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Ghost Panzers

The Third Battle of Kharkov

On February 16 1943 the Soviets recaptured the city of Kharkov situated to the south of Kursk. The Soviet forces had begun their offensive on January 13, with the aim of liberating the Ukraine and destroying the 75 German divisions defending it. The Soviets were confident as they already had the German 6th Army trapped in the Stalingrad pocket.

The City of Kharkov was one of the Soviet Unions important industrial cities, and it reflected its importance in its grand buildings and modern architecture, pride of place going to the Gosprom complex situated on the huge Dzerzhinsky Square in central Kharkov. Dzerzhinsky Square was the biggest of its kind not just in the Soviet Union, but in all of Europe.

Enemy at the Gates

Four Soviet army groups were sent against Heersgruppe B and Heersguppe Don in the Ukraine.

The first blow came across the Don River, the Soviet 40th Army (General K. S. Moskalenko) broke through the left of the thinly spread Hungarian 2nd Army, the gap was soon exploited by the Soviet 3rd Tank Army (Lieutenant-General P. S. Rybalko) pushing around behind the Hungarian VII Corps, the Italian Alpini Corps and their supporting German reserve troops. The whole front disintegrated and further Soviets troops were soon pouring through.

By late January the gap had been widened to 200 miles running between Voronezh and Voroshilovgrad. On January 25 the Soviets move their assault northwards, the 40th and 13th (Lieutenant-General N. P. Pukhov) armies leading the way. By January 28 they had surrounded 2 of the 2nd German Army’s 3 Corps after punching through its thinly defended southern flank.

In the meantime the newly activated SS-Panzer Corps had arrived from France and set up its headquarters at Kharkov.

The Gosprom complex on Dzerzhinsky Square
Soviet Armies attacking around Kharkov

Present were the SS Panzergrenadier divisions ’Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler’ and ’Das Reich’.

Heersgruppe B’s defences south of the Donetz collapsed on February 1 and the Soviets soon organised a Mobile Group under Lieutenant-General M. M. Popov to take advantage of the newly created 40-mile gap. The remnants of Heersgruppe B’s southern units were handed over to General der Gebirgstruppen Hubert Lanz with the mission of holding Kharkov and protecting Heersguppe Don’s northern flank.

The SS had dug in around east and northeast of Kharkov.

To the south the Soviets took Izyum on 5 February, they had started to penetrate the rear flank of Heersguppe Don.

The second phase of the Soviet offensive began on February 2 with the Voronezh front sending 2 armies against Kursk and Oboyan, and 3 armies against Kharkov, the 40th, 69th and 3rd Tank. The 40th would strike to the northwest of Kharkov, out flanking it through Belgorod.

To the south the 69th would attack towards Volchansk and the 3rd Tank would come from the southwest.

A ’Das Reich’ Tiger in the suburbs of Kharkov
Kharkov’s streets busy with the activities of the German army

The Soviets forces were now feeling the effects of a months fighting and progress was slow, the 3rd Tank army did not reach the Donetz river 20 miles to the south of Kharkov until 4 February.

Defending the northern bank of the river were elements of Leibstandarte. Frontal assaults on the Germans positions proved fruitless causing heavy losses.

To the north the Soviet 40th Army took Belgorod on the 9 February driving the German 169th Division out and creating a bridgehead across the Donetz. The 69th was delayed by the skilful actions of the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier division but still achieved their objective by 4 February.

With the capture of Belgorod Lanz ordered the German units to the east of Kharkov to withdraw on the city to avoid being cut off by Soviet flanking movements. Das Reich and Leibstandarte withdrew towards Kharkov and Grossdeutschland took up blocking positions on the road from Belgorod to Kharkov. The 168th Division also continued to delay.
Soviet forces continued to advance on Kharkov and on the 9 February the 3rd Tank Army finally cross the Donetz during the night, the 12th Tank Corps to its south soon followed. The Soviets then hit the next line of defences positioned 10-miles out from Kharkov defended by Leibstandarte. Both the 3rd Tank and 69th Armies slowly ground their way forward against the determined German defence, making a mere 4 to 8 miles during 11-14 February.
Soviet Troops riding into Kharkov
A Panzer IV stops to look for Soviet movement

By 14 February the Leibstandarte division moved from the outer to inner defences, fighting defensive battles in Kharkov’s factory district against the Soviet 15th Tank Corp, 160th Rifle and 48th Guards Rifle divisions.

Leibstandarte has successfully slowed the Soviet attack from the east, but the real blow was to come form the north. Grossdeutschland and the 168th division had been slowly withdrawing from Belgorod, unfortunately Grossdeutschland retreated south while the 169th went southwest spreading the forces defending Kharkov’s north.

The 4th Tank Corps broke through the lines and made it to the northern outer defences of Kharkov on 13 February.

Lanz had in the meantime been ordered to counter-attack the Soviets and had delayed as long as he could to ensure the defence of Kharkov, but on 11 February Leibstandarte with one Das Reich Panzergrenadier regiment attacked southeast making 30 miles in 3 day but rarely coming to grips with the enemy, the 6th Cavalry Corps, who used their superior cross-country mobility to keep clear of the SS Panzers. By the 15 February SS troops had finished off the Soviet 6th Cavalry Corps, and had returned to Kharhov.

On 14 February, the SS were chasing cavalry through the snow Grossdeutschland was facing an onslaught from the Soviet 40th Army advancing along the Belgorod-Kharkov railway. 183rd Rifle Division reached the outer northern suburbs on 14 February, quickly followed by a further 2 divisions. The remainder of the 40th Army moved south west behind Kharkov, with the 3rd Tank armies drive to the southwest only a 6-mile wide corridor was available to get in and out of Kharkov.
The Germans still held the city but Soviet inroads had been made. Grossdeutschland held the west, Das Reich the north, a reinforced Panzergrenadier regiment of Leibstandarte held the east and the 320th Division holding the southeast.

Hitler had ordered that Kharkov is to be held. Hausser, commander of SS-Panzerkorps feared the troops in Kharkov would be cut off, he contacted Lanz’s HQ to ask to evacuate on the afternoon of 14 February, after he heard no reply he ordered the evacuation himself at 1645 hours.

General Paul Hausser commander of the SS-Panzerkorps
Some of Hausser’s SS Troops

Lanz contacted Hausser at 1725 and reiterated the Führers orders to hold the city, he repeated the orders on the telephone again at 1800. Hausser changed his mine and vowed to hold the city to the last man.

On the Morning of 15 February the Soviets launched their final assault on Kharkov. Units flooded into the city, and by midday the southwest corridor out of Kharkov had shrunk down to a mile or so wide. Despite Hitler’s directive and Lanz’s orders element of the SS-Panzerkorps started to vacate the city, the first to withdraw were Das Reich from the northern suburbs. The Soviet 69th Army soon filled the void. SS Panzergrenadiers were soon engaged in heavy street fighting in the east of city, engaging the 15th Tank Corps and the 160th Rifle Division. Hausser not wishing to lose his troops ordered the withdrawal of the Divisions from Kharkov at 1300 hours before the corridor could close. The Soviets continued to advance into Kharkov on 16 February and by noon they were back in complete control of their city.

The Germans had lost Kharkov for the first time, but not the last. Despite the fact that Hausser had disobeyed orders and Hitler’s wishes he held his position as commander of the SS-Panzerkorps, but a scapegoat was found. Lanz lost his command to General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf.

The Germans would be back…

We also look at ideas for Flames of War games based on the events of the Third Battle of Kharkov.

Gaming the Third Battle of Kharkov, 1st Phase...


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Last Updated On Friday, December 24, 2021 by Wayne at Battlefront