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Waffen-SS: Kharkov, 1943


In early 1943 the Germans were on the verge of losing the war on the Eastern Front. The defeat at Stalingrad and the subsequent Soviet offensive in the Ukraine threatened the whole southern sector of the front. The situation was saved by the leadership of Erich von Manstein and his masterful use of the newly raised I SS Panzer Corps, which retook Kharkov in spectacular fashion.

The Red steamroller

In January 1943, Soviet armies had been running rampant in the Ukraine, with the Wehrmacht falling back in disarray after the massive defeat suffered by the German Army at Stalingrad. While finishing off the remnants of Paulus' battered army, the Russians extended their offensive to the Ukraine, smashing weak German, Hungarian and Italian armies in their path.

Soviet forces began the final phase of their offensive on 14 January with a massive attack on the overstretched German, Hungarian and Italian armies dug in along the River Don. Lieutenant-General F.I. Golikov's Voronezh Front and Lieutenant-General N.F. Vatutin's Southwest Front rolled over the defenders with ease, and within two weeks had pushed 160km (100 miles) westwards. They were now poised to cross the River Donets, which barred the way to Kharkov and the strategically crucial River Dnieper crossings.

The SS Panzer Corps moves East

To counter this advance, the Germans rushed reinforcements from all over Europe in a desperate bid to rebuild the Eastern Front. North of Kharkov, the army's élite Grossdeutschland Motorized Division, supported by the 88th and 168th Infantry Divisions, held the Belgorod area. Two divisions of the SS Panzer Corps, which had just arrived from France, were deployed along the Donets blocking the direct route to Kharkov.

Under SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, I SS Panzer Corps was superbly equipped with new tanks, armoured halftrack personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery and Nebelwerfer multi-barrel rocket launchers. Holding the Donets line were the Leibstandarte and Das Reich Divisions. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the Leibstandarte was the strongest tank unit in the corps, with 52 Panzer IVs, 10 Panzer IIIs and 9 Tiger Is. Das Reich's 2nd SS Panzer Regiment had 81 Panzer IIIs and only 21 Panzer IVs, backed up by 10 Tiger Is.

Kharkov under threat

The journey from France took almost two weeks, and many of the 200 trains carrying the division were re-routed to avoid Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing and Soviet partisan attacks. These disruptions meant that the divisions arrived at the railhead in Kharkov in dribs and drabs. The first elements to arrive were from the Leibstandarte's 1st Panzergrenadier Regiment, which threw an improvised defensive ring around Kharkov along the frozen banks of the River Donets. Next off the trains on 29 January were the armoured cars and motorcycles of the Leibstandarte's reconnaissance battalion, and they were dispatched to set up a covering screen 80km (50 miles) to the east, to give early warning of any approaching Russians. At the same time the Deutschland Panzergrenadier Regiment, of the Das Reich Division, was also sent to extend the screen northwards.

As the Waffen-SS troops fanned out across the winter wasteland, they had a series of vicious encounters with the advance guard of the Soviet XVIII Guards Corps. Intermingled with the Russian troops were retreating columns of the hard-pressed German 298th and 320th Infantry Divisions, who had marched across the steppe to seek safety in the west. The German infantry columns were shepherded back towards Kharkov. In a couple of cases, the Waffen-SS reconnaissance troops mounted raids to rescue recently captured infantrymen, racing into Soviet positions on their motorcycles and raking them with machine-gun fire.

Holding the Donets Front

The reconnaissance screen fell back deliberately towards Kharkov, and by 4 February 1943 I SS Panzer Corps was almost fully deployed in its main defensive position along the Donets. South of Kharkov there was a void of 160km (100 miles) between the Waffen-SS corps and the left flank of the First Panzer Army. Manstein was moving up units of the Fourth Panzer Army to fill the gap, but they would take time to arrive, leaving Kharkov very exposed to encirclement by Golikov's tanks in the interim.

Hausser's Waffen-SS troops held their front along the Donets with grim determination against furious attacks by the Soviet XII and XV Tank Corps from Lieutenant-General P.S. Rybalko's Third Tank Army until 10 February (each tank army had two tank corps, a separate tank brigade and support units). This brave stand only played into the Soviets' hands. Russian troops were pushing around the flanks of Hausser's corps and there was a real prospect of Stalingrad being repeated, albeit on a much smaller scale. Major-General K.S. Moskalenko's Fortieth Army, with IV Tank Corps in the lead, ejected the Grossdeutschland Division from Belgorod and sent it heading south to Kharkov.

In their positions east of the city, the Waffen-SS divisions inflicted heavy casualties against Soviet human-wave attacks. Hausser, now dubbed "Papa" by his men, took great delight in visiting the frontline to watch the action. He was reportedly particularly impressed by the performance of the new MG 42 belt-fed machine gun, which was used in action by the Waffen-SS for the first time by the Leibstandarte's 1st Panzergrenadier Regiment on 4 February. Hundreds of dead Russians were later found piled in front of the Waffen-SS position.

Hitler's orders

To the south of the Waffen-SS, Vatutin took advantage of the lack of opposition in front of him to push his troops tirelessly forward. The Sixth Army, with two tank corps, two infantry corps and a cavalry corps, raced for the Dnieper crossing at Dnepropetrovsk, while Lieutenant-General M.M. Popov's Front Mobile Group of four tank corps pushed south, aiming for Krasnoarmeiskoye and the Sea of Azov.

Overestimating the capabilities of his SS troops, Hitler ordered them to attack southeast to close the gap with the First Panzer Army. Two groups were formed for the operation. A strong covering force was to remain around Kharkov under the command of Das Reich, which also included the Leibstandarte's 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment and elements of the division's Tiger tank company, artillery and flak regiments. Hausser's corps headquarters and the Grossdeutschland Division also remained in the city, along with the 298th Infantry Division.

Kampfgruppe Peiper

The covering force fought an increasingly desperate defensive battle, and the frontline had to be pulled back to free troops for the coming operation to the south of the city. By 12 February, the Soviet VI Guards Cavalry Corps had punched a hole in the line separating the Leibstandarte from the 320th Infantry Division. Surrounded and burdened with thousands of wounded men, the army division needed help fast. A kampfgruppe was formed under SS-Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, then commander of the 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment's armoured personnel carrier battalion, to rescue the division. He was given a column of ambulances and a detachment of StuG III assault guns for the mission. The kampfgruppe punched through the Russian front after destroying several tanks, and pushed 48km (30 miles) behind enemy lines to find the beleaguered infantry division. After loading up the ambulances, Peiper's men headed back to German lines, but a Soviet ski battalion had moved into place to block their path and destroy the main bridge over the River Udy, which the Waffen-SS column had to cross to return to Kharkov. The Waffen-SS kampfgruppe attacked and cleared out the Russians in house-to-house fighting, before repairing the bridge for the ambulances.

The Leibstandarte's panzers

However, the improvised structure could not take the heavy Waffen-SS assault guns and armoured halftracks, so Peiper ordered his men back behind Russian lines to find a more suitable crossing. They returned to the Leibstandarte's lines after suffering only a handful of casualties and rescuing the 320th Infantry Division, which was soon able to return to frontline duty after being fed and housed by the Waffen-SS supply units. This was only a temporary respite for Hausser, though. To the north of Kharkov, the Grossdeutschland Division was being pushed back into the northern outskirts of the city. No forces could be spared to counter this dangerous pincer movement because of Hitler's insistence that I SS Panzer Corps' attack group continue with its southward push from Merefa. This would involve the commitment of the Leibstandarte's powerful panzer regiment for the first time.

The large attack group, under the Leibstandarte's commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, was ordered to lead the attack forward on 11 February. Pushing directly southwards into the flank of the Soviet VI Guards Cavalry Corps was the Leibstandarte's 1st Panzergrenadier Regiment with its lorry-borne infantry, and the 2nd Battalion of the division's panzer regiment. Das Reich's Der Führer Panzergrenadier Regiment reinforced this effort, while SS-Obersturmbannführer Kurt "Panzer" Meyer led the Leibstandarte's reconnaissance battalion deployed on the right to seal the Russian incursion with a large flanking move. He was given a panzer battalion to support this daring move.

Hausser abandons Kharkov

Heavy snowdrifts slowed the advance and made it impossible for the Waffen-SS panzers to take the lead in the attack for the first few hours. Stuka dive-bombers strafed Russian columns, and the Waffen-SS units made good progress, clearing the enemy from village after village. By early evening Meyer and his men had all but completed their encircling move, while the main attack columns surprised and destroyed a number of Russian formations. On 12 February, Meyer's advance continued under the cover of a massive snowstorm. Russian and German tank columns became intermingled in the poor visibility, but the Waffen-SS column pressed on regardless. The following day, Meyer's kampfgruppe found itself cut off in Bereka, which blocked the Soviet line of retreat from the pocket created by the Waffen-SS operation. During the night, six tanks of the Leibstandarte's Panzer Regiment, under Max Wünsche, broke through the Soviet ring to reinforce Meyer, and he then used the tanks to sweep the neighbourhood of Soviet infantry. For the next two days the attack group tightened the grip on the trapped Russian cavalry corps, and swept village after village for stragglers. Leibstandarte panzers led these attacks, neutralizing isolated Russian tanks so the panzergrenadiers could move forward in their armoured halftracks. By the time the Waffen-SS had finished its work, the 7000 Soviet soldiers of VI Guards Cavalry Corps had been scattered, 10 of its 16 tanks destroyed, 3000 troops wounded and a further 400 captured. Other Russian troops were moving forward to help their comrades, however, and soon the Waffen-SS group found itself under attack on three fronts. It was now time for the German forces to fall back.

The main Soviet force dodged Hausser's punch, slipping in behind the advancing Waffen-SS men to try to cut them off from Kharkov and split up the already fragmented German front even more. In these see-saw battles the superior equipment, training and determination of the Waffen-SS tank crews usually meant they came out on top, but their panzer kampfgruppen could not be everywhere, and by 14 February Kharkov was virtually surrounded. To compound the problem, an uprising had broken out in the city and Hausser feared that his corps headquarters units, Das Reich and Grossdeutschland, would share the same fate as Paulus at Stalingrad. He wanted to order an evacuation through a narrow corridor to the southwest. Repeated orders from Hitler to hold the city to the last man and bullet were ignored: Hausser issued the orders to pull out on 15 February. By the time Hitler found out and had issued countermanding orders, the Das Reich Division was on its way to safety and there was no going back. The Das Reich and Leibstandarte panzergrenadiers set up an improvised defence line to the south of Kharkov, but Soviet tanks were close on their heels, inflicting a steady stream of casualties before the Waffen-SS units could break clear.

Manstein's plan

With I SS Panzer Corps safely out of Kharkov, Manstein was able to complete the reorganization of his panzer divisions for their counterstroke. An unannounced visit by Hitler, furious at the loss of Kharkov, to Manstein's headquarters at Zaporozhye on 17 February interrupted the field marshal's preparations. Hitler had intended to dismiss Manstein for the loss of the city and order an immediate northwards attack by I SS Panzer Corps to retake Kharkov. Fortunately for the field marshal, the sound of Russian artillery near his command post brought the Führer to his senses and he left in a hurry, to allow Manstein to get on with sorting out the Soviets. Manstein was also helped by the fact that the Totenkopf Division got stuck in mud after a sudden thaw during the day, making it unavailable for Hitler's proposed attack.

Manstein's plan called for two Waffen-SS divisions to strike southwest from Krasnograd into the western flank of the Soviet Sixth Army, while the Fourth Panzer Army drove northwards to push the remaining elements of the western Soviet attack force onto the guns of the Waffen-SS panzers. Farther east, the First Panzer Army would take the offensive against Popov's Front Mobile Group and complete the destruction of the Soviet forces west of the River Donets.

An over-extended Red Army

The Russians proved easy meat for the panzers. After two months of continuous fighting, Popov's group was down to 50 worn-out tanks and 13,000 men fit for battle. Lieutenant-General F.M. Khatritonov's Sixth Army was in an equally parlous state, with many of its 150 tanks stranded through lack of fuel. Of most help to Manstein, however, were orders from Vatutin (who was still convinced the Germans were retreating) for the Soviet troops to keep advancing.

As this battle was developing, Hausser set about reorganizing his corps for offensive action. The Leibstandarte was to be the anvil of the offensive based around Krasnograd, while Das Reich and the newly arrived Totenkopf Division swung south and then northwards, forcing the Russians back on to the guns of the Leibstandarte. The arrival of the Totenkopf at Krasnograd on the morning of 19 February, with its 81 Panzer IIIs, 22 Panzer IVs and 9 Tiger Is, completed I SS Panzer Corps' order of battle for perhaps its most famous victory. In the afternoon Manstein ordered the attack to proceed.

SS fist of steel

A 96km (60-mile) road march brought Das Reich and Totenkopf to their jump-off positions at Novomoskovsk on 20 February. Pushing westwards, they sliced through the immobilized XXV Tank Corps and IV Guards and XV Guards Rifle Corps near Pavlograd. These units were in bad shape after Luftwaffe anti-tank aircraft caught the Russian armour by surprise earlier in the morning. XXXXVIII Panzer Corps was already attacking from the south, so the Waffen-SS attack sliced into the side of the already stalled Russian columns. Totenkopf was assigned the northern axis of the attack, and Das Reich pushed farther south and then turned eastwards to Pavlograd, before swinging northwards. The Waffen-SS men raced forward at such a breakneck speed that Soviet and German troops often became intermingled. A panzer kampfgruppe of Das Reich spearheading the division's advance seized a key bridge outside Pavlograd on 22 February. Two Das Reich Panzer IIIs and a Tiger held the bridge for several hours, destroying three T-34s that tried to take the bridge back.

The two Waffen-SS divisions trapped the Soviet I Guards Tank Corps and two rifle divisions. The Waffen-SS Tigers and Panzer IVs knocked out the Russian tanks and anti-tank guns with ease at long range with their powerful 88mm and 75mm cannons, before panzergrenadiers closed in to mop up pockets of isolated Soviet infantry who offered resistance in the snow-bound villages. Elements of Soviet divisions were smashed in the attack, with most of the men just abandoning their tanks and vehicles and fleeing into the surrounding forests. For five days the two Waffen-SS divisions meandered through huge columns of abandoned and destroyed vehicles, machine-gunning small groups of Russian soldiers hiding amid the carnage. The Soviet Sixth Army had ceased to exist.

The death of Theodor Eicke

The Soviets exacted a heavy price from the Totenkopf Division for its victory, however. The division's commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke, flew forward in his Fieseler Storch light aircraft to visit his spearhead units on 26 February. The infamous SS general ordered his pilot to land near a village that he believed was occupied by Totenkopf troops. In fact, the men on the ground were a group of cut-off Russian soldiers, and Eicke's aircraft was ripped apart in mid-air by anti-aircraft artillery fire as it approached the ground. The following day Waffen-SS troops cleared the village and recovered the mutilated body of the former concentration camp commander.

The Leibstandarte Division

From the north, the Leibstandarte Division was conducting an aggressive defence of its line in the snow, aimed at neutralizing the advance elements of the Soviet Third Tank Army. Leibstandarte kampfgruppen were launched forward on a daily basis to destroy large Soviet formations spotted by Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance. The Waffen-SS men infiltrated at night through the thinly held Soviet front to ambush the enemy. Bursting from forests, the kampfgruppen usually took the Russians by surprise, and within minutes their panzers and armoured halftracks would be among the enemy positions, spreading destruction. Their job complete, the Germans would then pull back to regroup and rearm for the next foray.

On 17 February the Leibstandarte's reconnaissance battalion, reinforced with panzers, wiped out a Soviet infantry regiment in the first big raid. Three days later Peiper's armoured infantry battalion cleared out 750 Russians, three tanks and dozens of anti-tank guns from a heavily defended village during a night attack.

Kurt "Panzer" Meyer

SS-Obersturmbannführer Kurt "Panzer" Meyer was given command of a kampfgruppe of panzers and reconnaissance troops on 19 February, tasked with destroying a large enemy force advancing west. His panzer company destroyed a Russian battalion in the afternoon.

At dawn on 21 February, his column had taken up ambush positions near the town of Jerememkevka. Meyer spotted a long column of Soviet troops moving across the snow-covered steppe, totally unaware of the imminent danger. The attack began with a daredevil charge into the middle of the column by a reconnaissance team in VW Schwimmwagen amphibious jeeps, led by Meyer himself. One vehicle was blown up by a mine, but within minutes the others were among the stunned Russians, raking them with machine-gun fire. Panzer IV tanks then burst out of the woods at the head and tail of the column, cutting off any hope of retreat. Several hundred Russians were slaughtered and a dozen artillery pieces captured. The following night Meyer's force launched another raid on an unsuspecting Russian column, with similar results. The fighting on the northern sector of the division's front was also intense, with the panzer regiment having to be sent to relieve its pioneer battalion, which had been surrounded by a surprise Soviet attack.

On 23 February Meyer's battlegroup was ordered forward, again ambushing a Soviet divisional headquarters and a whole divisional artillery group. A surprise panzer attack charged into a Russian-held town, and within five hours the Leibstandarte men had killed 1000 enemy soldiers and captured 30 heavy artillery pieces.

While the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions were striking back at the Soviet spearheads south of Kharkov, on the right flank of the German front the Wiking Panzergrenadier Division was involved in a series of brutal skirmishes to hold back the enemy advance. A powerful Soviet tank force, led by III and IV Tank Corps and supported by hundreds of ski troops, was pushing south into the breach in the German line, just to the west of the First Panzer Army. Manstein hoped to seal the gap in the front from the west with I SS Panzer Corps, and from the east with the armoured units of the Fourth Panzer Army being brought up from the Caucasus.

Holding the line

By 8 February, the Soviets had taken the key rail junctions at Krasnoarmeiskoye and Gishino, in a surprise push 80km (50 miles) behind the left flank of the First Panzer Army. First on the scene to counter this dangerous incursion was the Wiking Division, closely followed by the 7th and 11th Panzer Divisions. These were not fresh and superbly equipped divisions. They had been in action continuously for almost three months, and were down to only 2000 fighting troops each. Wiking alone could not muster more than five battered old Panzer III tanks fit for action. The Waffen-SS men could barely stabilize the front, let alone press forward to clear out the incursion. Only his strong artillery regiment enabled the Wiking's commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner, to contain the Russian tanks.

Blitzkrieg on the steppe

On 12 February, the Wiking Division launched an outflanking attack into the eastern edge of Krasnoarmeiskoye itself and northwards to Gishino, but it broke down in the face of fanatical Soviet resistance. For the next week, the Waffen-SS men and an army infantry division fought vicious street battles to contain the Soviet forces from breaking out of the town. X Soviet Tank Corps arrived to support the advance from Krasnoarmeiskoye, but the Soviet troops in the region were also very weak by this time, with no more than two dozen tanks available to fight the Waffen-SS troops.

The 7th Panzer Division was now thrown into the battle, attacking into the east of the city, while the Wiking Division tried to storm in from the west. Luftwaffe Stukas supported the assault, but the Russians held firm. XXXX Panzer Corps now ordered the Wiking and the 7th Panzer Divisions to bypass Krasnoarmeiskoye. In a Blitzkrieg-style advance they were to defeat the Soviets in a battle of manoeuvre. The attack opened on 19 February with a sweep north from Krasnoarmeiskoye across the open steppe, trapping several thousand Russians and 12 tanks. A large Soviet force broke out two days later. Now the remaining elements of the Popov Mobile Group turned tail and headed north as fast as possible.

The rearguard of X Tank Corps, with 16 T-34s, tried to halt the Wiking Division on 21 February. Again Wiking swept around the Soviet defences and rolled northwards. This was a no-holes-barred pursuit. The handful of Waffen-SS tanks of the division's only panzer battalion led the way, supported by armoured cars and motorcycle troops. Every couple of kilometres, the advance guard would run into the remains of a Soviet vehicle column, either abandoned because of lack of fuel or devastated by Luftwaffe air strikes. The Waffen-SS men did not stop to investigate but pressed on. They did not outnumber the enemy, so victory would only come by moving faster than the Soviets, and keeping enemy commanders confused as to where they would strike next.

The Wiking, 7th and 11th Panzer Divisions caught up with the remains of four Soviet infantry divisions and four tank corps at Barvenkovo on 25 February. More than 50 T-34s were dug in to the south of the town, but they had run out of fuel so could not manoeuvre against the rampaging panzers. In a three-day battle, the 11th Panzer Division attacked directly from the south, while the Wiking and 7th Panzer Divisions swept around the Russians' flanks. The Soviets, however, kept open a corridor to the Donets at Izyum, and most of their troops managed to escape the pincers - but all their tanks had to be left behind.

Manstein halts the Soviet offensive

By the end of the February the first phase of Manstein's offensive was complete. The Russian thrust to the south had been defeated and the gap in the German front closed by the dramatic intervention of I SS Panzer Corps. The German High Command claimed 615 enemy tanks, 354 artillery pieces, 69 anti-aircraft guns destroyed, 23,000 Russians dead and 9000 prisoners, during the first phase of the counterattack. Manstein now turned his attention to the large Soviet armoured force guarding the southern approach to Kharkov. In an ill-considered move to blunt the German drive, Rybalko's Third Tank Army swung south to take on I SS Panzer Corps. In a matter of days his army would be cut to pieces.

The attack got under way on 24 February, with heavy tank attacks against the northern flank of the Leibstandarte Division. The frontline panzergrenadier units had to call up panzer support to drive off the Soviet 11th Cavalry Division, for the loss of five tanks and 500 dead. A panzer attack the following day surprised a Soviet artillery regiment and destroyed more than 50 howitzers. An attack force of 30 German tanks used a valley to advance behind the Russian artillery, and when they broke cover the Soviets fled. Soviet pressure on the Leibstandarte Division continued on 26 February, with an attack by T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks. A total of 12 vehicles were destroyed by SS anti-tank teams.

The Soviets are lured west

The Soviets now pushed their last tank reserves southwards in a bid to drive a wedge between the Leibstandarte and its sister divisions, which were moving northwards after they had finished clearing up what was left of the Soviet Sixth Army. Hausser ordered the Leibstandarte to pull back on 28 February to entice the Russians to move farther south into a trap. Three days later, I SS Panzer Corps was advancing again. The Luftwaffe caught the Russian tanks in the open and broke up their attack formations.

The Leibstandarte's panzers then moved eastwards, destroying nine tanks and fifteen anti-tank guns. A link-up with the Der Führer Panzergrenadier Regiment, of the Das Reich Division, was made on 3 March. Meyer's reconnaissance battalion achieved another link-up with Totenkopf later in the day, to complete the ring around a huge pocket of Soviet troops. For two days infantry elements of I SS Panzer Corps cleared up the pocket, but there were not enough troops and so thousands of Russians escaped. In the Leibstandarte's section of the pocket, prisoners from four Russian infantry divisions and a tank brigade were picked up. VI Guards Cavalry Corps managed to escape the trap, but large parts of IV, XXII and XV Tank Corps were destroyed. A further 61 Soviet tanks, 225 guns, 60 motor vehicles and 9000 dead were left on the icy battlefield.

Manstein regroups

Rybalko's defeat left Kharkov wide open, and Manstein soon set his panzers rolling north again to capture the prize. He planned to push I SS Panzer Corps forward to bypass Kharkov from the west, and then swing east around the top of the city to the Donets and block the escape route of its defenders, as XXXXVIII Panzer Corps assaulted the city from the south. To complete the victory, the reinforced Grossdeutschland Division, which had recently received a new tank detachment of 42 Panzer IVs and 9 Tigers, would strike north to Belgorod to block any interference with the attack on Kharkov. It was to be supported by the Totenkopf's reconnaissance battalion during this phase of the operation. Only the imminent arrival of the spring thaw could save Kharkov from the Germans.

Hausser now pulled together his panzer corps into an attack formation, with the Totenkopf on the left, Leibstandarte in the centre and Das Reich on the right. Rocket launchers were positioned to support the attack, and Tiger I tanks moved forward to spearhead the assault operation.

Tigers versus T-34s

According to plan the first attack went in on 6 March, and four days later the Waffen-SS panzers had reached a line level with Kharkov. To the east, the army panzer divisions were held up for five days by a determined stand by the 25th and 62nd Guards Rifle Divisions.

Heavy air strikes preceded the Waffen-SS advance, with Das Reich receiving priority support. The Soviet defences were weak and disorganized, so the German advance pushed all before it. Again, the Leibstandarte's reconnaissance battalion was teamed with a strong panzer detachment to spearhead the division's advance. Meyer had the use of Tiger I tanks for the first time. South of the town of Valki, Meyer's kampfgruppe was confronted by a "pak-front", or network, of 56 76.2mm anti-tank guns. With panzergrenadiers sheltering behind the turrets of the tanks, Meyer ordered his panzers to charge forward. Their speed meant Waffen-SS men overran the anti-tank guns easily, but two dozen T-34 tanks lay in wait ahead, hidden in a village. The Panzer IVs started to take casualties before a Tiger was called up. The lead Tiger got to within 100m (328ft) of the village when a T-34 opened fire. It hit the Tiger on the turret, but the Soviet 76mm shell barely scratched the German tank's paint. The Tiger blasted the T-34 with its 88mm gun, blowing off the turret and taking half of a nearby house with it. During the next hour the Tigers cleared out a dozen T-34s and the rest fled at high speed. The remainder of the kampfgruppe was, meanwhile, clearing out the last Soviet infantry and gun crews who had hidden in the village as the tank duel raged in its streets.

The following day Meyer's men were again confronted by a pak-front on the outskirts of Valki. A tank attack was ordered, but several panzers were lost to enemy fire before they overran the gun pits. German tanks literally crushed the anti-tank guns under their tracks when the Soviet gunners refused to flee.

Das Reich appraoches Kharkov

Das Reich's Der Führer Panzergrenadier Regiment led the division's attack, and it was soon within striking distance of the western outskirts of Kharkov. The Totenkopf Division was not making as good progress out on the left wing because of heavy resistance from VI Guards Cavalry Corps. The Totenkopf's reconnaissance battalion was also fighting alongside the Grossdeutschland Division's left-flank units and was unable to help out, after getting bogged down for several days in a battle with three Soviet infantry divisions.

At this point Nazi politics and pride entered the tactical equation, and threw a massive spanner in the works of Manstein's counteroffensive. Stung by his ungraceful departure from Kharkov three weeks earlier, Hausser was determined not to allow the army to share in the glory of recapturing his prize. In direct disobedience of orders to keep his tanks out of the city, Hausser planned to send the Das Reich Division into Kharkov from the west, while the Leibstandarte pushed in from the north. The Totenkopf was to continue its original mission to encircle the city.

House-to-house fighting

For five days the Waffen-SS men battled through fanatical resistance in the concrete high-rise housing blocks that dominated the approaches to the city centre. The remnants of the Soviet Third Tank Army, reinforced by armed citizens, fought for every street and building.

By 10 March the Totenkopf and Leibstandarte had cleared the town of Dergachi, 16km (10 miles) to the north of Kharkov, of Soviet defenders, opening the way for the Leibstandarte to swing southwards down two main roads into the heart of the city. Two large kampfgruppen were formed, based around each of the division's panzergrenadier regiments, for the assault operation and they were reinforced with strong assault gun, 88mm flak gun and Nebelwerfer rocket launcher support. A third kampfgruppe made up of the reconnaissance battalion and a panzer battalion, led by Meyer, was to push farther eastwards and then enter Kharkov to close the escape route of the defenders. This took him through a heavily wooded and swampy region, which required plenty of guile and cunning to navigate safely. The column got hopelessly disorganized in the woods, as the tanks were pressed into service to drag bogged-down reconnaissance jeeps out of the mud caused by an early thaw. Meyer, of course, was at the head of the column and, as he emerged from the forest, a large Soviet infantry regiment blocked his path. Fortunately, a roving Stuka patrol intervened and devastated the Russian column.

Meyer's night assault

The Soviets rushed reinforcements, including a tank brigade and an élite brigade of NKVD security troops, into the city to try to set up an improvised defence line. Hausser was determined not to let the Russians build up their strength, so the Leibstandarte and Das Reich Divisions were ordered to press on with a night assault during the early hours of 11 March. The two main Leibstandarte assaults immediately ran into heavy resistance, backed by tank counterattacks all along the northern edge of the city. Assault guns were brought up to deal with the enemy tanks, but a vicious duel developed during the day with many Waffen-SS vehicles being put out of action. Progress could only be made with the support of the Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, but even then no breakthrough was achieved.

The key attack, as always, was led by Meyer. With his small column of motorcycles, jeeps, halftracks, two Marder self-propelled anti-tank guns and nine tanks, he set off in darkness to raid the city. His kampfgruppe weaved its way past a number of Soviet positions, until a pair of T-34s spotted it and opened fire, destroying a panzer. In the confusion, a Soviet anti-tank crew opened fire and destroyed their own tanks, inadvertently clearing the way for Meyer. He then pressed his column on into the city and it had reached the cemetery by midday, but had to halt when its tanks ran out of fuel. It then formed an all-round defensive position and waited for relief. Meyer's force was besieged in the cemetery overnight by thousands of Russian troops and armed civilians. The Germans furiously dug in to escape the effects of mortar and artillery fire that was raking their positions.

A bloody battle

Hausser now received orders instructing him to call off the attack by Das Reich's Der Führer Regiment, but the Waffen-SS commander ignored them. The battle continued to rage in the city throughout the night. To the west, the Leibstandarte's two panzergrenadier regiments began their advance again, this time supported by panzers and 88mm flak guns in the front-assault echelons. Snipers in high-rise flats were blasted with quad 20mm flak cannon mounted on halftracks, while the panzers and flak guns defeated Soviet counterattacks by roving groups of T-34s. The Leibstandarte's Tigers spearheaded the attacks, acting as mobile "pillboxes". The armoured monsters could park on street corners and dominate whole city blocks, while being impervious to enemy fire of all types. Later in the day, Joachim Peiper's armoured personnel carrier battalion was at last able to break through the Red defence to established a tenuous link with the impetuous Meyer trapped in the cemetery. It brought in much needed ammunition and fuel, before evacuating the wounded. Meyer's depleted kampfgruppe had to remain in position to block any moves by the Russians to reinforce their defences in the centre of the city.

Clearing the city

During the night and into the next day, several Waffen-SS kampfgruppen swept through central Kharkov. Every block had to be cleared of snipers, dug-in anti-tank guns and lone T-34 tanks. The Leibstandarte commanders drove their men forward into attack after attack to prevent the Soviets reorganizing their defence. The Der Führer Regiment continued to press in from the west to add to the pressure on the Russians in the tractor factory area in eastern Kharkov. The bulk of the Das Reich Division was pushing south of the city to cut through large Soviet defensive positions and complete the German ring around the city. Das Reich's tanks cleared a key hill to the southeast of Kharkov on 14 March, destroying 29 anti-tank guns and scores of bunkers, to break the back of Soviet resistance.

Within the city, the Soviet defenders were still putting up a tenacious resistance. They quickly withdrew from threatened areas, and then used the sewers and ruins to move in behind the Waffen-SS troops. Peiper's armoured halftrack battalion proved invaluable because of its relative invulnerability to rifle fire from the scores of Soviet snipers who were still at large in areas "cleared" by the Leibstandarte. Resistance from the population was intense, and thousands of Kharkov's citizens joined in the battle to prevent their city becoming part of the Third Reich again.

The brutal nature of the fighting in Kharkov was emphasized by the fact that more than 1000 Waffen-SS men were killed or wounded. On 14 March the operation to seize the city was complete, and German radio began issuing gloating bulletins about the Soviet defeat. At the Führer's headquarters in East Prussia, plans were being made for a bumper issue of medals to the "heroes" of I SS Panzer Corps.

Tightening the noose around Kharkov

The main group of Soviet forces in the city was now pulling back southwards into the face of the advancing XXXXVIII Panzer Corps. There was now the possibility of the Germans catching elements of more than 10 enemy divisions and tank corps in a pocket.

On 13 March the Totenkopf Division completed its wide sweep north of Kharkov, with SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Baum's panzergrenadier regiment, backed by a panzer battalion, capturing the Donets crossing at Chuguyev to tie the noose around Rybalko and his men. The Totenkopf attack punched south and eastwards to link up with the 6th Panzer Division advancing northeastwards. The Das Reich, Totenkopf, 6th Panzer and 11th Panzer Divisions then proceeded to chop up the huge Soviet force hiding in the pocket south of Kharkov. Stalin gave Rybalko permission to give up the defence of the city and break out to the east. The trapped Russians made desperate efforts to escape, staging massive human-wave assaults to break past the Totenkopf's blocking positions along the Donets.

The German noose was not pulled tight enough, and five days later the remnants of the Third Tank Army completed their breakout past Chuguyev, which was then held by weak army panzer divisions. Unlike Hitler, Stalin realized the importance of getting skilled troops out of pockets rather than leaving them to their fate (Rybalko survived the ordeal and went on to command his army with distinction at Kursk during the summer). The exposed Totenkopf Division would have been in real trouble if the Soviets had tried to break through to the forces trapped near Kharkov with their reserve Guards tank corps, but it was held back to secure the north Donets line.

To complete the German victory, Hausser dashed panzer kampfgruppen north to link up with the Grossdeutschland Division, which had been taking on Soviet armoured units defending Belgorod. An unofficial "race" developed between the Leibstandarte and the élite army division for the honour of seizing the last major centre of Soviet resistance in the Ukraine.

Luftwaffe air support

The first line of Soviet resistance, some 16km (10 miles) north of Kharkov, was rolled over on 16 March by the Leibstandarte's 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, supported by a huge barrage of Nebelwerfer and artillery fire, as well as by wave after wave of Stuka dive-bombers. A line of Soviet anti-tank guns and infantry bunkers ceased to exist. Next day, Peiper's kampfgruppe was unleashed northwards with strong armoured support, including the Leibstandarte's Tiger detachment. This powerful force made easy meat of another enemy anti-tank gun position during the afternoon.

After a pause during the night to rearm and organize air support, Peiper was off again. On cue, more Stukas attacked a large road-block just after dawn on the morning of 18 March. With the road now clear, Peiper ordered his armoured force forward again. He did not stop until his tanks and armoured carriers were in the centre of Belgorod at 11:35 hours. Eight T-34s encountered on the drive north were destroyed by the Tigers - all other Soviet positions had been ignored. "Sepp" Dietrich flew north in his Storch aircraft to congratulate Peiper on his success. The German coup de main operation may have taken the Russians by surprise, but during the afternoon they pulled themselves together and launched a string of armoured counterattacks. The Leibstandarte's panzers repulsed all the attacks, destroying 14 tanks, 38 trucks and 16 anti-tank guns.

The Germans take Belgorod

It was not until later in the afternoon, however, when the Das Reich's Deutschland Panzergrenadier Regiment linked up with Peiper's kampfgruppe, that the German position in the town was fully secure. The Russians continued to harry Peiper's men in the town, and he was forced to conduct a number of panzer sweeps of the countryside to expand the German grip on the region. During one such operation a pair of Tiger I tanks was attacked by Russian tanks, who destroyed an accompanying armoured halftrack before they were driven off for the loss of 10 tanks, 2 armoured cars and 10 trucks.

Peiper's dash to Belgorod had been possible thanks to a return of winter weather, but in the final days of March the temperature was rising and the snow disappeared. It was replaced by deep mud, which made all movement off roads, even by tracked vehicles, almost impossible. The Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions fought a series of bitter infantry battles to establish a firm frontline along the Donets, east of Kharkov, for several days, but the spring campaign season was all but over.

Retribution on Kharkov

Back in Kharkov, Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers combed the ruins of the city for the few remaining pockets of Soviet troops, and were also settling some old scores with its citizens. The desecration of the graves of Waffen-SS men killed during the January battles, and the mutilation of the bodies, made the Leibstandarte loath to show any quarter to captured Russian soldiers. Several hundred wounded Soviet soldiers were murdered when Dietrich's men occupied the city's military hospital. Any captured commissars or senior Russian officers were executed as a matter of routine, in line with Hitler's infamous "commissar order". Special German Gestapo squads, SS Sonderkommando security units and Einsatzgruppen with mobile gas chambers followed close behind the victorious German troops, to ensure there was no repeat of February's uprising. An estimated 10,000 men, women and children perished during Hausser's short reign of terror in the city of Kharkov.

The balance sheet

On 18 March, the German High Command claimed that 50,000 Russian soldiers had died during Manstein's counteroffensive, along with 19,594 taken prisoner and 1140 tanks and 3000 guns destroyed. An impressive total but, when compared with the 250,000 Germans lost at Stalingrad, it is clear that the Soviets benefited more from the Kharkov battles. The Russians, their military production in full swing, could also replace their losses more easily.

I SS Panzer Corps had demonstrated that it was one of the world's foremost armoured formations, holding out against superior odds and then counterattacking with great skill and élan. Its success was not achieved cheaply, though. Some 11,500 Waffen-SS men were killed or wounded during the two-month campaign in the Ukraine. Some 4500 of these were borne by the Leibstandarte, emphasizing its key role at the centre of all the major battles of the campaign. Indeed, the majority of the casualties were in the combat units of the three Waffen-SS divisions. Not to be forgotten is the role of the Wiking Division serving with the First Panzer Army. It lost thousands of men in a series of small skirmishes, but was still able to take the offensive and defeat superior odds.

Manstein was justifiably dubbed "the saviour of the Eastern Front" for his efforts in turning back the Russian tide. Hitler declared I SS Panzer Corps to be "worth 20 Italian divisions". Of more importance to those divisions, though, was the Führer's express order to General Zeitzler, his Army Chief of Staff, that "we must see that the SS gets the necessary personnel". And, in preparation for the summer campaign season, it was also to be given priority when it came to delivery of the latest Panzer V Panther tanks, much to the annoyance of the army. A combination of mud and exhaustion brought military operations to a halt on the Eastern Front in mid-March 1943. Both sides needed to reorganize and re-equip for the forthcoming campaign season.

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