On 1 July Field Marshal Erwin Rommel flew to the Wolf’s Lair where he attended the Führer’s daily conference, a stocky, silent figure among the generals gathered around the map table. It was rumoured that Hitler was planning a reshuffle of his high command, with Rommel taking over as acting Commander-in-Chief of the Army. In fact, Hitler had chosen Rommel to command an armed occupation of Italy, codenamed Alarich, in the event of an Allied invasion or the overthrow of Mussolini.
During the first days of July, Rommel shared the excitement which gripped Rastenburg as Zitadelle was finally launched. On the afternoon of the 9th, following the midday Führer conference, he had written in his diary, ‘Attack operations in the East are going well.’ The entry for the 10th, however, rang alarm bells for the Third Reich: ‘War conference with the Führer. The British and Americans have invaded Sicily with paratroops and landing craft.’ That day the greatest armada of the war, more than 3000 ships, had arrived off the beaches of southern Sicily. The landing force, consisting of eight divisions (three more than were used at Normandy in June 1944), were greatly superior to the Axis garrison on the island. The Allied airborne forces, drawn from the US 82nd and 1st British Airborne divisions, suffered severe casualties when inexperienced pilots dropped them into the sea and nervous Allied anti-aircraft gunners shot down their aircraft. But the seaborne landings against Italian coastal defence units, who were uniformly reluctant to put up a fight, went smoothly. Some of Sicily’s Fascist defenders even helped to unload the invaders’ landing craft. By 12 July the Allies had landed 160,000 men and 600 tanks. Three days later General Sir Harold Alexander, Commander in Chief North Africa, issued orders for the elimination of the Axis forces on the island.
The invasion of Sicily took the German high command completely by surprise. So, too, did Stavka’s counter-offensive, codenamed Kutuzov, which was launched on 12 July against the north and east faces of the Orel salient held by General Rudolf Schmidt’s (2) weak Second Panzer Army; the counter-offensive aimed to take Model’s Ninth Army in the rear. Stavka’s planning for the Orel counter-stroke was part and parcel of the strategic defence at Kursk and had begun in late April1943. Kutuzov called for three converging attacks on Army Group Centre’s forces in the Orel salient, Second Panzer and Ninth Armies. From the north, on the left flank of Marshal Sokolovsky’s Western Front, the attack was to be made by Bagramyan’s Eleventh Guards Army (previously Sixteenth Army). Popov’s Bryansk Front was to attack from the east with Sixty-First, Third and Sixty-Third Armies, while Central Front’s Thirteenth and Seventieth Armies would drive up from the south. The timing of the counter-attack, which was critical, was wholly contingent on the course of the fighting on the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient; it was to be launched at the moment the German attack had been brought to a halt. Western and Bryansk Fronts’ shock groups were to go into action first, followed by other forces held in reserve on Western Front and, finally, by Central Front. The offensive plans were finalized, and the concentration of forces undertaken, at the beginning of July after Lucy revealed that Zitadelle would be launched between 3 and 6 July.
Using a range of maskirovka measures, including the continuation of defensive work begun in April, Bagramyan concentrated his attacking force (three rifle corps and two tank corps) on a ten mile section of his left flank, leaving a single division to defend the remaining fifteen miles of his sector. Perhaps his greatest maskirovka asset was the grim battle on the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient which distracted German attention from the growing danger to their flank. As a result, German intelligence had formed only a hazy picture of the Soviet concentrations in the Orel sector. It identified the arrival of a new army (Sixteenth) but did not anticipate its role or know its new designation. The Germans also failed to pick up the forward deployment of 5th Tank, 1st Tank and 1st Guards Tank Corps.
On 11 July, as II SS Panzer Corps closed on Prokhorovka, reinforced reconnaissance battalions from Western and Bryansk Fronts began to probe the defences in the Orel sector under the cover of a smoke screen laid by Pe-2 dive-bombers. Their attacks continued throughout the day, drawing off forces from Ninth Army which Model had been preparing to commit in a last effort to break through at Olkhovatka. During the night Seventeenth Air Army’s 213th Night Bomber Air Division and AFLRO units (Stavka’s strategic reserve), reinforced by 313th Night Bomber Air Division, flew 362 sorties against German positions, dropping over 200 tons of bombs. With the dawn, seventy Pe-2s and forty-eight Shturmoviks from General M.M. Gromov’s fresh First Air Army struck at Ninth Army as a preliminary to Eleventh Guards Army’s attack on Model’s rear.
Bagramyan’s reconnaissance battalions withdrew at 3.00am on the 12th. Twenty minutes later 3000 Soviet guns and mortars began a two-hour barrage while Bagramyan’s assault troops huddled barely 100 yards from the forward German positions, preparing to attack under cover of the artillery’s ‘fire zones’. To the south-east, Bryansk Front’s artillery was hammering the head of the Orel bulge as the moment arrived to slice into the salient from the north and east.
Conceived primarily as a relieving attack prior to the unleashing of counter-offensives along the entire Eastern Front, Kutuzov nevertheless achieved a rapid initial success. By the evening of 14 July Eleventh Guards Army had advanced over ten miles. To maintain Bagramyan’s momentum Stavka fed in Eleventh Army, commanded by General I.I. Fedyuninsky, and rushed up Lieutenant-General V.M. Badanov’s Fourth Tank Army. Simultaneously, Rokossovsky was on the point of mounting his own counter-attack which would launch Thirteenth Army from the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient into the soft underbelly of the German-held Orel bulge.
On 13 July Kluge and Manstein were summoned to Rastenburg. According to Manstein’s account, Hitler
‘opened the conference by announcing that the Western Allies had landed in Sicily that day and that the situation there had taken an extremely serious turn. The Italians were not even attempting to fight, and the island was likely to be lost. Since the next step might well be a landing in the Balkans or Lower Italy, it was necessary to form new armies in Italy and the western Balkans. These forces must be found from the Eastern Front, so Zitadelle would have to be discontinued.’
Manstein, displaying an enthusiasm for Zitadelle which had been notably absent since the rejection of his ‘backhand’ option, argued that the Russian tank reserves were fast running out and that the battle should be continued to the point of their destruction. Failure to do so would bring powerful Soviet forces crashing down on Army Group South’s long salient to the Donets basin and the Black Sea in a re-run of the crisis which followed Stalingrad.
Kluge, however, reported that Ninth Army was making no headway and was being forced to transfer all its mobile forces north to check the Soviet penetration into the Orel salient. He believed that there ‘could be no question of continuing with Zitadelle or of resuming the operation at a later date’.
Manstein was doubtless using the advantage of hindsight when he wrote his account of this critical meeting after the war. Zitadelle was to continue for several days before it was cancelled. The Allied invasion of Sicily did not pose a fatal threat to ‘Fortress Europe’, nor would the immediate withdrawal of formations like II SS Panzer Corps and their movement west have an immediate impact on the situation in the Mediterranean. It is more than likely that, on 13 July, Hitler talked in general terms, warning Manstein of the probability that troops would have to be transferred from the East to meet the new threat in the West. For the undeniable fact was that the landings in Sicily had ushered in a new phase of the war in which Germany would now have to fight on two fronts rather than stand guard over one. Hitler hoped to contain the situation in Sicily while continuing to prepare for the main blow in the West to fall in northern Europe – which he had good reason to believe was some months away. His principal fear, however, remained the overthrow of Mussolini.
Although Zitadelle had not fulfilled OKH’s expectations, about which the Führer had always harboured doubts, he nevertheless derived some comfort from the damage it appeared to be inflicting on the Russian reserves. A few days more punishment might ensure that these reserves would be burned away, leaving the Red Army in no shape to mount another winter offensive. This qualified optimism, however, failed to take into account the attrition suffered by the Ostheer at Kursk. The oversight was to draw this observation from the OKW war diarist:
‘After the bloody struggle for the city of Stalingrad there followed another struggle for strongly fortified field positions, a second ‘Verdun’, followed by a third, which was supposed to make the enemy exhaust his ‘last forces’ at a strategically important point. However, this ‘Verdun’ swallowed up even more of our divisions in an ever more horrifying whirlpool.’
The fighting continued in the Kursk salient although it was now shifting in favour of the Red Army. For Hoth 13 July was not an encouraging day. II SS Panzer Corps’s thrusts were halted and the SS divisions struggled even to hold their ground. Heavy rain turned the Psel crossings into quagmires, seriously hampering the resupply of Totenkopf’s shallow bridgehead on the northern bank.
Hoth then secured from Manstein permission to switch his attack from north to east along the axis Ivanovka-Vinogrodovka, a line which the commander of Army Group South had originally favoured. The new attack jumped off at 2.00pm but by nightfall had failed to reach Ivanovka. From General Kirichenko’s command post Zhukov and Rotmistrov watched as the day’s fighting wound down. Both sides were exhausted, reduced to exchanging fire: ‘Shells exploded sporadically, bullets whistled by and enemy tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks were seen to be moving in the distance.’
There were tactical successes. Das Reich fielded a formation of T-34s captured from a factory east of Kharkov. These were used in a flank attack on a column of enemy tanks rolling along the floor of one of the many small valleys in Das Reich’s sector. Of the Russian tanks only the commanders’ were equipped with radio receivers and transmitters and these were invariably the first to be knocked out by experienced German tank crews. The next target was the full petrol container often carried on the rear of the T-34 which could be set ablaze with a well-aimed shot. The Russian tank column was destroyed before its commanders realized it was being fired on by enemy-crewed T-34s.
For the Red Army, the price of halting the German drive on Prokhorovka had been high. In a detailed report sent to Stalin in the small hours of 14 July, Vatutin stated that, in two days of fighting, 29th Tank Corps had lost totally or on a temporary basis 60 per cent of its armour and 18th Tank Corps 30 per cent – in all, over 400 tanks. By the 14th, 112 vehicles had been repaired and returned to action, most of them patched up with spare parts cannibalized from tanks beyond repair. Rotmistrov’s engineers were hampered not only by a shortage of spare parts but also by a lack of machine-tools,(3) welding equipment and cranes. A week after Prokhorovka, Fifth Guards Tank Army still had approximately 180 tanks which required medium and running repairs, while most of the tanks which remained in action were operating with worn-out engines and gears in desperate need of overhaul.
Hoth had his problems, too. The situation was deteriorating on his left flank where the extended LII Corps, which had no tanks, was inviting a counter-attack on the entire Fourth Panzer Army. On the afternoon of the 13th, von Knobelsdorff appeared at Grossdeutschland’s battle headquarters to give orders which ‘left no hope for any advance to the north’. The division was to attack westward on the 14th – much as it had on the 10th and 11th – to reach the Rakovo-Kruglik road from which 3rd Panzer had been driven earlier in the day. The Russians had also ejected 3rd Panzer from Hill 247 and had retaken Berezovka, five miles to the south.
On the 14th German progress was slow. Under mounting pressure, Totenkopf was forced to relinquish its bridgehead on the north bank of the Psel. At 4.00am Das Reich attacked again with an artillery and Nebelwerfer barrage, followed by an infantry assault led by 1 and 3 Battalions of Der Führer Regiment. Taking heavy casualties from the dense minefields in their path, the panzer grenadiers reached the outskirts of Belenichino by midday and began a bitter house-to-house battle for the village. Twelve counter-attacking T-34s were destroyed with hollow-charge anti-tank grenades while Stukas drove off their infantry support. Having cleared Belenichino, the panzer grenadiers regrouped and, supported by the panzer regiment, threw back several Russian attempts to retake the village. As darkness fell, they moved forward, but heavy rain washed away the road surfaces and once again the advance was bogged down.
On Hoth’s sagging left flank, Grossdeutschland pushed westward for the second time. On its right wing a battle group, consisting of the reconnaissance and assault-gun battalions, a rifle and a tank company, was charged with retaking Hill 247. In the centre Grossdeutschland’s panzer regiment, supported by infantry, was to recapture Hill 243. On the left the panzer grenadiers were to attack to the south-west to clear the wood north of Berezovka.
By the afternoon, after heavy fighting, contact was made with 3rd Panzer at Berezovka. The forest to the north of the village was cleared but it proved impossible to dislodge the enemy from Hill 247 from which they launched counter-attacks as the day’s fighting drew to a close. When night came Grossdeutschland could congratulate itself on regaining vital ground and inflicting severe losses on the enemy. As von Mellenthin observed:
‘All this was certainly a success of some sort; the dangerous situation on the left wing had been rectified, and the 3rd Panzer Division had been given support. But Grossdeutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for ten days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.’