Monday, 18 June 2012

Krisis at Kharkov - part 6 - von Rapier's report

Crisis at Kharkov, 6th Armee Combat Report
The Soviet winter offensive had left a salient in the sector of III Armeekorps in front of Kharkov. Army Group South HQ had determined that this salient was to be eliminated, and 6th Armee was ordered to destroy it. As the weather improved, LI Panzerkorps was entrained and despatched to Kharkov. It soon became apparent that Soviet forces were also building up around the salient with offensive intentions of their own and it was feasible that their attack would pre-empt our own.

6th Armee (General Rapier)

III Armeekorps (Generalleutnant Thomas) comprising four Rumanian (1,18,19 and 2 Mtn) and two German (11,72) infantry divisions.

LI Panzerkorps (Generalleutnant Stellmacher) comprising two Panzer divisions (19,23) but was without its motorised infantry division.

44th Infantry Division in Army reserve

Our forces in the sector had around 300 tanks and 500 artillery pieces.

Situation analysis
The terrain was generally open and flat, but bisected by a significant N-S waterway. The road net was denser in the north than the south, but a useful spur protruded towards the southern sector yet did not extend to the Soviet position, severely limiting their offensive capability in this sector. Conventional doctrine is to attack from the sides of a salient to encircle the shoulder forces, and given the configuration of the road net, it was likely that the weight of the Soviet attack would be in the north. 

Rather than conduct a simple static defensive action, 6th Armee determined to conduct a battle of annihilation by allowing the Soviets to overextend themselves and then conduct a reversed front encirclement battle from a central position. This required a firm shoulder to cover the flank of the Panzerkorps, while the other flank was weakened to allow the enemy to advance to their destruction.

Operational deployment
III Armeekorps was deployed to hold the north weakly and the centre and south strongly. Two Rumanian divisions (2 Mtn, 18) in the northern sector, 19 Rum holding the tip of the salient, reinforced with a German regimental kampfgruppe, and 11th (German) and 1st Rumanian holding the southern sector. 72nd ID was held in Korps reserve. The bulk of the real minefields were allocated to the central and southern fronts.

LI Panzerkorps was to detrain and assemble in the vicinity of Kharkov, then punch through the extended Soviet centre, swing left and encircle and destroy the soviet north wing.

One operational factor which was not apprarent at this stage was the poor going cross country due to the spring mud.

 D Day
The day opened with a not unexpected mass Soviet attack. In a typically wasteful Soviet style they attacked along the entire front so maximising the effectiveness of our prepared defences, but their choice of  main attack axes was very conservative. Rather than attempting to encircle 1 and 2 Rum divisions, the Soviet schwerpunkte were concentrated against the shoulders of the salient rather than the sides. This was more akin to a 1917 style ‘line straightening’ operation and our forces were able to fight to their front with little fear of encirclement.

The main enemy attacks were extremely heavy, supported by masses of artillery and tanks (at least 200 on each flank) and 1 and 2 Rum divisions suffered very heavy casualties. The other attacks were only supported by their divisional artillery and made little impression on our field defences. Enemy forces appeared to be 5-6 Rifle Corps supported by several hundred guns and approximately 400 tanks.

By the afternoon 18 and 19 Rumanian and 11 German were holding out easily but 2 Rumanian division had been largely destroyed and 1 Rumanian was falling back. Russian forces began pouring through the gap in the north. Their aggressive use of a mobile forward detachment made up of tanks, motorised engineers and artillery was most impressive and 18 Rum was forced to fall back as Soviet troops marched around their flank. In the south 11 ID conformed to the withdrawal of 1 Rum, while in the centre 19 Rum held back everything thrown at it.

By nightfall the leading elements of the Soviet northern force had reached the river line to find the bridge blown. Meanwhile the German centre and south were holding firm and LI Panzerkorps was fully assembled despite Soviet bombing attacks. The trap was set.

Overnight 18 Rum was pulled back to cover the river line north of Kharkov. The battered 1 Rum was pulled back to cover the river line and vital road spur to the south while 72 ID was committed to maintain the firm southern shoulder along with Corps AT and artillery assets to form a pakfront against the masses of tanks in that sector. 19 Rum maintained its place of honour in the centre. The Russians moved engineers and bridging equipment up to the river in the north. In preparation for the knockout blow, LI Panzerkorps moved its lead kampfruppen east across the river in front of Kharkov.

As the new day dawned, the soviets resumed their attacks in the south but made little impression against the two dug in German infantry divisions. In the north the Rumanians observed the Soviets as engineers prepared boats, masses of artillery was moved into position and even some mechanised bridging equipment all under constant air attack from the Rumanian airforce. Behind them long columns of tanks, motorised infantry and cavalry moved west along the road towards the crossing site. The Soviets had committed a ‘Tank Army’ in the north with another 400+ tanks supported by a full corps of cavalry.

In the centre however, the hammer blow struck. Passing though 19 Rum, 19 and 23 Panzer Divisions tore into the Soviet infantry formations and within a few hours had achieved a clean breakthrough.

It was already apparent that the mud was causing mobility problems however, and LI Panzerkorps HQ suffered a communications breakdown and the panzer divisions began to operate on divergent axes, so when they swung north 23 PD was unsupported by its neighbour. The bulk of 23 PD fell on the flank of enemy column, one mass of enemy tanks moved to intercept but in a mighty clash of armour our panzers supported closely by the Luftwaffe were rapidly victorious and 200 blazing enemy wrecks were scattered across the battlefield in a few hours of fighting.

Unsupported by 19 PD, 23 PD was forced to detach a regiment for flank support and this was overwhelmed by masses of enemy cavalry. Generalleutnant Stellmacher pulled 23 PD back to link up with 19 PD, but was then recalled to Berlin. General von Stahl (19PD) was hastily appointed LI Panzerkorps commander and by nightfall the Corps was fully concentrated to push north across the enemy LOC.
In the south 11 and 72 ID continued to hold back the Soviet hordes, but in the north the Russians managed to force a bridgehead across the river despite the fierce resistance of 18 Rum supported by German engineers.

Overnight the remains of 18 Rum formed a screen around the soviet bridgehead to lure the Soviets further forward, and 6th Armee committed 44 ID to form a blocking position at Kharkov. LI Panzerkorps formed up for its drive north and west, its rear covered by 19 Rum while 11 and 72 ID continued to hold in the south.

As the new day dawned, Soviet forces broke out of their northern bridgehead, brushing aside the Rumanians and their motorised exploitation group headed off down the road towards Kharkov. 44 ID dug around the city, supported by the massed Flak batteries defending the railhead.

In the south fighting resumed in a desultory manner as the Soviets kept up their pressure but the front was immovable.

In the centre LI Panzerkorps rolled forward, however it soon discovered that the loss of their Tank Corps had seriously frightened the enemy. The enemy cavalry simply withdrew, making use of their better mobility over the poor going to evade the pursuing tanks. Isolated groups of infantry were overrun and the main enemy supply route cut, but the remaining enemy Tank Corps made for the river crossings in the centre. At this point the lack of LI Corps motorised infantry division was felt, 19 Rum was not strong enough to hold back the enemy tanks or prevent pockets of enemy troops   infiltrating back across LI Corps supply lines. 19 Rum was eventually forced to retire across the river where it repulsed an enemy crossing attempt, however this left a gap behind LI Panzerkorps. In retrospect it would have been wiser to support LI Panzerkorps with 44ID and assign Kharkov to 19 Rumanian Div.

This dangerous situation was eventually retrieved as 19 PD overran all the Soviet airfields, brushing off the cavalry swarming around it, and capturing masses of fuel and supplies to supplement the divisional logistics columns. 23 PD completed the reverse encirclement manoeuvre, engaging and destroying a Soviet armoured train in the process, and the remaining Soviet Tank Corps turned to face it and do battle in the morning, facing complete destruction with the river at is back and 23PD in front. 11 ID meanwhile despatched a kampfgruppe to open up the southern side of the corridor.

In the north the leading Soviet elements overran the Rumanian airfield, but made no further progress towards Kharkov and faced an uncertain future with an entire Panzerkorps parked across their LOC and 44 ID dug in to their front.

In the south the Soviet attacks finally collapsed as their leading infantry regiments disintegrated, leaving their artillery with no option but to withdraw.

Final outcome
Approximately 5 Soviet Rifle Corps and one Tank Corps destroyed, one Rifle and one Tank Corps encircled and ripe for destruction. One Soviet Army completely destroyed and two Armies crippled.  700 enemy tanks and 500 guns captured or destroyed, enemy personnel losses were around 50,000 with a further 50,000 encircled. Own losses, two Rumanian infantry divisions, one German motorised regiment. 50 guns and 40 tanks written off and approximately 15,000 casualties. The original salient contains no enemy forces and will be recaptured.

The scale of their defeat should not mask the serious threat the Soviet attack posed. If they had adopted a bold encirclement strategy in their initial attack, 80% of our infantry would have been encircled or destroyed, rendering the execution of our 'backhand blow' very difficult. Combat lessons learned and recommendations for our forthcoming summer offensive are listed below.

Combat lessons
1. The Soviets have demonstrated a considerable improvement in operational capability since 1941. Of particular note are their use of massed artillery, the use of formation mobile groups and their attempt to organise Tank Armies along the lines of our Panzerkorps. Many of the mistakes of 1941 were repeated again however, particularly the unimaginative choice of axes of advance and the foolish repetition of failed attacks on the same ground.

2. Soviet tactical capability remains poor, German units are still at least 200% or 300% more combat effective on a regimental level comparison. This impedes their ability to implement operational manoeuvre and leads to disproportionate loss ratios. The Soviets compensate for this with massed artillery and tank support in the critical sectors, and to a lesser extent, airpower, however cooperation between these arms remains poor in mobile operations.

3. The Soviets still have much to learn in the handling of large mobile formations. Despite fielding a Tank Army, its individual Tank Corps fought as separate formations, were defeated in detail and failed to take advantage of the isolation of 23PD. The cavalry corps failed to support the armoured formations and protect their LOC, despite the combat capability demonstrated against the isolated Schutzen regiment.

4. A source of concern is the enormous amount of materiel available to the enemy, despite their defeats last year. Coupled with utter disregard for the lives of their men, this proved sufficient to bludgeon their way forward. This material superiority was only offset by the greater co-operation and tactical ability of our units and command flexibility. Should our tactical and command superiority be eroded, the enemy has the potential to become very dangerous indeed.

5. Soviet engineering and obstacle crossing ability has improved markedly. River lines can no longer be considered obstacles in their own right.

6. Despite our tactical superiority, commanders at all levels must remain aware of the necessity for concentration of effort and maintenance of the aim. Dispersion of effort and distraction from the mission objectives leads to excessive losses and the potential for defeat in detail.

7. In panzer breakthrough operations, it is vital that infantry are available in depth to follow up behind the panzers. These infantry formations should be mobile and have good offensive combat capability. Rumanian units are insufficient for this task.

8. In deep panzer operations, supporting leg infantry are rapidly outpaced and it might be necessary to organise ad-hoc mobile groups from panzerjaeger, engineer and reconnaissance units. It is the responsibility of the infantry commanders to relieve the panzers and mop up pockets of enemy troops.

1. The operational effectiveness of our panzers is impeded by poor going. It is recommended that major offensive operations are only undertaken once the ground has hardened to enable our formations to take advantage if their superior operational mobility. Case Blau should be postponed until July when we are sure of good going.

2. Cavalry formations have some utility as substitute motorised infantry in the poor going which characterises much of this theatre. It is recommended that cavalry formations are raised for use on the eastern front.

3. Rumanian formations in favourable circumstances have proved capable of repelling even strong Soviet attacks. They are unable to stop tank attacks in open country outside of fixed defences. It is recommended that in future operations Rumanian formations are used to defend natural obstacles and free up German formations for offensive action. This may be of particular value in our planned offensive into the Caucasus given the extended frontages involved.

M Rapier
GOC 6th Armee


Paul said...

Comprehensive report on a great series of posts.

Well done to all those involved!

Tim Gow said...

and more photos still to come!

Stephen Beat said...

This is reading like a historical account. Very entertaining, thanks.

Tim Gow said...

Stephen Beat
Fake history - it's like the real thing but with more photos of toys!

Stephen Beat said...

...And less casualties. I prefer this sort of history! ;)

Chris Kemp said...

Ah, so that's what happened! Do we have a Soviet view of the battle, before events are concluded?

Excellent battle report, Martin.

Kind regards, Chris.

Tim Gow said...

Chris Kemp
No overall Soviet view as such, although Gen. Bassetov's views were in the previous post. Plenty more photos still to come.

Martin Rapier said...

"Do we have a Soviet view of the battle, before events are concluded?"

Do we need a Soviet account? We all know the only ones people read are the German ones:)

I deliberately wrote it in a mashup of Raus/Manstein style, even used the same phrases in places.

I wrote most of it before I saw the Soviet OB, interesting that they only actually had four Rifle Corps. It really did feel like 5-6!

Tim Gow said...

Martin Rapier
The Sovs did have 5 Rifle Corps - 38th Army was allocated the Guards Airborne Rifle Corps but this formation was never committed to the battle. It's almost as if Gen. Wallmanski forgot about it....