The 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation' was the Soviet short campaign which paved the way for the 2nd Battle of Kharkov, otherwise 'Fridericus I' as the Axis counter-offensive in the region to the south of Kharkov in Ukraine (12/28 May 1942).
The object of the Axis undertaking was the destruction of the major Soviet bridgehead over Seversky Donets river (otherwise the 'Barvenkovo bulge') that had been created in the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation' and was now one of the Soviet forces' most significant staging areas for the westward offensives through Ukraine which were currently in the planning process. After the series of grand strategic counter-offensives which in the winter of 1941/42 pushed the Germans back from Moscow and halted their advances elsewhere along the Eastern Front, but in the process severely depleted the Soviet reserves, the 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation' was a renewed Soviet attempt to expand their strategic initiative, but failed to secure surprise and any useful gains.
On 12 May 1942, Soviet forces under the command of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the commander-in-chief of the South-Western Theatre of Operations, launched the 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation' against Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army, of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', from the Izyum bridgehead, a west-facing salient established during the winter counter-offensive, and to its north the front between Balakleya in the north-east of the salient and Belgorod to the north-east of Kharkov. After a promising start, the offensive was brought to a halt on 15 May by massive German tactical air attacks. Errors were made by several Soviet senior staff officers and mistakes were also attributable to Iosif Stalin, the Soviet dictator: these combined to create an inaccurate determination of the 6th Army's remaining combat potential and a radical over-estimate of that possessed by their own newly raised forces. This opened the way for a German pincer offensive on 17 May, and this had cut off three Soviet armies by 22 May. Hemmed into a narrow area, the 250,000-man Soviet forces inside the pocket were destroyed by attacks from all sides by German armoured, artillery and machine gun firepower as well as 7,700 tonnes of bombs dropped from the air. After six days of encirclement, the Soviet resistance ended as the troops were either killed or taken prisoner.
The battle was an overwhelming German victory, with a total in the order of 280,000 Soviet casualties compared to just 20,000 for the Germans and their allies. Heeresgruppe 'Süd' then pressed its advantage, encircling the 28th Army on 13 June in 'Wilhelm' and driving back the 38th Army and 9th Army on 22 June in 'Fridericus II' as preliminaries for the 'Blau' operations, of which the first was launched on 28 June as the main German offensive undertaking on the Eastern Front in 1942.
By a time late in February 1942, the Soviet winter counter-offensive had pushed the German forces from Moscow on a broad front and then ended in mutual exhaustion. Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, was convinced that the Germans were now spent and might well collapse by the spring or summer 1942. Stalin decided to exploit this perceived weakness by launching a new offensive in the spring. Stalin’s decision faced objections from his advisers, who included the army’s chief-of-staff, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov, General Leytenant Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the first deputy chief of the general staff, and General Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces: these all argued for a more defensive strategy. Despite the caution advised by his generals, Stalin decided to destabilise the German forces with 'local offensives'.
After the end of the winter offensives, Stalin and the Stavka (Soviet armed forces general staff) believed that eventual and inevitable German offensives would be directed against Moscow and also against strategic objectives in the the south, and thereby copying 'Barbarossa', 'Taifun' (i) and 'Wotan' in the second half of 1941. Although the Stavka believed that the Germans had been defeated before Moscow, the 70 divisions which faced Moscow nonetheless remained a major threat. Stalin, as most front commanders and other senior generals, believed that the principal effort would be a German offensive toward Moscow but, with his confidence bolstered by the success of the Soviet winter offensives, Stalin was also sure that local offensives in the area would degrade the German forces and therefore weaken any German efforts to mount another operation to take Moscow. Stalin had agreed to prepare the Soviet army for an 'active strategic defence' but later gave orders for the planning of seven local offensives, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. One area designated for one of these local offensives was that around Kharkov, and here an operation was initially scheduled for a start in March.
Early in that same month, the Stavka ordered the headquarters of the South-Western Strategic Direction to plan and develop such an offensive in the wake of the Soviet successes in the 'Rostov-na-Donu Strategic Offensive Operation' of 27 November/2 December 1941 and the 'Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation' of 18/31 January 1942 in the Donbass region. The forces commanded by Timoshenko and General Major Kirill S. Moskalenko, commander of the 38th Army, penetrated the German cordon-line strongpoint positions along the Seversky Donets river in the area to the east of Kharkov. Fighting continued into April, with the 38th Army crossing the river and establishing a vulnerable bridgehead at Izyum. In the south, General Major (from 27 March General Leytenant Avksenti M. Gorodnyansky’s 6th Army had limited success defending against German forces, which managed to keep a bridgehead of their own on the east bank of the river. Catching the attention of Stalin, this limited undertaking signalled the beginning of the eventual offensive intended to reach Pavlograd and Sinelnikovo, and eventually Kharkov and Poltava.
By 15 March, Soviet commanders had created preliminary plans for an offensive toward Kharkov, and this plan was based on the availability of large numbers of reserve forces. On 20 March, Timoshenko held a conference in Kupyansk to discuss the offensive and draft a report to Moscow by Timoshenko’s chief-of-staff, General Leytenant Hovhannes K. Bagramyan. The report summed up the conference, but in all probability omitted several key intelligence features. The build-up of Soviet forces in the region of Barvenkovo and Vovchansk continued well into the early days of May, and the final details were fixed in discussions between Stalin, the Stavka and the leadership of the South-Western Strategic Direction. The discussions lasted through March and April, and one of the final Stavka directives was issued on 17 April.
By 11 May, the Soviets were able to allocate six armies, as well as other formations, to a pair of fronts. The South-West Front, also commanded by Timoshenko, had General Major Vasili N. Gordov’s 21st Army, General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s 28th Army, Moskalenko’s 38th Army and Gorodnyansky’s 6th Army. By 11 May, the XXI Tank Corps had been moved into the region together with the XXIII Tank Corps with another 269 tanks. Three independent infantry divisions and one infantry regiment of the 270th Division were also concentrated in the area, supported by the II Cavalry Corps in Bogdanovka. General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South Front had General Leytenant Kuzma P. Podlas’s 57th Army and General Major Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 9th Army, along with 30 infantry divisions, one rifle brigade and the XXIV Tank Corps, the V Cavalry Corps and three guards infantry divisions. At its peak, the South Front could deploy 18 pieces of artillery or mortars on each mile (11 pieces of artillery or mortars on each kilometre) of its front.
In overall terms, the 28th and 38th Armies were to attack straight to the west, from a point to the west of Valuyki toward Zolochev, in order to outflank Kharkov from the north, and from Kupyansk toward Zmiyev, in order to outflank Kharkov from the south. This latter, undertaken by the 38th Army, would be supported by the 6th, 57th and 9th Armies, which were to surge out of the Izyum bridgehead toward several objectives including Krasnograd, a key point on the rail line linking Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk.
The German forces threatened by the Soviet offensive were Paulus’s 6th Army to the north of the Izyum bridgehead, and Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s Armeegruppe 'von Kleist' to the south of the bridgehead with von Kleist’s own 1st Panzerarmee and General Hans von Salmuth’s 17th Army.
The forces regrouping in the sector were severely hampered by the rasputitsa of the spring thaw, which turned much of the area’s soil into thick and cloying mud. This severely delayed the Soviet preparations and caused the reinforcement of the South Front and South-West Front to take somewhat longer than had been expected. Senior Soviet representatives levelled criticism at the feet of the front commanders for their poor management of forces, an inability to stage offensives and the almost-armchair generalship they displayed. As a result of the fact that the Soviet regrouping was undertaken on so haphazard a basis, the Germans received some warning of the Soviet preparations. Moskalenko, commander of the 38th Army, placed the blame on the fact that the fronts did not plan in advance to regroup and showed poor front management.
The typical Soviet soldier was tough and long-enduring, but suffered from inexperience. In the military disasters of the previous year, which had been ameliorated only by the scarce victory at Moscow, the Soviet army had lost a very high proportion of its original manpower killed, wounded or taken prisoner, with almost one million casualties in the Battle of Moscow alone. The average Soviet soldier was a conscript and had little or often no combat experience, and his tactical training was in practice nonexistent. Coupled with the lack of trained soldiers, the Soviet army also began to suffer from the loss of Soviet industrial areas, and a temporary strategic defence was seen as necessary.
The chief of the general staff, Vasilevsky, appreciated the fact that the Soviet army of 1942 was not yet ready to undertake major offensive operations against the well-trained German army: the Soviet army lacked both quantitative and qualitative superiority and its leadership was still in the process of being rebuilt after the defeats of 1941.
Unknown to the Soviet forces, the 6th Army, under a newly appointed commander in the form of Paulus, had been issued orders for 'Fridericus I' on 30 April. This operation was to intended to crush the Soviet armies within the Izyum salient to the south of Kharkov, which had come into existence during the Soviet spring offensives in March and April. The final directive for this offensive, issued on 30 April, ordained a start date of 18 May.
The Germans had made a significant effort to reinforce Heeresgruppe 'Süd', and on 15/18 January transferred command of the army group from Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau to Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock, previously commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' during 'Barbarossa' and 'Taifun' (i). On 5 April, Hitler issued his Führerweisung Nr 41, which made the south the main area of operations within the forthcoming 'Blau' summer campaign, at the expense of the other fronts. The divisions of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' were brought up to full strength late in April and early in May. The strategic objective was illustrated after the victories of Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army in Crimea: the primary objective remained the Caucasus and its oilfields, and the secondary objective was the city of Stalingrad on the Volga river.
The plan to begin 'Fridericus I' in April led to the allocation of greater forces to the area of the 6th Army and, unknown to the Soviets, the German army was being regrouped in the centre of the southern theatre of operations for the offensive around Kharkov. On 10 May, Paulus submitted his final draft of the plan for 'Fridericus I' while at the same time fearing a Soviet offensive at a time when the German army opposite Timoshenko’s South-Western Theatre of Operations was ready for the operation toward the Caucasus.
The Soviets began their offensive at 06.30 on 12 May. The assault was prefaced by a concentrated hour-long artillery bombardment and a final 20-minute air attack on the German positions. The ground offensive began with a dual pincer movement launched from the Volchansk and Barvenkovo areas of the Izyum salient at 07.30, and the German defences in the area of the Soviet advances were destroyed by air attacks, artillery fire and well co-ordinated ground attacks. The fighting was so severe that the Soviets inched forward their second-echelon formations, preparing to commit these to combat in support of the first-echelon formations. Fighting was particularly fierce near the village of Nepokrytaya, where the Germans launched three local counter-attacks. Despite their numerical inferiority, German fighter aircraft used their qualitative superiority to complete a swift defeat of the Soviet air units above the battle area, but without the support of bombers, dive-bombers and ground-attack aircraft all they could achieve against the Soviet ground forces was strafing with their cannon and machine guns, and the dropping of small bombs on the Soviet supply columns to pin down the Soviet infantry. By the fall of night, the deepest Soviet advance was 6.2 miles (10 km). Reconnaissance discovered the movement of several German reserve units and Moskalenko realised that the attack had been opposed by two German divisions rather than the single division which had been expected, indicating poor pre-battle Soviet reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. A diary discovered on a dead German general alluded to the German knowledge about the Soviet plans in the region.
On the following day, Paulus obtained three infantry divisions and one Panzer division for the defence of Kharkov even as the Soviet advance continued at only a slow rate, achieving little success except on the left flank. von Bock had warned Paulus against the delivery of any counterattack without air support, although this was later reconsidered, when several Soviet tank brigades broke through General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps in the Volchansk sector a mere 12 miles (19 km) from Kharkov. In the first 72 hours of the 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation', the 6th Army lost 16 battalions conducting holding actions and local counterattacks in the heavy rain and mud. By 14 May the Soviet forces had made impressive gains, but several of their divisions had become so depleted that they had to be withdrawn and the commitment of Soviet tank reserves was required to defeat the German counterattacks; German losses were estimated to be minimal, with only 35 to 70 tanks believed to have been knocked out in Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s 3rd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s 23rd Panzerdivision.
Right from the start of the Soviet offensive, Hitler had turned to the Luftwaffe to help blunt the Soviet advances. At this point, its close support corps was deployed in Crimea in support of the siege of Sevastopol. Under the command of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the VIII Fliegerkorps was initially ordered to deploy to Kharkov from Crimea. This order was then rescinded., and the corps was kept in Crimea, although not under the command of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV, which already contained General Kurt Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps and the Fliegerführer 'Süd' small anti-shipping command based in Crimea under the command of Oberst Wolfgang von Wild. Instead, Hitler allowed von Richthofen to take command of all operations over Sevastopol. The siege of this port city and naval base was not over, and the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula had not yet been won. Hitler was pleased with the progress there, however, and was therefore content to keep von Richthofen where he was, but nonetheless he withdrew the VIII Fliegerkorps' close support assets in order to prevent a Soviet breakthrough at Kharkov. The use of the Luftwaffe warplanes to offset the army’s lack of firepower suggested to von Richthofen that the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht saw the Luftwaffe mainly as a ground support arm. This angered von Richthofen, who complained that the Luftwaffe was treated as 'the army’s whore'. Now that he was not being redeployed to Kharkov, von Richthofen also complained about the withdrawal of his units from the ongoing Kerch and Sevastopol battles. He felt that the transfer of air assets to Kharkov made victory in Crimea uncertain. In reality, the Soviet units at Kerch were already routed and the Axis position at Sevastopol was comfortable.
Despite von Richthofen’s opposition, powerful air support was on its way to bolster the 6th Army, and the new of this commitment was a great boost to German morale. Senior commanders, such as von Bock and Paulus, placed so much confidence in the Luftwaffe that they ordered their forces not to risk an attack without air support. In the meantime, the IV Fliegerkorps was compelled to use every available aircraft. Although meeting more numerous Soviet air forces, the Luftwaffe achieved air superiority and limited the German ground forces' losses to Soviet air attack, but this required some crews to fly more than 10 missions per day. By 15 May, Pflugbeil had been reinforced with Oberst Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust’s Kampfgeschwader 27, Oberst Paul Koester’s KG 51, Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s KG 55 and Oberst Ernst Bormann’s KG 76 equipped with Junkers Ju 88 and Heinkel He 111 bombers. Major Clemens Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid’s Sturzkampfgeschwader 77 also arrived to add direct ground support with its Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers. Pflugbeil now had 10 bomber, six fighter and four dive-bomber Gruppen, but logistical difficulties meant that only 54.5% of the aircraft were operational at any one time.
German close air support made its presence felt immediately on 15 May, forcing Soviet formations such as the 38th Army onto the defensive. The German tactical warplanes ranged over the front, and operated close to the changing front line. Air interdiction and direct ground support damaged Soviet supply lines and rear areas, also inflicting large losses on Soviet armoured formations. Generaloberst Franz Halder, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, praised the air attacks as being primarily responsible for the checking of the Soviet offensive. The Soviet air force could do very little to stop the activities of Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps, which included vital supply missions as well as air attacks. Bombers dropped supplies to encircled German units, which could thus continue to hold until a counter-offensive relieved them. The IV Fliegerkorps' anti-aircraft units also used their 88-mm (3.465-in) high-velocity guns to great effect on the Soviet ground forces. Over the course of the 16-day battle, the IV Fliegerkorps thus played a major role in the German victory, flying 15,648 sorties (978 per day), dropping 7,700 tonnes of bombs on the Soviet forces, and delivering 1,545 tonnes of supplies to the front.
On 14 May, the Germans continued to attack the Soviet forces' northern positions in localised offensives. By this time, the Luftwaffe had gained air superiority over the numerically superior but technically inferior Soviet air forces above the Kharkov sector, forcing Timoshenko to move his own aircraft forward to counter the strengthened Luftflotte IV. Air combat seriously depleted the Soviet fighter strength, providing German tactical warplanes with the opportunity to exert still greater influence on the land battle. Even so, the Soviet forces pushed on, disengaging from several minor battles and changing the direction of their thrusts. However, in the face of continued resistance and local counterattacks, the momentum of the Soviet offensive ebbed, especially when confronted by the invariably heavy air raids. By the end of the day, the 28th Army could no longer conduct offensive operations against German positions.
Soviet troops in the northern half of the planned pincer movement suffered even more than those in the south. They achieved great success the first three days of the offensive, with a deep penetration of the German positions. The Soviets routed several Axis battalions, including many with Hungarian and other foreign soldiers. The success of the southern shock group, however, has been attributed to the fact that the early penetrations in the north had drawn in German reserves, thus limiting the reinforcements available to the south. By 14 May, however, Hitler had briefed von Kleist and ordered his 1st Panzerarmee to seize the initiative in a bold counter-offensive, setting the pace for the launch of 'Fridericus I'.
On 15 and 16 May, another attempted Soviet offensive in the north met the same level of resistance encountered in the three first days of the battle. German strongpoints continued to hold out against Soviet assaults. The major contribution to Soviet frustration in the this phase of the battle was their lack of heavy artillery, a deficiency which ultimately prevented the taking of heavily defended positions. One of the best examples of this was the German defence of Ternovaya, where German units absolutely refused to surrender. The fighting was so harsh that, after advancing an average of 3.1 miles (5 km), the Soviet offensive stopped for the day in the north. The following day saw a renewal of the Soviet attack, which was in general blocked by German armoured counterattacks. The now-exhausted Soviet divisions could simply not hold their own against the Germans' concerted attacks. In the south, however, the Soviets managed greater success akin to that of the battle’s earlier days despite the fact that the Soviet forces began to face heavier German air attacks. The Germans, on the other hand, had spent the day in holding actions in both sectors, launching small counterattacks to whittle down the Soviet offensive potential, while continuously moving up ground and air reinforcements from the south. Poor decisions by the 150th Division, which had crossed the Barvenkovo river, played a major part in the inadequate exploitation of the tactical successes of the southern shock group. Timoshenko failed to select a point of main effort for his advancing troops, instead preferring a broad-front approach, and this played into the hands of the Germans, who traded space for time.
On 17 May, supported by IV Fliegerkorps, the German ground forces seized the initiative as General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Corps (mot.) and General Maximilian de Angelis’s XLIV Corps began a counterattack on the Barvenkovo bridgehead from the area of Aleksandrovka in the south. Aided greatly by air support, von Kleist’s formations were able to crush the Soviet positions and advance up to 6.2 miles (10 km) in the first day of their attack. Soviet troop and supply convoys were easy targets for ferocious Luftwaffe attacks, for they fielded but a few anti-aircraft guns and had left their railheads some 60 miles (100 km) to the rear. German reconnaissance aircraft monitored Soviet movements, directed attack aircraft to Soviet positions and corrected German artillery fire. The response time of the IV Fliegerkorps to calls for air attacks was a mere 20 minutes. Many of the Soviet units were sent to the rear that night to be refitted, while others were moved forward to weakly held positions across the front. That same day, Timoshenko reported the move to Moscow and after detailing the day’s failures asked for reinforcements. Vasilevsky’s attempts to gain approval for a general withdrawal were rejected by Stalin.
On 18 May, the Soviet situation worsened. The Stavka suggested once more that the offensive be halted, and went so far as to order the 9th Army to break out of the Izyum salient. Timoshenko and Nikita S. Khrushchev, the political member of the South-Western Theatre of Operations' military council, claimed that the danger posed by the German Kramatorsk group was exaggerated, and Stalin once more refused to authorise the withdrawal. The consequences of losing the air battle were also apparent. On 18 May the IV Fliegerkorps destroyed 130 tanks and 500 motor vehicles, while adding another 29 tanks on the following day.
On 19 May, on the instructions of von Bock, Paulus began a general offensive from the area of Merefa in the north of the bulge in an attempt to encircle the Soviet forces remaining in the Izyum salient. Only then did Stalin finally authorise Zhukov to bring the offensive to a close and instead concentrate on the task of fending off the German flanking forces. It was already too late, however, and the Germans achieved considerable success against Soviet defensive positions. On the next day the course of events remained unchanged, with the German forces closing on the Soviet formations from the rear. More German divisions were committed to the battle, destroying several Soviet divisions and allowing the Germans to press forward. The Luftwaffe also intensified its operations over the Donets river to prevent Soviet forces escaping. Ju 87 dive-bombers of StG 77 destroyed five of the main bridges and damaged four more, while Ju 88 level bombers of KG 3 inflicted heavy losses on retreating armoured and motorised columns.
Although his forces managed to regroup on 21 May, Timoshenko ordered the withdrawal of Kostenko’s grouping by the end of 22 May while he prepared a renewed Soviet attack for 23 May by the 9th Army and 57th Army. Although the Soviets fought desperately to fend off advancing German troops and launched local counterattacks to relieve several surrounded units, they generally failed. By the end of 24 May, Soviet forces opposite Kharkov had been surrounded by German formations, which had been able to transfer several more divisions to the front, increasing the pressure on the Soviet flanks and finally forcing them to collapse.
On 25 May there came the first major Soviet attempt to break the encirclement. Concentrated masses of Soviet troops, their arms linked, charged the German machine guns, which had no need for accurate aiming as they mowed down many hundreds of Soviet soldiers with quick bursts of fire. Now enjoying complete air supremacy and the absence of Soviet anti-aircraft guns, German warplanes rained down SD-2 anti-personnel cluster bombs on the defenceless Soviet infantry masses, who fell in droves.
By 26 May, the surviving Soviet troops had been compressed into crowded positions in a very small area. Soviet attempts to break through the German encirclement in the east were continuously blocked by the German combination of defensive manoeuvring and air power. Groups of Soviet tanks and infantry which managed to break through German lines were then caught and destroyed by Ju 87 dive-bombers of StG 77. The flat terrain provided the Germans with simple observation, and forward observers directed long-range 105-mm and 150-mm (4.13-in and 5.91-in) artillery fire onto the Soviets from a safe distance and thereby conserve the German infantry. More than 200,000 Soviet troops, hundreds of tanks and thousands of trucks and horse-drawn wagons filling the narrow dirt road between Krutoyarka and Fedorovka were under constant German artillery fire and relentless air attacks, he latter with 4.4-lb (2-kg) SD-2 cluster munitions to kill unprotected infantry and 551-lb (250-kg) SC-250 bombs to destroy vehicles and tanks. Shattered vehicles and many thousands of dead and dying Soviet soldiers choked the road and the nearby ravines. General Major Leonid V. Bobkin, the commander of the 'Bobkin' Operational Group and deputy commander of cavalry in the South-West Front, was killed by German machine gun fire and two other Soviet generals were killed in action on 27 and 27 May.
In the face of these determined German operations, Timoshenko ordered the official halt of all Soviet offensive manoeuvres on 28 May, while attacks to break out of the encirclement continued until 30 May. Nonetheless, less than one man in 10 broke out of the 'Barvenkovo mousetrap'. Strategically, this 2nd Battle of Kharkov was a major Soviet setback, and brought to an end the Soviet successes of the winter counter-offensives.
Many commentators have sought to ascertain the reasons for the Soviet defeat in the 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation'. Several Soviet generals have placed the blame on the inability of Stalin and the Stavka to appreciate Germany’s still very potent military capabilities on the Eastern Front after their defeats in the winter of 1941/42 and during the spring of 1942. Zhukov came to the conclusion that the operation’s failure was wholly predictable as the offensive had been organised very ineptly inasmuch as the risk of exposing the left flank of the Izyum salient to German counterattacks being obvious on a map. Zhukov also wrote that the main reason for the Soviet defeat lay in the mistakes made by Stalin, who underestimated the danger of German armies in the south-western sector of the Eastern Front and failed to take steps to concentrate any substantial strategic reserves to meet potential German threats. Furthermore, Stalin ignored the advice proffered by Voroshilov, who had recommended the creation of a strong defence in the south-western sector in order to be able to repulse any German attack.
Moreover, subordinate Soviet generals, especially those of the South-West Front, were just as willing to continue their own successes of the winter, and much like the German generals underestimated the strength of their opponent: while the Soviet winter counter-offensive had weakened the Germans, it had not destroyed it.
Stalin’s willingness to expend armies of recent conscripts, both poorly trained and poorly supplied, highlighted his misconception of realities, both in the capabilities of the Soviet army in general and the subordinate arms in particular, and in the German forces' ability to defend themselves and then launch a successful counter-offensive. The latter was proved to be especially true in the subsequent 'Blau', which led to the Battle of Stalingrad, though the latter was a battle in which Paulus faced an entirely different outcome.
However, the 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation' had also confirmed the potential of the Soviet army to conduct a successful offensive. This battle can be seen as one of the first major instances in which the Soviets attempted to pre-empt a German summer offensive. This later grew large and more effective as the Stavka planned and conducted 'Mars', 'Uran' and 'Saturn'. Although only two of these three were Soviet victories, their conduct nonetheless offered concise and telling evidence of the Soviet capability for turning the war in their favour. This reached an early peak in the aftermath of 'Zitadelle', or the Battle of Kursk, in July 1943. The 2nd Battle of Kharkov also had a positive effect on Stalin, who started to place greater trust and faith his commanders and his chief-of-staff: this is evident in the fact that Stalin now allowed the latter to have the last word in the naming of front commanders. After the 'great purge' of 1937, failing to anticipate the war in 1941 and underestimating German military power in 1942, Stalin had now started to place a full trust in his military.
Within the context of the battle itself, the Soviet failure to regroup properly in the lead-up to the battle and the ability of the Germans to effectively collect intelligence on Soviet movements played important roles in the outcome. Poor Soviet performance in the north and equally poor intelligence-gathering by the Stavka and front headquarters also contributed strongly to the offensive’s failure. Even so, despite this poor performance it underscored a dedicated evolution of operations and tactics within the Soviet army, which borrowed and refined the Soviet pre-war theory of the deep battle.