German Half-Tracked Vehicles of World War 2: Unarmoured Support Vehicles of the German Army 1933-45
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The latter, a multi-role dive and attack bomber, has often been called the 'Russian mosquito' because of its nimbleness. The former, about which we will hear more later, was a heavily armoured and armed ground-attack aircraft. By the standards of some of the Western ground-attack machines like the Typhoon it was, like the comparable German aircraft, very slow.
However, its heavy armour gave it excellent protection against ground fire and it was available in large numbers by July Furthermore, the Illyushin could be equipped with a powerful mix of weapons, including anti-tank cannon and rockets or bombs. Although historians of both camps have argued to the contrary, there is really little evidence that either side had a clear technical superiority in July The Luftwaffe certainly had some better fighters, but Soviet designs had improved dramatically over the past few years and were comparable in many cases.
The new German armour did, as we have noted, confer an advantage, but not universally. The Soviets did possess some weapons with which they could destroy such vehicles and could at least match the firepower of the bulk of the Wehrmacht 's armour. The people behind the equipment were, no doubt, more important than the equipment itself.
In this regard, the Germans, as we have already seen, generally appear to have had an advantage. Their leadership was usually superior and their personnel were generally better trained. In other words, German troops were the equivalent of Red Army troops. The Soviets could, of course, deploy superior numbers of personnel and equipment. However, the general Soviet quantitative advantage is only considered to have only been in the region of and they had squandered similar such numerical advantage in the past. Perhaps their most important advantage was in that they waited behind well prepared defensive positions.
There were thousands of mines and each Red Army soldier was drilled to know his or her task. As at Stalingrad, the Soviet High Command was playing on the strength of the Red Army; that is that, if often clumsy in the attack, it was usually more solid in defence. The Germans, on the other hand, again as they had done at Stalingrad, were throwing away the advantages of their superior training, leadership and grasp of mobile warfare by smashing into one of the most heavily defended areas since the Maginot Line.
For all of that, the outcome was certainly in some doubt. The Germans had the advantage of having a superiority on their schwerpunkten , or spearheads, and the Soviets had deployed weaker forces to the south of the salient where the Germans were stronger.
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It would appear as if Soviet intelligence had not provided as detailed information as is often suggested and Soviet intelligence sources could not, of course, inform the Red Army of important tactical decisions that were to be taken by the Germans on the battlefield. By June the air units of both armies were already heavily engaged and, in some cases they had already taken heavy losses. Not commonly known is that while both sides prepared for battle they also met to discuss peace. Hitler had in any event told his Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, prior to the offensive that if he settled with Russia he would only quickly come to grips with her again.
He was at grips with the enemy that he had declared to be his greatest in Mein Kampf and he intended to continue his attempt to destroy the Soviets or perish trying. There is little doubt that Hitler generally continued to underestimate the power of his 'sub-human' enemy and, as it turned out, he and his order of thugs would perish while attempting to 'liquidate' them. The scene was set for the greatest showdown thus far in the war between two of the most brutal dictatorships of the twentieth century.
The Soviet propensity for mass infantry attacks ensured heavy casualties during their counter-offensives after the Kursk battle. The German offensive was scheduled to begin on the morning of 5 July, but was effectively under way in the south on the 4th. In the north too, the battle got under way as the German engineers attempted to clear some of the Soviet minefields. That day the Soviets learned from a deserter that Model's attack was scheduled for on 5 July. For the Germans there, the Red Army's response was an ominous one and all realised that the offensive was going to come as no surprise to the Red Army.
At , the Soviet's Central Front unleashed a massive bombardment on the forming up positions and artillery lines of the 9th Army. In terms of the physical damage caused to the Germans by this bombardment, historians differ as to its success. Yet most agree that the damage to the 9th Army's morale must have been fairly considerable. It was only able to reply with its own barrage at The 9th Army encountered fierce opposition as it hurled itself at the first Red Army defence line in the north.
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Its two hour artillery bombardment failed to deliver everything that it promised. Many Red Army strongpoints survived the onslaught and, at many points, the defenders proceeded to pin down the German engineers and assault battalions. Model's plan was not unlike that which Montgomery had used at Alamein some months before. His infantry, of which he disposed a considerable number, and engineers were to clear the mines and the anti-tank gun positions. His armour was to follow and exploit any breaches made in the Red Army's defences. But the infantry's progress was slow in most places.
The 6th Division was mauled beyond recognition. On the left, the rd suffered considerable casualties and was unable to take the key town of Maloarchoangelsk. Nevertheless, progress in the centre had been better and by the evening of 5 July, the Germans had penetrated some eight kilometres across a 50 km front. Model was not altogether satisfied with this progress and resolved to commit more of his armour on the following day.
However, the Red Army still failed to break. The Soviet troops generally did not panic in the face of the German armoured attacks which were conducted with great elan and which, in many cases, were spearheaded by the huge Tiger and Ferdinand armoured vehicles. The Red Army infantry allowed the German vehicles to pass them by and then rose to force the German infantry to ground. The heavy Panzers and assault guns usually outlasted the lighter tanks and personal carriers to became isolated deep in the Soviet defences where they were attacked from all quarters and destroyed.
The Soviet strongpoints had been cunningly positioned and concealed, so that the first indication that they existed was often the bark of an anti-tank gun followed by a round slapping into the flank of a leading vehicle. By the end of the second day, the 9th Army had lost 10 men. Manstein's forces in the south, which had a much greater armoured content than that of Model's, had got off to a more promising start.
He had chosen a more unorthodox approach to the problem of breaching the Soviet defences. The German tanks were organised into Panzerkeilen , or armoured wedges.
At the tips of the wedges were the heavy vehicles, the Tiger and the Panther, while the lighter tanks followed. Behind them were the mobile infantry and finally came the 'footslogging' infantry, who were to mop up any pockets of resistance. The southern attack got underway at on 4 July.
Hoth hoped to take a line of hills that stood just in front of the German front line and so give his troops an advantage when they began their offensive in earnest the next day.
The unorthodox timing of his attack succeeded in surprising the Soviets and the attack carried its objectives with relative ease. The Red Army responded with a powerful bombardment of the whole area that night. The offensive was resumed at on 5 July and within two hours the 48th Panzer Corps managed to break through the first Red Army defence line. It was but the first of a series of setbacks to be suffered by the Soviets that morning.
If Kursk was a giant tank clash, it would also become a great duel for the airspace over the salient. The Luftwaffe had massed approximately aircraft on forward airfields for operations that day. With perhaps uncharacteristic daring, the Soviets launched a strike designed to destroy these on the ground. It was a bold stroke that was only narrowly foiled. The Germans had installed a few examples of their 'Freya' radar stations in the area recently and, forewarned, they were able to scramble their fighters.
In consequence, it was the Soviets who were surprised. Their fighter aircraft were outclassed by German Me s and FW s at the high altitude at which the battle was fought and the attack was quickly broken up. The Germans claimed to have destroyed over enemy aircraft that morning. Cross has suggested that, in terms of aircraft claimed shot down, 5 July was the greatest single air action of the Second World War. Be that as it may, the day certainly saw one of the great air battles of the war in terms of the number of aircraft employed and, while the Luftwaffe claim of aircraft shot down is certainly an exaggeration, it did inflict a defeat on the VVS and the Germans enjoyed almost complete air-superiority around the salient that day.
Rudel employed new tactics which were quickly to be adopted by all of the German 'tank buster' pilots. He would use a low approach and attack tanks from the rear and, in less favourable circumstances, from the side. He always aimed for the engine of the tank. Rudel is reputed to have destroyed Soviet tanks between and Like so many Luftwaffe aces, he and his colleagues probably exaggerated his 'score'. What is not in doubt is that Rudel was easily the most successful Luftwaffe tank destroyer pilot of the war.
Meanwhile, the SS Panzer Corps, which, besides being strong in armour, had an entire brigade of Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, breached the positions of the 6th Guards Army. To the right of the SS Panzer Corps, the Kempf Detachment was making slower progress and the flank of the corps was being laid bare. Nevertheless, the Soviets were not in a position to take advantage of this. The cunning Hoth had devised his own strategy to break through from the south, a strategy that Soviet intelligence could have no way of finding out about.
Hoth had decided that the direct approach on Kursk was too obvious and decided instead to wheel his attack northeast, toward Prokhorovka, once it was through the initial Soviet defences. Having hopefully side-stepped the Red Army's main defences and broken through, Hoth planned to finally swing northwards on Kursk. It was an important decision and one which certainly threw the outcome of the battle into some doubt, for the Red Army was thrown off balance.
There were also ominous omens for the Germans. There had been less 'tank panic' amongst the Red Army troops than had been known previously. Most of the Red Army troops who faced these attacks died at their positions beside their anti-tank guns and rifles, in their bunkers and in their trenches. The cost to them was proving exorbitant, but they too exacted a terrible price.
South African Military History Society - Journal - KURSK: THE GREAT SOVIET-GERMAN ARMOURED CLASH
Each German armoured vehicle that was destroyed, each German infantryman that became a casualty, was one less for an offensive which had only limited resources and manpower. The Wehrmacht attack, sheathed in metal though it was, bludgeoned forward into what was effectively a massive metal and meat grinder.
And yet, there were occasions when it seemed as though the grinder might become overwhelmed by the firepower and expertise of the Panzer forces. On 7 July, it appeared as if the German assault might succeed. Grossdeutschland and 11th Panzer Divisions made steady, if costly progress toward Oboyan, beating off counter-attacks by 6th Tank Corps, while the SS Panzer Corps advanced ominously on Prokhorovka.