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.