Izyum-Barvenkovo Offensive Operation

The 'Izyum-Barvenkovo Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the South-West Front, in concert with the 'Mius River Offensive Operation' by the South Front, with the aim of pinning down the German group of forces in the Donbass area and thereby preventing the transfer of any of them to the Kursk area (17/27 July 1943).

The plan created by the Soviet high command ordained that as soon as the Battle of Kursk unfolded in the German 'Zitadelle' offensive, several neighbouring fronts would go over to the offensive so that the Germans would not able able to siphon troops from this area to reinforced those round the Kursk salient. The South-West Front was to launch an offensive toward Barvenkovo, the South Front was to attack from the Matveyev Kurgan region to the west in the direction of Stalino and farther to Melitopol in the 'Mius River Offensive Operation', the Bryansk Front was to drive on Orel, and the West Front was to advance toward Karachev. The whole Soviet concept was based on the desire to deprive the Germans of the opportunity to manoeuvre their reserves.

Starting at a time early in July, the combat of 'Zitadelle' demanded that each side exert the maximum possible forces and means. In conditions in which the commitment of each additional unit into the fray could decide the course of the battle, the Soviet command decided to launch an offensive in the Donbass .

According to the Soviet high command’s plan, the primary attack in the direction of Barvenkovo from the Izyum area was to be delivered by General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guard Army and General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army fighting side-by-side. In the auxiliary direction, General Major Georgi I. Khetagurov’s 3rd Guards Army was to strike from the area of Privolnoye toward Artyomovsk. The task of the front’s mobile grouping was then to enter the breakthrough area, strike in the direction of Stalino and, in co-operation with the troops of the South Front in the Mius River Offensive Operation', encircle the Germans forces Donbass grouping.

During the operation, the Soviet forces had to overcome a well-organised defence system which extended along the steep western bank of the Seversky Donets river: this defensive system was based on two or three lines, and the area’s higher ground and settlements has been fortified as strongpoints.

Other major elements of General Polkovnik Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front committed in the 'Izyum-Barvenkovo Offensive Operation' were General Major Aleksei I. Danilov’s 12th Army that was held in reserve, General Leytenant Yefim G. Pushkin’s XXIII Tank Corps and General Leytenant Ivan N. Russiyanov’s I Guards Mechanised Corps. Air support was provided by General Leytenant Vladimir A. Sudets’s 17th Air Force.

The South-West Front’s 6th Army and 57th Army were not involved in the operation.

The German main force involved in the forthcoming battle was an element of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', namely Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee with General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps (three divisions), General Gotthard Heinrici’s XL Panzerkorps (three divisions), General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps (three divisions) and General Walter Nehrin’s XXIV Panzerkorps (three divisions of which was was not committed).

Formations of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' not involved in the blunting of the Soviet offensive were Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s new 6th Army, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung 'Kempf'.

At dawn on 17 July, the Soviet forces earmarked for the offensive started a programme of intense artillery and air bombardment, and for 90 minutes the artillery fired on German positions. At 06.50 infantry began to cross the Seversky Donets river: during the operation’s first day, elements of the 1st Guards Army and 8th Guards Army crossed the river and seized several bridgeheads on its western bank. By the end of the day, the Soviets had managed to advance as much as 3.1 miles (5 km) deep into the German defences. The farther advance of the Soviet forces was then halted by Germans' strong resistance and continuous counterattacks. The renewed Soviet effort on the following day to revitalise the offensive by the introduction of the mobile corps failed, and by this time, the Germans had brought up three armoured divisions (Generalleutnant Walter Schilling’s [from 20 July Generalmajor Karl-Friedrich von der Meden’s] 17th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Nikolaus von Vormann’s 23rd Panzerdivision and SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Gille’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Wiking') from their reserve. Thus all the Soviet attempts to effect a complete breakthrough of the German defence’s tactical zone were defeated, and there developed a major Soviet effort to expand and link their bridgeheads. In 10 days of continuous fighting, the Soviets secured an area 18.65 miles (30 km) in length and between 6.2 and 7.5 miles (10 to 12 km) in depth.

The 3rd Guards Army achieved no success.

Each side suffered serious losses. In just a few days the 17th Panzerdivision lost 91 officers and 2,446 men, the former including Schilling, the divisional commander. Opposing them, the 79th Guards Division lost 4,681 men, and General Major Nikolai F. Batyuk, the divisional commander, died of a heart attack soon after the operation’s end.

In the 'Izyum-Barvenkovo Offensive Operation', therefore, the Soviet forces failed to achieve their objectives. Nevertheless, having crossed the Seversky Donets river and seized a major bridgehead on its western bank, they pinned the German forces and thereby provided significant assistance to the forces of the Voronezh Front in defending the southern face of the Kursk salient. In addition, to check the Soviet blow in the Barvenkovo area, the Germans had redeployed to the Donbass region five armoured divisions from the area of Kharkov, and one motorised division from the area of Orel, and this facilitated the transition of the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front to the counter-offensive as 'Zitadelle' was defeated.