At the start of the offensive the Panzertruppen on the Eastern Front were organized as shown in the Order of Battle dated 7 July 1943. Heeresgruppe Mitte on the north side of the Kursk salient had 89 Ferdinand in schwere Panzer-Jaeger-Abteilung 656.
Production of the Porsche VK 4501 design had been ordered before the trials as a safeguard against the failure of the Henschel design. As 90 vehicles were already in hand when the result of the trials was announced, it was decided to utilise the chassis as the basis of a self-propelled carriage for the 8.8 cm L/71 gun. This equipment was designated Panzerjager Tiger (P) Ferdinand Sd Kfz 184; it was subsequently redesignated 8.8 cm 43/2 L/71 Ausf pz Jag Tiger (P) Elefant früber Ferdinand. The original name "Ferdinand" had been adopted in honour of the designer, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.
schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653
On 1 April 1943, Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 197 was redesignated as schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 at Bruck an der Leitha in Austria. It is also transferred from the assault artillery branch to armor. The officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the former Sturmgeschütz Abteilung 197 formed the cadre for the redesignated battalion. The commander was Major Heinrich Steinwachs. Oberst Hoffmann-Schoenborn, the senior officer of the assault artillery branch, bid farewell to the assault artillerymen on 14 April 1943 in a solemn ceremony. The arrival of new personnel brought the battalion up to a strength of almost 1,000 men. In May 1943, it received the Ferdinand tank destroyer (Sd. Kfz. 184) as its combat vehicle.
After leaving the assault artillery branch, schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 relocated to NeusiedeI am See. The battalion was billeted in the old Hungarian Hussar barracks. The Army High Command ordered the first production batch of 45 Ferdinand delivered to Rouen (France). The battalion provided the transport personnel. The battalion's sister formation, schwere Panzerjäger- Abteilung 654, had been at Rouen since mid-April 1943. This battalion received its complement of vehicles first. After delivering the Ferdinand, the transport personnel from schwere PanzerjägerAbteilung 653 returned to Neusiedel.
Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to Russia aboard 11 transport trains (transport numbers 326281-326291) from 9-12 June 1943. The loading site was Parndorf (Austria). The battalion moved through Brunn, Modlin, Brest-Litovsk, Minsk, Briansk, Karatchev and Orel to its staging area. The detraining site was the Smiyevka train station, 35 kilometers south of Orel. From there, the individually arriving companies moved to their assembly areas (Davidovo for the 3./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653; Gostinovo for the 2./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653; and Kuliki for the l./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653). The companies occupied those areas until 30 June 1943. Additional technical training was conducted there, and the vehicle commanders received terrain orientations.
Starting on 1 July 1943, the attack forces of the 9. Armee began moving in small groups to their forward assembly areas behind the front (Ssorotschi Kusty). All vehicles refueled and rearmed there. On 2 July 1943, the vehicles moved forward another 15 kilometers and occupied positions in the town of Novopolevo. During the evening twilight of 3 July 1943, the Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to their start point in Glasunovka, directly on the Orel-Kursk rail line. Schweres PanzerjägerRegiment 656 assembled there as part of the XXXXI. Panzer-Korps (General der Panzertruppen Harpe). The Regimental Commander, Oberstleutnant Ernst von Jungenfeld, spoke to the assembled soldiers on the evening of 4 July 1943.
After a mighty artillery barrage and heavy bomber attacks by the Luftwaffe, the Ferdinand of the battalion, along with the infantry of the 292. Infanterie-Division and the 86. Infanterie-Division, moved forward along a broad front. Behind them, in the second wave, were the Sturmpanzer (assault tanks) of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 216-150 mm assault howitzers on a Panzer IV chassis and referred to after the war as the Brummbar ("Grizzly Bear")-and the assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 177 and Sturmgeschütz- Abteilung 244. The objective was the first network of Russian positions on Hill 257.7, named "Tank Hill", which was the cornerstone of the Russian defensive networks at Malo-Archangelsk and Olchovatka. The barren terrain was very heavily mined and the radio-controlled explosive-charge carriers employed there were unable to accomplish the task. The Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 made very slow progress through the minefield. Many vehicles were immobilized with broken tracks and damaged idler arms. The commander of the l./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, Hauptmann Spielmann, was severely wounded by a Russian antipersonnel mine while dismounted and guiding his driver, Unteroffizier Karl Gresch. Oberleutnant Helmut Ulbricht took assumed acting command of the company.
With only 12 operational Ferdinand remaining, schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 reached its objective for the day at 1700 hours on 5 July 1943. During the next two day, the Ferdinand took part in extremely difficult operations around the town of Ponyri. Major Steinwachs then had to order a recovery day for the battalion, because all the vehicles were effectively out of action and in dire need of repairs.
The Russian 3rd Tank Army-four corps with 1,460 tanks and 21 divisions; a total strength of 230,000 men-received orders on 11 July 1943 to conduct the offensive at Orel. The prelude concentrated on the XXXV. Armee-Korps under General der Infanterie Rendulic. Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to Rendulic's sector during the night of 13/14July 1943 and occupied defensive positions. On 14 July 1943, the 36. Panzergrenadier-Division was the target of a frontal attack by almost 400 Russian tanks. The Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, together with the antitank elements of the mechanized infantry division, became rescuers of the highest degree. Despite a lack of both time and familiarity with the terrain, a consolidated battle group of all three tank-destroyer companies, under the command of Leutnant Heinrich Teriete, succeeded in repulsing the attack.
Leutnant Teriete received the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross on 22 July 1943 for the destruction of 22 Russian tanks during this engagement. (Teriete's driver was Alois Schafer and his gunner was Kurt Titus.)
The first combat lessons for the Ferdinand, from the mechanical viewpoint, were written by Heinz Groschl, attached to schwere PanzeIrjäger-Abteilung 653 from the Porsche Company as an advisor, in a report to the Porsche Company dated 26July 1943 Source: Federal Archives / Freiburg Military Archives):
Our vehicles have been in combat for three weeks and, along with the previous kilometers, have covered an average total of 500 kilometers each. I have accumulated enough information to present you with a picture of the positive and negative qualities of our vehicles. I concur with the majority of the gentlemen in the battalion that the weapon has been successful, and it is a universal regret that there are so few of them available. With an average of 15 enemy tanks destroyed per vehicle, we can certainly speak of success. I must stress above all things that this figure could have been considerably higher. Unfortunately, the majority of the vehicles are always undergoing repairs. This condition becomes worse with every passing day, because the already insufficient supply of repair parts has been exhausted with the increasing wear on all parts. There has been practically no re-supply of repair parts to speak of. There are 17 vehicles missing from the original total of 44. Seven of these have been transferred to other battalions on orders from the regiment. The other 10 were total losses.
Has proved itself almost impervious to rounds. Except for one penetrating hit to the side near the rear ventilation motor housing, (76 mm) and besides many scars, everything has remained intact. It should be mentioned that even the single penetrating round did not have any ill effects. Practical experience has shown however, that the engine gratings are a weak area. Along with Molotov cocktails, a direct hit from artillery or a [bomb] on or near the gratings can set the vehicle ablaze. Shrapnel penetrates the fuel tank or damages other important parts, such as water lines. The temperature in the engine compartment was so high that the fuel actually began to boil within its containers in isolated instances. Attaching winches, equipment and cables to the outside of the vehicle was wrong. It should have been predicted that these items would be destroyed in a short amount of time.
The main gun works extremely well, but is almost constantly in need of repair. Panels break off the tube for inexplicable reasons and the casing ejector does not function. The casings are often extracted with a hammer and chisel. Moving into combat with an unsupported gun tube knocks lateral and vertical traverse devices out of alignment to such an extent that up to 20 centimeter deviations exist at the muzzle of the gun tube. The lateral traverse devices often jam when the vehicle becomes hot. The alignment must be reset after a short time in combat. The forward gun tube support is sometimes shot away during combat. Stabsfeldwebel Brunnthalter has given the commander of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 a more detailed report for him to forward.