Armored Tactics during Citadel

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

In Panzer Battles, von Mellenthin discusses the armored tactics put in to use during Operation Citadel, the swan song of the German armored forces:

The light and medium tanks used during the first three years of the war had done a splendid job during that period. However, as Russian antitank weapons had become more effective and Russian tanks bigger and stronger, the earlier models were now obsolete. Heavy and super-heavy tanks had come to the forefront, and armored tactics had to be changed accordingly. Panzer leaders were in the best position to watch these developments, as they had to adapt their tactics to the new weapons.

German antitank tactics of 1941 were no longer effective, for they did not provide for the massive Russian attacks with great numbers of tanks. It soon became apparent that a single antitank gun, or a cluster of them operating independently, was quickly discovered and knocked out. For this reason a new method was developed, which the German panzer troops called the Pakfront. Groups of guns up to a total of ten were put under the command of one man, who was responsible for concentrating their fire on a single target. Groups of antitank guns were thus welded into one unit, the groups were organized in depth and strewn all over the defended area. The idea was to draw the attacking armor into a web of enfilade fire. Fire discipline was of the first importance, and to open fire too early was the gravest mistake that could be made.

The Russians copied these tactics and soon became past master of them, as we learned to our cost in Citadel. It was a Russian specialty to fortify these Pakfronts with minefields or antitank ditches, and to scatter mines haphazard among the minebelts. The rapidity with which mines were laid by the Russians was truly remarkable. Two or three days and nights were quite sufficient for the Russians to lay more than thirty thousand mines and it was no rare thing to have to lift forty thousand mines a day in the sector of a German corps. During the Kursk offensive, and after penetrating to a depth of twelve miles, we still found ourselves in the midst of minefields and opposed by Pakfronts. In this connection mention should be made again of the masterly camouflage work of the Russians. Neither minefields nor Pakfronts could be detected until the first tank blew up, or the first Russian antitank gun opened fire.

How did the Germans make any progress? By shooting back:

During Citadel the German armor moved and fought in wedge formation, the Panzerkeil, which up to then had proved very effective indeed; the spearhead of the wedge was formed by the heaviest tanks, and the Tigers proved their worth against the Russian antitank fronts organized in depth. The Tiger’s 88-mm gun was superior to anything the Russians had, but as I have mentioned, the Panthers were still in their infancy and were a failure. Our Mark IV’s were not good enough to effect a breakthrough against a deep antitank front, and the capture of so many Russian positions was due to the perfect co-operation of all heavy weapons.

Citadel and other operations proved that the fire of the antitank front can be neutralized by the concentric and expertly conducted fire of the attacking armor. To put this theory into practice called for changes in armored formations and tactics. The tank-wedge was replaced by the Panzerglocke (tank bell). The Panzglocke, with super-heavy tanks in the center, medium tanks to the right and left rear in a widening arch, light tanks behind the center and held ready for pursuit, was the best formation to bring to bear against a wide fire front.

The Panzer commander, together with observers for all the heavy weapons, travel led in the Glocke immediately behind the leading medium tanks. He had to be in wireless communication with the commander f the fighter-bombers, and other aircraft supporting the ground-troops. Engineers in armored vehicles traveled just behind the forward tanks of the Glocke, ready to clear gaps through minefields. An attack along these lines was generally successful if the attacking formations practiced close co-operation of all weapons.

Night attacks also helped — but they needed a road or sand track to follow, because they had no compasses suitable for tanks. (Who knew?)

The success of armor against antitank fronts depends on the following conditions:

  1. Every opportunity must be taken for reconnaissance in the air and on the ground.
  2. The armored formation carrying out the attack must be made as strong as possible by super-heavy tanks, brought to bear in the Schwerpunkt.
  3. Fire concentration by tank guns must be rapid and effective; the armor must keep moving and tanks should only stop to fire their guns.
  4. Observers for all heavy weapons supporting the attack must travel with the armor. Wireless communication between the tank leader and the air is most essential.
  5. Engineers in armored vehicles must follow the armor.
  6. Light tanks must be at hand to exploit success.
  7. Fuel and ammunition supply for the armor must be assured during the battle by armored supply carriers. Much experience is needed to carry out this difficult operation.
  8. Thanks should be supplied with smoke gear to blind enemy antitank weapons, and with colored-smoke grenades for unit commanders to indicate direction.
  9. For night attacks tanks should be supplied with direction-finding equipment.


  1. Buckethead says:

    Odd, but the second quote reminded me of nothing more than EE Smith’s Lensmen series. In the latter books, as battles between the Galactic Patrol and Boskone heated up there weren’t just new weapons, but Smith varied the tactics as well: cones, spheres, cylinders with different arrangements of heavy and light craft.

    Sounds like Mellinthin is relating a real-life, two-dimensional version of the battles in the Lensmen series.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I definitely remember the constant technical (and tactical) arms races in the Lensman series. Since the main stories were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Smith had plenty of real-life arms races to look to for inspiration — and the blitzkrieg was just starting to demonstrate what armor and air power could do on land.

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