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Read Excerpts from Sledgehammers

from Chapter Three, Growing Pains and Adaptation (pp. 66-73)

Operation Zitadelle: The Battle of Kursk

Two heavy tank battalions participated in the Battle of Kursk, and both were intended to play major, if not decisive, roles. Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was still in southern Russia as part of Army Group South. It was attached to III Panzer Corps, part of Army Detachment Kempf, during Operation Zitadelle as part of the southern thrust against the Kursk salient.140 The other heavy tank battalion involved in this operation was Heavy Tank Battalion 505, attached to Army Group Center.141

Both of these battalions received orders to change from Organization D to Organization E in the spring of 1943. Heavy Tank Battalion 503 had completed this transition and fielded 45 Tigers in three companies for the operation.142 Heavy Tank Battalion 505 was still in the process of making the transition to the Organization E as the offensive began. It completed the formation of two Organization E heavy tank companies, but the third company did not arrive until 8 July 1943, after the start of the offensive.143 In an attempt to compensate for this, Funklenk (Wireless Radio) Company 312 was attached to it.144 This unit fielded remote controlled Borgward B IV vehicles, carrying 500 kilograms of TNT each. These vehicles were remotely maneuvered into position and then exploded to destroy antitank positions and other emplacements.145 This company's mission was to detect minefields and assist in clearing lanes through them, as well as assisting in destroying enemy defensive strongpoints such as fortified antitank guns as well as heavy tanks.146

This battalion was also unique because of the way in which they used the Panzer IIIs that were still present at the time of the battle. They converted these obsolescent tanks into bridging material carriers by removing their turrets and placing planks, beams, and other bridging material on top.147 Although the battalion was ordered to repair these vehicles, they had not repaired or turned them in prior to the start of the offensive.148

The two heavy tank battalions involved in Operation Zitadelle were not only organized differently, but were also employed in dissimilar fashions. In the North, Army Group Center attached Heavy Tank Battalion 505 to the 6th Infantry Division of the XLVII Panzer Corps. This corps consisted of three panzer divisions and one infantry division, and was assigned as the main breakthrough force in the North.149 This was a mission fully in keeping with the doctrinal role for which Tiger battalions had been created. On the other side of the Kursk Salient, Army Group South attached Heavy Tank Battalion 503 to III Panzer Corps, which also consisted of three panzer divisions and one infantry division. This corps was part of the larger ad hoc organization known as Army Detachment Kempf and initially had the mission of guarding the flank of II SS-Panzer Corps. It was also tasked with destroying enemy counterattack forces expected to arrive from the east and the north.150 In spite of Guderian's guidance that Tigers be employed in a concentrated heavy tank battalion and against the strong advice of the battalion commander, the commander of III Panzer Corps initially attached one heavy tank company to each of the corps' panzer divisions.

The units comprising the southern pincer of the German attack consisted mainly of armored units, but there was a shortage of infantry for the tasks at hand. The commanders of 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf thus decided to use their tanks in the initial assault on the first day.151 III Panzer Corps' zone of attack took its units across a level flood plain crisscrossed with small tributaries of the Northern Donets and Razumnoe Rivers. These made excellent obstacles for defense by the Soviets. The defenders reinforced these with mines and other obstacles to vehicular movement, severely restricting German armored units' mobility.152 (see map 9)

Records concerning Heavy Tank Battalion 503 are filled with accounts of Tigers being halted by minefields; tank ditches; and streams and rivers. On the first day of the attack, the 2d Company had 13 of its 14 Tigers disabled by mines in a single minefield.153 After attempting but failing to ford the Donets River at 0230 on the first day of the attack, the 3d Company was finally able to cross early in the afternoon, using a bridge erected by combat engineers.154 During the first three days of the attack, the battalion's Tiger companies supported the three Panzer divisions of III Panzer Corps. During this time, the corps managed to break through the first and second defensive lines, but was still only about 20 kilometers from their line of departure, with another 100 kilometers to go to reach Kursk.155

By 7 July 1943, the Soviets were focusing their attention primarily on the success of II SS-Panzer Corps to the west. Tasked to protect the flank of II SS-Panzer Corps, but still well to the south, this success presented a problem for III Panzer Corps. On 7 July 1943, III Panzer Corps consolidated Heavy Tank Battalion 503 and subordinated it to Panzer Regiment 11 of the 6th Panzer Division.156 The commander of III Panzer Corps gave 6th Panzer Division the mission of spearheading the attack to link up with II SS-Panzer Corps.157 To complete this link up, the corps had to cross the Donets River again further upstream.158 Supported by Heavy Tank Battalion 503, the 6th Panzer Division fought through Soviet defenses to Rzhavets across the Donets River, before being detached from III Panzer Corps.159

The highlight of this attack was a bold infiltration of Soviet defenses on the night of 11-12 July 1943 by Panzer Regiment 11 and Heavy Tank Battalion 503. This attack, led by Major Franz Bäke under cover of darkness, successfully moved through Soviet defenses and then infiltrated Soviet armor columns as they attempted to reposition in preparation for the next day's operations. To assist in the delicate and risky action, Bäke used two captured T-34s to lead the column, along with two tank commanders who spoke fluent Russian. He also gave orders for the infantry riding on the tanks to smoke and act relaxed. The German column was finally discovered on the outskirts of the town of Rzhavets. This allowed Soviet engineers to blow up the bridges across the Donets before the Germans could capture them. German infantry and engineers used a small bridge to cross over and establish a bridgehead, but it was several days before a much larger bridge capable of carrying the Tigers across was built. As a result, III Panzer Corps did not link up with II SS-Panzer Corps before the tanks from the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army attacked on 12 July 1943.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 destroyed approximately 72 Soviet tanks from the beginning of the offensive until the battalion was taken from III Panzer Corps on 14 July 1943.160 During this time, they lost four Tigers in combat and no Tigers had to be destroyed to avoid capture.161 This was primarily due to the fact that the battalion was on the offensive and its maintenance and recovery elements could evacuate and repair damaged and disabled Tigers on the battlefield, instead of having to abandon them as in previous battles involving retreats. Overall, the battalion achieved a kill ratio of 18.0 to 1.

In a little over ten days of almost continuous combat, the battalion was able to maintain 57 percent of its Tigers operational, with the highest number available at one time being 42 at the beginning of the operation and the lowest number being six, on 14 July 1943.162

In the north, 9th Army had fewer tanks than the southern pincer attack and thus, its commander chose to attack primarily with infantry forces on the first day. The plan was for the infantry to break through the Soviet defenses, allowing panzer units to exploit that breakthrough. The exception to this was the main effort in the north, the XLVII Panzer Corps. This corps attacked on the first day with the 20th Panzer Division and the 6th Infantry Division.163 Despite the official guidance against attaching a heavy tank battalion to an infantry division, Heavy Tank Battalion 505 was attached to the 6th Infantry Division as part of the XLVII Panzer Corps. (see map 10)

On the first day of the attack, after crossing the river Oka and seizing the village of Novy-Chutor, the commander of the 6th Infantry Division ordered Heavy Tank Battalion 505 to attack at 0930 hours.164 With its two companies and the attached Funklenk Company 312, the battalion easily destroyed dug-in enemy tanks to their front and penetrated the defenses on the 15th Rifle Division's right wing. This battalion attack allowed German forces to secure the important village of Butyrki and threatened the Soviet first echelon divisions with encirclement. Heavy Tank Battalion 505 had advanced farther and faster than Model had ever anticipated, but because the plan called for the commitment of the panzer divisions on the second day, these units were not in position to exploit the breakthrough. German accounts mention an opportunity lost by not positioning armored forces to exploit the tactical breakthrough of the Soviet defenses by Heavy Tank Battalion 505. The Commanding General of the 6th Infantry Division stated:

We could observe movements by the Russians. If the tanks had rolled through then, we could perhaps have reached the objective of Kursk because the enemy was completely surprised and still weak. Valuable time was lost, which the enemy used to rush in his reserves.165

The unit history of Heavy Tank Battalion 505 tells more of the potential opportunity lost:

5 July 1943: The battalion's penetration to Butyrki leads to the complete collapse of the Soviet 15th Infantry Division, causing a major crisis on the right wing of the 70th Army. The employment of the 2d Panzer Division at that time, not as scheduled on the following day, would have destroyed the whole front!166

The success of the battalion's attack is reemphasized by the fact that the Central Front commander, General Rokossovsky, quickly reinforced the 13th Army with 350 aircraft and control of the 13th and 1st Antitank Brigades, an artillery brigade, and the 21st Separate Mortar Brigade from the Central Front Reserve.167 In an immediate attempt to stabilize the front, the 13th Army commander, General Pukhov, committed his reserve 27th Guards Tank Regiment and combat engineer units from all parts of the 13th Army.168

The next day, 6 July 1943, Heavy Tank Battalion 505 continued its attack, this time supporting the 2d and 9th Panzer Divisions.169 This attack caused the front and army commanders to commit further armored reserves to defeat the German penetration and reestablish the first defensive belt.170 The Soviets committed the 16th Tank Corps consisting of two tank brigades.171 The lead tank brigade unexpectedly encountered Heavy Tank Battalion 505 and in a matter of a few minutes, the Germans destroyed 46 of the brigade's 50 tanks.172 The supporting tank brigade was also heavily damaged, losing a further 23 tanks.173

For the next three days, the battalion continued to attack, along with the 2d and the 9th Panzer Divisions, in an attempt to secure the strategically important town of Ol'khovatka.174 In addition to determined resistance from Soviet infantry, the Soviets continued to commit their armored reserves into the battle and the Germans never took the town.

On 9 July 1943, 9th Army ordered Heavy Tank Battalion 505 to withdraw from the battle to act as corps reserve for XLVII Panzer Corps.175 From 10 to 11 July 1943, Heavy Tank Battalion 505 supported attacks toward Toploye.176 The battalion went over to the defense and from 15 to 17 July 1943, it withdrew to its original start line.177

Heavy Tank Battalion 505 was successful in destroying a large number of enemy tanks during their breakthrough attempt on the first day and were again successful in destroying a large group of enemy tanks during the Soviet counterattack on the second day. They were, however, unable to overcome the repeated counterattacks and the well-established, deep Soviet defenses, to assist in breaking through on an operational level.

Heavy Tank Battalion 505 destroyed 42 Soviet tanks on the opening day of Operational Zitadelle on 5 July 1943 and another 67 the next day.178 During fighting in the next few days, the attached Funklenk Company 312 destroyed an additional T-34.179 After the German offensive in the north stalled, the battalion assisted in repulsing Soviet armored counterattacks on 15 and 17 July 1943, destroying another 22 and 32 enemy tanks respectively.180 During the period of employment when the Germans were on the offensive, Heavy Tank Battalion 505 destroyed a total of 110 enemy tanks, and a further 54 tanks after going over to the defense.181

During the same time, this unit lost a total of only five Tigers to enemy fire.182 Three of these were lost during offensive operations and two were lost during defensive operations after 16 July 1943. As with Heavy Tank Battalion 503 in the south, this battalion was on the offensive and could more easily recover its damaged and broken vehicles. The result was that there were no Tigers destroyed by their own crews. Even though this battalion was unable to penetrate through the entire Soviet defenses and accomplish its mission, it was able to achieve a 36.6-to-1 kill ratio during offensive operations against an enemy that was in well-prepared, deeply-echeloned defenses and a 27.0-to-1 kill ratio when on the defensive.

This battalion suffered from a low operational rate during Operation Zitadelle, maintaining an average of only 45.7 percent operational from 4 to 20 July 1943.183 At the start of the battle it fielded 26 Tigers, but by the end of the second day of fighting, it only had six operational Tigers remaining.184 After its 3d company arrived on 8 July 1943, the battalion fielded 29 Tigers, the highest total that it was able to achieve throughout Operation Zitadelle.185

Unit diaries and other histories do not indicate exact numbers, but they make it clear that a major portion of the vehicles from both heavy tank battalions involved in Operation Zitadelle were damaged by mines. This is very surprising considering that both battalions were augmented or supported by additional engineer troops during some or all of the operation. Also, German sources do not mention it, but Soviet sources credit the Tiger tank with being mounted with a mine roller capable of detecting the forward edge of a minefield.

Under pressure of our powerful artillery fire, the Germans cleared mines and obstacles with the help of tanks, together with the work of sappers. For this purpose the enemy used Tiger tanks in front of which were attached 6 to 7 meter rods with a wooden roller set up on them. When the roller came up against a mine, the mine exploded, while the tank remained unharmed. In this manner the enemy easily detected the forward edge of the minefield, which was cleared with the help of sapper units.186

The heavy tank battalions did, however, receive considerable damage from mines and when they encountered a minefield they were slowed or stopped until sappers could clear a path.

Regardless of whether these mine rollers were actually used, it appears that the preferred method of mine clearing was by manual means, exposing personnel outside of an armored vehicle. When enemy fire was too heavy, it seems that the secondary method of mine breaching was to drive through the minefield with Tigers. This resulted in damage to the vehicles, but saved personnel. Minefields probably had a great deal to do with the dramatic decline in operational rates within both battalions after the first day or two of combat.

from the Epilogue, Through the Eyes of Tiger Killers (p. 193-95)

This verified personal account is by Red Army veteran Viktor Iskrov

Fighting in the 116th Guards "Order of Lenin" Artillery Regiment as commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, on September 26, 1943 at the village of Shevchenko we encountered a column of German armor. The events unfolded in the following manner.

I was at the battalion"s CP with the commander of the 4th Battery, Senior Lieutenant D. S. Gaidaenko when we spotted a group of German tanks that were advancing toward the battery from the flank. Apparently, they had broken through our infantry defenses and were now going for us. I immediately contacted the regimental commander over the radio and asked for orders. His answer was short, "Act on your own!"

I left the chief of forward observers, Senior Lieutenant M. M. Yakovlev, at the CP, and we (Senior Lieutenant Gaidaenko and I) ran as fast as our feet would carry us to the 4th Battery. I recalled faces of all my family and my relatives. In my thoughts I said farewell to them all: to my mother (I did not yet know that she had been dead for over a year, dying of starvation in besieged Leningrad), to my wife Maria, and others. This was a very brief farewell. In front of us were the advancing German tanks and four ZIS-3 76.2mm field guns of the 4th Battery to stop them. The guns, camouflaged in the hedgerows at Shevchenko, were turned 90 degrees to the right to repel the assault.

Inexperienced or green gun-layers were replaced by experienced officers. I found a place on a hillock behind the battery to have a good view of the battlefield and so that my crews could see me. I told the crews to fire at the tracks and side armor, and ordered them to open fire only on my command, when I waved a small red flag.

Tanks appeared from behind the hills that were in front of us. One of the gun-layers, Sergeant Serdyuk, became unnerved and fired as soon as the tanks appeared on the hilltops. He missed, and the German tanks immediately spotted his gun. It was blasted with a direct hit. We found Sergeant Serdyuk's head lying some 15-20 meters from the gun after the battle. We were all very sorry about his death, but, in fact, he himself was to blame.

I saw the advancing German tanks very well. As soon as I saw that they started turning a little bit, exposing their side armor to us, I waved the small red flag, which served as a command for opening fire. After this, each individual crew fought independently. It was a real duel against the German armor. We knocked out four of them, including two Tigers. The Germans could not take this and started to retreat. Our losses were also high. Killed in this battle were Senior Lieutenant Semen Markin from Leningrad, platoon leader Lieutenant Vladimir Kolymagin, Sergeant Serdyuk, and ten privates and sergeants.

Markin was killed when the German tanks started to retreat and his 6th Battery opened fire on them, knocking out two tanks. The German tanks were returning fire as they retreated. An armor-piercing shell killed Markin at the firing position. The solid steel shell tore his body into two parts"body and head were one piece, and legs were another piece. This is how Lieutenant Markin died, having fulfilled his duty to the utmost. We used to talk with him for a long time, recalling Leningrad. He often told me, "I would like to meet a little Tiger! (that is, German Tiger tank.) I would answer, "When you become commander of the 6th Battery, you will get to meet your Tiger cub!" That"s exactly how it happened, but this was the last battle for Markin.

After the battle, the senior officer of the 6th Battery, Lieutenant Danilenko, called me and said, "We buried Lieutenant Markin right here, at the battlefield." I was outraged and ordered, "Immediately dig up the corpse, wrap it in a rain cape and transport it to the battalion HQ, and then to the regimental HQ, to bury him with full military honors!" This order was followed. Lieutenant Markin was buried in Svatovo in a mass grave. On the day of his death, the battalion received an order from the commanding general of our corps (1st Guards Mechanized Corps), General Major Russiyanov, about the promotion of Markin to the rank of senior lieutenant.

I did not even notice that during the battle the sleeve of my tunic (we had just received new uniforms) was torn into pieces by small fragments and a tiny fragment had become lodged under my skin.

Soon after the end of engagement I received a message that General Major Russiyanov was about to visit our battery. I was not surprised, as this general often visited the battlefield. He was always driving around in his Willys Jeep.

When he saw the nightmare at our positions after the battle"wounded screaming, dead lying right at the guns, some crew members torn apart by direct hits"General Russiyanov took off his cap, took a deep bow and, with tears in his eyes, said, "Eternal memory and glory be with the defenders of our Fatherland!" I, as battalion commander, tried to maintain military formalities, salute the general, and make an official report, but my nerves were so shaken by the battle that I did not succeed. Russiyanov, in turn, did not require any military ceremony at that moment. Right on the spot, on the battlefield, he handed Senior Lieutenant Gaidaenko and me medals, Orders of the Red Banner, and ordered me to recommend all the men of the 4th Battery for decorations.

Strengths and Flaws of Tiger Tank Battalions in World War II
by Christopher Wilbeck
  • Prologue by Tiger Ace Otto Carius
  • Epilogue by Tiger Killers Viktor Iskrov and Ray Holt
  • 35 original maps
  • 42 photos
  • 272 pages; extensive chapter end notes
  • Soft Cover, 6" x 9" format
  • ISBN 10: 0-9717650-2-2
  • ISBN 13: 978-0-9717650-2-3

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