Operation Panther (v)

This was a German unrealised plan for an offensive to envelop the Soviet forces in the area to the east of Kharkov (April/May 1943).

In the third week of March 1943, following the clearance of the right bank of the Donets river as far to the north as Belgorod by Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee in preparation for ‘Zitadelle’, Adolf Hitler switched his attention, at least in the short term, from ‘Zitadelle’ in favour of a consideration of the situation on the line of the Donets river to the south-east of Kharkov. Here, it seemed, lay the opportunity for a rapidly achieved and relatively straightforward victory, especially as the scale and haste of the Soviet activity to the east of the river indicated that they were highly concerned with the area’s possibility vulnerability. From the German point of view, a drive across the Donets river offered a number of tactical advantages: it would set straight and thus shorten the front to the south-east of Kharkov; if it was pushed farther to the east, it might serve to discourage the Soviets from again attempting to cut off the right flank of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ by striking at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye; and it would also facilitate ‘Zitadelle’ by eliminating the danger of a Soviet counter-offensive from the south into the rear of the advance expected of ‘Zitadelle’.

On 22 March Hitler therefore ordered the implementation of ‘Habicht’ (iv) as an offensive across the Donets river as soon as its water level had dropped sufficiently in the spring to permit a crossing. Hitler allocated the responsibility for ‘Habicht’ (iv) to Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’: the former was to pin the Soviet forces around Izyum and move a force to the north along the western bank of the Oskol river to Kupyansk, and the latter was to get one assault force across the Donets river in the area of Chuguyev and drive to the south behind the Soviet line along the river, and get a second force across the river farther to the north to open the way for an advance to the east in the direction of Kupyansk.

Two days later Hitler ordered von Manstein to start the process of planning a more ambitious ‘Panther’ (v), which was to be undertaken by von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee with the object of driving the Soviet forces back from the Donets river as far as the line linking Volchansk, Kupyansk, Svatovo and the Krasnaya river.

The prospect of the two operations met with little enthusiasm in the headquarters of the two armies concerned. Generalmajor Walter Wenck and Generalmajor Dr Hans Speidel, the chiefs-of-staff of the 1st Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ respectively, were concerned that Hitler was on the verge of repeating an old error, that of pushing the armies from victory to victory without pause or rest until, as they had in the past, become completely overextended and physically and psychologically exhausted.

At the end of March, there were three German operations in their planning stages, and Hitler faced the problem of deciding which of the operations should be undertaken, and also when they should be executed. ‘Habicht’ (iv) was comparatively small in scale and was hardly worthy of execution except as a precursor to ‘Zitadelle’. Larger and tactically more profitable, ‘Panther’ (v) would need considerably greater time and would inevitably entail an indefinite postponement of ‘Zitadelle’. What no one could ignore, however, was the fact that every week’s delay reduced the chances of success, no matter which operation was selected for execution. The advantages possessed by the Germans were at best marginal: on the front of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, for example, the Soviets could field an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 armoured fighting vehicles, which was a figure more than twice the number that the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had at its disposal. The achievement of operational surprise by any of the three proposed operations was already impossible, and all was dependent on the German forces readiness to exploit the onset of good weather from its very first day in the hope of achieving tactical surprise over Soviet formations which might by momentarily off guard and not well dug in.

On 2 April Hitler arrived at his conclusion: ‘Habicht’ (iv) was to be prepared to the extent that it could be launched on four days’ notice at any time after 13 April. The allocation of priority to ‘Habicht’ (iv) in essence took it out of the running. The Donets river was expected to reach the maximum extent of its flood in the second half of April, and von Manstein had said that Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ could not be ready to resume offensive operations by mid-April because its armoured formations had to be given the time to complete some if not all of their programme of rest and refitting. Hitler was fully cognisant of these limitations, and ordered that that if ‘Habicht’ (iv) could not be launched by 17 April it was to be replaced by ‘Panther’ (v), which would then have to be prepared for a start no later than 1 May, and also that if neither ‘Habicht’ (iv) nor ‘Panther’ (v) could be undertaken, Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ ready themselves for ‘Zitadelle’. Three days later, on 5 April, von Manstein told his subordinate commanders that the final choice would in all probability be ‘Zitadelle’. And so it transpired.