STALINGRAD NAZI GRAVEYARD
How the Red Army’s winter warfare strategy crushed the Sixth Army
It had not been one of the major objectives of the Axis’s summer offensive of 1942, but by September that year Stalingrad had become the focal point of the Eastern Front, as its defenders simply refused to give up. This led to an increasing number of German troops being committed to its reduction. However, by 16 November 1942 what was to be Sixth German Army’s final, desperate attempt to push the battered remains of the city’s defenders from their blood-soaked toeholds on the western bank of the Volga River, ended.
Stalingrad was a model garden and industrial city that ran for 40 kilometres (25 miles) along the western bank of the unbridged Volga River, which at some points reaches a width of 1,500 metres (4,900 feet). At roughly eight kilometres (five miles) wide the city was long and narrow, and was home to some 400,000 people.
Much of the population worked in the large factory district located in the northern part of the city. Here the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory, Red October steel works, Silikat factory and the Barrikady artillery factory dominated the city’s landscape.
South of the city centre the area was overlooked by the 102-metre (335-feet) high ancient burial mound Mamayev Kurgan, control of which would allow one side or the other the perfect artillery position from which to dominate the city. Just to the south of the Mamayev Kurgan, near to the main ferry landing point, the Tsaritsa River ran along a narrow gorge into the Volga at 90 degrees. Beyond the city’s suburbs the steppe stretched, undulating gently in all directions and rising gently to the west, where it met the Don River over 100 kilometres (62 miles) away.
Defending the rubble of central and northern Stalingrad were the men of the 62nd Army commanded by Lieutenant General V.I. Chuikov: to the south, a less industrialised area, was the 64th Army led by Major General M.S. Shumilov. By mid-november the Soviet troops in the city
“STALINGRAD HAD BECOME THE FOCAL POINT OF THE EASTERN FRONT AS ITS DEFENDERS SIMPLY REFUSED TO GIVE UP”
were reduced to holding pockets of varying sizes, like islands adrift in a sea of rubble, often connected only by the Volga, across which all their meagre supplies and reinforcements arrived. Yet, by some supreme act of desperation, bravery and tenacity they held on, grinding down their attackers in conditions that resembled those of Verdun.
Facing them, the German Sixth Army, under Lieutenant General Friedrich Paulus, and part of Army Group B (a sub-division of AGS) commanded by Colonel General Max von Weichs, had pushed eastwards from the city’s outskirts, coming to within 500 metres (1,640 feet) of the Volga. There they had stalled, trapped in a nightmare landscape of their own air and artillery attacks’ creation. Dependant on a supply line that stretched across the steppe to the Don River bridgeheads, particularly the railway crossing at Kalach 72 kilometres (45 miles) away, Sixth Army was exhausted but still anticipated victory. But they were unaware of the extent of the Soviet forces concentrating on their flanks.
Planning for an ambitious counteroffensive in the Stalingrad area had been underway since 12 September. At a conference in Moscow, General of the Army G.K. Zhukov and Colonel General A.M. Vasilevsky suggested to Stalin that Sixth Army be encircled by thrusts through the left and right flanks that were defended by the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies respectively. Both Romanian forces were weak in armour and anti-tank weapons and were holding positions that were vulnerable and made poor use of the terrain. Armoured forces were to break through the Romanians, drive across the steppe and then link up at Kalach. The distance to be covered by the northern arm was 128 kilometres (80 miles), the southern 97 kilometres (60 miles). Southwestern and Don Fronts (under commanders Lieutenant General N.F. Vatutin and Lieutenant General K.K. Rokossovsky respectively) were to comprise the northern thrust and Stalingrad Front would perform the southern thrust.
When the encirclement was complete, part of the force would face inwards to contain Sixth Army, and part outwards to prevent any relief effort that, it was anticipated, would come from the southwest. Stalin gave the plan his backing within 24 hours of its proposal. Codenamed Operation Uranus, its start date was to be 9 November. In order to assemble the vast amount of men, weapons and supplies needed, it was decided that Stalingrad’s defenders would only be allowed a minimum of reinforcements: everything possible was to be sent to the flanks.
The Romanian Third Army, aware of some sort of Soviet build-up, requested permission in late October to liquidate the Soviet bridgeheads over the Don River at Serafimovich and Kletskaya, but the request was refused. German intelligence was convinced that the major Soviet offensive of the winter would be directed at Army Group Centre, which still threatened Moscow. Furthermore, Stalingrad itself appeared to be on the brink of capture and all Sixth Army’s resources were focussed on that objective. Romanian Fourth Army, to the right, was equally concerned at Soviet movements and build-up, but these concerns were also dismissed.
To an extent the Soviets had contributed to this by a series of poorly prepared counterattacks made to the north of the city during October that had been easily repulsed, giving Sixth Army a false sense of security. Indeed, Hitler himself scoffed at the possibility of the Red Army carrying out anything approaching a major operation, as he regarded it as a spent force awaiting the coup de grace shortly to be delivered. However, Sixth Army’s intelligence staff did warn Paulus of a Soviet build-up, but their concerns were felt to be overly pessimistic and were discounted. It was a classic case of underestimating the enemy.
Third Romanian Army declared that a Soviet attack was due on 7-8 November, 25 years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although nothing happened, Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights backed up the Romanians’ concerns – the Soviets were increasing their forces to the north of the city. Hitler agreed to reinforce the Romanians with XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’s 14th and 22nd Panzer divisions and First Romanian Armoured Division. But these units were understrength and lacked both modern tanks and fuel. Nevertheless, it looked like a powerful force – at least at Hitler’s HQ if not out on the steppe. When General Hermann
“THERE THEY HAD STALLED, TRAPPED IN A NIGHTMARE LANDSCAPE OF THEIR OWN AIR AND ARTILLERY ATTACKS’ CREATION”
The Battle of Stalingrad lasted for several months from 1942 until February 1943
The assembly of men and machines for Operation Uranus was carefully undertaken. Movement into assembly areas took place mainly at night or during periods of bad weather. During October all civilians, other than those engaged in construction work, were evacuated as a further security measure
Across the lines outside of Stalingrad the Soviets had been building up two groups of armies. To the north was the Southwestern Front, to the south the Stalingrad Front. Don Front lay between them. Stalingrad’s defenders, 62nd and 64th Armies were assigned to Stalingrad Front. Up to 700,000 men and 1,300 tanks now waited for orders
Following the end of their November attacks the German troops in and around the city resigned themselves to the prospect of another winter in the USSR. Their preparations for a quiet, relatively cosy Christmas were to prove overly optimistic