Belgorod-Khar'kov Offensive Operation

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Belgorod-Khar'kov Offensive Operation
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Date 12–23 August 1943
Location Kharkov region, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
Result Soviet victory
Belligerents
 Nazi Germany  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Nazi Germany Erich von Manstein Soviet Union Ivan Konev
Strength
Army Group South
Army Group "Kempf"
8th Army
XI Army Corps
Steppe Front
5th Guards Tank Army
57th Army
69th Army
7th Guards Army
800 Tanks [1]
Casualties and losses
450 Tanks

The Belgorod-Khar'kov Offensive Operation or Fourth Battle of Kharkov (12 August 1943 - 23 August 1943) was an operation conducted as part of Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev between the Red Army and Wehrmacht forces around the city of Kharkov (now Kharkiv)a . It was one of the operations that followed the Battle of Kursk.

Prelude[edit]

Following the Battle of Kursk, the Red Army launched Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev on 3 August 1943, which aimed to retake the cities of Belgorod and Kharkov (now Kharkiv)a . On the first day, the units of the Voronezh Front quickly penetrated the German front-line defences on the boundary of the 4th Panzer Army and Army Group "Kempf", between Tomarovka and Belgorod and gained 100 kilometres in a sector along the Akhtyrka-Bogodukhov-Olshany-Zolochev line along the banks of the Merla river. By 12 August where they were finally halted by German armoured units of the III Panzer Corps. On 5 August 1943 XI Corps evacuated the city of Belgorod. (see Belgorod-Bogodukhov Offensive Operation) [2]

Following its withdrawal from Belgorod on the night of 5/6 August 1943 the XI Army Corps under the command of (Raus) now held defensive positions south of the city between the Donets & Lopan Rivers north of Kharkov. The XI Army Corps consisted of a Kampfgruppe from the 167th Infantry Division, the 168th, 106th, 198th, 320th Infantry Divisions, and the 6th Panzer Division which acted as was the corps reserve.[3]b This constituted a deep salient east into Soviet lines and was subject to outflanking attempts on the corps left flank, indeed Soviet armoured units had already appeared 20 miles behind the corps front line. XI Army Corps now made a series of phased withdrawals toward Kharkov to prevent encirclement.

Only reaching the final defenses north of the city on 12 August 1943, following breakthroughs by the 57th & 69th armies in several sectors of the front-line, the disintegration of the 168th Infantry Division and after an intervention by the corps reserve.[2] When its attempts to force a breakthrough in the Bogodukhov-Olshany-Zolochev met with frustration along the Merla River, the Steppe Front directed its assaults towards Korotich, a sector held by 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich to cut the Poltava-Kharkov rail link. Fierce fighting ensued, in which Korotich was captured by the 5th Guards Mechanised Corps and subsequently recaptured by grenadiers from 2nd SS then to remain under German control, but the 5th Guards Tank Army (Pavel Rotmistrov) did cut the rail link finally on 22 August 1943.[4]

The loss of this vital line of communication; while not fatal in itself, was a serious blow to the ability of Army Group Kempf, to defend the city from the constant Red Army attacks. This meant critical delays of supplies and reinforcements, and the unit's position was becoming increasingly untenable. The way to Poltava now remained open, but Vatutin hesitated to push through while the Germans flanking the gap held firm. Instead, he turned his left flank armies; the 5th Guards Tank Army and the 5th Guards Army, against the western front of Army Group Kempf where the 2nd and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions fought to keep the front angled south westward away from Kharkov.

On the weaker east front of Army Group Kempf, the Soviet 57th Army cleared the right bank of the Donets between Chuguyev & Zmiyev, but the army command somehow could not quite bring itself to try for a full scale breakthrough.[5]

These threats had led to a request by General Werner Kempf to abandon the city on 12 August 1943. Erich von Manstein did not object, but Adolf Hitler countered with an order that the city had to be held "under all circumstances".c After a prediction that the order to hold Kharkov would produce "another Stalingrad", on 14 August 1943 Manstein relieved Kempf and appointed General Otto Wöhler in his place. A few days later, Army Group Kempf was renamed the 8th Army.[6] Kharkov now constituted a deep German salient to the east, which prevented the red army from making use of this vital traffic and supply centre. Following boastful reports made by Soviet radio that Soviet troops had entered the city, when in fact it was still held by XI Army Corps, Joseph Stalin personally ordered its immediate capture.[7] General Raus the officer commanding the city takes up the story:

"It was clear that the Russians would not make a frontal assault on the projecting Kharkov salient but would attempt to breakthrough the narrowest part of XI Armeecorps defensive arc west of the city in order to encircle the town. We deployed all available anti-tank guns on the northern edge of the bottleneck, which rose like a bastion, and emplaced numerous 88mm flak guns in depth on the high ground. This antitank defence alone would not have been sufficient to repulse the expected Soviet mass tank attack, but at the last moment reinforcements in the form of the "Das Reich" Panzer Regiment arrived with a strong Panzer component; I immediately dispatched it to the most endangered sector. The ninety-six Panther tanks, thirty-five Tiger tanks, d and twenty-five Sturmgeschütz III self propelled assault guns had hardly taken their positions on 20 August 1943 when the first large scale attack got underway. However the Russian tanks had been recognized while they were still assembling in the villages and flood plains of a brook valley. Within a few minutes heavily laden Stukas came on in wedge formation and unloaded their cargoes of destruction in well timed dives on the enemy tanks caught in this congested area. Dark fountains of earth erupted skyward and were followed by heavy thunderclaps and shocks that resembled an earthquake. These were the heaviest, two-ton bombs, designed for use against battleships, which were all that Luftflotte 4 had left to counter the Russian attack. Soon all the villages occupied by Soviet tanks lay in flames. A sea of dust and smoke clouds illuminated by the setting sun hung over the brook valley, while dark mushrooms of smoke from burning tanks stood out in stark contrast. This gruesome picture bore witness to an undertaking that left death & destruction in its wake, hitting the Russians so hard that they could no longer launch their projected attack that day, regardless of Joseph Stalin's order. Such a severe blow inflicted on the Soviets had purchased badly needed time for XI Armeecorps to reorganize."[8]

Churchill Mk IV Tank at the fourth battle of Kharkov in 1943

. The supply situation in Kharkov was now catastrophic; artillerymen after firing their last rounds, were abandoning their guns to fight as infantrymen. The army's supply depot had five trainloads of spare tank tracks leftover from "Zitadelle" but very little else. The high consumption of ammunition in the last month and a half had cut into supplies put aside for the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September; until the turn of the month the army would have to get along with fifty percent of its daily average requirements in artillery & tank ammunition. XI Army Corps now had a combat strength of only 4,000 infantrymen, one man for every ten yards of front.[9] General Erhard Raus explains the intensity of the constant Russian attacks:

"On 20 August the Russians avoided mass groupings of tanks, crossed the brook valley simultaneously in a number of places, and disappeared into the broad cornfields that were located ahead of our lines, ending at the east-west rollbahn several hundred metres in front of our main battle line. Throughout the morning Soviet tanks worked their way forward in the hollows up to the southern edges of the cornfields, then made a mass dash across the road in full sight. "Das Reich"'s Panthers caught the leading waves of T-34's with fierce defensive fire before they could reach our main battle line. Yet wave after wave followed, until Russian tanks flowed across in the protecting hollows and pushed forward into our battle positions. Here a net of anti-tank and flak guns, Hornet 88mm tank destroyers, and Wasp self-propelled 105mm field howitzers trapped the T-34's, split them into small groups, and put large numbers out of action. The final waves were still attempting to force a breakthrough in concentrated masses when the Tigers and StuG III self-propelled assault guns, which represented our mobile reserve s behind the front, attacked the Russian armour and repulsed it with heavy losses. The price paid by the 5th Guards Tank Army for this mass assault amounted to 184 knocked out T-34's.[10]

Wöhler, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, did not prove anymore resolute, in view of the harsh realities facing the defenders of Kharkov, he knew that the depleted Infantry regiments could not hold their positions without copious artillery support. Two days after taking command of 8th Army, Wöhler also asked Manstein for permission to abandon the city. Regardless of Hitler's demand that the city be held, Wöhler & Manstein agreed that the city could not be defended for long, given the diminishing German strength and the overwhelming size of Soviet reserves.

On 21 August 1943, Manstein gave his consent to withdraw from Kharkov. The largely destroyed Soviet city, which changed hands several times during the war, was about to be recaptured by the Soviets for the last time. During the day of 22 August 1943, the Germans began their exodus from the city under great pressure from the Soviets. The 57th & 69th Armies pushed in from three sides with the coming of daylight. The Soviets sensed that the Germans were evacuating Kharkov, due to the lessening of artillery fire and diminishing resistance in the front lines. Later in the day, thunderous explosions were heard as ammo dumps were blown. Large German columns were then observed leaving the city and the Soviet troops pushed into the town itself. Moving out of Kharkov to the south, the Germans desperately fought to hold open a corridor through which a withdrawal could be made.

All along the corridor through which the 8th Army evacuated Kharkov, Soviet artillery and mortars pounded the withdrawal. Their planes gathered for the kill and attacked the German columns leaving the city, strafing & bombing the men & vehicles. After dark, the 89th Guards and 107th Rifle Divisions broke into the interior of the city, driving the last German rearguard detachments before them. Enormous fires were set by the Germans in hope of delaying the Soviet advance. The city became a hellish place of fire and smoke, artillery fire & desperate combat, punctuated by the explosions of supply dumps.

By 0200 on 23 August 1943, elements of the 183rd Rifle Division pushed into the city centre, reached the huge Dzerzhinsky Square and met men from the 89th Rifle Division. The victorious Soviet troops hoisted a red banner over the city once again. By 1100, Kharkov and its outskirts had been liberated completely. The fourth and final battle for the city was over.[11]

Aftermath[edit]

By re-establishing a continuous front on Army Group South's left flank, the 4th Panzer Army and the 8th Army had for the moment, blunted a deadly thrust, but to the north and southeast fresh blows had already been dealt or were in the making. Employing the peculiar rippling effect that marked their offensives, the Red Army, thwarted in one place, had shifted to others. For the first time in the war they had the full strategic initiative, and they grasped it jealously without regard for economy of effort, tactical sophistication, or the danger of overreaching themselves.[12] The failure of Operation Citadel doomed the Germans to the permanent loss of the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front without any hope of regaining it, although Hitler refused to acknowledge it. The terrible losses in manpower that the Germans suffered in July and August 1943 severely crippled both Army Groups South & Centre. Operations Polkovodets Rumyantsev, along with the concurrent Operation Kutuzov marked the first time in the war that the Germans were not able to defeat a major Soviet offensive during the summer and regain their lost ground and the strategic initiative.[13]

Footnotes[edit]

  • a Kharkov is the Russian language name of the city (Kharkiv the Ukrainian one); both Russian and Ukrainian were official languages in the Soviet Union.[14]
  • b The 905th Assault Gun Battalion, & the 7th & 48th flak regiments armed with the legendary '88' guns were also part of the Reserve.
  • c Hitler claimed the loss of Kharkov would damage German prestige, particularly in Turkey. In the spring the Turkish Commander in Chief had inspected the defences as a guest of Armeeabteilung Kempf & pronounced them "Impregnable".
  • d 1st Battalion, the 2 SS Das Reich Panzer Regiment left for France in May 1943, before the Battle of Kursk to receive its 'Panther' Tanks only returning in late August 1943.

Citations and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Decision in the Ukraine Summer 1943 II SS & III Panzer Corps, George M Nipe Jr, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. 1996 pp 322-327
  2. ^ a b Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 bt Steven H Newton 2003 pp213-215
  3. ^ Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 by Steven H Newton Da Capo Press edition 2003 pp213-216
  4. ^ Decision in the Ukraine Summer 1943 II SS & III Panzer Corps, George M Nipe Jr, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. 1996 Page 324
  5. ^ Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke by Dorset Press 1968 page 154
  6. ^ Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke by Dorset Press 1968 page 153
  7. ^ Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 bt Steven H Newton 2003 Page 242
  8. ^ Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 by Steven H Newton 2003 pp 242-243
  9. ^ Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke by Dorset Press 1968 page 156
  10. ^ Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 bt Steven H Newton 2003 Page 244
  11. ^ The Road to Berlin John Erickson Westview Press 1983 Page 121
  12. ^ Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke by Dorset Press 1968 page 158
  13. ^ Decision in the Ukraine Summer 1943 II SS & III Panzer Corps, George M Nipe Jr, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. 1996 Page 330
  14. ^ Language Policy in the Soviet Union by L.A. Grenoble & Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States by Routledge)

References[edit]

  • Decision in the Ukraine Summer 1943 II SS & III Panzerkorps, George M Nipe Jr, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. 1996 ISBN 0-921991-35-5
  • Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 by Steven H Newton Da Capo Press edition 2003 ISBN 0-306-81247-9
  • Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke Dorset Press 1968
  • The Road to Berlin by John Erickson Westview Press 1983

Sources[edit]

  • Decision in the Ukraine Summer 1943 II SS & III Panzerkorps, George M Nipe Jr, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing Inc. 1996 ISBN 0-921991-35-5
  • Panzer Operations The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945 by Steven H Newton Da Capo Press edition 2003 ISBN 0-306-81247-9
  • Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East by Earl F Ziemke Dorset Press 1968
  • The Road to Berlin by John Erickson Westview Press 1983