In late January, the Stavka began directing Golikov’s Voronezh Front to prepare for a follow-on offensive toward Kharkov as soon as it was across the Oskol River in force. Golikov’s forces were depleted after weeks of heavy combat, but he still had Rybalko’s relatively intact 3rd Tank Army (3TA), which the Stavka wanted to use to secure an important objective before the spring mud arrived. Marshal Zhukov inserted himself into the planning process for the offensive designated as Operation Star (Zvezda) and unilaterally decided that Golikov’s Front had the ability to capture Kursk and Belgorod as well. Consequently, rather than a focused offensive to seize Kharkov, from the outset the Stavka-dictated plan for Operation Star forced Golikov to disperse his forces against multiple objectives on diverging axes. Rybalko’s 3TA and General-leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army were expected to advance 200–250km and encircle Kharkov within five days – a very tall order. As with Vatutin’s Operation Gallop, Golikov’s supply situation at the start of the offensive was poor, his units were tired and well under strength and there were no significant reserves immediately available.
Opposing Golikov, Heeresgruppe B had managed to erect a thin screen line along the west side of the Oskol River, to cover the gap left by the destruction of the Hungarian 2nd Army. Armee-Abteilung Lanz blocked the southeastern approaches to Kharkov with two infantry divisions and had fortified Kupyansk. Generalkommando z.b.V. Cramer, another ad hoc formation, had received the Großdeutschland Division to protect the northern approaches to Kharkov and had deployed the 168.Infanterie-Division to protect Belgorod. After heavy fighting at Rzhev, the Großdeutschland Division was worn down, but this elite formation still had an under-strength Panzer-Abteilung with 14 operational tanks on 11 February (including three Pz III and six Pz IV) as well as a few assault guns. In the north, the battered 2.Armee protected the approaches to Kursk from the rest of Golikov’s armies. However, Heeresgruppe B did not have a continuous front east of Kharkov and significant gaps existed between blocking positions. The German covering forces were extremely weak and incapable of sustained defence; if faced with Soviet armour, the best that they could hope to achieve was delay.
Just before Operation Star began, the first elements of General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps arrived in Kharkov from the west. This powerful formation consisted of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Divisionen Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Das Reich and Totenkopf. Except for Totenkopf, which had to be rebuilt after its protracted blood-letting at Demyansk, the other two Waffen-SS Divisionen had spent the bulk of 1942 in France and were well-rested and nearly fully re-equipped with the best weaponry Germany had to offer. Altogether, the SS-Panzerkorps had over 50,000 troops in its ranks, as well as six SS-Panzer-Abteilungen with 317 tanks (including 28 Tiger, 95 Pz IV Ausf G, 162 Pz III Ausf L, 10 Pz III Ausf J and 22 Pz II Ausf F), three Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen with 63 StuG III Ausf F/8 assault guns and three Panzerjäger-Abteilungen with 45 Marder II/III tank destroyers. In addition, each division was provided with 7.5cm Pak 40 and 8.8cm Flak guns which significantly improved their anti-tank capabilities. However, this large formation with hundreds of AFVs took almost two weeks to arrive by rail and would require time to assemble. Hitler was adamant that the SS-Panzerkorps would not be committed into battle piecemeal and ordered that it would remain under OKH control until ready for battle. Nevertheless, von Weichs was able to make a case that some of the earliest arriving Waffen SS units would need to screen the assembly area in Kharkov since there were no other Heeresgruppe B combat units in the area that could accomplish this task. Once the OKH conceded on this point, Heeresgruppe B liberally interpreted this to dispatch the Das Reich’s SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland and a reinforced reconnaissance battalion (SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Das Reich) as a covering force forward of the Donets near Velikiy Burluk, while the rest of the SS-Panzerkorps assembled in Kharkov. By the afternoon of 31 January, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland had two battalions screening far to the east of the Donets.
Rybalko kicked off Operation Star on 1 February by moving his 3TA across the Oskol River. He started the offensive with 165 tanks in his 12th and 15th Tank Corps, but used his four attached rifle divisions and General-major Sergei V. Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC) on 2 February to push back the German blocking detachments, rather than committing his armour too soon. Rybalko also wisely decided to bypass the German Stützpunkt at Kupyansk and make straight for the Donets River at Pechenegi, where he intended to cross. Kazakov’s infantry advance on Rybalko’s right flank, while the 6th Army from the Southwest Front covered his left flank. Outflanked by Rybalko’s 3TA, the German 298.Infanterie-Division was forced to abandon Kupyansk – demonstrating once again that it is best for armour to bypass enemy strongpoints rather than hit them head-on. The infantry division was forced to abandon much of its artillery in the retreat and fell back in columns toward the Donets, hounded by Rybalko’s tanks. However, Rybalko’s advance units quickly noted the presence of the Das Reich blocking units, which led him to believe that the SS-Panzerkorps could arrive in force to defend the Donets crossings at any moment. Based upon this assessment, Rybalko decided to commit both his tank corps into battle ahead of schedule on 3 February in order to accelerate the advance to the Donets. While Rybalko’s two tank corps made good progress toward the Donets, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland at Velikiy Burluk put up very stiff resistance, which halted some of Rybalko’s infantry and forced him to divert a brigade from General-major Vasiliy A. Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps to deal with his unexpected obstacle. Although the Waffen-SS troops eventually ceded the town of Velikiy Burluk, they maintained a salient that interfered with the advance of both Rybalko’s 3TA and Kazakov’s 69th Army. The Großdeutschland Division also put up very stiff resistance, which delayed Kazakov’s 69th Army for several critical days.
Nevertheless, the rest of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps reached Pechenegi on 4 February and was shocked to find that elements of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) were already defending the heights on the far side of the Northern Donets. The LSSAH detachments were small, but included SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion, some Panzerjägers and a few assault guns. The Germans emplaced a few 8.8cm Flak guns on the heights and they were able to engage Koptsov’s tanks at distances up to 6,000 meters and succeeded in setting nine tanks on fire. Afterward, Koptsov kept his tanks under cover in Balkas (ravines) and sent his infantry forward.
Rybalko’s attached infantry units made three separate attempts on 4–6 February to cross the river, which was less than 50 metres wide at this spot, but each attempt was repulsed by intense German fire. Nor were Waffen-SS junior leaders like Meyer content to fight a static defensive battle, and instead he crossed the Donets and ambushed a Soviet column, inflicting an estimated 250 casualties before returning to the German-held side of the river. Similarly, the Das Reich also opted for an active defence. Once the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and the I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 arrived at the front, they were committed to a major counter-attack into the right flank of Rybalko’s 3TA on the morning of 5 February. The Luftwaffe even managed to provide a few Stuka sorties to support the attack. Just after dawn, a Kampfgruppe from Der Führer and at least two companies of tanks attacked southward into the Soviet 48th Guards Rifle Division near Velikiy Burluk and caught it by surprise, advancing 10km. Rybalko was forced to detach the 179th Tank Brigade to deal with this enemy action, which distracted him from crossing the Donets. A second SS-Kampfgruppe, supported by 2./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, pushed eastward toward the village of Olkhovatka. Rottenführer Ernst Barkmann, commanding a Pz III tank, was involved in the attack. Here, the Das Reich’s lack of recent mechanized combat experience was evident in the lack of reconnaissance prior to contact with the enemy. The overconfident SS-tankers rolled toward the town in a frontal assault, straight into a well-prepared anti-tank defence that shot them to pieces; about 13–14 tanks were knocked out. Barkmann’s Pz III was one of three that made it into the village and they encountered close-quarter combat:
At full speed the Panzer raced toward the village. ‘Watch out! Molotov Cocktails! Bottles filled with gasoline burst on the nose of the Panzer. Burning gasoline ran downward…Then the commander saw the flash from a muzzle and recognized a Pak behind a house corner. Opposite, the enemy Pak commander spotted the Panzer, which had closed in to about 30 meters. He brought the Pak around to destroy it. Barkmann saw the blank ring of the muzzle swing toward him. They were still some ten meters apart. ‘Run over the Pak!’ The engine howled. At the moment when the Panzer rammed the gun and pushed its barrel down, the shot roared. Two seconds too late! The shell hit the ground below the Panzer without effect.
After securing the village, Barkmann’s Panzer was sent back to the assembly area to escort recovery vehicles to come and retrieve the damaged tanks, but was not able to return until after sunset. Driving back in the dark, through deep snow and with limited visibility, Barkmann’s Panzer became stuck in a drift. By the time that two FAMO recovery tracks found Barkmann’s tank at sunrise, Soviet infantrymen were closing in on his position and a 76.2mm anti-tank had been brought up to engage the immobilized tank. The Soviet anti-tank gunners were quite good, first destroying one FAMO and then shooting up Barkmann’s tank; he managed to escape on foot.
Frustrated by his inability to just push across the Northern Donets, on 7 February Rybalko sent Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC), reinforced with the 201st Tank Brigade, to cross the Donets River further down at Andreyevka where the 6th Army had already secured a bridgehead and to sweep around to the south to cut the main German rail line heading into Kharkov. However, this cavalry raid was spotted and the Germans dispatched a Kampfgruppe from Das Reich that drove it off. Rybalko’s 3TA was effectively blocked and his timetable for taking Kharkov ruined. Instead, Rybalko began preparing for a deliberate assault crossing of the Donets and had to hope that Golikov’s other armies were doing better in their sectors. To the north, Kazakov’s 69th Army was slowly pushing back the Großdeutschland Division, but it was Moskalenko’s 40th Army, bearing down on Belgorod, that provided the means to unhinge the German defence on the Northern Donets. Although Moskalenko did not have a lot of tanks, he used them well, forming small mobile strike groups based upon the 116th and 192nd Tank Brigades. Korps z.b.V. Cramer only had the 168.Infanterie-Division defending Belgorod, which was easily bypassed by Moskalenko’s armour. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of Soviet armour near Belgorod, Cramer directed Großdeutschland to send its reconnaissance battalion and two motorized infantry battalions, along with five Pz IV tanks and two StuG IIIs, to reinforce the Belgorod sector, but it was too late. During the night of 7–8 February, Moskalenko’s troops fought their way into Belgorod, which threatened to envelop the entire German front north of Kharkov.
Combined with the loss of Belgorod, Kazakov’s 69th Army continued to push against Großdeutschland and Das Reich. On 8 February, Das Reich made another attack against Soviet forces near Velikiy Burluk, but once again failed to conduct adequate pre-battle reconnaissance and eight tanks were destroyed by anti-tank gun fire. For the first time, the Das Reich committed a few of its newly-arrived Tiger tanks, but the company commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Grader was killed in the opening action. After this, both Großdeutschland and Das Reich were obliged to withdraw across the Donets on 9 February.
By 10 February, the Großdeutschland was protecting the northern approaches to Kharkov, while Das Reich and LSSAH were defending the eastern approaches to the city. Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was still incomplete, since Totenkopf had not yet arrived. On the night of 9–10 February, Rybalko’s 3TA began its deliberate crossing of the Donets with infantry seizing small bridgeheads. On the morning of 10 February, elements of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps crossed and seized Pechenegi while General-major Mitrofan I. Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps did the same at Chuguyev. German resistance at the river’s edge was light, since the bulk of LSSAH had pulled back into a tighter perimeter closer to the city. The original concept for Operation Star was that Rybalko’s 3TA would envelop Kharkov by manoeuvre, rather than attempting to storm into the city with a frontal assault, but this was now abandoned. On 11 February, Rybalko’s two tank corps, supported by four rifle divisions, began attacking westward straight toward the city. Slow, grinding progress was achieved, but Rybalko’s tanks were being regularly picked off by Panzerjägers and StuG IIIs – this was not how a tank army was supposed to be employed. The Das Reich had established a strong defensive position at Rogan, east of the city, which could not easily be stormed without significant artillery preparation, but Rybalko’s tankers only had limited air and artillery support.
Meanwhile, Sokolov’s 6GCC continued to try and sweep around to the south of Kharkov and Hausser decided to conduct a major counter-attack to remove this threat to his line of communications. A covering force known as the Deckungsgruppe was left to hold off Rybalko, while an assault formation known as Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was assembled under the LSSAH’s commander SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich consisting of three subordinate Kampfgruppen. Kampfgruppe Meyer had the LSSAH’s reconnaissance battalion, Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Kumm consisted of two battalions from the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and two companies from II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Witt consisted of one infantry battalion from LSSAH, plus engineers, the Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung and artillery. In addition, LSSAH committed five of its Tigers to the operation. This was a very large force, including half of Hausser’s available armour and a good portion of his infantry and artillery, leaving the defence of Kharkov short-handed. However, Hausser figured that he would be able to crush Sokolov in a couple of days and then return his forces to defend Kharkov before Rybalko could overcome the blocking position at Rogan. In order to achieve decisive results in warfare one has to accept risk, but that decision has to be based upon sober analysis, which in this case was lacking. The Germans did not have a lot of respect for Soviet cavalry, which heretofore had not been equipped with heavy weapons. However, Sokolov’s 6GCC was quite well equipped, since Rybalko had dispatched it to serve as a mobile group and in addition to its three cavalry divisions, had Polkovnik Ivan T. Afinogenovich’s 201st Tank Brigade (equipped with 25–30 Matilda and Valentine tanks), a multiple rocket launcher battalion, an anti-tank regiment with 76.2mm ZiS-3 guns and an anti-tank battalion with 45mm guns.
At 0800 hours on 11 February, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich began its attack southward against Sokolov’s 6GCC from assembly areas near the rail station at Merefa. The German plan was ambitious, anticipating Kampfgruppe Meyer and Kampfgruppe Witt to conduct enveloping manoeuvres against Sokolov’s east and west flanks, while Kampfgruppe Kumm went up the middle. Straight up, the Waffen-SS found that off-road manoeuvre was practically impossible due to snow that was up to two metres deep; tanks that attempted to move through it would ‘belly out’ with snow compacted against their hull and tracks to the point that they just skidded in place. The Tigers proved particularly useless and one caught fire near Merefa and had to be abandoned. Consequently, the German attackers were road-bound and despite the support of some Ju-87 Stukas from StG 77, they could not conduct proper manoeuvre warfare. In the centre, Sturmbannführer Martin Groß led his II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 in an ill-advised frontal assault into the town of Birky, which was well-defended by anti-tank guns and the German Panzer attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Aside from this setback, the two German flanking movements went much slower than expected due to the snow and the lead elements were quickly running out of fuel. By the end of the second day of the counter-attack, the German pincers had still not closed around Sokolov and many of the villages were skillfully defended by Soviet rearguards which inflicted painful losses. Furthermore, the Soviet cavalry was not road-bound in the snow and easily slipped away from the slow-moving Panzer columns. Sokolov was soon alerted to the German pincer attack but, rather than withdraw, he fortified several towns included Okhoche, 50km south of Kharkov; he realized that the longer he could tie up the SS armour in these side-show actions would benefit Moskalenko’s and Rybalko’s assaults upon Kharkov.
On 14 February, the jaws of Angriffsgruppe Dietrich finally closed around the 6GCC at Okhoche. Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 and a battalion of SS-Panzergrenadiers confidently attacked the village across an open field – again without proper reconnaissance – and ran into a hailstorm of tank, anti-tank and mortar fire. One infantry company was virtually annihilated and Wünsche lost a number of his tankers before falling back. Sokolov had skillfully deployed his anti-tank guns and concealed about 25 of Afinogenovich’s tanks inside or next to buildings. After skirmishing with the Germans for the rest of the day, Sokolov ordered his forces to withdraw southward to avoid encirclement. Later, the Germans found five abandoned tanks in Okhoche (probably Matildas), but the rest of the Soviet armour had escaped with Sokolov’s cavalry. At 1730 hours, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich received orders that it was to suspend its attack due to the deteriorating situation in Kharkov and return to Merefa. Although Sokolov’s 6GCC had suffered significant losses, it had not been encircle or destroyed and the diversion of so much of Hausser’s resources to this effort weakened the defence of Kharkov just as Moskalenko’s 40th Army was enveloping Kharkov from the northwest.
While Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was pushing southward away from Kharkov, Moskalenko’s 40th Army ran roughshod over Armee-Lanz and kept forcing Großdeutschland to pull back to protect its open flanks. By 12 February, Moskalenko was sweeping down behind Kharkov with four rifle divisions and it accelerated when he committed General-major Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 5th Guards Tank Corps into the battle. Supported by a fresh infantry unit, the 25th Guards Rifle Division, Kravchenko’s tanks smashed through Lanz’s blocking detachments, cleaved Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus in two and reached the northern outskirts of Kharkov by the evening of 13 February. Furthermore, the Deckungsgruppe left to keep Rybalko out of eastern Kharkov was attacked repeatedly and forced to yield the blocking position at Rogan on 12 February. The Soviet pincers were closing and only a narrow line of communications for the German units in Kharkov remained to the southwest. Suddenly, Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was in serious trouble.
Moskalenko followed up Kravchenko’s bold advance by pushing infantry units into the northern part of Kharkov on 14 February. On the same day, Hitler gave von Manstein command over both the SS-Panzerkorps and Armee-Abteilung Lanz. The first elements of the Totenkopf Division were just arriving in Kharkov as Kravchenko’s tankers moved into the northern suburbs, but the division’s tanks and heavy weapons were still en route. Von Manstein directed Totenkopf to assemble in Poltava, west of Kharkov, since he recognized that the unit could not immediately contribute much to the defence of the city.
Hitler ordered that Kharkov was to be held at all costs, but Hausser did not see it that way. Both of his divisions were fixed in place holding off Rybalko’s constantly attacking 3TA and Großdeutschland was fending off the 69th Army’s attacks, but there were no significant reserves left to stop Moskalenko’s advance into the city. As the Soviets began to threaten to cut the German lines of communication into the city, by evening of 14 February Hausser requested permission to evacuate the city. Both von Manstein and Lanz refused this request. However, Hausser had no intention of dying in place and at 1645 hours he ordered his two divisions and the Großdeutschland to begin evacuating the city. At 1800 hours von Manstein ordered Hausser to stop the withdrawal, but Hausser refused to comply. Throughout 15 February the SS units disengaged his units and conducted a tactical withdrawal through the city and to the southwest through Merefa. Soviet artillery bombarded the city, but otherwise the Soviets did not make a major effort to interfere with the evacuation. The final rearguard consisted of Major Otto-Ernst Remer’s I./Grenadier-Regiment Großdeutschland (equipped with SPWs) and Hauptmann Peter Frantz’s Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung Großdeutschland. On 16 February, Rybalko’s tankers met up with Kravchenko’s tankers in the centre of the city, completing the liberation of Kharkov.
For a few days, Golikov’s forces were tied up in the congested streets of Kharkov, but on the morning of 18 February Rybalko sent Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps probing to the west and encountered Großdeutschland’s blocking positions. About 20 Soviet tanks, including T-34s, overran two German infantry companies, then knocked out two German tanks. At the same time, Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps attacked the 320.Infanterie-Division at Merefa and captured the town. Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus, which controlled these two divisions, was strained on 19–20 February to prevent Rybalko from attacking into the rear of the SS-Panzerkorps, which had pivoted to the southeast and was assembling for a counter-attack. Hausser was forced to detach both the SS-Schützen-Regiment Thule and the SS-Totenkopf-Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung to reinforce Raus’s faltering command. Nevertheless, Rybalko attacked again on 19 February and forced Großdeutschland and the SS-Regiment Thule to retreat.