German Panzer III in the Southern Soviet Union in December 1942.
Still the battle raged on, but it had already climaxed. The crisis had passed. The dangerous human mass on the flanks and in the back was either lying on the ground shattered or had begun the long road into captivity.
In the afternoon, the German tanks reached the cemetery area, and the hole into the 23rd Panzer Division was closed again. But still the enemy guns were hammering the entrenchments of the bend of the front across the river. Again and again, their waves of infantry, whipped up by their commissars, collapsed in the defensive fire of all weapons. Only the quickly approaching darkness put an end to the struggle. The human wave attack that previously had been so successful for the enemy had failed this time. The defensive battle on the Myshkova was crowned with a German victory.
CANCELLATION OF THE RELIEF ATTACK, DECEMBER 22
On the twenty-second, the 4th Panzer Grenadier Regiment began its counterattack with artillery and tank support, again stormed the eastern part of the village, and occupied the cemetery hill south of it that had been taken by the tanks. This last operation re-established the entire situation of the twentieth. Soviet tanks and masses of infantry had been wrestled to the ground; they were therefore were no longer an insurmountable obstacle between the liberators and the encircled ones. The initiative had again passed to the German command. Now the troops expected the long hoped-for breakout of the 6th Army. It should have been all the easier for them, since sizable parts of the encircling troops had been smashed on the Myshkova. The hesitation of the break-out was incomprehensible.
Only the orders of the morning of December 23 seemed to clear up all doubt. They planned an advance of all the armor of the 6th Panzer Division across the remaining thirty-three kilometers for the morning of December 24. They were to close with the fortress as much as possible to lend a hand to the now incapable troops of the 6th Army and bring them behind the secured Myshkova sector under tank escort. Since the railroad had long been rebuilt up to the Aksai and several thousand cars were at the disposal of the liberators, the problem of supplying and transporting these masses could now be resolved. It was also not to be assumed that the troops that had been encircled for one month no longer had the strength to march on foot when life and liberty were at stake. This order gave the troops new élan and strengthened their faith that they would spend Christmas together with the freed comrades in Stalingrad.
All preparations for the last advance to decide the fate of Stalingrad were made quickly. More than 120 tanks, 40 assault guns, 24 armored cars, one armored grenadier battalion, one armored motorcycle rifle company, one armored engineer company, and a battalion of armored artillery were assigned for the breakthrough to Stalingrad. Both neighboring divisions contained hardly half a dozen tanks, and furthermore, they were so weak that they were not capable of taking part in the breakout. Like the unarmored units of the 6th Panzer Division, they were to hold their current positions.
Things turned out differently. Very surprisingly, a second order arrived in the afternoon, canceling the earlier one and ordering the immediate withdrawal of the 6th Panzer Division. Both neighboring divisions had to take over the 6th Panzer Division area as well.
Even during the night of December 23–24, the division was pulled out of line and marched to Potemkinskaia on the Don. Here a 400-meter-long pontoon bridge had been prepared for them, which they were to use to cross the river. The division commander had gone to the headquarters of the Romanian 3rd Army in Morosowskaia as quickly as possible to get new orders. The armored division was ordered to follow him there.
WHAT HAD HAPPENED?
On December 16, the Red Army, exploiting the weakness of the Italian 8th Army under General Gariboldi, had begun an offensive from the area on both sides of Boguchar on the Don, and while outflanking the Italian Alpini Corps, it had forced the collapse of this front in a determined blow toward the southwest. The Soviet blow from the north by the 6th Soviet Tank Army on the left flank of the 1st Guards Army in the middle, and the 3rd Guards Army on the eastern flank, had collapsed the thin front erected on the Chir in the sector of the Italian 8th Army.
If the Soviets also succeeded in destroying the adjoining Army Detachment Hollidt, Rostov would lie completely unprotected. And if they took Rostov, the Soviets would cut off all of Army Group Don and Army Group A (Field Marshal Kleist), which was still standing in the Caucasus.
While 200,000 soldiers of the 6th Army were now at stake in this situation, the fate of 1.5 million soldiers would hang in the balance. And while, on the evening of December 23, the soldiers of the 6th Panzer Division prepared for further advances, while their first elements had penetrated to within forty-eight kilometers of Stalingrad, and while hopes were rising in Stalingrad itself, hundreds of Soviet tanks were driving toward the airfield at Morosowskaia, the base from which the entire aerial supply of the 6th Army was flown. The left flank of Army Detachment Hollidt was completely open.
This Soviet breakthrough prevented a further advance into the cauldron as well as the breakout of the 6th Army. In order to avert this danger for a million and a half men, Manstein had to act immediately. On the afternoon of December 23, the headquarters of Army Group Don made the decision to send forces into the sector. The headquarters of the 3rd Army, standing on the lower Chir, received orders to release immediately the headquarters of the XLVIII Panzer Corps with the 11th Panzer Division and move it in order to re-establish the situation on the western wing of the Chir front. As a replacement, the 4th Panzer Army of Hoth had to send a panzer division to the front of the Romanian 3rd Army on the lower Chir because, without a heavy unit there, this front could in no way be held.
The 6th Panzer Division, which was on the verge of making the last decisive leap forward, was pulled out. On their own, the 17th and 23rd Panzer Divisions were too weak to continue the push forward. Operation Winter Storm had failed. On December 25, in front of the Myshkova sector, the LVII Panzer Corps was attacked by an enemy that became stronger and stronger.
The 6th Army remained in Stalingrad. The second order had a disappointing effect on the troops. It was clear to even the last soldier that this meant the loss of Stalingrad. All sacrifices seemed to have been in vain, all successes without meaning. Although no one had been informed about the reasons for the order, both officers and men had a feeling that something very bad must have happened to force the supreme leadership to abandon hundreds of thousands of men to their fate.
The relief took place without problems. By avoiding a large rain gulley, part of the march route led three or four kilometers behind the positions of the 17th Panzer Division. A Soviet attack against this point could cause considerable delays. In recognition of this danger, the 6th Motorcycle Battalion was ordered to occupy the front near this dangerous position until the entire division had passed by and then to join up with the tail of the division. The necessity of this measure was quickly proven. The Soviets had not failed to notice the hour-long movement of tanks and trucks. They tried to block the critical crossroads with an advance.
The Soviets broke through the positions of the 17th Panzer Division and were attacked by the motorcycle rifle battalion, together with the elements of the 17th Panzer Division that had been forced back. In an energetic night attack, the Soviets was thrown back. Thanks to this preparation, the departure took place without incident.
At dawn on December 24, the 130-kilometer-long column of the 6th Panzer Division was driving across the blood-drenched fields of its struggle toward an uncertain future. Together with the 23rd Panzer Division and later the 17th Panzer Division, it had performed superhumanly. In just a few days, they had destroyed one cavalry corps reinforced by two tank brigades, one infantry corps, one tank army, and one infantry shock army. With unbroken courage and full strength, it was ready to advance across its objective on December 24 and break open the encirclement around Stalingrad. Fate robbed the division of the reward of its efforts.