The Germans planned to strike on a 350-mile front but not all at one time. Bock had to command no less than seven armies (two allied), and more would join him later. (Normally, an army group would never control more than four armies at once. In 1944-1945, the Western democracies hardly ever had an army group command controlling more than three armies on their whole front of no more than 600 miles.)
To control the growing force and increasingly widespread operations, another headquarters, Army Group A, under Field Marshal List would take over Army Group South’s southern wing and conduct the advance south to the Caucasus. Army Group South, redesignated Army Group B, would handle the Don-Stalingrad flank.
The left wing of Army Group B, or “Group Weichs,” comprised Maximilian von Weichs’s Second German Army, the Second Hungarian Army, and the Fourth Panzer Army. According to plans, it would strike from east of Kursk to the Don and, probably, over the Don to Voronezh, an important road and rail hub five miles east of the river, while the German Sixth Army drove north and east from Belgorod to meet it and form a pocket around Stary Oskol. While the Sixth Army and the Hungarians cleared the pocket, the Fourth Panzer Army would turn south along the west side of the Don with Sixth Army on its right. The First Panzer Army would then strike east from the Artemovsk-Izyum area to meet the Fourth Panzer Army between the Don and Donetz Rivers. This strategy was a late and not promising alteration of the original plan. Originally the main thrust on the right was to have been based in the Taganrog area by the Sea of Azov, but the Germans decided that First Panzer Army was too weak to operate so far from the other enveloping force and had insufficient bridging equipment. The change shifted the right pincer almost 150 miles north, close to the center rather than the right of Bock’s front, and reduced the chance of cutting off the Soviet forces before they escaped over the Don.
Farther south, Group Ruoff, comprising the German Seventeenth Army and the Eighth Italian Army, would pin down the Soviets in the coastal region. Right before the First Panzer Army jumped off, Army Group A would take over Group Ruoff and the Eleventh Army, which by that point was expected to have come up from the Crimea to take over a sector of the main front. The Italians and the Seventeenth Army would advance on Rostov and the lower Don from the west and converge with the two panzer armies, which would then come under Army Group A. Then they would drive on Stalingrad, along with Army Group B’s Sixth Army. The northern flank secured, Army Group A could safely head south for the Caucasus and the oil fields.
This complex, step-by-step plan would come apart fairly quickly. The Soviets did not play into the Germans’ hands this time, while logistics problems and command conflicts hampered the Germans.
The attack of Group Weichs on June 28 tore a hole right through the Soviets’ Bryansk Front, and the Sixth Army attacked on June 30. On July 2 the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies met, encircling parts of the Soviets’ Twenty-first and Fortieth Armies. The Soviets desperately tried to block the road to Voronezh, believing that the Germans wanted it as a jumping off point for a deep encirclement of Moscow from the southeast. Hitler, however, could not decide whether to take Voronezh, as Bock wished. Hitler finally let Bock go ahead as long as he did not waste time or entangle panzer and motorized divisions in city fighting. On July 6, the city fell without much of a fight. Although the move helped confuse the Soviets, it may have been a costly diversion of effort at a critical moment. In a more serious development—which Bock perceived as early as July 3, but most Germans, including Hitler, missed—not many Soviet units were caught west of the Don. On July 6, while hastily reinforcing around Voronezh to block the threat from there, the Soviets had ordered the Southwest and South Fronts to start a strategic retreat farther south.
Bock’s tying up of forces around Voronezh helped prevent the encirclement of the Twenty-first and Twenty-eighth Soviet Armies. Army Group A now officially took over its sector and received control of the First Panzer Army, which attacked eastward that same day, July 7. But it was too late to destroy the Soviet forces west of the Don. First Panzer Army and Group Ruoff encircled only rearguards of the withdrawing Soviets.
On July 9 and 10 the Fourth Panzer Army’s drive south was spasmodic and hampered by fuel shortages. The first phase of the German plan had been completed, but they had taken only 30,000 prisoners. Any chance the Germans had had of success in the 1942 summer campaign was probably already gone.
Hitler, fast losing confidence in Bock, began intervening in the conduct of operations and issued orders affecting even the movement of the corps. His ideas were frequently erratic. Over the next few months, Hitler’s actions in the eastern campaign were often so odd that they constitute probably the best evidence for the otherwise highly improbable thesis, occasionally advanced (notably by Robert Waite in The Psychopathic God), that he subconsciously sought defeat.
On July 9, he decided to have the Eleventh Army cross from the Crimea to the Kuban in early August and drive east to the Maikop oil fields instead of taking up a front on the mainland north of the Sea of Azov. It was a good idea, but he aborted its execution. On July 12, Hitler again intervened. He ordered the First Panzer Army to attack toward Millerovo and Kamenets-Shakhtinsky (the first place on the main north-south railroad in the Donetz Basin and the latter, a crossing of the Donetz), while the Fourth Panzer Army headed for the same places to trap the Soviets. While Hitler and the General Staff expected the Soviets to stand and fight for those objectives, Bock did not, warning that this move would pile up armor uselessly around Millerovo. The Fourth Panzer Army should be directed much farther east, instead, at Morozovsk on the Rostov-Stalingrad rail line. Hitler may have begun to suspect that Bock was right, but he was fed up with him, blaming him for earlier mistakes. On July 13, he ordered the Fourth Panzer Army transferred from Army Group B to Army Group A and fired Bock, replacing him with Weichs. As Bock had predicted, however, the two panzer armies largely “hit air,” taking only a modest number of prisoners and producing a traffic jam. Hitler believed that the Soviets in force were still present north of the lower Don but were farther west around Rostov. He belatedly and partially adopted Bock’s plan. He ordered the First Panzer Army to turn south, cross the Donetz, and drive on Rostov from the north, while the Fourth Panzer Army should drive south to Morozovsk, to and across the Don, and attack west, parallel with the First Panzer Army north of the Don.
On July 14 Hitler moved his headquarters from East Prussia to Vinnitsa in western Ukraine, indicating his intention to take even closer control of the fighting. Bad weather and difficulties in transporting fuel delayed the Panzer armies’ move down the Don, while the Soviet South Front and Southwest Front were fast retreating out of danger. (The new Stalingrad Front replaced the Southwest Front on July 12. Three reserve armies, which were not in good shape, reinforced the new front.)
On July 17, Hitler changed his mind. He ordered the Fourth Panzer Army to stop crossing the Don and instead follow the north bank, and sent the Seventeenth Army to attack farther south than planned, a move that involved lengthy regrouping. On July 19, he belatedly decided to follow Halder’s advice and ordered part of the Fourth Panzer Army, four divisions, to cross the Don after all. He also ordered the Sixth Army to resume its advance on Stalingrad and transferred some units to it from Fourth Panzer Army. All this was unusually erratic even for Hitler. He may have suspected that the Soviets had already retreated out of range. On July 2021, the Seventeenth Army and First Panzer Army found Soviet resistance around Rostov weakening and took the city, a place nearly as large as Stalingrad, on July 23. In a remarkable feat, the Second Battalion of the Brandenburg Regiment (the German Army’s special force) and the SS Viking Division took the main bridge over the Don intact, making possible a quick drive for the Caucasus. But the Soviet forces had escaped south of the Don, largely unscathed.
Hitler’s Directive 45, issued the same day, probably ended any remaining chance of reaching the Caucasus oil fields. Although the Germans had only taken slightly more than a tenth of the 700,000-800,000 prisoners they had expected to capture west and north of the Don, Hitler had convinced himself that they had actually smashed the Soviets. In view of the small number of prisoners taken, he must have assumed that the Soviets had all along been much weaker than anyone had dared hope; he had already ventured to suggest that possibility as early as June 25. He seems to have clung to this idea for at least another six weeks. Directive 45 declared that “only weak enemy forces have succeeded in escaping encirclement and reaching the south bank of the Don.” Army Group A would now encircle them south and southeast of Rostov and then clear the Black Sea coast while, at the same time, driving on Maikop. Then an advance would take place toward Grozny and the most important oil fields at Baku. Wildly overconfident, Hitler had cancelled the plan to send the Eleventh Army into the Kuban, opting instead for a much smaller, delayed crossing of the Kerch Strait. The Eleventh Army and most of its German divisions, with the superheavy artillery, would go north to eliminate Leningrad and its population. (Only the German Navy dared to differ with this idea, squawking about the destruction of Leningrad’s shipyards.) The Eighth Italian Army was also switched from Army Group A to take over part of the defensive front along the Don south of the Hungarian Army. This transfer denied the Caucasus drive Alpine divisions, which would have been invaluable in the mountains. While Army Group A struck into the Caucasus, Army Group B would take Stalingrad, with which Hitler became increasingly fatally fascinated. (As late as July 17, however, he had not insisted on capturing it.)
The Germans had split their forces and sent them against two different objectives at right angles to each other. It would have been hard to supply either advance or give them sufficient air support. Moreover, the southward advance, originally supposed to be the main one, was itself split between two objectives—the Black Sea coast and the oil fields. In practice, the Caucasus advance would become more and more subordinate to capturing Stalingrad. Aside from other diversions, Hitler transferred the Grossdeutschland Division to the west, where he feared an Allied landing. in France. Directive 45 has much claim as the death warrant for Germany’s last chances of success in the east.
A decreasing fraction of the Axis forces in the east carried out the drive for the oil fields, supposedly the objective of the whole campaign; but it might not have been possible to supply stronger forces even had they been available. Already, in late July, as it started south of the Don, Army Group A was not well supplied and suffered serious fuel shortages. Just one railroad running south from Rostov supported the German advance, and only airlifts were able to get fuel to the spearhead divisions.
The Soviets were worried. On July 28, Stalin issued his “not a step back” order, which, with surprising frankness, recounted the loss of territory and resources the Soviets had suffered. He forbade further retreats, backing this command with horrendous threats of punishment. The order, however, does not seem to have applied in the great isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas. There, the Soviets fell back, often in disorder, but evaded the planned encirclement south of the Don. On July 29, Field Marshal List had urged canceling the planned move, for the Soviets were retreating too quickly to be trapped.
At this stage, the Germans were in the rare position of actually outnumbering the Soviet troops in both men and equipment. The battered Soviet Southern Front was absorbed by Marshal Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front, which was backed up, to the south and east, by Gen. Ivan Tyulenev’s Transcaucasus Front. The North Caucasus Front numbered no less than eighteen divisions, but some were in bad shape. The Soviets frantically mobilized local resources, forming new units in the Transcaucasus, where they thought the population was relatively dependable, while ruthlessly rounding up and deporting Muslim Caucasian mountaineers like the Chechens. Although the Germans supposed that the Caucasus had been cut off from the rest of the USSR, the Soviets had made the region self-supporting except for tanks and planes. Contact was maintained by sea, and between August 6 and September the Soviets shipped two guards corps and eleven separate infantry brigades to the Caucasus from Astrakhan.
The drive to the Caucasus steadily lost resources and priority. On July 31, Hitler transferred the Fourth Panzer Army and most of its units to Army Group B, which drove northeast on Stalingrad. Army Group A also had to cede a Romanian corps; nevertheless, it made surprising progress at first. Field Marshal List, despite the failure of the encirclement south of the Don, was quite optimistic in early August about reaching Baku, 700 miles from Rostov. But Army Group A was badly spread out, with twenty divisions on a front growing to a length of more than 500 miles, and operating on two divergent axes—the Seventeenth Army south through Krasnodar to the coast and the First Panzer Army southeast toward Grozny and Baku. The Seventeenth Army itself was split between an effort toward Novorossisk in the northeast and an attack toward Sukhumi-Batum in the southwest over the higher mountains. The first German penetration into the mountains on August 12 struck lightly guarded passes and took the Soviets by surprise, but they soon pulled back to a shortened front in incredibly rugged terrain. The Germans found themselves inching along narrow mountain trails through dense forests. Their clothing and equipment were unsuitable. Only mules, caterpillar-tracked motorcycles, and Schwimmwagens (amphibious Volkswagens) could get up the trails. The First Panzer Army also lost momentum. The Army Group steadily lost more units and air support to Army Group B. Three Italian mountain divisions were diverted to join Eighth Italian Army on the Don, while a panzer division, a flak division, and two rocket launcher brigades left for Stalingrad, along with most of Richthofen’s supporting planes.
Supplying even the remaining units was difficult. Moving fuel to the front was especially arduous. The Germans even used camels. The truck columns bringing up supplies themselves ran out of gas. The Germans resorted to the expedient of running trains over short stretches of open track, loading the trains from trucks at one end and shifting the cargo back to trucks at the other.
By mid-August, the First Panzer Army was pessimistic, and both German armies were slowing to a halt. The Germans took the least important oil field at Maikop only to find it thoroughly demolished. As early as August 26, List warned that his forces would have to take up winter positions soon and that he needed reinforcements and more air support.
The First Panzer Army tried to cross the Terek River, which the Trans-caucasus Front’s Northern Group held. The Terek was a formidable obstacle, being both wide (500 meters) and fast, and bordered by swampy ground. In a difficult operation, the Germans crossed the river and seized a confined bridgehead, but they could not exploit it. Soviet night bombers then smashed their newly constructed bridge. They shifted their effort farther west but were soon stopped. On October 1, the First Panzer Army called a halt until reinforcements could arrive.
On September 6, the Seventeenth Army had finally taken most of Novorossisk against heavy resistance by the Soviet Forty-seventh Army but did not get much farther. The weather became worse and worse. Hitler had become increasingly irritated at List, who he thought had picked the wrong mountain passes to attack, and there was some confusion about what he wanted List to do. On September 9, he fired List for supposedly not following orders, but he did not name a successor, in effect, acting as commander of Army Group A himself. The Seventeenth Army ultimately stalled on the Maikop-Tuapse road in early October. By then, even Hitler accepted that the advance was over until reinforcements could arrive, that is, after Stalingrad fell.
The First Panzer Army did launch a local offensive on October 25, biting out a Soviet salient around Nalchik that had threatened its rear. At first it was successful, making a surprising advance, but it was stopped on November 4. The leading panzer division had to fight its way back out of a trap.
COSTLY DIVERSION TO TUAPSE, 11 AUGUST–23 OCTOBER 1942
List had ordered Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps to continue the advance towards Neftegorsk with the SS-Division ‘Wiking’ and Henrici’s 16. Infanterie-Division (mot.), while de Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps was moving up with 97. and 101. Jäger-Division to reinforce them. Kirchner intended to conduct a pincer operation on the Soviet oilfields located between Khadyzhensk and Apsheronsk, with ‘Wiking’ advancing from Belorechenskaya in the west and Henrici’s division advancing from Maikop in the east. After the oilfields were occupied, German forces would advance towards the port of Tuapse along two routes: the Belorochensk–Tuapse rail line, and the Apsheronsk–Lazarevskoye road. Initially, Soviet resistance was light; Budyonny had transferred Kirichenko’s 17th Kuban Cossack Cavalry Corps to block ‘Wiking’ but arrived too late to interfere with its opening moves. Cherevichenko had the 12th Army deployed on the main route to Tuapse, but it had few infantrymen and little artillery. Assisted by infiltrators from the 7. Kompanie of Brandenburgers, ‘Wiking’ was able to capture an intact bridge over the Pshekha River on 11 August, enabling two battalions from the SS-Regiment ‘Germania’ and its Panzer-Abteilung to advance 50km in three days to overrun the oilfields at Kabardinskaya. However, the captured oilfields were all burning and Soviet resistance suddenly stiffened. Kirichenko’s cavalry began harassing ‘Wiking’’s exposed right flank, which forced SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner to divert one of his regiments to screen that area until that mission could be handed off to the Slovak Fast Division. Steiner’s division was very spread out and he only had a few battalions committed to the advance along a narrow axis towards Tuapse. The terrain was increasingly mountainous and heavily forested, which enabled the Soviet 12th Army to focus its defence at Khadyzhensk. The efforts made by ‘Wiking’ to break through this Soviet blocking position on 15–16 August failed.
Nor did Henrici’s 16. Infanterie-Division (mot.) achieve much success. South of Maikop, he sent Kampfgruppe Brede south on 12 August, trying to approach Apsheronsk and the Neftyanaya oil centre from the east. However, Brede had to approach along a narrow, heavily forested mountain road and encountered one of 12th Army’s blocking positions. Brede attempted a hasty attack, but this was repulsed with heavy losses, including himself. Henrici was forced to bring up more troops and mount a set-piece attack on 13 August, but gained little ground. By 15 August, de Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps began to conduct a forward passage of lines through Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and assumed the lead, while Henrici’s division was relieved and sent south to rejoin von Kleist’s spearhead. The two German light divisions – 97. and 101. Jäger-Division – now assumed the lead in the offensive towards Tuapse, but Kirichenko was beginning to exert real pressure on the Belorechenskaya–Kabardinskaya road, so both SS-Division ‘Wiking’ and the Slovak Fast Division were retained to protect de Angelis’ right flank; the commitment of these two mechanised divisions to a supporting role for the better part of a month was an absurd error on List’s part.