Operation Blau: The Battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus – Part Four: The Soviet Counterattack

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

Zhukov Springs the Trap

As early as 12 September in a conference with Hitler at Vinnitsa, Paulus had expressed his concern over the vulnerability of 6th Army's left flank along the Don and its right flank following the Volga. The outer flanks were guarded by formations from Germany's Axis Allies (Italy, Rumania and Hungary) and although the potential dangers of this were known to the German High Command (the Axis troops were of a reasonable quality but lacked the firepower of German formations to deal with Soviet attacks) nothing could be done unless Army Group A was withdrawn from the Caucasus. Once again, the disparity between German ends and means were clear. The 6th Army was trapped at the edge of an enormous salient, with few reserves and fighting an intense battle of attrition, dependant on a single railway line which crossed the Don at Kalach, just sixty miles from the Soviet lines. All twenty-one divisions (including the 9th Flak Division) of the 6th and 4th Panzer Armies were situated in or around the Stalingrad area at the eastern tip of the salient. The three Panzer Divisions (14th, 16th and 24th) which would normally be expected to protect the flanks were in no fit state to do so and would need a long period of time to recover. The 4th Panzer Army was a shadow of its former self having given 6th Army all six of its remaining divisions while 48th Panzer Corps was acting as army group reserve and that only consisted of 22nd Panzer Division and the Rumanian 1st Armoured Division, a formation equipped with Czech tanks. Hitler had promised a panzer and two infantry divisions from France but these were not expected to arrive before the beginning of December.

Stalingrad: Red Army Wire Communications
Stalingrad: Red Army Wire Communications

To the left of 6th Army lay Dumitrescu's 3rd Rumanian Army, which had lost the Serafimovich and Kletskaya bridgeheads back in August. The Rumanians had to man a front of over 100 miles and the lack of natural barriers robbed their defences of depth. During October, Dumitrescu's proposal for a joint Rumanian-German offensive to remove the Serafimovich bridgehead was rejected as German troops could not be spared from the fighting in Stalingrad. It was a decision the Germans were about to regret. To the south of Stalingrad lay Constantinescu's 4th Rumanian Army that was just taking over command of the 6th and 7th Rumanian Corps as the Soviet counteroffensive broke. A single German formation, Generalmajor Leyser's 29th Motorised Division that had been pulled back from the city, was acting as a reserve. The Axis formations were incapable of standing up to a powerful Soviet offensive and the Germans, while acknowledging that it was a possibility, did not seriously believe that the Soviets were capable of offensive action on that scale. Thus, Army Group B was spread out over a 400-mile front with weakly defended flanks, inadequate resources and reserves and vulnerable lines of communication. While Stalingrad had held the Wehrmacht's attention for some time, the Soviets had been looking at the wider picture.

The origins of the Soviet counteroffensive stretched back to a meeting in Moscow on 12 September 1942 between Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Stalin. Stalin had ordered Zhukov to keep harassing 6th Army's northern flank on the Don-Volga land bridge. While Stalin moved away to consult his own map showing the extent of German progress, Zhukov and Vasilevsky talked about finding another solution. Stalin's keen sense of hearing picked this up and he enquired what the two were thinking. Zhukov stated that they should look at other possibilities rather than just launching costly tactical assaults on 6th Army's flank. Stalin instructed them to go away and think about it more fully. The next day the pair came back stating their belief that both the German army groups involved in the current operation were hugely overextended and had insufficient means to complete the objectives that had been set for them (which the Soviets could reasonably guess at). The Axis supply lines were stretched thin and with satellite formations holding each flank, there might be the possibility of conducting an operation to encircle the 6th Army. It would have to be properly planned and resourced and conducted at sufficient distance away from the city so as the 6th Army would not be able to quickly disengage its armour and block the Soviet attacks. Zhukov estimated it would take around seven weeks to deploy the necessary forces. It would be necessary for 62nd Army to act as the 'bait' and keep 6th Army's focus on the city while preparations were made and so Stalingrad, despite its political and psychological significance became a means to an end, rather than, in the German case, an end in itself. It would however be necessary to ensure 62nd Army's survival so Chuikov was only given enough resources to keep from completely collapsing – a dangerous game but one of the Red Army's most impressive accomplishments.

Stalingrad: Operation Uranus, 19 November-24 December 1942
Stalingrad: Operation Uranus, 19 November-24 December 1942

By 18 November, the preparations were complete. Yeremenko's Southeast Front had been renamed Stalingrad Front, Gordov's Stalingrad Front had become the Don Front under Rokossovsky and a newly reconstituted Southwest Front under Vatutin came into being facing 3rd Rumanian Army. The two main thrusts would be from the north against 3rd Rumanian Army moving southeast and from the east against 4th Rumanian Army moving northwest. Southwest Front would carry the main attack in the north with 1st Guards, 5th Tank and 21st Armies. 1st Guards was to pin the Italian 8th Army, 5th Tank was to attack in the centre, breakthrough and exploit, while 21st Army (with help from the Don Front's 65th Army) was to attack the 3rd Rumanian Army's right flank and lever it away from the German XI Corps. Next was Don Front with 65th Army cooperating with 21st Army, while 24th and 66th Armies would pin the German forces north of Stalingrad and prevent them from interfering. The southern thrust would be from Stalingrad Front's 51st and 57th Armies which would attack and break through the Rumanian 6th Corps while 64th Army would pin the German IV Corps. The two thrusts would meet at Kalach and form a defence line. While the Germans had had several warnings that the Soviets were preparing some sort of attack, the scale and ambition of it shocked them. This was due to the Soviet use of maskirovka, the use of camouflage, concealment, disguise and deception. Forces were moved only at night and camouflaged during the day and kept to strict radio silence. The Red Air Force prevented sustained Luftwaffe reconnaissance and interdiction efforts and false radio nets were maintained to sustain the façade of normality. The German intelligence unit, Foreign Armies East, headed by General Reinhard Gehlen was aware that Soviet forces were on the move but failed to appreciate the scale. German strategic intelligence indicated that they were not capable of undertaking more than one major counteroffensive at a time, and indications were it would be in front of Moscow, while the southern attack would either be later or a secondary operation. This was Operation Mars, to be controlled by Zhukov while Operation Uranus would be controlled by Vasilevsky. While Uranus would surround the 6th Army, Mars would do the same to the German 9th Army in the Rzhev Salient. Operational success would be transformed into strategic victory by two follow-on offensives, codenamed Operation Jupiter, which would surround Army Group Centre, and Operation Saturn which would be aimed at Rostov, destroying Army Group B and trapping Army Group A in the Caucasus. Gehlen's reading of the strategic situation would mean that Army Group Centre would be fully prepared for Operation Mars which would prove a costly failure, unlike Operation Uranus. Just before the counteroffensive opened, the 6th Army tried once again to take the city, attacking on 11 November with five infantry divisions (44th, 79th, 100th Jager, 305th and 389th) and two panzer divisions (14th and 24th) and while they again reached the Volga between Barrikady and Red October splitting 62nd Army for a third time and isolating the 138th Siberian Division, the attack declined as 62nd Army stood firm.

At 07.20 on 19 November 1942, the Southwest and Don fronts issued the codeword 'Siren' and ten minutes later, Soviet artillery started to pound Axis positions. Eighty minutes later, the artillery stopped and the Red Army began its attack on a 200-mile front. In the north, 1st Guards pinned down the Italian 8th Army while 5th Tank Army hit the 3rd Rumanian Army in the left flank out of the Serafimovich bridgehead while 21st Army (and 65th Army) hit their right flank out of the bridgehead near Kletskaya. The 24th and 66th Armies attacked the land bridge between the Don and Volga. Soviet forces quickly broke through the 3rd Rumanian Army but the Don Front encountered fierce resistance as Army Group B deployed the 16th Panzer Division against it, rather than the 21st Army, whose mobile elements (4th Tank Corps and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps) were already through the Rumanian lines. While the Rumanians fought bravely, 5th Tank Army broke through and its mobile elements (1st and 26th Tank Corps and 8th Guards Cavalry Corps) headed south-eastwards towards Kalach. 48th Panzer Corps was ordered to intercept but 22nd Panzer Division lost contact with the 1st Rumanian Armoured and instead of a powerful armoured strike force committed into battle piecemeal. Army Group B ordered Paulus to halt operations in Stalingrad and deploy his panzer divisions westwards to guard his lines of communication. With the German attention suddenly focused on the north, the southern wing of the counteroffensive struck. Yeremenko had decided to delay the attack due to poor weather but when the fog lifted his 64th, 57th and 51st Armies went into the attack. They quickly broke through the 6th and 7th Rumanian Corps who fled westwards as 4th Panzer Army did the same, handing a very precarious situation over to 4th Rumanian Army. 57th Army unleashed its 13th Mechanised Corps, while 51st Army did the same with its 4th Mechanised and 4th Cavalry Corps, the two former formations heading northwest while the cavalry headed southwest towards the Aksai River. The 13th Tank Corps suffered a very painful and unexpected encounter with Leyser's 29th Motorised Division/but which had to withdraw after being ordered to do so to protect the Army Group's rear. The Soviet spearheads moved on with Paulus having to evacuate his headquarters at Golubinskaya on 21 November and the bridge over the Don at Kalach falling to 26th Tank Corps the next day. 1st Tank and 8th Guards Cavalry Corps wheeled right to secure a frontline on the Chir River, 4th Tank Corps closed with the Don River, 4th Mechanised Corps continued towards Kalach and the 13th Mechanised Corps advanced northwest. Resistance was sparse and on 23 November the two pincers met just east of Kalach at Sovetsky. The Soviets believed they had trapped 85 — 90,000 troops but the true figure, with fourteen infantry, three panzer, three motorised and one flak divisions, two Rumanian divisions and a Croatian regiment, was nearer 250,000.

Manstein's Relief Effort

Stalingrad: The German Relief Effort, December 1942
Stalingrad: The German Relief Effort, December 1942

The question now facing the Fuhrer was, should the 6th Army stand and fight or should it break out? With the significance, size and scale of the Soviet counteroffensive dawning on him, Hitler summoned Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein and tasked him with forming Army Group Don, stabilise the position in southern Russia and prepare a relief effort. In the meantime, Hitler sought advice as to whether it would be possible to supply the 6th Army while it waited for a relief effort to be mounted – if not, there would be no choice but to organise a breakout. Hitler spoke first to Generalleutnant Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, who indicated that assuming it was indeed going to be a temporary encirclement and sufficient transport aircraft and bombers were made available then it would be possible to supply the army and referred to the successful effort to supply 100,000 soldiers in the Demyansk pocket north of Moscow during the spring of 1942. Hitler seized upon this comparison as a way of justifying his decision to forbid 6th Army to breakout but 6th Army consisted of 250,000 men, not 100,000, the time of year had been spring not winter and the Red Air Force was extremely weak, not gaining in strength by the day. The Demyansk Pocket had needed a daily minimum of 300 tons per day (equating to 150 aircraft per day) for which the Luftwaffe had committed 500 Ju-52s. 6th Army calculated that they would need around 750 tons per day (or 500 tons at the barest minimum) for which it would be difficult for the Luftwaffe to find the necessary aircraft, especially with the fighting in North Africa turning against the Germans. Hitler found little objective help from Goring, who, after having lost the Battle of Britain in 1940, had been out of favour with the Fuhrer, saw the airlift as an opportunity to regain favour and assured him it could be done. Zeiztler fought an unequal struggle to persuade him that an airlift was out of the question and armed with Jeschonnek's objective study on how, even in perfect conditions, it would would be nigh impossible for the Luftwaffe to supply 6th Army, confronted Goring in front of the Fuhrer. Hitler however, had made up his mind and informed Paulus that the 6th Army was to hold its positions, declaring it a festung (fortress) two days later. Hoth and Picked (commander of the 9th Flak Division) as well as von Weichs, Paulus and his five corps commanders, were all of the opinion that 6th Army must attempt to breakout before the Soviet lines hardened. Richthofen and Fiebig confirmed to Schmidt (6th Army Chief of Staff) that a sustained airlift during the winter was virtually impossible. Paulus was not one to disobey the Fuhrer however and after flying back to Gumrak to form his new headquarters, he deployed 6th Army to undertake a rapid breakout if Hitler ordered it. The order never came and so Paulus assumed an all-round defence in the hope supplies would arrive by air and a relief effort would be undertaken. They were surrounded by seven Soviet armies (62nd, 64th, 57th, 21st, 65th, 24th and 66th) guarding a perimeter of over 200 miles in length. The Red Army calculated that they would be surrounding 85-90,000 German troops, not 250,000. If the 6th Army had attempted a breakout early in the siege there is little doubt the Soviets would have been hard-pressed to contain it.

Stalingrad: German Positions in the pocket, 25 November 1942
Stalingrad: German Positions in the pocket, 25 November 1942

Immediately after the encirclement, Vasilevsky ordered the Don and Stalingrad Fronts to destroy the encircled 6th Army and plan for the next phase of operations - Operation Saturn, which would turn operational success into a strategic one, the ultimate objective being to take Rostov and either destroy or force Army Group Don (which had taken over what was left-of Army Group B) to withdraw and trap Army Group A in the Caucasus if-that-didn't-also withdraw. Thus, once Saturn had got underway, the relief of the 6th Army would become incompatible with overall German strategic interests (their entire force in southern Russia would be under threat) and it would have to be left to its fate. If Hitler had allowed the 6th Army to breakout, Zhukov and Vasilevsky's planning would have been for nothing. However, after the initial shock of the Soviet counteroffensive, Army Group Don under Manstein was now quickly pulling itself together again. The remnants of 3rd Rumanian Army and various German formations had been grouped together under Generalmajor Karl Hollidt and had managed to hold the Chir River with a few bridgeheads on the eastern side. To Hollidt's right, sat Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, bereft of panzer divisions and far to the south of them lay 16th Motorised Division keeping a tenuous link going between Army Group Don and Army Group A. Army Group Don was quickly reinforced with 336th Infantry, 7th and 15th Luftwaffe Field and 11th Panzer Divisions.

At the end of the month Manstein also received 6th and 23rd Panzer Divisions but while German defences were hardening along the Chir, there was little extra for forming operational reserves or a relief force, and Soviet armoured reserves were increasing all the time. The only operation that made sense was a rapid strike northwards in conjunction with 6th Army breaking out to the south and then withdrawing to the Chir-Don line. Hitler's insistence on Army Group Don fighting through and then maintaining a permanent link to 6th Army was one that it did not have the resources to accomplish. Manstein however endeavoured to turn Army Group Don into an effective fighting force as Vasilevsky launched the first operation to reduce the 6th Army's pocket. The main thrust would be from the northwest, west and south with 21st, 65th, 57th and 24th Armies attacking at the same time while the remaining three would probe German defences in the hope of pinning any tactical reserves. The attack, launched by the Stalingrad and Don Fronts on the 2 and 4 December resulted in four days of fierce fighting, heavy Soviet casualties and only small gains, as the Germans were occupying the old Red Army defence positions. It was obvious that Stavka had seriously underestimated German fighting strength in the pocket and so sent additional reserves so that 6th Army could be annihilated and the perimeter held. These included Malinovky's 2nd Guards Army and Popov's 5th Shock Army. On 9 December, the plans for Operation Koltso were presented to Stavka and Stalin which proposed a three phase assault on the pocket in order to break it up prior to annihilation.

While this was being finalised however, Manstein and Army Group Don launched their relief effort, Operation Wintergetwitter (Winter Storm) on 12 December. Manstein had hoped to launch a two-pronged assault with XXXXVIII Panzer Corps (11th Panzer, 336th Infantry and 7th Luftwaffe Field Divisions) advancing towards Kalach and LVII Panzer Corps (6th and 23rd Panzer and 15th Luftwaffe Field Divisions) moving northeast from Kotelnikovo, Additional reinforcements had been promised, including the 17th Panzer Division but these would not arrive before the start of the operation. However, Romanenko's 5th Tank Army attacked across the Chir on 30 November and while Hollidt's forces held, it ensured that XXXXVIII Panzer Corps would have to stay there to hold the line (especially as 5th Shock Army was deploying to the area), reducing the relief effort to a single thrust by LVII Panzer Corps from around Kotelnikovo. The thrust, supported by Pflugbeil's IV Fliegerkorps made rapid progress against the rifle divisions of 57th Army and forced the Soviets to commit 4th Mechanised and 13th Tank Corps to blunt the offensive. The 2nd Guards Army, reinforced by 4th and 6th Mechanised Corps and 4th Cavalry Corps, was redeployed to the Stalingrad Front and blocked LVII Panzer Corps at the Myshkova River. Despite Manstein pressing Hitler to give the order 'Thunderclap' (the codeword for 6th Army to breakout) no decision was made and so Manstein had to choose between 6th Army and the survival of Army Group Don and the entire German strategic position in southern Russia.

Operation 'Little Saturn'

Stalingrad: Operations Uranus and Little Saturn
Stalingrad: Operations Uranus and Little Saturn

The Soviet High Command had proven it could react with speed in the way it dealt with Manstein's relief effort and with this turn of events, Vasilevsky recognised that Operation Saturn was probably beyond the capabilities of the Red Army as the Germans had proven that it still had substantial fighting power in the area and the speed and flexibility of command to try and turn the situation around. Therefore, a smaller scale operation, one that would complete the isolation of the 6th Army from Army Group Don came into being — Operation Malvyy Saturn (Little Saturn). This began on 16 December and after getting off to a disastrous start with few if any gains and being marked by a failure to coordinate armour, infantry and airpower, the Soviets reorganised and after three days of bitter fighting, broke through the Italian lines with 6th and 1st Guards Armies, while 3rd Guards advanced westwards. Their mobile units (17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank Corps) moved south headed for important targets such as the junction at Kantemirovka, the main German supply base at Millerovno, the airfields and rail junctions at Tatinskaya and Morozovsk. Southwest Front's 1st Guards Mechanised Corps was to menace Armeeabteilung Hollidt's flank and rear before moving towards Morozovsk. 1st Guards met up with 3rd Guards on 19 December completing the encirclement of the Italian 8th Army and the mobile groups were almost roaming at will, given the lack of Axis mobile reserves, with 24th Tank Corps taking Tatinskaya on 24 December. Manstein reacted quickly however, and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, taking advantage of a shortage of supplies on the Soviet side, counterattacked, trapping 24th Tank Corps, which managed to escape only after being resupplied. Tatinskaya was retaken and the Germans managed to hold on to their base at Millerovno.

As the tempo of Soviet operations declined, Manstein was able to instil some order in Army Group Don's shattered left flank. While Little Saturn failed to gain hardly any of the specific objectives set for it, what it did do was force Manstein to choose between the safety of Army Group Don and the strategic German situation in southern Russia and continuing to try and relive 6th Army. With Soviet forces still advancing south and west and the dire situation facing Army Group Don, German operational and strategic interests were now best served by 6th Army remaining on the Volga and continuing to tie up seven Soviet armies. This would buy time for Manstein's Army Group Don to reorganise and so keep the Soviets from controlling Rostov and the retreat route for Army Group A. German supply lines in southern Russia were still vulnerable and German forces were still overextended meaning there was still a mismatch between what objectives the Germans were trying to achieve and what they had available to achieve them, with the result that there were few operational reserves with which to blunt Soviet attacks. Army Group Centre had its hands full coping with Operation Mars while its 2nd Panzer Army and Army Group B's 2nd Army were struggling to hold that part of the front together. On 28 December, Hitler ordered that Army Group A begin its withdrawal from the Caucasus and Army Group Don to a line 150 miles west of Stalingrad. Paulus and the 6th Army were left to their fate.

Operation Koltso and the End

With the Germans managing to retain their airbases at Tatinskaya and near Morozovsk, the airlift to 6th Army could resume. As predicted however, the airlift had been in trouble form the very beginning with the Luftwaffe not having the available assets (in terms of types and numbers of suitable aircraft, ground assets, fighter cover and the means to deal with the harsh winter) with which to supply 6th Army with even its minimum daily tonnage requirements but the operation continued through a desperate desire to relieve 6th Army's death throes and to evacuate as many wounded as possible. Hitler's indecision as to the exact purpose of Wintergetwitter had seriously compromised the airlift as if 6th Army were to be allowed to breakout, then fuel, ammunition and food were all equal in priority. If however, 6th Army was to remain in situ whether or not Wintergetvvitter succeeded then food and ammunition would have the priority. Hitler's inability or unwillingness to make a clear decision meant that the airlift carried bulky fuel that 6th Army would never use. Eventually, further Soviet pressure meant that HoIlidt had to retreat west in order to contain the threat posed by the Stalingrad Front and so the return to Morozovsk and Tatinskaya proved to be short lived.

Stalingrad: January-March 1943
Stalingrad: January-March 1943

After Christmas Day 1942, German morale deteriorated quickly as their fate became all too obvious. Wintergetwitter had forced a postponement of Operation Koltso (Ring) but with Army Group Don being forced into retreat, preparations were made for the final destruction of the 6th Army. The original plan was modified so the 57th Army would launch a major attack northwards, while 66th and 24th Armies attacked southwards. These would meet up with 21st and 65th Armies who would attack eastwards while 62nd and 64th Armies pinned the German forces in the immediate vicinity of the city. There would then be a general advance into Stalingrad and the elimination of the 6th Army. Stavka ordered that Don Front be given the responsibility of undertaking Koltso and so on 1 January 1943 the Stalingrad front was disbanded and the 57th, 62nd and 64th Armies transferred to the Don Front that now deployed over 218,000 troops. Yeremenko would now command the South Front, consisting of 51st, 5th Shock, 2nd Guards and 28th Armies. As Stavka was finalising the plans for Operation Koltso, it agreed a number of other plans to complete the destruction of German forces in southern Russia. Golikov's Voronezh Front was to attack the Hungarian 2nd Army, destroy it and then attack von Salmuth's 2nd Army. This would isolate Army Group B from Army Group Don, which would be attacked on its left flank by Vatutin's Southwest Front and on its right by 5th Tank and 5th Shock Armies. South Front would coordinate its efforts with Tyulenev's Transcaucasus Front and aim for Rostov in order to trap Army Group A, while Transcaucasus would attack and destroy Ruoffs 17th Army (Operation Gory) and then move into the army group rear and trap Kleist's 1st Panzer Army and Hoth's 4th. The South and Transcaucasus Fronts attacked on 7 January 1943 but bad weather, difficult terrain and the poor road network hampered their advance, enabling 17th Army to withdraw towards the Kerch Peninsula and 1st and 4th Panzer Armies towards Rostov. On 12 January Voronezh Front attacked Jany's Hungarian 2nd Army defending Army Group B's northern flank. Voronezh Front broke through the Hungarian lines in several places and surrounded both it, the Italian Alpine Corps and 24th Panzer Division although various elements fought their way out. It then attacked 2nd Army with the support of 13th Army from the Bryansk Front but the Germans were already pulling back and only received a battering instead of being annihilated. In a series of successive deep operations (something that had been the focus of Soviet military thought before the war) the PO Army had almost completely destroyed the German position in southern Russia and reversed the tide of war.

The time had now come for the Red Army to administer the killing blow to the 6th Army. The attack was again delayed for four days in order to finish last minute preparations and for Rokossovsky, who unlike many of his contemporaries was keen to avoid unnecessary casualties and saw little sense in the pointless slaughter of starving, desperate German soldiers, there would be a greater propaganda coup in the surrender of the 6th Army rather than just its simple destruction. Therefore, Rokossovsky twice sent a surrender ultimatum to Paulus, who rejected them both. At 08.05 on 10 January 1943, Operation Koltso began, with a thunderous barrage. Two days of intense fighting saw the German position in the west of the pocket crumble although elsewhere the Soviets could only gain small amounts of ground against fierce German opposition. On 13 January, 21st Army became the main focus of the attack and struck out towards Pitomnik, the better of the two airfields within the pocket. The roads to the airfield were littered with the remnants of a defeated army - bodies of the dead, destroyed vehicles, wounded left to fend for themselves and men struggling to retreat in temperatures of -20 °C. Many commanders selected particular officers to be flown out of-the pocket at the last minute so that they could help rebuild their units in the aftermath. The airfield fell on 16 January and the last hope for 6th Army vanished. Eight German divisions (3rd, 29th and 60th Motorised, 44th, 76th, 113th, 297th and 376th Infantry) had ceased to exist as fighting formations. The Soviets continued to push towards the Volga, taking Gumrak, the last usable airfield on 23 January. By now over 100,000 German troops were congregated in Stalingrad, awaiting their fate. The Don Front moved on, crushing all in its path. Rokossovsky aimed to drive at the heart of the German defences and break them up in order to annihilate each one in turn. On 26 January, forward elements of the 21st and 65th Armies made contact with the 13th Guards Division near Mamayev Kurgan, and split the 6th Army in two. The northern pocket formed around the factories while to the south a larger pocket formed between Mamayev Kurgan and the Tsaritsa River. On 29 January the Den-Front split the Germans into three pockets, with XI Corps in the area of the Tractor Factory, VIII and LI Corps between Mamayev Kurgan and the No. 1 Railway Station while IV Corps and XIV Panzer Corps were near the river. The reduction of the pockets continued for several days with Soviet troops fighting bitter house-to-house battles with desperate German defenders in a tragic reversal of roles. Many began to surrender however and despite being raised to a Generalfeldmarschall by Hitler on 31 January (for no officer of that rank had surrendered to an enemy and thus Paulus had been expected to kill himself), Paulus surrendered to a Soviet officer that same day. Strecker refused to give in despite most of the army now having capitulated and Rokossovsky concentrated all of Don Front's artillery (amassing around 300 guns per kilometre) on the area to destroy XI Corps. After a withering barrage, the last German troops surrendered on 2 February 1943 after which an eerie calm descended on the city. The battle for Stalingrad was over.


In the early stages of Operation Blau, Army Group South inflicted a severe defeat upon the Red Army and drove its decimated and dispirited armies eastwards. By August 1942, the decisive victory that had eluded the Germans in 1941 seemed to be within their grasp and yet, just a few months later, the strategic situation on the Eastern Front had been transformed. Even though in the original plan for Operation Blau, Stalingrad had only been a secondary objective to that of the oil in the Caucasus, the issuing of Fuhrer Directive No. 45 had meant that the objectives for the campaign had widened to the point where the two component Army Groups, A and B, would find it impossible to support each other if difficulties arose and that those two objectives were equally important and had to be achieved simultaneously rather than sequentially. It also meant that Stalingrad was to be captured, rather than merely brought under fire as a means of cutting the Volga and the supply route for the Caucasian oil. Thus, the struggle for the city came to have a greater and greater psychological significance for both sides as time went on, but it was the Soviets who recognised what effect this was having on their opponents and turned it to their advantage. With the end of the battle for Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht had suffered such a serious defeat that it was obvious to all that the strategic initiative had passed to the Soviet Union. German casualties in the battle for the city itself were almost 300,000 troops (around 30,000 wounded evacuated, 100,000 captured and 150,000 killed) with another 300,000 casualties being suffered by the remaining German forces of Army Groups A, B and Don.

Germany's Axis allies also had high casualties, something which would have both immediate and longer-term consequences. The losses incurred in Barbarossa had led the Germans to ask for additional Axis forces for the 1942 campaign. These forces had played a key role in manning quieter sections of the front and released German units to undertake offensive operations. The casualties suffered during the campaign meant that the Axis would be unable to support the Wehrmacht until they had rebuilt their forces, something that would mean German manpower resources being stretched to the limit. Italy suffered over 110,000 casualties which seriously undermined Mussolini's domestic position, especially in that, as 1943 progressed, the Western Allies brought the North African campaign to a successful conclusion (with the Axis losing over 230,000 men as PoWs after the final surrender in Tunisia) and then began preparations to invade Sicily and Italy, resulting in Mussolini's removal from power and an Italian surrender. The Rumanians suffered almost 160,000 casualties and had to rebuild their forces, while Hungary incurred some 143,000 casualties and only retook to the field in 1944. Just as the failure of Barbarossa had meant that the Germans no longer had the resources to conduct a campaign with all three Army Groups in 1942, so the failure of Blau meant that German offensive operations had to be limited to the Kursk salient in 1943. The disparity between German means and ends, something that had been there at the start of Barbarossa, was now reaching a critical point. In addition, the move by the Western Allies onto the offensive in mid-1943, first in the Mediterranean and eventually in North-West Europe, meant that the German forces in the east could not depend on reserves being transferred from the west.

Immediately after the catastrophe on the Volga, the Soviets tried to take advantage of the disruption to the German forces in the south by launching a series of offensives in southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, the overall objective being the destruction of von Manstein's Army Group South, a renamed amalgamation of Army Groups A, B and Don. The first was Operation Gallop, undertaken by Vatutin's South-Western Front, which was to advance west towards the lower Dneipr and the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Meanwhile, Golikov's Voronezh Front was to undertake Operation Star and capture Kharkov, as well as move into the Ukraine on the northern flank of South-Western Front. There was little time for any serious preparation as the offensive was designed to follow on as quickly as possible from the success at Stalingrad and take advantage of chaotic state of the German forces. At the same time, Zhukov and Vasilevsky planned a huge operation that was to be directed against Army Group Centre, a combination of the failed Operations Mars and Jupiter that had been planned to take place just after Operations Uranus and Saturn. Rokossovsky's Central Front (previously known as the Don Front) was to attack the German 2nd Army and 2nd Panzer Army along with the Bryansk Front and part of the Western Front. It would drive northwards from the area around Kursk towards Smolensk (the rear of Army Group Centre) and meet the remainder of the Western Front and the Kalinin Front, thereby trapping most of the Army Group.

Unfortunately, Stavka underestimated the resilience and re-organisational skill of the Wehrmacht (and in particular von Manstein) and overestimated the capabilities of Fronts that were tired and in need of replacements (the Soviets having suffered well over a million casualties during Operation Blau). As the Soviet offensive got underway, von Manstein calculated that they were operating on over-extended supply lines and fostered the belief that things were going well by conceding Kharkov. At the same time, German forces that were previously in the Caucasus had withdrawn past Rostov and were concentrating in the Donbas region. On 19 February, von Manstein began his counteroffensive, led by the SS Panzer Corps and by mid-March had severely damaged both the South-Western and Voronezh Fronts as well as forcing the Soviets to curtail the attack by Rokossovsky's Central Front, which by that time had made deep inroads into the German 2nd Army. Thus, von Manstein was able to stabilise the German position, although the Wehrmacht found itself in almost the same positions it had occupied before Operation Blau had begun. The fighting around Kharkov was followed by Operation Zitadelle in July 1943 where the Wehrmacht would commit a significant proportion of its armoured strength in order to pinch out the salient around Kursk in order to shorten and consolidate their lines The Soviets had received intelligence that this was what the Germans were planning and therefore constructed massive defensive lines in great depth in order to absorb the momentum of the attack after which they would counterattack with their own armoured reserves. This they did and after what has been called the greatest tank battle in history, went onto the offensive. The Wehrmacht remained a formidable force however and it would take almost another two years before the Red Army entered Berlin.

So why did the Wehrmacht, victorious in Northern and Western Europe utilising the techniques of Blitzkrieg, fail to defeat the Soviet Union in both Operations Barbarossa and Blau, a failure that would lead to the catastrophe at Stalingrad? It has been argued that this failure to defeat the Soviet Union was down to the German approach to warfare and their fighting methods. During the Second World War, the Wehrmacht's understanding of strategy still encompassed the Nineteenth Century concept of Vernichtungschlacht, which loosely translated means a strategic military victory in a single campaign, that is, being able to destroy the enemy army through tactical and operational excellence would bring about victory at the strategic level and thus attain the political objectives of the war. During the inter­war period, the German Army learnt a number of lessons from its experiences in the First World War, but refused to believe that the Schlieffen Plan (a plan devised in December 1905 by Alfred-von Schieffen, the Army Chief of Staff to-counter a possible combined Franco-Russian attack), itself a powerful example of the Vernichtungschlacht, had failed because of tactical flaws in its execution, but rather that the British and French armies had failed to adopt a particular tactical approach. The success of the German Blitzkrieg between September 1939 and June 1941 seemed to justify the continued use of the Vernichtungschlacht. In the campaign for the Low Countries and France, both sides were evenly matched in terms of personnel, tanks and aircraft, but in six weeks, the Wehrmacht achieved what the German Army could not, in the four years between 1914 and 1918. The Wehrmacht succeeded in these early campaigns because the opposing armies could not counter the German's use of manoeuvre warfare and firepower and so did not really provide a reliable test of German fighting prowess, tactics and techniques and therefore the concept of Vernichtungschlacht itself. That the Germans believed it did, helps explain the failure of Barbarossa in 1941 and Blau in 1942

In many circles, the development and employment of Blitzkrieg constituted a revolutionary advance in the techniques of war, but for the Germans, who rarely used the term Blitzkrieg itself, it was merely a new word used to describe already established fighting methods, albeit with new weapons such as tanks, aircraft and motorised infantry. The German tactical approach to battle was again heavily influenced by the Nineteenth Century concept of Kesselschlacht (roughly translated as a cauldron battle of annihilation) that was the practical approach to achieving a Vernichtungschlacht, on the field of battle. This, in effect, involved encircling the enemy army and destroying it. The early years of the war saw the Wehrmacht using the Kesselschlacht concept with great success, although in fact there was nothing that was particularly sophisticated about it. For example, it did not concentrate on eliminating the enemy command and control structure as destroying the enemy's ability to resist at little cost — that was seen as a by-product of the success of Kesselschlacht, rather than a fundamental contributor. It therefore followed that the number of encirclement operations would depend on the size and skill of the opponent. The Wehrmacht concentrated on achieving tactical excellence through a combination of creativity, initiative, boldness and adaptability in conjunction with a thorough understanding of the value of mechanisation, airpower, artillery, communications and manoeuvre in order to encircle and destroy the enemy.

However, the scale of the pockets that were created in the Kesselschlachts during the campaign in the east caused problems in that the Germans had essentially two armies — a mechanised force, which formed the minority and a leg-based infantry one that formed the majority. The panzer groups would need to undertake huge encircling movements in order to trap the Soviet armies and prevent them from escaping into the interior, but would have to wait until they had been reduced by the infantry with the support of the Luftwaffe before moving on, which would eventually hinder forward momentum as the panzer groups quickly outran the infantry. A slower advance would allow the proper elimination of the pockets but might invite an attritional struggle that would only favour the Soviet Union. The widespread mechanisation of the Wehrmacht was impossible at that point and so the Germans gambled on achieving a complete victory before the problem became too serious. If it worked, a campaign in 1942 (which would have to face the same problem) would be irrelevant. That the gamble came so close to success was thanks to Stalin who had not only decimated the Officer Corps in the purges between 1937 and 1938 but did not allow the Red Army to trade space for time after Barbarossa had begun and so gave the Germans exactly what they had been hoping for.

The Germans however failed to achieve victory over the Soviet Union because of its vast manpower and industrial resources, as well as its ability to force the Germans into fighting an attritional battle over a particular objective, firstly at Moscow and then at Stalingrad. Also, the invasion of the Soviet Union and operations on the Eastern Front involved problems that the Germans had not really confronted in the early campaigns. These revolved around geography, distance, time and scale and the effects, both obvious and subtle, were increasingly felt during the campaigns of 1941 and 1942. Geographically, the Pripet Marshes dominated the western part of Soviet Union so that operations in the south were isolated from the remainder until the Wehrmacht had advanced into the Ukraine. The size of the Soviet Union and the distances involved also effected German operations and logistics. The panzer force had suffered wear and tear during the campaign for France and the Low Countries but as it was only some 200 miles from the Ardennes to the Atlantic coast, supporting the campaign was relatively easy. The distance from Warsaw to Moscow however, is around 1000 miles, from Leningrad to Rostov around 1200 miles and from Berlin to Stalingrad around 2000 miles. Therefore, supplies of food, ammunition and spare parts, fresh equipment and replacement personnel had to move much greater distances than before. The Russian climate limited mobile operations to between the months of May and November, so the time of year became important. All this, and the scale of operations that would have been necessary in order to defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, given that Barbarossa was the greatest land invasion in history and failed to do so, brings into question whether the Soviet Union could have ever been defeated by the Vernichtungschlacht / Kesselschlacht combination, or whether the Wehrmacht could have done so without suffering unsustainable losses in the battles of attrition that were forced upon them, are questions that are rarely asked, let alone answered. This was especially so in a country where the lack of a modern infrastructure hindered the logistic support of rapid mobile operations even under the most favourable of conditions.

Stalingrad 1942-43 (3) – Catastrophe – the Death of 6th Army, Robert Forczyk. Covers the final act of the battle of Stalingrad, from the start of the Soviet counter-attack, Operation Uranus, to the final German surrender, a period of two and a half months, looking at the initial Soviet attacks on the flanks which cut off the Sixth Army, the battles on the outer side of the pocket, including the German relief efforts and further Soviet attacks, and the brutal battle in the Stalingrad pocket. A good account of one of the most crucial battles of the Second World War (Read Full Review)
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Bibliography and Further Reading

Akins, W. The Ghosts of Stalingrad, Research Paper, Army Command and General
Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027-1352, June 2004.

Barnett, C. Hitler's Generals, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1989.

'Battle for Stalingrad' Supplement to Soviet Military Review, Number 12, 1982,
Krasnaya Zvezda.

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

Carell, P. Stalingrad - The Defeat of the German 6th Army, Schiffer Publishing,
Atglen, PA, 1993.

Fowler, W. Stalingrad - The Vital 7 Days, Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2005.

Glantz, D. From the Don to the Dnepr: Soviet Offensive Operations, December 1942 - August 1943, Frank Cass, London, 1991 (Reprinted 2002).

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

Kemp, A. German Commanders of World War II, Osprey-Publishing Ltd, London,
1982, Men at Arms Series No. 124.

Knopp, G. Hitler's Warriors, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2005.

McTaggart, P. 'Winter Tempest' in World War II magazine, November 1997, located
online at https://www.historynet.com/winter-tempest-in-stalingrad-november-97-world-war-ii-feature/, as of 8 April 2022.

Maslov, A. Fallen Soviet Generals, Frank Cass, London, 1998.

Overy, R. Russia's War, Penguin, London, 1999.

Rotundo, L. Battle for Stalingrad – The 1943 Soviet General Staff Study, Pergamon-Brassey's, London, 1989.

Showalter, D. 'Stalingrad' in World War II magazine, January 2003, pp. 30 – 38, 88.

Shukman, H. Stalin's Generals, Phoenix-Giant-Paperback. London,1997,

Smith, D. Commonalities in Russian Military Operations in Urban Environments, Research Paper, Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027-1352, June 2003.

Spartacus Educational Website. Located at https://spartacus-educational.com/ as of 01 November 2005.

Taylor, B. Barbarossa to Berlin – A Chronology- of-the Campaigns-on-the Eastern Front-4944 to-1945, Volumes One and Two, Spellmount Publishers, Staplehurst, 2003.

Thyssen, M. A Desperate Struggle to Save a Condemned Army – A Critical Review of the Stalingrad Airlift, Research Paper, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, AL 36112, March 1997.

Walsh, S. Stalingrad 1942-1943: The Infernal Cauldron, Simon & Schuster, London, 2000.

Wieder, J and von Einsiedel, H. Stalingrad: Memories and Reassessments, Cassell
Military, London, 2002.

Williamson, G, German Commanders of World War II (1) – Army, Osprey Publishing
Ltd, Oxford, 2005, Elite Series No. 118.

Ziemke, E and Bauer, M. Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East, Military Heritage Press, New York, 1988.


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How to cite this article: Antill, P (13 June 2022), Operation Blau: The Battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus – Part Four: The Soviet Counterattack, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stalingrad_4_soviet_offensive.html

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