Battle of Kharkov, February-March 1943: Manstein's Counterblow

Battle of Kharkov, February-March 1943: Manstein's Counterblow

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Battle of Kharkov, February-March 1943: Manstein's Counterblow

By the end of January of 1943, Hitler's armies had been dealt a series of defeats by the Russians, beginning with the disaster at Stalingrad. The German summer offensive, codenamed Operation 'Blue' had been conducted initially by Army Group South under Generalfeldmarschall von Bock and then Army Groups 'A' (under Generalfeldmarschall von List) and 'B' (under Generalfeldmarschall von Weichs) when Army Group South was split into two after Hitler changed the objective of the campaign so that both Stalingrad and Caucasus had to be captured simultaneously. The two army groups were forced to try and achieve these objectives with insufficient resources that were widely separated geographically and therefore could not support each other in the event of problems. The Soviet offensives codenamed 'Uranus' and 'Little Saturn' led by Generals Georgi Zhukov, Alexandr Vasilevsky and Konstantin Rokossovsky had surrounded and destroyed firstly, the German 6th Army under Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus and elements of 4th Panzer Army under General Hermann Hoth that had concentrated in the immediate area of Stalingrad, and then badly mauled the armies of Germany's Axis allies, Italy, Rumania and Hungary. Germany teetered on the brink of defeat in World War II because the Soviet advance threatened to drive to the Dnepr River and encircle the remaining Germans armies in southern Russia, which by then were scrambling to withdraw out of the Caucasus region.

Stalin and the Russian high command believed that the war could be won with just one more great effort. Accordingly, they planned and launched two offensives, designated Operations 'Star' and 'Gallop'. The focal points of the two offensives included the recapture of Kharkov, the industrial heart of the Ukraine and the destruction of Army Detachment Hollidt, 4th Panzer Army and 2nd Army. Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein entered the picture in late 1942 when he was appointed commander of Army Group Don. Even though he tried to relieve the 6th Army at Stalingrad in Operation Winter Storm, he found that there were insufficient resources devoted to the operation and the Soviets had amassed considerable forces in the area in order to prevent such an eventuality and threatened to counterattack and encircle the relief force. He therefore was forced to leave the 6th Army to its fate. His only course of action was to try and rebuild the German forces in Southern Russia (which eventually all came under the control of Army Group Don) and stabilise the frontline. Beginning on 19 February 1943, he engineered a remarkable operation that changed the course of the war in Russia. Manstein's counteroffensive destroyed or severely damaged four Russian armies and regained much of the territory lost in January. The troops that played the most important role in the offensive were three divisions of the Waffen-SS. 1st SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler', 2nd SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Das Reich' and 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Totenkopf' were combined for the first time into a corps, which was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, the senior commander of the Waffen-SS and former commander of 'Das Reich'.

'Leibstandarte' and 'Das Reich' participated in the defense of Kharkov, along with the elite Army division "Grossdeutschland" supported by three weak infantry divisions. This handful of divisions was attacked by four Soviet armies, but under command of Army Detachment Lanz, was able to hold the city for two weeks. On 14 February, 1943 the SS Panzer Corps and the rest of Army Detachment Lanz withdrew from Kharkov under disputed circumstances that involved Hausser and his violation of a direct order from Hitler. Almost exactly a month later, the Germans had recaptured Kharkov and destroyed or crippled the four Soviet armies that had driven them out of the city in February. The divisions that played the key role in Manstein's counteroffensive were the three divisions of the Waffen-SS. While 'Leibstandarte' defended the supply base of the SS-Panzer Corps from the entire Soviet 3rd Tank Army, 'Das Reich' and 'Totenkopf' conducted a complex series of operations that began with a 100km thrust to the south which saved the Dnepr bridges, thus securing supply lines for the armies of Army Group Don. Subsequent operations by the SS divisions, this time including 'Liebstandarte', drove the Russians away from the rail net south of Kharkov and wrested Kharkov from the Russians once again.

During the recapture of the city, there was controversy regarding Hausser's command decisions. Hausser has been accused of disregarding his instructions from superior officers and throwing his divisions into costly combat in the city for reasons of personal and SS prestige, in order to regain Hitler's favour. The records of the SS-Panzer Corps and 4th Panzer Army provide a different explanation for Hausser's actions. Whatever the reasons, Kharkov was only to remain in German hands for a short period of time, being recaptured by the Soviets for the final time on 22 August 1943. However, it must be noted that after the German disaster at Stalingrad, where the Wehrmacht lost its largest and best equipped field army, von Manstein's achievement in stabilizing the front must rank as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) achievements of World War II. He had executed a successful withdrawal in the face of immense Soviet pressure, then launched a masterly counterattack that inflicted on the Soviets immense losses in men and material, destroying four armies. Most importantly, he re-established the front from Taganrog to Belgorod as a virtually straight defensive line and, at little cost, retook the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, all this while his opponent possessed a huge numerical advantage.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Armstrong, Col R. 'Spring Disaster: The Red Army's Kharkov Offensive' in Military Review, May 1992, pp. 84 – 86.
Carell, P. Scorched Earth, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971.
Glantz, D. Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941 – 43, University Press of Kansas, 2005.
Glantz, D. From the Don to the Dnepr: Soviet Offensive Operations December 1942 to August 1943, Frank Cass, London, 1991.
Glantz, D. Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a Military Disaster, Ian Allen Publishing, Shepperton, 1998.
Glantz, D. (Ed) 'The Kharkov Operation, May 1942' in The Journal of Soviet Military Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (September 1992), pp. 451 – 93 and Vol. 4 (December 1992), pp. 611 – 86.
Margry, K. 'Kharkov' in After the Battle, Number 112, 2001, pp. 2 – 45.
Nipe, G. Last Victory in Russia, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2000.
Nipe, G & Spezzano, R. Platz der Leibstandarte: The SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "LSSAH" and the Battle of Kharkov January - March 1943, Presidio Press, 2002.
Restayn, J. The Battle of Kharkov, J J Fedorowicz Publishing, Canada, 2000.

Jack Kruse, Author

General von Paulus surrendered the Sixth Army, surrounded at Stalingrad, in the first week of February 1943. Even ‘Winter Storm’, Hoth’s ill-fated attempt at a rescue, failed. As the Russian Army rampaged west, STAVKA, the Soviet Army staff, planned a massive offensive, ‘Operation Star’, aiming to surround the German forces in the Ukraine, Army Group South.

The plan required Bryansk Front, commanded by General Reyter, continuing their drive through Kursk, while Voronezh Front under General Golikov, and South-West Front under General Vatutin, struck west, north of Kharkov, then curved south to meet South Front under General Malinovsky, acting as the anvil which crushed Army Group South.

General Golikov anticipated using his 40 th Army to take Belgorod, then circle south, while the 69 th Army took bridgeheads over the Donets and entered Kharkov. The Third Tank Army, under General Rybalko, would cross the Donets and circle Kharkov to the south. Golikov possessed 315 tanks with 300 in reserve, and 200,000 men.

Lieutenant General Hans Cramer’s SS Grossdeutschland had 31 tanks, though its infantry traveled on half-tracks, allowing enhanced maneuverability, compared to infantry on foot. 168 th Division, and Grossdeutschland covered Kharkov from the north. Two divisions of the Lieutenant General Paul Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps protected Kharkov from the east and south. Army Detachment Lanz, with 50,000 men in Kharkov, was no match for the Soviet troops, though the Luftwaffe controlled the skies. Das Reich and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler detrained in Kharkov as the battle began.

Two of General Golikov’s divisions crossed the Donets on 5 February after a three day battle. By 6 February elements of Grossdeutschland retreated to the south-west toward Kharkov. Conversely, Das Reich met Soviet troops east of the Donets, and drove them back eight kilometers.

On 7 February Soviet troops reached the outskirts of Belgorod, about 60 kilometers north-east of Kharkov, while General Sokolov’s 6 th Guards Corps crossed the Donets River at Zmiev, south of Kharkov. By 9 February German forces pulled back, continuing to cover Kharkov. On 11 February Das Reich redeployed south of Kharkov. Soviet forces pushed Grossdeutschland back even further into the north-east corner of the city.

General von Manstein became commander of Army Group South on 12 February and received permission from Adolf Hitler to pull back forces as needed, and to deploy his armor at his discretion.

Lieutenant General Pavel Rybalko’s Third Tank Army attacked the entire front of the German defenses from the east and south-east while Sokolov’s 6 th Guards Cavalry Corps attacked on a wide ark south of Kharkov from Merefa to Novaya Vodolaga. Fighting continued in the industrial district in eastern Kharkov even as Totenkopf detrained, on February 13, at Poltava more than 100 kilometers to the south-west of Kharkov.

As fighting intensified, Lieutenant General Paul Hausser, commander of SS Panzer Corps, advised Lieutenant General Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, commander of Leibstandarte Panzer Division, to blow up key bridges in Kharkov. This order was cancelled on 14 February by von Manstein, who also ordered Lanz to hold Kharkov. Von Manstein relieved General Crammer of command of Grossdeutschland, giving the unit to General Raus.

SS Panzer Corps’ attack on Surzhikov’s 11 th Cavalry forced them back on Ochotschaje and Bereka, while Das Reich pulled back from Kharkov.

Von Manstein knew that the Soviet forces, committed to combat for an lengthy period, were weak and overextended. He had a plan to knock them back on their heels.

Sources: Manstein’s Victorious Panzers, William E. Welsh, WW II History Magazine, Aug/Sept 2020

Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1968 Soviet Setback After Stalingrad, Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

Soviet Setback After Stalingrad, Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

Kharkov battle. August 1943 of the year. The liberation of Kharkov

After three unsuccessful attempts to liberate Kharkov, in January and May of 1942 and February of 1943, the Belgorod-Kharkov operation (“Commander Rumyantsev”) was carried out following the defeat of the Germans in Kursk in August 1943, leading to the final liberation of Kharkov. On the Soviet side, troops of the Voronezh Front operated under the command of Vatutin and the Steppe Front under the command of Konev. The coordination of the fronts was carried out by Marshal Vasilevsky.

This operation was given great importance. The front forces had three combined arms, two tank and one air army, two armies were in reserve Headquarters. In the areas of the fronts designated for the breakthrough, a high concentration of equipment and artillery was created, for which artillery, self-propelled guns and tanks were additionally transferred here.

On the German side, the defense was held by the infantry and tank armies, as well as the 14 infantry and 4 tank divisions. After the start of the operation, the German command urgently deployed reinforcements from the Bryansk Front and Mius, including the well-known divisions Totenkompf, Viking and Reich, to the area of ​​its operation. Field Marshal Manstein commanded the troops of the South group.

Start of operation

Operation "Commander of the Rumyantsev" began on August 3 and initially was more than successful. The troops were given the task of encircling and destroying the Kharkov grouping of the enemy in order to prevent them from leaving the Dnieper.

Within five days, the troops of the Voronezh and Steppe fronts captured significant territories from the enemy. Large Wehrmacht groups were destroyed near Borisovka and Tomarovka, and Belgorod and Bogodukhov were liberated on August 5. The point of attack was the 1 and 5 I tank armies, which were supposed to create the conditions for encircling and destroying the Kharkov group.

The Soviet tankers on August 6 completed the elimination of the enemy in the Tomarovsky Cauldron and the 5-I tank army moved to Zolochev, which, as a result of a night attack, managed to capture August 9. After that, the army was withdrawn to the reserve and subordinated to the commander of the Steppe Front.

The troops continued to reach Kharkov through Bogodukhov and Akhtyrka. At the same time, units of the South and South-Western Fronts launched offensive operations in the Donbas, moving towards the Voronezh Front. This did not allow the Germans to transfer reinforcements to Kharkov, and on August 10 the Kharkov-Poltava railway was taken under control.

With the beginning of the Soviet offensive, Field Marshal Manstein, based on the experience of previous battles near Kharkov, did not believe in the ability of the Steppe Front to carry out large-scale operations and took measures to strengthen the defense, but the Wehrmacht troops were retreating. Most of all, he was afraid of an attack not from the northern direction, but the attack of the 57 Army of the South-Western Front south of Kharkov.

By August 11, the 53-I, 69-I and 7-I armies of the Steppe Front came close to the external Kharkov defensive contour, and the 57-I army, having forced the Seversky Donets, captured Chuguev on August 11 and from the east and southeast came to the approaches to To Kharkov. At this time, the troops of the Voronezh Front advanced even further south and southwest, creating the possibility of deep coverage of the German group in the Kharkov region. The German command also recognized the special importance of the defense of the Kharkov industrial region and Hitler demanded that Army Group South retain Kharkov in any circumstances.

The command of Army Group South, concentrating three tank divisions south of Bogodukhov, launched a counterattack in the area of ​​Bogodukhov and Akhtyrka on the 12 Army and the left flank of the 1 Army on August 6, striving to cut off and defeat the 1 Tank Army and take control of the railway Kharkov - Poltava. However, the Wehrmacht only succeeded in crowding out the Soviet units at 3-4 km. The 1-I Panzer Army continued to control the Kharkov-Poltava railway, and on 13 on August the 6-I Guards Army, developing the offensive, advanced south to 10 km and liberated 16 settlements.

Only on 14 of August did the enemy tank divisions succeed in squeezing out the weak formations of the 1 Tank and 6 Armies and the 16 of August and again take control of the Kharkov-Poltava railway. The 5 Tank Army was thrown into the threatened direction and the advance of the enemy 17 on August was suspended, as a result the Germans were unable to stop the Soviet offensive.

The German command in the current situation is beginning to realize that it is not possible to keep Kharkov and the Left Bank, and Manstein decides to phase out the Dnieper with the containment of Soviet troops on the intermediate defense lines.

The troops of the Steppe Front on 13 of August, having overcome the stubborn resistance of the enemy, break through the external defensive contour located 8 – 14 km from Kharkov, and by the end of August 17 engage in fighting on the northern outskirts of the city. The troops of the 53 Army on 18 of August started fighting for the forest on the northwestern outskirts of the city and on August 19 they knocked out the Germans from there.

The troops of the Steppe Front had a chance to surround the Kharkov garrison of 18 on August 1943 of the year and disrupt Manstein’s plans, but the Germans strengthened this direction, part of the Reich tank and grenadier division entered the village of Korotich and, with the support of artillery, halted the advance of the 28 rifle division and 1 mechanized corps.

The Germans decided to launch a counterattack on the advancing Soviet troops from the west, from the Akhtyrka region in the direction of Bogodukhov, intending to cut off and defeat the advance forces of the 27 Army and two tank corps. For these purposes, they formed a group of the Great Germany motorized division, the Dead Head tank division, the 10 motorized division, and the units of the 7, 11 and 19 tank divisions.

After powerful artillery training and raids aviation On the morning of August 18, Wehrmacht troops struck and, using their numerical superiority in tanks, managed to advance on the first day in a strip of the 27th Army in a narrow section of the front to a depth of 24 km. However, the enemy failed to develop a counterattack. The troops of the right wing of the Voronezh Front as part of the 38th, 40th and 47th armies, successfully developing the offensive, hung from the north over the Akhtyr group of Germans. By the end of August 20, the 40th and 47th armies approached Akhtyrka from the north and north-west, deeply covering the left flank of the advancing Wehrmacht troops, inflicting a counterattack. The advance of German tanks was finally stopped and the Wehrmacht command ordered the transition to defense.

Unfavorable for the German command, the situation was developing south of Kharkov. Starting an offensive in mid-August, the troops of the Southwestern and Southern Fronts broke through the defense along the Seversky Donets and Mius and moved part of the forces south of Kharkov, and the main forces in the central regions of Donbass.

The capture of Kharkov

On August 18, the 57 Army of the South-Western Front resumed its offensive, covering Kharkov from the south. To strengthen this direction on August 20, two corps of the 5 Tank Army were transferred to this area, and the third corps remained with Bogodukhov.

Having prepared defensive positions on the Uda River, the Germans in the late evening of August 22 began a planned withdrawal of troops from Kharkov, undermining and burning everything that they could not take out. On August 23, troops of the Steppe Front broke into an enemy-free city, occupying the northern, eastern, and central parts of the city. The Germans held the southern and southwestern parts of the city and, having fixed themselves on the right bank of the Uda River in the area of ​​New Bavaria, the Osnova railway station and further down to the airport, they fiercely resisted. The whole city was shot through by German artillery and mortars, and aircraft delivered air strikes.

The commander of the Steppe Front, Konev, on 21 of August, ordered the 5 Tank Army to launch an offensive on Korotich-Babai with the aim of encircling the enemy’s Kharkov group from the south with the subsequent capture of the ferries on the Merefa River. The Soviet troops managed to advance only a kilometer 1 and even take control of the village, but as a result of the counterattack of the Reich division and a fierce tank battle, they were again knocked out and partially surrounded. This counterattack of the German troops was not a means of turning the tide, the Reich division simply held back the Soviet troops, giving the opportunity to retreat to the Kharkov group.

By the end of August 23, the commander of the Steppe Front could stop the meaningless offensive at Korotich and Pesochin. But he did not do this, because he had already reported to Stalin about the capture of Kharkov and Moscow had saluted in the evening for the liberation of the city. And when he realized that the Germans were not going to completely leave the city, they fortified themselves on a pre-prepared line along the Uda River, gave the command of the 5 Army and 53 Army to attack Korotich, Merefa and Buda in order to encircle the German troops, for the southwestern part of Kharkov, and drove there the last reserves.

Fights near Korotich

The Germans did not intend to leave this planned defensive line, and in the following days after the capture of Kharkov, fierce tank battles unfolded near Korotich. In which the Soviet troops encountered unusually stubborn resistance from the German tank and grenadier divisions, they suffered enormous losses and did not fulfill the task assigned to them.

The enemy organized deeply echeloned anti-tank defenses on the heights around Korotich, powerful anti-tank positions were equipped at all the dominant heights, and the mobile tank groups, depending on the situation and the need, provided a high density of fire in a particular area. The Uda River became a serious obstacle for the Soviet tankers, its banks were swamped and mined by the Germans, and the bridges were destroyed. In addition, the Germans from the dominant heights shot almost the entire river valley.

Tankers of the 5-th Panzer Army began to force the Uda River on August 21, under heavy shelling, they themselves had to look for crossing points and immediately enter the battle. As a result, 17 T-34 tanks were lost, they exploded in mines and got stuck in a swamp. The remaining tanks of the brigade could not cross the river. The attempt of infantry units to cross without tank support was thwarted by heavy fire of the Germans.

The next day, attempts were made by groups of tanks to break through to the Kharkov-Merefa-Krasnograd highway, but parts of the tank-grenadier regiment consisting of two companies of Panther tanks advanced towards the Soviet tankers. A counter tank battle took place, as a result of which we suffered serious losses. According to the recollections of German officers on the first day of fighting in the 5-th tank army, more than a hundred tanks were shot down.

On the morning of August 23, units of the 5 Tank Army captured the southern outskirts of Korotich, the northern outskirts remained in the hands of the enemy, and the railroad track could not be crossed, since all approaches to it were mined.

The general attack undertaken that day involving more than 50 tanks and infantry, the number before the division, was repulsed by the Germans and by midnight the Soviet troops were knocked out of Korotich. Only 78 T-34 and 25 T-70 tanks remained in the units.

All attempts to take Korotych on 24 of August were unsuccessful. The enemy strengthened on the southern part of the embankment of the Kharkov - Poltava railway and pulled into the village an infantry battalion, 20 tanks and anti-tank guns from the SS Viking tank and grenadier division.

Three attempts to capture Korotych on 25 in August with the strong support of artillery were also unsuccessful, T-34 tanks were shot from long range by German Tigers and Panthers. Every day, the 5 I Panzer Army was tasked with attacking Babai and Merefa, but even the farm of the Commune and Korotich was unable to capture it.

On the night of August 25 on August 26, the enemy, having suffered significant losses at a strong point at the Commune farm, withdrew his troops from there. Attempts by the 5-th Guards Tank Army of 27 on August to attack Korotich and Rai-Elenovka failed again.

Only 5 tanks, less than 28% artillery and 50% motorized infantry remained in the 50th Panzer Army on August 10. While the Soviet troops unsuccessfully tried to take Korotich, the Germans created a new defensive bridgehead along the Mzha River and on the night of August 29 issued an order to retreat, leaving the rear guard.

At night from 28 to 29 on August, Soviet troops launched an offensive on Rai-Elenovka, Korotich, Kommunar, Stary Lyubotin, Budy and, without meeting any serious resistance, took control of them.

At dawn 29 in August, German infantry of up to a battalion, with the support of tanks, broke into Kharkov and easily advanced almost to the city center. To eliminate the breakthrough, tanks and anti-tank artillery were pulled, which completely destroyed the German group. Then it became obvious that the German “sortie” to Kharkov was a distracting maneuver to ensure the retreat of the Germans from its suburbs.

As a result of the monthly battles for Kharkov, the Steppe Front was unable to encircle and destroy the Kharkov group of Germans, it managed to withdraw to the prepared intermediate line of defense along the Mzha River, the 1-I Panzer Army lost almost 900 tanks, the 5-I Panzer Army, storming the heights near the village of Korotich , lost more than 550 tanks, and six days after the capture of Kharkov, the Steppe Front lost almost 35000 people killed and wounded. These are the disappointing results of the fourth attempt to liberate Kharkov.

After the Germans were completely expelled from Kharkov, the Soviet command was finally able to hold a rally on August 30 on the occasion of the liberation of the city, although to this day 23 August is considered the official date for the liberation of Kharkov and is celebrated as city day.

Returning to all the vicissitudes of the Kharkiv battle, beginning with the forced surrender of the city without a fight in October 1941, unsuccessful and tragic attempts to free it in January 1942, May 1942 and February 1943, it should be noted that the city has a reputation for “the cursed place of the Red Army”. Despite the courage and heroism of his defenders and liberators, because of the incompetent leadership and misses of the high command, catastrophic losses in people and equipment were suffered here and the final liberation of the city was not without satisfaction of the ambitions of the command, for which thousands of lives were paid.

Wednesday, February 3, 1943

On the Eastern Front. In the Caucasus, the Soviets capture Kuschevka on the Soskya River, 50 miles south of Rostov. Kupyansk is captured in the offensive toward Kharkov.

In Berlin. The loss of the 6th Army at Stalingrad is made public. Three days of national mourning are set to begin on February 4th.

In the Solomon Islands. On Guadalcanal the Americans consolidate their front running inland from Tassafaronga. US patrols penetrate much closer to Cape Esperance.

New conquest by the Wehrmacht

German strategy

The strategy with which Manstein intended to carry out the counterstrike was called by him "strike from the hindquarters". This provided for the following: The enemy should first advance far, feel safe and then (taking advantage of the supply problems that usually arise with such a rapid advance) be defeated from the flanks. Hitler, furious at Hausser's insubordination , flew to Manstein's headquarters on February 17th, where the Field Marshal explained his strategy to the Commander-in-Chief . Hitler initially insisted that Kharkov be conquered again soon, but he did not succeed in asserting himself.

Due to the more than 150 kilometers wide gap between the Army Detachment Kempf and the 1st Panzer Army, troops of the Soviet Southwest Front (1st Guard Army, 6th Army and the "Popow Group") broke far into the hinterland of Army Group South and had the railway line east of Dnepropetrovsk interrupted. Since the Soviet troops were only 60 km away from the Dnieper at that time, Manstein decided - much to Hitler's annoyance - to withdraw the tank formations stationed on the Mius and use them against Markian Popov's butt wedges. In addition, the Soviet armored spearheads were only 60 km from Zaporozhye , where Manstein's headquarters were. When Hitler found out, he flew back and Manstein had the opportunity to implement his plan.

The German counterstrike

The German soldiers were ordered to stabbed Popov's units in the rear and cut off their supply routes. For this purpose, Panzer Army High Command 4 (General Hoth) had withdrawn from the Mius front and - reinforced by the SS Panzer Corps and two other tank corps - relocated to Dnepropetrovsk. His job was to clean up the deep Soviet incursion by attacking both flanks. Since exhaustion and supply problems were already making themselves felt on the Soviet side, General Popov asked on February 20 to be allowed to withdraw his tank group, but this was refused by the commander of the Southwest Front, Nikolai Watutin , whose optimism was still unbroken. At that point, Soviet headquarters still assumed the Germans were planning to retreat to the Dnieper and misjudged German intentions.

On February 22nd, the Wehrmacht began to attack the Soviet Voronezh and Southwest Front. Since Manstein had ordered his armored divisions into the staging area only a short time before, he succeeded in deceiving the enemy Until then, the Soviets believed that the Wehrmacht would limit itself to delaying resistance. The Popow Panzer Group and the Soviet 6th Army were therefore completely surprised, encircled and wiped out by the German attack. The Wehrmacht was back on the Donets on February 28th. Now there was a 200 km wide gap in the Soviet front, so that the Stawka had to stop the attack operations at Voroshilovgrad . On March 2, the Germans captured Slavyansk and Bogoroditschno and formed a bridgehead over the Donets at Balakleja .

The SS Panzer Corps invades Kharkov

On March 6, the German 4th Panzer Army (to which Hausser's SS Panzer Corps belonged) and the Kempf Army Detachment went on the offensive against the Soviet 3rd Panzer and 69th Army. On March 11, 1943, the attack of the SS Panzer Corps on Kharkov began. At first the Soviet positions were overrun, but the Germans soon ran into danger of being trapped themselves. Instead of canceling the attack, it was decided to bypass the city to the north. In the morning hours of March 12, 1943, the German advance threatened to fail as a result of a tank attack by the Red Army on the open flank. The Soviets wanted to drive a wedge between advance troops and the bulk of the SS unit. The attempt to prevent the renewed loss of the fourth largest city in the country with all available forces, however, failed due to the stubborn German resistance. On March 15, Kharkov was occupied by the SS divisions Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and Das Reich under the command of Josef Dietrich , on March 18 Belgorod fell back into German hands. The counter-attack devised by Manstein had wiped out four Soviet armies.


There had been two previous battles for Kharkov in 1941 and 1942, and that which the Germans called the "Third Battle of Kharkov" resulted from Soviet overreach on the southern flank of the eastern front during the winter of 1943. Various thrusts and counterthrusts by both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht before and after the capitulation of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad on 2 February 1943 had left large gaps in the German lines between Voronezh and Rostov-na-Donu (Rostov-on-Don). In early February, as Field Marshal Erich von Manstein regrouped his scattered formations in the south to establish a coherent defense, Soviet Stavka, the Headquarters of the Supreme High Command, resolved to press the initiative. Accordingly, the armies of two Soviet fronts, Voronezh (General Filipp Golikov) and Southwest (General Nikolay Vatutin), knifed through the middle and lower Don Valley to envelop Kharkov, with the ultimate objective of pinning Manstein's forces against the Sea of Azov and the Dnieper River bend. Initially unable to stem the tide, the Germans gave ground nearly everywhere, including Kharkov, where on 15 February, I SS Panzer Corps—despite orders to stand fast—retired to the southwest after offering feeble resistance. Its commander, Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, saw little purpose in making the city "a second Stalingrad."

Success, however, was to prove ephemeral for Stavka, at least for a time, with the result that Kharkov would not long remain in Soviet hands. Joseph Stalin and his generals had underestimated the resilience of the Wehrmacht and its associated SS formations and had overestimated the capacity of overtaxed Soviet logistics and depleted combat units to maintain offensive momentum. Worse, Soviet intelligence on German dispositions and intentions remained dangerously uncertain. Between 17 and 19 February, Soviet offensive operations culminated in the face of growing German resistance along a north-south line lying roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the Kursk-Kharkov meridian and cutting east in the extreme south to the Mius River. By now, Manstein had reorganized his troops into a resurrected version of Army Group South, and he was regrouping his armor and air assets to conduct a bold counterstroke spear-headed by the Fourth Panzer Army and Hausser's SS Panzer Corps. Manstein's intent was sequentially to smash leading elements of the two advancing Soviet fronts head-on and then to sink a deep thrust between them to bypass Kharkov on the way to seizing Belgorod and its crossings over the Donets River.

The result was mayhem for the overextended Soviets. From 19 to 21 February, XLVIII Panzer Corps and SS Panzer Corps overpowered and obliterated the forward formations of Vatutin's Sixth and First Guards armies. On 20 February, the First Panzer Army and XL Panzer Corps joined in the fray to begin destruction of another of Vatutin's advancing tentacles, Mobile Group Popov. With the German Fourth Air Fleet commanding the skies for the last time over German counteroffensive operations on the eastern front, the last week of February witnessed a merciless German pursuit of jumbled Soviet formations in full flight back to the Northern Donets River. Altogether the Soviets lost the bulk of two field armies, including 9,000 prisoners, an estimated 23,000 dead, 615 tanks, and 1,000 artillery pieces. After briefly pausing to regroup, Manstein's panzers turned northwest to confront Golikov's Third Tank and Sixty-Ninth armies on the southwest approaches to Kharkov. There, in an exercise of maneuver virtuosity between 1 and 5 March, German armored formations repeatedly outflanked and relentlessly pursued Golikov's defenders, levying the loss of an additional forty-five thousand troops on the Soviets.

As German exploitation continued, Hausser's SS Corps remained under orders to bypass Kharkov. However, the temptation for vindication proved too strong to resist. With rapid seizure of the city seemingly within easy grasp, Hausser allocated two SS divisions to the task. As a result, between 11 and 14 March, Kharkov was the scene of savage house-to-house fighting, during which Hausser's SS troops reclaimed their honor at the cost of 11,500 casualties. Meanwhile, Army Group South's remaining armored pincers lacked sufficient combat power to fully encircle and liquidate large Soviet troop pockets east and south of Kharkov. Although Manstein thereby probably lost an opportunity to produce a German equivalent of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, momentum carried this last major successful German offensive on the eastern front to Belgorod. With this city in German hands on 25 March, the spring thaw halted operations for both sides. The line of farthest German advance became the southern shoulder of the Kursk salient that was to feature so prominently in Manstein's next offensive, Operation Citadel, resulting in the Battle of Kursk.

Jack Kruse, Author

Soviet pressure on the German forces in Kharkov pushed Grossdeutschland back into the northeast corner of the city. Lieutenant General Pavel Rybalko’s Third Tank Army attacked the entire front of the German forces from the east and southeast, while Sokolov’s 6 th Guards Cavalry Corps applied pressure on a wide arc south of Kharkov.

On 15 February, 1943, Major General G. M. Zaitzev’s 62 nd Guards Rifle Division broke into the southeast quadrant of the city pressing Leibstandarte back while Koptsov’s 15 th Tank Corps battled them in the factory district. Moskalenko’s 40 th Army forced its way into the north side near Red Square while Kravchenko’s 5 th Guards Tank Army threatened the Germans’ retreat path.

At 1100 hours von Manstein ordered Totenkopf to block Kravchenko. A battle group of the Leibstandarte stood firm against Sokolov’s 6 th Guards Cavalry Corps. By noon the Germans began fighting a withdrawing action. Von Manstein remained reluctant to defy Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs. But Lieutenant General Paul Hausser retreated from the city.

Hitler, himself, relieved Lanz from command of his detachment and assigned the unit to General Kemp, who set the detachment up facing northeast from Akhtyrka to Borova, in front of Voronezh Front’s drive to the Dnieper River.

STAVKA ordered 40 th and 69 th Armies to move on Poltava while Rybalko’s Third Tank Army covered Kharitonov’s right flank.

In the midst of the crisis Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye on the Dnieper River to discuss the situation with von Manstein. During the meeting on 17 February von Manstein proposed driving Vatutin’s Southwest Front back behind the Donets River using Colonel General Eberhard Makensen’s 1 st Panzer Army, Colonel General Herman Hoth’s 4 th Panzer Army, and Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps.

The attack began on 19 February. Hausser’s SS Panzer Corp assembled near Kraznograd. Knobelsdorf’s 48 th Panzer Corps and Kirchner’s 57 th Panzer Corps struck northwest of Krasnoarmeiskoye while Makensen’s 1 st Panzer Army moved out from south of the same city. Support was provided by Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthoffen’s Fourth Air Fleet. The Stuka’s attacked Popov’s and Kharitonov’s columns forming the Soviet spearhead nearing Dnepropetrovsk within 25 kilometers of the Dnieper River. Interestingly no discussion of Soviet Air support appears in The Soviet Air Force in WW II. Makensen’s 1 st Panzer Army isolated Popov’s battle group while Hoth’s 2 Panzer Corps tore up Kharitonov’s 6 th Army in five days.

Under STAVKA’s orders the 69 th Army and Rybalko’s 3 rd Tank Army advanced toward Poltava and Krasnograd leaving Moskolenko’s 40 th Army alone at Kharkov to fight General Raus’ Grossdeutschland.

At this time things started to unravel for the Soviets. On 23 February Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps returned to the battle, mauling Kharitonov’s 6 th Army. Rybalko’s 3 rd Tank Army, fighting to open a corridor to Kharitonov’s 6 th Army at Kegichevka east of Krasnograd, was immediately attacked by Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions. Vatutin’s Southwest front began full retreat on 28 February.

Sources: Manstein’s Victorious Panzers, William E. Welsh, WW II History Magazine, Aug/Sept 2020

Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1968

Soviet Setback After Stalingrad, Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine,

Comparison of forces

Between 13 January and 3 April 1943, an estimated 500,000 Red Army soldiers took part in what was known as the Voronezh–Kharkov Offensive. [1] [5] In all, an estimated 6,100,000 Soviet soldiers were committed to the area, with another 659,000 out of action with wounds. In comparison, the Germans could account for 2,200,000 personnel on the Eastern Front, with another 100,000 deployed in Norway. [ citation needed ] As a result, the Soviets deployed around twice as many personnel as the Wehrmacht in early February. [34] However, as a result of their over-extension and the casualties they had taken during their offensive, at the beginning of Manstein's counterattack the Germans could achieve a tactical superiority in numbers, including the number of tanks present—for example, Manstein's 350 tanks outnumbered Soviet armor almost seven to one at the point of contact. [32]

German forces

At the time of the counterattack, Manstein could count on the Fourth Panzer Army, composed of XLVIII Panzer Corps, the SS Panzer Corps [35] and the First Panzer Army, with the XL and LVII Panzer Corps. [36] The XLVIII Panzer Corps was composed of the 6th, 11th and 17th Panzer Divisions, while the SS Panzer Corps was organized with the 1st SS, 2nd SS and 3rd SS Panzer Division. [35] In early February, the combined strength of the SS Panzer Corps was an estimated 20,000 soldiers. The Fourth Panzer Army and the First Panzer Army were situated south of the Red Army's bulge into German lines, with the First Panzer Army to the east of the Fourth Panzer Army. The SS Panzer Corps was deployed along the northern edge of the bulge, on the northern front of Army Group South. [36]

The Germans were able to amass around 70,000 men against the 210,000 Red Army soldiers. [2] The German Wehrmacht was understrength, especially after continuous operations between June 1942 and February 1943, to the point where Hitler appointed a committee made up of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Martin Bormann and Hans Lammers, to recruit 800,000 new able-bodied men—half of whom would come from "nonessential industries". [37] However, the effects of this recruitment were not seen until around May 1943, when the German armed forces were at their highest strength since the beginning of the war, with 9.5 million personnel. [38]

By the start of 1943 Germany's armored forces had sustained heavy casualties. [39] It was unusual for a Panzer Division to field more than 100 tanks, and most averaged only 70–80 serviceable tanks at any given time. [40] After the fighting around Kharkov, Heinz Guderian embarked on a program to bring Germany's mechanized forces up to strength. Despite his efforts, a German panzer division could only count on an estimated 10,000–11,000 personnel, out of an authorized strength of 13,000–17,000. [41] Only by June did a panzer division begin to field between 100–130 tanks each. [38] SS divisions were normally in better shape, with an estimated 150 tanks, a battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracks to motorize most of its infantry and reconnaissance soldiers [38] —and these had an authorized strength of an estimated 19,000 personnel. [42] At this time, the bulk of Germany's armor was still composed of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, [43] although the 2nd SS Panzer Division had been outfitted with a number of Tiger I tanks. [44]

The Fourth Panzer Army was commanded by General Hermann Hoth, while the First Panzer Army fell under the leadership of General Eberhard von Mackensen. [45] The 6th, 11th and 17th Panzer Divisions were commanded by Generals Walther von Hünersdorff, [46] Hermann Balck [47] and Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, [48] respectively. The SS Panzer Corps was commanded by General Paul Hausser, who also had the 3rd SS Panzer (Totenkopf) Division under his command. [4]

Red Army

Since the beginning of the Red Army's exploitation of Germany's Army Group South's defenses in late January and early February, the fronts involved included the Bryansk, Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts. [36] These were under the command of Generals M. A. Reiter, [49] Filipp Golikov [45] and Nikolai Vatutin, [50] respectively. On 25 February, Marshal Rokossovsky's Central Front also joined the battle. [27] These were positioned in such a way that Reiter's Briansk Front was on the northern flank of Army Group South, while Voronezh was directly opposite of Kursk, and the Southwestern Front was located opposite their opponents. [36] Central Front was deployed between the Briansk and Voronezh Fronts, to exploit the success of both of these Soviet units, [51] which had created a gap in the defenses of the German Second Panzer Army. [27] This involved an estimated 500,000 soldiers, while around 346,000 personnel were involved in the defense of Kharkov after the beginning of the German counterstroke. [1]

Like their German counterparts, Soviet divisions were also seriously understrength. For example, divisions in the 40th Army averaged 3,500–4,000 men each, while the 69th Army fielded some divisions which could only count on 1,000–1,500 soldiers. Some divisions had as little as 20–50 mortars to provide fire support. This shortage in manpower and equipment led Vatutin's Southwestern Front to request over 19,000 soldiers and 300 tanks, while it was noted that the Voronezh Front had only received 1,600 replacements since the beginning of operations in 1943. [52] By the time Manstein launched his counteroffensive, the Voronezh Front had lost so much manpower and had overextended itself to the point where it could no longer offer assistance to the Southwestern Front, south of it. [53]

Battle of Kharkov - WW2 Timeline (February - March 1942)

As it stood, the Soviet city of Kharkov was the fourth largest city in the whole of the USSR. The taking of such a city would certainly be a feather in Hitler's cap and a blow against Stalin. Winter was in full swing and the hard turf of the Soviet countryside was ripe for battle. A massive Soviet offensive was launched to regain the ground lost to the Germans the year before. Across three major fronts, the Soviet Army moved in. On February 8th, 1942, the Russians move in and retake the city of Kharkov from its German occupiers through bloody and intimate hand-to-hand street fighting - there since November of 1941.

The Russian offensive proved an initial success as German invaders were being driven away from Soviet towns and bridgeheads. While some of the German retreat was of necessity, other retreats were strategic moves meant to buy the German Army some more time and allow the Red Army to use up its energy, resources and supplies. German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein convinced Adolph Hitler of his retreat plan and the Russians were falling right into the trap. After the loss of his men in Stalingrad, Hitler was open to retreat.

The Soviet advanced proved pricey for their forward elements were stretched thin and low in number - particularly in tanks but also in infantry. Time was of the essence for both sides, however, for the Russian spring was at hand, a time when solid frozen turf would soon turn into impassable muddy nightmares.

While the Soviet Army pushed on against the "retreating" Germans, Manstein unleashed his counterattack when all his pieces were in place. For days, the hapless Russian infantry and their few tanks were shellacked into oblivion with all sorts of random actions and uncoordinated retreats following. German artillery opened up on the Eastward-bound Russians and pounded them while infantry, air strikes and armor attacks did their part.

By March 14th, the 4th Panzer Army completes its surrounding of Kharkov until the city is officially recaptured on March 15th with full control coming on March 18th. Spring now approached and both sides dug in and around the city waiting for their next orders to come down the pipe. The retaking of territory and the capture of Kharkov proved the German's brilliance in the age of mechanized warfare - and also proved how much more the Russians had to learn about such actions.

There are a total of (19) Battle of Kharkov - WW2 Timeline (February - March 1942) events in the Second World War timeline database. Entries are listed below by date-of-occurrence ascending (first-to-last). Other leading and trailing events may also be included for perspective.

Adolph Hitler approves of the order for retreat for German forces at Rostov.

Thursday, February 5th, 1942

Rostov is officially abandoned by General Manstein's forces.

German General Manstein meets with Hitler and proposes a new German counter-attack against the Russians.

The Soviet Army officially retakes the Russian city of Kursk.

Thursday, February 12th, 1942

German Army Group Don is renamed Army Group South.

Thursday, February 12th, 1942

German Army Group B is renamed Army Group Center.

Saturday, February 14th, 1942

Russian General Vatutin and his South-West Front army reach the city of Kharkov.

Saturday, February 14th - February 18th, 1942

Street fighting begins between the German I SS Panzer Corps and the Russian 3rd Tank Army and 40th Army forces in Kharkov.

Tuesday, February 17th, 1942

Adolph Hitler meets with General Manstein to plan a German counter-offensive.

Wednesday, February 18th, 1942

German forces are officially driven from the Russian city of Kharkov.

Friday, February 20th, 1942

The Germans unleash their counterattack using the 4th Panzer Amry, 1st Panzer Army and the II SS Panzer Corps.

Saturday, February 28th, 1942

The Germans recapture lost ground and push elements of the Russian Army back. The German army reaches as far in as the River Donets while General Vatutin's forces are surrounded.

German General Hoth and his 4th Panzer Army form up and launch an offensive against the Voronezh Front near Kharkov.

Street fighting throughout Kharkov erupts once more as German forces enter Kharkov.

Soviet Army forces move towards Kharkov, liberating the city of Belgorod in the process.

The 4th Panzer Army surrounds the city of Kharkov.

Kharkov is retaken by the Soviet Army.

Wednesday, March 18th, 1942

The Germans complete the retaking of Kharkov.

Wednesday, March 18th - March 26th, 1942

The Soviets and Germans both dig in within and around the city of Kharkov, preparing to fight another day.

Striking at Kharkov

Though concerned about the approaching spring thaw, von Manstein pushed toward Kharkov. Rather than advance to the east of the city, he ordered his men to move to the west then north to encircle it. On March 8, SS Panzer Corps completed its drive north, splitting the Soviet 69th and 40th Armies before turning east the next day. In place on March 10, Hausser received orders from Hoth to take the city as soon as possible. Though von Manstein and Hoth wished him to continue the encirclement, Hausser directly attacked Kharkov from the north and west on March 11.

Pressing into northern Kharkov, the Leibstandarte SS Panzer Division met heavy resistance and only gained a foothold in the city with the aid of air support. The Das Reich SS Panzer Division attacked into the western side of the city the same day. Stopped by a deep anti-tank ditch, they breached it that night and pushed on to the Kharkov train station. Late that night, Hoth finally succeeded in making Hausser comply with his orders and this division disengaged and moved to blocking positions east of the city.

On March 12, Leibstandarte division renewed its attack south. Over the next two days, it endured brutal urban fighting as German troops cleared the city house-by-house. By the night of March 13/14, German troops controlled two-thirds of Kharkov. Attacking again the next, they secured the remainder of the city. Though the battle largely concluded on March 14, some fighting continued on the 15th and 16th as German forces expelled Soviet defenders from a factory complex in the south.

Battle of Kharkov, 1943

Post by Ostfront Enthusiast » 10 May 2004, 08:57

Hello, could someone please give me the official numbers for opposing strength, losses, etc in this battle?

Is it true that the Germans were outnumbered 7 to 1?

Also any other piece of information would be welcomed. Thanks.

Post by Benoit Douville » 11 May 2004, 03:43

Witch Battle of Kharkov are you talking about? You have 4 Battles in Kharkov! In 1942, The Germans captured Kharkov for the first time. In 1943, you have 2 Major Battle. You have the Second Battle of Kharkov. On February 16 1943 the Soviets recaptured the city of Kharkov situated to the south of Kursk. The Soviet forces had begun their offensive on January 13, with the aim of liberating the Ukraine and destroying the 75 German divisions defending it. The Soviets were confident as they already had the German 6th Army trapped in the Stalingrad pocket.

On the Morning of 15 February the Soviets launched their final assault on Kharkov. Units flooded into the city, and by midday the southwest corridor out of Kharkov had shrunk down to a mile or so wide. Despite Hitler’s directive, element of the SS-Panzerkorps started to vacate the city, the first to withdraw were Das Reich from the northern suburbs. The Soviet 69th Army soon filled the void. SS Panzergrenadiers were soon engaged in heavy street fighting in the east of city, engaging the 15th Tank Corps and the 160th Rifle Division. Hausser not wishing to lose his troops ordered the withdrawal of the Divisions from Kharkov at 1300 hours before the corridor could close. The Soviets continued to advance into Kharkov on 16 February and by noon they were back in complete control of their city.

The Germans would be back led by Von Manstein! In the Third Battle of Kharkov Four days of bitter house to house fighting ensued. As the days progressed the German force broke into smaller company sized groups, each supported by a few Panzers. Soviet machine-guns and anti-tank gun were everywhere and in every courtyard a tank lay in wait. Each block had to be cleared building by building with artillery sweeping the bridges and approaches.

Hausser's SS Panzerkorps retook the city of Kharkov after fierce fighting, however, the Third Battle of Kharkov left the city only temporarily in Axis hands. The Germans were soon driven out once again in the 4th Battle of Kharkov and this time for good.

Post by Ostfront Enthusiast » 11 May 2004, 08:55

Sorry for the confusion I was refering to the Third Battle of Kharkov, where the SS Panzer divisions Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, Das Reich and Totenkopf recaptured the city. This battle has always intrigued me and I was wondering if anyone had any reliable statistics (specifically casualties but also differing strengths) regarding it.

Post by Qvist » 11 May 2004, 15:12

There is a very precise strength comparison in Glantz' "From the Don to the Dnepr". I will try to look it up tonight. I can however tell you straight away that the odds were nothing close to 1:7, at least as far as the operation as a whole is concerned.

Post by Ostfront Enthusiast » 13 May 2004, 11:09

Post by Qvist » 13 May 2004, 19:53

Sorry! It had slipped my mind, thanks for reminding me!

At the time when Army Detachment Lanz had only parts of the SS Panzer Corps under command, it had a strenth of some 70,000 men and around 200 tanks.

Voronesh front deployed 210,000 men and 615 tanks on the Soviet side. The force relation would be more favourable to the Germans at later stages of the operation.

Post by [email protected] » 14 May 2004, 01:11

In 1942, The Germans captured Kharkov for the first time.

I thought the Germans first held it in 1941, October I think? They got as far as Rostov that year before withdrawing to the Muis as AGS extended their lines too far.

Post by Ostfront Enthusiast » 14 May 2004, 13:05

Thank you very much Qvist. This is extremly helpful.

Re: Battle of Kharkov, 1943

Post by GaryD » 17 May 2008, 16:24

I heard elsewhere that David Glantz, talking about the so-called "backhand blow" in March 1943, states in Forgotten Battles of the German-Soviet War (1941-1945) , vol IV, p. 213 that: "New archival evidence. now indicated that von Manstein's victory was far more significant than previously believed."

I don't have that book. Does anyone know what he's talking about?

Re: Battle of Kharkov, 1943

Post by ATH » 18 May 2008, 03:49

IIRC Galntz meant that soviet goals were larger than believed, that STAVKA thought the whole war could be decided by the successful conclusion of its offensive.

Watch the video: Ουκρανία: Σε πλήρη επιφυλακή οι αρχές στο Χάρκοβο


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