With Stalingrad surrounded, and two Romanian armies virtually extinguished, it was apparent to senior officers on both sides that a war-winning victory lay within reach of the Russians.
Only 150 miles separated Rostov and a flimsy new defensive line Manstein formed along the Chir River, a hundred miles west of Stalingrad. Yet the left wing of Army Group A lay deep in the Caucasus 375 miles from Rostov, while 4th Panzer Army, south of Stalingrad, was 250 miles from Rostov.
If the Russians could crash through to Rostov, they could cut off the remainder of Army Group B, the scratch forces Manstein was throwing together in his new Army Group Don, and the two armies of Army Group A in the Caucasus—in other words, all German forces on the southern wing.
If the southern German flank were eliminated, the remaining German forces in the east would be too weak to fend off the Red Army, and Germany would lose the war in months, if not weeks.
The Red Army was planning to unleash this strategic thunderbolt and had selected a vulnerable point of attack: the Italian 8th Army on the Don just northwest of the Chir.
Manstein formed an emergency defense line with communications zone troops in Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army around Kotelnikovo, eighty miles southwest of Stalingrad, closing a void where the Romanian 4th Army had vanished.
Although worried about a Russian strike for Rostov, Manstein’s foremost task was to liberate 6th Army. Unless this army was freed, there was no hope of restoring the situation on the southern wing. If the army remained at Stalingrad, it would die. Any relief operation had to break open a path for 6th Army to come out, not to reestablish a supply line to it. Surely, Manstein told himself, Hitler would see the light when the time came and allow the army to withdraw.
There were two possible escape routes. The closest was straight west to Kalach. Here, however, the Russians were massed and would contest every inch. There was a slightly better chance to break through around Kotelnikovo and drive northeast toward Stalingrad.
Once a relief operation started from Kotelnikovo, pressure on 6th Army would ease, because the Red Army would have to challenge the relief forces. When this happened, Manstein reasoned, German elements on the Chir could strike toward Kalach, smash into the rear of the Soviet siege ring there, and facilitate 6th Army’s breakout.
But time was of the essence. Army chief of staff Zeitzler agreed to send 57th Panzer Corps under Friedrich Kirchner (23rd and 6th Panzer Divisions, and 15th Luftwaffe Field Division) to 4th Panzer Army to spearhead the relief drive from Kotelnikovo, and eight divisions in a new Army Detachment Hollidt (General Karl Adolf Hollidt) to advance from the upper Chir. These forces were to arrive in the first days of December.
They might be enough, if they came in time, to cut a corridor to 6th Army, replenish it with fuel, ammunition, and food, restore its freedom of movement, and get it out. Manstein so informed the Fuehrer on November 28.
“I told Hitler,” Manstein wrote later, “it was strategically impossible to go on tying down our forces in an excessively small area while the enemy enjoyed a free hand along hundreds of miles of front.”
It was December 3 before Hitler even replied, and he refused to allow 6th Army to switch troops from its northern flank to the southwest to prepare for the relief force. Manstein did not realize that Hitler had not the slightest intention of evacuating 6th Army from Stalingrad.
Most of the reinforcements did not arrive on time. Of the eight divisions for Army Group Hollidt, three didn’t appear at all, one of the panzer divisions was so shot up as to be useless, and one Luftwaffe Field Division arrived too late. All that came in time for Hollidt was the 48th Panzer Corps under Otto von Knobelsdorff with the 11th Panzer and the 336th Infantry Division, and a Luftwaffe Field Division. For Hoth, only the 57th Panzer Corps arrived.
With so few troops, Manstein gave up the idea of relieving 6th Army from two directions. Everything now depended upon a direct strike (code-named Winter Tempest) by 4th Panzer Army from Kotelnikovo.
Because of delays in the arrival of 57th Panzer Corps, Manstein had to postpone the strike to December 12. Meantime, a dangerous threat appeared on the Chir front. On December 7, the Russian 1st Armored Corps forced its way over the river near Surovikino, twenty miles upstream (northwest) from the Chir’s junction with the Don at Nizhna Chirskaya. The Russians swept toward State Farm 79 fifteen miles in the rear. General Knobelsdorff had lined his 336th Infantry Division along the river on the right or east, and the Luftwaffe Field Division on the left.
The situation was grim. A Soviet breakthrough on the Chir would unhinge the drive toward Stalingrad, clear the way to the Morosovsky and Tatsinskaya airfields only twenty-five and fifty miles away, from which supplies were being flown to Stalingrad, and open a path to crossings of the Donetz River and Rostov.
Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzer Division checked the Russian advance at the state farm. While his antiaircraft guns and his engineers formed up below the farm to prevent the Russians moving south, one panzer grenadier (motorized infantry) regiment delivered an attack on the farm from the southwest at dawn on December 8. Once the Russians were locked in this engagement, Balck’s panzer regiment and his second panzer grenadier regiment thrust into the rear of the Russians from a low ridge northwest of the farm.
This rear attack caught the Russians just as they were about to advance northward against the rear of 336th Division. Truck after truck loaded with infantry went up in flames as the panzers charged through the column. The tanks destroyed this force, then turned into the rear of the Russian armor at the state farm, knocking out fifty-three tanks and sending the remainder fleeing.
Over the next four days, Balck’s panzer division, using the 336th Division as a pivot, turned back two simultaneous assaults by the Russian 5th Tank Army, one half a dozen miles northwest of Nizhna Chirskaya, the other fifteen miles upstream. On December 17 and 18 two new violent attacks broke across the Chir. The 11th Panzer drove one back to a narrow foothold, then turned on the other. The division had only twenty-five tanks left, but got on the rear of the advancing Russian armor and destroyed sixty-five enemy tanks before the Russians woke up to what was happening. The remaining Russians fled. Over the next few days, new Russian attacks convulsed the Chir front, but 11th Panzer, acting like a fire brigade, broke the back of one breakthrough after another, and by December 22 the Soviets had given up.
Part of the reason for the German success was the expertise and discipline of the panzer troops. Part was due to the Russian tank crews, who had scarcely any training. Likewise, the Russian commander sent in tank corps (groups of brigades about the size of divisions) without coordinating times of attacks, permitting Balck’s panzers to deal with one crisis at a time.
While these fights were going on, Manstein launched Operation Winter Tempest, using only 57th Panzer Corps. His attack surprised the enemy, and made good progress, although the Russians brought up troops from around Stalingrad and counterattacked again and again.
The real threat now came in a massive way and from a new direction. On December 16, 1942, the Russian 1st Guards Army overran the Italian 8th Army on the upper Chir, and knocked a sixty-mile hole in the line to the left or northwest of Army Detachment Hollidt. It was obvious the objective was Rostov and a far greater “Stalingrad.” Manstein ordered Army Detachment Hollidt to pull back on a shorter front to guard the Donetz crossings of Forchstadt and Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, only eighty-five miles northeast of Rostov.
But Manstein held doggedly to his advance on Stalingrad, calling on the army high command (OKH) to order 6th Army to break out toward 4th Panzer Army.
There was still hope. The strike against the Italians had drawn off most Soviet mobile formations, leaving a narrow window of opportunity at Stalingrad. If 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army attacked toward each other, they could crack through the defensive shell and meet. However, they had to use every ounce of their collective strength.
But Hitler refused to sanction a breakout. Incredibly, he ruled that 4th Panzer Army was to continue to attack toward the city, but 6th Army was to remain in place. Hitler wanted to hang on to Stalingrad and supply it by a land corridor.
In desperation, Manstein flew his intelligence officer into the caldron on December 18 to get General Paulus to defy Hitler and save the army. Manstein promised to put the onus entirely on his own shoulders, relieving Paulus of responsibility. Paulus replied that he couldn’t do anything because the surrender of Stalingrad was forbidden “by order of the Fuehrer.”
Manstein hoped he would change his mind. The critical moment came on December 19. The 57th Panzer Corps crossed the Aksai River, against bitter Russian resistance, and reached the narrow Miskova River, just thirty miles from the siege front. Behind the front Manstein had assembled transport columns with 3,000 tons of supplies, plus tractors to mobilize part of 6th Army’s artillery. All were to be rushed through as soon as tanks cleared a way. Manstein sent an urgent appeal to Paulus and Hitler: 6th Army must disengage and drive southwest to join 4th Panzer Army.
Hitler took hours to reply: 6th Army could break out, he said, but it still had to hold existing fronts north, east, and west of the city. This was manifestly impossible. Paulus now showed his moral cowardice. He informed Manstein that his one hundred tanks had enough fuel to go only twenty miles. Before he could move, air deliveries had to bring in 4,000 tons of fuel. There was no possibility of this, and Paulus knew it.
Drawn between Hitler demanding he stay and Manstein demanding he move, Paulus clutched at the straw of fuel to do nothing. Not even to save his army was Paulus going to buck his Fuehrer. Yet he and Manstein knew that the fuel could have been allocated to half his tanks, giving them mobility for forty miles—enough to break through.
In the week that followed, the fate of 6th Army was decided. For six days Army Group Don had run every conceivable risk to keep the door open. But Manstein could leave 4th Panzer Army in its exposed position no longer.
The panzer corps was having to fend off stronger and stronger attacks, and a greater danger was growing to the west where most of the Italian army had disappeared and Army Detachment Hollidt’s left flank was being threatened. Russian spearheads were driving toward the Donetz River and were not more than 120 miles from Rostov.
On December 22, Manstein was forced to release 48th Corps from the Chir to restore Army Detachment Hollidt’s left wing, and he had to send 6th Panzer Division from Hoth’s army to help. Manstein knew there was now no chance of 6th Army breaking out. On December 27, two Soviet armies and four mechanized corps launched a major assault against the weakened 57th Panzer Corps, now down to only a couple dozen tanks, threatened to envelop both flanks, and compelled it to withdraw to Kotelnikovo. The attempt to relieve Stalingrad had failed.
It was now plain that 6th Army was going to die. Adolf Hitler had caused it. But while the senior German generals grieved the fate of the army, most were frantically trying to figure how to block the Soviet thrust toward Rostov.
At this nadir of German fortune, Erich von Manstein saw opportunity where the rest of the senior German officers saw disaster.
Manstein conceived a spectacular plan to transform defeat into victory. He proposed that the German army surrender the territory it had won in the summer, which it couldn’t hold anyway, and that all forces on the southern front, except 6th Army, of course, withdraw in stages to the lower Dnieper, some 220 miles west of Rostov.
Manstein was certain when withdrawal commenced that the Russians would launch an offensive aimed at cutting the Germans off from the vital Dnieper crossings at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye where all supplies came through. This would create a vastly extended Russian front stretching across lower Ukraine.
Manstein proposed that a powerful German force be concentrated near Kharkov, 250 miles northwest of Rostov and 125 miles northeast of Dnepropetrovsk. When the Soviets extended themselves westward toward the Dnieper crossings, the German forces around Kharkov would drive into their northern flank. As Manstein told Hitler and the OKH, this would “convert a large-scale withdrawal into an envelopment operation” that would push the Russians against the Sea of Azov and destroy them.
Manstein’s idea would have thrown the enemy on the defensive and transformed the situation in the south. But Hitler refused. He didn’t want to give up his summer conquests, ephemeral as they were. He wanted to keep his troops not only at Stalingrad but in the Caucasus.
Manstein came to have wide personal experience with Hitler’s thinking about war and concluded that he “actually recoiled from risks in the military field.” Hitler refused to allow temporary surrender of territory. He could not see that, in the wide reaches of Russia, the enemy could always mass forces at one point and break through. Only in mobile operations could the superiority of German staffs and fighting troops be exploited. The brilliant holding action of the 48th Panzer Corps along the Chir River demonstrated how superior German leadership and flexible responses, if applied by the whole German army, almost certainly could have stopped Soviet advances and brought about a stalemate. But such a policy was beyond Hitler’s grasp.
Manstein also found that Hitler feared to denude secondary fronts to gain superiority at the point where a decision had to fall. For example, the failure to assemble a large army to relieve Stalingrad had proved disastrous. Hitler could not make rapid decisions. In most cases he finally released too few troops, and sent them too late.
“Obstinate defense of every foot of ground gradually became the be all and end all” of Hitler’s leadership, Manstein wrote. “Hitler thought the arcanum of success lay in clinging at all costs to what he already possessed.” He could never be brought to renounce this notion.
When Hitler refused to approve withdrawal of German forces to the Dnieper and a campaign to transform defeat into victory, Manstein turned to the now-urgent job of saving the southern armies from being cut off and destroyed.
While Manstein’s thin forces sought desperately to build a defensive wall in front of the Donetz, 6th Army’s death struggle began. Air supplies dwindled in the face of atrocious weather, long flights, and fierce Russian air defenses. On December 26, only seventy tons of supplies were flown in. Bread began to run out, fats virtually vanished, soldiers went on an iron ration of one meal a day. As the new year began, numbing cold, hunger, and steady Russian attacks weakened the army day by day.
On January 9, 1943, a Russian delegation called on 6th Army to give up. On Hitler’s orders Paulus rejected the demand. Manstein supported the Fuehrer’s decision. Although the army was perishing, it still had a strategic role to play—tying down the maximum number of Soviet troops to permit the rest of the German army to get away.
The Soviets were fully aware of 6th Army’s continued service and unleashed a violent attack on January 11, breaking through at several points. They ousted the Germans from most remaining shelters, especially in the westernmost part of the pocket. The Germans now huddled in the ruins closer to the Volga.
Weather and Soviet fighters reduced air deliveries to a trickle. Soviet attacks seized Pitomnik, the best airfield. Supplies totaled only 90 tons from January 17 to 23, 1943. Russian forays broke up the caldron into separate blocks. After January 28, the wounded and sick no longer were given bread. The Germans lost their last airfield at Gumrak. Efforts by Luftwaffe crews to throw out packages from the air helped little. Soviet regiments climbed out of their covers and overran one position after another. On February 2, the last resistance ceased.
The Luftwaffe had evacuated 25,000 wounded and specialists, but about 160,000 men died and 91,000 were captured. Most of the prisoners soon succumbed to exposure or typhus. Only 6,000 saw their homeland again, some after twelve years of captivity. Paulus, promoted by Hitler to field marshal on the assumption that he would shoot himself, did not, and surrendered to the Russians.
Manstein got little help from Hitler in saving the remainder of the German forces on the southern front. In a series of massive retreats, Germans abandoned Kursk and fell all the way beyond Kharkov, 430 miles west of Stalingrad.
But Manstein prevented a rout, overcame Hitler’s inability to see the danger facing the army, and held Rostov open long enough for the Germans to withdraw from the Caucasus. Even so, Hitler insisted on keeping the 17th Army in the Kuban region of the northern Caucasus opposite the Crimea, where it served no purpose. Manstein formed a new line along the Mius River, some forty miles west of Rostov, and stopped the Soviet advance.
Manstein was even able to get Hitler’s permission to authorize an envelopment of the overextended Russian forces at Kharkov, which Manstein recaptured on March 14, 1943. It was the last great success of German arms on the eastern front.