Leutnant Hans Schäufler, platoon leader in Panzer-Nachrichten-Abteilung 79, 4. Panzer-Division
Unternehmen Zitadelle. That was the magic formula that people had been whispering behind cupped hands into ears for weeks at the various headquarters. When they did that, their eyes also rolled.
Unternehmen Zitadelle. The forces in the field discovered at the beginning of July that that was the code word for the major pincers attack against the lead elements of the Red Army that had pressed forward from Woronesch through Kursk during the winter fighting from out of the area around Stalingrad.
“Victory at Kursk must send a signal to the entire world,” according to Hitler’s Operations Order No. 6.
Unternehmen Zitadelle started with the delivery of new weapons that were to be introduced into operations for the first time. On the one hand, there were the ninety Ferdinand tank destroyers of Oberstleutnant von Jungenfeld, who originally hailed from our regiment. They were giant tanks with a weight of seventy-two tons and with a tree of a gun—8.8 centimeters. It also actually had twenty centimeters of frontal armor. Then there were rumors of a remotely controlled midget tank with the witty name of Goliath. It was designed to create gaps in Russian minefields by means of a powerful demolition charge. In addition, there was talk of a miracle tank, the Tiger, which was fielded by schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505. It was also outfitted with an 8.8-centimeter main gun. There were also assault tanks with 15-centimeter howitzers on the chassis of Panzer IV’s.
Unternehmen Zitadelle was the concentration of a German tank armada in a very small area; the largest the world had ever seen. It was said that there were some 900 tanks and assault guns in our sector alone.
Standing ready south of Orel for the assault was the 2. Panzer-Division, the 9. Panzer-Division, the 18. Panzer-Division, and the 20. Panzer-Division. In reserve were our 4. Panzer-Division, the 12. Panzer-Division, and the 10. Panzergrenadier-Division. In addition, thee were a large number of proven infantry divisions, including the 78. Sturm-Division.
In the area around Bjelgorod there was another strong armored force assembled for an advance to the north. It was said that there were 1,200 tanks, including a brigade of the new Panthers.
Unternehmen Zitadelle was intended to be the decisive battle on the Eastern front for 1943. It had been carefully planned for a long time, although it had been postponed several times. The dice would be tossed at Kursk. Based on the concentrated strength that we had, no one doubted that they would fall in our favor!
The fireworks started on 5 July. It was intended for the infantry divisions, working together with the assault gun battalions, the Ferdinand regiment, which included Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 216, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505, and the remote-control companies (that is, the Goliath companies), to clear a path through the deeply echeloned Russian defensive system for the tanks, which would follow.
But the operation stood under an unlucky star from the very beginning. The Russians had been bombing our assembly areas for some time. According to the German Armed Forces Daily Report, 162 Russian aircraft were shot down on the first day alone. It is not too difficult to estimate the numbers of Russian bombers employed to unnerve our forces.
The engineer forces of all of the divisions were consolidated in order to create lanes through the mines, since the Goliaths were unable to spread fear into the hearts of the Russians.
On 6 July, the 2. Panzer-Division and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 moved out to attack. They broke through the first, second and third defensive lines, but they did not succeed in achieving the intended breakthrough to Kaschara. The Russians had apparently expected our attack at that point and at that time. After all, they had worked for months in excruciating detail to transform each meter, twenty-five kilometers in depth. Position after position had been built; antitank position after anti-tank position; tank after tank had been dug in on commanding high ground by the hundreds. It was also there that he had established his ready reserves, large tank formations. On a sector fifteen kilometers wide, a tank battle ensued for which there had never been an equal. It was hard and merciless.
Operation Citadel (North).
(Russischer Gegenangriff = Soviet counterattack)
On 8 July, our Panzer-Regiment 35 joined in the seesaw battle. Reinhard Peters participated in the attack as a young Leutnant and platoon leader and provided the following firsthand account:
0230 Hours, 8 July 1943. We received orders to move out. Teploje. Wing after wing of the Luftwaffe thundered above us in that direction—bombers, Stukas, bombers, Stukas. It went on for hours. All of them dropped their cargoes on the hill. The Stukas also attacked individual targets, the dug-in T-34’s and KV-I’s on the forward slope of the hill. We felt confident that nothing could go wrong after that.
Geoghi’s company took the lead initially. When our tanks appeared from out of the defiles around Ssamodurowka, they were greeted by bitter tank and antitank-gun fire. We had not expected that after the gigantic employment of bombers. The first attack wave started to waver. After the next tank company also bogged down in its attack, we were up next. Oberleutnant Prast gave the order to attack, but he was knocked out after a couple of hundred meters. Leutnant Beck, the senior platoon leader, assumed command. But that was only of short duration as well. After a few minutes, his tank was also hit. Then it was my turn. I ordered: Panzer marsch!
But there weren’t a whole lot of us; only a few vehicles were rolling next to me. Oberfeldwebel Allgaier identified a dug-in KV-I, one of many. With typical Swabian composure and calmness, he took up a sight picture. But the distance was still too great; the 7.5-centimter rounds ricocheted. He then fired with high-explosive rounds in front of them, so that the churned-up dust and dirt would rob the enemy of his visibility. He then used the time to get closer. He repeated the same game several times. Then he was at the spot he needed to be. With an antitank round in the breech, he waited in ambush. The dust blew away and revealed the target. Round on the way! Direct hit! It was masterful.
As a result of the hours-long bomber sorties, there was a dome of haze above us composed of dust and gunpowder and other smoke. It was as if the skies had a veil over them. My gut feeling said it must be the afternoon, but the hands on my watch barely registered 0900 hours.
By then, Petrelli’s company had reached the houses in the village of Teploje at the base of the hill. Our attack had started to waver again. For the first time, we experienced the employment of the Goliaths, small, remotely controlled tracked vehicles with a mine charge. But it didn’t work out so well. They became disabled due to mechanical problems, or they were knocked out. In any event, they did not bring success with them. We breathed easier, when schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 pulled up. We needed some relief and reinforcement. Just as I started observing over the commander’s cupola with my binoculars, a monstrous concussion along with an ear-deafening crash knocked me off the commander’s seat. They got us, I thought to myself. But all of us were in one piece, as was out tank. An explanation was quickly found. A Tiger had sought cover behind my Panzer IV. When it fired, its muzzle was barely a meter away from my open hatch. That wasn’t what we had had in mind, when we knew the Tigers were going to be employed.
The afternoon saw an immediate counterattack by the Russians. We pulled back to the edge of the defile and waited for them. A Russian tank unit rolled about 1,000 meters away from us and off to the left. We could take it under effective flanking fire; the rest of them were taken care of by the Tigers. But Russian infantry also attacked at the same time. It was swarming with them in front of us. The earth-brown figures approached us through the cornfields with a stoic calm. We let them approach to within 300 meters before we gave permission to fire with machine guns and high-explosive rounds. The attack was turned back with heavy casualties.
During the night, a portion of Petrelli’s company was able to get on the prized Hill 240. But the tanks had to be pulled back at first light. The enemy’s key position could not be taken. It was a black day for the battalion. There were a lot of entries in the record books of the maintenance sergeants: “Total Loss: 8 July 1943, Teploje.”
Unternehmen Zitadelle. It meant death . . . it meant blood . . . it drove us to despair! We were running against a wall of fire and steel . . . against a forest of anti-tank guns . . . a gauntlet of artillery . . . a defensive bulwark of enemy tanks.
Unternehmen Zitadelle. It gave us a sense of dread.
The fighting between Soborowka and Ponyri raged back and forth. There were about 1,000 tanks fighting on each side. Generalfeldmarschall Model3 ordered an attack with all means available.
On 10 July, our 4. Panzer-Division rolled forward en masse. The division commander, General von Saucken, accompanied the attack in the first wave in his command-and-control vehicle, DO 1. He always led from the front and rallied his tankers and infantrymen to follow him. It was possible to penetrate into Teploje. During an advance, the general’s vehicle collapsed the span of a bridge. It was unable to either back up or move forward. The signals officer, my friend Leutnant Simon, was badly wounded while looking for a way to recover the vehicle, and he remained lying out in front of the friendly lines. Leutnant Lecius, the division commander’s aide, wanted to help him and was mortally wounded in the head in the process.
By field-expedient means—a fragile voice radio connection—the division commander led his division from that exposed position. On top of the other bad luck, the division operations officer, Oberstleutnant Lutz, was also badly wounded at nearly the same time at the division command post. The commander of Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4 was killed.
That was the situation when I received the mission to establish a landline with my wire teams from the division command post near Bobrik over Hill 238.1 to the division commander in the village of Teploje. Truly a suicide mission! But the connection needed to be established, no matter the cost. Some of the heavily engaged troop elements of the division were hanging in the air.
It went relatively quickly and well as far as Hill 238.1. It goes without saying, it was on foot. A vehicle could not allow itself to be seen, since the Russians peppered everything that showed up from their commanding high ground. But there were also constant Stuka attacks that forced Ivan to all duck his head. Whenever that happened, we took off in a full gallop.
We found an abandoned bunker, but the gentlemen on the hill started to register on it. The battlefield switchboard had barely been set up, when they started firing with everything they had. And there was no doubt that everything was meant for us. We needed to quickly find another dwelling in the wide-ranging Russian defensive system, without being observed from above. The field wire was buried whenever that was possible.
From there, the terrain sloped gently down towards Teploje. We needed to go there with our lines. It was not too far, but it was as if we were on a silver platter. We were without cover and had to move directly to the feet of the Russians.
Out of the haze behind the houses, dark like a gigantic log, was the ridgeline where the Russians were positioned and could observe the flat-as-a-board terrain and dominate it with their weapons. They were firing at every individual man.
There was absolutely no way to take the direct route. And if it were indeed possible to get the line through unscathed, then it would be clearly impossible to maintain it. It would be interrupted all the time—shot to pieces or chewed up by tank tracks—and no line troubleshooter would get through unscathed during the day.
A Russian trench line ran along the ridgeline about a hundred meters behind us. It was filled with dead men. We crawled along on our backs with the field wire over the bloated corpses and forced our way through the collapsed trenches. Just don’t raise your head above the edge of the trench, because it would start blazing from up above—and they didn’t always miss their mark.
We even had some luck with our tiresome exercise under the blazingly hot July sun: We ran into a well-laid Russian wire—shot up here and there, to be sure—but basically running in our direction. We worked our way forward, meter-by-meter. It was already evening by the time we reached Teploje and the command post of Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33. In a defile on the slope was also the armored reconnaissance battalion, which we also connected.
While crawling back, we buried the wire in the loose dirt so as to avoid as many disruptions as possible. The landline connection with Teploje functioned, and they were happy with us for a while, even if they could only reach Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 via its 2nd Battalion.
I crawled into a foxhole and slept. But it wasn’t long before I was nudged and someone was tugging on my sleeve. The driver of the general’s vehicle in Teploje reported to me. He wanted to spend the night with us in his DO 1. The crew had had a horrific day; you could see it in them. Two men of the crew had been killed in the morning, Leutnant Simon and Leutnant Lecius. They had spent about six hours in front of our own lines stuck at the bridge.
“Drive off before daybreak, otherwise the Russians will shoot us to bits,” I asked the driver. He promised he would. But he was back again after twenty minutes and woke me from my leaden sleep: “Herr Leutnant, have you seen our section leader? He disappeared all of a sudden.”
I could only answer in the negative and attempt to go back to sleep.
At first light, a strange, oppressive feeling awakened me. I awoke with a start and looked around. The driver of the command vehicle cowered in front of me, starring at me. He was lost in thought; as pale as a corpse. What was wrong? “The Unteroffizier is dead. Yesterday, when he was guiding us in, we ran over him with our vehicle. The vehicle was on him the entire night. That’s why we could never find him, even though we had looked everywhere.”
I jolted upright. He was lying there, blue in the face. No visible injury. He had suffocated, since he was laying face down in the dirt. For the crew, that was the third man they had lost within fifteen hours.
“At least get out of here before it turns completely daylight!” And that’s what they did, the remaining two men.
And then the circus started up again: Fighter-bombers, Stalin organs and mortar fire to wake you in the morning. The line was out! Check it out!
All of a sudden, something sprang over the earthen wall and laughed at me in a friendly manner:
“Unteroffizier Zöller reports back from home leave!”
“Man, Oswald, how was it at home?”
“We got married; my wife sends her greetings!”
I congratulated him heartily, since I knew his wife, Hanna, from Opladen ever since 1940, when we were stationed at Bergheim. A nice girl, who was a good match for him, the wood carver and author from Dorfprozelten am Main. He was practically bubbling over with joy: “It was great to be a human again! The world can be a really beautiful place! Damn war!” he whispered in my ear.
“But how in the world did you get back to this hellhole, Oswald?”
“I have been assigned to you,” he said, reverting to the more formal form of address, since we were no longer alone, “as a troubleshooter, and we’re in a bomb crater fifty meters behind you.”
Would Oswald Zöller master the steep curve from a quiet vacation existence to hard front-line combat in time? That was going through my head over and over again. I initially decided not to employ him right away. We had known each other since 1938, when he arrived at our unit as a reservist. There had barely been a day since then when we hadn’t seen or spoken to one another.
Around 0800 hours, I received orders from my company commander, Haupt-mann Berger, to establish a direct line to Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 across downward-sloping open field towards Teploje. I knew it was insane, but orders were orders! We therefore loaded the necessary wire on the wire truck and intended to start laying it. But Ivan took us under aimed fire fro up on the high ground, with the result that we had to make ourselves small and uninviting. Unteroffizier Helmut Scheuermann muttered something to himself and Heiner Klippel cursed bitterly in the dirt.
We tried it one more time; this time starting out in a run. The fireworks intensified. We still didn’t have any casualties. But if that was what we were already receiving, what would it be like when we got close to the village? And then once the line was in? It wouldn’t remain intact any longer than five minutes. And then try to troubleshoot the line while being served up on a platter. That was craziness!
I rang up Hauptmann Berger one more time. I pressed upon him the observations I had just made and my conclusions, and I attempted to divert the crazy operation. But apparently they didn’t see it that way in the rear. The orders were repeated back to me in a very sharp tone.
We made another attempt. Result: our switchboard was covered with such intense mortar fire that we had to set it up elsewhere, since all of the lines, including the very low router, had been shot to pieces.
“What’s going on with the line?” my company commander inquired when the line going back to the rear had been reestablished.
“This is all nuts. Why don’t you take a look at this place yourself!” I shouted indignantly into the receiver.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do, and I’ll be there right away!” was his brusque response.
It didn’t take too long before I heard a motorcycle come rattling up. It was parked behind the high ground in the defile. And who was it that came marching towards me, upright, and without any particular hurry—with no Russian firing at the 1.9-meter figure—my company commander, Berger!
Those Russians were dirty bastards! They had plastered us the entire day whenever we poked a hand out of the trench. My company commander, that guy, however, he was allowed to walk upright and casually across the open terrain. No doubt to curse us cowardly dogs afterward.
And I was right: “What kind of nonsense are you spewing, Schäufler? Everything is quiet at this location.” He spit out the words maliciously.
“Just wait . . .” I threatened. So we waited. But there was only an occasional shell, so that we did not fall asleep. Otherwise, nothing stirred.
It ticked us off to no end that Ivan had chosen that moment not to fire. But I was able to partially bring my company commander over to my side in light of the completely open and coverless terrain. And I was firmly determined not to lay that line, since I was convinced that none of my men would be alive after a day—and for nothing, nothing at all.
Completely unscathed, Berger took rattled off with his motorcycle. He had left his cigarettes with us—not a bad sign.
He had barely disappeared behind the high ground, when the fireworks started up again: Ratsch—bummm, ratsch—bummm, uiii, uiii, uiii, crack, crack, crack . . .
The line to the rear and the line going forward were all gone.
Naumann, from Zöller’s section, came running forward. I thought he might ask what line they had to troubleshoot. But he sputtered: “Unteroffizier Zöller has been badly wounded. Shrapnel in the upper thigh . . . in the groin.”
I wanted to race over to my friend. Naumann held me back by the sleeve. They were already on the way to the main clearing station with him. An SPW in the defile had taken Zöller immediately.
I was very depressed. I was no longer able to do anything for him. Of all people, it had to be Oswald during his very first operation at the front after returning from home leave. I had to get to him.
The wire mission at Teploje was called off. The front was pulled back a bit; the attack called off. I was able to get away for a few hours and received permission from my company commander to go to the main clearing station.
The directional sign pointed towards a patch of woods. At the edge of the woods, I saw a large burial field. I wanted to take a quick look to see who had gotten it whom I had known. The first grave I approached: “Unteroffizier Oswald Zöller. Killed 11 July 1943.”
I stood there at the mound as if struck dead. I heard him whisper one more time: “Shitty war!”
I picked some flowers and placed a large wreath on his grave.
Deep in thought, I went from cross to cross. Everywhere: “Killed on 10 or 11 July 1943 at Teploje.” There were hundreds of fresh graves, all from our combat units: Panzer-Regiment 35, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 49, Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 79, Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79, Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 103, and Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 4.
On the way back, I stopped for a short while at the company command post, reported to Hauptmann Berger, and stated that Zöller had died at the main clearing station. My company commander took my hand, without saying a word. He knew that I was very close to Oswald Zöller: “Hannes, write his wife right away . . . you know her, after all.”
That letter was damned hard, since I had not yet come to terms with Oswald’s death myself. How was I supposed to say the inconceivable to an unsuspecting young wife?
A distraught letter from Frau Hanna Zöller reached me after three weeks. Her world had collapsed. She also made bitter accusations against me, because I had left her husband, my friend Oswald, die alone.
I tried to console her as well as I could in a lengthy letter. But the comfort seemed a bit tawdry, when you were still alive. Moreover, I could have spared myself the effort. After a few weeks, the letter came back, unopened, with a notice: “Frau Hanne Zöller was killed in a bombing raid on Cologne.”
Ski patrol in no-man’s-land, March 1942.
As pleased as punch—tankers on sleds, February 1942.
Ruling the roost at night was this obsolete Soviet biplane, which conducted nuisance raids over the German front lines and rear areas, summer 1942. The Landser had a number of names for it, including “sewing machine,” “road yodeler,” “night owl,” and “duty NCO.”
Outside of Mzensk again, fall 1942. The Soviets approach at first light. Everything depends on the nameless foot soldier in the trench.
Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 (of the 4. Panzer-Division) turned back more than one assault.
1 Translator’s Note. The Kübelwagen was the German equivalent of the American jeep and was made by Volkswagen.
2 Translator’s Note. Although the author never identifies the village, it is more than likely that he still remembered the name and did not want to have it published for fear of reprisals by Soviet authorities on the local populace, based on the events of his narrative.
3 Translator’s Note. Model was the commander in chief of the northern arm of the pincers, the 9. Armee.