Stalingrad became a symbol of Russian endurance, of German capability. It also had an important strategic significance. If the Germans had cut across the Volga, they would have sliced right through the Russian lines of communication, for oil and for transport. Stalingrad was not an altogether facile quest on Hitler’s part but it became invested with enormous psychological significance. Both sides in this ghastly chest to chest struggle could not be unlocked. One side, it seemed had to be destroyed and the other become victor. It had the quality of a titanic struggle, the political importance which was attached to Stalingrad by both Hitler and Stalin was immensely significant.
EXPLORATORY STEPS: JULY 1940 – SEPTEMBER 1942
To Hitler, the oil of the Caucasus had always been one of the foremost attractions of Russia. He had mentioned the necessity of seizing the Baku oil fields as early as 31st July 1940, during one of the initial discussions of his plan to invade the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1941 the Armed Forces High Command activated the so-called Oil Detachment Caucasus for the purpose of taking over the oil fields. At that time the Germans expected that their advance into the Caucasus would be so rapid that the Russians would not be able to severely damage the oil wells, and the tables of organization and equipment of the oil detachment were established accordingly.
The next step in this direction was the preparation of Directive No. 32, circulated by the Armed Forces High Command among the three services on 11th June 1941-11 days before the start of Operation BARBAROSSA. This directive envisaged a drive from the Caucasus across Iran as a part of the plan for the continuation of operations against the British Empire following the defeat of the Soviets. At that time German expeditionary forces were to be activated in the Caucasus and sent across Turkey and Syria to Palestine and across Iraq to Basra. The same directive also visualized the use of the Arab liberation movement against the British in the Middle East, and Special Staff F was designated to initiate and coordinate the corresponding military and subversive activities.
A few days later, on 16th June 1941, German counterintelligence submitted to the Armed Forces High Command a plan for securing the Caucasus oil fields as soon as the internal disintegration of the Soviet Union would become manifest. A nucleus of 100 Georgians, trained by German counterintelligence agents in sabotage and revolt tactics, was in existence in Romania. These Georgians would have to be brought to the oil fields by sea or air transport as soon as the German ground forces approached the Caucasus region. In a somewhat optimistic vein the plan foresaw the employment of the Georgians in two to three weeks after D-Day.
On 24th July 1941 the Army Operations Division wrote a memorandum on the conduct of operations after the conclusion of Operation BARBAROSSA. With regard to the Caucasus it was anticipated that the British would seize and block this area as soon as the Germans approached the Sea of Azov. The first British troop concentrations were believed to be taking place along the northern and eastern border of Iraq. Because of terrain difficulties a German offensive from the southern slopes of the Caucasus across Iran into Iraq could not be executed before the spring of 1942. Meanwhile, data regarding the Caucasus were to be collected; a list of German tourists, who had climbed the Caucasus Mountains during recent years and knew the terrain and weather conditions, was drawn up, and books dealing with the same subjects were carefully scrutinized.
At the beginning of August the German Naval Operations Staff submitted an estimate of the probable reaction of the Soviet Black Sea fleet in the event of a German penetration into the Caucasus. It was believed that the fleet could seriously hamper operations by keeping the coastal road and railroad between Tuapse and Sukhumi under fire. Among the Soviet ships suitable for such operations were one battleship, six cruisers, and 15 modern plus five outdated destroyers. In the Black Sea area the German Navy had no units capable of stopping or disturbing the movements of the Soviet fleet. Coastal batteries would be of limited use; even if they did drive the Soviet ships farther off shore, the latter would still remain within reach of the coast. Air force protection was the only effective means of safeguarding coastal traffic.
In late September reports from agents and radio intercepts indicated that the Russians had from five to six divisions in the Caucasus and three in Iran. It was estimated that British troops entering the Soviet Union would take three weeks to get from Iran to the Caucasus and four weeks to the Crimea.
THE FIRST PLAN FOR A CAUCASUS OPERATION: OCTOBER 1941
In October 1941 the Operations Division of the Army High Command drew up the first detailed plan for a Caucasus operation. The scope of the offensive was limited to seizing the oil resources of the Caucasus and to reaching the Iranian and Iraqi border passes for a possible farther advance toward Baghdad. [See General reference map of the Caucasus area above.] The operation was to be executed in six separate phases, extending from November 1941 to September 1942. These phases were outlined as follows:
1 Seizure of the approaches to the northern Caucasus, starting in November 1941;
2 A series of preliminary attacks leading to the seizure of favorable jump-off areas by May 1942;
3 Launching the offensive across the Caucasus Mountains in two different stages in June 1942;
4 The advance across Transcaucasia toward the Turkish and Iranian borders;
5 Seizure of favorable jump-off areas within Iran; and
6 Capture of the border passes leading into Iraq. The last three phases were to take place in the period July-early September 1942.
The feasibility of the entire offensive would depend on the course taken by current operations in the Russian theater. The second and third phases could be executed only if German troops reached the lower Volga during the winter of 1941-42. The scope of the preliminary attacks to be launched during the second phase would depend on the overall plan adopted for the offensive across the Caucasus. The latter could be launched via the two roads following the Black and Caspian Sea coasts respectively and over the mountain road leading to Tiflis. The interior roads crossed the mountains over passes more than 10,000 feet in altitude. These roads could be negotiated only by mountain divisions. The movement along the Caspian coastal road would be easier because only a few outdated Russian destroyers were liable to interfere.
During the first stage of the offensive proper, two motorized and two mountain corps were to be employed, driving toward Sukhumi and Kutaisi in the west, Tiflis in the center, and Baku in the east, respectively. As soon as any one of these forces had achieved a breakthrough, one additional motorized corps that was being held in reserve was to move up and launch the pursuit. The commitment of this reserve force would determine where the point of main effort was to be placed during the second stage of the offensive.
The employment of two corps in the west during the first stage would be necessary because of the vulnerability of the lines of communications along the Black Sea. Moreover, in the west was the only opening for launching an enveloping drive, since unfavorable terrain conditions prevented any such maneuver elsewhere. During the second stage of the offensive the penetration into the mountains would have to be exploited by the reserve corps which could thrust either via the Black Sea coastal road to Batumi and from there via Tiflis to Baku; or across the mountains to Tiflis and from there either to Batumi or Baku; or along the Caspian shore to Baku and from there, if necessary to Tiflis.
While the offensive was in progress, German naval contingents would have to protect Novorossiysk and Tuapse by taking over captured coastal batteries. In addition, some submarines would have to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet under control, and the Navy would also have to make available the shipping space needed for carrying supplies from Novorossiysk to Batumi once the Russian fleet had been eliminated.
The Luftwaffe would have to protect and support the ground forces; combat the Red Navy and its ports; commit airborne troops to capture the major cities; use dive bombers against the pass fortifications; and prepare transport planes to airdrop supplies.
This plan met with general approval at an exploratory conference held at Army High Command headquarters upon request of the Operations Division on 24th October 1941. An attack across the Caucasus was considered the quickest solution to Germany’s MiddleEastern problems. The effect of such an offensive would induce Turkey to join the Axis Powers. In addition, British forces that would otherwise oppose Rommel in North Africa would be tied down in Iran.
An offensive launched in the spring of 1942 would first lead to the seizure of the Caucasus oil fields, then open the passes from Iran to Iraq, and finally permit the capture of the Iraqi oil fields in the autumn of 1942, when the weather favored the commitment of large ground forces. The essential prerequisite for such far-reaching operations was the seizure of the west bank of the lower Volga from Stalingrad to Astrakhan. This realization implied that if, for instance, the Germans failed to capture Stalingrad, a complete reevaluation of the plans for an offensive against the Caucasus would become necessary.
Among the essential preparations for a Caucasus operation discussed at this conference were the production of military maps and tropical clothing as well as the activation and equipment of special mountain troops.
CAUCASUS PLANNING: NOVEMBER 1941
In a conversation with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch on 7th November Hitler mentioned that the seizure of the oil fields would have to be delayed until the following year. This delay had actually been anticipated by the Operations Division of the Army High Command. However, a new point was brought up by the Führer when he added that he had no intention of going beyond the Russian border. The scope of the offensive was thus limited to the Caucasus; this change in plans was probably due to the slowdown in the 1941 advance caused by the muddy season.
According to all available intelligence the Red Army intended to put up stiff resistance in the Caucasus. By 9th November German intercept units had identified 5 army headquarters in that area. If exact, this information would imply the presence of at least 15 divisions, whereas prior to that time the presence of only 5 had been assumed. It seemed improbable that the Russians would move sizable forces across their border into Iran. And it seemed even more unlikely that the British would send strong forces northward into the Caucasus. For the time being the situation in the Caucasus remained obscure.
In a conversation with General Halder on 19th November, Hitler stated that the first objective for 1942 would be the Caucasus. An offensive launched for this purpose in March-April 1942 would bring the German forces to the Soviet border with Iran. Depending on the situation at the end of 1941, offensives in the center could subsequently be launched beyond Moscow toward Vologda or Gorki by the end of May 1942. Other objectives for 1942 could not yet be designated.
Their scope would depend mainly on the capacity of the railroads. The question of whether a defensive wall separating Asiatic from European Russia was subsequently to be constructed remained open.
Hitler thus revealed a number of interesting facts. Even as late as 19th November he seemed convinced that the Germans would be able to capture Moscow before the end of 1941. Furthermore, he seemed to believe that the Caucasus offensive across difficult mountain terrain could be successfully executed within a few weeks in April and May, as a kind of southern interlude prior to another offensive farther north. Three days later, on 22nd November 1941, Halder ordered a light infantry division organized for the Caucasus operation and mountain personnel withdrawn from combat. As late as 16 days before the turning of the tide in front of Moscow the atmosphere at Army High Command headquarters appeared definitely optimistic.
EFFECTS OF THE MOSCOW SETBACK: JANUARY 1942
An order dated 10th January 1942, originating from the Armed Forces Economics Office and the Organization Branch of the Armed Forces Operations Staff and signed by Hitler brought out the newly imposed material limitations—if not the change in scope—of the 1942 operations.
In the introductory paragraph Hitler stated that the long-range strategic plans remained unchanged; the Navy and the Luftwaffe were to be expanded for the showdown with the Anglo-Saxon powers. Until further notice, however, the operations scheduled for 1942 would not permit a reduction in armaments destined for the Army. On the contrary, the Army would have to be given even more than its ordinary share of manpower and armaments so that it could accomplish its mission for 1942.
In effect, the Army was to have top priority on armament production. Wherever shortages of raw materials developed, the Navy and Luftwaffe would have to take the cuts. Greater standardization, the introduction of more substitutes, and the increased use of captured munitions were recommended as means to overcoming production bottlenecks.
The ground forces were to be ready for offensive commitment by 1st May 1942; supplies for at least four months of continuous operations would have to be accumulated by that time. The units taking part in the offensive would have to be amply provided with supply and service troops as well as motor vehicles, while those committed along the Atlantic Coast would not need many trucks. Ammunition supplies for all weapons used in the Russian theater would have to be built up to one month’s expenditure in addition to the basic load.
The Navy was to concentrate on submarine construction and maintenance. The Luftwaffe was to continue its current programs, except for a temporary curtailment of its ammunition and bomb production schedules.
Among the military-economic programs, oil had first priority. The railroad transportation, signal, and other programs were to be carried on along the same lines as before, whereas the motor vehicle output was to be increased. Military manpower requirements were to be coordinated with the industrial ones.
Perhaps the most striking note in this order was its pessimistic undertone. Written at a time when the Germans were desperately trying to stem the Russian tide west of Moscow, the order showed the many weaknesses in the German war machine which had become manifest after less than seven months of fighting in Russia. During the following weeks further planning for the summer offensive came to a standstill, probably because of the life-and-death struggle that raged along the Army Group Center front.
THE FIRST PREPARATORY ORDERS: FEBRUARY 1942
With the acute danger past at the front, the military planners were able to pursue more actively the preparations for a summer offensive. On 12th February 1942 the Operations Division of the Army High Command issued a directive for the conduct of operations after the end of the winter. An introductory statement anticipated that the Russian winter offensive would not succeed in destroying the German troops and their equipment. During the coming weeks the Germans would have to consolidate their lines, eliminate Russian forces that had penetrated into their rear areas, and generally attempt to seize the initiative. At the same time they would have to prepare themselves for the muddy period following the spring thaw.
The directive then went into great detail in describing the different aspects of the muddy season and the countermeasures to be taken. The Army High Command intended to use this probable lull in operations to rehabilitate and regroup its forces.
Army Group South was to hold its positions and make preparations for the planned offensive. First, the Russian penetration west of Izyum would have to be eliminated, then the Kerch Peninsula recaptured and Sevastopol seized, so that the forces stationed in the Crimea would become available for employment elsewhere.
Army Group Center was to seize Ostashkov and shorten its front line by eliminating various dents and penetrations.
Army Group North was to hold its lines near Kholm, Staraya Russa, and north of Lake Ilmen.
After the end of the muddy season all three army groups were to improve their front lines and establish continuous defensive positions, if possible. Because of the precarious supply situation, it seemed doubtful whether more than isolated strong points could be held along certain sectors of the front. Armored and motorized reserves would have to be assembled in accessible areas.
Units withdrawn from the frontline for rehabilitation would have to train their recently arrived replacements on the basis of past experience in combat. Because of a shortage of equipment, only a certain number of divisions could be fully rehabilitated. The ones selected for this purpose were the armored and motorized divisions as well as the army and corps troops of Army Group South, and three armored and three motorized infantry divisions as well as some of the army and corps troops of Army Groups Center and North. In the process of rehabilitation, each armored division was to have three tank battalions, and each motorized infantry division one. The armored divisions of Army Groups Center and North that were not to be rehabilitated would have to transfer some of their cadres to the south. Three armored and six infantry divisions of Army Group Center were to be moved to western Europe without their equipment. There they were to be completely rehabilitated and reequipped. The armored and motorized infantry divisions remaining with Army Group Center and North would have to be rehabilitated in the line without being issued any new equipment. The armored divisions in this category would probably have only one tank battalion. Approximately 500,000 replacements were supposed to arrive in the theater by the end of April 1942.
A special rehabilitation area for Army Group South was to be established near Dnieperopetrovsk, while for Army Group Center similar areas could be set up near Orsha, Minsk, Gomel, and Bryansk. Those few units of Army Group North which were to be rehabilitated would probably be transferred to the Zone of Interior. Rehabilitation was to begin in mid-March at the latest. After the muddy season the fully rehabilitated units of Army Group Center were to be transferred to Army Group South.
The exigencies of the last few months had led to the commitment of a great number of technical specialists as infantrymen. The overall personnel situation and the shortage of technically trained men made it imperative either to return all specialists to their proper assignment or to use them as cadres for newly activated units. The future combat efficiency of the Army would depend upon the effective enforcement of this policy.
The high rate of materiel attrition and the limited capacity of the armament industry were compelling reasons for keeping weapons and equipment losses at a minimum.
In the implementing order to the army groups and armies, the Organization Division of the Army High Command directed on 18th February that those mobile divisions that were to be fully rehabilitated would be issued 50-60 percent of their prescribed motor vehicle allowance and infantry divisions up to 50 percent. Every infantry company was to be issued four automatic rifles and four carbines with telescopic sights; armor-piercing rifle grenades were to be introduced. Bimonthly reports on manpower and equipment shortages as well as on current training and rehabilitation of units were to be submitted by all headquarters concerned.
The element of surprise was essential to the success of the summer offensive. On 12th February Keitel therefore issued the first directive for deceiving the Russians about future German intentions. The following information was to be played into Soviet intelligence hands by German counterintelligence agents:
At the end of the muddy season the German military leaders Intended to launch a new offensive against Moscow. For this purpose they wanted to concentrate strong forces by moving newly activated divisions to the Russian theater and exchanging battle-weary ones in the East for fresh ones from the West. After the capture of Moscow the Germans planned to advance to the middle Volga and seize the industrial installations in that region.
The assembly of forces was to take place in secret. For this purpose the capacity of the railroads was to be raised before the divisions were transferred from the West. German and allied forces would meanwhile launch a major deceptive attack in the direction of Rostov.
As to Leningrad, the prevailing opinion was that this city would perish by itself as soon as the ice on Lake Ladoga had melted. Then the Russians would have to dismount the railroad and the inhabitants would again be Isolated. To attack in this area appeared unnecessary.
In addition, those German troops that were earmarked for the Russian theater and presently stationed in the West were to be deceived by the issuance of military maps and geographic data pertaining to the Moscow area. The units that were already in the theater were not to be given any deceptive information until the current defensive battles had been concluded. The same directive also requested the Army and Luftwaffe to submit suggestions for other deceptive measures The maintenance of secrecy was strongly emphasized.
THE NAVY’S ROLE: FEBRUARY 1942
The German Navy’s principal concern in the Black Sea area was the transportation of supplies for the Army. The difficulties were caused by the shortage of shipping space and the absence of escort and combat vessels. Measures taken to improve the German position in the Black Sea included transfer of PT boats, Italian antisubmarine vessels, small submarines, and landing craft; mine fields were also being laid. Orders had been issued to speed up these measures and support the Army by bringing up supplies. Russian naval forces in the Black Sea would have to be attacked and destroyed. The degree of success obtained would determine the outcome of the war in the Black Sea area. Attention was called to the fact that eventually it would become necessary to occupy all Russian Black Sea bases and ports.
On the other hand, the remainder of the Russian Baltic fleet stationed in and around Leningrad had neither strategic nor tactical value. Ammunition and fuel supplies were exceedingly low. About 12 of the high speed mine sweepers had been sunk so far, so that only four or five were left. About 65 out of 100 submarines had been sunk by the Germans.
THE INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE: 20th FEBRUARY 1942
In a summary dated 20th February 1942 the Eastern Intelligence Division of the Army High Command stated that the Russians were anticipating a German offensive directed against the Caucasus and the oil wells in that area. As a countermeasure the Red Army would have the choice between a spoiling offensive and a strategic withdrawal. Assuming the Russians would attack, it was estimated that their offensive would take place in the south. There they could interfere with German attack preparations, reoccupy economically valuable areas, and land far to the rear of the German lines along the Black Sea coast. If they were sufficiently strong, the Soviets would also attempt to tie down German forces by a series of local attacks in the Moscow and Leningrad sectors.
Numerous reports from German agents in Soviet-held territory indicated that the Red Army had been planning the recapture of the Ukraine for some time. At the earliest the Russian attack could take place immediately after the muddy season, i. e. at the beginning of May.
The Russian forces identified opposite Army Group South consisted of 83 infantry divisions and 12 infantry brigades as well as 20 cavalry divisions and 19 armored brigades, plus an unknown number of newly organized units.
Interference from British forces seemed unlikely. The latter would move into the Caucasus area only if their supply lines could be properly secured, a time-consuming process that had not even been initiated. On the other hand, lend-lease materiel was arriving in considerable quantities; the first U. S. fighter planes had been encountered along the German Sixth Army front.
HITLER’S PREOCCUPATIONS: EARLY MARCH 1942
On 5th March an order signed by Keitel summarized the various instructions issued by Hitler to the services during recent weeks. In the general part of this order, the Army and Luftwaffe were reminded that premature attacks conducted without concentrating sufficient forces had failed on several occasions. Efforts to stop Russian penetrations all along the front had led to piecemeal commitment and dissipation of ground forces. The Russians would have to be stopped wherever they threatened vital communications. In the event of a Soviet breakthrough full-strength units were to be assembled along of the salient and the gap was to be closed after the bulk of the Russian forces had passed through.
Minor rectifications of the defense lines were permissible so long as no important installations were thereby abandoned. No local attacks, the results of which were out of proportion with the losses, were to be launched. Luftwaffe support was to be requested only for essential operations, such as destroying concentrations of Soviet armor prior to an attack. Many a Russian attack could be delayed or altogether weakened beyond repair by disrupting Soviet lines of communications. To achieve greater effect, the heaviest bombs available were to be used for all-out air attacks. Since there was a shortage of artillery along many stretches of the front effective air support for offensive operations was essential. Because of the current emergency, air transport was so scarce that no additional airlift operations could be carried out during the muddy period.
In the second part of the order the mission of each army group for the immediate future was set forth as follows:
A ARMY GROUP SOUTH
1 If the Crimea was to be seized with a minimum of delay, the Kerch Peninsula would have to be captured before starting the siege of Sevastopol. The Russian ports and Black Sea fleet would have to be neutralized from the air before ground operations were started in the Crimea.
2 The next step was to eliminate the Izyum salient by first letting the Soviets exhaust their offensive power in that area and then cutting off the salient by thrusts directed from the shoulders. The armored divisions of the First Panzer Army were to carry out these thrusts and were therefore given top priority on tank and motor vehicle deliveries.
B ARMY GROUP CENTRE
All forces available in the Army Group Center area were to be assembled for a Ninth Army thrust in the direction of Ostashkov. This drive was to take place before the spring muddy period. The lines of communications that had been frequently disrupted would have to be secured.
C ARMY GROUP NORTH
The airlift operations that had been initiated to bring the situation under control were to be stepped up. More reinforcements were to be moved up to permit the consolidation of the situation at Demyansk and prevent an encirclement along the Volkhov. Eventually, Sixteenth Army was to attack from the Staraya Russa area in a movement that was to be coordinated with the Ninth Army drive toward Ostashkov. The VIII Air Corps was to support this operation as well as the Volkhov maneuver.
Another directive, signed by Hitler on 14th March, dealt with the problem of Allied assistance to the Soviet Union. It stated that British and American efforts to bolster Russia’s power of resistance during the decisive months of 1942 would have to be curbed. For this purpose the Germans would have to strengthen their coastal defenses in Norway to prevent Allied landings along the Arctic coast, particularly in the Petsamo nickel mine area, in northern Finland. Moreover, the Navy would have to intensify submarine operations against convoys crossing the Arctic Ocean. The Luftwaffe was to strengthen its long-range reconnaissance and bomber units in the far north and transfer the bulk of its torpedo planes to that area. The flying units were to keep the Russian ports along the Murmansk coast under constant attack, increase their reconnaissance activities, and intercept convoys. Close inter-service cooperation was essential.
THE SITUATION: END MARCH 1942
The overall situation remained static during the month of March. The Russians showed signs of exhaustion, while the Germans were incapable of launching any major counterattack. Like two groggy boxers, the opponents warily eyed each other, neither of them strong enough to land a knockout blow. The weakness of the Russians became manifest through a number of incidents. In the area around Velizh, for instance, the Germans captured rifles, the butts of which were unfinished, indicating that the weapons had been issued before they were ready. The shortage of infantry weapons, though nothing new, seemed more acute than ever. Russian prisoners stated that wooden rifles were being used for training recruits in the Zone of Interior. In another instance, the Russian cavalry divisions opposite Army group South were so short of horses—their strength had dropped to approximately 60 horses per regiment—that the men had to be employed as infantry.
The true condition of the German forces could be gathered from a status report of 30th March 1942. Out of a total of 162 combat divisions in the Russian theater, only eight were immediately available for any mission, three were capable of offensive missions after a rest period, 47 were available for limited offensive missions, 73 were fully suited for defensive missions, 29 were only capable of limited defensive missions, and two were not suited for immediate commitment. The 16 armored divisions in the theater had a total of 140 serviceable tanks, that is to say less than the normal complement of one division. Because of the shortage of motor vehicles and prime movers, few divisions were more than 20 percent mobile. The few available tanks and self-propelled guns were distributed among various armored and infantry divisions.
Under these conditions the arrival of the muddy season at the end of March, which practically enforced a truce in the fighting, was a relief for both protagonists. Although the mud was less severe than during the preceding autumn, it did not hamper operations for some time.
During March Army Group South was not engaged in any large-scale fighting, and Bock, who had assumed command of the army group after Reichenau’s sudden death on 17th January 1942, used this lull to reinforce the wall around the Russian breach near Izyum.
In the Army Group Center area the heavy fighting in the rear of Fourth and Ninth Armies continued. The Russians did everything in their power to supply their forces behind the German front, and they exerted constant pressure on Army Group Center’s only supply line, the Smolensk-Vyazma-Rzhev railroad. German efforts to keep this route open were handicapped by a shortage of troops. Also, in the Vitebsk-Velikiye Luki area there was a latent threat which the Germans were unable to eliminate. But they were fortunate that the Russians in this region had dispersed their forces over a wide area instead of concentrating them for a southward drive.
South of Lake Ilmen Army Group North had assembled a relief force to establish contact with the Demyansk pocket. The situation along the Volkhov front had deteriorated because a strong attack launched by the Russians northeast of Lyuban resulted in a deep breach, which—in conjunction with the Volkhov penetration—threatened to develop into a double envelopment of the German forces in that area.