The Fuhrer's wish immediately led to several negative consequences. One was that the requirement for new vehicles delayed the offensive until enough of them were built. Two was that the removal of bugs, without which technology exists only in fairy tales, has been sacrificed to speed up production. As a result, Panther Ausf. D tanks that made it to Kursk suffered from growing pains. To put it simply, they broke down from minimal enemy contributions, as well as by themselves.
Two battalions of Panthers that arrived were united in the 39th tank regiment under the command of Major Lauchert. When Operation Citadel began, it contained 200 new tanks. The regiment was reinforcing the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier division in the 48th tank corps. This division had its own tank regiment, under the command of Colonel von Strachwitz. Both regiments were united in the 10th tank brigade, and Colonel Decker was appointed as its commander.
The other side of the front was actively preparing for Citadel. The opponent of the German 48th tank corps was meant to be the 6th Guards Army of Lieutenant-General I.M. Chistyakov. As this region was considered to be in greatest danger from enemy tanks, the defenses here were created more thoroughly than anywhere else on the salient. From March to July, the army buried itself in the ground.
Chisyakov wrote in his memoirs: "There is no end to this, we dig like moles, day and night". Tens of thousands of people turned the terrain into a maze of trenches, anti-tank ditches, walls, dugouts, artillery positions, and, of course, minefields. Artillery was dialled in on approaches to the minefields, trenches, and any terrain suitable for tanks.
Another means of a "warm welcome" for the Germans were tank destroyer artillery units. And, of course, our own tanks were to be a means of fighting the enemy tanks.
Even though the official start of the battle is considered to be July 5th, Chistyakov's soldiers began the battle earlier. The Germans attacked his forward units on the afternoon of July 4th. They desperately needed favourable positions to attack the Soviet lines, as it was necessary to bring German artillery as close as possible. Artillery observation points with good sight lines were especially needed.
The resistance of the advance guard before Citadel knocked the German schedule off track. The battle ate up half of the long summer day, and the German artillery that was moving up at night got lost in the minefields, creating traffic jams in the few paths the German engineers managed to clear, impeding advancing tank units. The units that were clustered together on these makeshift roads were under constant fire from Soviet artillery. The German artillery observers could not see much from their new observation posts at night. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. At 4:00 on July 5th, 1943, Operation Citadel began.
Frayed Tank Fist
According to the plans of the 48th corps' commanders, the Panthers of the 10th brigade would move up between the settlements of Cherkasskoye and Korovino along with the tanks from Grossdeutschland, in a classic strike at a joint between units that traditionally yielded results.
Perhaps if the staff off the 48th corps knew the Russian saying "it was smooth on paper, but we forgot the ravine", the plan may have been different. The Panthers were late. The 39th regiment arrived at the Moshenoye village rendezvous point late at night on July 4th, having already lost two tanks; they burned up due to engine compartment fires. Another few vehicles were lost to technical difficulties. As a result, the Panthers finished fuelling and began heading out at 8:15, with only 184 battle-ready tanks remaining. All the same, Lauchert was in no hurry.
A ravine with water wells passed 1.5 kilometers before the Soviet lines. Chistyakov's soldiers dutifully dug a trench through it, connecting it with the ravine in such a way as to turn it into a swamp. The resulting dish was liberally seasoned with mines and prepared for artillery.
At dawn on July 5th, Strachwitz's regiment ran into this trench. An attempt to cross it led to losses of tanks in or around the trench, either blown up on mines or simply stuck. The Panthers only reached the trench at 14:00.
American historian Robert Forczyk describes these events as follows:
"The 39th regiment, having encountered this obstacle, stopped and huddled together. Grossdeutschland's sappers have already deemed the row unpassable by the time the Panthers arrived and began looking for detours. After some confusion, one of the commanders...decided to cross the ravine. A few Panthers from the 1st and 2nd companies moved into a narrow clearing in the minefield, but quickly got stuck in the thick mud at the bottom of the ravine. Seeing this, Ober-Leutnant Helmuth Langshammer tried to redirect his rear guard 4th company around the ravine, but his detour ended with a minefield"
By noon on July 5th, the score for Panthers appeared unfavourable. Without making a single shot at the enemy, the regiment was down by nearly a quarter of its tanks. This was not the result the German command hoped for when sending two hundred of its newest tanks into battle.
The situation with Grossdeutchland's tanks began improving at noon, when the 48th tank corps sent additional engineering units. At 14:00, the first Panthers approached the crossing, but could not cross due to fire from artillery and aircraft. After several attempts, 30 Panthers made it across by 17:00, reinforcing 15 of Strachwitz's tanks that crossed earlier. The crossings were destroyed after that, and the Germans did not restore them before dark.
Most of the tanks did not make it into battle that day, with the exception of the few that crossed the ravine. The Panthers were first met with Lend-Lease Lee and Stuart tanks from the 245th tank regiment. According to Soviet reports, Soviet losses in this engagements totalled up to 17 tanks, according to German reports, 28.
Although the 48th tank corps managed to break through the first line of defense on that day, it had little cause for celebration. The only hope that remained was that the deadly jaws of minefields and trenches have been bypassed and that the tank first, if frayed, can still deliver a powerful strike. The amount of frayedness is still unknown. By July 6th, the amount of combat-ready Panthers is likely around 50-60, while Grossdeutschland had 87 total vehicles ready for battle.
The Panther that walked by himself
At night, the Germans were thrilled to discover that the minefields didn't end, and saturate all terrain suitable for tanks. Only the Butovo-Dobrovo road was capable of carrying an offensive to the north-east.
The new plan called for an offensive at 10:40, however von Strachwitz's regiment was already in battle by 9:35. The regiment of Panthers was in an unthinkable state. Records of communications in the 48th corps' HQ tell that the Panthers are at the Yarki settlement at 5:00, after that, only complaints that contact was lost. Communications were not restored until the latter half of the day. Until then, the Panthers followed the traditions of Kipling's cat and walked alone.
Robert Forczyk describes the "adventures" of Lauchert's regiment on the morning of July 6th:
"Lauchert's Panthers were lost, moving forward on unfamiliar terrain without any guidance. The regiment travelled as a double column, with the exception of the forward company, moving as a wedge. The Panthers were without infantry, and noticed no enemy activity, until they drove into a minefield two kilometers east of Cherkasskoye. Gerchard Tebbe's battalion was stuck in a kill zone, and Soviet artillery began firing on the trapped German unit. Realizing that Tebbe lost control, Ober-Leutnant Erdmann Gabriel, a veteran from 8th company, assumed control, attempting to lead the unit out."
Post-war retellings from German tankers indicate that "lost control" is an inaccurate description of what happened to Major Tebbe. Erdmann Gabriel recalls this episode much more emotionally:
"Our tanks were bunched together under fire from heavy guns. The first burst cost my company two tanks. The situation was dangerous, and no orders came from the battalion commander. I ran up to his tank as fast as I could. When I peered into his turret, I saw him shaking in fear. This was Major Tebbe, from the Putlos tank academy, sent in yesterday evening to replace the battalion commander, Sievers, who has fallen ill before the offensive. It seems his trial by fire proved too difficult. After I explained to him that we must move now before taking more unnecessary losses, all he could squeeze out in answer was "yes, Gabriel, take us away.""
Von Strachwitz's regiment had more luck at first. Him and elements of the 11th tank brigade managed to penetrate a line of defenses. However, a rapid penetration did not happen. Instead of a lightning strike, Grossdeutschland was forced to slowly gnaw its way forward.
At about 12:30, the regiment reached an anti-tank trench, was faced with mines and artillery fire, and rolled back. At this point, the patience of German high command ran out, Decker was recalled, and von Strachwitz assumed his command.
For the Panthers, this new management had little promise. The number of combat-capable tanks continued to decrease. By the evening of July 6th, it was about 40, and by the following evening, only ten. Later, due to recovering and repairing stuck vehicles, German repairmen could keep that number at 20-40, but their success was very limited. The only day when 200 Panthers could have shown results, July 5th, 1943, turned out to be a lost day for the Panthers.
Article authors: Andrei Ulyanov and Aleksandr Tomzov.
Andrei Ulanov is an historian and an author of books and articles on the Great Patriotic War. His most prominent works are "Order in Tank Forces" and "First T-34s" (co-authored with Dmitriy Shein). Currently, he is working on books on AT measures of Soviet infantry and combat use of T-34 tanks in 1942.