Chapter Four

1943

Throughout the early cold months of 1943, the Panzerwaffe built up strength of the badly depleted Panzer divisions. By the summer they fielded some twenty-four Panzer divisions on the Eastern Front alone. This was a staggering transformation of a Panzer force that had lost immeasurable amounts of armour in less than two years of combat. Hitler now intended to risk his precious Panzerwaffe in what became the largest tank battle of the Second World War, Operation Zitadelle.

For the offensive Hitler was determined to put together a massive array of armour. However, the Panzerwaffe of 1943 were unlike those armoured forces that had victoriously steamrolled across western Russia two years earlier. The losses during the previous winter had resulted in the drastic reductions in troop strength. Despite the Panzerwaffe’s impressive array of firepower, this shortage of infantry was to lead to Panzer units being required to take on more ambitious tasks normally preserved for the infantry. In fact, to make matters worse, by the time the final date had been set for the attack as the 4 July, the Red Army knew the German plans and had already made their preparations. For three long months there had been extensive building and various other preparations to counter the German attack. Improved intelligence allowed Russian commanders to predict exactly the strategic focal point of the German attack. The Panzerwaffe, however, were determined to rejuvenate their Blitzkrieg tactics, but the immense preparations that had gone into constructing the Soviet defences meant that the Panzerwaffe were never going to succeed in penetrating into the strategic depths of the Red Army fortifications with any overriding success.

When the attack was finally unleashed in the pre-dawn light of 5 July 1943, the Germans were stunned by the dogged defence of their Red foe. The battle was unlike any other engagement they had previously encountered and within a matter of days, the Red Army had ground down the mighty Panzerwaffe and threw its offensive timetable off schedule. Through sheer weight of Soviet strength and stubborn combat along an ever-extending front, the German mobile units were finally forced to a standstill.

The losses that the Panzerwaffe sustained at Kursk were so immense that it undoubtedly led to the German Army taking their first steps of its slow retreat back towards Germany. The Russians had managed to destroy no less than thirty divisions, seven of which were Panzer. German reinforcements were insufficient to replace the staggering losses, so they fought on under-strength.

The reverberations caused by the defeat at Kursk meant that German forces in the south bore the brunt of the heaviest Soviet drive. Both the Russian city of Voronezh and Steppe Fronts possessed massive local superiority against everything the Germans had on the battlefield, and this included their diminishing resources of tanks and assault guns. The Panzerwaffe were now duty-bound to improvise with what they had at their disposal and try to maintain themselves in the field, and in doing so they hoped to wear the enemy’s offensive capacity. But in the south where the weight of the Soviet effort was directed, Army Group South’s line began breaking and threatened to be ripped wide open. Stiff defensive action was now the stratagem placed upon the Panzerwaffe, but they lacked sufficient reinforcements and the strength of their armoured units dwindled steadily as they tried to hold back the Russian might.

In only a matter of three months since the defeat at Kursk, Army Centre and South had been pushed back an average distance of 150 miles on a 650-mile front. Despite heavy resistance in many sectors of the front, the Soviets lost no time in exploiting the fruits of regaining as much territory as possible. In Army Group South, where the frontlines threatened to completely cave in under intense enemy pressure, frantic appeals to Hitler were made by Field Marshal Manstein to withdraw his forces across the Dnieper River. What followed was a fighting withdrawal that degenerated into a race with the Russians for possession of the river. Whilst the Panzer divisions covered the rear, the army group’s columns withdrew on selected river crossing points at Cherkassy, Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Kanev and Kremenchug, leaving behind a burnt and blasted wasteland during their retreat.

The winter of 1943 opened with a frustrating series of deliberations for the Panzerwaffe. Much of its concerns were centred around preventing the awesome might of the Red Army with what little they had available at their disposal. Yet, in October and November of 1943, only five Panzer divisions and one SS Panzer division were sent as replacements to the Eastern Front.

During the winter of 1943, all units on the Eastern Front averaged some 2,000 tanks and 700 half-tracks. It was indeed a very small force for such a large front to cover but, despite the depressing statistics, the German tank soldiers were still infused with confidence and the ability to hold ground.

By early November the Russians once again pushed forward across the wet and snowy plains in the south. In the wake of a massive artillery bombardment, Soviet forces hit the centre of the German front with such force that it ripped it open. What followed was a bitter and bloody battle by the Germans to try and stabilize the front.

Throughout December the Panzerwaffe fought well, and at times even succeeded in surprising Red Army forces with a number of daring attacks of their own. But in spite of these successes, the Panzerwaffe were hard pressed to contain their growing enemy.

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Here a Sd.Kfz.10/4 mounting a 20mm FlaK gun advances at speed along a road. Note all the sides are up with intact ammunition magazines attached to the sides for easy access. The photograph illustrates just how cramped conditions could be for the crew whilst travelling.

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A column of Sd.Kfz.251 armoured personnel carriers are seen advancing through a village somewhere on the Eastern Front. In the foreground are what appear to be two Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf.H variants. One of them still retains its summer camouflage scheme, whilst the other has its winter whitewash paint.

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A Sd.Kfz.251 speeds along a road passing burning Russian artillery. The Sd.Kfz.251 was a very versatile half-track that was popular in both the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS until the end of the war.

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A 20mm FlaK gun crew moving to another position with their Sd.Kfz.10/4. The vehicle’s sides are down and foliage has been applied to parts of the half-track and the Sd.Ah.51 ammunition trailer.

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A Sd.kfz.11 can be seen hauling a 105mm I.FH 18 past a halted wheeled vehicle. Throughout the war the 105mm was used extensively by both the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. It was not only robust and versatile, but a very reliable gun.

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A Sd.Kfz.251/1 Ausf.C advances past a destroyed building, which is burning. The half-track has its forward MG34 machine gun fixed to a sustained fire mount. Note that some of the crew have stored some of their personal equipment items on the superstructure sides. Space on these vehicles was always at a premium and crews were always utilizing what space they could find.

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During operations in Army Group North on the Eastern Front is a Sd.Kfz.7 towing a trailer along a road filled with water. These troops more than likely belong to the 4th SS-Polizei-Division, which saw extensive action in the forests and swamps of northern Russia.

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A photograph taken from onboard a Panther medium tank showing its commander looking down upon the crew of a Sd.Kfz.251/1 Ausd.D. The vehicle has camouflage netting attached for foliage to be easily attached and mounts an MG42 machine gun complete with gun shield.

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Waffen-SS grenadiers in what appears to be a Sd.Kfz.251/7 Ausf.D. Note the MG42 machine gun mounted at the rear of the vehicle for local defence. This half-track was equipped with tools, explosives and assault bridge sections.

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Advancing towards the battlefront is the Funkpanzerwagen Sd.Kfz.251/3 Ausf.C. This vehicle, complete with long range radio antenna, is armed with an MG34 machine gun. Some foliage has been applied to the antenna.

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Two officers scan the terrain through a pair of 6×30 field binoculars. They stand on the engine deck of their Sd.Kfz.251/3 Ausf.C. The half-track is a command vehicle and is fitted with the standard long range antenna.

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Three Sd.Kfz.251 half-tracks have halted somewhere on the vast Russian steppe somewhere in southern Russia. A soldier can be seen aided by two of his comrades after evidently being injured in battle.

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This photograph clearly illustrates the versatility of a Sd.Kfz.6 as it moves across uneven ground. The six-cylinder Maybach HL54 TUKRM engine only produced 116hp, but gave it a top speed of 31mph on flat road surfaces. That speed was reduced significantly across rough terrain like this.

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Two Sd.Kfz.251 armoured personnel carriers can be seen advancing through overgrowth during intensive fighting somewhere on the Eastern Front. Both these vehicles are covered in a base coat of dark yellow with a heavily over-sprayed mottle pattern of olive green, red and brown.

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A Sd.Kfz.251 half-track follows a late variant Pz.Kpfw.IV towards the battlefront during summer operations on the Eastern Front. Extensive foliage covers the half-track in order to try and conceal it against both ground and aerial observation.

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A Sd.Kfz.251/3 has halted next to a Sd.Kfz.250/3 in a field. The crew are conferring with what appear to be captured Russian troops. Both the vehicles have a summer camouflage scheme of a coat of dark yellow with a heavily over-sprayed mottle pattern of olive green, red and brown.

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A photograph taken from a StuG.III Ausf.G with its powerful 75mm gun barrel. Spread out across the field as far as the eye can see are various armoured vehicles including the Sd.Kfz.251, Pz.Kpfw.III and Pz.Kpfw.IV.

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Two Sd.Kfz.251/10 Ausf.A with a full shield on its 37mm PaK 36 are seen crossing a field during a heavy contact with the enemy. In the foreground, smoke can be seen rising into the air indicating heavy shelling to the area.

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A crew member cleaning the 75mm KwK 37 L/24 gun barrel of his Sd.Kfz.251/9 Ausf.C prior to an enemy attack on the Eastern Front. This vehicle still retains some of its winter camouflage paint of white hand-painted dots.

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An interesting photograph showing a column of Sd.Kfz.251/9 Ausf.C on a road destined for the front line. When the Pz.Kpfw.IV was up-armed with the 75mm KwK 40 L/43, the short 75mm KwK 37 L/24 gun barrel became redundant. However, it was soon decided that these short barrelled guns should be converted and mounted on a number of half-tracks, notably the 9 series of the Sd.Kfz.251.

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Out in a field and the crew of a Sd.Kfz.7/1 prepares their Flakvierling 38 for action. On tow is a Sd.Ah.56 ammunition trailer. This half-track and trailer is covered in a base coat of dark yellow with a heavily over-sprayed mottle pattern of olive green.

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Two Sd.Kfz.7/1 on the move somewhere in Russia. Both vehicles mount the lethal Flakvierling 38 with shield. The leading vehicle hauls the Sd.Ah.56 ammunition trailer. On the Eastern Front, the half-track undoubtedly transformed the fighting quality of artillery and flak batteries, enabling gun crews to support the advancing armoured spearheads with less difficulty.

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Two motorcyclists and a light Horch cross-country car have halted on a dusty road. A Sd.Kfz.7 with a full crew passes by towing an 88mm FlaK 18 on a Sd.Ah 201 limber. Note one of the crewmen giving a traffic signal to approaching vehicles.

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Here a Sd.Kfz.252 has been designated to accompany a Sturmgeschütz battery on the Eastern Front. In this photograph the half-track has pulled alongside a late variant StuG.III Ausf.G with its long barrelled 75mm StuK 40. One of the crew can be seen drinking from his canteen during a routine stop.

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A Sd.Kfz.251 accompanies Panzergrenadiers into action. These armoured personnel carries were the most effective method of transportation for troops to reach the front lines without having to march many miles on foot, and then to set up positions and fight.

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Panzergrenadiers are seen dismounting from a Sd.Kfz.251/1 Ausf.C and going into action. The Ausf.C is indentified by the shape of the cowls on the side of the engine compartment. Note the summer camouflage scheme of dark yellow with a heavily over-sprayed mottle pattern of olive green.

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The crew of a Sd.Kfz.251 during a routine stop can be seen next to a building and some trees. Some of the crew’s undergarments are seen hanging out to dry on a line erected between two trees. Note the M35 steel helmets attached to the side of the vehicle.

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A Sd.Kfz.251 half-track rolls down a road. Behind the armoured personnel carrier is a motorcycle. Both riders wear the waterproof motorcycle coat which was double-breasted in design and was generously cut and intended to be worn over equipment. The motorcyclists were also issued with various types of goggles, which can be seen here being worn.

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A number of armoured personnel carriers can be seen driving through a field. The Sd.Kfz.251/3 with radio antenna appears fully loaded with supplies. Note the divisional insignia of the 24th Panzer Division painted on the rear of the vehicle.

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A Sd.Kfz.7 hauling a 105mm le.FH16 light field howitzer. This gun was the standard light artillery piece deployed in the artillery divisions on the Eastern Front. 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 motorized vehicle.

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A long line of Sd.Kfz.251/7 Ausf.D mounted on special railway flatcars for shipment to the Eastern Front. By this period of the war travel by rail was very dangerous and normally undertaken during darkness in order to minimize the threat of aerial attack.

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A whitewashed Sd.Kfz.7 hauling an un-camouflaged 88mm FlaK 36/37 on a Sd.Ah.203 limber. Note the kill markings on the gun’s splinter shield, which are arranged under different silhouettes: an aircraft with twelve bars; AFV with fifteen; soft skin with seven; and a solitary credit for destroying an observation balloon.

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