The Battle Of Kursk: 75th Anniversary // Part Two: Assault From The North

July 9, 2018 by oriskany

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Last week, we rolled out this article series marking the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Kursk. Fought during World War II between German and Soviet armies in July-August of 1943, it’s usually regarded as the largest single battle in human history. Needless to say, we couldn’t let the anniversary of an event like this get by us.

Kursk Part 2 A

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If you’re just joining us, here’s a summary of what we covered in Part One. After their shattering defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, German armies in Russia reeled back through the opening months of 1943, desperate to contain a vast, vengeful Soviet counterattack across southern and central Russia.

When this “Stalingrad fallout” finally settled, a huge bulge (or “salient”) in the Soviet line was left reaching deep into German-occupied territory. Centred on the Russian city of Kursk, this salient posed both an opportunity and a threat to the Germans, who sorely needed a chance to redress the situation along the Eastern Front.

The Germans resolved to hit the Kursk Salient (about the size of Northern Ireland) in the flanks, striking from north and south. These two spearheads would meet at Kursk, and slice off perhaps half a million Soviets in a vast pocket. Such a success just might win the Germans enough time to make a full recovery in the wake of Stalingrad.

Kursk Part 2 B

The Kursk Salient was an obvious target, however, and the Soviets had plenty of warning. Both sides took months in preparation, investing everything they could for the impending showdown. With a German “unstoppable force” hitting a Soviet “immovable object,” the stage was set for a gargantuan battle like none other in human history.

Assault From The North

The northern wing of the German assault was launched by Ninth Army, under the command of Colonel-General Walther Model. Three panzer corps would spearhead the attack (almost 1,000 tanks, including reserves), supported by powerful formations of assault guns, tank destroyers, grenadier infantry, and ground attack aircraft.

Holding the northern shoulder of the Kursk Salient was General Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Central Front (in the Soviet military, “front” is roughly analogous to a western “army group” - about a million men). These forces were deployed in thick belts of fortified infantry, concealed antitank guns, and hundreds of thousands of mines.

Kursk Part 2 C

The overall German objective was to break through these defences and meet the southern German spearhead at Kursk. The Soviets wanted to absorb the shock of the German assault amidst these thick defences, bleed them dry, and then counterstrike with powerful tank armies held back in reserve…but only when the time was right.

Thousands of books have been written on this battle, and there’s no way I can squeeze even a summary of the history into this article. So instead let’s get straight into the wargaming, and see what kind of results we can get when we try to recreate select parts of this northern assault on the table top.

Advance Of XLI Panzer Corps

Elephants & Grizzlies!

What makes Kursk so great for wargaming is the scale. So much is going on, with so many different unit types, that with just a little research (or asking your friendly Beasts of War Historical Editor) you can find the engagements that feature the units that interest you and easily set up reasonably historically accurate games.

For me, these include the German Sturmpanzer IV Brummbär (“grouch” or “grump” but usually translated as “Grizzly”) assault guns and the Ferdinand Elefant (Elephant) tank destroyers. These are rare and somewhat bizarre units that historically-conscious gamers don’t often get to use. So when a chance comes along, you take it.

Kursk Part 2 D

For this game of PanzerBlitz, I selected the assault corridor of German XLI (41st) Panzer Corps between Veselyi Berezhoi and the Maloarkhangelsk Station along the Kursk-Orel rail line. This is where some of these interesting units got stuck into some serious combat, and we can get a “wargamer’s look” at how they performed.

When the Battle of Kursk opened on 5th July 1943, the Germans in this sector of the line had little choice but to mount a frontal, headlong smash into prepared Soviet defences. Fortunately, they had incredible amounts of artillery, air, and rocket launcher (nebelwerfer) fire support to force these initial cracks in the Soviet defensive belts.

We’re actually skipping this initial “brute force” part of the battle, and picking up with XLI Panzer Corps in the mid-afternoon. By then, the initial breaches have been opened, and the Germans are trying to pry these cracks apart and exploit them into full-scale breakthroughs.

To the west near Veselyi Berezhoi, we have the leading elements of 18th Panzer Division hitting 467h Rifle Regiment of the Soviet 81st Rifle Division (29th Corps, 13th Army). Note that 292nd Infantry Division conducted the initial assault, but now the town’s been taken and 18th Panzer is trying to push through into the Russian backfield.

Kursk Part 2 E

One change I’ve tried is to have the “Grizzlies” of Sturmpanzer Abteilung 216 provide close fire support to this wing of the attack. With a 15.0 cm infantry howitzer mounted in a thickly-armoured casemate, this “super StuG” is the perfect tool against dug in Soviet infantry and antitank guns, opening breaches for tanks of 18th Panzer Division.

To the east, the Germans of Infantry Regiment 184 (86th Infantry Division) continue their morning’s assault against 410th Rifle Regiment holding the Maloarkhangelsk Station. Heavy minefields have been set up here, but the Germans also have serious “pionier” assault engineers to clear lanes through these obstacles.

The Germans also have the Ferdinand assault guns. Although armed with the long L71 variant of the dreaded German “88” and armoured like a mobile steel castle, they’re also incredibly slow. Historically, the Germans also failed to mount a basic machine gun, making these things helpless against swarms of Soviet infantry.

Kursk Part 2 F

To correct this mistake, I keep my Ferdinands just behind my grenadiers (historically they did the opposite). They last much longer this way and every turn those long 88s keep firing means more gutted Soviet strongpoints, not to mention counterattacking armour.

In the end, the assault is still a bloody mess. Soviet minefields, layered artillery defences, and antitank guns is a tough nut to crack when done right in PanzerBlitz. Counterattacking T-34s of the 129th Tank Brigade and SU-122s / ISU-152s of the 1,442nd SP Artillery Regiment doesn’t help. But nevertheless, the Germans crush out a narrow win.

Northern Assault In 15mm

Battlegroup Kursk

For miniature wargaming in the Battle of Kursk, what better option is there than Battlegroup: Kursk by IronFirst Publishing. As covered in Part One, this was the first campaign supplement produced for the Battlegroup system, which still holds the “Oriskany’s Choice” Award for World War II miniature wargaming.

Kursk Part 2 G

To keep things straightforward, we set up essentially a smaller version of the same battle (XLI Panzer Corps, the afternoon of 5th July) as the one executed in PanzerBlitz. The Soviets had two infantry platoons, 76.2mm guns, 82mm mortars, even sniper teams, all fortified in hardcover emplacements behind no less than eight minefield markers.

The Germans, for their part, had an immensely powerful attack force. Three Ferdinands and three Grizzlies represented elements of JgPzAbtg 654 and StPzAbtg 216, plus a mixed force of Panzer IIIJ and Panzer IVG tanks. This was all supported by Stukas, off-board artillery, StuG IIIs, and a platoon of panzergrenadiers in halftracks.

Kursk Part 2 H

Such a force would smash a hole even in these heavily-fortified Soviet defences. But the Soviets also had access to off-board artillery (four “first priority” fire support calls, plus a communication team to make these rolls easier), and no less than ten T-34/c tanks entering the board on Turn four (elements, 129th Tank Brigade).

German air strikes went in first. The Stukas did great (the Soviets really should have invested some points in 37mm AA guns), knocking out Soviet artillery from the centre of their line and inflicting enough damage to two Soviet infantry squads that the survivors fled the field.

Kursk Part 2 I

This was fortunate for the Germans, as their first round of off-board 105mm artillery strikes drifted wide off their targets and barely even scored any pins. I had traded off pre-registered fire missions for the flexibility of artillery missions I could target during the game, but even with a special observer team, the dice had other ideas.

The tanks went in. Straightaway the Battlegroup system did a great job of showing the vast difference in German armour. Panzer IIIs and even IVs quickly took losses from Soviet anti-tank guns, while shells just pinged away from the Grizzlies and especially the Ferdinand tank destroyers.

Kursk Part 2 J

Not until the Ferdinands hit the Soviet minefields did any of them take real damage. As the Soviets should have taken AA guns, my Germans should have bought some engineers to open a gap in those mines (historically, they did have them).

This brings up an important point and highlights one reason I really appreciate Battlegroup. This is a system that really demands you take a balanced, holistic list. It’s not just about the “big booms” and “sexy tanks” and “heroic infantry” - but also the support assets like comms teams, engineers, rearmament vehicles, liaison officers, etc.

On the German right, only one Grizzly and one Ferdinand managed to make it through all those mines and into the village of Veselyi Berezhoi. Once they did, though, they were damned near unstoppable…but only because I made sure to send in a grenadier squad as close infantry support.

Kursk Part 2 K

Over and again, Soviet infantry tried to launch close assaults with antitank grenades on these two behemoths. But unlike historically, the Grizzly and Ferdinand had close infantry support that kept the Soviet riflemen back. Soviet mortars kept trying to pin these grenadiers, to no avail.

Meanwhile, the Grizzly’s big howitzer clobbered soft targets like Soviet infantry squads, antitank guns, and howitzer positions, while the Ferdinand’s armour-piercing 88 took care of hardened bunkers and T-34s when they arrived. In no time at all the whole Soviet wing began to come apart.

Kursk Part 2 L

When the Soviet T-34 company of the 129th Tank Brigade showed up, they actually did very well against the Panzer IIIs and IVs. Outnumbering the Germans 2-1 didn’t hurt. Yet the Soviets soon faced a tough choice…should they split off one platoon against that Grizzly and Ferdinand collapsing the west wing?

With the Ferdinand’s agonizingly slow speed and the creek barring its advance, the Soviets decided to focus everything on smashing the German panzers in the east and centre. A surprise Soviet airstrike arrived, which was able to put some rockets into the last German StuGs…while the Ferdinand suffered a breakdown anyway.

Despite these reversals, the Germans walked away with the win, 52 to 43. The Soviets just drew heavier penalties on the battle rating counters and ran out of points first. As they did historically, the Soviets gave up these positions, falling back to the second line of defence braced on positions of the 519th Rifle Regiment.

Kursk Part 2 M

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick look at the northern German strike on the Kursk Salient, with a little more focus put on the wargaming rather than the detailed history. Come back next week when we shift down to the southern sector of the Kursk Salient, which was (unbelievably) an even bigger clash than we see here in the north.

Meanwhile, leave your comments, questions, and feedback below! How do you protect your heavy units from enemy infantry? What “combined arms” mutual support tactics have you tried in your games? How might you have kept the German momentum going at Kursk, or better slowed this “mother of all blitzkriegs?”

"For miniature wargaming in the Battle of Kursk, what better option is there than Battlegroup: Kursk by IronFirst Publishing?"

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"What “combined arms” mutual support tactics have you tried in your games?"

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