In spring 1942, Hitler placed major emphasis in the summer campaign on the southern portion of the German-Soviet Front in Operation blau ( Blue). Hitler sent General Fedor von Bock's Army Group South east from around Kursk to secure Voronezh, which fell to the Germans on 6 July. Hitler then reorganized his southern forces into Army Groups A and B. General Siegmund W. List had command of the southern formation, Army Group A; General Maximilian von Weichs commanded the northern formation, Army Group B.
Hitler's original plan called for Army Groups A and B to cooperate in a great effort to secure the Don and Donets Valleys and capture the cities of Rostov and Stalingrad. The two army groups could then move southeast to capture the oil fields that were so important to the Red Army. On 13 July, Hitler ordered a change of plans, demanding the simultaneous capture of Stalingrad—a major industrial center and key crossing point on the Volga River—and the Caucasus. Dividing the effort placed further strains on already inadequate German resources, especially on logistical support. This also meant that inevitably a gap would appear between the two German army groups, enabling most Soviet troops caught in the Don River bend to escape eastward. Meanwhile, on 23 July, Army Group A captured Rostov. It then crossed the Don River and advanced deep into the Caucasus, reaching to within 70 miles of the Caspian Sea.
Hitler now intervened again, slowing the advance of General Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army of Army Group B toward Stalingrad when he detached General Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army to join Army Group A to help secure the Caucasus oil fields. Nonetheless, the Sixth Army reached the Volga north of Stalingrad on 23 August.
The great city of Stalingrad curved for some 20 miles along the high western bank of the Volga River. Hitler's original intent was merely to control the river by gunfire and to destroy the city's arms factories, notably the Tractor, Red October, and Barricades works, but now he demanded a full occupation of the Soviet dictator's namesake city.
To meet the German thrust toward Stalingrad, on 12 July 1942 the Soviet General Staff had formed the Stalingrad Front. It consisted of the Sixty-Second, Sixty-Third, and Sixty-Fourth Armies, all under the command of Marshal Semen K. Timoshenko, who was replaced by Lieutenant General V. N. Gordov on 27 July. The Twenty-First Army and the Eighth Air Army were also integrated into the Stalingrad Front. General Vasily Chuikov, a protégé of Marshal Georgii Zhukov, commanded the Sixty-Second Army, which was holding on the west bank of the Volga. Stalin, meanwhile, rushed reinforcements and supplies to Stalingrad.
Angry over the slow progress of the Sixth Army into Stalingrad, Hitler on 11 August ordered Hoth's Fourth Army from the Caucasus north to that place, leaving a badly depleted Army Group A holding a 500-mile front and stalling the southernmost drive. Hitler also ordered his sole strategic reserve in the area, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's Eleventh Army, north to Leningrad.
Such wide-ranging shifts of German resources took a terrible toll on men but especially on equipment. They also consumed precious fuel and stretched the German lines far beyond what was reasonable or safe. German army High Command Chief of Staff General Franz Halder and other German generals grew more and more alarmed. They pointed out to Hitler that the German army in Russia now had to maintain a front of more than 2,000 miles. Between the two armies of Army Group B, a sole division held a 240-mile gap. North of Stalingrad, Romanian troops protected the single railroad bringing supplies to the Sixth Army. The possibilities open to the Soviets were enormous, providing they had the resources available. Hitler claimed they did not. Halder continued warning Hitler and tried to get him to break off the battle for Stalingrad. This time, Hitler sacked Halder. He also relieved List, and from a distance of 1,200 miles, Hitler took personal command of Army Group A, which was nominally under General Paul L. E. von Kleist. The irony is that the Germans might have taken Stalingrad in July had Hitler not diverted Hoth south to assist Kleist.
Beginning on 24 August, a costly battle of attrition raged over Stalingrad. Luftwaffe carpet bombing at the end of August killed some 40,000 people, but it also turned the city into defensive bastions of ruined buildings and rubble. Stalin refused to allow the evacuation of the civilian population, believing that this would force the defenders, especially local militia forces, to fight more tenaciously.
The ruined city posed a formidable obstacle. Germany's strength lay in maneuver warfare, but Hitler compelled the Sixth Army to engage the Soviet strength of static defense. Stalin ordered the city held at all costs, and Soviet forces resisted doggedly. To make things as difficult as possible for German artillery and aviation, Chuikov ordered his troops to keep within 50 yards of the Germans. Zhukov, who had just been appointed deputy supreme commander—second in authority only to Stalin—arrived at Stalingrad on 29 August to take overall charge of operations.
Meanwhile, Hitler became obsessed with Stalingrad, and he wore down his army in repeated attempts to capture that symbol of defiance. Taking Stalingrad was unnecessary from a military point of view; the 16th Panzer Division at Rynok controlled the Volga with its guns, closing it to north-south shipping. But Hitler insisted the city itself be physically taken.
For a month, the Sixth Army pressed slowly forward, but casualties in the battle of attrition were enormous on both sides, with advances measured in yards. The battle disintegrated into a block-by-block, house-by-house—even room-by-room—struggle for survival.
General Paulus has been blamed for refusing to disobey Hitler's order to stand firm and extracting his army before it was too late, but his and Hitler's greatest failing lay in not anticipating the Soviet encirclement. Nor did Paulus possess mobile tank reserve to counter such a Soviet effort and keep open a supply corridor.
While he fed the cauldron of Stalingrad with only sufficient troops absolutely necessary to hold the city, Zhukov patiently assembled 1 million men in four fronts (army groups) for a great double envelopment. This deep movement, Operation uranus, began on 19 November and was timed to coincide with the frosts that would make Soviet cross-country tank maneuvers possible against Axis infantry. For the northern pincer, the Soviets assembled 3,500 guns and heavy mortars to blast a hole for 3 tank and 2 cavalry corps and a dozen infantry divisions. They encountered Romanian infantry divisions. The Romanians fought bravely, but their 37 mm guns and light Skoda tanks were no match for the Soviet T-34s. The southern Soviet prong of 2 corps, one mechanized and the other cavalry, broke through on 20 November against 2 Romanian infantry divisions.
By 23 November, uranus had encircled the Sixth Army and had driven some units of the Fourth Army into the pocket. Hitler now ordered Manstein from the Leningrad Front and gave him a new formation—Army Group Don, drawn from Army Group A—with instructions to rectify the situation.
Hitler forbade any withdrawal, convinced that the Sixth Army could be resupplied from the air. Reichsmarschall (Reich Marshal) Hermann Göring is usually blamed for assuring Hitler that this could be done, but responsibility is more properly be shared among Göring, chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe General Hans Jeschonnek, and Hitler. Hitler was no doubt misled by Luftwaffe success the previous winter in supplying by parachute drops 5,000 German troops surrounded at Kholm near Moscow and 100,000 men at Demyansk.
The decision that Stalingrad could be supplied by air was taken at a time when the Soviets enjoyed air superiority. By 20 November, the second day of uranus, the Soviets committed between 1,350 and 1,414 combat aircraft (depending on the source) to Stalingrad. Meanwhile, General Wolfram F. von Richtofen's Luftflotte 4, flying in support of the Sixth Army, had 732 combat aircraft, of which only 402 were operational. The Soviets used their air superiority to attack German army positions and for bombing raids on the main Ju-52 base at Zverevo, where they destroyed a substantial number of German transport aircraft. Worsening weather impeded the relief effort, and much of the Luftwaffe's airlift capability was redeployed to resupply Axis troops in North Africa after Allied landings there in early November.
A fair appraisal of air transport available, even in the best weather conditions, was that the Luftwaffe could only bring in one-tenth of the Sixth Army's requirements. By the last week in December, the Luftwaffe delivered only an average 129 tons of supplies a day, condemning the German forces in the pocket to slow starvation and death. Then, on 16 January 1943, the Soviets took Pitomnik, the principal airfield within the Stalingrad pocket. Its loss was the death blow to the airlift operation. During the last days of the battle, supplies were dropped only by parachute, and many of the supplies fell into Soviet hands.
Hitler still refused to authorize any attempt by the Sixth Army to escape. He would allow only a linking up of a relief force. None of the hard-won territory was to be surrendered, but it was simply impossible for Sixth Army to link up with a relief force and not surrender territory in the process. Paulus favored a breakout, but he was not prepared to gamble either his army or his career. Manstein's force of three understrength panzer divisions managed to reach within 35 miles of Sixth Army positions, and he urged a fait accompli, forcing Hitler to accept it. However, Paulus replied with a pessimistic assessment of his army's ability to close the short distance to reach Manstein's relief force. There was insufficient fuel, the horses had mostly been eaten, and it would take weeks to prepare. The relieving forces would have to come closer. A linkup could succeed only if Sixth Army pushed from the other side against the Soviets, but this could not be done without shrinking the Stalingrad pocket, which Hitler forbade.
In mid-December, the Volga froze, allowing the Soviets to use vehicles to cross the ice. During the next seven weeks, Zhukov sent 35,000 vehicles across the river along with 122 mm howitzers to blast the German defensive works. By then, seven Soviet armies surrounded the Sixth Army, and breakout was impossible. Even in this hopeless situation, Paulus refused to disobey Hitler and order a surrender. He himself surrendered on 31 January (he maintained he had been "taken by surprise"), but he refused to order his men to do the same. The last German units capitulated on 2 February.
There may have been 294,000 men trapped at Stalingrad, including Hiwis (Soviet auxiliaries working with the Germans) and Romanians. Of only 91,000 men (including 22 generals) taken prisoner by the Soviets, fewer than 5,000 survived the war and Soviet captivity. The last Germans taken prisoner at Stalingrad were not released until 1955. Including casualties in Allied units and the rescue attempts, Axis forces lost upward of half a million men. The Stalingrad Campaign may have cost the Soviets 1.1 million casualties, more than 485,000 dead.
The effect of the Battle of Stalingrad on the German war effort has been hotly debated. It is frequently seen as the turning point in the European theater of war, the decisive defeat from which the Wehrmacht could never recover, but militarily Stalingrad was not irredeemable. The German front lines had been largely recreated in the time the remnants of the Sixth Army surrendered. Stalingrad was more important for its psychological than its military value. If any single battle denied Germany victory, it was Kursk, still six months and several German successes away. Eva-Maria Stolberg and Spencer C. Tucker
Istoriia Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1941–1945. Moscow: Voennoe Izdatel'stvo, 1961.; Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943. New York: Viking, 1998.; Chuikov, V. I. The Beginning of the Road. Harold Silver. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1963.; Hayward, Joel S. A. Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler's Defeat in the East, 1942–1943. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.; Seaton, Albert. The Russo-German War, 1941–1945. New York: Praeger, 1971.; Zhukov, Georgii K. Marshal Zhukov's Greatest Battles. Trans. Theodore Shabad. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Eva-Maria Stolberg and Spencer C. Tucker