Military history

Chapter Three

Northern Thrust

On the Northern Front the German 9th Army, commanded by General Walter Model, had launched a major attack on the first day of Citadel against the Russian Central Front, which composed of the 13th Army. According to the German plan Model’s 9th Army was to break through the Soviet defences, advance southwards to Kursk and link up with the northward moving 4th Panzer Army. Once the two armies had successfully joined and cut off the Soviet troops within the salient, they would then turn and destroy the enemy.

The initial phase of the 9th Army northern thrust went considerably well. Slowly and systematically, the Germans bulldozed their way through with Russian troops either fighting to the death, or saving themselves by escaping the impending slaughter by withdrawing to another makeshift position. Fighting on the Northern Front was a fierce contest of attrition, and although the Red Army had showed great fortitude and determination, they were constantly hampered by overwhelming fire power from Tiger and Panther tanks. Consequently, the remaining troops holding the lines were subjected to merciless ground and aerial bombardments. Unabated fighting continued and losses were massive. Slowly and systematically the Red Army lines were pulverised. Those troops fortunate enough to escape the impending slaughter immediately found themselves in open hostile countryside with lurking Panzers inflicting terrible casualties on them.

By the end of the first day of the battle, the Germans had broken through the first line of Soviet defences and created a gap almost 10 miles wide and 5 miles deep. Fighting however, intensified as the Germans exploited the receding front lines by methodically reducing the Russian defences to a bombed and blasted rubble. The ferocity of the German attacks were immense and without respite. After twenty-four hours of almost continuous battle the Russian soldier was exhausted and fighting for survival in a number of places. Russian commanders had insisted that their troops were to fight from fixed position without any tactical retreat, but as a consequence this had caused some units to become encircled by German rifle divisions, leaving tank units to speed past unhindered and achieve deeper penetrations.

By the next day the Germans had made considerable progress in a number of areas and had battered the Red Army forward defensive positions. In fact, the fighting had been so severe that the Panzerkorps had pushed the Russians back some 4 miles along a front of more than 8 miles. In these areas of the front the Red Army were experiencing defensive problems, and in spite of strong fortified positions, which were manned with anti-tank guns and lines of machine gun pits, the Germans moved forward in their hundreds regardless of the cost in life. It soon became apparent to the Russian commanders that afternoon that their enemy might succeed in overrunning their defensive lines and spilling out into the salient and cutting off a number of troop concentrations. In some units there were no more reserves or reinforcements to help bolster the struggling defensive lines.

Over the next couple of days the situation for the Red Army still looked grim. All along the battered and blasted front the Soviet troops continued to try in vain to hold their positions. For the German commanders the campaign had progressed well and their men continued to exploit the Russian defences. Between Ponyri and Soborovka, for instance, the main German tank force boasted some 1,000, tanks, 3,000 guns and mortars and 5,000 machine guns. However, they were confronted by an even greater enemy force. The Russians were determined to hold at all costs and repel the attackers using a variety of heavy and light artillery pieces supported by assault guns and groups armed with anti-tank mines and other weapons to halt the advancing panzers.

The German northern thrust had been a fierce contest of attrition, and although the Germans had showed great fortitude and determination, they were constantly hampered by the lack of weapons and manpower needed to sustain them on the battlefield against an overwhelming enemy force and massive array of fortifications. Over the next few days Model’s 9th Army tried to seize the initiative by taking the town of Ponyri in a large tank battle. But the Red Army were well armed and well dug-in and because they had laid an extensive minefield the Panzers failed to accomplish any of its objects.

By 10 July Model’s 9th Army had little chance of reaching Kursk. After five long days of almost continuous battle the German soldier was exhausted and in some areas fighting for survival. By this period of the battle Model’s military situation had become increasingly desperate. Whilst many areas of the front had simply cracked under the sheer weight of the German onslaught, there had been many more Russian units that had been able to demonstrate their ability to defend the most hazardous positions against some of the fiercest tank assaults of the entire campaign. Russian infantry divisions had bitterly contested large areas of the countryside. Fighting was often savage resulting in terrible casualties on both sides. The 9th Army was significantly damaged with high losses, and as a result Model was forced to maintain the defensive until the situation was rectified. He hoped that in the south the southern thrust would draw off heavy pressure in the north and allow his forces to renew their offensive actions once more and take Kursk.

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Two photographs showing probably the most famous German tank associated with the Kursk offensive, a Mark VI ‘Tiger’. The Tiger tank was probably the most famous Panzer in the Panzerwaffe and was nicknamed by the troops as the ‘furniture van’ because of its sheer size. During the last two years of the war the Panzerwaffe would extensively use the Tiger in a number of prominent roles in both major offensive and defensive employments.

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The Pz.Kpfw.IV played a prominent role during the Kursk offensive. Despite inferior numbers, the tank performed well in various operations and achieved resounding success, especially within the ranks of the elite Waffen SS divisions.

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The crew of the new Mark V ‘Panther’ tank pose for the camera in 1943. The Panther first made its debut on the Eastern Front at Kursk in July 1943. The Panther was rushed into battle before it was fully ready for combat.

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During a lull in the fighting and the crew of an Sd.Kfz.251 half-track have time to relax. One of the rear doors of the vehicle is open, and the tarpaulin that protects the crew compartment can be seen rolled back.

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Hummel during operations at Kursk. The vehicle displays a summer camouflage scheme. The Hummel mounted a standard 15cm heavy field howitzer in a lightly armoured fighting compartment built on Pz.Kpfw.III/IV composite chassis. This heavy self-propelled gun carried only eighteen 15cm rounds, but was a potent weapon against Soviet armour.

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Troops take cover on a mound prior to moving into action. The soldiers are armed with the 7.92mm Mauser Kar 98k carbine, the standard German rile. It had a five-round magazine and soldiers typically carried sixty rounds in two three-pocket leather cartridge pouches on their front belt.

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A 10.5cm FH18 field howitzer gunner looks through the weapon’s gun sight in order to prepare the angle of fire and range of target. The 10.5cm field howitzer provided the division with a relatively effective mobile base of fire. It was primarily the artillery regiments that were given the task of destroying enemy positions and fortified defences and conducting counter-battery fire prior to an armoured assault.

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Inside a trench is a light 7.92mm MG34 machine gun crew. The machine gun’s bipod has been folded for portability. Under battlefield conditions the bipod would invariably be extended when carried and the belt loaded so that the machine gunner could effectively move the weapon quickly from one position to another and throw it to the ground and put it into operation, with deadly effect.

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The crew of a 15cm s.FH18 howitzer is seen in action. Normally before any armoured strike or infantry attack, artillery crews concentrated on enemy concentration areas, unleashing their fire-power where anti-tank units were suspected to be located. Each Abteilung comprised of three firing batteries with each battery containing four howitzers.

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A heavy MG42 machine gun position. The battle of the Kursk was probably the first modern Soviet operation of the war. Despite the fact that the Red Army lacked the technological superiority of individual weapons, they had a well-prepared defensive programme, which included elaborate deception plans to confuse the enemy.

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A battery of 15cm heavy field howitzers in a field. The artillery bombardment that opened up the German offensive at Kursk was massive. After it subsided infantry and armour poured forward with artillery units following in the wake of the forward spearheads.

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Germans load a 5cm Pak 38 anti-tank gun, seriously outdated by the time of Kursk.

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An MG34 machine gunner positioned in a field with bipod lying next to his number two. Although the MG34 had been supplanted by the faster-firing MG42, it was still considered a very effective weapon and was used extensively in Russia until the end of the war.

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An Sd.Kfz.251 half-track hurtles across a field passing a burning building. The half-track was probably the most common armoured vehicle in the German arsenal, and during the Kursk offensive it played a prominent role in both towing ordnance and transporting troops.

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A late variant Pz.Kpfw.III moves along a road during operations in the early summer of 1943. During the initial stages of the invasion of Russia the Pz.Kpfw.III showed its worth. However, against formidable Russian armour such as the T-34 medium and the KV-1 heavy tanks, the Pz.Kpfw.III was soon recognised as an inadequate weapon in the ranks of the Panzerwaffe.

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Tiger tank advances along a road. The Tiger entered service in August 1942 and soon gained a superb fighting record. The mighty Tiger played a key role in the German offensive at Kursk

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Sturmgeschütz troop in a gully somewhere in the Kursk region in early July. From 1943 until the end of the war the assault guns were slowly absorbed into the Panzer units, Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS.

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Pz.Kpfw.IV has parked next to the side of a dirt track hugging a line of trees to help conceal it from aerial detection. The tank appears to have seen considerable action as it only retains one section of its side skirt armour.

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Two Stug.III tanks are seen advancing into action during an enemy contact. Because the Stug.III had been in constant demand in Russia, Hitler ordered that the assault gun be up-gunned and up-armoured with a longer more potent 7.5cm gun. This more powerful assault gun went into production in mid-1942. The Ausf.F variant mounted a 7.5cm Stuk 40 L/43 gun. The following year the final Stug variant, the Ausf.G, entered the Panzerwaffe and was rushed into service. Many of the Stugs to see service at Kursk were the Ausf.G variant.

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A command half-track with long range radio antenna moves forward into action. For local defence the vehicle is armed with a MG34 machine gun with splinter shield.

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A variety of half-tracks advance along a road toward the battlefront. The half-track had become not just a vehicle to tow ordnance and transport infantry to the edge of the battlefield, but also performed as a self-propelled gun.

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Troops rest next to an Sd.Kfz.10 half-track armed with a mounted 2cm Flak gun. Anti-aircraft defences came into prominence from late 1941, as Soviet Air Force started to inflict heavy casualties. By the time the Kursk offensive began both the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS mechanised formations had become well equipped with Flak guns.

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The mortar crew of an 8.14cm GrW 34 pose for the camera in a dug out position. Each battalion fielded six of these excellent mortars, which could fire fifteen bombs per minute to a range of 2,625 yards.

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Waffen SS Stug.III Ausf.G tows a vehicle up a steep gradient. In spite of the numerous advantages of the assault guns, equipping the Panzer units with these vehicles did not blend well with the nature of the Panzer. Yet, because of the lack of tanks in the dwindling ranks of the Panzer divisions, the Stug.III was used alongside the turreted tanks until the end of the war.

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Panzergrenadiere in action. The Sd.Kfz.251 medium half-track could carry a full rifle squad as well as its crew of two. But lightly armoured and open-topped, it was vulnerable on the battlefield. On reaching the forward edge of the battlefield, the grenadiers would quickly dismount and disperse while the vehicle provided covering fire.

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A Panzer crewman wearing the familiar black Panzer field cap questions a captured Russian tank man and crew. At Kursk the Red Army had massed some 3,600 tanks and although losses were huge there, arsenal and extensive defensive positions were enough to stem the German onslaught.

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Well concealed in a field is a quadruple-barrelled self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. By the summer of 1943, mechanised formations were well equipped with Flak guns. There were motorised Flak battalions, with divisions being furnished with additional anti-aircraft platoons and companies in the Panzergrenadier, Panzer and artillery regiments. This Flak gun was a formidable weapon and was more than capable of combating both low flying aircraft and ground targets.

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Here a Nashorn (‘rhinoceros’) 8.8cm heavy Panzerjäger photographed in action against an enemy target. The high profile of the Nashorn made it hard to conceal, but its long-range gun enabled it to engage at a longer ranges than other tank destroyers. Between early 1943 and March 1945, only 474 Nashorn were produced.

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Wespe self-propelled artillery piece climbs a steep gradient as it goes into action. This versatile vehicle was armed with a 10.5cm leFH 18/2 L/28 gun and protected by a lightly armoured superstructure mounted on a chassis of a Pz.Kpfw.II. This vehicle served in armoured artillery battalions but were lightly armoured, and as a result many of them were lost in battle.

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An interesting photograph showing a large column of armoured vehicles advancing across a field. Visible are the Sd.Kfz.251 half-track, Pz.Kpfw.II, and Sd.Kfz.10 mounting a Flak gun.

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Two Sturmgeschütz advance across a field. Although the Stug proved excellent against any Soviet tank at long to medium range, they were vulnerable to attacks from Soviet infantry since they lacked any internal machine gun for close defence.

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Panzergrenadier aids an injured comrade from an Sd.Kfz.251 half-track. German infantry had found the advance into enemy lines very difficult in a number of places. Due to extensive well armed defensive positions the Germans incurred huge casualties and as a result were sometimes forced to withdraw.

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An Sd.Kfz.251 advances past a destroyed Russian position. In spite of the huge losses in Russian artillery the Red Army arsenal was large enough to cope with the significant losses. Throughout the battle of Kursk the Red Army was determined to grind down attacking German units with a combination of mines and artillery fire whatever the cost. Indirect fire from howitzers would stop the German infantry, while direct fire from massed 45mm, 57mm, and 85mm anti-tank guns and 76.2mm divisional field guns could often stop the tanks.

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An Sd.Kfz.251 half-track armed with a mounted 2.8cm anti-tank gun moves forward into action, passing a mortar crew who are preparing their 8.14cm mortar for action. The mortar’s intended role was to engage pockets of resistance that were beyond the range of hand grenades. It was designed for high angled fire only. The main drawbacks of the weapon were its inadequate range and the limited effectiveness of its ammunition, which was regarded as not heavy enough.

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Halted Sd.Kfz.251 half-tracks are purposely spaced out across the Russian steepe in order to minimise the threat of aerial attack.

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Three photographs showing an Sd.Kfz.10/4 moving forward into action. Mounted on the back of the half-track is a 2cm Flak gun. In two of the photographs the vehicle is towing an Sd.Ah.51 ammunition trailer.

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Pz.Kpfw.IV has halted on a road somewhere in the Kursk salient during operations in early July. Because the German armour in the north was heavily concentrated and used with much more intensity than in the south, German armour losses were much heavier.

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A half-track can be seen towing a 15cm heavy field howitzer. As the standard heavy field howitzer in the Wehrmacht, the gun was very effective at clearing up heavily concentrated positions to let tanks and infantry pour through unhindered.

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Pz.Kpfw.IV can be seen halted at the side of a road with other stationary vehicles from an unidentified unit. The German armoured attack in the north had nearly broken through the main Soviet defence zones, but stalled due to heavy Russian resistance. The Soviet counter-offensive soon forced Model to withdraw or risk the destruction of both German armies.

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An Sd.Kfz.251 half-track mounting a short-barrelled 7.5cm gun has halted on the vast Russian steepe. One of the crewmembers is cleaning the gun barrel. Note the crude yellow camouflage spots painted over the vehicle in order to try and blend the half-track with the local summer vegetation.

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A photograph taken from a Stug.III showing the mighty 7.5cm long barrelled gun. In the distance other Stug.III tanks can be seen moving across the terrain.

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Moving towards the battlefront is an artillery truppen armed with a 10.5cm le.FH16 light field howitzer, which is being towed by a half-track. The wheels on the artillery piece consisted of a heavy duty cast steel with a solid rubber rim. This type of design allowed the gun to be towed at relatively high-speed by a motorised vehicle.

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Junker 52 (Ju-52) transport aircraft departs from a temporary landing strip. Whilst the Ju-52 replenished much needed supplies and troops to the front and airlifted wounded personnel, the aircraft was slow and very lightly armed against fighters. As a result, it suffered terrible losses in almost all actions on the Eastern Front. Many types of replacement were built, but none was as popular or reliable as the Ju-52.

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