It was now three months since the launch of the Soviet winter offensive. Lengthening lines were already creating supply problems and, as fatigue began to set in, the Soviet attacks began to lose impetus. Stalin was nonetheless determined to retain the initiative, despite the growing evidence that the momentum could not be sustained, and now grasped for the next prize, Kharkov.
With other centres like Novgorod, Rzhev, Vyazma, Bryansk, Orel, Kharkov and Taganrog, the city of Kharkov had proved crucial to the Germans in the winter defence of 1941/42, forming part of the system of fortified bastion towns known as the ‘hedgehogs’, which served as communications and logistics bases. Soviet forces, though able to regain territory around these bastions, had thus far been able unable to capture them.
An offensive launched at Kharkov by Timoshenko in May 1942 had penetrated to the west of the city, but Paulus’ Sixth Army counter-attack succeeded on 19 May in cutting off the Russian advance, and left the route down the Donets corridor to Stalingrad open. Nine months later, after the defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Army Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Group South was again on the defensive, and Kharkov had assumed strategic importance once more. So the premier formation – SS Panzer Corps under the command of Paul Hausser – was ordered to hold it.
Forced to relinquish their positions on the Donets by early February, the troops retreated into a perimeter east of the ruined city. Already the Soviets had thrust between gaps on the corps’ northern and southern flank, and by the middle of the month the three divisions had almost been enveloped in the arms of the Soviet movement. On Hausser’s right, troops forming the southern arm of the pincer were flooding through a 40km gap between Leibstandarte and the 320th Infantry Division. Seizing the opportunity to cut them off, and thus stabilise his line, Hausser created a temporary battle group with the Der Fuhrer Regiment, a regiment of the Leibstandarte and the motorcycle battalions from each.
On 10 February the battle group moved into positions at Merefa for the attack. The following day, cloaked in a blinding snowstorm, it moved off, and within 48 hours had penetrated 50km to the Soviet rear. Enduring temperatures that dropped to -40 degrees at night, the SS troops made contact with the 320th Division on 16 February, cutting the southern pincer and destroying the elite 7th Guards Cavalry Corps. With this bold stroke Hausser stabilised his southern flank. However, in front of Kharkov the remainder of the corps was gradually withdrawing, though reinforced by the return of the battle group.
Soviet forces now abandoned the attack on the southern flank and concentrated on delivering hammer blows from the north and east which, by the middle of the month, had taken Smiyev and Belgorod. Hausser requested permission for a tactical withdrawal, but this provoked a rebuke and the terse order from Hitler to ‘hold at all costs!’ In open defiance of the Fuhrer’s orders Hausser nonetheless withdrew the corps through a narrow corridor from Kharkov on 15 February, back into positions on the River Uday.
Here it was temporarily rested and reorganised to offset the enormous losses endured, while preparing for a planned counter-attack by Army Group South. Before that could be contemplated, Manstein moved to halt the drive of the South-West Front at Dniepropetrovsk. Then, on 19 February, the attack to retake Kharkov began.
Tiger I of the 2. SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” commanded by SS Oberscharfuhrer Paul Egger passing SS Panzer Grenadiers near Bykowka, Russia in July 1943 during Operation Citadel.
One notable action took place on the southern flank. Just after 09.15 on the 22nd, 150km south of Kharkov, Hauptscharfuhrer Karl Kloskowski in PzKpfw III 431 seized a bridge across the Woltschia River on the western outskirts of Pavlograd, in the process destroying three T-34s and a number of anti-tank guns. Soon, assisted by Unterscharführer Paul Egger’s Tiger, the two panzers held the bridge until reinforcements arrived, allowing Das Reich panzergrenadiers to secure the town less than two hours later. Kloskowski was awarded the Knight’s Cross in July 1943 for this action.
Within five days the division was at Pavlograd, where with 4th Panzer Division it halted the Soviet drive to the Dnieper. Wheeling around to the north-east, Das Reich and Totenkopf aimed next at Lozovaya, a railway junction of considerable importance held by the 1st Guards Tank Army, and after three days of bitter fighting had seized control.
The Soviet command, unaware of the strength of the counter-attacking forces, continued to commit divisions. Advancing on Yefremovka through pouring rain and mud in the early days of March, Das Reich unwittingly outflanked the 3rd Tank Army moving in the opposite direction. With Leibstandarte positioned on the opposite flank, Hausser seized the chance to envelop this mighty force, which included much of the Voronezh Front’s strength, and closed the jaws west of Berefka. Turning inward on the pocket, in three days Das Reich had crushed the desperate Soviet attempts to escape, and helped to force a final halt in the Soviet winter offensive.
South of the River Donets, Popov’s Bryansk Front had been all but annihilated, losing 100,000 men killed or captured. With this threat removed, SS Panzer Corps was free to begin the attack on Kharkov itself, although now only 11 Panzer IIIs remained combat fit, and began to move north on 5 March. By 10 March the division’s two battle groups were in positions to the west and south-east of the city Kampfgruppe Deutschland, on the western boundary of the corps’ positions, and Kampfgruppe Der Fuhrer to the south-east protecting the corps’ right flank. At 08.00 the following morning, the troops moved across their start lines. On the northern flank, having started well, Deutschland was pinned down by strong anti-tank fire for most of the day. In the centre, Salyutine railway station was captured in mid-afternoon, and Kampfgruppe Der Fuhrer succeeded in cutting the road to Merefa.
Das Reich then received fresh instructions to move through Kharkov and then south against the forces concentrated in the industrial quarter, a task much complicated by a yawning anti-tank ditch that had been dug at the city perimeter, and the presence of a strong Soviet garrison. Beginning in the early hours of 12 March, a pioneer detachment crossed under heavy fire, and quickly established itself on the far bank. Grenadiers of 3rd Battalion Der Fuhrer followed, and self-propelled artillery was then brought up to provide cover as the perimeter was widened. By dawn the anti-tank ditch had been breached and the first panzers were across. At 14.00 on 14 March Hauptscharführer Karl-Heinz Worthmann in PzKpfw IV 631 raced ahead of Kampfgruppe Harmel to storm a hill near Vosychevo, 13km south-east of Kharkov. He destroyed 27 heavy anti-tank guns, 2 artillery pieces, and numerous MG nests, driving the Russians from a strong-point that was preventing the encirclement of the city.
Resistance in the city crumbled, and on 15 March, exactly four weeks after the SS Corps had retreated out of Kharkov, it was back in German hands. With Soviet forces retreating in disarray, Manstein determined to retain the initiative and carry the advance further east. With Das Reich at the spearhead, SS Panzer Corps retook Belgorod on 18 March. Thus, in spectacular style, the operation to stabilise Army Group South’s front was concluded, and territory previously lost to the Soviet forces regained. During the campaign the division knocked out an estimated total of 292 tanks and assault guns, and itself lost only 77 tanks and assault guns.
In late March the spring thaw once again halted operations. From 22 April Das Reich moved into billets around Kharkov and during the relatively quiet period that preceded the summer campaign there was time for rest and relaxation. As the unit began training for the summer offensive, some necessary restructuring took place. The motorcycle battalion was reformed as a reconnaissance battalion, and officers were transferred to become the nucleus of the III SS Panzer Corps (Germanisches). In May Motorcycle Bataillon Langemarck transferred to SS Volunteer Brigade Langemarck, and in June 55 Infantry Regiment Langemarck was removed. At corps level the SS Panzer Corps became II SS Panzer Corps on the formation of I SS Panzer Corps (from cadres drawn from Leibstandarte, and Hitler Jugend), under Sepp Dietrich.
For his leadership of the 2nd Battalion during this period, SturmbannführerTychsen received the Knight’s Cross on 31 April, as did Karl-Heinz Worthmann. In April Obersturmbannführer Karl-Heinz Lorenz, winner of the German Cross in Gold as commander of 2nd Panzer Company, joined the 2nd Panzer Battalion staff, while Hauptsturmführer Herbert Zimmermann took over the Tiger company.
During this period also the majority of the 1st Battalion personnel travelled west to train on the new Panther tanks, and did not return to Russia until after Operation Citadel. Thus to bolster Das Reich’s lone remaining panzer battalion for Kursk, captured T-34 tanks were formed into a company (9th Company, 2nd Battalion). The 5th and 6th Companies had Panzer IVs for the upcoming battle, but the former’s strength had to be filled out by a platoon of Panzer IIIs, mostly left over from the Kharkov battles.