November 19, 1942. The German 6th Army is still grinding its way into Stalingrad when, to its north and south, the Soviet army deals the Wehrmacht its gravest blow of the war. In a colossal surprise attack, tanks and troops pour into the German rear and surround Stalingrad, along with 260,000 Axis troops. The Nazis have been hard teachers, but the Red Army has graduated. The Battle of Stalingrad is the turning point of World War II in Europe.
As the winter of 1942 reared its head, Hitler’s plans for total victory were growing increasingly unrealistic. Though he had invaded and defeated France in 1940, Britain had not surrendered. Though he had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, his armies had been ground to a halt outside Moscow. Though Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” had won brilliant victories in North Africa, he was currently being held down and having his teeth knocked out by the British at El Alamein. Though his economy was limping along, it was under increased pressure from Allied air bombardment. Though he had played a dangerous diplomatic game that had netted successes before the war, Nazi Germany had wound up at war with the world’s greatest industrial power, the world’s greatest overseas empire, and the world’s largest army. And though he had made a great Hail Mary to finally knock the Soviet Union out of the war in 1942, it had ground to a halt both in the foothills of the Caucasus but more importantly in the tomb of Stalingrad.
I talked about the first half of the Stalingrad Campaign, and most of the city fighting, in September, and I’ve posted this link below. If you want to hear all about the urban fighting, that’s your spot. We’ll spend a lot of time AROUND Stalingrad today, but precious little time IN the city. I’ll catch you up, but if you want, the rest of the story is on the website.
In June 1942, Hitler had launched an enormous offensive in southern Russia, codenamed Operation Blue, in order to capture the critical oil fields of the Caucasus and unhinge Soviet defenses in the south. While Blue was a colossal operation, it was a significant downgrade from previous German efforts, and failed to seriously cripple the Soviet armies, which usually retreated before they could be overwhelmed. Still, the Germans gained ground, and by the early autumn of 1942 their Panzer divisions were well on their way southeast into the Caucasus Mountains. Even though they were clearly on their way to victory, though, the Germans faced increased and unyielding Soviet resistance as they drove onwards. The ground taken by Operation Blue only increased the overstretch of German forces, and the Wehrmacht had to cover more and more ground with less and less men.
By November 1942, the German advance had been reduced to two concentrated arrowheads: the 1st Panzer Army under General Eberhard von Mackensen, which was fighting a literal uphill battle into the foothills of the Caucasus, and the bulk of the German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army under Friedrich von Paulus, who were locked in the urban death grip at Stalingrad. These two arrowheads sucked in every German unit around them as the Nazi commanders piled in unit after unit to try and inch their offensive forward. This left the flanks – the connecting tissue guarding the arrowheads from a counterstroke – to be increasingly filled by Axis allies. And the Axis allies really didn’t want to be there.
It was possible to travel the several hundred miles of Axis frontline from Voronezh to Stalingrad without encountering a single German soldier. This space was filled by soldiers from Hungary, Italy, and Romania, Axis allies whose Eastern Front units were poorly equipped and trained. Though there were many courageous and able soldiers and leaders among their ranks, they weren’t given much to work with. The Romanian commander Petre Dumitrescu, for instance, was actually an extremely able commander but placed in a difficult position. He had to guard almost a hundred miles of front with few antitank weapons and artillery, and many of his best troops were soon sucked into the all-consuming maelstrom of Stalingrad. He had little more than an outpost line watching the whole stretch of open country north of Stalingrad, and the Romanians to the south of Stalingrad were in much the same state. With German commanders, especially Hitler, laser-focused on the city itself, there was little to no attention paid to the flanks north and south of the great battle. And that was about to be an issue.
The Battle of Stalingrad raged for months as the German troops tried and failed to crack the hard nut of Soviet resistance. Entire operations were planned to seize apartment buildings, factories, city blocks. The Soviets had to slip troops in over the Volga River by ferry, which served as a thin and fragile line of sustainment for the beleaguered garrison. By October, the Germans had even committed their elite combat engineer battalions – ALL of them – to the fight to capture Stalin’s city. The Wehrmacht was on its death ride, burning itself to a cinder in desperate attacks to take the next block or building or room inside the ruined city. The Russian resistance was fanatic and unyielding.
In early November 1942, Paulus threw in his last chips to destroy the Soviet resistance in Stalingrad. The combat engineers demolished and torched their way through every Russian position with ruthless brutality, but even they could not achieve a breakthrough. The engineers were not able to maneuver rapidly, and the Germans’ diminishing infantry reserves left them unable to exploit gaps in the Soviet resistance. A Soviet counterattack on November 15 retook all the lost ground, and were only stopped by the use of the Germans’ last reserves in the Stalingrad region. Once again on the Eastern Front, the Germans had traded meager gains for massive casualties.
The 6th Army had broken Stalingrad, and in many cases annihilated Soviet resistance throughout the city – but had utterly exhausted themselves in the attempt. The German war machine had ground to a halt, and the battered Soviets still clung obstinately to the bank of the Volga River. After all the sound and fury of Blitzkrieg, the lightning attacks that had seized most of Europe and brought Nazi Germany to staggering heights, the dashing war of maneuver had been choked to death in Stalingrad. The old tricks no longer worked. And the Soviets, who Hitler and the Nazis had so drastically underestimated, were about to unleash their own tricks.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Red Army’s great veteran commanders of the Civil War had accurately foreseen the shape of future operations. Led by brilliant leaders such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, they had envisaged broad-front offensives led by echeloned forces of tanks, mobile infantry, and artillery, penetrating far into the rear of enemy units. This operational doctrine had become known as “Deep Operations”, but when Tukhachevsky and his fellow innovators had been purged by Stalin in the 1930s the theory had fallen out of favor. Only when the disciples of “Deep Operations” – men like Konstantin Rokossovsky and Georgy Zhukov – had emerged as the great generals of World War II did this theory of war return to the forefront of Soviet thinking.
Deep Operations ultimately ended up being a better concept of war than Blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg relied on a single decisive stroke to win its battles, a short and victorious campaign. In contrast, Deep Operations introduced this wonderful thing called “phasing”, where each campaign paves the way for the next one. Soviet theorists believed that modern armies were too large to be destroyed in a single stroke, in contrast to German theorists, and favored a series of massive battles called “consecutive operations” that would allow the enemy no rest. Even as you’re executing the current attack, you’re planning the next one, and another group is planning the one after that. It would be consecutive operations and Deep Operations that would take the Red Army from Stalingrad to Berlin.
As their major counterstroke for 1942, Operation URANUS, the Soviets planned to annihilate the German Army in Stalingrad. The plan was fairly simple. To the north and south of Stalingrad, the Red Army would attack in a pincer movement, and these two forces would meet behind German lines to trap the 6th Army in a pocket. The Soviets had been massing tank and cavalry forces to both sides of Stalingrad for the last month, and their targets would be the bedraggled and strung-out Romanian forces that the Germans had left to guard their flanks. Against the swarms of T-34s and the excited “URRAHs” of the Soviet infantry, the Romanians had no real response. Though the Germans were aware of the Soviet buildup, they did little to stop it; they simply didn’t have the resources to do so. General Paulus’s last infantry battalions had just been ground to a crisp in his last attack, and the tiny reserve divisions in the German rear had only 40 tanks at their disposal. The Wehrmacht had all its cards on the table – but the Soviets still had a full hand.
On November 19, 1942, the Soviet offensive crashed into the Romanian troops holding their thin line north and south of Stalingrad. Mostly armed with useless antitank rifles and obsolete cannon, the poor Romanians had no answer to the swarms of Soviet shock troops that emerged from the blizzard, or to the T-34s that barreled out of the darkness with headlights glaring and cannons blazing away. Soon the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies had crumpled like tin cans, and despite hard fighting and desperate counterattacks they were quickly overwhelmed. The Soviet pincers put the pedal down and barreled for the Axis rear areas – and the long supply line feeding Paulus’s army in Stalingrad.
The small German reserve placed to resist this event consisted of the 22nd Panzer Division and 1st Romanian Armored Division. In theory, these were strong forces, but in practice they had no more than 40 tanks. The rest of their equipment – you guessed it – had been robbed for the units fighting in Stalingrad. The two divisions were ordered to attack, but lost their way and were almost batted aside by the Soviet armored columns. By November 22, the Red Army had closed the ring around the Germans, and Paulus reported that he was encircled.
The Russians had planned to bag no more than 90,000 men with their attack, so they were shocked to find that 260,000 German, Romanian, and Croat troops were isolated in the city. Soviet Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky, in overall command, was worried the Germans would try to break out. Though this was the preferred option for most of the German troops now trapped inside Stalingrad, General Paulus soon received a direct order from Hitler to hold his ground at all costs. There could be no retreat. Instead, the Germans would break the encirclement, and in the meantime the 6th Army would be supplied by air.
These promises were hollow like a toilet paper tube. The Germans wanted to break the Soviet encirclement of Stalingrad – with what, though? Every unit they had on the Eastern Front was locked in combat somewhere, and their few spare units would have to be shipped from hundreds of miles away. They would have to piece together a relief force on the fly and HOPE it could do the job on its own. As for aerial resupply, the Luftwaffe head Hermann Goring promised Hitler that he could easily supply the stranded Germans in Stalingrad.
This turned out to be an arrogant falsehood, since Germany did not have enough transport planes in its entire arsenal to provide the supply levels that 260,000 men needed to last the winter. There wasn’t an air force in the world able to ship enough food to feed a quarter million mouths a day, let alone supply ammunition and fuel. The Soviet Air Force was out there, too, including the infamous Night Witches, and Soviet ground attacks seized multiple airfields to make air resupply even more difficult. The Luftwaffe’s transport aircraft stock fell by almost half during the siege of Stalingrad. The upshot was that while the 6th Army required around 750 tons of supply per day, the figure they received from Goring’s planes was only about 117.
There are some historians who still argue to this day that Paulus should have disobeyed orders and led the 6th Army on a breakout from Stalingrad. The idea holds some appeal, especially for those who blame Hitler for every mistake the Germans made in World War II. But these theories often ignore reality. Paulus had burnt 6th Army to cinders in the battle for Stalingrad, and virtually every unit he had was continuously locked in deadly combat either inside the city or outside it holding the cordon against his encircling enemies. The Army’s supply and transportation situation bordered on nonexistent, especially since Paulus had sent away the horses in November since he believed he would be wintering in Stalingrad. Most of those horses were now in Soviet custody, and fuel stocks were near exhausted, meaning that any German breakout would have to be on foot against a heavily mechanized enemy. In every case, the Germans had screwed themselves at Stalingrad, and their doom was upon them.
Hitler appointed Erich von Manstein, possibly the German Army’s most gifted general, as the commander in the south in late November 1942. Manstein’s mission was to break through the Soviet encirclement and save Paulus’s 6th Army in Stalingrad. Manstein was a bona fide genius, the man who had designed the operational plan for the invasion of France in 1940 and a tough fighter who had proved himself over and over again in the last three years. But Manstein could not create units that did not exist or magically generate fuel into existence.
The depth of German failure was illustrated by the pathetic force that Manstein did eventually scrape up to try and break through: two panzer divisions, the 6th and 23rd, both of which had been in the process of refitting and recovering from heavy combat operations when they received orders to hop on trains and head for Russia. The 23rd only had 30 tanks out of an allotted strength of almost 150. Nobody thought these units could break through, but Hitler had given the order and they had to try.
Manstein’s force would have to cover 90 miles in some of the worst winter weather in the world, against a Soviet enemy that was much smarter and more capable than anyone had given it credit for. Vasilevsky was prepared for the German counterstroke, and had prepared his troops well. When the Germans struck on December 12, the initial attack – codenamed “Winter Storm” - penetrated the outer rim of Soviet defenses. Vasilevsky shoved reinforcements into the sector, though, and began to hack away at the flanks of the narrow attack. The weather got dramatically worse, and the Germans faced increasing fights at every river crossing and every village. The winter woods of southern Russia were alive at all times with Russian ambushes, minefields, and sudden, lunging tank attacks. Soviet strength grew every day, while German strength diminished, and it once again became a Sisyphean struggle against growing odds. Manstein was never going to reach Stalingrad.
The Red Army made sure of that. Remember that whole “consecutive operations” thing? While the Germans were trying to rescue Stalingrad, the Russians had been planning their second great stroke of the winter. Even as Manstein was slogging north through wind, snow, and Russians, trying desperately with his outstretched hand to save Paulus’s trapped force, the Soviets unleashed another crippling offensive to the north. General Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Operation Little Saturn turned the Italian 8th Army into mincemeat and drove deep into the Axis rear yet again.
Little Saturn effectively ended German air supply into Stalingrad, especially when a tank brigade overran the airfield at Tatsinskaya and destroyed 72 transport aircraft – almost 10% of the entire German transport fleet. The new Soviet offensive not only threatened the German rear, but especially aimed at the city of Rostov – which, if the Soviets took it, would trap the entire Axis force in southern Russia and rip the Eastern Front wide open. Little Saturn, more than just a Soviet victory, threatened to annihilate the German Army in the east. It demanded a response.
Manstein reacted swiftly. He would transfer every German unit in the Caucasus and in southern Russia as rapidly as possible to the north to stem the tide of this attack, and in February 1943 would win his greatest victory and save Hitler’s armies in Russia from total collapse. The Battle of Kharkov would be a monumental, brilliant maneuver that brought the Wehrmacht back from the brink of disaster – but its price would be high. To pull this off over the next several months, Manstein had to cancel the rescue mission to Stalingrad on December 23. Paulus, the 6th Army, and 260,000 Axis soldiers would be left to their fate. The end was nigh. “Consecutive operations” – an interlocking series of attacks that each supported each other on a strategic scale – had proven its worth, as one attack (Little Saturn) had helped ensure the success of another (Stalingrad). The Germans had no sustainable response to this continuous pressure, and this would become much more evident by 1944 and 1945.
Even as titanic battles surged back and forth across southern Russia and Ukraine in the winter months of 1942-1943, the German army in Stalingrad slowly dwindled. Frostbite, starvation, combat stress, and growing claustrophobia set in as the Soviet noose drew tighter and tighter. Soldiers faked wounds, shirked, fought to get on the last planes out of the shrinking pocket. The barren city, fought over for months, turned white, grey and red with snow, ruin, and blood, as Chuikov’s 62nd Army – which had held the city with an iron grip – began to advance and take back buildings long abandoned. The German 6th Army slowly choked to death as the noose grew tighter.
To this day, Russian farmers along the Volga dig up bones from either side, the last remnants of the Wehrmacht’s broken and abandoned army. On February 2, 1943, the 6th Army surrendered, and its 92,000 remaining starving, exhausted survivors marched into captivity. Many of them would remain in the Gulags even years after the war was over. They left behind not only the shattered ruin of a city and an army, but the total wreck of Germany’s ability to win World War II.
Stalingrad was the high-water mark of the German war against the Soviet Union, and it was here that Germany really lost the war. They had fatally underestimated their opponents, underestimated the challenges, and failed to plan for the true nature of a war against the massive Red Army. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad, though, was not just a product of German failures: it was a huge Soviet success, gained by the utter determination of its soldiers, the skill of its commanders, and the remarkable resilience of its war industry.
Even after the catastrophic losses of 1941, the Red Army had managed to bounce back from defeats that would have shattered any other nation. Almost five million men had perished or been taken prisoner under the initial German onslaught – yet Stalin’s Soviet Union had not only survived, but rebuilt its military and discovered new doctrines and new resilience. Stalingrad was a Soviet victory as much as it was a German defeat.
In November 1942, in the snowy wastes of southern Russia – a place no tourist would ever go willingly, where you’ll see no well-laid battlefield parks – the course of World War II reversed itself. Here, the Germans started losing and the Soviets started winning. Here was the turning point of humanity’s greatest conflict: the fields around Stalingrad. It was time to start engraving Hitler’s tombstone.