The Caucasus Campaign and the Battle for Stalingrad June 1942 – February 1943

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After the narrow failure of Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 the German Army no longer had the strength and resources for a renewed offensive on the scale of Operation Barbarossa, but Hitler was unwilling to stay on the defensive and consolidate his gains. An offensive solution was sought that with limited means, might yield more than a limited result. The lack of resources meant that the Germans concentrated on the southern part of the Eastern Front, with the aim of capturing the Caucasus oilfields, which each side needed if it was to maintain the mobility of its armoured forces. If the Germans could gain possession of that oil, they might subsequently be able to turn north onto the rear of the thus immobilized Russian armies covering Moscow, or even strike at Russia's new war-industries that had been established in the Urals. Alternatively, Turkey might be coerced into joining the Axis and success in North Africa by the Deutsches Afrika Korps might mean an encirclement of British possessions in the Middle East. The losses to the Wehrmacht had been great, but these were replaced by new formations as well as units from the Axis partners of Italy, Romania and Hungary. Hitler's Directive No. 41 was limited in its aim and gave the objectives as Stalingrad (4th Panzer and 6th Armies) and Maikop (1st Panzer and 17th Armies, supported by the 11th) but Directive No. 45 extended these to include Baku, Grozny and Batumi, in fact most of the Caucasus. As a result, the 1942 offensive (codenamed Operation Blue or Blau) was a greater gamble than that of the previous year because, if it were to be checked, the long flank of this southerly drive would be exposed to a counterstroke anywhere along its thousand-mile front. Hitler's Commanders warned that they did not have the forces available to go for Stalingrad and the Caucasus at the same time.

Initially, the German Blitzkrieg technique scored again - its fifth distinct and tremendous success since the conquest of Poland in 1939. The offensive began on 28 June 1942 and a swift break-through was made in the Kursk-Kharkov area with General Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army advancing east to Voronezh, then southeast along the south bank of the Don River and General Ewald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Army sweeping along the north bank of the Donetz River. Surging across the Lower Don, gateway to the Caucasus, it gained the more westerly oilfields around Maikop in six weeks. The Soviets' resistance crumbled under the impact of Operation Blue, and the German armoured thrusts met little opposition in the early stages of this drive, the exception being around Voronezh, a city on the Don that was the target for the 4th Panzer Army and the 2nd Army. Resistance here was strong and as a result, Army Group South was split up to form Army Group A under Field Marshal Wilhelm List (comprising the 1st Panzer, 17th, 8th Italian and 3rd Romanian Armies, as well as the 57th Panzer Corps) and Army Group B under Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs (comprising 4th Panzer, 2nd, 6th and 2nd Hungarian Armies). Army Group South's commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock was dispensed with.

Fortunately for the Soviets, Hitler split his effort between the Caucasus and Stalingrad, formerly Tsaritsyn, on the Volga, gateway to the north and the Urals. With the 6th Army advancing on Stalingrad, Hitler transferred the 4th Panzer Army to the move south towards the Caucasus, thus loosing the opportunity to take the city while it was still relatively undefended. Moreover when the first attacks on Stalingrad by General Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army, were checked in late August, Hitler started to transfer forces from the drive south (most notably diverting elements of the 4th Panzer Army) to reinforce the attack on Stalingrad, which had been but a secondary objective. The city quickly became symbolic to Hitler, who could not bear to be defied by it. The German forces would be worn down in a battle of attrition in the prolonged effort to achieve its capture, having lost sight of the initial prime objective, capturing the vital oil supplies of the Caucasus. With the first phase of Operation Blue bringing the German forces to the River Don, the second phase began with Army Group A (11th and 17th Armies) and the 1st Panzer Army driving on Maikop in Operation Edelweiss and from there on towards the main oilfields, at Baku and Grozny. It met increasing resistance from local troops, fighting now to defend their homes, while being depleted in favour of Paulus' bid to capture Stalingrad. The advance of Army Group A slowed from over thirty miles a day to just a few. German and Romanian Moutain Troops were committed to the battle but the Soviets held on. The battle degenerated into platoon-level battles over individual positions and Hitler refused to consider the evidence of worsening weather, harsh terrain and diminishing resources. List resigned on 10 September and for a while, the 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army were forced to deal directly with Hitler's headquarters. 17th Army reached Novorossiisk on 6 September but failed to take the city. 1st Panzer Army's progress slowed with the lead elements reaching Ordzhonikidze by the end of September and Nalchik towards the end of October.

On August 23, 1942, precisely at 18:00, one thousand airplanes began to drop incendiary bombs on Stalingrad. In that city of 600,000 people, there were many wooden buildings, gas tanks and fuel tanks used for industrial purposes. Stalingrad was heavily hit by air attack; one raid of 600 planes started vast fires and killed 40,000 civilians. By then, the 6th Army was in the Stalingrad suburbs and had taken the bank of the River Don just north of the city, while German tanks from the 14th Panzer Division approaching the Volga in the south. With the 62nd Army not even in the city at that point, the first German attacks were taken by a single division of NKVD and some workers from the city tractor factory. OKW, concerned about the inadequacy of the forces protecting the 6th Army's flanks, advised a withdrawal be undertaken from Stalingrad to consolidate the line and prevent the army being cut off by an enemy breakthrough. Hitler instead transferred units away from the Don sector to the 6th Army and ordered it to capture the city.

When the Germans entered Stalingrad, they saw nothing but ruins, however their advance was frustrated as thousands of micro battles erupted all over the streets of what used to be a city. Resistance was fierce but the German forces eventually managed to occupy a large part of the northern bank by the middle of September, backed by the aircraft of Luftflotte IV. "The Germans obviously thought that the fate of the town had been settled," wrote Vasily Chuikov, the commander of the 62nd Army who had replaced Lopatin on 10 September. "We saw drunken Germans jumping down from their trucks, playing mouth organs, shouting like madmen and dancing on the pavements." They penetrated to within two hundred yards of his command post. Still the Soviets fought on and the Germans continued to meet resistance in the streets of Stalingrad. It broke down to battalion, company and platoon engagements, usually at close quarters. A German general said: "The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard ..."

General Chuikov threw in every last reserve he had. By the middle of November the 6th Army had cut through Stalingrad, cutting the 62nd Army in two parts. But that still did not mean the end of it. Shrinking into an ever smaller perimeter, the Red Army was fighting stubbornly. Particularly severe clashes took place over Mamayev Kurgan on Hill 102, which changed hands at least eight times. One house in Stalingrad was defended by a single platoon under Sergeant Pavlov. That house, known as "Pavlov’s house", became a symbol of determination of Soviets to hold the city no matter what. Completely surrounded by Germans, Pavlov’s soldiers were holding the constantly attacked house until the relief came. The battle raged for fifty-nine days. As an illustration of the see-saw nature of the fighting, the diary of 62nd Army, described the intensity of fighting for the Central Station in Stalingrad, which changed hands fifteen times, four times in one day: "0800 Station in enemy hands. 0840 Station recaptured. 0940 Station retaken by enemy. 1040 Enemy ... 600 meters from Army command post … 1320 Station in our hands."

At the Central Station, a battalion of Soviet Guardsmen dug in behind smashed railroad cars and platforms. Bombed and shelled, the survivors moved to a nearby ruin where, tormented by thirst, they fired at drainpipes to see if any water would drip out. During the night, German sappers blew up the wall separating the room holding the Soviets from the German-held part of the building and threw in grenades. An attack cut the battalion in two and the headquarters staff was trapped inside the Univermag department store where the battalion commander was killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The last forty men of the battalion pulled back to a building on the Volga. They set up a heavy machine-gun in the basement and broke down the walls at the top of the building to prepare lumps of stone and wood to hurl at the Germans. They had no water and only a few pounds of scorched grain to eat. A German tank ground forward and a Russian slipped out with the last antitank rifle rounds to deal with it. He was captured by German machine gunners. He persuaded his captors that the Soviets had run out of ammunition, because the Germans moved out of their shelter. The last belt of machine-gun ammunition was fired into them and an hour later they led the anti-tank rifleman on to a heap of ruins and shot him. More German tanks appeared and reduced the building with point-blank fire. At night, six survivors of the battalion freed themselves from the rubble and struggled to the Volga.

The Luftwaffe was making up to 3,000 sorties a day. The Germans had superiority in airpower and artillery. To neutralize it, General Chuikov directed his troops to "hug" the Germans, to remain in a close combat so that German commanders could not use air strikes without endangering their own men. The 62nd Army was practically on its own, the Red Army finding it difficult to help with supplies and replacements. Any that reached the city had to cross the Volga River under German fire. The survivors of those crossings said some days the river was red with the blood. The whole battle was a nightmare for the both sides. The Germans assaulted the Red October factory on 27 September and occupied the northern landing stages on 5 October. Despite a huge Soviet bombardment the Germans managed to take the Tractor Plant on 16 October and parts of the Barricades Gun Plant on the 23 October.

The fighting never stopped. It could slow down at times, and then erupt with new energy at any time of the day. With all the technology and equipment involved, there were close quarters and hand-to-hand fights all over Stalingrad. Soviets practiced night attacks on the isolated German units. They would use knives and bayonets in such fighting. None of the armies of WWII were really trained for, or expected that kind of warfare. Perhaps, that type of fighting suited the fatalistic Soviets better than the Germans. Germans who fought on the Eastern Front often remarked that Soviets found some inspiration in close combat, and in desperate situations fought with some crazy passion. And Stalingrad definitely seemed to be a desperate situation for the Soviets, surrounded and outnumbered in the ruins of what used to be a city.

The intensity of fighting can be gauged from what one German Leutnant wrote: "We have fought during fifteen days for a single house. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors ... From story to story, faces black with sweat, we bombard each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke, heaps of mortar, floods of blood, fragments of furniture and human beings ... The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses ... Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure."

Coming shortly after Rommel's defeat at El Alamein and the Allies making landings in Algeria and Morocco (Operation Torch) in early November, on 19 November 1942 a Russian counter-offensive began (codednamed Operation Uranus) under the overall command of Marshal Georgii Zhukov. Zhukov had decided to hold Stalingrad with the minimum amount of troops necessary and concentrate his reserves on the weaker Axis forces protecting the 6th Army's flanks, something OKW had foreseen. The Axis forces, chiefly the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies, surrounding Stalingrad were taken by surprise and could not contain the attack. On 23 November the two wings of the Red Army met. The German 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army, about 220,000 men, were trapped in a pocket 35 miles wide and 20 miles from north to south. OKW begged Hitler to allow the 6th Army to breakout to the west while the Soviet lines were still not firmly established but Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring boasted he could fly in 500 tons of supplies a day and keep the 6th Army going as an effective fighting force. Hitler seized on this and ordered Paulus to fortify his positions and await a relief. Meanwhile the Soviets struck further south too, and forced the 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army to withdraw and despite trying to cut Army Group A in the Caucasus, appalling weather allowed the Germans to retreat steadily both northwards towards Rostov and westwards back towards the Kerch Straits where 17th Army formed a large bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula. This was gradually pushed back but the vast majority of 17th Army escaped back into the Crimea across the straits.

A valiant relief effort, codenamed Operation Winter Storm, was launched by General Erich von Manstein's Army Group Don on 12 December 1942. The force included the 4th Romanian Army, and the Hoth Group with the 6th, 17th and 23rd Panzer Divisions. It had managed to advance to within thirty miles of the city by 21 December 1942, but faced strong resistance by the 5th Shock and 2nd Guards Armies. Manstein took it upon himself to order Paulus to prepare to breakout to the southwest and link up with Army Group Don (a move codenamed Operation Thunderclap) but Paulus refused to move without confirmation from the Fuhrer and the 6th Army remained trapped around Stalingrad.

The Soviets launched Operation Little Saturn on 24 December 1942 to further isolate Stalingrad from the main German forces. On 9 January 1943 the Soviets began to drive on the centre of the city but found that the tables had now been reversed. They would be the ones to attack every house, every building and fight for every room. The Luftwaffe managed to keep the 6th Army supplied (although it was never really enough) until quite close to the end and airlifted over 30,000 troops out of the pocket. Finally, on February 2, Field Marshal von Paulus surrendered, with 23 generals, 2500 other officers and 90,000 soldiers. Only some 6,000 would live to see Germany again.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Stalingrad The Infernal Cauldron, Stephen Walsh. A good medium length of the battle of Stalingrad, covering the build-up to the German siege, the siege itself, the Soviet counterattack and German attempts to break through to the trapped Sixth Army. Well illustrated and supported by clear useful maps both of the fighting in the city itself and of the wider campaigns. [read full review] cover cover cover
Erich von Manstein - Hitler's Master Strategist, Benoit Lemay. Focuses on Manstein's wartime career, from the planning for the invasions on Poland and France to his time on the Eastern Front. This is an objective account, acknowledging both Manstein's great ability as a general and his involvement in the massive war crimes committed in Russia, with his knowledge, and on occasion encouragement. [read full review] cover cover cover
Stalingrad: How the Red Army triumphed, Michael J. Jones. Focusing on the first phase of the battle - the German assault on the city - this book attempts to discover how the outnumbered defenders of Stalingrad managed to hold on until the Soviet counter-attack turned the tables on the Germans. A valuable attempt to uncover the true events of a battle often hidden behind a layer of Soviet propaganda [read full review] cover cover cover

Stalingrad , Beevor, A. , Penguin, London, 1999. cover cover cover

Hitler's War on Russia , Carell, P. , Corgi, London, 1966. cover cover cover

The Russo-German Conflict 1941 – 1945 , Clark, A. Barbarossa, Hutchinson & Co, London, 1965 (Reprinted by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995 and Cassell Military, 2002). A classic work by Alan Clark, later to become a Conservative MP famous for his diaries. cover cover cover

The Road to Stalingrad , Erikson, J. , Cassell Military, London, 2003. cover cover cover

The Road to Berlin , Erickson, J., Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1983 (Reprinted by Grafton Books, 1985 and Cassell Military, 2003). cover cover cover

War Maps , Goodenough, S. , Macdonald & Co, London, 1982. cover cover cover

Stalingrad: The Turning Point , Jukes, G. , MacDonald & Co, London, 1968. cover cover

Atlas of the Second World War , Keegan, J. (Ed), Times Books / Guild Publishing, London, 1989. cover cover cover

Great Battles of World War II , Macdonald, John, Guild Publishing (BCA), London, 1986. cover cover cover

The Viking Atlas of World War II , Pimlott, J. , Viking (Penguin), London, 1995. cover cover cover

Stalingrad 1942 1943 , Walsh, S. , Simon & Schuster, London, 2000. cover cover cover

Stalingrad: Memories and Reassessments , Wieder, J and Einsiedel, H. , Cassell Military, London, 2nd Edition, 2002. cover cover cover

Stalingrad Website Details the events of the battle as well as modern day places of interest. Active as of 10 November 2004.

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How to cite this article:Antill, P. (4 February 2005), The Caucasus Campaign and the Battle for Stalingrad June 1942 – February 1943, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stalingrad.html

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