9th Army Sector
The days-long contest for the agricultural village of Ponyri and Hill 253.5. The fighting for this small settlement was likened by Germans and Russians alike to a miniature ‘Stalingrad’. Lying along the railway running from Orel to Kursk, its local importance was as a collection and distribution point for produce and machinery for the collective farms in the vicinity. For six days this ramshackle village became the focal point of immense efforts by both sides. The Germans hoped that by committing strong armoured forces the settlement could be taken, which would allow the panzers to break into the open country beyond the village, and then roll up the Soviet defence lines. The Soviets were determined to prevent this and fed in strong reserves to bolster their position.
Units of 292nd Infantry division had captured the railway embankment and the northern part of the village on the opening day of the offensive, but by the 6th the struggle for control of the settlement was sucking in large numbers of German units. To support 292nd Infantry Division’s endeavour to storm the remainder of the village, Model fed in 9th and 18th Panzer Divisions and 86th Infantry Division. The Soviets reciprocated in kind, feeding in more artillery, mortars and howitzers. As in the approaches to Olkhovatka, many of the tanks were dug in to bolster the already formidable defences around the settlement. On the 7th a German attack by some 300 panzers clashed head-on with the T-34s of 16th and 19th Tank Corps. In Ponyri itself, ferocious hand-to-hand fighting took place with heavy fire support from tanks, artillery and SP guns, as both sides contested the salient features. From 6 to 9 July a see-saw struggle for control of the schoolhouse, tractor depot, railway station and water tower, took place. As elsewhere, German massed tank attacks impaled themselves upon the minefields and were shattered by the massed fire from T-34s, anti-tank guns and tank-hunting units with their anti-tank rifles and ‘Molotov’ cocktails. On the 9th the Germans attacked again, using half-a-dozen Ferdinand SP guns as fire support, in a bid to take Hill 253.5, to the immediate north-east of the village.
The Russians were certainly right in their perception that Olkhovatka was still Model’s principal target. Notwithstanding the losses of the 6th, he proceeded to reorganize his units and on the 7th was again ready to send in his panzers and infantry to effect the breakthrough. The determination to achieve this objective, can be measured by the very rapid re-deployment of nearly 50 per cent of Luftflotte 4’s aircraft from the southern part of the salient, to support Ninth Army’s drive. By 0900 the Soviets could see the masses of German armour and their attendant armoured personnel carriers, deploying for the attack. Model’s assumption was that the sheer weight of the German armoured fist must in the end break through, and in the fallacy of that assumption lay the key to the Red Army’s victory on this battlefield. Although the Soviets were experiencing frightful losses from a concentration of firepower never before experienced, the defences were fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed. Each German attack was sucking in more and more armour, to replace the shattered and blackened hulks that now littered and marked the German advance. Despite the damage the Germans were inflicting on the defenders, the central task of ‘bleeding white’ the German armour was being realized.
As the artillery and Luftwaffe bombarded the defences, the attack resolved itself into two thrusts: 2nd and 20th Panzer Divisions heading for Samo-durovka-Teploye-Molotychi and, farther to the east, 18th and 19th Panzer Divisions bringing pressure to bear on Olkhovatka once again. Although Rokossovsky had reinforced these positions, the addition of von Saucken’s 4th Panzer Division to the thrust towards Samodurovka saw the Soviet line finally crack along that axis, when some 300 panzers, massed on a very narrow frontage, finally crashed through the Soviet positions. The following day the Germans maintained the pressure, deploying four panzer divisions supported by 6th Infantry Division along the entire length of a 10-mile line stretching from Samodurovka to Pervyye Ponyri. Fourth Panzer Division was now launched alongside 2nd and 20th Panzer Divisions against the Soviet defences around Teploye. During the next three days a seesaw battle for control of the village raged, both sides feeding in large numbers of tanks and infantry with powerful air support and artillery. Even the Tigers of Abteilung 505’s third regiment were unable to penetrate the defences. Although the Germans finally took the village, the three attempts to storm the heights beyond were thrown back by ferocious resistance. Panzer attacks wilted in the hurricane of artillery fire called down upon them.
4th Panzer Army Sector
At dawn on 8 July the Germans resumed their push with ‘Grossdeutschland’ thrusting to take Syrtsevo. An attack by Soviet 40th Army was weathered. In the late morning some forty T-34s of General Krivoshein’s III Mechanized Corps sortied from Syrtsevo in a desperate bid to stop the German advance, but ran across the guns of the Tiger company of ‘Grossdeutschland’. In the battle that followed ten T-34s were destroyed and the survivors rapidly vacated the battlefield as the German armour moved forward. Around the fortified town the defenders began to waver, at which units of ‘Grossdeutschland’ and 3rd Panzer Division drove forward to take advantage of the growing confusion and panic. Shortly after noon the town fell and the Soviet forces pulled back across the River Pena. A rapid follow-up by the divisional reconnaissance battalion, supported by an assault gun battalion, pushed forward to the town of Verkhopenye. The significance of this town lay in its bridge across the Pena which the Soviets were determined to hold. A major tank sortie of at least forty T-34s and M-3s was launched against the German units. The battle raged for three hours, the German assault guns accounting for 35 Soviet tanks by late afternoon.
To the south, history of a different sort was being made. Very late in the evening of 7 July, the commander of Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Corps was ordered to assemble an armoured force with infantry support and strike westwards, from its position in the woods, around the village of Gostishchevo. Its task was to assault the deep flank of the SS Panzer Corps, with a view to cutting off its supply route. Quite by chance, as this completely unsuspected Soviet unit was emerging from woodland and deploying for attack with infantry in support, it was spotted by Hauptmann Meyer who was leading a flight of Henschel Hs 129s in a routine reconnaissance of the area. The Henschels devastated the T-34s with their 30mm cannon. Fw 190s of Battle Formation ‘Druschel’ flew in support, dropping anti-personnel bombs on the infantry. Within an hour fifty shattered T-34s littered the battlefield. It was the first time in the history of warfare that a tank formation had been destroyed solely from the air.
10 July: Ninth Army/Central Front
Although German forces had continued to assail Ponyri throughout 9 July, the failure of the assault on Teploye and the Olkhovatka heights on the 8th caused Model to spend the day regrouping his forces. He intended to attack again on the 10th and had already moved forward 10th Panzer Grenadier and 31st Infantry Divisions to support the continuing assault on Ponyri. These divisions were his last reserve units, and their committal would mean that he had no forces available in the event of an emergency. While there may have been some in Ninth Army who still thought it possible to breach the Soviet lines with one last effort, the tone of the telephone conversation between Zhukov and Stalin early on 9 July was such that apparently the Soviets were already convinced that the Germans no longer had the resources to achieve their objective. It was decided that the Bryansk Front and the left wing of the Western Front would launch an attack on the German forces in the Orel Bulge on 12 July to force the Germans to draw off forces from Ninth Army. Central Front would then begin its own counteroffensive in the hope of catching the German forces off balance before they had time to organize their own defences. Although Rokossovsky realized that his troops would have to face a few more days of German fury, it was accepted that would be the last, desperate, flailing attempt of an Arm that was in reality already defeated.
Under a leaden sky, in wind and driving rain, the final German attempt to break through to Kursk from the north began. Once again the objective was the Olkhovatka heights. Preceded by a tremendous artillery barrage and massed air support from Stukas and Heinkel He 111s, the 300 panzers of 2nd and 4th Panzer Divisions deployed to assault the last Soviet defences strung along the ridge. On the bare plateau before the Soviet positions were the same minefields and other defensive obstacles with which the German soldiers had become so painfully familiar during the previous five days. The infantry, on foot on this occasion, were rapidly left behind by the panzers and found themselves exposed on terrain devoid of any natural cover. Here they fell prey to the dug-in Soviet infantry, massed artillery fire and air attack. Losses began to mount rapidly. Many panzers were destroyed by T-34s, either dug-in or functioning as mobile fire points. Others repeatedly turned back to give their infantry cover and support, but were destroyed by anti-tank gunners sited invisibly in the cornfields. Although some local successes were attained, by evening the attack 72 had shot its bolt and Model ordered Ninth Army over to the defensive, except at Ponyri. In a little over six days Model had lost more than 400 tanks and 50,000 men to effect a penetration that nowhere exceeded more than fifteen kilometres.