Background to the Stalingrad Pocket – Prelude to Uranus

From the WWII database site History site:

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

The southern Russian city of Stalingrad was a major industrial city, producing tanks, among other equipment, for the Soviet war effort. In terms of location, the city sat on the flank of the route toward the oil fields in the Caucasus region, while it was also a major transportation center between northern Russia and the Caspian Sea. Finally, the mere fact that it bore the name of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave more the reason for Adolf Hitler to conquer the city for morale reasons.
In the summer of 1942, German, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Croatian forces, organized as the German Army Group South (B), which contained the 6th Army under Colonel General Friedrich Paulus and the 4th Panzer Army under Hermann Hoth, marched toward Stalingrad.

The initial attacks were very successful, thus Hitler transferred the 4th Panzer Army away from the Stalingrad offensive to join Army Group South (A), which was moving toward the Caucasus oil fields. This move, however, caused major traffic jams on the inadequate road systems of Russia, slowing the offensive plans upwards of a week. With this delay in mind, Hitler changed his mind and re-assigned the 4th Panzer Army back into Army Group South (B) for Stalingrad.
By the end of Jul 1942, the Germans had forced their way across the Don River. At this point, the Germans began deploying Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Croatian forces on their northern flank, leaving the attack of Stalingrad to the German forces. The only exception was the Croatian 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment, which fought alongside the German 100th Jaeger Division.
Stalin recognized the threat to Stalingrad and appointed Marshal Andrey Yeryomenko on 1 Aug 1942 as the commanding officer of the Southeastern Front to plan the defense. Political commissar Nikita Khrushchev was assigned to assist Yeryomenko.
Among the first orders Yeryomenko issued was to move the city’s grain, cattle, and railroad cars east across the Volga River. Then, he organized the Soviet units immediately to the east of the Volga River into the 62nd Army, which was later placed in command of Lieutenant General Vasiliy Chuikov on 11 Sep 1942.
The first attacks on the city came in the form of aerial strikes conducted by the German Luftflotte 4 under the command of Colonel General Wolfram von Richthofen, targeting shipping on the Volga River and known defensive fortifications. Between 25 and 31 Jul, 32 Soviet ships were sunk on the river, and a further 9 were seriously damaged. As for the city, it received about 1,000 tons of bombs, which damaged about 80% of its structures.
As the oil tanks exploded and their contents spilled, “[t]orrents of burning oil and petrol flowed into the Volga until the river itself was in flames…. Stalingrad became a gigantic pile of ruins and debris stretching along the banks of the Volga.” On 23 Aug, a massive air bombardment caused a firestorm that killed thousands. The Soviet Air Force was generally ineffective in countering the aerial attacks. By 31 Aug, only 192 aircraft were operable, and only 57 of them were fighters.
Despite German air superiority and the heavy bombardments, however, some of the factories continued their work, turning out tanks and war supplies until they could no longer do so, and at that time the workers were conscripted into the Soviet Army.
By the end of Aug, the German Army Group South (B) had reached the Volga River north of Stalingrad. By 1 Sep, the Soviet forces could only reinforce the city by crossing the river as the city was now surrounded on three sides. Meanwhile, river crossings continued to be subjected to German attacks, now both by air and by artillery pieces. To preserve the strength of the Soviet regulars, Chuikov deployed women and conscripted civilians as the first line of defense. A post-engagement report written by an officer of the German 16th Panzer Division noted that the fight to silent 37 anti-aircraft batteries (used in anti-tank roles) was difficult, and he was shocked to find out afterwards that they were crewed by women.
In the morning of 5 Sep, the Soviet 24th Army and 66th Army launched a counter-offensive against the German XIV Panzer Corps, but it was driven back at the face of superior firepower, particularly from the air, which destroyed 30 out of the 120 tanks that the Soviet forces lost in the attack. On 18 Sep, the Soviet 1st Guards Army and the 24th Army launched an offensive against VIII. Armeekorps at Kotluban near Stalingrad. Again, German Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers played an important role in repulsing the attack, destroying 41 out of the 106 Soviet tanks destroyed in the morning; Bf 109 fighters also shot down 77 Soviet fighters during the engagement. By the end of Sep, Chuikov had realized that he could not sustain a battle of attrition, thus he decided to dig in to the cityscape, thus minimizing the German advantage of the control of air.
Additionally, he also developed the “hugging” tactic which kept his front lines very close to the German lines; this also deprived the Germans of the ability to use dive bombers to support the ground troops due to the risk of hitting German troops.
Back on 28 Jul 1942, Stalin had issued the Order Number 227, disallowing defending Soviet troops to take even a step back. Khrushchev and other political commissars dispatched to Stalingrad were those who policed this order. All who withdrew from the front lines were considered deserters and cowards, and they were brought before a military tribunal, which usually delivered death sentences or transferred the accused to penal battalions.
There were also incidences where deserters were shot on the spot. Even as the battle fought on and more and more of the city slowly turned into rubble, Stalin continued to also forbid the civilians from evacuating; instead, they were ordered to join the fight or to help construct defensive structures. Any civilian discovered to be evacuating the city in secret, like their military counterparts, were also in violation of Order Number 227.
The battle for Stalingrad turned into bitter street fighting by this time. Every building was turned into Soviet fortresses, and even the sewer tunnels became battlegrounds. The railroad station became the scene of ferocious combat; on a particularly violent day, the marshalling yards exchanged hands 14 times within six hours, with the Germans finally capturing it only because the Soviet unit deployed there had been completely wiped out. At an apartment building at the edge of a square in the city center, Yakov Pavlov’s platoon defended against waves after waves of German attacks.
The German efforts to capture this apartment building was so costly that the Germans marked the building as a fortress on their field maps, while the Soviets nicknamed it “Pavlov’s House”. At his command bunker, Chuikov said that “Stalingrad could be seized by the enemy on one condition only if every one of the defending soldiers were killed.”
While the German Luftwaffe controlled the air during the day, Soviet air force sneaked small scale bombing raids at night. These attacks were generally ineffectively and were regarded more so as a nuisance rather than a threat.
With the city gradually being reduced to rubble, snipers on both sides became more and more active as they began to gain more and more hiding spots. The most successful Soviet sniper was Vasily Zaytsev, who claimed somewhere between 200 to 400 kills; he became an effective centerpiece for Soviet propaganda aimed at raising morale.
On 5 Oct, 900 dive bombing sorties were flown against Soviet positions at the Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Factory, wiping out entire regiments of troops entrenched there.
On 14 Oct, 2,000 sorties were flown, dropping 600 tons of bombs against various Soviet positions. By this time, the Soviet forces in Stalingrad were forced into a 910-meter strip of land on the bank of the Volga River, running out of supplies due to the German control of the air over the river. Also on 14 Oct, a renewed German attack against the Soviet forces, pushing for the following 10 days, but they failed to eliminate final Soviet foothold on the west bank of the Volga River.
On 8 Nov, the Luftwaffe at Stalingrad took a heavy blow not from the Soviets but rather from Hitler, who had transferred entire units of Luftflotte 4 to southern Europe in response to the Allied landings in North Africa. The Soviet Air Force suddenly found an opportunity to rival the German air forces in the region, right at the time when Moscow was planning on launching a major counter-offensive to take advantage of the oncoming winter and its effects on German tanks.

7 thoughts on “Background to the Stalingrad Pocket – Prelude to Uranus

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