Kursk: Burning Tigers
Scenario Preview, Part Four
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When I designed the Panzer Grenadier system, I wanted its rules to cover World War II tactical combat in all theaters, all over the globe. And I think it does that pretty well – jungles, desert, mountains, fields and plains. Tank battles, infantry fights, airborne landings, amphibious assaults. We’ve got it all.
Through all that, though, I had one campaign in mind: the grinding, bloody tank battles of Kursk, waged in July 1943 on the Eastern Front. Germany made a last-ditch effort to turn the war around with a massive, two-pronged offensive. But the Soviets stood ready with a multi-layered defense backed by whole armies of tanks. The Germans gave it a powerful effort, but the Red Army prevailed.
I didn’t design Kursk, Burning Tigers; Mike Perryman did. But it’s the game I had in mind when I designed the series rules that became Panzer Grenadier. Let’s have a look at some more of the scenarios.
Graveyard of Armor
Forty-Seventh Panzer Corps placed the veteran 6th Infantry Division, which had seen continuous combat since the German invasion of the Soviet Union, to the left of 20th Panzer Division. To aid them they would have additional artillery and engineer support, plus the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion and its Tiger tanks.
That proved inadequate to overcome the well-prepared Soviet defenses: thick minefields covered by anti-tank guns and artillery, infantry waiting in bombproof shelters and well-supplied with heavy weapons and mortars, and tank brigades ready to counter-attack any penetration. Soon enough, the German Ninth Army would have to feed in the panzer divisions held back to exploit a breakthrough, just to get through the first lines of the Soviet defense.
Firefight at Butyrki
5 July 1943
On the first day of Operation Citadel the 6th Infantry Division launched an attack designed to secure the village of Butyrki to control the Oka Valley. To help them along they would have the heaviest concentration of Tiger tanks used in battle to date, plus the new Goliath unmanned demolition vehicles to clear paths through the Soviet minefields. As soon as the German bombardment began, Soviet T-34 tanks rolled into Butyrki to help hold the vital village.
The sight of Tiger tanks easily sliced their way through the defenses despite the heroic efforts of Kommissars and combat engineers rattled the Soviet commanders. It didn’t help that the Soviet commander had never had to stop a planned blitzkrieg before. The 505th Heavy Tank Detachment claimed 42 T-34s destroyed in the Butyrki vicinity, and their war diary contends that the immediate commitment of 2nd Panzer Division would have unhinged the whole Soviet defense in the sector. As the next few days of fighting proved, the Soviets could field more than enough men and material in the vicinity to seriously dispute that contention. Both sides’ records state that T-34s participated in the fighting, but they don’t say which units fought. It’s likely that they belonged to a separate tank regiment attached to 13th Army.
The Germans get to prove that they’re still the world’s best toy makers, with their cute little Goliath explosive tanks and their huge Tiger tanks teaming up to smash through a Soviet prepared line backed by tanks. The Germans have a tough set of objectives to meet, but they have plentiful forces with which to do so.
After the Ambush
6 July 1943
Second Tank Army could not get its 16th Tank Corps into action on July 5th thanks to poor staff work, and spent that night getting the corps into attack positions. In the pre-dawn hours, the Soviet tankers finally moved forward, only to run into a line of 16 Tiger tanks. Dug in and well-camouflaged, the Germans devastated two of the corps’ tank brigades – 10th Tank Brigade lost 46 of its 50 tanks in minutes. As the survivors attempted to withdraw from the disaster things went from bad to worse as the fresh 2nd Panzer Division arrived on the scene and gave chase.
A potent offensive force formed when the 2nd Panzer Division arrived on the battlefield and assumed control of the 505th Heavy Tank Detachment. The 2nd Panzer Division now fielded over 40 state-of-the-art Tiger tanks in addition to their 59 long-barreled Panzer IVs. Using this firepower, they easily forced the remnants of the Soviet 16th Tank Corps back to the second defensive belt where the 70th Guards Rifle Division, backed by plentiful antitank gun support, stopped all forward progress for the day.
Irresistible force meets immovable object: the Germans field a whole passel of Tiger tanks and a deep roster of other modern tanks (long-barreled Panzer III and IV tanks). And their infantry all ride into battle in armored halftracks. The initial Soviet screen trying to slow them down is pitifully weak, but the main line of resistance is manned by tough Guards infantry backed by a relatively huge number of powerful (76.2mm) anti-tank guns and eventually some tanks of their own.
6 July 1943
Both sides considered control of the series of ridges around Ol’khovatka vital to their success. Therefore, XLVII Panzer Corps commander Joachim Lemelsen only allowed part of 2nd Panzer Division to pursue the shattered remnants of the 16th Tank Corps while the majority of the division concentrated on securing Ol’khovatka. The depth and sophistication of the Soviet fortifications shocked the Germans when they reached the second defensive belt.
The Germans drove the defenders out of Saborovka but could not exploit westward. The Soviet 19th Tank Corps should have been in position to attack at sunrise, but they squandered so much time reaching the battlefield that they didn’t actually attack until 1830. The attack brought only ineffectual results, but the addition of so many additional tanks to the defending infantry greatly stiffened the Soviet position.
The German armored force is massive, with lots of Tigers and a large array of late-model Panzer Iv medium tanks. They even have more of their little exploding Goliaths. But the Soviet defensive line is even tougher here, with lots of big anti-tank guns protected by entrenchments, and they even have two batteries of 85mm anti-aircraft guns pressed into use against tanks – a weapon only slightly less effective than the feared German 88mm gun.
7 July 1943
After failing in the bid for Ponyri earlier in the day, 9th Army’s Walter Model turned his attention to a series of hills dominated by Hill 274 near Ol’khovatka. His opponent, Konstantin Rokossovsky of Central Front, held the area with two tank corps supported by an antitank brigade. Heavy fighting on the previous day had achieved very little, leaving the question of who would control the hill to be dealt with again today.
The German breakout plan hinged as much upon controlling the hills around Ol’khovatka as controlling Ponyri. The opposing generals instinctively understood this and poured as many formations into the area as possible. On this day the Soviets prevailed, inflicting horrendous casualties on the Germans while holding their ground. “The German army is a machine,” Rokossovsky liked to say, “and machines can be broken!” All of the participating Tiger tanks received multiple hits but their rugged construction meant the maintenance crews only wrote off three.
Another case of irresistible force and immovable object; the Germans have a mighty force of tanks and plentiful infantry, support weapons and artillery. But the Guards holding the Soviet line equal them in morale though not in leadership, and have a formidable array of anti-tank guns. There’s only one path to German victory: push through those entrenched lines at any cost.
Stand or Perish
8 July 1943
To secure Hill 274, XLVII Panzer Corps attached a few of the remaining operational Tigers of 505th Heavy Tank Detachment to the 6th Infantry Division. The Soviet 3rd Anti-Tank Brigade’s commander reported that his command had suffered massive losses in the previous day’s fighting but held its ground: “There will be a struggle. We will either stand or perish. I need all types of ammunition. I have committed all of my reserves.”
The 6th Infantry Division, even aided by Tiger tanks, could only reach the crest of Hill 274 at the cost of heavy casualties. But the Germans could not get over the hill, or drive the Soviets off the back slope. For once the Goliath demolition tanks actually gave good service: Panzer Company 312 claimed to destroy a T-34 tank, three antitank guns and several pillboxes in exchange for four of their 20 Goliaths. Despite the arrival of more Tigers, the 505th Heavy Tank Detachment’s commander deemed his unit no longer fit for combat at the end of the day. Model and his staff began to re-consider their position.
Finally, the Germans have a serious edge in numbers against another well-fortified and very well-armed Soviet position. They’re going to need those numbers, since they have to break through if they hope to win – while they could theoretically win just by causing enough Soviet casualties, they’re not going to get close to the Red Army without taking some serious losses from the entrenched 76.2mm and 85mm batteries.
8 July 1943
In the center of XXXXVII Panzer Corps’ advance, the 2nd “Vienna” Panzer Division faced the tough and determined divisions od the 17th Guards Rifle Corps. With the Tiger tanks re-assigned to aid 6th Infantry Division, the Austrian tankers would have to assault the ridges north of Ol’khovatka with their own tank and infantry battalions and none of the additional forces that had aided them previously.
The defenders stood their ground despite repeated attacks throughout the day. The comparatively light-weight tanks of the panzer regiments could not shrug off hits from Soviet anti-tank guns like the big Tigers and Ferdinands, and by late afternoon it became clear that the Vienna Division’s heavy losses in men and machines would not be rewarded with the capture of their objectives. The ridges remained in Soviet hands.
As the intro notes, the German spearhead has weakened, while the Soviet lines are still very tough. Though not quite as well-armed as before, the Red Army still has many ways to shoot up a panzer. And the Guards who’ll take the brunt of the fighting here have morale every bit as good as the elite panzertruppen. This is going to be another bloody affair.
9 July 1943
Despite the Soviets holding firm in front of the panzer divisions and his own deepening misgivings, Model ordered the offensive resumed all along his front. With the southern pincer seemingly making gains, the attack could not be abandoned in the north to allow the Soviets to concentrate their forces. On Ninth Army’s right flank, 31st Infantry Division would attack as well. The “Brunswick Lions” had been on the Eastern Front since August 1939, and had not been substantially reinforced for the Kursk offensive.
As Model anticipated, the German attack failed. When a small breakthrough occurred, a prompt Soviet counterattack against other formations made sure that no forces could leave their locations to exploit the opportunity. Soon fresh Soviet troops arrived to contest the breakout and inflicted heavy losses on the Hitlerites. These counterattacks expanded greatly in the following days making the needless casualties suffered here even more devastating to the German cause.
This time the Germans strike first with an infantry force, with the tanks coming on a little later to exploit whatever gap the foot soldiers have made in the Soviet lines. That’s going to be a tall order; the Red Army has plenty of troops and guns in its lines even if these aren’t the fearsome Guards and there are no 85mm tank-killers on hand.
And that’s all for Chapter Four. Next time, we charge into Chapter Five.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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