Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006
Stalingrad–Stalin's City–the industrial center on the Volga River, attracted German and Soviet divisions in the latter part of 1942 like a magnet draws metal shavings. During the heady days of that summer, the men of General der Panzertruppe Friedrich von Paulus' vaunted Sixth Army had sensed nothing but victory in the air. As summer dwindled into fall, however, their air of confidence was replaced by a growing sense of uncertainty and futility.
Grim hand-to-hand fighting had erupted in Stalingrad in September, and no relief was in sight. The once-powerful divisions of the Sixth Army had been severely mauled during savage house-to-house combat within the city. By early November, the great city was like a twisted, stinking corpse, full of smoldering ruins and unburied dead. Tens of thousands had already died in Stalingrad. There was little left standing to fight for, and those buildings still intact were under constant fire. Still, the Germans had orders to take the city, while the Russians had strict orders to prevent its capture. As winter approached, many of the Germans–and Soviets as well–must have been asking themselves why they were fighting and dying for such a worthless piece of real estate.
The answer was quite simple. They were dying to fuel the egos of two men–Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Hitler, who had originally planned a vast breakthrough into the oil-rich Caucasus, had become fascinated with the possibility of capturing the city that bore Stalin's name. All the operational plans so carefully made for the German offensive in southern Russia in 1942 had been drastically altered by the Führer's obsession. Stalin also saw the battle for the city as a matter of honor. The Germans, he decided, would be stopped and defeated at the city that bore his name.
Once the Sixth Army reached Stalingrad, the battle had developed into small-unit actions that pitted the professionalism of the Germans against the tenacity of the Soviets. Paulus had two panzer divisions, two motorized divisions and 17 infantry divisions under his command as he approached the city in August 1942. By mid-September, however, the battle for the city proper had begun, and the German armored and mechanized units proved to be totally unfit for the street fighting that followed. Special engineer formations had to be called in to help eliminate pockets of enemy resistance within the city. The engineers suffered heavy casualties, but they gradually helped the German infantry take control of most of Stalingrad. The Soviets, however, always managed to ferry enough troops across the Volga to prevent a total takeover of the city.
Paul Böttcher, a member of the 24th Panzer Division, described his feelings during that fall: 'We were the victors and, as we headed towards Stalingrad, we thought that we would capture the city in a few days. That was a mistake. The Russians that defended the city were brave, dogged and tough. We had heavy losses in men and equipment. The Russians had half-finished tanks, which they dug into the ground to fire at us. They fought us to the last man.'
With winter fast approaching, the Sixth Army's parent formation, Army Group B, was dangerously overstretched. The German commanders were forced to call upon their Italian and Romanian allies to fill the gaps, especially to the northwest and southeast of Stalingrad. The troop shortage had been caused by Hitler's all-or-nothing policy of capturing both the Caucasus oil fields and Stalingrad, which soon became a recipe for disaster.
The Red Army had learned much in the 1 1/2 years since Hitler had first sent his armies thundering into the Soviet Union. Incompetent Soviet generals had, for the most part, been replaced by cool professionals. The situation in and around Stalingrad presented those men with their first opportunity to show that they were able to level the playing field against the German invaders.
On November 19, while Soviet forces of the Southwest Front army group inside Stalingrad, under General Nikolai F. Vatutin, held onto their tenuous bridgeheads on the western bank of the Volga, troops of the Don Front, commanded by General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, attacked the Third Romanian and Eighth Italian armies, which were in a defensive posture on the Don River, northwest of Stalingrad. A day later, General Andrei I. Yeremenko's forces of the Stalingrad Front opened an offensive against the Fourth Romanian Army, stationed south of Stalingrad.
The assault was brilliant in both planning and execution. The Romanian divisions, many of them poorly led and poorly equipped, melted away under the Soviet onslaught. During the first four days of the attack, the Third Romanian Army lost approximately 75,000 men and almost all of its heavy equipment. The Fourth Romanian Army fared little better.
Josef Bannert was a member of the German 62nd Infantry Division, which was attached to the Eighth Italian Army. 'When the first Russian attack began from the west bank of the River Don,' he wrote 43 years later, ' the Romanian and Italian units remained in their positions for only a little time. The Russian forces advanced on the left and the right of the German units, which were used as 'corsets' between the Italians and the Romanians. As our allies disintegrated, we were also forced to retreat or be surrounded.'
By November 23, Yeremenko's IV Mechanized Corps had linked up with Vatutin's IV Tank Corps near Kalach, forming an iron ring around the Sixth Army and parts of the Fourth Panzer Army that had not been quick enough to escape the encirclement. Thus began perhaps the most critical period in the battle for Stalingrad.
Although the Soviets had succeeded in encircling the city, they still needed time to consolidate their position. An inner ring had to be formed to put pressure on the trapped enemy forces, and an outer ring was also needed–to thwart any rescue attempt. German sources generally agree that during the last week of November the Sixth Army had the ability to break through the encircling Soviet divisions. Indeed, the commander of Army Group B, Col. Gen. Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs, urged Paulus to attempt such a breakout.
Upon hearing of the encirclement, Hitler was inclined to issue an order for the Sixth Army to fight its way through to the rest of Army Group B. In fact, Paulus had requested permission to abandon Stalingrad on November 20. Unfortunately for the German soldiers fighting in Stalingrad, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was able to convince Hitler that his Luftwaffe could provide the supplies–about 550 tons per day–necessary to keep the Sixth Army a viable fighting force. That assurance, which would later result in the decimation of the Luftwaffe transport command, was enough to convince Hitler to order Paulus to stand and fight. Stalingrad was declared a 'fortress,' and the garrison was expected to defend the city to the death. Thus, instead of attempting to pierce the Soviet ring of steel, the Sixth Army began to form a defensive position, allowing the Red Army time to consolidate its gains and reinforce both the inner and outer rings around Stalingrad.
After the war there were many who questioned Paulus' actions and strict obedience to Hitler's orders. Lieutenant General Carl Rodenburg, commander of the encircled 76th Infantry Division, wrote: 'During the period from 20-28 November, my division, with its left flank on the Don, was engaged in heavy fighting. At this time, the leadership of the army and the leadership of the Army Group were in agreement about the breakout. The Chief of the General Staff, General [Kurt] Zeitzler, proposed this to the highest leadership [i.e., Hitler] and attempted to get Hitler's agreement. However, after Göring's speech concerning his ability to supply the army, Hitler would hear no more about it [a breakout].
'As for the claim that von Paulus must have had a similar resolve,' Rodenburg continued, 'there was a memorandum from the LI Armee Korps [a unit of the Sixth Army] saying that the Luftwaffe supply would not work and that a breakout, against orders, was demanded. This memo also said that the army commander [Paulus] and his chief-of-staff did not have the same resolve to go against orders.'
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the man who would oversee the planned rescue of the Stalingrad garrison, also questioned Paulus' motives. 'The only possibility would have been to present Hitler with the fait accompli of the army's departure from Stalingrad,' Manstein later speculated, 'especially if the supreme command shrouded itself in silence for 36 hours, as in fact happened. It is of course possible that such a course of action would have cost Paulus, among others, his head. One can assume, however, that it was not worry over such an outcome that prevented Paulus from doing unilaterally what he saw as correct. Rather it was his loyalty to Hitler that led him to seek permission for the army to break out.'
Immediately after word of the Soviet attack reached the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), or German high command, orders were sent to Manstein, the conqueror of Sevastopol, to take command of the Stalingrad sector. Manstein had been engaged in the siege of Leningrad until a few weeks before, and his headquarters was now located in Vitebsk. Because of inclement weather, he was forced to travel south by train.