General von Paulus surrendered the Sixth Army, surrounded at Stalingrad, in the first week of February 1943. Even ‘Winter Storm’, Hoth’s ill-fated attempt at a rescue, failed. As the Russian Army rampaged west, STAVKA, the Soviet Army staff, planned a massive offensive, ‘Operation Star’, aiming to surround the German forces in the Ukraine, Army Group South.
The plan required Bryansk Front, commanded by General Reyter, continuing their drive through Kursk, while Voronezh Front under General Golikov, and South-West Front under General Vatutin, struck west, north of Kharkov, then curved south to meet South Front under General Malinovsky, acting as the anvil which crushed Army Group South.
General Golikov anticipated using his 40th Army to take Belgorod, then circle south, while the 69th Army took bridgeheads over the Donets and entered Kharkov. The Third Tank Army, under General Rybalko, would cross the Donets and circle Kharkov to the south. Golikov possessed 315 tanks with 300 in reserve, and 200,000 men.
Lieutenant General Hans Cramer’s SS Grossdeutschland had 31 tanks, though its infantry traveled on half-tracks, allowing enhanced maneuverability, compared to infantry on foot. 168th Division, and Grossdeutschland covered Kharkov from the north. Two divisions of the Lieutenant General Paul Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps protected Kharkov from the east and south. Army Detachment Lanz, with 50,000 men in Kharkov, was no match for the Soviet troops, though the Luftwaffe controlled the skies. Das Reich and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler detrained in Kharkov as the battle began.
Two of General Golikov’s divisions crossed the Donets on 5 February after a three day battle. By 6 February elements of Grossdeutschland retreated to the south-west toward Kharkov. Conversely, Das Reich met Soviet troops east of the Donets, and drove them back eight kilometers.
On 7 February Soviet troops reached the outskirts of Belgorod, about 60 kilometers north-east of Kharkov, while General Sokolov’s 6th Guards Corps crossed the Donets River at Zmiev, south of Kharkov. By 9 February German forces pulled back, continuing to cover Kharkov. On 11 February Das Reich redeployed south of Kharkov. Soviet forces pushed Grossdeutschland back even further into the north-east corner of the city.
General von Manstein became commander of Army Group South on 12 February and received permission from Adolf Hitler to pull back forces as needed, and to deploy his armor at his discretion.
Lieutenant General Pavel Rybalko’s Third Tank Army attacked the entire front of the German defenses from the east and south-east while Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps attacked on a wide ark south of Kharkov from Merefa to Novaya Vodolaga. Fighting continued in the industrial district in eastern Kharkov even as Totenkopf detrained, on February 13, at Poltava more than 100 kilometers to the south-west of Kharkov.
As fighting intensified, Lieutenant General Paul Hausser, commander of SS Panzer Corps, advised Lieutenant General Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, commander of Leibstandarte Panzer Division, to blow up key bridges in Kharkov. This order was cancelled on 14 February by von Manstein, who also ordered Lanz to hold Kharkov. Von Manstein relieved General Crammer of command of Grossdeutschland, giving the unit to General Raus.
SS Panzer Corps’ attack on Surzhikov’s 11th Cavalry forced them back on Ochotschaje and Bereka, while Das Reich pulled back from Kharkov.
Von Manstein knew that the Soviet forces, committed to combat for an lengthy period, were weak and overextended. He had a plan to knock them back on their heels.
Sources: Manstein’s Victorious Panzers, William E. Welsh, WW II History Magazine, Aug/Sept 2020
Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 1968 Soviet Setback After Stalingrad, Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s
Soviet Setback After Stalingrad, Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s