This was a Soviet offensive, more formally known as the 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation', against the German positions in the Belgorod-Kharkov salient to the south of the Soviet-held Kursk salient in the aftermath of the defeat of the German ‘Zitadelle’ and resulted in the 4th Battle of Kharkov (3/23 August 1943).
The ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ undertaking comprised three sub-operations in the form of the ‘Belgorod-Bogodukhov Offensive Operation’ (3/23 August), ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive Operation’ (12/23 August) and ‘Zmiez Offensive Operation’ (12/23 August), and was designed to retake Belgorod and Kharkov.
The complete undertaking was co-ordinated on behalf of the Stavka by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov and undertaken by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front 1 on the left, and General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front 2 on the right. The right wing of General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front (General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 57th Army and General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army) also played a limited part on the extreme left of the Soviet offensive, which was supported by the fronts’ tactical air armies and 200 bombers of the long-range bomber force, as well as artillery of the Stavka reserve shifted to the south from support of General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front, which on 19 July had started a major offensive to the north of the Kursk salient to take the German-held salient centred on Orel.
A deception operation was undertaken by Chibisov’s 38th Army on the extreme right flank of the Voronezh Front, this effort on the southern half of the extreme west of the Soviets’ Kursk salient involving radio networks and troop movements to persuade the Germans that a major undertaking was being prepared in this sector, but in the event this deception proved unnecessary as the possibility of the real offensive, especially in its strength and scheduling, had not been considered by Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ for the area held by Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee on the southern side of the Kursk salient and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ in the angle where the front line turned south once more in the area to the north of Kharkov.
As the war on the Eastern Front entered its third year in June 1943, both Germany and the USSR expected the summer of 1943 to provide the answers to a pair of vital questions: could the German forces overcome the effects of their reverses in the winter campaigns of 1942/43 and regain the strategic initiative, and could the Soviet forces confirm that they could defeat the Germans in a summer campaign when they were without their long-stablished ally ‘General Winter’? The German defeat in ‘Zitadelle’ provided a decisively negative answer to the first question, and after ‘Zitadelle’ a Soviet campaign of little short of three months provided a decisively positive answer.
During the spring of 1943, as they planned for their summer campaigns, the Soviets had to strategic possibilities to consider: a German major offensive of the type they had undertaken in the previous two summers and, should that not eventuate or could be halted, a Soviet major offensive of a size and concept similar to that the had undertaken during the winter of 1942/43. And despite their constant demands for the Western Allies to open a second front in Europe, the Soviets could no ignore the fact that they were indeed already deriving benefits from the Allies’ operations in the Mediterranean theatre and their threats of invasions in the Mediterranean theatre and on the coast of France. The Allied threats to Italy, the Balkans and France were factors which Adolf Hitler could not ignore, and certainly circumscribed the scale and ambition of any Eastern Front campaign the German leader might otherwise have contemplated. Thus there was every possibility, so far as the Germans were concerned, that their armies would find it impossible to seize and hold the complete strategic initiative on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1943, and indeed would be faced with the need to prevent the Soviet forces from delivering powerful offensives or, should this prove impossible, stunt these offensives before they retook sizeable regions of the western USSR and further whittle down Germans’ already overtaxed forces before the end of the summer campaigning season.
The most vulnerable sector of the Eastern Front, so far as the Germans were concerned, remained their southern flank. To the south of Kharkov, the front held by von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ extended to the east some 150 miles (240 km) along the line of the Donets river and then veered away to the south along the Mius river to the Gulf of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov. Soviet forces already held several small bridgeheads on the southern bank of the Donets river, the most important of these being that in the sharp bend of the river to the south of Izyum. To defend more than 250 miles (400 km) of front, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had two armies, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee on the Donets river and, on the line of the Mius river Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s new 6th Army formed out of Hollidt’s own Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ on 6 March but a mere shadow of the first 6th Army which had been lost at Stalingrad. A Soviet thrust of slightly more than 100 miles (160 km) on the axis from Kharkov to Dnepropetrovsk would probably cut off both of these armies, break the southern flank of the German front, and isolate Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in Kuban and Crimea.
The campaigns of the winter of 1942/43 had shown that German tactical and operational skills often combined with a Soviet lack of these skills to deny such undertakings a full measure of success, but had also revealed that even when they were denied the full measure of their expectations the Soviets could nonetheless reap very significant dividends. Appreciating that these factors could not have escaped the attentions of the Soviet high command, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s department responsible for Eastern Front intelligence, predicted in May 1943 that the Soviets would make their main effort of the summer of 1943 on the southern flank, either at Kharkov or against the 6th Army, and that it would be either preceded or accompanied by a secondary attack in the sector of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to pin German forces there and also eliminate the German forces’ Orel salient to the north of the Soviet forces’ Kursk salient as a possible threat to the flank of the offensive in the south.
Even had the tactical advantages been less obvious, the Stavka would still probably have allocated priority to the southern flank in the summer of 1943. Of the shortages created by the German invasion, those still being most acutely felt by Soviet industry and the Soviet people were of coal, ferrous metals and foodstuffs, especially grain and animal products. These shortages could be eliminated most effectively and quickly by the recapture of Ukraine. Between Stalino and the Mius river lies the majority of the Donbass coal fields; inside the great bend of the Dniepr river were the Krivoi Rog iron mines, which before the war had supplied 40% of the iron ore used by Soviet industry; and despite monumental efforts in the previous two years to bring into production new lands to the east of the Ural mountains, the agricultural region of Ukraine was needed if the food shortage was to be overcome in the near future.
By the summer of 1943 the Germans had managed, at least in the short term, to halt the Eastern Front’s decline in strength, a decline which had been the cause of so great a concern in the period between the autumn of 1942 and spring of 1943. On 20 July the Germans strength on the Eastern Front, exclusive of allies and Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s 20th Gebirgsarmee in northern Finland, was 3.064 million men, a figure only about 250,000 men short of the peak strength of 1941 and 574,000 men more than that of 1 September 1942. Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8th Army had been recalled from the USSR to Italy in March and April 1943, but Romania and Hungary still had between 150,000 and 200,000 men on the Eastern Front and its rear areas. To the south of Leningrad Teniente General Esteban-Infantes Martín’s Spanish División Azul, known to the Germans as the 250th Division, held a sector of the front of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
Much of the restoration of the Axis strength on the Eastern Front had been realised through the relocation of Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS formations, and the withdrawal of formations and units from theatres which came under the control of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. Moreover, the three-month period of relative quiet on the Eastern Front had meant that for the first time in more than 12 months that the number of men returning to duty from hospital exceeded the casualty rate. Additionally, the 1943 draft of 18-year old youths and the screening of deferred workers had produced enough men not only to offset the winter months’ losses but leave a few hundred thousand men to spare.
On 20 July 1943 the Soviet strength, according to German estimates, was 5.755 million men, an increase of 1.5 million men over September 1942 and about three times the increase on the German strength over the same period. The Germans estimated that the Soviet front-line forces possessed an estimated 7,855 tanks (in fact the total was 8,500 tanks with another 400 in reserve) and 21,050 anti-tank guns, while they themselves had 2,088 tanks and 8,063 anti-tank guns. Superiorities of 2/1 in men, almost 4/1 in tanks and more than 2/1 in anti-tank guns could in themselves be regarded as sufficient to justify an offensive, but on the Eastern Front the standard ratios were not necessarily adequate in themselves. The Germans had been operating against numerically superior Soviet forces since the start of the war in June 1941, and something more than an advantage in manpower and equipment were necessary for the Soviets to defeat the Germans in their own speciality, which was the summer offensive.
One consideration which in all probability weighed heavily in the Stavka’s decision to undertake a summer offensive was the knowledge that the fighting of the last two years had seen the emergence of the Soviet forces from the state of military apprenticeship. The Soviet commanders had learned much from the Germans and, not content to be blind imitators, had also successfully adapted German methods to take advantage of their own capabilities and decrease their own limitations. While they had not attained the complete set of command skills displayed by the Germans, the Soviet commanders, at least at the upper command levels, had developed the flexibility which had been all too evident in the earlier campaigns and had also effected significant improvements in their large-scale offensive tactics, as confirmed by the winter offensive of 1942/43. The German Blitzkrieg concept was based on the delivery of a decisive stroke with a combination of precision, speed and economy of effort, and its distinguishing features were deep penetration and the avoidance of frontal engagements across any major width of front. To German staff officers the Schwerpunktbildung (concentration of force at the decisive point) was the single most crucial element of the military art. The Soviets, on the other hand, preferred assault on a wider front and execution of the offensive in a more conservative fashion, but by now had adopted the breakthrough and penetration as basic tactical manoeuvres, but preferred to achieve the decisive effect with a few deep thrusts across the breadth of the front rather than by just one or two deep thrusts. The Soviets also accepted the principle of the Schwerpunkt, but to a lesser degree than than German practice and the main effort was almost always developed gradually by a succession of thrusts: thus while the Soviets had come to appreciate the value of the German type of double envelopment, they did not use it as often as did the Germans. Thus the Soviets were generally content with a single thrust or multiple thrusts with the object of forcing the Germans back along a wide front rather than achieving a deep penetration on a single axis.
Such tactics were especially well suited to the southern part of the USSR where the prevalence on numerous, and essentially parallel, rivers afforded natural lines of defence. Thus drives from one river line to that behind it would almost inevitably result in German withdrawals across a wide front to avoid the possibility of their forces being caught between two river lines.
The primary objective of German offensives, in theory at least, was the rapid destruction of the opponent’s main strength, and the purpose was therefore not to gain ground or merely alter the respective positions of the opposing forces, but to compel a decisive result. The Soviets, on the other hand, were not as enamoured of speed of advance or the delivery of a decisive stroke, but were content to use their numerical superiority on men and equipment to degrade their opponents in a succession of blows. However, contrary to the general conception that the Soviets were relatively indifferent to geographical space, they generally reckoned their victories as much in terms of ground regained as the damage inflicted on the opponent or any other comparable tactical advantage. The Soviet forces’ ultimate objective was the total destruction of the opponent through the cumulative effect of repeated offensives rather than by a single decisive battle: in other words by weight rather than one skilful strike.
Despite the mass of words with with the Soviets emphasised the two basic elements (the single thrust and the broad-front offensive), both could be explained in terms of the deficiencies of the Soviet forces. The Soviets saw in the encirclement battle the single most efficient way to bring about the destruction of large opposing forces yet, on the other hand, in practical terms saw the double encirclement as unreliable and generally preferred the single thrust on their planning. The Soviets were all too aware that the completion of a double envelopment required a degree of co-operative skill that was seldom available at all levels of leadership: in particular, it required middle- and lower-ranking commanders with the initiative and capability to encounter and then swiftly master unforeseen developments without major dislocation of the overall plan. The Soviets lacked such middle- and lower-ranking commanders, at least in the numbers required. Additionally, the double envelopment required formations of a uniform and indeed high quality, and the USSR also lacked these.
On the basis of their disasters in the 1941 campaigns, the Soviets had concentrated on the development of its armoured and artillery arms, in both numbers and the quality of their equipment, for organisation and employment in large-scale military operations. By the middle of 1943, the Soviet artillery arm had been expanded to a huge degree, equipped with reliable weapons, and trained to the level at which it might no always be highly accurate against pinpoint targets but was able to lay down preparatory fire of an intensity comparable to that seen in several battles of World War I. In the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise ‘Kutuzov’) of 12 July/18 August 1943, for example, General Leytenant Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 11th Guards Army had 3,000 pieces of artillery and heavy mortars, which was almost double the standard issue to the armies in the Stalingrad operation and three times the complement of the armies in the 1941 counteroffensive at Moscow. At the end of 1942 the Soviet Army had 17 rocket-launcher brigades and had begun organising an initial increase of 30 self-propelled artillery regiments. In the spring of 1943 it began to establish artillery brigades and anti-tank artillery regiments, and in the second half of the same year created 26 artillery divisions.
The Soviet armoured force was well trained, and equipped for the most part with the excellent T-34 medium tank, both designed and built in the USSR. There were still numbers of US and British Lend-Lease tanks in Soviet service, but these were regarded as too light and also lacking in the reliability characteristic of Soviet tanks. The earlier Soviet practice of deploying modest numbers of tanks among infantry formations had now been ended, and the brigades and corps had become the standard armoured units and formations. Each of the tank armies, of which five had been created by the end of the summer of 1943, had two tank and one mechanised corps, and were capable of undertaking independent tactical missions.
By a time early in the summer of 1943 the Soviets had an advantage of at least 2.5/1 over the Germans in numbers of warplanes, though these were in general still qualitatively inferior to those of the Germans, although not the the extent which had become so glaringly obvious from June 1941. The Soviet air arm was still subordinated to the army, and its efforts were concentrated almost exclusively on air defence, tactical bombing and close support. At the end of 1942 each front had been allocated one air army.
In 1943 the infantry in general and the guards formations and units in particular received larger numbers of anti-tank weapons and began to receive the excellent PPS sub-machine gun and new SG-43 medium machine gun, the latter to replace the Model 1908 Maxim weapon. Even so, the huge effort to develop the technical arms had resulted in persistent neglect of the infantry, which received the lowest-grade recruits, least competent officers, and very little training. In 1943, indeed, the Germans noted that the quality of the Soviet infantry was lower than it had been in 1941, and also that the decline was continuing. In mass attacks the infantry could be monumentally effective, but it was not a weapon of any precision. On its own infantry lacked endurance, and without tank and artillery support it swiftly lost momentum.
The failings which made the double envelopment unreliable in Soviet practice also limited the effect of the single thrust. Aware of their own weaknesses and those of their troops, Soviet commanders had a tendency toward an excessive sensitivity about their flanks. After the initial breakthrough, which could be guaranteed by the artillery and armour, infantry commanders revealed a general reluctance to forge their way forward and all too frequently began to expand laterally in an attempt to keep their flanks open, with the result that forward momentum declined. Even when the armour was able to drive forward rapidly, the infantry frequently lagged behind it and planned deep thrusts took the form of tank raids which often ended in near disaster for lack of infantry support. The depth of the single thrust was further limited by considerations of control and supply. As by its very nature the offensive was difficult to plan in detail beyond the first few days of combat, an ever larger number of unforeseen factors intervened as the advance proceeded, with the result that the burdens on the initiative and judgment of the field commander, and on the troops themselves, increased dramatically. Given the weakness of the Soviet forces, therefore, the probability of a single thrust succeeding declined as the distance from the point of breakthrough to the planned objective increased.
Finally, and despite the fact that it could sometimes perform great feats of improvisation, the Soviet supply system was neither equipped nor organised to cope as a matter of routine with the logistics of any rapid advance over a long distance. The Soviet soldier, who survived almost entirely on the foodstuffs he could carry in the sack he customarily slung over his shoulder or tied to his belt, who preferred German boots, hand weapons, and other items of equipment to his own, and who was by necessity as much as inclination an expert scrounger, was one of the least demanding in the world. The armies were expected to forage and collect booty with utmost diligence. An example of what could be achieved along those lines was that of an army which in the winter of 1942/43, passing through an area which the Germans had subjected to scorched earth treatment, collected the following percentages of its monthly requirements of staples: flour 54%, vegetables 97%, meat 108%, hay 140% and oats 68%.
Even so, the Soviet forces of 1943 could not live off the land and rely on booty. Soviet formations were therefore generally adequately provisioned and supplied with ammunition and motor fuel before the start of any offensive, usually on the basis that each formation should have stocks on hand for a 10-day operation and an advance of up to 70 miles (115 km). Beyond this distance (and all too often short of it), the combination of insufficient transport and a slapdash approach to Supply problems was a major impediment to the success of Soviet mobile operations. Before the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’, for example, the infantry had been neglected in the supply build-up and ammunition had later to be delivered by air to keep the offensive on the move.
In much the same way as the single thrust avoided the heavier logistic demands of the double envelopment, so the concept of multiple thrusts on a broad front avoided the ultimate problems of the single thrust. The broad front possessed the great advantage of extending the offensive laterally, which enabled the Stavka to bring strength to bear on a number of points and eliminate the risks inherent in attempting to pursue one clearly defined line of advance. The offensive was relatively easy to control since success did not depend on manoeuvring one or a few bodies of troops in motion, but could be attained instead by a series of thrusts launched more or less at will from convenient lines of departure. The supply problems, if not eliminated, were thus eased to a significant degree: assembly could be carried out over a number of railway lines, and none of the thrusts had to advance so deeply that it outran its supplies.
The broad-front offensive was at best a modified linear method of warfare inasmuch as it required massed troops, repeated frontal encounters, and an opponent willing (as Hitler was) to respond with a linear defence.
In the matter of psychological warfare, ‘Zitadelle’ yielded the USSR a clear and decisive victory. German psychological warfare and propaganda, always hobbled by Hitler’s racial theories and his extreme war aims, had declined steadily in effectiveness since the winter of 1941/42, but as late as the spring of 1943 the Smolensk Manifesto (over the signature of the renegade General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov and promising considerable but largely non-specific reforms in the areas of the USSR taken by Germany) had given the Soviet authorities some cause for worry, and the propaganda of the ‘Silberstreif’ programme offering lenient treatment for Soviet deserters had revealed some promise despite the fact that it failed to achieve much in the way of practical results. After ‘Zitadelle’ the German psychological warfare effort was completely on the defensive, and the Soviet propagandists therefore had the initiative. They could exploit a two-year history of German injustices and atrocities, and a yearning desire by the people of the USSR to believe that things would be better with the return of Soviet rule and, with this, an early end to the war.
‘Zitadelle’ and what followed also gave Soviet propaganda directed to the Germans a new and more substantial basis. During the late summer the Soviets created the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (National Committee for a Free Germany) and its subsidiary Bund Deutscher Offiziere (League of German Officers). The former comprised for the most part émigré communists, but the latter was allegedly voluntary, non-communist and devoted exclusively to removing Hitler and restoring the traditional social order in Germany. The league, headed by General Kurt von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, had an original membership of three other generals also taken prisoner at Stalingrad and 100 more junior officers. The league issued a newspaper which was dropped behind the German lines, and von Seydlitz-Kurzbach occasionally addressed personal letters to army and army group commanders calling on them to join the movement.
An attack on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, with the objective of recapturing Kharkov and breaking through to the Dniepr river, had been considered one of the most likely possibilities in all the German forecasts for the summer of 1943. On 21 July von Manstein had asked the Oberkommando des Heeres for a decision either to hold the line of the Donets river, a task which would require more troops, or to prepare for a gradual withdrawal to the Dniepr river in order to gain sufficient troops to prevent a breakthrough on his northern flank. The Oberkommando des Heeres made no such decision.
At the end of the month Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had some 822,000 men with which to oppose an estimated 1.713 million Soviet troops. The army group had 1,161 tanks, only some 50% of them serviceable, and the Soviets had 2,872 tanks.
von Manstein had anticipated that the Soviets would launch an attack across the Dniepr and Mius rivers in an attempt to reach the Black Sea, thereby cutting off the German forces extended to the east in the southern part of his army group’s front, and when General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front and General Polkovnik Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front launched just such an attack on 17 July as the ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’, the Germans responded by moving SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, General Willibald Freiherr von von Langermann und Erlenkamp’s XXIV Panzerkorps and General Dietrich von Choltitz’s XLVIII Panzerkorps to the south in order to blunt the Soviet offensive. In fact these Soviet operations were intended to draw off German forces from the thrust of the Soviet primary offensive, thereby weakening the German reserves.
The ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ had been planned by the Stavka as the primary Soviet offensive of the summer of 1943 but, as a result of the heavy losses they had suffered in ‘Zitadelle’ during July, the Soviet formations needed time to recover, rehabilitate and regroup, and the undertaking was therefore somewhat revised into a strategic effort to defeat the 4th Panzerarmee, Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ and the southern wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, which comprised von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and Hollidt’s newly re-formed 6th Army. These last two, the Soviets hoped, would be trapped by an advance of the Soviet forces to the north coast of the Black Sea.
Against the 4th Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, the Stavka was about to launch the Voronezh Front and Steppe Front, each of them reinforced with armies which had been held in reserve during ‘Zitadelle’. During the last two weeks of July, Konev’s Steppe Front had taken over the left flank of Vatutin’s Voronezh Front to the east and south of Belgorod, assuming command of the two armies there and bringing with it two armies from the reserve. The Soviet plan envisaged a wedge of four armies (5th Guards Army, 6th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army and 1st Tank Army) for an advance to the south-west between Akhtyrka and Kharkov toward Poltava. While Vatutin’s advance thus separated the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, in the process driving the 4th Panzerarmee toward Akhtyrka, Konev was to close on Kharkov from the north. The 57th Army, on the right flank of the South-West Front, was to close on Kharkov from the east.
The Soviet plan was based on the use of the 1st Tank Army and 5th Guards Army, supported by two additional mobile corps, to encircle Kharkov from the north and west. To the west, four separate tank corps would provide support, as too would the 27th and 40th Armies. To the east and south-east, the 69th and 7th Guards Armies, followed by the 57th Army of the South-West Front, also supported the attack. The 6th Guards Army, which had been weakened after bearing the brunt of the German ‘Zitadelle’ offensive, and the Soviet 53rd Army were also a part of the operation. The offensive was supported by a very heavy collection of artillery focused along a 18.5-mile (30-km) front.
On 1 August von Manstein reported to the informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that he was expecting an attack on Kharkov as the inevitable next Soviet assault, but even so, when it started two days later, the attack secured a measure of tactical surprise and caught the 4th Panzerarmee and Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ in positions ahead of those they had held in the period before the ‘Zitadelle’ offensive. After ‘Zitadelle’, von Manstein had come to the conclusion that his army group’s offensive on the southern side of the Kursk salient had dislocated the Soviet dispositions sufficiently that the Soviets would require several week to reorganise their inevitable offensive. On 2 August, in the belief that his formations still had enough time, von Manstein had decided to await more definite signs of an imminent offensive before he withdrew his formations to their original positions.
To the north-west of Belgorod, on the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee and with its own right tying in with the left flank of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, was Generalleutnant Wolf Trierenberg’s 167th Division. By the standard of the German forces on the Eastern Front at this time, this was a good division inasmuch as it was not greatly understrength and generally fit for combat. On the morning of 3 August the massed artillery of the Voronezh Front’s 6th Guards Army dropped a barrage of several hours’ duration onto the sector held by this division. When the barrage ended, 200 Soviet tanks punched into the German line with waves of close-packed infantry in their wake. Before the fall of night, the 167th Division was nothing more than an assortment of shattered and much diminished small groups: its infantry regiments had been completely destroyed as units, leaving nothing but dazed survivors.
Near the centre of the 4th Panzerarmee’s front, a secondary attack hit Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 332nd Division, and by the end of the day this division’s front had also begun to crumble. On the next day two Soviet tank corps pushed their way to the south, elbowing aside the shattered 167th Division and also the 6th Panzerdivision, under the temporary command of Generalmajor Wilhelm Crisolli, which had moved up in a vain attempt to close the breach. During the day the Soviet armour opened a 7-mile (11.25-km) gap between 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, and drove the eastern part of the German line right back to the outskirts of Belgorod.
On 5 August the Soviets entered Belgorod, and on the same day, in the area of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front captured Orel in the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’. To celebrate the two victories, Iosif Stalin ordered an artillery salute of 12 volleys from 120 guns. It was the first time in the war that such a salute had been fired, and in Moscow some of the citizens, thinking it was an air raid, took to their cellars. In the coming months the booming of victory cannon was to become a frequent occurrence in the Soviet capital. As an additional honour, the first divisions to enter Belgorod and Orel were granted the right to add the names of the two cities in their formation designations. In his order of the day, furthermore, Stalin stated that ‘In this way the German legend that Soviet troops are allegedly unable to wage a successful offensive in the summer has been dispelled.’ Nothing could be a clearer indication that the Soviet leadership now possessed a wholly optimistic assessment of its military prospects, and had therefore decided to commit itself publicly to a full-scale summer offensive.
With a total of just 15 divisions, only three of them Panzer divisions, the 4th Panzerarmee and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ faced two entire Soviet fronts and part of a third front with, between them, 11 armies to pit against just two German armies. Even taking into account that Soviet formations and units were almost invariably smaller than their German counterparts, this still represented a huge Soviet advantage in men and matériel.
One of Hitler’s first decisions after learning of the start of the ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ had been to order the redeployment of Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ back from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the return of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, which was being held as part of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s reserve. On the second day he also decided to leave SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS-Standartenführer Hermann Priess’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ under the command of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Since the headquarters of Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s (from 20 August SS-Brigadeführer under Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s) SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ had already been transferred to Italy, von Manstein placed the two SS Panzergrenadier divisions under the headquarters of General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps, together with Generalleutnant Franz Westhoven’s 3rd Panzerdivision. von Manstein ordered these and also SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’ into the area of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’.
In the first six days of the fighting, von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ despatched one infantry division and von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ three infantry divisions, but on 7 August von Kluge reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres that the battle for the Orel salient was clearly approaching its climax and insisted that no more divisions could be withdrawn from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ without jeopardising the army group’s continued defence of the ‘Hagen-Stellung’. Several days later Generaloberst Walter Model, commanding the 9th Army, submitted a similar report. In the critical early phase of the Soviet offensive, therefore, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ therefore received only meagre assistance from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte while its main strength, the 2nd Panzerarmee and 9th Army, both under Model’s direct command and the one great potential reservoir of reserves on the Eastern Front, fought a secondary battle in the Orel bulge with no fewer than 45 divisions.
In the area in which the Soviet forces had broken through, the most which Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ could achieve during these early days was to attempt to slow the surge of the Soviet advance. To gain room to manoeuvre, Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee extended its boundary farther to the north, taking 40 miles (65 km) of front and four weak divisions from Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army. While three divisions, cut off in the first onslaught, fought their way out to the west, Hoth moved the newly arrived Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ into a bridgehead to the east of Akhtyrka in order to fix his right flank and to prevent the Soviets from rolling up his line farther to the north and west. Hoth could do nothing about the gap between his army and the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’, however. By 8 August the gap had opened to a width of some 35 miles (55 km) and, except for one infantry division in the area to the north-west of Poltava, this offered the Soviet forces a clear road to the Dniepr river 100 miles (160 km) to the south-west.
On the right-hand side of the gap, Kempf made a determined effort to avoid the encirclement of his Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ as the Steppe Front forced the northern end of his front toward Kharkov as, on the west, the Voronezh Front’s 1st Tank Army attempted to push to the south past the city. The Waffen-SS divisions coming from the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had to be committed to screen the rear of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ to the west of Kharkov. von Manstein had intended to group these formations for a counterattack to close the gap, but they had to be committed individually as soon as they reached the front. The most they could do was carry the line out parallel to the Merlya river on each side of Merefa, which served only to effect a slight narrowing of the gap, but did deflect the Soviet advance toward the south-west and thus away from Kharkov.
On 12 August, Kempf was so concerned about his declining infantry strength that he suggested the evacuation of Kharkov on the next day and a retreat to a shorter line in the area to the south of the city. von Manstein did not object, but Hitler promptly ordered that Kharkov be held regardless of cost, and demanded the severest of measures against any formations and units which failed to execute their assigned missions. Expecting a breakthrough on the east at any moment (the 57th Army had already crossed the river and taken Chuguyev, Kempf predicted that the order to hold Kharkov would produce a defeat similar to, although smaller in scale, than that at Stalingrad. On 14 August von Manstein replaced Kempf with General Otto Wöhler, and a few days later, on 22 August, the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ was redesignated as the 8th Army.
Meanwhile, von Manstein and General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, had tried once more to persuade Hitler to adopt a coherent strategic and operational defence plan. On 8 August Zeitzler visited the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and was told by von Manstein that the continued existence of the entire army group was under threat. The only realistic alternatives, in von Manstein’s opinion, were either the immediate yielding of the Donets river front in order to gain sufficient strength to hold the northern flank, or the delivery of 20 fresh divisions for the army group, 10 of them for the 4th Panzerarmee and the other 10 to support the rest of the army group’s front.
As on other occasions when he had faced unpleasant choices, Hitler avoided the decision by switching to another subject, and now resurrected the idea of an ‘Ostwall’ of the type he had decisively rejected earlier in the year. On 12 August he ordered work started at once on this defence line, which which was to begin in the south on the Kerch peninsula of Crimea, continue on the mainland at Melitopol, extend in an almost straight line to the Dniepr river near Zaporozhye, then veer to the east around Zaporozhye in a large bridgehead, and finally in its southern sector follow the Dniepr river to the north-west as far as Kiev in the north, with bridgeheads to the east of the major cities. To the north of Kiev the ‘Ostwall’ was to follow the Desna river to Chernigov and then run almost straight to the north along a line somewhat to the east of the cities of Gomel, Orsha, Vitebsk, Nevel and Pskov to the southern end of Lake Pskov. from which it would continue to the north along the western shore of the lake and the Narva river to the Gulf of Finland. Fearing that the designation ‘Ostwall’, as applied to a defence line which in its southern half might have to be occupied even before work on it could be started, might prove dangerous in terms of morale and and psychology, the Oberkommando des Heeres later in the same month adopted two neutral yet still martial code names, namely the ‘Wotan-Stellung’ for the positions planned for Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and the ‘Panther-Stellung’ for the positions planned for Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
Though it could be construed that in agreeing to the construction of the ‘Ostwall’ Hitler had finally accepted that a general retreat on the Eastern Front was inevitable, subsequent decisions suggest strongly that what he actually envisaged was the establishment of an absolute barrier beyond which the armies could not retreat and at the same time, given the fact that no construction work of any kind had yet been undertaken to create this defensive position, provide himself with an excuse
for not allowing any retreat in the meantime. The one major withdrawal he tentatively approved after issuing the ‘Ostwall’ order, evacuation of the ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement in Kuban, he postponed on 14 August on the grounds that such a retirement would have unfavourable repercussions both among Germany’s allies and in neutral Turkey.
While Hitler was seeking to avoid hard decisions in his never-ending strategic argument with his senior military commanders, the battle on the northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ continued and, during the latter part of the second week of August, became somewhat shapeless largely as a result of the indecisive nature of the Soviet operational method.
Following its withdrawal from Belgorod on the night of 5/6 August, General Erhard Raus’s XI Corps held defensive positions in the area to the south of the city between the Donets and Lopan rivers in the area to the north of Kharkov. The XI Corps comprised a Kampfgruppe of Trierenberg’s 167th Division, Generalleutnant Walter de Beaulieu’s 168th Division, Generalleutnant Werner Frost’s 106th Division, Generalmajor Alfred Kuhnert’s 198th Division, Generalleutnant Kurt Röpke’s (from 20 August Generalleutnant Georg Postel’s) 320th Division and the 6th Panzerdivision, the last acting as the corps reserve still under the temporary command of Crisolli and, from 21 August, Oberst Rudolf Freiherr von Waldenfels. This German position constituted a deep salient to the east into the Soviet line and was open to outflanking attempts on its left flank: indeed, Soviet armoured units had already appeared 20 miles (32 km) behind the corps’ front line. The XI Corps now had little option but to make a series of phased withdrawals toward Kharkov in order to prevent encirclement. The corps reached the final defences to the north of the city on 12 August following breakthroughs by the Soviet 57th Army and 69th Armies in several parts of the front, the disintegration of the 168th Division and the failure of an intervention by the 6th Panzerdivision.
When its attempts to force a breakthrough along the lines linking Bogodukhov, Olshany and Zolochev were checked along the line of the Merlya river, the Steppe Front redirected its assaults toward Korotich in the sector held by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, in order to sever the railway link between Poltava and Kharkov. In the fierce fighting which resulted, Korotich was captured by General Major Boris M. Skvortsov’s V Guards Mechanised Corps and then retaken by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, but General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army finally succeeded in severing the railway link on 22 August.
The loss of this line of communication was not in itself a fatal blow to the German retention of Kharkov, but was nonetheless a serious blow to the ability of the 8th Army’ to hold the city in the face of constant Soviet attack. The loss of the railway connection meant critical delays in the delivery of supplies and reinforcements, and rendered the position of the 8th Army steadily less tenable.
While the way to Poltava remained open, Vatutin nonetheless hesitated to push through while the German formations flanking the gap still held firm, and instead turned his left-flank formations, the 5th Guards Army and 5th Guards Tank Army, against the western front of what was now the 8th Army, where the Waffen-SS divisions fought to keep the front angled to the south-westward and thus away from Kharkov. On the 8th Army’s weaker eastern front, the 57th Army cleared the right bank of the Donets river in the area between Chuguyev and Zmiyev, but the army command did not attempt a full-scale breakthrough.
Although forced by Hitler’s order to undertake the dangerous and, in the long run, futile exercise of holding Kharkov, von Manstein had by now concentrated most of his effort on the tactically decisive point, which was the gap between the 4th Panzerarmee and the 8th Army. After the Waffen-SS divisions became tied down on the 8th Army’s western front, von Manstein shifted the responsibility for the counterattack to the 4th Panzerarmee. On 18 August the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ and the 7th Panzerdivision, the latter commanded on a temporary basis since the previous day by Oberst Wolfgang Gläsemer pending the arrival on 23 August of a new commander in the form of Generalmajor Hasso von Manteuffel, broke out of the Akhtyrka bridgehead and in two days cut their way across the gap to establish contact with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, which succeeded in extending its left flank across the Merlya river. The counterattack removed the direct Soviet threat to Poltava to the south on the Vorskla river, but the 4th Panzerarmee’s front had meanwhile been broken open in an area farther to the north.
On 18 August, repeating the tactics he had employed in opening the offensive, Vatutin subjected Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 57th Division, which was holding a sector mid-way between Akhtyrka and Sumy, to a highly concentrated deluge of artillery, mortar and tank fire. By the middle of the afternoon the division’s regiments had lost all of their lieutenants and most of their senior non-commissioned officers. The divisional headquarters also reported to its immediate superior, General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps of the 4th Panzerarmee, that the surviving battalion commanders had been entirely unable to prevent their units from retreating. In the next two days the Soviets ripped open 10 miles (16 km) of the front, pushing aside what was left of the 57th Division, which was now redesignated as a Kampfgruppe, the term which was steadily becoming accepted as the designation of formations and units so degraded in strength that to continue calling them divisions would be wholly misleading.
Kharkov now constituted the heart of a German salient extending deeply to the east and whose retention by the German prevented the Soviets from making use of this vital traffic and supply centre. Following boastful reports by Soviet radio that Soviet troops had entered the city, when in fact it was still held by the XI Corps, Stalin personally ordered its immediate capture.
On 20 August, which was the date on which the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ linked to close the gap in the area to the west of Kharkov, Wöhler requested permission for his 8th Army to evacuate the city during the course of the night coming. After his first few days in command, Wöhler was no more optimistic than Kempf had been. Raus’s XI Corps, which was holding the front on the northern outskirts of Kharkov, had a strength of only 4,000 infantry, representing one man for each 11 yards (10 m) of front. As the German infantry strength declined, the artillery had been compelled to shoulder an ever-increasing part of the defensive task, but was now running out of ammunition. The army’s supply depots in Kharkov had five trainloads of spare tank tracks, left over from ‘Zitadelle’, but almost nothing else, and the high consumption of ammunition in the last six weeks had eaten into the stocks which had been earmarked for the second half of August and first two weeks of September. Until the start of the new month, therefore, the 8th Army would have to survive on only 50% of its average daily requirement of artillery and tank ammunition.
With great reluctance, Hitler authorised von Manstein to evacuate Kharkov but nonetheless asked that the city be held if this was at all possible. Hitler claimed that the loss of the city would seriously damage German prestige, especially in Turkey, whose commander-in-chief had been a guest of the Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’ during the spring and inspected the ‘impregnable’ defences of the city. On 20 August von Manstein thought that he might still be able to hold Kharkov and ordered that the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ be moved to the north in order to bolster the XI Corps. On the following day, von Manstein changed his mind and gave Wöhler permission to pull back ‘if necessary’. During the following morning the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ began a counterattack in the sector of the XI Corps, but Wöhler informed von Manstein that he still intended to yield the city. Wöhler added that his artillery situation was catastrophic, and that the gunners, after firing their last rounds, were abandoning their charges to fight as infantry. von Manstein responded that 24 train loads of ammunition were on the way from Germany, but nonetheless was compelled to agree with Wöhler that these would not arrive in time of allow the situation to be retrieved. In the afternoon Hitler requested that if the counterattack of the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ was effecting an improvement in the German situation round the city, Kharkov should not be given up. Both Wöhler and von Manstein were sure that was no longer possible, and during the night the city began to change hands for the fourth and final time in World War II.
On 22 August the Soviets observed large German columns leaving the city, and Soviet troops began to push into the city proper as the Germans fell back to the south along a corridor they fought desperately to hold open for the completion of the withdrawal. All along the length of this corridor, Soviet artillery and mortars pounded the retreating Germans even as Soviet warplanes bombed and strafed the columns of men and vehicles. After the fall of night, the 89th Guards Division and 107th Division reached the central part of Kharkov, driving the German rearguard detachments before them. Enormous fires had been started by the Germans in the hope of delaying the Soviet advance, and Kharkov became a hell of fire, smoke, the detonations of artillery shells and desperate combat, all punctuated by the explosions of supply dumps.
By 02.00 on 23 August, elements of the 183rd Division had pushed into the city centre, reached the huge Dzerzhinsky Square and linked with men of the 89th Division. By 11.00 Kharkov and its outskirts had been liberated, and the fourth and final battle for the city was over.
While 8th Army pulled back to the south of Kharkov, strong Soviet efforts to expand the breakthrough in the sector of the 4th Panzerarmee and reopen the route to Poltava compelled Hoth to pull his command back to the south of Akhtyrka on each side of the Vorskla river. By 25 August Hoth felt that the 4th Panzerarmee’s situation was now sufficiently stable that he could use two divisions for a counterattack into the gap. This counterattack was successful, and by 27 August the 4th Panzerarmee and 8th Army had re-established a continuous front on an arc bending to the south-west in the area between Sumy and Zmiyev. Though the Soviets listed the end of the ‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’ as 23 August, this marked the actual end of the offensive from the German point of view.
The Soviet losses in ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ were 71,610 men killed, 183,955 men wounded, 423 pieces of artillery and 1,864 armoured fighting vehicles, while the Germans losses amounted to about 10,000 men killed or missing, about 20,000 men wounded, 240 armoured fighting vehicles, and an unknown but substantial number of pieces of artillery.
Ultimately, ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ paved the way for the retreat of the German forces in Ukraine into the larger illusory ‘Wotan-Stellung’ behind the line Dniepr river, thus setting the stage for the liberation of Kiev in the autumn of 1943.
By re-establishing a continuous front on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, the 4th Panzerarmee and 8th Army had checked a potentially decisive Soviet thrust, if only on a temporary basis, but to the north and south fresh Soviet assaults had already been delivered or were being readied for implementation in the near future. Employing the particular laterally staggered nature characteristic of their major offensive blows, now thwarted in one region the Soviets quickly switched their emphasis sideways to other regions, thereby increasing the weight of the offensive laterally. Possessing the complete strategic initiative for the first time in the war, the Soviets seized their opportunity without any consideration of economy of effort, tactical sophistication or even the danger of overreaching themselves. Apparently concerned that that the Germans would attempt to create a stalemated situation, the Stavka concentrated on keeping the Germans off balance and not allowing them to establish a stable front line anywhere in the sectors of the Eastern Front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
Here the Soviet fronts grouped against the two German army groups in the ‘Smolensk Strategic Offensive Operation’ and ‘Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation’ were co-ordinated for the Stavka by Zhukov and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksander M. Vasilevsky respectively.
Only the outer flanks of the Eastern Front now remained effectively quiescent. In the area of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, on 22 August the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front finally abandoned the costly and unpromising ‘1st Mga Offensive Operation’ which they had launched on 22 July against the Mga bottleneck in the area to the south of Lake Ladoga. The Germans had never been unduly concerned about this Soviet effort as the undertaking had been poorly planned and executed from its start, and the Germans had surmised that its primary task was to prevent the relocation of reserves to the south. In the last two weeks the ‘1st Mga Offensive Operation’ had effectively disintegrated into a series of assaults by Soviet forces of divisional size or smaller. In the south, the greatest concern of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was to secure Hitler’s permission to undertake the ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’ evacuation of the ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement in Kuban before the advent of the autumn rains. Hitler insisted on first discussing the matter with Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Romanian leader, as a large proportion of the forces was Romanian. On his own initiative, at the end of August Zeitzler told Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to complete the required preparations as the decision was inevitable.
While the failure of their ‘Zitadelle’ meant that the Germans had lost the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front without any hope of regaining it, this was a fact which Hitler refused to accept. The great manpower losses of the German army in July and August 1943 now severely restricted both Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ (‘Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation’) and the concurrent ‘Kutuzov’ (‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’) marked the first occasion in the war that the German forces were unable to defeat major Soviet offensives during the summer months and regain both the ground they had lost and the strategic initiative.