The Soviet Red Army Thought It Could Finish Off Nazi Germany At This Battle. They Were Wrong.
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When Adolf Hitler's acclaimed Sixth Army was in the agony of death in the ruins of Stalingrad, the German armed forces faced their own hell in the west of the city. The inner ring of the Russians' iron grip in Stalingrad was tasked with the total destruction of German and other Axis powers in the city, but the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted more. In collaboration with the Soviet High Command (STAVKA), Stalin submitted an ambitious plan to liberate the Don basin from Kursk in the north to the Sea of Azov in the south and to bring the vital agricultural and mineral-rich area back under Russian control.
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Operation Gallop: strike on the southern flank
Germany's Allied armies were a mess. The Hungarian Second Army and the Italian Eighth Army on the upper Don were smashed by General Filipp Ivanovich Golikov's Voronezh front, leaving a gaping gap south of the German 2nd Army, which was supposed to defend the Voronezh area.
General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin's south-west front moved towards Voroshilovgrad and Starobelsk despite violent opposition. In the Caucasus and along the Donets River, German troops of Army Group A (Army Group A) were in a race for death so as not to be caught by advancing armies of the Transcaucasus and the Stalingrad fronts.
In mid-January, Stalin and STAVKA saw a very clear opportunity to force the entire southern flank of the German army in the east to collapse. With an almost certain victory in Stalingrad, the Soviet military planners developed operations to push the Germans back to the Dnieper. The more optimistic planners, including Stalin, hoped for an even greater boost.
A two-pronged attack was finally approved. Operation Skachok (gallop) would use Vatutin's southwestern front to liberate the southern Don Basin from the enemy and push it back to the Dnieper. On the right flank of Vatutin, Golikov's Voronezh front was ordered to take Kharkov and follow the retreating Germans as far west as possible in an operation called Zvezda (Stern).
The German army in disarray
The German armed forces that Vatutin faced had been put down by weeks of struggles and withdrawals. Lieutenant General Fedor Mikhailovich Kharitonov's Sixth Army and Lieutenant General Vasilii I. Kuznetsov's First Guard Army were rapidly approaching the Aydar River in the Starobelsk region, while the Third Guard Army under Lieutenant General Dmitri Danilovich Lelyushenko threatened to cross the Army River west of Voroshilovgrad. South of Lelyushenko also lieutenant general Ivan Timofeevich Schlemin's fifth tank army moved towards the eastern bank of the Donets.
Vatutin also had a combined weapon group under the command of Lt. Gen. Markian Mikhailovich Popov, which contained almost half of the armaments on the southwestern front. In total, Vatutin had more than 500 tanks and about 325,000 men to complete his mission.
Across the south-west front was a cluster of German units trying to regain some sort of line of defense and command control. Approximately 160,000 men and 100 tanks from several decimated divisions fought to form a kind of cohesive force to meet the advancing Soviet forces.
The First Panzer Army, commanded by General Eberhard von Mackensen, had just arrived from an exhausting retreat from the Caucasus. It had approximately 40 battle-ready tanks and an estimated 40,000 soldiers. The Army Division Hollidt was a conglomerate of remains of the infantry and armored division. Under the command of General Karl Hollidt, the unit had approximately 100,000 men and 60 tanks. Another 20,000 soldiers came from various support and garrison units.
General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin: A talented strategist
Vatutin was aware of the enemy's disorganization and planned his actions accordingly. The Vatutin, born in 1901, joined the Red Army in 1920. He was employed during the Russian Civil War and then attended the Frunze Academy, which he graduated in 1929. After his career, Vatutin attended and graduated from the General Staff Academy and served on the General Staff from 1937-1940. During the Battle of Moscow, he distinguished himself as chief of staff of the northwest front and was appointed commander of the southwest front in 1942.
Vatutin was considered a talented strategist and his opinion was highly valued. He was excited about the possibility of freeing the lower Don Basin and destroying the German units that defended it, and STAVKA gave him great latitude in developing his plan of attack, which he worked out with his army commanders and staff.
The main blow was to come from the armies of the First and Third Guards, who would take Stalino and then Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. This action, supported by the Popov Group and the Fifth Panzer Army, would catch most German units on the Donets River Line south of Kharkov. Divisions of the southern front on the left flank of Vatutin would work together by advancing along the Sea of Azov to Rostov and beyond.
In theory, the plan was good. Secret service reports indicated that the Germans were almost panicked. Other reports said enemy troops were hastily withdrawing from the area, suggesting Vatutin that his operation was a way to destroy a defeated and demoralized enemy.
Strengthen Army Group South
The Soviet assessments were largely wrong. Although the Germans were disorganized, the commanders worked together to maintain a viable force. German supply lines have been much tighter since the withdrawal from the Stalingrad sector, and the ability to form ad hoc units around regimental and divisional cadres has been successful.
There was another important factor for the Germans. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein commanded the area intended for the Soviet offensive. Von Manstein, architect of the 1940 Ardennes strike against France and conqueror of Sevastopol in 1942, was considered one of the best strategic and tactical minds of the Wehrmacht.
Although the divisions of his Army Group Don, which became Army Group South (South) in mid-February, were defeated, the German commander was already planning a reaction to what he believed to be a larger Soviet attack in the Don Basin. He knew that the Red Army's supply lines had expanded significantly as his own declined, making it difficult for Soviet armaments to get adequate fuel and ammunition supplies. He also knew that although the Russians were superior in terms of labor and equipment, they did not have enough reserves for a long attack and breakthrough.
Von Manstein was lucky in other ways too. While the Stalingrad debacle was still going on, he had managed to persuade Hitler to allow most German forces in the Caucasus to withdraw before being cut off. By the end of January, many of these units, including the First Panzer Army, regrouped in the Don Basin. The fourth tank army, under the command of Colonel General Hermann Hoth, was also about to get out of the Soviet trap.
When he raised the question of the vulnerability of the entire southern sector of the Eastern Front, von Manstein persuaded the OKW (High Command of the Wehrmacht) to release six divisions and two infantry brigades from Western Europe and send them to the Army Group South. Among the released divisions were three excellently equipped SS divisions, which had rested and converted after the hard-fought campaign of 1942.
The Soviet offensive begins
On February 1, 1943, the Golikov Voronezh front began an attack on the liberation of Kharkov. Excellent progress was made in the first days of the offensive when General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakowskii's 60th Army captured Kursk on February 8. When Kursk fell, Golikov's 40th and 69th Army advanced to Kharkov together with the 3rd Panzer Army and fought their way through the understaffed defenses of the German Second Army.
Vatutin launched Operation Gallop two days before the Golikov offensive began. On January 29, Kuznetsov's First Guards Army crossed the Aydar River and hit General Gustav Schmidt's 19th Panzer Division in the Kabanye - Kromennaya area along the Dnester River. Under a series of hammer blows, the Germans were forced to withdraw under a constant barrage of Soviet artillery.
On Kuznetsov's right flank, Kharitonov's Sixth Army struck elements of Colonel Herbert Michaelis' 298th Infantry Division after crossing the Aydar. After most of the 298th was buried along the Krasnaya River, the front elements of the division were pushed aside by the advancing Soviets.
Kharitonov's 15th Rifle Corps pursued the retreating Germans and reached Krasnaya before it was stopped by the provisional defense of the 298th on the west bank. Under heavy fire, the 350th rifle division forced the crossing north and south of Kupyansk and erected bridgeheads on the German side of the river. However, further progress was delayed until reinforcements arrived on the ground.
On January 30, the First Guard army crossed the Krasnaya near the city of Krasny Liman. Satisfied with the progress of his attacking troops, Vatutin ordered the Popov group to advance and form at the intersection of the First Guard and the Sixth Army to take advantage of all major breaks in the German line.
Vatutin continued to receive good news from the front for the next few days. His plans for Gallop seemed to be confirmed when reports from the First Guards Army came that Kremennaya had fallen, the 19th Panzer Division was retreating towards Lisichansk in the south, and Krasny Liman was also being taken.
In the Sixth Army sector, Kharitonov eventually crossed the Krasnaya River after the 298th Infantry Division gave up its positions on the eastern bank for fear of encirclement by advancing units of the Sixth Army and the Voronezh Front Third Army. From February 2 to 5, the 298th fought through Soviet units that were already behind it before finally reaching a new line of defense around Chuguyev on the Northern Donets River.
6th Army units also forced General Georg Postel's 320th Infantry Division to withdraw from Krasnaya. While the Sixth Rifle Division tried to surround the Postel Division, the 267th Rifle Division and the 106th Rifle Brigade continued to Izyum, which would fall on February 5.
Vatutin felt the victory and sent the Popov group as the avant-garde of the Soviet attack. A counterattack by some XL Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army under the command of General Sigfrid Henrici stopped Popov's advance in several areas. Other elements of Henrici's corps hit the First Guard army around Slavyansk and forced Kuznetsov to stop his attack. Further south, Lelyushenko's Third Guard army had now crossed the Donets River near Voroshilovgrad and was busy breaking through the defense of the Hollidt Army Department.
Prevent a Soviet breakthrough
The battle for Slavyansk was decisive for the Germans who were trying to stop Vatutin's advance to the west. As long as the city was in Manstein's hands, Vatutin had to expand its armed forces to bypass them, extend its supply lines and offer its flanks to German counterattacks.
On February 4, Vatutin faced an increasingly stubborn opponent. Elements of Henrici's XL Panzer Corps clung to Slavyansk and countered the First Guard army with vicious counterattacks. Kuznetzov threw more units into the fight for the city, but Henrici's men held on.
About 55 kilometers east of Slavyansk, the First Guard Army's Sixth Guard Rifle Corps, under the command of General Ivan Prokofevich Alferov, was engaged in a fierce battle for control of Lisichansk. The XXX. General Maximilian Fretter-Pico's Army Corps was tasked with defending the sectors north and south of the city.
General Karl Casper's 335th Infantry Division, newly arrived from France, was one of the divisions to defend the area south of Lisichansk near the city of Krymskoye. Alferov's 44th Guards Rifle Division received a small bridgehead on the west bank of the Donets and resisted repeated counterattacks until the 335th. When Casper saw that further attacks were a waste of labor, he ordered his men to cordon off the bridgehead, hoping that reinforcements would be sent to break the Soviet line.
In Lisichansk, Alferov's 78th Rifle Division attempted a final. The 78th crossed the northern Donets in several places, but German troops moved in again to cordon them off. For the moment it was a standoff.
Frustrated, Vatutin threw the 41st Guards Rifle Division into the Battle of Lisichansk. The Soviets, which were defended by Schmidt's 19th tank, had to clear the city street through a bloody street. With the help of elements from the 78th Guard and the 44th Guard Rifle Division, the Russians finally forced Schmidt's men out of the city into positions in the southwest. The Sixth Guards Rifle Corps quickly followed on their heels, but Schmidt was able to work, wiggle, weave, and switch units like a boxer to thwart any further breakthrough.
Negotiating retreat with Hitler
On February 6, Hitler called from Manstein to his headquarters in Zaporozhye. The German leader was surprisingly docile, almost apologetic when he opened the conversation by taking full responsibility for the Stalingrad disaster. Von Manstein was surprised by the statement because Hitler never blamed himself for one of the German army's accidents.
With the surprising admission, the two men turned to the situation. Von Manstein was dull when he started to explain the position of his army group. He told Hitler that the area between the Don and the Donets could under no circumstances be occupied by the existing armed forces.
"The only question is whether we want to lose not only the area but also Army Group Don when we try to hold on to the entire pool," he said. "We will eventually lose Army Group A. The alternative is to leave part of the basin at the right moment to avert the catastrophe that threatens to overtake us."
According to von Manstein, Hitler remained “completely calm” during the following conversation. He further said to Hitler that attempting to hold the entire basin would allow the Soviets to send strong enough forces to cut through the thin German line and encase the entire southern wing of the Eastern Front. He therefore proposed that the First Panzer Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, which faced General Andrei Ivanovich Jeremenko's southern front, be used to form a force that would intercept the armed forces that the Vatutin no doubt already had in mind for his further advance.
Bringing the fourth tank army back from the lower Don would mean handing over the area between the lower Don and the Mius to the armies of Yeremenko's southern front, but it would also shorten the German line. To protect the southern flank, the Hollidt Army Department would also have to withdraw to the Mius. It was a risky plan, but the alternative was almost a sure disaster.
When von Manstein was finished, it was Hitler's turn. The Fiihrer could not find any mistakes in the plan, but his reluctance to give up the ground to the enemy was still of paramount importance. He argued that every foot of land cost the Russians men and equipment - much more than the Germans. There were also political considerations, such as the impact of such a withdrawal on Turkey, which monitored developments in southern Russia very closely.
Hitler promised reinforcements, calmed down, and used his famous charm and eloquence to convince Manstein to stay on the Don, but von Manstein didn't move. The impasse lasted most of the afternoon, but then Hitler suddenly gave in. Finally, von Manstein had the leader's blessing and hurriedly flew back to his Stalino headquarters to issue orders for retreat.
A struggling retreat
Unless an early thaw suddenly hit the area, armored and mechanized units that should retreat would have little trouble reaching the Mius before the Soviets. The infantry units of the 4th Panzer Army and the Hollidt Army Department were different. The retreating Russian infantry, vulnerable to Russian armored and mechanized forces, had to leave a rearguard to carry out a fighting retreat, while the division's main elements remained wary of Soviet ambushes and tank attacks.
The Soviets were by no means inactive when the Germans were ready to retreat to the shorter Mius line. The 44th Army of the Southern Front conquered the city of Azov-on-Don. Around Salvyansk, where fighting was still going on, Red Army units also occupied the city of Kramatorsk, about 15 kilometers south of the city.
The following day, February 8, Kharitonov's Sixth Army liberated Andreyevka on the east bank of northern Donets, about 50 miles southeast of Kharkov. The Soviet commander directed his forces northeast to attack Zmiyev on the west bank of the river. If Kharitonov could take and hold the city, the way would be clear for an attack on Kharkov from the south.
Kharitonov's spearhead ran headlong into the 2nd regiment of the Panzergrenadier division of SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) from Leibstandarte under the command of SS-Standartenführer (colonel) Theodore Wisch. Wisch's 1st battalion under SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Hugo Kraas gave the advancing Russians a bloody nose in a small village northeast of Zmiyev. Supported by assault guns, Kraas' men attacked and drove the Soviets back.
In the late morning the Russians launched wave after wave of infantry against the village, but the SS held on. The Soviets then attacked the line from Wisch's regiment up and down. Supported by assault guns, some tank companies, engineers and an anti-aircraft unit, Wisch successfully held its positions and caused heavy losses to the Soviet 111th Rifle Division.
In the meantime, the fight for Slavyansk continued unabated. General Hans Freiherr von Funck's 7th Panzer Division was commissioned to keep the city. The division consisted of only 35 serviceable tanks as it struggled to defend Slavyansk against General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Gagen's 4th Guards Rifle Corps.
Gagen was born in 1895 and was a tough no-nonsense commander who had taken part in the brutal battles along the Volkhov in the winter of 1941-1942. He was determined to drive the Germans out of the city at all costs. The 195th Gagen Rifle Division had been roughly treated by the 7th Panzer while trying to fight its way into the eastern part of the city. The Soviet general threw in the 57th Guards Rifle Division to conquer the city from the north and west, but the Germans stopped and attacked when the situation required.
Above them, Red Air Force bombers and ground attack planes roamed the sky over the competitive city. German anti-aircraft batteries tried to drive them away, but the Soviet pilots went on and dropped their deadly cargo on from Funck's position. The Red Army artillery also sustained a deadly fire, but the German Panzer Grenadiers and division engineers were still able to keep the Russians at bay.
Holding Slavyansk helped other First Armored Army units move west. More of Henrici's XL Panzer Corps have already come to the area to strengthen the 7th tank. Although General Hermann Balck's 11th Panzer Division had little more than a dozen tanks, this was a welcome sight for the men of von Funck's command. Colonel Gerhard Grassman's 333rd Infantry Division was in a similar form after being devastated in previous actions.
Both sides recognized the value of the area between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, in which the German defense ran along the Krivoy Torets river. If the Soviets could force the Germans out of their weak positions, Vatutin could use the Popov group's forces to give a deep boost to the southwest, which would basically cut off the first and fourth armored armies from the rest of Manstein's army group. Accordingly, Vatutin pushed more artillery units into the area to give his troops an additional strike.
Henrici's XL Panzer Corps, as weak as it was, defended the area with great skill. Coordinated attacks by the 4th Corps Panzer Corps, the 3rd Panzer Corps and the 4th Guards Rifle Corps were repeatedly repelled. Balck's 11th tank boldly attacked Soviet armor with its few remaining tanks, causing several T-34s to blaze furiously on the battlefield, while the 7th tank fought off combined tank-infantry attacks and left hundreds of Red Army soldiers dead in the snow .
Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller, commander of the 7th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 7th Tank, was in the middle of the battle. Von Steinkeller was on the move and went from company to company to urge his men to stay firm. An artillery observer followed and was ready to fire as the situation required. He would later receive the Knight's Cross, in part for his actions during the battle.
Popov's 4th Corps Panzer Corps, commanded by Pavel Pavlovich Poluboyarov, managed to cross the Krivoy Torets and threaten the rear of the 7th Panzer Division. Henrici immediately ordered Balck's 11th Panzer Division, supported by a regiment from the 333rd Infantry Division, to counterattack. The Germans were hit with the blazing cannons of Poluboyarov's tanks in front of and buried anti-tank weapons fired from the east bank of the Krivoy Torets.
Despite the Soviet fire, Balck and his infantry support were able to push the 4th Guard back along the river valley. The Russian infantry that accompanied Poluboyarov's tanks panicked and fled, forcing the armor to defend itself. German sources show that 45 Russian tanks were destroyed during the fighting - a significant loss that could only be partially offset by the reinforcements that came in after an arduous journey down extensive supply roads.
Vatutin, fed up with the fact that his armed forces could not take Slavyansk and the positions along the Krivoy Torets, shuffled his units for a major attack. Kuznetsov's First Guards Army was instructed to coordinate with Popov for the attack, while Red Air Force units were ordered to assist the operation at all costs.
Underestimate the German position
The movement of German units westward according to Manstein's plan had given Vatutin, Golikov and STAVKA a false sense of optimism. Hitler never conceded territory - every Russian commander knew that. He had shown it by freezing his army at the gates of Moscow, and the stubborn refusal to withdraw from Stalingrad only reinforced that view.
For the Russians, the withdrawal of the Don Army Group from the eastern Don Basin was only a somewhat panicked escape. The stubborn resistance to Slavyansk was seen as a desperate attempt to keep the fleeing German divisions from being overwhelmed by troops from the Southwest Front and the South Front, and it was believed that once the Krivoy Torets line was captured, the enemy would collapse.
To crack German defense, Vatutin ordered the First Guard army to move south toward the Krasnoarmeiskoya sector, about 60 kilometers southwest of Slavyansk, to threaten the enemy’s back. During this move, the 35th Guards Rifle Division of the 4th Guards Rifle Corps von Gagen forced units of the 333rd Infantry Division out of Lozovaya, an important railroad center and supply warehouse located approximately 120 kilometers west of Slavyansk. Though the 35th Guard did not force their attack further, the capture of the city caused a dangerous new bulge in the already extensive and increasingly confusing battle lines.
Part of Vatutin's plan was to use Popov's 4th Guard and 3rd Panzer Corps to smash their way to Slavyansk and pave the way for the 18th and 10th Corps to strike southwest towards Artemovsk. After Slavyansk was secured, the 4th armored personnel carrier and the 3rd Panzer Corps were to advance to connect with the First Guard army in Krasnoarmeiskoye. Together, the two Panzer Corps and First Guards Army units would then move southeast to Stalino to catch German units withdrawing from the eastern Don Basin.
When Vatutin was preparing his operation, he received new orders from STAVKA. Golikov's forces made good progress towards Kharkov, and Moscow saw a new chance to put more enemy divisions in an even larger pocket than Vatutin had planned.
Vatutin was therefore given the task of building blocking forces to prevent the enemy from withdrawing to Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk. At the same time, he was ordered to advance to the southwest to cut off the German and Axis powers in the Crimea. The STAVKA plan was far too ambitious as the southwestern front had been in combat for more than two weeks and had received little supplies or reinforcements.
With Kharitonov's Sixth Guard Army already supporting Golikov's advance on Kharkov, Kusnezow and Popov, along with Lelyushenko's Third Guard Army, would again be left to accomplish this new mission. The First Guards Army would have the dual task of taking Slavyansk with Alferov's Sixth Guards Rifle Corps, while other units continued west towards Zaporozhye. While this was happening, the Popov Krasnoarmeiskoye group struck at lightning speed, took the city's railway center and threatened the German rear.
Both Kuznetsov and Popov had expressed doubts about Vatutin's previous proposal. Their units had been mistreated by the Germans, and losses in men and equipment had still not been made up for. The two Soviet generals had even greater doubts about the new plan. Supplying their armed forces to the south and west would be a nightmare with the existing supply line, which was already stretched to its limits.
Popov, who stormed south, would distribute a total of about 180 tanks between his four tank corps. He had enough fuel for one refueling and ammunition for two replenishments. The infantry units in his command were in even worse shape. Despite STAVKA's claims that the Germans were on the run, the field commanders were more cautious about the situation.
Vatutin brushed aside the doubts of his commanders. These were orders from Moscow and had to be followed. The consequences of disobedience were well known and no sensible Soviet general would think about taking action against the Kremlin at this stage of the war.
A brave penetration
Poluboyarov's 4th Panzer Corps was selected to lead the new attack. In the early morning hours of February 11, Soviet armor began its 85-kilometer cargo to Krasnoarmeiskoye. Under the leadership of the 14th Guard Panzer Guard, Polubarov's forces broke through German defense and quickly moved down a good road in the area. The 14th Mechanized Brigade, 7th Ski Brigade, 9th Guard Tank Brigade and other corps units followed on the heels of the 14th.
The deep shock surprised the Germans, and in the morning the 14th Panzer Brigade of the Guard Krasnoarmeiskoye had conquered. After the city was secured, the victorious Soviet troops took advantage of the supplies the retreating enemy had left in a landfill. The booty, especially the fuel and the food, was a welcome sight for the exhausted Russians.
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