Steel Fury: Kharkov 1942

Second Battle of Kharkov

The Second Battle of Kharkov, so named by Wilhelm Keitel was an Axis counteroffensive against the Red Army Izium bridgehead offensive conducted from May 12 to May 28, 1942, on the Eastern Front during World War II. Its objective was to eliminate the Izium bridgehead (Russian: Изюмский плацдарм) over Seversky Donets, or the "Barvenkovo bulge" (Russian: Барвенковский выступ) which was one of the Soviet offensive's staging areas. After a successful winter counteroffensive that had driven German troops away from Moscow, but also depleted the Red Army's reserves, the Kharkov offensive was a new Soviet attempt to expand upon their strategic initiative, although it failed to secure significant element of surprise.

On May 12, 1942, Soviet forces under the command of Marshal Semyon Timoshenko launched an offensive against the German 6th Army from a salient established during the Winter counteroffensive. After initial promising signs, the offensive was stopped by German counterattacks. Critical errors of several staff officers and of Stalin himself, who failed to accurately estimate the 6th Army's potential and overestimated their own newly-trained forces, led to a successful German pincer attack around advancing Soviet troops, cutting them off from the rest of the front.

General situation on the Eastern Front

By late February 1942, the Soviet winter counteroffensive, which had pushed the Germans from the gates of Moscow and recaptured Rostov in the south, had petered out, leaving both sides licking their wounds.

Stalin was convinced that the Germans were on their deathbed, and would collapse by the spring or summer 1942, as he said in his speech of November 7, 1941. So he decided to exploit this perceived weakness within the German military on the Eastern Front by launching a renewed offensive during the spring.

Stalin's decision faced heated resistance from his top advisors, including Chief of the Red Army General Staff, General Boris Shaposhnikov, General Aleksandr Vasilevsky and General Georgy Zhukov, all of whom argued for a more defensive posture. As Vasilevsky recalls, "Yes, we were hoping for [German reserves to run out], but the reality was more harsh than that". Although, according to Zhukov, Stalin did believe that the Germans were able to carry out operations simultaneously along two strategic axes, Stalin was sure that the opening of spring offensives along the entire front would destabilize the German Army before it had a chance to effectively initiate what could be a mortal offensive blow on Moscow. Despite the caution urged by his generals, Stalin finally decided to try to catch the Germans by surprise through "local offensives".

At the end of the spring of 1942, the Red Army was still inferior to the Wehrmacht both in numerical strength and equipment quality, despite heavy reinforcement by artillery, tanks and airplanes during the winter and spring of 1942. Overall, the Red Army deployed on the Eastern Front about 5,600,000 men, 3900 tanks, 44,900 guns and 2200 planes. By comparison, the Wehrmacht had 6,200,000 men, 3229 tanks, 57,000 guns and 3395 planes. Therefore, the Red Army's strength was still inferior in everything except tanks, though their quality was inferior to those manufactured by German industries.

Choosing the strategy

After the conclusion of the winter offensive, both Stalin and the Stavka (the Soviet Armed Forces General Staff) believed that the eventual German offensives would aim for Moscow, with a major offensive to the south as well, mirroring the previous year's Operation Barbarossa and Operation Typhoon. Although the Soviet high command had argued that the Germans had been defeated at Moscow, the seventy divisions which faced Moscow remained a threat. Furthermore, Stalin and most subordinate generals and front commanders genuinely believed that the principal effort would be a German offensive toward Moscow. However, emboldened by the winter success, Stalin was convinced that local offensives in the area would only work to wear down German forces, consequently weakening German efforts to successfully mount another operation to take Moscow. Although at first he had agreed to prepare the Red Army for an "active strategic defence", he later gave orders for the planning of seven local offensives, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. One area was Kharkov, where action was originally ordered for March.

Early that month, the Soviet high command issued orders to Southwestern Strategic Direction headquarters for an offensive in the region, after the victories following the Rostov Strategic Offensive Operation and the Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive Operation in the Donbas Region. Fighting erupted that month, as Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and General Lieutenant Kirill Moskalenko penetrated German positions along the northern Donets River, east of Kharkov. Heavy fighting continued into April, with Moskalenko successfully crossing the river and establishing a tenuous Izium bridgehead, while in the south, the Soviet 6th Army had limited success defending against German forces, which managed to keep a bridgehead of their own on the east bank of the river. Catching the attention of Stalin, it would set the pace for the prelude to the eventual offensive intended to reach Pavlograd and Sinelnikovo, and eventually Kharkov and Poltava.

By March 15, Soviet commanders introduced preliminary plans for an offensive towards Kharkov, envisioning a heavy buildup of reserves. On March 20, Timoshenko held a conference in Kupiansk to discuss the upcoming offensive. A subsequent report to Moscow, prepared by Timoshenko's chief of staff General Lieutenant Hovhannes (Ivan) Baghramian, summed up the conference, although arguably leaving several key intelligence features out. The buildup of Soviet forces in the region of Barvenkovo and Volchansk continued well into the beginning of May. Final details were settled following discussions between Stalin, the General Staff and the leadership of the Southwestern Strategic Direction led by Timoshenko throughout March and April, with one of the final Stavka directives issued on April 17.

Preparing the offensive

Soviet order of battle

By May 11, 1942, the Red Army was able to allocate six armies under two fronts, amongst other units. Under the command of the Soviet Southwestern Front fought the 21st Army, the 28th Army, the 38th Army, and the 6th Army. By May 11 the 21st Tank Corps had been successfully moved into the region along with the 23rd Tank Corps, providing 269 additional tanks. There were also three independent rifle divisions and a single rifle regiment, from the 270th Rifle Division, concentrated in the area and supported by the 2nd Cavalry Corps in Bogdanovka. The Soviet Southern Front boasted the 57th Army and the 9th Army, along with 30 rifle divisions, a single rifle brigade, and the substantial reinforcements of the 24th Tank Corps, the 5th Cavalry Corps and three Guards Rifle Divisions. At its height, the Southern Front could operate eleven guns or mortars per kilometer of front.

The regrouping of forces in the sector ran into the rasputitsa, which turned much of the soil into mud and postponed several developments and made reinforcing the Southern and Southwestern Front take longer than expected. There was also severe criticism from senior Soviet representatives who blamed front commanders for poor management of forces, their inability to stage offensives and for their armchair generalship, as Vasilevsky points out in his memoirs. Because the regrouping was done so haphazardly, the Germans received limited warning of Soviet movements to their direct forefront. Moskalenko, commander of the 38th Army, places the blame on the fact that the fronts did not forge a plan previous to the decision to regroup, and thus demonstrated what would be a poor display of front management. He commented afterwards that it was no surprise that the "German-Fascist command divined our plans".

Soviet leadership and manpower

The primary Soviet leader was Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, a veteran of World War I and the Russian Civil War. Although Timoshenko had achieved limited success at Smolensk a year earlier, his attempts would ultimately lead to defeat there. He was later able to orchestrate the victory at Rostov during the winter counterattacks, and enjoyed limited success during the spring offensive at Kharkov, previous to the actual battle. Overseeing the actions of the army was Military Commissar Nikita Khrushchev.

However, the standard Soviet soldier suffered from being rather green. With the Soviet debacle of the previous year ameliorated only by the barest victory at Moscow, most of the original manpower of the Red Army had been killed, wounded or imprisoned by the Germans, with casualties of almost 1,000,000 just from the Battle of Moscow. Therefore, the average soldier in the Red Army at that time was only recently conscripted and had little to no combat experience. Coupled with the lack of trained soldiers, the Red Army also began to suffer from poor logistics and a lack of supplies, as major portions of the former Soviet industrial areas were now under German control. Therefore, the doctrine favored at that time was "temporary strategic defense".

The General Chief of Staff, Marshal Vasilevsky, recognized that the Soviet Army of 1942 was not prepared to conduct major offensive operations against the well-trained German Army, simply because the Red Army at that time failed to have the necessary quantitative and qualitative advantage over the Wehrmacht, and because leadership, both in command and junior officer level, was still being rebuilt after the stinging defeats in 1941. The notion, however, is largely retrospective and is an analysis on Soviet conduct during their strategic offensives in 1942, and even beyond, such as Operation Mars in October 1942, and Târgul Frumos in May 1944.

German preparations

Unbeknownst to the Soviets, however, the German 6th Army, under the newly-appointed General Paulus, had been issued orders for Operation Friderikus, on April 30, 1942. This operation called for a concerted effort to crush the Soviet armies within the Izium Salient, created south of Kharkov during the Soviet early spring offensives in March and April. This task was given to the German 6th Army, and the final directive issued on April 30 declared a "probable start" on May 18.

The Germans had also undergone a massive effort to reinforce Army Group South, transferred to the control of Field Marshall Fedor von Bock, former commander of Army Group Center during Operation Barbarossa and Operation Typhoon. On April 5, 1942, Hitler issued Directive Number 41, which pinpointed the south as the major area of operations for the German strategic summer campaign of the year, and at the expense of the other fronts, the divisions of Army Group South were brought up to full strength by late April and early May. The strategic objective was illustrated after the victories of Erich von Manstein and his 11th Army in the Crimea. The centerpiece objective remained the Caucasus and its oil fields, and as a secondary objective, the city of Stalingrad.

The scheduling of Operation Friderikus in April provided the further incentive to bolster total forces in the area of the German 6th Army. Therefore, unknown to the Soviets, the German Army was also undergoing a major regrouping effort in the center of operations for the upcoming offensive around Kharkov. It was on May 10 when Paulus submitted his final draft plans for Operation Friderikus, that Paulus feared a Russian attack. By then, the German army directly opposite Timoshenko was fully prepared for combat in their eventual operation towards the Caucasus.

The offensive

Initial phase

The Red Army offensive began at 6:30 in the morning of May 12, 1942, led by a concentrated one hour artillery strike, and a final twenty minute air attack upon German positions. The ground offensive began with a dual pincer movement from the Volchansk and Barvenkovo salients, beginning at 7:30. The Soviet forces faced massive resistance from the German defenses, which were slowly knocked out by concentrated air raids and artillery strikes, along with coordinated ground assaults against fortified positions. The fighting was so fierce that the Soviets inched forward their second echelon formations, preparing to throw them into combat as well. Fighting was particularly ferocious near the Soviet village of Nepokrytaia, where the Germans launched three local counterattacks. By day's end, the greatest penetration by Soviet forces was ten kilometers. Soviet command of the field, documented by General Moskalenko, caught the movement of several German reserve units and finally caught on that his forces were up against two German divisions, not the expected single one, indicating that the Red Army had conducted poor reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering prior to the start of the battle. In fact, a captured diary of a dead German general alluded to the fact that the Germans had very possibly known in advance about the pending Soviet operations in the region. The day also saw, after much persuasion on Paulus' part, the release of three German infantry divisions and a single panzer division for the defense of Kharkov. For the most part, the Soviet advance was poor, achieving notable success only on the left flank, with the other advances continuing rather slowly and suffering minor setbacks. Bock had warned Paulus not to counterattack immediately without air support, although this was later reconsidered when several Soviet tank brigades broke through General Walther Heitz's VIII Corps in the Volchansk sector, which was only 12 miles away from Kharkov, constituting a grave threat to the Germans.

Initial success

The first 72 hours saw a battering of the German Sixth Army, with 16 battalions destroyed, fighting in the heavy rain and mud. Paulus called for a series of holding actions, although the Germans still made local counterattacks. Although by May 14 the Red Army had made impressive gains, German actions in certain areas had taken their toll, and several shaken Soviet divisions were forced to withdraw from their attacks. Only Soviet tanks, held in reserve, were able to put a stop to the German counterattacks. Much to the chagrin of Timoshenko, German losses were only estimated to be minimal; for example, only 35-70 tanks were estimated to have been knocked out in the 3rd and 23rd Panzer Divisions. German close air support also began to take its toll, forcing units such as the Soviet 38th Army onto the defensive. On 14 May, the Germans continued to pound Soviet positions in the north in localized offensives and by then, the Luftwaffe had gained air superiority over the Kharkov sector, forcing Timoshenko to move his own air assets forward in order to effectively counter the bolstered German Fourth Air Fleet. Nonetheless, the Soviets pushed on, disengaging from several minor battles and changing the direction of their thrusts. However, in the face of continued German resistance and local German counterattacks, the Soviet attack ebbed, especially when combined with the invariably heavy air raids. By the end of the day, the 28th Army could no longer operate in an offensive manner against German positions.

Ironically, the Soviet southern pincer had not suffered as terribly as had the shock groups in the north. In fact, they achieved spectacular success the first three days of combat, with a deep penetration of German positions. Although intensive fighting also marked the battles in the south, the Soviets routed several key German battalions, including many made up of personnel of foreign descent, including some Hungarian units. The success of the Southern Shock group, however, has been attributed to the fact that the early penetrations in the north had directed German reserves there, thus limiting the amount of troops thrown into defensive positions in the south. But, by 14 May, Hitler had briefed General Ewald von Kleist and ordered his 1st Panzer Army to grab the initiative in a bold counteroffensive, setting the pace for the final launching of Operation Friderikus.

Second phase of the offensive

May 15 and May 16 saw another attempted Soviet offensive in the north, meeting the same resistance they had met the three first days of the battle. German bastions continued to hold out against Soviet assaults. The major contribution to Soviet frustration in the battle was the lack of heavy guns, which ultimately would not allow the attacking Red Army units to effectively wipe out resistance in heavily defended positions. One of the best examples of this was the defense of Ternovaia, where defending German units absolutely refused to surrender. The fighting was so harsh that after advancing an average of five kilometers, the offensive stopped for the day in the north. The next day saw a renewal of the Soviet attack which was largely blocked by counterattacks by German tanks, and the tired Soviet divisions could simply not hold their own against the concerted attacks from the opposition. The south, however, achieved success, much like the earlier days of the battle, although Soviet forces began to face heavier air strikes from German aircraft. The Germans, on the other hand, had spent the day fighting holding actions in both sectors, launching small counterattacks to whittle away at Soviet offensive potential, while continuously moving up reinforcements arriving from the south, including several aircraft squadrons transferred from the Crimea. Poor decisions by the 150th Rifle Division, which had successfully crossed the Barvenkovo River, played a major part in the poor exploitation of the tactical successes of the southern shock group.

1st Panzer Army counterattacks

On May 17, the initiative of the offensive was successfully captured by the Germans as Kleist's IIIrd Panzer Corps and XXXXIVth Army Corps began a counterattack on the Barvenkovo bridgehead from the area of Aleksandrovka in the south. Aided greatly by air support, Kleist was able to crush Soviet positions and advanced up to ten kilometres in the first day of the attack. Many of the Soviet units were sent to the rear that night to be refitted, while others were moved forward to reinforce tenuous positions across the front. That same day, Timoshenko reported the move to Moscow and asked for reinforcements and described the day's failures. Vasilevsky's attempts to gain approval for a general withdrawal were rejected by Stalin.

On May 18, the situation worsened and the STAVKA suggested once more stopping the offensive and ordering the Ninth Army to break out of the salient. Timoshenko and Khrutchev claimed that the danger coming from Wehrmacht's Kramatorsk group was exaggerated, and Stalin refused the withdrawal again.

On May 19, Paulus, on orders from Bock, had already begun a general offensive from the area of Merefa in the north of the bulge in an attempt to encircle the remaining Soviet forces in the Izium salient. Only then did Stalin authorize Zhukov to stop the offensive and fend off German flanking forces. However, it was already too late. Quickly, the Germans achieved considerable success against Soviet defensive positions. The day of May 20 saw more of the same, with the German forces closing in from the rear. More German divisions were put into the battle that day, shattering several Soviet counterparts, allowing the Germans to press forward. Although Timoshenko's forces successfully regrouped on May 21, he ordered a withdrawal of Army Group Kotenko by the end of May 22, while he prepared an attack for May 23, to be orchestrated by the Ninth and 57th Armies. Although the Soviets desperately attempted to fend off advancing German troops and launched local counterattacks to relieve several surrounded units, they generally failed. By the end of May 24, Soviet forces opposite Kharkov had been surrounded by German formations, which had been able to transfer several more divisions to the front, increasing the pressure on the Soviet flanks and finally forcing them to collapse.

Soviet encirclement

May 25 saw the first major Soviet attempt to break the encirclement, and German Major General Lanz describes the gruesome attacks, made en masse. By May 26, the surviving Red Army soldiers were forced into crowded positions in an area roughly fifteen square kilometers in size. Soviet attempts to break into the German encirclement from the east were continuously blocked using tenacious defensive maneuvers and German air power. In the face of determined German operations, Timoshenko ordered the official halt of all Soviet offensive maneuvers on May 28, while attacks to break out of the encirclement continued until May 30. Nonetheless, less than one man in ten managed to break out of the "Barvenkovo mousetrap". Beevor puts Soviet losses in terms of prisoners as 240,000 (with the bulk of their armor), while Glantz states a total of around 207,000 (both killed and captured). Both tend to agree on a low German casualty count, with the most formative rounding being at 20,000 German dead, wounded and missing. Regardless of the casualties, Kharkov was a major Soviet setback and it would put an end to the astonishing successes of the Red Army during the Winter Counteroffensive, and the smaller offensives of the spring.

Analysis and conclusions

Many authors have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the debacle of the Second Battle of Kharkov. Several Soviet generals have placed the blame on the inability of STAVKA and Stalin to appreciate the Wehrmacht's military power on the Eastern Front after their defeats in the winter of 1941-1942 and in the spring of 1942. On the subject, Zhukov sums up in his memoirs that the failure of this operation was quite predictable, since the offensive was organized very ineptly, the risk of exposing the left flank of the Izium salient to German counterattacks being obvious on a map. Still according to Zhukov, the main reason for the stinging Soviet defeat lay in the mistakes made by Stalin, who underestimated the danger coming from German armies in the southwestern sector (as opposed to the Moscow sector) and failed to take steps to concentrate any substantial strategic reserves there to meet any potential German threat. Furthermore, Stalin ignored sensible advice provided by his own General Chief of Staff, who recommended organizing a strong defense in the southwestern sector in order to be able to repulse any Wehrmacht attack.

Additionally, the subordinate Soviet generals (especially South-Western Front generals) were just as willing to continue their own winter successes, and much like the German generals, under-appreciated the strength of their enemies, as pointed out a posteriori by the commander of the 38th Army, Kirill Moskalenko. The Soviet winter counteroffensive weakened the Wehrmacht, but did not destroy it. As Moskalenko recalls, quoting an anonymous soldier, "these fascists woke up after they hibernated".

Stalin's willingness to expend recently-conscripted armies, who were poorly-trained and poorly-supplied, illustrated a misconception of realities, both in the capabilities of the Red Army and the subordinate arms of the armed forces, and in the abilities of the Germans to defend themselves and successfully launch a counteroffensive. The latter would prove especially true in the subsequent Operation Blue, which would lead to the Battle of Stalingrad, though this would be the battle in which Paulus would face an entirely different fate.

Kharkov had shown the potential of the Soviet armies to successfully conduct an offensive. This battle can be seen as one of the first major cases in which the Soviets attempted to preempt a German summer offensive. This would later unfold and grow as STAVKA planned and conducted Operation Mars, Operation Uranus and Operation Saturn. Although only two of the three were true victories, it still offers concise and telling evidence of the ability of the Soviets to reverse the war in their favor. This would finalize itself after the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. The Second Battle of Kharkov also had a positive effect on Stalin, who started to trust his commanders and his Chief of Staff more (allowing the Chief of Staff to have the last word in naming front commanders for instance). After the great purge in 1937, failing to anticipate the war in 1941, and underestimating German military power in 1942, Stalin finally fully trusted his military. On the other hand, Hitler became increasing distrustful of his officers, and finally dismissed Franz Halder, his Chief of Staff, in September 1942.

Within the context of the battle itself, the failure of the Red Army to properly regroup during the prelude to the battle and the ability of the Germans to effectively collect intelligence on Soviet movements would play an important role in the battle. Poor Soviet performance in the north and equally poor intelligence-gathering at the hands of STAVKA and front headquarters, would also eventually spell doom for the offensive. Nonetheless, despite this poor performance, it underscored a dedicated evolution of tactics within the Red Army, which although not perfect, would win them the war.


  1. Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege. Viking; New York City: 1998.
  2. Glantz, David M. Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a Military Disaster. Sarpedon; New York City: 1998.
  3. Hayward, Joel S. A. Stopped At Stalingrad. Univ. of Kansas; Lawrence: 1998.
  4. John Erickson, Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies, Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1998
  5. Marshal A.M. Vasilevsky, The matter of my whole life, Moscow, Politizdat, 1978
  6. Marshal G.K. Zhukov, Memoirs, Moscow, Olma-Press, 2002
  7. Marshal K.S. Moskalenko (Commander of the 38th Army), On South-Western direction, Moscow, Science, 1969
  8. On German casualties.