The Battle for Stalingrad

Ralph Zuljan

Although shaken by the winter of 1941-42, German experience during the period leading up to the launch of their second summer offensive against the Soviet Union gave them reason to be optimistic about their prospects. And the pace of the German advance during the early days of Operation Blue in 1942 was reminiscent of that achieved in the early months of Operation Barbarossa. By the end of August, the Red Army was forced to make what was, for all intents, a last stand at Stalingrad. Brilliant Soviet street fighting tactics, daring operational thinking and serious German errors combined to reverse Soviet fortune. By the end of November the Soviets had trapped the powerful German 6th Army inside Stalingrad - it was more than they expected.

Prelude to Stalingrad

The destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad has traditionally been considered the turning point of the war in Europe. In order to appreciate how this defeat came about, an understanding of a number of seemingly unrelated events that occurred in the period between the failure of the battle for Moscow in December 1941 and the opening of Operation Blue - the campaign that led to Stalingrad - in June 1942 is required. These developments provided the basis for the erroneous choices that eventually produced the decisive German defeat at Stalingrad.

During the winter of 1941-42, the German army on the Eastern Front panicked. Numerous senior German commanders were dismissed during this period because of it. Among them was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the Army, who was formally removed by Hitler on December 19th, 1941. Rather than replace Brauchitsch, Hitler assumed the position of Commander in Chief of the Army. He proceeded to ruthlessly enforce the order to stand and fight. By the spring of 1942, the German army recovered from the shock of the Soviet winter counteroffensive and the front was stabilized. There could be no doubt that Hitler deserved some of the credit for saving the army from collapse during the critical winter months, but the success of his inflexibility in this situation clouded his judgment in later crises which called for quite different responses from a commander in chief.

Among the commands that required a replacement as a result of the winter crisis was that of the 6th Army. General Paulus, a staff officer at OKH - the German Army High Command, was given command of 6th Army on January 6th, 1942, on the recommendation of Field Marshal von Reichenau, the former commander of 6th Army and the newly appointed commander of Army Group South. Paulus had never commanded as much as a division or corps when he was given command. Even Hitler expressed reservations about the appointment. Paulus had a reputation as an exceptional operations officer which was enhanced while at OKH where he had been responsible for evaluating the merits of the options for Operation Barbarossa. However, as a commanding officer, he proved to be indecisive and lacking initiative. These character weaknesses would have serious repercussions during several critical moments in the battles that resulted in the encirclement of his army at Stalingrad.

Although the Stalingrad encirclement was the greatest encirclement suffered by the Germans up to that point in time, the previous winter had given the German army experience with sustaining relatively large units trapped behind enemy lines through air supply. The largest of these pockets was Demyansk, where approximately 100,000 German troops held out for seventy-two days. On April 21, 1942 the Demyansk Pocket was successfully relieved by a battle group under the command of General von Seydlitz-Kurzbach - who would eventually command 51st Army Corps in the Stalingrad pocket. The fact that this reinforced army corps survived Soviet encirclement with nothing but air supply was one of the considerations leading to the decision to attempt a similiar operation with the trapped 6th Army at Stalingrad.

Equally significant to later events in Stalingrad was German experience with Soviet offensives in the spring of 1942. Immediately prior to Operation Blue, on May 12th, the Soviet launched an offensive aimed at retaking Kharkov. Initial results were encouraging but the attackers lacked sufficient strength to actually break the German front. It was already being reinforced for the coming German offensive. As the Soviet forces advanced, a German counterattack on the northern and southern flanks cut off the Soviet spearhead and resulted in the destruction of two Soviet armies (6th and 57th Armies). By May 29th the Germans completed their encirclement, resulting in a loss to the Soviets of about 250,000 men. The defeat at Kharkov effectively weakened the Soviet forces along the main axis of advance for the German offensive and thus gave the Wehrmacht a deceptive impression of the actual strength of the Soviet army.

Concurrently, the German 11th Army under General Manstein cleared out the Kerch peninsula by May 15th. Soviet losses were estimated at 150,000 men. The Battle of Sevastopol began immediately thereafter. Fierce Soviet resistance in the city lasted until July 4th. By the time the battle was over some 90,000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner and total Soviet losses during the siege and subsequent battle of Sevastopol were estimated at more than 200,000. In contrast, 11th Army suffered about 24,000 casualties. Manstein was promoted to Field Marshal on the basis of the Crimean campaign, particularly the capture of Sevastopol, and he was promptly sent north, along with elements of 11th Army, to Leningrad. The German experience at Sevastopol demonstrated that even a determined defense in a fortified city could not withstand a well coordinated attack by their forces.

Events in the Crimea were important from another perspective as well. From the outset, Rumanian troops were extensively employed in the Crimean campaign and Manstein generally praised their performance in defensive roles. Comparable reports were received from Rommel concerning Italian troops in North Africa. Therefore, it is fairly easy to see why the use of allied troops for filling out the flanks of the expected advances was viewed as a reasonable measure. By 1942 the Germans needed more troops than they could provide and their experience showed that defensive assignments could be given to allied troops. This had serious consequences by the time their forces approached Stalingrad.

All of the developments discussed here had a positive impact on the Third Reich's ability to wage war against the Soviet Union and they influenced the choices made in the coming summer offensive. Historically, a number of erroneous options were chosen as a result. Essentially, though, as the German armed forces prepared to launch the offensive that led to Stalingrad, its officers and men had reason to be optimistic because of their success against the Red Army thus far.

Last Stand At Stalingrad

The German plan for a renewed offensive on the Eastern Front, in the summer of 1942, was first outlined in Directive 41 issued on April 5th, 1942. It emphasized the southern flank as the primary target while restricting the center of the front, before Moscow, to defensive operations. The principal objectives included clearing the Crimean Peninsula, striking southeast into the Caucasus as well as capturing Leningrad in the north. It was a less ambitious set of objectives than those laid out for Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

Capturing the Caucasus oil fields was to be the primary goal of German military operations. Eventually the plan, which came to be known as Operation Blue, called for splitting Army Group South into Army Group A (which would advance southeastward into the Caucasus with the ultimate objective of Baku) and Army Group B (which would provide flank protection by advancing eastward towards the Volga River). Rumanian, Hungarian and Italian armies were to be inserted into the lengthening left flank of Army Group B as it advanced. The capture of Stalingrad was not even mentioned in the planning of the offensive but it would become an objective of Army Group B on July 13th. Conquering the Caucasus would deny the oil found there to the Soviets and seal off the Allied supply of lend-lease goods coming from Iran, so there was a sound strategic logic to this campaign. In the process, Moscow would be outflanked from the south.

Soviet perceptions of German intentions for the summer of 1942 were utterly wrong. Stalin expected a renewed offensive towards Moscow and concentrated most of the available reserves against Army Group Center. This distribution was retained even after the German's summer campaign got underway, on the false assumption that the attacks in the south were a diversion and that the main offensive would eventually fall on the Moscow axis. However, this incongruous force distribution did have a positive effect in so far as the German commanders in the south became convinced that the Soviet Union no longer had sufficient strength to resist their advances. The failure of Soviet forces to respond to the German offensive encouraged a negligent attitude towards the threat to the expanding flanks of Army Group B, which would become critical to the outcome of the campaign.

The main German summer offensive began on June 28th. Army Group South was reorganized early in July into Army Group A and Army Group B. For the most part, the German forces made good progress towards their objectives. By July 8th the 1st Panzer Army, part of Army Group A, had crossed the Donets River. Rostov on the Don, the "gateway to the Caucasus" fell by July 25th. At the end of July the army group was about 100 km from the Caspian Sea - a three or four days march. The pace of the German advance during the early days of Operation Blue in 1942 was reminiscent of that achieved in the early months of Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

While Soviet defeats thus far had been continuous, they were not as devastating as those in the previous summer. The determined resistance combined with a more flexible defensive posture -- which allowed for retreating from untenable positions -- had paid off by avoiding the devastating encirclements of the summer of 1941. Even so, morale was generally low because of the constant defeats. Try as they might, the Red Army seemed unable to stop the German Army as it drove ever deeper into historically Russian territory.

From the German point of view, the pace of operations was not great enough. Hitler, anxious to break into the Caucasus quickly, ordered the transfer of 4th Panzer Army to Army Group A on July 17th. As a result, 4th Panzer Army was not utilized by either army group for a critical two weeks at the end of July. Army Group B's slow advance during this period was directly attributable to its loss of the panzer army while Army Group A did not gain any further advances because of its temporary availability. On July 29th 4th Panzer Army was returned to Army Group B. This has been widely regarded as an important error during this critical period of the offensive.

The Soviet leadership was clearly panicked by the German successes in July. Stalin issued the now famous Order No. 227 on July 28th. Also known as the "Not one step back!" order, it called for draconian disciplinary measures to prevent further retreats. Although this order was by western standards incredible, it did have a positive effect on the morale of the officers and men of the Red Army. There was a pervasive sense that if the Germans were not stopped now, they would never be stopped.

German advances continued, however, throughout August. In the Caucasus, the Maikop oil fields were captured on August 8th and by the 18th the Germans were fighting at the passes through the Caucasus Mountains. Troops from Army Group A climbed Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus on August 23rd. By the end of the month, the 1st Panzer Army had crossed the Terek River and was threatening Grozny.

In the area of Army Group B, the Luftwaffe began bombing Stalingrad in mid-August and this produced an enormous amount of damage to the city's buildings and infrastructure - something that would later hinder the advance of German army units into the city. On August 23rd, Army Group B had reached the Volga River and, by the end of August, the German 6th Army was fighting on the outskirts of Stalingrad on the Volga.

For the Soviet forces, the retreats of August reinforced the sense of desperation resulting from the defeats of July. However, along the Volga and in the Caucasus Mountains, they found a new line to defend. Combined with Stalin's order to not retreat, this galvanized the Red Army's determination to make what was, for all intents, a last stand at Stalingrad.

Trap at Stalingrad

Red Army morale was probably at an all time low when General Chuikov assumed command of the Soviet 62nd Army -- in Stalingrad -- on September 12th. German forces were pushing forward and the hope of holding the city seemed slim indeed. Chuikov, however, took on the task of holding Stalingrad with a determination that few commanders could match. He introduced an aggressive forward defense tactic based on small units holding positions extremely close to the German front line. This provided relative safety from German artillery barrages and air strikes while Soviet artillery, located on the east bank of the Volga, was unrestricted in its ability to fire on German positions and assembly areas. These tactics confounded German combined arms operations in the city of Stalingrad throughout the remainder of the battle of Stalingrad. While in August German advances were measured in kilometers, in September progress was measured in meters. Casualties on both sides were enormous.

By the middle of October the German summer offensive had effectively been reduced to attacks in and around Stalingrad. On October 14th Hitler issued an order formally limiting further operations to the Stalingrad area and along the Terek River in the Caucasus. The military focus of the entire campaign from now on was to be on the capture of Stalingrad. German force concentrations reflected this fact.

German panzer and motorized divisions allocated to the 6th and 4th Panzer Armies were employed in the Stalingrad battle. Armored units were not suitable for street fighting within Stalingrad and panzer troop losses were heavy. The employment of panzer and motorized units within Stalingrad is generally regarded as a serious error since the active engagement of these mobile forces in close quarter combat made them unavailable for use as a mobile reserve in the event of a Soviet counterattack.

The lengthy northern flank of Army Group B -- the corridor to Stalingrad -- was defended primarily by German allied armies. The Hungarian 2nd Army, Italian 8th Army and Rumanian 4th Army protected the northwest corridor to Stalingrad where the German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army were concentrated, while the Rumanian 3rd Army held the southwestern flank. Compared to their German counterparts, these were weak forces without significant anti-tank defenses or armored reserves.

Soviet flank attacks to the north and south of Stalingrad had been ongoing for some time. In August and September, these attempts to break through the Axis line had proven ineffectual and they served as the basis of the German command's disregard for the danger of such offensives. Rumanian troops, which bore the brunt of these early attacks, chronically warned Army Group B of renewed Soviet attacks. These constant warnings of a pending offensive, which would reach a fevered pitch in November, proved to have a negative impact on the Army Group's willingness to take such reports seriously.

The failures of the early Soviet assaults on the flanks of Stalingrad led to a reevaluation of the situation by the Stavka, the Soviet high command, beginning in mid-September. It concluded that the lack of success could be attributed to insufficient preparation. The troops were inexperienced, the logistic support was inadequate and the command structure ineffective. Stalin ordered Zhukov and Vasilevsky to produce a new plan for an effective counterattack.

They produced the proposals for Operation Uranus -- an ambitious offensive aimed at encircling the German forces in the Stalingrad area by simultaneous attacks on the relatively weakly defended flanking Rumanian 4th (to the northwest) and 3rd (to the southwest) Armies. This plan reflected prewar Soviet military thinking about offensive operations (the "deep battle" concept) which had been discredited by the Great Purges. But, in light of the enormous success of the German Blitzkrieg, these doctrines were now becoming acceptable again. This was a process that was facilitated by the lack of any formal repudiation of these ideas by the Red Army -- just the commanders that had promoted such ideas in the past.

Operation Uranus was originally scheduled to begin early in November but delays in building up the forces considered necessary for the success of this offensive led to a start date of November 19th. The preparations for it were utterly ignored by the German command. In part, this lack of a correct appreciation of Soviet intentions for a massive counteroffensive could be attributed to the excellent concealment practices of the Red Army. However, the total disregard of any reports suggesting a coming Soviet offensive and the complete lack of contingency planning, especially in light of the previous years experience before Moscow, pointed up a serious flaw in the German command system's ability to produce a reasonable analysis of enemy capabilities. Knowledge of the preparations was certainly not lacking. Even Richthofen, commander of the German 4th Air Fleet in the Stalingrad area at the time, commented on the build-up in his diary on November 11th.

Rumanian resistance to the initial onslaught was remarkably effective given the offensive strength of the Soviet forces engaged compared to the defensive capabilities of Rumanian units (which lacked any means of countering Soviet tank attacks). They managed to hold on for a full day before collapsing under the weight of the Soviet assault. Army Group B headquarters initially failed to appreciate the threat and did not respond immediately. In any event, only the under strength 48th Panzer Corps was available in the area to counter the Soviet thrust. When the southern attack opened on the morning of November 20th, against the Rumanian 3rd Army, only the German 29th Motorized Infantry Division was available to block the inevitable breakthrough.

On November 23rd, the Soviet pincers linked up and the encirclement of the Axis forces in Stalingrad was complete. Soviet intentions at this point were to reduce the Stalingrad pocket before proceeding with further offensive operations towards the west, however, they severely underestimated the size of the surrounded German and allied forces. Stavka estimated that they had surrounded a force of about 85,000 men when in fact the figure was closer to 300,000.

Prelude to Stalingrad originally published in "World War II" at on June 1, 1999. Last Stand At Stalingrad originally published in "World War II" at on July 1, 1999. Trap at Stalingrad originally published in "World War II" at on August 1, 1999.
Revised editions published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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