The German offensive at Kursk in the summer of 1943 was powerful, but assymetric. On the north half, the Red Army held under the enemy attacks and started a counteroffensive by June 12th, but the south was a more complicated place. Here, the Voronezh Front faced much more difficult defensive battles. Here, the Soviet forces were frayed and exhausted, and they needed a pause to re-establish their strength before starting their march on Belgorod and Kharkov.
At the same time, it was not possible to postpone the offensive. The Germans here were also tired, plus several tank divisions had to be transferred to reinforce the front line in other places. In early August, they would be back, so it was necessary to defeat the enemy before then.
Attack on Kharkov
The offensive of the Steppe and Voronezh Fronts, codenamed Polkovodets Rumyantsev, began on August 3rd, 1943. The main strike by the Soviet forces was aimed to encircle Kharkov from the west. Two combined arms and two tank armies formed the spearhead. In the first four days, the Red Army saw great success, defeating the German forces near the Borisovka settlement.
The German commanders did not sit idle, and attempted to stop the Red Army at their last line of defense. The defenses were strengthened with any forces that turned up, including remnants of defeated divisions. Additionally, reserves from other parts of the front were starting to arrive. The Germans had no time to wait for them to assemble and threw them into battle piecemeal.
Starting on August 8th, the right flank of the Voronezh Front began an important fight for supply lines. The main targets were Akhtyrka and Boromlya. Their capture and retention allowed the Red Army to cut off and control a highway that the Germans were using to transfer supplies and reinforcements. The Germans were not about to give up these cornerstones and were ready to defend them, eventually concentrating enough forces at Akhtyrka for a counterattack. That is exactly what happened on August 18th, 1943. The Akhtyrka counterattack went down in history as one of the greatest threats to the Kharkov offensive. Ten days before that, fighting of local importance defined the conditions for this important battle.
It happened at the city of Trostyanets, where forces of the Red Army unexpectedly encountered the frontline units of Grossdeutschland, moved to Akhtyrka from Karachev.
The German army's choked artery
On August 8th, the Soviet 10th Tank Corps, attacking with the 40th Army, penetrated the German defenses. Following the retreating enemy and travelling for 20 km in one day, the tankers entered Trostyanets, a large road hub between Boromlya and Akhtyrka. The Soviets captured a prize of three trains full of vehicles and equipment. Another train of Soviet POWs was discovered, who were freed. Meanwhile, a train full of German infantry arrived at the station. It was fired upon immediately, resulting in its soldiers having to jump off and scatter throughout the area.
As a result of the capture of Trostyanets, the planned transfer of Grossdeutschland to Akhtyrka failed. This was so shocking for the German garrison, the arrival of Soviet tanks was so sudden that they initially fled in panic and scattered around nearby forests.
The loss of Trostyanets was unacceptable for the Germans. Rapidly formed combat groups consisting of any available tank divisions were thrown towards the city. Soviet forces defending it were still very small: 25 tanks (19 T-34s and 6 T-70s) and 500 men. Another tank brigade was supposed to arrive.
The Germans first attacked at 3:30 am on August 9th. The Soviets defeated an attack of three tanks and infantry from the south-west. A stronger group consisting of 10 tanks and SPGs accompanied by 300 soldiers managed to enter Trostyanets and occupy its western outskirts. Reinforcements came to both sides and immediately entered the battle. The long awaited Soviet 168th Tank Brigade brought only 28 tanks. but infantry from the 100th Infantry Division came with 20 AT guns. The Germans sent more serious reinforcements to Trostyanets: 50 tanks of various types, infantry, artillery. The air was filled with the hum of German bombers.
A fierce battle erupted. The Germans attacked from all sides, fighting happened both on the outskirts and inside the city. Even if the enemy managed to encircle some Soviet forces, they kept fighting. In total, 11 German attacks were repulsed.
Loss of an elite division
Grossdeutschland entered the battle in the second half of August 9th. Since Trostyanets was under Soviet control, one Panther train did not manage to reach the city. They were loaded off the platforms and sent in to attack. On their way, they were joined by four Tigers.
The first Tiger was knocked out at the very start of the battle. With return fire, several Soviet tanks were knocked out. Changing direction, the enemy tried to circle around Trostyanets from the rear, but was surprised by hidden AT guns and stopped. Another several tanks were knocked out, but two Tigers and three Panthers kept moving. At that point, several T-34s flanked the Germans to help the artillerymen. The enemy tanks were in a crossfire.
The two Tigers lit up first, then two of the three Panthers. The surviving tank picked up a few tankers from the destroyed vehicles and managed to retreat successfully. The attack failed, and the Germans irretrievably lost four Tigers and three Panthers. Several other tanks were knocked out. All this was just to occupy the south and western outskirts of the city.
This was the last tank attack on August 9th. The battle for the city continued for several days. All this time, the vitally important railroad remained in Soviet hands. The Germans were forced to transfer reinforcements in roundabout ways. As a result, the Soviets managed to delay the arrival of one of the strongest German divisions and inflict losses on them before they even reached their destination.
Additionally, the battle for Trostyanets drew already dwindling tank reserves from other parts of the front. Neither the famed Tigers nor Panthers managed to retake the city and restore the German supply lines. The events at Akhtyrka echoed throughout the front. Only a few weeks remained until the liberation of Kharkov, end of the Battle of Kursk, and complete overtaking of strategic initiative by the Red Army.
Original article available here.