First Battle of Kharkov

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First Battle of Kharkov
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L20582, Charkow, Strassenkampfe.jpg
German infantry and armored vehicles battle Soviet defenders on the streets of Kharkov
Date20–24 October 1941
Result German victory
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Germany Flag of the Soviet Union (1936-1955).svg  Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Erwin Vierow
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Anton Dostler
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg Viktor Tsyganov
Two divisions
1 Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung
10,000–30,000 men (est.)
12 StuG III
One division [1]
Casualties and losses
unknown unknown, but [2]
probably higher

The 1st Battle of Kharkov, so named by Wilhelm Keitel, [3] was the 1941 battle for the city of Kharkiv ( Kharkov in Russian [4] ) (Ukrainian SSR) during the final phase of Operation Barbarossa between the German 6th Army of Army Group South and the Soviet Southwestern Front. The Soviet 38th Army was ordered to defend the city while its factories were dismantled for relocation farther east.

Wilhelm Keitel German Field Marshal and chief of the Wehrmacht high command

Wilhelm Bodewin Johann Gustav Keitel was a German field marshal who served as Chief of the Armed Forces High Command in Nazi Germany during World War II. According to David Stahel, Keitel was "well known and [...] reviled as Hitler’s dependable mouthpiece and habitual yes-man" among his military colleagues.

Kharkiv City of regional significance in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine

Kharkiv, also known as Kharkov, is the second-largest city in Ukraine. In the northeast of the country, it is the largest city of the Slobozhanshchyna historical region. Kharkiv is the administrative centre of Kharkiv Oblast and of the surrounding Kharkiv Raion, though administratively it is incorporated as a city of oblast significance and does not belong to the raion. Population: 1,439,036 (2017 est.)

Operation Barbarossa 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during World War II. The operation stemmed from Nazi Germany's ideological aims to conquer the western Soviet Union so that it could be repopulated by Germans (Lebensraum), to use Slavs as a slave labour force for the Axis war effort and to annihilate the rest according to Generalplan Ost, and to acquire the oil reserves of the Caucasus and the agricultural resources of Soviet territories.


The German 6th Army needed to take the city in order to close the widening gap to the German 17th Army. By 20 October the Germans had reached the western edge of the city, it was taken by the 57th Infantry Division by 24 October. At that time, however, most of Kharkiv's industrial equipment had been evacuated or rendered useless by the Soviet authorities.

The German Seventeenth Army was a World War II field army.

57th Infantry Division (Wehrmacht) division

The 57th Infantry Division was a German division in World War II. It was formed on 26 August 1939 in Landshut.

Importance of Kharkiv

Kharkiv's railroad system

In the autumn of 1941, Kharkiv was considered one of the Soviets' most important strategic bases for railroad and airline connections. It not only connected the east-west and north-south parts of Ukraine, but also several central regions of the USSR including the Crimea, the Caucasus, the Dnieper region, and Donbas.

Crimea Peninsula in the Black Sea

Crimea is a peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe that is almost completely surrounded by both the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov to the northeast. It is located south of the Ukrainian region of Kherson, to which it is connected by the Isthmus of Perekop, and west of the Russian region of Kuban, from which it is separated by the Strait of Kerch though linked by the Crimean Bridge. The Arabat Spit is located to the northeast, a narrow strip of land that separates a system of lagoons named Sivash from the Sea of Azov. Across the Black Sea to its west is Romania and to its south Turkey.

Caucasus An area situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea

The Caucasus or Caucasia is an area situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and mainly occupied by Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia. It is home to the Caucasus Mountains, including the Greater Caucasus mountain range, which has historically been considered a natural barrier between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

Dnieper longest river of Ukraine and Belarus

The Dnieperother names is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. It is the longest river of Ukraine and Belarus and the fourth-longest river in Europe. The total length is approximately 2,200 km (1,400 mi) with a drainage basin of 504,000 square kilometres (195,000 sq mi). Historically, the river was an important barrier, dividing Ukraine into right and left banks. Nowadays, the river is noted for its dams and hydroelectric stations. The Dnieper is an important navigable waterway for the economy of Ukraine and is connected via the Dnieper–Bug Canal to other waterways in Europe.

Military importance

Kharkiv was one of the largest industrial centers of the Soviet Union. One of its greatest contributions was the Soviet T-34 tank that was both designed and developed at the Kharkiv Tractor Factory. It was considered to be the most powerful tank plant in the country. Other factories that were located in the city included the Kharkiv Aircraft Plant, Kharkiv Plant of the NKVD (FED), and the Kharkiv Turbine Plant. Military products that were in Kharkiv before the battle started included: tanks, Su-2, artillery tractors, 82 mm mortars, sub-machine guns, ammunition, and other military equipment. The main objective for the German troops was to capture the railroad and military factories, thus they desperately tried to keep the industrial area of Kharkiv intact. Adolf Hitler himself stressed the importance of those military plants stating: "… The second in importance is south of Russia, particularly the Donets Basin, ranging from the Kharkiv region. There is the whole basis of [the] Russian economy; if the area is mastered then it would inevitably lead to the collapse of the entire Russian (sic - Soviet) economy… [5] "

The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, abbreviated NKVD, was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union.

Artillery tractor specialized heavy-duty form of tractor unit used to tow artillery pieces

An artillery tractor, also referred to as a gun tractor, is a specialized heavy-duty form of tractor unit used to tow artillery pieces of varying weights and calibres. It may be wheeled, tracked, or half-tracked.

Adolf Hitler Leader of Germany from 1934 to 1945

Adolf Hitler was a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party. He rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and later Führer in 1934. During his dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, he initiated World War II in Europe by invading Poland in September 1939. He was closely involved in military operations throughout the war and was central to the perpetration of the Holocaust.

Population of Kharkiv

Kharkiv was one of the most populated Soviet cities during World War II. It was rated at 901,000 people on 1 May 1941. In September 1941 the population skyrocketed to 1.5 million people, due to numerous evacuees from other cities. After multiple attacks and many deaths, the population of Kharkiv decreased to 180 – 190,000, which was the size after the liberation of the city in August 1943. [6]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Before the battle

The aftermath of Kiev

German advances, 26 August - 5 December 1941 Map Operation Typhoon.jpg
German advances, 26 August – 5 December 1941

After the Battle of Kiev, Army Group Center was ordered to redeploy its forces for the attack on Moscow, and so the 2nd Panzer Group turned north towards Bryansk and Kursk. Army Group South, and in particular Walther von Reichenau's 6th Army and Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel's 17th Army took the place of the panzer divisions. The main offensive formation of Army Group South, Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Group, was in the meantime ordered south for a drive to Rostov-on-Don and the Caucasian oilfields, following Führer Directive No. 35. The burden of processing Kiev's 600,000 prisoners of war (POWs) fell upon the 6th and 17th Armies, so while the 1st Panzer Group secured the German victory in the Battle of Melitopol, these two armies spent the next three weeks regrouping.

Battle of Kiev (1941) battle resulting in a large encirclement of Soviet troops in the vicinity of Kiev during World War II

The First Battle of Kiev was the German name for the operation that resulted in a very large encirclement of Soviet troops in the vicinity of Kiev during World War II. This encirclement is considered the largest encirclement in the history of warfare. The operation ran from 7 August to 26 September 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. In Soviet military history, it is referred to as the Kiev Strategic Defensive Operation, with somewhat different dating of 7 July – 26 September 1941.

Battle of Moscow periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II

The Battle of Moscow was a military campaign that consisted of two periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defensive effort frustrated Hitler's attack on Moscow, the capital and largest city of the Soviet Union. Moscow was one of the primary military and political objectives for Axis forces in their invasion of the Soviet Union.

Bryansk City in Bryansk Oblast, Russia

Bryansk is a city and the administrative center of Bryansk Oblast, Russia, located 379 kilometers (235 mi) southwest of Moscow. Population: 415,721 (2010 Census); 431,526 (2002 Census); 452,160 (1989 Census).

Stavka (Soviet High Command), needed to stabilize its southern flank and poured reinforcements into the area between Kursk and Rostov, at the expense of its forces in front of Moscow. [7] The Southwestern Front, which had been destroyed during the battle of Kiev, was re-established under the command of Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, one of the more capable Red Army commanders. The 6th, 21st, 38th and 40th Armies were reconstituted almost from scratch.

Approaching Kharkiv

Soviet bunkers used in the defense of Kharkiv Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B16174, Charkow, Sowjetische Sandsackstellung.jpg
Soviet bunkers used in the defense of Kharkiv
The German Army enters downtown Kharkiv Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L20721, Charkow, deutscher Einmarsch.jpg
The German Army enters downtown Kharkiv

With the Battle of Moscow under way, the Germans had to protect their flanks, and on 6 October von Reichenau advanced through Sumy and Okhtyrka in the direction of Belgorod and Kharkiv. On the same day, the 17th Army commenced its offensive from Poltava towards Lozova and Izyum to protect the lengthening flank of the 1st Panzer Army (formerly the 1st Panzer Group). The 6th Army (Rodion Malinovsky) and 38th Army (Viktor Tsiganov) failed to conduct a coordinated defense and were beaten back. In the lead up to the Battle of Moscow, the Red Army suffered a big defeat at Vyazma and Bryansk, with 700,000 casualties. The few reserves available were desperately needed to defend the Soviet capital, not the Southwestern Front. With no reserves to plug the breach, the Stavka was forced fall back to Voronezh to prevent the collapse of the southern flank. [8]

Although the main objectives of the German Army before winter fell were to capture Leningrad, Moscow and the approaches to the Caucasian oilfields, Kharkiv was an important secondary objective. Besides the need to protect the flanks of its motorized spearheads, the German Army high command, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), also saw the importance of Kharkiv as an industrial center and railroad hub. Capturing the city meant that the Southwestern and Southern Front had to fall back on Voronezh and Stalingrad as their major transport hubs. When, in the second week of October, the rainy season of the Rasputitsa (the 'mud' season) and the poor logistics in the area between the Dnepr and the front, (all the bridges had collapsed during combat and ice threatened the pontoons), caused the offensive to stall. [9] Hitler allocated resources from the 17th Army to the 6th Army to ensure the capture of Kharkiv. This, however, weakened the 17th Army's effort to protect the flank of the 1st Panzer Army and contributed to the German defeat at the Battle of Rostov. [10] After 17 October, night frost improved the roads, but snow storms and the cold started to hamper the Germans, who were insufficiently equipped for winter operations (the German Army had planned that Barbarossa would be over before winter fell).

Course of the battle

Preparing to take the city

The task of assaulting Kharkiv itself was given to the LV. Armeekorps commanded by General der Infanterie Erwin Vierow. This corps had at its disposal the 101. Leichte-Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Josef Brauner von Haydringen and coming in from the north, the 57. Infanterie-Division, commanded by Generalmajor Anton Dostler and coming in from the south, and the 100. Leichte-Division, which did not take part in the battle. Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 197, commanded by Hauptmann Kurt von Barisani had two of its three batteries attached to the 57. Infanterie-Division to provide close fire support during the assault.

For the defense of Kharkiv, the 216th Rifle Division had been reformed there after its destruction at Kiev. It received little to no support from other divisions or from higher command formations, because the 38th Army was in the process of a strategic retreat and the defense of Kharkiv was only necessary as long as its factory equipment had not been completely evacuated.

German troops enter Kharkiv from the west, crossing the main railroad running through the city on the viaduct of Sverdlov Street. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B13548, Charkow, Einmarsch deutsche Truppen.jpg
German troops enter Kharkiv from the west, crossing the main railroad running through the city on the viaduct of Sverdlov Street.

Battles on the western edge of the city (20–23 October)

57th Infantry Division plus a Panzer Brigade

101st Light Division

By 21 October the 101st Light Division had reached a line about six kilometers west of Kharkiv. The 228th Light Regiment spearheaded the division, its 1st and 3rd battalions taking up defensive positions on the front, with the 2nd battalion in reserve. On 22 October the regiment was ordered to conduct reconnaissance to determine the enemy's strength. That same day at noon the regiment was attacked by a Soviet infantry battalion supported by tanks. The attack was repulsed and two tanks were disabled. That night the recon information was transmitted by radio to the Division HQ. The 216th Rifle Division had occupied the western edge of the city, with machine gun nests, mortar pits and minefields in place.

For the attack, the 3rd battalion (the regiment's right flank), was reinforced with two guns from the division's artillery, The 85th Artillery Regiment, a company of engineers and an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun. The 2nd battalion received the same reinforcements, but without the AA gun. The 1st battalion acted as the regimental reserve. The first battalion of the 229th Light Regiment would protect the left flank of the 228th. The attack hour was set at noon, in conjunction with the 57th Infantry Division.

At 11:00 hours, a liaison was established between the 85th Artillery and the 228th Light Regiments. The artillery was not ready at the time designated, so the attack had to be postponed. In the meantime the anti-tank company, who had been stuck in the mud at the rear, finally arrived at the front and was ordered to assign one 37 mm AT-gun platoon to every frontline battalion. At 14:25, the artillery was ready and the attack hour was set at 15:00.

Assault on the city (23–24 October)

The evacuation of industrial enterprises started before the Germans had a chance to attack. By 20 October 1941 it was virtually completed. Three-hundred and twenty trains were sent with the equipment from 70 major factories. Kharkiv was taken by von Reichenau's 6th Army, on 24 October 1941.

Occupation of Kharkiv

German armored vehicles in Kharkiv Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B13132, Charkow, Sturmgeschutz und Schutzenpanzer.jpg
German armored vehicles in Kharkiv
Sumskaya street in Kharkiv, 25 October 1941 1941oct25SumskayaStreetOccupation.jpg
Sumskaya street in Kharkiv, 25 October 1941

The city was subject to its first occupation during the war, which lasted until 16 February 1943. The city never became part of Reichskommissariat Ukraine because of its proximity to the front. The staff of the LV Army Corps acted as the occupational authority, using 57.ID as an occupation force. Generalmajor Anton Dostler was Stadtkommandant until 13 December, when he was succeeded by Generalleutnant Alfred von Puttkamer, and Kharkiv was transferred to the Heeresgebiet of the 6thrmee and put under the joint authority of the Stadtkommandant and Field Command 757.

German troops acting under the authority of the Reichenau-Befehl of 10 October (effectively an order to kill anybody associated with communism) terrorized the population that was left after the battle. Many of the Soviet commanders' corpses were hung off balconies to strike fear into the remaining population. Many people began to flee, causing chaos.

In the early hours of 14 November, multiple buildings in the city center were blown up by time-fuses left by the retreating Red Army. Casualties included the commander (Generalleutnant Georg Braun) and staff of the 68th Infantry Division. The Germans arrested some 200 civilians (mostly Jews) and hanged them from the balconies of large buildings. Another 1,000 were taken as hostages and interned in the Hotel International on Dzerzhinsky Square. All of these war crimes were committed by frontline Heer commanders, and not by SS troops. [12]

On 14 December, the Stadtkommandant ordered the Jewish population to be concentrated in a hut settlement near the Kharkiv Tractor Factory. In two days, 20,000 Jews were gathered there. Sonderkommando 4a, commanded by SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, of Einsatzgruppe C started shooting the first of them in December, then continuing to kill them throughout January in a gas van. This was a modified truck that fitted 50 people in it; the van drove around the city and slowly killed the people that were trapped in it with carbon monoxide that was emitted from the vehicle itself and channeled into an airtight compartment. The victims died by a combination of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation. [13] [14]

The German Army confiscated large quantities of food to be used by its troops, creating acute shortages in the Ukraine. By January 1942 around one-third of the city's 300,000 remaining inhabitants suffered from starvation. Many would die in the cold winter months. [15]

As a result of the battles in Kharkiv, the city was left in ruins. Dozens of architectural monuments were destroyed and numerous artistic treasures taken. One of the Soviet Unions’s best known authors, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote: "I saw Kharkiv. As if it were Rome in the 5th century. A huge cemetery…"

See also

References and footnotes

  1. According to Glantz 2001, p. 247-248, the strength of the weakened Southwestern Front on 30 September was 147,110 men, mostly survivors from the battle of Kiev. Reïnforcements sent after this date include several NKVD divisions and brigades fighting as regular ground units.
  2. According to Glantz 2001, p. 248, the losses of the Southwestern Front from 30 September to 30 November numbered 96,509 men, including 75,720 irrecoverable (dead, missing or captured) and 20,789 sick and wounded.
  3. see The memoirs of Field-Marshal Keitel. Edited with an introduction and epilogue by Walter Gorlitz. Translated by David Irving, William Kimber, London (1965)
  4. Kharkov is the Russian language name of the city (Kharkiv the Ukrainian one); both Russian and Ukrainian were official languages in the Soviet Union (Source:Language Policy in the Soviet Union by L.A. Grenoble & Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States by Routledge)
  5. Memoir of Kharkiv’s History
  6. Kharkiv News
  7. Glantz 2001, p. 140.
  8. Glantz 2001, p. 151-152.
  9. Margry 2001, p. 5
  10. Kirchubel 2003, p. 76.
  11. Margry 2001, p.6
  12. Margry 2001, p. 8
  13. Ukrainian Historical Journal
  14. Margry 2001, p. 8-9
  15. Margry 2001, p. 9


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375th Rifle Division (Soviet Union)

The 375th Rifle Division was raised in 1941 as an infantry division of the Red Army, and served for the duration of the Great Patriotic War in that role. It began forming in August, 1941 in the Urals Military District. It reached the fighting front in December, coming under command of the 29th Army in the vicinity of the Rzhev salient and it took part in the bloody and tragic battles for this heavily-fortified position until March, 1943, mostly as part of 30th Army. Following the German evacuation of the salient the 375th got a brief spell in reserve before being reassigned to Voronezh Front in the buildup to the Battle of Kursk. When the offensive began it held a crucial sector on the extreme left flank of 6th Guards Army where the II SS Panzer Corps attempted to break through south of the salient. Following the German defeat the division joined in the counteroffensive towards Kharkov in August and won its first battle honor. It continued to advance through Ukraine and into Romania over the next eight months, being brought to a halt east of Iași in the spring of 1944. In late August the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crushed the defending German and Romanian forces, and on the last day of the month the 375th played a leading role in the capture of the Romanian capital, Bucharest; it won its second battle honor and two of its rifle regiments were awarded decorations. For the duration of the war the division fought its way through Romania and Hungary, finally advancing into Austria with 7th Guards Army. Its record of admirable service was capped with the award of the Order of the Red Banner soon following the German surrender, but it was nevertheless disbanded shortly thereafter.

The 393rd Rifle Division was raised in 1941 as an infantry division of the Red Army, and served twice during the Great Patriotic War in that role. In its first formation the division followed a very similar combat path to that of the 411th Rifle Division. It was first formed on October 1 in the Kharkov Military District, probably on the basis of militia units that had been raised there. It fought in the Barvenkovo–Lozovaya Offensive that created the Izium - Barvenkovo salient in January, 1942 and was intended to play a leading role in a spring offensive aimed at the liberation of Kharkov. In the event a German counteroffensive cut off the salient; the division was deeply encircled and destroyed. In the buildup to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria a new 393rd was formed in the Far Eastern Front in late 1944. The new division fought into the northern part of the Korean peninsula, taking many ports and cities with enough distinction that it was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and continued to serve briefly into the postwar period.