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Post by thelivyjr »

Second Battle of Kharkov, continued ...

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Soviet break-out attempts

The 25 May saw the first major Soviet attempt to break the encirclement.

German Major General Hubert Lanz described the attacks as gruesome, made en masse.

Driven by blind courage, the Soviet soldiers charged at German machine guns with their arms linked, shouting "Urray!".

The German machine gunners had no need for accuracy, killing hundreds in quick bursts of fire.

In broad daylight, the Luftwaffe, now enjoying complete air supremacy and the absence of Soviet anti-aircraft guns, rained down SD2 anti-personnel cluster bombs on the exposed Soviet infantry masses, killing them in droves.

By 26 May, the surviving Red Army soldiers were forced into crowded positions in an area of roughly fifteen square kilometres.

Soviet attempts to break through the German encirclement in the east were continuously blocked by tenacious defensive manoeuvres and German air power.

Groups of Soviet tanks and infantry that attempted to escape and succeeded in breaking through German lines were caught and destroyed by Ju 87s from StG 77.

The flat terrain secured easy observation for the Germans, whose forward observers directed long-range 10.5 cm and 15 cm artillery fire onto the Soviets from a safe distance to conserve the German infantrymen.

More than 200,000 Soviet troops, hundreds of tanks and thousands of trucks and horse-drawn wagons filled the narrow dirt road between Krutoiarka and Fedorovka and were under constant German artillery fire and relentless air strikes from Ju 87s, Ju 88s and He 111s.

SD-2 cluster munitions killed the unprotected infantry and SC250 bombs smashed up the Soviet vehicles and T-34 tanks.

Destroyed vehicles and thousands of dead and dying Red Army soldiers choked up the road and the nearby ravines.

General Bobkin was killed by German machine gun fire and two more Soviet generals were killed in action on the 26th and 27th.

Bock personally viewed the carnage from a hill near Lozovenka.

In the face of determined German operations, Timoshenko ordered the official halt of all Soviet offensive manoeuvres on 28 May, while attacks to break out of the encirclement continued until 30 May.

Nonetheless, less than one man in ten managed to break out of the "Barvenkovo mousetrap".

Hayward gives 75,000 Soviets killed and 239,000 taken prisoner.

Beevor puts Soviet prisoners at 240,000 (with the bulk of their armour), while Glantz—citing Krivosheev — gives a total of 277,190 overall Soviet casualties.

Both tend to agree on a low German casualty count, with the most formative estimate being at 20,000 dead, wounded and missing.

Regardless of the casualties, Kharkov was a major Soviet setback; it put an end to the successes of the Red Army during the winter counteroffensive.

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Post by thelivyjr »

Second Battle of Kharkov, continued ...

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Analysis and conclusions

Many authors have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the Soviet defeat.

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 organised 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 organising a strong defence in the southwestern sector in order to be able to repulse any Wehrmacht attack.

In his famous address to the Twentieth Party Congress about the crimes of Stalin, Khrushchev used the Soviet leader's errors in this campaign as an example, saying: "Contrary to common sense, Stalin rejected our suggestion."

"He issued the order to continue the encirclement of Kharkov, despite the fact that at this time many [of our own] Army concentrations actually were threatened with encirclement and liquidation..."

"And what was the result of this?"

"The worst we had expected."

"The Germans surrounded our Army concentrations and as a result [the Kharkov counterattack] lost hundreds of thousands of our soldiers."

"This is Stalin's military 'genius'."

"This is what it cost us."

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, underestimated 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, which 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 proved especially true in the subsequent Case Blue, which led to the Battle of Stalingrad, though this was the battle in which Paulus faced an entirely different outcome.

The battle had shown the potential of the Soviet armies to successfully conduct an offensive.

This battle can be seen as one of the first major instances in which the Soviets attempted to preempt a German summer offensive.

This later unfolded and grew as Stavka planned and conducted Operation Mars, Operation Uranus and Operation Saturn.

Although only two of the three were victories, it still offers concise and telling evidence of the ability of the Soviets to turn the war in their favour.

This finalised 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 latter 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.

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 played an important role in the outcome.

Poor Soviet performance in the north and equally poor intelligence-gathering at the hands of Stavka and front headquarters, also eventually spelled doom for the offensive.

Nonetheless, despite this poor performance, it underscored a dedicated evolution of operations and tactics within the Red Army which borrowed and refined the pre-war theory, Soviet deep battle.
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