By the end of January of 1943, Hitler's armies had been dealt a series of defeats by the Russians, beginning with the disaster at Stalingrad. The German summer offensive, codenamed Operation 'Blue' had been conducted initially by Army Group South under Generalfeldmarschall von Bock and then Army Groups 'A' (under Generalfeldmarschall von List) and 'B' (under Generalfeldmarschall von Weichs) when Army Group South was split into two after Hitler changed the objective of the campaign so that both Stalingrad and Caucasus had to be captured simultaneously. The two army groups were forced to try and achieve these objectives with insufficient resources that were widely separated geographically and therefore could not support each other in the event of problems. The Soviet offensives codenamed 'Uranus' and 'Little Saturn' led by Generals Georgi Zhukov, Alexandr Vasilevsky and Konstantin Rokossovsky had surrounded and destroyed firstly, the German 6th Army under Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus and elements of 4th Panzer Army under General Hermann Hoth that had concentrated in the immediate area of Stalingrad, and then badly mauled the armies of Germany's Axis allies, Italy, Rumania and Hungary. Germany teetered on the brink of defeat in World War II because the Soviet advance threatened to drive to the Dnepr River and encircle the remaining Germans armies in southern Russia, which by then were scrambling to withdraw out of the Caucasus region.
Stalin and the Russian high command believed that the war could be won with just one more great effort. Accordingly, they planned and launched two offensives, designated Operations 'Star' and 'Gallop'. The focal points of the two offensives included the recapture of Kharkov, the industrial heart of the Ukraine and the destruction of Army Detachment Hollidt, 4th Panzer Army and 2nd Army. Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein entered the picture in late 1942 when he was appointed commander of Army Group Don. Even though he tried to relieve the 6th Army at Stalingrad in Operation Winter Storm, he found that there were insufficient resources devoted to the operation and the Soviets had amassed considerable forces in the area in order to prevent such an eventuality and threatened to counterattack and encircle the relief force. He therefore was forced to leave the 6th Army to its fate. His only course of action was to try and rebuild the German forces in Southern Russia (which eventually all came under the control of Army Group Don) and stabilise the frontline. Beginning on 19 February 1943, he engineered a remarkable operation that changed the course of the war in Russia. Manstein's counteroffensive destroyed or severely damaged four Russian armies and regained much of the territory lost in January. The troops that played the most important role in the offensive were three divisions of the Waffen-SS. 1st SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler', 2nd SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Das Reich' and 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division 'Totenkopf' were combined for the first time into a corps, which was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, the senior commander of the Waffen-SS and former commander of 'Das Reich'.
'Leibstandarte' and 'Das Reich' participated in the defense of Kharkov, along with the elite Army division "Grossdeutschland" supported by three weak infantry divisions. This handful of divisions was attacked by four Soviet armies, but under command of Army Detachment Lanz, was able to hold the city for two weeks. On 14 February, 1943 the SS Panzer Corps and the rest of Army Detachment Lanz withdrew from Kharkov under disputed circumstances that involved Hausser and his violation of a direct order from Hitler. Almost exactly a month later, the Germans had recaptured Kharkov and destroyed or crippled the four Soviet armies that had driven them out of the city in February. The divisions that played the key role in Manstein's counteroffensive were the three divisions of the Waffen-SS. While 'Leibstandarte' defended the supply base of the SS-Panzer Corps from the entire Soviet 3rd Tank Army, 'Das Reich' and 'Totenkopf' conducted a complex series of operations that began with a 100km thrust to the south which saved the Dnepr bridges, thus securing supply lines for the armies of Army Group Don. Subsequent operations by the SS divisions, this time including 'Liebstandarte', drove the Russians away from the rail net south of Kharkov and wrested Kharkov from the Russians once again.
During the recapture of the city, there was controversy regarding Hausser's command decisions. Hausser has been accused of disregarding his instructions from superior officers and throwing his divisions into costly combat in the city for reasons of personal and SS prestige, in order to regain Hitler's favour. The records of the SS-Panzer Corps and 4th Panzer Army provide a different explanation for Hausser's actions. Whatever the reasons, Kharkov was only to remain in German hands for a short period of time, being recaptured by the Soviets for the final time on 22 August 1943. However, it must be noted that after the German disaster at Stalingrad, where the Wehrmacht lost its largest and best equipped field army, von Manstein's achievement in stabilizing the front must rank as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) achievements of World War II. He had executed a successful withdrawal in the face of immense Soviet pressure, then launched a masterly counterattack that inflicted on the Soviets immense losses in men and material, destroying four armies. Most importantly, he re-established the front from Taganrog to Belgorod as a virtually straight defensive line and, at little cost, retook the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, all this while his opponent possessed a huge numerical advantage.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Armstrong, Col R. 'Spring Disaster: The Red Army's Kharkov Offensive' in Military Review, May 1992, pp. 84 – 86.
Carell, P. Scorched Earth, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971.
Glantz, D. Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941 – 43, University Press of Kansas, 2005.
Glantz, D. From the Don to the Dnepr: Soviet Offensive Operations December 1942 to August 1943, Frank Cass, London, 1991.
Glantz, D. Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a Military Disaster, Ian Allen Publishing, Shepperton, 1998.
Glantz, D. (Ed) 'The Kharkov Operation, May 1942' in The Journal of Soviet Military Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (September 1992), pp. 451 – 93 and Vol. 5, No. 4 (December 1992), pp. 611 – 86.
Margry, K. 'Kharkov' in After the Battle, Number 112, 2001, pp. 2 – 45.
Nipe, G. Last Victory in Russia, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2000.
Nipe, G & Spezzano, R. Platz der Leibstandarte: The SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "LSSAH" and the Battle of Kharkov January - March 1943, Presidio Press, 2002.
Restayn, J. The Battle of Kharkov, J J Fedorowicz Publishing, Canada, 2000.