Second Battle of Kharkov
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
As the German attack on Moscow, Russia was thwarted, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called for a major counteroffensive. His closest advisers disagreed and urged for a more defensive posture, thus Stalin held back his demands, only calling for local offensives rather than attacks on the entire front. In mid-Mar 1942, Soviet commanders introduced preliminary plans for an offensive toward the Ukrainian city of Kharkov to be led by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko. Troops began to build up in the region for this attack through the beginning of May 1942, and by 11 May, six armies supported by various independent rifle, tank, and cavalry units gathered. The Soviet strength for the offensive was about 640,000 men, supported by 1,500 tanks and 1,000 aircraft. Poor management by front line officers, however, failed to maintain the necessary degree of secrecy, and German intelligence was able to determine that a Soviet offensive was being planned.
To their west, the German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus had also been preparing for an offensive south of Kharkov code named Operation Fridericus; the order for the offensive was given on 30 Apr 1942, calling for the operation to begin around 18 May. Due to the intelligence of a possible Soviet offensive, troops were readied in nearby regions for support should an attack take place. German strength in the general area was about 300,000 men, supported by 1,000 tanks and 1,500 aircraft.
On 12 May, the Russians struck first. At 0630 hours, an hour of artillery bombardment began, with the final 20 minutes joined by aircraft. At 0730 hours, the ground offensive began, meeting tough German defense from the start. By the end of the first day, the deepest penetration achieved by Soviet troops was merely 10 kilometers. Soviet generals realized that poor intelligence prior to operation led them to misjudge German strength in the region, which was twice as strong as they originally expected; part of that German advantage was possibly due to the Germans detected a possible Soviet attack, thus had bolstered strength at strategic locations. By the end of 14 May, both sides had suffered serious casualties. On the German side, the German 6th Army saw 16 of its battalions nearly wiped out, while the Soviet troops were so battered that the field generals determined that they must switch to a defensive posture for several hours to regroup.
On 15 and 16 May, Russian offensives restarted, meeting the same stiff resistance that had frustrated them in the first few days of the offensive. To the south, however, Soviet troops were able to penetrate deeper into German lines, but poor decisions by some units limited the Soviets' ability to exploit the situation effectively.
On 17 May, the German 3rd Panzer Corps and XXXXIV Army Corps under the command of Fedor von Bock, supported by aircraft, arrived to launch a counterattack on the Barvenkovo bridgehead to the south. The arrival of fresh German troops immediately drove back the Soviets. On 18 May, Timoshenko requested permission to fall back, but Stalin rejected the request. On 19 May, Paulus launched a general offensive to the north as Bock's troops advanced in the south, thus attempting to surround the Soviets in the Izium salient. Realizing the risk of having entire armies surrounded, Stalin authorized the withdraw, but by that time the Soviet forces were already started to be closed in. On 20 May, the nearly surrounded Soviet forces mounted counteroffensives, but none of the attempts were successful in breaking through the German lines. The Soviets achieved some small victories on 21 and 22 May, but by 24 May, they were surrounded near Kharkov.
On 25 May 1942, Soviet troops mounted a major attempt to break the encirclement, causing casualties on both sides but mostly maintained the status quo. On 26 May, the Soviet troops found themselves enclosed in a small area about 15 square kilometers in size as German troops pressed on. On 28 May, Timoshenko called a halt to all offensive actions in the Kharkov area, which ended the Second Battle of Kharkov as coined by German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Soviet troops continued to attempt to break out until 30 May, but by that time the Germans had already won.
The Second Battle of Kharkov resulted in an extremely costly loss to the Soviets, which saw 207,000 men killed, wounded, or captured; some estimates put the number as high as 240,000. Over 1,000 Soviet tanks were destroyed during this battle, as well as the loss of 57,000 horses. German losses were much smaller than the Soviets, with over 20,000 killed, wounded, or captured. Soviet General Georgy Zhukov later blamed this major defeat on Stalin, who underestimated German strength in the region and failed to prepare an adequate reserve force to counter the arrival of the German reinforcement that turned the tide.
Second Battle of Kharkov Timeline
|30 Apr 1942||Friedrich Paulus began planning for Operation Fridericus, an offensive south of Kharkov, Ukraine. The launch date for this operation was set for 18 May 1942.|
|11 May 1942||Six Soviet armies supported by various independent rifle, tank, and cavalry units gathered in preparation of an offensive toward Kharkov, Ukraine. German intelligence gained knowledge of such an offensive and the Germany military prepared for a defense.|
|12 May 1942||A major Soviet offensive toward Kharkov, Ukraine was launched, beginning with an aerial and artillery bombardment between 0630 and 0730 hours, followed by the ground assault. By the end of the day the Soviets penetrated only about 10 kilometers into the German lines, falling far short of the ultimate goal of having the Soviet 6th and 28th Armies converging west of Kharkov to cut off the city and the German defenders.|
|13 May 1942||Soviet troops advanced 10 kilometers toward Kharkov, Ukraine.|
|14 May 1942||Newly arrived German aircraft in the Kharkov region in Ukraine overcame Soviet aircraft and halted the northern pincer of the Soviet attack. On the ground, General Ewald von Kleist prepared his German 1st Panzergruppe for a counterattack ordered by Adolf Hitler.|
|15 May 1942||Soviet troops attempted a renewed offensive toward Kharkov, Ukraine, but failing to regain momentum.|
|16 May 1942||Near Kharkov, Ukraine, the Soviet 28th Army's offensive was halted. To the south, Soviet 6th Guards Cavalry Corps reached Krasnograd, but their support tanks were 15 miles behind the front lines and could not arrive at the front fast enough to maintain the forward momentum.|
|17 May 1942||German 1st Panzer Army attacked Soviet troops at Izium, Ukraine, breaching the Soviet lines and capturing Barvenkovo. The spearhead of the Soviet offensive continued toward Kharkov, however, despite the actions behind it.|
|18 May 1942||14th and 16th Panzer Divisions of the German 1st Panzer Army destroyed 130 Soviet tanks in combat in Ukraine, forcing Soviet forces to evacuate forward airfields at Izium and Petrovskaia. Semyon Timoshenko requested for permission to fall back from his positions near Kharkov, Ukraine due to this latest German counteroffensive; Joseph Stalin refused to grant his permission, ordering Timoshenko to continue the westward offensive.|
|19 May 1942||A surprise German pincer movement threatened to trap a large contingent of Soviet troops at Izium near Kharkov, Ukraine. Joseph Stalin belatedly granted permission for the troops to withdraw.|
|20 May 1942||German 6th Army and 1st Panzer Army captured Protopopovka, Ukraine, further threatening the Soviet troops at Izium with encirclement. The Soviets continued to make break out attempts, but they were frustrated by German aircraft.|
|21 May 1942||German 6th Army and 1st Panzer Army continued to threaten the Soviet troops near Izium, Ukraine with encirclement.|
|22 May 1942||In Ukraine, German 14th Division and 16th Panzer Division occupied Chepel and Bayrak, while 3rd Panzer Division and 23rd Panzer Division reached Chervonyi Donets and Krasnaia Gusarovka, closing the gap on the Soviet forces near Izium.|
|23 May 1942||German 14th Division and 16th Panzer Division, moving northward, and German 3rd Panzer Division and 23rd Panzer Division, moving southward, linked up, thus completing the encirclement of the Soviet 6th Army and 57th Army at Izium, Ukraine. In the same area, German troops captured Chepel to prevent the Soviet 38th Army from attacking the eastern side of the newly formed encirclement.|
|24 May 1942||Soviet troops at Izium, Ukraine were completed surrounded by German troops.|
|25 May 1942||Soviet troops trapped at Izium, Ukraine made a major attempt to break the encirclement in failure, and the continued German pressured reduced the Soviet pocket to an area roughly 10 miles wide and 2 miles deep.|
|26 May 1942||Soviet troops in the pocket at Izium, Ukraine captured Lozovenka to the east during their breakout attempt, but overall German pressure caused the pocket to shrink to the size of about 15 square kilometers.|
|27 May 1942||German troops captured Lozovenka near Kharkov, Ukraine.|
|28 May 1942||Semyon Timoshenko ordered all offensives in the Kharkov, Ukraine region to cease, thus effectively conceding the Second Battle of Kharkov and granting victory to the German Unternehmen Fridericus I. When all actions were wrapped up, the Germans would count over 200,000 prisoners of war, 1,200 tanks, and 2,000 artillery pieces captured.|
|29 May 1942||Soviet resistance in the Izium, Ukraine ceased.|
» Bagramyan, Ivan
» Bock, Fedor von
» Hausser, Paul
» Hoth, Hermann
» Paulus, Friedrich
» Timoshenko, Semyon
» Vasilevsky, Aleksandr
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