The Soviet Counteroffensive in the South 1942

Hitler recognized the threat to the German forces on the long Don front. In fact, he showed more awareness of the problem than either OKH Chief-of-Staff’s Franz Halder or Kurt Zeitzler had. Since mid-August, he had spoken several times of the threat of a major attack across the Don on Rostov, through which ran the lines of communication not only for the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies but also Army Group A. Given his fixation on taking Stalingrad, however, he would not allow, much less order, a preemptive retirement from the Don-Volga salient that would allow redistributing the German forces to provide a firm defensive front.

The Germans anticipated a much smaller, less well conducted, less ambitious, and later offensive than the one they confronted. By mid-October, the movement of Soviet troops to the Don front opposite the Third Romanian Army had been reported, but thanks to Soviet security precautions, air reconnaissance could not confirm the account. Hitler nevertheless ordered some Luftwaffe field divisions to back up the Axis allies, a characteristically disastrous idea of Göring’s, designed to avoid transferring men from his overstrength service to the army. Army Group B—saddled with the impossible burden of controlling seven armies, four of which were not German—tried to increase the strength of the German “bolsters” and backed up the Romanians in other ways. It also attempted radio deception measures to try and convince the Soviets that the Don front was stronger than it really was.

Foreign Armies East (German military intelligence) gradually came to admit that an attack was imminent but believed that it would be a limited, local effort. It estimated that the Soviets were capable of launching only one major offensive aimed at Army Group Center. For many years after the war, the Soviets successfully hid that their primary aim in 1942 had not been to trap the Germans at Stalingrad but to destroy the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient and, if possible, drive as far west as Smolensk. Foreign Armies East, however, not only underestimated the Soviets’ overall strength and assumed that any attack on the Don front would only be secondary but also thought that it would take place only after the expected offensive against Army Group Center.

Hitler was not so sure. On November 2, he ordered that the bridges the Soviets were building to their long-standing bridgeheads on the Don’s right bank be bombed. On November 3 he ordered the Sixth Panzer Division and two infantry divisions sent from western Europe to take up reserve positions behind the Romanians and Italians. They were still en route when the Soviets struck. Hitler did not expect the Soviets to attack as early as they did. Foreign Armies East slowly and reluctantly increased its estimate of the threat. On November 12, it predicted an attack on the Third Romanian Army but believed that it would be merely a “salient cut” designed to sever the railroad to Stalingrad and force the Germans to leave the city and not be part of a double envelopment to trap them.

The Soviet buildup had been far more massive than the Germans supposed. A huge force was assembled under the Southwest, Don, and Stalingrad Fronts: 1,050,000 men, 900 tanks, 13,500 guns (not counting antiaircraft guns or 50mm infantry mortars), and 1,114 planes. They outnumbered the German and Romanian forces at least two to one in planes, tanks, guns, and men and far more in the attack sectors. On November 19, the Soviets struck, coordinating tanks, infantry, and artillery far more smoothly than the Germans had seen before. Along most of the front, the Soviets hit the thinly spread, poorly armed Romanian Third and Fourth Armies, which had weak artillery and few effective antitank weapons. The Third Army was supported only by a German close-support group that comprised a Panzergrenadier battalion, an antitank company, and a few heavy artillery pieces. Many Romanians fled after the preliminary bombardment, even before the Soviet tanks and infantry advanced. The only reserve nearby, XLVIII Panzer Corps, consisted of two weak divisions—the Twenty-second Panzer Division and the First Romanian Armored Division (the latter had only obsolete Czech tanks.) Worse, many of their tanks were immobilized after mice had eaten their electrical insulation.

On November 23, the Soviet spearheads met in the Axis rear, cutting the Sixth Army’s supply line and line of retreat. On the one hand, the Soviets vastly underestimated their success. They thought that they had trapped a force of 85,000-95,000 men; instead, more than 250,000 men were caught. On the other hand, the Soviets overestimated the mobility and striking power of the encircled German units.

Hitler realized the situation was serious. On November 20, he ordered the immediate formation of Army Group Don to take over the threatened portion of Army Group B’s front. Instead of awarding command to Antonescu, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein took command, and his Eleventh Army headquarters, pieced out with some German-Romanian liaison staffs, supplied his headquarters staff. Manstein was Hitler’s best general but not his favorite. He was an icy Junker, whose personality and social class did not appeal to the führer; and—worse—Hitler was almost certainly aware that the field marshal’s great-grandfather was Jewish. He was respected but not liked by men of his own background. Nevertheless, Manstein, who had played the central role in devising the plan that had brought victory in the west in 1940, also played a central role in greatly prolonging the life of Hitler’s empire.

But it took nearly a week for Manstein’s command apparatus to move from the Leningrad area (where it had been stymied in an attempt to take the city) to the south. The following day, Hitler finally appointed a commander for Army Group A, Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist, who had commanded First Panzer Army. He and Manstein would be fired on the same day in March 1944. Meanwhile, Hitler rejected having the Sixth Army retreat, regardless of the danger of a “temporary” encirclement in its present position. Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs and Sixth Army CO Gen. Friedrich Paulus concluded on November 23 that the Sixth Army must break out quickly. Luftwaffe South CO Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen concurred. He stressed that the army could not be supplied by air. Weichs specifically declared that the Luftwaffe could not provide even a tenth of the Sixth Army’s needs. Zeitzler backed their assertions. Some evidence indicates that Hitler briefly wavered and nearly authorized a breakout, but the pandering of the OKW generals Keitel and Jodl undermined any reconsideration on his part. Further, the Luftwaffe chief of staff Gen. Hans Jeschonnek appears to have assured Hitler on November 20 that Stalingrad could be adequately supplied by air if and when it was cut off, although he may have meant to refer to only a temporarily brief encirclement. Worse, Göring backed Jeschonnek without any qualifications whatever. When the conscience-stricken Luftwaffe chief of staff realized that he had blundered in his assurances, Göring forbade him to warn Hitler. He even stopped Jeschonnek from pointing out that the Luftwaffe’s standard 250- and 1,000-kilogram air supply containers were named after the size of the bombs they replaced, not the weight of their own contents, and that they carried only two-thirds of the weight of those bombs.

Manstein also undermined the united front of the ground commanders. Reaching south Russia on November 24, he disagreed with Weichs’s pessimism. Apparently arrogantly confident in his own ability, he may have actually believed that he could relieve the Sixth Army while it remained in place and could restore the front completely; however, he soon became more realistic, especially after conferring with Richthofen. Man-stein rejected an immediate breakout, though, in favor of a relief operation to start in early December. His decision played straight into Hitler’s hands, and the latter fixedly determined that the Sixth Army should stay in place for relief.

Writer Alan Clark suggested an alternative interpretation: the field marshal had privately concluded that Hitler would not allow an immediate breakout in any case, but in the context of a planned relief effort, a breakout might be arranged later. Moreover, Manstein may have actually recognized, as his colleagues did not, that an early breakout attempt would probably lead to disaster. It was not simply the Sixth Army but the whole German southern front—particularly Army Group A, out on a limb in the Caucasus—that was at stake. Further, the Soviet ring around the Sixth Army was so tight, and Sixth Army was in such bad shape, that an immediate breakout attempt would probably lead to its being largely destroyed. Even if part of the panzer and motorized elements reached the German lines, that would not compensate for releasing the besieging Soviet forces, which would quickly finish off the German southern wing. The Sixth Army must stay at Stalingrad to pin down the Soviets, even at the grave risk of total destruction. Its only hope was to hold out as long as possible so that an orderly relief effort and breakout might be prepared. If Manstein thought this way at the time, however, he never directly admitted it, although he alluded to these ideas in his memoir. Such an admission would have been unpopular in postwar Germany, where Stalingrad had become an emotional symbol and many were anxious to heap all responsibility for the destruction of the Sixth Army on Hitler alone.

The chance of a successful early breakout in November 1942 was slight. The Sixth Army’s supply situation had been so dire even before the Soviets attacked that it hardly could have stayed on the Volga during the winter. Living a hand-to-mouth existence at the end of its long supply line, it had hardly any fuel on hand and not enough to support a desperate effort to crash through the Soviet ring. Paulus’s vacillations, and his submission to Hitler’s will despite the urging of several subordinates, suggest that he realized this situation.

Fortunately for the Germans, the Soviets cautiously concentrated an overwhelming portion of their forces on insuring against the overestimated threat of a breakout. They were determined to destroy the encircled German force, whatever prizes beckoned elsewhere, and did not exploit the Stalingrad breakthrough to the southwest as much as they might have. The Germans were able to form a defensive front west of the Don on the Chir River while preparing a relief effort. Manstein thought that the Soviets, by better coordinating their forces, could have smashed the Chir front.

Meanwhile, the Soviets readied a second major offensive in the south. In Operation Saturn the Southwest and Voronezh Fronts would attack the Italians. In its original form, the plan was to encircle the Italian Army and the whole Army Group Don, reach Rostov, and cut off Army Group A.

In the meantime, the Germans’ airlift and relief attempt for Stalingrad failed. Richthofen, saddled with the responsibility for the air supply effort, calculated that delivering the estimated absolute minimum of 300 tons of supplies a day—although the Sixth Army really needed 500 tons daily— required 150 Junkers 52 transports landing in Stalingrad each day. But because bad weather would often prevent all operations and many planes would not be working at any given time, he really needed 800. The whole Luftwaffe had only 750 Junkers 52s and half of them were in the Mediterranean. Using some civilian airliners and converting some bombers and long-range reconnaissance planes enabled Richthofen to assemble a fleet of 500 planes; however, many were unsuitable for the job. Moreover, Stalingrad had only one fully equipped airfield, with five more barely usable landing strips. The terrible weather and Soviet fighters took a steady toll on the transports. Some space was wasted on unnecessary supplies, and the airlift never approached the minimum level of deliveries needed.

The relief effort by LVII Panzer Corps was seriously delayed from an original starting date of December 8 to December 11, and it was never strong enough on the ground or had sufficient air support. Two of the three panzer divisions allotted to it were weak. Manstein decided that an attack across the Chir, the point nearest the Sixth Army, was too obvious, so the Germans launched the attack from south of the Don. It took the Soviets by surprise, but it meant that the panzers had a longer way to go. A huge truck convoy hauling 3,000 tons of supplies and some tractors slated to pull Sixth Army’s otherwise immobilized artillery trailed the panzers. The attack made slow progress. It reached the Myshkova River thirty-five miles from the pocket and stuck. Only Soviet over-caution may have prevented its envelopment and destruction.

Hitler still refused to let the Sixth Army break out if that meant giving up its position. Paulus again refused to act without Hitler’s authority, and the Sixth Army was perhaps too weak to strike out successfully. When the Soviets pushed the relief force back, the Sixth Army was doomed.

Despite its failure, the relief attempt—along with the disastrous misfire of the Soviets’ Mars offensive against Army Group Center (begun November 25, it petered out in early December after the Red Army suffered enormous losses)—may have led the Soviet command on December 13 to curtail its plans for the next offensive in the south. Operation Saturn was scaled down to Little Saturn and involved a shallower envelopment whose pincers would meet well north of the Black Sea coast. Rostov would have to be reached in two bites, not one. The offensive began on December 16 and crashed through the Italians, who were supported only by one German infantry division, two battalions from another, and a weak panzer division in reserve. The Soviets failed to break through the sector to the south, but the Germans’ situation was soon desperate. The forward fields for the airlift were overrun, and it became obvious that the issue was now how to get the German forces out of the Caucasus before they were isolated.

Had the Soviets reached Rostov or the coast further west, the early defeat of Germany would have been likely. On December 28, Hitler, barely in time, allowed a (gradual) withdrawal from the Caucasus. He insisted, however, that part of Army Group A fall back into a bridgehead on the Kuban Peninsula, and from there, he hoped, a new offensive against the Caucasus oil fields would be launched in 1943. By then, the Soviets planned Operation Don, or a bigger Saturn—involving the South Front (the renamed Stalingrad Front), Southwest Front, and Transcaucasus Front—to reach Rostov and trap the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Group A.

The Germans were helped by the fact that the Stalingrad garrison continued to pin down considerable Soviet forces, and the Soviets insisted on attacking into the perimeter. The Sixth Army did not surrender completely until February 2. Only a few thousand men survived to return to Germany.

Meanwhile, Manstein directed a skillful retreat and delaying action. In a great “castling movement,” as his aide described it, the First Panzer Army fell back behind the Fourth Panzer Army and was switched around to face north and northwest. He was hampered not only by Army Group A’s late start but also by the sluggishness of its commander Kleist. The Germans blocked multiple threats to the Rostov bottleneck through which they had to retreat. In the last stages, the route was so crowded that some German units marched over the frozen Sea of Azov instead of lining up to cross the Don bridges at Rostov. The Germans fell back to the line of the Mius River in the south while the Voronezh Front, supported by Bryansk and Southwest Fronts, attacked the remaining parts of Army Group B’s front on the northern Don—the Hungarian Second Army and the German Second Army—on January 14. The Soviets tore a 200-mile wide gap in the front and retook Kharkov and the Donetz industrial area. They then advanced steadily toward the Dnieper crossings and the isthmus to the Crimea.

The Soviets, however, were too widespread, exhausted, and at the end of a lengthy supply line. Manstein, meanwhile, had skillfully assembled strong forces on either side of the gap. On February 14, with effective support from Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4, Manstein launched a counteroffensive that smashed four Soviet armies, recaptured Kharkov, and by March 18, largely restored the line from which the German armies had departed in June 1942.

Nevertheless, the Germans in the east had been permanently lamed. The Sixth Army, or more than 250,000 men, had been lost, and with it four allied Axis armies.

The Stalingrad disaster was a particular shock to German morale. The Nazis had already noted, with disquiet, the public’s willingness for a compromise peace with Stalin (although some of the Nazis shared that inclination). For most of 1943, German morale was low. Paradoxically it recovered a bit after the Germans rode out Italy’s surrender without a spectacular disaster. The Axis allies proceeded to look for the exits. Mussolini already wanted a separate peace with the Soviets. Other Italians, Fascist or not, and all but a few people in the Axis satellites wanted peace with the West.

The Stalingrad-Caucasus campaign was the military turning point of the war in the east. Yet that campaign had had little, if any, chance of success in the first place. Even had the Germans taken the Caucasus oil fields intact, they would not have been able to ship their products back to Germany. The campaign itself demonstrated that German hopes had no foundation in logistics. As George Blau observed, the Germans’ problem of transporting supplies could only have been solved had they complemented the few railroad lines in southern Russia with a tremendous trucking and airlift effort. But the Germans lacked the necessary trucks, transport planes, and gasoline, and their repair facilities were inadequate. “From the outset, there was actually not the slightest hope that the supply services would be capable of keeping up with an advance to the Volga and beyond the Caucasus.” Thus Williamson Murray concluded that the 1942 campaigns in both Russia and the Mediterranean were the “last spasmodic advances of Nazi military power, there was no prospect of achieving a decisive strategic victory.”

Indeed, the Germans could not have held Stalingrad even had they captured it. The lack of supplies for the Sixth Army hopelessly prejudiced its chances for survival even if Hitler had been more reasonable about its withdrawal. That the Germans enjoyed such an initial success as they did was mainly owed to Soviet blunders in the spring.

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