Axis allies, seriously depleting the Axis strength in men and matériel on the Eastern Front. With an invasion of Europe clearly being planned by the Western Allies, Adolf Hitler now saw that a complete defeat of the Soviets before the Western Allies arrived had become unlikely, and he therefore decided to force the Soviets to a draw, which would make it possible to hold the Eastern Front with a reduced number of men and allow the surplus thus created to be shifted westward for the defence western Europe.
In 1917 the Germans had constructed the ‘Hindenburg-Linie’ defences on the Western Front, shortening their front line and thereby increasing their defensive strength. Hitler now planned to repeat this ploy on the Eastern Front in World War II, and the German forces embarked on the construction of a series of great works known as the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’ defences. It was intended that the German forces pull back to this line late in 1943 and then start the process of a German recuperation as the Soviet forces were bled white in attempting to break though this line.
The strategic rationale for ‘Zitadelle’ was the German hope of weakening the Soviet offensive potential for the summer campaigning season of 1943 by cutting off the very large number of formations which they believed to be deployed in the westward-facing Kursk salient, which was 155 miles (250 km) long on its north/south axis and 100 miles (160 km) long on its east/west axis. By the elimination of the Kursk salient, which had been created by the northern part of the ‘Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ between 13 January and 3 March 1943, the Germans would also shorten the length of the front which their forces had to hold in this area, offset the Soviet quantitive superiority in decisive sectors (thereby removing some of the threat faced by the Germans and offering them the time and opportunity to regroup and also plan another offensive against the Soviets), and regain the strategic initiative.
The German was based on the concept of an envelopment by pairs of pincers breaking through the salient’s northern and southern shoulders to meet in the area to the east of Kursk (inner pair) and Tim farther to the east (outer pair). Moreover, the capture of Kursk, which lies in the centre of the salient’s rear, would place in German hands the central part of the railway line linking Orel and Kharkov, severely disrupting the Soviet lines of communications while signally improving their own logistical situation. Hitler believed that a victory here would reassert German strength and morale, and also improve his and the German armed forces’ prestige with Germany’s allies, several of whom he knew to be considering a withdrawal from the war. Hitler and the German military and civilian high commands also believed that the forthcoming battle would yield large numbers of Soviet prisoners for use as slave labourers in the German armament industries.
The Soviets had good information, provided in part by British ‘Ultra’ intelligence, about the German intentions. Knowing some months in advance that the German onslaught would fall on the shoulders of the Kursk salient, the Soviets had sufficient time to build a defence in depth designed specifically to slow and degrade the Panzer spearheads on which they knew the Germans would rely. In this development of their defences, the Soviets were aided by the fact that the Germans delayed their offensive to buy the time to build up their forces and receive significant quantities of new weapons, mainly the new PzKpfw V Panther battle tank but also larger numbers of the PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tank and Panzerjäger Tiger (P) or ‘Ferdinand’ heavy tank destroyer. Thus the Soviets were afforded the opportunity to construct a series of deep, concentric defensive belts, whose features included minefields, fortifications, artillery fire zones and anti-tank strongpoints, to a depth of some 185 miles (300 km). The Soviets also withdrew their mobile formations from the salient, and established a notably large reserve force with which to launch strategic counter-offensives.
‘Zitadelle’ was the first time in World War II that a German strategic offensive was halted before it broke through its opponent’s defences and penetrated into its strategic depths: the maximum depth of the German advance in the north was to be 5 to 7.5 miles (8 to 12 km) and in the south 22 miles (35 km).
Although the Soviets had previously made successful winter offensives, their two counter-offensives after the defeat of ‘Zitadelle’ were their first successful strategic summer offensives of the ‘Great Patriotic War’.
In the first weeks of 1943, as the Battle of Stalingrad slowly drew to its close as a massive German defeat, the Soviets moved to a general offensive in the south, exerting a seemingly relentless pressure of the exhausted German formations which had survived the winter campaign of 1942/43. By January 1943, a gap between 100 and 185 miles (160 and 300 km) wide had been driven between Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and its southern neighbour, Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, and the Soviets were threatening to cut off, in the area to the south of the Don river, all the German forces including Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the Caucasus. Farther to the north, Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was also coming under great pressure. Kursk fell to the Soviets on 8 February, and Rostov-na-Donu on 14 February.
General Polkovnik Maks A. Reiter’s Bryansk Front, General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s (from February General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s) West Front and General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s newly created Central Front now prepared an offensive designed to encircle Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the region between Bryansk and Smolensk.
By February 1943, therefore, the German armies on the Eastern Front were in a very real danger of general collapse. However, Hitler’s total confidence in the advantage the Germans possessed in his own iron ‘will’ as the deciding factor in the conflict meant that the German field forces had to adhere to the concept of a rigid defence which afforded them absolutely no opportunity to implement operationally mandated moves and redeployments. Since December 1942 von Manstein had been requesting, in terms so strong that they greatly annoyed Hitler, the ‘unrestricted operational freedom’ to use his forces for a fluid defence. Hitler’s policy of holding at all costs may have averted a general collapse in the winter of 1941/42 when the Soviets launched the ‘Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation’ and ‘Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation’ after the defeat of the German ‘Taifun’ (i) attempt to take Moscow as the culmination of ‘Barbarossa’, but since that time Hitler’s refusal to permit tactical withdrawals had led constantly to German forces holding ground until their positions had been outflanked and often surrounded, resulting in their almost inevitable destruction. The most striking example of this was, of course, the isolation in Stalingrad of Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army, whose last remnants surrendered on 2 February 1943.
Some 10 days later, the remaining German forces were reorganised. In the south, Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ was renamed as Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ with von Manstein still in command. Immediately to its north, Heeresgruppe ‘B’ was disestablished, its forces and areas of responsibility being divided between Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. von Manstein thereby became responsible for the huge gap in the German line. On 18 February, Hitler arrived at the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ at Zaporozhye, only a few hours before the Soviets retook Kharkov. Hitler’s distrust of the general staff and the traditional officer corps in general, and of von Manstein in particular, put him at odds with the high commands of the German armed forces. But though he wished to relieve von Manstein and lay on him the blame for the defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler concluded he could not afford to dismiss so capable a military leader, and instead grudgingly gave von Manstein the operational freedom the latter had requested.
SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hauser’s II SS Panzerkorps had arrived from France in January 1943 after a refit which had bought this elite formation almost to full strength. Armoured units of Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had been withdrawn from the Caucasus and now further strengthened von Manstein’s army group. With operational freedom now available to him, von Manstein explained how he intended to exploit the availability of these forces to undertake a series of counterstrokes into the flanks of the Soviet armoured formations, with the goal of destroying them and at the same time retaking Kharkov and Kursk.
The 3rd Battle of Kharkov began on 19 February, spearheaded by the three Waffen-SS divisions of the II SS Panzerkorps. In this stroke of operational-level genius, von Manstein cut off the Soviet spearheads, and then encircled and destroyed the Soviet main force, and as a result the Germans retook Kharkov on 15 March and then Belgorod three days later. The German offensive thus wrested the operational but not strategic initiative from the Soviets, and a Soviet offensive launched on 25 February by the Central Front against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been abandoned by 7 March to allow the attacking formations to be redeployed to the south to counter the threat posed by the advance of von Manstein’s forces.
The exhaustion of their forces then combined with the loss of mobility as a result of the arrival of the spring rasputitsa to bring an end to both Soviet and German operations by the middle of March. However, the Soviet counter-offensive had left a salient, centred on Kursk, extending into the German area of control.
By this third month of 1943, the heavy losses which it had suffered since the start of ‘Barbarossa’ in June 1941 meant that the German army was short of infantry and artillery, its formations being 470,000 men short of establishment in these two branches. Thus in any German offensive during 1943, the primary burden would have to be borne by the armoured formations. Given the exposed position of his Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, von Manstein proposed that his forces should adopt the strategic-level defensive supported by operational-level offensives. von Manstein’s appreciation of the current situation on the Eastern Front was that the Soviets would attempt an offensive to cut off and destroy Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ by advancing across the Donets river and pushing forward to the Dniepr river, and in February he proposed that his army group wait for this offensive to develop and then deliver a series of counterattacks into the exposed flanks of the Soviet offensive.
Concerned about the political implications of adopting the defensive and preoccupied with holding the industrial and coal-producing Donbass area, however, Hitler rejected von Manstein’s plan. On 10 March, von Manstein offered an alternative in which the Germans would pinch off the Kursk salient with a rapid offensive launched as soon as the spring rasputitsa had dried. The Oberkommando des Heeres concurred with the notion of biting off the Soviet westward bulge through the German line between Orel and Kharkov. The area of the salient and the territory beside and behind it was held by very substantial Soviet forces, and the Oberkommando des Heeres, primarily responsible for Eastern Front operations, estimated that the pinching off of the salient would trap almost one-fifth of the Soviet army’s strength. It would also result in a front line that would be straighter and therefore shorter than before, and capture the strategically useful railway town of Kursk located on the main north/south railway line running between Moscow and Rostov-na-Donu and the main east/west line extending between Voronezh and Kiev.
On 13 March, Hitler signed Operational Order No. 5, which approved several offensives. As the last of the Soviet resistance in Kharkov came to an end, von Manstein attempted to persuade von Kluge, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, to launch an immediate attack the Central Front, which was holding the northern face of the Soviet salient. In the belief that his forces were inadequate to the task, von Kluge refused. Further Axis advances were blocked by Soviet forces which had been relocated to the south from the Central Front to the area lying to the north of Belgorod. By the middle of April, in poor weather conditions and with the German forces exhausted and in need of refitting, the offensives authorised in Operational Order No. 5 were postponed.
On 15 April, Hitler issued Operational Order No. 6, which called for the launch of the Kursk offensive on or just after 3 May. Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, now provided the logistical planning for the operation, which was codenamed ‘Zitadelle’. The success of the operation was believed to lie in its launch before the Soviets had a chance to prepare extensive defences or to start an offensive of their own. It is worth noting that while some military historians deem ‘Zitadelle’ to have been schemed in accord with the Blitzkrieg concept of offensive warfare, others and officers such as von Manstein make no such claim, and it is arguable, therefore, that ‘Zitadelle’ marked a major change in German offensive thinking and planning away from the Blitzkrieg.
In the simplest terms, ‘Zitadelle’ was based on a double envelopment, directed at the seizure of Kursk, to surround the Soviet defenders and seal off the salient, thereby trapping two Soviet fronts. As noted above, the object was for the two pincer movements to meet at Kursk (inner pair) and Tim (outer pair) behind the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient, which would be destroyed by German infantry forces as, if all went well, the German armour exploited to the east with a view to establishing a new German line on the Don river farther to the east.
The contribution of von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was to be Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army, which would be the northern pincer tasked to drive through the Soviet defences on the north-eastern face of the salient and advance to the south in order to reach the hills to the east of Kursk and thereby secure the railway line between Orel and Kursk from Soviet attack.
Two other major formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, the VII Corps and XIII Corps of Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army, were meanwhile to contain the Soviet forces in the western portion of the salient.
The contribution of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was to be Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, which would constitute the southern pincer tasked to drive through the Soviet defences on the south-eastern face of the salient and advance to the north for a junction with the 9th Army in the area to the east of Kursk. The spearhead formation of the 4th Panzerarmee was to be Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, with General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps on its left and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ on its right.
On 27 April Model met Hitler to review the development of the plan and voice his concern about the fact that reconnaissance was revealing the fact that the Soviets were in the process of constructing very strong positions at the shoulders of the salient and had withdrawn their mobile forces from the area to the west of Kursk. Model argued that the longer the preparation phase continued, the less ‘Zitadelle’ could be justified. Model therefore recommended the abandonment of ‘Zitadelle’ and waiting to defeat the inevitably forthcoming Soviet offensive, or otherwise undertaking a radical revision of the ‘Zitadelle’ plan. Although in the middle of April von Manstein had considered ‘Zitadelle’ a good opportunity for the German to rebuild their position in this part of the Eastern Front, by May he had come to share Model’s concerns. von Manstein now asserted that it would be best for the Germans to adopt a strategic defensive, prepared to yield ground to allow the Soviet offensive to extend itself and thereby open the possibility for the German armoured forces to counterattack in the type of fluid mobile operation in which they still possessed a superiority over the Soviets. Convinced that the Soviets would make their main effort against Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, von Manstein proposed to keep the left wing of his army group strong while undertaking a staged withdrawal of its right wing to the line of the Dniepr river, and then follow with a counter-offensive against the flank of the Soviet advance to reach the Sea of Azov and the Soviet forces were cut off. Hitler rejected this idea as he was not prepared to yield so much terrain, even on a temporary basis.
Early in May, at a meeting of senior officers and advisers in Munich, Hitler spoke for about 45 minutes on the current situation and the plans for the offensive. Model then spoke, and produced reconnaissance photos revealing some of the extensive preparations the Soviets had made against the probability of a German attack. Among the options then suggested were going onto the offensive immediately with the forces currently available, or delaying the offensive still further to allow for the arrival of new and improved tanks, or undertaking a radical revision of the operation, or cancelling the operation. von Manstein spoke against the offensive, though not in forceful terms; Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and war production, spoke about the difficulties of rebuilding the armoured formations and the limitations of German industry with regard to the replacement of losses; and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, newly recalled to service as the inspector general of armoured troops, argued strongly against the operation as being pointless. The conference ended without a decision by Hitler, but plans for ‘Zitadelle’ thus continued. Three days later the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht postponed the operation’s launch date to 12 June.
After the meeting, Guderian continued to express concern about an operation which would, in all probability, severely degrade the armoured forces which it was his mandate to rebuild. He considered the offensive, as planned, to be a misuse of the German armoured forces, as it violated two of the three tenets (surprise, deployment in mass, and suitability of terrain) he had set down as essential for a successful Panzer attack. In his opinion, the limited German resources in men and matériel should be conserved, as they would be needed for the defence of western Europe which now seemed inevitable. In a meeting with Hitler on 10 May Guderian asked whether or not it was actually necessary to attack Kursk or indeed on the Eastern Front in 1943, to which Hitler replied that he too was very concerned, eliciting from Guderian the comment that it would be better to call off the whole operation.
Despite the ‘turning of [his] stomach’ at the very thought of it, Hitler decided to let ‘Zitadelle’ proceed. Early in the plan’s development, he and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht hoped that the offensive would boost German strategic fortunes on the Eastern Front. As the challenges presented by the operation’s planning increased, Hitler concentrated this thinking increasingly on the new weapons which he believed were the key to victory: these were principally the Panther battle tank, but also the Tiger (P) tank destroyer and larger numbers of the new Tiger heavy tank. Hitler therefore postponed the start of the operation in order to await the arrival of the new armoured vehicles and then, after receiving reports of powerful Soviet concentrations behind the Kursk area, further delayed the offensive to allow for more equipment to reach the front. With pessimism about ‘Zitadelle’ increasing with each delay, during June Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s staff, ordered the armed forces propaganda office to portray the forthcoming operation as a limited counter-offensive. As a result of worries about the possibility of an Allied amphibious assault on the south coast of France or in Italy and delays in deliveries of the new tanks, Hitler ordered yet another postponement, to 20 June. Zeitzler was deeply worried about the delays, but still supported the offensive. On 17/18 June, following a discussion in which the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff suggested the abandonment of the offensive, Hitler further postponed the start to 3 July and finally, on 1 July, decided that 5 July was to be the launch date.
Thus there had been a three-month period of quiet during the late spring and early summer on the Eastern Front as the Soviets prepared their defences, and the Germans built up their forces and provided specialised training for their assault troops: all units underwent training and combat rehearsals; the Waffen-SS built a full-scale replica of a Soviet strongpoint for use in developing and practising the techniques for defeating such defences; and the armoured divisions received replacements of men and equipment as they were rebuilt toward full strength.
The German forces allocated to the offensive included 12 Panzer divisions (equal numbers on the northern and southern faces of the salient), six Panzergrenadier divisions, of which four had tank strengths greater than those of their neighbouring Panzer divisions (one and five on the northern and southern faces of the salient respectively) and 15 infantry divisions (eight and seven on the northern and southern faces of the salient respectively). The German force was decidedly lacking in real infantry strength, however, and it was the infantry divisions which were essential to hold ground which the armour had taken and to secure the flanks of the German breakthroughs. By the time the Germans launched ‘Zitadelle’, their strength amounted to some 777,000 men, 2,451 tanks and assault guns (representing about 70% of the German armour on the Eastern Front) and 7,417 pieces of artillery and mortars. The figure for manpower is the earmarked formations' ration strength, which included non-combatants and wounded soldiers still in medical installations; the figure for tanks and assault guns includes those in workshops for repair or maintenance; and the figure for guns and mortars is an estimate based on the strength and number of units earmarked for the operation.
On the other side of the front line, the 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' (including 'Zvezda') by the Central Front, Bryansk Front and West Front against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was abandoned early in March, less than one month after its start early, when the southern flank of the Central Front was threatened by the operations of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Soviet intelligence received information about German troop concentrations at Orel and Kharkov, to the north and south of the Kursk salient, as well as details of an intended German offensive in the Kursk sector through the work of the ‘Lucy’ spy ring in Switzerland. The Soviets verified the intelligence via one of their agents in the UK, John Cairncross, who worked at the Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park and secretly forwarded raw decrypts of German signals directly to Moscow; he also provided the Soviets with identifications of the Luftwaffe airfields in the region.
Stalin and a number of senior military officers were eager to pre-empt the German plan by attacking first as soon as the rasputitsa had come to an end, but a number of other important senior officers, including the deputy supreme commander, Marshal Soyuza Sovetskogo Georgi K. Zhukov, instead recommended recommended an initial strategic defensive followed by a strategic offensive. In a letter to Stalin and the Stavka on 8 April, Zhukov wrote that in the first phase the Germans, after grouping their best forces (including 13 to 15 tank divisions and with the support of a large number of warplanes) would strike toward Kursk with their Kromskom-Orel grouping from the north-east and their Belgorod-Kharkov grouping from the south-east. Zhukov therefore considered it inadvisable for the Soviet forces to go over to an offensive in the near future in order to forestall the Germans. It would be better to make the Germans exhaust themselves against the Soviet defences and lose large numbers of their tanks and then, after Soviet reserves had been brought forward, go over to the general offensive to complete the destruction of the Germans’ main strength.
Stalin spoke with front-line commanders and as well as senior officers of the Stavka from 12 to 15 April, and with the Stavka agreed that the German objective would probably be Kursk. Stalin believed the decision to rely initially on the defensive would give the Germans the initiative, but Zhukov countered that the Germans would be drawn into a trap where their armoured strength would be destroyed, thus creating the conditions best suited to a major Soviet counter-offensive. Ultimately, the Soviet senior leadership decided to meet the German offensive by preparing defensive positions of a decisive nature and so cause huge attrition in the German groupings before launching their own offensive. The task of preparing defences and fortifications had begun by the end of April, and continued until the start of the German attack early in July. Thus the two-month delay between the German decision to attack the Kursk salient and its implementation gave the Soviets considerable time in which to develop thorough defensive preparations.
General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and Rokossovsky’s Central Front were tasked with the defence of the southern and northern faces of the Soviet salient respectively. Waiting in reserve was Konev’s Steppe Front. It was in February 1943 that 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 the 6th Army at Stalingrad.
The Central Front and Voronezh Front each constructed three main defensive belts in their areas of responsibility, each belt being subdivided into several fortification zones. The Soviets used a very substantial force of civilians in this task, the number increasing from 105,000 in April to 300,000 in June. Strengthening each belt was an interconnected network of minefields, barbed-wire entanglements, anti-tank ditches, deep entrenchments for the infantry, anti-tank obstacles, dug-in armoured vehicles, and machine gun bunkers. Behind the three main defensive belts were three more belts for use, if necessary, as fallback positions: the first was not fully occupied or heavily fortified, and the last two, though sufficiently fortified, were unoccupied with the exception of a small area in the area immediately surrounding Kursk. The combined depth of the three main defensive zones was about 25 miles (40 km), and the six defensive belts on each side of Kursk were some 80 to 95 miles (130 to 150 km) deep. Should the Germans be able to break through these defences they would still be confronted by additional defensive belts to the east, at the base of the Kursk salient, held by the formations and units of the Steppe Front. These brought the total depth of the Soviet defences to something approaching 185 miles (300 km).
The forces of the Voronezh Front and Central Front dug 2,610 and 3,105 miles (4200 and 5000 km) of trench respectively, these trenches being laid out in criss-cross pattern to facilitate movement. The Soviets additionally built more than 686 bridges and about 1,245 miles (2000 km) of roads within the salient. Soviet combat engineers laid 503,663 anti-tank mines and 439,348 anti-personnel mines, the highest concentration of both types being found in the first main defensive belt: the minefields at Kursk achieved densities of 2,565 anti-personnel and 2,415 ant-tank mines per mile (1,700 anti-personnel and 1,500 anti-tank mines per km), representing about four times the density used in the defence of Moscow in the last months of 1941. In the sectors which were eventually attacked, densities were never less than 2,250 mines per mile (1,400 mines per km) and sometimes reached a figure as high as 3,215 mines per mile (2,000 mines per km). General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army of the Voronezh Front, for example, held almost 40.5 miles (65 km) of front and was protected by 69,688 anti-tank and 64,430 anti-personnel mines in its first defensive, and another 20,200 anti-tank and 9,097 anti-personnel mines in its second defensive belt. Additionally, mobile obstacle detachments of combat engineers were created to lay more mines directly in the path of advancing German armoured formations: these units, each comprising two platoons with mines at divisional level and one company with between 500 and 700 mines at corps level, functioned as anti-tank reserves at every level of command.
Nearly all of the Soviet artillery, including howitzers, guns, anti-aircraft guns and multiple rocket launchers, were tasked with anti-tank defence, which was bolstered by dug-in tanks and self-propelled guns. Anti-tank forces were incorporated into every command level, mostly as anti-tank strongpoints of which the majority was concentrated on likely axes of attack, with the rest spread out elsewhere. Each anti-tank strongpoint typically comprised four to six anti-tank guns, six to nine anti-tank rifles, and five to seven heavy and light machine guns. These strongpoints were supported by mobile obstacle detachments and also by infantry with automatic weapons. Independent tank and self-propelled gun brigades and regiments were tasked with co-operating with the infantry during counterattacks.
The density of the Soviet artillery concentration in the salient was unusual: indeed, there were more artillery regiments than infantry regiments in the salient. The Soviets were determined to whittle down the attacking German units with a combination of mines and artillery fire. Indirect fire from howitzers would stop the German infantry while direct fire from 45-mm, 57-mm and 85-mm (3.35-in) towed anti-tank guns and 76.2-mm (3-in) divisional field guns would destroy the tanks. In the sector held by General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, facing the 9th Army on the northern face of the salient, the anti-tank gun density was 38.1 guns per mile (23.7 guns per km) of defended front. In the sectors of General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army in the south, the density was lower at about 16.1 guns per mile (10 guns per km).
The Soviet preparations also included the increased use of partisans for attacks on German lines of communication and supply, most heavily in the areas behind Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. In June 1943, partisans operating in the occupied area behind the latter destroyed 298 locomotives, 1,222 railway wagons and 44 bridges, and in the Kursk sector the partisans made 1,092 attacks on the railway system supporting the German forces. The partisan activities were a major impediment to the build-up of German supplies and equipment, and the suppression of the partisan bands required the diversion of German first-line troops, whose training for the offensive was thereby delayed.
The central headquarters of the partisan forces co-ordinated many of these attacks, and during June the Soviet air forces flew more than 800 nocturnal sorties to resupply the partisan groups operating behind Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The Soviet air forces were also employed to provide a communications facility and on occasion daylight air support for the partisans’ major efforts.
The Soviet infantry manning the defences of the Kursk salient were also given special training to aid them in overcoming the ‘tank phobia’ which had been a characteristic of their approach to combat since the start of ‘Barbarossa’ and their destruction by the German armour: in this training the men were ordered into trenches across which tanks were driven until all signs of fear had been eradicated. The infantry was also schooled so that in combat they would emerge from their trenches into the attacking German infantry and separate them from the armour they were supporting: lacking infantry to defend them, the German armour was then vulnerable to point-blank attacks by Soviet infantry armed with anti-tank rifles, demolition charges and Molotov cocktails, and could thus be destroyed or knocked out of action by being stripped of a track. This tactic was especially effective against the Tiger (P) tank destroyer, a massive machine which nonetheless lacked machine guns as anti-infantry armament. Soviet infantrymen were also promised a bounty of 1,000 roubles for each tank destroyed.
The Soviets additionally made very extensive use of maskirovka (deception techniques) to conceal defensive positions and troop dispositions, and to hide the movement of men and matériel. The techniques included the camouflaging of artillery emplacements, the construction of dummy airfields and depots, the generation of false radio-traffic, and the dissemination of rumours among the Soviet front-line troops and the civilian population of German-held areas. Movement of forces and supplies to and from the salient was permitted only by night; ammunition dumps were carefully concealed to blend in with the landscape; the use of radio was restricted; fires were prohibited; command posts were carefully camouflaged; and the use of motor transport in and around command post areas was expressly forbidden.
The success of the maskirovka is indicated by the fact that, according to a Soviet general staff report, 29 of the 35 major Luftwaffe raids on Soviet airfields in the Kursk sector in June 1943 were flown against dummy rather than real airfields. Soviet attacks on German airfields, on the other hand, appear to have enjoyed greater success, and it had ben suggested that Soviet air attacks destroyed more than 500 German aircraft on the ground.
The maskirovka was so successful that German estimates on the middle of June placed the total Soviet armoured strength in the Kursk salient sector at a mere 1,500 tanks. The result was not only that the Soviet strength was vastly underestimated, but also that the Soviet strategic intention was perceived entirely incorrectly.
The most important tank fielded by the Soviet army was the T-34 medium tank, on whose production the Soviets sought to concentrate production, but the Soviet tank arm also included large numbers of the T-70 light tank: General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army of Konev’s Steppe Front, for example, had an armoured strength of about 270 T-70 and 500 T-34 tanks. In the salient itself the Soviets assembled a large quantity of Lend-Lease tanks: these included US-manufactured M3 Lee medium tanks and British-built Matilda, Valentine and Churchill infantry tanks. However, it was the superb T-34 which constituted the bulk of the Soviet armoured strength.
Without including the deeper reserves of the Steppe Front, the Soviets massed some 1.3 million men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 2,792 aircraft to defend the salient. This represented some 26% of the Soviet army’s total manpower, 46% of its armour, 26% of its artillery and mortars, and 35% of its aircraft.
The German and Soviet air forces were each designed primarily for the provision of air support to the ground forces. Although the Soviet air forces were always considerably larger than their German counterpart, the Luftwaffe had achieved total air superiority from the first day of ‘Barbarossa’ and inflicted huge losses on the Soviet air forces. The Luftwaffe’s capacity to provide decisive air support was checked only when the German advanced beyond the range of the German-held airfields farthest to the east. By 1943 the Luftwaffe’s strength above the Eastern Front had began to decline vis-à-vis that of the Soviet air forces. The air resupply of forward armoured formations and units had been a responsibility of the Luftwaffe since the start of the war, but the burden imposed on the Luftwaffe in the resupply of large isolated formations during the severe winter of 1941/42 and then of the 6th Army in Stalingrad during the winter of 1942/43 had cost the German air arm dearly in both aircraft and crews. The Luftwaffe forces on the Eastern Front had then been further depleted as fighter squadrons were deployed back to Germany to aid in the defence of the Reich against the increasing Allied bombing campaign. By the end of June 1943, therefore, only 38.7% of the Luftwaffe’s total of aircraft remained in the east, and most of that was concentrated in the area of the Kursk salient.
In 1943 the Luftwaffe was still able to achieve local air superiority through a concentration of its forces on a single sector, and thus the majority of the German aircraft still available on the Eastern Front were earmarked for use in support of ‘Zitadelle’. The change in the relative strengths between the two opponents now prompted the Luftwaffe to make changes in its operational concept. Germany’s earlier offensive campaigns had begun with Luftwaffe raids on the airfields of the opposing side in order to achieve air superiority by the decimation of the opponent’s air forces on the ground. By this stage of the war, however, the Soviets possessed major reserves of equipment, and the Luftwaffe leadership realised that all the Soviet aircraft they could destroy on the ground would be replaced within days, making such raids futile. This type of preliminary air assault was therefore abandoned. In addition, previous campaigns had made use of medium bombers operating well behind the front to interdict the opponent’s lines of communication and thereby delay if not prevent the arrival of reinforcements but now this type of operation was rarely attempted during ‘Zitadelle’. In the forthcoming operation, the Luftwaffe confined its operations to direct support of the ground forces.
In this last task the Luftwaffe continued to operate the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber, though in an upgraded form equipped with a pair of 37-mm Bordkanone 3,7 cannon, one under each wing in a gun pod, for greater anti-tank capability. Half of the Stuka groups assigned to the support of ‘Zitadelle’ were equipped with such Kanonenvogel (cannon bird) warplanes. The German air strength was also improved by the recent arrival of the Henschel Hs 129, with its 30-mm MK 103 cannon, and a specialised ground attack version of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter.
The Luftwaffe command understood that its role was critical to the success of ‘Zitadelle’, but logistical problems hampered its preparations. Partisan activity, particularly in the area behind Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, slowed the rate of at which supplies reached the Luftwaffe’s airfields, and thus hindered the Luftwaffe’s ability to enlarge its essential stockpiles of fuel, oil and lubricants (collectively the single largest shortfall), engines and munitions. Unlike the Soviets, moreover, the Germans had no reserves of aircraft for the rapid replacement of lost or damaged aircraft during the forthcoming battle. In an effort to improve its fuel situation for ‘Zitadelle’, the Luftwaffe greatly reduced its operations during the last week of June, but despite this the Luftwaffe still lacked the resources to sustain an intensive air effort for more than a few days once ‘Zitadelle’ had started.
In the months preceding the battle, Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI, which was tasked with the support of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, had noted a major increase in the strength of the opposing Soviet air forces. These latter also displayed better training, and were flying improved equipment with greater skill and aggression than the Luftwaffe had encountered in earlier campaigns. The introduction of the Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-5 fighters gave the Soviet pilots effective technical parity with the German pilots. Furthermore, large numbers of excellent ground-attack aircraft, most especially the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and Petlyakov Pe-2, had become available. The Soviet air forces also fielded large quantities of aircraft supplied via lend-lease, and their huge stockpiles of supplies and ample reserves of replacement aircraft meant that the Soviets were in the position to undertake an extended air campaign without any diminution of their effort’s intensity.
Luftflotte VI allocated Generalleutnant Paul Deichmann’s 1st Fliegerdivision (730 aircraft) in support of operations on the northern face of the salient, and General Hans Seidemann’s VIII Fliegerkorps (1,100 aircraft) in support of those on the salient’s southern face.
For ‘Zitadelle’, the Germans used the equivalent of four armies, together with a large proportion of their total armoured strength on the Eastern Front. On 1 July, the 9th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ operating on the northern face of salient, had 335,000 men, of whom 223,000 were combat troops, and comprised General Johannes Friessner’s XXIII Corps, General Josef Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps, General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps, General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps, and General Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s XX Corps. The army reserve was Generalleutnant Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck’s Korpsgruppe ‘von Esebeck’. In overall terms, the 9th Army had 21 divisions including six Panzer divisions and one Panzergrenadier division.
On the salient’s southern face were Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ with 223,907 and up to 108,000 men respectively, of whom 149,270 and 66,000 were combat troops. The 4th Panzerarmee mustered General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps (three infantry divisions), General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s LXVIII Panzerkorps (one infantry and two Panzer divisions as well as Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s specially strengthened 280-tank Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’) and Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps (one infantry division and three SS Panzergrenadier divisions). The Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ deployed General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps (one infantry and three Panzer divisions), General Erhard Raus’s Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ (two infantry divisions) and General Franz Mattenklott’s XLII Corps (three infantry divisions). von Manstein’s reserve was General Walter Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps (one Panzer division and one SS Panzergrenadier division).
von Weichs’s 2nd Army, which held the western face of the salient, had about 110,000 men.
In total, therefore, the German forces had a total strength of some 779,000 men, and the three armies scheduled for an offensive role possessed some 438,270 combat troops. The two offensive formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had more armoured vehicles, infantry and artillery than the 9th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’: the 4th Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ between them mustered 1,377 tanks and assault guns, and the 9th Army 988 tanks and assault guns.
The new 51st Panzerabteilung and 52nd Panzerabteilung, which between them had 200 examples of the Panther battle tank, pending whose delivery the offensive had been delayed, were attached to Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ within von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps of Heeresgruppe Süd’. However, the two battalions arrived only on 30 June and 1 July, and had therefore had almost no time in which to undertake reconnaissance or to learn anything about the terrain over which they were expected to fight. This was a major departure from the methods of the Panzerwaffe (tank arm), which were now well proved and considered essential for the successful use of armour. Though led by experienced commanders, many of the tank crews of the two battalions were new recruits and therefore lacked both technical and combat experience, had been provided with little time in which to become familiar with their new tanks, and had been afforded almost no time train together and therefore acquire the ability to function as a unit. Additionally, the requirement to maintain radio silence until the start of the attack meant that the Panther units had little training in battalion-level radio procedures. Adding to the woes of the two battalions, the Panther was still so new that it was still suffering from teething problems with its transmission, and was to prove mechanically unreliable: by the morning of 5 July, when ‘Zitadelle’ began, the battalions had already lost 16 Panther tanks to mechanical breakdown, leaving only 184 available for the start of the offensive.
In total the Germans had assembled their greatest ever concentration of fighting power. Even so, Hitler expressed doubts about its adequacy, especially as by this time Allied action in the west was beginning to have a significant impact on German military strength. Although actions in North Africa hardly constituted the Soviets’ long-demanded ‘second front’ against the Germans, the battle there did begin to tell and in the last quarter of 1942 and the first half of 1943 the Luftwaffe lost more than 40% of its total strength in the battles over Malta and Tunisia, and as a result Luftwaffe air superiority was no longer guaranteed.
As noted above, the Soviets deployed two fronts for the defence of the Kursk salient, and had created a third front behind the battle area as a reserve. The Central Front and Voronezh Front between them fielded 12 armies with 711,575 and 625,590 men respectively, of whom 510,985 and 446,235 were combat troops. The reserve the Steppe Front had 573,195 men of whom 449,135 were combat troops. In overall terms, therefore, the Soviets fielded 1.91036 million men of whom 1.42635 million were combat troops.
From north-east to south-west, the major formations of the Central Front were General Leytenant Piotr 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 and General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army, with General Leytenant Aleksei G. Rodin’s (later General Leytenant Semyon I. Bogdanov’s) 2nd Tank Army in reserve. The 70th Army, 65th Army and 60th Army were deployed on the western face of the salient. From north-west to south-east, the major formations of the Voronezh Front were General Leytenant Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 38th Army, General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army, Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army and Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, with General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army and General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army in reserve. The 38th Army and 40th Army were deployed on the western face of the salient.
But behind these two formidable front-line groupings was Konev’s Steppe Front as the theatre reserve with General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army, General Leytenant Sergei G. Trofimenko’s 27th Army, General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s (later General Major Piotr M. Kozlov’s) 47th Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Managarov’s 53rd Army and General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army.
The Central Front was supported by General Leytenant Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army, the Voronezh Front by General Leytenant Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army, and the Steppe Front by General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army.
Though they did not know it, the Germans stood no realistic chance against an opponent in full possession of the German plans, fully prepared and now equipped with weapons every bit as good as those of the Germans, and available in far larger numbers to troops now well versed in their tactical employment. On 2 July Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Soviet general staff, warned Vatutin, Rokossovsky and Konev that the long-awaited German offensive would begin sometime between 3 and 6 July.
Preliminary fighting started on the southern face of the salient during the afternoon of 4 July as the 4th Panzerarmee had elected to take some of the Soviet outposts before committing its main assault on the following day, and thereby deliberately sacrificed the advantages of overall tactical surprise. However, the Soviet forward positions were on small hills overlooking the German assembly areas, so it is likely surprise would have been lost in any case. These small German infantry attacks took the high ground required for the establishment of artillery observation posts before the start of the main assault, and during these attacks several Soviet command and observation posts along the first main belt of defence were captured.
At 22.30 the Soviets responded with artillery bombardments on both the southern and northern faces of the salient. These bombardments, by more than 3,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, expended up to one-half of the artillery supply for the entire operation, and were designed to delay and disorganise the German attack. In the northern half of the sector, the Central Front’s artillery fired mostly against German artillery positions and managed to suppress 50 of the 100 German batteries it targeted. The result was much weaker German artillery fire on the opening day of the attack, and the German formations also attacked at different times on 5 July as a result of the disruption caused by this bombardment. In the southern half of the sector, the Soviets chose to fire largely against the German infantry and tanks in their assembly areas. This was partially successful in delaying the German attack, but caused few casualties.
The real battle began on 5 July. Now aware even of the exact time of the planned German offensive, the Soviets launched their air forces in a huge onslaught on the Luftwaffe’s bases in the area, in an attempt to turn the tables on the old German practice of wiping out the opposing side’s tactical air support within the first hour of battle. This effort failed, and the Soviets suffered considerable losses. The Soviets lost 176 aircraft on 5 July and the Germans just 26. The losses of Rudenko’s 16th Air Army operating over the northern face were lighter than those suffered by Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army over the southern face. The Luftwaffe was able to gain air superiority of the southern face, and was able to maintain this superiority until 10/11 July, when the balance began to tilt in favour of the Soviets, but the control of the air over the northern face was evenly contested until the Soviets started to win air superiority on 7 July, after which it maintained this advantage for the rest of the operation.
To the north, at the headquarters of the Central Front, as reports of the German offensive started to arrive, at about 02.00 on 5 July Zhukov ordered the start of the pre-emptive artillery bombardment he had planned with the object of disrupting the German forces concentrating for the attack, but the result fell far short of Zhukov’s hopes. While it did delay the German formations, the bombardment failed in its tasks of wholly disrupting the German schedule and inflicting substantial losses. The Germans began their own artillery bombardments at about 05.00, that on the northern face lasting 80 minutes and that on the southern face 50 minutes. After the bombardments, the ground forces attacked under an umbrella of Luftwaffe fighters and aided by close support aircraft.
The main attack of Model’s 9th Army was delivered by Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps, which was supported by 45 Tiger tanks of the attached 505th schwere Panzerabteilung. Covering this corps’ left flank was Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps with an attached regiment of 83 Tiger (P) tank destroyers, and on the right flank Zorn’s XLVI Panzerkorps comprised four infantry divisions with just nine tanks and 31 assault guns. To the left of the XLI Panzerkorps was Friessner’s XXIII Corps, which comprised Generalleutnant Hans Traut’s reinforced 78th Sturmdivision and two standard infantry divisions. While this corps possessed no tanks, it did have 62 assault guns. Opposing the 9th Army was the Central Front, disposed in three heavily fortified defensive belts.
Model opted to deliver his initial attacks with infantry divisions reinforced by assault guns and heavy tanks, and supported by artillery and warplanes. Model decided on this tactical approach in order to preserve the armoured strength of his Panzer divisions for use in the exploitation once the Soviet defences had been breached: as soon as a breakthrough had been achieved, on the second day in Model’s thinking, the Panzer formations would be committed to move through the infantry and advance on Kursk. All involved appreciated that once a breakthrough had been achieved, the briefest of delays in bringing up the Panzer divisions would provide the Soviets with an opportunity to react. However, Model’s corps commanders thought a breakthrough extremely unlikely.
Following the German preliminary bombardment and the inevitable Soviet counter-bombardment, the 9th Army started its attack at 05.30 on 5 July with eight infantry divisions, one Panzer division and one Panzergrenadier division, together with attached assault guns, heavy tanks and tank destroyers. Two companies of Tiger tanks were attached to Generalleutnant Horst Grossmann’s 6th Division, and represented the largest single grouping of Tiger tanks committed on this day. Opposing them were Pukhov’s 13th Army and Galinin’s 70th Army of the Central Front.
The 6th Division and Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision of the XLVII Panzerkorps worked in careful co-operation as they spearheaded the advance of the XLVII Panzerkorps. Behind the leading formations followed the corps’ other two armoured formations, Generalleutnant Vollrath Lübbe’s 2nd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Scheller’s 9th Panzerdivision, in readiness to exploit any breakthrough.
The sector on which the German attack would fall had been correctly anticipated by the Central Front. Attacking on a front 28 miles (45 km) wide, the Germans almost instantly found themselves trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and had to bring up engineer units to clear these minefields under artillery fire. Although a few Goliath and Borgward IV remotely controlled engineering vehicles had been made available to clear lanes through the minefields, they were not generally successful: even when these little vehicles managed to clear mines, they lacked any on-board marking system to show following tanks the location of the cleared lanes. Soviet units covered the minefields with small arms and artillery fire, delaying and inflicting losses on German engineers clearing mines by hand. Thus German losses in the Soviet minefields were high. For example, the 653rd schwere Panzerjägerabteilung began the attack with 49 Tiger (P) tank destroyers and had lost 37 of them in minefields before 17.00 on 5 July. Although most of the lost vehicles were 'mobility kills' by mines and anti-tank artillery rather than permanent losses, the vehicles were out of action until they could be recovered and repaired, and while idle added nothing to German combat power and were easier for Soviet artillery to knock out permanently. Since the Germans were advancing, however, most of the vehicles could later be recovered, repaired and returned to service, but the recovery of these very large 64-ton vehicles was difficult and time-consuming.
The heavily mined terrain and fortified positions of the Soviet front-line divisions slowed the advance, however, and it was 08.00 before safe lanes had been cleared through the minefield. During the morning, information obtained from prisoner interrogation identified a weakness along the boundary between the 15th Division and 81st Division as a result of the German preliminary bombardment, so the Tiger tank force was redeployed and struck toward this area. The Soviets countered with some 90 T-34 medium tanks, and in the three-hour battle which now resulted the Soviets lost 42 tanks while the Germans lost two Tiger tanks destroyed and another five immobilised by damage to their tracks. However, while the Soviet counterattack had been defeated and the first defensive belt breached, the fighting had delayed the Germans long enough for the rest of the 13th Army’s XXIX Corps, initially deployed behind the first defensive belt under the command of General Major Afanasi N. Slyshkin, to move forward and seal the breach.
On the northern face of the salient, during the first day of ‘Zitadelle’ Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzerkorps penetrated some 6.25 miles (10 km) or slightly more into the Soviet defences before stalling, and Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps reached the small but heavily fortified town of Ponyri, in the second defensive belt, which controlled the roads and railways leading to the south toward Kursk. The first day’s gain had cost the 9th Army 1,287 men killed and missing, and another 5,921 men wounded.
Rokossovsky ordered General Leytenant Andrei L. Bondarev’s XVII Guards Corps and General Major Ivan M. Afonin’s XVIII Guards Corps, together with Rodin’s 2nd Tank Army and General Major Ivan D. Vasilev’s XIX Tank Corps, all strongly backed by close air support warplanes, to counterattack the 9th Army on the following day. As a result of poor co-ordination, though, only General Major Vasili Ye. Grigorev’s XVI Tank Corps of the 2nd Tank Army started the counterattack at the break of day on 6 July after the preparatory Soviet artillery barrage. With a strength of about 200 tanks, the XVI Tank Corps attacked the XLVII Panzerkorps and ran into the Tiger tanks of the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung, which knocked out 69 Soviet tanks and forced the rest to withdraw toward the Bondarev’s XVII Guards Corps of the 13th Army. Later in the morning of the same day, the XLVII Panzerkorps responded with its own attack against the XVII Guards Corps, which was entrenched around the village of Olkhovatka in the Soviet second defensive belt. The attack began with an artillery barrage and was spearheaded by the 24 serviceable Tiger tanks of the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung, but did not succeed in breaking the Soviet defence at Olkhovatka, and in the process suffered heavy casualties. Olkhovatka is sited on high ground, and thus provided a clear view of much of the front line. At 18.30, Slyshkin’s XIX Corps joined the XVII Guards Corps as an additional strengthening of the Soviet resistance. Rokossovsky also decided at about this time that most of his remaining tanks should be dug into hull-down positions in order to reduce to a minimum their exposure to the fire of the German tanks.
Held by the 307th Division of the XXIX Corps, Ponyri was also concertedly attacked on 6 July by Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Kluge’s 292nd Division, Generalleutnant Helmuth Weidling’s 86th Division, Traut’s 78th Sturmdivision and Scheller’s 9th Panzerdivision, which were wholly unable to dislodge the Soviets from this heavily fortified village.
During the period between 7 and 10 July, Model concentrated the efforts of his 9th Army against Ponyri and Olkhovatka, which each side appreciated at vital positions, and in response Rokossovsky pulled forces from other parts of the front to reinforce the defence of these sectors. The Germans attacked Ponyri once more on 7 July, and captured half of the village after intense house-to-house fighting. A Soviet counterattack during the morning of the following day then compelled the Germans to withdraw, and each side committed a series of attacks and counterattacks over the next few days, and control of the village changed hands several times during this period. But by 10 July the Germans had secured most of the village, even though Soviet counterattacks continued. The to-and-fro fighting for Ponyri and the nearby Hill 253.5 were battles of attrition, with heavy casualties on each side, and became known to the troops as a miniature Stalingrad: the war diary of the 9th Army characterised the heavy fighting as a ‘new type of mobile battle of attrition’.
The German attacks on Olkhovatka and the nearby village of Teploye failed to penetrate the Soviet defences, and included a powerful concerted attack on 10 July by about 300 German tanks and assault guns of Lübbe’s 2nd Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Dietrich von Saucken’s 4th Panzerdivision and von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision supported by every available warplane on the northern face of the salient.
There are a number of factors explaining the 9th Army’s lack of progress, but the single most important of them was not any German failing as much as the excellence of the Soviet defensive planning and preparation. The Central Front had correctly anticipated the likely areas of German attack and had fortified those areas very heavily, holding other areas more thinly. Pukhov’s 13th Army, which received the brunt of the German attack, was far stronger in men and anti-tank guns than the other Central Front formations, and indeed held the strongest defensive positions in the entire salient. Ironically, a major Soviet planning error was their expectation that the main weight of the German attack would come in the north against the Central Front, and the Soviets therefore concentrated more strength there than in the south. Also, the Central Front chose to defend the tactical zone, to a depth of 12.5 miles (20 km), very heavily, leaving far fewer units for defence behind this zone. Model’s army had fewer tanks than those of von Manstein’s formations in the south. The 9th Army was also in the position of having to commit its major elements on a piecemeal basis as a result of the disruption caused by the Soviet spoiling fire of the previous night. Finally, the 9th Army led with reinforced infantry divisions which were already in the line facing the Soviets, rather than attacking with uncommitted units.
Any review of attack frontages and depth of German penetration shows clearly that the Soviet defensive tactics were succeeding. Beginning with an attack frontage 28 miles (45 km) wide on 5 July, on the following day the army attacked on a front 25 miles (40 km) wide, which dropped to 9.25 miles (15 km) by 7 July, and only 1.25 miles (2 km) each on 8 and 9 July. Each day, the penetration of the German advance became less: 3.1 miles (5 km) on the first day, 2.5 miles (4 km) on the second, and never more than 1.25 miles (2 km) on each succeeding day.
On 9 July there was a meeting between von Kluge, Model, Lemelsen and Harpe at the headquarters of the XLVII Panzerkorps. By this time it was clear to all four officers that the 9th Army lacked the strength to obtain a breakthrough, and also that their Soviet counterparts had come to the same appreciation, but von Kluge nonetheless wished to maintain the 9th Army’s pressure on the Soviets in order to aid the von Manstein’s offensive on the salient southern face.
By 10 July the 9th Army had been brought to a halt in front of Olkhovatka and Ponyri with heavy losses including 25,000 men killed as well as 200 tanks and 200 aircraft lost. After a week the German forces had moved forward a mere 7.5 miles (12 km), and on 12 July the Soviets launched their own ‘Kutuzov’, otherwise the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’, across the full front of the German eastward-facing salient centred on Orel to the north of the Kursk salient, and this very quickly came to threaten the flank and rear of Model’s 9th Army. Generalmajor Gerhard Müller (from 16 July Generalleutnant Erpo Freiherr von Bodenhausen’s) 12th Panzerdivision, thus far held in reserve and intended for commitment on the northern face of the Kursk salient, together with Generalleutnant Hans Gollnick’s 36th Division, Generalmajor Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben’s 18th Panzerdivision and von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision were redeployed to face the Soviet spearheads. By 16 August the German salient round Orel had been effectively lost as the 9th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee started to fall back toward the ‘Hagen-Linie’ defences. Thus the 9th Army’s part in ‘Zitadelle’ was over. The army’s casualty rate was about 3/5 in favour of the Germans, who had lost about 300 PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks, six Tiger heavy tanks and 50 tank destroyers. However, this ratio fell well short of the usual figure, and failed to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and matériel into the Soviet ranks. Few Soviet guns were captured, and the Soviet units which did retreat did so to order rather than as a result of being driven back. In overall terms, the 9th Army’s attack failed to penetrate beyond the Soviet tactical zone.
On the southern face of the salient, the German offensive began at about 04.00 on 5 July with a preliminary bombardment. von Manstein’s main assault was undertaken by Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, which was concentrated into dense spearheads. Opposing the 4th Panzerarmee was Chistiakov’s 6th Guards Army with General Major Nikolai B. Ibiansky’s XXII Guards Corps and General Major Pavel P. Vakhrameyev’s XXIII Guards Corps, each comprising three infantry divisions. Before the German assault, the Soviets had completed the construction of three heavily fortified defensive belts designed specifically to slow and weaken the attacking armoured forces. But Soviet planning played a major part in deciding the course of events on the southern face, for despite the very high level of good intelligence they had received, in the south the Soviets had not been able to pinpoint the German attack sectors with any exactitude, and this forced them to spread their defences more evenly. For example, three of the Voronezh Front’s four armies had about 16 anti-tank guns per mile (10 anti-tank guns per km) of front, a figure contrasting poorly with the Central Front’s distribution of guns, which was twice as heavy in the active sectors. Also, the Voronezh Front made the decision to hold the tactical zone much more thinly, leaving a much higher proportion of units in deeper positions compared to the Central Front. Finally, the Voronezh Front was weaker than the Central Front, yet faced the stronger of the two primary German formations.
Within von Knobelsdorff’s LVIII Panzerkorps, Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ was the strongest 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 Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ was equipped largely with PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks, but these were supplemented by one company of 15 Tiger heavy tanks to spearhead the attack. At dawn on 5 July, the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’, backed by heavy artillery support, advanced on a front of 1.85 miles (3 km) against the 67th Guards Division of the XXII Guards Corps. Advancing on the division’s left wing, the Füsilierregiment ‘Grossdeutschland’ was slowed by a minefield, and 36 Panther tanks were immobilised. The stranded regiment was now subjected to a heavy bombardment by Soviet anti-tank guns and artillery, which inflicted a large number of casualties. Engineers then arrived to clear paths through the minefield, but suffered severe casualties in the process. The combination of fierce Soviet resistance, Soviet minefields, thick mud and German mechanical breakdowns took its toll. With paths cleared, though, the regiment resumed its advance in the area of Gertsovka, and during the fighting which followed, the regiment suffered heavy casualties, including the regimental commander. The rigours of the fighting and the marshy terrain to the south of the village, in the area of the Berezovy stream, once again caused the regiment to become bogged down.
Advancing on the division’s right wing, the Grenadierregiment ‘Grossdeutschland’ pushed through to the village of Butovo. The German armour was deployed in an arrow formation, with the Tiger tanks in the van and the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV tanks and the assault guns fanning out to the flanks and rear, to minimise the effects of the Soviet ‘Pakfront’ defence. The armour was followed by infantry and combat engineers. Soviet air efforts to slow the German advance were effectively defeated by German fighters.
Advancing on the left flank of the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’, Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision made good progress and by the end of the day had captured Gertsovka and pushed forward as far as Mikhailovka. Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division, which was the corps’ only infantry division, was located on the right flank of the 11th Panzerdivision, and also made adequate progress, reaching Tirechnoye by the end of the day.
By the end of 5 July, therefore, a German wedge had been driven into the first belt of the Soviet defences.
Farther to the east, on the front of Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, during the night of 4/5 July Waffen-SS combat engineers had infiltrated into no man’s land and cleared lanes through the Soviet minefields. At the break of day on 5 July the three divisions of the II SS Panzerkorps, which were SS-Oberführer Theodor Wisch’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS-Standartenführer Hermann Priess’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, attacked on a narrow front against a mere two regiments the 6th Guards Army’s 52nd Guards Division. The main assault was spearheaded by 42 Tiger tanks, but in total 494 tanks and assault guns attacked across a 7.5-mile (12-km) front. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, which was the the strongest of the three Waffen-SS divisions, advanced towards Gremuchy and screened the right flank. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ advanced on the left flank toward Bykovka. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ advanced in the centre between these two formations. The tanks were followed closely by infantry and combat engineers, whose task it was to demolish obstacles and clear trenches, and the Waffen-SS formations’ advance was well supported by the Luftwaffe, which proved very effective in breaking Soviet strongpoints and shattering artillery positions.
By 09.00, the II SS Panzerkorps had broken through the first belt of the Soviet defences along the whole width of the corps’ front. While probing positions between the first and second Soviet defensive belts, at 13.00 the vanguard of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ came under fire from two T-34 tanks, which were destroyed, but another 40 Soviet tanks soon started to engage the division. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army now clashed with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ in a four-hour battle, at the end of which the Soviet armour pulled back. However, the battle had bought enough time for units of the XXIII Guards Corps, emplaced in the Soviet second defensive belt, both to ready itself and to absorb a reinforcement of additional anti-tank guns.
In the afternoon a force of Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers attacked a gap, some 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, in the front line on the north in a short period of 10 minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery assumed the task of pounding the Soviet defences. Hoth’s armoured spearhead, the II SS Panzerkorps, then advanced on the Soviet positions around Zavidovka. At the same time the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and Mickl’s 11th Panzerdivision took the high ground around Butovo. To the west of Butovo, which was in German hands by 06.00, the going proved somewhat more difficult for the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ and Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision, which met stiff Soviet resistance and did not secure Gertsovka, the last of their objectives, until 24.00. The II SS Panzerkorps launched preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again met with determined resistance until assault troops equipped with flame-throwers cleared the bunkers and outposts.
By a time early in the evening, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ had reached the minefields marking the outer edge of the Soviet second defensive belt. Meanwhile the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ had secured Bykovka by 16.10, and then drove forward toward the second defensive belt at Yakovlevo, where its attempts to break through were rebuffed. By the end of the day, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ had lost 97 men killed, 522 wounded and 17 missing, together with some 30 tanks. Together with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, it had forced a wedge deep into the defences held by the 6th Guards Army.
The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ was meanwhile making slow progress. The division had succeeded in isolating the 155th Guards Regiment of the XXIII Guards Corps’ 52nd Guards Division from the rest of its division, but the Germans division’s attempts to drive the regiment to the east and thus into the flank of the neighbouring 375th Division of the same corps had failed when the Soviet regiment was reinforced by the 96th Tank Brigade. Hausser requested support from Breith’s III Panzerkorps to the right of his own corps, but Breith’s formation could spare nothing. By the end of the day, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ had made only very limited progress, in part because in faced a tributary of the Donets river as well as the Soviets. The division’s lack of progress undermined the advance made by its companion divisions, and exposed the corps’ right flank to a Soviet counterattack. The German crews, fighting their tanks in hot summer conditions, were also severely affected by heat exhaustion.
Faced with attacks by the XLVIII Panzerkorps and II SS Panzerkorps, Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army was reinforced by tanks of Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, General Major Aleksei S. Burdeiny’s II Guards Tank Corps and General Leytenant Andrei G. Kravchenko’s V Guards Tank Corps. The 51st Guards Division and 90th Guards Division were moved toward Pokrovka and thus into the axis of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’. The 93rd Guards Division was deployed slightly farther to the rear along the 25-mile (40-km) road linking Pokrovka and Prokhorovka.
To the east of the 4th Panzerarmee, Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ comprised Breith’s III Panzerkorps of three Panzer and one infantry divisions and Raus’s Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ of two infantry divisions. These two German formations were faced by Shumilov’s 7th Guards Army, comprising General Major Nikolai A. Vasilev’s XXIV Guards Corps (three divisions) and General Major Gani B. Safiulin’s XXV Guards Corps (three divisions) and one independent division, which were emplaced on the high ground on the eastern bank of the Severnyi Donets river. The tasks entrusted to the two German corps were the crossing of the river, the destruction of the 7th Guards Army and the provision of cover for the the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee. The 503rd schwere Panzerabteilung, which fielded 45 Tiger tanks, was also attached to the III Panzerkorps on the basis of one 15-Tiger company with each of the corps’ three Panzer divisions. Although the river was bridged during the night of 4 July, the crossing points were immediately taken under Soviet artillery fire.
At the Mikhailovka bridgehead, just to the south of Belgorod, eight infantry battalions of Generalmajor Walther von Hünersdorff’s 6th Panzerdivision were grouped to make the planned crossing and, while subjected to heavy artillery fire during the Soviet defensive bombardment, most of the infantry did manage to cross to the river’s eastern bank. An attempt was then made to get one company of the 503rd schwere Panzerabteilung’s Tiger tanks across the same river, but the pontoon bridge it was using was shelled and destroyed before the whole company could get across. The rest of the 6th Panzerdivision was compelled to make its crossing farther to the south. This diversion to the south meant that the 6th Panzerdivision fell behind schedule, and the problem was aggravated when the new crossing became clogged with traffic. Failing to find another crossing, the rest of the division remained on the river’s western bank throughout the day. The elements of the division which had managed to cross the river then launched an attack, led by Tiger tanks, on Stary Gorod, but this was beaten back as a result of poorly cleared minefields and strong Soviet resistance.
To the south of the 6th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Gustav Schmidt’s 19th Panzerdivision crossed the river, but was then delayed by mines, which damaged some of the Tiger tanks spearheading the advance. The division had advanced 5 miles (8 km) by the end of the day. An unfortunate mishap took place when Heinkel He 111 medium bombers erroneously attacked the bridgehead, wounding von Hünersdorff, commander of the 6th Panzerdivision, and Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, commander of the 11th Panzerregiment. Farther to the south, infantry and some of the armour of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision managed to cross the bridges, but these were too light to support the weight of the Tiger tanks attached to the 7th Panzerdivision. Eventually, engineers constructed a heavy bridge enabling the Tiger tanks to cross and join the rest of the division. 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 about 6.25 miles (10 km), which was the farthest advance by any element of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ during this first day.
To the south of 7th Panzerdivision were the two infantry formations of the Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’, namely Generalleutnant Werner Forst’s 106th Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Röpke’s 320th Division. These two formations attacked on a 20-mile (32-km) front without armour support, and not surprisingly made little progress. The advance had begun well, however, with the crossing of the river and a swift advance against the 72nd Guards Division, which was taken by surprise with the speed of the advance.
After some fierce combat, often on a hand-to-hand basis, the Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ took the village of Maslovo Pristani, thereby penetrating the Soviet’s first belt of defence. A Soviet counterattack supported by about 40 tanks was beaten off with the aid of artillery and Flak batteries. Having suffered 2,000 casualties since the morning and still facing considerable resistance, the Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ dug in for the night.
The thrust of Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ had been slowed, and this provided the Soviets with the time they required to ready their second belt of defence to meet the renewal of 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 the arrival of two infantry divisions from the reserve. The 15th Guards Division was moved into the second belt of defence on the axis earmarked for the III Panzerkorps.
The German forces made steady progress against the Soviet defences but, as in the north, the daily attack frontages narrowed and their penetration depths dropped as the attack proceeded, indicating that there was no breakthrough and that the Soviets were containing the German effort. This tendency was not as marked as it was in the north, however. The attack frontage of 18.67 miles (30 km) on 5 July dropped to 12.5 miles (20 km) by 7 July and 9.33 miles (15 km) by 9 July. Likewise, the depth of the penetration dropped from 5.6 miles (9 km) on 5 July to 3.1 miles (5 km) on 8 July and to between 1.25 and 1.85 miles (2 and 3 km) each day thereafter until the attack was terminated. Soviet minefields and artillery were again successful in delaying the German attack and inflicting losses. The ability of dug-in Soviet units to delay the Germans was vital to buy the time for reserves to be brought up into threatened sectors. More than 90,000 additional mines were laid during the battle by small mobile groups of engineers, generally working at night immediately in front of the expected German attack areas. There were no large-scale bags of prisoners or any great capture of artillery, again indicating that Soviet units were giving ground in good order.
German losses can be illustrated by the fortunes of the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’, which began the battle with 118 tanks within its overall armoured strength: on 10 July, after five days of fighting, the division reported that it had only 20 tanks operational (three Tiger, six Panther and 11 PzKpfw III and IV vehicles). The XLVIII Panzerkorps reported, overall, 38 Panther tanks operational with 131 awaiting repair, out of the 200 with which it had started 'Zitadelle' on 5 July. Even so, the Soviets were rightly concerned that the Germans might achieve a breakthrough in the south. It was with such a contingency in mind that the Steppe Front had been created as a theatre reserve in the months before the battle.
By the evening of 6 July, at which time the 4th Panzerarmee’s armoured spearheads had advance some 9.33 miles (15 km), Vatutin’s Voronezh Front had committed all its reserves with the exception of three infantry divisions of Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army. But the front could not wholly check the 4th Panzerarmee. On the axis to the north in the direction of Oboyan, where the Soviet third defensive belt was for the most part unoccupied, the XLVIII Panzerkorps now had only the Soviet second defensive belt preventing it from securing a breakthrough into the rear of the Soviet forces. This forced the Stavka to commit its strategic reserves to reinforce the Voronezh Front: these were Zhadov’s 5th Guards Army (General Major Aleksandr I. Rodimtsev’s XXXII Guards Corps and General Major Iosif I. Popov’s XXXIII Guards Corps each with two guards infantry divisions and one guards airborne division, General Leytenant Vasili G. Burkov;s Independent X Tank Corps and one independent infantry division) and General Leytenant Pavel S. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army (General Major Fyedor G. Anikushkin’s XXIX Tank Corps and General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps) of Konev’s Steppe Front, as well as General Major Aleksei F. Popov’s II Tank Corps of General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front. Konev objected to this, as he saw it as a premature and piecemeal commitment of what had been created under his command as the strategic reserve, but a personal call from Stalin silenced his complaints. In addition, on 7 July Zhukov ordered Kravsovsky’s 17th Air Army, the air formation supporting the South-West Front, to aid the 2nd Air Army in supporting the Voronezh Front.
On 7 July, the 5th Guards Tank Army began advancing toward Prokhorovka. The Independent X Tank Corps, currently still subordinated to the 5th Guards Army, was pushed forward ahead of the rest of the army, and reached Prokhorovka on the night of 7/8 July, while the II Tank Corps of the Voronezh Front reached Korocha, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south-east of Prokhorovka, by morning of 8 July. Vatutin now ordered a major 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 air power available to the Voronezh Front. The object was to defeat the II SS Panzerkorps and thereby expose the right flank of the XLVIII Panzerkorps. At the same tie, the VI Tank Corps of the 1st Guards Tank Army was to attack the XLVIII Panzerkorps and so prevent it from breaking through into the free Soviet rear.
Although the Soviet plan was that the armoured counterattack be nicely co-ordinated, as a result of poor co-ordination it in fact became a series of piecemeal attacks. The X Tank Corps’ attack began at the break of day on 8 July, but ran straight into the anti-tank fire of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, and suffered very heavy loss of tanks and men. Later in the morning of the same day, the attack of the V Guards Tank Corps was repelled by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’. The II Tank Corps joined the action during the afternoon and was also driven back. The approach of the II Guards Tank Corps was concealed by the forest around the village of Gostishchevo, some 9.5 miles (15 km) to the north of Belgorod, and therefore remained undetected by the II SS Panzerkorps and advanced toward Trierenberg’s 167th Division before being spotted by German air reconnaissance just before it deployed into the attack and was then shattered by German ground-attack aircraft armed with 30-mm anti-tank cannon: at least 50 tanks were destroyed in what was the first occasion in military history when an attacking tank formation was defeated by air power alone. Although a fiasco, the Soviet counterattack succeeded 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 km) since the start of ‘Zitadelle’ and broken through the Soviet forces’ first and second defensive belts. However, slow progress of the XLVIII Panzerkorps persuaded Hoth to shift elements of the II SS Panzerkorps to the west to aid the XLVIII Panzerkorps in regaining some momentum, and it was only on 10 July that the SS corps was able to concentrate once again exclusively to its own advance. The axis of this advance now shifted from due north toward Oboyan farther to the north-east toward Prokhorovka. Hoth had discussed this realignment of the axis 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. But by this time the Soviets had shifted reserve formations into the path of the II SS Panzerkorps. The defensive positions were now held by the II Tank Corps, reinforced by the 9th Guards Airborne Division and 301st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment of the XXXIII Guards Corps.
Though the German advance in the south was slower than desired, it was somewhat faster than the Soviets had expected. On 9 July, the first German units reached the Psel river, and on the following day German infantry started to cross this river. Despite the deep defensive system and minefields facing them, the German tank losses were low. It was at this point that Hoth, as noted above, turned the II SS Panzerkorps from is northward to a north-eastward axis. At this time the main concern of von Manstein and Hausser was the inability of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ to press its advance to the east of the 4th Panzerarmee and thereby shield the eastern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps when, during 11 July, the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ finally achieved a breakthrough. In a surprise night attack, von Hünersdorff’s 6th Panzerdivision seized a bridge across the Donets river, and Breith made every effort to push the men and vehicles across the river as rapidly as possible for an advance by his III Panzerkorps on Prokhorovka from the south to effect a junction with the II SS Panzerkorps and thereby cut off Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army. It seemed that the anticipated, and indeed much desired, breakthrough was now almost within the German forces’ grasp.
Late in the evening of 11 July, Hausser issued his orders for a classic manoeuvre battle to be fought during the following day’s advance on Prokhorovka. It was known that the Soviets had dug in many anti-tank guns on the western slopes of Prokhorovka, rendering extremely problematical any direct attack by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, the central of the three Waffen-SS divisions. The plan was thus for the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, on the II SS Panzerkorps’ left wing, to capture Hill 226.6 and advance to the north-east along the Psel river to the road linking Karteschevka and Prokhorovka road, and then to push to the south-east into the flank and rear of Soviet forces at Prokhorovka. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ was ordered to edge forward and secure Storozhevoye and Lamki just outside Prokhorovka before it and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, on the II SS Panzerkorps’ right wing, waited until the attack of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ had disrupted the Soviet positions, after which the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ was to attack the main Soviet defences on the western slope of Prokhorovka. To the right of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, elements of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich were also to advance to the east to reach the high ground lying to the south of Prokhorovka, then turn to the south away from Prokhorovka in order to roll up the Soviet defences opposing the II Panzerkorps’ advance and force open a gap. The VIII Fliegerkorps was to make its main effort in support of the advance of the II SS Panzerkorps, so the XLVIII Panzerkorps farther to the west was assigned only limited air resources.
Unknown to Hausser, on the night of 11/12 July Rotmistrov had moved his 5th Guards Tank Army to an assembly area, just to the south of Prokhorovka, in preparation for a major armoured attack on the following day. Throughout the night, the German troops along the front line could hear Soviet tank engines as the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps moved into their assembly areas. The men of a battalion of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, which was situated on the reverse slope of Hill 252.2, had been hearing the Soviet tanks’ engines, and were distinctly concerned about the attack this clearly implied.
The 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army of Konev’s Steppe Front had been brought up from reserve and reassigned to the Voronezh Front on 8 and 11 July respectively, and on 11 July Vatutin ordered the armies of the Voronezh Front to take the offensive on the following day. This counterattack was planned to coincide with the start of the Soviet forces’ ‘Kutuzov’ offensive on the northern side of the Kursk salient. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to destroy the German forces near Prokhorovka with his 5th Guards Tank Army, without allowing the Germans to withdraw to the south.
For the battle, Rotmistrov ordered his tanks to move forward at high speed to engage the German armour in order to nullify the advantages the Tiger heavy tank had in the range and penetrating power of its 88-mm (3.465-in) main gun, which were both considerably better than the figures for the 76.2-mm (3-in) gun carried by the Soviet T-34 medium tank. Rotmistrov believed that the T-34 tanks, which were faster and more manoeuvrable than the Tiger tanks, would be able quickly to close the range and provide themselves with the capability to deliver flanking shots against the German heavy tanks, whose side and rear armour could be penetrated by the fire of the 76.2-mm (3-in) Soviet guns. In fact, Soviet intelligence had greatly overestimated, at 100 vehicles, the number of Tiger tanks and Tiger (P) tank destroyers, also equipped with the 88-mm (3.465-in) gun, possessed by the II SS Panzerkorps. There were in fact no Tiger (P) tank destroyers with the 4th Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ as all such vehicles had been allocated to the 9th Army on the northern face of the Kursk salient. Soviet tank crews frequently mistook the versions of PzKpfw IV battle tank armed with the 75-mm (2.95-in) KwK 40 long-barrel gun, which also had extra armour added to their turret, for Tiger tanks, and Soviet reports therefore tended to overestimate the number of Tiger tanks used by the Germans during ‘Zitadelle’.
Soviet air support on the southern face of the salient was provided by the 2nd Air Army and the 17th Air Army, but most 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, so only limited numbers of aircraft were available to support 5th Guards Tank Army’s attack.
Rotmistrov’s counter-offensive plan was now jeopardised by events to the south. The III Panzerkorps managed to cross the Severnyi Donets river at Harvests on the night of 11/12 July, and was therefore only about 11 miles (18 km) to the south-east of Prokhorovka and advancing to the north. This jeopardised Rotmistrov’s entire plan by threatening the rear of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Early on 12 July, moreover, Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov to send reinforcements to the 7th Guards Army and 69th Army facing the III Panzerkorps. Rotmistrov improvised a grouping under the command of his deputy, General Major Kuzma G. Trufanov with the 26th Guards Tank Brigade of the II Guards Tank Corps, the 11th and 12th Guards Mechanised Brigades of General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps, and the 53rd Guards Tank Regiment of the 5th Guards Tank Army. Other units of the Voronezh Front joined this grouping as it made its way to the south. Rotmistrov’s compliance with Vatutin’s order had entailed the loss of more than half of the 5th Guards Tank Army’s reserves even before the Battle of Prokhorovka had begun.
The German forces involved in the Battle of Prokhorovka were the three Waffen-SS divisions of the II SS Panzerkorps, which on the evening of 11 July possessed an operational armoured strength of 294 tanks (including 15 Tiger vehicles) and assault guns. The armoured strengths of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ were 77, 95 and 122 tanks and assault guns respectively. Some 10 of the Tiger tanks were deployed to the north of the Psel river with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, four with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, and one with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’.
Of the II SS Panzerkorps’ formations, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ had advanced farthest toward Prokhorovka and was situated in the centre of the German position. A railway line, with its bed 29 ft 6 in (9.0 m) high, divided the area of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ into northern and southern areas: most of the division, including the 1st SS Panzerregiment ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ and 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment as well as its headquarters, 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung and 1st SS Artillerieregiment, was positioned to the north of the railway line, while to its south was the 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment together with the 1st SS Panzerjägerabteilung. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ was deployed to the south-east of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, and protected the southern flank of the II SS Panzerkorps. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ was deployed to the north-west of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, and most of its 3rd SS Panzerregiment had crossed the Psel river in readiness for the assault. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ placed its lightly armed 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung in the 3.1-mile (5-km) gap between it and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ to provide a measure of flank protection. The unit was later buttressed by the division’s four remaining Tiger tanks under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann.
As noted above, the primary Soviet armoured formation involved in the battle was the 5th Guards Tank Army, which by 12 July commanded the II Guards Corps, II Corps, V Guards Mechanised Corps, XVIII Tank Gorps and XXIX Tank Corps, between them fielding 793 tanks and something between 37 and 57 self-propelled guns for a total of approximately 840 armoured fighting vehicles. About two-thirds of the tanks were T-34 medium tanks, and one-third T-70 light tanks, as well as some 31 to 35 Churchill infantry tanks. Not all of the 5th Guards Tank Army was present in the Prokhorovka area during the battle for, as noted above, part of the formation had been sent to the south to help check the advance of the III Panzerkorps. The armoured elements of the 5th Guards Tank Army, which included the II Guards Tank Corps and III Tank Corps newly attacked from the 1st Tank Army and South-West Front respectively and the remainder of the V Guards Mechanised Corps held in reserve, which now faced the II SS Panzerkorps on 12 July had 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 its assault.
The main attack of the 5th Guards Tank Army was undertaken against the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ by its fresh XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps brought up from the Soviet strategic reserve. These two Soviet formations together provided 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 the XVIII Tanks Corps and XXIX Tank Corps was provided by Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Sazonov’s 9th Guards Airborne Division.
Part of the XVIII Tank Corps was directed against the eastern flank of the 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Eicke’, so named after the recently killed divisional commander, SS- Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Theodor Eicke, of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’. On the south-eastern wing of his 5th Guards Tank Army, Rotmistrov deployed the 120 surviving tanks of the II Guards Tank Corps, and later on 12 July, even as the Battle of Prokhorovka was being waged, this corps’ 26th Guards Tank Brigade with its estimated 40 tanks was detached to the south to face the III Panzer Corps. The II Guards Tank Corps, supported by the remnants of the II Tank Corps, was to attack the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ with the infantry support of General Major Aleksandr S. Kostitsyn’s 183rd Division. The western flank of the 5th Guards Tank Army, which faced the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, was defended by General Major Fyedor A. Bobrov’s 42nd Guards Division and General Major Nikolai S. Nikitchenko’s 95th Guards Division of the XXXIII Guards Corps, and supported by the remnants of the XXXI Tank Corps and General Major Ivan M. Nekrasov’s heavily depleted 52nd Guards Division of the XXIII Guards Corps. 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 had about 113 tanks and self-propelled guns.
Vatutin ordered the air forces supporting his front to make their primary effort in checking the III Panzer Corps’ advance to the north, and in supporting the attack against the XLVIII Panzerkorps. Sorties were also flown in support of the 5th Guards Tank Army, but only to a more limited extent. The 2nd Air Army and 17th Army had some 472 and 300 serviceable aircraft respectively on 12 July.
At 05.45 on 12 July, the headquarters of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ started to receive reports from its forward units of the sound of large numbers of tank engines: this was the Soviet armour moving its assembly areas for the attack. At about 06.50, elements of 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment edged their way forward and drove the Soviet infantry out of Storozhevoye even as elements of the same division’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment fanned out from the Oktyabr’sky Sovkhoz (October State Farm). The Soviets began a preparatory artillery bombardment at about 08.00, and as the last shells of this bombardment fell on the Germans at 08.30, Rotmistrov radioed the order to start the attack, and the armour began its advance. In total, about 500 tanks and self-propelled guns fell on the positions of the II SS Panzerkorps in two massive waves, with 430 tanks in the first echelon and 70 in the second.
Advancing down from the slopes in front of Prokhorovka, the massed Soviet armour of five tank brigades of the XVIII Tank Corps and XXIX Tank Corps swept forward, firing as they came, straight at the positions of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’. As the Soviet tanks roared down the slopes, they carried the men of the 9th Guards Airborne Division on their hulls. The men of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ were not slated to go into action until later in the day and, exhausted by the previous week’s combat, many of them were just starting their day as the Soviet armour hit them and were therefore taken largely by surprise. As the Soviet armour appeared, German outposts all across the corps’ front began to loft the purple warning flares which signalled a tank attack. The commander of a company of the 1st SS Panzerregiment knew at once that a major attack was under way, and ordered the seven PzKpfw IV tanks of his company to follow him over a bridge across an anti-tank ditch. SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf von Ribbentrop’s tanks then fanned out onto the lower slope of Hill 252.2, on whose crest SS-Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper’s 3/2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment was being overrun. As von Ribbentrop’s tanks spread out, he and the 1st SS Panzerregiment were confronted by the armour of the XXIX Tank Corps’ 31st Tank Brigade and 32nd Tank Brigade, as as von Ribbentrop later reported, about 165 to 220 yards (150 to 220 m) to their front appeared 15, then 30, then 40 tanks until finally there were too many to be countered in the time the Germans had available. Firing on the move, the Soviet armour charged down the western slopes of Hill 252.2 into the Panzer company, and a fierce tank-versus-tank battle began. Four of von Ribbentrop’s PzKpfw IV tanks had been destroyed by the time the German position was overrun, and the three surviving German tanks moved with the advancing Soviet armour without attracting attention, in the process destroying 14 Soviet tanks with short-range fire.
Rotmistrov’s tactic of closing at high speed disrupted the control and co-ordination of the Soviet tank formations, and also greatly reduced the accuracy of their fire. In a three-hour battle, the 1st SS Panzerregiment engaged the Soviet tanks and repulsed them, reporting that it had destroyed about 62 Soviet tanks. Later in the afternoon of the same day, tanks of the 31st Tank Brigade and the 53rd Motorised Brigade overran elements of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung and reached Komsomolets Sovkhoz (Komsomolets State Farm), threatening the lines of communication and the divisional command post of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ located on Hill 241.6. The Soviet tanks attacked the 1st SS Artillerieregiment, killing a number of the crews before they themselves were destroyed by direct artillery fire and anti-tank teams.
Wittman’s four Tiger tanks supported the reconnaissance battalion in its effort to protect the left flank of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, and here confronted the advance of the XVIII Tank Corps’ 181st Tank Brigade. In the three-hour engagement which resulted, 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 armour and defeating its attack. Later on the same day, elements of the 170th Tank Brigade engaged the 1st SS Panzerregiment even as it was still engaged with the 31st Tank Brigade and 32nd Tank Brigade. Despite losing its commander and about 30 tanks, by a time early in afternoon the 170th Tank Brigade had pushed the 1st SS Panzerregiment back to the Oktyabr’sky Sovkhoz and reached the position of the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung. At 18.00 or thereabouts, the 170th Tank Brigade and 181st Tank Brigade broke through the line connecting the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’. Tanks and assault guns supporting the 6th SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Eicke’ held back the Soviet attack and re-established the German line, in the process compelling the Soviet armour to pull back to the village of Andreyevka.
The advance of Soviet armour down Hill 252.2 was disrupted abruptly when it reached the anti-tank ditch at the hill’s base. A number of tanks crashed into the 14.75-ft (4.5-m) deep ditch while others turned to move along the ditch’s edge in search of a place 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 Panzergrenadier troops engaged the Soviet infantry and attacked the Soviet tanks with magnetic anti-tank grenades. Peiper’s battalion lost 20 of its half-tracked vehicles in this stage of the fighting, some destroyed in ramming the much heavier Soviet tanks in an effort to stop them. Eventually the combination of Soviet pressure and dangerously exposed flanks persuaded the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ to undertake a tactical withdrawal from the Oktyabr’sky Sovkhoz and establish a more solid defensive line some 0.6 mile (1 km) farther to the south.
During the day the 2nd Air Army and 17th Air Army flew 893 sorties compared with the VIII Fliegerkorps’ 654 sorties over the southern face of the Kursk salient: as noted above, most of the Soviet sorties were flown against the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the west and the III Panzerkorps to the south-east. However, the presence of low cloud in the morning and of thunderstorms in the afternoon rendered air operations over the Prokhorovka sector difficult for each side, though over the Prokhorovka battlefield the Luftwaffe did manage to gain air superiority. Formations of Stuka dive-bombers, including a small number of Ju 87G-2 machines experimentally equipped with 37-mm BK 3,7 cannon and commanded by Hauptmann Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Staffelkapitän in the III/Stukageschwader 2, attacked the Soviet formations, as did Fw 190 fighter-bombers and Hs 129 ground-attack aircraft armed with 30-mm anti-tank cannon. The 31st Tank Brigade reported that it suffered heavy losses in tanks to the German artillery and warplanes, and though its tanks reached the Komsomolets Sovkhoz at 10.30, the continuous German air attacks prevented them from any further advance and forced them onto the defensive. The same brigade also reported that there was no friendly air cover until 13.00. The 5th Guards Tank Army reported that German aircraft loitered above its combat formations throughout the entire battle, while Soviet aircraft in general and fighters in particular were wholly inadequate.
By the end of the day, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ still held Hill 252.2, but had been exhausted by the effort of turning back five tank brigades. To its west, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ had taken Hill 226.6 and 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, and was therefore in a position to outflank the Soviet forces at Prokhorovka though under pressure from Soviet attacks and its hold on the forward ground limited. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ had been unable to push forward at all: forced onto the defensive by the attacks of the II Guards Tank Corps and II Tank Corps, the division found it totally impossible to undertake its planned offensive movements.
On the other side of the front line, all those tank units and formations under command of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army involved in the battle on 12 July suffered heavy losses. Rotmistrov later wrote that on 12 July the XXIX Tank Corps lost 60% of its armour and the XVIII Tank Corps 30%. Rotmistrov was now compelled to redeploy the XVIII Tank Corps and 29th Tank Corps into defensive and reinforce them with infantry. They shovelled more trenches, dug in some of their tanks, laid new minefields, prepared anti-tank strongpoints and massed artillery. The 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade and 24th Guards Tank Brigade of the V Guards Mechanised Corps made preparations to push back the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ on the morning of the following day.
In the evening of 12 July, Stalin dispatched Zhukov to Vatutin’s headquarters as the Stavka representative with instructions to co-ordinate the operations of the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front. During the night of 12/13 July, Vatutin ordered the Soviet forces to prevent any further German advance on Prokhorovka, destroy German forces which had advanced along the northern bank of the Psel river, and prevent the III Panzerkorps from any further progress.
Orders issued by the Germans for 13 July instructed the 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 SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ to strengthen its front and co-ordinate its attack on Prokhorovka from the south with the attack of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Totenkopf’ from the north-west, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ to consolidate and strengthen its front, and to ready itself for a offensive to link with the III Panzerkorps.
On the morning of 13 July, the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade and the 24th Guards Tank Brigade, in co-operation with the 95th Guards Division and 52nd Guards Division, launched attacks against the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, which as a result prevented the Waffen-SS division from attacking to the south in the direction of Prokhorovka. At about 12.00 the 1st SS Aufklärungsabteilung of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ was instructed to attack to the north in the direction of the Psel river and thus to consolidate its front with that of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, while the division’s Panzer units were to attack toward Soviet positions to the north-east of the Oktyabr’sky Sovkhoz in the direction of Prokhorovka. The 1st Aufklärungsabteilung attacked the defences of the 42nd Guards Division and the remaining armour of the XVIII Tank Corps, while the Panzer units attacked the defences of 9th Guards Airborne Division and the XXIX Tank Corps. These German attacks were repelled by the fire of massed Soviet anti-tank guns. The XXIX Tank Corps then counterattacked and penetrated the German lines, reaching Komsomolets State Farm before being beaten back by direct fire from the German artillery. During the afternoon of 13 July, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ was ordered to abandon its positions to the north-west of Prokhorovka and return to more defensible positions around Hill 226.6. Soviet attempts to sever the neck of the narrow German salient were unsuccessful, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ had completed its withdrawal by the fall of night.
At a tactical level, the Battle of Prokhorovka was a tactical defeat for the Soviets as a result of their heavy tank losses, but at the operational level the battle was a draw or even a Soviet victory. Neither the 5th Guards Tank Army nor the II SS Panzerkorps had achieved its objective, but though the Soviet counterattack had failed and the Soviets had been thrown back onto the defensive, they had nonetheless managed to prevent a German breakthrough.
The tank losses during the battle have remained a matter for dispute. The Soviet tank losses have been estimated at figures between 200 and 822, but Soviet records show about 300 complete losses and as many more damaged. The Soviets claimed enormous German losses, stating that they destroyed at least 400 tanks, including 100 Tiger tanks, and killed 3,500 German troops. German records indicated three to five of their own tanks destroyed, and between 40 and 70 damaged, as well as some 500 men killed.
While the exact figures for each side cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt, the outcome is clearer. The 5th Guards Tank Army had accomplished part of its mission of stopping the German attack, but neither took its terrain objectives nor destroyed the II SS Panzerkorps. Both formations were weakened, but both were committed to combat once again on the following day. Significantly, earlier in the battle the attacking German formations had been squeezed into ever-narrowing frontages by the defenders as elite Soviet guards airborne units held firm on the flanks of the very narrow German penetration. The Germans could not squeeze many units into this narrow front, and lacked the combat power to widen the penetration. As the attacking corps moved forward, it thus continually lost breakthrough strength as elements were detached to meet the need for the corps to secure its own flanks. While the German offensive had been stopped in the north by 10 July, in the south the decisive part of the complete battle was still in the balance, even after 12 July.
Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ admitted the loss of 10,000 men killed and 350 tanks lost in an advance of less than 25 miles (40 km). The German forces on the southern wing were exhausted and had suffered heavily manpower and matériel losses, but had nonetheless managed to break though the Soviets’ first two defensive belts and believed, albeit wrongly, that they were about to break through the last belt. In fact at least five more defensive zones awaited them, although they were not as strong as the initial belts. The Soviet defence had certainly been weakened, and major parts of the reserve forces had been committed, but the available and still uncommitted Soviet reserves were still considerably larger than the few available German reserves.
During the evening of 12 July, Hitler summoned von Kluge and von Manstein to his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia for a meeting on the following day. Two days earlier, the Western Allies had invaded Sicily in ‘Husky’ (i), and the threat of further Allied landings in Italy or along the south coast of France, had by now persuaded Hitler that it was now essential to move forces from Kursk to Italy, and therefore to discontinue ‘Zitadelle’. In this decision Hitler also took into consideration the Soviet ‘Kutuzov’ counter-offensive against the flank and rear of Model’s 9th Army on the northern face of the Kursk salient on 12 July, and the strength of the Soviet offensive in the Prokhorovka area during the same day. von Kluge welcomed the news, as he was aware that the Soviets were initiating a massive offensive against his sector, as he was indeed already in the process of withdrawing elements of the 9th Army from the northern face of the Kursk salient to deal with Soviet attacks on his flank, but von Manstein was less persuaded. His forces had just spent a week fighting through a maze of defensive works and he believed they were on the verge of breaking through to more open terrain, which would allow him to engage and destroy the Soviet armoured reserves in a mobile battle. As he saw it, with his III Panzerkorps about to link with the II SS Panzerkorps at Prokhorovka, and with the XXIV Panzerkorps available as his operational reserve, von Manstein believed that Hitler’s decision would be halting the offensive on the very eve of a decisive German victory. von Manstein therefore argued that one final effort could win Kursk, but with his attention now focussed more on the west than the east, Hitler was unwilling to continue the offensive. Nonetheless, 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 the Soviet fighting capacity in the sector would be depleted for the rest of the summer. Hitler was also aware that ‘Zitadelle’ had already failed and further attempts to break through were likely to incur very high German casualties: the northern pincer had been stopped virtually in its tracks, and Soviet formations were already breaking through in their own counter-offensive. In the south, and despite some tactical successes, the maximum efforts by the most elite German formations had failed to achieve a breakthrough into the Soviet rear.
Nonetheless, Hitler did agree a temporary continuance of the offensive in the southern part of the Kursk salient until von Manstein’s objective had been accomplished in ‘Roland’, but on the following day ordered von Manstein’s reserve, the XXIV Panzerkorps, to move farther to the south to support the 1st Panzer Army, thereby stripping Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ of the formation von Manstein believed was needed for his forces to succeed.
On 16 July the German forces withdrew to their start lines, and on the following day the Oberkommando des Heeres ordered that the II SS Panzerkorps was to be withdrawn and readied for movement to Italy. In the end, only the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, departed for Italy, leaving all its equipment behind for its sister formations.
By this time the Germans had suffered the loss of some 54,180 men, 325 armoured fighting vehicles, about 500 pieces of artillery, and 160 aircraft in ‘Zitadelle’ proper (4/16 July), whereas the Soviets had lost 177,845 men, between 1,615 and 1,955 armoured fighting vehicles, 3,930 pieces of artillery, and between 460 and 1,960 aircraft in the same period. To these should be added the losses each side incurred up to 23 August as the Soviet forces launched their two counteroffensives: thus the overall German losses were 203,000 men, 720 armoured fighting vehicles, an unknown number of pieces of artillery, and 680 aircraft, while those of the Soviets were 863,300 men, 6,065 armoured fighting vehicles, 5,245 pieces of artillery, and 1,625 aircraft.
Although the major fighting had by now ended, limited attacks continued in the south as the Germans eliminated a Soviet force squeezed between the two German armies.
The campaign had been a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before it had managed to effect any breakthrough. This was an outcome which few had predicted with any real degree of confidence. The Soviet forces had indeed suffered substantially higher casualties than the Germans, but the latter had wholly failed to achieve their goals. From this point on, a new pattern emerged. The initiative had passed to the Soviets, and for the rest of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ the Germans could merely react to Soviet moves. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting German resources and attention. Both sides had suffered huge losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never managed to regain the strategic initiative after Kursk. Moreover, the defeat further convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his general staff. Hitler therefore continued his interference in military matters progressively, so that by the war’s closing stages had involved himself in essentially minor tactical decisions.
The opposite applied to Stalin, however. After seeing the Stavka’s planning justified on the battlefield, he developed greater trust in his military advisers, and stepped back from operational planning, only rarely overruling military decisions. The combination of these two factors led inevitably to the German army proceeding from loss to loss as Hitler attempted a personal management of day-to-day operations in what soon became a three-front war, and the Soviet army gaining more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.
The strength of the Soviet reserve formations had been greatly underestimated by German intelligence, and the Soviets soon went onto the offensive. Launched on 10 July, the ‘Kutuzov’ counter-offensive round Orel decisively changed the situation. Several 9th Army formations had to be redeployed to resist this attack instead of continuing their own offensive, and formations of the southern pincer were given warning orders on 15 July to withdraw to their start lines of 4/5 July. The purpose of the withdrawal was to shorten the front, enabling the Germans to re-form a reserve. To the south the Soviet forces needed time to regroup after the vicious fighting of July, and could not open their ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ counter-offensive until 3 August. Aided by diversionary attacks still farther to the south, the Soviets retook von Manstein’s hard-won Belgorod. Fireworks in Moscow marked the capture of Belgorod and Orel, a celebration that henceforward became an institution with the recapture of each Soviet city. On 11 August the Soviet forces reached Kharkov, a city Hitler had sworn to defend at all costs. By 22 August utter exhaustion had affected both sides and the fighting drew to a close.
The campaign had been a decisive Soviet success. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before it had managed to effect any breakthrough. This was an outcome which few had predicted with any real degree of confidence. The Soviet forces had indeed suffered substantially higher casualties than the Germans, but the latter had wholly failed to achieve their goals. From this point on, a new pattern emerged. The initiative had passed to the Soviets, and for the rest of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ the Germans could merely react to Soviet moves. A new front had opened in Italy, diverting German resources and attention. Both sides had suffered huge losses, but only the Soviets had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never managed to regain the strategic initiative after Kursk. Moreover, the defeat further convinced Hitler of the incompetence of his general staff. Hitler therefore continued his interference in military matters progressively, so that by the war’s closing stages had involved himself in essentially minor tactical decisions. The opposite applied to Stalin, however. After seeing the Stavka’s planning justified on the battlefield, he developed greater trust in his military advisers, and stepped back from operational planning, only rarely overruling military decisions. The combination of these two factors led inevitably to the German army going from loss to loss as Hitler attempted a personal management of day-to-day operations in what soon became a three-front war, and the Soviet army gaining more freedom and became more and more fluid as the war continued.
Following the end of the war, there had been considerable criticism of Hitler’s decision to terminate ‘Zitadelle’ at the height of the tactical battle. Anticipating that the Western Allies were on the verge of undertaking some form of major operation in Western Europe, both von Manstein and Guderian had argued before the launch of ‘Zitadelle’ for forces to be conserved and redeployed as a strategic reserve but that, once tis reserve had committed to the operation it made little sense to withdraw it at the climax of the battle, especially since these formations could not reach Italy in time to affect the short-term progress of events there. von Manstein argued pulling forces out of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in the middle of the operation, redeploying major elements of the Luftwaffe support capability, and transferring his reserve force deprived his army group of the offensive power it needed at what he believed was the decisive point of the battle. The validity of von of Manstein’s complaint is moot, for the size of the Soviet reserves was far greater than he realised. These reserves were used to re-equip the mauled 5th Guards Tank Army, which launched ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’, otherwise the ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ only a couple of weeks later as the southern counterpart of ‘Kutuzov’. However, rebuilding this formation did take time, and the essential matter was the concentration of all the available forces for a decisive action: Hitler’s unwillingness to accept risk resulted in his commanders being unable to do so. Furthermore, Hitler restricted his commanders from fighting the type of mobile battle they wanted, despite von Manstein’s success in this type of action only a few months before in the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. The result was a battle of attrition for which the Germans were ill prepared and in which they had little chance of winning.