Today is the 70th anniversary of the accomplishment of one of the most impressive feats of arms in the history of warfare. On the heels of a disastrous defeat in the Ukraine, German General Erich Manstein’s counterstroke against the Red Army regained the tactical initiative just two weeks after the situation, and perhaps the war itself, seemed irretrievably lost. On 14 March 1943, I SS Panzerkorps recaptured Kharkov after a savage fight. For those who had endured the loss of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, it seemed a miracle.
Historical examination of the Eastern Front tends to identify the catastrophe at Stalingrad as the beginning of the end of the Wehrmacht in the East. Certainly, with the loss of more than 300,000 men, including 92,000 prisoners, and the virtual annihilation of the Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian forces north and south of Stalingrad on the Volga, Stalingrad was an unmitigated disaster. And worse looked likely, as the forces of Vatutin’s (Southwest) and Golikov’s (Voronesh) Fronts pushed south down the Don River basin aimed at Rostov. The loss of Rostov would effectively pin the remaining German forces (Army Group A and the remnants of Army Group B) against the Sea of Azov and the Dniepr bend, almost guaranteeing their destruction.
But in their efforts to destroy the German forces deep inside Soviet territory, Vatutin’s Sixth Army and First Guards’ Army (along with Mobile Group Popov), and Golikov’s Sixty-Ninth and Third Tank Armies became badly overextended. In addition, Soviet intelligence on German force disposition was almost non-existent. When most of the Wehrmacht forces slipped out of the bottleneck through Rostov, and Hausser’s I SS Panzerkorps abandoned Kharkov (counter to orders, on 15 February 1943), what seemed like another major Soviet victory was actually a precursor to near-disaster.
On 18 February 1943, Manstein’s reconstituted Army Group South received permission for a counterstroke. Led by 4th Panzerarmee (XLVIII Panzerkorps and I SS Panzerkorps), Army Group South struck on 19 February, and the poorly-disposed Soviet forces were thrown into panic. When on 20 February 1st Panzerarmee and XL Panzerkorps began the destruction of Mobile Group Popov, a full-fledge disaster was in the making for the Soviets.
The counterstroke was a microcosm of the entire war in the East. In open country, the German Army proved still infinitely superior to its Soviet opponent, even when significantly outnumbered. (Indeed, Manstein’s Army Group South was on the small end of a 1:1.2 force ratio when he launched his counterstroke.) But in the defense, particularly within the built-up city of Kharkov, the Russian soldier’s toughness and determination made the fighting there a bloody affair. Of 30,000 German casualties in this counterstroke, almost 12,000 were in the fight for Kharkov.
Nevertheless, Manstein accomplished a seemingly impossible victory, pushing the Red Army virtually back to their starting points before the attacks to encircle Army Group South. It was a pattern that the Soviet Stavka would become all too familiar with. The Wehrmacht retained until the last days of the war the capability to counterattack and retrieve what seemed to be hopelessly lost situations, while inflicting heavy losses. In the weeks between 19 February and 15 March, Soviet casualties were enormous, with the loss of more than 100,000 men (including about 40,000 prisoners), some 1,100 tanks, and 3,000 guns. Much of Vatutin’s and Gorlikov’s armies were shredded, and would not be combat effective again for several months.
To both the Germans and the Soviets, Manstein’s counteroffensive must have seemed like old times. But, of course, they weren’t. The Wehrmacht in the East, while still powerful and dangerous, was not the same as it had been in 1941 or even 1942. And neither was the Red Army.
The squandering of the last significant German armored reserves against the Soviet defenses in the Kursk Salient in July of 1943 was followed by a devastating counteroffensive from Red Army forces staged to strike once the German Ninth Army and 4th Panzer Army had run out of steam at Kursk. This counteroffensive was not the costly, awkward affair that had been evident in the wake of Stalingrad. This was to be the model of the Soviet way of war until Berlin fell in 1945, and indeed, was the blueprint for Warsaw Pact tactics until the 1990s. Massed artillery, attack aircraft, and highly mobile and powerful mechanized and tank formations would turn the Blitzkrieg tables on the inventors of the art. Kharkov fell to the Soviets for good in August of 1943, and Army Group South would never again have any except very local initiative as it was pushed back inexorably toward the borders of the Reich.
But all that was yet to come, for on this date in 1943, impossible as it seemed, the Wehrmacht had regained the initiative, and had stopped, then routed, a massive Soviet offensive just six weeks after the surrender at Stalingrad.