Operation Thunderclap, the Planned Breakout of the 6th Army I




Zentralbild/CAF Der 2. Weltkrieg (1939-1945) Der Anfang vom Ende der Hitlertruppen (in der Sowjetunion) Dezember 1941 - Januar 1942

Der 2. Weltkrieg (1939-1945)
Der Anfang vom Ende der Hitlertruppen (in der Sowjetunion)
Dezember 1941 – Januar 1942


On December 18, a representative of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group Don, had flown to Stalingrad to bring the commander of the encircled 6th Army, Colonel General Paulus, and his chief of staff, Major General Schmidt, up to speed on the views of the field marshal with regard to the breakout that had become necessary. Manstein demanded an exact alternative, namely the breakout of the 6th Army. It was to take place in two coordinated operations, called Thunderclap and Winter Storm.

To enable the Stalingrad fighters to break out, it was planned to move Army Group Hoth toward the fortress. At the same time, the relief attack originally planned for Army De -tach ment Hollidt from the Chir had to be abandoned because of strong Soviet attacks. The Stalingrad relief could only take place in stages in order not to raise the distrust of Hitler, who did not want to hear about an evacuation of the city. Manstein wanted to act—indeed had to act—and he issued the following orders to Paulus:

1. The 4th Panzer Army, with the LVII Panzer Corps, has beaten the Soviets in the Werchne-Kumsky area and reached the Myshkova sector. Attacks have begun against strong enemy groups in the Kamenka area and farther north. Hard battles are expected here. The situation on the Chir front does not allow forces west of the Don to advance on Stalingrad. The Don bridge at Chirskaya is in Soviet hands.

2. The 6th Army begins Thunderclap as soon as possible. It is planned to make contact with the LVII Panzer Corps so that convoys can break through, if necessary, across the Donskaia Zariza.

3. The development of the situation could force an extension of the orders for the 6th Army to break through to the LVII Panzer Corps. Code word: Thunderclap. Then it will be necessary to use tanks to make contact with LVII Panzer Corps quickly. Under these circumstances, Thunderclap has to join up with Winter Storm immediately. The resupply by air of all necessities has to take place continuously without major resupplies. It is important that Pitomnik airfield be held as long as possible. All weapons, including artillery, and other equipment necessary for battle, which can be moved in any manner, have to be taken along.

There were two obstacles: the heavy and continuing defensive battles in the cauldron, and Hitler’s refusal to allow Thunderclap to be executed. Hoth did get permission to assault, but the 6th Army was to stay in Stalingrad. Time was pressing. Manstein again made contact with Führer Headquarters and demanded the immediate release of both operations. Hitler refused brusquely. Now Manstein was in a fix, as he had already more or less ordered Paulus to give up the city or at least begin preparations for this operation—against Hitler’s express orders.

The Soviets saw the danger that threatened their troops and therefore brought up all units that could be assembled to destroy the German battering unit, the 6th Panzer Division. Their tank corps were no longer capable of doing this. In the last battles, they had suffered so severely that they no longer posed a serious threat. Therefore, the Soviet command fell back on an old proven recipe as it tried to destroy the Bolchaya Wassilijewka bridgehead, where almost the entire 6th Panzer Division had been assembled, with a massive bombardment of artillery and rocket artillery (Stalin organs) and then swamp it with masses of infantry.

Early on the twentieth, the first Soviet reinforcements—tank and infantry units removed from the neighboring sectors opposite the 17th and 23rd Panzer Divisions—began the attack. But they were hardly sufficient to become a threat to the strong 6th Panzer Division. The movement of the Soviet units gave the weak neighboring divisions a welcome relief. The repeated attacks on the northern front of the bridgehead could easily be beaten off. But the tank attack on the sector boundary with the 23rd Panzer Division managed to break contact with that division, however, and penetrate in depth. The infantry occupied the hole near the cemetery area and stood on the flank of the bridgehead. A reserve force sent there managed to prevent any further advances by the infantry, but supported by tanks, Soviet forces managed to push back the left wing of the 23rd Panzer Division a little. This was the beginning of the isolation of the 6th Panzer Division. The time for counterattack was yet to come because the Soviet reserves that were still surging forward had to be repelled.

The division commander drove from his forward combat position in the bridgehead—a hole underneath a command tank—toward the rear to gain a personal insight into the depth of the Soviet penetration. At this moment, Soviet tanks were approaching the artillery area of the division through a long, deep hollow in the ground. Apparently, they were hoping to fall on the German batteries and knock them out, but they were not aware that they had been spotted.

An 8.8cm flak battery blocked the exit of the hollow. There were also forty-two assault guns in reserve. Furthermore, several batteries were loaded with red ammunition (armor-piercing shells with hollow charges) and were ready to receive the tanks. The number of tanks was not large enough, however, to give a single target for each of the defending units. This resulted in a difference of opinion about who was to be granted the honor of fighting the approaching tanks. The tank destroyers that were silently standing aside were hoping for the opportunity to come into play as well.

The division commander arrived at the right moment to settle the quarrel. He asked which units had not yet had an opportunity to battle enemy tanks at Stalingrad. All hands flew up. Every commander denied any successes gained up to that point. Suddenly, no one even admitted to have seen an enemy tank yet. The division commander, who was well aware of these things, had never been served with such blatant lies. He decided that neither the assault guns nor the artillery had the right to participate in the defense, since there were more important missions for the latter, and there was little honor to gain for the former to fall on two dozen T-34s with double that number. The mission was given to the flak, and the tank destroyers were given the right to polish off any tank that managed to get past the antitank guns.

The honor of the flak soldiers now demanded that they did not let any tank slip through. The unsuspecting death candidates had to be allowed to close up to a few hundred meters in order not to miss the sure kill. One after another, the tanks rolled forward in the narrow hollow, thinking themselves to be unobserved. When the first shots of the flak sounded, immediately four tanks began to burn. The others tried to turn around, as there was no way to get around the ones on fire. In this difficult maneuver on the narrow, snowy hollow, they exposed their sides and fell victim to more armor-piercing shells from the flak. Soon there were eight or nine pillars of smoke rising from the hollow. Only the last two tanks had managed to turn around. Hardly had they believed that they had escaped the mousetrap when they fell victim to a flak gun in ambush with orders to block the withdrawal of any turned-about tanks. The disappointed tank destroyers got no other opportunity to add to the fifty tanks they had destroyed in front of Stalingrad.

A wounded officer who had been captured confirmed the extraordinary losses that Soviet tank forces had suffered in the few days of the German advance. More than 350 tanks that had fallen victim to tanks and antitank guns could be counted on the battlefields. Therefore, the German tank units had a great superiority on the Myshkova.

On December 20, the Soviets attained no further successes.

On the twenty-first, Soviet forces swelled. The Shock Army that had been released from the encirclement and reinforced by reserves from the eastern bank of the Volga assembled for a general attack on the 6th Panzer Division on the northern heights and in the valley east of Bolchaya Wassilijewka. Like swarms of cockroaches, thousands of dots filled the snowy fields, slopes, and hollows of the endless steppe. No soldier’s eye ever had seen such masses move toward it. Showered with shells, the foremost Soviet waves were forced to the ground. Again and again, new waves came up. But every attempt of the masses to overflow the German lines failed in the raging fire of the machine guns. The frontal attack faltered. But after a few hours, a human mass poured like lava from the eastern flank into the village and forced the flank of the 4th Panzer Grenadier Regiment back for several hundred meters. A short while later, it flowed through the gap to the 23rd Panzer Division and rolled up against the rear of the bridgehead garrison. The eastern part of the village and the cemetery area were lost. But the division stood unbroken, like a rock in the sea. Only when the encirclement seemed to become complete, the masses were drummed down by an hurricane-like surprise bombardment from the artillery, and ground down in the flank by 150 tanks and in the rear by 42 assault guns.

Against the volcanic outburst of fire and steel, even the best of the Soviets could not stand. A rare occurrence in this war: the Soviets threw their weapons away and, like madmen, tried to flee from the hellish crossfire and deadly tank pincers. In blocks of hundreds, they ran—even as their own artillery and Stalin organs showered them—to the west, the only open location, but there they surrendered.

The commanding general, arriving with the division commander to have a look at the front, drove smack into the middle of this chaos. Seen through the vision port of the armored command car, the situation gave another impression than the one painted above. Heavy shells howled in from the north and the south and threatened to smash the vehicle or turn it over. Salvoes of rockets rattled down with ear-shattering noise around the car, anti-tank and tank shells hissed overhead or impacted in the rolling terrain in front. Machine-gun salvoes hammered on the steel walls of the vehicle. In trenches and holes, behind earth banks and bushes, the Russians sheltered; others walked around randomly in the steppe grass. A look over the armored sides would have been suicide. Immediate retreat seemed to be the only way to avoid captivity. Only when the view through the vision ports became clearer did the division commander notice that the enemy was not carrying any weapons, and some even were waving cloths. This clarified the situation. In the highest tempo, in which every minute lasted an eternity, they drove on through the enemy masses to the hole under the tank, the forward command post of the division commander. Only a fast dismounting from the vehicle and immediate disappearance into the holes saved the car’s crew from perdition. Hardly had the vehicle been emptied when the next salvo of Stalin organs rattled down on the road and killed both the Russian and German soldiers that were walking across it.

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