Donbas-Rostov Strategic Defensive Operation

The 'Donbas-Rostov Strategic Defensive Operation' was the Soviet attempt to hold the coast of Ukraine on the northern side of the Sea of Azov (29 September/16 November 1941).

The undertaking comprised three sub-operations: these were the 'Battle of the Sea of Azov Operation' (26 September/11 October), the 'Sumy-Kharkov Defensive Operation (30 September/30 November) and the 'Kharkov Defensive Operation (20/24 October).

Otherwise known as the 'Battle of the Sea of Azov', this campaign pitted elements of the German, Italian and Romanian armies under the command of Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' against General Major Fedor M. Kharitonov’s 9th Army and General Leytenant Andrei K. Smirnov’s 18th Army of General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos’s (later Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s) South-West Front.

The Soviet operation was schemed initially as an attempt to rupture the northern flank of the 11th Army as it advanced to the east along the north coast of the Sea of Azov and thus press into the steppes of Russia proper. However, even though the Soviets were successful in causing disarray among some of the Romanian formations in the path of the 9th Army’s and 18th Army’s advance, the Axis line for the most part held as a result of the tenacity of the German resistance, limited objectives set by the Soviet command, and poor Soviet co-ordination and logistical support.

While the Soviets were checked and pinned, von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe (from 25 October 1st Panzerarmee) flanked the Soviet positions with an advance from the north-west, cut their lines of communication, and surrounded them as it advanced to meet the 11th Army at Berdyansk on 6 October. The 9th Army and 18th Army were crushed in the resulting pocket between Orekhov, Melitopol and Berdyansk and more than 106,000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner, 212 tanks destroyed, and 766 pieces of artillery captured or destroyed in the main phase of the battle, which lasted from 26 September to 7 October 1941, and was followed by further advances by the 1st Panzerarmee and 11th Army to take Taganrog, on the estuary of the Mius river and then to reach Rostov-na-Donu, just above the estuary of the Don river, on 20 November.

The context of this battle came into being somewhat before this time. On 7/8 September Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the general staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, was at the headquarters of von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' to inspect and approve the details of the plan for the capture of Kiev and the destruction of the Soviet forces in the bend of the Dniepr and Desna rivers to the south of Kiev. Both Heeresgruppe 'Süd' and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' were involved in this undertaking, which ordained that Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe was to press forward in its thrust to the south from Starodub toward Romny and Priluki, while Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army, also of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', was to move to the south from Gomel and in the process provide cover for Guderian’s right flank. In Heeresgruppe 'Süd', General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army was to pin the Soviet forces on the lower reaches of the Dniepr river below Cherkassy and secure a bridgehead across this river near Kremenchug, from which von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe was to thrust to the north and effect a junction with Guderian’s spearheads in the area of Romny and Lokhvitsa: it was anticipated that these Panzer thrusts would cut off about six Soviet armies to their west in the great bend of the Dniepr river. Meanwhile Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s 6th Army was to advance to the east across the Dniepr and Desna rivers into Kiev, and start the destruction of the great pocket of Soviet troops thus encircled to the west of the city.

On 19 August General Major Mikhail I. Potapov’s 5th Army had already fallen back from Korosten to the Dniepr river under heavy pressure from Reichenau’s 6th Army, and the Soviet high command ordered that Kiev and the line of the Dniepr river were to be held regardless of cost. Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and von Weichs’s 2nd Army had driven to the south and had already crossed the Desna river from the north, however, and gaps had appeared between Kuznetsov’s 21st Army and General Major Kuzma P. Podlas’s 40th Army, which could no longer hold the Germans. Advancing to the east, the 6th Army crossed the Dniepr river and then the Desna river at Oster, and pinned Potapov’s 5th Army and General Major Andrei A. Vlasov’s 37th Army from the west. General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko, the commander-in-chief of the Bryansk Front, had confidently assured Iosif Stalin that his front would hold Guderian, but his counter-offensive by 10 divisions, with armoured support, on the flank of the 2nd Panzergruppe totally failed, and its 13th Army under General Major Konstantin D. Golubev retreated so rapidly to the east that it lost contact with Podlas’s 40th Army and Kuznetsov’s 21st Army. Re-formed from a remnant which had fought as part of General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s now-annihilated Central Front, the latter was transferred from the Bryansk Front to the South-West Front.

By 9 September the execution of the German plan was already gaining momentum. von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army was across the Dniepr river, and von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe was readying itself to advance to the north to meet Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe at a point in the Soviet rear nearly 150 miles (240 km) to the east of Kiev. At the headquarters of his South-West Direction, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny and Nikita S. Khrushchev, a political member of the direction’s military council, at this time became aware of their danger. On 11 September, the South-West Direction requested permission to withdraw from the Kiev bend to the east, but this request was categorically refused by Stalin. Two days later, Budyonny was removed from his post, and Timoshenko, once again rushed from one emergency situation to another, left his twin appointments as commander-in-chief of the Western Direction and commander-in-chief of the West Front to succeed Budyonny.

Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov, the chief of the Soviet general staff, seemed to ignore any and all warnings about the disaster which was about to befall the Soviet forces in Ukraine. On his own initiative, Khrushchev on 16 September sent General Major Hovhannes K. Bagramyan, the direction’s deputy chief-of-staff, to Kirponos, commander-in-chief of the South-West Front, to suggest a withdrawal without orders. Kirponos refused to accept Khrushchev’s suggestion and referred the entire matter to Moscow, where Shaposhnikov consulted with Stalin before agreeing on 17 September that the Soviet troops should disengage and retire to the east. This was already a day too late, for Guderian and von Kleist had already linked at Lokhvitsa, well in the Soviet rear, on 16 September. If Timoshenko had in fact reached the South-West Direction by this time, the account as rendered by Khrushchev is unlikely to be wholly accurate, though there is some evidence to suggest that Kirponos had already ordered a general withdrawal, only to have his order countermanded by either the South-West Direction or the supreme headquarters.

Between 16 and 26 September the Soviet forces encircled in the huge Kiev 'cauldron', originally about 130 miles (210 km) long and wide, were destroyed by the infantry of the 2nd Army and the 6th Army. Kiev itself fell on 20 September, and the Germans took some 450,000 Soviet prisoners. The Soviet 5th, 21st, 26th and 37th Armies had been largely destroyed, as too had been parts of the 38th and 40th Armies. There is some uncertainty about the fate of Kirponos and his staff, especially as it was the Soviet practice of the period to rescue high-ranking commanders from encircled pockets. Kirponos, his chief-of-staff General Major Vasili I. Tupikov, and the political member of the military council were reported as killed, presumably in attempting to escape German capture.

The South-West Direction was now disbanded and a new South-West Front was established under Timoshenko with Khrushchev as its political member. This new front at first commanded only elements of the 21st, 38th and 40th Armies as well as General Major Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s new 6th Army transferred from the South Front, to cover the great gap in the Soviet defences in front of Kursk and Kharkov. Committing these and other remnants, the Soviet high command managed to establish a thin but continuous defensive line, and when von Stülpnagel’s 17th Army resumed it advance against the 6th Army, which had suffered comparatively little in the recent defeats, it was brought to a standstill near Poltava and Krasnograd.

On the Black Sea coast, the 11th Army prepared both to take Crimea and to drive General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s South Front to the east. Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert, commander of the 11th Army, had been killed on 12 September when his liaison aeroplane landed in a minefield, and was replaced by von Manstein. The new commander deployed only General Erik Hansen’s LIV Corps against Crimea, and the rest of his army, together with General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army moved to the east across the Dniepr river between Zaporozhye and Genichesk and then along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov in pursuit of the South Front as it pulled back.

Crimea was held by Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s 51st Independent Army. The Perekop isthmus, a mere 5 miles (8 km) wide and providing the only overland access to Crimea, was defended in considerable depth and incorporated the 'Tartar ditch' some 40 ft (12.2 m) deep, many dry water courses and Tartar Moslem graves, both as obstacles and observation posts. Elsewhere the terrain of northern Crimea was wholly lacking in any form of cover, and the the Lazy Sea to the east of the isthmus is nothing more than a large brackish salt marsh difficult to wade and too shallow for storm boats.

On this narrow front the attack of the LIV Corps failed on 24 September for lack of adequate strength. von Manstein could not reinforce the corps, however, as the remainder of the 11th Army and Romanian 3rd Army were making only very slow progress farther to the east against the South Front, which on 26 September had mounted a vigorous, although limited, counter-offensive against part of Romanian 3rd Army. The Romanian army was on the verge of disintegration until it was reinforced by detachments of German mountain troops and SS-Obergruppenführer Josef Dietrich’s Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler' (mot.).

At this time von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe was directed to the south-east into the rear of the South Front, which on 5 October received a new commander in the form of General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko, and currently comprised Kharitonov’s 9th Army, General Major Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 12th Army and Smirnov’s 18th Army.

After concentrating his formation in the area in Novomoskovsk and Dnepropetrovsk, von Kleist crossed the Samara river, moved to the south-east and thus into the rear of Cherevichenko’s formation, and linked with the 11th Army on 6 October near Osipenko on the Black Sea coast. This trapped part of the 9th Army and 18th Army, and the Germans took 106,000 prisoners. Among the large numbers of Soviet dead was Smirnov. The 1st Panzergruppe then turned directly to the east and drove rapidly and without meeting anything but vestigial opposition along the Sea of Azov’s northern coast toward Rostov-na-Donu, which is the gateway to the Caucasus as it lies near the mouth of the Don river, while the 6th Army and 17th Army moved up on its left between Stalino and Kharkov.

The fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine was different from that which had been typical in western Ukraine earlier in the campaign. In eastern Ukraine the Germans had a number of motorised formations and the advantage of superior mobility, and the Soviet troops were now so low in morale that on the open steppe great numbers surrendered without a fight.

After the German victory near Osipenko, the 11th Army and a Romanian mountain corps returned to the Perekop isthmus and, at the end of October, and undertook a carefully planned offensive to break through the stubborn defence of the 51st Independent Army, which had been strongly reinforced by troops evacuated from Odessa before the fall of this port city on 16 October. On 22 October the Soviet high command had established a joint-service Crimea Command under Vitse Admiral Gordei I. Levchenko, with General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov as his deputy, but this belated reorganisation was too late to save the Soviet situation. The 51st Independent Army nonetheless fought well, and was greatly aided by the terrain. The Soviet defenders of the essentially flat and exposed Perekop isthmus held all the 'higher' elevations, the terrain was heavily mined and wired, and all of the bare approaches were covered by machine gun and artillery fire. The Soviets made extensive use of delayed-action mines and wooden box mines designed to evade the attentions of the German electronic mine detectors, and the defences were made the more formidable by the emplacement of remotely controlled flame-throwers, turreted emplacements and dug-in tanks. The Soviets had air superiority, and as his 11th Army had no tanks, von Manstein had instead to rely on armoured assault guns for infantry support. So heavy was the fire of all the Soviets weapons that all of the German artillery, vehicles and even horses had to be dug into the marshy, waterlogged ground.

It was in these distinctly unfavourable conditions that Hansen’s LIV Corps had to make its next attack as General Hans von Salmuth’s XXX Corps was held in reserve to exploit the expected breakthrough.

The LIV Corps attacked in persistent October rain which turned the ground into a sea of mud, and fog which on occasion lasted for days. The fighting was bitter in the extreme, and the Germans rapidly discovered that there appeared to be no end to the Soviet earthworks, many of which had been constructed by civilian labour and included, in many locations, electrically detonated sea mines.

The attacking German divisions were almost totally exhausted but, encouraged by von Manstein, the 11th Army broke into Crimea on 28 October after a 10-day battle in which the Germans took more than 100,000 prisoners and 700 pieces of artillery. Even then, as it surged into Crimea proper the 11th Army became bogged down in front of Sevastopol in the west and the Kerch peninsula in the east. As the Soviet forces had the benefit of air and maritime superiority, it seemed that they might be able to hold out indefinitely, especially as the offensive capability of the 11th Army had by now been seriously degraded by exhaustion and losses. As far as the latter were concerned, von Manstein was singularly worried by the poverty of the replacements sent to him, in terms not only of their numbers but also of their indifferent quality and morale.

In Ukraine, von Rundstedt’s weakened Heeresgruppe 'Süd' meanwhile continued its advance to the east into the Donets river basin and toward the Caucasus. After losing nine divisions (including two Panzer and two motorised) to von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' for the 'Taifun' (i) offensive with which von Bock hoped to take Moscow, and to other theatres, the strength of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had been reduced to 41 German divisions, of which only three were Panzer and two motorised, together with six Romanian divisions, three Italian divisions, two Slovak divisions and three Hungarian brigades. The army group’s supply and fuel situations were worsening by the day to the combination of inadequate motor transport and the Soviet demolition of the railway bridges over the Dniepr river, and hard fighting had locked von Manstein’s 11th Army and part of Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army in the Crimea. von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe had now completed it part in the successful encirclement battle between Zaporozhye and Osipenko, and centralised and pooled its reserves of fuel to advance on Rostov-na-Donu. On the northern flank of the 1st Panzergruppe, the 17th Army, now commanded by Generaloberst Hermann Hoth, was advancing in the direction of Voroshilovgrad and the northern reaches of the Donets river, while on the extreme northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', von Reichenau’s 6th Army, still attempting to remain in touch with von Weichs’s 2nd Army on the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', took Sumy on 10 October and then advanced toward Belgorod and Kharkov.

Interfering repeatedly with operations, in the manner which became increasingly his wont, Hitler directed that the 17th Army and 6th Army move on a south-easterly axis to support and keep in close contact with the 1st Panzergruppe, despite the fact that Halder had warned him that this would leave the right flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' exposed and also open the gap between the 6th Army and the 2nd Army as these two formations were now advancing on divergent rather than parallel axes. The 2nd Army was in its turn was to be drawn steadily to the south-east and east in order to keep in touch with the 6th Army to its south, and in consequence was unable to support the 2nd Panzerarmee to its north. The 2nd Panzerarmee was heading on a north-easterly axis in the direction of Moscow, with a dangerously exposed right flank which von Weichs’s 2nd Army could not cover.

The weather had been bad from about 6 October, and two days later Halder made note of the fact that it was seriously slowing the rate of advance by Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. On 11 October the weather finally broke, and both the 17th Army and 6th Army were halted in the mud. The adverse weather had not reached the Black Sea coast, however, and von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe continued to move forward, having reached the line of the Mius river to the north-west of Taganrog on 11 October, where strong Soviet resistance delayed it for several days until it was finally brought to a halt by torrential rain on 14 October.

In 1941 the Donets river basin, or Donbas, produced 60% of the coal and 75% of the coke used by the USSR, and was also responsible for 30% of the iron and 20% of the USSR’s production. Thus the deceleration of the German advance was invaluable to the Soviets in giving them sufficient time to their teams to dismantle and evacuate much of the area’s industrial equipment, and make the Donets river and Kharkov areas of little economic value to the Germans, at least in the shorter term.

At this time the German advance was opposed by Timoshenko’s South-West Front comprising Podlas’s 40th Army, Kuznetsov’s 21st Army, General Major Aleksei G. Maslov’s 38th Army and General Major Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 6th Army, and Cherevichenko’s South Front comprising Koroteyev’s 12th Army, General Major Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 18th Army and Kharitonov’s 9th Army.

The fighting before Pavlograd and Kharkov resulted in still further heavy Soviet losses, and the Soviet high command ordered the two fronts to fall back to straighten and shorten their lines, and so create a reserve. The new line extended along the line of the railway from Kastornoye to Stary Oskol, Liman, Gorlovka and the Mius river, and the reserves were created into General Major Anton I. Lopatin’s new 37th Army, which was concentrated in the area to the south-east of Voroshilovgrad.

On 17 October Taganrog fell, and by the end of the month the Germans had reached Kharkov, part of the Donets basin and the approaches to Rostov-na-Donu. The Soviet withdrawal in the area of Kharkov and Voronezh was interpreted by Heeresgruppe 'Süd' as a thinning out designed to allow the reinforcement of the Moscow or Rostov-na-Donu sectors, and von Rundstedt ordered a general pursuit. But this was beyond the capacity of his exhausted formations, as by day the snow, rain and mud made sustained movement impossible, and by night the cold froze vehicles to the ground and prevented the men from sleeping.

von Reichenau’s over-extended 6th Army had reached the Donets river, but was unable to cross it and pin the Soviets as they withdrew. At this point von Reichenau refused to move farther until all his formations had closed up and the supply system had started to function adequately once more. On the 6th Army's right the 17th Army halted near Artemovsk and Slavyansk. The 1st Panzergruppe made little progress toward Rostov-na-Donu from Taganrog as a result of the weather, difficulties in the supply of fuel, and the hardening of Soviet resistance.

On 5 November the 1st Panzerarmee initiated another attack on Kharitonov’s reinforced 9th Army, and at the end of a three-day battle drove it back 20 miles (32 km) to the east and then, suddenly changing direction to the south, attacked General Leytenant Fedor N. Remezov’s 56th Independent Army, which had been entrusted with the protection of Rostov-na-Donu and the lower reaches of the Don river. On 16 November, in a temperature of nearly -20° C (14° F), the attack into Rostov-na-Donu began. Understrength and near exhaustion, the Germans appreciated that this would by a difficult undertaking, and many commanders believed that even if it was taken, Rostov-na-Donu could not be held. The Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler' (mot.) attacked down one of the main roads into the town, and had to fight a grim battle for every yard, the Soviets' counterattacking T-34 medium tanks rolling straight over the anti-tank guns of Generalleutnant Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt’s 60th Division (mot.). The ground was so hard that weapons pits could not be dug but had instead to be created by explosive blasts.

The German casualties were heavy, but by 20 November Rostov-na-Donu had been captured and the Germans had taken some 10,000 Soviet prisoners. Yet the fighting was far from over, for Remezov’s 56th Independent Army counterattacked across the Don river, trying to cut off Rostov-na-Donu from the west, and the Germans were amazed to see Soviet troops, fortified by vodka, emerging from the evening dusk cheering and singing, and in some cases even linking arms, until machine gun and rifle fire, and the explosions of mines, persuaded them to split into smaller groups. Many of the attackers fell in rows where they were hit by machine gun fire, and others climbed over the piles of corpses and continued forward. The fighting continued late into the night, and the dawn of the following day revealed heaps of bodies lying on the frozen river, slowly covered by the continued fall of snow.

The greatest threat to Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was not the repeated counterattacks of the 56th Independent Army, however, but events farther to the north. In the first week of November, the South-West Front and South Front had been brought together again in a revived South-West Direction under Timoshenko’s command. This was tasked with the implementation of a strategic counter-offensive whose object was to pin the Germans in Rostov-na-Donu, using Remezov’s 56th Independent Army, while Cherevichenko’s South Front launched a thrust from the flank to separate the 1st Panzerarmee from the rest of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' using Lopatin’s 37th Army supported by Kolpakchy’s 18th Army and Kharitonov’s 9th Army on its flanks. The strength of the Soviet force assembled for this undertaking was five tank brigades and 31 divisions including nine cavalry divisions. The German strength in this sector was about 14 divisions, of which three were Panzer divisions.

The 37th Army began its counter-offensive on 17 November, at almost the same time as the 1st Panzerarmee attacked Rostov-na-Donu. The Soviets advanced more than 10 miles (16 km) on the first day, but the rate of their progress then slowed to only 1 to 2 miles (1.6 to 3.2 km) per day thereafter as the Germans fought to hold their supply and withdrawal route between the advancing Soviets and the coast of the Sea of Azov.

The key to the situation rested with von Reichenau, but as his 6th Army could make no progress, the unsupported 17th Army to its south could not reduce the Soviet pressure on the 1st Panzerarmee, which was extended in a long and increasingly exposed salient. Halder urged the 6th Army to make better progress, telling General Georg von Sodenstern, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', that he had lost patience with the 6th Army. Closer to Rostov-na-Donu, the 60th Division (mot.) was assailed from a position to the north-east of the city, and the Germans realised that they were now fighting for their lives.

A general withdrawal from the Don river was ordered, and the Germans had almost completed their abandonment of Rostov-na-Donu on 28 November, when Hitler countermanded the order to pull back.

For some time von Rundstedt had been sure that the Soviets would not undergo the early military collapse of which many other Germans generals were confident, and on 27 October had urged that the Rostov-na-Donu operation should be halted, at least temporarily, as the troops were exhausted and it was not possible to attain further objectives without reorganisation and resupply. On 3 November von Rundstedt had proposed, unsuccessfully, that all attempt to gain further objectives be postponed until the following spring. As the South Front began to envelop the 1st Panzerarmee, von Rundstedt had ordered a general withdrawal to the line of the Mius river in one bound, in order to break contact with the Soviets. The Oberkommando des Heeres had approved this decision, and when, during the night of 30 November, Hitler issued his 'stand and fight' order, von Rundstedt asked to be relieved of his command, and was replaced by von Reichenau, who was deemed to be more acceptable by Hitler.

This command change could not affect the existing operational and tactical situation and, as the troops were already falling back, Hitler and von Reichenau had to accept the retreat as a fait accompli. Even so, Hitler demanded that the 1st Panzerarmee should occupy an intermediate position, which was in places only 6 miles (10 km) forward of the Mius river position. von Reichenau concurred with Hitler, and there followed a scene of the type which became virtually standard in the German high command for the rest of the war.

In the area to the east of the Mius river there was massive confusion in the German ranks as the vehicles involved in the retreat were halted and ordered back to the east. At 11.00 on 1 December Halder telephoned von Sodenstern to discuss the situation and, interrupting to say that Hitler’s decision was quite right, von Reichenau said that he would take the necessary responsibility, even though von Kleist was of the opinion that he would be defeated if he fought in the intermediate position. One hour later Halder spoke with von Kleist’s chief-of-staff, Oberst Kurt Zeitzler, who gave a concise and disheartening account of the state of the 1st Panzerarmee's three Panzer divisions. The 1st Panzerarmee believed that the intermediate position was useless, and did not understand why it should be checked only 6 miles (10 km) forward of a much superior defensive position. An hour later Halder again discussed the matter with von Sodenstern, who tried to persuade von Reichenau, who would not be swayed. At 14.00 Halder took the unusual step of asking General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, to speak to Hitler. At 15.30 Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief of the army, went to see Hitler, and while the two men were talking von Reichenau telephoned Hitler directly to say that the Soviets had broken through the Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler' (mot.) on the intermediate position and asked for permission to fall back to the line of the Mius river. Hitler immediately agreed, and the 1st Panzerarmee was now back to the position of 24 hours earlier, but Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had meanwhile lost men, time and and, in von Rundstedt, a very capable commander.

The 1st Panzerarmee fell back to Taganrog and the frozen Mius river, where it could use its earlier positions, now strengthened with the aid of local civilians, and prepared to make another attempt to halt the advancing Soviet forces. In this it was successful, and there the Germans remained until the next summer until they advanced once more in 'Blau III' (otherwise 'Dampfhammer').

The retreat from Rostov-na-Donu was not in any way a major reverse, though it was significant inasmuch as it was the first check suffered by German troops since the beginning of World War II and marked the Soviets' first well-conceived and efficiently executed counter-offensive.

The battle for Rostov-na-Donu was a strategic, operational and tactical setback for the Germans, and the German failure was the fact that, beset by adverse weather and general exhaustion, Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had tried to achieve a task that it lacked the strength to complete. von Manstein’s 11th Army had also deployed in Crimea, which was a secondary theatre, at a time when it was urgently required to the north of Rostov-na-Donu. Even of the 11th Army had been brought forward to the Don river, however, any penetration deep into the Caucasus region during the winter, with an ever-extending left flank, would in any event have been an undertaking fraught with danger.