by Mike Yoder
During the winter of 1941-42, the Russian front stabilized, with little more than skirmishing among both armies. The extreme cold of the Russian winter effectively immobilized both sides. The Germans struggled with logistical problems, and debate raged at OKW about how to proceed from this point. High ranking officers such as the Luftwaffe's Field Marshal Erhard Milch, argued that Germany needed to consolidate her gains in the East. He pointed out that enormous resources were now available to Germany, but it would take time to use these to their best advantage.
The head of the German General Staff, Generaloberst Franz Halder, was of the opinion that the Wehrmacht had been bloodied badly in the opening phase of the campaign, and needed time to recuperate. He felt that under no circumstances should the German army resume the offensive. With over 850,000 casualties, the numbers seemed to bear him out. Other factions at OKW held that a partial withdrawal should be made, taking advantage of natural defensive barriers such as rivers. Let the Soviets beat their brains out trying to retake their own territory.
Adding to the urgency of the situation was the fact that the United States had now entered the war. Although under no specific obligation to do so, Hitler had declared war upon the US the day after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. With the bulk of the German forces committed deep inside Russia, the threat of a two front war was now a reality, and not something to overlook.
Hitler was also confronted with political problems at home. Although his dictatorship over Germany was now absolute, his continued rule depended upon an appearance of public support, as well as the backing of the industrial cartels and the military. He felt that he could not afford to appear anything less than resolute in prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. Hitler still possessed a measure of rationality at this point, and conceded that an all out offensive on the entire front was out of the question. But any withdrawal by his forces was dismissed out of hand. He had already fixed in his mind that wherever the German soldier set foot, he must remain. This was the underlying premise for the disaster which would follow.
In keeping with his notion that the only possible way to win the war was to remain on the offensive, Hitler and his staff officers at OKW devised Operation Blue. Leaving the Northern and Central armies to hold their ground, they would send 2 Army groups into the Caucasus, seizing Russia's oil supply and cutting the Volga river at Stalingrad. This was, in Halder's opinion, a "poor man's offensive". Hitler touted this plan as the knock-out punch, the killing blow which would take out the Soviet Union and put an end to the war. With Stalin's regime out of the picture, the Reich could consolidate it's hold on the European continent and keep the Western Allies at arms length. Faced with this reality, they would presumably sue for peace.
The near disaster in Russia had prompted a massive reorganization of the German forces, and a shake-up in the high command. Hitler dismissed Field Marshal von Brauchitsch as Commander-in -Chief of the Army, and assumed the position himself for the duration of the war. Von Rundstedt was summarily dismissed as commander of Army Group South for ordering an unauthorized withdrawal, and von Leeb was relieved as well . Fedor von Bock retained his Army Group staff, but was shifted to command Army Group South. When he objected to splitting his command into two separate Army Groups, he was relieved as well. Army Group South now became Army Groups A and B.
Army Group B, consisting of Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army, and the 4th Panzer Army of Gen. Hermann Hoth, would sweep through the corridor separating the Don and Volga rivers, swing Northeast and capture the city of Stalingrad, cutting the Volga river lifeline. This force was fleshed out with the addition of armies from Germany's allies, with Romanian and Italians on one flank, Hungarians on the other.
Army Group A, under the command of Field Marshal List, with Field Marshals von Manstein and von Kleist in command of their armies, would fan out through the Transcaucasus, heading for Armavir, the oil-fields at Maikop, and the Caspian Sea.
Jumping off in July of 1942, Operation Blue ran into some trouble almost immediately. Although the Red Army was still no match for the Wehrmacht, unexpectedly stiff resistance at Voronezh delayed the timetable. With a brief respite from the spirited defense of the city, the bulk of the Russian forces withdrew into the interior of Russia. The Russians were still retreating, but now they were doing it like soldiers.
Despite the losses suffered in the opening phase of Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht still possessed a considerable advantage in equipment, firepower, and experience. Although much improved from the previous summer, the Red Army was still no match for the invader. The Germans still rounded up thousands of prisoners, captured abandoned equipment, and remained confident that victory was in sight.
This confidence was shared by Hitler, who decided that the 4th Panzer Army was no longer needed to capture Stalingrad. He gave orders to detach it from the drive to the Volga, and join the assault upon the oil fields. This sent the 4th Panzer into a cross-over of the 6th Army's line of march. The two forces crossed paths, and the ensuing traffic jam took several days to untangle. When it was sorted out, the 4th Panzer had also commandeered the lion's share of the fuel intended for the 6th Army. Paulus's armor stalled for lack of fuel, and logistical problems kept the drive halted for nearly 2 weeks.
Hitler subsequently changed his mind again, and ordered Hoth to rejoin Paulus. By the time the march resumed, General Andrei Yeremenko, commander of the Southern Front, had been able to formulate a strategy to hold the Axis armies on the west bank of the Volga. His prospects looked bleak, his armies still demoralized by defeat, and a combined force of nearly 750,000 men was approaching what would be the Red Army's last line of defense.
At the headquarters of Field Marshal von Weichs, Commander of Army Group B, doubts were beginning to rise. Paulus was crossing the narrow area between the Don and Volga rivers with little or no opposition. The lack of contact with the enemy was ominous, as was the fact that their left flank was growing more dangerously exposed with every mile advanced.
Paulus had declared that, "The important thing now is to hit the Russians such a hard crack that they won't recover for a long time!" He watched that opportunity vanish, as his enemy disappeared across the horizon, withdrawing towards Stalingrad.
Copyright © 2003 Mike Yoder.
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Published online: 02/04/2003.
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