The Stalingrad Front





The Stalingrad Front’s line now stretched for 700 kilometres (almost 440 miles), so to make it more manageable it was divided on 5 August, Gordov retaining its northern half, the other becoming a new South-East Front under Colonel-General A. I. Yeremenko. Each had four armies (a Soviet army was roughly equivalent to a German Korps) and one air army, but their divisions were much below strength – on 22 July, for example, against a revised war establishment of just under 11,000, 19 of the Stalingrad Front’s 38 divisions had fewer than 3,000 men, and none of the others had more than 8,000.155 On 12 August Stalin sent Chief of General Staff Vasilevsky to coordinate the work of the two Fronts, and placed both under Yeremenko’s operational control. But on 23 August three divisions of the 14th Panzer Corps reached the Volga in Stalingrad’s northern outskirts, splitting the defences and cutting the 62nd Army off from the rest of Stalingrad Front, while bombers of Luftflotte IV made over 2,000 sorties, creating enormous destruction and panic in the city.

The next phase of the German plan called for the 14th Panzer Corps to thrust south to the city centre, while the 51st Corps was to drive due east from its bridgehead at Kalach to cut the 62nd and 64th Armies off from each other, and the IV Panzer Army was to come in from the south to complete the annihilation of the defenders. So seriously did Yeremenko take the threat, including the risk of the Germans getting across the Volga, that when engineer officers came to him on 23 August, to report completion of a pontoon bridge for bringing in supplies, he congratulated them and ordered them to destroy the bridge immediately. However, when the 14th Panzer Corps attacked south next day, Yeremenko’s hastily organised defenders, including the remnants of shattered units and companies of semi-trained factory workers, proved effective enough to stop them in the morning and drive them back 2 kilometres in the afternoon. On the 25th tanks and infantry of the 6th Army attempted to break into the city centre from the west, but were halted at the outskirts. Yeremenko then sought to cut off and destroy the 14th Panzer Corps units in the city’s north near the tractor factory, but several counter-attacks that he mounted on the 25th and 26th were beaten off. Only after the war did he find that they had worried the 14th Panzer Corps commander, General von Wietersheim, so much that he ordered a retreat, but was overruled by Army Group B’s commander, von Weichs.

On 27 August Stalin appointed Zhukov Deputy Supreme Commander, ordered him to go to Stalingrad as soon as possible, and told him three additional armies were being sent there. Zhukov first spent a day in the General Staff familiarising himself with the situation, then flew to Stalingrad on the 29th. Apart from two brief visits to Moscow, on 12-14 and 26-28 September, he stayed there till 3 October. The first Soviet attempt to relieve the situation at Stalingrad was by a southward push from north of the city by three armies newly arrived from reserve. Stalin ordered the first of these, 1st Guards, to attack southwards from Loznoye on 2 September, to drive the Germans away from the Volga, link up with the 62nd Army, and provide cover for the deployment of the other two armies (24th and 66th), which were also to be put into action immediately, `otherwise we will lose Stalingrad’. However, Zhukov found on arrival that the forces could not be concentrated and supplied in time to attack before 6 September. He reported accordingly to Stalin, and so did Vasilevsky, who returned to Moscow on 1 September. However, on 2 September, influenced by pessimistic reports from Yeremenko about the exhausted condition of his units in the city, Stalin ordered all three armies to attack not later than the 5th. They complied, but five days of inadequately prepared and supplied attacks brought large losses for little gain; however, they tied up substantial German forces that otherwise might have been sent against Yeremenko, and may thus have saved the city’s defenders from being overrun. The attritional damage they inflicted can be illustrated by the figures of tank strengths of two of the divisions involved in repelling the Soviet September offensive. In early July the 60th Motorised Infantry Division had 57 tanks and the 16th Panzer Division 100. On 18 November they had 21 and 31 respectively.

On 12 September Zhukov flew back to Moscow and reported to Stalin, who asked him what additional forces the Stalingrad Front needed in order to liquidate the German `corridor’ and join up with the South-East Front. Zhukov replied, `as a minimum one more full-strength army, a tank corps, three tank brigades, and not less than 400 howitzers . . . and for the period of the operation not less than one air army’. Vasilevsky endorsed Zhukov’s view, and Stalin reached for the map that showed the locations of Stavka Reserves. While he was studying it, Zhukov and Vasilevsky moved away, and began talking in low voices of the need to find `some other solution’. The acuteness of Stalin’s hearing surprised them; he asked `What other solution?’ and continued, `Go to the General Staff and do some good thinking about what must be undertaken in the Stalingrad area. What forces, and from where, can be redeployed to reinforce the Stalingrad grouping, and at the same time think about the Caucasus front too. We’ll meet here again at nine o’clock tomorrow evening.’

That day, 12 September, was notable for two other events. Colonel- General Friedrich Paulus, commanding 6th Army, met Hitler at Vinnitsa to discuss plans for taking Stalingrad. This was not militarily necessary – the passage of oil tankers could be blocked by artillery from positions on the Volga’s west bank north and south of the city, and by aircraft from several nearby airfields – but the capture of `Stalintown’ had become an obsession with Hitler because of the political symbolism of its name. On the same day General Vassiliy Chuikov was appointed to command 62nd Army, defending the ruins of the city. It was in dire straits; Chuikov wrote in his memoirs that its three armoured brigades had only one serviceable tank between them, its infantry divisions were worn down to about a battalion each, and the only units even near full strength were two infantry brigades and a division of NKVD (Interior Ministry) troops, with no tanks, field or anti-tank guns, and with a commander initially not disposed to take orders from an army officer. Chuikov even had difficulty finding his headquarters, and when he eventually located it, he found his Chief of Staff, Major-General Krylov, berating the army’s tank commander for the unauthorised movement of his headquarters to the Volga bank, behind that of the army on the Mamayev Kurgan, the dominant hill in the city centre. Chuikov gave him until 4 a. m. to move his headquarters forwards, and warned him that any repetition would be treated as treason and desertion (for which he would be shot). The tank commander complied, but a few days later he and his counterparts commanding the engineers and artillery pleaded illness and removed themselves to the east bank. Chuikov did not say what action he took against them.

Chuikov was immediately faced with another crisis. He spent 13 September planning a counter-offensive, to start on the next day, and designed to drive the Germans back out of artillery range of the central landing stage on the Volga, the main point for reinforcements and supplies arriving and wounded departing. However, this was forestalled by a German offensive that began at 6.30 a. m. on the 14th; directed at central Stalingrad from north and south, it involved two panzer and four infantry divisions, one of them motorised, and included an artillery bombardment of the Mamayev Kurgan so intensive as to render Chuikov’s command post there untenable. He went to the east bank and crossed back to a purpose-built command centre known as the Tsaritsa bunker, which was not only much safer than the dugouts on the Mamayev Kurgan, but also had far superior communications. Unfortunately he could occupy it for only three days because the Germans advanced into the Tsaritsa river valley to within machine-gun range of the bunker, and he had to move to improvised dugouts on the Volga bank, below some oil tanks that were assumed to be empty, but were later found to be full when German aircraft succeeded in setting them on fire. The defence of Stalingrad need not be detailed here but a few points are worth noting.

Morale in the 62nd Army had been badly affected by the prolonged retreats, and was temporarily worsened even further by Chuikov’s decision to evacuate his heavy artillery to the east bank. This was militarily entirely justifiable, since they would still be well within range for firing on targets in the city with spotters there to direct their fire, and it would be far easier for them to work the guns and receive ammunition. However, the sight of them departing convinced some of the troops that the city was about to be abandoned. Discipline began to break down as troops started to refuse to obey orders and officers abandoned their men, and plans to bring the 13th Guards Division across during the hours of darkness had to be given up as by then there might be nowhere to land them. Instead elements of the division began to cross in the late afternoon of 13 September under improvised smokescreens that did little to conceal them from the prowling aircraft of Luftflotte IV. Over half the troops did not survive the crossing, but those who did went straight into action with extreme determination, recaptured the Mill, one of the main buildings overlooking the crossing, and drove the Germans back, enabling the rest of the division to cross during the night. On the 16th one of its regiments recaptured the Mamayev Kurgan, and that boosted the defenders’ morale.

There had never been a battle of such scale and duration in a large city, so there were few precedents for either side to draw on. Chuikov, with some advice from Rodimtsev, who had experienced street fighting in the Spanish Civil War, reorganised the 62nd Army into combat groups combining infantrymen, machine gunners and sappers, with each group capable of defending or seizing a building. Chuikov ascribed this idea’s origin to noticing during the fighting at the Don bend that German success depended heavily on excellent coordination between three elements – aircraft, tanks and infantry – not, as he asserted, of especially high quality individually. He observed that the tanks did not advance until the aircraft had pounded the Soviet positions, and the infantry did not go forwards until the tanks had reached their objectives. He also felt the German infantry disliked fighting at close quarters, noting that they often opened fire with their automatic weapons when well out of range. Whether or not this last observation was justified, he concluded that the best way to break the chain would be to keep his troops so close to the Germans that they could not use their aircraft, field artillery or tank guns for fear of hitting their own men. The infantry would then have to engage in the close combat he believed them to dislike, against Soviet soldiers who had not been demoralised beforehand by air or tank attacks or artillery bombardment.

What Chuikov had observed was, of course, the standard German procedure that had served them so well in all their campaigns, and know – ledge of it should not only have emerged from Soviet study of those campaigns but have been prescribed for Soviet generalship, because the Red Army’s inability to match the Germans’ skill in coordinating different arms of service was among the main reasons for its early disasters. Although the Soviet air forces were regarded as part of the army, whereas the Luftwaffe was independent, Soviet skill in air support of ground operations did not begin to match German levels until mid- 1943. Chuikov’s statement that he derived his understanding of German methods only by personal observation suggests that even well into the second year of war dissemination to Soviet field commanders of know – ledge about the enemy’s modus operandi was still inadequate. That deficiency was partly remedied by Stalin’s Order no. 325, which discussed the reasons for past failures and specified the roles for tanks and mechanised infantry. It was to be read by all officers down to company commanders but it was not issued till 16 October, and would be in – applicable in the special conditions obtaining at Stalingrad, where the opposing sides were often in adjacent buildings or even adjacent rooms. However, it showed that German methods were being studied, and it would become increasingly relevant as Soviet mechanised forces increased in numbers and size up to tank armies.

Chuikov propagated his doctrine under the slogan `Every German must feel he is living under the muzzle of a Russian gun’. The corollary, that every Russian would then be living under the muzzle of a German gun, did not need to be stated; the troops were so aware of the fact that much would depend on sustaining morale, and here sticks and carrots, especially in relation to senior officers, had to be combined.

The German army on the whole observed the convention that a general should share the fate of his troops, but until then the Red Army had taken the pragmatic view that even beaten generals were better than none at all, and regularly made special efforts to rescue them even while abandoning their troops. Chuikov took steps to sustain morale by visiting front-line positions regularly, talking to the troops there, ensuring that his chief subordinates did the same, maintaining his command post in the city rather than on the east bank (except for a brief period on 14-15 October, when all his communications had been destroyed and the Germans were only 300 metres away) and having those who put their own safety ahead of their duties removed – in some cases undoubtedly shot. Using a combination of barbed wire, trenches linking the larger and stronger buildings, and the gunfire of the heavy artillery deployed on the east bank, directed by spotters located on upper storeys or roofs, the 62nd Army built an integrated defence system that was – just – strong enough to keep the Germans busy in the city from mid-September to mid-November. The `carrots’ included rewards, medals and publicity for acts of daring and self-sacrifice, the `sticks’ the threat of being shot or dispatched to a penal unit. The 62nd Army could reasonably be described as exhibiting `mass heroism’, but between them the four armies (from south to north the 51st, 57th, 64th and 62nd) of the Stalingrad Front involved in the defensive battle shot 13,500 of their own men for cowardice or desertion, and dispatched unknown numbers of lesser offenders to penal units or prison.

By the end of September almost all of the 62nd Army’s original complement had been killed, captured or wounded, and six infantry divisions and a tank brigade had been ferried across the Volga to replace them. On the German side Hitler’s demands that Army Group B take Stalingrad had prompted von Weichs during September to remove some of his stronger units from the Don Front’s sector into the city, replacing them by units `burnt out’ by fighting there and by Romanian 3rd Army elements, which were less well equipped and certainly less motivated than even their `burnt-out’ German counterparts. To Soviet advantage it would be these that bore the first brunt of the imminent counteroffensive.

Although the Soviets did not know it, events within the German High Command were also working in their favour. On 9 September Hitler, dissatisfied with Army Group A’s slow progress into the Caucasus, dismissed Field-Marshal List and took command of it himself. On the 24th he sacked Halder as Chief of General Staff of OKH and replaced him with Zeitzler, who had none of the status and respect that the field commanders had accorded his predecessor. He also quarrelled with Keitel and Jodl, the heads of OKW, and rumours spread that both were to be dismissed. In the event neither was, but rumours that Paulus would replace Jodl after taking Stalingrad may have been among the factors that prompted Paulus, whose previous career had been almost entirely as a staff officer, to make renewed efforts during October; whether or not this was so, he was in any case bound by an Army Group B order of 6 October, which emphasised that Hitler had defined the complete capture of Stalingrad as its most important task, and that therefore all available forces should be used to fulfil it. During October repeated German attacks were mounted, giving Paulus control over nine-tenths of the city area, and reducing the 62nd Army’s tenure to two strips along the Volga bank, neither more than a few hundred metres wide and both under constant artillery fire. Casualties on both sides were heavy, but Paulus’s were harder to replace. The final German attack, on 11 November, reached the river at a point south of the Barricades factory, splitting the 62nd Army into three sectors but unable to dislodge any of them.

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