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The battle of stalingrad, which pitted the German and Soviet armies between August 1942 and January 1943, is considered a turning point of the second world war. Become a symbol, this battle is one of the most significant episodes in the military history of the 20th century. This titanic fight in which the belligerents engaged considerable means ended with a decisive victory for the Soviets which stopped the advance of the German armies in the Soviet Union. A stinging setback for the Axis powers, it was a precious psychological victory for the Allies.
The Blue Plan and the 6th Army
Since the invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941 (Operation Barbarossa) and the initial successes of the German army, the front stabilized in December 1941. In the spring of 1942, the German army had not yet withdrawn. recovery from the terrible fighting of the previous winter. Yet Hitler, who knows that time is on his side, decides to launch a summer offensive against the Soviets. Its objective will be to deal a mortal blow to the USSR, by allowing (an old obsession of the Führer) to seize or neutralize the oil wells of the Caucasus (Maikop, Grozny and Baku). To do this, the Army High Command (OKH) is developing the Blue Plan (Fall Blau).
This plan grants an offensive mission only to Army Group South, which will have to operate according to the method which has so far been so successful for the Germans. Tanks and tactical aviation open the way, devastate the rear, ravage enemy logistics and command centers, the infantry follows and destroys the cauldrons thus created. The chosen terrain is that of the steppes and plains of southern Russia, from the Donets to the Volga, a vast charodrome where the German mechanical formations should be able to express their full power.
The Blue Plan must be implemented in several phases:
A: Two preliminary operations, the cleansing of Crimea by the 11th Army of Von Manstein, and the reduction of the Izium Salient by the 6th Army and the 1st Armored Army.
I: Two pincers from Kursk and Belgorod will surround the Soviet forces in the region of Voronezh on the Don.
II: New encirclement of Soviet forces in the Millerovo region between Donets and Don. The engaged forces must then follow this river, towards the south.
III: 3 armies to the south of the device must charge east towards the Volga and join the forces engaged for phase II in the vicinity of the city of Stalingrad. The plan states "In all cases, we must try to reach Stalingrad or, at the very least, to place this city under the action of our heavy weapons, in order to eliminate it as a center of armaments and communication. The capture of Stalingrad is not an objective in itself, it is rather a matter of cutting off river traffic on the Volga and protecting the northern flank from the armies engaged in phase IV.
B: After completing the three previous phases and thus destroying the bulk of the Red Army apparatus in southern Russia, German forces will march on the Caucasus. This objective is assigned to Army Group A (from Army Group South) which is to launch a motorized raid over 1000km to Baku. Another split from Army Group South, Army Group B will act as sentries on the northern flank along the Don and Volga rivers. The Stalingrad sector is assigned to the 6th Army.
The latter is an extremely powerful formation, from September 1942 it will even be the most powerful of the German Army (Heer). Then composed of 4 corps it includes 11 Infantry and Light Infantry Divisions (Hunters), 2 Motorized Divisions, 2 Armored Divisions (plus elements of another) and nearly 1000 pieces of artillery including many rocket launchers multiple.
It is commanded by General Paulus, a Hessian born in 1890 into a family of small civil servants. Joined the army in 1910, this very tall (1m93) although obscure lieutenant, entered aristocratic circles by marrying a Romanian nobleman. This marriage will open many doors for him. Fragile in constitution, it was used in general staff offices throughout WW1. He was then seen as a gentleman, affable and measured, an over-perfectionist and a good tactician. Hitler’s coming to power and the remilitarization of Germany gave his career a real boost.
In 1935 he succeeded Guderian in the role of chief of staff for the motorized troops. General in 1939 and Chief of Staff of the 6th Army, it was he who received the surrender of the Belgian army on May 28, 1940. After the campaign in France, he was one of the army's most prominent officers. of land and becomes Quartermaster General. He will be one of the leading thinkers of Operation Barbarossa. On January 5, 1942 he took the head of the 6th Army. He who has never directly commanded any brigade is now at the head of the pride of the army ...
The failure of the Blue Plan
On June 28, 1942 the execution of the Blue Plan began, the German army had 4 months to seize the oil wells in the Caucasus. Opposite the German forces: a Soviet device certainly powerful, but secondary in Stalin's mind to the units engaged in the Moscow region. The Soviet leader fears that the Germans will try once again to surround his capital, this time from the south. He considers the German preparations for the Caucasus as a diversion. As a result, the progress of the first three phases of the Blue Plan is a relative success for the Germans.
As of July 25, they control Rostov (the gateway to the Caucasus) and are only a hundred kilometers from Stalingrad. However, on closer inspection, a German victory is far from certain. The Wehrmacht, which is no longer that of 1941, suffers from a serious shortage of manpower and logistics are struggling to keep up with the mad rush of the armored divisions. Unlike the campaigns of 1941, Soviet units succeeded better and better in evading German encirclements and inflicting heavy losses on the Heer, especially in urban combat.
Insidiously, the course of the campaign and the hesitations of the German generals prompted Hitler to invest more in the conduct of operations, even if it means going back to the main directions of the Blue Plan. Subject to constant stress, the Führer, despite his solid strategic intuition, remains an amateur on the military level and gradually loses his sense of reality.
It was already clear at the end of July 1942 that the German forces were not in a position to conquer both the Caucasus and to protect the northern flank (along the Don and the Volga) from the forces engaged there. Hitler, who refuses to stop the offensive, therefore decides to cut Army Group B of some of its resources to strengthen Army Group A.
The 6th Army, which had to secure the Stalingrad region, found itself having to manage a larger front (about 300 km) with fewer troops. His fuel supply is also reduced, further slowing his progress towards his goal.
At the same time, the Soviets began to set up a defensive device around Stalingrad. Stalin understood that holding the city would allow him to threaten the flank of the German offensive in the Caucasus. Thus constituting a point of fixation will give the Red Army the time necessary to prepare for a counter-offensive.
The Stalingrad front, created on July 12, will already line up 8 days later 187,000 men, 7,900 artillery pieces and 360 tanks. The defense of the city falls mainly to the 62nd army soon commanded by Vassili Tchouikov.
A peasant by origin, a soldier like his 7 brothers, this brutally mannered and bottle-necked officer knows how to stay close to his soldiers. In many ways he is the exact opposite of Paulus. Instinctive and daring, he doesn't mind the doubts that frequently plague his German opponent. This instinct can be counted on an exceptional chief of staff: Krylov, an expert in urban combat famous for his calm.
The Battle of Stalingrad
Originally a mere secondary objective, the capture of Stalingrad eventually imposed itself on Hitler as a priority. Noting that his forces engaged in the Caucasus may not be able to achieve victory, he hopes at least to seize this large armament center, which controls the Soviet supply routes from north to south, along the Volga. . In addition to these logistical and industrial considerations, there is a psychological and political factor. The propaganda of the Second Reich called for victories, and what a brilliant victory would be the capture of the city which bears the name of Stalin!
A Stalin who also understood the importance of the city and who was ready to sacrifice a large number of men there. The advance of the 6th Army towards Stalingrad is slow and difficult. In addition to fierce Soviet resistance, there were numerous logistical problems and Paulus’s hesitation. The Luftwaffe (and in particular Von Richthofen's 4th air fleet), however weakened, provided maximum effort. On August 23 it even destroyed a large part of the city (killing several tens of thousands of civilians), turning it into a field of ruins. Ruins in which the Soviet soldier will know how to fight admirably ...
The German attack on the city began on September 13, 1942. The bulk of the fighting was concentrated on a front of ten kilometers as the crow flies. Paulus assigned his troops two main objectives:
1 / The Mamaïev Kurgan, an artificial hill (an old Scythian burial) 102 meters high which gives an excellent view of the Volga and the northern part of the city (the district of the large factories)
2 / The central landing stage on the Volga which is the main route for reinforcements and supplies for the Soviet armies fighting in the city center (62nd and 64th armies).
Paulus, familiar with large motorized operations in the open countryside, attempted to apply their methods to quite different terrain. At first, the deluge of fire that fell on the Soviets seemed destined to break all resistance. Chouikov, who repeatedly fails to be killed, even thinks the city lost.
However, in street fights, among the rubble, in cellars and on the floors of half-collapsed buildings, the Soviet soldier showed a great capacity for resistance. Whole battalions clash for a block or a factory in a deadly ballet. In one week, the station district changes hands 15 times! German tanks are proving vulnerable to mines, improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guns. The snipers of each camp compete in daring and we can no longer count the stabs carried out with knives ...
After two months of merciless battle, marked by incredible sacrifices (some Soviet divisions disappear in 24 hours) Paulus holds 90% of the city. Chouikov's 62nd army no longer numbered in mid-November 1942 more than 47,000 men and 19 tanks and was split into three groups. The central landing stage and the Mamaïev Kurgan still hold, but the units defending them are decimated and exhausted. The sanitary conditions are appalling, hundreds of wounded are dying without hope of treatment and the ammunition is almost exhausted.
Stalingrad seems doomed and yet Chuikov knows she will not fall. Indeed on the 19th will begin Operation Uranus ...
Uranus and the encirclement of the 6th Army
Operation Uranus is the Red Army's major counteroffensive for 1942. It was conceived in September 1942 and benefited from high-quality methodical planning. In many ways, it evokes the grand style offensives of the Wehrmacht. It is a double encirclement (north and south) of the German forces engaged in Stalingrad, with great reinforcement of artillery, tanks and air force.
Georgi Zhukov, the architect of this operation, succeeded in two months in achieving an exceptional tour de force. It concentrated around a million men, 900 tanks, 13,500 artillery pieces and more than a thousand aircraft in the area devoted to the operation and all while concealing its intentions from the Wehrmacht. German intelligence, despite numerous warnings, refused to believe in the success of a Soviet offensive.
And yet, where the bulk of the Soviet attack falls, the axis defenses are extremely weak. The 6th Army, by order of Hitler, is still engaged in the fighting in Stalingrad, and its flanks are held by formations of questionable defensive capabilities. The Soviets' initial efforts will be directed against Romanian divisions whose soldiers are poorly equipped and less motivated than their German counterparts. These formations hold large sectors, out of proportion to the weakness of their anti-tank resources.
At 7:30 am Moscow time, upon receipt of the code word "Siren", an 80-minute bombardment begins to fall on the positions of the Romanian IIIrd Army (7 divisions), which protects the northern flank of the 6th armed with Paulus. At 8.50 am, three Soviet armies launched an assault on the Romanian lines severely shaken by the previous deluge of fire (which was said to have been heard 100 km away). At the end of the day 27,000 Romanian soldiers will have been taken prisoner, and the Germans will have already lost the remains of the 22nd Armored Division, sent to the Romanians' rescue. Just three days later, the two pincers of the Soviet encirclement meet at Kalatch, imprisoning Paulus’s army in a pocket just over 60 kilometers wide. In total, 260,000 men (including 9,500 Romanians), 140 armored personnel carriers and some 1,250 guns were trapped.
Paulus’s army, at great sacrifice, has managed to maintain control of several airfields upon which its supplies depend. However, she is already no longer fit for anything other than defense. Gasoline is running out, tanks are stationary and ammunition is scarce. The 6th Army cut off from its rear and its depots, is completely devoid of logistics. This situation immediately condemns any attempt at an autonomous exit to failure. Paulus has to hold on until someone comes to help him free.
The Agony of the German 6th Army
Hitler is indeed confident in the resistance capacities of the surrounded troops. Luftwaffe chief Goering assured him that an airlift could supply the 6th Army. Even Marshal Von Manstein, called to the rescue by the Fuhrer, is optimistic. After all, hadn't the Luftwaffe managed to save the Demiansk pocket where 100,000 German soldiers were trapped the previous winter?
The 6th Army had to hold on thanks to the airlift, while Manstein was responsible for gathering the forces necessary for its release.
The airlift, however, turns out to be a disaster. The Luftwaffe would have to deliver 350 tonnes to the Sixth Army every day for the latter to hold up. Goering's men will barely reach an average of one hundred tons a day. There are not enough transport planes, maintenance does not follow and the region's airfields are too small. As for the Soviets, they fiercely defend the skies around Stalingrad with the help of a powerful DCA.
So the situation of the troops within the pocket is worsening day by day. Hunger grips the soldiers, who in addition to saving their ammunition must contend with the harsh Russian winter. Frostbite and disease decimated units engaged in the face of increasingly daring Soviet troops.
As for Manstein’s clearance operation, known as the "Wintergewitter", it does not look good. The plan is simple and brutal. The 4th Armored Army must jostle the Soviet troops guarding the southwest of the pocket while at the same time the 6th Army must engage its mobile forces against them, while holding its positions elsewhere.
Hitler did not intend to abandon Stalingrad but rather to hold it with the aid of a corridor, since it was to serve as a starting point for the offensive he planned in 1943. Manstein opposed this vision, preferring a withdrawal of the 6th army from the city. Convinced that he would succeed in convincing Hitler of the correctness of his views in the heat of the moment, he launched Operation "Winter Storm" on December 12.
Although during the early days the German armored forces enjoyed great success, Manstein understood that the operation was doomed to failure. The Soviets launched Operation Saturn on December 16. The latter hit the left flank of Manstein's forces and could lead to their encirclement. The Marshal's ambition is to save his own troops in order to avoid an even greater disaster.
The Battle of Stalingrad, a turning point in the war
Paulus, undermined by his failure to take over the city and like his men weakened by deprivation, did not know, could not, or dared not attempt a forcible exit. This, if ever it could have been successful, could only have been achieved by abandoning the positions so dearly won in Stalingrad, which Hitler absolutely refused. The men of the 6th Army who are starving (all the horses in the army having been eaten by that date) are now condemned.
Their ordeal will last even more than a month. German units will try to resist the Soviet coup de grace: Operation Koltso. Little by little, the divisions of the 6th Army retreated, giving up control of the airfields which linked them to the outside world. Hitler and Manstein who know that the situation is hopeless, urge Paulus and his men to hold out as long as possible. Their sacrifice must immobilize many Soviet forces and allow time for the German troops engaged further south to withdraw, and escape encirclement.
In order to push Paulus to refuse any capitulation Hitler, even grants him the staff of marshal. He hopes to lead him to suicide (so far no Feldmarshall has ever surrendered) and thus galvanize his troops. Troops who are nothing more than specters in rags, who already and on their own initiative, surrender to the Soviets ...
On January 31, 1943 Paulus, who had not been in charge of operations for a week, surrendered. In fact, in the midst of the depression, he did not even participate in the surrender negotiations, led by subordinates determined to save what might still be. The Red Army takes more than 100,000 prisoners. The latter were taken to and then interned in internment camps in appalling conditions. 17,000 died in February 1943, only 5,000 would one day return to Germany. The Red Army would not even have had enough to feed them properly ...
A mythical fight and mythologized by Soviet propaganda, Stalingrad’s victory immediately had a worldwide impact. National disaster for the Germans, it has long been considered a turning point in the Second World War. Yet after this the Wehrmacht will hold out for another 26 long months against the Red Army. Proof if there is that despite its extremely serious nature, it could not on its own constitute a turning point in the war.
Nevertheless, it was in the destroyed streets of the city, by the torrents of blood which had been shed in its defense, by the wonders deployed to surround the 6th Army there that the Soviet forces learned the cruel lessons necessary for their final victory.
• Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad, Editions de Fallois, 1999.
• Jean Lopez, Stalingrad, the battle on the edge of the abyss, Economica editions, Coll. Campaigns & strategies, 2008
- The great battles: The battle of Stalingrad. Documentary, DVD, TF1 Editions, 2005.
- Stalingrad by jean-Jacques Annaud. Fiction, DVD, Pathé, 2002.