This was a Soviet offensive for the recapture of Kharkov, leading to the 3rd Battle of Kharkov (2 February/26 March 1943).
One of the most important objectives of the Soviet winter and spring offensives of 1943, the undertaking was designed to push Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ back from the line of the Don river westward into Ukraine.
As such, this ‘Kharkov Offensive Operation’ was one of the six components 1 of the ‘Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ which had been launched on 12/13 January 1943 between Orel in the north and Rostov-na-Donu in the south, using General Polkovnik Maksim A. Reiter’s Bryansk Front, General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front, General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front and General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s (later General Polkovnik Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s and then later in March General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s) South Front. By the end of the month the offensive had pushed the Soviet front forward to the line of the Oskol, Donets and Don rivers against the efforts, from north to south, of Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s (from 4 February Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s) 2nd Army, Vezérezredes Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army, Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8a Armata, General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu-Claps’s Romanian 3rd Army and Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee.
Major elements of the German 2nd Army and Hungarian 2nd Army were cut off by the flood of Soviet armour, and the Axis position thereafter deteriorated sharply. However, the dispersion of the Soviet effort allowed many of the isolated Axis units to make their way back to their parent formations, even though 86,000 prisoners (most of them Hungarians) were taken by the Soviets.
In the first weeks of 1943, the German army had faced a crisis of significant size as the Soviet forces encircled and then hammered into defeat Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army at Stalingrad and expanded their winter campaign toward the Don river. On 2 February 1943 the last elements of the 6th Army surrendered, and an estimated 90,000 men went into captivity. In overall terms, the German losses in the Battle of Stalingrad, excluding prisoners, were between 120,000 and 150,000 men, and during 1942 German casualties had reached about 1.9 million men. At the beginning of 1943, therefore, the German forces on the Eastern Front were some 470,000 men below establishment strength, and the German armour had fallen from its peak of 3,300 vehicles at the start of ‘Barbarossa’ in June 1941 to a mere 495, most of them obsolescent, on 23 January 1943.
Even as General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front was completing the destruction of the 6th Army in Stalingrad, the Stavka ordered the Soviet forces to undertake a new grand strategic offensive along the full southern sector of the Eastern Front between Voronezh and Rostov-na-Donu. The Stavka now decided on a move that had distinct operational dangers, for instead of a direct thrust by the Voronezh Front toward Kharkov, it opted for a divergent operation (one half of the front striking to the west in the direction of Kursk and the other moving to the south-west in the direction of Kharkov) to exploit the 200-mile (320-km) gap which had been ripped into the front of what had been Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in the area that now lay between Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, which was renamed Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ on 6 February.
On 2 February this gap disgorged major Soviet forces in ‘Zvezda’, for while General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army and General Leytenant Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 38th Army of the Voronezh Front advanced to the west in the direction of Kursk, and General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army, General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s (later General Leytenant Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s) 40th Army and General Polkovnik Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army of the same front struck out somewhat to the south of west in the direction of Kharkov, General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army and General Leytenant Andrei A. Grechko’s 1st Guards Army of the South-West Front diverged to the south-west to take Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and thus sever the lines of communication to both von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the Caucasus.
The spearhead of ‘Zvezda’ in the north was the thrust of Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army on the southern flank of the Voronezh Front. This drove forward from Kupyansk on the Oskol river toward Kharkov on 2 February, and on 5 February (three days after the fall of the last German pocket in Stalingrad) reached the Donets river to the east of Kharkov. Though the Soviet army was checked by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, it was already clear that the region between Kursk and Kharkov via Belgorod was under threat from the Soviet advance, as were the lines of communication to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and the remnants of Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
By the end of January Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had fallen back into the 'Gotenkopf' lodgement in the Kuban area to the east of the Strait of Kerch, and on 2 February the South Front was revitalised by the replacement of Eremenko by Malinovsky. Two days later the South Front had advanced the Soviet line in the south over the lower reaches of the Don river to Shakhty and Novocherkassk, and four days later Rostov-na-Donu was liberated, so isolating Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 17th Army in its Kuban lodgement.
Farther to the north the formations of the Voronezh Front were in full spate, retaking Volchansk, Belgorod, Oboyan and Kursk, and on 11 February they reached the suburbs of Kharkov with General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army and General Major Sergei V. Sokolov’s VI Guards Cavalry Corps, which again were checked but not halted by the II SS Panzerkorps.
Between these southern and northern flanks of the Soviet offensive, the South-West Front had also been making important gains as General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army and General Major Vasili I. Kusnetsov’s 1st Guards Army, supported by General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s Mobile Group ‘Popov’, crossed the Donets river and struck out toward the Dniepr river crossing at Dniepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye, deep in the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. Zaporozhye was also the headquarters of both Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV.
Designed to recapture Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk, the offensive was spearheaded by the four tank corps of the Mobile Group ‘Popov’, which pierced the German front by crossing the Donets river and then pressed into the German rear. On 15 February two more Soviet tank corps threatened Zaporozhye on the Dniepr river, which controlled the last major road to the south in the direction of Rostov-na-Donu. Adolf Hitler had already adamantly refused to permit any German withdrawal behind the line of the Mius river, and there was thus good reason for the Soviets to hope that their offensive would trap Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ against the Sea of Azov.
von Kluge and von Manstein had flown to confer with Hitler on 6 February, and the German leader agreed, though only with great reluctance, to a withdrawal to the line of the Mius river in the south. At this time Heeresgruppe ‘B’ had been put into reserve, its surviving combat formations being reallocated to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
The Soviet forces were now starting to lose momentum as their men tired and their lines of communication lengthened, and when Rokossovsky’s Don Front (ex-Stalingrad Front) tried to drive through to von Kluge’s rear behind the Orel salient with a left hook from the Soviet salient around Kursk, it was checked by the counterattack of General Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army at Sevsk. For the Germans the situation was still threatening as General Hubert Lanz’s Armeeabteilung ‘Lanz’ (II SS Panzerkorps with SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Hebert-Ernst Vahl’s [from 18 March SS-Oberführer Kurt Brasack’s] SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, as well as General Erhard Raus’s Generalkommnado zbV ‘Raus’) had abandoned Kharkov, against all orders, on 16 February.
Hitler immediately flew to von Manstein’s headquarters at Zaporozhye with the intention of dismissing the army group commander. von Manstein survived as a result of a piece of the most extraordinary operational-level genius which not only halted but threw back the Soviets. This resulted from the fact that von Manstein managed to persuade Hitler that although an immediate counterattack on Kharkov would be fruitless, he could successfully attack the overextended Soviet flank with his four Panzer corps (General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps of the 4th Panzerarmee, and General Sigfrid Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps of the 1st Panzerarmee), and then recapture Kharkov.
On 19 February Soviet armoured formations broke through the German line and closed on Zaporozhye. In view of the worsening situation, Hitler gave von Manstein full operational freedom and departed as the Soviets reached points only 18.5 miles (30 km) from Zaporozhye’s airfield. Meanwhile, the surrender of the 6th Army at Stalingrad had freed six Soviet armies, under Rokossovsky’s command, and these were hurriedly refitted and reinforced by General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 2nd Tank Army and General Leytenant Ivan V. Galanin’s 70th Army. These formations were repositioned in front of the junction between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
Known to the Soviets as the ‘Kharkov Offensive Operation’ (2 February/3 March) and the ‘Donbas Mariupol Offensive Operation’ (16/23 February), the combined Soviet undertaking was known to the Germans as the Donets Campaign (19 February/15 March) and was designed to surround and destroy the German forces in the Orel salient, cross the Desna river and surround and destroy Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Originally planned for a date between 12 and 15 February, the start date for the part of the offensive aimed at Kharkov was then pushed back to 25 February by deployment problems. Meanwhile General Leytenant Maksim A. Antoniuk’s 60th Army drove Generalleutnant Dipl.-Ing. Erich Schneider’s 4th Panzerdivision of Weiss’s 2nd Army away from Kursk, while Pukhov’s 13th Army forced Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee to turn on its flank. This opened a 37-mile (60-km) gap between these two German formations, and this was soon to be exploited by Rokossovsky’s offensive.
While General Major Vladimir I. Shcherbakov’s 14th Army and General Leytenant Grigori A. Khaliuzin’s 48th Army attacked and secured small gains against the 2nd Panzerarmee’s right flank, Rokossovsky launched his offensive on 25 February, breaking through German lines and threatening to surround and cut off the the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army to the south. Unexpectedly strong German resistance then began to slow the Soviet progress, however, offering Rokossovsky only limited gains on the left flank of his attack and in the centre.
Elsewhere, the 2nd Tank Army had penetrated 100 miles (160 km) into the German rear along the left flank of the Soviet offensive, increasing the length of the army’s flank by an estimated 60 miles (100 km).
The main threat to the Germans was now the Soviet salient which had been developed toward Dniepropetrovsk by the 1st Guards Army and 6th Army with the Mobile Group ‘Popov’, and von Manstein quickly improvised a pincer movement to eliminate this salient. While the Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ of General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ held the Soviets in the area to the west of Kharkov, on 19 February the II SS Panzerkorps, now reinforced to three divisions with the arrival of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herman Priess’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, struck from the Krasnograd area to the south in the direction of Pavlograd, and scattered the IV Guards Corps. As the Soviet offensive continued, von Manstein was able to put the II SS Panzerkorps, now reinforced by SS-Obergruppenführer under General der Waffen-SS Theodor Eicke’s (from 26 February SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s) SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, under command of Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, while Hitler agreed to release seven understrength Panzer and motorised divisions for the impending counter-offensive.
Generaloberst (from 16 February Generalfeldmarschall) Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV was able to regroup and increase the numbers of sorties it flew each day from an average of 250 in January to 1,000 in February, in the process providing the German forces with all-important air superiority.
On 20 February, the Soviet forces were close to Zaporozhye, and this triggered the start of the German counter-offensive. It is estimated that between 13 January and 3 April some 500,000 Soviet soldiers were involved in the ‘Voronezh-Kharkov Offensive Operation’ on the Eastern Front, where there were in total some 6.1 million Soviet troops excluding 659,000 out of action with wounds. On the other side of the front, the Germans had 2.2 million men on the Eastern Front, with another 100,000 deployed in Norway. As a result, the Soviets deployed about 2.75 times as many personnel as the Germans during the early part of February. As a result of their over-extension and the casualties they had taken during their offensive, however, at the beginning of von Manstein’s counterattack the Germans could achieve a tactical superiority in numbers, including those of armoured fighting vehicles: for example, von Manstein’s 350 tanks outnumbered Soviet armour almost 7/1 at the point of contact.
At the time of his counter-offensive, von Manstein had Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, including von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, and von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, including Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps and Kirschner’s LVII Panzerkorps. The XLVIII Panzerkorps comprised Oberst Walther von Hünersdorff’s 6th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s 17th Panzerdivision, while the II SS Panzerkorps comprised Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ and SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’.
The 4th Panzerarmee and 1st Panzerarmee were located to the south of the Soviet bulge into German line, with the 1st Panzerarmee to the east of the 4th Panzerarmee. The II SS Panzerkorps was deployed along the northern edge of the bulge, on the northern front of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. In overall numerical terms, the Germans deployed about 70,000 men against the Soviets’ 210,000 men.
It is worth noting that the Germans forces were so far below establishment strength, especially after continuous operations between June 1941 and February 1943, that Hitler appointed a committee made up of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel (head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Martin Bormann (head of the party chancellery) and Hans Lammers (head of the Reich chancellery), to find another 800,000 able-bodied men, half of them from ‘non-essential industries’, with which to swell the manpower strength of the armed forces. The effects of this recruitment were not seen until around May 1943, however, when the German armed forces were, with 9.5 million personnel, at their greatest strength since the start of the war.
By the start of 1943 Germany’s armoured forces had suffered heavy manpower and matériel losses. It was unusual for any Panzer division to field more than 100 tanks, and most averaged only some 70 to 80 serviceable tanks at any given time. After the fighting around Kharkov, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian was appointed inspector general of armoured forces and embarked on a programme to bring Germany’s mechanised forces up to strength. Despite his efforts, a Panzer division could count on only about 10,000 to 11,000 men rather than the establishment figure of between 13,000 and 17,000 men. Only by June 1943 did a typical Panzer division begin to field between 100 and 130 tanks.
The Waffen-SS divisions were generally superior, each with an estimated 150 tanks, one battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough halftrack vehicles to mechanise most of its infantry and reconnaissance units; the Waffen-SS division’s establishment strength was about 19,000 men.
At this time, numerically the most important armoured vehicles available to the Panzer divisions were the obsolescent PzKpfw III medium tank and PzKpfw IV battle tank, although the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision had been allocated numbers of the new and potentially truly formidable PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tank.
Since the start of the Soviet assault on Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from a time late in January, the fronts involved included Reiter’s Bryansk Front, Golikov’s Voronezh Front and Vatutin’s South-West Front. On 25 February, Rokossovsky’s Central Front also joined the battle. These fronts were located with Reiter’s Bryansk Front against the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, Golikov’s Voronezh Front directly opposite Kursk, and Vatutin’s South-West Front in the south. Rokossovsky’s Central Front was deployed between Bryansk and Voronezh Fronts in a position to exploit the success of both of the latter two fronts, which had opened gap in the defences of the 2nd Panzerarmee.
The Soviet forces totalled some 500,000 men, while about 346,000 troops were involved in the defence of Kharkov after the beginning of the German counter-offensive. Like their German opponents, the Soviet divisions were also seriously below establishment strength. In the 40th Army, for example, the divisions each averaged a mere 3,500 to 4,000 men, while General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army fielded some divisions which had as few as 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers. Equipment levels were in no better state, moreover. Some divisions had as few as 20 to 50 mortars for the provision of fire support. These manpower and matériel shortage prompted the South-West Front to request replacements amounting to 19,000 men and 300 tanks, while it was noted that the Voronezh Front had received only 1,600 replacements since the start of operations in 1943. By the time von Manstein launched his counter-offensive, the Voronezh Front had lost so much manpower and so overextended itself that it could offer no meaningful assistance to the South-West Front on its southern flank.
For what became known to the Germans as the Donets Campaign, von Manstein initially thought in terms of a three-stage offensive. Of these the first encompassed the destruction of the overextended Soviet spearheads (19 February/6 March); the second included the recapture of Kharkov (7/15 March); and the third an attack the Soviet forces round Kursk in conjunction with Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. This last stage was later abandoned, however, as a result of the arrival of the Russian spring thaw and the reluctance of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to co-operate.
On 19 February the southern half of the pincer swung into action. Under von Manstein’s personal control, Hoth launched his 4th Panzerarmee (von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps) to meet the II SS Panzerkorps near Pavlograd. Farther to the east on the southern side of the salient the 1st Panzerarmee also had a part to play, its XL Panzerkorps smashing the Mobile Group ‘Popov’ near Krasnoarmeysk.
The Soviet high command believed that this extraordinary effort was merely a means for the Germans to ensure that the 1st Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ could pull back from the Mius river to the Dniepr river, and so ordered the South-West Front to pin the Germans along the Mius river. But by this time the 4th Panzerarmee had met the II SS Panzerkorps and Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’ and, after regrouping between 4 and 6 March, had advanced some 150 miles (240 km) to threaten Kharkov once more. This move punched through the junction between the Voronezh Front and the South-West Front.
Meanwhile Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ had been containing the continued Soviet efforts to break through the German front. The 1st Panzerarmee was ordered to drive north to cut off and destroy the remnants of the Mobile Group ‘Popov’, using intelligence on Soviet strength and dispositions to allow its formations to select their targets carefully and engage them on the terms most favourable to the Germans. The 1st Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee were also ordered to attack the overextended 6th Army and 1st Guards Army.
On 20/23 February the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' drove through the 6th Army’s flank, thereby eliminating the Soviet threat to the Dniepr river and also surrounded and destroyed several Soviet units south of the Samara river. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' attacked to the north-east, while the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' entered the fray on 22 February with an advance parallel to that of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'. These two formations severed the Soviet spearheads’ lines of communication. The 1st Panzerarmee was able to sweep round and surround the Mobile Group ‘Popov’ by 24 February, although a sizeable number of Soviet troops managed to escape to the north.
On 22 February, alarmed by the success of the German counter-offensive, the Stavka ordered the Voronezh Front to shift Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army and Kryuchenkin’s 69th Army to the south, in an effort to alleviate pressure on the South-West Front and destroy German forces in the area of Krasnograd. The 3rd Tank Army accordingly began to engage German formations to the south of Kharkov as a holding action while von Manstein’s counter-offensive continued. By 24 February, the Germans had pulled Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) out of the the line, leaving Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division and Generalleutnant Georg Postel’s 320th Division, one regiment of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and part of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' to defend the western edge of the bulge created by the Soviet offensive.
On 24/27 February the 3rd Tank Army and 69th Army continued to attack this portion of the German front without anything but the most limited success. With supporting Soviet units stretched thin, the Soviet offensive started to falter. On 25 February, Rokossovsky’s Central Front launched its supposed exploiting offensive between the 2nd Panzerarmee and 3rd Panzerarmee, initially achieving encouraging results along the German flanks, but struggling to keep the same pace in the centre of the attack. As the offensive progressed, the attack on the German right flank also began to slow in the face of increased resistance, while the attack on the left began to overextend itself.
The German success against the South-West Front, including attempts by the 6th Army to break out of its encirclement, led the Stavka to order the Voronezh Front to shift control of the 3rd Tank Army to the South-West Front. To ease the transition, the 3rd Tank Army gave two rifle divisions to the 69th Army, and attacked to the south in a bid to destroy the II SS Panzerkorps. Short of fuel and ammunition after the march south, however, the 3rd Tank Army’s offensive was postponed until 3 March. The army was also harassed and severely damaged by a steady stream of air attacks by Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers. Launching its offensive on 3 March, General Major Vasili A. Koptsov’s XV Tank Corps of the 3rd Tank Army struck into the advancing units of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and immediately went over to the defensive. Ultimately, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was able to pierce the XV Tank Corps’ lines and link with other German units advancing to the north, thereby encircling the tank corps. General Major Vasili A. Mitrofanov’s XII Tank Corps of the 3rd Tank Army was also forced onto the defensive as the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' and SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' threatened the 3rd Tank Army’s lines of communication. By 5 March, the 3rd Tank Army had been severely savaged, with only a few men able to escape north, and was forced to establish a new defensive line.
The destruction of the Mobile Group ‘Popov’ and the 6th Army during the early stages of the German counter-offensive created a large gap in the Soviet line and, taking advantage of the Soviets’ unco-ordinated efforts to plug this gap, von Manstein ordered a continuation of the counter-offensive toward Kharkov. Between 1 and 5 March the 4th Panzerarmee, including the II SS Panzerkorps, covered 50 miles (80 km) and reached a position only about 10 miles (16 km) to the south of Kharkov. By 6 March the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' had secured a bridgehead over the Mosh river, and thus opened the way to Kharkov. The success of von Manstein’s counter-offensive now forced the Stavka to halt Rokossovsky’s offensive.
The 1st Panzerarmee was able to regain a defensive line on the Donets river, and von Manstein began to plan subsequent attacks to clear Soviet formations and units from the area to the west of the Donets river. According to the Germans, their counter-offensive had inflicted 23,000 dead on the Soviets, who had also lost 615 tanks and 352 pieces of artillery. While Rokossovsky’s Central Front continued its offensive farther to the north against the 2nd Army, which had by now been substantially reinforced with fresh divisions, the renewed German counter-offensive towards Kharkov took it by surprise.
It was on 7 March that von Manstein made the decision to continue the push toward Kharkov despite the start of the spring thaw. Instead of attacking to the east of Kharkov, however, von Manstein decided to orient the attack toward the west of Kharkov and then encircle the city from the north. The Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) had also returned to the front, and threw its weight into the attack, threatening to split the 69th Army and the remnants of the 3rd Tank Army. On 8/9 March the II SS Panzerkorps completed its drive to the north, separating the 69th Army and 40th Army, and on 9 March turned east to complete its encirclement.
Despite the Stavka’s attempts to check the German advance by committing two freshly released formations, namely General Major Georgi A. Gogolitsyn’s 19th Division and Colonel Ivan M. Kolesnikov’s 186th Tank Brigade, the Germans were able to press their drive. On 9 March the 40th Army counterattacked the Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland (mot.)’ in a final attempt to restore communications with the 3rd Tank Army, but the counterattack was caught in the expansion of the German offensive towards Kharkov on 10 March. On the same day the 4th Panzerarmee ordered the II SS Panzerkorps to take Kharkov as rapidly as possible, and Hausser ordered an immediate attack on the city by the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions: the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was to move in from the west, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' was to attack from north, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was to provide a protective screen along the northern and north-western flanks. Despite Hoth’s order to adhere to the original plan, Hausser decided to continue with his attack on the city, although the strength of the Soviet defences forced him to postpone the attack until the following day.
von Manstein ordered the continued outflanking of the city, although leaving room for an attack on Kharkov if there was little Soviet resistance, but Hausser decided to disregard the order and continue with his own plan. According to von Manstein, the army group headquarters was forced to intervene on a number of occasions to force the II SS Panzerkorps to swing to the east and encircle the city rather than launch a frontal attack on Kharkov.
Early on the morning of 11 March, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' began a two-part attack into the northern part of Kharkov. The division’s 2nd Panzergrenadierregiment, advancing from the north-west, divided into two columns advancing toward northern Kharkov on each side of the railway linking Kharkov with Belgorod. The 2/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment, on the right-hand side of the railway, attacked the city’s Severnyi Post district, meeting heavy resistance and advancing only to the Severenyi railway yard by the end of the day. On the opposite side of the railway, the 1/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment struck at the Alexeyevka district. Here it met a counterattack led by a T-34 tank, and this drove part of the battalion back out of the city. Only with air and artillery support by Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers and StuG self-propelled assault guns was the German infantry able to fight its way back into the city. A flanking attack from the rear finally allowed the Germans to achieve a foothold in that area of the city.
At the same time the 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment, strengthened by armour from another unit, attacked down the main road from Belgorod, fighting off an immediate counterattack on its left flank near Kharkov’s airfield. Breaking though the defence of a T-34 medium tank unit, the German regiment was able to secure a lodgement in Kharkov’s northern suburbs. From the north-east, another contingent of German infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns attempted to take control of the road exits to the cities of Rogan and Chuhuiv. This attack drove deeper into Kharkov, but with its armour short of fuel, this contingent was forced to halt and go over to the defensive.
On the same day the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' attacked the western side of Kharkov. After penetrating into the city’s Zalyutino district, the Germans were checked as they came up against by a deep anti-tank ditch, lined with Soviet defenders and anti-tank guns. A Soviet counterattack was repulsed after a bloody firefight. A detachment of the division fought its way to the southern approaches of the city, cutting off the road to Merefa.
At about 15.00 Hoth ordered Hausser to effect the immediately disengagement of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and redeploy so as to cut off the Soviet units which were trying to escape from the city. Hausser instead sent a detachment of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' to undertake this task and informed Hoth that the risk of disengaging the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was too great. On the night of 11/12 March, a German group managed to cross the anti-tank ditch, taking the Soviet defenders by surprise, and opened a path for tanks to cross and press their way forward into the city. This allowed the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' to advance to Kharkov’s main railway station, which was the farthest the division managed to advance into the city.
Hoth repeated his order to Hausser at 01.15 on 12 March, and Hausser replied as he had replied on 11 March. However, a third iteration of Hoth’s order was finally obeyed, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' disengaged, using a corridor opened by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' to cross northern Kharkov and redeploy to the east of the city.
On 12 March the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' made progress into the centre of the city, breaking through determined Soviet defences in the northern suburbs, and began a house-to-house fight toward the centre. By the end of the day, the division had reached a position just to the north of Dzerzhinsky Square. The 2/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment was able to surround the square, after sustaining heavy losses from snipers and other defenders, by the evening of 12 March. During that night, the 3/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment linked with the 2/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment in Dzerzhinsky Square and attacked to the south to gain a bridgehead across the Kharkov river and open the road to Moscow Avenue. Meanwhile, the division’s left wing reached the junction of the Volchansk and Chuhuiv exit roads and went over the defensive, fighting off a number of Soviet counterattacks.
On the next day, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' advanced to the south in the direction of the Kharkov river and the bridgehead taken and held by SS-Hauptsturmführer Joachim Peiper’s detachment of the 2/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment, clearing Soviet resistance block by block. In a bid to trap the defenders in the centre of the city, the 1/1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment was ordered to re-enter the city using the Volchansk exit road. At the same time, Peiper’s detachment was able to break out to the south, taking heavy losses in very bitter fighting against a tenacious Soviet defence, and link with the division’s left wing at the Volchansk and Chuhuiv road junction. Although much of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' had by this time disengaged from the city, a single Panzergrenadier regiment remained to clear the south-western corner of the city, eliminating resistance by the end of the day. This effectively put two-thirds of the city under German control.
The scale of the fighting in the city began to decrease on 14 March. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' spent the day eliminating the last vestiges of the Soviet resistance, pushing to the east on a broad front, and by the end of the day all of Kharkov was in German hands. Despite the declaration that the city had fallen, sporadic fighting continued on 15/16 March as German units cleared the remnants of resistance from the tractor works factory complex in the southern outskirts of the city.
von Manstein’s counter-offensive had cost the Soviets some 52 divisions, including something more than 70,000 to 80,000 men. Of these latter, some 45,200 had been killed or were missing, while another 41,200 had been wounded.
Between April and July 1943, the Soviets took their time to rebuild their forces in the area and prepare for the inevitable German offensive, known as the Battle of Kursk or ‘Zitadelle’. It is difficult to assess the German casualties, though indications are provided by the casualties of the II SS Panzerkorps and taking into account the fact that Waffen-SS divisions were frequently deployed where the fighting was expected to be the harshest. It is estimated that by 27 March the II SS Panzerkorps had lost around 44% of its fighting strength, including around 160 officers and about 4,300 other ranks.
As the II SS Panzerkorps began to emerge from the city, its divisions engaged Soviet units positioned directly to the south-west of Kharkov, including the 17th NKVD Brigade, 19th Division and 25th Guards Division. Soviet attempts to re-establish communication with the remnants of the 3rd Tank Army continued, although in vain. On 14/15 March these forces were given permission to withdraw to the north of the Donets river. The 40th and 69th Armies had been engaged since 13 March with the Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.), and had been split by the German drive.
Following the fall of Kharkov, the Soviet defence of the Donets had collapsed, allowing von Manstein’s forces to drive to reach Belgorod on 17 March and to take it by the following day. However, worsening weather and exhaustion then combined to bring the counter-offensive to an end very soon after this, so ending von Manstein’s plan to attack the Kursk salient created as a result of the recapture of Kharkov and Belgorod.
It was only in the later stages of the German counter-offensive that the Soviet high command had come to a full appreciation of the brilliance of von Manstein’s counter-offensive, which threatened to cut off the Voronezh Front and Central Front. Stalin had thus ordered a withdrawal of some 40 miles (65 km) to the Donets river, the 3rd Tank Army fighting its way out from the region of Kharkov. General Georgi K. Zhukov was ordered into the theatre to halt what Stalin saw as the Soviet rot, and with the aid of three specially allocated formations, namely General Leytenant Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistiakov’s (later General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s) 21st Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 64th Army, managed to stabilise the position by the time the spring thaw arrived on 26 March and brought a temporary halt to operations.
The German success at Kharkov gave Hitler a pair of options: to wait on the defensive for the inevitable renewal of the Soviet offensive and conduct another operation similar to that of Kharkov, namely allowing the Soviets to take ground, overextend themselves, and then counterattack and surround them; or to plan and execute a major offensive by Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ against the Kursk salient. Almost inevitably, and with totally disastrous and ultimately fatal results for the German war on the Eastern Front, Hitler chose the latter, which led to the catastrophe of ‘Zitadelle’.