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Posts Tagged ‘Operation Uranus’

“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.

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Case Blue, launched in late June of 1942, got off to a smashing start for both the Soviets and the German aggressors…sort of.  The Red Army got smashed a lot, and the Wehrmacht did a lot of smashing.

By mid-August, the Germans were knocking on the doors of Stalingrad, having reached the Volga River north of the city.  The Soviet armies, having spent a couple of months retreating to avoid the dreaded encirclement, now had their backs to a river a mile wide.

At this point, the fighting degenerated into a meat-grinder house-to-house battle.  General Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army drove into, and largely through, the city, with elements reaching the Volga to fire at the forces staged on the far side.  But Paulus and his men, while fully ensconced in the city, could not break through.

As the August heat gave way to the inevitable October cooldown, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov began preparing a massive counterattack.  Codenamed Operation Uranus, it involved a double encirclement, with large forces attacking across the Volga to both the south and north of Stalingrad.

The ultimate goal was to drive through the German flanks (protected by 170,000 Romanian troops) and trap the German 6th Army in the city.  But it was a massive undertaking to move the requisite men and supplies into place while still maintaining some form of secrecy.

General Paulus recognized that his flanks were weak and over-exposed and, on November 17, 1942, German reconnassaince discovered what appeared to be a Soviet buildup northwest of the city.  But still his troops were slashing the remnants of decimated Soviet 62nd Army.  The German press said that the battle for Stalingrad was in its final phase…

…until November 19, 1942.  At 7:30am, Uranus was launched with a massive artillery barrage.  More than a million men, nearly 1,500 tanks, and 900 aircraft crashed into Paulus’ Romanian flanks.  The Romanians put up a valiant effort, but were simply overwhelmed.

Zhukov’s Operation Uranus was a brilliant counterstroke, catching an over-extended army trapped in the rubble of a city.  What’s more, Paulus’ Sixth Army wasn’t allowed to retreat from their positions, forced to hold Stalingrad by Hitler, who had become obsessed with the river-side city.  In less than a week, the German Army would go from “the verge of victory” to trapped.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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Let’s head back to the Russian Front for just a couple minutes.  The German army, having been halted (and even pushed back a little) in the winter of 1941, came storming back the following spring.  Adolf Hitler’s generals recommended a renewed assault on Moscow, where victory had been just a few miles away the previous December.  Hitler instead focused on the oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains and Stalingrad, an important industrial city and Communist cultural center.

Operation Blue, begun in late June of 1942, was the result of the Fuhrer’s orders and met with tremendous initial success.  By late July, the German Sixth Army measured its distance to Stalingrad in the 10’s of miles.  On the other side, the Soviets were requiring soldiers to hold their positions in an attempt to slow down the enemy advance, while simultaneously moving as much food and machinery (and as many people as possible) out of Stalingrad and eastward across the Volga River.  But as we have seen before, the German machine would slow down some, just because of the vast distances required to keep troops supplied.

Still, the Germans managed to reach Stalingrad in force and, for the next five months, the city would be subjected to some of the most intense and most brutal fighting of the war.  Having nearly overrun the city, Stalingrad would become a giant German trap when, on October 19th, the Soviets would launch Operation Uranus, one of the most masterful encircling counterattacks ever.

The tide of the fight turned almost overnight, with the Germans now facing the nightmare of being surrounded.  Away from the front, military leaders begged Hitler to allow General Friedrich Paulus (shown above) to break out to the west and regroup with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group A.  Hitler steadfastly refused to give up an inch of Stalingrad, dooming an entire army to complete destruction.

On January’s penultimate day, with the situation in the city completely hopeless, Paulus was promoted to Field Marshal by Hitler.  And since no German Field Marshal had ever been captured alive, it was assumed that Paulus would fight to the death or simply shoot himself.

Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus did neither.  On January 31, 1943, he surrendered rather than see the annihilation of his forces.  Though the Battle of Stalingrad wouldn’t officially end for another two days, and sporadic fighting would continue for another month, more than 90,000 German soldiers would be taken into captivity, as would a Field Marshal.  Adolf Hitler’s forces had suffered the defeat from which they would not recover.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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