Operation Blau: The Battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus – Part One: Background

Overview - Background - Leaders, Forces and Plan - German Offensive - Soviet Offensive


The Battle for Stalingrad (part of Operation Blau, the plan to capture the Caucasus and its resources) is one of the most decisive turning points in Twentieth Century military history. It was there, on the banks of the River Volga, that the seemingly unstoppable Wehrmacht was decisively defeated by the Red Army, which only a few months earlier had been close to being destroyed. Stalingrad proved to be where the Red Army resurrected itself and turned the tide of war against the Wehrmacht. The Red Army fought and defeated (at enormous cost it must be said), not the understrength, desperate formations that were trying to defend Berlin almost three years later, but one of the largest and best equipped army formations on the Eastern Front at that time – the 6th Army under Friedrich Paulus, with almost 300,000 personnel. With the annihilation of the 6th Army after it was surrounded by a Soviet counteroffensive, the fortunes of war started to turn against Germany in the East and has been viewed as the single most catastrophic defeat of German arms since Napoleon's destruction of the Prussian Army at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806. After the failure of Operation Citadel in July 1943, the German Army finally lost the strategic initiative to the Red Army and would have to fight a war of survival against an enemy quickly gaining in strength and eager for revenge, something that would culminate in the Soviet attack on Berlin in April 1945.


The origins of the battle lay in the ideological conflict between Nazism and Communism, something that was enshrined in the Nazi idea of Lebensraum (living space), which was needed if Nazi Germany was to grow and secure immunity from the Allied blockade. Hitler fully intended, despite the temporary normalisation of relations between the two countries before the outbreak of the Second World War with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939, to attack the USSR in order that he destroy Nazism's main ideological opponent. This would also mean Germany would gain the economic, industrial and agricultural resources of Eastern Europe as well as potentially inducing Britain to make peace by demonstrating absolute German control of continental Europe.

On 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, the largest military operation of all time. The Wehrmacht would once again use the tactics employed so successfully in Poland, Western Europe and the Balkans, tactics that had become known as Blitzkrieg. Barbarossa itself evolved out of a plan first put together by Generalmajor Marcks in August 1940. The Red Army would be destroyed in two phases. The first would see the elimination of forces near the border in a series of encirclements as the agricultural and economic value of the land in the western Soviet Union would mean that the Red Army would be reluctant to trade space for time and would have to fight for the territory. The forces there could not be allowed to withdraw into the interior behind the Dvina and Dnepr Rivers – the Germans had to avoid a positional campaign at all costs. Secondly, the remaining forces would be destroyed in a decisive battle for Moscow. The loss of the political, communications, cultural and economic centre along with another enormous military defeat would achieve victory in one single campaign (something that German strategy always looked for). This broad outline formed the basis of Fuhrer Directive No. 21, published on 18 December 1940, which identified the main objectives for the first phase of the operation but not the second. This lack of clear strategic objectives and detailed planning would come back to haunt the Germans with argument and improvisation over the conduct of operations in the second phase.

The German forces committed to Barbarossa numbered over 3 million men, 3,300 armoured fighting vehicles, 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. Along with their Axis allies, they were organised into three army groups: Army Group North under Generalfeldmarschall Ritter von Leeb, Army Group Centre under Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock and Army Group South under Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt. Army Group North would cut off Soviet forces in the Baltic region and strike for Leningrad; Army Group Centre would encircle the Soviet forces between Brest and Minsk then strike for Smolensk; Army Group South would surround the Soviet forces between Kiev and Odessa, and then strike for Kharkov. The Wehrmacht therefore would attack the Soviet Union with everything they had, but there was little depth – it could not afford to become engaged in a positional and logistically intense campaign. That everything depended upon a short decisive campaign is underscored by the lack of contingency planning should the campaign have to be fought into the winter months, let alone 1942. This is not to say that German commanders were unaware of the potential supply problems (and there were plans to convert the Russian railway gauge) but the confidence generated by the recent victories meant that a sustained effort to tackle them did not materialise. This meant that Barbarossa was an enormous gamble, one that almost paid off thanks to the Soviet Premier, Josef Stalin, for Stalin had not only decapitated the Red Army during the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938, but refused to allow the Red Army to trade space for time and kept all incoming intelligence about the impending German attack to himself, allowing the Wehrmacht to achieve strategic, operational and tactical surprise and destroy the Red Army on the border.

The German attack on the 22nd June began with an enormous Luftwaffe assault on the Red Air Force. It struck over sixty airfields destroying over 1,200 planes on the ground and those that managed to get airborne were quickly shot down, thus establishing complete air superiority. It then proceeded to make life extremely difficult for Soviet forces to try and resist the German Blitzkrieg as it smashed communications, interdicted movement of reserves, interrupted logistics, and made command and control almost impossible. The forces on the border were quickly overrun, thus rendering the concept of forward defence an irrelevance. It would now be a war of manoeuvre which only one side was capable of winning.

Army Group Centre's two panzer groups (2nd and 3rd) completed a double envelopment near Minsk, in conjunction with the 4th and 9th Armies. By 1 July, the Soviet 3rd, 4th, 10th and 13th Armies from the Western Front had been destroyed, with over 400,000 Soviet troops being captured. A significant number however managed to escape eastwards as the 3rd Panzer Group had to temporarily relinquish the 12th Panzer Division to help the 9th Army at Bialystok. The armoured groups then crossed the Dnepr and Dvina and headed for Smolensk with the intention of creating another enormous encirclement with the help of the 4th and 9th Armies. Halder believed this would encourage Hitler to nominate Moscow as the main campaign objective for the second phase. For the time being however, Hitler hesitated, especially as Army Group North had managed to smash its way through the Northwest Front and advance towards Leningrad. The difficult terrain had prevented the Germans from encircling the Soviet 8th and 11th Armies but Panzer Group 4 had managed to advance through the Baltics so quickly that a short pause was ordered so that the 16th and 18th Armies could catch up. Army Group South however found the going much more difficult, especially after the element of surprise had worn off. Stavka (the Soviet High Command) had thought that the main German effort would be in the south and so the Southwest Front contained some of the best units within the Red Army. The 1st Panzer Group finally managed to break through and turned south in the direction of Kiev. In conjunction with the 11th and 17th Armies, and Stalin's order that they should not give up the Ukraine, the Germans netted over 100,000 prisoners and tore an enormous hole in the Southwest Front's defences. Army Group South's position improved but the vulnerability of its northern flank worried Hitler and would prove to have a decisive impact on the campaign.

By the 1 August 1941, the Soviet situation seemed hopeless with over two million troops killed or captured and German forces only some 250 miles from Moscow after reducing the Smolensk pocket. Halder, along with the majority of the German General Staff believed that after a short respite for replenishment and consolidation, the main effort should be directed at Moscow, whose importance he believed, would force the Red Army to defend it regardless of what was happening elsewhere and would therefore present an opportunity for the Germans to achieve an enormous encirclement and thus a strategic victory. On 19 July however, Hitler had issued Fuhrer Directive No. 33, which diverted 3rd Panzer Group north to help Army Group North in its drive for Leningrad and 2nd Panzer Group south to help Army Group South, leaving only the infantry forces of Army Group Centre to continue to push on towards Moscow. This undermined the very speed and tempo that had so far avoided a positional war with Hitler in effect rejecting Halder's idea of making Moscow the catalyst of a major encirclement. This caused a huge row within the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) just at the time when the Soviets were in complete disarray. The argument arose because there had been no detailed planning as to the objectives for the campaign and despite the obvious German tactical superiority, they could not sustain the grand sweeping envelopments across the entire front. German resources had to be carefully husbanded for each decisive battle. Hitler wavered between the destruction of the Red Army and securing Leningrad and the Ukraine. The latter would be necessary for a long war, but the former would enable the Wehrmacht to win the war in a single campaign thus allowing the Germans to secure the territory in the east at their leisure. The main issue was time: if the Germans had paused to consolidate their strength and launched an operation aimed at Moscow in late August 1941, it is extremely unlikely that the Red Army would have been able to stop the Wehrmacht. This single issue, one that should have been settled before Operation Barbarossa was even launched, played a key role in saving the Soviet Union from defeat in 1941.

Hitler's orders were carried out. 2nd Panzer Group moved south on 21 August and linked up with 1st Panzer Group moving north, at Lokhvitsa, east of Kiev, on 16 September. They formed the outer encirclement, while 17th and 2nd Armies completed the inner encirclement. Stalin, who had been warned to evacuate Kiev by Stavka, refused to allow an immediate breakout with the result that after some intense fighting, some 650,000 Soviet soldiers surrendered. Hitler then issued Directive No. 35 on 6 September that ordered the rapid reinforcement of Army Group Centre with the aim of destroying the Soviet forces east of Smolensk as a prelude to an advance on Moscow. Operation Typhoon, the offensive by Army Group Centre against Moscow started on 30 September 1941, nine weeks after the fall of Smolensk. The impact of the vast distances encountered in the western Soviet Union and time now began to make themselves felt as the Germans raced to beat the ultimate deadline - the Russian Winter. By 2nd October, Army Group Centre, reinforced by 4th Panzer Group and having its own 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups, broke through the Soviet defences. At Vyazma, they encircled the Soviet Western and Reserve Fronts, while the Bryansk Front was destroyed by the 2nd Panzer Group and 2nd Army, some 150 miles to the south. The Red Army lost over 600,000 troops in these encirclements and with their defences shattered, it seemed as if the Germans would be able to take Moscow at will. A few days later however, the autumn rains began and with that, the speed of the German advance almost ground to a halt as the dirt roads and dust tracks turned into quagmires. it is with this worsening of the weather that the impact of the diversion of combat resources away from Moscow in the late summer of 1941 can be understood - if the Germans had started their offensive towards Moscow in late August or early September, they would have still broken through the Soviet lines as they did in October, but would have been able to capitalise upon it almost immediately, given the better weather. One of the greatest military manoeuvres of all time, the Kiev encirclement, actually badly damaged the German's chances of beating the Soviet Union in a single campaign.

By this point, the German forces approaching Moscow were tired and the Panzers were battling increasing wear and tear and did not possess the depth and reserves to fight a positional battle of attrition, but found that they would have to in order to achieve victory. General Zhukov, appointed to command the Western Front on 10 October, had several factors to his advantage. Firstly, the terrain around Moscow was made of many small forests, areas of marshland and rivers that would help to channel the German advance into identifiable axes of advance, and especially in winter, prevent them from conducting the sweeping manoeuvres that had brought success. Secondly, it was obvious as to what the Germans would be trying to accomplish and so it would be difficult to achieve surprise. Thirdly, they correctly identified their tactics of encirclement and annihilation and so strengthened the 16th and 50th Armies on each flank. Fourthly, Stalin greed to the transfer of fifteen divisions from the Far East as his intelligence indicated that Japan was getting ready to strike the Pacific, not the eastern Soviet Union. The final German attack was launched on 15 November with 3rd and 4th Panzer groups attacking from the north and 2nd Panzer striking to the south, while the 4th Army fixed Soviet forces in the centre. Even at this point, the Germans came very close to breaking through but with the temperature down to around -35°C the final attack by the 4th Army was halted on 4 December. Zhukov immediately counterattacked and pushed the Germans away from the Soviet capital, almost encircling the 4th Army. There developed a crisis of confidence between Hitler and the German High Command with several field commanders being removed. The Soviets quickly tried to turn the local counterattack at Moscow into an attempt to surround the whole of Army group Centre but Stalin ordered an offensive along the entire front and the little strength that the Red Army had concentrated around Moscow was dissipated and the threat to Army Group Centre evaporated. By February 1942 the Soviet offensive had ground to a halt with little to show for it except around Moscow and south of Leningrad, where Army Group North came under intense pressure in the Lake llmen region during January 1942 and suffered heavy losses. Still, the Wehrmacht had regained its composure and Army Group South had even managed to take Rostov (temporarily as it turned out) and occupy most of the Crimea.

The narrow failure of Operation Barbarossa would mean that the Wehrmacht no longer had the strength and resources for another offensive on that sort of scale. By the end of January 1942, the Wehrmacht had suffered around 918,000 casualties in the east, with Army Group South down to fifty percent of their original infantry complement, while Army Groups North and Centre were both down to around thirty- five per cent. German AFV losses amounted to almost 4,200 and by the end of March 1942, the sixteen Panzer divisions on the Eastern front were down to around 140 operational vehicles. The Wehrmacht also lost just over 100,000 motorised vehicles and just under 200,000 draught animals, something that would seriously impact upon mobility and logistics. However, Hitler was unwilling just to stand on the defensive and consolidate the gains already made. What he needed was an offensive solution that with more limited means, would promise more than a limited result. With a broad front offensive out of the question, he turned to the southern sector of the front (and thus completely wrong footed the Soviets who expected a renewed offensive towards Moscow) where if the Wehrmacht could capture the Caucasus oilfields, it would ensure the mobility of the panzers and immobilise the Soviet armies. The Germans could then strike into the rear of the forces surrounding Moscow, or even at the new wartime industry concentrated in the Urals. Such an offensive however brought even greater risks than Barbarossa, as the offensive, should it be checked, would have an exposed flank of one thousand miles, along which it could be counterattacked at any point.


28 August Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact is signed in Moscow by Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop
1 September Germany invades Poland
17 September  The USSR occupies the territory agreed in the Nazi-Soviet Pact, including Eastern Poland and the Baltic States
18 December Fuhrer Directive No. 21 is issued, outlining Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR
14 June  Hitler clarifies Barbarossa objectives as being Leningrad, the Ukraine, Donbas and Caucasus. Moscow is not  included
22 June Germany launches Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union
19 July    Fuhrer Directive No. 33 issued
6 September   Fuhrer Directive No. 35 (reinforcing Army Group Centre for the attack on Moscow) is issued
30 September  Army Group Centre begins Operation Typhoon, the attack on Moscow
5 December   Soviet counter-offensive before Moscow begins
5 April      Fuhrer Directive No. 41 is issued, outlining the German summer offensive in southern Russia
8 May   Von Manstein‘s 11th Army begins offensive operations in the Crimea
12 May Timoshenko launches the Soviet offensive towards Kharkov
17 May    Army Group South begins counter-offensive towards Kharkov, eventually destroying three Soviet armies
28 June      German summer offensive, Operation Blau, begins in the Kursk area
4 July    Sevastopol falls
6 July Voronezh is captured by the Germans
9 July    German offensive begins in the Kharkov sector. Army Group South is split into Army Groups A and B
12 July    The Stalingrad Front is formed
23 July   Germans capture Rostov. Fuhrer Directive No. 45 directs that Stalingrad and the Caucasus have equal priority and are to be attacked simultaneously
26 July  Army Group A begins its attack into the Caucasus
4 August  German forces cross the Aksay River and start the drive
6 August  German forces cross the Kuban near Armavir
9 August   The oilfield at Maikop falls to the Germans, who also take Krasnodar and Yeysk, a port on the Sea of Azov
19 August  Paulus orders the 6th Army to advance on Stalingrad
22 August    German advance into the Caucasus is temporarily halted
25 August   Soviets declare Stalingrad to be in a state of siege
26 August   Zhukov appointed Deputy Supreme Commander of the Soviet Armed Forces
1 September German and Rumanian troops of the 11th Army cross the Kerch Straits and advance into the Taman Peninsula, establishing a bridgehead on the Terek
3 September The 6th Army reaches the outskirts of Stalingrad
6 September   Novorossiysk on the Black Sea is captured by the Germans
12 September  Chuikov takes control of the 62nd Army. Vasilevsky and Zhukov meet Stalin – the idea of a counteroffensive to trap the 6th Army is born
14 September  The first German assault on Stalingrad begins
24 September  Germans begin an advance towards Tuapse. Zeitzler replaces Halder as Chief of the Army General Staff
27 September The second German assault on the city begins
6 October Germans capture Malgobek
14 October The third German assault on the city starts
18 October  The German advance towards Tuapse comes to a halt
25 October  The Germans restart offensive operations in the Caucasus
19 November   The Soviets begin Operation Uranus, the offensive to encircle the 6th Army in Stalingrad
20 November  Von Manstein is appointed commander of Army Group Don
23 November   Soviet forces from the South-Western and Stalingrad Fronts meet at Kalach, completing the encirclement of the 6th Army
13 January  Soviet counter-offensive in the Ukraine begins, codenamed Operation Gallop
31 January Paulus surrenders with the southern pocket
2 February The remaining German forces in the northern pocket surrender. The battle for Stalingrad is over. Soviets begin the second stage of their winter offensive, Operation Star
16 February  Soviets retake Kharkov
19 February Von Manstein begins his counter-offensive, spearheaded by the SS Panzer Corps
14 March   Kharkov retaken
5 July Army Group Centre begins Operation Citadel, an offensive to pinch off the salient around Kursk
22 June The Soviets launch Operation Bagration, the plan to destroy Army Group Centre in Byelorussia
1 August    The Polish Home Army under General Komorowski rises in revolt and seizes large areas of Warsaw
31 August   Germans finally retake Warsaw. The Soviet summer offensive comes to an end
12 January     Soviets begin their offensive from the Vistula to the Oder,  with 1st Byelorussian Front reaching the river near Kustrin by mid-February
16 April  The Soviets launch their offensive to take Berlin, led by Zhukov's 1st Byelorussian Front and Koniev's 1st Ukrainian Front
30 April  Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun commit suicide
2 May The Berlin Garrison surrenders and the Soviets take the city
8 May   German forces begin surrendering — the Western Allies Declare VE Day

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How to cite this article: Antill, P (17 May 2022), Operation Blau: The Battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus – Part One: Background , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stalingrad_1_background.html

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