Friday 7 February 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Battle of Kursk

In the early spring of 1943, after the conclusion of winter-spring battles, a large westward curve formed in the German-Soviet front, between Orel and Belgorod. This curve was unofficially called the Kursk Salient. Forces at the curve were composed of the Central and Voronezh Fronts on the Soviet side and Army Groups Center and South on the German side.

Members of the highest command circles in Germany were of the opinion that the Wehrmacht needs to take a defensive stance, exhaust the Soviet forces, and focus on fortification of captured territories. Hitler was categorically against this. He insisted that the German army still retained the strength to deliver a crushing blow to the USSR and reclaim strategic initiative that was slipping out of their grasp. An objective analysis showed that the Germans were no longer able to advance on all fronts. The attack was limited to only one section. The logical choice was the Kursk Salient. According to the plan, the German forces were to deliver a strike from Orel and Belgorod, directed at Kursk. A successful execution of this operation would result in destruction of the Central and Voronezh Fronts. The final plans of "Operation Citadelle" were confirmed on May 10-11, 1943.

It was not difficult to figure out where the Wehrmacht would strike in the summer of 1943. The Kursk Salient, extending many kilometers into enemy territory, was a tempting and obvious target. Stavka of the Supreme Command of the USSR decided to establish a powerful defensive line on April 12th. The RKKA was tasked with exhausting the enemy in their attacks, and then counter-attack, destroying the enemy. After that, a general offensive in the Western and South-Western directions was planned.

In the event that the Germans did not attack, a plan to attack with the forces of the Kursk Salient was also drafted. However, the defensive plan took priority, and was executed by the Red Army in April of 1943.

The defensive line at Kursk was very solid. 8 lines of defense were built, 300 kilometers deep. Approaches to the defensive lines were heavily mined. Various sources give between 1500 and 1700 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines per kilometer of the front. AT guns were not scattered throughout the front, but collected in so called "anti-tank regions", localized collections of anti-tank weapons, covering several approaches at once, and partially overlapping each others' sectors. This allowed for maximum concentration of fire, and the ability to fire on enemy forces from several sides.

Before the beginning of the operation, the Central and Voronezh Fronts consisted of 1.2 million soldiers, 3500  tanks, 20 000 guns and mortars, and 2800 airplanes. The Steppe Front served as a reserve, with 580 000 soldiers, 1500 tanks, 7400 guns and mortars, and about 700 airplanes.

The German side of the battle included 50 divisions, with, by various counts, between 780 000 and 900 000 soldiers, 2700 tanks and SPGs, 10 000 guns, and 2500 airplanes.

At the beginning of the battle, the Red Army held a quantitative advantage. However, one must remember that they were spread out through the defensive lines, allowing the Germans to achieve superiority by concentrating their forces on necessary portions of the front. The German army also possessed new heavy Tiger tanks, medium Panther tanks, and heavy Ferdinand SPGs, of which there were only 89 (of 90 built), but could still be a dangerous foe when skilfully applied on a necessary location.

First stage: Defense

The Voronezh and Central Front commanders managed to predict the time of attack pretty precisely. By their estimates, the attack would commence between July 3rd and 6th. A day before the battle, a captured enemy soldier revealed that it would begin on July 5th.

The northern side of the salient was held by Rokossovkiy's Central Front. Knowing the Germans would attack, he ordered an artillery barrage at 2:30 am, and a repeat at 4:30. The effectiveness of this barrage was questionable. Soviet artillerymen report hitting their targets, but the Germans reported small losses in personnel, vehicles, and communications. The Germans knew: they could not get away with a swift assault. The Red Army was ready for a defense.

The German artillery barrage started at 5:00. Before it ended, the first German echelons stepped into battle. German infantry, supported by tanks, attacked on the entire front held by the 13th Army. The main force was pushing in the direction of Olhovatka, with the heaviest push on the right flank, at Maloarhangelskoye.

The battle lasted 2.5 hours, and the attack was repelled. After this, the Germans attacked the army's left flank. By the end of July 5th, elements of the 15th and 81st divisions were partially encircled, but the defensive line was not penetrated. Over the entire day, the Germans moved 6-8 kilometers forward.

On July 6th, the Soviets counterattacked with two tank divisions, three infantry divisions, and one infantry corps, with the support of two Guards mortar regiments and two SPG regiments. The counterattack was performed over a 34 kilometer front. The Germans were pushed back 1-2 km, but then Soviet tanks came under heavy artillery fire. After 40 tanks were lost, the counterattack halted. The July 6th counterattack was not very effective. The front was moved 1-2 km back.

After the unsuccessful attack at Olhovataka, the Germans moved the main strike to the Ponyri railroad station. This station was of high strategic importance, controlling the railroad between Orel and Kursk. Ponyri was well protected, with minefields, artillery, and entrenched tanks.

170 German tanks and SPGs attacked Ponyri on July 6th including 40 Tigers of the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion. The Germans penetrated the first line of defense, and moved towards the second. They attempted three attacks that day, all of which were repelled. On the second day, after stubborn attacks, the Germans drew closer to Ponyri. At 15:00 hours on July 7th, the enemy took the "May 1st" farm, and approached close to the station. July 7th was a dangerous time in the station's defense, but the Germans never managed to take it.

At Ponyri, the Ferdinand SPGs were first used, proving a serious problem for Soviet forces. Their 200 mm thick front armour could not be penetrated by most Soviet guns. Most Ferdinands were destroyed by mines and aircraft. The Germans were unable to continue assaults on Ponyri after July 12th.

The 70th Army also fought a fierce battle between July 5th and 12th. The Germans attacked with tanks, infantry, and aircraft. Only July 8th, a portion of the first defensive line was penetrated. The Germans took several villages, but the breach was localized with reserve forces. By July 11th, the Soviets received reinforcements, and their own aircraft support. Dive bombers dealt heavy losses to German units. On July 15th, when the Germans were long gone, military journalists started taking photographs of abandoned and destroyed German vehicles. These were nicknamed "photos from Prokhorovka" after the war, despite there being no Ferdinands at all at Prokhorovka. However, the Germans did abandon two Ferdinands at Teploye.

On the sector held by the Voronezh Front (commanded by Vatutin), action began on July 4th. The Germans attacked the front lines, and continued their assaults until late at night.

On July 5th, the main phase of the battle began. The battles at the south side of the salient were much more fierce, and led to many more losses than on the north. The reason for this was the terrain was much friendlier to tanks, and also several miscalculations of Soviet commanders.

The main strike was aimed at the highway along Belgorod-Oboyan'. This sector was held by the 6th Guards Army. The first attack began at 6:00, aimed at the Cherkasskoye village. Two attacks, supported by tanks and aircraft, were repelled. After that, the Germans struck in the direction of Butovo. The cost of repelling the attacks at Cherkasskoye was high, with some units losing up to 50-70% of their numbers.

Taking heavy losses, the Germans moved 6-8 km by the end of July 8th. Then the attack at Oboyan' stalled. The enemy was seeking a weak spot in the Soviet lines, and it seems that he has found it. The new target was the yet unknown Prokhorovka railroad station.

The Battle of Prokhorovka, considered one of the largest tank battles in history, began on July 11th, 1943. The Germans had the 2nd SS tank corps and 3rd Wehrmacht tank corps, 450 tanks in total. The Soviets had Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army, and Zhadov's 5th Guards Army, for a total of about 800 tanks.

The Battle at Prokhorovka could be called the most debated and contradictory element of the Battle of Kursk. The scope of the article does not allow detailed exploration, so let's settle at approximate losses: the Germans lost 80 tanks and SPGs, and the Soviets lost about 270 vehicles.

Second stage: Offensive

On July 12th, 1943, the Western and Bryansk Front forces began "Operation Kutuzov", otherwise known as the Orel Offensive Operation. By July 15th, they were joined by forces of the Center Front.

The Germans sent 37 divisions to counter the offensive. By modern estimates, the Germans had about 500 vehicles. The Soviet forces had noticeable advantages in numbers: 6 times as much infantry, 5 times as much artillery, 2.5-3 times as many tanks.

The Germans defended on well fortified positions, equipped with barbed wire, minefields, machine gun nests, and armoured bunkers. Rivers were equipped with anti-tank fortifications. It is worthwhile to point out that the German defensive lines were incomplete when the Soviets attacked.

Only July 12th, at 5:10 am, the Soviets began a combined barrage of bombs and artillery shells. Half an hour later, the assault began. By the end of the first day, the Red Army advanced 7.5-15 kilometers, penetrating the main German defensive line in three places. Offensives lasted until July 14th. The Soviets advanced an additional 25 kilometers by that time. The Germans managed to regroup, and slow down the offensive. The offensive of the Center Front, which began on July 15th, continued slowly.

Despite heavy resistance, the Red Army began displacing their enemy from the Orel foothold. Battles for the city began in early August. By August 6th, the city was freed from Germans. The Orel operation entered its final phases. On August 12th, battles for Karachev began. By August 15th, all German forces in the area were destroyed. On August 17-18th, the Soviets reached the German Hagen line, built east of Bryansk.

The official date of the Soviet offensive on the south side of the Kursk Salient is August 3rd. However, the Germans began withdrawing troops on July 16th, and Red Army forces began pursuit of the enemy on July 17th. By July 22nd, the forces held the same positions they did at the start of the Battle of Kursk. High command demanded the immediate continuation of the advance, but, due to the exhaustion of the soldiers, the advance was postponed by 8 days.

By August 3rd, the Voronezh and Steppe Front possessed 50 infantry divisions, 2400 tanks and SPGs, and over 1200 guns. After an artillery barrage, the Soviet forces attacked at 8:00 am. The Voronezh Front progressed 12-26 kilometers in the first day, the Steppe Front only managed 7-8 km.

On August 4-5th, enemy forces in Belgorod were eliminated. By the evening of the 5th, the city was retaken by elements of the 69th Army and 1st Mechanized Corps.

By August 10th, Soviet forces cut off the railroad between Kharkov and Poltava. 10 kilometers remained until the city itself. On August 11th, the Germans attacked at Bogoduhovo, slowing down both advancing fronts. Fierce fighting continued until August 14th.

The Steppe front reached Kharkov on August 11th. Taking the city proved difficult. Both sides took heavy losses. Companies reduced to 40-50 men were not uncommon.

The last German counterattack was at Akhtyrki. Here, they managed localized success, but it did not change the situation. A massive assault on Kharkov started on August 23rd. This day is considered the day of liberation of Kharkov and the end of the Battle of Kursk. In reality, the last pockets of German resistance were not eliminated until August 30th.

Original article available here.

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