Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation

The 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking in which the Germans were pushed back some 53 to 62 miles (90 to 100 km) in the north-western part of the Ukrainian sector of the Eastern Front on the Donets river between Kharkov to the north-west and Artemovsk to the south-east (18/31 January 1942).

Undertaken within the context of the huge series of offensives which the Soviets unleashed right along the length of the Eastern Front in the first weeks of 1942, the planning and preparation for the offensive began at a time very early in 1942. The operation was to be undertaken by the forces General Leytenant Fyedor Ya. Kostenko’s South-West Front and General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South Front in the area of Balakleya, Lozova and Barvenkovo, where the German defences were not based on a cohesive front but rather a series of strongholds optimised for all-round defence. The plan was for both fronts break through these defences between Balakleya and Artemovsk, then to advance in the rear of the German forces in the Donbass-Taganrog area and finally to drive them toward the northern coast of the Sea of Azov for destruction in that area.

For this task Kostenko’s South-West Front comprised General Major Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 6th Army, General Major Aleksei G. Maslov’s 38th Army and General Major Aleksandr F. Bychkovsky’s VI Cavalry Corps, while Malinovsky’s South Front comprised General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s 57th Army, General Major Anton I. Lopatin’s 37th Army, General Major Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 12th Army, General Major Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 9th Army, General Major Feofan A. Parkhomenko’s I Cavalry Corps and General Major Andrei A. Grechko’s V Cavalry Corps.

Opposing these Soviet forces, Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s (from 18 January Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s) Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had General Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 17th Army and Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee.

In the centre of the planned Soviet offensive’s first stage lay the small town of Izyum on the Donets river. The combination of the front’s geography and and general offensive’s objectives now rendered it the focal point of the Soviet strategy. The town was closer than any other locality on the front to the main southern crossings of the Dniepr river, named Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. It was the key, as well, to the southern approaches to Kharkov and a good springboard for a major drive into the rear of the 17th Army and 1st Panzerarmee.

On 18 January, and in accord with the overarching Stavka plan, Timoshenko launched two related but separate thrusts across the Donets river in the area of Izyum. In one, to be conducted by the South-West Front, the 6th Army and VI Cavalry Corps would strike to the north-west to meet a thrust arriving from the east off the 38th Army’s right flank and would envelop Kharkov. In the other, the South Front’s 57th Army would advance to the west toward Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye and then wheel to the south in the direction of Melitopol. Timoshenko held the 9th Army as his South-Western Theatre’s reserve and stationed the I and V Cavalry Corps behind the 57th Army as the reserve of Malinovsky’s South Front. Malinovsky and Timoshenko expected the 57th Army to reach Bolshoi Tokmak, just to the north of Melitopol, in a time of between 22 and 24 days.

The offensive on the south flank was simplified somewhat by the early elimination of the other parts of the general offensive originally schemed for the South-Western Theatre. The prospects of the offensive’s success, however, were probably also reduced. Farther to the north, the Bryansk Front and the right flank armies of the South-West Front had begun their attacks toward Orel and Kursk in the first week of January, but had made no worthwhile advances and were now slowing toward a halt by the middle of the month. The counterattack of Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army in the Crimea reversed the fortunes of the Soviet offensive efforts in from 15 January, and as a result the Trans-Caucasus Front was transformed into General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov’s Crimea Front on 28 January and ordered to resume the offensive, although this would not be possible until the end of February.

The 17th Army’s left flank covered Izyum and the loop of the Donets river, and tied in with the 6th Army at Balakleya some 25 miles (40 km) to the north-west. On the morning of 18 January, the 57th and 6th Armies opened the attack on from of some 60 miles (100 km), and flanked Izyum on both sides from Slavyansk to Balakleya. Although the terrain in Ukraine was more open than that that of the forested northern sector, the weather and their shortage of troops had compelled the Germans to resort to a strongpoint line, as noted above. Bypassing some of the strongpoints and overrunning others, the Soviet forces had penetrated the front in a number of places before the fall of night, and the 17th Army was beginning to evacuate hospitals and supply dumps close behind the line. Before 12.00 on 19 January, the German army had committed its last available reserves, and by the afternoon of the same day one Soviet spearhead, supported by a tank brigade, was making for Barvenkovo, some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south-west of Izyum on the German army’s main line of communications, in the form of the rail line linking Dnepropetrovsk and Slavyansk. The 17the Army was being driven back to the east into a pocket on the river, and this could become a trap for both it and the 1st Panzerarmee should the Soviet offensive penetrate through to the Dniepr river crossings.

By 22 January the 17th Army's whole flank in the area to the north of Slavyansk had been ripped away, and the South-West Front’s formations were turning behind Paulus’s 6th Army. Having taken command of this army only one week earlier, Paulus was forced to commit all of his reserves around Alekseyevskoye, about 45 miles (72.5 km) to the north-west of Izyum, to cover the southern approaches to Kharkov. In two more days the Soviet offensive unexpectedly won a additional dividend when, on the night of 24/25 January, von Bock decided to bring Major Klaus Müller’s 60th Panzerabteilung northward from Crimea, and this led to the end of von Manstein’s current effort to retake the Kerch peninsula.

Between 22 and 24 January, Malinovsky committed the I and V Cavalry Corps on the 57th Army’s left flank in the area to the west of Slavyansk, and by the end of 25 January the Soviets had taken a sizeable area out of the German front and covered more than half of the distance between Izyum and Dnepropetrovsk. On the morning of 26 January Hoth suggested that the task of his 17th Army should now be the covering of the approaches to Dnepropetrovsk. Late in the day Noth informed von Bock that there remained just two possibilities, namely a 'desperate' attack to the west across the line of the Soviet advance toward Dnepropetrovsk, or 'quick' action to organise countermeasures if resources could be made available from elsewhere. After learning that one or two of the corps commanders were considering the sacrifice of their heavier equipment in order to save their men, von Bock believed that Hoth was on the verge of turning his entire army around and heading west. Alarmed by his possibility, von Bock the morning or the next day ordered Hoth to hold the 17th Army in its current position regardless of circumstances until reserves could be brought up. von Bock had also come to believe that Hoth and his staff were overtaxed by the strain of the last days and decided to place the 17th Army under the command of von Kleist, the 'enterprising' commander of the 1st Panzerarmee. The creation of ad hoc commands of this nature had been a favourite, albeit not always successful, concept which von Bock had employed during his time as commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. von Bock believed that the chance would cause von Kleist to give more and faster help to the neighbouring 17th Army. Hoth was more amenable than many other senior German commanders, and agreed readily to the change.

Early in its second week of the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation', the battle in the Izyum bulge was also reaching a climax for the Soviet commanders, and also producing some disappointments for them. The most acute of these was their failure to expand the gap they had ripped in the front. The Germans continued their tenacious hold on Slavyansk and Balakleya, and this kept their line to the north and south of those places firmly anchored and stable. Thereby channeled into a corridor a mere 50 miles (80 km) wide, the Soviet armies almost inevitably lost momentum, and also confidence. Thus the 6th Army hesitated in making its planned wheel to the north toward Kharkov. and its right-hand neighbour, the 38th Army, was stuck at Balakleya. The 37th Army, which was to have pinched off Slavyansk and co-ordinated the 57th Army on its push to the south, failed to do this, and the 57th Army and the two cavalry corps, as they headed to the south, entered a region heavily dotted with towns that the Germans could press into service as as strongpoints.

As a result, the Stavka modified the tasks it had allocated to the South-West Front and South Front. On 26 January, Timoshenko committed the 9th Army alongside the 57th Army, and between then and the end of the month the Stavka bolstered the the South-West Front with 315 tanks, four infantry divisions and four infantry brigades. The 57th and 9th Armies, together with the cavalry corps, were now to make straight to the south to 'coax' the 17th Army out of its line on the east and into battle in more open terrain, and to reach the coast of the Sea of Azov between Mariupol and Melitopol. The 6th Army, apparently postponing its drive on Kharkov, was to push to the west toward the Dniepr river.

In refining the missions, the Stavka and the South-Western Theatre in effect switched the offensive into a number of tank-supported cavalry raids deep into German-occupied territory. The 17th Army captured Soviet orders of 25 January assigning the thrusts to the west and south to the three cavalry corps: the VI Cavalry Corps, while still attached to the 6th Army, was to push to the west west via Lozovaya toward the Dniepr river, and I and V Cavalry Corps were to push to the south ahead of the 57th and 9th Armies. Against these 'raids', von Kleist was moving from the south the the Gruppe 'von Mackensen' under General Eberhard von Mackensen and comprising Generalleutnant Friedrich Kühn’s 14th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Werner Sanne’s 100th leichte Division and the 60th Panzerabteilung, and from the west General Joachim von Kortzfleisch’s XI Corps, which initially controlled only remnants of two divisions but was receiving one infantry division and several infantry regiments via Dnepropetrovsk. von Mackensen, brought the staff of his III Corps (mot.) with him from its sector on the right flank of the 1st Panzerarmee. At the headquarters of the 6th Army, Paulus had already created a pair of groups based on a mix of regiments: these were Gruppe 'Dostler' and Gruppe 'Friedrich', which were to cover the northern face of the bulge which the Soviets had now driven into and behind the German line.

Over a period of three days, in snowstorms which closed the roads to everything but armoured vehicles and horse-drawn sleds, von Kleist’s units manoeuvred into position to meet the more mobile Soviet armour and cavalry. On the last day of January, the leading units of the 60th Panzerabteilung and the 14th Panzerdivision met the spearheads of the I and V Cavalry Corps about 40 miles (65 km) to the south of Barvenkovo, and the Soviet cavalry, which had moved forward more rapidly than its companion armour, came to a halt and then fell back.

Now knowing that the Soviet forces 'are split into three groups and have yielded under localised counterattacks', von Bock then ordered the Gruppe 'von Mackensen', the XI Corps, and the Gruppe 'Dostler' and Gruppe 'Friedrich' to attack from the south, west, and north withe the object of destroying the Soviet forces. After a week and a half of fighting in freezing conditions with high winds and drifting snow, the Gruppe 'von Mackensen' drove to the north and reached a position within 10 miles (16 km) of Barvenkovo by 11 February. The XI Corps, Gruppe 'Dostler' and Gruppe 'Friedrich' managed to push the Soviets back only a few miles but, together with the 17th Army and the Gruppe 'von Mackensen', had drawn a comparatively tight perimeter round the Soviet bulge by 11 February: the Germans held this peripheral line for the weeks before the advent of the spring thaw, and thus served to check repeated Soviet attempts to break out to the west and south.

Whatever its other effects, the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation' destroyed the German 298th Division, 68th Division and 257th Division, and according to the Soviets cost Germany some 25,000 men as against the German reckoning of some 5,000 men.

The Soviet advance created the Izyum-Barvenkovo salient, which was later cut off by the Germans during the 2nd Battle of Kharkov in May 1942, resulting in the loss of some 300,000 Soviet soldiers.

It has been suggested in post-war Soviet histories that as a result of the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation', the Germans could not transfer reinforcements from the southern section of the Eastern Front to Moscow, where Soviet troops successfully counterattacked in the 'Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation' and then the 'Rzhev-Vyaz’ma Strategic Offensive Operation'. It is more likely, however, that the start of the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation' in the second half of January 1942 was at a time too late to affect the overall outcome of the Battle of Moscow.