The Battle Of Kursk: 75th Anniversary // Part Three: Assault From The South

July 16, 2018 by oriskany

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Once more we have returned, Beasts of War, to the hellfire and chaos that was the Battle of Kursk, considered by most military historians to be the largest single engagement in the sweep of human history.

Kursk Part 3 A

Catch The Entire Series Here

This month marks the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, so we’ve been taking a wargamer’s look at this earth-shaking event.

For Those Who Haven’t Heard the Thunder …

If you’re just joining us, here’s a very fast recap of what we’ve covered in Parts One and Two.

In the wake of their shattering defeat at Stalingrad, German armies fighting in Russia face grim prospects for summer, 1943. They have to win a major victory somewhere, to redress the disintegrating situation on the Eastern Front, restore morale, and show the world that the outcome of World War II has not in fact already been decided.

Kursk Part 3 B

They select a massive westward “salient,” or bulge, in the Soviet battle line, centred on the Russian town of Kursk. About the size of Northern Ireland, if this salient can be sliced off by converging flank attacks from north and south, several Soviet armies will be lost and the Germans maybe…just maybe…will have bought some time.

To launch this do-or-die attack (Operation Citadel), the Germans spend months massing together absolutely every ounce of firepower they can muster, suspending major operations virtually everywhere else in the war. New tanks are rushed into production, new divisions raised, old divisions are carefully rebuilt and reinforced.

The problem is, the Soviets see this attack coming and do the same. Their plan is to set up the deepest defensive belts in the history of warfare, let the Germans hit them and wear themselves out, then cut loose with a devastating armoured counterstrike. The end result would be a battle simply unmatched in the history of humanity.

In Part Two, we saw the Germans launch the northern wing of their all-or-nothing attack. Now it’s time to switch to the southern shoulder of the Kursk Salient for the other wing of the German strike. As gargantuan as the battle was in the north, unbelievably, the German attack in the south was almost twice as big, as we’ll see below.

Army Group South

The southern German wing of Operation Citadel was mounted by Army Group South, commanded by Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein. He had two major formations at his disposal, Fourth Panzer Army under Colonel-General Hermann Hoth, and “Army Detachment Kempf” under General Werner Kempf.

Kursk Part 3 C

Facing the Germans was the Voronezh Front (roughly analogous to an army group) under General Nikolai Vatutin. A greatly overlooked and underappreciated commander, Vatutin and been fighting (and winning) battles against Manstein as far back as September 1941. Never had they faced off in an engagement like this, however.

Preliminary assaults were undertaken on July 4th, 1943, with the first main attack unleashed in the predawn hours of July 5th. So accurate was Soviet intelligence, however, that they were able to drop a devastating pre-emptive artillery barrage just minutes before the German artillery opened fire. The omen was an ill one, to say the least.

Grossdeutschland Division

Southern Kursk In PanzerBlitz

For our games set in the southern part the Battle of Kursk, I’m focusing on two of my all-time favourite units, Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland for the Germans (hereafter “GD Division” because that’s just way too much typing to do over and over) and 1st Tank Army (later 1st Guards Tank Army) for the Soviets.

Kursk Part 3 D

Forming the centre of the XLVIII Panzer Corps, GD Division helped smash through the initial line of Soviet resistance at Cherkasskoye when the Battle of Kursk opened on 5 July. Here is where the new PzKpfw V “Panther” tank made its ignominious debut, huge numbers breaking down or catching fire without even being hit.

Despite these problems, GD Division had cracked and pushed through the main line of 6th Guards Army. By 7 July, however, a new threat was posed on the corps’ left wing by mobilizing reserves of General Katukov’s 1st Tank Army. Thus, GD Division was compelled to shift its spearheads to the west and meet masses of Soviet armour.

Kursk Part 3 E

This sparked a series of battles amidst villages, hills, and forests along the Pena River, which I’ve been recreating through “command tactical-level” games of Avalon Hill’s PanzerBlitz. Even though PanzerBlitz is designed to handle this higher command level, the sheer scale of these battles strains even the PanzerBlitz system.

For these battles, we have the shattered remains of the Soviet 3rd Mechanized Corps, desperately holding against yet another assault of GD Division while powerful armoured reserves of 6th Tank Corps (1st Tank Army) rush to help. The Germans thus have to cross a river and take fortified high ground before Soviet counterattacks arrive in force.

Kursk Part 3 F

The GD Division is, in my opinion, the perfect historical German division for wargaming. They were elite and lavishly over-equipped with the best equipment and tanks like the Waffen SS divisions, so you get to play with the best toys. Yet they remained relatively free of the political stigma and war crimes in which SS divisions are drenched.

They were also drawn from all over Germany (hence the name “Greater Germany”) and so don’t suffer from the provincialism that you see in many regionally-raised German units of the period. At Kursk their panzer regiment was led by Colonel Hyazinth von Strachwitz, a bonafide “graf” (count) and one of the true top panzer aces of the war.

Kursk Part 3 G

The 1st Tank Army, meanwhile (everything here is part of 1st Tank Army), is commanded by my favourite Soviet general, Mikhail Efimovich Katukov. In the thick of the war from the moment Germany invaded (breaking out of a hospital to re-join his division), he would later be given command of the Red Army’s very first Guards Tank Brigade.

He would write the book on new Soviet tank tactics, and would wind up commanding the Red Army’s premiere 1st Guards Tank Army, spearheading the assault into Berlin and commanding Group of Soviet Forces in Germany after the war. At Kursk his army took horrible losses, mismanaged and committed piecemeal by higher command.

Grossdeutschland Division

Southern Kursk In PanzerBlitz

Now it’s time to zoom in and chuck some dice in 15mm Battlegroup: Kursk. Again, these games take a “sample” of the larger historical engagement - part of Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland’s assault on Soviet positions near Syrtsevo, and dealing with counterattacking spearheads of 1st Tank Army.

Kursk Part 3 H

I keep trying to keep the size of these lists to a manageable level, but it’s almost impossible to do anything “small” in the Battle of Kursk. Again we’re pushing 800 points, including the massive amount of artillery, air, and engineering support both sides bring to the table.

The Germans have a small representation of Kampfgruppe Strachwitz, built initially on the “Panzer Count’s” own GD Panzer Regiment, but now also including the remains of Panzer Regiment 39 (Panthers) and even a few of the division’s Tigers (yes, Grossdeutschland was one of those lucky divisions that usually had its own Tiger detachment).

Kursk Part 3 I

Not wanting to make the same mistake as in Part Two, I make sure to take detachments of German engineers this time. Historically, the remains of those Panthers basically died in more Soviet minefields at Syrtsevo, I’m hoping to rewrite a little history here.

Speaking of which, the Soviets are also applying lessons from past games. This time they’re bringing a 37mm AA position, which should help the T-34c tanks of the 112th Tank Brigade and SU-76 assault guns of the 1,461st SP Artillery Regiment get up to the line without being gored by Stuka airstrikes (as they were historically).

Kursk Part 3 J

The battle gets started. Panthers and halftracks roll up to just short of the central Soviet minefields, putting down a curtain of cover fire as assault engineers jump out of the halftracks and immediate score on their 4+ roll to clear the mines. The Germans have to hurry here, they want to cross the Pena River before the 112th Tank Brigade arrives.

Things go pretty well for the Germans on their left (south) wing. Braced by the PzKpfw VI “Tiger” tank, and with the way across the demolished bridge cleared by the engineers, the Panthers and PzKpfw IIIs are able to ford the river just as the T-34s of the 112th Brigade arrive. There’s an immediate shootout, which the Germans win rather handily.

Kursk Part 3 K

One problem the Germans admittedly have is the “Unreliable” special rule for the Panthers. In summary, if the Soviet player draws a battle rating counter with a value of “1”, instead of taking a 1-point hit to his force’s battle rating, he can instead play it as a “Break Down” counter on a Panther and force it to roll on the Break-Down table.

Depending on the result of this roll, the Panther can either shrug off the breakdown, become immobilized, or possibly catch fire and force the crew to abandon the tank (brewing up, in game terms). You’re always going to lose at least one Panther this way – at least at Kursk. Later in the war, of course, these problems were corrected.

Kursk Part 3 L

The Panther’s antitank hitting power, however, makes it worth the headache on the gaming table. It’s 7.5 cm gun hits even harder than the Tiger’s 8.8, a historical detail Battlegroup nails with typical accuracy. This is because of the longer 7.5cm fire with much higher muzzle velocity, which is the key factor in punching holes in the enemy armour.

On the German right wing, however, things don’t go so well. The platoon of PzKpfw IVHs fords the river easily enough but is positively speared on Soviet antitank fire from Syrtsevo and the high ground just beyond. Tanks that are pinned instead of killed are then close-assaulted by Soviet infantry, then hit by counterattacking T-34s.

In the end, only the two StuG-IIIGs of the StPzAbtg “Grossdeutschland” are left to redress the situation. They do pretty well, but far too many Mark IVs are burning and the Germans don’t draw any good battle rating counters when losing these units. All too soon the Soviets of 1st Tank Army win this game, 48 to 42.

Kursk Part 3 M

I hope you’re enjoying this continuing exploration into wargaming the Battle of Kursk. Please return next week when this battle at least reaches its climax, the titanic armoured clash at Prokhorovka. While a lot of myth has been wrapped around this battle, it still remains by far the largest single tank engagement … that has ever happened.

In the meantime, please leave your comments, questions, and any feedback you might have. Do you have “favourite units” you like to play in historical wargaming? I know some of you do, I even know what some of them are! Keep the conversation going as this “mother of all battles” rages on!

"A greatly overlooked and underappreciated commander, Vatutin and been fighting (and winning) battles against Manstein as far back as September 1941..."

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"I keep trying to keep the size of these lists to a manageable level, but it’s almost impossible to do anything “small” in the Battle of Kursk..."

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