The Wehrmacht Encircles Kharkov
|Soldiers of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf enter Kharkov in March 1943 (source)|
Bill Downs visited Kharkov (Kharkiv) in the weeks before the Nazis retook the city.
(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)
March 15, 1943
This morning's communiqué from the Soviet high command announced that the Red Army on one sector of the Kharkov front had withdrawn to a new line of defense. It was not specified in which sector the withdrawal took place. Fighting (in the city) against the German attack north, west, and south of Kharkov is now more bitter and bloody than any time since the new Nazi counteroffensive began (at the end of February).
The communiqué issued this morning speaks of hand-to-hand fighting. Six hundred Germans were killed in one sector alone. However, it was the second withdrawal in the past two days that the Soviet communiqués have announced. (Yesterday the Red Army troops defending the western sector of the city were forced back to new lines.)
It is still too early in the battle to get a clear picture of what is happening down at Kharkov. The new German counteroffensive has been underway just two weeks.
However, you can get an idea of the immensity of the fighting in Kharkov and in the Donbass from German losses in this fighting, which I rounded up from the Russian communiqués.
In the past two weeks, the Nazi forces have lost 66,000 men in this fighting. The Soviet high command said that 20,000 of these soldiers were killed in the first week's fighting alone.
German tank losses listed in the Russian communiqués during the past two weeks total 2,700 tanks destroyed or disabled.
On all sectors of the thousand-mile Russian front, some 455 German planes were shot down. It was not specified just how many of these were destroyed on the Kharkov front, but there must have been a good many.
After the Red Army captured Kharkov last February 16th, the German command concentrated and reformed over 250,000 men for a counter blow. This was in addition to forces already fighting west of Kharkov and in the Donbass. The blow came two weeks later.
Russian military analysts writing in the Moscow papers say the German offensive has achieved what it has because the Red Army infantry could not keep up with the fast-moving tanks and artillery forces which formed the vanguard of the immense Russian winter offensive.
These strong spearheads were tough enough to kick the Germans out of their complete winter line and advance beyond. But the Russian vanguard forces by their very nature did not constitute a holding force.
The German command has thrown a Sunday punch aimed at the solar plexus of the Russian winter offensive line. However, this tremendous blow already has (partially) been parried.
(The Red Army felt the sting of this blow and has already absorbed a lot of its power.)
But no one in Russia is kidding themselves about the seriousness of the new offensive. Every military leader in the Soviet Union, from Stalin on down, has been warning for weeks that the German command was capable of launching new adventures. This is one of them. (And how it develops is going to be important to the battle that the United Nations throughout the world is fighting against the Axis.)
Meanwhile, it is comforting to examine the figures of those Nazi losses. In the past two weeks they have lost over six divisions of infantry and enough tanks to form ten tank divisions.
To use the vernacular, the losses are not military hay.
March 17, 1943
The counteroffensive which the Germans launched with twenty-five fresh and reformed divisions at the end of February, today appears to have been slowed by stiffening Red Army resistance.
First details of this fighting on the middle reaches of the northern Donets river southeast of Kharkov reached Moscow this morning. These front reports seem to indicate that the Soviet forces have stiffened their resistance along the southwestern bank of the northern Donets and are furiously beating off most Nazi attempts to push them across to the other side of the river.
However, it is too early to say that the German advance has been halted. The fighting along this front is touch and go, with the Red Army taking the initiative away from the Germans on one day and then losing it the next.
The fighting on one small sector of the front may find Red Army units in full attack, while on a neighboring sector they are being pushed back to the river. Fortified points have changed hands several times in twenty-four hours—the Soviet troops holding the positions at night while German troops retake them in the daytime.
(In many ways, this fighting has assumed the character of a barroom brawl—a brawl which now hangs in the balance as to which side will eventually come out on top in this fighting.)
At some points the Red Army has pushed back to the northern Donets, and today there is fierce fighting for the ferry crossings. On these sectors, the Germans have used as many as sixty tanks at a time to wedge into the Russian lines.
The Germans in the new counteroffensive have organized military "goon squads" of highly mobile tank groups which stand ready behind their lines to make a thrust at any given point along the Russian lines.
The German command uses these goon squads to maintain the tempo of its drive and at the same time uses them as troubleshooters to back up Nazi troops which have gotten themselves into trouble.
Soviet reconnaissance has reported those mobile tank squads operating one day at one sector of the front—and then on the next day another sector sixty miles away.
There is one significant fact about the ability of these squads to operate with such speed and at such range. It reveals that the full spring thaw has not yet set in on this sector of the front, as for example it has in the Kuban.
Front reports say that there still is snow in the ravines and on the shady sides of the hills along the middle reaches of the northern Donets. And night frosts are still keeping the ground fairly solid.
Some of the fiercest fighting is going on around the Izyum bend of the northern Donets. Here for many days the battle has seesawed back and forth. The Red Army made a night attack and captured some commanding heights over the battlefield. The Germans threw in a large number of aircraft and succeeded in taking the position back. But another Red Army attack drove the Nazis out.
Today the fighting for these most important positions is still raging.