The hell of the Battle of Kursk

In July 1943, the Third Reich launched a large-scale offensive near Kursk, which was aimed at restoring the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, which it had lost after the defeat at Stalingrad. In fact, it became the “nail in the coffin” of Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe and the world

The winter campaign of 1942/43 was extremely unfavorable for Hitler and his allies. The defeat at Stalingrad, in which the Germans lost 800,000 people. 2,000 tanks and guns and 3 thousand. Aircraft and where the entire Sixth Army of General Friedrich Paulus was wiped out, shook the military might of the Third Reich.

After the blow, the Russians intended to prevent the Germans from withdrawing across the Dnieper. However, the commander of Army Group South, Marshal Erich von Manstein prepared a surprise in the form of a counterattack, the purpose of which was to throw the forces of two Russian fronts (Voronezhsky and Southwestern) and restore control. Kharkiv. Stubborn fighting between the tank divisions of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS panzergrenadiers, brought up at the last moment to the front, led to the recapture of Kharkov, the capture of Belgorod and the liquidation of the dangerous bulge in the front line in the “South”. GA.

The thaw in the spring of 1943 led to the cessation of active operations in the southern part of the Eastern Front. Fighting also stopped between Kursk and Oryol, where the forces of the Soviet Central Front went on the defensive. In this way, a bulge was created in the front, which dangerously reached deep into the German concentrations of troops at the junction of the Middle and South GA.

This so-called. On the one hand, the Kursk Bulge created favorable conditions for a strike on German groupings in the Orel and Bryansk region in the north and Belgorod and Kharkov in the south, but on the other hand, it threatened to be massively closed. Cauldron and destruction of two Soviet fronts – the Central and Voronezh fronts.

The main assumption of the German Operation Citadel plan was to level the front line with converging strikes from the northern and southern flanks towards Kursk, destroy the Soviet armies there and – eventually – strike again from here on Moscow.

The Russians, having learned about the offensive intentions of the Germans already in April, decided to prepare a deep (especially anti-tank) defense, bleed the enemy on it, and then go over to an immediate counterattack.

In order to carry out a large-scale offensive operation, the Germans began a comprehensive mobilization. Reservists and new generations of conscripts were integrated into the ranks of the Wehrmacht, thanks to which losses were replenished and new divisions were formed. The German arms industry worked at full speed, applying the propaganda slogan “For the best soldier – the best equipment.”

Therefore, new designs of weapons were developed and put into mass production, including medium tanks “Tiger”, armored guns “Ferdinand” and increased production of heavy tanks “Tiger”. In them, Hitler placed the greatest hope for the success of Operation Citadel. In total, the Germans deployed nearly 50 divisions (900,000 soldiers), 2,700 tanks and armored guns, 10,000 cannons and mortars and 2,000 aircraft.

The Russians, thanks to several times delaying the start of the German offensive, had time to fully prepare for defense. From the beginning of April 1943, gigantic earthworks began throughout the Kursk peninsula with an area of ​​\u200b\u200bmore than 60 thousand square kilometers. The army forces and the civilian population made eight defensive belts and borders, on which 700 km of barbed wire barriers extended, and more than 48 thousand were made. positions for guns and mortars and 26 thousand. for anti-tank guns. Hundreds of thousands of mines of all kinds were established.

Preparations for active anti-tank defense were also made. The armored forces received modernized medium tanks T-34/76, heavy tanks KV-1 and new self-propelled guns, including the heavy SU-152, specially designed to combat the German Tiger and Panther tanks. In total, the forces of the two fronts defending the ledge near Kursk numbered more than 1.3 million soldiers, 3,300 tanks and armored vehicles, 20,000 guns and mortars and 2,650 aircraft.

The Germans gathered up to 15 tank divisions and panzergrenadiers on both wings of the Kursk Bulge. Especially in the area of ​​\u200b\u200boperations of the “southern” GA, the strongest and best fast divisions of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS of that time were assembled, as well as all available “Panther” tanks and most of the “Tiger” tanks. The commander-in-chief of GA “Południe”, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, had about 1,500 operational combat vehicles of various types under his command at that time.

On July 4, 1943, one day before the scheduled start of the operation, the all-steel battering cannon headed towards the Russian positions. The main goal was to hit Obujan, and then Kursk. The 4th Panzer Army of General Hermann Hoth was the first to enter the battle with a stronger armored unit – the 48th Panzer Corps. It managed to penetrate 10 km into the Russian defenses, but difficult terrain conditions stopped the corps on the second line of fortifications.

In this section, Tiger tanks were used for the first time in combat. It was quickly introduced into battle with about 200 vehicles, constructively backward, due to numerous failures, but failed along the entire line before reaching the enemy position.

To the right of the 48th Panzer Corps. The II SS Panzer Corps, made up of three panzergrenadier divisions, was advancing radiating with the March Battle for Kharkiv. They had, first of all, the Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, as well as 35 combat-ready – already shrouded in legend – heavy tank “Tiger” armed with an excellent 88-mm cannon.

It was the effectiveness of heavy tanks that allowed the 2nd SS Panzer Corps to drive a wedge 45-50 km deep into enemy defensive positions. Recall that in all sectors of the Kursk Bulge, the Germans sent 116 working tanks “Tiger”. It is estimated that during two weeks of fighting in July, heavy tanks neutralized about 500 Soviet armored vehicles and irretrievably lost 16 of their vehicles.

South of Belgorod, the Soviet defenses were attacked by the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was to cover the 4th Panzer Army from the east. As a result of fierce fighting from 5 to 15 July, the strength of the corps, which held the defense of the German forces, and maintained the occupied area, was seriously reduced.

On the northern flank of the Kursk Bulge, the 9th Army of General Walter Model Group “Middle” was advancing from the Oryol region to Kursk. Its armored corps consisted of over 1,000 tanks and armored guns, including 89 Ferdinand heavy tank destroyers that had just been introduced into combat. The Germans encountered, as in the southern part of the Kursk Bulge, perfectly prepared Russian defensive positions in the form of minefields, barbed wire entanglements, anti-tank artillery positions and dug-in tanks – mostly T-34s. The grueling pace of the Wehrmacht’s armored corps advancing in three directions—toward Maloarchangelsk, Ponyri, and Olchovatka—had little effect.

As a result of the seven-day offensive, an area of ​​\u200b\u200bmore than 100 square kilometers was captured and the defense of the Central Front of General Konstanty Rokossovsky collapsed to a depth of only 10-12 km. Heavy fighting, especially at Ponyri, took heavy casualties on both sides. In this area, on several very extensive Soviet minefields, one battalion of heavy armored guns lost most of the “Ferdinands”. But the Russians also scored. In total, during the Kursk operation, according to German data, the Ferdinands destroyed 502 tanks and 300 guns of various types.

The culmination of the Battle of Kursk was the Battle of Prokhorovka from July 12 to 15, 1943. The German command, which continued the offensive on its southern sector, was faced with an unexpected and powerful Russian counterattack. It was commanded by the 5th Guards Tank Army of General Pavel Rotmstro, separated from the reserve formation of the Steppe Front.

On the morning of July 12, during a massive offensive, heavy KV-1 tanks, medium T-34 tanks and light T-70 tanks attacked in waves. At the same time, the Germans launched an offensive against the Russian positions prepared for defense, using powerful wedges of armor steel. Several hundred combat vehicles of the 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Leibstandarte”, “Das Reich” and “Totenkopf”) clashed in a “steel fist”. As a result of single clashes and duels that lasted all day, the Russians managed to push back the German divisions.

The night of 12-13 July led to a suspension of hostilities. Both sides used it to evacuate wounded soldiers and damaged equipment in the rear and to replenish supplies of fuel and ammunition.

The next day, fierce battles unfolded on the flanks of General Rotmistrov’s troops. On the right, the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Totenkopf division were repulsed, inflicting significant losses on it and forcing it to go over to the defensive. On the left flank, the 48th Panzer Corps was in dire straits, and was fully attacked by the German III Panzer Corps. General Rotmestrow, bringing his reserve armored battalions into battle, stopped the Germans by effectively blocking their way to Prokhorovka.

The unsuccessful attacks of the German armored corps, which were repeated several times in the following days, caused the command of GA “Południe” to take the final decision to stop offensive operations and go over to the defense.

In mid-July 1943, upon hearing of the Allied landings in Sicily, Hitler suspended Operation Citadel and ordered German forces to return to their initial pre-battle positions. Thus, the attack that had been prepared on such a large scale ended in a fiasco. The Germans gained nothing, losing the best equipment and armored cadres experienced in previous battles.

True, the Wehrmacht’s losses were relatively low compared to the losses of the Red Army, which only stopped von Manstein’s armored units in 1200-1600 combat vehicles in the defensive belt of the Voronezh Front, but the Wehrmacht had no alternative to these losses. On the other hand, the Russians had inexhaustible material and human resources and solid reserves, which were sent into battle when the Germans exhausted their offensive capabilities.

So Stalin and the High Command did exactly as they planned before the battle – they bled the Germans into their defensive lines, then launched powerful counterattacks, recapturing Orzy in the north, and Belgorod and Kharkiv in the south.

Perhaps what happened near Kursk is best reflected in the words of the creator of the German armored forces, General Heinz Guderian, who wrote:

– As a result of the failure of Operation Citadel, we suffered a final defeat. The armored forces, replenished with such great difficulty, suffered heavy losses in men and equipment and were rendered unable to fight for a long time (…) The Russians, of course, did not fail to exploit their victory. Since then, there has been no peace on the Eastern Front. The initiative eventually passed into the hands of the enemy.

Tadeusz Blasora He is the historian and longtime curator of the Lubuski Military Museum in Drzunov.

It is happening in Poland and in the world – read on

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *