The main German assault on the Eastern Front in 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