With Leningrad surrounded and cutoff from resupply and General Guderian gathering his forces for the drive on Moscow, only General Kleist’s I Panzergruppe tanks remained for the assault on Eastern Ukraine. This Panzergruppe was worn down to 300 tanks, half its original strength.
Eastern Ukraine possessed 60% of Soviet coal, 30% of its iron, and 20% of its steel. It provided 75% of electrical power, 1/3rd of chemical production and 3/5th of the Soviet rail transport system.
The German plan was to launch I Panzergruppe from the Dniepropetrovsk – Novomoskovsk area toward Osipenko on the Sea of Azov and, with the anvil of Manstein’s XI Army, trap the Soviet 9th, 12th, and 18th Armies between them.
Meanwhile, to the north, VI Army and XVII Army were to attack toward Kharkov. A portion of XVII Army was to drive toward Slavyansk near the Donets River.
General Kleist’s forces jumped off on 30 September, cutting the Kharkov – Zaporozhye railroad – the only supply route available to Soviet forces to the south.
Early autumn rains hindered the Soviet forces from rearranging their lines to prevent encirclement. I Panzergruppe penetrated the Soviet defense lines brushing back the 12th Soviet Army and meeting up with von Manstein’s XI Army on 6 October.
The Soviet 12th Army withdrew to the northeast while the 9th and 18th Armies were trapped in the area between Orekhov and Osipenko. More than 100,000 prisoners fell to the Germans. Many Soviet soldiers escaped the trap, falling back. Portions of the 9th Army, with a reinforcement of infantry and cavalry, blocked the approaches to Rostock while STAVKA shortened the southernmost part of the line using these remnants to build the 37th Army at Krasnodon, northeast of Rostov.
To the north the Southwest Front deployed in front of Kharkov. Old French and British tanks formed static firing points while 90,000 citizens of Kharkov formed a militia. Armament consisted of one rifle for every two or three men. The weapons of transport and supply soldiers were requisitioned for this militia.
General von Rundstedt’s VI Army approached Kharkov while XI Corps of XVII Army took a bridgehead over the Uda River 8 kilometers south of the city. STAVKA evacuated Kharkov allowing VI Army to take the city on 24 October.
Around Rostov the Soviet Army showed they had learned from previous defeats. They built defensive belts with interlocking fields of fire to provide defense in depth. Revetments housed guns able to fire in various directions. Narrow trenches were dug. These trenches allowed the German tanks to cross over without the trenches collapsing. Russian soldiers sheltered in these trenches and, after the German tanks passed over, they attacked the infantry following the tanks. Tank traps were dug on the flanks of the defensive belts and road junctions were mined.
I Panzer Army’s assault began on 1 November in the mud and ice of an early winter. They advanced seven kilometers by 14 November reaching the south bank of the Tuzlov River. Realizing the difficulty his force experienced penetrating the Soviet position, von Rundstedt regrouped I Panzer Army to strike along the coast leaving a guarding force to contain the Soviet 37th Army. His attack began on 17 November and, in two days reached the northern limit of Rostov.
Source: “Barbarossa: Drive to Kharkov,” Geoffrey Jukes, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s