The 'Kharkov Defensive Operation' (ii), otherwise known as the 3rd Battle of Kharkov, was a Soviet unsuccessful undertaking to hold the key city of Voronezh (19 February/15 March 1943).
This was in fact a series of battles on the Eastern Front as the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' attacked in its Donets river campaign to recapture Kharkov and Belgorod.
As Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army was encircled in Stalingrad and fought for its life, the Soviet army undertook a series of wider attacks against the rest of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', and on 2 January 1943 these culminated in the situation in which the Soviets launched their 'Zvezda' and 'Skachok' operations, which in January and early February broke the German defences and led to the Soviet recapture of Kharkov, Belgorod, Kursk, Voroshilovgrad and Izyum. However, these victories resulted in the Soviet forces over-extending themselves and their lines of communication as von Manstein co-ordinated a strategy of controlled retreat towards the Dniepr river. Freed for other use by the 2 February surrender of the 6th Army, General Polkovnik (from 28 April General) Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front turned to the west and on 25 February expanded its offensive against both Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' as an extension of the Soviet offensive winter offensive of 1943/43 toward the Don river. Several months of continuous operations had taken a heavy toll on the Soviet forces, and some divisions had been reduced to as few as 1,000 to 2,000 combat effectives. On 19 February, von Manstein launched his Kharkov counterstrike, using SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s fresh [/e[II SS Panzerkorps and two Panzer armies. in this effort von Manstein benefited significantly from the massive power provided for the air forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV, whose 1,214 aircraft flew more than 1,000 sorties per day between 20 February and 15 March to support the German ground forces: this represented a level of air power equal to that which characterised the 'Blau' strategic offensives in the summer of he previous year.
The German forces forces outflanked, encircled and then defeated the Soviet armoured spearheads in the area to the south of Kharkov, and this made it possible for von Manstein to renew his offensive against the city of Kharkov on 7 March. Despite orders to encircle Kharkov from the north, the SS Panzer-Generalkommando instead decided to fall directly on Kharkov on 11 March. This led to four days of house-to-house fighting before Kharkov was recaptured by Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph (Sepp) Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' on 15 March. German forces recaptured Belgorod two days later, and this German success created the two General salients to the north and south of the Soviet salient centred on Kursk, the situation which in July 1943 would lead to 'Zitadelle'. The German offensive cost the Soviets something in the order of 90,000 casualties, but was also costly for the Germans, especially in the house-to-house fighting for Kharkov that cost the SS Panzer-Generalkommando about 4,300 men killed and wounded by the time of the operation’s end in the middle of March.
At the start of 1943, the German forces on the Eastern Front had faced a crisis as Soviet forces encircled and reduced the 6th Army at Stalingrad and expanded their winter campaign towards the Don river. On 2 February Paulus surrendered the remnants of his 6th Army, yielding the Soviets a bag of some 90,000 prisoners. The total German losses in the course of the Battle of Stalingrad, excluding the men finally taken prisoner, were between 120,000 and 150,000 men. Throughout 1942 the German casualties had totalled something in the order of 1,900,000 men, and by the start of 1943 the German armies on the Eastern Front were around 470,000 men below full strength. At the beginning of 'Barbarossa' in June 1941, the German army had about 3,300 tanks, but by 23 January only 495 tanks, mostly of older types, remained operational along the entire length of the Eastern Front. As the forces of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, which became the Central Front on 5 February 1943, were destroying the German forces in Stalingrad, the Stavka ordered the Soviet forces to conduct a new offensive along the entire southern wing of the Eastern Front between Voronezh in the north and Rostov-na-Donu in the south.
On 2 February, the Soviets launched 'Zvezda' (otherwise the 'Kharkov Offensive Operation') to retake Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. A Soviet drive, spearheaded by four tank corps under the command of General Leytenant Markian M. Popov, pierced the German front by crossing the Donets river and pressing into the German rear. On 15 February, two fresh Soviet tank corps threatened the city of Zaporozhye on the Dnieper river, which controlled the last major road to Rostov-na-Donu and accommodated the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Luftflotte IV. Despite the orders of Adolf Hitler that the city was to be held, the Germans abandoned Kharkov, which returned to Soviet hands on 16 February. Hitler immediately flew to von Manstein’s headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' at Zaporozhye, where he was informed by von Manstein that an immediate counterattack on Kharkov would be fruitless, but that he could successfully attack the over-extended Soviet flank with his five Panzer corps and recapture the city later. On 19 February Soviet armoured units broke through the German lines and approached the city. In view of the worsening situation, Hitler gave von Manstein operational freedom: as Hitler departed, the Soviet forces were only some 18.5 miles (30 km) from the airfield.
In conjunction with 'Zvezda', the Soviets also launched 'Skachok' to the south of 'Zvezda', driving the German forces back from the Donets river and liberating Voroshilovgrad and Izyum, thereby worsening the German situation still further. By this time the Stavka believed it could decide the war in the south-western part of the European Russia and the eastern part of Ukraine.
The surrender of the 6th Army at Stalingrad freed six Soviet armies for other service, and these were refitted and then reinforced by the 2nd Tank Army and the 70th Army. These forces were redeployed against the junction of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte and Heeresgruppe 'Süd' for the Kharkov and Donbas operations designed to surround and destroy the German forces in the Orel salient, cross the Desna river and surround and destroy Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Originally scheduled for a start between 12 and 15 February, the start date was then pushed back to 25 February after the Stavka had come to appreciate the deployment problems faced by the Soviet armies in this sector of the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the 60th Army pushed Generalleutnant Dipl. Ing. Erich Schneider’s 4th Panzerdivision of Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s (from 3 February Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s) 2nd Army away from Kursk, while the 13th Army forced Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee to turn on its flank. This opened between these two formations a 37-mile (60-km) breach which was soon to be exploited by Rokossovsky’s offensive. While the 14th Army and 48th Army attacked the 2nd Panzerarmee's right flank, making minor gains, Rokossovsky launched his offensive on 25 February, breaking through German lines and threatening to surround and cut off the 2nd Panzerarmee and the 2nd Army to the south. Unexpectedly strong German resistance now started to slow the Soviet operation to a marked degree, offering Rokossovsky only limited gains on his offensive’s left flank and in the centre. Elsewhere, the 2nd Tank Army had successfully 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 62 miles (100 km).
While the Soviet offensive continued, von Manstein was able to put the SS Panzer-Generalkommando, which had by now been reinforced by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Herman Priess’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf', under the command of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, while Hitler agreed to release seven understrength Panzer and motorised divisions for the impending counter-offensive. Luftflotte IV was able to regroup and increase the its daily sortie rate from an average of 350 in January to 1,000 in February, providing the German ground forces the opportunity to operate under conditions of air superiority. On 20 February, the Soviet forces were close to Zaporozhye, signalling the beginning of the German counter-offensive known to the Germans as the Donets river campaign.
Between 13 January and 3 April, an estimated 560,000 Soviet soldiers took part in the 'Voronezh-Kharkov Offensive Operation'. In all, at this time it is estimated that there were 6,100,000 Soviet soldiers on the whole of the Eastern Front, with another 659,000 hors de combat as they recovered from wounds. By comparison, the Germans could call on just 2,988,000 men on the Eastern Front. As a result, the Soviets deployed slightly more than twice as many men than the opposing Germans at a time early in February: yet as a consequence of Soviet over-extension and the casualties they had sustained during their offensive, by the beginning of von Manstein’s counter-offensive the Germans had a tactical superiority in numbers. In terms of tanks, moreover, von Manstein’s total of some 350 such machines outnumbered Soviet armour by almost 7/1 at the point of contact, and were far better supplied with fuel.
At the time of his counter-offensive, von Manstein could call of the 4th Panzerarmee, comprising General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and Hausser’s SS Panzer-Generalkommando, and Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, comprising General Gotthard Heinrici’s XL Panzerkorps and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps. The XLVIII Panzerkorps had Generalleutnant Walther von Hünersdorff’s 6th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin’s 17th Panzerdivision, while the SS Panzer-Generalkommando had Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler', SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Herbert-Ernst Vahl’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Theodor Eicke’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf'. Early in February, the combined strength of the SS Panzer-Generalkommando was estimated as 20,000 men. The 4th Panzerarmee and 1st Panzerarmee were deployed to the south of the Soviet salient into German the lines, with the 1st Panzerarmee to the east of the 4th Panzerarmee. The SS Panzer-Generalkommando was deployed along the northern edge of the salient, on the northern front of Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.
The Germans were able to amass a manpower strength of some 70,000 against the 210,000 of the Soviet armies. The German formations were all below establishment strength, especially after continuous operations between June 1942 and February 1943, to the point where Hitler appointed a committee made up of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Martin Bormann and Hans Lammers, to recruit 800,000 able-bodied men, of which half were to be drawn from 'non-essential industries'. The effects of this recruitment effort was not seen until May 1943, when the German armed forces were at their highest strength since the beginning of the war, with 9,500,000 men.
By the start of 1943 Germany’s armoured forces had sustained heavy casualties. It was now unusual for a Panzer division to field more than 100 tanks, and most of them averaged between 70 and 80 serviceable tanks at any given time. After the fighting around Kharkov, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armoured forces, embarked on a programme to bring Germany’s mechanised forces up to strength. Despite his efforts, however, a Panzer division could count on an estimated strength of only some 10,000 to 11,000 men rather than the authorised strength of between 13,000 and 17,000 men. Only by June did the Panzer divisions begin to field between 100 and 130 tanks each. The Waffen-SS divisions generally possessed more men (out of an authorised total of 19,000) and equipment, with an average of about 150 tanks, one battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracked vehicles to motorise most of its infantry and reconnaissance troops. At this time, the bulk of Germany’s armour was still composed of PzKpfw III medium tanks and PzKpfw IV battle tanks, although the 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision had received a number of PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks.
Since the start of the Soviet exploitation of the defensive positions of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' late in January and early in February, the major formations involved included the Bryansk Front, Voronezh Front and South-West Front, commanded by e under the command of General Maksim A. Reyter, General Filipp I. Golikov and General Nikolai F. Vatutin respectively. On 25 February, Rokossovsky’s Central Front also joined the battle. These forces were positioned in such a way that the Bryansk Front was on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', while the Voronezh Front was directly opposite Kursk, and the South-West Front was located to its south opposite Heeresgruppe 'Don'. The Central Front was deployed between the Bryansk Front and Voronezh Front to exploit the success of both of these fronts, which had created a gap in the 2nd Panzerarmee's defences. This Soviet threat involved an estimated 500,000 men, and another 346,000 men were involved in the defence of Kharkov after the beginning of the German counter-offensive.
Like their German counterparts, Soviet divisions were also seriously below authorised strength. For example, the divisions of the 40th Army averaged a mere 3,500 to 4,000 men, and the 69th Army fielded some divisions which had only 1,000 to 1,500 men. Some divisions had as few as 20 to 50 mortars for the provision of short-range fire support. This shortage in manpower and equipment led Vatutin’s South-West Front to request more than 19,000 men and 300 tanks, and it was noted that the Voronezh Front had received only 1,600 replacements since the beginning of operations in 1943. By the time von Manstein launched his counter-offensive, the Voronezh Front had lost so many men and over-extended itself to the point where it could no longer offer assistance to the South-West Front, its southern neighbour. The 1st Czechoslovak Independent Field Battalion was attached to the Soviet forces and subsequently participated in fighting alongside Soviet forces at Sokolov.
What was known to the Germans as the Donets campaign took place between 19 February and 15 March. von Manstein had originally foreseen a three-stage offensive. The first stage was to destroy the Soviet spearheads, which had over-extended themselves through their offensive; the second stage included the recapture of Kharkov; and the third stage was to attack the Soviet forces at Kursk, in conjunction with the forces of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. This last stage was then removed from the concept as a result of the arrival of the rasputitsa mud of the spring thaw and the reluctance of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to become involved.
On 19 February, Hausser’s SS Panzer-Generalkommando was ordered to strike to the south in order to screen the 4th Panzerarmee's attack. Simultaneously, General Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung 'Hollidt' was ordered to contain the continuing Soviet efforts to break through the German defences. The 1st Panzerarmee was instructed to drive to the north in an attempt to cut off and destroy General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s Mobile Group 'Popov', using accurate intelligence on Soviet strength which allowed the Germans to pick and choose their engagements and create essential numerical advantage at the tactical level. The 1st Panzerarmee and 4th Panzerarmee were also ordered to attack the over-extended 6th Army and 1st Guards Army. Between 20 and 23 February, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' swept into and through the 6th Army’s flank, eliminating the Soviet threat to the Dniepr river and successfully surrounding and destroying a number of Soviet units to the south of the Samara river. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' advanced in to the north-east, while the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' was committed on 22 February in an advance parallel to that of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich'. These two divisions cut the supply lines to the Soviet spearheads. The 1st Panzerarmee was able to encircle and trap the Mobile Group 'Popov' by 24 February, although a sizeable number of Soviet troops managed to escape to the north. Alarmed by the success of the German counter-offensive, on 22 February the Stavka ordered the Voronezh Front to shift the 3rd Tank Army and 69th Army to the south in an effort to alleviate pressure on the South-West Front and to destroy German forces in the area of Krasnograd.
The 3rd Tank Army began to engage German formations and units in the area to the south of Kharkov in a holding action while von Manstein’s offensive continued. By 24 February, the Germans had pulled Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland' out of the line, leaving Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division and Generalleutnant Georg Postel’s 320th Division, one regiment of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and elements pf the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' to defend the western edge of the bulge created by the Soviet offensive. Between 24 and 27 February, the 3rd Tank Army and 69th Army continued to attack this portion of the German line, but met with very little in the way of success. With supporting Soviet units stretched thinly, the Soviet attack now began to falter. On 25 February, the Central Front launched its offensive between the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzerarmee, with encouraging results along the German flanks, but struggling to maintain the same pace in the centre. 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 over-extend itself.
In the face of German success against the South-West Front, including attempts by the 6th Army to break out of its encirclement, the Stavka ordered the Voronezh Front to pass control of the 3rd Tank Army to the South-West Front. To ease the transition, the 3rd Tank Army transferred two infantry divisions to the 69th Army, and attacked to the south in an effort to destroy the SS Panzer-Generalkommando. Low on fuel and ammunition after its its mach to the south, the 3rd Tank Army’s offensive was postponed until 3 March, and this army was harassed and severely damaged by continuous German air attacks by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. Launching its offensive on 3 March, the 3rd Tank Army’s XV Tank Corps struck into advancing units of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' and immediately went on the defensive. Ultimately, the Waffen-SS division was able to pierce the XV Tank Corps' lines and link with other units of the same division advancing to the north, successfully encircling the Soviet tank corps. The 3rd Tank Army’s XII Tank Corps was also forced onto the defensive at this time after the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' and SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' threatened to cut off the 3rd Tank Army’s supply route. By 5 March, the 3rd Tank Army had been badly mauled, with only a small number of men able to escape to the north, and was forced to create 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 between the Soviet formations and, taking advantage of the Soviet forces' unco-ordinated and piecemeal attempts to close this gap, von Manstein ordered a continuation of the offensive toward Kharkov. Between 1 and 5 March the 4th Panzerarmee, including the SS Panzer-Generalkommando, advanced some 50 miles (80 km) and positioned itself only about 10 miles (16 km) to the south of Kharkov. By 6 March, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' had seized a bridgehead over the Mosh river and thereby opened the road to Kharkov. The success of von Manstein’s counter-offensive now forced the Stavka to being Rokossovsky’s offensive to an end.
von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV played a decisive role in the success of the German counter-offensive. While simultaneously carrying out airlift operations to supply the 'Gotenkopf Stellung' lodgement in Kuban, it managed to increase its daily sortie average from 350 in January to 1,000 in February, providing the army with excellent close air support and air interdiction. It attacked Soviet troop columns, tanks, fortified positions and supply depots on a relentless basis. On 22 February, von Richthofen noted that the number of sorties flown during the day was 1,500. On 23 February the number of sorties was 1,200. von Richthofen personally directed the major air attacks in consultation with the army generals and his subordinate air corps' commanders. In order to avoid dissipating his strength, von Richthofen concentrated the whole strength of his Luftflotte into a single Schwerpunkt (point of main effort), including the concentration of multiple air commands on the same target at the same time.
While Rokossovsky’s Central Front continued its offensive against the 2nd Army, which had by now been substantially reinforced with fresh divisions, the renewed German offensive towards Kharkov took it by surprise. On 7 March, von Manstein made the decision to surge forward against Kharkov, despite the arrival of the spring thaw. Instead of attacking to the east of Kharkov, von Manstein decided to orient the attack toward the west of Kharkov and then encircle this key objective from the north. The Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland' had also returned to the front and was committed once again, threatening to split the 69th Army and the remnants of the 3rd Tank Army. On 8 and 9 March, the SS Panzer-Generalkommando completed its drive to the north, separating the 69th Army and 40th Army, and on 9 March turned to the east to complete its encirclement. Despite attempts by the Stavka to curtail the German advance by throwing in the newly released 19th Division and the 186th Tank Brigade, the German drive continued.
On 9 March, the 40th Army counterattacked the Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland' in a final attempt to restore communications with the 3rd Tank Army. This counterattack was caught by the expansion of the German offensive toward Kharkov on 10 March, and on this same day the 4th Panzerarmee ordered the SS Panzer-Generalkommando to take Kharkov at the earliest possible moment, and this prompted Hausser to order an immediate attack on the city by his corps' three Waffen-SS divisions. The SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was to assault from the west and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' from the north while the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' provided a protective screen along the assault’s northern and north-western flanks. Despite attempts by Hoth to order Hausser to stick to the original plan, Hausser decided to continue with his own plan to take the city, although Soviet defences forced him to postpone the attack until the following day. von Manstein issued an order to continue outflanking the city, although leaving room for a potential attack on Kharkov if there was little Soviet resistance, but Hausser decided to disregard the order and continue with his own assault.
Early in the morning of 11 March, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' launched a two-prong attack into the northern part of Kharkov. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment, advancing from the north-west, divided into two columns advancing toward the northern part of Kharkov on either side of the railway line linking Belgorod and Kharkov. The 2/SS 2nd Panzergrenadierregiment, on the right 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 SS Panzergrenadierregiment struck at the Alexeyevka district, encountering a T-34-led Soviet counterattack which drove part of the Waffen-SS battalion back out of the city. Only with aerial and artillery support by Ju 87 dive-bombers and StuG assault guns, were the Waffen-SS infantry able to battle their way into the city. A flanking attack from the rear finally allowed the German forces to achieve a foothold in that area of the city. Simultaneously, the 1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment, with armour attached from a separate unit, attacked down the main road from Belgorod, fighting an immediate counterattack, in the area of Kharkov’s airport, on its left flank. Fighting its way past T-34 tanks, this German contingent was able to penetrate and hold Kharkov’s northern suburbs. From the north-east, another contingent of German infantry, tanks and assault guns attempted to take the road exits to Rogan and Chuguyev This attack penetrated deeper into Kharkov, but on running low on fuel the armour had no option but to turn onto the defensive.
The SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' attacked on the same day, along the western side of Kharkov. After penetrating into the Zalyutino district, the division’s advance was stopped by a deep anti-tank ditch, backed by a Soviet defence that included anti-tank guns. A Soviet counterattack was repulsed in a short but bloody firefight. A detachment of the division fought its way to the city’s southern approaches, cutting the road to Merefa. At about 15.00, Hoth ordered Hausser immediately to disengage the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich', which was to be redeployed to cut off escaping Soviet forces. Instead, Hausser sent a detachment of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Totenkopf' for this task and informed Hoth that the risk of disengaging the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' was too great. During the night of 11/12 March, a German breakthrough detachment crossed the anti-tank ditch, taking the Soviet defenders by surprise and opening the way for tanks to cross. This allowed the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' to advance to the city’s main railway station, which became the farthest point to which this division advanced into the city. Hoth repeated his order at 00.15 on 12 March, and Hausser replied as he had replied on 11 March. A third attempt by Hoth was obeyed, and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' disengaged, using a corridor opened by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' to cross the northern part of Kharkov and redeploy to the east of the city.
On 12 March, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' made progress into the centre of Kharkov, breaking through the 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 two blocks to the north of Dzerzhinsky Square. The 2/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment was able to surround the square, after taking heavy casualties from Soviet snipers and other defenders, by the evening. During the night which followed, the 3/2nd Panzergrenadierregiment, under the command of SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, linked with the 2/3rd SS Panzergrenadierregiment in Dzerzhinsky Square and attacked to the south, crossing the Kharkov river, where it seized a bridgehead, and thus opened the way to Moscow Avenue. Meanwhile, the division’s left wing reached the junction of the Volchansk and Chuguyev exit roads and went on the defensive, fighting off a number of Soviet counterattacks.
On the next day, the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' attacked to the south from Peiper’s bridgehead in the direction of the Kharkov river, clearing Soviet resistance on a block-by-block basis. In a bid to trap the city’s defenders in the centre, the 1/1st SS Panzergrenadierregiment re-entered the city using the Volchansk exit road. At the same time, Peiper’s force was able to break out to the south, suffering heavily from bitter fighting against a tenacious Soviet defence, and then to link with the division’s left wing at the Volchansk and Chuguyev road junction. Although the majority of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' had by this time disengaged from the city, one Panzergrenadierregiment remained to clear the city’s south-western corner, where it had eliminated resistance by the end of the day. This effectively put two-thirds of the city under German control.
Fighting in the city began to fade on 14 March. On this day the SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' cleared the remnants of Soviet resistance, pushing to the east on a broad front. By the end of the day, the entire city was declared to be back in German hands. Despite this declaration, however, fighting continued on 15 and 16 March as German units cleared the remnants of resistance in the tractor works factory complex, in the city’s southern outskirts.
The Donets river campaign of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had cost the Soviet forces more than 80,000 men, and of these it is estimated that 45,200 were killed or declared missing, while another 41,200 were wounded. Between April and July 1943, the Soviet took its time to rebuild its forces in the area and prepare for an eventual renewal of the German offensive in 'Zitadelle', or the 'Battle of Kursk'. Overall German casualties are more difficult to ascertain, but some conclusions can be derived from the loss of the SS Panzer-Generalkommando, which in June was redesignated as the II SS Panzerkorps after its three divisions had been upgraded to Panzer division status. It must be borne in mind, however, that the Waffen-SS divisions were often deployed to area in which the fighting was expected to be the harshest. By 17 March, it is estimated that the SS Panzer-Generalkommando had lost around 44% of its fighting strength, including some 160 officers and 4,300 enlisted personnel.
As the SS Panzer-Generalkommando began to leave Kharkov, it engaged Soviet formations and units positioned directly to the south-west of the city: these Soviet formations included the 17th NKVD Brigade, 19th Division and 25th Guards Division. Soviet attempts to re-establish overland communication with the remnants of the 3rd Tank Army continued but failed. On 14/15 March, these forces were given permission to withdraw northward toward to the Donets river. The 40th Army and 69th Army had been engaged since 13 March with the Infanteriedivision (mot.) 'Grossdeutschland', and had been split by the German drive. After the loss of Kharkov, the Soviet defence of the Donets river had collapsed, allowing von Manstein’s forces to reach Belgorod on 17 March and take it on the following day. Muddy ground conditions and exhaustion then forced von Manstein’s counterstroke to be brought to an end.
After the German success at Kharkov, Hitler was presented with two options. The first or 'backhand stroke' was to await the inevitable renewal of the Soviet offensive and conduct another operation similar to that of Kharkov, allowing the Soviets to take ground, extend themselves and then counterattack and surround then. The second or 'forehand stroke' encompassed a major German offensive by Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' against the Soviet forces' Kursk salient. Still obsessed with preserving the front, Hitler opted for the 'forehand stroke', which led to 'Zitadelle' and the decisive 'Battle of Kursk'.