As Adolf Hitler’s vaunted Sixth Army lay in its death throes in the ruins of Stalingrad, German forces to the west of the city faced their own kind of hell. The inner ring of the Russians’ iron grip at Stalingrad was tasked with the total destruction of German and other Axis troops within the city, but Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted more. In conjunction with the Soviet High Command (STAVKA), Stalin set forth an ambitious plan designed to liberate the Don Basin from Kursk in the north to the Sea of Azov in the south, bringing the vital agricultural and mineral-rich area once more under Russian control.
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Operation Gallop: Striking the Southern Flank
Germany’s allied armies were a shambles. The Hungarian Second Army and the Italian Eighth Army, positioned along the upper Don River, were shattered by General Filipp Ivanovich Golikov’s Voronezh Front, causing a yawning gap south of the German Second Army, which was assigned to defend the Voronezh area.
Farther south, General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin’s South West Front, despite heavy opposition, moved toward Voroshilovgrad and Starobelsk. In the Caucasus and along the Donets River, the German troops of Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A) were in a race to the death to escape being trapped by advancing armies of the Trans-Caucasus and the Stalingrad Fronts.
In mid-January, Stalin and STAVKA saw a very distinct possibility of forcing the entire southern flank of the German Army in the east to collapse. With a victory at Stalingrad all but assured, Soviet military planners developed operations aimed at pushing the Germans back to the Dniepr River. The more optimistic planners, including Stalin, hoped for an even bigger push.
A two-pronged attack was finally approved. Operation Skachok (Gallop) would use Vatutin’s South West Front to clear the southern Don Basin of the enemy and push him back to the Dniepr. On Vatutin’s right flank, Golikov’s Voronezh Front was ordered to take Kharkov and then follow the retreating Germans as far west as possible in an operation called Zvezda (Star).
The German Army in Disarray
The German forces facing Vatutin had been ground down by weeks of fighting and retreat. Lt. Gen. Fedor Mikhailovich Kharitonov’s Sixth Army and Lt. Gen. Vasilii I. Kuznetsov’s First Guards Army were fast approaching the Aydar River in the Starobelsk area, while the Third Guards Army under Lt. Gen. Dmitri Danilovich Lelyushenko was threatening to cross the Donets River west of Voroshilovgrad. South of Lelyushenko, Lt. Gen. Ivan Timofeevich Schlemin’s Fifth Tank Army was also moving toward the eastern bank of the Donets.
Vatutin also had a combined arms group commanded by Lt. Gen. Markian Mikhailovich Popov, which contained nearly half of the South West Front’s armor. In total, Vatutin had more than 500 tanks and about 325,000 men to fulfill his mission.
Facing the South West Front was a hodgepodge of German units in the process of trying to regain some kind of defensive line and command control. About 160,000 men and 100 tanks from several decimated divisions struggled to pull themselves into some kind of cohesive force to meet the advancing Soviet forces.
The First Panzer Army, commanded by General Eberhard von Mackensen, was just arriving from a grueling retreat from the Caucasus. It had about 40 combat-ready tanks and an estimated 40,000 troops. Army Abteilung Hollidt was a conglomeration of infantry and panzer division remnants. Commanded by General Karl Hollidt, the unit had about 100,000 men and 60 tanks. Another 20,000 troops came from various support and garrison units.
General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin: A Gifted Strategist
Aware of the enemy disorganization facing him, Vatutin planned his actions accordingly. Born in 1901, Vatutin joined the Red Army in 1920. He saw service during the Russian Civil War and then attended the Frunze Academy, graduating in 1929. Furthering his career, Vatutin attended and graduated from the General Staff Academy and served on the General Staff from 1937-1940. During the Battle for Moscow, he distinguished himself as chief of staff of the Northwestern Front, and in 1942 he was named commander of the South West Front.
Vatutin was considered a gifted strategist, and his opinions were highly valued. He was enthusiastic about the possibility of liberating the Lower Don Basin and destroying the German units defending it, and STAVKA gave him great latitude in forming his plan of attack, which he worked out with his army commanders and staff.
The main blow was to come from the First Guards and Third Guards Armies, which would take Stalino and then Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. This action, supported by Group Popov and the Fifth Tank Army, would trap most of the German units on the Donets River Line south of Kharkov. Divisions of the Southern Front, on Vatutin’s left flank, would cooperate by advancing along the Sea of Azov to Rostov and beyond.
In theory, the plan was a good one. Intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were in a state of near panic. Other reports stated that enemy troops were hastily withdrawing from the entire area, which gave Vatutin the view that his operation was a means to crush a beaten and demoralized foe.
Strengthening Heeresgruppe Süd
The Soviet assessments were wrong to a large degree. Although the Germans were disorganized, commanders were working together to retain a viable fighting force. German supply lines were much closer since the retreat from the Stalingrad sector, and the ability to form ad hoc units around regimental and divisional cadre was succeeding.
There was also another major factor working for the Germans. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was in command of the area slated for the Soviet offensive. Architect of the 1940 Ardennes strike against France and the conqueror of Sevastopol in 1942, von Manstein was regarded as having one of the best strategic and tactical minds in the Wehrmacht.
Although the divisions of his Heeresgruppe (Army Group) Don, which became Heeresgruppe Süd (South) in mid-February, were battered, the German commander was already planning a response for what he correctly assumed to be a major Soviet attack in the Don Basin. He knew the Red Army supply lines had greatly lengthened as his own decreased, making it difficult for Soviet armor to receive proper fuel and ammunition replenishment. He also knew that although the Russians had superiority in manpower and equipment their reserves were lacking in numbers for a prolonged attack and breakthrough.
Von Manstein was also lucky in another regard. While the debacle at Stalingrad was still being played out, he had managed to talk Hitler into allowing most of the German forces in the Caucasus to withdraw before being cut off. By the end of January, many of those units, including the First Panzer Army, were regrouping in the Don Basin. The Fourth Panzer Army, commanded by Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth, was also in the process of getting out of the Soviet trap.
As he pressed the issue of the vulnerability of the entire southern sector of the Eastern Front, von Manstein persuaded the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht–German Armed Forces High Command) to release six divisions and two infantry brigades from Western Europe and send them to Heeresgruppe Süd. Among the divisions released were three superbly equipped SS divisions, which had been resting and refitting after the hard-fought 1942 campaign.
The Soviet Offensive Begins
On February 1, 1943, Golikov’s Voronezh Front began its attack to liberate Kharkov. Excellent progress was made during the first days of the offensive, with General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakowskii’s 60th Army taking Kursk on February 8. As Kursk fell, Golikov’s 40th and 69th Armies, along with the Third Tank Army, advanced on Kharkov, slamming their way through the undermanned defenses of the German Second Army.
Two days before Golikov’s offensive began, Vatutin launched Operation Gallop. On January 29, Kuznetsov’s First Guards Army crossed the Aydar River and hit General Gustav Schmidt’s 19th Panzer Division in the Kabanye–Kromennaya area along the Dnester River. Reeling under a series of hammer blows, the Germans were forced to retreat under a constant barrage of Soviet artillery.
On Kuznetsov’s right flank, Kharitonov’s Sixth Army, after crossing the Aydar, smashed into elements of Colonel Herbert Michaelis’s 298th Infantry Division. With the bulk of the 298th dug in along the Krasnaya River, the forward elements of the division were brushed aside by the advancing Soviets.
Pursuing the retreating Germans, Kharitonov’s 15th Rifle Corps made it to the Krasnaya before being stopped by the 298th’s makeshift defenses on the western bank. Under heavy fire, the 350th Rifle Division forced crossings north and south of Kupyansk and established bridgeheads on the German side of the river, but further progress was retarded until reinforcements arrived on the scene.
January 30 found the First Guards Army crossing the Krasnaya near the town of Krasny Liman. Pleased with the progress of his assault troops, Vatutin ordered Group Popov to advance and form up at the juncture of the First Guards and Sixth Armies in order to exploit any major breaches in the German line.