Friday, 7 March 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Liberation of Kharkov

The Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive Operation, codenamed "War Chief Rumyantsev", began on August 3rd, 1943. The operation was performed with the forces of the Voronezh Front (N. Vatutin) and Steppe Front (I. Konev). The operational plan placed the main strike to the west of Kharkov using the mobile flanks of the front. After the forces break through, 57th army of the South-Western Front would start its advance to meet it. The attack was asymmetric, with a strong right flank and comparatively weak left. The tank armies were to move quickly, up to 40 km per day. High command needed them to cut off reinforcements the Germans could bring in from the Donbas.

Soviet forces numbered 980 000 soldiers, over 2400 tanks and SPGs, over 12 000 cannons and mortars, 1300 aircraft. The Germans had 300 000 soldiers, 306 functional tanks and SPGs, and about 1000 aircraft. The main German line of defense was up to 8 km deep, composed of pillboxes linked together by full sized trenches. The second line was 2-3 km away from the first, and was equally well equipped. The rear line went through Bogoduhov, Zlochev, Kazachya Lopan', and Zhuravlevka. Two powerful defensive rings surrounded Kharkov.

An artillery barrage began on August 3rd at 5:00 am, and lasted for 3 hours. Aviation struck the enemy alongside with artillery. Soviet infantry moved out before the artillery fell silent, and progressed behind the barrage. During the first day, 12 km of German defenses were penetrated. Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army made it even further, 20 km deep. The Steppe Front was bogged down in heavy trench fighting, and only progressed 7-8 km. They were behind schedule on the first day of the operation.

On the second day, the offensive continued, but the progress was still slower than high command preferred. On August 4th, the 5th Guards Army encountered the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion. They only had 6 functional Tigers, but even they were a tough opponent on the defensive. As a result, the 5th Guards Army progressed only 10 km that day.

Belgorod was liberated on August 5th, Tomarovka on the 6th. The offensive gained momentum, but was still too slow. This was caused by the Germans' fierce resistance, activity of their aviation, and command errors made by the RKKA. For example, it was unnecessary to sent a whole corps from the 5th Guards Tank Army to the rear of Belgorod, as it was already surrounded by the 53rd army and 1st Mechanized Corps. Due to the delays, the Soviet forces had a higher chance of meeting reinforcements from the Donbas. Three SS divisions (Das Reich, Totenkopf, and Wiking) were on the way, as well as the 3rd Tank Division.

Rotmistrov's guardsmen met the 3rd Tank division at Zolochev on August 6th. On August 9th, the enemy was knocked out of Zolochev, and the 5th Guards Tank Army was transferred to the reserve of the Steppe Front.

Meanwhile, Katukov's 1st Tank Army punched a hole in the German lines long enough to circle the enemy forces from the west. Elements of Katukov's forces were suppressing the Germans at Borisovka, surrounding them by August 6th. This was an organized German defensive point, and the resistance was fierce. Some of the encircled enemies broke through towards Graivoron on August 7th. After the resistance at Borisovka was eliminated, the commander of the German 19th Tank Division, Schmidt, was found among the corpses.

On August 7th, Grossdeutschland arrived at Akhtyrka. It became the core of the planned German counterattack. Divisions pulled from the quieter section of the front arrived at Kharkov.

On August 7th, elements of the 1st Tank Army took Bogoduhov. On the next day, several kilometers from the Kharkov-Poltava railroad, they encountered the newly arrived Das Reich SS division. The resistance was heavy enough for the Soviets to go on the defensive on several sections of the front. Two brigades from the 6th Tank Corps moved forward around the main combat region.

On the night of August 11th, the 1st Tank Army made an attempt to cut through the railroad, which was the main line of communications between Kharkov and Poltava. At first, the Soviets were nearing success, taking the Kovyagi station. Tanks moved on, but the German counterattack started during the second half of the day, and surrounded several Soviet tanks at Levandalovka station. Elements of the Totenkopf division attacked Sharovka and Murafa.

The 5th Guards Tank Army once again arrived on the battlefield on August 12th. It intercepted the German counterattack just in time. On August 12-13, heavy fighting broke out around Bogoduhov. On August 14th, the Germans delivered a strike at Vysokopolye. Soviet forces retreated, and on August 16th the Kharkov-Poltava railroad was once again in the hands of the enemy.

Akhtyrka became the new center of attention, with the 7th Motorized Division, 10th Motorized Division, and Grossdeutschland division concentrated there on August 18th. Only the 166th Infantry Division of the 27th Army, stretched out over 170 kilometers of front lines, was available to fight the Germans on a 25 kilometer front. Its positions came under heavy bombings, and were overrun. During the day, the Germans penetrated a section of the front 7 km wide and 24 km deep. The 4th and 5th Tank Corps and 71st and 241th Infantry Divisions were in danger of encirclement. These units immediately deployed on the flank of the German advance. Additional forces were pulled up to avoid a catastrophe. The 7th and 8th Guards Infantry Divisions deployed on the German flanks, protecting the rear of the Voronezh Front. Most of the 1st Guards Tank Army was moved to Akhtyrka. The 29th Tank Corps from the 5th Guards Tank Army was sent. Heavy and lengthy fighting began.

The aforementioned battles were fought by elements of the Voronezh Front. Eastward, in the Steppe Front's offensive sector, Soviet forces penetrated the outer defensive ring and approached the city's defenses. Battles were fought until August 17th.

On August 18th, the 57th army of the South-Western Front resumed their offensive, circling the city from the south. On August 20th, two corps of the 5th Guards Tank Army were transferred south of Polevoy. The third remained at Bogoduhov.

On August 21st, the 5th Guards Tank Army began an offensive towards Korotych. Due to difficulties in crossing the Uda river, Soviet forces moved forward only one kilometer that day. On August 22nd, battles at Korotych broke out. Due to a tank-heavy German counteroffensive, the Soviet advance stalled and was partially encircled.

However, the German counterattack did not change the situation. On August 22nd, the Germans made the decision to leave Kharkov. Das Reich was tasked with holding the Soviet forces back to allow for the rest of the army to retreat. This was insufficient. Soviet high command tasked the 69th and 7th Guards Armies to take the city at night. By noon on August 23rd, Kharkov was completely freed from German occupants.

Original article available here.

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