An enormous breach formed in the Soviet-German front after the encirclement and defeat of Paulus' 6th Army at Stalingrad. Another breach formed soon after, as a result of the Voronezh-Kastornaya Operation in January of 1943. This second breach was very tempting for the Soviets as it opened up a route to liberate Kharkov and the Donbass.
At the same time, Manstein was desperately holding onto Rostov-on-the-Don, saving the German 1st Tank Army. Even the tried and true German technique of shortening the front to increase the concentration of forces wasn't enough to resolve this crisis. The only weight that could tilt the scales in the Germans' favour was the injection of new forces.
The Germans had such a weight: three SS divisions, Das Reich, LSSAH, and Totenkopf. These divisions were withdrawn to France for rest and resupply, were reformed into panzergrenadier divisions, received their own tank regiments with medium tanks, companies of new Tigers, anti-tank and assault gun squadrons. This fearsome trinity was named the 2nd SS Tank Corps. Das Reich alone had 131 tanks of various types and 28 assault guns at the time of being sent to the front. The Corps was commanded by Paul Hausser.
Laws of military science, which the German generals ought to have known, dictate that it would be best to collect the 2nd SS Tank Corps into one contiguous force that could shift the odds in the Germans' favour with one decisive blow. The reality was different. The shipment of new forces to the Eastern Front was scheduled for the end of 1942. German commanders were planning on including the SS corps in the attempt to free Paulus' men surrounded at Stalingrad. However, by the time the corps crossed Europe and reached the Ukrainian steppe there was no one left to save. Instead, the collapse of the entire southern flank of the German-Soviet front was imminent.
The first battalion from Das Reich was sent to Voroshilovgrad (modern Lugansk) the moment it disembarked, 250 km in the direction of Kharkov. Hausser was promised that he would get it back, but the promise was only kept in late March of 1943. Meanwhile, the corps command was building a defense around Kharkov out of any arriving unit. Panzergrenadier regiments were in position by the start of February, but tanks and SPGs were just arriving by the time the Soviet offensive began.
Velikiy Burluk Schwerpunkt
Elements of the 2nd Voronezh Front were tasked with liberating Kharkov. The first strike of Operation Star would be delivered by P. Rybalko's 3rd Tank Army. Units in this army were experiencing a serious shortage in men and materiel at the start of the offensive. The corps of this army were the size of brigades. For example, the 1st Tank Corps only had 20-48 tanks (depending on the source) on February 1st. Either way, the Germans were in an even worse position, since the SS tanks have not yet arrived.
The battered infantry divisions covering the flanks of Das Reich took the hardest beating. Even SS garrisons who successfully deflected Soviet tank attacks were forced to retreat. Meanwhile, LSSAH was trying to build a defense in front of the Severniy Donets river.
Das Reich's objective at this stage was to hold onto the Velikiy Burluk settlement. In German terminology, this was the Schwerpunkt (lit. "force point") from which the Germans could deliver a blow against the foundation of the Soviet spearhead. The Soviet 186th Rifle Regiment and then the main forces of the 15th Tank Corps reached the settlement on the morning of February 4th, 1943 After heated battles, the garrison in Velikiy Burluk was destroyed.
On the next day, the long awaited German tanks arrived. Das Reich tried to counterattack. Aside from tanks, a battalion of Hanomag APCs from the Fuhrer SS regiment also participated in the attack. However, the main Soviet tank forces already moved on towards Kharkov, so the attack hit the 180th Rifle Division who was coming up behind Rybalko's tanks. Divisional reports contained heavy losses, but army level reports reacted calmly: "The 180th Rifle Division is holding back attacks of 30 tanks with motorized infantry from Beliy Kolodez".
These 30 tanks were likely from Das Reich's 1st battalion. According to German data, the battle on February 5th cost it at least 12 knocked out tanks. This meshes well with the report from the 180th Rifle Division, who reported 14 knocked out German tanks. Overall, despite the large volume of the attack, it's hard to call it a success. The commanders of the 69th Army only requested air support.
The 3rd Tank Army HQ paid more attention to its right flank. The 288th Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment was sent by forced march to Olkhovatka village, and the 179th Independent Tank Brigade was assigned to the 48th Guards Rifle Division who was already stationed there. Rybalko also asked for air support like his neighbour. A chaotic mish-mash of Soviet and German forces took place around Olkhovatka and Velikiy Burluk for the next few days.
German documents insist that the 2nd SS Tank Corps held onto Velikiy Burluk until February 8th, but this is contradicted by Soviet reports. According to them, the Germans tried to retake the settlement, but were stopped some distance away to the north. The battles over Burluk were heavy, but Hausser's SS only managed to reach the north-western outskirts on February 7th.
The Germans failed to achieve their main objective: pulling Rybalko's tank corps from Kharkov.
First Liberation of Kharkov
Reporting that "one regiment of the 184th Rifle Division is fighting off tanks and submachinegunners in Velikiy Burluk", the 3rd Tank Army continued to advance on Kharkov. The 15th and 12th Tank Corps were fighting on the approaches to the city. The 6th Guards Cavalry Corps flanked German positions and threatened the city garrison.
By February 9th, 1943, Soviet forces finally fended off the German attacks and began their own offensive. Having knocked out about 23 tanks on the next day they took Beliy Kolodez, the starting off point for Das Reich's attacks.
A flank attack against the 3rd Tank Army was no longer the Germans' top priority. They had their hands full trying to avoid an encirclement. A tank attack against the cavalry corps looked more promising than trying to ram through Soviet infantry defenses that were peppered with artillery and tanks.
The 6th Cavalry Corps describes these battles as follows: "The corps fought difficult battles against armoured units, motorized infantry, and aircraft from February 10th to 16th. The corps fought enemy tanks for five days with various means. Up to 80 tanks and many soldiers and officers were destroyed."
Even though the Germans managed to avoid an encirclement, there were not enough forces to defend Kharkov. Several counterattacks that were, as the Germans wrote, "dictated by the situation", took the steam out of recently reinforced SS divisions. Das Reich had only 27 tanks remaining by February 13th out of the initial 131.
Soviet forces took Kharkov on February 16th, 1943.
This date combined the end of the third battle for the city and the start of a two week pause before the Germans would once again cast a 200 day long shadow on the city.
The Red Army learned how to achieve victory, but not how to cement its success. The Soviet units were tired and bloodied, and the Germans introduced significant reserves on the southern front. Soon, the city was back in German hands for several months. However, the losses the Wehrmacht took meant that it was capable of just one last strategic offensive that began in July at the Kursk Salient.