5 July 1943
The offensive started poorly for the 9th German Army. Breaching the Soviet minefields and penetrating the First Defence Belt were considerably more difficult than the Gen. Model had anticipated and led to heavy losses, particularly in infantrymen and tanks.
The attack of XLI Corps west of the railway started when the 314th Radio-Controlled Panzer Company used 12 B IV radio-controlled tanks to breach the first line of Soviet mines. The attack stalled at that point because overwhelming artillery fire prevented the pioneers from moving forward through the cleared lanes The numerous artillery explosions on the battlefield also made it impossible for the 653rd Heavy Panzerjger Battalion (Ferdinand) to recognize the cleared lanes; as even the B IV tracks were not visible in the thick sod. So despite there being cleared lanes the 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion lost 37 of its 49 Ferdinands before it reached its objective at 1700 hours, most of the losses being due to mines.
Battle around Ponyri
The attack of XLI Corps east of the railway was even less successful in crossing the minefields. The 313th Radio-Controlled Panzer Company lost four B IV when one of the company’s platoons crossed an unknown friendly minefield when approaching the front line. In addition artillery fire struck and detonated one B IV in the assembly area and set two more ablaze. With the remaining four B IVs the remaining Radio-Controlled Panzer platoon was only able to clear one lane through the Russian minefield for the 654th Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion (Ferdinand) to pass through.
After passing the breaches in the minefields, the Germans attacked in Panzerkeil (wedge) formation. The Ferdinands were in the first line, followed by medium tanks (Pz III and Pz IV) in the second line, and light tanks (Pz II), assault guns (StuG III), and dismounted infantry behind them. The east flank of the beleaguered Soviet 15th Rifle Division in the Arkhangelskoye area, for example, was hit by a battalion of tanks supported by infantry of the 292nd infantry Division. The attack penetrated the first line of defence and reached Oserki about 5 km from the start line. At 2200 hours one regiment of the 292nd reached Butyrki 5 km south of Oserki. The 101st Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 18th Panzer Division advanced on the west flank of the 292nd Division in the attack. The remainder of the 18th Panzer Division, however, occupied the woods south of Oserki and then remained in reserve. The eastern portion of the 292nd attack sector was held by the Soviet 81st Rifle Division. One company of Ferdinands in this area succeeded in driving straight through the 81st defence lines to Alexsandrovka but their success was more apparent than real. The Soviet infantry sealed the breach behind them, forcing the German infantry, now without armour support, to fight for every metre. None-the less elements of the 292nd Infantry Division (possibly the 184th Grenadier Regiment) managed to occupy the northern outskirts of Ponyri whilst the Soviet 1019th Rifle Regiment held the main part of the town.
Farther to the east, the 86th Infantry Division, supported by assault guns, advanced with great difficulty. They suffered heavy losses in the minefields and from the fire of the Soviet 5th Artillery Division. The pre-laid minefields were not the only problem; Soviet military writers have estimated that “two-thirds of all enemy tanks destroyed by obstacles blew up in the minefields laid during the battle.” For example, a Soviet Mobile Obstacle Detachment in the zone of the Soviet 81st Rifle Division laid a minefield of 1,000 anti-tank mines in front of a German attack on 5 July. In this minefield 17 of the 40 attacking armoured vehicles blew up (probably assault guns with the 86th Infantry Division), and the advance of the enemy did not resume until the next morning. Nevertheless the 86th Division reached Otschki on the road to Maloarchangelsk about 16 km from its start line.
The Goliaths supporting the attack of XXIII Corps were the least successful mine clearing device. As one German historian described their action, “Whenever a Goliath reached its target, the effect was striking. Mostly, however, they did not reach their target.” None-the-less the 78th Sturm Division, with the help of strong close air support, broke through the first line of the Soviet 148th Rifle Division and advanced 10 km to the road from Protaosva to Maloarchangelsk.
Thus on 5 July the XLI Corps had broken through the First Defence Line and its right flank division had reached the Second Defense Line. The 86th Division, however, was only about halfway to the Second Defense Belt at Ponyri Station. Although Gen. Model was disappointed at the advance of only about 10 km, this turned out to be greater than 9th Army achieved in any other day of the battle. In fact it was equal to half the distance covered in the remaining week of the battle on the north face of the salient.
Both sides suffered heavy losses. The Soviets took particularly heavy losses amongst the anti-tank guns – crews often fought to the last man – however they had replacements available and in most cases the front line units managed to retire through covered routes and join the forces waiting in the Second Belt. Also, in view of the direction of the German attacks, Marshal Rokossovski redeployed his reserves including sending the 3rd Tank Corps to the south of Ponyri.
6 July 1943
On 6 July Marshal Rokossovski launched tank and infantry counter-attacks across the entire northern front including the Ponyri sector. These counter-attacks did not succeed in pushing the Germans back but they did contribute significantly to the eventual Soviet success by slowing the German advance (about half that of the first day), inflicting heavy German losses, forcing the Germans to commit the reserves earmarked for exploiting any breakthrough, and gaining time for Soviet reserves to move into the salient.
The Soviet 148th, 81st, and 74th Rifle Divisions attacked the German 292nd and 86th Infantry Divisions of XLI Panzer Corps north of Ponyri 1 and Ponyri Station. The attack began at 0350 Hours and was supported by the 12th Artillery Division and by heavy air attacks. The German 9th Army reserves – the 12th Panzer and 10th Panzergrenadier Divisions were thrown into the battle to help stop these Soviet counterattacks even though Gen. Model had originally planned to hold them back to exploit the breakthrough. The fierce fighting here became a microcosm of the whole Kursk battle; as both sides poured additional forces into the struggle attacks and counterattacks followed from both sides and advances were measured in metres. The Soviet 307th Rifle Division, for example, reported attacks by elements of the German 292nd, 86th Infantry Divisions and 78th Sturm Division, supported by 170 tanks. The Ferdinands of the 656th Heavy Panzerjäger Regiment supported the 86th Infantry Division east of Ponyri. The 205th Rifle Regiment of the 70th Guards Rifle Division was attacked by 60 German tanks and destroyed 3 German Pz IVs at close range with antitank rifles. The 84th Guards Tank Destroyer Battalion destroyed 5 Pz IVs with its 45mm antitank guns. Similarly a battery of the 729th Tank Destroyer Battalion claimed five tanks at Ponyri. The German XLI Corps claimed 28 Soviet tanks, mostly T-34s. By the evening of 6 July, the Germans had made some advances and were fighting in the vicinity of Ponyri, they had not been able to break through the Second Defense Belt.
Farther to the east, in the sector of XXIII German Corps, the 78th Sturm Division took Protaosva after hard fighting. A Soviet counterattack recaptured part of the village and house-to-house fighting continued for several hours. By the evening of 6 July the 78th Division had succeeded in clearing the village and advanced to the Second Defense Belt near Salavka.
Mines continued to be an important factor in the battle as the German forces approached the Soviet Second Defense Belt. In addition to the protective minefields laid in advance the Soviet engineers of the Mobile Obstacle Detachments intensified their activities in laying mines on the German routes of advance. On 6 July alone engineer units of Central Front laid more than 9,000 mines. And on that day 88 German tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces were stopped in by minefields – 65 of them in minefields laid during the battle.
7 July 1943
The stage was set for a continuation of the fierce but indecisive fighting of the day before when Gen. Model ordered all five of his corps to attack whilst Marshal Rokossovski also ordered the Soviet counter-attacks to continue.
The objective of the XLI Panzer Corps was to establish a bridgehead over the Snova River west of Ponyri. Fighting raged all day long around Ponyri 1 and Ponyri Station. At 1000 hours the 18th Panzer Division, which had been in Corps reserve, attacked toward Ponyri 1 on the right flank of the 292nd Infantry Division. At the same time two battalions of the 10th Panzer Grenadier Division from the Army reserve pushed the 4th Guards Airborne Division (9, 12, 15 GARgt, 1 GAArtyRgt) back a short distance. Meanwhile the German 86th Infantry Division attacked with two infantry battalions supported by tanks and the Ferdinands of Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion 653 and drove the Soviet 307th Rifle Division back. However, the Soviets counterattacked with support from the 13th Anti-tank Brigade (40 x 76mm + 20 x 45mm towed ATG), the 11th Mortar Brigade, and the 2nd Guards Mortar Brigade (Katusha multiple rockets). The counterattack destroyed 10 Tigers and 12 PzIVs, but Hill 253.3, which the Soviets took in the morning was recovered by the Germans in the afternoon. At 1530 hours the German 18th Panzer, 86th and 292nd Infantry Divisions launched a coordinated attack on both sides of Ponyri. The Soviet 307th Rifle Division repelled the attack. The 2nd Battalion of the 159th Guards Artillery Regiment reported the destruction of 2 Tigers and 5 other tanks. At 1900 hours the Germans tried again with an infantry regiment supported by 60 tanks. Throughout the day the Soviets launched strong counterattacks in response to German attempts to break through the Second Defense Belt. The 307th Rifle Division was supported by massed artillery fires and the tanks of the 3rd Tank Corps, the 129th Separate Tank Brigade, and the 27th Separate Tank Regiment – many of them dug in with only their turrets showing. The fighting surged back and forth throughout the day at Ponyri Station. The village schoolhouse, tractor depot, railway station and water tower became company objectives, and ferocious battles were fought for their control. The intensity of the fighting here led both German and Soviet writers to give Ponyri Station the title of “Little Stalingrad.” However, the Germans did not succeed in breaking through the Second Defense Belt.
A Soviet war vet, Mikhail Ovsyannikov, says that:
“the fortified railroad station of Ponyri proved to be the hardest nut to crack. A good deal of tanks and self-towed guns were committed to action in the effort to seize it on the very first day of the German offensive. Fierce fighting was reported for three straight days at Ponyri. Morning attacks continued into daytime engagements.
Our division was the first to be engaged by the enemy. It lost 2500 men in the two days of fighting. And it was not until July 12 that we had been able to launch a counteroffensive.”
The German 78th Sturm Division of XXIII Corps was ordered to push the 74th Rifle Division back toward Lunika, 5 km southwest of Maloarchangelsk and establish a defensive position. The Soviet 74th Rifle Division, however, launched some 11 attacks, each of 2 battalions supported by artillery, against the 78th Sturm Division at Protaosva. The village – little but ruins by this time – changed hands several times during the day but was in Russian hands at nightfall. The 78th Division fought well but, even with the support of a company of Ferdinands, it did not make any significant progress into the Second Defense Belt.
Again the advancing German forces frequently found themselves in minefields, many of them recently laid. Typically the first report of the minefield was when the first mine exploded. On 7 July Soviet engineers laid more than 8,000 additional mines. The entire 1st Guards Engineer Brigade with its three battalions was committed at Ponyri. During the day’s fighting, some 108 German tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces were destroyed in minefields, 76 of these in minefields laid by Mobile Obstacle Detachments. At this stage in the battle there are no reports of the use of B IVs or Goliaths to breach the mines. The German sappers reverted to breaching by hand. This was somewhat easier for the minefields laid during the battle than breaching the minefields laid in advance since the Mobile Obstacle Detachments laid many of their mines on the surface. However most of them were still covered by fire.
Scenario Idea: Ponyri Station and Hill 253.5
Play through one attack and counter-attack cycle of the battle around Ponyri Station and Hill 253.5 on 7 July 1943. The early morning attack by the German 86th Infantry Division on Hill 253.5 and an assumed simultaneous attack by the 292 Infantry Division on Ponyri Station. Then goes on to represent the counter attack by the Russian 307th Rifle Division supported by 13th Anti-tank Brigade, the 11th Mortar Brigade, and the 2nd Guards Mortar Brigade (Katusha multiple rockets).
8 July 1943
On 8 July after three days of heavy fighting the German 9th Army had broken through the minefields and defenses of the First Defense Belt and advanced 12-15 km to the Second Defense Belt. But losses had been very heavy – the Germans had lost more than 10,000 men and half of the 700 tanks available – and the remaining 60 km to Kursk contained four more prepared defense belts and large Soviet forces. Admittedly the divisional replacement battalions had gained 5,000 replacements to counter-balance the casualties but these men were not being fed to the rifle companies engaged in heavy fighting at the front. And without strong rifle companies to support the panzer forces, the German advance had been slowed or stopped.
Gen. Model recognized that penetrating the Second Defense Belt would take four or five days of slow, grinding attacks and would require a heavy expenditure of men, materiel, and munitions.
Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion 653 which began 5 July with 45 Ferdinands, had no vehicles operational on 8 July and ceased combat operations for a “recovery day.”
9 July 1943
On 9 July the 78th Sturm Division of XXIII Corps, accompanied by six Ferdinands of 654th Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion, attacked hills 239.8 and 253.5 in an attempt to dominate the approaches to Ponyri (Marsh, n.d). They cut through the Soviet 1023rd Rifle Regiment of 307 Rifle Division, despite support from the Soviet 5th Artillery Division and 11th and 22nd Mortar Brigades. This allowed supporting German units to advance into the heart of Ponyri.
Marsh, n.d., says the 508th Grenadier Regiment was the attacking unit of 78th Sturm Division, however, Wendel, 2005, and Lexicon der Wehrmacht put the 508th Grenadier Regiment in the 292nd Division. Thanks to Damian Robinson for bringing this inconsistency to my attention.
10 July 1943
On the night of 10-11 July Model orders the 10th Panzer Grenadier Division to replace the shattered 292nd Infantry Division in Ponyri.
11 July 1943
The 10th Panzer Grenadier Division moved into their new positions and immediately had to stem a series of Russian counter-attacks.
12 July 1943
During 12 July the German artillery drove back three daylight Soviet counter-attacks in the Ponyri area. By this stage of the forests on the slopes around Ponyri were ablaze from end to end due to continual artillery and air-strikes.
More significantly, at first light on the morning of 12 July, the fresh troops of the Soviet Bryansk and Western Fronts launched the planned counteroffensive from the north against Orel. This counteroffensive, although an integral part of the Soviet plans since April, seems to have caught the Germans completely by surprise. The Soviet counteroffensive, led by the Third Tank Army with some 21 divisions, 230,000 men and 1,460 tanks, posed a major threat to the rear of 9th Army and to Orel. To meet this threat, the Germans began quickly to move troops north. At 0800 hours, for example, the 12th Panzer Division and the 36th Infantry Division were halted on their way to support 9th Army and turned north. By 0900 the Ferdinands of the 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion and two battalions of heavy artillery also were pulled out and moved north. The 20th Panzer Division followed later in the day, and in the evening Gen. Model was given command of both the 9th Army and the 2nd Panzer Army to coordinate the battle for Orel. The German offensive on the north face of the salient at Kursk effectively had ended.
The German 9th Army had advanced only 12-15 km between 5 July and 15 July, with their best gains in the first two days before the Soviet reserves began arriving. It should be noted that Russian and German sources do not agree on the situation at the situation at 2100 Hours on 12 July 1943. German sources show Ponyri Station in German hands. Russian maps show it in Russian possession.
Cross, R. (1993). Citadel: The Battle of Kursk. London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited.
Erickson, J. (1996). The Road to Berlin. London: Phoenix.
Glantz, D. M. (1986). Soviet Defensive Tactics at Kursk, July 1943. CSI Report No. 11. Command and General Staff College. On-line http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/glantz2/glantz2.asp.
Lexicon der Wehrmacht [German]
MAPS 1943 (South-Western Direction) http://www.rkkaww2.narod.ru/maps/maps1943SW.htm#Kursk43 (broken link)
Marsh, R. (n.d.). Hill 253.5 and Ponyri – 9th July 1943. Rapid Fire Third Supplement: Scenarios for the Russian Front 1941-1945, p. 35-37.
Remson, A. and Anderson, D. (2000). Mine And Countermine Operations In The Battle Of Kursk, Final Report. U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command. On-line http://www.geocities.com/armysappersforward/kursk.htm.
Rutherford, B. and Lewis, J. (n.d.) Battle for Ponyri – 6 July 1943. Hit the Dirt: WWII
Scenarios for Crossfire, p. 11-12.
Wendel, M. (2005). 292. Infanterie-Division. Axis History Factbook. On-line http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=3882.