March 21, 2015

Manstein’s Counter-offensive, Kharkov 1943

During the summer of 1942 Hitler pursuit two distant objectives in Southern Russia: the city of Stalingrad and the Caucasian oil fields. He failed to capture them and his armies were overextended to defend a vast area from Voronezh to Maykop.

Eastern Front November 18, 1942
1. The frontline on November 18, 1942.

On November 19, 1942 the Red Army launched operation “Uranus”. The German Sixth Army along with part of the Fourth Panzer Army were encircled and the Romanian Third Army was crushed. On November 20 Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein was appointed commander of the newly formed Army Group “Don”, which was composed of:
  • the encircled Sixth Army
  • the Fourth Panzer Army
  • and the remnants of the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies
Manstein was given the mission to halt any enemy attacks and recover the lost ground.

Operation “Uranus”
2. Operation “Uranus”.

3. Soviet tanks advancing 
during operation “Uranus”.
Even during the winter of 1942/43 Hitler’s strategic goal was the military destruction of the Soviet Union. He considered the reverse of the situation in Southern Russian as a temporary setback. That is way he demanded his armies to hold their ground at all costs until he would be able to attack again. Manstein, after his arrival at the front, found out that the enemy enjoyed an 8:1 superiority; therefore any thoughts of a static defense would only bring disaster. Needless to say that the recovery of lost ground was totally unrealistic.

Manstein believed that if Army Group “A” retreated from the Caucasus and Sixth Army broke out from the pocket, he could successfully weaken the Soviet armies between the Don and the Donets. That meant giving up ground in exchange of freedom of maneuver. Of course such an operational scheme had no chance with Hitler. The Führer was dedicated to his “stand fast” policy and Manstein could only submit his proposals.

The Soviet Advance, November 19, 1942 – February 18, 1943

After the Soviet offensive Hitler decided to create a new Army Group, for the better coordination of the fight around Stalingrad. It was named Army Group Don and Manstein was appointed to command it. Army Group Don was composed of the encircled Sixth Army and the badly mauled Rumanian Third, Fourth Panzer and Rumanian Fourth Army.

The next two months the Soviet steamroller crushed the Italian Eighth and the Hungarian Second Army and destroyed the southern part of the German Second Army. At the same time another thrust towards Rostov was threatening to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus.

Soviet advances, 16 Dec. 1942 – 19 Jan. 1943
4. Soviet advances between December 16, 1942 and January 19, 1943.

By the end of January 1943 the situation was as follows:
  • The elimination of the Italian and the Hungarian Armies left a huge gap, which was only lightly screened by makeshift formations. The German Second Army, around Voronezh, had to deal with an open flank in the south and heavy frontal attacks and was facing disaster.
  • The Soviet Southwest Front, General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin, had several bridgeheads over the Donets River.
  • While his north flank was on the verge of collapse, Manstein had to commit significant forces in his southern flank to keep the Rostov corridor open for Army Group A.
It became obvious that the Soviets were trying to smash Manstein’s front and drive to the sea of Azof, thus creating a “super-Stalingrad”. Hitler half-heartedly allowed the First Panzer Army to withdraw from the Caucasus and be subordinated to Manstein’s Army Group. Also around Kharkov (Kharkiv) a new formation was created, Armeeabteilung Lanz, from the remnants of Army Group B. Hitler, personally, gave Lanz the mission to hold Kharkov.

The Soviet Southwest Front renewed its offensive and crossed the Donets River with the First Guards Army and Popov Group. Popov Group, commanded by General Markian Mikhaylovich Popov, was a powerful formation composed of four Tank Corps and a Rifle Corps. Hitler reluctantly gave his consent for a withdrawal on the Mius River. With that move Manstein wanted to shorten his front and concentrate the necessary forces for a counteroffensive. However, he had to survive the Russian onslaught first.   

The Soviet thrusts towards Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk
5. The Soviet thrusts towards Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk.

Manstein greets Hitler at Zaporozhye
6. Manstein greets Hitler at Zaporozhye.

On 13 February Popov Group cut the Dnepropetrovsk – Stalino (Donetsk) railroad. On 16 February Kharkov fell to the Russians. Hitler was outraged. General der Gebirgstruppen Hubert Lanz was relieved and replaced with General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf. On 16 February Hitler flew to Manstein’s Headquarters at Zaporozhye (Zaporizhia), in one of his rare visits to the front. Whatever thoughts he had of sacking Manstein, probably went away when he was informed that there were no German units between him and the Soviet tanks. Furthermore a 110 mile gap existed between Armeeabteilung Kempf and First Panzer Army.

On the other hand, on 18 February, Armeeabteilung Hollidt and the Fourth Panzer Army had crossed the Mius. Manstein intended to use the Fourth Panzer Army to seal the gap between Armeeabteilung Kempf and the First Panzer Army. Manstein’s Army Group was renamed Army Group South. What was left of the German Second Army became part of Army Group Centre and Army Group B was dissolved. Hitler left Zaporozhye on 19 February. 

The Counterstroke

Manstein had correctly guessed Stalin’s grand plan and he wanted to lure him into sending his armored spearheads even further. On the other side, the Soviets had interpreted the abandonment of Kharkov as a sign of a general withdrawal behind the Dnieper River. They believed that Army Group South was as good as finished and they moved for the kill. But the furthest they went they were actually bringing their doom closer. When Kharkov fell the Soviet offensive had reached its culminating point.

Manstein took extreme measures to build up the German offensive potential. He pulled out the Panzer-Divisions from the line, leaving the forward defending forces on their own devices. He intended to attack with the Panzers on the flanks of the Soviet penetrations. Popov Group was to be hit first.

First Panzer Army

General der Kavallerie Eberhard von Mackensen fixed Popov Group with the 5th SS Panzergrenadier-Division “Wiking” and encircled it with the 7th and the 11th Panzer-Divisions. On 28 February the 7th Panzer-Division cut all routes of retreat and Popov Group was annihilated. On 5 March the First Panzer Army reached the line of the Donets River.

Manstein’s counteroffensive
7. Manstein’s counteroffensive.

Fourth Panzer Army – Armeeabteilung Kempf

Marder III
8. A Marder III, of 1st SS-LAH-Division 
at Paraskovejevsky, near Kharkov.
On 19 February Generaloberst Hermann Hoth launched a concentric attack with the SS Panzerkorps from the northwest and the XLVIII Panzerkorps (6th, 17th Panzer-Divisions) from the southwest, against the Soviet Sixth Army’s flanks.
The SS Panzerkorps was a powerful offensive formation composed of:
  • 1st SS Panzergrenadier-Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler”
  • 2nd SS Panzergrenadier-Division “Das Reich”
  • 3rd SS Panzergrenadier-Division “Totenkopf”
On 23 February the two Panzerkorps linked up at Pavlograd (Pavlohrad). At that time the fate of the Soviet Sixth Army was sealed.

In the following days the Soviet Third Tank Army was smashed and after heavy fighting the SS-Panzerkorps retook Kharkov, on 14 March. The German offensive ended with the capture of Belgorod, some thirty miles northeast of Kharkov.

The fight for Kharkov


Manstein’s counteroffensive has rightly been described as the last German victory in Russia. It put an end to Soviet ambitions for a quick decision in the Ukraine and turned a disaster into victory.

A Tiger at Kharkov
9. A Tiger at Kharkov.

Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad. London: Penguin,1998.
Carell, Paul. Scorched Earth, The Russian-German War 1943-1944. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1994.
Manstein, Erich. Lost Victories.Washington. DC: Henry Regnery & Co,1958.
Nipe, Jr., George M. Last Victory in Russia, The SS-Panzerkorps and Manstein's Kharkov Counteroffensive February - March 1943. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer, 2000.
Nipe George - Spezzano Remy. Platz der Leibstandarte, The SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "LSSAH" and the Battle of Kharkov January-March 1943. Southbury, CT: RZM, 2002.
Sikes, James E., Major. "Kharkov and Sinai – A Study in Operational Transition." Monograph, School of Advanced Military Studies, USAC&GSC. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: 1988
Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East. 1968. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 2002.

Photos attribution
1. CMH Pub 30-5-1
2. CMH Pub 30-5-1
3. fotoreporter sovietico sconosciuto, via Wikimedia Commons
4. CMH Pub 30-5-1
5. CMH Pub 30-5-1
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1995-041-23A/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. CMH Pub 30-5-1
8. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Roth-173-01/Roth, Franz/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
9. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-704-0129-08/Bauer-Altvater/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

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