Kharkov, Ukraine

Kharkov is the second-largest city in Ukraine, a major university town and one of the host cities of the 2012 European football championships. It changed hands four times between October 1941 and August 1943.

It was first captured by the German 6th Army on October 24, 1941, although a large part of the city’s industrial plant, including the Kharkov Tractor Factory, in which the legendary T-34 tank was designed and developed, had been dismantled and evacuated by rail shortly beforehand.

As the Battle of Stalingrad entered its final days in late January 1943, the Red Army’s Voronezh Front, commanded by Filipp Golikov, was given the task of liberating Kursk and Kharkov. Under the codename Operation Star, the 40th, 69th and 3rd Tank Armies were assigned to take Kharkov, which was defended by Army Detachment Lanz and the SS Panzer Korps. By February 15, with Soviet units closing on the city from 3 directions and despite a categorical refusal from Hitler, Paul Hausser, the commander of the SS Panzer Korps, began withdrawing his troops, and by the following afternoon, the city was firmly in Soviet hands.

To the south of Voronezh Front, the South-Western under Nikolai Vatutin had liberated much of eastern Ukraine and was attempting to reach and force bridgeheads over the River Dnepr at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. On taking Kharkov, Golikov agreed to support this operation by attacking south-west to Poltava and Kremenchuk. Both Fronts, however, had been seriously weakened and had badly overstretched supply lines, and even as the SS Panzer Korps was withdrawing from Kharkov, Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group South, was organising a counter-strike.  The SS Panzer Korps was reinforced by the Das Reich and Totenkopf panzergrenadier divisions, which had been refitting in France, and it began a counter-offensive on February 19, joined from the south by 1st Panzer and 4th Panzer Armies, which had been withdrawn from the Caucasus. The attack badly mauled Southwestern Front’s 6th Army and Mobile Group “Popov” and the 3rd Tank Army from Voronezh Front, and the attack was continued towards Kharkov, which was retaken by the SS Panzer Korps on March 14, just 4 weeks after its earlier withdrawal.

A Waffen SS armoured personnel carrier on Sumskaya Street. Photograph from Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Following a period of regrouping in the wake of the battle of Kursk, the Red Army launched Operation Rumyantsev in the early hours of August 3, 1943. The Voronezh and Steppe Fronts, fielding a total of 8 armies attacked the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf (General Hubert Lanz having being replaced by Werner Kempf after the February withdrawal). By late on August 5, Steppe Front’s 69th and 7th Guards Armies had driven the 4th Panzer Army from Belgorod.  The 57th and 69th Armies had reached the outskirts of Kharkov by August 12, but the German XI Korps defended bitterly until Manstein ordered their withdrawal on August 22. Late the following morning, the 183rd Rifle Division of 69th Army and 89th Guards Rifle Division of 53rd Army linked up in the city centre and the city had changed hands for the fourth and final time.

The city centre is dominated by Freedom Square, one of the largest squares in Europe.Its former names include Dzerzhinsky Square, Independence Square and, for a few months in 1943, Platz der Liebstandarte.

The Kharkov Historical Museum  is on University Street (Университетская вулиця), about 10 minutes walk south of Freedom Square along Sumskaya Street (Сумская вулиця) or beside the Історичний Музей and Радянська metro stations. It can easily be recognized by the tanks and artillery pieces in front of the red-brick building. One tank is entirely predictable-a T-34/85-but the second is less so-a World War I British Mark V, which saw service in the Russian Civil War. The museum features exhibits covering the history of the city and region, including of course the Great Patriotic War.

A Liberation memorial is located to the north of the city centre, next to the metro station 23 Серпня (23rd August).

Another T-34 memorial, commemorating the Guards tank formations of the Red Army,  is located outside an army base to the southwest of the city centre.  To reach it, take the metro red line to Холодна Гора station (the last stop) and walk for about 10 minutes along Полтавский шлях (Poltava Highway).

Also in/near Kharkov:

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