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World War II Wiki
World War II Wiki

The Second Battle of Kharkov was a battle that took place between Germany and the Soviet Union. The battle itself began on May 12, 1942 and ended on the 28th. The battle resulted in the German defense of the city and also the encirclement of numerous Soviet troops.

The failure is often attributed to the Soviet inability to account for the military strength of the Wehrmacht as well as the reorganize their troops. The initial purpose of the attack on Kharkov was for the Soviets to retake the previously captured strategic city of Kharkov assuming that they were now better prepared to deal with the German troops that had caught them off guard the previous year.[1]

Although the Germans were initially caught off guard themselves, quick thinking and tenacious German counterattacks eventually defeated the Soviet attackers and secured the successfully defended city of Kharkov.

Planning and Preparation

For the defense of the city, the Germans had at their disposal numerous infantry and panzer divisions from the 6th Field Army and 1st Panzer Army. Furthermore, the Germans had the air support of Jagdgeschwader 52, Jagdgeschwader 3, Kampfgeschwader 77, Schlachtgeschwader 1, and Kampfgeschwader 77. At the time of the initial attacks on Kharkov, the Germans had a total of 447 panzers inside the city.[2] The Soviets meanwhile had mustered the 21st,  28th, 38th, 9th, 57th and 6th Field Armies as well as the 21st, 23rd tank corps.

The Soviet plan of action was very controversial in the STAVKA with Stalin himself preferring a direct assault hoping to retain the strategic initiative while his senior generals wishing to conserve the few Soviet resources that had survived the initial 1941 onslaught. The battle would be fought using the standard Deep Battle Theory with numerous Soviet artillery pieces initially opening fire to make way for the reserves of troops. However, logistics in the lead-up to the battle proved troublesome and not all of the necessary troops and materials had been delivered by the date required. 

Soviet soldiers tank desanting on a T-34 tank, during the battle.

The Battle

The Second Battle of Kharkov began on May 12th with a preparatory bombardment of German lines as soon as forward observers could see them at first light. This bombardment stretched over a fifty kilometre-wide front and lasted for around an hour. Following came a secondary bombardment by Petlyakov Pe-2 and Ilyushin Il-2 bombers. As concentrated as these bombardments were, in reality they killed relatively little German troops as most were experienced enough to know how to react and prepare for such attacks. Attacking earlier than was initially planned, the Soviets began their offensive just two hours later, beginning with an assault carried our by several shock groups. Initial results were good with early penetration of German lines being apparent.[3]

One of the keys to the Soviet successes during the opening phases of the battle was the mass-panic that ensued among German troops as they quickyl realized that they were being overrun by the Soviets. This allowed the Soviets to quickly take former German positions without opposition as German troops fleed their posts. Also alarming to the German troops was the total ineffectiveness of their anti-tank weapons against Soviet and even Lend-Lease armor. Especially successful on the first day of battle was Soviet general Moskalenko who had passed through deep into the German lines. Although, as would later be apparent, the holding back of tank troops when was most needed eventually made Moskalenko's force weak when considering it was moving fundamentally with no tank support. 

Damaged German tanks being moved through Kharkov after the battle

Even though still in chaos, the Luftwaffe had still managed to put large amounts of fighter support into the area and aircraft sweeps of Kharkov proved fruitful with the downing of numerous aircraft that forced the retreat of the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or Soviet air force. By the second day of fighting, German troops had begun to push back the Soviets several kilometers. By the 14th, the Luftwaffe's support was fully restored and Junkers Ju-87  bombers were successfully supporting the German ground troops. Although already battered, even by the 20th of May, Soviet commanders, especially General Timoshenko were still issuing orders to maintain the strategic initiative and continue the attack. On the 25th, the noose for Soviet troops had been tightend as German troops through successful counterattacks had surrounded their Soviet enemies and on the 28th, the battered Soviets surrendered. In total, around 20,000 casalties had been suffered by the Wehrmacht to nearly 277,000 casualties on the Soviet side.