Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' was a Soviet offensive operation by the Voronezh Front, Bryansk Front and South-West Front with the aim of defeating the Axis forces of Heeresgruppe 'B' and liberating a large area and the important industrial and administrative centres of Voronezh, Kursk, Belgorod and Kharkov (13 January/3 March 1943).

In the winter of 1942/43, the Red Army had launched several major offensives on the southern part of the Eastern Front in the wake of the Battle of Stalingrad. Late in December 1942, at the same time as Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army was increasingly compressed in Stalingrad by the troops of General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front, the troops of General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front defeated Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8th Army as part of 'Malyi Saturn' and reached a line linking Novaya Kalitva and Chernikovsky via Markovka and Volozhin.

While these successes were still happening, the Stavka planned a major strategic operation aimed at cutting off all the German forces in the Caucasus by taking Rostov-na-Donu. At the same time, General Leytenant (soon General Polkovnik) Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front, in co-operation with the left wing of General Polkovnik Max A. Reiter’s Bryansk Front and the right wing of Vatutin’s South-West Front, was ordered to create a potent offensive toward Voronezh and Kursk with the object of retaking Kharkov.

This 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' had three phases as the 'Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive Operation' (13/27 January), the 'Voronezh-Kastornoye Offensive Operation' (24 January/2 February) and the 'Kharkov Offensive Operation' or 'Star' (19 February/14 March). The whole undertaking lasted 50 days along a front between 155 and 250 miles (250 and 400 km) wide and to a depth of between 225 and 325 miles (360 and 520 km).

Several Soviet and Axis formations were involved in the Soviet offensive. 1

The third stage of the great counter-offensive which culminated in the destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad and the evacuation of the Caucasus was the offensive made by General Polkovnik Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front on Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s German 2nd Army and Vezérezredes Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army. Kharkov and the Donets Basin were the immediate objectives. The assault frontage stretched more than 300 miles (480 km) from Livny to Kantemirovka, and Golikov was to be assisted by the flanking formations of Reiter’s Bryansk Front to the north and Vatutin’s South-West Front to the south. The main attacks were to be struck by Moskalenko’s 40th Army together with XVIII Corps against the Hungarians on the right, and Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army against the Italians on the left, in order to encircle the Hungarian 2nd Army by a double envelopment, the two pincers meeting about 50 miles (80 km) to the rear near the town of Alexeyevka. The Soviet forces would then turn outward and roll up the German 2nd Army to the north and Gariboldi’s Italian 8a Armata to the south, by attacking their exposed flanks in conjunction with Chibisov’s 38th Army and Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army of the Voronezh Front, Pukhov’s 13th Army of the Bryansk Front and Kharitonov’s 6th Army of the South-West Front. In this main assault sector the German 2nd Army had two corps of seven divisions, the Hungarian 2nd Army comprising only nine brigades or light divisions, one armoured division and one German infantry division. The 8a Armata which included had been known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia (Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia) until July 1942, had three corps including the Corpo d’Armata Alpini whose three divisions were serving here. The Axis forces were outnumbered by the Soviets in both armour and artillery, the Voronezh Front alone comprising 19 infantry divisions and numerous tank and cavalry formations.

Golikov was allowed three weeks for reconnaissance and preparation, and the former was carried out from the air and from a series of observation and command posts constructed close to the Hungarian positions. Reconnaissance by probing attacks and fighting patrols was discouraged so that the Axis forces were not alerted. It soon became apparent that the Hungarian defences consisted of two defensive zones, one about 4 miles (6.5 km) deep and a second about 10 to 12.5 miles (16 to 20 km) to the rear of the forward line. Because of the Hungarian forces' passivity, the Soviets were able to withdraw almost entirely from all secondary sectors, this permitting the concentration of about 200 pieces of artillery and mortars per mile (320 125 per km) on each of the main assault frontages. Guns of all calibres were sited as direct-fire weapons, ready to destroy the many identified strongpoints. The lack of cover on the open steppe made it necessary to bring up troops over the last 100 miles (160 km) to the front only by night, and Soviet historians claim that these security measures were effective as the Hungarians believed that the Soviets had expended their strength and that for this reason an attack was unlikely. On 7 January, only seven days before the offensive was to be launched, Vezérõrnagy Gyula Kovács, the Hungarian 2nd Army's chief-of-staff, is said to have sent a report to Budapest in which he excluded the possibility of any Soviet attack on his sector. In fact an attack in this sector was not unexpected by the Germans.

Although the main attack was not due until 14 January, a preliminary reconnaissance probe made in some strength on 12 January threw the Hungarians into such disarray that Soviet troops were able to make a penetration some 3.125 miles (5 km) deep into the Hungarian defences. The main offensive was then launched without further delay, mine-rolling tanks being used for the first time to breach the defenders' minefields. Soviet accounts claim that the preparatory bombardment and the use of direct-fire guns was so effective that the Hungarian artillery observation posts were destroyed in the first few minutes, Soviet infantry and armour breaking through almost without loss. By 15 January the field defences which the Axis forces had held for a year, but had not developed, were penetrated, despite the repeated counterattacks by the Hungarian armoured division. The next day the Hungarian communication system collapsed and the defence became totally disorganized. By 18 January Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army and Moskalenko’s 40th Army has linked near Alexeyevka and most of the Hungarian 2nd Army, part of the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia and elements of General Martin Wandel’s (from 14 January Generalleutnant Arno Jahr’s from 20 January 1943 General Karl Eibl’s, from 21 January Generalleutnant Otto Heidkämper’s and from 9 February General Walther Nehring’s) XXIV Panzerkorps and Generalmajor Hans Cramer’s Korpsgruppe 'Cramer' were surrounded. The XXIV Panzerkorps was under Italian command and comprised one German Panzer division and two infantry divisions. Gariboldi also had single Panzer and infantry divisions. Wandel was missing in this battle and was never heard of again. The Korpsgruppe 'Cramer' comprised one German infantry division and part of the Hungarian armoured division, as well as other German elements.

In the heavy snow storms of this period, many of the encircled troops escaped, but by 27 January the Soviet command claimed the capture of 86,000 prisoners, most of them Hungarian. The southern flank of von Salmuth' 2nd Army was now completely exposed and on 28 January Moskalenko’s 40th Army moved to the north in the direction of Kastornoye across the German line of communications to link with Pukhov’s 13th Army of the Bryansk Front. Two corps of the 2nd Army, totalling about seven divisions, were cut off as Adolf Hitler had already shown great reluctance to allow the 2nd Army to evacuate Voronezh and withdraw. For these there was to be no repetition of Stalingrad, however, for Voronezh was abandoned and set on fire as the many pockets of encircled troops made off to the west in a well-ordered retreat: most of the men survived the 120-mile (195-km) march to Rylsk in temperatures of -25° C (-13° F) before they joined with their compatriots. Their heavy equipment was almost entirely lost.

On 21 January von Weichs reported a dismal situation to Hitler. There was a 200-mile (320-km) gap in the German front which Heeresgruppe 'B' had formerly held, and von Salmuth held out little hope of stopping the Soviets, particularly as the Soviet formations had changed their tactics and simply bypassed all strongpoints rather than attacking them directly. He feared for the safety of his 2nd Army, and could see that the Stavka might be seeking to drive straight to the south-west through this gap and thereby cut the line of retreat for Heeresgruppe 'Don'. No German reserves were available German reserves, except an infantry division being transferred from von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, which was still arriving from Western Europe. von Kluge, who had been under heavy Soviet pressure from the Kalinin Front and West Fronts all through the winter of 1942/43 and now, worried by the possible danger should the Soviet forces penetrate and swing to the north, begged in vain to be allowed to evacuate the great salient near Rzhev and so create reserves to deal with the threat.

Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov and General Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and the chief of the general staff respectively, had been attached for a short time late in January to the Voronezh Front to recommend the course of further operations and, following Zhukov’s recommendations, a new plan known as 'Iskra' (star) was drawn up to liberate the area of Kharkov. There is some evidence that the Stavka had some reservations as 'Iskra' involved Golikov thrusting along two divergent axes at the same time, in the directions of Kursk and Kharkov.

'Iskra' began on 1 February. The Soviet forces, not slow in pressing home their current advantage, drove through the gap, Golikov’s Voronezh Front moving almost straight to the west in the direction of Kursk and Kharkov, while Kharitonov’s 6th Army and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army of Vatutin’s South-West Front were directed towards Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, in order to cut the lines of communications sustaining both Generalfeldmarschall von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Don' and General Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A', of which the latter was still in the Caucasus. On 2 February Stalingrad fell. Three days later Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army reached the frozen Donets river, but could not cross in the face of determined resistance by SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' of Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps. Kursk, Belgorod and Kharkov were immediately threatened and Heeresgruppe 'Don' was in great danger.

von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A' was still bogged down in the Caucasus, at the south-eastern extremity of the Eastern Front. On 28 December General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had managed to persuade Hitler to give up part of his oil and Black Sea objectives, but far from agreeing to a complete evacuation of the Caucasus to the safety of the right bank of the Don river to the north of Rostov-na-Donu, Hitler would permit only a partial withdrawal, and this by stages, to the line of the Manych Canal and the Kuban, since he intended to keep the Maykop area and a bridgehead over the Strait of Kerch and lower reaches of the Don river as a firm base for a later campaign back toward the Caspian Sea. On 7 January, however, some forward elements of the 5th Shock Army and the 2nd Guards Army of Eremenko’s South Front were already nearing the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Don' near Novocherkassk, not 30 miles (50 km) from Rostov-na-Donu, and it seemed that the Rostov bridge, which carried the main supplies not only for Heeresgruppe 'A' but also for Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and the Romanian IV Corps was about to be taken.

The Soviet reaction to the German withdrawal on the lower Don river and in the Caucasus was very slow. The former Stalingrad Front, since the beginning of January redesignated as the South Front and still commanded by Eremenko, covered the 90-mile (145-km) between the Don river and the Manych canal, and had been forced to give up troops for the reduction of Stalingrad. Eremenko had been ordered to take Rostov-na-Donu and Salsk and thereby cut the main line of withdrawal for Heeresgruppe 'A'', but both Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s 5th Shock Army met fierce resistance from the 4th Panzerarmee. Trufanov’s 51st Army and Gerasimenko’s 28st Army to the south-east enjoyed no greater success against the German forces in Zimovniki, Generalmajor Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 16th Division [mot.) and other elements reinforced by Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Wiking'. Eremenko and the other two members of the front’s military council pointed out to Moscow that they were more than 200 miles (320 km) from their supply railhead, leading to great difficulties and that their armoured strength was 350 tanks below establishment. Away to the south and south-east, Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, still in two isolated groups, Petrov’s Black Sea Group in the mountains to the south of the Kuban near Novorossiysk, and Maslennikov’s North Group (from 24 January the North Caucasus Front) covering Grozny and Baku near the Caspian Sea, were operating under great difficulties, especially as the steppe was in the frequent periods of thaw almost totally impassable even to infantry. It was, moreover, difficult to reinforce Petrov’s Black Sea Group, which at Stalin’s insistence, had been given the task of cutting the German retreat across the Taman peninsula, since troops, weapons and equipment had to be moved by poor roads from the area of the Caspian Sea along the length of the Caucasus mountain range, a distance of almost 600 miles (965 km). The Black Sea Group had started to move forward, albeit only slowly, using pack transport and building roads as it went. But when it finally emerged from the foothills, the Kuban river was in spate and the steppe flooded. As Heeresgruppe 'A' withdrew step by step, the Soviet forces followed it up, but there was never any great danger of the Germans being cut off by the Trans-Caucasus Front, and both Tyulenev and Maslennikov were later to be accused of timidity, so fearful were they that the Germans might trick them and take Grozny.

The Soviet advances in January made it clear that the threat to Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'Don' was developing along two axes, from Eremenko’s South Front on the lower Don river and from Vatutin’s South-West Front in the eastern part of Ukraine. Yet it was not until 27 January before Hitler gave a decision as to the final withdrawal of Heeresgruppe 'A'. von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee (one panzer and three infantry divisions) was now ordered to join von Manstein, who was to be allowed to withdraw to the west of the lower reaches of the Don river, but the rest of Heeresgruppe 'A' (some 10 German and 10 Romanian divisions, and totalling in all more than 350,000 troops), was instructed to withdraw into the Taman bridgehead, where they were to prove of little assistance to von Manstein in the hard battles yet to be fought in Ukraine. von Manstein had requested permission to fall back to the old defensive line of the Mius river, but Hitler’s refusal signalled that even this small part of the Donets coal area was essential to the Germany’s economy. However, the situation was soon taken out of Hitler’s hands. On 2 February Malinovsky assumed command of the South Front in succession to Eremenko, and on 4 February his troops reached the line linking Shakhty and Novocherkassk. Four days later a cavalry mechanised group of Khomenko’s 44th Army approached Rostov-na-Donu after its long advance from Grozny and, after crossing the frozen Don river, reached Chaltyr between Rostov-na-Donu and Taganrog. Farther to the north-west in Ukraine, however, Golikov’s Voronezh Front took Belgorod, Kursk and Volchansk, and after crossing the frozen Donets river, its VI Guards Cavalry Corps and General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army reached the outskirts of Kharkov on 11 February, where they were engaged by Dietrich’s SS-Panzergrenadier-Division 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler' of Hausser’s SS Panzerkorps. The Voronezh Front’s left-hand neighbour, the South-West Front, using Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army, Kharitonov’s 6th Army and the Mobile Group 'Popov', crossed the Donets river deep in the rear of Heeresgruppe 'Don' and drove toward the Dnieper river crossings of Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye.

On 5 February, Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army of the South Front attacked Voroshilovgrad and cleared it after nine days of house-to-house fighting.

By this time, the German situation had become so acute that von Manstein and von Kluge were called to Hitler’s headquarters on 6 February, and at this meeting Hitler was unwillingly obliged to agree to their earlier requests for a withdrawal to positions behind the Mius river, and to give up the Rzhev salient: this latter was the second large salient to be evacuated as Hitler had also been forced to weaken the Demyansk area in order to stabilise the position near Leningrad, where the Soviet forces had at long last driven a land corridor through to the city. The headquarters of von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B' was removed from the chain of command and put into reserve, the remnants of its troops being shared between von Manstein’s and von Kluge’s army groups. von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Don' was redesignated as Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

The defeat of the German 2nd Army and the Hungarian 2nd Army and the sudden withdrawal from Voronezh to Rylsk had partly outflanked von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' from the south. At the beginning of February, Moscow had mandated the creation, out of the old Don Front, of a new Central Front under Rokossovsky, and which, taking under its command the 2nd Tank Army and three infantry armies, in an operation personally planned by Stalin attempted on 25 February to envelop von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' by getting behind the salient centred on Bryansk and Orel, from the south. The Soviet offensive failed as the retreating 2nd Army, by this time under the command of von Weiss and forming part of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', had finally secured a stop line from Rylsk to Sumy. The many divisions arriving from the evacuated Rzhev area swiftly contained the Soviet pressure to the north and north-west.

On 17 February Hitler, accompanied by General Kurt Zeitzler and General Alfred Jodl (chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres and chief of the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), arrived at the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' in Zaporozhye, where the position was causing alarm. Hitler had intended to dismiss von Manstein. On the previous day, General Hubert Lanz’s Armeeabteilung 'Lanz', in defiance of Hitler’s strict orders, had evacuated Kharkov and was withdrawing to the south-west. General Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung 'Hollidt', shortly to be re-formed as a new 6th Army, held the line of the Mius river against Malinovsky’s South Front. The Armeeabteilung 'Lanz' comprised the SS Panzerkorps and Raus’s Generalkommando zbV 'Raus'. This latter comprised Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s Panzergrenadierdivision 'Grossdeutschland' and elements of two German infantry divisions. Lanz had commanded the group with distinction and, according to von Manstein, had fallen back from Kharkov because the SS Panzerkorps had done the same. No disciplinary action was ever taken against the SS commander, and Lanz was replaced by General Werner Kempf. As the army and SS continued to blame each other for the loss of Kharkov, the SS were carrying stories to Berlin of the flight of army supply installations from the area, supplies and munitions being abandoned to the Soviets and speedy evacuation of carpets, pictures, furniture and Russian typists.

Meanwhile, von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, withdrawn from the Caucasus to von Manstein’s left flank, was trying to hold part of Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army and the Mobile Group 'Popov' that were thrusting from Slavyansk in the direction of Krasnoarmeysk and Stalino (now Donetsk). About 70 miles (115 km) farther to the west, deep in the rear of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', other elements of the 1st Guards Army and the 6th Army were a mere 30 miles (48 km) from the Dniepr river and, after cutting the main railway linking Dnepropetrovsk and Stalino, were within 50 miles (80 km) of Hitler’s conference. To restore the position von Manstein proposed to mount a counter-offensive, commanded by Hoth, against the Soviet envelopment, using 4th Panzerarmee's two corps (General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVIII Panzerkorps and Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps. The 4th Panzerarmee was to attack from the area between Zaporozhye and Stalino northward onto the Soviet flank, while the II SS Panzerkorps was to attack southward from the area of Poltava to meet 4th Panzerarmee, so cutting off the forward troops of the 1st Guards Army and the 6th Army. Hoth’s left was to be covered by the Armeeabteilung 'Kempf'. On Hoth’s right, von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, comprising General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps, General Gotthard Heinrici’s XL Panzerkorps and General General der Artillerie Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps was to hold and destroy the Mobile Group 'Popov' and the supporting elements of the 1st Guards Army. Although Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was dangerously short of vehicle fuel, it was known through radio intercept that the Soviets' fuel position was still worse, and the same radio sources indicated that the Soviet field commanders were almost certain that the Germans were about to withdraw behind the Dniepr river. Due to the efforts and reinforcement of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV, the Soviet air forces had suffered a sharp tactical reverse.

Still most unhappy about the loss of Kharkov, Hitler saw the reoccupation of Kharkov rather than the destruction of the Soviet forces as an immediate German objective, and could hardly be persuaded that Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was in any danger. By the second day of the conference, however, he had reluctantly agreed to von Manstein’s plan for a counter-offensive.

At much the same time, Stalin was urging the South-West Front forward to the Dniepr with dire threats in the event of delay or failure. Soviet troops had already outrun their lines of communication for support and supplies, and were beyond the range of effective air support since many of the captured airfields were not yet in use. The organisations for supply, reinforcement and maintenance were performing badly over the extended line of communications, and many formations and units had been severely reduced by casualties.

On the morning of 19 February Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps attacked the flank of Kharitonov’s 6th Army from the area of Krasnograd, punching a gap 25 miles (40 km) wide through which SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS George Keppler’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Das Reich' debouched and scattered the IV Guards Corps in disorder. On 22 February von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, moving toward Pavlograd with Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps on its right, cut off a large number of Soviet troops and joined with the II SS Panzerkorps. The two corps then altered their line of advance and moved to the north on Kharkov. Only 9,000 prisoners were taken, but Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was to claim 23,000 Soviet dead on the battlefield. von Mackensen, using Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps with two Panzer divisions and one SS motorised division, destroyed the forward elements of the Mobile Group 'Popov' between Krasnoarmeysk and Barvenkovo, some of which had already been stranded for lack of fuel.

The Stavka still believed that the German counter-offensive had been staged to cover the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' from the Mius river to the area immediately behind the Dniepr river, and the South-West Front was ordered to attack once more in order to cut off the Armeeabteilung 'Hollidt' and the 1st Panzerarmee. It was impossible for the Soviet front to implement this order as Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, still moving rapidly to the north and by then about 150 miles (400 km) north from its original starting point, regrouped between 4 and 6 March, and, outflanking the South-West Front from the north, launched a heavy attack between Merefa and Sokolovo on the left wing of the Voronezh Front near Kharkov. A 30-mile (48 km) gap opened between Kazakov’s 69th Army and Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army, and this the Voronezh Front could not close. On 12 March the Germans were fighting in the streets of Kharkov and encircled the city two days later. The gap continued to grow, no Soviet reserves being available, and the German thrusts were approaching Belgorod, so that Rokossovsky’s Central Front appeared to be under threaten. Belgorod was taken on 18 March by Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Division 'Grossdeutschland'. By then the Stavka had realised that far from being faced with a holding operation intended to cover a German withdrawal, the Central Front and Voronezh Front were in danger of being cut off. The 3rd Tank Army was ordered to break out of encirclement near Kharkov, and the Voronezh Front and the South-West Front fell back behind the Donets river some 40 miles (65 km) to the east.

Stalin’s reaction was typical of the man himself and the Soviet system. He wanted to know what was wrong with the Voronezh Front which in his estimation, needed to have its military council strengthening from the political as well as the military point of view, and Nikita S. Khrushchev was ordered to join it. Zhukov and Vasilevsky were also to report there. Zhukov was at the North-West Front when he was telephoned by Stalin on 16 March with the news that the Stavka had decided to replace General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev, who was currently in command of the West Front, by General Polkovnik Vasili D. Sokolovsky. The position in the Ukraine was discussed, and Zhukov suggested that Konev should assume command of the North-West Front, so freeing Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko to go to the South Ukraine as the Stavka representative and there to take all measures necessary to restore the situation. Stalin agreed but ordered Zhukov to return to Moscow from where, after an 05.00 meal with Stalin, who had spent the night bullying the general staff, he left by air for the Voronezh Front. Golikov was replaced by Vatutin. Zhukov asked for the allocation of another three armies from the Stavka reserve. Stalin allotted him General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 21st Army and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 64th Army. Only the arrival from the interior of the USSR of these three reinforcing armies, and the rasputitsa mud following the spring thaw stabilised the position.

The limited counter-offensive of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' had robbed the Soviet army of the initiative which it had held in southern Russia and Ukraine since Vatutin had attacked the Romanians across the Don river in November. It was claimed that von Manstein’s daring attack had cost the USSR more than 40,000 casualties and the loss in captured equipment of 600 tanks and 500 pieces of artillery. Their success left the Germans in undisputed control of the area bounded by the Donets river and Mius river, very much the same line as had been held in the winter of 1941. The defeats inflicted on the Soviet forces had been of a limited nature inasmuch as they were temporary and in no way decisive, but they had saved Heeresgruppe 'Süd' from destruction and had earned it some respite. The credit for the German successes belonged to von Manstein and von Kluge who, at long last prevailing upon Hitler to authorise a shortening of the front and the resulting withdrawal of troops from the line, were able to make use of the initiative which these reserves conferred upon them, rather than continuing to rely on Hitler’s preference for a rigid defence. Some of the credit also belonged to Hoth. The decisive element, however, had been the availability of Hausser’s Panzer corps, comprising three experienced, well-equipped and rested Waffen-SS divisions, each of which was much superior to the scattered, poorly supported and ill-supplied Soviet troops, who had by then outrun their strength.

This marked the successful Soviet offensive of the winter 1942/43. The strongest of the German armies had been totally destroyed and four armies of Germany’s allies scattered. Some German critics found fault with the Soviet strategy on two counts. Firstly, that the three offensives against the Hungarians, the Italians and the Romanians should have been made concurrently rather than consecutively, which is a criticism that can be justified only if the Soviet armies had possessed adequate air power, artillery and motor transport to support all the offensives, which was not the case; the failure of the Soviet counter-offensives of the previous year were caused in part by the dispersing of effort and dissipating of forces. Secondly, that the Stavka had failed to make a sufficiently determined thrust to Rostov-na-Donu and the Sea of Azov in order to cut the line of retreat of the whole of Heeresgruppe 'A' and part of Heeresgruppe 'Don'. This is relevant as there can be o doubt that a successful penetration of this type would have endangered both German army groups. Yet a strong thrust to the Sea of Azov would have failed if, by so doing, the forces encircling the 6th Army had been weakened. Moreover the the bridges of Rostov-na-Donu over the lower reaches of the Don river were not the only exits from the Caucasus, as it later proved possible to maintain Heeresgruppe 'A' across the Strait of Kerch. It was for this reason that Stalin had pressed the Black Sea Group to cut the withdrawal route across the Taman peninsula. Unless this latter route could have been blocked by the Soviet forces, it would have been more effective to have secured the lower reaches of the Dniepr river and the Perekop isthmus rather than to thrust on Rostov-na-Donu. The taking of the Perekop isthmus, connecting Crimea and the rest of the USSR, would have blocked the exit from Crimea and completely cut off both Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. This is what Stalin attempted to achieve.

As a result of German mistakes, the Soviet strategy for the winter of 1942/43 was probably far more successful than Stalin and the Stavka had hoped to achieve. In the era after Stalin’s death in 1954, Stalin came under severe criticism for falling into the same error as that of the winter of 1941, when he overestimated Soviet strength and underestimated that of the Germans, and therefore dispersed the Soviet effort by attacking to the west on an over-extended front. By the same token it could be argued that if the Voronezh Front, South-West Front and South Front had concentrated in a drive to the south-west into the Ukraine on Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye and the Perekop isthmus, they may have secured greater success Even so, these further successes would probably have been small. Warfare in Russia continued to be influenced, even decided, by the terrain, distance and weather. In November the Germans were fully extended, almost at the end of their resources, and the balance swung to the Soviets. The successful Soviet counter-offensive threw the Axis troops back nearly 500 miles (800 km) from Stalingrad and even farther from Grozny. The balance then swung back again to the Germans. Soviet forces, weakened and disorganised by combat, distance and weather, could not check the exhausted and understrength German divisions committed against them.

It was in the course of the Soviet offensive, during the early months of 1943, that there first appeared a change in the composition and relative strength of the German and Soviet armies. Germany had embarked on the war with highly efficient and well equipped Panzer and motorised forces, although these were only a minor part of the entire German army. German tactical air support had been very good. At the same time the Soviet forces had no lack of armour, warplanes or equipment, but they were in no way a modern motorised army and was not even a match for the German marching infantry divisions with their horse-drawn guns and wagons. However, by 1943 the German army’s organisation and the quality and scale of its equipment had not been improved to keep ahead of those of the Soviet army, and had indeed fallen below them. In March 1943 the German strength on the Eastern Front was 470,000 men short of establishment and the German high command necessarily attempted to make a virtue of doing without many essentials. With his obsession for divisional numbers, Hitler steadily raised new formations and refused to maintain, reinforce and re-equip existing divisions, so that they became little more than cadres, so-called Panzer divisions numbering now possessing only 30 or 40 tanks. The German army had entered the USSR with 3,300 tanks on 22 June 1941. On 23 January 1943 it had only 495 tanks fit for battle along the entirety of the Eastern Front. Except for a handful of PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks, no new tank types were in service although the PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV battle tanks been improved by the addition of skirting plates, face-hardened armour and longer guns with an increase of muzzle velocity and therefore armour penetration. A start had been made on the modification of divisional tables of organisation, leaving the divisional title but reducing the number of regiments in the division and the battalions in the regiment: this signalled a further reduction in the fighting strength of formations. The Soviet transformation, on the other hand, had been for the better. The Soviet air forces, although still inferior to the Luftwaffe in performance, had made great strides in the improvement of the quality of their aircraft and the capability of their pilots. The KV heavy and T-34 medium tanks were superior to the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV German tanks, and were being manufactured in altogether larger numbers. From the middle of 1942, tank and mechanised corps had been grouped as tank armies. But one of the most significant changes evident in the Soviet army during 1943 was the rapid motorisation which made it possible for the Soviet high command to consider and implement deep penetration in the depths of winter and at the time of the thaws, and this was achieved largely by the introduction of US trucks under Lend-Lease arrangements. Once the best-equipped in the world, within a space of two years, had become an out-of-date force, indifferently provided with obsolescent equipment: as an example, the German equivalent to the Soviets quarter-ton Jeep for commander or messenger, remained the horse, and the counterpart of the US-supplied six-wheeled drive truck was the horse-drawn panje wagon. The efficiency of German field formation staffs and the quality of the German fighting soldier were still superior to those of the Red Army, yet for all that, the German army had become one of the poorer armies of the world.

The 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' was a clear defeat for Heeresgruppe 'B', and the Italian 8a Armata and Hungarian 2nd Army had been almost totally destroyed. Many large cities had been retaken by the Soviet, these including Voronezh, Kursk, Belgorod, Kharkov, Rossosh, Valuyki, Ostrogozhsk, Kastornoye, Stary Oskol, Novy Oskol, Shchigry, Oboyan, Bogodukhov, Akhtyrka and Sevsk. The Soviets lost in total 153,561, of whom 55,475 had been killed and 98,086 wounded. Axis losses totalled about 160,000 men, of whom 77,000 had been killed. Of these 49,000 were German officers and men.

back to text
The Soviet formations involved in the offensive were Golikov’s Voronezh Front with General Major (General Polkovnik from 14 February) Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th Army, General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army, General Polkovnik Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army), General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army and General Major Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 38th Army); Reyter’s Bryansk Front with General Major (General Leytenant from 14 February) Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 38th Army; Vatutin’s South-West Front with General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 8th Army; and in the air General Major Konstantin N. Smirnov’s 2nd Air Army and General Major Stepan D. Rybalchenko’s 13th Air Army.

The Axis forces involved were Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B', 2nd Army (Hans von Salmuth’s 2nd |Army (General Ernst-Eberhard Hell’s VII Corps, General Erich Straube’s XIII Corps) and General Rudolf Freiherr von Roman’s LV Corps), Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8a Armata and Vezérezredes Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army.