Das Reich panzers rush to the defence of Kharkov

Men of the Das Reich division inspecting a new Tiger shortly after taking delivery of it in April 1943.

Men of the Das Reich division inspecting a new Tiger shortly after taking delivery of it in April 1943.

A view of men from Das Reich during Unternehmen Zitadelle, July 1943.

A view of men from Das Reich during Unternehmen Zitadelle, July 1943.

The main German assault on the Eastern Frontin 1943, Operation Citadel, had ended in failure. Not only had they failed to make the decisive breakthrough and encircle Soviet forces as had been hoped, but the Wehrmacht faced unexpectedly strong counterattacks. Suddenly the situation was reversed and the Germans were in retreat or forced into fighting withdrawals.

In the thick of the action, as he had been throughout the Russian campaign, was General of Panzer Troops Erhard Raus. He was now to win a reputation for his skilful handling of his forces during the withdrawal, extricating them from many a perilous situation that threatened the German line. He describes just one of these encounters, in the area outside the city of Kharkov, on the 19th/20th August:

It was clear that the Russians would not make a frontal assault on the projecting Kharkov salient but would attempt to break through the narrowest part of XI Corps’s defensive arc west of the city (the so-called bottleneck) in order to encircle the town.

We deployed all available antitank guns on the northern edge of the bottleneck, which rose like a bastion, and emplaced numerous 88mm flak guns in depth on the high ground. This anti-tank defense alone would not have been sufficient to repulse the expected Soviet mass tank attack, but at the last moment the reinforcements we had so long been requesting – in the form of the Das Reich SS Panzergrenadier Division — arrived with a strong panzer component; I immediately dispatched it to the most endangered sector.

The ninety-six PzKw V Panthers, thirty-five PzKw VI Tigers, and twenty-five StG III self-propelled assault guns had hardly taken their assigned positions on 19 August when the first large-scale attack of the Fifth Guards Tank Army got under way.

The first hard German blow, however, hit the masses of Russian tanks that had been recognized while they were still assembling in the villages and flood plains of a brook valley. Escorted by Luftwaffe fighters, which cleared the sky of Soviet aircraft within a few minutes, wings of heavily laden Ju 87 “Stukas” came on in wedge formation and unloaded their cargoes of destruction in well-timed dives on the enemy tanks caught in this congested area.

Dark fountains of earth erupted skyward and were followed by heavy thunderclaps and shocks that resembled an earthquake. These were the heaviest, two-ton bombs, designed for use against battleships, which were all that Luftflotte Four had left to counter the Russian attack.

Wing after wing approached with majestic calm and carried out its work of destruction without interference. Soon all the villages occupied by Soviet tanks lay in flames. A sea of dust and smoke clouds illuminated by the setting sun hung over the brook valley, while dark mushrooms of smoke from burning tanks – the victims of our aerial attacks – stood out in sharp contrast.

This gruesome picture bore witness to an undertaking that left death and destruction in its wake, hitting the Russians so hard that they could no longer launch their projected attack that day, regardless of Stalin’s imperative order. Such a severe blow inflicted on the Soviets had purchased badly needed time for XI Corps to reorganize.

I sent the following communication to Eighth Army headquarters on 20 August:

The enemy attack has shifted against the left flank of the corps. The enemy attack here, supported by strong artillery fire and tanks, has continued almost without pause…

Without a doubt, his objective is to break through the front and encircle Kharkov from the west and northwest…

Under continuous heavy artillery, mortar, rocket, and tank fire, and due to the incessant day and night bombardment of the main line of resistance by enemy aircraft and the bitter defense against enemy attack, the regiments, which have been in continuous combat for the past six weeks, especially those of the 198th, 168th, and 3rd Panzer Divisions, have been bled dry.

Not many more enemy attacks can be withstood in the present positions. If the enemy launches a major attack, the corps will be broken through, the western flank at Kharkov will be torn apart, and the city will be surrounded.

Commander, XI Army Corps

Ia Nr. 440/43 g.Kdos

RAUS.

See Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945.

Reichsführer der SS Heinrich Himmler examines a Tiger tank of the Das Reich Division, near Kharkov, April 1943.

Reichsführer der SS Heinrich Himmler examines a Tiger tank of the Das Reich Division, near Kharkov, April 1943.

Waffen SS Panzer Division 'Das Reich', SS-Gruppenführer Walter Kruger, at a parade in Russia in April 1943.

Waffen SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’, SS-Gruppenführer Walter Kruger, at a parade in Russia in April 1943.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Hugh Davie August 23, 2013 at 6:44 am

During the capture of Kharkov, the Germans found a entire tank factory with a number of uncompleted T-34 tanks. These were completed and the resulting Tank Company of 18 T-34 served with the Das Reich SS Panzer Grenadier Division during the Battle of Kursk and for months afterwards until they wore out.

Andrew Lynch August 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Either my eyes are playing tricks on me, (Quite possible, I left my glasses in work) or Himmler is inspecting a captured T34?

Spenny August 20, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I think you’ll find Heinrich Himmler is examining a captured T34 tank of the Das Reich Division. (it’s only because I care not because I’m a nerd – I love this site such a great concept)

Rickdeb Sen August 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm

hi!
I am an avid reader of ur blog and is one of the first websites i open every morning. i hope that conveys how highly i regard the work you are doing.
Anyways. there is an error in the caption “Reichsführer der SS Heinrich Himmler examines a Tiger tank of the Das Reich Division, near Kharkov, April 1943.” as those are all captures T34s. Please note the extra large Wehrmacht crosses. Those were specifically designed so as not to draw enemy and Stuka fire. The tank in the back is a Mach IV, clearly visible is the guner poking his head from a wide door in the turret which the Tiger never had. The tank further behind is also a Mach IV.
more details here— http://www.achtungpanzer.com/panzerkampfwagen-t-34r-soviet-t-34-in-german-service.htm

Also a very interesting spinnet of information which came to my mind upon seeing the last pic—http://imgur.com/gallery/GmPdh

Thank you and keep up the good work!

T-Cress August 20, 2013 at 3:14 pm

And by “captures T-34″ I of course mean “captured T-34″

T-Cress August 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I’m no expert – but the second-to-last picture I don’t think Himmler’s examining a Tiger, is he? Isn’t that a captures T-34? Can someone who knows what they’re talking about weigh in?

Peter McGrath August 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Awesome post

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