The operations plan to extricate the Sixth Army
Meanwhile, the OKH had informed Manstein that it would provide other forces for Army Group Don’s mission. Two panzer divisions (the 6th and the 23rd) and a Luftwaffe field division (the 15th), would be attached to Colonel General Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, whereas two panzer divisions (the 11th and the 22nd), three infantry (the 62nd, 294th, and the 336th) and two Luftwaffe field divisions (the 7th and the 8th), would form General Karl Adolf Hollidt’s newly created army detachment. But out of the seven divisions anticipated for the latter, one panzer (the 22nd) and two infantry (the 62nd and the 294th) had to be rushed immediately to the front of the Third Romanian Army to fill in the breaches. Moreover, of the three divisions promised by the OKH on November 22, none were able to participate in the attempt to cut through to Sixth Army. The 3rd Mountain Division did not even arrive. Its units had been dispersed between Army Group A and Army Group Center in order to deal with local crises. As for the 17th Panzer and the 306th Infantry Division, they arrived too late to participate at the decisive moment. Considering that the Luftwaffe’s field divisions could only be employed for defensive missions, for example the protection of the flanks of the assault groups, only two panzer divisions remained in the Fourth Panzer Army for the extrication operation, and only one panzer and one infantry division in Army Detachment Hollidt.
Despite the inadequacy of his reinforcements, Manstein put forth on December 1 his directives concerning Operation Winter Storm (Wintergewitter). Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army would attack, with the bulk of its forces, from the region of Kotelnikovo, which was approximately 120 kilometers to the southeast of the Sixth Army encircled in Stalingrad. After having breached the enemy’s defenses, it would have the job of breaking through the Soviet siege front at Stalingrad from the south or west, counting on Sixth Army’s cooperation by exerting pressure from inside the pocket at the decisive point.
During this time, Army Detachment Hollidt would also attack, launching from the Nijne Tchirskaya bridgehead on the middle reaches of the Chir in the direction of Kalatch, to disrupt the adversary’s lines of communication and to create a crossing on the Don for Sixth Army. The latter was to break out, on a date that would be set later depending on the results obtained by Fourth Panzer Army, to the southwest in the direction of the Donskaya Tsaritsa River, in order to connect with Hoth’s panzers, and to the west, to coordinate with Hollidt’s divisions in crossing the Don at Kalatch. However, under the Führer’s formal order, it was required to maintain its positions in the Stalingrad region, thus making its mission all the more difficult. Protection of the right and left flanks of the offensive would be provided, respectively, by what remained of the Fourth Romanian Army (now integrated into the Fourth Panzer Army) and by the Third Romanian Army along with certain units from Army Detachment Hollidt. That some of the forces in charge of covering the offensive had themselves collapsed a few weeks earlier during the powerful Soviet counterattack of November 19, demonstrated just how desperate the situation was for Army Group Don.
At the beginning of December, the Red Army launched attacks not only against the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, but also on the Chir front and in the region of Kotelnikovo, thus in the sectors where the rescue efforts were being undertaken. Field Marshal Manstein had then to postpone the commencement date of Operation Winter Storm, originally set for December 3, first to the 8th, and finally to the 12th.
Following the Soviet attacks in the sectors of the Chir and Kotelnikovo, Manstein started to fear more and more the possibility of a large-scale offensive against the fronts of the Third Romanian Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, the objective of which would clearly be to reach Rostov-on-Don. As a result, he was henceforth no longer certain as to how to conduct the operations once communication had been restored with Sixth Army. Up until that point, he had always advocated that the army break out once the corridor was opened, as it was an essential component to stabilizing the situation on the southern wing of the front.
But now, he wondered if it were not preferable for Sixth Army to maintain its position in Stalingrad, even if an extrication operation were to restore its communications. In other words, despite the urgent need for troops to reinforce Army Group Don in its mission aimed at restoring the situation on the southern wing of the German front, Manstein believed that the Sixth Army would perhaps play a more useful role by holding Soviet forces down around the Stalingrad pocket. And yet a successful rescue operation would without a doubt contribute more to the restoration and stabilization of the entire German southern front. On the other hand, he thought, if Sixth Army were to succeed at escaping from the Stalingrad pocket, the encirclement forces would immediately become available for a large-scale offensive in the direction of Rostovon-Don, with the intention of cutting off both Army Groups Don and A. It would in turn result in the destruction of the entire southern wing of the front and the probable end of the war. It would thus be better for Sixth Army to remain in Stalingrad after the arrival of relief and not to try and free itself.
Operations Winter Storm and Thunderbolt
While Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army was building its concentration to the east of the Don, around Kotelnikovo, the Red Army attacked once again on December 10, this time to the west of the Don, on the front of the lower Chir. Every hope of engaging Army Detachment Hollidt from the Nijne Tchirskaya bridgehead on the Chir and the Don in conjunction with Fourth Panzer Army just melted away. Hollidt had his hands full simply to maintain his position, while Fourth Panzer Army now had to rely solely on its own forces to restore contact with Sixth Army. But it clearly could not reach the Stalingrad pocket with only two divisions (the 6th and 23rd Panzer Divisions), for a total of 232 assault tanks. The commander in chief of Army Group Don thus demanded the immediate dispatch of the 3rd Panzer Corps and the First Panzer Army engaged in the Caucasus Mountains, and the 16th Motorized Division deployed around Elista. Hitler denied him the armored corps, for Army Group A would then be required to evacuate a very advanced position in the Caucasus, and the motorized division, which represented the latter’s only form of flank cover.
Operation Winter Storm, as it were, seemed doomed for failure from the very beginning. It was basically a desperate act that, given the operational strength and mobility demonstrated by the adversary, carried within it the seeds of failure. This was all the more so since the Russians had expanded the number of their large units deployed on the front of Army Group Don between November 28 and December 9 from 143 to 185. The commander in chief of Army Group Don nevertheless believed that he could still take this questionable undertaking upon himself. This was of course the result of his self-confidence, smugness, and a feeling of superiority as a commander, intoxicated by the great victories pulled off since autumn 1939. Yet, beyond Manstein’s refined expertise, an underestimation of the enemy, which would have serious repercussions, was also most likely in play.
On December 12, after artillery preparation, Hoth’s armored units were able to attack the Stalingrad front at the weakest point of the Soviet encirclement. Despite its inferior resources, Fourth Panzer Army succeeded in driving back the Fifty-First Soviet Army and to force its way across the Aksai River on December 17. The Soviet high command immediately rounded up its armored and motorized units to confront the threat that had emerged from the south. Not limiting itself to the defensive, it relentlessly launched counterattacks in an attempt to either regain the ground captured by Hoth’s tank army or to encircle parts of the latter. In spite of the violent battles, Hoth continued to advance, and on December 19 he reached the Myshkoya River, behind which Soviet forces were holding an even stronger line. The Fourth Panzer Army was at that point no more than 48 kilometers from the besieged Sixth Army.
Inside the pocket in Stalingrad, the soldiers of the Sixth Army listened, full of hope, to the growing sound of battles being fought in the distance. A great clamor was heard among the ranks of the besieged troops: “Manstein is coming!” For those loyal to Hitler, the blasts of the cannons and guns from afar was even more proof that the Führer was still keeping his promises. He was going to pull them out of this. Hitler, however, did not have the slightest intention of withdrawing the Sixth Army from Stalingrad. He declared to Colonel General Zeitzler that it was impossible to retreat from the city, for that would amount to repudiating the “whole meaning of the campaign.” He added that too much blood had been spilled for them to abandon Stalingrad.
Joachim Wieder, a soldier of the Sixth Army, recalled after the war the hope that Manstein’s attack had aroused: “During the second week of December, one knew, first in the general staffs, that Army Group Don, under the command of Field Marshal von Manstein, had commenced the rescue operation that had been hoped for so long. Soon, the good news was also known in the ranks. The great news spread with lightening speed, which renewed our morale […]: ‘Manstein is here!’ Our hope rocketed again. A new joie de vivre, a new confidence, a new spirit of enterprise began to emerge. And so, the suffering and the sacrifices were not in vain! Now, salvation was before us. The Führer was holding true to his promise. And he was surely offering his word out of generosity. […] Outside help was approaching. ‘The Führer will pull us out of here!’ One was firmly counting on the fact that it was possibly a large-scale rescue operation, the success of which one might say was certain. The fact that the mission to liberate our army was entrusted precisely to Field Marshal von Manstein filled us with an exceptional satisfaction. The remarkable strategic abilities of this war chief about whom one spoke in our staff with the greatest respect reinforced our confidence and seemed to at first sight guarantee the positive outcome of the future operation.”
But such hopes were in vain. After extremely violent battles and serious losses, Fourth Panzer Army’s vanguards temporarily captured a weak bridgehead, but it was immediately threatened on all sides in the sector of Myshkoya. The panzer troops, exhausted, were forced onto the defensive and the initiative switched to the superior enemy forces. The rescue operation had already failed. The situation even worsened in the meantime because of new enemy offensives on the Chir. The Red Army had redoubled its efforts on the western banks of the Don to break through the Chir front and to seize the bridgehead of Nijne Tchirskaya, held by the Germans at the confluence of the two rivers. It was thus against the latter that it launched its attack on December 12. Two days later, the bridgehead was lost, after being hastily destroyed by the Germans in order to prevent the complete collapse of the Chir front. At the same time, a new danger presented itself on the left wing of Army Group Don.
On December 16, from the great bend of the Don, the Soviets unleashed an offensive that struck Army Detachment Hollidt, the Third Romanian Army, and the Eighth Italian Army in the sector of Army Group B. Before the total meltdown of Army Group Don’s left flank, the key problem for Manstein became the defense of the Donetz basin and the corridor of Rostov-on-Don, the only retreat route available for Army Group A, still engaged around the Caucasus. The high command of the Red Army had just set into motion Operation Saturn. Army Detachment Hollidt had succeeded, for better or worse, at creating a new front level with that of the Third Romanian Army to protect its flank and also to cover at all costs the air bases of Morosovski and Tajinskaya, which were essential for resupplying the Sixth Army. But it was clear that such a situation could not be maintained for many more days, all the more so since Soviet forces were henceforth occupying the entire left bank of the Chir.
Given the critical situation on the Chir front and the left wing of Army Group Don, the Germans could only pursue the rescue attempt initiated to the east of the Don for a very limited amount of time. Manstein strongly doubted that Fourth Panzer Army could reach the Stalingrad pocket, as the enemy appeared to be relentlessly opposing it with new forces. All things considered, the reinforcements proved to be essential to relaunching the attack. Hitler finally decided to grant the 16th Motorized Division, which was to be relieved by units from Army Group A, to the Fourth Panzer Army. But the movement demanded ten days, a delay much too long for it to be able to intervene at the opportune moment. And furthermore, Manstein had asked for this precisely ten days earlier. As for the 3rd Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army, the Führer was still refusing to remove it from the Caucasus region. Hoth’s forces alone, meantime, continued to remain inadequate to save the Sixth Army.
Consequently, at noon on December 19, Manstein sent a message to Hitler advising him that the Fourth Panzer Army could not, in all likelihood, restore contact with Sixth Army, and even less so maintain it. For this, Paulus’ army would need to attempt to break through to the southwest in order to link up with Hoth’s armored units coming to its aid. In this event it would have to transfer its forces to the southwest of the pocket, abandoning the northern sector of the Stalingrad region.
By 6:00 p.m., having received no response, Manstein asked Paulus to prepare to carry out a desperate breakout in the direction of the Fourth Panzer Army, which, on its side, would attempt one last forward thrust. His idea was not so much a gradual evacuation of the Stalingrad region as the expansion of the pocket to the southwest so as to permit the opening of a corridor through which the Fourth Panzer Army could supply the Sixth Army with fuel, munitions, and provisions necessary to continue its resistance.
Within the scope of Operation Winter Storm, Sixth Army had already received the order to prepare for this breakout towards the southwest, in the direction of the Donskaya Tsaritsa River, to restore contact with Fourth Panzer Army. However, it was instructed to also hold down the other fronts around Stalingrad, in accordance with the Führer’s formal order. But in the army’s current state, it was physically impossible for it to hold the entire front around Stalingrad while making every effort to break through to the southwest. Consequently, Manstein envisioned henceforth, in accordance to instructions issued to Paulus under the code name “Thunderbolt” (Donnerschlag), the abandonment of several of the Sixth Army’s positions, at least those to the north, in order to permit the expansion of the pocket towards the southwest. In other words, it was a question of the latter gradually shifting its blockaded front, depending on the progress achieved in the breach attempt, in order to restore contact with the Fourth Panzer Army and to allow entry to the supply convoys.
On December 19, Field Marshal Manstein sent his intelligence officer, Major Hans Eismann, into the pocket by air. The commander in chief of Army Group Don was to assert after the war that the major’s mission consisted of asking Colonel General Paulus and Major General Arthur Schmidt, his chief of staff, to prepare Sixth Army with Operation Thunderbolt in mind. Various versions were given from conversations and remarks made by different officers, so much so that it is difficult to come to any clear conclusion. What is clear, however, is that Manstein refused to take responsibility for disobeying the Führer’s orders. He quite obviously did not provide any truly precise instructions to the commander of the Sixth Army and refused, for perfectly legitimate security reasons, to go into the pocket himself to discuss the situation with Paulus face to face. Yet Manstein must have known for quite some time that Paulus, always respectful of official command channels, would never make a move without a formal order having come from the supreme command of the army, i.e. from Hitler.
On the evening of December 23, Manstein and Paulus discussed the situation during a conference held by way of a teleprinter. The commander in chief of Army Group Don emphasized that the Fourth Panzer Army has been confronted with very strong opposition and that, on the northern flank, the Italian troops had caved in. Paulus asked if the Sixth Army was now authorized to attempt a breakout. Manstein replied that he had not yet received the supreme commander’s agreement. The field marshal believed at the time that it was appropriate not to go into detail. If the colonel general had been given more information, he would have been able to see that Sixth Army could no longer be rescued. Did he make this request out of desperation?
Stahlberg, at this particular moment in the antechamber, was able to hear clearly the conversation. “Herr field marshal,” implored Paulus, “I am begging you to give the order for the breakout!” There was hardly any hesitation to Manstein’s response: “Paulus, I cannot give you the order. But if you make the decision independently, I will do all that is in my power to help you and to justify your decision.” Obviously, Manstein was refusing to forge ahead and take responsibility for a personal action in opposition to the Führer’s will. He feared that such an initiative could lead Hitler to counter his order, then to dismiss him from his command, a consequence which would at the same time bring his dream of one day becoming commander of the German Army or its chief of staff to an end.
In any case, the Sixth Army was already no longer in a position to accomplish a breakout which, when all was said and done, entailed many difficulties and enormous risks. The army needed, it was estimated, six days to prepare for a breakout, a length of time Manstein deemed much too long. The onset of the crisis on the Chir front and, more precisely, on the left wing of Army Group Don, no longer permitted him to wait for six days. In addition, the substantial reduction in the Sixth Army’s strength and the decrease in its mobility, resulting from a lack of fuel and the slaughtering of many of its horses, made even more perilous an undertaking that was to be executed in the harsh conditions of winter.
The critical situation with regards to fuel was such that the tanks of Sixth Army, of which hardly a hundred were still in operation, could not advance any farther than 30 kilometers. In order to execute the breakout, it would thus be necessary either to provide an adequate supply of fuel or have Hoth’s panzers approach at least 30 kilometers closer to the Stalingrad pocket. However, the latter was still located 48 kilometers away. Likewise, Army Group Don could absolutely not wait for the Sixth Army to be sufficiently refueled by airlift, which would mean the delivery of about 4,000 tons. For the Luftwaffe it was physically impossible, so there was nothing to suggest that air supply would ameliorate the situation. When all was said and done, the commander of the Sixth Army described the breakout attempt, especially if it had to be accomplished without outside assistance, as “a catastrophic solution.”
Hitler approved an attack from the Sixth Army to the southwest in order to restore contact with the Fourth Panzer Army. However, he insisted that the former absolutely continue to hold down the front around Stalingrad. He was still hoping to be able to open a corridor which would allow for the movement of supplies, but without having to abandon the slightest plot of land to the enemy. He thus asked the commander of Sixth Army exactly how far he thought he could advance to the southwest if the other fronts were to be held. The response was clear: because of the fuel issue, it was not only impossible to execute the breakout, but even to prepare for it. Without delay, Hitler decided to abandon the idea. On December 21, Manstein nevertheless made one last effort to persuade him to approve Operation Thunderbolt. The Führer immediately replied that there was no possibility of Sixth Army expanding the pocket to the southwest due to a lack of fuel: “What exactly do you want? Paulus has only enough fuel for 20 kilometers, 30 at the most. He is unable to break through, as he himself declares.”
However, it is likely that with his impressive intelligence, Manstein had understood that any breakout attempt was obviously doomed to fail. Even before the bulk of the Second Guards Army had been deployed ahead of it, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been blocked on the Myshkoya River. Paulus’ Sixth Army, with its exhausted troops and barely a hundred fuel-starved tanks, had no chance of breaking through the besieged front. Even more importantly, Manstein had known since December 16 that Operation Saturn, which launched three additional Russian armies to his rear, had cast a new light on everything. Yet he probably felt that, in consideration of how history would remember him, as well as his Wehrmacht colleagues, he had to appear as a commander who had attempted everything in his power to rescue the troops at Stalingrad, even if he believed that the only true chance for Sixth Army to free itself had vanished almost a month earlier. His apparent guilty conscience after the war was likely due to the fact that, given Hitler’s refusal to pull out of the Caucasus, he had utilized the Sixth Army to hold down the seven armies of the Red Army that were en – circling Stalingrad. And furthermore, even if Paulus had been able to break through the blockaded front, there would have remained too few Sixth Army men, in too poor a state, to be of the slightest combat use in later operations.
In his postwar account, Manstein gave the impression that the decisive order to break out of Stalingrad, against Hitler’s wishes, had in fact been issued by Army Group Don, whereas Paulus, because of his much too conscientious analysis of the risks and his obedience to the supreme command of the Wehrmacht, had refused to execute it. He thus charged Paulus with the responsibility for not having attempted the breakout, despite the fact that he had issued the order.
In his Memoirs, Manstein appears quite critical towards Paulus: “If I have presented in such great detail the reasons that led the chief of the Sixth Army to abandon the last chance of saving it, it was because I attributed the responsibility of this decision to him, without taking into account his personality nor his future attitude. Such reasons, as I have stated, cannot be dismissed. But once again, it was a matter of the one and only chance at salvation. To not seize it—while accepting the inevitable risks—was to be resigned to losing the army. To seize it, however, was to place all of one’s money on one card. Our opinion at the command of Army Group Don was that this needed to be done.
It is easy to criticize the attitude that the future Field Marshal Paulus had during these decisive days. But, his blind obedience to Hitler does not, in any case, explain it. He most certainly suffered a serious conflict of interest, with the operation requiring him to abandon Stalingrad, contrary to desires formally expressed by Hitler. Such an abandonment was nevertheless justified by the invincible pressure from the enemy. On the other hand, Army Group Don assumed all responsibility for having ordered him. […] If [Colonel] General Paulus did not seize this last opportunity, if he hesitated, and finally abandoned the idea of taking the risk, it was quite certainly out of the feeling for the responsibility that was weighing upon his shoulders, a responsibility that the army group command had tried to take by issuing its order, but from which Paulus believed incapable of freeing himself in view of Hitler or himself.”
Had Manstein actually issued the decisive order to launch Operation Thunderbolt, thus relieving Paulus of the responsibility of a personal act of disobedience against the supreme command of the Wehrmacht? In actuality, the archives refute such an allegation. From Paulus’ Memoirs clearly emerges the claim that Sixth Army never received such an order. As we have seen earlier, when, on the evening of December 23, 1942, Paulus pressured him to launch Operation Thunderbolt, Manstein urged him to be patient, telling him that he could not yet issue the order. It is thus not surprising that Paulus expressed a rather caustic criticism after the war against Manstein: “He who did not believe at the time that he was able to issue me the order or authorization for a breakout does not have the right today to write that he had wished for my breakout and that he had covered it.”
Whatever the case may be, on December 21, 1942, Manstein could not continue to ignore the general situation of Army Group Don, which could no longer support the Fourth Panzer Army to the east of the Don, particularly because of the scale of the offensive being unleashed by the Red Army since December 16. Henceforth, the fate of the Sixth Army was no longer the only concern. The future of Army Group Don and Army Group A were also at stake, as the enemy was threatening more than ever to cut off their lines of communication. Indeed, there existed a danger of seeing the enemy take advantage of the breakthrough in the Italian sector to advance, through the crossings on the Donetz which were now open before it, towards Rostov-on-Don and the vital artery of the entire southern wing. The enemy clearly had the intention of preparing a “super-Stalingrad” for the entire German southern front. The priority was now to hold down the left flank in order to prevent a catastrophe even worse than the loss of Sixth Army. From this point on, Manstein no longer had a choice: if he wanted to avoid the collapse of the entire southern wing of the German front, he absolutely had to sacrifice the Sixth Army. The salvation of the Ostheer quite simply meant safeguarding Army Groups Don and A, which between them numbered approximately 1.5 million men.
The crisis in the sector of Army Detachment Hollidt was now at its height. Soviet armored and motorized units drove deeply into the breach that had been created by the collapse of the Eighth Italian Army. Some were already approaching the airfields of Morosovski and Tajinskaya, while others had reached the rear of some of Hollidt’s units, which were still fighting on the middle and upper reaches of the Chir. On December 23, Manstein had to withdraw the armored division from the Third Romanian Army in order to restore the situation on the left wing. In order to compensate for this loss, it was necessary for him to order Fourth Panzer Army to send the 6th Panzer Division to the lower Chir, without which the front could not have been maintained. As a result, Hoth had to pull back his weakened tank army. On Christmas Eve, it was attacked on the Myshkoya River by forces that were greatly superior in number and continually increasing, and driven back onto the Aksai River.
Facing an enemy that had just thrown into battle two armies (the Fifty-First and the Second Guards), and its intention to envelop it from the east and west, Fourth Panzer Army had to retreat during the following days back to Kotelnikovo, from where it had launched its offensive on December 12. The endeavor to break through to Stalingrad had thus failed. And the fate of the Sixth Army was thus definitively sealed.