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Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow, III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Monument to Heroic Soviet Soldiers in Kharkov.
Soviet prisoners
Romanian Gen. Corneliu Dragalina wearing Knight’s Cross at throat.
      This week, 70 years ago, the Second Battle of Kharkov began.
    Although the Soviet Union had dodged a fatal blow when the Red Army, and General Winter, stopped the vaunted Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow in December 1941, the Soviet brass knew that the Axis were not finished, and when spring came, the offensive would be renewed. But where? The front stretched for over a thousand miles, from the Gulf of Finland, in the north, to the Black Sea in the south. Stalin was convinced the blow would be aimed, again, at the Soviet capital. In early spring he ordered small offensives all along the front in a vain effort to disrupt German preparations.
    The largest of these offensives was directed at the recapture of Kharkov. Currently with a population of around 1,500,000, Kharkov is the second largest city in the Ukraine, with a significant amount of industry. At the beginning of the war it was the largest city in the Ukraine, with a population of 901,000. Its Freedom Square is the largest in the country. The city is home to the largest Buddhist Temple in Europe, built by its Vietnamese population.
    The famed Soviet T-34 tank had been designed and developed and was being produced at the Kharkov Tractor Factory - Factory # 183. It is now known as Malyshev Plant and produces the T-84. Kharkov factories also produced aircraft, mortars, sub-machine guns and artillery tractors. By the time Field Marshal Reinhard von Reichnau’s Sixth Army had captured Kharkov, 320 trains had removed equipment from seventy major factories at Kharkov to locations east of the Ural Mountains. Factory # 183 was joined with one in Nizhny Tagil to form Uralskiy Tank Plant # 183, where more than 30,000 T-34s were produced.
    The first Battle of Kharkov began on October 20, 1941 when Field Marshal von Reichnau’s Sixth Army began its assault on the city. By the next day German forces had come within eight miles of the city. Meanwhile the Soviets were loading as much factory equipment as possible onto the trains. By October 24th, the Sixth Army, together with elements of the Seventeenth Army, commanded by Hermann Hoth, had captured the city.
    Hero of the Soviet Union Marshal Semyon Timoshenko commanded Southwestern Front which was charged with recapturing Kharkov. The offensive was launched over the heated objections of the Chief of the Red Army General Staff, Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov, and future Marshals Aleksandr Vasilevsky and Giorgi Zhukov.
    Marshal Timoshenko had, at his disposal, over 750,000 men, almost 1200 tanks, 300 self-propelled cannons and 926 aircraft. The Southwestern Front included the 6th, 21st, 28th and 38th Armies, commanded by, respectively: Avksentii M. Gorodniansky; Vasilii Gordov; Dmitrii I. Riabyshev; and Kiril S. Moscalenko, together with the XXI and XXIII Tank Corps, commanded by Grigorii I. Kuzmin and Efim G. Pushkin. Generals Gorodniansky and Kuzmin were killed in the battle. General Pushkin was killed in 1944, still commanding the XXIII Tank Corps. General Gordov was arrested in 1947, tried, convicted and executed in 1950. After Stalin’s death, he was "rehabilitated." General Moscalenko would be twice named Hero of the Soviet Union, and after siding with Comrade Khrushchev in his coup in 1955, would become a Marshal.
    The Southwestern Front would also be supported by the Southern Front, commanded by General Rodian Malinovsky. The Southern Front included the 9th and 57th Armies and V Calvary Corps commanded by Fedor M. Kharitonov, Kuzma P. Podlas and Issa A. Pliev. General Pliev was regarded as one of the finest cavalry commanders in the Red Army. General Podlas was executed after being captured in the battle. Also assigned to the force was Commissar Nikita Khrushchev.
    However, as Marshall Vasilevsky later noted: "The Soviet Army of [early] 1942, was not prepared to conduct major offensive operations against the well-trained German Army, simply because it did not have the necessary quantitative and qualitative advantage over the Wehrmacht. And because it’s leadership, both at Command and Junior Officer level, was still being rebuilt after the defeats in 1941.”
    Unbeknownst to the Soviets, the Axis’ Spring Offensive was also to come in the south, right where Marshal Timoshenko’s offensive was to land. It would be led by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, formerly commander of Army Group Center, now commander of Army Group South. Therefore, the Axis had been reinforcing Army Group South.
    At 6:30 a.m. on May 12, 1942, the Soviets began the attack with an hour artillery barrage, followed by a twenty minute air attack. The fighting was ferocious. By the end of the day the Red Army had only advanced about seven miles. Soviet units did advance to within twelve miles of Kharkov. In response, Hitler ordered some of General Baron Wolfram von Richtofen’s Luftflotte VIII Units transferred to the Kharkov area and placed under the command of General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Fleigercorps VI. General Pflugbeil was able to win temporary air superiority by flying his planes and pilots from dawn til dusk. The Germans continued to hold, while the Soviets ground on.
    In the meantime, I Panzerarmee, under the command of General Ewald von Kliest, was preparing a counter-attack into the southern flank of the Soviet Offensive. On May 17, supported by General Pflugbeil’s Fleigercorps VI, the counter-attack was launched, led by III Panzerkorps, commanded by Baron Geyr von Schweppenburg, XXXXIV Armeekorps, commanded by Maximilian de Angelis and VI Romanian Corps, commanded by Corneliu Dragalina. Later that summer, the Germans would honor General Dragalina with the Knight’s Cross. When Marshal Timoshenko reported the Axis’counter-attack to Stavka, General Vasilevsky attempted, in vain, to get Stalin’s approval for a general withdrawal.
    The next day the situation worsened for the Red Army and once again Stalin refused to allow it to withdraw. That day General Pflugbeil’s Fleigercorps VI destroyed 130 tanks and 500 motor vehicles. The next day 29 more Soviet tanks were destroyed and the Sixth Army, under General Frederic Paulus, began an offensive on the other side of the Soviet Forces, in an attempt to encircle them. Stalin finally authorized General Zhukov to stop the offensive. However, it was too late. On May 22, General von Schweppenburg’s III Panzerkorps, linked with Sixth Army’s 44th Infantry Division, commanded by Heinrich Deboi, coming from the north. By the end of the day on May 24th, the noose around the Red Army was tightening. Futile attempts to break-out continued until May 30th.
    The Red Army lost at least 240,000 captured, in addition to the loss of 2026 artillery pieces and 1250 tanks. German losses were a total of 20,000 dead, wounded and missing. General Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps took 26,432 prisoners at a cost 2,983 of its own. Later that summer, General Dragalina would be awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for bravery.
    An anonymous Soviet soldier, commenting after the battle, said that, "The Fascist woke up after they hibernated!"
    With the failure of this offensive, Marshal Timoshenko’s career began to wane. Never again would he be tasked with commanding an offensive.
    In the winter of 1943, piggy-backing on its success at Stalingrad, the Red Army launched several subsequent offensives, one of which, led by Lt.Gen. Konstantin Rokossovsky, re-captured Kharkov on February 16, 1943. However, the Soviet victory was erased within a month, as Army Group South, led by Field Marshal Eric von Manstein, took the offensive, and Kharkov was, once again, captured by the Germans. On August 23, 1943 the Red Army re-captured Kharkov for the last time.
    More than 70 percent of the city had been destroyed and more than 50,000 of its citizens perished. By the end of the war, the population was 453,000. One of Russia’s better-known authors, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, wrote, "I saw Kharkov. As if it were Rome in the 5th Century. A huge cemetery...."


Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at <>.
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