In the spring of 1942, Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler had taken direct command of his Army Groups in the Soviet Union and outlined his plan for the coming campaign season. He intended to throw everything into taking Moscow, except for a smaller operation to capture Leningrad. Then he would turn south, capture Sevastapol, and march on Stalingrad, the city named for Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, and the Caucasus oil fields. Then, he would move on India and possibly link up with the Japanese if they invaded India from Burma. He could also attack Allied positions in Egypt through the Middle East. This was an audacious plan. Colonel General Franz Halder, who officiated Hitler’s orders directly, did not object. A direct assault on Moscow was what the high command was after all along.
Hitler changed the focus on April 5, 1942 by approving only an offensive in the south. He believed that threatening the Caucasus oil fields would force the Red Army to sacrifice their last reserves of manpower to protect them. If the Nazis conquered the oil fields, Germany’s critical shortages would be filled. The Russians could not survive for long without the oil that the Caucasus provided.
Like the invasion the year before, the summer was a time of outstanding success for the Germans. Army Group South was divided into two commands, Army Group A under Generalfeldmarshall Wilhelm List, and Army Group B under Generalfeldmarshall Fedor von Bock, who had retired for only a month. These two giant pincers would comprise six German armies, borrowing units from Army Group Center. Italians, Romanians and Hungarians would also join the offensive.
The Soviets planned counterattacks also, all along the front. The Soviet Command was reorganized and reinvigorated by the successful winter offensive. On May 12, Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko attacked near Kharkov. On the second day his forces were stopped, and Timoshenko realized he had run into a strong German buildup. He appealed to his political leader Nikita Khrushchev, and then to Stalin himself, to stop the offensive on May 23. Stalin gave permission two days later, but it was too late. Two hundred forty thousand soldiers joined their comrades in German captivity.
Stalin angrily demanded a second front in Europe since the Soviet offensive had stalled. If the Germans could have attacked immediately, they would have been successful. But the Crimea still needed to be eliminated before they could proceed. The German Eleventh Army took Sevastapol on July 1, utilizing the largest guns ever constructed to shell the city. The Soviets had held out for eight months.
On June 28 Army Group B began the German summer offensive. Voronezh fell on July 6. Hoping to trap Red Army forces like they did in 1941, the Second and Fourth Panzer Armies tried to meet at the Don River. The Soviets were learning to recognize traps, and only 100,000 Red Army soldiers were taken, instead of the complete destruction Hitler hoped for. He sacked von Bock on July 13.
The Russians were learning to fight in a fluid, mobile battle. They abandoned their static defensive positions. They were far from mastering Blitzkrieg, but they could escape the pincer movements that the Germans used to capture whole armies.
The Germans, who were counting victory by numbers, began to realize that they were losing the war. The Red Army now outnumbered the Germans by a million men, and three times as many potential recruits were available to the Red Army than to the Wehrmacht. Hitler blamed his commanders for not taking more prisoners and destroying the Red Army. Still holding the initiative, his forces moved on Stalingrad from the sought and west.
Meanwhile, Timoshenko was appointed commander of the Stalingrad Front, and strong units were sent to his command. Stalin consolidated his forces and built up the defense of Stalingrad. Still, the Germans pushed the Russians into a pocket at Stalingrad 9 miles long and 3-4 miles deep on the West bank of the Don River. The Soviets held the East bank of the city.
The battle stagnated and turned into a war of attrition not seen since World War I. For two months, the Russians precariously held their grip on the small strip of land on the Don. More and more German troops were sent in, and more and more Red Army units.
The German Sixth Army under General Friedrich Paulus turned over its flanks to the Romanians. Hitler ordered offensives to be terminated except for Stalingrad on October 15.
The battle was purely for ideological reasons. Hitler wanted to capture the city that bore Stalin’s name, and Stalin wanted it held for the same reason. The military value was negligible; it did hold the key to the Caucasus Oil Fields, but Hitler could have surrounded and cut off Stalingrad and moved on to the Caucasus. Stalingrad became a vanity battle for both sides.
While Paulus tried to break the Soviet salient on the Don, Marshal Georgi Zhukov and General Aleksandr Vasilevski took over the defense of Stalingrad. Twelve Soviet Armies were built up around the city. On November 19, the counterattack began, and by November 22, the Romanians on the Sixth Army’s flanks were smashed. The Russians had encircled the Germans, cutting off 300,000 men.
Paulus asked permission to abandon Stalingrad and retreat before the pincers closed, but Hitler refused. He created Army Group Don under Erich von Manstein and charged him with the relief of the Sixth Army. He advanced to 35 miles of Stalingrad, but Hitler would not allow the now weakening Sixth Army to breakout and link up.
Meanwhile, the Russians were expanding their offensive, smashing the Italians on December 16 and threatening to cut off both Army Group Don and Army Group A itself.
On December 28, Manstein had to order his forces back from the front to avoid encirclement himself. The Soviets smashed the Hungarians on the Don River on January 16, opening a 200-mile gap in the German lines. This allowed the Russians to threaten Army Group B and the remains of Army Group Don.
Hitler, in denial, finally had to admit that serious withdrawals had to be ordered in order to save his forces. Units of Army Group Don held open Rostov to allow Army Group A to retreat. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Soviets were moving fast, encircling two-thirds of the German Second Army. Army Group Don retreated into a pocket on the Taman Peninsula. Four hundred thousand men were immobilized.
Paulus was holding out in Stalingrad with less and less chance of withdrawal. Goering promised supply by air as long as Paulus held the six airfields in Stalingrad, but there were never enough transports, even with giant six-engined Me-323 transports. As the Sixth Army’s lines shrunk, the airfields were lost, and the supplies stopped.
Paulus could not hold out. Hitler promoted him to Feldmarschall on January 30, because no German Field Marshall had ever been made prisoner. The implication was that Paulus should commit suicide, but he surrendered on January 31. Some German units held out until February 6. 600,000 men had invaded Stalingrad; Paulus had 90,000 left at the time of his surrender.
Hitler allowed Manstein to consolidate his forces as the Soviet Offensive rolled on. He planned a counteroffensive, and as the Soviets reached their zenith on February 19, he attacked without waiting for reinforcements from Army Group A. He encircled several Red Army divisions and took Kharkov on March 11 and Belgorod on March 18. The Germans held the Donets River; the Soviets held a large pocket west of Kursk.
Stalingrad was a major victory for the Red Army and the Soviet Union. The linkup of Soviet Forces around Stalingrad was restaged for the cameras and shown around the world. The bitter war of attrition was horrific warfare for both sides. After Stalingrad, the Germans accelerated stripping occupied Europe of resources, human and material, to feed their now crippled war machine. Still capable of a murderous fight, the Soviets had only stopped the German offensive. They still had to win the initiative and go over to the offensive.
The next summer, the Germans would go on the offensive again, to eliminate the Kursk salient and destroy the Red Army once and for all. This new battle would be the greatest concentration of armor in history.