How the Red Army’s win­ter war­fare strat­egy crushed the Sixth Army

History of War - - ISSUE 51 - WORDS NIK COR­NISH

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


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.

Soviet plan­ning

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.

In­tel­li­gence dis­counted

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


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

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