May 2, 2014

Ferdinands at Kursk


Operation “Zitadelle” was planned as a pincer attack, with Fourth Panzer Army forming the southern jaw and Model’s Ninth Army the northern one. Model’s Army was furnished, for that operation, with a new and powerful Armored Fighting Vehicle; the Ferdinand.

Sonderkraftfahrzeug 184
The letter “N” stands for Noak,  the battalion commander’s name
2. The letter “N” stands for Noak, 
the Battalion commander’s name.

During the Tiger tank program 90 chassis were built by the Porsche firm, but they were not used, because, in the end, the tank was produced by the Henschel firm. Later on it was decided to mount on them the 8,8 cm PaK 43/1L/71 cannon, in a fixed superstructure. The new AFV was officially designated Sd.Kfz.184 (Special Purpose Motor Vehicle 184), but unofficially was known as the “Ferdinand”, from Dr. Porsche’s name.

Sd.Kfz. 184 “Ferdinand” – Technical data

Combat Weight
70 tons
Max Speed
35 km per hour
150 km
Frontal Armor
200 mm (7,87 in)
Side Armor
80 mm (3,15 in)
Main gun
one 8,8 cm Pak 43/1L/71
Penetrating capability
190 mm (7,48 in) of armor at 1,000 m
Secondary armament
one MG34 (for dismounted use)
6 (Commander, gunner, driver, 
radio operator, two loaders)

656 Schweres Panzerjäger Regiment

The Ferdinands were split between two Army, Heavy Anti-Tank Units; the 653rd and the 654th.

On April 1943 Sturmgeschutz Abteilung 197 was redesignated as schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653 and a month later it received its new Ferdinands. The sister unit Panzerjäger Abteilung 654 already existed as an antitank battalion, but with the coming of the Ferdinands it was redesignated as schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654.

The two units became part of the newly formed schweres Panzerjäger Regiment 656, which was organized as follows:

schweres Panzerjäger Regiment 656
Oberstleutnant Baron Ernst von Jungenfeld

schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653
Major Heinrich Steinwachs
schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654
Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Noak
Sturmpanzer Abteilung 216
Major Bruno Kahl

Sturmpanzer Abteilung 216 was equipped with the Brummbär heavy assault gun.

The Regiment was destined for the Eastern Front, where it was to spearhead Model’s attack. The two Ferdinand battalions reached the front at the end of June.

Operation “Zitadelle”; Ninth Army’s planned advances
3. Operation “Zitadelle”; Ninth Army’s planned advances. 
In the actual operation the Germans got as far as Ponyri.


Planned advances of schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653 & 654
4. The attack plan.

The Regiment was subordinated to General Harpe’s XLI Panzerkorps. As Guderian had put it earlier, the Ferdinands were expected to smash their way through the enemy defenses, thus creating gaps for the following forces to exploit.
Borgward IV, radio controlled demolition vehicle
5. Borgward IV, radio controlled demolition vehicle.

The northern part of the Kursk salient was defended by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The Front had prepared three successive lines of defense. In the first defensive line, which was the Main Line of Resistance, they had dug three trench lines together with weapons emplacements and dugouts. The trench lines were protected by extensive minefields; 1,000 antitank mines per km of front. The Central front contained five Rifle Armies, one Tank Army and two independent Tank Corps. The Soviet Thirteenth Army was to face the new German armored beasts. Commanded by Lieutenant General Nikolay Pavlovich Pukhov it mustered 114,000 men and 270 tanks and AFVs.   

The German offense was launched at 03:30 hours, on 5 July. XLI Panzerkorps advanced with the 86th and 292nd Infanterie-Divisions in the front and the 18th Panzer-Division in reserve. Combat engineers and radio controlled B IV tanks were used to clear lanes amidst the heavy minefields. Intense Soviet artillery fire hampered the mine-clearing operations; as a result a number of Ferdinands didn’t spot the cleared lanes and were lost to mines. 
7. The Ferdinands were supported 
by a Brummbär battalion.

Despite those difficulties the Ferdinands reached the first trench line cleared it and regrouped, before resuming their advance towards the second trench line. Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Noak, schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654 commander, was killed and Hauptmann Henning took over. Ferdinands and Brummbärs, under the command of Major Bruno Kahl, attacked towards Ponyri and reached the second trench line. During the night the armored beasts were rearmed and refueled. By the end of the first day Abt. 653 was left with twelve operational Ferdinands.

The next day, 6 July, the Ferdinands destroyed a significant number of enemy tanks, but made very limited gains, because the infantry couldn’t keep up with them. After two days of inaction Kampfgruppe Kahl (Ferdinands of Abt. 654 and Brummbärs), on 9 July, pushed forward again. The Kampfgruppe destroyed scores of enemy antitank and artillery guns, but a breakthrough was not achieved. The Ferdinands were withdrawn and held in reserve.

On 10 July Model retried to breach the Soviet defenses; as before a breakthrough was not achieved. For all practical purposes Ninth Army’s offense was over.  

The battle for Ponyri
8. The battle for Ponyri.

The Russian View
Soviet infantry
9. Soviet infantry advancing under the cover 
of a 45mm antitank gun at Kursk.

A Russian staff officer made the following observations regarding the performance of the "Ferdinand" at Kursk:

During one battle the enemy assaulted our positions with 300 heavily armored vehicles, among which were about 50 "Tigers" and "Ferdinands". While the battle was taking place along our forward positions, 12 of our own heavy self-propelled guns remained hidden in their earth fortifications. When about 20 "Tigers" and "Ferdinands" broke through our forward lines, our self-propelled artillery moved out from their concealed positions in order to fire by direct laying. An ambush was prepared near the threatened area, and the pieces were camouflaged. Fire against the German armor was commenced when the attacking vehicles were about 500 yards away from our cannon.

Our first rounds were successful. At 500 yards "Tigers" suffered gaping holes in their turret armor and side armor. At 300 yards we pierced their frontal armor, and blew their turrets clean off. Hits on the side armor at this range nearly split the vehicles in half. It was somewhat different with the "Ferdinands". Their armor—the front armor, in particular—was more difficult to pierce, but their tracks, suspension, and side and turret armor were no harder to damage and destroy than those of the "Tigers." The Germans lost a total of 12 "Tigers" and six "Ferdinands".
Soviet MG position
10. Soviet MG position.

In another battle the same heavy armor of the enemy was engaged by our ordinary medium artillery, which used both special and regular ammunition. Three of our pieces were emplaced to form a triangle; they were reasonably far apart. This triangular disposition permitted unusually effective fire against "Ferdinands". Although the "Ferdinand's" fire is very accurate, its fixed turret does not permit it to shift its fire rapidly. When the gun is caught in a triangle, it is virtually helpless, because while it engages one cannon the other two take pot-shots at its vulnerable points. If the piece directly in front of a "Ferdinand" does not disclose its position by firing, the other two can usually dispose of the big gun with no loss to ourselves. Obviously, it is not always possible for us to arrange a battery in a triangle. Therefore, we require the closest possible cooperation between the pieces of a battery and also between neighboring batteries.

Point-blank fire from our medium tanks in ambush, armed only with the 45-mm cannon, has taken care of many "Tigers" and "Ferdinands", as have land mines, Molotov cocktails, and cannon fire from our fighter planes”.

Ferdinands at Kursk

The Soviet Counterstroke

USSR stamp devoted to the 20th  anniversary of the Kursk battle
11. A 1963 USSR stamp, devoted to the 20th 
anniversary of the Kursk battle.

On 12 July the Soviets launched their counteroffensive. Bryansk Front and Western Front advanced against the Second Panzer Army; a Panzer Army only in name, as it contained only one Panzer-Division.

Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653 was ordered to XXXV Armeekorps sector (Second Panzer Army), where it took defensive positions. Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654 was held in Ninth Amy’s reserve, which was also preparing to deal with the expected Soviet blows. In the battles that followed the Ferdinands proved themselves as superb, long range, tank killers. Nevertheless, the Germans had burned out their Panzer units during “Zitadelle” and with no adequate forces to stop the Soviets they were forced to leave the Orel salient. 

Soviet thrusts against the Second Panzer Army and the Ninth Army
12. Soviet thrusts against the Second Panzer Army and the Ninth Army.


In August the two Ferdinand battalions were concentrated in Bryansk, northwest of Orel (Oryol). There, schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654 turned over its remaining Ferdinands to its sister unit and left for France, where it would receive the Jagdpanther. Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653, with a total of 50 Ferdinands was sent to Dnepropetrovsk –Ukraine- for maintenance.

During the period of 5 – 27 July and at a cost of thirteen destroyed Ferdinands, schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 653 destroyed 320 Soviet tanks, as part of the 502 enemy tanks destroyed by the whole of schweres Panzerjäger Regiment 656, in the same period.

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Photos attribution
1. Scott Dunham, CC BY-SA 3.0 us or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Сайга20К from the Russian Wikipedia, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
3.  Штаб ОКХ Вермахта, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
4., 7., operational details: author
5. Huhu, via Wikimedia Commons
6. baku13, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, via Wikimedia Commons
8. Janusz Piekalkiewicz, Operace Citadela, via Wikimedia Commons
9. "The Eastern Front in Photographs", John Erickson, via Wikimedia Commons
10. Scanned and processed by A. Sdobnikov, via Wikimedia Commons
11. CMH Pub 30-5-1