Winter of 1942 had belonged to the Russians. In the snow and freezing weather, they had held the Germans and, in places, had even driven them back. But by spring 1943, a bruised but still unbeaten Nazi army prepared for another series of war-winning attacks. While pressure was kept on Moscow and Leningrad, the real German effort would be in the south.
There were a number of good reasons for the shift. The open steppes and dry plains of southern Russia were more conducive to the Blitzkrieg and massive pincher movements that had served the Wehrmacht well in 1941. The area was much less well fortified and more thinly populated. So southern Russia offered a much better opportunity to break through or capture major elements of the resurrected Soviet armed forces. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the move against southern Russia was that the Reich desperately needed the oil that was on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains.
Two vast attacks were planned. One was to sweep south and grab the oil. The other was to move east and capture the most important city on the Volga River. The Volga was the key route for the Russian north and south transport. It also had to have appealed to Hitler that to control the vital Russian supply line of the Volga River, the city Stalin had named for himself, Stalingrad, had to be occupied.
The original plan to capture Stalingrad was not a mistake. The city was the key to controlling the southern Volga River. It was also one of Russia’s premier weapons manufacturing centers. Perhaps even more than this was the propaganda value of capturing the former Tsaritsyn, named now after the Soviet dictator and Hitler’s greatest nemesis, Stalin. Even the strategic plan started well. Army Group A, under Paul von Kleist, broke through line after line of Russian defenders, crossing Russian defense lines set up on river after river. Army Group B, commanded by Hitler’s favorite general, Friedrich von Paulus, also punched its way through several Russian armies until, by August 23, 1942, the two panzer armies in it had reached the banks of the Volga and were approaching their objective, the city of Stalingrad.
It’s at this point that a series of mistakes doomed half a million German soldiers and changed the momentum of World War II irrevocably. All of these mistakes were made worse by Hitler’s choice of commander for the Sixth Panzer Army, von Paulus. The general had been chosen not because of his battlefield experience but because he got along with the testy Adolf Hitler. And in Nazi Germany that qualified you for anything, even command of one of the few elite panzer armies. In 1941, Friedrich von Paulus had shown himself to be an excellent administrator and planner. He was the chief architect of Operation Barbarossa and was known for his skill at staff work. The problem was that von Paulus as a field commander . . . well, he was a very good staff officer. He did a competent but unimaginative job and obeyed orders, Hitler’s orders, to the letter.
As Army Group B approached Stalingrad, Hitler personally ordered half of its armored strength, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, to hurry south and join up with Army Group A. It was to assist in the final lunge for the Caucasian oil fields. The decision was a mistake that cost both army groups the use of that armored formation for weeks while it changed direction and moved south. Still, even with his Sixth Panzer Army alone, von Paulus began to successfully attack Stalingrad.
The city of Stalingrad in 1942 had grown in a long strip along the Volga River, ten miles long and from a few to five or six miles deep. Most of the large buildings and factories were located near the river. Even at half strength, the power of a panzer division was great, and soon the Sixth Panzer was grinding into the city from north, west, and south. To the east was the Volga River, and herein was a continuing mistake the unimaginative von Paulus made. He never attempted to cross the Volga, and so he was never able to completely surround or cut off Stalingrad.
The Volga was able to act as the route for reinforcement and supply throughout the battle for the city. By never even attempting to cross the Volga, the Germans provided the city’s defenders with a safe base from which hundreds of thousands of reinforcements were shuttled into the city. The east bank also provided a safe location for masses of artillery, which later constantly punished the Germans. Such an attack certainly was possible, especially early in the battle for the city, and was a much better use of the highly mobile armored units in a panzer army than was house-to-house urban warfare. So von Paulus failed to surround a city he was attacking and left the enemy a secure and unmolested base just a few hundred very wet yards away from it.
From September on, the Germans drove the Russian defenders back against the Volga. By December, the defenders no longer could maintain a continuous line. Only pockets of fierce resistance remained. But those pockets were constantly reinforced. In one such pocket was the now-famous Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory. The plant had been converted to manufacturing T34 tanks and continued in production even when completed tanks, often showing mostly unpainted metal, would roll off the line, be armed, manned, and find themselves in combat as they pulled out of the factory’s doors.
Often the Germans would occupy a part of the city after hand-to-hand fighting during the day and then would have to pull back to their bases for supply. The Russians would reoccupy the ruined buildings that night. The next day, the Nazis would have to retake the same building again. Russian soldiers, many ill trained, were poured into Stalingrad by the tens of thousands and died in equally great numbers. The sewers under the city also became the scene of a surreal parallel battle where the dead and wounded simply disappeared into the muck. By the time cold weather arrived, the Sixth Army controlled nine-tenths of the city. Their own casualties had been high, but the Russians’ casualty numbers were much higher. It was von Paulus’ stated hope that he was punishing the Russian Sixty-second Army so badly they soon would have to give up the city. He was wrong. On November 8, Luftflotte 4, a good portion of the Sixth Army’s bombers, had to be withdrawn. They were needed in North Africa. Just as the Russians had been forced into a strip less than a thousand yards deep, the German pressure began to ease.
The Battle for Stalingrad
On November 19, everything changed. For months Marshal Zhukov had been accumulating fresh Russian armies and just waiting until winter and enough troops arrived. Now he had both. The Battle of Stalingrad itself had taken the efforts of the entire Sixth Panzer Army. With the Fourth Panzer Army gone, von Paulus had to use whatever else he had at hand to defend the flanks of the salient that ended in Stalingrad. The flanks north and south of the city were held only by thinly spread Romanian divisions and backed up by virtually nothing. These underequipped and often reluctant Romanians could see and hear the buildup as two tank armies and eighteen infantry divisions prepared to attack in just the north. They begged for reinforcements, but von Paulus had no one to send and was focused on completing his conquest of the city. At sunrise on the nineteenth, Russian Operation Uranus began when overwhelming numbers of Soviet tanks and infantry easily shattered the Romanian divisions north of Stalingrad. Two days later in the south, the Romanian IV Corps received the same treatment. The Romanians who were not killed or captured were forced into Stalingrad. Within days, both attacking Soviet armies had met and closed the trap. This time it was the Germans who were encircled. More than a quarter of a million men in the Sixth Panzer Army and allied formations were trapped in Stalingrad.
The German high command wanted to order an immediate breakout. But a month earlier Hitler had told a crowd of thousands in the Berlin Sports Palace that the German army would never withdraw from Stalingrad. He would not take back his promise. He instead met with Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. Goering promised that his flyers would be able to deliver 750 tons of supplies per day into the city. Unfortunately, the reality was far different. To haul 750 tons, the Luftwaffe needed every transport and most of the bombers on the eastern front to fly four supply missions each day. The trouble was there was not enough daylight for four missions, or often even two. Nor was there ever enough aircraft available. The most tonnage that was ever actually flown into the trapped army, in one day, was 289 tons on December 19. The average, though, was only ninety-four tons per day, or an eighth of the amount needed. Each day, the trapped soldiers had less ammunition and less to eat. By the end of the airlift, in January 1943, the Luftwaffe had lost almost 500 aircraft. One out of every two planes had been shot down or crashed trying to fulfill Goering’s promise. But Hitler himself ensured that the pilots’ efforts were all in vain.
After they had joined up, the Russian armies formed a defensive position facing both Stalingrad and the Germans outside to the west. They formed lines of circumvallation, whose design would have looked familiar to Caesar’s legionnaires at Alesia. Unfortunately for the trapped Sixth Army and von Paulus, this worked just as well for Zhukov as it had for Caesar. Arguably the best commander the Germans had was sent to deal with the problem of saving the Sixth Panzer Army. This was Erich von Manstein. He mounted a counterattack using Hoth’s Fourth Panzer. It penetrated to within thirty-four miles of Stalingrad against determined Russian opposition. Again, the German high command asked for permission for the Sixth Panzer Army to break out and join up. Again, Hitler refused, and von Paulus, knowing that this decision likely doomed his army, obeyed. Facing overwhelming numbers of Russian tanks, Hoth eventually had to withdraw. A few weeks later, the Soviets launched an offensive named Winter Storm. This attack almost trapped all of Army Group South and forced a general withdrawal of more than 100 miles. The Sixth Army in Stalingrad was now separated by almost 150 miles from the new German defensive line.
Supply flights, having to cross even more unfriendly territory, became less frequent and suffered higher losses. German soldiers on the lines in Stalingrad literally starved when they did not die of exposure first. Ammunition was rationed and medical supplies virtually gone. Then the airstrip was overrun, and the last German plane to land took off again carrying wounded and a few officers on January 23.
By the middle of January, the Sixth Army became a formation that was broken into pockets. The Russians then approached von Paulus with an offer. If he surrendered, his men would be treated well, receive medical help, and be guaranteed repatriation after the war ended. Seeing no chance of escape or victory, von Paulus asked Hitler for permission to surrender. This was Hitler’s reply:
Surrender is forbidden. 6 Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution towards the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.
General von Paulus obeyed and turned down Zhukov’s offer. On January 30, having doomed the army and its commander once more, Hitler promoted von Paulus to field marshal. The Führer then informed the hapless commander that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. Finally, the former staff officer acted on his own. Though by this point the only action left to him was to surrender. He did this, including the men defending his pocket, the next day. Two-thirds of the Germans trapped in Stalingrad had died. The remaining 91,000 had all surrendered by February 2. Of those men, less than 5,000 ever returned alive to Germany, most many years after the war had ended.
Hitler’s mishandling of the Battle of Stalingrad, from appointing a personal favorite but untested commander to twice refusing to allow the army to save itself, cost Germany half a million soldiers. Half a million veteran soldiers would have made France impregnable to an Allied landing or delayed the Russian advance on Berlin for months. The men of the Sixth Panzer Army would be desperately needed as the Soviet war machine pushed west, but they were all lost because of Adolf Hitler’s mistakes.