During the first days of March, we rolled in formation with a Panzer battle group toward Charkow for the counterattack. The order from the division had established the objective for our battle group: “In fast pursuit from Walki through Olschany, Dergatscho, you will reach the outskirts of Charkow and there cut the escape route Charkow–Bjelgorod.” Just the right mission for us! We moved forward at good speed. Resistance was no longer very strong and was broken by spirited attacks.
A Panzer IV company was in the lead, followed by our Tigers. Behind us were the armored personnel carriers and armored cars of the reconnaissance detachment, which were expected to push through after we opened up a breach.
Ahead of us was a village, where everything was still quiet. The hatches were closed, and we kept in touch by radio. Only 600 meters to go, but no shot was fired. Our Panzer IVs had deployed in attack formation. As the first Panzers approached the dark outlines of the houses, the fireworks abruptly started. The lead Panzer took a direct hit in the turret. Two or three other Panzers gave off smoke, and another rotated around its own axis after a hit to the track! Still nothing was to be seen of the enemy. He sat, well covered, behind the houses and fences. Encouraged by the first successes, the Russians increased their fire, and the light Panzers of our lead company were stuck. They fired as fast as they could but were unable to accurately spot the Paks and tanks. This could not go on. The Panzer IVs couldn’t get through. Over the radio came the order: “Disengage, assemble in the gully.” Eight Panzers were lost from just one company. The crews of three Panzers were at least able to bail out, but all the others received direct hits.
We reviewed the situation. Our two Tigers were to go into the lead while the other Panzers, spaced, were to follow behind. The vehicles of the reconnaissance detachment were to remain in the gully until ordered by radio to follow. We rolled into the open terrain. An uneasy feeling filled us when we saw our own knocked-out, burning Panzers lying ahead of us. Immediately, the defensive fire concentrated on us but without success at that distance. We were unable to spot any enemy. Then, suddenly, three T-34s broke cover from the houses off to the side, probably planning to attack us from the flank. Short, quick targeting, our turret swung to the left. The Panzer stopped and the first shell left the barrel. Hit and explosion were almost simultaneous! The next enemy tank was already targeted in the sights of the gunner. Fire!—and it literally blew apart; the shell must have hit the fuel tanks directly. The third enemy tank seemed to want to turn back. It showed us its rear when it, too, was hit. Only then did we notice the smacks against the Panzer walls again. The three T-34s had fully occupied our attention. This firing, which must have come from the low cottages, seemed to be a Pak.
We covered cottage after cottage with high-explosive shells and got some breathing space, at least a short pause! We wanted to get closer to the houses. Covering each other, we broke into the village on the wide road. The other Panzers followed widely spaced, while the armor personnel carriers of the reconnaissance detachment rushed to the edge of the village, dismounted their grenadiers and moved forward to the left and right of our Tigers as cover. The houses were smoked out with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. Then we could see from where the defensive fire had come. The Russians had pushed their 4.7-cm Paks from the back into the houses and so could not be spotted.
We pushed across a wide square with our two Tigers and found some more T-34s ahead of us trying to leave the village unnoticed. With a lightning strike our two Tigers destroyed eight more tanks in a short time. We soon realized the reason for the concentration at this spot. Several hundred meters ahead was a bridge that had to be crossed by the tanks.
We were in determined pursuit. Just before the bridge another two enemy tanks faced us. They were probably deployed to cover the preparations to blow up the bridge. This meant their end! We then secured the crossing and advised the commander of the battle group by radio. The Panzer IVs crossed over while the grenadiers of the reconnaissance detachment mopped up the village. During the course of the night we reached the road Charkow–Bjelgorod and cut it off to all attempts by the Russians, which were encircled in Charkow, to break out. But we could not think of a rest. We were to be there again during the counterattack on the desperately fought-for city! A few hours of sleep had to do. Feverishly, we performed the technical chores; oil change, tightening the tracks. We cleaned the ventilation system and waited for X hour.
During the night of March 11, 1943, we rolled into our readiness positions. At dawn, the target of our attack was seen in front of us as if on a tray. We could clearly recognize the skyscrapers of the Red Square across which we strolled only a few days, or was it weeks, ago. We had taken photos of the harsh contrast between it and the slum dwellings, and of each other. The films were probably still in the cameras, not yet developed. Many of the comrades who had then laughingly posed with Russian girls in memory of Charkow were no longer alive.
PANZER COMMANDER MARTIN STEIGER, 1./SS-PANZER-REGIMENT “T,” REPORTS ON THE PANZER BATTLES IN THE CHARKOW AREA
The “DR” and the “LAH” Divisions were already involved in defensive fighting. Although the thrust of the “LAH” Division from Krasnograd to the south had demolished the spearheads of the enemy forces advancing westward, there was still a strong enemy to the east of the previous advance route. Further forces were required to wipe out this enemy and to establish contact with the “LAH” to the northwest of Krasnograd.
This was to be primarily the objective of the newly brought-in SS-“Totenkopfdivision,” which was subordinated to the SS-Panzerkorps and assembled in the Pereschtschepino area.
For three days we worked untiringly. The Panzers were painted in white, and weapons and equipment were given a last going-over to ensure readiness for action. During the fourth night, the last units arrived. We set out the next morning.
The regiment moved into the assembly area. The I. Abteilung, led by Sturmbannführer Meierdress, and then the 1., 2., 3., and 4. Companies rolled through Poltawa. It passed retreating Italians and Hungarians and German soldiers and railway men who had lost their units or were looking for better cover in the rear. It was an imposing picture, this column of more than seventy Panzers, which soon disappeared from view in the driving snow.
On February 20, at the break of dawn, we began to get ready. During the day it had begun to thaw, but then sudden snowfall set in, and a strong wind blew from the west as we loaded our meager possessions into the vehicles and Panzers. We started out into the pitch-dark night. Since our arrival in Russia, we had not experienced as strong a snowstorm as during that night. We could not see a meter ahead of the vehicles and Panzers. The Panzer crews sat on the track fenders and directed the drivers. Centimeters of snow covered the Panzers and the overalls of the men. Melted snow ran down their backs. Occasionally, we saw the glowing exhaust of the vehicle ahead, the only reference point for direction. The column had long since broken up. Individual Panzers and supply vehicles drove through the ghostly night toward the new morning. When the new day began to dawn, the snowstorm was also over. We were in Karlowka, a larger village on the main road Poltawa–Krasnograd.
More hours passed before the company was able to make camp as a unit. Some of the Panzers were out of service and had to be repaired by the mechanics or, in the case of major damage, towed away. We set out again the next evening. It was a starlit, freezing night. The commanders stood rigidly in their hatches. The Panzers began to slide on the slippery roads. Around midnight we reached Krasnograd, when a major mishap stalled the advance. Several Panzers began to slide on the clear ice at a downhill spot near the exit from Krasnograd and crashed into each other. The Panzers of commander Meierdress and his adjutant and the Panzers of Riefkogel and Siebenkopf collided at a dip in the road and sustained considerable damage. They had to be towed away. It was light already before we got going again. Then we rolled monotonously through Russia’s steppes, which were covered with deep snow. If it had not been for the telephone poles on our right, we could not have known that we were following a road.
Enemy forces had closed in toward the road from the right and threatened our flank.
The order to attack went to the first company. “Ready for action—Panzer, march!” The first houses of Pereschtschepino were bypassed before we went in a straight line across the terrain. We encountered Russian infantry and fought it from the moving Panzer. A few antitank rifles went off, but they were quickly destroyed by our concentrated fire. Artillery fire set in; the explosions were without effect and then stopped altogether. Toward evening our objective was achieved. After hours of driving aimlessly because Riefkogel at the head of the company lost his way, we made camp in a village around midnight. At 4 A.M.: Alert!
All of the Panzer-Regiment 3 got ready for action in the area south of Pereschtschepino and attacked the enemy between Orelka and Samara. It was February 22.
In two waves, first by I. and then II. Abteilung, the attack continued southeastward across the ranges of hills in the direction of Werbki fifty kilometers ahead.
The “DR” Division had in the meantime swung north, successfully crossed the Samara River at Pavlograd, with good support from the Stukas (dive-bombers), and captured Werbki. There the spearheads of the two divisions, “Totenkopf” and “Das Reich,” joined up. The column on the left flank of our division had meanwhile taken Orelka to the north and thus secured our open northerly flank. The mass of the 1st Soviet Guards Army continued its advance.
Parts of the Russian Popow Group were already cut off by our neighbor army to the right. However, five enemy tank corps were advancing to the southwest in front of Armee Hoth.
The breakthrough group of the “DR” Division pushed into the southern part of Losowaja. The column on the right entered Wesseli. Our Panzer-regiment advanced to the west of them. Other units thrust forward from Orelka to the east and northeast. The enemy had deployed in particularly great strength for defense around Losowaja. Our regiment had to endure severe fighting there. The II. Abteilung pushed into Panjutina and thus created the prerequisite for the further attack.
On February 27, the enemy front collapsed. The SS-Panzerkorps reached the Losowaja–Orelka railroad line. The pursuit on February 28, led further north. The first objective was achieved; the enemy Popow spearhead was beaten. Its mass was destroyed by our division, supported by parts of the “DR” and “LAH,” in three days of hard fighting near Jeremejewka. Isolated enemy units that managed to break out made the area behind us unsafe for days before they were wiped out. The commanding general of the Russian XV. Guards Corps was found dead near the field headquarters of the SS-Panzerkorps.
On March 4, we linked up with our other units. The next day the SS-“Totenkopfdivision” completed the destruction of the encircled enemy and thus achieved its greatest success.
On March 6, the attack continued. Road conditions had worsened. The snow cover was deep and slowed down movement, in particular as we were about to attack again farther north. Walki was captured. Olschani became a prey of the “T” Division, and for the third time in this war the battle for Charkow started. We secured the northwest from Dergatschi to Olschani.
On March 11, the “LAH” entered the city in a surprise attack. The enemy conducted relief attacks from the northeast against our division. Our front line was extended to the Charkow River. Parts of our division were set in march toward Tschugujew and Rogan to cut the main road to the southeast.
On March 15, after successful Panzer combat north of Rogan, our division had reached the narrow passage near Tschugujew and blocked it off.
After this success, Panzer-Regiment 3 continued to roll northward to just before Bjelgorod.
On March 18, the company received orders to capture the last town before the Donez River and thus to take the first step to bring about the end of the offensive. At dawn our Panzers were on the hill overlooking Iwanowka. Suddenly, a radio message reached us that Hauptsturmführer Mooslechner was killed in his Tiger. A delay fuse detonated one of his own shells in the interior of the Panzer. After a few hundred meters our attack stalled in a Russian minefield. The first victim was the Panzer of Oberscharführer Wunsch. Pioneers cleared the minefield. Then the offensive continued, and a few hours later Iwanowka was in our hands. The company had only a few Panzers left that were ready for action. A number of Panzers were knocked out and burned out. A few commanders were critically wounded; Riefkogel, his arm ripped open by a grenade fragment, remained with the company despite his wound. With this counterattack against the major Russian winter offensive, the last German victory in the east was complete. Bjelgorod fell into our hands. The SS-Panzer-Division “Totenkopf” began a period of rest and refitting, our company moved into quarters in Nikojanowka.
THE RECAPTURE OF CHARKOW
The Kampfgruppe (battle group) III. (gep.)/2 of Jochen Peiper, because of its surprising attacks, was the spearhead of this operation together with the Panzer-Regiment “LAH.”
On March 12 Kampfgruppe Peiper, after establishing contact with the commander of I./Panzer-Regiment 1 (Witt), pushed along the main road, linked up with the commander of II/1 (Hansen) at the Red Square, and formed a small bridgehead along the Staro–Moskowska street. With two or three armored vehicles, Peiper established contact with Kampfgruppe Meyer at the Tschugujew street fork. Kampfgruppe Meyer advanced along a number of city blocks, occupied the important road fork Charkow–Tschugujew and Charkow–Woltschansk, and fought off fierce attacks from all sides.
Sturmbannführer Wünsche led a counterattack with a few Panzers, which led to the destruction of the Russian assault parties that had broken through.
On March 13, Kampfgruppe Peiper expanded its bridgehead across the Charkow River so that the advance along the Staro–Moskowa road to the east could take place at 12:30 P.M.
On March 14, the Division “LAH” pushed forward in hard street fighting and cleared block after block of the enemy.
At 4:45 P.M. the SS-Panzerkorps received the report that the districts of Katschaniwka, Plechaniwkij Rayo to the agricultural experimental station, Jewgerewka, and Pidgorodny, which was all of downtown, had been taken and were firmly in our hands.
With this, Charkow was captured again!
THE ADVANCE ON BJELGOROD MARCH 16–18, 1943
The recapture of Charkow crowned an operation that finally made possible the closing of the 300-kilometer-wide gap, created by the battle for Stalingrad and its consequences. To achieve this objective, three divisions of the SS-Panzerkorps were deployed side by side to attack toward the northeast and north.
On the right the SS-“T” was to take the Donez, in the center was the SS-“DR,” and on the left was the SS-“LAH” toward Bjelgorod.
Punctually, on March 16, the two battalions, supported by Panzers of the 5./SS-Panzer-Regiment “LAH” and simultaneous action by dive-bombers, began the attack on the well-fortified positions. In a fast advance, through the deep snow, the objective of the attack was taken at 6:30 P.M.
For the “LAH” the orders remained unchanged on March 17. For the “T” and “DR” Divisions, Bjelgorod was the target.
Kampfgruppe Peiper attacked at 12:30 P.M., and encountered a Pak front which was then broken by the Peiper battalion, supported by the 7./Panzer-Regiment “LAH” under Obersturmführer von Ribbentrop, at the onset of darkness.
On March 18 at 4:15 in the morning, the reenforced Kampfgruppe Peiper commenced combat reconnaissance against the enemy defensive line. The agreed Stuka attack on the line began on time at 7:00 A.M. Ten minutes later the Peiper battalion reported that it had broken through the line and was advancing on the Otradnyj heights. At 10:00 A.M. the Peiper battalion reached Krassnoje. On his own initiative, Sturmbannführer Peiper ordered the advance to continue. At 11:00 A.M., Peiper reported: “Spearhead at eight kilometers southwest of Bjelgorod on main route. Russians retreating to the west. Two tanks knocked out. Cmdr. III./2.”
At 12:10 P.M., Kampfgruppe Peiper repelled a tank counterattack on Bjelgorod from the northwest, knocking out several tanks. It received orders to secure Bjelgorod-West, including the northern exit, for the night.
The Division “DR,” together with the “Deutschland” Regiment, advanced from the south into the southern section of the city of Bjelgorod.
In the evening of March 18, the Panzerkorps stood in a line from the heights on the west to Murom–Netschejewka–Botschkowa–Brodok– Tawrowo–defensive circle around Bjelgorod and secured the railroad to Charkow to the west.
During the night the enemy continuously pushed against the positions near Bjelgorod-North. In the early morning hours of March 19, the II./2 took over the security line of Kampfgruppe Peiper.
At 1:15 P.M., Kampfgruppe Peiper, reenforced by the 7./Panzer-Regiment “LAH” and two Tigers, advanced. At 3:35 P.M. it reported tank combat with Russian tanks near Strelezkoje. There, seven Russian tanks were knocked out without any losses of our own Panzers, although one of our armored personnel carriers took a direct hit. The bridge at Strelezkoje was destroyed by the enemy, and the battalion returned to the eastern section for the night. On Peiper’s orders, Obersturmführer von Ribbentrop drove forward one more time to the burning armored vehicle to determine if surviving grenadiers could have been rescued. He could only collect pay-books and similar items as there were no survivors. The “T” Division and Division “DR,” with all their units, reached the Donez on March 19 and they occupied all villages in the attack area.