As Kharitonov’s 6th Army, with Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army protecting its flank, drove toward Dniepropetrovsk, and 40th and 69th Armies drove toward Poltava, the Soviet command did not guess the forces gathered against them, or the form the German response would take.
General von Manstein knew the opposing Soviet forces neared exhaustion after their lengthy drive from Stalingrad. His plan, as provided to Hitler at their meeting on 17 February, 1943, proposed using strong, fresh forces to push Vatutin’s South-West Front back behind the Donets River, while Knobelsdorf’s 48th Panzer Corps and Kirchner’s 57th Panzer Corps moved northwest from Krasnoarmeyskoye to cut off the Soviet forces striking toward Dniepropetrovsk. These attacks were designed to take to steam out of the Soviet offensive.
While Field Marshall Wolfram von Richthoffen’s Fourth Air Fleet’s Ju-87 Stukas hammered Popov’s and Kharitonov’s forces from the air, Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps mauled Kharitonov’s 6th Army on the ground. Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions hit Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army as it attempted to open a corridor of escape for Kharitonov.
By 5 March Rybalko was forced onto the defensive facing southwest from Noraya Vodolaga to Ochotschaje. Panzer Divisions Das Reich, and Leibstandarte, combined with 6th Panzer Division, launched an attack on Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army even as it took up this position.
With Vatutin’s South-West Front neutralized, von Manstein directed 48 Panzer Corps north to support Army Detachment Kempf’s attack on Golikov’s Voronezh Front. On 6 March Grossdeutschland Division, Corps Raus, and part of Army Detachment Kempf deployed west of Kharkov, while Totenkopf cleaned up the surrounded 15th Tank Corps.
SS Panzer Corps and 4th Panzer Army captured Novaya Vodolaga and Taranovka on 8 March, while Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army retreated to Lyubotin and Merefa where nine artillery batteries contested the German advance. With the capture of Lyubotin on 9 March a 20 kilometer wedge was driven between Kazakov’s 69th Army and what remained of Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army, the remnants of which were captured at Merefa.
Simultaneously, Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps joined up with Corps Raus in preparation for the recapture of Kharkov. Grossdeutschland and Corps Raus attacked Moskalenko’s 40th Army and retook Belgorod on 10 March while Leibstandarte Division captured Dergachi. On 11 March Dietrich’s Leibstandarte Division entered Kharkov from the north and Vahl’s Das Reich Division entered from the West.
Major General Belov, commanding the Soviet forces in Kharkov, moved against Leibstandarte Division, creating a vacuum allowing Das Reich to take the center of Kharkov.
As the spring thaw changed the fields and roads to mud, the planned offensive against Kursk was listed as ‘unfinished business.’ On the Soviet side, Golikov was removed from command of Voronezh Front, though writer Geoffrey Jukes considers him less culpable for the Soviet lack of preparation for a possible German offensive than either Vatutin or STAVKA.
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