Sunday, 23 October 2016

Army Detachment Kempf at Kursk (July 1943)

Manstein's assault on the Southern Sector of the Kursk Salient was spearheaded by Hoth's 4th Panzer Corps. Army Detachment Kempf was ordered to protect the eastern flank of the attacking force. The units that Kempf had at his disposal were formidable - III Panzer Corps, XI Army Corps and XLII Army Corps. A total of three panzer and six infantry divisions.
Arrival at Belgorod Station
Having arrived at Belgorod by train, we decided to follow the route Kempf took during the period 5th to 17th July 1943. This took us on country roads running parallel to the main line of attack by the SS Panzer Corps - operating a few miles to the west. This leg would take us to the village of Belenikhino a couple of miles south of Prokhorovka and would offer up some fascinating battlefield walks.
Road to Gostishchevo
During the first five days of the battle, the tanks of Army Detachment Kempf made relatively good progress across wide, flat terrain however from the outset the extraordinary defence of the Soviet 70th Army was such that valuable German assets were required to hold the right flank as the lead echelons advanced. This continual need to protect the flank left the attacking spearhead with less firepower than had originally been envisaged.
Gostishchevo - Old Road West to East
Memorial to 281 Rifle Brigade & 93rd Rifle Division
As we passed to numerous memorials and roadside graves in the area it became apparent that the axis of the main road network has changed significantly since 1943. The first picture above shows the Druzhnri to Gostishchevo road running west-east and the second shows a Soviet battlefield monument at the point where that road was bisected by Kempf's advancing force travelling in the south-north direction (as per the modern road). What a story this memorial and the nearby military cemeteries tell - authentic and informative! - two characteristics that the new crop of monuments at Prokhorovka lack.
Soviet Memorial at Gostischchevo
The memorial above sits in the village of Gostischevo itself. The figure is looking east across one of the many balkas which are a feature of the landscape in the area. Prior to the attack the Russians had proved adept at using civilian labour to augment these natural obstacles with additional ditches and earthworks. Kempf reached Sabynino and Gostischevo on the 10th July and almost immediately started to encounter the fresh infantry divisions of the Soviet 69th Army. Meanwhile to the west - the SS Panzer Corps were further forward - a misalignment which once again pulled much needed troops into the protection of their eastern flank.
The Village of Teterevino
After a brief pause on the 10th July, Kempf launched the second stage of his northern thrust. The initial objectives were Rzhavets to the north east and Teterevino to the the north. We took the road to the latter and found a village full of military cemeteries and memorials. The picture below shows a memorial to local men - there are many common names.
War Memorial & Cemetery at Teterevino
The furthest point of the advance was the railway junction at Belenikhino. The south-north railway from Belgorod to Kursk ran dead centre of the Kempf line of attack. The village is not the easiest of places to find and we resorted to local intelligence in order to discover the whereabouts of the 5th Guards Army memorial which we knew to be in the area. the picture below shows a farmer pointing the way with a footbridge over the railway behind him.
Pointing North towards Belenikhino
At Belenikhino the advancing units of Army Detachment Kempf met up with men of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte who were seeking to secure their right flank as the 5th Guards Tank Army continued their decisive attacks from the 12th July onwards. The water tower at Belenikhino Station has been rebuilt and can be seen in the picture below.
Belenikhino Station & Partly Restored Church
Memorial to the 5th Tank Corps
The memorial above is flanked by two huge rolls of honour (not shown). The wording reads 'Memorial to the 5th Tank Corps - 5th July to 3rd August 1943 - Defenders of the Village.' Again the old west-east road is shown by a paved pathway which, in this case, is part of the memorial. From Belenkihino it is just a few miles to Prokhorovka but the Soviet defences with the 5th Guards as the main component - had proved too strong. It is perhaps fitting that this third instalment relating to the southern attack at Kursk should end with a tribute to these brave soviet soldiers.

Click here for the Psel Bridgehead, Battle of Kursk (July 1943) and here for the Tank Battle at Prokhorovka (12th July 1943).

Click here for my collection of photos taken in the Prockorovka area in May 2016.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka (12th July, 1943)

"What is this?" said the Russian border guard at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport as he extracted a large lump of metal from my suitcase. "I think it's part of a tractor, or something ....." I rather weakly replied. Luckily the queue behind me were very keen to get through airport security and the Russian official opted for the easiest option - and nodded me through. The piece of track from a T34 tank picked up at Prokhorovka is now proving to be a very effective paperweight.
Part of a T34 Track from Prokhorovka Field
Prokhorovka is remembered as the largest ever tank battle. In the collective Russian memory it was the turning point of the Battle of Kursk when the infamous Liebstandarte II SS Panzer Division was stopped in it's tracks. This point of view is immortalised on the battlefield in the form of the iconic Prokhorovka Bell Tower and the recently installed art works in front of the impressive local museum.
Bell Tower, Prokhorovka Field
T34s v.s. Tigers
The truth is somewhat different although the phenomonal achievement of the Red Army in thwarting the double fronted Axis thrust at Kursk should not be under-emphasised. We were joined by the world's leading expert on the battle - Professor Valerie Zumulin. Valerie's research reveals that the turning point of the battle was at Ponyri Station in the north when Model's XXXXI Panzer Corps were fought to a standstill by Soviet 13th Army. The Battle of Prokhorovka was concerned with the Soviet 5th Tank Army's counter thrust against Hausser's II SS Panzer Corps with the Liebstandarte in the defensive vanguard. 
Natalya, Katya, Sergey, Valerie, Alan & Mark
We started our day of battlefield walking on the top of Hill 258.2 on the 3rd defence line about three kilometres south of Prokhorovka. Beyond the third line was the flat ground where the German tanks could be made ready to receive the imminent Soviet counter thrust. On the 10th July seventy five Soviet defenders held out against the lead German tanks for an astonishing six and a half hours.
1 SS Panzer's Heavy Tanks 1km North of Hill 258.2
The Road to Prokhorovka - now raised and hardened
The flat ground south of Prokhorovka  - just to the west of the modern road and the Belgorod to Kursk railway line was the deployment position for the Liebstandarte's seventy tanks and self propelled guns (Healy has II SS Panzer Corps fielding a total of 294 tanks and self propelled guns on the 12th July - p.20, 'Zitadelle: The German Offensive Against the Kursk Salient 4-17 July 1943').
Hill 258.2 showing lines on 11th July 1943
The Soviet reserve 5th Tank Army (with, by Healy's reckoning, 830 tanks and self propelled guns) was poised to the north (three and a half kilometres from the modern day Bell Tower). One of the Soviet observation bunkers has been reconstructed and the roof of this bunker gives an excellent viewpoint over the flat open fields were these two echelons of tanks and armoured vehicles clashed.
Reconstructed 5th Tank Army Observation Bunker
The scene in this area on the 12th July is dramatically captured in the superb Belgorod Panorama. A useful stopover and orientation if, as we did, you arrive in the Kursk area by overnight train from Moscow. 

We undertook three walks on the Kursk southern front. This one, the Psel Bridgehead which can be read here and the route taken by Army Detachment Kempf to the east (which will be covered in my next update). The northern front and the subsequent Soviet Kutosov offensive will be covered in future entries.

View my images of Belgorod on Flickr here.
View my images of Prokhorovka on Flickr here.