“Fortress Stalingrad” had a grandiose sound to it, but the title was deceiving. German General Friedrich Paulus knew that his 6th Army was in serious trouble. What a difference 5 days made! Back then he believed his Soviet enemies had their backs against the proverbial wall and that Stalingrad was nearly his.
But a massive Soviet counterattack was rapidly changing the situation. Launched in the dim morning hours of November 19th, Operation Uranus crashed into the weakened German flanks with devastating effect. By the end of that first day, the Romanians (manning the flanks) had suffered more than 55,000 casualties. The next day saw the 1st Romanian Armoured Division eliminated and the 22nd Panzer Army badly mauled.
The flanks largely collapsed, leaving the Soviets only modest resistance on their path to encirclement. Paulus, seeing a horrific disaster unfolding to his back (the west), released his own 3 Panzer divisions, but a lack of fuel and ammunition – keep in mind that supply lines, which were incredibly long, came from the west – made their efforts much less effective.
On November 23, 1942, Paulus’ nightmare became reality when Soviet forces, which had stepped off from both north and south of the city, met up at Sovietskiy, 30 miles west of Stalingrad. The encirclement, although tenuous, was complete. What was left of the Romanian Third Army (more than 25,000 men) was forced to surrender…the Romanians suffered nearly 90,000 total casualties in four days of brutal fighting.
Inside the pocket lay Stalingrad, General Paulus, and his forces. They comprised remnants of the Romanian Fourth Army, the Fourth Panzer, and (of course) the German Sixth Army…nearly 270,000 men. It was at this point that Paulus stood his best chance of escape from his “trap on the Volga”. Soviet forces had yet to consolidate their positions, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was pushing to reinforce the destroyed flanks, and Paulus still commanded a formidable force with substantial artillery. A breakout, while not anything close to victory, would have prevented certain destruction.
But it was at this point that the German High Command did itself in. Hermann Goering foolishly boasted that his Luftwaffe could keep Fortress Stalingrad supplied from the air…even though Wolfram von Richthofen’s 4th Air Fleet only had half the aircraft it needed. And Adolf Hitler, blinded to all reality but the now vanishing hope of capturing Stalingrad, bought Goering’s plan and ordered Paulus to hold his ground. One can almost hear Goering’s arrogant assurance and the remaining Generals giving each other those fleeting glances of dismay.
However, in speaking of the German failures, one should not minimize Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s genius in launching Uranus. I’ve mentioned Chris Bellamy’s book Absolute War on several occasions, and he is effusive in his praise…and rightly so.
He writes, “Along with the Carthaginians’ encirclement and annihilation of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, Zhukov’s destruction of the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939, and Schwarzkopf’s Hail Mary of 1991, it was from a purely military point of view one of the greatest encirclements of history. But its staggering scale, in spatial and human terms, especially given the very thin margins available to the Soviet High Command, and its strategic and political consequences must make it the greatest encirclement of all time.”
Experts may argue over the “greatest”, but the Soviet linkup at Sovietskiy set in motion the most significant defeat in the 4-year Russo-German war…probably the biggest defeat for Germany in the entire war.