Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'My Father's Recollections of 1st July 1916' by Major Philip Wright OBE: Cambs Suffolks on the Somme

The first of July 1916 dawned with a light mist and all the signs of a glorious summer’s day. A thousand yards from the German line, my father’s battalion, the 11th Suffolk (about 900 men), spent the night in and around the small château in trench-riddled Bécourt Wood. From here, despite the unrelenting British bombardment, war seemed remote. Cuckoos called, nightingales sang, dogs barked at the guns; wild and garden flowers grew in profusion. At 4am on 1st July the soldiers breakfasted with the help of a dose of treacly army rum in their tea. At 5am, they filed into position and my father marched his platoon (about 40 men) out of the wood along the trenches. He, like everyone else, was carrying about sixty pounds of equipment. 

Andrew Wright of the Cambs Suffolks
                      The Battalion arrived in trenches to the rear of another unit from Grimsby. My father’s platoon, comprised largely of men from Cambridgeshire, was in the battalion’s third ‘wave’. At 7.20am, ten minutes to ‘zero hour’, every gun in the artillery accelerated to its maximum rate of fire in a hurricane bombardment. Then, with two minutes to go, the ground reeled. Across No Man’s Land and a little to my father’s left, the earth erupted thousands of feet into the air as the Lochnagar mine containing twenty-four tons of explosive ammonal was detonated under the enemy’s trenches. Clods of soil and chunks of chalk rained down as large as wheel barrows.

                            For the first time in a week all the guns stopped and long ranks of men rose from where they had been crouching on the ground. The skirl of bagpipes started up nearby. The British artillery lengthened its range and resumed its bombardment. My father waited for the Battalion’s second wave to leave. He checked his watch and at two and a half minutes after zero hour, blew his whistle and waved his platoon forward some hundred yards to the front line. There was a scramble for ladders and footholds over the parapets, to the tune of German machine guns very much alive to what was coming.

Lieutenant Andrew Wright and D Company - Ripon 1915

                     As soon as the barrage lifted from their front line, the Germans emerged from their deep dugouts hauling their machine guns with them. No Man’s Land was up to six hundred yards wide here but soldiers from the first three waves of the 11th Suffolk had begun to fall within the first one hundred. They went down ’just like corn in front of the farmer’s reaper’, one of my father’s men remembered. But the advance went on, somehow: men with heads bowed as if walking into a gale. At one point my father was advancing alone among small groups of survivors sheltering in shell holes. He got down until he saw a line of men going forward on his right and then continued up to the white lip of the newly blasted crater. With about two hundred men of all units, he remained in the crater until early evening, only leaving its sanctuary to attend to and give water to the wounded strewn in the waste land around.

Captured Enemy Dugout at La Boisselle, France
Mor               More than five hundred of the 11th Suffolk were wounded or killed. Of the sixteen officers, the Battalion had fielded, four had been killed, two more were never found and only my father emerged unhurt. Having done all he could for the wounded and dying, Captain James Fiddian, Medical Officer of 11th Suffolk, wrote to my father “Perhaps the most poignant memory of all is of the march next morning, when of some 800 who went in on 1st July about 125 mustered. I know that as I marched at the rear of the column I could not trust myself to speak, that my face was twitching in extraordinary ways and my mind was filled with the feeling that if the potentates themselves had to take part it the wars they made we should have no more of them.” 

                         Note: After the 1st July 1916, Andrew Wright went on to a distinguished career in the British Army and, later, the Diplomatic Service. Wright was awarded the MC for an action as Company Commander, 11th Suffolk during an attack on Hargicourt (Aisne) in August 1917. He was awarded a Bar to his MC during the 1918 Battle of the Lys where he showed outstanding leadership as the second in command of 11th Suffolk. Wright received further awards for active service in WW2 before being appointed Governor to the Gambia and later Governor of Cyprus. He ended his career as Sir Andrew Wright KCMG, CBE, MC. 


Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Fight for Bolkhov (July 1943)

Following the successful defeat of the German attack on Kursk (Operation Citadel) the Soviet High Command launched the Kutuzov counter-stroke - as planned. Model, the German commander responsible for the force attacking the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient immediately realised that the substantial number of units within the Orel bulge were at risk of encirclement. In particular the 9th Army - exhausted after having been fought to a stand-still in the Ponyri area.

Otrada Station, Orel Oblast, Russia
The 3rd Guards Tank Army launched an attack on an East/ West axis towards Orel on the 16th July 1943. Just five days later the Soviet 2nd Corps had taken the strategically important town of Otrada. In doing so the railway line to the German forces in the vicinity of Plavsk was cut. As the German panzers began to move back across the Oka river bridges in Orel city the situation began to look increasingly desperate for the Germans.

Bolkhov after liberation in July 1943
The same scene in May 2016

Knowing that Bolkhov needed to be held in order to retain control of the north-eastern section of the battlefield and to facilitate an orderly withdrawal to the new constructed Hagen Line at the base of the Orel bulge, Model reorganised his command. Gruppe Harpe was an ad-hoc battle group consisting of the XLI, LII and XXII Corps. Amongst the forces committed to the newly formed battle group were the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions. (Note: The blue building in the picture above is one of two such blocks built on the site of a wartime German cemetery in Bolkhov).

Capture of Bolkhov Convent on 26th July 1943
The same spot in May 2016

Bolkhov is a beautiful town and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in what appeared to be an old monastery. The town is dissected by the River Nugr (a tributory of the Oka) and whilst the main road bridge was rebuilt after the war, a second was not and is now marked by a rope bridge. Many of the churches in Bolkhov have been rebuilt and the golden domes are visible for many miles.

View of Bolkhov from the Officer's Cemetery 
T34 (correct vintage) at Bolkhov

We decided to walk the route of the German 20th Panzer Division which succesfully counter-attacked at the village of Wjasowaja on the 18th July. We also had every intention of getting to the villages of Betowo, Krasnikovo, Jatschnoje and Rylowo all of which saw heavy fighting involving the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions during the third week in July 1943. The criticality of the sector to the Germans is evident in the fact that Model relieved General Scheller, Commander of the 9th Panzer Division on the 21st July for failing to execute a 'suicidal' night attack on Krasnikovo.

Abandoned houses at Wjasowaja
The road from Bolkhov to Wjasowaja has a good surface and few potholes. En-route we spotted a number of small battlefield cemeteries. The village was revitalised in the 1970s for Russian emigres returning from Poland. Unfortunately few came and most of the buildings in the village are derelict. The picture above shows unfinished blocks which stand empty next to the few traditional houses inhabited by today's tiny and aging population.

Unfortunately the end of the village meant the end of the metalled road. The routes through the forest to the other places we had intended to visit were very muddy tracks - many of which would be impassable even with a four wheeled drive vehicle. A villager and his wife had just returned from an exhausting trip - by horse and trailer - to the weekly market at Krasnikovo. Clearly the trip had been too much for them and for their horse. 

Only transport available at Wjasowaja 
The impassable road to Betowo

The 20th Panzer Division's War Diary for the 18th July 1943 reveals how difficult the fighting was in Wjasowaja. Kampfgruppe Demme (20th Pzr) launched an attack at 03:30 in the morning. By 6:05 the village was in German hands. Three Russian tanks broke through at 7:00 with another fifteen at 07:30. At 08:30 a German request for reinforcements was rejected. After heavy fighting through the afternoon, Demme consolidated his defending force on a line anchored on Hill 220.4 aided by 6 of the 20th Division's panzers.

The author explaining the actions in Wjasowaja

We visited two cemeteries in the village. The first is on a ridge overlooking the southern approaches. It's a contemporary battlefield plot with a private memorial to a Soviet Airman within the perimeter. The second is the village memorial and cemetery which can be found in the grounds of the local school. Both are carefully looked after by the local population.

Battlefield cemetery at Wjasowaja
Village cemetery at Wjasowaja school

Our visit to the Bolkhov, Krasnikovo and Wjasowaja was considerably enhanced thanks to a terrific briefing pack prepared by my friend Martin Nevshemal, author of Objective Ponyri: The Defeat of XXXXI Panzerkorps at Ponyri Train Station (ISBN 978-0-9922749-1-7.

The full photo set for Bolkhov can be found here on Flickr.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Victory Day in Russia (9th May 2016)

Over the years I have had the immense privilege of attending Victory Day celebrations in a variety of cities and towns in Russia. The memory of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War is still very strong - fanned, as it is, by a political establishment which finds it helpful to invoke memories of the huge sacrifices made during the Second World War and the exceptional men and women who secured a stunning military victory for the Soviet Union.

Victory Day Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Head of Victory Day Parade, Bolchov, Russia (2016)

It is tempting to compare Victory Day (9th May) with the British institution of Remembrance Day (11th November). Superficially there are similarities - both mark the end of a conflict which had a drastic impact on the countries involved (albeit the quantum of Russian losses dominates in terms of pure numbers). Victory Day in Russia is marked as a national holiday. It is a joyous occasion during which the generation that fought the Nazis are respected and celebrated. The tone is triumphalist, joyous and patriotic. Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom is equally respectful of course but the tone is sombre with a focus on those who died as exemplified through the emblematic poppy.

A veteran joined by teenagers in Bolchov

Going back a few years the veterans would march through the streets of Russian cities and towns. By the time they reached the end point they would have armfuls of flowers and they would be glowing with pride. Nowadays the flowers and the pride are still very much evident but the number of veterans is much smaller and those that do attend invariably view the parade from comfortable viewing platforms.

Victory Day in Bolchov
This year, along with a small group of friends, I was able to attend two events. Firstly in the lovely little riverside town of Bolchov and then - a couple of hours drive away - in the bustling city of Orel. Both places were occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1943 before being liberated during the Kutuzov offensive. It was a lovely sunny day and both events were hugely impressive.

Bolchov presents itself as a small sleepy place with few people around. This was not so on Victory Day. By 10:00 in the morning the main street was thronged with local people. Surprising given the vast numbers in the parade - uniformed service men and women, costumed groups, school classes and - in a throwback to the Soviet era - young pioneers dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the All-Union Leninist Communist Youth League - popularly known as the Komsomol.

Last Minute Touches at Bolchov on Victory Day

During the second world war it was common practice for the Soviet authorities to inter fallen officers in town centre parks - the other ranks were buried in traditional cemeteries on the outskirts of town. The Officer's Cemetery in Bolchov was a focus point on Victory Day with uniformed Russian teenagers mounting an honour guard. The picture above shows a youth leader adjusting the uniform of one of these 'guards'. After the march the entire population - or so it seemed - gathered in the main square for speeches and communal singing - Katyusha being a firm favourite.

The End of the Parade - Bolchov, Russia

The afternoon parade in Orel was on an even bigger scale. We arrived to a scene of joy and celebration - there was an air of expectation and the city centre and bridges had been cleared of traffic. In the parks there were small scale exhibitions relating to the Second World War and people of all ages were dressed up in their finery and - in many instances - replica uniforms of those who fought to liberate the city in 1943.

Weapons display - Central Park, Orel, Russia
Three generations celebrate a fourth 

We were astonished by the scale of the Victory Parade in Orel - tens of thousands of local people in family groups clutching pictures of relatives who had served in the Soviet Army. For hour after hour they streamed past - spontaneously bursting into patriotic songs and acknowledging us with big smiles when they heard the English accents of myself and two others in our small group.

The Victory Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Waiting for the speeches - Orel, Russia (2016)

I took two short clips of the parade where the viewer can get a sense of the atmosphere. They are available here and here. The stream of people seemed never ending and it was humbling to see how proud people were of their relatives who served. A sea of vibrant faces and faded photographs - for mile after mile after mile!

Sneaking a selfie with the girlfriend - Orel, Russia

I will cover our battlefield walks in Orel and Bolchov in later editions of this blog. Meanwhile click on the link to my Victory Day - 2016 photographs on flickr if you would like to see more images of these parades.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Objective Ponyri - The Battle of Kursk (July 1943)

Popular conception of the Battle of Kursk leaves the impression that the key to Soviet success was the 5th Tank Army's defence of Prokhorovka which - so it is said - thwarted the German attack from the south. The reality is somewhat different - putting aside the fact that the II Panzer Army in the south was in a defensive posture when the famous clash of armour occurred at Prokhorovka on the 12th July, the reality is that the Axis ambition to pinch out the Kursk salient had  already been shattered in the north several days earlier.

Ferdinand 501 - 1943 & 2016
Our journey to Ponyri had - in a sense - started a week earlier at the vast Kubinka Tank Museum, just a couple of hours by train from Moscow. The complex is massive with huge halls dedicated to different types of armoured vehicle. We were particularly interested in Ferdinand 501, one of 90 such vehicles deployed by Model's 9th Army in the northern sector of the Kursk battlefield.

We were seriously distracted at Kubinka - watching tanks running and firing contemporary weapons. However, for an overview of the Soviet and German armoured vehicles in use of Kursk and Kutuzov, the place is a 'must do'. Most of the armour is lined up in poorly lit hangers so it was difficult to capture decent images of this fantastic collection. When catching the train to Kubinka it is well worth seeking out the 'Farewell to Slavianka' monument in Belorussia station, Moscow (installed April, 2014).

Farewell for Kursk - Belorussia Station, Moscow
Post war, during the communist era, the 'defeat' of Hitler's elite Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka was celebrated with a plethora of memorials including the elegant bell tower. It is only now that the northern sector is gaining profile as a battlefield worthy of commemoration - and rightly so given the tremendous achievement of Rokossovsky's Central Army's in stopping Model's 9th Army in its' tracks (literally!).
Victory Column on Teploye Heights
A new iconic memorial on the Teploye Heights is under construction - it was Model's failure to capture and hold these heights on the 8th & 9th July which sealed the fate of Zitadelle.

The German 9th Army was well equipped with armour. Unlike Manstein in the south there were no Panther tanks but the Ferdinands were complemented by over 250 Panzer I, IIs, IIs, IVs and Tigers. There were to be no wedges of armour biting into the Russian lines though. The 9th Army dispersed its' armour amongst its formidable infantry formations which were operating in five Corps, three of which were designated 'Panzer'.

Facing the German attackers was the formidable Soviet 13th Army backed by the 2nd Tank Army and the central thrust of the German attack, led by the XXXXI Panzerkorps, was parried in the vicinity of Ponyri Railway Station. The station has been rebuilt and the booking hall is filled with spectacular murals. The surrounding area is marked by a number of small scale memorials and in the old schoolhouse there is an excellent museum. Much to our amusement during our visit one of the museum guides demonstrated how to navigate through barbed wire - quite an achievement given her advanced age and 'full' figure!

Interior of Ponri Station 
A Wet Day at Ponyri Station

Prior to our trip I had been given some great advice about the Ponyri battlefield from Marty Nevshemal whose book 'Objective Ponryri: The Defeat of XXXXI Panzerkorps at Ponyri Station' is a marvellous empirical study of the battle. I was happy to present the curator of Ponyri Museum with a copy of the book on behalf of the author. 

Presenting Marty's book to the Ponyri Museum

The modern day road north from Kursk to Orel runs through the old 1st defence line just south of the town of Trosna. There is a memorial complex there and we took the opportunity to undertake a field walk in the sunshine. From the low ridge to the east it is is just possible to see the area of the Soviet 70th Army's defences which were assaulted by the German 258th Infantry Division on the 5th July 1943. Unlike many of the other guns in place on the memorial the inevitable T34 is actually pointing in the right direction.

T34 on 1st Defence Line - Trosna

this was our final walk on the Kursk battlefield and our next destinations would be in the Orel area where, once the German attack on Kursk faltered, the Soviet High Command launched a massive counterattack. Next stop Bolchov.

For photographs of the Kubinka Tank Grounds click here.
For photographs of Ponyri click here.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Centennial event for the men of the Cambs Suffolks who fell at Roeux on the 28th April 1917

A while ago I wrote a piece on the recovery of Lance Serjeant Charles Stevens's mortal remains in the village of Roeux by a local homeowner who was preparing groundworks for a garden wall. Stevens was killed in action on the 28th April 1917 and the story can be re-read by clicking here.
Next year, on the 100th anniversary of the ill fated attack on the Chemical Works at Roeux, local dignitaries, interested parties and (hopefully) relatives of those who served in the 11th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, will participate in a short service of commemoration on the spot where the Cambs Suffolks fought on that day. Colin Fakes (who has a prime mover in finding a way of paying tribute to his Grandfather, Charles Stevens) and myself will be hosting a three or four day tour of places relevant to the Cambs Suffolks' first 18 months on the Western Front. As well as Roeux we will spend time at Erquinghem Lys and La Boisselle. We are particularly keen for relatives of the 82 men killed on the 28th April who have no known grave to attend as they will be commemorated on a new memorial which will be the focus of the trip. Here is a list of those men:

Askew, Harvey - 14419 - Willingham
Barber, Soloman (Sergeant) - 16606 - Coton
Barlow, William (Lance Corporal) - 24220 - Girton
Batchelor, Arthur Elton - 9687 - Diss, Norfolk
Battley, Arthur James - 43414 - Wrentham, Lowestoft
Bax, Reginald - 13114 - Chelmondiston, Suffolk
Biggs, Harry Robert - 28422 - Chittering
Bowles, George - 9132 - Back Hill, Witchford
Bradbury, Albert Russell Milles - 43424 - Lowestoft
Branch, Albert Sidney - 22480 - Chittering
Brown, Clifford Albert - 16123 - Haverhill, Suffolk
Browne, Ernest Frederick (Corporal) - 43399 - Norwich
Butcher, Allan Robert - 16123 - Ipswich, Suffolk
Catchpole, John - 24830 - Thetford, Norfolk
Charles, Frederick William - 16401 - Waterbeach
Cherry, Sidney (Serjeant) - 50457 - Luton, Bedfordshire
Circus, Thomas Edwin (Lance Corporal) - 14427 - Elsworth
Clark, William - 23996 - Bentley, Suffolk
Clarke, Henry William - 43441 - Lowestoft
Cooper, Arthur James - 22263 - Woolwich, London
Cutter, Charles Henry (Lance Corporal) - 17365 - Hinxton
Daines, William - 24160 - Oulton Broad, Lowestoft
Dennis, Walter - 28331 - St Albans, Hertfordshire
Durtnell, Richard Neville (Second Lieutenant) - Sevenoaks, Kent
Dyson, Arthur Reginald - 9765 - Thurston, Suffolk
Fiske, Alfred - 18961 - Gislingham, Suffolk
Flagg, Samuel - 16277 - March
Gedge, Arthur George - 17518 - Chesterton, Cambridge
Goldsmith, Arthur (Lance Corporal) - 13422 - Wickham Market
Goose, Percy Alfred (Lance Corporal) - 24219 - Willingham
Gould, Stanley Edmond (Lance Corporal) - 50460 - Loughton, Essex
Green, Walter - 20135 - Croydon, Cambs
Hale, John - 18718 - Bury St Edmunds
Hancock, Harry Baxter - 24422 - Oundle
Hardy, Sidney - 26293 - Long Melford, Suffolk
Harrison, George - 21004 - Stamford, Lincolnshire
Hawkins, Ernest - 43489 - Cardington, Bedfordshire
Hayes, Frank - 41158 - Harrogate, Yorkshire
Hepher, James William - 23971 - Swavesey
Hill, Owen - 18474 - Linton
Hollingworth, George William - 41159 - Leicester
Howell, Charles - 43490 - Clown, Derbyshire
Howlett, Ernest Osborne - 16235 - Wicken
Hunt, John William Reynolds (Second Lieutenant) - Coton
Jepson, William Livesey - 41132 - Darwen, Lancashire
Johnson, John Alfred - 16914 - Fordham
Kirby, Joseph - 15881 - Ely
Linford, Alfred Aaron (Serjeant) - 15663 - Swavesey
Lush, Rowland - 43498 - Bordersley, Warwick
Mannall, Robert - 20813 - Charsfield, Suffolk
Mayhew, Walter - 18434 - Redingfield, Suffolk
Mead, Charles Arthur - 24166 - East Bergholt, Suffolk
Missen, Arthur - 18367 - Lavenham, Suffolk & Trumpington
Neal, Nathaniel (Corporal) - 16248 - Littleport
Nunn, Albert George - 9597 - Stowlangtoft, Bury St Edmunds
Palmer, Charles William - 18212 - Beck Row, Suffolk
Parr, Thomas Kelly - 39788 - Fordham, Ely
Patterson, William George - 25238 - Catton, Norwich
Pettit, William Charles - 13606 - Horningsea
Phillips, Albert James - 26873 - Longstanton
Pipe, Willoughby Henry - 15105 - Spexall, Suffolk
Presland, Reginald - 16310 - Croydon, Hertfordshire
Rignall, Albert Bartingale - 14774 - Longstanton
Runnacles, Harry (Lance Corporal) - 12080 - Badingham, Suffolk
Sanders, Ernest - 50049 - Cromer, Norfolk
Smith, Harry - 235222 - Newark, Nottinghamshire
Smith, James - 21006 - Stetchworth, Newmarket
Snare, Lewis - 24876 - Fordham, Newmarket
South, Ernest - 24738 - Wilbraham
Speechley, Harold - 24420 - Glapthorne, Northamptonshire
Stevens, Charles William (Lance Serjeant) - 17203 - Swaffham Bulbeck
Steward, Samuel - 24704 - Woolpit, Suffolk
Taylor, William - 16604 - Harston, Cambridge
Thomson, Alexander William - 50686 - Shepherd's Bush, London
Topham, Percy - 24316 - Unknown
Tyndall, Thomas Image - 39449 - Wisbech
Tynet, Thomas Harold - 27669 - Paddington, London
Watson, Clement Frederick - 16419 - Cambridge
Wedd, Albert - 20115 - Melbourn, Hertfordshire
White, George - 34159 - Tottenham, London
Willingham, William George (Corporal) - 43388 - Ipswich, Suffolk
Wright, William - Quy, Cambridge - 31855

Talking about the Stevens story to Gerald Main from the BBC - click here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

General Konstanin Rokossovsky at Kursk (1943)

We'd heard bad things about the city of Kursk but decided to stopover in the city on our way up to Orel anyway. We found Kursk to be a fascinating place with some beautiful churches and public buildings. It's also a handy jumping off point for the German Military Cemetery at Besedino and the site of General Rokossovsky's 1943 headquarters complex in the village of Svoboda.

Gas powered bus in the city of Kursk

Kursk, was of course slightly to the west of where the 9th and 4th Panzer Armies (attacking from the north and south respectively) would have met up had the German plan been executed successfully. The driver for the German plan was the prospect of encircling the vast quantities of men and material that the Soviet army had committed to the defence of the Kursk salient.
Wedding party on Victory Avenue, Kursk
A good place to orientate yourself in the city, is the stunning Sergiev-Kazan cathedral with it's impressive bell-tower and richly decorated interiors. The church was made into a provincial museum pre-war and in anticipation of Barbarossa rolling through the city, an attempt was made to hide artistic treasures in the walled up nave of the lower church. Sadly this attempt failed - the invading Axis forces broke open the false wall and removed the priceless contents to the Reich. Under German jurisdiction the church was returned to it's original religious use.

View of Kursk from the Sergiev-Kazan cathedral tower
Outer sanctuary of the Sergiev-Kazan cathedral
General Rokossovsky established his headquarters bunker complex at the village of Svoboda which lies about twenty miles north-west of Kursk city via a minor road. This hugely respected Soviet commander was mixed Russian-Polish by birth and his career very nearly ended in the pre-war Stalinist purges. He was rehabilitated into the Russian Army in 1940 and in the winter of 1941-2 defence of Moscow earned plaudits for his outstanding leadership. His all-arms defensive operation in the Kursk salient was an outstanding achievement which opened the door to Operation Kutusov (which will be the subject of a future blog entry).
Memorial at Svoboda
Konstantin Rokossovsky - Svoboda Bunker Complex

The military cemetery at Besedino - about fifteen miles to the east of Kursk city contains about twenty five thousand German (and their allies) military graves of which a minority are known. The names of the 'Battle of Kursk' fallen where there is no known grave are listed on a series of upright stones flanking the main path through the cemetery. The cemetery was opened in 2009 and there are new internments every year.

Besedino German Military Cemetery

During our drive through Kursk we noticed a neon sign announcing an 'English Pub' - quite a common sight in Russia nowadays. Given that there are very few English speaking visitors to Kursk we thought we'd give it a try. German beer, Scottish ornaments - including tartan curtains and bar staff who were completely indifferent to the fact that three of us shared our nationality with their brand. A great night but quite bizarre!
Ringing the bells

We received a more effusive welcome at the Sergiev-Kazan where one of the bell-ringers, who had a few too many vodkas, took a shine to our small party and took us up the ladders to the bell tower where I had an impromptu bell-ringing lesson.

City of Kursk Flickr pictures here.
Rokossovsky Svoboda pictures here.

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 Druzhnyy 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.