Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Psel Bridgehead, Battle of Kursk (July 1943)

The attack by Hoth's 4th Panzer Army to the south of Kursk in the summer of 1943 culminated in a massive clash of armour in the vicinity of Prokhorovka on the 12th July. The attacking 2nd SS Panzer Corps (III SS Pzr Totenkopf, I SS Pzr Liebstandarte and II SS Pzr Das Reich) were counter attacked by the formidable Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army. The ensuing stalemate coupled with the Allied invasion of Sicily put an end to the Axis ambition to retake the city of Kursk. Earlier this year I led a small walking tour of these battlefields. This first write up will briefly cover the actions of III SS Pzr to the west of Prokhorovka whose mission was to secure the western flank of the 2nd SS Pzr Corps.
Russian Front Line Trench - River Psel

Trenches on the Northern Bank of the River Psel
The northern bank of the Psel river were defended in depth. The pictures above shows the Russian front line near one of the river crossing in the vicinity of the hamlet of Vasilevka. These particular positions were eventually taken from the rear on the 11th July 1943 after Totenkopf's pioneers secured a crossing point a couple miles to the east. The picture below shows the same spot viewed through a pair of binoculars from the position reached by Michael Wittman's Tiger tanks (1 SS Pzr) on the 12th July - about 1 km west of the modern day Prokhorovka bell tower.
Escarpment on the North Bank of the River Psel 
The foreground shows a flat topography typical of the south - north approaches to Prokhorovka. this ground was carefully chosen as a strong defensive position by Hausser's staff as it enabled the proper deployment of the Liebstandarte's 70 tanks and self propelled guns in anticipation of the Soviet 5th Guards Army's counter attack. The picture also shows the steep northern bank of the Psel and the plateau beyond - which was to be secured by III SS Pzr (Totenkopf).
The Same White Scar from the Psel Valley
The picture below shows the exact crossing point of III SS Pzr on the 10th July 1943. The divisional engineering team worked hard to get the heavy tanks up the steep steep river bank. The modern day track leads down to one of the few bridges in the area. I'm very grateful to Professor Valerie Zamulin (author of 'Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative). Valerie joined us for a memorable day during our visit.
III SS Pzr Crossing Point, Psel River, 10th July 1943

Mark, Valerie, Myself, Alan and Katya
The purpose of the Psel bridgehead was to secure the heights on the northern bank in the proximity of Hill 226 and screen the north western flank of the Liebenstandarte. The crossing proved much more difficult than anticipated and the Totenkopf suffered four hundred and thirty casualties (Mark Healy, The German Offensive Against the Kursk Salient, 4-17 July 1943, p. 306). The flank was secured however - despite ferocious Soviet resistance.

Memorial to Soviet Anti-Tank Platoon - Hill 226
The Soviet 52nd and 95th Guards Rifle Divisions, supported by the heavily depleted 31st Tank Corps put up a ferocious resistance to the north of the bridgehead. The bridgehead, at the 'high water mark' on the 12th July was about four kilometres wide - the Totenkopf had managed to get about one hundred and twenty tanks and assault guns across the 60 ton bridge built by the division's pioneers. This included the ten tanks of the Totenkopf's 'heavy' company which were able to cross the river on the afternoon of the 10th.

The Plateau Above the River Psel Looking East
With the north western flank secured attention moved to the 1 SS Pzr's assault on Prochorovka - a topic that will be the subject of the next instalment of this blog.