19. Crisis in Russia

THERE IS AN OLD proverb that Russia has two unbeatable commanders: Generals January and February. In 1941 she had a third, General December. The early winter hit the Germans just as their final drive for Moscow ran out of steam; Hitler had frittered away his weeks in the late summer, and they were never regained. Napoleon once remarked, “Ask me for anything but time.” Now the chance for easy victory was gone.

The Russians, dressed for the cold and employing primitive tactics and equipment, struck back on December 6. In the frozen steppes horse-drawn sleds, ski troops, and mounted cavalry were better than German tanks with their engine blocks frozen solid. The Russians employed large masses of men; as throughout the war, they ruthlessly sacrificed troops in the line while building up massive reserves for their own offensives. Now their drive gained power, rolling over the ill-prepared Germans, weak from their extended operations, and disgusted by their failure to win the war before the arrival of winter.

On December 8, Hitler approved an Army high command order placing the forces in Russia in a defensive position. For the next ten days the commanders were free to maneuver, shorten their lines, and improve their situation by falling back to defensible positions. Then Hitler got angry; large amounts of equipment were being abandoned to the cold and the enemy. He stepped in and fired his Chief of the General Staff, von Brauchitsch, and took over supreme command himself. He had had enough of the generals with their subtly superior ways and their foolish ideas that military requirements took precedence over the dictates of Nazi ideology. The withdrawals were to stop; there would be no more retreat; units would fight where they were, and there they would stay. Within a month all three army group commanders were fired and replaced by men who realized what a command from the Fuehrer really meant. On Christmas Day, Hitler fired Guderian too, for allowing a retreat without permission from his master. When General Hoeppner made a snide remark about “civilians” in high places, Hitler dismissed him as well.

Firing generals was one thing, stopping the Russians was another. It was all right to issue standfast orders from Berlin or East Prussia, but the troops in the field, ill equipped and on half rations, kept on falling back. The Russians launched massive attacks in the Crimea, and the Germans there were hard put to contain them. They broke through the center of Army Group South’s front and created a large salient in the German line. Up north they very nearly surrounded large numbers of Germans fighting around Demyansk; Hitler ordered them to hold on, and the Luftwaffe began supplying them by air, setting a precedent for what might happen later.

The worst news was in front of Moscow. The Reds broke the Germans both north and south of the city and drove them back nearly 200 miles. Rage as he might, there was nothing Hitler could do about it; eventually he had to agree that there might be “limited” retreats on the front. Ninth Army of Army Group Center ended up in a huge sack, but the Russians were not quite able to close the neck of it. The Germans organized all-around defense positions which they called “hedgehogs,” and inflicted such heavy losses on the Soviets that even they began to feel they were running out of bodies. By late February they were played out, and the lines stabilized at last. Hitler claimed that it was his policy of no retreat—slightly modified—that prevented complete disaster and utter rout. He may have been right; on the other hand, his generals and critics claimed that his orders cost the Wehrmacht immense casualties, and that in the end the Germans were back on the more or less defensible line they had wanted to retreat to anyway. As March rains came on and the front dissolved in mud, the Russians could feel they had gained breathing space at last. Their greatest accomplishment may have been their forcing Hitler into supreme command where he was free to make mistakes.

Little could be done by either side through April and into May; the mud forced both Russian and German to wallow about cursing. All either could do was make plans for the coming campaign, which both recognized had become a life-and-death struggle. A process of stabilization which neither immediately recognized was now taking place. The Germans, with their economy still not fully geared to war, were becoming weaker. The Wehrmacht of 1942 was poorer than that of 1941; its tank formations had fewer vehicles, many of its infantry battalions were down almost to half-strength. This attrition continued as the war made increasing demands on Hitlerian Germany. Eventually, Albert Speer replaced Goering as economic dictator, but his genius was applied too late to reverse a trend apparent in 1942. Between Hitler’s amateurish meddling in development and the great overextension of German responsibilities, their problems grew until they became insurmountable. In the simplest terms, they bit off more than they could chew.

The Russians too were relatively weak in 1942, but as the German graph slid downward, theirs went up. At the start of the spring campaign they were even short of rifles and small arms for their infantry, but they gained day by day. Part of this gain, though only a part, come from the West. In 1942 and 1943 the British, Americans, and Canadians turned out more than 10,000 tanks which were sent to Russia. Most of them were not up to Russian standards, ironically, and they were generally employed on quiet sectors, with the exception of some British infantry-support tanks heavy enough for Russian needs.

Rather better results were achieved with western aircraft. A total of just over 14,000 American aircraft was sent to Russia, nearly 10,000 of them fighter planes. The largest single type was the P-39 Airacobra, one of the less successful in the American inventory, which had already been rejected by the British as unsuitable for combat. The Russians liked them and used them extensively as ground support and attack aircraft. The British added another 4,000 planes, mostly Hurricanes and Spitfires. These figures impressed western observers more than they did Russians. The American aircraft industry produced about 300,000 planes during the war; Russian industry built 142,000. The Russians felt that 10 percent of their needs, and only 5 percent of American production, was not a great deal.

The greatest contribution of the Western Allies, however, was in trucks—more than 385,000 of them—clothing, rations, raw materials, signal equipment, and all kinds of items which enabled the Russian war industry to concentrate on producing its own guns and tanks. It was American trucks and half-tracks that really motorized the Red Army. Not until 1943 did these items reach Russia in large proportions, but they were a major addition to Russia’s war effort. If the Russians did not appear as grateful as the British and Americans thought perhaps they should be, the Soviet response was brutally simple: we are doing the fighting. It was November of 1942 before the first American troops were in action against the Germans in even divisional strength. At that time the Russians had more than four million men facing the German armies.

That was far more Russians than there were Germans about. The Axis had in midsummer of 1942 just over three million men in Russia; more than half a million of them were from the satellite countries: fifty-one divisions of Rumanians, Hungarians, Slovakians, and Italians. There was a Spanish division as well; though Franco remained determinedly neutral in Hitler’s war, he did allow the dispatch of an all-volunteer division to join the fight against communism. Few of them came home to Spain again.

The Russians needed to be stronger because, though they were improving, they were still far less sophisticated than even a weakened German war machine. Their staff work was not as good, their troops were poorly trained, forced to learn as they went along—if they survived to do so—and the Reds still employed tactics that were wasteful of manpower. More than any other army, except possibly the Chinese, they were willing to trade lives for time and space. Yet as their communications techniques developed and as their planning staffs gained confidence, they became increasingly adept. Once again, as Russian matériel—human and otherwise—got better, and German matériel got worse, the two lines on the graph neared and finally crossed. The place where they ultimately met each other was at Stalingrad.

Hitler’s plans for 1942 were grandiose indeed, when viewed on a map. He decided by a four-stage operation to clear the great bend of the Don River, close in on Stalingrad on the Volga, and then drive down into the Caucasus where he would seize the Russian oil fields and bring the Russian war machine squeaking to a halt. The weakness in these plans was that they made the oil fields the primary objective and reduced the Red Army, which had to be pushed out of the way to get to them, to a secondary position. Going for towns or space on the map was the basic error of commanders in the eighteenth century, the “era of indecisive decisions”; Hitler, the gifted amateur, contemptuous of professional advice and relying on his intuition, was now making that error once again.

The Russians beat the Germans to the punch and in May launched an attack on Kharkov from the salient they had gained during the winter. The Germans responded ferociously, breaking the attack and cleaning out the salient as well, and when the smoke cleared, the Russians had lost a quarter of a million men and more than 1,200 tanks. The Germans continued with their preparations for the Caucasus.

Stage one of the operation was a necessary clearing of both flanks. In the south the Germans at last completed the conquest of the Crimea. They drove the Russians into the sea at the Kerch Peninsula, inflicting 150,000 casualties on them, and they vigorously pushed their siege of Sevastopol. The Russians had dug extensive fortifications around this, their major Black Sea base. As long as they could they supplied it by sea. When the German artillery got too close for surface vessels, they brought in material by submarine. Inexorably, the German noose tightened, and late in June they broke through and reached the harbor on the northern side. The main part of the city and the Russian works were to the south, however, so on June 28 the Germans made an assault crossing of the harbor, catching the defenders to the south by surprise; the city was theirs by July 1 and another 100,000 Russians gone with it.

Clearing the northern flank of the Don bend meant taking the key Russian city of Voronezh. This was done by means of the now-standard enveloping attack. Early in July the Germans punched two holes in the Russian line, and a week later the city fell. The Russians were surprised, in spite of taking prisoner a German staff officer with the complete operation order in his briefcase.

The next stage was a deeper envelopment to the south, while the Hungarians held a blocking position north of Voronezh. The German 6th Army drove eastward and met the Voronezh force coming down the river. Resistance was weak, but the Russians managed to pull back without getting trapped. Sixth Army in its turn wheeled right and began to slide down the Don toward its easternmost point, the great bend forty miles from Stalingrad.

While 6th Army pushed on, Hitler opened the third phase of the drive. The southern part of Army Group South, now reorganized as Army Group A, drove past Rostov at the mouth of the Don. The Russians broke easily here, many troops deserting while others fled back in complete disarray. It looked for a moment as if all the southern Red armies would be caught in a gigantic trap between 6th Army and Army Group A, just as the original German plan for this stage had intended. Then Hitler did it again and diverted Army Group A toward its final objective. Instead of letting it continue eastward to link up with 6th Army at Stalingrad, he wheeled it right, and the leading elements took off for the Caucasus with almost nothing ahead of them. Instead of being trapped in the Don bend, hundreds of thousands of Russians escaped into the Kalmyk Steppe; by their own willfulness the Germans had created a funnel instead of a trap, and the Soviet forces lived to fight again.

On August 1, 6th Army, supported by 4th Panzer Army, was forty miles from Stalingrad, driving hard for the city. The long-range intelligence forecast was gloomy. The Germans believed they had destroyed well over a hundred Russian divisions, but they had identified elements of more than three hundred more. They figured that the Russians outnumbered them in soldiers by at least 50 percent. The Russian manpower pool was estimated as being three times greater than Germany’s, and in spite of the amazing advances they had made on the map, the Germans thought the Russians had preserved the capability to launch another winter offensive.

By late August the Germans were in the western Caucasus Mountains. Here the Russians finally slowed them down and held on firmly to the passes in the hills. Eastward, the Germans flowed over the steppes, gradually halted not so much by the Russians as by distance and their inability to supply themselves. Their tanks gobbled gasoline faster than they could bring it up to the front. Hitler became more and more angry with his commanders, and there was another spate of dismissals: Halder lost his job as Chief of Staff, and Army Group A’s Field Marshal List was fired for lack of aggressiveness. Hitler took over the army group himself, which made him the world’s most distant field commander. It had little effect; by late November the German advance had ground to a stop, defeated by time and distance, two things that neither the Wehrmacht nor Hitler could control. The great Caucasus drive was over, and it had netted only thin air.

Meanwhile, Army Group B, the other half of the former Army Group South, had been sucked deeper and deeper into the morass whose center was Stalingrad. Under Field Marshal von Weichs it had seen its spearpoint, 6th Army, under General Friedrich Paulus, close up on the city in early September. Here the advance stopped; the Russians had retreated as far as they were going. Stalingrad stretches for miles along the great bend of the Volga, where that river and the Don approach each other. It is on the western, higher side of the river, with banks and bluffs falling off to the waterfront. It was then a major industrial center and, during the fighting, Russian workmen in their factories were building tanks which drove out the doors with guns firing at the enemy. By November 1 there were five Russian armies defending the city and the area immediately around it, and two German armies—6th and 4th Panzer—fighting their way into it.

The battle raged unceasingly. Every night the Russians ferried supplies over the river, and the troops worked their way into the rubble and hunkered down behind piles of bricks and mortar; every house, every cellar, every room, became a strongpoint. City fighting is a nightmare for troops and commanders alike; for the troops all the skills developed in open country are negated. The need for constant alertness saps vitality, and even perpetual caution is not proof against sudden surprise, the sniper, the mine, the booby-trap, the man who leaps around the corner and shoots first, the grenade that comes sailing in out of nowhere. Commanders lose control of their battles and watch their forces disappear into a choked mess that defies description. The Germans did not like it, and neither did the Russians; but this was where the Russian high command decided to make its stand. Stalingrad became the Verdun of World War II, its monuments today evoking the same kind of pilgrimages that Verdun’s did after World War I.

As the focus of interest narrowed down on the city and the gigantic battle raging in its heart, the Germans were forced to neglect their long fronts lying either side of Stalingrad. Due south was the Kalmyk Steppe, wide-open territory with few defensive features to it, held only by the relatively thin screen of the Rumanian 4th Army. To the north lay the long line up the Don as far as Voronezh. This too was weakly held, by the 3rd Rumanian, 8th Italian, and 2nd Hungarian armies. All of these were low-priority units; all had German forces attached for stiffening. The Germans openly regarded their allies as second-class troops, which did a great deal to make them so, but even without that, their formations were numerically and materially weaker than the German, as well as poorer in morale.

By November 1 the Germans had split the defenders of Stalingrad into four groups. They had not completely isolated them but they had reached the point where communication between them had to be carried out on the other side of the river. On the 12th the Germans actually got to the Volga itself at one point in the southern outskirts of the city. Casualties were extremely heavy on both sides; the Russians who crossed the river were told not to come back, and the Germans kept pulling in more and more troops from their other fronts. Stalingrad had now become the worst kind of battle, one whose cost far exceeded its value. Hitler had lost his head over it and was absolutely determined to have it; just because of that, the Russians were equally determined to hold it, and the battle went on.

Meanwhile, German intelligence was picking up vague hints of Russians massing north of the city, opposite the front held by the Rumanians. Here the Reds still maintained a precarious toehold on the western bank of the Don, and they were suspected of moving troops into it. Belatedly, the Germans pulled one Panzer division out of Stalingrad and sent it north to bolster their allies. The troops were delighted to be reprieved from the fighting in the city.

The Russian plan, in its classic simplicity, possessed a terrible beauty. The Germans had piled themselves into a lump at Stalingrad, leaving their flanks screened only by thin supporting troops. Trading the lives of the defenders of Stalingrad for time, the Russians waited for two things: the arrival of frost that made the ground hard enough to move armor across country, and the Allied invasion of French North Africa, rightly seen as tying down German reserves in western Europe. Now, stealthily, they had massed two full armies, one of them armored, against the Rumanians south of the city. North of it, where Rumanian 3rd Army held its long line, were hidden five armies—seven, counting those slated to move on Stalingrad itself.

On November 19 the Red armies opened a massive artillery barrage all along the Don River. At mid-morning huge masses of infantry, staggering forward in human-wave attacks, came out of the Russian bridgehead. The Rumanians held them up for a few hours, putting up a stronger resistance than anyone had any right to expect, but they were soon swamped. By suppertime of the first day the Red armor was out in the clear, and the German and satellite remnants were breaking up, fleeing over the open plain and being rounded up by triumphant Russians.

The next day the Russian drive south of the city opened as well. Here there was not even a defensible front, just a long line of patrols. The Rumanians broke immediately, and again the Russians took off. The two arms of the pincer linked up a day later, fifty miles west of Stalingrad. Sixth Army was trapped.

By dithering, the Germans lost whatever opportunity they might have had to break out. Weichs urged Paulus to move quickly; Paulus, waiting for Hitler’s decision, lost his chance. Hitler took counsel, appointed General von Manstein as commander of Army Group Don, and told him to rescue 6th Army. Unfortunately, Army Group Don existed only on paper, a command shuffle of the original two army groups. While Manstein tried to get something together, Hitler talked to Goering, and the air force leader promised that Stalingrad could hold out. He personally would see that the supply requirements were met. The Luftwaffe would commit itself to getting in 500 tons a day, enough to keep 6th Army alive and fighting.

While Paulus sat and slowly froze, and his men defended the shrinking perimeter against heavy attacks, Manstein put together a striking force. It was December 12 before he could launch his attack but he made steady progress when he did; most of the Russian forces had turned inward against the Stalingrad pocket. After a week, Manstein was within thirty miles of the German lines, as close as he was going to get. He ordered Paulus to attempt a breakout and linkup. Paulus waited again for orders from Hitler. The Russians beat him to it and shored up their defenses between the two. By Christmas Eve, Manstein’s relieving force was fighting for its own life and just barely able to cut its way back out of the salient it had made. The relief attempt was over.

Inside Stalingrad the Germans hung on grimly. The weather was brutal—snow, wind, cold, and more snow. The Luftwaffe pulled planes in from all over Europe, many of them antique types long since relegated to the training schools. Nothing they could do was enough. Five hundred tons a day, Goering had promised; the greatest daily delivery was 180; the average was sixty. Ammunition was handed out a cartridge at a time, there was no gasoline, rations dwindled. Hitler responded in characteristic fashion: he promoted Paulus to field marshal and ordered him to hang on to the death.

Even that would be a useful service, for the Russians were now running rampant over the southern front. The pursuit was up, and the Germans went reeling back from the Don, back across the Donets. By late January, Army Group A was cut off from the main forces, its communications having to go back through the Crimea. Army Group B had gone back 250 miles, and Manstein’s Don Group was hard put to hold Rostov.

In Stalingrad seven Russian armies slowly strangled 6th Army. The perimeter got smaller and smaller; by late January it was a mere ten miles across. German soldiers sat down to write their last letters home, letters which on arrival in Berlin were seized by the authorities and analyzed to see how well the German soldier stood up under adversity. On the 23rd the Russians captured the last airstrip. Then they cut the remaining Germans into two pockets; the southern one was overrun on the 30th, and Paulus surrendered with it. On February 2 resistance ended; twenty-two divisions, reduced from more than a quarter of a million to a mere handful of 80,000 men, were left to march off into captivity. Hitler raged and fulminated: the “cowards” who surrendered should have had the decency to shoot themselves. The Verdun of World War II was over; the Russian steamroller so fondly envisaged in World War I had become a reality at last.

The great struggle for Stalingrad was only the most dramatic of the battles in Russia in 1942. All along the line, from northern Finland to the Black Sea and beyond, the two massive armies were locked in a fight whose magnitude defies ready comprehension. All through the campaigning season the Germans had pushed eastward, and the Russians had pushed back. Stalingrad had provided the great break, and in the early months of 1943 Russian tenacity finally paid off. In January they had attacked toward Leningrad and at the cost of more than a quarter of a million casualties they had opened a corridor through to the city. The long siege was ended at last; Leningrad had survived to take its place with Stalingrad among the epics of the Great Patriotic War. In November of 1942 the Reds had mounted an immense offensive against Rzhev, west of Moscow; it broke down with huge casualties, but they came back again in February, forcing the Germans out of a salient a hundred miles wide by a hundred miles deep. The space and distances covered were enormous; the Rzhev salient was nearly as big as the whole of German East Prussia. In the south the Germans viciously counterattacked the oncoming Soviets around Kharkov, and the momentum engendered by the Stalingrad offensive was finally lost. Manstein inflicted enormous losses on the Soviets once more, and by the time the rains came in March and the blessed or cursed mud arrived, the lines were back roughly where they had been a year ago, at the start of the great 1942 offensive. A whole year, and millions of casualties, and it was all for nothing.

The Russians now had a four to one superiority in men; they were receiving large amounts of Lend-Lease matériel from the United States and Great Britain; and they were gaining increasing air superiority over the front, as more and more Luftwaffe units became absorbed in countering the Anglo-American air bombardment of Germany. Short of a miracle, there was no way the Germans were going to stem the tide of military power massing to the eastward. In 1918, after the failure of their spring offensives on the Western Front, Ludendorff had asked Hindenburg what to do; the old field marshal had burst out, “Do! What to do? Make peace, you idiot!” Adolf Hitler did not believe in making peace; he believed in miracles.

The Germans lacked troops and material for a straight defense of their long line in Russia. Skill and maneuver had to offset their weakness. Now, if ever, was a time for the art of generalship. Intelligence said the Russians would attack in the south. Manstein wanted a phased withdrawal, and then a slashing counteroffensive that would catch the Reds strung out and destroy them in open country. The high command decided instead on a spoiling attack, and in July of 1943 the Germans mounted a great drive around Kursk, where there was a bulge in the lines. The Germans delayed their offensive for a month while they re-equipped some of their armored formations with the new Panther and Tiger tanks; by the time they jumped off, the Russians were ready and waiting for them, with wide belts of mines and anti-tank guns by the hundred.

Kursk was the greatest tank battle in the war. The Germans used nearly 3,000 tanks, the Russians about the same number. In the southern part of the pincer, under General Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, nine of the best divisions in the Wehrmacht, massed along a short thirty miles of front. It was blitzkrieg on a massive scale. But it was still the same old thing, and the Russians, with their larger numbers, had now learned how to handle it. The new tanks were a disappointment; the Panthers burned too easily. The Tigers were stronger but their defensive armament was limited; they were the dreadnoughts of the tank era. When they outsurvived or outpaced the smaller tanks who acted virtually as escorts, the Russians were all over them. Proof against anti-tank guns, they were defenseless against Russian infantry who clambered over the still-moving monsters, squirted flamethrowers in their vents, and dropped grenades down their hatches. The Russian artillery never let up, and the Russian tanks proved as good as and better than the Germans. Operation Citadel, as the Germans called Kursk, marked the graveyard of the great Panzer armies. The German mobile forces never recovered their verve after that.

If Kursk did not use up the Germans’ last reserves, it definitely weakened them for the battles to come. The Russians were now free to attack as they chose and they alternated blows from one end of the line to the other. A variety of appealing choices lay open to them. In the north they were on the point of driving back into the Baltic states and eventually to East Prussia; in the center they could move toward Poland and Germany itself; and in the south they could head for the Balkans and the fulfillment of the age-old Russian dream of closing up on the Dardanelles. They chose to do all three.

In the fall they hit Manstein’s Army Group South. The Germans hoped to hold the line of the Dnieper River down to its bend, and then across country to Melitopol, which would secure their access to the Crimea. Instead, the Russians pushed them back to the river along its whole length, and the end result was the isolation of the German 17th Army in the Crimea. That was by the end of November. Farther north the Russians had taken Kiev, and were pushing south of the Pripet Marshes. The fall rains and effective German defensive tactics slowed them down, and at last the Wehrmacht got a chance to catch its breath.

It was no more than a slim chance, though. In January of 1944 the Russians shifted their attention northward and set off an offensive near Leningrad. This had been quiet since last spring, and the Germans were weak and unprepared. In February the Germans were back in Estonia, around Lake Peipus, where Alexander Nevsky had defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1242.

As if to show that they had a plethora of men and matériel and could do whatever they pleased whenever they pleased, the Russians then returned their attention to the south. In January the battles began again. The Dnieper Line was gone, and in March the Russians crossed the Bug, rolling toward the Rumanian frontier. In April they put massive forces into the Crimea. Hitler wanted it held; from the Crimea, Russian bombers could reach the Rumanian oil fields. But by May the last of the Germans there were gone, most saved by sea, as the Russian Black Sea Fleet hesitated to come to grips with the German evacuation. Early April also saw the Germans back from the Bug to the Dniester, and now the whole southern flank of Russia was cleared, and the Reds were poised for a drive into Rumania and the Balkan states. Farther north they were a mere twenty miles from the old Polish border. When Stalin met with Roosevelt and Churchill at Tehran in November of 1943, he had promised a great Russian offensive to coincide with the Allied landings in Normandy. That offensive would carry the Red armies from Odessa to Budapest, from Smolensk to Warsaw, and from Estonia to East Prussia. As the Russians regained their former frontiers, Hitlerian Germany had one year left to live.

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