Adolf Hitler at the headquarters of Army Group South in Poltava. From left to right: Lieutenant General Ernst, Colonel Max von Weichs, Adolf Hitler, General of Panzer Troops Friedrich Paulus, General Eberhard von Mackensen and General Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. June 1942.
Vasily Chuikov holds Vasily Zaitsev’s rifle
A key to successful urban combat is anticipating the urban battle and preparing for it. The German commanders understood this. However, the operation to capture Stalingrad was not initially subject to close scrutiny because it was only a secondary objective of the campaign, and not decisive to obtaining the German army’s objective for the summer campaign, the Caucasus oil fields. In fact, the original plan had no requirement to capture Stalingrad, but rather merely required the German forces to contain Soviet forces and halt the production in the factories located there.
The German army had had experience of urban warfare during the Barbarossa campaign and earlier in the summer of 1942. They had captured numerous Russian cities including Minsk in the Ukraine, and Sevastopol in the Crimea, and as they approached Stalingrad, the northern army group was laying siege to the former Russian capital, Leningrad. Dozens of other medium-size Russian cities had been isolated by the German panzers and then captured when the German infantry caught up with the panzer columns. Early in Operation Blue, the Fourth Panzer Army became involved in a tough urban battle in and around the important transportation hub city at Voronezh. Because of that experience the German army had adequate knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of tactical urban warfare. Fighting the urban battle tactically was not a concern of the German military commanders as they approached Stalingrad. However, Hitler’s role in operations was a concern. Hitler, as the Nazi dictator of Germany, was the key to the German military failure at Stalingrad.
Operation Blue began in June 1942 and by mid-July had made important progress. The Germans, inhibited by a shortage of tanks, and fuel for the tanks they did have, found it difficult to complete the large encirclement operations that had characterized Barbarossa the previous year. Inadequate strength in troops, equipment, and fuel caused short delays throughout the approach to Stalingrad, which proved crucial. Still, there was significant operational success and the German Sixth Army had captured tens of thousands of Soviet troops and destroyed dozens of divisions by mid-summer. Even so, Soviet commanders managed to keep many of their major formations from being trapped and, though they lost most of their armored forces in the great retreat through southern Russia, they retained the core combat power of their divisions and avoided decisive defeat.
In the middle of July Hitler intervened in the summer campaign. He was unhappy with the rate of advance and ordered the launching of the offensive into the Caucasus as the advance to the Volga was ongoing. Thus, contrary to the original Operation Blue plan, which called for a sequenced advance of first Army Group B and then Army Group A attacking south into the Caucasus, Hitler Directive No. 45 ordered both army groups to attack simultaneously. This had several immediate effects. It strained the already overstrained logistics system. It also created two weaker efforts in the place of one strong attack. Finally, the two army groups’ objectives were on divergent axes, so the German formations moved further away from each other as the attacks progressed, to the point where they were not within supporting distance of each other.
As important as changing the sequencing of the offensive were Hitler’s changes to the orders regarding Stalingrad. Stalingrad was redesignated as a primary objective of the campaign. This change not only required the Sixth Army to capture the entire city, but required that resources which may have been used to reinforce the attack into the Caucuses were diverted to the Stalingrad battle.
The Germans began their final push to capture Stalingrad at the end of August 1942. By August 22, Sixth Army’s XIV Panzer Corps had entered the northern suburbs of the city and the following day the panzers reached the Volga north of the city. The rest of the Sixth Army, and XXVIII Panzer Corps under control of Sixth Army, pushed to the outskirts of the city. The XXVIII Panzer Corps managed to break through the Soviet Sixty-Fourth Army defending the southern portion of the city and race almost to the Volga threatening to trap part of the Sixty-Fourth Army and all of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army in the city’s outskirts. This success caused the two Soviet armies, the Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth, to give up the outer ring of the city’s defenses and withdraw into the city to avoid the trap. Thus, by the end of August the Germans were firmly in possession of the outskirts of the city and threatened it from three directions: north, west, and south. It appeared the fall of the entire city would happen in a matter of weeks.
The fighting for Stalingrad proper began on September 14, as German forces attempted to force their way into the city center. The battle for the city directly involved three German army corps: the XIV Panzer and LI Corps of the Sixth Army, and the XXVIII Panzer Corps of Fourth Panzer Army. The three German corps were opposed directly by two Soviet armies: the Sixty-Fourth and Sixty-Second Armies of the Stalingrad Front. The initial attacks were costly but successful. After about ten days of very intense fighting the two panzer and two infantry divisions of XXVIII Corps managed to destroy most of the Sixty-Fourth Army in the southern part of the city and seize about five miles of the Volga riverbank. In the center of the city, the combined forces of the LI and XIV Panzer Corps pushed the divisions of the Soviet General Vasily Chuikov’s Sixty-Second Army back toward theVolga and reduced the Soviets’ defensive parameter by half.
Despite the successes, the attacks of mid-September did not accomplish the Sixth Army’s mission. The task of the army was the capture of the city, not just, as it had initially been, to control the city. Thus on September 27, Sixth Army renewed the attacks to eliminate the presence of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army on the west bank of the Volga. The initial attacks had severely depleted many of the veteran units of the Sixth Army, particularly in the center of the line where the most significant attacks occurred. To compensate, most of XXVIII Panzer Corps was moved from the south into the central part of the sector. This gave the Germans two strong panzer divisions (the 24th and the 14th) and two motorized infantry divisions in the center.
The Soviets anticipated the German offensive and took steps to meet it. Their excellent intelligence network inside the city informed them that the focus of the attack would be in the center and north, aimed at the major Soviet defenses based at three large factory complexes in northern Stalingrad. From north to south these were the tractor factory complex, the Barrikady weapons factory complex, and the Red October factory facilities. These complexes were huge self-contained communities which included the factories themselves and the workers’ housing buildings. The buildings were massive structures constructed of steel girders and reinforced concrete. Many of the factory buildings included massive internal workshops large enough to house the emplacement of tanks and large-caliber guns to participate in the fight inside the building. After repeated air and artillery attacks, the complex and formidable defensive qualities of the buildings were actually enhanced due to extensive damage and accumulated rubble. To this the Soviet infantry added barbed wire, extensive minefields, deep protected trenches, and bunkers. By the end of September, the Soviet defensive positions in Stalingrad were every bit as formidable as the most notorious defenses of World War I.
The second major German attack into the city lasted ten days, from September 27 to October 7, and involved 11 full German divisions including all three panzer divisions. Like the first attack, it was successful and the Germans managed to capture two of the three major factory complexes: the tractor factory and the Barrikady factory. They also eliminated the Orlovka salient which was a deep Soviet defensive salient that had remained in the northern part of the city. Despite steady Red Army reinforcement which consistently frustrated a decisive German breakthrough, by the end of the attack the Sixty-Second Army was reduced to a tiny strip of the west bank of the Volga which at its widest was perhaps 2,200 yards (2,000 meters).
The third major attack to secure the city began on October 14, 1942. Three infantry divisions, two panzer divisions, and five special engineer battalions were committed to the attack – in total over 90,000 men and 300 tanks on a 3-mile front. For another 12 days the Germans ground forward, systematically reducing Russian strongpoint after strongpoint. The Soviets fed additional troops across the Volga but the defenders were running out of space. When the German offensive finally paused on October 27, they held 90 percent of Stalingrad. Only part of the Red October steel factory was outside their control. The Sixty-Second Army was fragmented into small pockets and most of its divisions were completely wiped out. All sectors of the remaining Soviet defenses were subject to German observation and attack. But the German attacks ended without achieving their objective: capture of the city of Stalingrad. As the month came to a close, shortages of troops, ammunition, tanks, and pure exhaustion of the remaining troops made further offensive operations by the Germans impossible.
Winter arrived in Stalingrad on November 9 as temperatures plunged to -18°C. The fighting, however, did not stop. The Germans were no longer capable of large-scale offensive operations but small raids and attacks continued as they attempted to eliminate the remaining Soviet strongpoints. On November 11, battle groups from six German divisions, led by four fresh pioneer battalions, launched the last concerted German effort to secure the city before the coming of winter. It, like all previous German offenses, took ground and punished the Soviet defenders, but ultimately fell short of its objective. In the LI Corps, under General Walther von Seydlitz, 42 percent of all battalions were considered fought-out and across the entire Sixth Army most infantry companies had fewer than 50 men and companies had to be combined in order to create effective units. The 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions both required a complete refitting in order to continue operations in the winter. In short, by mid-November the combat power of the German Sixth Army was almost completely spent after more than two months of intense urban combat.
The German Tactical Approach
Though the German army had acquired experience of urban fighting during the fall of 1941, the individual divisions in Stalingrad had to develop their own version of city fighting for the unique Stalingrad situation. Stalingrad was different from other cities for several reasons. One was the massive amount of destruction that had been inflicted upon the city, destruction which continued and increased over time. The second was the nature of the buildings in Stalingrad. They were massive concrete affairs which, when surrounded by rubble following artillery and air bombardment, were virtual fortresses. The Germans found that the most effective tactic was to combine infantry and armor into teams. These teams were supported by artillery and closely supported by the Luftwaffe. Stalingrad was the last great performance by the fabled German Stuka dive-bombers.
Typically, German attacks followed a pattern: Luftwaffe air bombardment, followed by a short artillery barrage, and then the advance of German infantry followed closely by panzers in support. This pattern generally ensured success. Panzers, though not optimized for city warfare, were absolutely critical to it, and the three panzer divisions that fought at Stalingrad were a key part of most of the Sixth Army’s tactical successes. The problem the Germans had tactically was that they simply did not have enough panzers, infantry, and artillery to execute the tactics they employed with sufficient vigor to overcome the Russian defenders quickly. In the course of the German attacks in Stalingrad, virtually all the attacks were successful. However, they were never as fast as the Germans wanted or expected them to be, and were always more costly than the Germans could afford. The German army could be, and was, successful in urban combat in Stalingrad, but at an unacceptable price in time and casualties.
In the rubble of Stalingrad, the disparity between German and Soviet tactical capabilities, which was very prominent in the open battles of maneuver on the Russian steppe, was reduced significantly. The German army excelled at operational warfare: the close coordination of all arms at the division and corps level of command to achieve rapid and decisive effects across great distances. In urban combat, the important distances were blocks – divisions and corps could not maneuver, and command and coordination at the highest levels was relatively simple and not very important. Thus, the strengths of the German military machine were fairly irrelevant to the battle. Instead, the battle devolved to tactical competence at the battalion level and below, combat leadership, and the psychological strength of the individual soldier. The Wehrmacht had these characteristics in great abundance. However, so did the Soviet army. Thus, unlike in operational maneuver warfare, in urban combat the two sides were both fairly competent, and thus very evenly matched. These organizational circumstances were a recipe for a long and bloody battle. The Red Army, and in particular the Sixty-Second Army, augmented the natural strength of the Russian infantry in close combat and the urban terrain with several innovative tactics which made them more formidable in urban combat than the Germans expected.
Soviet Shock Groups
One of the most effective and feared German weapons at Stalingrad was the venerable Stuka dive-bomber. Weather permitting, all major German attacks were preceded and closely supported by the Stukas of Luftflotte IV under Generaloberst Freiherr Wolfram von Richthofen. To lessen the effectiveness of this weapon, as well as of German artillery, General Chuikov ordered that all front-line units stay engaged as closely as possible to the Germans. The Sixty-Second Army “hugged” its German adversaries so that German bombardment could not engage the front-line Russians without hitting their own troops. This resulted in there being virtually no “no-man’s land” on the Stalingrad battlefield. Across the entire front Red Army positions were literally within hand-grenade range of the German positions. Thus, attacking Germans were often confronted by defenders who were unaffected by the pre-attack artillery or air bombardment.
After the initial penetration of the city, the Soviet armor of the Sixty-Second Army was not used in a mobile manner. The tanks, instead, were dug deep into the rubble and heavily camouflaged. Often they were invisible from more than a few yards away. They were placed on the routes most likely used by German tanks and supporting vehicles, and invariably were able to fire the first shot. The short ranges, careful preparation, and ability to fire first gave the Russian tank crews better than even odds despite the general superiority of German crews. In total the German and Soviets together employed over 600 tanks inside the city.
One of the most innovative and effective ideas developed by the defending Red Army was the idea of shock groups. Shock groups were non-standard small assault units organized to conduct quick attacks on specific German positions. They often attacked at night. Typically, they consisted of 50–100 men. They were lightly equipped so that they could move quickly and silently through the city. The groups were led by junior officers; they used a variety of weapons but relied heavily on sub-machine guns and grenades. They also included engineers for breaching doors and other obstacles, snipers, mortar teams, and heavy machine guns to defend the newly won positions. Shock groups relied extensively on the initiative of the junior leaders to determine how best to assault an objective. Many of the men in the group were volunteers who relished an opportunity to take the fight to Germans, despite the Sixty-Second Army’s overall defensive stance. Because of this aggressiveness and the latitude allowed the junior leaders, shock groups were both very effective and also very much a departure from standard Soviet tactical practice which was typically very controlled. The departure from standard doctrine which shock groups represented in the Soviet army indicated the desperate measures that were permitted on the Soviet side during the battle. They proved to be a very effective tactic during the second part of the battle, after September, and were an indicator of the tactical parity that existed in close urban battle. Though shock groups were copied by other Soviet armies in subsequent urban combat during World War II, as the Soviet Union gained the operational and strategic initiative the groups became more and more standardized, larger and more heavily equipped (to include tanks and artillery). As the war progressed, they were permitted less freedom of action. Soviet shock groups, as they existed by the end of the war, bore little resemblance to the highly effective organizations developed during the battle for Stalingrad.
One of the major special tactics that the Russians developed and utilized in the Stalingrad battle was snipers. Though the Red Army had a small number of trained snipers as part of its organizational structure, in Stalingrad the employment of snipers became a largely ad-hoc movement initiated by individual soldiers and eventually embraced and encouraged by commanders. Early during the battle self-motivated snipers acquired rifles with telescopic sights and then got permission from their commanders to go on individual “hunting” missions. Red Army commanders, including the army commander General Chuikov, saw the snipers as brave and angry soldiers whose frustration and hatred could be channeled by the army into a useful outlet. Thus, sniping became a sanctioned individual mission and the success of snipers was widely publicized both within Stalingrad and throughout the Soviet Union to encourage morale among the soldiers at the front and the civilians at home. Sniping was inordinately successful in Stalingrad for many reasons: the density of troops in the built-up area; the protracted nature of the battle, which led to troops becoming careless, and allowed snipers to learn the patterns of the enemy; the terrain, which allowed snipers to stalk and hunt targets with both cover and concealment; and the proximity of the enemy, which made effective sniping relatively easy – many targets were less than a hundred yards away. The Russian command carefully tracked the progress of individual snipers and trumpeted their success in propaganda. The most famous of the snipers, Private Vasily Zaitsev, had well over 200 sniping kills, and was one of several snipers who killed more than a hundred Germans. The effectiveness of the Russian snipers was not only a major morale booster to the Sixty-Second Army, it had tremendous adverse psychological effects on the German troops who never knew when a shot would crack and a man would drop to the ground.
Armor, for both the Soviets and the Germans, proved to be extremely important to successful city fighting. Soviet armor was primarily used in stationary firing positions. Though stationary, the armored vehicles were heavily camouflaged and carefully sited to cover avenues that the attacking Germans could not avoid. Unlike antitank guns and machine-gun positions manned by infantry, the stationary tanks were immune to all but a direct hit by artillery and often required an enemy tank or assault gun to knock them out. They were important anchors in the Russian defensive scheme. German tanks were equally invaluable. They provided the firepower and shock action necessary for German infantry to overpower skillfully defended Russian defensive positions – particularly bunkers and dug-in Soviet tanks. Their firepower made up for the relatively low numbers of infantry in the German force. They provided an important psychological advantage that boosted German infantry morale and intimidated defending Soviet infantry. Finally, their mobility meant they could be rapidly repositioned to weight a particular sector or exploit success. It was no coincidence that the major successes achieved by the Germans in their four major attacks in the interior of Stalingrad included major components of German armor. Rather than having a limited role in urban operations, Stalingrad demonstrated that armored forces were key and essential to successful urban operations.
Losing the Battle
The battle for Stalingrad was simultaneously a tribute to Soviet army skill and endurance, and an example of the incompetence of German senior leaders. German commanders executed Operation Blue poorly. A large factor in that poor execution was the inept strategic and operational guidance and orders of Adolf Hitler. Several senior officers were removed from their positions because of their conflicts with Hitler. Among these were the chief of the Army General Staff, General Franz Haider, and the commander of Army Group B, General Fedor von Bock. In both cases it was directly due to Hitler’s refusal to act in accordance with a real appraisal of the battlefield. Hitler personally took command of Army Group South and gave very specific operational and tactical guidance down to battalion level through much of the battle. He made the key flawed decisions to launch operations into the Caucasus before the Volga line was secure; to elevate Stalingrad from a secondary campaign objective to a primary campaign objective; to require all of Stalingrad be captured not just controlled; and to hold fast as the Sixth Army was surrounded and later not to break out when the 6th Panzer Division and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group Don was only 20 miles away. It is doubtful that any army could recover at the tactical level from the terrible position the Sixth Army ended up in as a result of Hitler’s amateurish involvement in operations. However Hitler did not single-handedly set up the conditions for the Stalingrad defeat. Collectively the senior German military was also guilty of incompetence for ignoring the weaknesses of the allied armies protecting Sixth Army’s flanks; not understanding the limited capabilities and strength of XLVIII Panzer Corps, the Army Group reserve; and completely underestimating the Soviet military’s competence, strength, and intentions prior to the launching of Operation Uranus. It was the sum of the failures of Hitler and other senior leaders that led to the debacle at Stalingrad. The great lesson of Stalingrad is that urban warfare, for all of its painful brutality at the tactical level, is often won or lost due to operational and strategic decisions made at levels above the tactical and often immune to the conditions of the concrete hell of urban warfare.