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The perspective of a Tiger tank commander at the Battle of Kursk, eighty years ago this weekend
Richard von Rosen did not attempt to write his memoirs until 2013. But using a combination of diaries and letters written home, he was able to produce a remarkably detailed account of his service - first as a panzer gun layer, eventually as a senior lieutenant in command of a King Tiger. Panzer Ace: The Memoirs of an Iron Cross Panzer Commander from Barbarossa to Normandy also contains over four hundred contemporary images of the tanks he fought in and the comrades he served with.
von Rosen devotes a chapter to describing the Battle of Kursk, painting a very clear picture of the conditions in which his company of Tiger tanks fought. He celebrated his 21st birthday as the battle began.
Nothing was to be seen. We continued forward and then suddenly there was a flash. For a fraction of a second I could see the shell heading directly for me.
The following excerpt covers the 7th-10th July 1943:
On the third day of the attack, 7 July, I took up my former position as ‘can-opener’ with my four Tigers leading. I thought it was unlikely to be any more difficult than the previous day. Soon after setting out in the early morning we came across another Russian defensive line, much weaker than expected and without any depth, and broke through it relatively quickly. On that day I don’t remember that we had any stronger resistance than that to break down.
We advanced, now and again we came across groups of Russian stragglers, but no cohesive or organized resistance. Towards evening we were near Miasoedovo, a heavily defended crossroads. Our panzer-grenadiers forced their way into the town, while we ourselves remained outside.
During the course of the next day we moved up to protect the right flank of 7 PzDiv on high ground about 4km south-east of Miasoedovo. PzRgt 6 had previously captured it. We positioned ourselves on a reverse slope, far away from the panzers of I Abt/PzRgt 25. I had orders to protect the main body to the east. I positioned myself with two panzers behind the crest so that I could observe and fire over it without offering myself as a target. Before me lay a moderate slope with the occasional bush. In the valley bottom, in a large semi-circle, was sparse deciduous woodland with thick bushy undergrowth at its edges. If I looked left from my high point I had a good view over the terrain.
The air shimmered with heat. We stood four-hour watches, turn and turn about, with two panzers each. At last we could wash. There was little water, but each of the five crew received a bowlfid. It felt good. Usually we washed our hands with petrol. The night passed quietly and I slept well again: I had a lot of sleep to catch up on.
PzRgt 25 continued to protect the division’s left flank. No great change was expected for the following day. I was summoned to the regimental commander. He gave me the task of reconnoitring the wood in the valley bottom: tank noises had been heard there during the night.
Two of my panzers stood watch on the ridge, giving me covering fire at the same time. I led, accompanied by Feldwebel Weigel’s Tiger. Hatches shut, battle readiness, Panzer Marsch! We rolled slowly down the long slope through open country towards the wood. Four hundred metres short of it we stopped to observe. Nothing was to be seen. We continued forward and then suddenly there was a flash. For a fraction of a second I could see the shell heading directly for me.
It hit the bow of the panzer, and so did the second one. The air was shimmering: I couldn’t make out anything and fired an explosive shell towards where I suspected the source to be. We received another hit, this time from the right. I pulled back and drove in reverse to our starting point.
Both Tigers had some fresh scars each, but nothing had penetrated. There was less concern about a shell entering than a hit to the lateral gearing which would have put the drive wheel out of action. It was our weak point and the Russians knew it. The two panzers I had left behind on watch had seen everything and also opened fire. They saw two SP assault guns appear at the edge of the wood, fired at them and then withdrew behind cover. I reported the incident to the commander orally. Now we had to be doubly cautious so as to avoid any nasty surprises.
In the evening Feldwebel Grohmann, our 3 Company orderly room sergeant, came by with mail and a box of Shoka-Cola for everyone. He told me that Oberleutnant Scherf was in action with the company at Miasoedovo. Gefreiter Albrecht Schmidt had fallen there on 8 July: on the first day of the attack Leutnant Jammerath of our 1 Company had been killed. He had been my classmate on the officers’course at the Panzer Training School at Wilnsdorf. News like that came as a blow to remind me how many guardian angels I had had until then.
Mail from home: everything was all right there, the family was going to Oberbarenburg again. Yes, it was always so beautiful there.
Next morning while on watch I could not believe my eyes. The Russians were pulling out ofthe wood. I had a brief glimpse ofthree tanks before they disappeared at great speed behind natural cover. By the time my gunner had got them in his sights two more had appeared for a short time and then also gone into cover. We fired but scored no hits, corrected for deflection and this time got a hit, white smoke enveloping everything. We fired one more for luck and all fell silent again. At least ten enemy tanks had escaped us, but we had hit one for certain and another fell by the wayside afterwards.
At PzRgt 25, meanwhile, a real military camp had been set up, people were tinkering with panzers, cleaning weapons, enjoying the sun, taking it easy, playing cards. How long would this Eldorado last? We also benefitted from it. Our crews not on watch did the same. A break in order to generate energy. I went to the Regimental HQ several times: there was nothing new to report regarding the situation. I had a schnapps with the commander. I was slowly becoming a person again.
This excerpt from Panzer Ace: The Memoirs of an Iron Cross Panzer Commander from Barbarossa to Normandy appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.