The senior Soviet officers got very little sleep during the night of November 18. Shortly after midnight, the Russian artillery started firing smoke shells from the eastern bank of the Don. Soviet propaganda units had already set up loudspeakers close to the front weeks before, so the Germans and their allies paid little attention to the political messages and music that blasted through the night air. As usual, Axis soldiers regarded the loudspeakers as more of a nuisance designed to keep them from getting a good night’s sleep.
This time, however, the smoke and noise from the Russian line had a different purpose. Under cover of these distractions, Soviet armored and mechanized forces streamed across the Don to the already established bridgeheads. A little after 2 AM, more than a million men from the three attack fronts received their orders. They were told that they were about to participate in a deep raid toward the enemy rear. The word “encirclement” was not mentioned to the troops in case something went wrong with the plan. Nevertheless, the old timers knew that something was up. There were too many men and too many vehicles for this to be just a raid. Are we, they wondered, finally starting to see the beginning of the road to victory?
The Russians were helped by snow and a thick fog that cut visibility down to almost nothing. On the German-Romanian line, sentries strained to see just a few feet ahead of them, but all seemed fine except for the damned Soviet loudspeakers blaring in the distance. Only a few yards away, Red Army engineers, camouflaged in white uniforms, had been working their way toward the enemy lines all night, clearing mines and cutting wire obstacles to make a path for the Russian assault forces.
On the Soviet side, commanders anxiously looked at their watches. The fog offered good concealment and would not hinder the effects of the planned Russian artillery bombardment, as the guns had been pre-sighted for just such a situation. Minutes ticked away until, at 7:20 AM Moscow time (5:20 AM German time) the Soviet artillery commanders received the code word “Siren.”
The earth trembled as battery after battery of Katyushas (Stalin Organs) sent their rockets screaming toward the enemy lines. A ghostly glow reflected off the fog as the batteries fired again and again. To be on the receiving end of the rockets tested the courage of the best German units. For the Romanians of Dumitrescu’s 3rd Army, the effect was devastating.
Strongpoints and trenches literally disintegrated as the rockets struck their preplotted sites. Communications between the forward outposts and higher headquarters were shattered, and many of the ammunition dumps close to the front were destroyed in spectacular explosions. Many of those not killed outright in the bombardment were already fleeing to the rear, trying to escape the carnage.
Ten minutes later, the massed Russian artillery was given the order to fire. Thousands of guns roared at once, causing many an artilleryman to bleed at the ear from the concussions caused by so many artillery pieces firing at the same time. Almost immediately, shells began crashing into Romanian artillery emplacements and secondary positions behind the front line. Those fleeing from the opening bombardment were now caught in a second rain of steel, which further decimated the retreating troops. Black earth churned up from shell impacts was interspersed on the snow with red blotches that had a few seconds earlier been men fleeing for their lives.
The bombardment kept up for one hour and 20 minutes. Dazed Romanians lucky enough to escape death from the rain of explosives were in a state of near paralysis as they desperately tried to dig their way out of their shattered positions. Wounded men howled in agony for their comrades to help them while the surviving NCOs and officers worked to regain control over their troops.
Above the cries of the wounded, a new sound was heard. It was not the sound of artillery or tank motors, but the deep, guttural sound of a beast preparing to pounce on its prey. The Romanians strained to see through the fog, hoping not to see what they knew was coming. As the fog lessened, shapes appeared-first hundreds and then thousands. Coming toward them were the massed echelons of Romanenko’s 14th and 47th Guards and 119th Rifle Divisions. The sound that the Romanians now heard-the one that struck fear into their very souls-was the Russian battle cry coming from thousands of soldiers: “Urra! Urra! Urra!”
In some sectors of the Romanian front, soldiers made split-second decisions on whether they would live or die. Hundreds of them threw down their weapons and, with hands held high, hoped for the best as the Russians bore down on them. For the most part, the Soviet assault forces bypassed them and continued their advance, leaving the surrendering Romanians to be picked up later by units in the second or third wave of the attack.
In other Romanian sectors the story was different. The 13th Romanian Infantry Division, for example, occupied a sector of the front opposite the 21st Army. When the Soviet infantry attacked, survivors in the front trenches repulsed them. A second attack, this time supported by tanks, met the same fate. Frustrated, Christyakov ordered another round of shelling. At the same time, he ordered A. G. Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps and P. A. Pliev’s 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps to prepare to attack.
Christyakov wanted to hold these units in reserve until the Romanian line was broken, but the resistance of the 13th and some other Romanian divisions had already upset his timetable. Together with fresh waves of infantry, the Soviet assault smashed the remaining positions of the Romanian IV Army Corps, allowing the 21st Army to advance.
To the west of the IV Corps, the Romanian II Army Corps, facing the 5th Tank Army, was undergoing its own personal hell. Following the bombardment and infantry assault, Romanenko unleashed V. V. Butkov’s 1st Tank and A. G. Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps, followed by the 8th Cavalry Corps. The attack hit the Romanian 9th, 11th, and 14th Infantry Divisions like a sledgehammer, and their positions crumbled as the Russian armor rolled forward.
The Soviet cavalry spread out toward the west, severing communications between the Romanians and General Giovanni Messe’s 8th Italian Army. As the Romanians fled, the cavalry formed a barrier against any possible counterattack while the armored and infantry forces swung southeast toward the Chir River and Kalach.
The gods smiled on the Soviets about mid-morning as the fog dissipated enough for the Red Air Force to enter the fray. Aircraft from K. N. Smirnov’s 2nd and S. A. Krasovsky’s 17th Air Armies swooped down upon the retreating Romanians with a vengeance. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen as the Soviet pilots bombed and strafed enemy troops and positions.