By Peter Antill
In the early stages of Operation Blau, Army Group South inflicted a severe defeat upon the Red Army and drove its decimated and dispirited armies eastwards. By August 1942, the decisive victory that had eluded the Germans in 1941 seemed to be within their grasp and yet, just a few months later, the strategic situation on the Eastern Front had been transformed. Even though in the original plan for Operation Blau, Stalingrad had only been a secondary objective to that of the oil in the Caucasus, the issuing of Führer Directive No. 45 had meant that the objectives for the campaign had widened to the point where the two component Army Groups, A and B, would find it impossible to support each other if difficulties arose. The two objectives had become equally important and had to be achieved simultaneously rather than sequentially. It also meant that Stalingrad was to be captured, rather than merely brought under fire as a means of cutting the Volga and the supply route for the Caucasian oil. Thus the struggle for the city came to have a greater and greater psychological significance for both sides as time went on, but it was the Soviets who recognized what effect this was having on their opponents and turned it to their advantage. With the end of the battle for Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht had suffered such a serious defeat that it was obvious to all that the strategic initiative had passed to the Soviet Union. German casualties in the battle for the city itself were just under 300,000 troops (around 35,000 wounded evacuated, almost 100,000 captured and around 150,000 killed), with another 300,000 casualties suffered by the remaining German forces of Army Groups A, B and Don.
Germany’s Axis allies also had high casualties, something which would have both immediate and longer term consequences. The losses incurred in Barbarossa had led the Germans to ask for additional Axis forces for the 1942 campaign. These forces had played a key role in manning quieter sections of the front and released German units to undertake offensive operations. The casualties suffered during the campaign meant that the Axis would be unable to support the Wehrmacht until they had rebuilt their forces. This would stretch German manpower resources to the limit. Italy suffered over 110,000 casualties which seriously undermined Mussolini’s domestic position. In 1943 the Western Allies brought the North African campaign to a successful conclusion and then began preparations to invade Sicily and Italy, resulting in Mussolini’s removal from power and an Italian surrender. The Rumanians suffered almost 160,000 casualties and had to rebuild their forces, while Hungary incurred some 143,000 casualties and was only able to field an army again in 1944. Just as the failure of Barbarossa had meant that the Germans no longer had the resources to conduct a campaign with all three Army Groups in 1942, so the failure of Blau meant that German offensive operations had to be limited to the Kursk salient in 1943. The disparity between German means and ends, which had been apparent at the start of Barbarossa, was now reaching a critical point. In addition, the move by the Western Allies onto the offensive in mid-1943, first in the Mediterranean and eventually in North-West Europe, meant that the German forces in the east could not depend on reserves being transferred from the west.
Immediately after the catastrophe on the Volga, the Soviets attempted to take advantage of the disruption to the German forces in the south by launching a series of offensives in southern Russia and eastern Ukraine. The overall objective was the destruction of von Manstein’s Army Group South, an amalgamation of Army Groups A, B and Don. The first Soviet offensive was Operation Gallop, undertaken by Vatutin’s Southwest Front. This was to advance west towards the lower Dnepr and the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Meanwhile, Golikov’s Voronezh Front was to undertake Operation Starand capture Kharkov, as well as move into the Ukraine on the northern flank of the Southwest Front. There was little time for any serious preparation as the offensive was designed to follow on as quickly as possible from the success at Stalingrad. At the same time, Zhukov and Vasilevsky planned a huge operation that was to be directed against Army Group Centre, a combination of the failed operationsMars and Jupiter that had been planned to take place at the same time as operations Uranus and Saturn. Rokossovsky’s Central Front (previously known as the Don Front) was to attack the German 2nd Army and 2nd Panzer Army along with the Bryansk Front and part of the Western Front. It would drive northwards from the area around Kursk towards Smolensk (the rear of Army Group Centre) and meet the remainder of the Western Front and the Kalinin Front, thereby trapping most of the army group. Unfortunately, Stavka underestimated the resilience and re-organisational skill of the Wehrmacht (and in particular von Manstein) and overestimated the capabilities of Fronts that were tired and in need of replacements (the Soviets having suffered well over a million casualties during Operation Blau). As the Soviet offensive got under way, von Manstein calculated that they were operating on over-extended supply lines and fostered the belief that things were going well by conceding Kharkov. At the same time, German forces that were previously in the Caucasus had withdrawn past Rostov and were concentrating in the Donbas region. On 19 February, von Manstein began his counteroffensive, led by the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, and by mid-March had severely damaged both the Southwest and Voronezh Fronts as well as forcing the Soviets to curtail the attack by Rokossovsky’s Central Front, which by that time had made deep inroads into the German 2nd Army. Thus von Manstein was able to stabilize the German position, although the Wehrmacht found itself in almost the same positions it had occupied before Operation Blau had begun. The fighting around Kharkov was followed by Operation Zitadelle in July 1943 where the Wehrmacht would commit a significant proportion of its armoured strength in order to pinch out the salient around Kursk in order to shorten and consolidate their line. The Soviets had received intelligence that this was what the Germans were planning and therefore constructed massive defensive lines in great depth in order to absorb the momentum of the attack after which they would counter-attack with their own armoured reserves. This they did and, after what has been called the greatest tank battle in history, went onto the offensive. The Wehrmacht remained a formidable force however and it would take almost another two years before the Red Army entered Berlin.
So why did the Wehrmacht, victorious in Western Europe, fail to defeat the Soviet Union in both operations Barbarossa and Blau, a failure that would lead to the catastrophe at Stalingrad? It has been argued that this failure to defeat the Soviet Union was due to the German approach to warfare and their fighting methods. During the Second World War, the Wehrmacht’s understanding of strategy still encompassed the nineteenth-century concept of Vernichtungsschlacht, which loosely translated means a strategic military victory in a single campaign. Having the ability to destroy an enemy army through tactical and operational excellence would quickly bring about victory at the strategic level and thus attain the political objectives of the war. During the inter-war period, the German Army learnt a number of lessons from its experiences in the First World War, but refused to believe that the Schlieffen Plan, itself a powerful example of the Vernichtungsschlacht, had failed because of tactical flaws in its execution, but rather that the British and French armies had failed to adopt a particular tactical approach.
The success of the German blitzkrieg between September 1939 and June 1941 seemed to justify the continued use of the Vernichtungsschlacht. In the campaign for the Low Countries and France, both sides were evenly matched in terms of personnel, tanks and aircraft, but in six weeks, the Wehrmacht achieved what the Imperial German Army could not in four years. The Wehrmacht succeeded in these early campaigns because the opposing armies could not counter the Germans’ use of manoeuvre warfare and so did not really provide a reliable test of German fighting prowess, tactics and techniques and therefore the concept of Vernichtungsschlacht itself. That the Germans believed it did, helps explain the failure of Barbarossa in 1941 and Blau in 1942.
In many circles, the development and employment of blitzkrieg constituted a revolutionary advance in the techniques of war, but for the Germans, who rarely used the term blitzkrieg itself, it was merely a new word used to describe already established fighting methods, albeit with new weapons. The German tactical approach to battle was again heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century concept of Kesselschlacht (roughly translated as a cauldron battle of annihilation) that was the practical approach to achieving a vernichtungsschlacht, on the field of battle. This, in effect, involved encircling the enemy army and destroying it. In the early years of the war, the Wehrmacht used the Kesselschlacht concept with great success, although in fact there was nothing that was particularly sophisticated about it. It therefore followed that the number of encirclement operations would depend on the size and skill of the opponent. The Wehrmacht concentrated on achieving tactical excellence through a combination of creativity, initiative, boldness and adaptability in conjunction with a thorough understanding of the value of mechanization, airpower, artillery, communications and manoeuvre in order to encircle and destroy the enemy. However, the scale of the pockets that were created in the Kesselschlachten during the campaign in the east caused problems in that the Germans had essentially two armies – a mechanized force, which formed the minority and an infantry force that formed the majority. The Panzer groups would need to undertake huge encircling movements in order to trap the Soviet armies and prevent them from escaping into the interior, but would have to wait until they had been reduced by the infantry with the support of the Luftwaffe before moving on, which would eventually hinder forward momentum as the Panzer groups quickly outran the infantry. A slower advance would allow the proper elimination of the pockets but might invite an attritional struggle that would favour the Soviet Union. The widespread mechanization of the Wehrmacht was impossible at that point and so the Germans gambled on achieving a complete victory before the problem became too serious. If it worked, a campaign in 1942 (which would have to face the same problem) would be irrelevant. That the gamble came so close to success was thanks to Stalin who did not allow the Red Army to trade space for time after Barbarossa had begun and so gave the Germans exactly what they had been hoping for.
The Germans failed to achieve victory over the Soviet Union because of its vast manpower and industrial resources as well as its ability to force the Germans into fighting an attritional battle over a particular objective, first at Moscow and then at Stalingrad. Also, the invasion of the Soviet Union and operations on the Eastern Front involved problems that the Germans had not really confronted in the early campaigns. These revolved around geography, distance, time and scale and their effects were increasingly felt during the campaigns of 1941 and 1942. Geographically, the Pripet Marshes dominated the western part of the Soviet Union so that operations in the south were isolated until the Wehrmacht had advanced into the Ukraine. The size of the Soviet Union and the distances involved also affected German operations and logistics. The Panzer force had suffered wear and tear during the battle for France but, as it was only some 200 miles from the Ardennes to the Atlantic coast, supporting the campaign was relatively easy. The distance from Warsaw to Moscow, however, is around 1,000 miles; from Leningrad to Rostov around 1,200 miles; and from Berlin to Stalingrad around 2,000 miles. Therefore supplies of food, ammunition and spare parts, fresh equipment and replacement personnel had to move much greater distances than before. The Russian climate limited mobile operations to between the months of May and November, so the time of year became important. All this, and the scale of operations that the Wehrmacht had to undertake, was greater than anything previously attempted in a country where the lack of a modern infrastructure hindered the logistic support of rapid mobile operations even under the most favourable of conditions.
Excerpted from Stalingrad 1942 by Peter Antill.
Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing.
PETER ANTILL has a background in international politics and defence studies, with a BA in International Relations from Staffordshire University and an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Having worked as a Research Assistant in the Department of Defence Management and Security Analysis at Cranfield from 1998 to 2002, Peter is now pursuing a career as a writer. His books include Stalingrad 1942, Berlin 1945: End of the Thousand Year Reich and Crete 1941: Germany’s Lightning Airborne Assault.
Tags: Stalingrad, WWII