Soviet pressure on the German forces in Kharkov pushed Grossdeutschland back into the northeast corner of the city. Lieutenant General Pavel Rybalko’s Third Tank Army attacked the entire front of the German forces from the east and southeast, while Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps applied pressure on a wide arc south of Kharkov.
On 15 February, 1943, Major General G. M. Zaitzev’s 62nd Guards Rifle Division broke into the southeast quadrant of the city pressing Leibstandarte back while Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps battled them in the factory district. Moskalenko’s 40th Army forced its way into the north side near Red Square while Kravchenko’s 5th Guards Tank Army threatened the Germans’ retreat path.
At 1100 hours von Manstein ordered Totenkopf to block Kravchenko. A battle group of the Leibstandarte stood firm against Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps. By noon the Germans began fighting a withdrawing action. Von Manstein remained reluctant to defy Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs. But Lieutenant General Paul Hausser retreated from the city.
Hitler, himself, relieved Lanz from command of his detachment and assigned the unit to General Kemp, who set the detachment up facing northeast from Akhtyrka to Borova, in front of Voronezh Front’s drive to the Dnieper River.
STAVKA ordered 40th and 69th Armies to move on Poltava while Rybalko’s Third Tank Army covered Kharitonov’s right flank.
In the midst of the crisis Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye on the Dnieper River to discuss the situation with von Manstein. During the meeting on 17 February von Manstein proposed driving Vatutin’s Southwest Front back behind the Donets River using Colonel General Eberhard Makensen’s 1st Panzer Army, Colonel General Herman Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, and Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps.
The attack began on 19 February. Hausser’s SS Panzer Corp assembled near Kraznograd. Knobelsdorf’s 48th Panzer Corps and Kirchner’s 57th Panzer Corps struck northwest of Krasnoarmeiskoye while Makensen’s 1st Panzer Army moved out from south of the same city. Support was provided by Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthoffen’s Fourth Air Fleet. The Stuka’s attacked Popov’s and Kharitonov’s columns forming the Soviet spearhead nearing Dnepropetrovsk within 25 kilometers of the Dnieper River. Interestingly no discussion of Soviet Air support appears in The Soviet Air Force in WW II. Makensen’s 1st Panzer Army isolated Popov’s battle group while Hoth’s 2 Panzer Corps tore up Kharitonov’s 6th Army in five days.
Under STAVKA’s orders the 69th Army and Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army advanced toward Poltava and Krasnograd leaving Moskolenko’s 40th Army alone at Kharkov to fight General Raus’ Grossdeutschland.
At this time things started to unravel for the Soviets. On 23 February Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps returned to the battle, mauling Kharitonov’s 6th Army. Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army, fighting to open a corridor to Kharitonov’s 6th Army at Kegichevka east of Krasnograd, was immediately attacked by Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions. Vatutin’s Southwest front began full retreat on 28 February.
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,