The southern arm of the German pincer, Fourth Panzer Army and Detachment Kempf, contained the cream of the German Army. Both forces fell under the command of Army Group South, led by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Fourth Panzer Army was particularly strong. Its strike force included units of the SS Panzer Corps, consisting of three SS panzer divisions, and the Army’s elite Grossdeutschland panzer division. These troops were equipped with most of Germany’s operational Tiger Is (about 120 vehicles) and all of the new but unproven Panther tanks (about 300). In addition to these, the Fourth Army panzer units had large numbers of older but upgraded Mark IV tanks. Manstein planned to take advantage of his troops and equipment by throwing the panzer divisions directly at the tough Russian lines, counting on their mobility, determination, and firepower to force a breakthrough—using his infantry to “mop up” rather than lead the attack.
The Ninth Army Begins Its Offensive
The northern pincer fell under the command of Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, Manstein’s rival. Kluge’s strike force, Ninth Army, commanded by General Walther Model, consisted of ordinary divisions and contained more infantry and less armor than Fourth Panzer Army and Detachment Kempf. Unlike the SS divisions and Grossdeutschland, Model’s panzer units were almost uniformly understrength. They lacked modern equipment and first-rate troops. Most panzer regiments contained a mix of Mark IV tanks and obsolete Mark III tanks. The divisions lacked half-tracked personnel carriers and mobile artillery. To make up for this shortfall, about 30 Tigers and all available Ferdinands were assigned to Ninth Army.
The infantry-heavy Ninth Army, unlike Fourth Panzer, would attack in classic blitzkrieg fashion, sending its infantry straight into the maw of the Soviet defenses. Model planned to use the Ferdinands and his few Tigers as assault guns, advancing with the infantry divisions into the Soviet defensive belts to pry them open for the panzer divisions in reserve.
The offensive began on July 5, 1943, with heavy artillery bombardments by both sides. The Ferdinands, organized as Tank Destroyer Regiment 656, led the German attack on the northern front, advancing with engineers and infantry into the Soviet mine belts. These cheap but effective weapons destroyed many of the big assault guns. For the infantry, the conditions were similar to the Western Front during World War I, as dug-in machine guns and artillery ripped into the gray-clad ranks.
“Quail Shooting With Cannons.”
Without personnel carriers, the infantry fell behind the slow but heavily armored Ferdinands. Yet, as the Ferdinands and their crews advanced their difficulties increased. Some machines broke down crossing the scarred and rugged terrain; others, separated from the German infantry and without secondary weapons, became easy prey for Soviet infantry. Many were destroyed by placed magnetic shaped charges on their rear or sides. Without machine guns, the Ferdinands could hardly defend themselves or each other against the infantrymen. Guderian later remarked that the Ferdinands had gone “quail shooting with cannons.” And the guns, which had to carry the larger L/71 shell, quickly ran low on ammunition.
The Ferdinands, however, were successful in places. Ferdinands of the 653rd Battalion, supporting the 292nd Infantry Division, quickly pushed several miles into the Soviet line, reaching their initial designated objective. The second Ferdinand battalion, the 654th, effectively supported the 78th Infantry Division in its attack, though this attack stalled inside the Soviet defensive system. Where Ferdinands encountered Soviet tanks, they destroyed them with aplomb. Their big guns were able to shred the lighter Soviet T-34 at long ranges, with slight fear of riposte. Some accounts credit the Ferdinands with the destruction of over 800 Soviet vehicles. Such claims are surely exaggerations, but both the Tigers Is and Ferdinands dominated Soviet tanks at all but the shortest ranges.
When Hitler finally called off Operation Citadel on July 12, Model’s Ninth Army had advanced a mere 12 miles at its deepest penetration, barely a third of the way toward its objective at Kursk. In the south, Fourth Panzer Army’s tank-heavy assault had more success, but not enough to justify further bloodletting in the offensive. About half the Ferdinands were lost in the battle and during the subsequent retreat. The surviving Ferdinands were ordered back to Germany in the fall of 1943 for modifications and redeployment. The modifications involved adding a bow machine gun, a new commander’s cupola, and applying Zimmermit antimine paste on the front and sides of the vehicles.
A Sophomore Slump for the Elefant?
The giant Ferdinands had long been called Elefants by their crews and were now formally renamed after the pachyderm. In February 1944, the refurbished and redesignated tank destroyer went to Italy and joined German forces attempting to repel the Allied attack at Anzio.
Although better armed and protected, the Elefants appear to have had little success in the muddy and mountainous conditions of Italy. They fought at Anzio and Nettuno without notable success. Challenging terrain, mechanical difficulties, and mobility problems seem to have doomed most of the Elefants, much the way Hannibal’s elephants finally floundered after successfully crossing the Alps. Most Elefants were lost in combat or abandoned by their crews during the German retreat. Little is reported about the fate of the surviving Elefants. Tank Destroyer Regiment 656 itself was broken up and its crews reassigned to other units. A few Ferdinands apparently survived and were grouped in a single company that returned to the Eastern Front, where they fought in dwindling numbers to the end of the war.
It is reasonable to assume that if Nazi Germany had possessed a rational arms procurement policy, the Ferdinand would not have been built. Germany’s tank designs displayed both creativity and effectiveness, and no other major combatant produced such a wide variety of vehicles. While the United States and the Soviet Union settled early on basic, proven, armored fighting vehicles (the Sherman and the T-34 respectively, along with families of supporting tank destroyers), Nazi Germany produced an ultimately bewildering and industrially wasteful variety of machines.
The German leadership’s fascination with weapons and close involvement in procurement matters better left to experts, along with the Byzantine internal politics of the murderous regime itself, were direct causes of this aimless policy. There was no reason but politics for Porsche to produce 90 expensive tank hulls for a machine doomed to fail in trials. But then again, the essence of the Nazi regime was its fickle and irrational favoritism and prejudices, which extended into all areas of endeavor.
The Ferdinand Earns Its Place In Military History
The effectiveness of the Ferdinand depended upon its optimum deployment, and politics intruded to ensure its ultimate failure in combat. The Ferdinand probably would have had a successful and relatively long-lived career on the Eastern Front if it had simply been deployed as a long-range tank destroyer. Instead, because Nazi politics dictated that SS troops would receive virtually all new German tank production in 1943, and the artillery branch wanted its share of glory, the Ferdinand was foolishly deployed in the first rank of the assault on the Kursk salient.
The big machines alone could not reverse the calamity that befell Model’s Ninth Army in the north. The transfer of the surviving Elefants to Italy again placed them in an inappropriate tactical setting, requiring the large, awkward vehicles to traverse difficult roads and terrain in hopes of acquiring a dominating position from which to finally shoot.
Yet, for one year the Ferdinand was the most powerful mobile land weapon ever fielded. Armed with the world’s best tank gun and protected by the thickest armor, it held this distinction until the arrival of the Tiger II and related tank destroyers in mid-1944. Despite its flaws, the Ferdinand was an impressive weapon in a world where the immobile stalemated trenches were less than 20 years in the past. This was no mean accomplishment and has ensured the Ferdinand its place in military history.
This article by Jonathan F. Keiler originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-313-1004-25 / Vack / CC-BY-SA 3.0.