AFTER KHARKOV—RETREAT TO THE DNEPR I

After the fall of Kharkov late August 1943, the fighting continued on III. Panzerkorps’ front for several days as Rotmistrov was determined to break through the German defenses west of the city. After furious attacks and counterattacks, Rotmistrov, having committed his last reserves, called a halt to further attacks. He had little choice because the army was exhausted. The troops were physically drained and the army had suffered the loss of more than 80 percent of its tanks. Das Reich, Wiking, and 3. Panzer-Division held firm at all points against weakening Soviet determination. German troops recognized that attacks were not pressed home with the characteristic Soviet disregard for losses. The Russian infantry became tentative in their attacks and any breakthroughs that did occur were counterattacked immediately, sealed off and destroyed. On 25 August, 5th Guards Tank Army reported that it had only fifty tanks still operational, down from a total of over 500 on 3 August. The army lost about sixty to seventy tanks in the fighting against Das Reich from 21 to 25 August. Once again, Rotmistrov’s army had been decimated in combat against the panzer divisions of the army and Waffen SS. While gifted in defensive operations, Rotmistrov seems to have had less talent for offensive actions conducted at the army level. Within the space of little more than a month, his army was nearly destroyed in fighting at Prochorovka and again during “Rumyantsev.” In the fighting during Operation “Bagration,” in June 1944, 5th Guards Tank Army would again suffer heavy losses fighting German panzer divisions. The destruction of the army’s tanks during this fighting probably cost Rotmistrov his command. Later in the summer of 1944, he was removed from command of 5th Guards Tank Army.

The loss of Kharkov and the subsequent retreat to the Dnepr could not be prevented, however, by the efforts of the SS and army panzer divisions and the sacrifice of the German infantry divisions. Heeresgruppe Süd could no longer hold the key sector of south Ukraine on the Kharkov-Belgorod axis. This was in spite of the fact that 4. Panzerarmee and 8. Armee were able to reestablish a continuous front from the Udy River south of Kharkov extending to south of Akhtyrka. The Soviets, after suffering the loss of so much of their armor, became very hesistant to penetrate southwest of Bogodukhov with German panzer forces remaining on both flanks.

This hesitancy probably cost them an even more significant victory because the front between Totenkopf and Grossdeutschland was occupied by little more than two weakened regiments of SS infantry belonging to Totenkopf, a handful of tanks and elements of 223. Infanterie-Division. However, there was to be little rest for the Germans, because the Russian hydra, thwarted at one place, sprouted armored heads in other sectors.

The Soviet attack on 4. Panzerarmee’s front slowly forced Hoth to withdraw behind the Vorskla River after Russian attacks breached the river-line defenses in a number of sectors. Hoth lashed back at the Soviets and counterattacks restored some order by 27 August. Although the situation was temporarily stabilized on the northern flank of Manstein’s army group at that point, the front to the south of 8. Armee’s sector flared up once more.

Tolbukhin’s Southern Front crossed the Mius River again on 18 August. This time, using normal maskirovka principles, Tolbukhin’s army was able to bring reinforcements into the Dmitrievka area without the Germans detecting their presence. 6. Armee’s intelligence officers, perhaps waiting for the clear signs of a build-up as seen in early July, were apparently fooled this time by a complete lack of evidence with which to predict a Soviet attack.

All along Heeresgruppe Süd’s sector, the front was under pressure by the Soviet or, as in the case of 6. Armee, in the beginnings of a crisis. In spite of the destruction of Soviet forces by the panzer divisions of the SS and army during the defensive operations and counterattacks from 6 to 25 August, the Soviets could always replace their losses in tanks quickly. However, even with their enormous population reserves, the Russians had difficulty finding enough replacements to rebuild their infantry divisions, ground down by continuous costly fighting from the first week of July to the end of August. Steppe Front’s rifle divisions were reduced to an average strength of 3,000 to 4,000 men, many of whom were not combat troops. The Soviet infantry had perished in the tens of thousands in battles from the fighting at Kursk to the battles south and west of Bogodukhov. They had been thrown at German armored attacks, chopped up by repeated counterattacks by panzer divisions and fought to the death defending their positions in the Kursk salient. The enormous losses suffered by the Russian rifle divisions resulted in emergency measures.

The Russians conscripted untrained males of any age. Sometimes whole Ukrainian villages were forcibly stripped of men. These unfortunates were given a few brief instructions on how to use their weapons, fitted with a piece of a uniform or helmet and sent into combat. By these ruthless methods, the Soviet command was able to maintain their rifle divisions numbers, although the casualties among the raw recruits must have been catastrophic.

The German infantry divisions were also in bad condition. Many were reduced to the size of a weak regimental battle group. The panzer divisions also lost heavily in tanks and men, their panzergrenadier regiments shrunk in size to less than that of a full-strength battalion. All of the panzer and panzergrenadier divisions operated with only a fraction of the number of tanks of a full-strength division, in many instances having only twenty to thirty panzers in operation. In some cases, the divisions were reinforced with a battalion of Tiger tanks or a few batteries of assault guns. Most of the time, however, Soviet armor greatly outnumbered the German tanks. The German Army in Russia, from the beginning, was routinely faced by an enemy that outnumbered it by a ratio of five to one or greater in manpower and tank numbers. By the end of the summer of 1943, this disparity in numbers became even greater. To make matters worse, it was becoming evident that the Russian armored formations were constantly improving in terms of the quality of leadership and the use of armor in battle. German combat quality began to decline after mid-1943 due to irreplaceable losses in trained and experienced men and officers and the inability of Germany to produce sufficient numbers of tanks and assault guns. Soviet armored personnel and officers, from that point on, survived in sufficient numbers to pass on their experience and knowledge.

However, the German divisions in Russia continued to fight on, dealing out death and destruction out of proportion to their numbers. Long after victory was a forgotten dream, the German Army in the East continued to resist when by all rights it should have disintegrated. Fragments of infantry divisions effectively continued to fight, even when they were reduced to 20 percent of their established strength. Battered panzer divisions knocked out many Russian tanks for each one of their own lost in combat. The ability of the German Army to fight as long as it did, after the war was essentially lost in Russia, is one of the fascinations of the history of the Eastern Front for the student of warfare during the Second World War.

The reasons that the Germans retained such unit cohesion and were able to continue to fight effectively after suffering extremely high unit casualties are beyond the scope of this work. However, this ability has been noted by many students of the war. A study of the German Army’s fighting effectiveness in the war, made by Martin van Creveld, concluded from the evaluation of seventy-eight battles of various natures that the Germans routinely inflicted casualties on their opponents at a 50 percent higher rate than those they received. This was true whether they won or lost the battle, whether fighting on offense or defense, and was true no matter how outnumbered the German divisions were in any of the engagements studied. Creveld’s book was based on calculations of battle casualties fighting against British and American troops in the West, no comparison being made of battles on the Eastern Front as unavailable numbers regarding Soviet casualties and lack of other information may have prevented accurate conclusions. The tactical superiority of better-quality German divisions was still clearly evident in the battles in the Ukraine during July and August 1943, when the mobile divisions and corps of the German Army repeatedly fought against Soviet armies, often elements of several armies, and inflicted enormous losses on their opponents.

It is instructive to note that tactical superiority, better training and various other qualities of its military organization did not result in victory for Germany in the East. The German Army, given all its military expertise and tactical skill, could not win a war waged against a nation that simply had more men, guns, and machines to sacrifice until time became a factor in achieving victory. The Soviet leadership understood the strengths and limitations of their military instrument and, accordingly, designed a long-term strategy that gave Russia the opportunity to win the war. The sacrifices of millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians during the first years of the war enabled Russia to survive until the constant efforts of the Soviet army to improve its force structure and command quality bore fruit.

Under Stalin’s leadership and through the conduct of a centralized national effort, the Soviet Union remained focused on one goal, that of defeating Germany at whatever cost necessary. Stalin directed Russian conduct of the war in a cold-blooded, pragmatic manner. No sacrifice was too great or too bloody. When it proved necessary to commit even untrained conscripts to battle, the Soviet army threw such troops into the meat grinder with the inevitable resulting carnage. As late as mid-1943, the Soviets were promoting farming tractor drivers to tank commander status based solely on their experience in driving tracked vehicles. These are measures that Western nations find nearly inconceivable, and yet they resulted in victory. In contrast, Germany, under Hitler’s leadership, launched an ill-advised attack on Russia that failed in large part because of decisions that Hitler made at a number of critical stages in the war. Hitler was often guided by political considerations that were in opposition to sound military principles and advice provided by his finest military leaders.

When the Soviets defeated the German attack on Moscow during the winter of 1941, time began to run out on Hitler’s legions in the East. From that point in the war, Soviet strategy became a matter of surviving a series of dangerous situations until attrition of German strength became one of the factors that eventually provided victory. In the following year, the debacle at Stalingrad resulted in losses that the Germans could not afford. By the summer of 1943, the Germans had only the barest of chances to still inflict a major defeat on the Russian army that could have produced a lengthy operational stalemate. The last opportunity to achieve this goal, Operation “Citadel,” failed and the war was lost.

In August 1943, after the cream of the elite divisions of the army and the first-line SS divisions was lost in a series of desperate, bloody battles in the Ukraine, the Soviet tide was never turned back. From that point on, it rolled inexorably westward in spite of the fact that the better German units, particulary the elite panzer/panzergrenadier divisions of the army and SS and first-rate infantry divisions, remained dangerous opponents. The German Army was still capable of inflicting startling numbers of casualties on the Soviets even though severely depleted in men and machines. The battles at Kharkov and in the Bogodukhov area illustrate this fact.

The operations of III. Panzerkorps, led by Totenkopf and Das Reich, and the actions of XXIV. Panzerkorps, led by Grossdeutschland, largely destroyed two complete Russian tank armies and decimated the infantry divisions of other Soviet armies in these battles. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army had only 120 tanks left on 23 August, down from a strength of 542 on 3 August. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army tank strength was only 50 operational tanks by 25 August and his mobile corps suffered severe losses in officers and men as well. His army, by the end of the fighting west of Kharkov, had lost approximately 60 percent of its staff officers and 85 percent of its company and battalion commanders. Many Soviet rifle divisions numbered significantly less than 4,000 men.

Although the Soviet counteroffensives following Kursk were temporarily blunted west of Kharkov, the constant fighting never allowed Hitler to build a reserve large enough to regain the upper hand in the East. The Soviets, on the other hand, proved able to rebuild whole armies in a matter of weeks. Examples of this remarkable characteristic of the Soviet army include the reconstitution of both 1st Tank Army and 5th Guards Tank Army after Prochorovka and the conscription of tens of thousands of Ukrainians by the rifle divisions during the march across Ukraine in the summer of 1943. The failure of “Citadel” doomed the Germans to the loss of operational initiative on the Eastern Front without any hope of regaining it, although Hitler seems to have been unaware or unwilling to recognize this reality. The terrible losses in manpower that the Germans suffered in July and August were ultimately fatal and left the armies of Heeresgruppe Süd and Mitte too weak to do anything but delay the inevitable. Operation “Rumyantsev” marked the first time in the war that the Germans were not able to defeat a major Soviet offensive during the summer months and regain their lost ground and the strategic initiative.

After “Citadel,” there was no real alternative for the Germans except to withdraw to the Dnepr River and defend the river line. Ideally, this could have been done from prepared positions with the panzer divisions arrayed behind the river to counterattack Soviet penetrations. An orderly withdrawal across the river that provided time to fortify defensive positions on the western bank was the correct and obvious decision. It was the course of action advocated by Manstein and Kluge, but Hitler did not agree. His continual orders to hold ground regardless of the conditions of the divisions and the dubious military value of much of the territory forced Heeresgruppe Süd to order its armies to stand and fight. These orders doomed Manstein’s army group to a series of battles that it could not win, a disaster that it could not avoid, and condemned it to a race for the safety of the Dnepr that it could not afford to lose.

Aftermath: 6. Armee Retreats from the Mius

After the divisions of II. SS-Panzerkorps left 6. Armee, the Russians continued to probe the German lines around Dmitrievka, perhaps trying to keep the SS panzer divisions in the area as long as possible. None of these attacks were in any way a threat to Hollidt’s army, most being merely company- or battalion-level reconnaissance operations. The obviously weak attacks by the Russians in 6. Armee’s area were recognized as little threat to the Mius position and were judged, probably correctly, as belated attempts to force the German command to use the panzer divisions in 6. Armee’s sector to rectify a dangerous situation. Because of the weakness of the attack, even 6. Armee in its weakened state was able to master the situation. In any event, in Manstein’s opinion, obviously the more dangerous situation was then on the northern wing of Heeresgruppe Süd during the first week in August 1943.

Only once did the Soviets put together any armor for an attack at the Mius in the days immediately after the conclusion of the battle, but it was evident that this was not a full-scale crossing of the river. On 4–5 August, after receiving about sixty replacement tanks, 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps attacked again at Dmitrievka. Russian artillery strongly supported the attack and many Soviet ground-attack planes were in action also, IL-2s operating in large groups over the attack zone. The attack hit positions of 23. Panzer-Division and 294. Infanterie-Division and penetrated their lines opposite and south of Dmitrievka. The German artillery and small-arms fire succeeded in separating the Soviet infantry from the tanks, and as usual, when this occurred, the attack failed. Leaving their infantry behind, the Soviet armor blindlly rolled on toward the west, losing numbers of tanks to antitank gun fire and assault guns. By the time the surviving Russian tanks reached the east edge of Stepanovka, the Germans had destroyed forty-nine of the sixty Soviet tanks and the attack collapsed. Surviving T-34s withdrew and made their way back over the river as best they could.

With the Russian armor eliminated, the Germans turned their attention to the pinned down Soviet infantry, which were destroyed with artillery and counterattacks. About 130 prisoners were taken, but many of the Russian infantry can be assumed to have infiltrated back over the river. In the following days, there was some suspicious activity along the front at several points, but 6. Armee could make no conclusions from the information available to it. Aerial reconnaissance detected the presence of additional tanks assembled in Dmitrievka, but the Russians made nothing stronger than a series of battalion-size reconnaissance attacks along the German perimeter west of the town.

In the area south of the town, a shallow but wide Soviet bridgehead across the Mius remained occupied by Russian infantry forces. Now that the main penetration was taken care of, 6. Armee turned its attention to eliminating this position also. The Russian troops still on the west bank of the river, south of Kuibyshevo, were attacked by XXIX. Armeekorps on 9 August. After some sharp but brief fighting, the Russians were driven back across the river by the next day. Thus, by 10 August, the entire former defensive system on the Mius was back in the hands of 6. Armee.

Although driven out of the penetration at Dmitrievka-Kuibyshevo with heavy losses, Tolbukhin’s attack had served its primary purpose. The main objective of the attack was to pull significant German forces (primarily the panzer divisions) out of the Heeresgruppe Süd attack in the Prokhorovka-Psel sector. Had Tolbukhin been able to break 6. Armee and penetrate to Artemovka or even better, Stalino, the Russian command would have been delighted. As it was, the diversionary attack on the Mius, and to a lesser extent the Izyum attack, succeeded even better than the Soviet command could have hoped. In this context, the result of the Soviet attacks south of the Psel was enormous, significantly affecting the course of the war on the Eastern Front in the critical summer of 1943.

After Hollidt’s army wearily settled into its old bunkers and trenches along the Mius, 6. Armee counted up the casualties of the fighting from 17 July to 3 August. The army suffered 3,298 dead, 15,817 wounded and 2,254 missing, for a total of 21,369 casualties in seventeen days of fighting. The army on the Mius was much weaker than it had been only weeks before, reflecting the losses taken in the July–August fighting, even considering the normal understrength conditions typical of the German Army at this point in the war on the Eastern Front. Manstein had already complained to Hitler that Heeresgruppe Süd had over 100,000 unreplaced casualties, a complaint that did not result in any improvement of the situation as there were simply no men available. The Russian offensives in the south, intended to divert German reserves to Izyum and the Mius, had slowed or halted by the end of August. During the short span of time between the defeat of Tolbukhin’s 17 July attack at Dmitrievka-Kuibyshevo and the end of August, the southern flank of Heeresgruppe Süd, anchored by Hollidt’s 6. Armee, was quiet while the battles around Bogodukhov raged. As a result, what resources were available to Manstein went to 4. Panzerarmee or Armee-Abteilung Kempf.

After the situation on the northern flank in the Akhtyrka-Bogodukhov area slowly stabilized during the third week of August, the Russians prepared to again turn their attention to the Mius. 6. Armee remained short of armor and few of its infantry casualties were replaced. The Soviet command was of course obviously aware of the departure of II. SS-Panzerkorps and XXIV. Panzerkorps from 6. Armee’s area. In the meantime, the Russians had brought up replacements for Tolbukhin’s decimated rifle divsions, rebuilding the formations without bringing up new divisions. This tactic enabled the Russians to bring large quantities of infantry into the assembly areas without the Germans being aware of their arrival. 6. Armee was not able to identify the radio traffic of new units or observe troop movements with air reconnaissance. Ground observation did not produce any significant intelligence. This was in stark contrast to early July when observation posts spotted Russian officers with maps studying the terrain in broad daylight and when 2nd Mechanized Corps arrived at night with its driving lights on.

The Soviets replaced their losses, pouring fresh infantry and new tanks into the sector. However, Hollidt’s army was in much worse condition than it had been in early July. The army had 200 kilometers of front to defend and even fewer infantrymen than it had before the last attempt of the Russians to cross the river and break out to the west toward Stalino. The army was short of both men and equipment and could not count on receiving help from any other quarter as a result of the need for all possible reserves in the Kharkov area. Hollidt’s army received only 3,312 men to replace the 23,830 that it had lost from 17 July to 10 August, a shortfall of 20,000.4 With the whole Eastern Front in action at various levels of intensity, from Kaluga in the north to the Black Sea in the south, 6. Armee faced the coming storm with the strength at hand. To make matters worse, by 16 August, the army did not have a single tank. All of the mobile divisions that participated in the counterattacks in July and August were gone, dispatched to other hot spots. 23. Panzer-Division was transferred to 1. Panzerarmee’s XXXX. Panzerkorps and was fighting against a second Russian attack at Izyum. The decimated 16. Panzergrenadier-Division was in reserve for 1. Panzerarmee and was exhausted by the Mius fighting. Of course, 3. Panzer, Totenkopf and Das Reich were in the area west of Kharkov under command of 8. Armee.

In mid-August, 6. Armee began to detect a few indications that the Soviets were building up for another assault over the river when some activity could be recognized. Both XXIX. and XVII. Armeekorps detected heavier than normal communications traffic on their fronts on 13 August. The army considered a resumption of Southern Front’s attempt to force the Mius as a possibility in the near future, although the strength of the Soviet forces at hand was not clear and it did not appear that anything was imminent. Additional intelligence was not conclusive and the substantial numbers of troops arriving in the sector were not detected. Tank reinforcements remained in concealed assembly areas undetected, as this time Soviet maskirovka precautions were in effect and concealed the arrival of armor to the Dmitrievka sector. German air reconnaissance was not able to provide much additional information during the period because bad weather limited the effectiveness of the aerial cameras and visual sightings of troop movements. The Soviets would not have moved any forces into the area during the daylight in any event, and air reconnaissance would thus have been inconclusive.

6. Armee reported to the Ia of Heeresgruppe Süd on 16 August, relating their scanty information in support of the suspicion of a Soviet build-up for a new attack in the area of Dmitrievka-Kuibyshevo. There was nothing like the amount of information that it had been able to amass in July, when the Russians wanted the Germans to unmistakably know that an attack was in the making. Due to the limited forces available to Hollidt, the preparations by 6. Armee for a possible Soviet attack consisted solely of regrouping the artillery of XVII. Armeekorps to meet an attack in the Dmitrievka area.

On 17 August, even light Soviet communications traffic subsided completely on 6. Armee’s front. Other evidence of possible attack preparations, such as build-up of troops in the trench system and the detection of motor noise was lacking. Hollidt concluded, incorrectly, that the Russians had merely been engaged in a diversionary operation to attract German reserves from the Izyum area.

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