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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
Not only were the three SS units able to help entrap the Russian spearhead, but they then led the most successful German counterattack of the war. Having cleared up the last enemy resistance south of Kharkov by 3 March, the SS-Panzer-Korps started a bold sweep around that city to envelop any remaining Russians west of the Donets. It must have been a source of great personal satisfaction for Hausser when on 11 March his troops were again fighting in the streets of Kharkov, this time as part of a victorious army sweeping the disorganized enemy before them. By 18 March 1943, the three SS Division had taken Belgorod, held a bridgehead across the Donets and stood poised behind the exposed flank of the entire Russian Central Front. Visions of Moscow again danced in German heads, and even the Russians begrudgingly admit that they were never closer to defeat. There were no more reserves available to the enemy, everything had been risked in the vain attempt to destroy Heeres-Gruppe Süd, and now nothing could stop the tanks of SS-Panzer-Korps from rolling up the flank of the enemy, except exhaustion, mud and Hitler.
A sight too frequently encountered in the drive for the Caucasian oilfields. As here at Maykop, which Wiking took on 1 August 1942, the retreating Russians would fire the fields, destroying pumps, wellheads and towers, making the oil useless to the enemy. [Bundesarchiv]
The last of those foes was to prove the most disastrous. The mud of a Russian spring brings operations to a halt for three to four weeks. It would take five weeks, Manstein figured, to totally rest and refit his units. He was ready to move at the beginning of May. Manstein's offensive could have been resumed with a minimum of difficulty. The Russians had only been able to plug the holes in their front at Belgorod by weakening it elsewhere and throwing in poorly trained scratch formations. A breakthrough now, a very real possibility, would find the Russians even weaker than before on the rest of the Front and utterly lacking in reserves.
But Hitler said no. Tigers, Ferdinands and Panthers were beginning to appear or were promised and Hitler wanted his armies, particularly the SS, re-equipped with these new superweapons. Also, he claimed, he wanted to draw more Russian troops into the salient that now existed between Belgorod and Orel, so that when it was cut off, that alone would be disastrous to the Russians. Instead of an attack only from the South aimed eventually at Moscow, Hitler wanted to build up the forces at Orel as well, and launch a predictable pincer attack aimed only at pinching off the now strengthened Russian forces around Kursk. But to do this, to create a second equivalent striking force under Model at Orel would take time. It was time that Germany did not have.
Taking notes on the enemy. Here three Wiking grenadiers check out an abandoned Russian T-34C. Moving past in the background is a Wespe [officially 1FH 18/2 auf Fgst PzKpfw II [Sf] SdKfz 124], a self-propelled 10.5cm howitzer on the PzKpfw II chassis. Completely bare of markings, the Wespe is painted overall Desert Brown, a Yellow-Brown color adapted for the DAK in Tunisia, but also used on vehicles in the Caucasus.
All good things must come to an end; the enemy offensive that surrounded Stalingrad and drove deep wedges into the German Front in Southern Russia required the recall of the three SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions that had been refitting in France. LAH and Das Reich were thrown into the defense of Kharkov in early Winter 1942. Newly arrived from France, this PzBeoWg III ausf H observation tank of Leibstandarte is camouflaged with Dark Green stripes sprayed over the Panzer Grey base. Note the unusual "Luftwaffe" style cross on the superstructure side, having a Black center [which became common later on Sand Yellow vehicles] and a Black outline to the White Balkenkreuz. Note also the turret schurzen, designed to protect against hollow-charge weapons like the Russian magnetic mine. The uniforms of the crew show the magnificent standard of equipment of SS troops. The reversible parka that all three are wearing Mouse Grey side out was exclusively as SS item. [Scott Van Ness]
It was time the Waffen-SS nevertheless used to advantage. The three divisions of the SS-Panzer-Korps, in particular, were tremendously reinforced, gaining a Tiger-Abteilung each. All four of the original SS motorized divisions were strengthened and brought to a peak of preparedness. Elsewhere the Waffen-SS had continued its growth. Four more divisions, all armored, and an assault brigade [Sturmbrigade "Reichsführer SS"], were added to the eight already in existence [SS-Kavallerie-Brigade becoming SS-Kavallerie-Division in 1942]. The new divisions [SS-Panzer-Grendadier-Division "Hohenstaufen", [10.] SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Karl der Grosse", [11.] SS-Panzer-Grendadier-Freiwilligen-Division "Nordland" and SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Hitlerjugend"] were in various stages of assembly and training, none would be combat ready before the end of 1943.
Thus the Waffen-SS now had a nominal armored strength of eight divisions. But it was on the four "original" SS-Panzergrenadier divisions that all eyes were focused as Summer approached in South Russia, particularly the three of SS-Panzer-Korps, LAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf. They represented the most Germany had to offer in both men and equipment. They were fine, strong and victorious. Much was expected of them. They would never again be as strong.