Romanians take a break on the Don River.
A Hungarian Turan I Model 1940 medium tank from the 2nd Tank Division on the Eastern front.
‘Operation Blau’ (Blue) was the codename for the German campaign. Charged with its implementation was Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. Shortly after Blau’s launch, Army Group South was divided into two groups: Army Group A (1st Panzer Army and 17th Army) and Army Group B (6th Army and 4th Panzer Army). In addition there was the 11th Army located in the Crimea. Supporting the German armies were a large number of Rumanian, Italian and Hungarian divisions. One solution to the manpower shortage problem had been to secure an increase in the military commitment of Germany’s Axis allies – a solution sought very actively by Berlin in early 1942. By the time of the battle of Stalingrad there were 24 Rumanian, ten Italian and ten Hungarian divisions serving on the Russian front. Most of these divisions formed part of Axis contingents on the Don front – the Hungarian 2nd, Italian 8th and the Rumanian 3rd and 4th armies. German reliance on such a large measure of support from its Axis allies was to have fatal consequences.
The two million strong German and Axis force consisted of 89 divisions including nine armoured divisions. By far its strongest element was what became Army Group B, which had 50 of the divisions. Its task was to strike east from the Kursk and Karkhov regions in the direction of Voronezh and then south-east towards the great bend of the Don River. The battle having been won in Don country, the Hungarian, Italian and Rumanian armies would then be deployed defensively along the river while German divisions turned south to join in Army Group A’s drive for the Caucasus.
In mid-August Winston Churchill went to Moscow to meet Stalin. The Soviet leader told him that:
‘the Germans were making a tremendous effort to get to Baku and Stalingrad. He did not know how they had been able to get together so many troops and tanks, and so many Hungarian, Italian and Rumanian divisions. He was sure that they had drained the whole of Europe for troops. In Moscow the position was sound, but he could not guarantee in advance that the Russians would be able to withstand a German attack. In the south they had been unable to stop the German offensive.’
Barring the Soviet advance north of Stalingrad was the Rumanian 3rdArmy, a ten-division force of some 100,000 men. South of Stalingrad was the 4th Rumanian Army with seven divisions and 70,000 men. The Soviet forces outnumbered and outgunned the Rumanians by three or four to one. In addition to being out-numbered, the Rumanians were badly supplied, having been starved of resources by the Germans, who had concentrated on supplying their own forces. The Rumanians also had the task of holding long defensive lines on the open steppe with little fortification. Most importantly, the Germans had no real reserves with which to back up the Rumanians.
The Soviet attack made such rapid progress that on 21 November, just two days after the launch of Operation Uranus, Paulus signalled Weichs, the commander of Army Group B that the 6th Army was ‘completely encircled’ (Tarrant 1992 p.115). But it wasn’t until 23 November that the armies of the South-Western and Stalingrad Fronts linked up at Kalach to complete the envelopment of the 6th Army. The Rumanian divisions in the area of encirclement were virtually destroyed.
A few days later Henry Shapiro, United Press’s Moscow correspondent, visited the battlefield. He later told Alexander Werth of:
‘thousands of Rumanians just wandering about the steppe, cursing the Germans, and looking desperately for Russian feeding-points . . . All they wanted was to be formally taken over as war prisoners . . . The steppe was a fantastic business. The whole goddam steppe was full of dead horses – some were only half-dead, and it was pathetic to see one standing on three frozen legs, and shaking the remaining one. Ten thousand horses had been killed by the Russians in the breakthrough. The whole steppe was strewn with these dead horses, with gun carriages, wrecked tanks, and guns . . . and no end of corpses – Rumanians and Germans . . . Kalach was a shambles. Of the whole town only one house was standing, and even it had only three walls. At the headquarters of the local staff, I met the commander, a Colonel, who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Kiev, and we sat up most of the night discussing Kant and Hegel.’ (Werth, 1946, pp.355–6)