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©2022 Jim Werbaneth


January 10, 2022

By Jim Werbaneth

In the spring of 1942, the Soviet Union was in the process of fighting back against the German invasion.   It survived the onslaught of Operation Barbarossa, starting on 22 June 1941, and then the last-ditch offensive against Moscow.  Finally, over the winter, the Soviets launched a series of improvised offensives against the overstretched Germans, inflicting crisis after crisis on the invaders, pushing the Germans back and yet never quite achieving a decisive victory.

The May 1942 offensive was intended to build on the successes of the winter attacks.  Rather than being improvised with the forces at hand, this was premeditated, and employed carefully-husbanded resources more than the forces at hand, plus those arriving piecemeal.  However, the offensive ended as a massive Soviet defeat.  Not only did it fail to achieve its chief objectives, the Soviet offensive was countered by a preplanned German one.  As a result, the original attackers became the defenders, and were decisively beaten in the kind of mechanized battle at which the Germans were supremely skilled at the time.

Many of the reasons for the Soviet defeat lie with the Soviets themselves.  Their forces lacked the skill to conduct the offensive, particularly against a Wehrmacht at the peak of its powers.  Secondly, there were upper-level command failures, primarily a tardy commitment of reserves to the northern pincer when it was on the verge of overrunning the Germans before Kharkov and taking the city.  Third, when the Germans launched their own attack against the southern flank of the Soviet salient, the Soviets were slow to react, when time and timing were of the essence.  Finally, the Germans reacted well, displaying steadiness on the defense, swiftly shifting airpower from Crimea to support their forces, and then executing a devastating counterattack.


The driving force behind the Kharkov offensive was Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko.  While the Kharkov operation can be viewed as a premature, even rash action, in compliance with Josef Stalin’s direction, this is actually at odds with Timoshenko’s past professional behavior.  Prior to the German invasion, he and his more famous fellow cavalryman and marshal, Georgy Zhukov, resisted an existing stress on the strategic offensive ordained by Stalin.  Together, through a series of wargames in January 1941, Timoshenko and Zhukov were able to convince Stalin of the fallacy of his infatuation with an offensive-minded, first-strike strategy in the event of war with Nazi Germany.[1]  One has to regard the disabusing of such a ruthless dictator as Stalin of an existing predilection as quite an accomplishment, especially as both officers survived it.

Timoshenko further had, for a senior Soviet commander, an unusually solid background as an operational leader.  In January 1940, poor Soviet performance in the Winter War against Finland led Stalin to replace Kliment Voroshilov with Timoshenko, who already had a good reputation as a planner.  Timoshenko instituted an all-forces training program, building up his artillery and armor, before launching his own offensive against Finland in February.  This failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough, and was held by the enemy, though at great cost, at first.  Then on 12 February, the Soviets breached the Mannerheim Line, and while the Finns retired in good order, they had to sue for peace.[2]

At the start of Barbarossa, the Soviet military lacked a supreme commander.  At 0900 on 22 June 1941, a supreme headquarters, the Stavka, was created.  As one might expect, Stalin was named its commander, but the dictator crossed out his own name and wrote in Timoshenko’s.[3]  Despite his previous opposition to an overly aggressive strategy toward Germany, Timoshenko immediately ordered a series of rushed attacks against the invaders.[4]  On 30 June, he was named commander of the Western Front and then the Western Direction, a role in which he fought the costly, pyrrhic battle at Smolensk, while Stalin took over overall command.  As reward for this, Timoshenko was sent to take over the Southwestern Front and Southwestern Direction, just in time to preside over the final stages of the massive defeat Kiev.[5]  Thus while the marshal might have been a thorough-going professional, with a good deal of strategic common sense and the ability to prevail upon Stalin’s prejudices, there were decided limits to the last; he still had to work under the limits imposed by “the Boss.”  Further, as the Kharkov campaign was to demonstrate, he had ability to make his own mistakes, and not just implement Stalin’s.

The primary German commander during the offensive was Field Marshal Feodor von Bock, the commander of Army Group South.  This was not his first command at such a level; in 1941 he was commander of Army Group Center, tasked with taking Moscow.  However, in December of that year, his last advance on the city was halted by Soviet resistance and deteriorating weather, Bock was relieved.  However, a month later, he was called back to lead Army Group South upon the death of its commander, Walther von Reichenau.[6]

Secondarily, there was the commander of the Sixth Army, Colonel General Friedrich Paulus.  As the deputy chief of the General Staff, he had been instrumental in the planning for Barbarossa, especially the division of resources between Army Groups North, Center and South.  It was on his watch that the plan evolved from that of a single thrust to one in which each army group would fight its own battles of encirclement, on its own terms, and largely separate from those of its fellows.[7]  Despite a career centered primarily on staff work, Reichenau recommended that he be given command of the Sixth Army, which Paulus took on 1 January 1942.[8]

The second army-level commander involved in the Kharkov battle was Ewald von Kleist.  His command, Army-Group von Kleist (Armee-Gruppe von Kleist) was cobbled together to defend against the Soviet offensives of the previous winter, and was successful at stopping an enemy drive toward Dnepropetrovsk.[9]  In the initial offensives into Ukraine in 1941, he had commanded the First Panzer Group,[10] and previously the XX Panzer Corps in Poland and the main German panzer group against the West in 1940.  Thus he was a formidable, experienced combat commander, much more so than Paulus, who though a good staff officer, was probably unsuited for high-level combat leadership.  On the other hand, Kleist was, in the words of David M. Glantz, “a fighter who had fought against the best the Soviets could offer.”[11]

One more leader has to be considered, on the Soviet side: Josef Stalin.  Just as Adolf Hitler believed that the Soviets were on their last legs, so Stalin believed the same of the Germans.  After all, the winter offensives had pushed the Germans to the limits of their endurance, and southeast of Kharkov had torn a large salient from which their spring attack would be launched.  The general consensus within the Stavka was that the Soviets would remain on the defensive, albeit temporarily, building their strength to absorb Germany’s expected resumption of the offensive.  After absorbing the blows, expected in the direction of Moscow, only then would the Soviets seized the initiative and launch their own counterattacks against an exhausted enemy.[12]

However, due to doctrinal preference for offensive-minded “deep battle” and a desire, perhaps sensible, to please a dictator determined to go on the attack as soon as possible, subordinate commanders proposed a series of plans for local offensives.  Stalin chose to adopt a proposal from Timoshenko to attack out of the Izyum salient toward Kharkov, encircling and destroying the German forces there while taking the city.  Then the plan was upgraded to allow for an even larger operation, with a view toward a deeper breakthrough by an accompanying southern thrust toward Krasnograd, or even Army Group South’s headquarters at Poltava.  Stalin reasoned that even a limited penetration might roll up much of the German line.[13]

The operation would be different than those of the previous year.  Instead of relying on masses of untrained troops, this called for fewer infantrymen, but backed by much larger proportions of armor, artillery, and airpower.  Thus Soviet organization and doctrine would have a greater resemblance to those of the Germans,[14] at least superficially, and they would aim for a more sophisticated approach to operations.  However, as events would show, whether or not they were up to the task was a whole other question.

Not all agreed with Timoshenko, or with Stalin.  Opposition to the Kharkov/Izyum operation came from General Boris M. Shaposhnikov, chief of the General Staff, who recognized the tactical and operational skill of the German army, and did not believe that the Soviets were truly competitive yet.  Therefore he recommended a cautious approach, wearing down the Germans before Moscow before assuming the offensive themselves.  The head of the General Staff’s Operations Department, Aleksander M. Vasilevsky, concurred.[15]  Indeed, both were horrified, in no small part because Timoshenko’s plan called for pressing a growing number of units into a relatively constricted space.[16]

Zhukov was equally opposed; thus Stalin’s top three military advisers recommended against Timoshenko’s plan.  In Zhukov’s case though, he was less set against an offensive in general than he was against this one in particularly.  He advocated at attack in the Rhzev-Viazma area, where he saw an opportunity that, in his mind at least, had not been fully exploited during the winter battles.  In his view the problem was not that the Soviets were about to go on the offensive, but that they were doing so in the wrong place.[17]

For his part, Zhukov blamed the commander of the Southwestern Front, that is Timoshenko, and the front’s political commissar, Nikita Khrushchev, for lobbying for Kharkov offensive to Stalin.  Khrushchev put forth a self-serving account, distancing himself from the eventual debacle, as part of his secret address to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.  As part of his overall condemnation of Stalin, Khrushchev put the blame for the failure at Kharkov squarely on Stalin’s shoulders.  According to Khrushchev, he and Timoshenko saw the defeat coming, and tried to convince Stalin to cancel the attack.  But by this version, Stalin was determined to proceed.  This was all part of a fabric of arrogance, as Khrushchev asserted:

On one occasion after the war, during a meeting [between] Stalin [and] members of the Politburo, Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan mentioned that Khrushchev must have been right when he telephoned concerning the Kharkov operation and that it was unfortunate that his suggestion had not been accepted.

You should have seen Stalin’s fury!  How could it be admitted that he, Stalin, had not been right!  He is after all a “genius,” and a genius cannot help but be right! Everyone can err, but Stalin considered that he never erred, that he was always right.  He never acknowledged to anyone that he made any mistake, large or small, despite the fact that he made more than a few in matters of theory and in his practical activity.  After the Party Congress we shall probably have to re-evaluate many [of our] wartime military operations and present them in their true light.[18]

Khrushchev’s version lacks full credibility, and appears to be an attempt by him to distance himself from a major military defeat, while discrediting the late dictator.

There was undoubtedly a non-military, intrinsically political element to the decision to attack at Kharkov.  Josef Stalin favored a more offensive strategy, instead of passing the initiative to the Germans.  Naturally, those commanders who saw their fortunes and perhaps their lives depending on the favor of the dictator would have good reason offer options to which he would be predisposed.  At the very least, this would temper criticism, let alone opposition, among prudent officers.  Timoshenko, an old associate and ally of Stalin’s, lobbied hard for the Kharkov attack, and Stalin approved it, deflecting the reservations emerging from within the Stavka.[19]  But by 1956, with Stalin dead and Khrushchev embarked on a de-Stalinization campaign, it became not just safe, but politically advantageous to criticize an operation that had ended in disaster anyway.

The Germans were preparing for their own offensive in the area, against the same salient from which the Soviets were preparing to attack.  Hitler decided that the Wehrmacht’s objective for 1942 would be the Soviet Union’s oil, not its capital, and thus the main German effort would be in the south, toward the Caucasian oil fields.[20]  As early as August 1941, Hitler identified economic objectives as more important than Moscow, which a month earlier he had dismissed as “a mere geographical concept.”[21]  The Crimea would have to be occupied to safeguard the Romanian oil fields, with Kharkov and the Donets Basin necessary for the coalmines and heavy industry.  The Wehrmacht would also cut off the flow oil from the Caucasus to the Soviet war economy.[22]  Then, with petroleum shortages afflicting the Germans, and with its allies, particularly Italy, dependent upon fuel allocated by the Germans, Hitler and his generals settled on a southern strategy that was expected to take them to the Caucasian oil fields.[23]

In preparation for the main drive toward the Caucasus, Case Blue (Fall Blau) the Germans adopted a plan called Operation Friderikus.  This would reduce the Soviet salient around Izyum and Barvenkovo, and secure the Donets River line.  There, the Germans would regroup, and finally launch their main effort toward the Volga and especially the Caucasus and its oil.[24]  Friderikus was scheduled to start on 22 April, when the Donets would be in full flood, and thus the Soviets would be pinned against it.  However, Hitler and Franz Halder reviewed the plan, and altered it to “Friderikus II,” in which the Germans would penetrate to the eastern bank of the Donets.  This occurred while the Wehrmacht was experiencing difficulties moving the necessary reinforcements to the area, and thus Bock ended up delaying the German offensive to 18 May.[25]




The Soviet Kharkov offensive began on 12 May 1942.  Initially, they poured through the German lines, but the latter were able to prevent a complete rout by adopting the same type of strongpoints that they had used to defend against the winter onslaughts.  In consequence, the Soviets had to retain forces from the attack to deal with the German hedgehogs, or at least contain these units from breaking out into the Soviet rear.[26]  Still, both Soviet and German sources count this beginning as spectacular, exceeded only by the winter offensives before Moscow after the failure of Operation Typhoon, and even then not by very much.  While the Soviets did not claim to have overwhelming numerical advantages, just 1.5 to 1 in troops and 2 to 1 in armor, they definitely had the Germans fooled at the time.  The German Sixth Army claimed to have been attacked by twelve divisions and over 300 tanks, leading Bock to state that it was “fighting for its life.”[27]  Two Soviet pincers penetrated north and south of the city, and by midday on 12 May, were within twenty kilometers of Kharkov.  According to Timoshenko, Kharkov would be liberated in a day or two.[28]

The Soviets achieved not just concentration of force at Kharkov, but operational and strategic surprise as well.  This was despite earlier German analyses indicating that an attack out of the Izyum salient, enveloping Kharkov, was in the offing.  Writing of the impending Operation Friderikus, Bock told Halder a week before the Soviet attack that “the Russians might beat us to it and attack on both sides of Kharkov.”[29]  Still, the Soviet attack came as a profound shock to the Germans.

Paulus appealed to Bock for reinforcements.  The Army Group South commander  no longer believed that Frederikus could proceed as planned, and gave him the 23rd Panzer Division, one of the German offensive’s spearheads.  This diversion of resources angered Halder, who told Bock in a heated phone conversation that units intended for Frederikus could not be reallocated to address what Halder termed minor “blemishes.”  With a more accurate view of what was actually occurring at the front, Bock denied that the Soviet breakthroughs were blemishes, but rather represented a severe crisis for Army Group South: “It’s neck or nothing!”[30]

Bock finally managed to convince the Army Chief of Staff of the critical danger posed by the Soviet attack.  Halder went to Hitler, who immediately ordered most of the bomber and dive bomber units then fighting at Kerch to go north to support the defense of Kharkov.  The Luftwaffe’s fighters achieved air superiority over the Kharkov battlefield against more numerous but poorly-trained Soviet airpower.  Yet it was not until 15 May that most of the bomber units sent from the Crimea arrived; until then the light anti-ground armament of the German fighters in the Ukraine could do little more than harass the Soviet attackers.[31]

Despite the apparent success of the Soviet offensive, not all was going well in the first three days.  Inexperienced at the sort of mechanized actions at which the Germans excelled, they found it difficult to get reserves to the forward spearheads in the southern sector.[32]  At the same time, the Germans were giving a good account of themselves tactically, with local counterattacks especially on the northern flank stalling the offensive.[33]  The Soviets themselves were candid in a post-offensive report, citing “Unwarranted deviations from the plan of operation, poor organization of Front co-operation, poor reconnaissance and a number of operational errors” for the impending disaster.  Thus, both German skill on the battlefield, and Soviet errors born out of inexperience, [34]  were impeding the Soviets from the beginning.  Then Timoshenko added his own mistakes, chief among them was a poor sense of timing.  The marshal committed his reserves slowly in penny packets, instead of en masse, thereby depriving himself of the means to actually win the battle at the most critical moments of opportunity.[35]  When the time came to win, Timoshenko failed to act.




The Germans launched their long-planned offensive on 18 March.  At 1230, the III Panzer Corps under General Eberhard Mackensen attacked the southern flank; the 14th Panzer Division drove in the center, flanked by 100th Light Division on its right and the 1st Mountain Division on its left.  Mackensen’s panzers routed the Soviets to their front immediately, taking Barvenkovo and bridging the Sukhoy Torets River.  The 14th Panzer Division poured through the breach.  By the end of the day, the headquarters of the Soviet 57th Army was destroyed, and its commander. Lieutenant General K.P. Podlas killed, along with his chief of artillery and chief political commissar. [36]  Thus the German offensive roared to a victorious start, and sounded the death knell of not just the Soviet onslaught, but the forces prosecuting it.

This was compounded by, again, slow Soviet reaction to changing events.  While the Germans caved in their southern flank and enveloped their troops in a large kessel, the Soviets obstinately continued to try to drive forward around Kharkov.  Rather than defending against the counterattack, they pushed deeper into what had become a massive trap.  The Stavka saw the danger, and its generals begged Stalin to call off the attack, while warning Timoshenko of the danger to his flanks.  Rather than recognize the growing danger, Timoshenko insisted that all was well.  Still, by the end of 18 May, 250,000 Soviet troops and 1,200 tanks were about to be encircled, and Timoshenko and his friend and political commissar, Khrushchev, finally realized their plight.[37]

Terrified of Stalin, Timoshenko asked Khrushchev to call Stalin.  When the commissar asked to speak to the Boss, Georgi Malenkov called him to the phone.  However, Stalin refused to answer, demanding that Malenkov hang up.  Khrushchev said that the offensive had to be called off; Stalin charged that he was injecting himself into military matters that were not his business, and that orders had to be obeyed.  Besides, Stalin’s military advisers knew better.  Anastas Mikoyan later expressed shock that while Khrushchev “was calling from the front line in battle with people dying all around him,” Stalin “would not walk ten steps across the room.”[38]

Stalin relented the next day, cancelling the attack toward Kharkov.  But the damage was already done, not just on the battlefield, but also to the relationship between Timoshenko and Khrushchev.  The political officer and the marshal engaged in an exchange of denunciations, fighting for their own careers and perhaps existance by accusing each other.  Eventually Khrushchev was forgiven, but in a reassuring manner that actually served to terrify him still further, as Stalin was wont to send people from his office with good news, only to have them arrested a short time later.[39]

At this point, a Soviet disaster was probably inevitable, regardless of the fearful nature of Moscow’s internal politics.  Their forces were already thrust deep into the snare, and the Izyum-Barvenkovo salient presented a hazardous situation even without each side launching an attack there.  Nonetheless, the slow Soviet response to the German buildup and attack, and Timoshenko’s nonchalant reassurance that all was well despite Stavka’s concerns, did nothing to reduce the stakes, or the scale of the coming defeat.

Yet even as Timoshenko was having Khrushchev plead with Stalin call off the attack, he tried to rescue it by finally committing reserves to his Sixth Army to the offensive.  At 1535 on 19 May, with Khrushchev by his side for support, Timoshenko called the Stavka for permission to execute this change in plans, starting late on 21 or early 22 May.  Vasilevsky conveyed Stavka’s concurrance fifteen minutes later, with the recommendation that the commitment occur quickly.  But instead of exploiting success and regaining the initiative, Timoshenko’s move simply aggravated the damage, and drove the Soviets deeper into disaster.  Possibly informed by radio intercepts, the Germans seemed to know the Soviet intent immediately, and were emboldened to order Kleist to seize the crossing of the Donets at Protopopovka.[40]  Thus instead of just pocketing the Soviets in the salient on the near side of the river, the Germans adopted a larger solution that including crossing the Donets.

Friderikus’ momentum grew with its ambitions.  In part this was due to the Luftwaffe reinforcements diverted from Crimea, starting on 15 May, and with especially effective air support to Mackensen’s panzer korps from 18 May onward.  In addition, during the first days of Friderikus, German air crews flew up to ten missions per day.[41]  This skilled and indefatigable air support was beyond anything that the Luftwaffe’s Soviet counterparts could deliver, and was instrumental first to blunting the original offensive, and then supporting the counterattack.

The climax of Friderikus came on 20 May, when the 14th Panzer Division seized Protopopovka.[42]  American observers noted that continuation of the German advance would threaten to encircle all Soviet forces west of the Donets,[43] a prescient reflection.  The Soviets trapped inside fought desperately to escape.  Only one attempt came close to success, near Petrovskoye, but on 25 May two divisions supported by some T-34’s were caught by Luftwaffe Stukas and halted.  This was but a momentary scare for the Germans, and on that day the mouth of the pocket was closed for good; three days later the last Soviet resistance petered out.[44]




The Soviet army suffered terrible casualties in the Kharkov offensive, and the subsequent German counteroffensive.  The official Soviet tally is that 765,300 men participated, and that 170,958 were killed, taken prisoner, or became missing in action.  An additional 106,232 were taken prisoner, for total losses of 277,190,[45] or about 36% of those engaged.  Particularly savaged were the 57th and 6th Army commands,[46] so one could view both as rendered essentially hors de combat.  For their part the Germans tallied Soviet prisoners at 239,000, and stated that they destroyed the bulk of twenty-two rifle and seven cavalry divisions, with fourteen tank or mechanized brigades routed.  Soviet equipment losses, per the Germans, came to 1,250 tanks and 2,026 guns either destroyed or captured.[47]  The USSR’s losses were so great that at first they grossly understated them at 5,000 dead and 70,000 missing, and suppressed anything approaching the true cost until Nikita Khrushchev had assumed the supreme leadership himself.[48]  It should also be noted that while the Germans were inflicting massive casualties on the Soviets around Kharkov, they were still winning their battles in the Crimea, so the Soviet Union suffered not one but two major defeats in the spring of 1942.

The German victory at Kharkov was the greatest single triumph on the Eastern Front, except for the encirclement at Kiev the year before.  Significantly too, while Friderikus was already in the works, this was a reactive victory, in which the Soviets had the advantages of both surprise and the initiative, at least at the beginning, and were able to generate a major crisis for the Germans.  By no means was it a testimony to a completely incompetent army marching happily to its inevitable doom; a Soviet victory was definitely within reach.

The reasons why this did not occur are evident at all levels of the Soviet army.  To start with, the Soviets themselves cited frequent breakdowns in command and control at the army, corps, division, and regimental levels.  In a report to the Stavka from the Southwest Direction staff, it was admitted that:

It turned out that the army command and a portion of the divisional and corps commanders, with their staffs, were incapable of controlling forces in complex situations.  As a rule, the command leadership of armies, corps and divisions at critical moments during the operation and battles did not direct their forces’ formations, but instead travelled around to their subunits.[49]

 One could ascribe this to a general lack of  skill among combat commanders, and perhaps inexperience, indicating that Soviet commanders as a group were not yet capable of executing a preplanned, complex, combined arms offensive against an enemy as highly capable as the Wehrmacht in May 1942.  Simply put, they had not learned when to move and when to stay put and direct the battle.

On the other side of the lines, the Germans were impressed by the determination, even fanaticism, at times of the Soviet forces.  While the Germans might be quite pleased by their victory, and cognizant of Soviet weaknesses in planning, logistics, and command and control, they noted that the USSR appeared to have a bottomless reserve of resources, including ferociously-motivated soldiers.  Kleist noted that the battle was unusually harsh, and that where the fighting was the hardest, “[A]s far as the eye can see, the ground is so thickly covered with the bodies of men and horses that it is difficult to find a passage through for one’s command car.”[50]  Mackensen observed that the Soviets were even more ruthless and determined than the year before.[51]  Therefore it can be concluded that at the small-unit tactical level and immediately above, Soviet commitment and fanaticism in defense of the Motherland was up to the task of fighting the Germans, even though the officers were still learning.

The top of the Soviet command structure exhibits a more problematic picture.  Collectively, the Stavka appears to have been the most clear and rational in its thinking, demonstrating a healthy, and prescient, skepticism about the offensive when it was first proposed.  It did not jump on the Kharkov bandwagon, and advocated a more cautious, defensive-minded strategy instead of commencing a large-scale offensive before the Soviets had the clear capability to do so.  Further, while Timoshenko was assuring Moscow that all was going well, the supreme headquarters could see the danger through the marshal’s happy talk.

As a political officer rather than a military man, to some extent Khrushchev might be excused for embracing and advocating the offensive as he did.  Operations were certainly outside his core competencies as a Soviet apparatchik.  At the same time, his consistent efforts to revise history and run from the massive failure that was the Kharkov offensive is telling.  Montefiore characterizes Khrushchev’s denunciations of his old friend Timoshenko as indicative of an “unstable” state of mind, and states that the future leader may have had a mental breakdown after the encirclement, flying to Baku to get away from the scene of the crisis.[52]  In this light,  his revisionism in 1956 reads like the overkill of a man sensitive to the notion that while success has many parents, failure has few, and he was thus determined to avoid being counted in that select number.  That this narrative fit into his campaign of overall de-Stalinization was a matter of conveniently converging interests.

Timoshenko comes off even less well.  While Khrushchev was not a military professional, Timoshenko certainly was, and purportedly one of the best in the Soviet Union.  Glantz describes him as “reliable and competent,” and thus accorded ever-growing responsibilities as war with Germany approached.[53]  However, Montefiore sees him less positively.  His character is one that the marshal shares with Khrushchev, in Montefiore’s eyes: “uneducated, crude and energetic.”[54]  This seems more than a little unfair, considering Timoshenko’s credible performance in the Winter War, and the summer 1941 battles at Smolensk.  While Timoshenko might have been a rough character, so were many other generals, especially in the Soviet Union, and this does not necessarily undercut his basic competence.  Therefore one has reason to expect better from him.

Nonetheless, the Kharkov offensive was his idea, and it proved to be a bad one.  Timoshenko cannot escape the blame for conceiving and then advocating it.  Further, even Stalin, not one to care at all about the effusion of blood in pursuit of victories military or political, castigated Timoshenko for his losses in May 1942.  Said the Generalissimo: “Maybe the time has come for you to wage war by losing less blood, as the Germans are doing?  If you don’t learn to how to fight better, all the armaments produced in the whole country won’t be enough for you.”[55]  However, Stalin treated him as leniently as he did Khrushchev, transferring Timoshenko to the Leningrad front in July.  If there was a scapegoat, it was Timoshenko’s chief of staff, the Armenian general Ivan Bagramyan, and even he emerged as one of the Soviet Union’s leading commanders by the end of the war.[56]

On the Soviet side, all roads lead back not just to Moscow, but to Josef Stalin.  The dictator set the tone for leadership relationships during the Great Patriotic War, as throughout his domination of the USSR, and made it clear that he wanted an offensive in spring 1942.  Timoshenko provided it.  Not that he was alone, as the Stavka was “bombarded with proposals for offensive action from front-line commanders asking for additional forces,” according to Geoffrey Roberts.  While Roberts might overstate the offensive-mindedness of Stavka in his account, there is no doubt that an offensive is what Stalin wanted, and therefore Stalin got, at Kharkov.[57]

The battle was not just one for the Soviets to lose, but one for the Germans to win as well, and German kampfkraft, from top to bottom, was evident throughout.  They responded to the early crises with tactical skill, combining the assumption of effective, 360-degree hedgehogs, according to established doctrine,[58] with local counterattacks, in a combination of passive and active defense.  Furthermore, despite the early disagreement between Bock and Halder on this count, the German leadership recognized the attack for the crisis that it was, and reinforced Paulus sufficiently to deal with it.  Then they shifted airpower from Crimea to support their defense at Kharkov, and subsequently employed it to support the Friderikus counteroffensive.

As a result, Germany achieved a better line of departure from which to launch their summer drive to the Volga and Caucasus, all the while clearing the Izyum salient and destroying the Soviet forces within.  Meanwhile, they were still able to clear Crimea and seize Sevastopol, despite the distraction of Kharkov.  Therefore, Friderikus and the envelopment of the Soviet armies was one of the most impressive German victories of the entire war, a singular demonstration of the operational art.  In no way is this diminished by the denouement at Stalingrad over the next winter, nor by the Soviet failures that contributed mightily to the outcome.




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[1] Bryan Fugate and Lev Dvoretsky, Thunder on the Dnepr: Zhukov-Stalin and the Defeat of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1997), 15.

[2] Richard P. Hallion, “The Winter War,” Air Force Magazine (  accessed 10 January 2021.

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (New York: Vintage, 2003), 368.

[4] Earl F. Ziemke and Magna E. Bauer, Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East (Washington: Center of Military History, 1987), 24.

[5] David M. Glantz, Kharkov 1942: Anatomy of a Military Disaster Through Soviet Eyes (Hersham, UK: Ian Allan, 1998), 105-107.

[6] “Feodor von Bock,” Jewish Virtual Library (,  accessed 10 January 2021.

[7] Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 53.

[8] “Friedrich Paulus,” Jewish Virtual Library (, accessed 10 January 2021.

[9] Joel S.A. Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East 1942-1943 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 38.

[10] David M. Glantz, Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 (Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2001), 47.

[11] David M. Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 157-158.

[12] Fritz, 248-249.

[13] Ibid., 249.

[14] Ibid., 249.

[15] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 27-29.

[16] Fritz, 249.

[17] Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (New York: Random House, 2012), 150.

[18] “Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U.,” (, accessed 10 January 2021.

[19] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 41.

[20] Ty Bomba, “Sunrise of Victory: How Strategy’s End Turned the Tide in the East,” Command Issue 2 (January-February 1990), 19.

[21] Hayward, 9.

[22] Ibid., 9.

[23] Ibid., 17-21.

[24] Stephen B. Patrick, “Kharkov: The Soviet Spring Offensive,” Strategy & Tactics Number 68 (May-June 1978), 5.

[25] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 49.

[26] Patrick, 6.

[27] Ziemke and Bauer, 273.

[28] Hayward, 121.

[29] Fritz, 249.

[30] Hayward, 121.

[31] Ibid., 122.

[32] Fritz, 247.

[33] Ibid., 250.

[34] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 19.

[35] Patrick, 6.

[36] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 256-257.

[37] Montefiore, 414-415.

[38] Ibid., 414-415.

[39] Ibid., 415.

[40] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 266-269.

[41] Hayward, 124-125.

[42] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 278.

[43] Hayward, 125.

[44] Ibid., 125.

[45] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 302.

[46] Ibid., 302.

[47] Ibid., 301.

[48] Patrick, 7.

[49] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 306-307.

[50]Fritz, 252.

[51] Ibid., 252.

[52] Montefiore, 415.

[53] Glantz, Kharkov 1942, 107.

[54] Montefiore, 414.

[55] Ibid., 416.

[56] Roberts, 152.

[57] Ibid., 152.

[58] Patrick, 7.