Waffen-SS Panzers advance into Kharkov March 1943
Paul Hausser receiving his Knight’s Cross on 8August 1941, while still commander of SS Division Das Reich. It was part of the XX XXVIth Panzer Corps from the Fourth Panzer Army operating with Army Group ‘Centre’. Hausser would hand over command of Das Reich to Willi Bittrich in October 1941.
There were two significant battles for Kharkov (now Kharkiv, Ukraine) in 1943, during which this Donets Basin (Donbas) city, the Soviet Union’s fourth largest, was the scene of fierce urban combat. The first, 11–14 March, occurred during a successful German counteroffensive to regain ground lost to Soviet advances after the victory at Stalingrad, while the second, 21–23 August, occurred during a major Soviet counteroffensive following the Battle of Kursk. Each confrontation at Kharkov was nested in a larger set of operations, with each set tracing different trajectories and producing differing outcomes.
FIRST 1943 BATTLE
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 spearheaded 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.
FINAL KHARKOV CONTEST
The final contest for Kharkov, known to the Germans as the ‘‘Fourth Battle of Kharkov’’ and to the Soviets and Russians as the Belgorod- Kharkov Operation, occurred during a series of battles and subsidiary operations, between 3 and 23 August 1943, growing out of the Battle of Kursk. With the Wehrmacht clearly now on the defensive, this major Soviet strategic counteroffensive, code-named Rumiantsev (for a Russian military hero of the eighteenth century), recaptured Belgorod and Kharkov, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, and set the stage for the liberation of left-bank Ukraine.
Although Manstein had sought to renew German offensive operations after Kursk, Adolf Hitler had other ideas, including the redeployment of Hausser’s now renamed II SS Panzer Corps to the west. After Citadel, consequently, the primary German strike forces in the south, including the Fourth Panzer Army and Detachment Kempf, conducted a fighting withdrawal to previously occupied and well-fortified positions north of Kharkov along an east-west line that stretched between Sumy and Belgorod, then dropped south.
Just as the case after Stalingrad, Stavka now sought a transition from the defensive at Kursk to a decisive counteroffensive that would produce significant gains, especially against German Army Group South. The main difference was that now the Soviets retained predictable command of the air and substantial reserves in manpower, armaments, and equipment. Stavka’s primary objective was the encirclement and destruction of Manstein’s groupings northwest of Kharkov. Meanwhile, other Soviet offensive operations targeted German Army Group Center, in part to disguise Stavka’s intent and objectives in the south.
In consequence, on 3 August, when the Soviet Voronezh (Vatutin in place of Golikov) and Steppe (General Ivan Konev) fronts commenced offensive operations from the southern shoulder of the Kursk salient, Manstein was caught off guard. Elaborate local Soviet deception measures had enabled Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the coordinator of front operations from Stavka, to concentrate dense infantry formations and artillery fire power across a narrow frontage to facilitate penetration of the five successive German defensive belts protecting Kharkov. On 5 August, once having effected the breakthrough operation, Zhukov inserted his primary mobile groups, the First Tank Army (General Mikhail Katukov) and the Fifth Guards Tank Army (General Pavel Rotmistrov), into the resulting gap for deep exploitation. As they penetrated to depths of 60 kilometers (37 miles), Belgorod fell, while adjoining and supporting Soviet forces either widened the gap or made others to augment the advance.
While transiting and concentrating mobile counters from the north and from the Donbas, Manstein committed his local reserves piecemeal, but with little success. It was only on 11 August that Manstein had laboriously assembled four infantry and seven motorized or panzer divisions to halt the expanding Soviet torrent. But when Manstein reverted to the same sort of mobile maneuver scheme that earlier in the year had assured German success in the third battle of Kharkov, his troops encountered a different kind of opposition. Now commanding the air, the Red Air Force pummeled Manstein’s counterattacking reserves, even as elements of both the Steppe and Voronezh fronts approached Kharkov. In anticipation of a German counterstroke from the southwest, Zhukov reinforced Voronezh Front with the Fifty-Seventh Army and the Fifth Guards Tank Army. Between 11 and 20 August, a series of vicious meeting engagements erupted between maneuvering heavy formations in the vicinity of Bogodukhov, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of Kharkov. With Zhukov feeding additional reinforcements into the fight, his right wing held its ground. Simultaneously, Konev’s Steppe Front, reinforced by the adjacent Southwest Front (General Rodion Malinovsky), broke through Kharkov’s outer defenses. The task of standing fast within the city now fell to the remnants of Detachment Kempf, but again the scent of Stalingrad was in the air, with the result that German troops quit the city after only two days’ (21–23 August) hard street fighting. Unlike the earlier case with SS Obergruppenführer Hausser, Hitler removed General Werner Kempf from his command and renamed his detachment the Eighth Army.
Over the course of Rumiantsev, the Soviets opened a 300-kilometer (185-mile) breach in German defenses and advanced to depths of 140 kilometers (85 miles). Zhukov’s two fronts routed fifteen German divisions while losing nearly 250,000 troops, including 71,600 dead and invalided. Beyond the numbers and the reoccupation of Kharkov, Rumiantsev marked a maturing of the Soviet military art, in which Red commanders demonstrated a growing mastery of complex breakthrough and exploitation operations for encirclement and pursuit. They had conducted an echeloned attack against deep defenses, had held the shoulders of the penetration, and then had fed mobile forces through the gap for sustained and deep pursuit. Bogodukhov, meanwhile, revealed a newfound Soviet ability to beat the Germans at their own mobile maneuver game.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Chaney, Otto Preston. Zhukov. Rev. ed. Norman, Okla., 1996. Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. London, 1983. Reprint, London, 2003. Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence, Kans., 1995. Manstein, Erich von. Lost Victories. Edited and translated by Anthony G. Powell. Chicago, 1958. Sydnor, Charles W., Jr. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division, 1933–1945. Princeton, N.J., 1977.