Sunday 19 July 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Kursk, Secondary Direction

The battles at Prokhorovka, Oboyan, and Ponyri obscured many other no less important battles during the Battle of Kursk. Once of those was the deflection of the auxiliary attack of the German Armee-Abteilung Kempf by Lieutenant-General M. Shumilov's 7th Guards Army. This event took place on the left flank of the Voronezh Front.

There were no SS divisions with trumpeted up names here, regular numbered Wehrmacht divisions went into battle. There were no famous Soviet tank units like Kartukov's 1st Guards Tank Army or Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army. Even here, in this "insignificant" battle, the Germans lost.

Starting positions

The German commanders expected the qualitative advantage of their new tanks to be a decisive factor in Operation Citadel, but Werner Kempf had nothing to brag about. His army contained three tank divisions (6th, 7th, and 19th), united into the 3rd Tank Corps.

Unlike his colleagues from the SS and named divisions like Grossdeutschland, the corps received no reinforcements. In order to at least somehow help the units battered in March battles, Kempf attached the 228th assault gun battalion with StuG assault guns to the 3rd corps, as well as the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion with 45 Tigers. Each division in the corps received one company of heavy tanks.

Shumilov's men were facing down Tigers, and in 1943 the Red Army did not yet have the IS-2 and its powerful 122 mm gun to combat them. Most of the tank units attached to the 7th Guards had T-34s, a few consisted only of light T-60 and T-70 tanks, heavy but obsolete KVs and Lend-Lease tanks. Fighting Tigers was going to be hard.

Knowing this, the commander of the Voronezh Front reinforced the 7th Guards Army with the 1529th Heavy SPG Regiment which contained 12 SU-152s, the only unit with these vehicles. They were subordinated to the 24th Guards Infantry Corps.

On July 5th, Kempf began his offensive, and things started going wrong almost immediately. With every day, the Germans experienced more and more difficulties.

The first problem lay in the fact that the front line in front of the attackers stretched almost in its entirety along the shores of Severskiy Donets river. The only foothold near Mikhailovka, captured in the spring, was insufficient to deploy significant forces. Soldiers of the 6th Tank Division that were "lucky" enough to begin their offensive from the foothold soon understood that the Soviets knew its importance.

The rest of Kempf's troops had to cross the river and a 200 meter wide swampy flood plain, capture footholds on the opposite shore, and erect bridges strong enough for heavy vehicles. Only then could they begin their offensive.

Tigers in a Rain of Fire

Despite the fact that Citadel was a German offensive operation, the first move was made by the Soviets. On the night of July 5th, guns, mortars, and rocket artillery opened fire. Their effect on the Germans that were amassed for an attack is described as "overwhelming" in Soviet literature, and this is a fair assessment, especially in the sector of the 7th Guards Army.

Near the Mikhailovka foothold, artillery destroyed one of the two crossings. The first attack from the foothold failed, and the Germans tried to help out with StuGs and Tigers. The bridge collapsed under one of the StuGs, leaving the main forces of the 6th Tank Division and all of its tanks stuck on the other shore. They had to go around, through the crossing of their neighbouring 19th Tank Division that had 60-ton bridge kits.

From the report of the 19th Tank Division: "The bridge for Tigers was halfway finished. At the time, the Russians began a well organized barrage of artillery, mortars, and flanking machinegun fire on the crossing. Even though it was dark, the fire was very precise." The Germans finished their crossing, but ran into another problem, as a result of which Hans von Funk decided that it was safer to have the Tigers ford the river. However, they didn't make it far, only to the first minefield where they stopped to wait for sappers to clear the way.

Funk made the decision to not use the bridge because of mines, but German ones, not Soviet ones. The cooperation between attack teams and sappers to clear the way for attacking units was terrible. For instance, the crossing at Solomatino was blocked by six tanks that were disabled by German mines as soon as they got off the bridge.

Mine Curse of the 19th Division

The 19th division earned the gold medal for bad luck that day. Most of the Tigers that they were issued did not make it across to the eastern shore of Severskiy Donest. Another excerpt from German documents: "We had no maps in our possession describing German minefields. We had only two mutually contradicting plans for minefields, which, as it turned out, were both wrong." As a result, first two Tigers blew up on German mines as soon as they moved out, then two more a while later. The latter were driving across terrain that was considered cleared.

Then, explosions rang one by one. Three tanks carelessly poked into an active mine field and were disabled. Two truck blew up on a road that was also considered safe. Later, 120 mines were removed from it that could not possibly be there.

The attempt to push through Soviet defenses with what was left of the Tiger company was a costly decision. By night, only one undamaged Tiger remained. Of course, a single mine explosion was not enough to send a heavy tank to the scrapyard, but in this battle every tank and every minute were valuable.

The first day of Kempf's offensive was a total failure. The only thing the Germans achieved was the capture of several small footholds on the other side of the river. They were not able to join them into one big one.

From Zveroboy with Love

Vehicles of the 1529th SPG Regiment entered battle on July 7th. They fired indirectly upon German forces that nearly penetrated Shumilov's second line of defense.

Soviet units needed to hold out, while the Germans had to join up with the group attacking in the main direction. Kempf's group was tasked with protecting its flank, a task which it could not carry out. Three days of fierce fighting were costly for both Soviet and German forces, the 6th and 19th Tank Divisions were on their last legs.

The Germans planned to reinforce them with the 7th Tank Division on July 8th, which was still stuck on the right flank. Contrary to German plans, the Soviets attacked first, recapturing the Batratskaya Dacha farm. The Germans realized that their infantry cannot withstand Soviet attacks without tanks. The plan was changed, and the 7th sent its tanks into battle that morning, and its attached Tigers by the evening.

At the tip of the spearhead as always, the Tigers rushed forward, not suspecting that the gunners of the 3rd battery were carefully studying them through their sights. All vehicles of the regiment had their own names. The Tigers ran into "Zveroboy" and "Zubr".

According to the award order of Zveroboy's gunner, the battle did not last long. "The enemy, with up to 12 tanks and a battalion of infantry, attempted to occupy favourable positions (height 191.2) in the vicinity of our lines. 6 German Tigers headed the attack.

Comrade Mikhailov aimed his weapon straight on target and turned the enemy to flight, knocking out 3 T-6 tanks and damaging 4 light tanks." T-6 were Tigers, this is how they were referred to in Soviet documents until the end of the war.

It's likely that this was the first battle between the Tiger and SU-152. It appears to be insignificant against the grand scale of the battle, but this and a thousand other minor skirmishes wore down the German advance. Because of the battle for Batratskaya Dacha, a whole enemy tank division was bogged down, unable to unite with Hoth's forces. As a result, he had to dedicate some of his own forces to protect his flanks. He was still able to advance, for now.

Original article available here.


  1. SU-152 was the first soviet heavy SPG and there is one question that attract me. Where were that crews especially gunners taken from? From KV 1s or artillery units equiped with ML-20s ?

    1. Tankers, SPGers, and artillerymen live separate lives. The crews would have been trained from scratch or transferred from some other SPG.