Second Kharkov remains one of the most controversial battles of the war in Soviet and Russian historiography. Blame for another catastrophic defeat of the Red Army was laid on Joseph Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, after the great dictator’s death. Marshals Boris M. Shaposhnikov and Semyon Timoshenko and their immediate subordinates have been blamed by others, with Stalin in a supporting role. The origins of the controversy lie in the fact that, despite massive losses suffered in 1941 and again over the first four months of 1942, Stalin and some members of the Stavka insisted on fresh spring offensives all along the Eastern Front. Among these operations, the most important turned into the disastrous Second Battle of Kharkov. Timoshenko pushed especially hard for this fight. General Georgi Zhukov and some other Stavka members seem to have opposed an unwise dispersal of sparse forces among too many, and also overly ambitious, operations. A compromise was reached by limiting the operation in eastern Ukraine to a push to retake Kharkov, which was held by German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus. It was simultaneously proposed to straighten the line and protect the Barvenkovo salient southeast of Kharkov. Meanwhile, the Germans were planning their own Operation FRIDERICUS, a limited offensive intended to trap Soviet forces in the “Izium pocket,” or “Barvenkovo salient.” Neither side knew the others’ plans. Soviet military intelligence failed to detect the German offensive intention to cut off the Barvenkovo salient and additionally fell victim to a German deception campaign that effectively concealed the Barvenkovo build-up.
Each side was about equal in numbers of men and guns involved as the battle was engaged. The Soviets moved first, though not well or fast. Many of the more than 1,100 Soviet tanks at Kharkov were in newly organized and still experimental formations. Formed into two armored pincers, they reached deep into the German defenses. The first pincer was a strong formation of three armies from Southwestern Front that attacked on either side of Kharkov on May 12. Soviet 6th Army formed a smaller pincer that struck farther south, directly out of the Barvenkovo salient. Within five days, Soviet 6th Army ran into the planned FRIDERICUS attack, which was strongly supported by Panzers and by the Luftwaffe. The Germans achieved complete surprise, as General Ewald von Kleist sliced into the thinned southern flank and rear of the still-advancing Soviet 6th Army. The left pincer of the Soviet Kharkov operation was thus forced to reverse, fighting desperately to return to its jump-off positions in the Barvenkovo salient in an effort to prevent being totally cut off. The fighting retreat by Soviet 6th Army was delayed by lack of timely orders from the Stavka or from Timoshenko. Some 20 divisions and thousands of guns and tanks were thus encircled by the Germans on May 23, as Kleist closed the trap around a Soviet force that had advanced directly into it. Very heavy fighting followed in another great Kessel, which cooked to death all Soviet 6th Army. Loss of the southern Soviet pincer eviscerated the effect of any advance farther north, around the city. Worse, vast losses of men and matériel opened a wide gap in the Soviet line. Through that gap, Paulus and German 6th Army pushed their advantage later that summer, along what turned out to be a deadly, one-way road to Stalingrad.
Much of the controversy about the Soviet failure at Second Kharkov attends the delay in ordering a pullback by Soviet 6th Army. More attention might be usefully paid to the lack of Red Army mobility even with a large tank force at hand, and to the readiness with which large numbers of Red Army conscripts still surrendered, as they had done during 1941. The Red Army lost at Kharkov not merely because of intelligence and command failures, but more fundamentally because it was still bleeding men and machines that operated with overly blunt tactics, and because it had yet to recover fighting morale: as many as 214,000 krasnoarmeets gave up the fight at Kharkov. As for the Wehrmacht, while its military intelligence showed its usual inability to penetrate Soviet planning, its field commanders again displayed superior operational command and control and its field units performed with remarkable mobility and better basic fighting skill than their opponents. That disparity in battle performance would remain into late 1942, and even to mid-1943.