On this day, German troops re-enter Kharkov, the second largest city in the Ukraine, which had changed hands several times in the battle between the USSR and the invading German forces.
Kharkov was a high-priority target for the Germans when they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, as the city was a railroad and industrial center, and had coal and iron mines nearby. Among the most important industries for Stalin’s war needs was the Kharkov Tanks Works, which he moved out of Kharkov in December 1941 into the Ural Mountains. In fact, Joseph Stalin was so desperate to protect Kharkov that he rendered a “no retreat” order to his troops, which produced massive casualties within the Red Army over time.
Hitler’s troops first entered Kharkov in October 1941. In May 1942, the Soviets launched an effective surprise attack on the Germans just south of Kharkov, enabling the Red Army to advance closer to the occupied city, and finally re-enter it on February 16, 1943. Hitler began planning an immediate recapture as early as February 21—Red Army Day—hoping that success there would reverse the Soviet momentum of the previous three months. On March 10, German troops launched their major offensive; the Soviets had already suffered the loss of 23,000 soldiers and 634 tanks in the recapture and defense of Kharkov and were forced to rely on 1,000 Czech troops for aid.
On March 14, the tide in Kharkov turned again, and the Germans took the city once more. “We have shown the Ivans we can withstand their terrible winter. It can hold no fear for us again,” wrote an SS officer. This proved to be a meaningless boast when the Red Army liberated the city that summer, and untrue, as the brutal Soviet winter actually did take a terrifying toll on German troops.