Kharkov Operation of 1942
Kharkov Operation of 1942
combat actions of the Southwestern Front under Marshal of the Soviet Union S. K. Timoshenko and the Southern Front under Lieutenant General R. Ia. Malinovskii from May 12 to 29 during the Great Patriotic War.
The offensive operation of the Southwestern Front was aimed at routing the enemy’s Kharkov grouping and paving the way for an offensive along the Dnepropetrovsk axis. The plan was for the troops of the Southwestern Front to deliver strikes from the Volchansk region and the Barvenkovo salient along converging axes toward Kharkov. The Sixth Army under Lieutenant General A. M. Gorodnianskii and the task group under Major General L. V. Bobkin (ten rifle and three cavalry divisions, 11 tank and two motorized rifle brigades) were to deliver the main strike from the Barvenkovo salient toward Kharkov from the south. The auxiliary strike from the Volchansk region, encircling Kharkov from the north and northwest, was to be delivered by the Twenty-eighth Army under Lieutenant General D. I. Riabyshev and attached units of the Twenty-first Army under Major General V. N. Gordov and the Thirty-eighth Army under Major General K. S. Moskalenko (in all, 18 rifle and three cavalry divisions, seven tank and two motorized rifle brigades). The front commander had in reserve two rifle divisions and a cavalry corps. Support for the offensive of the Southwestern Front was to come from the Southern Front’s Fifty-seventh Army under Lieutenant General K. P. Podlas and its Ninth Army under Major General F. M. Kharitonov, both positioned on the southern face of the Barvenkovo salient.
Meanwhile, the command of the fascist German Army Group South under Field Marshal F. von Bock was preparing the Fredericus I Offensive Operation with the Sixth Army under Colonel General F. Paulus and an army group under Colonel General E. von Kleist (the First Panzer and Seventeenth armies). The goal of the operation was to eliminate the Barvenkovo salient by striking from the north and south (from the Balakleia and Slaviansk regions) toward Izium. Arrayed against the Soviet Southwestern Front and the right wing of the Southern Front were up to 30 enemy divisions, with the balance of forces in the enemy’s favor. Although the forces of the Southwestern Front were superior to the enemy in manpower and tanks, mostly light tanks (by a factor of 1.5 and 2, respectively), and had an artillery and air force equal to the enemy’s, the forces of the Southern Front were outnumbered in manpower (factor of 1.3), tanks (4.4), and artillery (1.7).
On May 12 the forces of the Southwestern Front went on the offensive, broke through the enemy’s defenses, and in three days had moved 25–50 km along the axis of the main strike and 18–25 km along the axis of the auxiliary strike. However, the command of the front did not bring up the second echelons of the armies (including the tank corps) until May 17, which allowed the enemy to rush significant reinforcements into the breach and organize a strong defense. At the same time, on May 17, the enemy launched its offensive, sending 11 divisions of Kleist’s group from the Kramatorsk-Slaviansk region against the Soviet Ninth and Fifty-seventh armies and simultaneously ordering the Sixth Army to advance from the area south of Belgorod and northeast of Kharkov against the Soviet Twenty-eighth Army. The Ninth Army, greatly outnumbered, was forced to retreat beyond the Severskii Donets River, as a result of which the main attack force of the Southwestern Front was threatened with encirclement.
Although under such conditions it was essential to halt the offensive and to take measures to close the breach, the front command continued the offensive until the afternoon of May 19, by which time the enemy had already gained the rear areas of the Barvenkovo grouping. The order to go over to the defense came too late. On May 23, Kleist’s group joined up with units of the German Sixth Army south of Balakleia, thereby cutting off the retreat of the Soviet forces west of the Severskii Donets River. Simultaneously, the enemy managed to surround another strike force of the Southwestern Front on the Volchansk axis. The surrounded Soviet troops, including units of the Sixth and Fifty-seventh armies under the command of Lieutenant General F. Ia. Kostenko, fought hard in the face of the enemy’s air supremacy and broke out of the encirclement in small groups. The command of the Southwestern Axis (Marshal S. K. Timoshenko) took measures to break through the encirclement from without, enabling about 22,000 soldiers and commanders to escape. Nothing more could be done.
Having begun successfully, the Kharkov Operation turned into a major failure, and the troops of both fronts suffered heavy losses. There were several reasons for the failure: insufficient skill in waging an offensive with large forces, mistakes made by the command of the Southwestern Axis and the Southwestern Front, inadequate cohesion among the larger units, and a shortage of combat matériel and ammunition. The failure greatly worsened the situation on the southern wing of the Soviet-German front.
A. G. KHOR’KOV