The battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus raged throughout September and October as both sides continued to pour more men into the region. Meanwhile, using the maxims that had served him so well, Zhukov and the general staff were working on a plan that would change the balance of the war in the east once and for all. The plan was known as Operation Uranus.
Looking at the extended front in the Stalingrad sector, Zhukov and his staff immediately grasped the opportunities afforded by the large areas held by the Axis allies. The Soviets had two extensive bridgeheads on the western bank of the Don facing Dumitrescu’s forces, which would provide them with their northern strike points. Constantinescu’s army, with its long, thinly held defensive front, would provide the perfect spot for the southern strike.
The Russians were already masters of deception and camouflage, but Zhukov and his staff turned it into an art. As the plans for Uranus got under way, the Soviets launched several small attacks against Heeresgruppe Mitte. Dummy formations with their own radio nets were set up in the sector, giving German intelligence officers the impression that the Russians were concentrating forces for a late fall or early winter offensive against the Heeresgruppe.
Generaloberst Reinhard Gehlen, the head of the German high command’s Fremde Heeres Ost (Foreign Armies East), was in charge of gathering and deciphering intelligence information on the Eastern Front. Although surprised at the number of Russian divisions identified during the first few months of the 1941 invasion, his office still did not appreciate the vast manpower reserves possessed by the Soviet Union.
With the purported buildup of Soviet forces in Heeresgruppe Mitte’s sector, Fremde Heeres Ost was convinced that the Russians could not possibly possess enough men to launch any sort of major offensive in the south. When nervous Romanian commanders brought up the subject of a possible Soviet offensive, they were told not to worry because the Russians were already stretched to the limit.
Zhukov faced a daunting security problem. Massing the divisions for his offensive without being discovered by the Germans meant that the units could only be moved at night or in bad weather as they neared the front. During the day, the trains and convoys transporting men and materiel for Uranus would stop, and troops would camouflage the vehicles, making them invisible from the air.
In all, Zhukov would have 11 armies to mount his offensive. They would be augmented by several separate mechanized, cavalry, and tank brigades and corps. About 13,500 artillery pieces and mortars were assembled along with 115 rocket artillery detachments, 900 tanks, and more than 1,000 aircraft. It was a tremendous logistics operation, but the Russians were able to pull it off without the Germans being any the wiser.
Although stationed in Moscow, the Soviet marshal made extensive visits to the front to confer with his commanders about Uranus. Although they were not privy to the overall scope of the operation, the Front and Army commanders made suggestions about objectives in their particular sectors and coordination with neighboring units and gave other opinions that the marshal sent back to his Moscow staff.
The supreme headquarters and Zhukov’s staff incorporated many of the suggestions into the final plan for Uranus. Intelligence concerning opposing enemy units was also funneled directly to Moscow. As German and Russian soldiers fought and died in the rubble of Stalingrad, the buildup continued. By mid-October, the final plans for Uranus were being fine-tuned, and it was hoped that the operation could begin sometime in the first week of November.
As November approached, German commanders in the 6th Army were facing shortages in both men and materiel. They were also becoming increasingly nervous about unconfirmed reports that the Soviets were massing on their flanks. Zhukov’s deception had worked for the most part, but even the Russians could not totally mask the movements of such a massive force as it came within earshot of the Germans. Motors rumbled and horses neighed, and the sounds carried well in the crisp late fall air.
On Paulus’s left flank, General Karl Strecker’s XI Army Corps had three divisions to cover a front of more than 60 miles along the Don bend. Strecker knew that this was too much for his divisions to defend, so he pulled them back to well-prepared secondary positions, cutting his frontage by half.
Lieutenant General P. I. Batov immediately took advantage of the situation by sending units of his 65th Army across the Don to establish yet another Soviet bridgehead. Batov then conducted several spirited attacks against Strecker’s new positions, but the Germans were too firmly entrenched to make any progress.
While pleased with his own divisions’ performance, Strecker kept a wary eye on the Romanians to his left. The 3rd Romanian Army was woefully short of everything, especially antitank weapons. Their own were obsolete, and Dumitrescu continually badgered the Germans for more effective pieces. Some 75mm guns had been transferred to his army, but not nearly enough to stop any major Russian attack.
Berlin had also ordered General Ferdinand Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps to disengage from its sector on the front and form a ready reserve behind Dumitrescu’s army. Elements of the 14th Panzer Division and the 1st Romanian Tank Division were also ordered to the area. It seemed a good plan, but the nucleus of Heim’s corps, the 22nd Panzer Division, was equipped mostly with outdated Czech tanks. Also, one of its panzergrenadier regiments had been detached from the division and moved to another sector of the front.
Zhukov planned to begin Uranus on November 9, but the date had to be postponed after the marshal made another series of visits to his commanders. Arriving in Serafimovich, a small Cossack farming and fishing village on the middle Don, he conferred with Generals Konstantin K. Rokossovsky and Nicholai F. Vatutin, the commanders of the Don and South West Fronts. They pointed out that the freezing rain and hard frosts of the previous week had made things very difficult for the forces trying to reach the front. They also said that shortages in winter clothing had to be addressed before they felt their men were ready for battle.
Moving on to the headquarters of General Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s 57th Army south of Stalingrad, Zhukov was told that men and equipment were not arriving on schedule and that the artillery had yet to be entrenched and targeted. He returned to Moscow and postponed Uranus until November 17. Upon hearing that air units marked for the offensive might not be ready on that date, Zhukov postponed the operation for two more days.
Stalingrad was on the verge of collapse as Uranus was postponed not once, but twice. The more time that elapsed, the more chance that the Germans would find out about the massive buildup. Luckily, Berlin had other problems to deal with. On November 8, the Allies landed in French North Africa, threatening Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s rear and dooming the vaunted Afrika Korps and Panzer Army Afrika. The German high command now had to split its attention, focusing on potential disasters on two fronts.
As the 19th approached, Zhukov sent out his final orders. Uranus would involve a double envelopment of Stalingrad with a primarily infantry force encircling the city itself. An outer ring, consisting of tank, mechanized, cavalry, and infantry units, would form a steel buffer against any possible German counterattack. German and allied units caught between the two rings were to be systematically destroyed and, if the opportunity arose, Soviet forces in the south would advance to Rostov and trap the divisions of Heeresgruppe A, which was still engaged in the Caucasus.
The first phase of the operation involved Vatutin’s South West Front attacking the 3rd Romanian Army out of the bridgehead on the west bank of the Don. At the same time, Rokossovsky’s Don Front would begin the envelopment of Stalingrad from the north and east. A day later, General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front would attack the 4th Romanian Army in the Lake Sarpa area south of Stalingrad.
Both fronts were to send armored and mechanized forces to link up near Kalach. At the same time, other units of the fronts would spread out and head west to protect flanks as the outer ring formed.