Not so long ago, the battle on the Kursk Bulge was usually imagined as a defensive fight “from a deep trench” or a tank fight at minimal distances.
The recent researches corrected the image a little bit – it was completed both with the persistent defense near the village of Cherkassky with the Panthers crowding by an anti-tank ditch and the real picture of the battle at Prokhorovka as a counterattack against the enemy bristling with 88-mm guns of Tigers.
Counter-preparation: who hit where?
It is possible and necessary to start a conversation about the episodes of the Battle of Kursk that stand out from the common series right from the first hours. The Soviet side first move was a night artillery counter-preparation against the enemy that was ready to attack. In parade publications and the epic movies on this occasion, fanfare traditionally sounded: the counter-preparation allegedly led to the enemy beating already at the very beginning of the battle. However, in publications closed to the ordinary public, the assessments of the counter-preparation and its results were quite modest.
Thus, the Commander of the Central Front Konstantin Rokossovsky’s headquarters was criticized for choosing enemy artillery positions as the main targets of the counter-preparation. On the one hand, the idea to break the artillery before it starts to crash the defense looked sound, on the other hand — regrouping the enemy's batteries before attacking in a large area made the task to defeat them very difficult. The infantry in its initial position was a far more vulnerable target but even then, it was necessary to disperse shells among several possible sites and areas.
That’s why the Soviet counter-preparation worked on places, on which there were good targets for it on the forefront. First of all that concerned the strip of the land occupied by the 7th Guard Army under the commandment of Lieutenant General M. S. Shumilov. Here German Army Detachment Kempf advanced with the crossing of the Seversky Donets River and tried to «open» the so-called Mikhailovsky bridgehead. The crossing areas were largely determined by the terrain conditions and forced the Germans to concentrate infantry and sappers in the close-to-river parts.
The counter-preparation effect here succeeded more than on average along the salient. The artillery strike against the bridgehead and river crossings really sowed confusion among the 6th Wehrmacht Panzer Division units. Its first attack choked and, in fact, the whole “Citadel” operation began to fall namely from Mikhailovsky bridgehead.
The offensive in defense, or Katukov against Vatutin
Fairly negative assessments of the counterattack results of the 5th Guards Tank Army of Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov near Prokhorovka on the 12th of July 1943 actually cast a shadow on any active actions of the two Soviet fronts in the defensive battle of Kursk. The counterattack, that was performed on the northern face of the bulge by the 2nd Tank Army of Lieutenant General A.G. Rodin in the Central Front strip, was a little bit less dramatic but still turned into sensitive losses. The 107th brigade of the 6th Tank Corps then lost 46 tanks for several hours that later made it act much more careful. Ambushes and fire from the spot became the samples for the Soviet tankmen actions on the Kursk Bulge.
In connection with it, an episode of the first days of fight was recollected and played with new colours, when the counterattack, planned by the front command of the 1st Tank Army of Lieutenant General M.E. Katukov was cancelled. It happened under the pressure from Moscow after the Katukov’s personal phone talk with Stalin, in which the army commander outlined the risks of offensive actions and suggested, "using tanks to fire from the spot, burying them in the ground or putting them in ambushes." Initially, the lower losses of the 1st Tank Army then those of the neighbors and its combat capability preservation seemed to visibly confirm the accuracy of such an approach. The Katukov’s proposal also did not cause any inner protest from both technical and tactical point of view – is there any purpose of putting T-34-76 or even T-70 under the fire of long-barreled German tank guns? However, upon a closer examination, the order of the commander of the Voronezh Front, Army General N. F. Vatutin, to counterattack of the 1st Tank Army in the general direction to Tomarovka, that is, formally to the enemy's forehead, looks much less absurd.
The general action plan of the left-flank group of the 4th Panzer Army on the southern face of the Kursk Bulge in the 6th July’s morning was as follows. The formations of the XLVIII Tank Corps of General Otto von Knobelsdorff were ordered to dissect the defense of the 67th Guards Rifle Division of Colonel A. I. Baksov northeast of the village of Cherkasskoye and break through to the highway from Belgorod to Oboyan. The maneuver final goal was the connection with neighbor’s left flank – the II SS Panzer Corps. That meant the German strike group was supposed to move across the offensive line on the 6th of July, approximately from the West to East, substituting its flank for the counterattack planned by Vatutin for Katukov's 1st Tank Army.
It is hard to say how rational Vatutin’s decision was, who literally guessed the enemy’s vulnerable point. Perhaps he just estimated the situation from the enemy’s point of view, and came to a conclusion that the Germans would obviously try to close up their flanks and eliminate the 6th Guards Army rifle regiments that were caught between two tank corps, and close them with a strong blow, if it is appropriate to use a boxing term- “left hook”. The counterattack could disrupt the plan and inflict a serious defeat to the XLVIII corps. However, the 1st Tank Army remained motionless on the afternoon of July 6.
Passive strategy disadvantages
Eventually the events development went according to the German plan. Having been already shot down from good positions, the 67th Guards Rifle Division could not show any significant resistance to the mass of German tanks. And already by the noon, the 11th Panzer Division together with Division Großdeutschland (“The Great Germany”) went to the rear of the Soviet units between the first and second lines of defense. At 12:00, the 6th Guards Army commander Lieutenant General I. M. Chistyakov ordered the division that was being surrounded to withdraw, but it was too late. At 18:15, the 11th Tank Division battle group reached the Soviet artillery positions and finally closed “the cauldron” for three rifle regiments. Some of the surrounded managed to get out under the cover of darkness.
Attacks on Katukov’s Army positions followed already in the evening of July 6. It is interesting, that in the 1st Tank Army commander’s memoirs the picture of hundreds German tanks offensive came immediately after the conversation with Stalin. There is an impression that he was attacked at once after the counterattack cancellation, but it is not so – Katukov’s motorized infantry and tankmen waited for the German strike till the evening, while the battle with the surrounded regiments thundered ahead. In addition, the strike followed in a completely different direction, after the Germans had paraded across their offensive line. The picture itself of a steel avalanche was painted by Katukov quite true: they moved quite a lot of tanks against him.
Definitely, Katukov had a right to doubt in counterattack reasonability, but his action manner was not the only right one. Moreover, the commander’s bet on the passive action was only partially justified. Changing the direction and the site of the strike, the Germans slowly but surely ground the brigades of the corps entrusted to Katukov. By the morning of July 11, units of the 1st Tank Army under the general leadership of the commander of the 6th Tank Corps, Major General A. L. Hetman, were surrounded in a bend of the Pena River. The Germans later proclaimed of 4800 captives on that site. Yes, Katukov's undoubted achievement is the containment of the XLVIII corps, and the drop in the number of his Panthers at times is also his merit.
The different 12th of July
Of course, the possible success of the cancelled on the 6th of July counterattack was not obvious as its course might be meddled with various circumstances – from the terrain conditions to the mine fields location. But it is clear that the starting conditions for it were better than those near Prokhorovka. No one captured the positions of the 1st Tank Army assigned for a counterattack on July 6, unlike the 5th Guards Tank Army on July 12.
Actually, it was the change in the situation that turned Vatutin from the ranks of supporters of the Rotmistrov Army counterattack to the camp of opponents to beat right here and right now. One can of course oppose, that the effective counterattack against the German strike group was basically impossible – wherever you hit, you would find your Leibstandart everywhere, as on the July 12 morning on the Prokhorovsky field. The thought was reasonable, but it was also demolished by one sample from the Battle of Kursk history.
On the same day, the 12th of July, when the tanks of the two corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army were rolling out on the Prohorovka field on the command “Steel”, “Steel”, “Steel”, there were interesting events on another site of the south face. The XLVIII Corps commander von Knobelsdorf, who defeated A. L. Getman group the previous day, decided to turn north on the afternoon of July 12 and develop an offensive towards the main goal of the Citadel operation — Kursk. It was supposed to be done along the both sides of the highway to Oboyan. The Corps still had about 150 ready-to-fight tanks at its disposal.
About the importance of the offensive we’re told by the fact, that the 4th Tank Army commander, Colonel General Hermann Hoth arrived in the morning namely to the XLVIII Corps, and not at all to the SS men, to find out what was going on near Prohorovka. The desire to start the offensive exactly at 16: 00 on July 12 led to a great hurry in the formations regrouping. It was the 332nd infantry division to close breaches in troops formations, that appeared due to the turn of the Großdeutschland and the 3rd Tank Division to the North. However, there was no systematic change of tank units by infantry-in fact, there was no solid front on the flank of the XLVIII tank corps for some time.
About the role of Comrade Khrushchev
According to the Vatutin’s plan, the general counterstrike was supposed to start early in the morning, and the actions of the 5th Guards Tank Army near Prohorovka were a part of it. That did not happen; otherwise, the counterstrike of the 1st Tank and the 6th Guards Armies would develop in landfill conditions. The Germans were building the flank barrier slowly and inaccurately and “the window of opportunity” remained open for the Soviet command.
According to the plan, the counterattack was to be fulfilled by the Tank Brigades of the 5th Guards Tank Corps of Lieutenant General A. G. Kravchenko together with the 10th Tank Corps of Lieutenant General V. G. Burkov. Kravchenko’s Corps attacked first at 10:00 am, although it had been fairly beaten already in the previous battles, but even with a small force tankmen succeeded and break into the enemy formations. Captives were taken and even a command post with radio stations and maps was captured.
The 10th Tank Corps commander Burkov acted extremely careful. The General had been fighting since the beginning of the War and saw much, including the recent disaster of Spring 1943 near Kharkov. On the other hand, the precious time was slipping away as sand through fingers. In the event of a successful breakthrough of the Germans to the north in the direction of Oboyan, Burkov would still have to plug the gap under the sight of the «Panthers». Eventually, the Military Council member of the Voronezh Front Lieutenant General N. S. Khrushchev personally set off to the 10th Tank Corps. Nikita Sergeyevich, no doubt, was not a great expert on the field of operational art, but he was a good judge of characters and he was good at the achievement of the order execution.
Anyway, the counterattack began only in the afternoon, when everything was almost over on the Prohorovka field. Time was also spent on their own minefields demining. However, the offensive suddenly reached amazing results: the Soviet tanks deeply broke into the German formations on several directions at once. The 186th Tank Brigade of Colonel A. B. Ovsyannikov from the Burkov’a Corps toppled the barrier set up to cover the regrouping in the rear of the 3rd Tank Division. A motorized infantry battalion hastily sent to the rescue turned out to be "broken and scattered while it was on the route to the place of concentration." The commander of the 3rd Panzer Lieutenant General Franz Westhoven, without waiting for an order from above, canceled all the preparations for the offensive and quickly began to turn the units back. The panzer regiment of the Division was the first to leave the attack initial positions for a counterstrike. There was a classic introduction to the battle in parts.
The art of plans disruption
At the cost of titanic efforts and compromises with the change of units, General von Knobelsdorff completed the regrouping ahead of schedule, by 15:00 on July 12. However, at the last moment, under blows to the flank, he was forced to cancel all orders that his subordinates had not yet had time to cancel, and to deploy both the «Großdeutschland» and the 3rd Panzer to repel the threats that had arisen. At the same time, in order to quickly stabilize the situation, the Westhoven division received an order for a frontal counterattack.
As the result, the careful and belated actions of the 10th Tank Corps and a small squad of the 5th Guards Corps disrupted the German offensive on the main direction. In this case, this is not a guess at all, but a remark written in direct text in the combat operations journal of the von Knobelsdorff corps: “Attacks on the General West and North fronts of the Corps are disrupting the planned order execution”. The Divisions of the XLVIII Panzer Corps and the 332nd Infantry Division retreated 3-5 km and did not manage to restore the lost positions. The timely launch of a counterattack could lead to an even more serious crisis on the scale of the entire 4th Tank Army. However, it was done good indeed.
During the offensive, the Germans maneuvered, shifted the strike directions, while regrouping and transferring the point of application of the efforts of the Wehrmacht panzer divisions gave birth to favorable situations for active actions from the Soviet side.
Summing up, one can say the following. Military science is an art. Models exist, but the applicability of models in each specific case is the result of solving a problem with many unknowns and, very often, the intuition of the military commander. Any decision can give birth to both positive and negative consequences. There is always a risk, and it is not always amenable to rational accounting.
There is also a factor of a soldier’s fortune – as the Germans said, Soldatenglück. The tankmen of the 10th Tank Corps achieved greater success on 12th of July, 1943, not because they conducted reconnaissance better than the corps of the army of Rotmistrov. The reconnaissance men of the 10th Tank Corps did not even bother to find time, before the dark and without any obstacles explore, and refine the outlines of the minefields, made by their own infantry. They had to crawl under the machine-gun fire during the day. However, the 10th Tank Corps got the order to hit the rival’s weak spot – exactly the one that had been calculated by the “chess-player” Vatutin.