Friday 24 February 2017

World of Tanks History Section: Star Over Kharkov

An enormous breach formed in the Soviet-German front after the encirclement and defeat of Paulus' 6th Army at Stalingrad. Another breach formed soon after, as a result of the Voronezh-Kastornaya Operation in January of 1943. This second breach was very tempting for the Soviets as it opened up a route to liberate Kharkov and the Donbass.

At the same time, Manstein was desperately holding onto Rostov-on-the-Don, saving the German 1st Tank Army. Even the tried and true German technique of shortening the front to increase the concentration of forces wasn't enough to resolve this crisis. The only weight that could tilt the scales in the Germans' favour was the injection of new forces.
Before the Rising Star

The Germans had such a weight: three SS divisions, Das Reich, LSSAH, and Totenkopf. These divisions were withdrawn to France for rest and resupply, were reformed into panzergrenadier divisions, received their own tank regiments with medium tanks, companies of new Tigers, anti-tank and assault gun squadrons. This fearsome trinity was named the 2nd SS Tank Corps. Das Reich alone had 131 tanks of various types and 28 assault guns at the time of being sent to the front. The Corps was commanded by Paul Hausser. 

Laws of military science, which the German generals ought to have known, dictate that it would be best to collect the 2nd SS Tank Corps into one contiguous force that could shift the odds in the Germans' favour with one decisive blow. The reality was different. The shipment of new forces to the Eastern Front was scheduled for the end of 1942. German commanders were planning on including the SS corps in the attempt to free Paulus' men surrounded at Stalingrad. However, by the time the corps crossed Europe and reached the Ukrainian steppe there was no one left to save. Instead, the collapse of the entire southern flank of the German-Soviet front was imminent.

The first battalion from Das Reich was sent to Voroshilovgrad (modern Lugansk) the moment it disembarked, 250 km in the direction of Kharkov. Hausser was promised that he would get it back, but the promise was only kept in late March of 1943. Meanwhile, the corps command was building a defense around Kharkov out of any arriving unit. Panzergrenadier regiments were in position by the start of February, but tanks and SPGs were just arriving by the time the Soviet offensive began.

Velikiy Burluk Schwerpunkt

Elements of the 2nd Voronezh Front were tasked with liberating Kharkov. The first strike of Operation Star would be delivered by P. Rybalko's 3rd Tank Army. Units in this army were experiencing a serious shortage in men and materiel at the start of the offensive. The corps of this army were the size of brigades. For example, the 1st Tank Corps only had 20-48 tanks (depending on the source) on February 1st. Either way, the Germans were in an even worse position, since the SS tanks have not yet arrived.

The battered infantry divisions covering the flanks of Das Reich took the hardest beating. Even SS garrisons who successfully deflected Soviet tank attacks were forced to retreat. Meanwhile, LSSAH was trying to build a defense in front of the Severniy Donets river.

Das Reich's objective at this stage was to hold onto the Velikiy Burluk settlement. In German terminology, this was the Schwerpunkt (lit. "force point") from which the Germans could deliver a blow against the foundation of the Soviet spearhead. The Soviet 186th Rifle Regiment and then the main forces of the 15th Tank Corps reached the settlement on the morning of February 4th, 1943 After heated battles, the garrison in Velikiy Burluk was destroyed.

On the next day, the long awaited German tanks arrived. Das Reich tried to counterattack. Aside from tanks, a battalion of Hanomag APCs from the Fuhrer SS regiment also participated in the attack. However, the main Soviet tank forces already moved on towards Kharkov, so the attack hit the 180th Rifle Division who was coming up behind Rybalko's tanks. Divisional reports contained heavy losses, but army level reports reacted calmly: "The 180th Rifle Division is holding back attacks of 30 tanks with motorized infantry from Beliy Kolodez".

These 30 tanks were likely from Das Reich's 1st battalion. According to German data, the battle on February 5th cost it at least 12 knocked out tanks. This meshes well with the report from the 180th Rifle Division, who reported 14 knocked out German tanks. Overall, despite the large volume of the attack, it's hard to call it a success. The commanders of the 69th Army only requested air support.

The 3rd Tank Army HQ paid more attention to its right flank. The 288th Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment was sent by forced march to Olkhovatka village, and the 179th Independent Tank Brigade was assigned to the 48th Guards Rifle Division who was already stationed there. Rybalko also asked for air support like his neighbour. A chaotic mish-mash of Soviet and German forces took place around Olkhovatka and Velikiy Burluk for the next few days. 

German documents insist that the 2nd SS Tank Corps held onto Velikiy Burluk until February 8th, but this is contradicted by Soviet reports. According to them, the Germans tried to retake the settlement, but were stopped some distance away to the north. The battles over Burluk were heavy, but Hausser's SS only managed to reach the north-western outskirts on February 7th.

The Germans failed to achieve their main objective: pulling Rybalko's tank corps from Kharkov.

First Liberation of Kharkov

Reporting that "one regiment of the 184th Rifle Division is fighting off tanks and submachinegunners in Velikiy Burluk", the 3rd Tank Army continued to advance on Kharkov. The 15th and 12th Tank Corps were fighting on the approaches to the city. The 6th Guards Cavalry Corps flanked German positions and threatened the city garrison.

By February 9th, 1943, Soviet forces finally fended off the German attacks and began their own offensive. Having knocked out about 23 tanks on the next day they took Beliy Kolodez, the starting off point for Das Reich's attacks.

A flank attack against the 3rd Tank Army was no longer the Germans' top priority. They had their hands full trying to avoid an encirclement. A tank attack against the cavalry corps looked more promising than trying to ram through Soviet infantry defenses that were peppered with artillery and tanks.

The 6th Cavalry Corps describes these battles as follows: "The corps fought difficult battles against armoured units, motorized infantry, and aircraft from February 10th to 16th. The corps fought enemy tanks for five days with various means. Up to 80 tanks and many soldiers and officers were destroyed."

Even though the Germans managed to avoid an encirclement, there were not enough forces to defend Kharkov. Several counterattacks that were, as the Germans wrote, "dictated by the situation", took the steam out of recently reinforced SS divisions. Das Reich had only 27 tanks remaining by February 13th out of the initial 131.

Soviet forces took Kharkov on February 16th, 1943.

This date combined the end of the third battle for the city and the start of a two week pause before the Germans would once again cast a 200 day long shadow on the city.

The Red Army learned how to achieve victory, but not how to cement its success. The Soviet units were tired and bloodied, and the Germans introduced significant reserves on the southern front. Soon, the city was back in German hands for several months. However, the losses the Wehrmacht took meant that it was capable of just one last strategic offensive that began in July at the Kursk Salient.


  1. Nice mispresentation of a major strategic defeat of the Red Army.

    1. Chewing up the 2nd SS Tank Corps and retaking Kharkov counts as a major strategic defeat?

    2. they didn´t chew it up in the first place. Quite the opposite, DAS REICH and LSAH degreaded the Tank Army so much that it was ripe to destruction a couple of days later. -while both, DAS REICH and LSAH had kept enough strength to participate in the offensive subsequently.
      You are free to have Your own opinion but not to have Your own facts...

  2. Yes. It´s a major strategic defeat because the aim wasn´t to get Kharkiv but a strategic offensive aimed at driving a wedge between Hgr. Mitte and Süd. An objective, the four participating fronts failed to achieve with their attempt resulting in the loss of most formations participating. They were soundly beaten by Mannstein.

    The 2nd SS Pz Corps wans´t there. Only elements of DAS REICH and LSAH. Initially, even only the Recon companies were deployed at Velikiy Burluk putting up a good fight. Contrary to what is written in this "article", the third unit, TOTENKOPF did not participate at all in the scenes focussed in this article and only joined later, during the counter-offensive beeing assempled at Poltava on 18th of feb.

    Both DR & LSAH divisions were instrumental in delaying the multi front red Army, strategic offensive. The delaying action of just two divisions, thus was not only instrumental in binding enemy formations but also allowed for Mannsteins major redployment of forces which masterly bagged and defeated the russian Armies participating in this move. Instead of beeing "chewed up", a more sober assessment of their condition would point out that both SS divisions lost in the hard fighting only 60 tanks permenently disabled or damaged during the defensive. Thus, unlike the opposing soviet Armies thrown against them, they were not at all exhousted and consequently able to participate in both, the defensive maneuvre as well as the offensive action recapturing Kharkov. The same cannot be said about the soviet tank Corps.

    And the Red Army? Contrary to what is written in the article, there was no two week pause, despite all calls by Rybalko to rest his exhousted formations, some of which´s supporting rifle divisions strength eroded down to 30-50%. Rybalko attacked on Feb 19th again. Vatutin committed his last reserves to support the armoured wegde´s drive past Kharkiv: the 1st Guards Tank Corps and the 1st GCC. Popov, Gyrbalko, Pavlov, and the 40th and 69th Army all pushed westward on 19th of february. The truth is, the Red Army had exhousted itselfe completely vs stiff reistence put up, among others, by DAS REICH and LSAH. Its demonstrated by how quickly the major voviet tank formations were wiped out after their "victory at Kharkov". On the evening of Feb. 19th, elements of the 15th ID infiltrated the assembly area of Pavlovs 25th Tank Corps and caught it by surprise. He hastily abandoned the town and left a lot of equipment and tanks. On the same day, SS WIKING finnished off the 4th Guards Tank Corps at Krasnoarmeskoe. The next day, the 11th PzDiv and 7th PzDiv together closed the encirclement of Popov´s 11th Tank Corps and 18th Tank Corps. By night of feb-21-22, three of Popov´s Tank Corps had ceased to exist as fighting formations.
    On 20th feb. DAS REICH and the newly commissioned TOTENKOPF attacked against the 6th Army near Pavlovgrad, rendering the 25th Tank Corps out of combat by feb. 22.

    So what two week pause are You speaking of?

    1. Did you even read the article? The two week pause was referring to whose hands Kharkov was in.

      If you want to complain, here's Ulanov's blog, go pollute his comments instead of mine:

    2. Heil critical mass! I'm not saying you give incorrect information, but have you ever thought making something more than negative critiques (I mean making positive ones or positive information aportations to the given information) will help you to look like someone with neutral point of view?

    3. The article only mentions Totenkopf in the background part, the account of the actual operations only ever mentions Das Reich and LSSAH. Did you even *read* the article?

      You'd have a lot more credibility if you didn't keep tilting at entirely imaginary windmills like this you know.

      Also, "only" recon companies? Last I read about it the recce formations of German panzer units were light mechanised mini-battlegroups all by themselves, as the doctrine not unreasonably expected they'd have to make the necessary holes in enemy advance screens by themselves...

  3. Well,obviously then the author failed to mention, that after all the trouble of the 3rd TA, suddenly Kharkiv was the subject.
    It´s laughable.

    1. "After all the trouble"? Operation Star was aimed to liberate the Donbass and Kharkov.

    2. Both "Star" and "Gallop" achieved their objectives. That they left the Soviet forces too depleted and overextended - Stalin and STAVKA seem to have gotten a bit overconfident in the wake of Stalingrad - to deal with the German counterattack a bit later is a different matter entirely.

  4. critical mass appears to be die hard Wermacht fan, he just can't deal with facts that collude with his biased point of view. That is why he is always negative and critical, I do not read his posts any more as you always know what will be there, boring and mean propaganda.

  5. Neither am I a Werhaboo nor do I critisize aspects which are in order. The problem lies with the "world of Tanks fake history section" here, which appears to struggle frequently when it comes to historical correctness.

    "Both "Star" and "Gallop" achieved their objectives. That they left the Soviet forces too depleted and overextended - Stalin and STAVKA seem to have gotten a bit overconfident in the wake of Stalingrad - to deal with the German counterattack a bit later is a different matter entirely."

    They didn´t achieved liberation of the Donbass. And most units involved in the strategic offensive were casualities for the soviets, losing almost all their equipment in the process. Of course, the attempt to seperate the time period when they got temporary hold on Kharkiv but avoiding to even mention the subsequent events of this strategic offensive, which ended as an utter, complete failure constitutes a typical textbook episode of soviet propaganda.

    That fits together with failing to mention the losses sustained at all, doesn´t it?
    I quote:
    "German documents insist that the 2nd SS Tank Corps held onto Velikiy Burluk until February 8th" -

    This clearly implies that the 2nd SS Tank Corps was present. The fighting was intense and probably the losses inflicted misguided the author of the article that the three divisions were fighting there. He could have avoided the mistaked by inserting "elements" or by naming actually which unit was present -but no, he didn´t. And I am damn right to point out fake history like this.

    There was no 2nd SS Tank Corps there. Just the recce units and elements of two regiments detached there. A whole different picture than assuming three SS divisions would be fighting.

    1. The fact remains that you're writing enormous walls of text complaining that the article doesn't include things that are outside of its scope, even though it specifically does mention subsequent events of the strategic offensive. Are you just mad that every single article doesn't include the required mentions of German supremacy? That seems to be an incredibly common theme with you.

      Like I said, go pollute Ulanov's comments. A warning though: he won't be as nice as I am.

    2. That picture exists entirely in your head, I'm afraid. The article is quite clear the bulk of the SS formations were still in transit, and that Totenkopf wasn't involved at all.
      You're seriously just looking for nits to pick aren't you.

      And the article isn't exactly shy about eg. Rybalko's lot being rather depleted already at the *start* of operations, either - it REALLY should go without saying that they weren't going to be in any better shape after some weeks of intense offensive combat...

      In the case you missed it this article - being specifically about that topic - wraps up with the retaking of Kharkov on Feb 16th, which was indeed one of the main goals of Star. Manstein's counteroffensive started some three days later but the Germans wouldn't be getting close to the city again until early-mid March so, yeah. (Gallop, further to the south and up to Vatutin's Southwestern Front rather than Golikov's Voronezh, had also met many of its objectives and was in the process of trying to push further.)

    3. Peter,

      You call it "pollution". Do we have to take this as a polite way of characterising facts?
      Seriously, You have a problem with russki propaganda here...

    4. What would you call it? You latch onto any article that mentions Germany (and some that don't) and post endless walls of text whining about how you are the true arbiter of history and everything else is propaganda.

    5. Critical mass has the means to build his own blog with blogspot if he wants to answer World of Tanks world view.

    6. I've proposed that he do so several times, since his comments end up having a higher word count than the article he posts them on.

  6. Posession of a city only meant sth. for Hitler but not for any military commander remotely worth his rank. That doessn´t make the concept of city posession any worthier.

    The article is guilty of deliberately omitting information and selective perception.
    Why they list TOTENKOPF unde rthe 2nd SS Tank Corps without explicitely statting it was not involved when they talk about "2nd SS Tank Corps".
    The article should also have mentioned that the major soviet Tank Corps involved were already routed within days of the capture of Kharkiv.
    Plus, as I mentioned previously, the main contribution of DAS REICH and LSAH isn´t mentioned AT ALL(!). It´s defense helped stabilize the front at a critical period, eroded the combat strength of the soviet formations attacking them and paved the way for their destruction.

    The strategic aim of the soviet multi front attack was not Kharkiv but the Dnjepr crossings further south as correctly anticipated by Mannstein. The retreat of the two SS PzDiv from Kharkov further fueled the soviet believe that the german defenses are crumbling and thus facilitated Mannstein´s counter strike by laying a trap the soviet fronts were happy to jump into.

    Of course, no word of that in the article... as if the strategic offensive operation was concluded with the capture of Kharkiv...

    1. Wew lad. You just disqualified yourself from ever being taken seriously in any discussion of military strategy with that first paragraph.
      Because cities as *kind of a fucking big deal* for a veritable laundry list of reasons.

      Just to rattle off the most blatantly obvious:
      - concentrations of industry, population and economic infrastructure
      - transport and communication hubs
      - owing to above, major logistical centers for military operations
      - all of the above goes *at least* double in the largely roadless vastness of Eastern Europe
      - urban terrain is ready-made fortress material
      ...and so on and so on. There's kind of a *reason* they universally get fought over with such intensity and loom large in planning.

      And if you want detailed day-to-day orders of battle go read a proper technical writeup instead of a brief popular-historical article on teh Internets. For anyone with properly working reading comprehension, and a shortage of Head Up Ass, it is clear as day from the article that Totenkopf played no part in the events.
      It should also be equally apparent that the SS formations were reaching the area in dribs and drabs as transportation capacity allowed, but apparently some people need everything spelled out to them in very precise terms and preferably without too many difficult words.

      And for some reason you're now basically attributing the entirety of the German defensive effort down to the two still-arriving SS divisions, why?

      And why are you expecting an article covering a specific period to discuss at length events beyond its stated scope that anyone with an interest in the topic likely already knows anyway, and can easily look up if interested? Toss "operation star" at Wikipedia and you get a brief summary with a link to the much more extensive article covering the shortly following Third Kharkov, for example.

      Also not exactly amazing news to anyone that armies already worn out at the *start* of the operations aren't going to do super hot when, after being further eroded by intense combat for a few weeks, they get counterattacked by fresh and fully formed divisions. Doubly so if they've been overstretched by excessively optimistic orders from superiors who were clearly severely underestimating the remaining enemy reserves.

      Also I'll remind you that it DID still take the Germans until well into the next month to get back to Kharkov again...

    2. >And for some reason you're now basically attributing the entirety of the German defensive effort down to the two still-arriving SS divisions, why?

      Come on man, you know why.

    3. ">And for some reason you're now basically attributing the entirety of the German defensive effort down to the two still-arriving SS divisions, why?"

      Force disposition. That´s why. Armoured forces were employed to respond with on enemy attacks or to delay so that less mobile formations were able to reposition themselfes.

      By the begin of the fighting the force disposition was 4:1 in disfavour of the defenders in terms of tanks:

      Glantz gives less than 100 german tanks vs 320 soviet operational tanks (many soviet formations were understrength but less so than the german armoured formations at the start of the battle) and approx. 160,000 german soldiers vs 360,000 soviet.

      The soviet received direct reinforcement by committing two Tank Corps with 360 tanks, the germans received direct reinforcements by 300 tanks, albeit this number includes TOTENKOPF.

      Without the preemptive action of the two divisions, there would be no delay in Rybalkos approach possible because there were no uncommitted armoured reserves left.

      Also, You seem to be in error in regard to the nature of the forces involved in Mannsteins counter stroke. They were not "fresh" or "fully formed" in general. Only TOTENKOPF was. All other units were in action since a long time and only repositioned themselves from Mannsteins right flank to his left. Unlike the soviets, german forces in this theatre faced less threatening losses in the cause of action and thus, were able to participate in mopping up Rybalko and Popov´s armored forces.

      Also, excessively optimistic orders? You are mistken. The soviet operational doctrine WAS EXACTLY that. To strike deep into the enemy´s rear. Popov was tasked with taking nothing less than Mariupol and cutting off all german forces in Donbass.

      And what You call "worn out forces" at the begin of the operation was more than twice as strong as the german defenders, who were in constant fighting since several months by then.

  7. Kell,

    the german reinforcements weren´t all full strength:
    3rd Pz Division = 18 tanks
    11th Pz Div. -detrained from Konstantinovka on feb. 5th with a strength of 16 tanks
    SS Pz Div. VIKING -joined on 8th of february with a strength of 5 tanks

    Further, the delay in recapturing Kharkiv was on purpose and not because of skillful soviet defense. Which Army commander would let the opportunity to encircle and mop up large enemy formations go unanswered? But that required a powerful armoured thrust to be delivered southeast -away from Kharkiv. Kharkiv could only be engaged afterwards because there were not enough armoured reseveres for simultaneous strikes in both directions.

    Mannstein still had less armor and less soldiers at his disposal than the opposing soviet forces whenthe counter strike commenced.

    At the end of the day, the objective as defined by STAVKA of the
    strategic offensive was to cut off, encircle and destroy german Armies in the Donbas area and this strategic objective was frustrated. Apparently, having a numerical superiority (2:1 in soldiers, 3.6:1 in tanks) was not enough. On the contrary, at the end of the day, the soviet formations were encircled by the germans and destroyed, generating an epic strategic defeat for the Red Army.
    The abandonment of Kharkiv by the SS PzDiv just ensured that STAVKA was caught wrong footed in regard to german intentions.