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German Panzer IV tanks advance to attack positions on July 1, 1943. Four days later, history’s greatest tank clash, the Battle of Kursk, began. The Soviets followed their Kursk victory by liberating Kharkov August 23, 1943. (Ullstein Bild Dtl./Getty Images)
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On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, beginning the largest conventional military campaign in Europe since World War II. In the northern area of operations, the primary target was Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. The first Russian shells exploded within the avenues and apartment blocks on February 24 and within hours there were infantry clashes and armored combat in the suburbs. The city battle intensified through March and April as a vigorous Ukrainian defense held the Russians at bay. By mid-May the Russians had been driven out of Kharkiv. Whether this victory remains permanent or not, remains to be seen, at least at the time of writing. 

The 2022 battle of Kharkiv has a dark and ironic historical resonance. Formerly referred to as Kharkov, the city was one of the most violently contested urban battlegrounds on the Eastern Front during World War II. During that conflict Soviet forces, including legions of Russians, expended hundreds of thousands of lives attempting either to defend or recapture Kharkov from the Wehrmacht. In the process, war rolled back and forth like waves through the city. In total, between October 1941 and August 1943, the city exchanged hands four times.

But while the great battles of Stalingrad, Leningrad, and Kursk have become historically seminal, the repeatedly violent struggle for Kharkov is less prominent, despite the fact that the city’s fortunes were central to the outcome of war on the southern Eastern Front.

A Prosperous City

On the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Kharkov was the fifth largest city in the Soviet Union, with a population of about 850,000. Located in northeastern Ukraine, within quick reach of the Russian border, Kharkov was a critical piece on Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s military-industrial chessboard. It was a gateway city, a major road and rail communications hub connecting Crimea, the Caucasus, and Russia.

Through the city’s railyards flowed black gold from the great oilfields of the Caucasus and the products of Ukraine’s immense agricultural lands—corn, wheat, barley, rapeseed, cooking oils. But Kharkov was also a powerhouse industrial zone. It was a center for both tank and aircraft production. During the 1930s, its factories were responsible for the development and production of the BT-5 and BT-7 fast tanks, the T-26 light tank, and the T-35 heavy tank.

More significant, from the late 1930s Factory No. 183 (formerly the Kharkov Komintern Locomotive Plant) designed the T-34 medium tank, destined to become the defining tank of Soviet armored forces (it entered production in the city in September 1940). The Kharkov Aviation Factory produced the Sukhoi Su-2 reconnaissance/light bomber aircraft, while other factories rolled out thousands of farming tractors and tracked prime movers for artillery. Add Kharkov’s other products, such as railway engines and electrical components, and its strategic significance is apparent. 

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Although Look magazine’s March 14, 1939 issue map and prophecy incorrectly predicted Europe’s “next war” starting place (it was September 1 in Poland), it emphasizes Ukraine’s vital importance to Stalin’s Soviet Union. (Shawshots/Alamy Stock Photo)

Aside from its industrial identity, Kharkov was also a city of culture, renowned for its theater, visual arts, film, music, literature and science. Architecturally the city was proud and beguiling, imperious government offices and ornate public buildings crafted in styles ranging from the gothic to the modernist, with regional and national inflections. The suburbs had the full range of urban dwellings, from middle-class brick buildings through to basic wooden peasant housing made from wattle-and-daub with thatched roofs.

Invasion

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941. The immense surge of the Wehrmacht and Axis allies, totaling some 3.8 million personnel, took three axes of advance: northern, central, and southern. In the latter, Army Group South under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt drove deep into the Ukraine, assisted later in the campaign by temporary relocations of units from Army Group Center to the north.

By the end of September 1941, Army Group South was knocking on the door of Kharkov, just 50 miles to the east. The journey to that point had seen German victories that defied comprehension, often achieved through immense pincer actions that took cruel advantage of Red Army operational inefficiencies.

At the battle of Uman on July 15–August 8, for example, the German forces effectively destroyed the Soviet 6th and 12th Armies. But even this catastrophe was dwarfed by the German victory at Kiev (August 23–September 26), a Kessel (“cauldron”) battle producing the biggest encirclement in military history. Most of the Soviet Southwestern Front—some five armies and 45 divisions—was crushed, Soviet casualties totaling more than 700,000 (including more than 600,000 soldiers taken prisoner) and material losses of as many as 800 tanks and nearly 4,000 field guns.

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Given the scale of these Soviet defeats in Kharkov’s proximity, the city’s immediate future looked perilous even as its population swelled to more than 1.5 million through a tidal influx of refugees. There was only a token line of resistance provided by battle-depleted divisions holding a thin and unconvincing line around the city. But by this time, there was no intention of performing a last stand at Kharkov.

In October, the city began a herculean effort to disassemble, pack, and move the production lines and machinery of about 70 of Kharkov’s most important factories. The deconstructed factories were placed on hundreds of trains that took the industries out to safe locations further east. Kharkov was just part of the great Soviet industrial exodus of 1941, a movement that enabled the Soviet Union to maintain and then formidably increase its production of military materiel in the future fightback years.

The Shadow of Nazi Occupation

The evacuation was complete on October 20, and it was timely. The German assault on the city began just three days later. The German 6th Army had made a major regional advance on Belgorod and Kharkov, supported by elements of the 17th Army. The formation specifically assigned to capture Kharkov was LV Corps under General Erwin Vierow, composed of the 101st Light Division and the 57th Infantry Division, with assault gun support. The drive on the city began on October 23 with the 101st Light Division in the vanguard. 

While the German troops were prepared for an intensive urban battle, what they received was a walkover. With the main industries evacuated from the city, the Soviets now had a reduced rationale to defend the city, although at this time any defense would have been futile. The Wehrmacht therefore rode and marched into Kharkov with little resistance, and by the next day, October 24, the city was entirely in German hands. Those soldiers and civilians who could flee had done so. Indeed, by the end of 1941 the population of Kharkov had plunged to about 300,000. 

Those who stayed now fell under the black shadow of Nazi occupation. It was a characteristically brutal time, not least because the German casualties inflicted by hundreds of Soviet booby traps in the city incensed the occupiers. The sight of civilian bodies dangling from street lights and balconies became horribly commonplace. Worse was to come.

The Sonderkommando 4 (SK4; Special Unit 4) of the Gestapo, under the command of Sturmbannführer Willi Neumann, set to work rounding up Kharkov’s Jews and placing them in hovel ghettos on the edges of the city. They were subsequently murdered in the countryside beyond. An estimated 20,000 Jews met their fate this way between November 1941 and January 1942. 

The Second Battle

The second battle for Kharkov in May 1942 was a radically different affair from the first. The failure of the Wehrmacht to capture Moscow in December 1941 led both sides to recalibrate their ambitions. On the Soviet side, Stalin had been duly encouraged by the results of the winter counteroffensive around Moscow. In early 1942, he began work with the Stavka (Soviet high command) in planning a series of what would be overly ambitious offensives across the full length of the Eastern Front.

Marshal Semyon Timoshenko took charge of efforts in the south, which concentrated on the liberation of Kharkov, Donbas, and Sevastopol. In January 1942, his Southwest Front and Southern Front had launched a major assault between Kharkov in the north and Artemovsk in the south. The three-army push resulted in a 60-mile advance before it ground to a halt in the face of trenchant German resistance. Kharkov remained resolutely in German hands, but a deep Soviet-held salient now bulged out into German lines roughly centered on Izyum, a tactical contour that would have deep significance for what was to follow. 

Across the lines, Adolf Hitler’s ambitions were if anything even greater than Stalin’s. On April 5, 1942, he issued his grandiose Directive No. 51, which spelled out his long-term vision for the Eastern Front:

Pursuing our original plan for the Eastern campaign, the armies in the central sector will hold fast, those in the north will capture Leningrad and link up with the Finns, while those on the southern flank will break through into the Caucasus. Because of the late winter conditions, the availability of troops and resources, and logistical issues, these objectives can be achieved only one at a time.

First, therefore, all available forces will be concentrated towards the operations in the southern sector, with the aim of destroying the enemy before the Don River, securing the Caucasian oil fields and taking the passes through the Caucasus mountains themselves.

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German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein fought for Kharkov twice in 1943, winning in February-March, losing it in August. (Ullstein Bild Dtl./Getty Images)

Hitler’s intention to refresh the German offensive spirit in southern Russia and Ukraine became Fall Blau (Case Blue), the vast German summer anabasis towards the Don and Volga Rivers and into the Caucasus, the operation that led to the conflagration at Stalingrad. The year 1942, therefore, was that in which mutual Soviet and German offensive aspirations met head-on, the resulting fight ultimately deciding the outcome of war in Eastern Europe. Kharkov would be central to the struggle.

The second battle of Kharkov preceded the launch of Fall Blau on June 28, 1942. In May, Army Group South, now under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, was in the planning phase for an offensive that would cut out the Izyum salient. But the Soviets beat them to the punch with an offensive of their own launched in the sector on May 12. The Soviet plan brought together two Red Army fronts (Southwest Front and Southern Front), amassing six armies of 765,000 men and 1,500 armored vehicles, all under the supporting barrels of more than 3,000 field guns and mortars. The operational hope was for two fast blows, a pincer strike towards Kharkov from around Volchansk in the north and from the Izyum salient to the south. All going to plan, Kharkov would be back in Soviet hands within days.

The offensive was launched on May 12 at 6:30 a.m. Following a rippling artillery and aerial bombardment, the infantry and armor mass pressed forward, the outer hulls of the tanks thickly clustered with riding troops. Both arms of the pincers made penetrations, especially in the south. But some Soviet commanders, such as Military Commissar of Southwest Direction Nikita Khrushchev (the future Cold War Soviet leader), were looking at the evolving tactical map and sensed that they were falling into a trap.

Two thirds of the offensive’s armor had been poured into the Izyum thrust, which aimed to take Krasnograd before swinging northwest to assault Kharkov itself. The problem was that the initially encouraging advances against weaker Romanian units were producing ever extending and more vulnerable flanks, whereas in the north some 14 German divisions had stopped the advance relatively quickly. The Izyum salient was beginning to look like an unsustainable bulge ready to be snipped off.

A Catastrophic Encirclement

The German counteroffensive, feared by many in Stavka but ignored by Stalin, came on May 18, codename Operation Fridericus. Group Kleist, consisting of the 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army, drove into the Izyum salient from the south, while the 6th Army squeezed downwards from the north. By this time, the salient was crammed with the Soviet 6th, 9th, and 57th Armies and a mixed infantry and armor force known as Group Bobrin. On May 23, the German pincers closed at the base of the salient around Balakleya, and while the 9th Army had by this time largely escaped, the other Soviet units were trapped in an area measuring roughly six square miles. 

The result was another catastrophic encirclement for the Red Army. There were ghastly scenes as the panicked Soviet troops, abandoning their vehicles and armor, attempted to break out to the east, but German artillery and air power scythed down their ranks. By the end of May, the masses of Red Army troops who were still alive had surrendered. Instead of the offensive reclaiming Kharkov, all it had achieved was adding some 240,000 Soviet soldiers to the casualty lists and depriving the Red Army of c. 1,000 tanks. It was clear that Soviet offensive capabilities were still rudimentary in both planning and execution, and equally that the Wehrmacht remained a first-rate army just as capable fighting in defense as well as offense. Kharkov, meanwhile, remained in German hands, and would do so until events of February–March 1943 brought a change of ownership, albeit a temporary one. 

By the end of the January 1943, everything had changed on the Eastern Front. Fall Blau had been brought to a crashing end in the destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. The Soviet counteroffensive, Operation Uranus, encircled Stalingrad and showcased a more confident Red Army. In the south, Soviet forward momentum had carried it across the Don River and was making further advances to the west. Kharkov once again loomed into Stalin’s sights. 

In the southern sector, Stavka looked to make two major offensive drives. Operation Zvezda (Star) aimed to retake Kharkov and Kursk with Lieutenant-General Filipp Golikov’s Voronezh Front. To the south, the Southwestern Front under Lieutenant-General Nikolai Vatutin was tasked with moving through Voroshilovgrad, Donetsk, and reaching the Sea of Azov. This offensive was designated Operation Skachok (Gallop). Together, the offensives dangled the possibility of driving the Germans back beyond the Dnieper River.

Zvezda and Skachok were launched on January 29 and February 2 respectively. The German Army Group B (Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs) and Army Group Don (Field Marshal Erich von Manstein) struggled to resist an onslaught across a huge front, fighting with divisions already thinned out and exhausted from months of combat. Unlike the previous effort to take Kharkov, the early 1943 offensive initially had an aura of unstoppability.

The Voronezh Front took Volchansk, Belgorod, Oboyan, and Kursk, and had moved into the outskirts of Kharkov by February 11. The main forces defending the city were divisions of the SS-Panzer Corps. This Waffen-SS formation was new to the Eastern Front, but it contained three of the Waffen-SS’ most venerable and formidable combat divisions—the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Das Reich, and Totenkopf—fighting under the umbrella of Army Detachment Lanz.

Another Stalingrad?

For Manstein, it was clear that Kharkov could become another Stalingrad if he didn’t withdraw his forces from the city. Unfortunately for him, Hitler forbade such a move, the German leader now firmly in the “not one step back” phase of his strategic thinking. Yet against Hitler’s orders, Manstein sensibly pulled his troops out from the lines in and around Kharkov. For the first time since October 1941, Kharkov was back in Soviet hands.

Manstein’s move incensed Hitler, who actually flew to the nearby town of Zaporozhye to challenge Manstein face-to-face. The army commander held his ground, saying that it was more imperative to counter the Soviet drive towards the Dnieper, but he also convinced Hitler that characteristic Soviet over-extension was raising the possibility of a counterattack to reclaim Kharkov. Hitler approved the plan, his decision-making speeded by the fact that Soviet advances were raising the possibility that his very own position might soon be surrounded. 

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German occupiers march through Kharkov’s Dzerzhinsky Square, November 1941. (Berliner Verlag Archive/AKG-Images)

The German offensive phase of the third battle of Kharkov was a crowning achievement in Erich von Manstein’s career as a commander. On February 19, the SS-Panzer Corps began a bold drive south from Krasnograd to Pavlograd, cutting across the forward edges of the Soviet push by the Southwest Front. Once the corps reached Pavlograd by February 24, it hinged north and, now accompanied by forces of the 4th and 1st Panzer Armies, began a northern drive back towards Kharkov. Although the fighting was unforgiving, and both sides were taking heavy casualties, the Red Army soon found itself going into reverse.

Against all expectations, the Germans had reached the outskirts of Kharkov by March 7. By this time, Kharkov itself was principally garrisoned by the 62nd Guards Rifle Corps and troops of the 3rd Tank Army, plus an NKVD brigade. Alongside civilian laborers, the troops had turned Kharkov into something approaching a fortress city, with anti-tank ditches, street obstacles, gun emplacements, and interlocking fire positions. T-34 tanks were used to create mobile direct-fire artillery. Unlike in 1941, this time the Red Army was not going to relinquish Kharkov without a fight. 

From March 8, the Waffen-SS and German Army troops wrapped around the perimeter of Kharkov and began to push down its streets. The resistance was fierce. The Waffen-SS and Army troops had to clear the streets and buildings one by one, often making the advances hunched behind tanks and half-tracks as mobile pillboxes. But for the Soviets, the fact that by March 15 the city was virtually encircled indicated that a prolonged defense was pointless. With the 62nd Guards Rifle Division acting as a covering force, the surviving Soviet defenders made a breakout to the east on March 18. Kharkov’s traumatized citizens were now back under German rule.

Although few at the time might have perceived it, the retaking of Kharkov was one of the final major German victories on the Eastern Front. From July 5 to August 23, the Wehrmacht fought the Red Army in the titanic struggle at Kursk. It was the largest clash of armor in history (and also a massive, often overlooked, infantry battle). For the Germans, the outcome of the battle was arguably a tactical defeat, but certainly a strategic one—all subsequent German offensives were essentially localized efforts to slow the gathering pace of final defeat.

Another Offensive

The Kursk battle changed the immediate future of Kharkov. The Soviets retained the Kursk salient, and now the German-held territory north and south of this salient became objectives for Soviet counteroffensives. Stalin was eager to wind up the offensive dynamo in these sectors, even as the final acts of Kursk were playing out. From July 12, the northern sector, centered on Orel, was assaulted by the massed armies of the Western Front and Bryansk Front. Orel would fall by beginning of August, by which time the Red Army unleashed another great offensive against the southern sector below Kursk. Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev is also known as the Belgorod–Kharkov Offensive, after its two key objectives. 

The forces surging toward Belgorod and Kharkov, and driving on to the Dnieper, were truly vast. The Voronezh, Steppe, and Southwest Fronts contained more than 1.2 million men and c. 3,000 tanks, an offensive thunderclap that broke unequally over German forces numbering about 200,000 men and several hundred armored vehicles. Manstein (leading 6th Army) and his subordinate commanders knew the Soviet offensive was coming, and had readied their defenses.

The three main defensive formations were Army Detachment Kempf on the northern and eastern approaches to Kharkov (with XI Corps in the city itself), three Waffen-SS divisions to the west and south of city, and the 4th Panzer Army to northwest. The arrival of additional tanks, assault guns, and 8.8cm flak guns just prior to the battle bolstered the German capabilities. But Kursk had taken its toll. Nearly all German units and formations were understrength, ammunition stocks were low, and logistics into Kharkov were precarious. Furthermore, the Germans were now fighting an enemy growing ever more confident and, crucially, more competent.

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This nightmare landscape littered with dead Soviet soldiers and destroyed vehicles (Kharkov–Izyum sector, May 1942) illustrates the hellish combat German and Soviet forces endured during the four battles of Kharkov, 1941–1943. (Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images)

The Belgorod–Kharkov Offensive, the fourth and final battle for Kharkov, roared into life on August 3, 1943. There were notable changes in the Soviet game-play, aside from the mass pressure applied by armor and infantry. Air power, for example, was used influentially by a resurgent Soviet Air Force. Constant aerial missions were flown deep behind the German lines to interdict road and rail supply to the frontlines; 2,300 ground-attack sorties were flown between August 6 and 17 alone. 

The rolling power of the offensive brought a quick result with the capture of Belgorod on August 5. Kharkov would be more obstinate. The Soviet ground attack swung wide to the west, evidently in the attempt to envelop Kharkov and cut off routes of retreat. The German forces were showing tenacity in defense, inflicting casualties many times greater than their own.

Yet Manstein, of course, saw the writing on the wall, and from August 12 began to formulate plans for a retreat with his senior commanders. With weary predictability, Hitler forbade any retreat, but the unsustainable pressure of the offensive meant that events would play out against Hitler’s self-deluded wishes. 

Colonel-General Erhard Raus, commander of XI Corps, formed a powerful defensive line of armor and antitank guns on high ground on the northern flank. Soviet tank and infantry formations were virtually massacred in their initial attempts to break this line, harried also by bombing and strafing runs from Ju 87 Stukas. In total, the Red Army would lose more than 1,800 tanks during the Belgorod–Kharkov Offensive.

But the German defensive line was more about keeping open a corridor of retreat than it was about defeating the enemy. German casualties grew ever greater, ammunition ran low or out, and logistics collapsed. The defense was simply unsustainable and pointless, and on August 21 Manstein gave the order to pull out of Kharkov. Two days later, Soviet forces entered the city permanently.

Years of Change

The four battles for Kharkov can be used as a benchmark for the fortunes of wider German and Soviet forces in 1942–43. These were years of change. In 1941, Germany was in the ascendant, and Kharkov was captured with ease. In 1942, Kharkov was the objective of a new-found Soviet offensive spirit, but the spirit wasn’t matched by command competence and by tactical or operational ability. In 1943 in the third battle of Kharkov, Manstein demonstrated that the Wehrmacht was still capable of reversing Soviet gains, but by the fourth battle its capacity to keep doing so had been fatally weakened by attrition and a succession of withering defeats.

But perhaps the most important evolution across the battles of Kharkov was within the Red Army, rather than within the German forces. Put simply, between 1941 and 1943 the Soviets learned how to take the theory of modern war and put it into practice, aided by the vast acceleration in the production of military materiel. (As an example of the latter, in 1942–43 Germany manufactured 18,243 tanks and self-propelled guns; the Soviets produced 48,535.)

Key improvements in Soviet warfighting by 1943 included: more coordinated armor/infantry operations; better use of ground-attack air power; more productive intelligence gathering; skill in deception operations; less political interference in command-and-control structures; more devastating use of artillery.

The dreadful losses the Soviets suffered at Kharkov, and indeed in all the battles up to the end of the war, still exposed the weakness of a mass, centralized army with low levels of education and often poor training, just as they did the tactical excellence of the German soldier.

But the Red Army, by the last battle of Kharkov, had become professional enough to drive through to its goals, even if part of the reason for success was the willingness to embrace persistent attrition on both sides. Thus the Soviets could lose numerous local battles, but win the war. Applied to the situation in the Ukraine today, that lesson is still worth our consideration.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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