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Battle of Stalingrad

Background

The first major military setback for the Third Reich occurred on the outskirts of Moscow at the end of 1941. Left in poor defensive positions, the Soviet Union counter-attacked and drove the Germans back.

The reasons for the scale of the defeat included the Germans' lack of preparation for the harshness of the Russian winter, the overextension of their supply lines across their newly-captured areas, and Hitler's unwillingness to consider retreat.

As the winter continued the situation for the Germans improved as more attention was put on equipping them. Meanwhile newly formed units were being sent forward from Germany, and by the early spring the army should be back in fighting condition. Everyone, the Soviets included, expected them to launch a summer offensive with another massive attack towards Moscow by the German Army Group Center.

However the German generals were aware of their weakness after the losses in front of Moscow, and demanded a more modest offensive. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) developed a plan involving Army Group South in an attack into the Caucasus, cutting Russia in two and capturing the majority of Soviet oil fields and grain producing regions.

This sort of surprise attack over great distances was the hallmark of the Blitzkrieg attack, which sought to avoid direct battle by attacking where least expected and then advancing as fast as possible so the enemy had no chance to plan a defence.

Operation Blue

Their plan, Operation Blue, split Army Group South into two groups. Army Group A consisted of two armies, commanded by Erich von Manstein and von Kleist, who were to attack south towards Rostov, and then fan out through the Transcaucasus heading for the Caspian Sea while taking the oil-fields at Maikop.

Army Group B included Friedrich von Paulus's 6th Army and Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, who would sweep through the corridor between the Don and Volga rivers to arrive on the Volga just north of Stalingrad (known today as Volgograd). Their primary task was to provide a strong northern flank along the Don, while cutting the vital Soviet freight traffic on the Volga.

While the plans were finallized, there was the little detail of the lingering Soviet presense at Sevastopol in the Crimean. The siege of this important city had been dragging on for four months at this point, the the Soviets still had 150,000 men in and around the city. Eventually Operation Blue was suspended to provide more troops for the siege, and the original launch date in May was cancelled.

Manstein was sent south with a number of fresh German and Romanian units under Operation Sturgeon, forming up for action by early June. By the end of the month the siege was over, the Soviets losing all 150,000, but 35,000 on the German/Romanian side as well. The battle was largely over by the 25th, and Operation Blue was released.

Commencing on June 28, 1942, the attack started off well. So well in fact that Hitler felt that the 4th Panzer Army was not needed with Army Group B, and sent them south to join Army Group A. By this point they had passed the 6th Army (as was expected, they were motorized) and had to cross the 6th's path of march on their way south.

The resulting traffic jam took several days to clear. This confusion, along with provisions originally intended for the 6th being given to the 4th instead, slowed the advance towards Stalingrad by almost two weeks. With the advance now delayed, Hitler then changed his mind again and ordered the 4th to rejoin the original line of march.

This delay would prove critical. The slow advance made the target of Army Group B clear to the Soviets, and gave Red Army General Andrei Yeremenko time to consolidate what forces he had into a new line on the eastern bank of the Volga to block them.

He ordered the troops reeling back from the Germans on the western side to head for Stalingrad, leaving the field to the Germans. This did not go unnoticed, von Weichs, in overall command of Army Group B, realised that the Soviets had figured out what was going on. Hitler instead chose to consider the same reports as proof of absolute victory.

By the end of August Army Group B had finally reached the Volga to the north of Stalingrad, before many of the Red Army troops to their south had. von Paulus asked for permission to turn south and take the city as soon as possible, but Hitler refused to allow this until his infantry had caught up to form a defensive line.

This delay would also prove critical, as it allowed the Soviet forces to pour into the city over the next few days, dramatically strengthening its defences.

Rattenkrieg

Units of the Red Army in Stalingrad were quickly organized into the new 62nd Army, under the command of General Lopatin. When Lopatin expressed his fears about the upcoming battle, Yeremenko immediately replaced him with Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who had previously fought around Stalingrad against the White Army.

Yeremenko directed Chuikov to hold the city at all costs, and issued an order similar to Stalin's own, "Not another step back". Countersigned by Nikita Krushchev, this order was backed up with instructions for the NKVD to shoot anyone who failed to comply.

By September 1st Stalingrad was completely surrounded by the German 6th Army. Chuikov refused to meet the Germans outside the city, and had instead set up a huge number of strongpoints in the houses and factories inside. The Germans found themselves facing dug-in troops, and the battle quickly developed into what the Germans referred to as Rattenkrieg, rat-war.

With both sides promoting a no-retreat, no-surrender policy, intense street fighting ensued often descending into hand-to-hand bayonet contests and parts of the city changed hands as many as three or four times a day.

German tactics during the battle increasingly relied on air power to block re-enforcements being sent in from the east side of the river. A running battle started between the Luftwaffe and the VVS and Soviet anti-aircraft guns.

Although German losses were high, they won control of the river. The re-enforcement operations simply switched to moving during the night, thereby eliminating the air threat. Meanwhile attempts were made to start the ground fight moving with increasingly heavy artillery barrages, eventually culiminating in the delivery of several gigantic 600mm mortars, but as time would prove, the Soviets were quick to take up positions in the resulting rubble.

Although losses were heavy, the 6th Army slowly pushed the 62nd back to the Volga. Eventually the Soviet forces were split in two and Chuikov lost communications with the other half. After another two weeks the 62nd Army consisted of less than a division's worth of men in a small sliver of land on the southern end of town, but continued to fight on as much as ever.

The strain on both commanders was immense, von Paulus developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, and Chuikov was experiencing an outbreak of eczema that required him to bandage his hands completely.

In Berlin, the situation frustrated Hitler. He became increasingly convinced that the battle in the city represented the end of the war itself, and the ability to claim that they had captured "Stalin's City" was a victory worth more than the original battle plan.

With grave concerns over the exposed left flank, Franz Halder, chief of the OKW, continued to express his misgivings to Hitler. In mid-October 1942, with no immediate end to the battle in sight, Halder and Hitler quarrelled for the last time. Hitler dismissed Halder, replacing him with the more tractable General Kurt Zeitzler.

Meanwhile the rest of the line was being ignored. While the possibility of a counterattack along the long northern flank on the Don had been discussed on several occasions, Hitler's increasingly irrational orders meant no defensive work could be carried out.

On one particular stretch the line did not actually run on the Don, leaving the Red Army several beachheads directly in front of the Romanian 3rd Army. The 3rd had proven itself in combat at Sevastopol that summer, but were now stretched out along 150 km of the front after taking over from German and Italian units.

The Romanian commander had asked for tanks to clear out the pocket on several occasions, but in vain. His requests for bulldozers to cut through the frozen ground and make defensive works were also refused.

In early November Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights started showing a massive buildup of Red Army units just north of the Romanian 3rd Army, preparing for an offensive on the beachhead.

Increasingly desperate messages dispatched to the OKW from the 6th Army HQ were ignored, or returned with admonishment about getting on with the task at hand. von Paulus eventually gave up asking and moved the 22nd Panzer Division into position south of the Romanians.

However they arrived in terrible condition with only 50 serviceable tanks, but were nevertheless formed up with the only Romanian tank division to form the newly-named 48th Armoured Corps.

Operation Uranus

On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed Operation Uranus. General Vatutin's attacking units consisted of three complete armies, the 1st Guard, 5th Tank and 21st Army, including a total of 18 infantry divisions, eight tank brigades, two motorised brigades, six cavalry divisions and one antitank brigade. The vast majority of these units were sent against two points in the Romanian lines.

The Romanian troops conducted an almost miraculous defence and managed to hold the line for one day. The situation was hopeless however, they were outnumbered some 3 to 1 (almost 7 to 1 in tanks), and had little modern equipment to face the fresh units being sent in against them. On the 20th their line had been breached and huge numbers of Red Army divisions started streaming south.

Also on the 20th a second attack was launched to the south of the city against points held by the Romanian 4th Army, made up primarily of cavalry, and this army collapsed almost immediately.

The Soviet attackers met in a pincer movement near Kalach two days later, trapping 300,000 Wehrmacht soldiers of the 6th Army and about half of the 4th Panzer Army in and around Stalingrad, and shattering both Romanian armies in the process.

Hermann Goring promised that all the necessary supplies for the 6th Army could be delivered by the Luftwaffe. This would allow them to fight on while a ground force was assembled to re-open the line.

If this worked, the tables could be turned, with the Red Army units on the "far side" of the Don suddenly surrounded by troops in the city and newly arriving units from the west.

This strategy had been used to great effect the year before, but on a much smaller scale and during the summer.

Supplying the 6th Army would require 300 tonnes to be delivered each day, and by any count the number of planes needed to achieve this was clearly not available. However the claim, once stated, could not be withdrawn, and Adolf Hitler backed Goring's plan and re-iterated his order of "no surrender" to his trapped armies.

The supply mission failed almost immediately. The winter weather offerred few occasions when the planes could be flown in, with one or both ends of the flight-path covered in clouds and snow. On days with good weather about 280 tonnes would arrive, but there were only two of these over the next two months. In general only 1/10th of the needed supplies were able to be delivered.

By this point the Red Army had had enough time to set up defences of their own, so any hope of a forced breakout by the 6th Army was now futile.

Meanwhile the forces that had not been trapped were desperately setting up a defensive line along the Don and Chir rivers about 40 miles to the west of the city, organised into the new Army Group Don with von Manstein in command.

Although they were under constant attack by various Red Army units, the Soviets did not exploit this opportunity and focused entirely on taking the city.

By early December 1942 a battlegroup had been formed up southwest of the city from troops withdrawn from the Caucasus. Although these were excellent troops with an excellent commander, by this point they were tired and badly in need of rest and refit.

Moreover the majority of the troops in the Caucasus were left where they were in order to guard their hard-won advances in the months prior. Facing this newly-reinforced 4th Panzer Army was the 2nd Guards Army, one of the Soviet Union's better units.

On 12 December 1942 the Panzers launched their attack towards Stalingrad, but the attack ran out of momentum and stalled some 25 kilometers from the city and was called off on the 23rd. At this point any hope of rescue was dashed.

Operation Neptune

In January the Red Army launched Operation Neptune, another massive attack from the nothern flank, this time against the Italian 8th Army located just to the west of the former Romanian positions. Their aim this time was to drive to Rostov on the Black Sea, thereby cutting off all of Army Group South.

Hitler continued to make repeated "no retreat" demands to the troops, and von Manstein grew so tired of these he eventually demanded to either be left alone or replaced. Hitler relented, and von Manstein started a mobile defence using Panzers as "fire brigades" that would be ordered into holes in the line.

The defence was considerably more successful than might have been expected given the state of the troops, and the Red Army was unable to get anywhere near Rostov. Nevertheless their advance did drive the German lines back further, and now Stalingrad was some 250 km away.

The Battle Ends

Realizing all hope was lost, Friedrich von Paulus, in command of what remained of the 6th Army, started forming plans for surrender. Realising this, and hoping to rescue something of the battle, Hitler promoted him to Field-Marshal on January 30th, 1943. No German Field-Marshall had ever been taken alive in war, and it was hoped this would force him to fight on, or take his own life.

Instead von Paulus saw this as yet another example of Hilter's increasing irrationality. On January 31, 1943 von Paulus ordered the 6th Army to surrender on February 2.

A force of 300,000 was now reduced to only 91,000 tired and starved men. The Soviets force-marched them to detention camps, many dying of starvation on the way. Only some 5,000 would return to Germany after the end of the war.

The historian William L. Shirer, in his history of World War II, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, summarised the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad with these words:

Coupled with El Alamein and the British-American landings in North Africa it marked the great turning point in World War II. The high tide of Nazi conquest which had rolled over most of Europe to the frontier of Asia on the Volga and in Africa almost to the Nile had now begun to ebb and it would never flow back again.

The time of the great Nazi blitz offensives, with thousands of tanks and planes spreading terror in the ranks of the enemy armies and cutting them to pieces, had come to an end.




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