The Germans understood that the summer offensive against the Kursk salient will not be an easy one. German commanders took their time planning Operation Citadel, moving the start date several times. Meanwhile, the Red Army was digging in, wrapping the terrain in barbed wire and sowing mines. The Germans were also preparing, knowing that their units will be warmly received. Their hopes rested on new types of tanks: Tigers and Panthers, Ferdinand tank destroyers and Brummbar assault tanks.
On the north side, the Orel direction, Walter Model's 9th Army formed an armoured club. On July 5th, 1943, he sent his infantry into battle, supported by tanks, SPGs, and aircraft. Model held his main armoured force in reserve, hoping to exploit a breakthrough. On the first day of battle, the Germans reached the second line of Soviet defenses. By July 6th, main events were unfolding in two paces: near the Ponyri railroad station and in the Teploye-Olkhovatka sector. The events of the latter are, unfortunately, not as studied as well as the former.
Trial by Fire
While feeling out the weak points in Soviet defenses on July 7th, Model decided to strike in the direction of Teploye and Olkhovatka in addition to Ponyri. At 13:30, about 200 tanks (including Tigers) and assault guns, supported by a significant infantry force, attacked the Soviet positions. The first attack was deflected, and several more "thrusts" followed in the afternoon, each with about 40-50 tanks and SPGs. This was only the beginning.
As reserves pulled up, the Germans prepared for a even more powerful offensive in this direction. A simultaneous attack by three tank divisions was planned on July 8th to punch through Soviet defenses. The key objective was to attack in the center, capture Teploye, and prepare for a subsequent offensive. This objective was given to the 4th Tank Division.
The enemy struck at the joint between the Soviet 13th and 70th Armies. Lieutenant-General I.V. Galanin was responsible for the defenses in this weak point. The general assembled a special combat group out of the 140th Rifle Division, 3rd Tank Destroyer Brigade, and the 19th Tank Corps. This group would be the rebar in the reinforced concrete of Soviet defenses. Soviet tankers dug in and camouflaged their tanks in preparation for an attack.
On the morning of July 8th, the enemy struck Galanin's forces with powerful artillery and air strikes. After that, at 6:00, two German infantry regiments and fifteen assault guns began to chew through Soviet defenses. Meanwhile, the main forces of Model's three tank divisions took up initial positions and began forming up for an attack. This did not go smoothly: several tanks and SPGs were lost to Soviet mines even before they reached the battlefield.
Height 238,1: Death's Hill
One of the first obstacles in the Germans' path was the Red Army stronghold on height 238.1. Its defenders were chiefly made up of elements of the 1st Anti-Tank Rifle Battalion from the tank destroyer brigade, between 72 and 108 rifles. In addition, the height housed a mortar battery, a platoon of submachinegunners, and two 76 mm anti-tank guns commanded by Captain G.I. Igishev.
The defenders saw a grandiose and frightening picture from their positions: 200 German tanks and SPGs accompanied by APCs and trucks with infantry took up initial positions, split up into groups, and prepared for an attack. A group of tanks from the 4th Tank Division drove directly at the height. These were the latest modification of PzIV tanks, armed with long 75 mm guns and reinforced with additional armour. The balance of forces was not in the favour of the defenders, but none of them were even thinking about retreat.
The gun crews waited until the German tanks drew closer and opened fire from 500-600 meters. Four tanks were destroyed with direct hits. The Germans did not manage to discover who was shooting at them and paused the attack. After a small pause, the attack was resumed. Even though Igishev's artillery destroyed four more tanks, German infantry pulled up, and, using their superior numbers, managed to reach the gun positions and destroy them. Igishev died in battle, earning the title of Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.
Having captured height 238.1 and the eastern outskirts of the nearby Samodurovka village, the Germans moved out to Teploye.
Heat at Teploye
Attacking well prepared defenses is a tough job, and the Germans felt it. Over five hours, attack after attack petered out against elements of the 140th Rifle Division and 3rd Tank Destroyer Brigade at Teploye. This was done with skill, rather than with sheer firepower. If the tanks were accompanied by infantry, artillery and small arms fire separated the two, leading to an unenviable fate for the latter. When the tanks reached the trenches, they were pelted with grenades and Molotov cocktails.
By noon, the Germans managed to tear through the defenses of the 140th division and reach Teploye, the armoured "rebar" from the 19th Corps, namely the 79th Tank Brigade. 30-40 Soviet tanks held the village for several more hours before being forced to pull back and take up defenses to the south of the village under pressure from a larger enemy force.
The German success was not satisfying: the road ahead was closed. Enemy infantry was separated from its armour by a hurricane of fire, the tanks kept taking losses from Soviet tanks and anti-tank guns. By the evening, the Germans managed to make a dent in Soviet defenses, but there was no breakthrough.
Finally, the Germans attempted one final, fierce attack. The remaining 90 PzIVs and 1 Tigers attacked following an artillery strike.
The infantry from the 140th Rifle Division did not engage the tanks. They let them pass, engaging the accompanying infantry and stopping its progress. As a result, the enemy tanks were left without support and came under fire from T-34 tanks which were shooting at their vulnerable flanks. Attempts to turn towards the threat were met with fire from anti-tank guns.
The main attack stalled, and the enemy was forced to retreat past height 238.1. The enemy's losses were disheartening: just the 4th Tank Division lost half of its 90 tanks and 298 men that day. This was not the end. Four more days of fierce fighting raged at Teploye. The Germans did not manage to penetrate Soviet defenses. On July 12th, soldiers of the Red Army began a decisive counteroffensive on the north side of the Kursk salient, putting an end to the German Citadel.
Original article by Aleksandr Tomzov.