Vatutin’s Southwest Front was still recovering from Operation Little Saturn and the advance to the Donets, when the Stavka directed it to begin planning for a follow-on operation to crush Heeresgruppe Don and liberate the Donbas region. Most of Vatutin’s units were at 50 per cent strength or less and his supply lines had not caught up with his forward combat units. Nevertheless, he believed that he still had enough strength to deal von Manstein a decisive defeat. Vatutin’s plan was characteristically bold, using the 6th Army and the 1st Guards Army to smash through a thin screen of German infantry divisions northwest of Voroshilovgrad and then pivot southward to seize a crossing over the Donets. Once these armies had secured a crossing over the Donets, an armoured group led by Popov would be committed to push south to seize Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, thereby cutting off Heeresgruppe Don. It was a vision of mobile warfare influenced by the pre-war concept of Deep Operations (glubokaya operatsiya), which had theorized armoured penetrations of up to 200km. Thus far in the Second World War, Deep Operations had only been attempted once before, during the armoured raids against the Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya airfields in late December 1942, with mixed results.
Mobile Group Popov consisted of the 3rd, 10th and 18th Tank Corps and the 4th Guards Tank Corps, with a total of just 212 tanks. All these units were reduced to one-third of their authorized strength in tanks and manpower; for example, General-major Pavel P. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps started Operation Gallop with just 40 tanks. Vatutin had transferred much of the assets of the 5th Tank Army into this ad hoc group, leaving the ‘tank army’ with just three rifle divisions and no tanks. This reconfiguration of his remaining armour was done in large part in an effort to deceive von Manstein about his intentions, since the rump 5 TA remained in place opposite Gruppe Hollidt on the lower Donets. However, the mobile group was an ad hoc formation that lacked the support units to conduct a protracted mobile operation. Vatutin expected Mobile Group Popov to traverse 270km in one lunge, whereas full-strength Soviet armour units in Operation Uranus and Little Saturn had only been able to advance 100–120km in one lunge, which corresponded with how far a T-34 could be expected to go cross-country on one load of fuel. Nor was the lacklustre Popov the man to lead a daring armoured advance deep behind German lines, and he had demonstrated an inability to defeat Gruppe Hollidt when he had far stronger resources.
Yet beyond the understrength units and questionable leadership, the greatest threat to the viability of Operation Gallop was the woeful state of the Southwest Front’s logistical support, which was still dependent upon railheads on the far side of the Don. Simply put, the Red Army at this point still lacked the support infrastructure to sustain mechanized Deep Operations. Vatutin’s front was extremely short of trucks and thus he had been unable to build up any forward logistic depots to support the offensive. Even with the trucks available, they had great difficulty moving on roads that were often covered with a metre of snow. There were limited numbers of ZIS-42 halftracks based upon the ZIS-5 truck, but their lack of front-wheel drive severely reduced their mobility in snow or mud. Nor could the VVS help much with transport aircraft – in stark contrast to the Luftwaffe’s Ju-52 transports that routinely provided aerial resupply – since the 17 VA supporting the Southwest Front had only a single transport regiment with 20 Li-2 transports (based upon the American-built DC-3). Furthermore, the VVS preferred to use its Li-2s as night bombers instead of bringing up fuel for tank units at the front. Thus, when Popov’s armour drove off into the white snowy wilderness beyond the Donets, they would essentially be out of supply for an extended period.
Nevertheless, Vatutin believed that Operation Gallop, with the Voronezh Front’s Operation Star occurring on its northern flank, would carry the day despite a host of problems. Indeed, Soviet operational planning was driven by post-Stalingrad hubris and an almost French-style attitude that they would muddle through somehow. In the process, any potential German responses were ignored. This style of planning, which omits terrain, weather, logistics and the enemy, begs for disaster.
On the morning of 29 January, General-leytenant Fedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army attacked on Vatutin’s right flank with four rifle divisions while General-major Vasiliy I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army (1 GA) attacked on the left flank with three rifle divisions. In this sector that was over 100km wide, von Manstein had Armee-Abteilung Lanz with the 298. and 320.Infanterie-Divisionen and the 19.Panzer-Division, which only had a small number of operational tanks. The Germans were hopelessly outnumbered in this sector and they elected to conduct a fighting withdrawal which upset Vatutin’s timetable. Vatutin relied on his rifle divisions to conduct the pursuit, enabling his armour to enjoy a few more days of rest, and committed only the 4th Guards Tank Corps to assist the infantry. Although mauled, both German infantry divisions eventually succeeded in retreating across the Donets at Izyum and Zmiyev. The 19.Panzer-Division pulled into a hedgehog north of the Middle Donets at Kremennaya and put up stiff resistance for two days before pulling back across the river. Consequently, the 4th Guards Rifle Corps (4 GRC) of Kuznetsov’s 1GA did not begin crossing the Donets until 1 February. The 6th Guards Rifle Corps, with the 18th Tank Corps in support, crossed the Donets further east near Lysychansk and mounted a fixing attack against the 19.Panzer-Division. Meanwhile, Kharitonov’s 6th Army slowly moved westward against light resistance, but did not capture Izyum until 5 February and did not reach Zmiyev until 10 February.
Ominously, the first elements of the SS-Panzerkorps were already beginning to arrive in the vicinity of Kharkov just as Operations Gallop and Star were commencing and had been detected on the Northern Donets by Soviet scouts. Yet more immediately serious was von Manstein’s successful effort to transfer the bulk of the 1.Panzerarmee from the Rostov area on his right flank to Slavyansk on his left flank, a move he described in chess terms as ‘castling’. Von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division, with 35 tanks, was the first to arrive at Slavyansk, just as the 4GRC was crossing the Donets to the northwest. Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s III. Panzerkorps headquarters also established itself in Artemovsk and selected positions for the 3. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen, which were still enroute. Vatutin waited until Kuznetsov’s infantry had moved three rifle divisions across the Middle Donets and established viable bridgeheads before committing Popov’s armour. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps (4GTC), with 37 tanks, was the first across on 1 February and while 4GRC went to secure Slavyansk, 4GTC brushed past the city and went on to occupy Kramatorsk. However, by the time that the vanguard of 4GRC arrived outside Slavyansk, Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 7 was firmly established in the town, along with artillery.
Kuznetsov elected to mount a set-piece attack on the German defence in Slavyansk on the morning of 2 February, but only had the 195th Rifle Division nearby. Not only were the initial attacks by this division repelled by von Funck’s Panzergrenadiers, but the 7.Panzer-Division mounted a counter-attack with tanks on 3 February that threw the Soviet infantrymen out of the city suburbs. Kuznetsov thought he could pry the 7.Panzer-Division out of Slavyansk with a little extra firepower, so he requested Popov to bring up the 3rd Tank Corps while 1GA brought up the 57th Guards Rifle Division. Poluboyarov’s 4GTC formed a defensive hedgehog at Kramatorsk, but took no active role. By 5 February, von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division was nearly encircled in Slavyansk and it looked grim for Heeresgruppe Don, since there was now a huge gap between Armee-Abteilung Lanz and Breith’s III. Panzerkorps. There was literally nothing to block the 6th Army or Popov’s armour from pushing west and south to sever von Manstein’s lines of communication. However, like the Chateau de Hougoumont at Waterloo in 1815, capturing Slavyansk became an object in itself and Vatutin, Kuznetsov and Popov lost sight of the real objective at a critical moment. Rather than simply bypassing Slavyansk, Vatutin decided to commit the bulk of Popov’s armour to reducing the German hedgehog in the city.
Popov was able to attack the 7.Panzer-Division’s hedgehog with three of his tank corps, along with the infantry of 4GRC, from three different directions and almost completely encircle the division, but the city did not fall and fighting went on for more than a week. Given the fact that Breith had relatively few tanks and only modest amounts of infantry and artillery, the stand at Slavyansk against the bulk of 1GA and Popov’s armour seems improbable. The answer lies in logistics – Vatutin’s frontline units were running out of fuel and ammunition and could not afford a protracted battle. German logistics were somewhat better, since Breith’s panzers were operating close to friendly rail lines. Furthermore, Breith was able to bring up the 3.Panzer-Division to the east of Slavyansk, which engaged the 10th Tank Corps from 3–11 February. The 11.Panzer-Division, with 16 tanks, was brought up from Rostov and sent against the 4GTC at Kramatorsk but was badly ambushed, losing 10 SPWs and many anti-tank guns. Popov sent the 3rd Tank Corps to Kramatorsk to reinforce Poluboyarov, which temporarily halted the German counter-attack. Once the Germans brought up the 333.Infanterie-Division and some artillery, the two Soviet tank corps began to suffer heavy losses. Unsupported tank units tend to perform poorly in an extended defence, particularly in an urban environment. By this point in Operation Gallop, Popov’s armour was not being used as an exploitation force for Deep Operations, nor was it massed against a single objective. Instead, Popov’s four tank corps were dispersed between Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and Lysychansk and half his armour had actually shifted to the defence.
In contrast, the German Panzer-Divisionen were depleted but well-coordinated. Many of the German Pz III, Pz IV tanks and StuG III assault guns involved in the counter-attack mounted winterketten (winter tracked extenders), which improved their mobility in snow. By the second winter of the War in the East, German tankers were somewhat better adapted to winter operations, compared to the first winter in which virtually all of their tanks became non-operational. Freezing cold weather still caused problems, particularly with routine maintenance; grease turned nearly solid at temperatures hovering near or below 0 degrees F and road wheels or support rollers without proper lubrication quickly burned out. Although operational readiness rates were poor during the winter battles, by early 1943 the Panzer-Divisionen had learned to keep a portion of their armour running even under the worst weather conditions. Indeed, the ability of the German Panzer-Divisionen to adapt and operate in winter weather conditions in 1943 enabled von Manstein’s mechanized units to slowly regain the initiative. Furthermore, the combined arms nature of the Panzer-Divisionen – in contrast to Soviet tank units – enabled them to substitute mobile Flak guns, Panzerjägers and Pioniers to make up for the shortage of tanks.
Amazingly, the biggest Soviet success in Operation Gallop was achieved by infantry, not tanks. While Popov’s armour and 1GA were tangled up trying to overcome III Panzerkorps’ defence, a handful of rifle divisions from 4GRC marched southwest toward the Dnepr. On 11 February, the 35th Guard Rifle Division captured the important rail junction at Lozovaya. The way to the Dnepr River was open. The 6th Army also had infantry near Zmiyev within 35km of Kharkov. Suddenly, Vatutin realized that a decisive victory was possible and that he needed to extract Popov’s armour from the useless slugfests at Kramatorsk-Slavyansk. He ordered Kuznetsov to shift his axis of attack westward, bypassing Slavyansk for now. Bypassing enemy armour units can be perilous since its leaves a mobile threat on one’s flanks, but Vatutin was buoyed by the Stavka’s overly-optimistic assessment that Heeresgruppe Don was withdrawing westward and the desperate stand at Slavyansk was merely a rearguard action.
For their part, 1.Panzerarmee believed that Group Popov could not get around their open left flank south of Kramatorsk because of the numerous Balkas (ravines) filled with deep snow; the Germans regarded this area as impossible for their tanks. However, the Soviet tankers did not share this view. Late on the night of 10–11 February, Poluboyarov pulled his 4GTC out of Kramatorsk, bypassed the 11.Panzer-Division’s left flank and boldly conducted an 85km night march through the bleak and snowy wasteland. At 0900 hours the next morning, his tanks seized the rail junction at Krasnoarmeyskoye and cut Heeresgruppe Don’s primary line of communication. Although there was a secondary route to the south through the Zaporozhe to Mariupol line, the loss of Krasnoarmeyskoye was a serious threat to von Manstein’s forces because it immediately delayed the timely arrival of fuel and ammunition. In order to reinforce success, Vatutin sent Poluboyarov the 9th Guards Tank Brigade and ski troops and told him to hang on, employing 4GTC as a blocking force. Von Manstein reacted at once, ordering the III and XXXX Panzerkorps to launch immediate counter-attacks to defeat Popov’s enveloping manoeuvre. The SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking, fresh from the Caucasus, was sent to destroy 4GTC, while the 7. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen went after the 10th Tank Corps, still near Slavyansk. Initially, the German attacks achieved little, due to the difficulty of manoeuvreing through deep snow and inadequate support. Poluboyarov had deployed anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns firing in direct fire mode to slow the German advance. On 12 February, one Kampfgruppe from Wiking fought its way into Krasnoarmeyskoye, but the action devolved into a week-long battle of attrition, rather than one of rapid manoeuvre. On 15 February, Gruppe Hollidt was finally forced to abandon Voroshilovgrad as part of the retreat to the Mius River and Slavyansk was ceded two days later, but the German defence along the Donets had wrecked Vatutin’s timetable for Gallop.
On 17 February, the stalwart 35th Guards Rifle Division captured the town of Pavlograd, only 55km from the Dnepr River. Shortly afterwards, Vatutin committed his last front reserves – General-major Petr P. Pavlov’s 25th Tank Corps and the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps – to reinforce the 6th Army’s push to the Dnepr. By 18 February, Pavlov’s tankers captured Sinel’nikovo, just 32km from the Dnepr. Apparently on the verge of a major victory, Vatutin did not realize that his offensive had already culminated and that the Germans were gaining the advantage. Popov’s four tank corps were all virtually immobilized, very low on fuel, food and ammunition, and no longer capable of offensive action.
As a tanker, running out of fuel is a traumatic event. I recall when winter weather played havoc with my battalion’s fuel supply and our tank company was forced to make an extended march without much fuel remaining. One after another, tanks began running out of fuel and we had to abandon them and their crews; I remember tossing a box of rations to my sergeant as we passed his immobilized tank, telling him to keep his men warm and that we would come back for them in a few days. Once the column was gone, his tankers chopped down small trees and made a fire, spending the next three days huddled under blankets near the fire. Their tank was frozen and silent inside and, later, proved most difficult to start again even when refuelled. The main gun breach was covered in frost and, had a round been placed in it, it would have become stuck. I imagine that Popov’s immobilized tankers did much the same, trying to stay warm and waiting for resupply, but in just a few days of this cold and hungry misery, their ability to fight must have been severely degraded.