The Wehrmacht's defensive line at the Mius river in the Donbass was a comfortable place for the Wehrmacht ever since the end of 1941. The Caucasus offensive moved the front lines all the way to the Volga, and the line temporarily emptied, but not for long. In the winter of 1943, after the catastrophe at Stalingrad, the Germans had to renew the old trenches and hurriedly refill them with fresh troops to fill the breach formed after the surrender of Paulus' army.
By the time the Red Army reached this line of defense, they were exhausted from prolonged combat, their supply lines were stretched, most infantry fell behind tanks that rushed forward. In February, the Mius front was an impenetrable obstacle for the Red Army. The next attempt to take it was in mid-July.
Hanging on a Foothold
The Dobass region was especially important for Hitler's commanders, but this did not prevent them from leaving the defending 6th Army without any tank reserves. They were all sent to Kursk. General Hollidt was left with about 50 tanks from the roughed up 16th Panzergrenadier Division and three squadrons of StuGs (about 90 vehicles). If necessary, the 23rd Tank Division, resting nearby after battle, could come to their aid.
The HQ of the Soviet South Front also understood the importance of the Mius front for Germany as they prepared for their offensive.
Over two years of war, Soviet commanders studied their enemy well. They knew that the Germans' favourite maneuver was to strike in the flank of an attacker. This happened, for example, in February of 1943, when elements of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps and two infantry regiments that crossed the Mius became encircled and had to fight their way back. Soviet commanders paid special attention to protecting their flanks from German counterattacks.
On the dawn of July 17th, forces of the South Front began their offensive, crossed the river, and captured a sizeable foothold. On the next day, the Germans attempted to cut the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps off from the Mius after they crossed it. This battle did not go well for the tanks and panzergrenadiers of the 16th division. German tanks were preoccupied with fighting Soviet tanks. Infantry, cut off from their tanks, was unable to achieve significant results. The Germans only managed to temporarily delay advancing Soviet tanks. As a result of these battles, the Soviets captured Stepanovka, which played an important role in the battles ahead.
By the evening of July 18th, the Germans had 20 battle-ready tanks left out of 53, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The panzergrenadiers were ordered to attack again on the next day, this time in support of the 23rd Tank Division that came to plug the breach. The counterattack resulted in a fierce battle with elements of the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps. Seven German tanks managed to break through to the outskirts of Stepanovka from the north-west, but they were stopped by Soviet tanks and artillery. The panzergrenadiers achieved some local successes, but the offensive was a failure once again. The number of working tanks was reduced to five.
The 23rd Tank Division wasn't doing much better. The 5th Shock Army took good care of its flanks. Tanks and artillery fired upon German vehicles from high ground, assault aircraft actively worked them over from above. Infantry from the 23rd division, stopped by artillery fire, mortars, and small arms, took heavy losses and was unable to help its tanks. Without support, the tanks had to return to starting positions with heavy losses. The 23rd Tank Division was down to 22 functional tanks.
In total, the Germans lost 24 tanks irreparably over two days. More than 40 needed repairs, nearly 20 of which were long-term repairs.
The difficult terrain impeded both sides of the battle. If the heights around Stepanovka were a thorn in the Germans' side, then height 277,9, Saur-Mogila hill. Brigades of the 2nd Mechanized Corps only managed to take it on July 19th. In the morning, remaining German tanks counterattacked the height. Control over Saur-Mogila changed several times that day, but by midnight, it was firmly in Soviet hands.
On July 21st, attempts to break the German defenses continued. Almost completely out of tanks, the 16th Panzergrenadier Division managed to create a defensive line with 88 mm AA guns. Instead of meaningfully supporting Hollidt, German command sent him small groups of tanks as they came in from the factories. He only needed to hold out a little bit longer. Three tank divisions from the 2nd SS Tank Corps were coming to help from Kursk.
Of course, by the end of July, the SS divisions weren't the same as at the start of Operation Citadel. Due to timely repairs, Death's Head, Das Reich, and the 3rd Tank Division cobbled up about 250 combat-capable tanks and StuGs.
Divisions coming to help Hollidt already felt the quality of Soviet anti-tank defenses on their own hides. The experience was a painful one, but, compared to what was waiting for them, incomplete. The 5th Shock Army had ten days to create a line of defense before the SS forces arrived, with mines and anti-tank guns.
On July 3rd, the newly arrived forces attacked in the direction of Stepanovka, Gerasimovka, and the dominant heights in the region. Das Reich was supposed to take Stepanovka, where many Soviet anti-tank guns controlled access to the heights. Even without the guns, the Germans were not doing well. Several dozen tanks were immobilized on a mine field immediately and the infantry and SPGs got stuck in battle on the outskirts of the village. In total, 25 vehicles were lost, in addition to significant amounts of men.
Das Reich's failure had a direct effect on the success of Death's Head. The division, attacking Gerasimovka with "impenetrable" Tigers in front of them quickly bogged down in Soviet minefields. While sappers raced to set up passages, everything that could be firing at them was: machineguns, mortars, guns of all calibers. Most of the fire was aimed at the German flank from Stepanovka, the village that Das Reich failed to take. Soon, Il-2 Sturmoviks joined the hunt. During the thole day, both combat groups from Death's Head did not make it past the Eastern slopes of the heights at Gerasimovka. After dark, they were forced to retreat, leaving behind 8 Tigers out of 10, 12 StuGs out of 26, and almost 50 other tanks.
The 3rd Tank Division mostly repeated this script. A minefield, a stop, some progress, more mines. After Soviet tanks counterattacked, the enemy was forced to retreat. The 3rd Tank Army regrouped and attacked again several times, but fruitlessly and with great losses.
The SS did not see such a crushing blow even at Kursk. On July 30th alone, the 2nd SS Tank Corps lost over 100 tanks and SPGs and over 1500 men killed, wounded, or missing.
Fierce battles continued. The Soviets knew that the Germans brought in significant reserves, and will sooner or later wring the defenders dry. At the same time, the Germans couldn't keep the 2nd SS at Mius, it was needed at Kharkov to stop another offensive. Ironically, both sides decided to stop advancing almost simultaneously.
On August 2nd, forces of the South Front finished the crossing to the eastern shore of the Mius. The offensive temporarily stopped. The Mius Front had little more than two weeks left.
Original article available here.