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Soviets launch counterattack at Stalingrad

Soviets launch counterattack at Stalingrad

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The Soviet Red Army under General Georgy Zhukov launches Operation Uranus, the great Soviet counteroffensive that turned the tide in the Battle of Stalingrad.

On June 22, 1941, despite the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Nazi Germany launched a massive invasion against the USSR. Aided by its greatly superior air force, the German army raced across the Russian plains, inflicting terrible casualties on the Red Army and the Soviet population. With the assistance of troops from their Axis allies, the Germans conquered vast territory, and by mid October the great Russian cities of Leningrad and Moscow were under siege. However, the Soviets held on, and the coming of winter forced the German offensive to pause.

For the 1942 summer offensive, Adolf Hitler ordered the Sixth Army, under General Friedrich von Paulus, to take Stalingrad in the south, an industrial center and obstacle to Nazi control of the precious Caucasus oil wells. In August, the German Sixth Army made advances across the Volga River while the German Fourth Air Fleet reduced Stalingrad to burning rubble, killing more than 40,000 civilians. In early September, General Paulus ordered the first offensives into Stalingrad, estimating that it would take his army about 10 days to capture the city. Thus began one of the most horrific battles of World War II and arguably the most important because it was the turning point in the war between Germany and the USSR.

In their attempt to take Stalingrad, the German Sixth Army faced General Vasily Zhukov leading a bitter Red Army employing the ruined city to their advantage, transforming destroyed buildings and rubble into natural defensive fortifications. In a method of fighting the Germans began to call the Rattenkrieg, or “Rat’s War,” the opposing forces broke into squads eight or 10 strong and fought each other for every house and yard of territory. The battle saw rapid advances in street-fighting technology, such as a German machine gun that shot around corners and a light Russian plane that glided silently over German positions at night, dropping bombs without warning. However, both sides lacked necessary food, water, or medical supplies, and tens of thousands perished every week.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was determined to liberate the city named after him, and in November he ordered massive reinforcements to the area. On November 19, General Zhukov launched a great Soviet counteroffensive out of the rubble of Stalingrad. German command underestimated the scale of the counterattack, and the Sixth Army was quickly overwhelmed by the offensive, which involved 500,000 Soviet troops, 900 tanks, and 1,400 aircraft. Within three days, the entire German force of more than 200,000 men was encircled.

Italian and Romanian troops at Stalingrad surrendered, but the Germans hung on, receiving limited supplies by air and waiting for reinforcements. Hitler ordered Von Paulus to remain in place and promoted him to field marshal, as no Nazi field marshal had ever surrendered. Starvation and the bitter Russian winter took as many lives as the merciless Soviet troops, and on January 21, 1943, the last of the airports held by the Germans fell to the Soviets, completely cutting off the Germans from supplies. On January 31, Von Paulus surrendered German forces in the southern sector, and on February 2 the remaining German troops surrendered. Only 90,000 German soldiers were still alive, and of these only 5,000 troops would survive the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps and make it back to Germany.

The Battle of Stalingrad turned the tide in the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. General Zhukov, who had played such an important role in the victory, later led the Soviet drive on Berlin. On May 1, 1945, he personally accepted the German surrender of Berlin. Von Paulus, meanwhile, agitated against Adolf Hitler among the German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union and in 1946 provided testimony at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. After his release by the Soviets in 1953, he settled in East Germany.

Soviets launch Operation Uranus

Operation Uranus was one of the key turning points of the war. It was not just the moment when Red Army soldiers showed they could mount a sophisticated offensive and defeat the Germans, but also the first major sign that Stalin was prepared, at last, to trust his generals.

The objective of Operation Uranus was to destroy the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. And though the attack was launched in mid-November 1942, its origins go back to September and Marshal Zhukov&rsquos visit to the Stalingrad front. When he returned to the Kremlin he reported to Stalin that the situation in the city was dire &ndash reinforcements were urgently needed. But Zhukov mentioned to Marshal Vasilevsky, who was also present at the meeting with the Soviet leader, that a &lsquonew solution&rsquo needed to be found to the situation in Stalingrad.

Stalin overheard the remark and told Zhukov and Vasilevsky to work out a plan that would relieve Stalingrad. In doing so, Stalin was &ndash as far as he was concerned &ndash showing considerable restraint. Up to now he had originated many of the ideas for major military actions himself, and been intimately involved in their planning. This &lsquohands on&rsquo leadership had not proved successful. Earlier in the year his interference in plans for the Soviet attack on Kharkov had hugely contributed to military disaster for the Red Army.

Zhukov and Vasilevsky now worked on the plan that would become Operation Uranus. And in doing so they showed that Soviet tactics were becoming more sophisticated &ndash almost more German. &lsquoThey learnt from the Germans,&rsquo says Marshal Makhmud Gareev, who worked with Zhukov during the war. &lsquoThey not only learnt from the Germans, but they learnt from their own mistakes.&rsquo

The final plan for Operation Uranus was reminiscent of both German strategy and the Soviet theory of &lsquodeep operations&rsquo that had been advanced in the 1930s and then rejected at the time of Stalin&rsquos purge of Soviet officers. The idea was not to attack the Sixth Army directly in Stalingrad, but rather to mount two pincer movements, one from the north and the other from the east. These separate thrusts would then meet up west of Stalingrad and trap the Germans in a giant encirclement. One of the strengths of the plan was that it meant that the Red Army would &ndash initially at least &ndash be fighting weaker units of Romanians, Hungarians and Italians who had been tasked by the Germans with protecting their flanks.

Stalin approved the plan, and Zhukov now pushed forward with the organizational phase of this gigantic undertaking, with more than a million Red Army soldiers taking part in the offensive. But the disaster at Kharkov, back in spring 1942, had shown that mere superiority in numbers did not guarantee success for the Soviets. They knew that they had to demonstrate that they more than matched the Germans not just in numbers, but in tactics and battlefield intelligence.

Zhukov helped instigate a policy of &lsquomaskirovka&rsquo &ndash deception &ndash in order to deceive the Germans about true Soviet ambitions. Defensive fortifications were built in the open &ndash in an attempt to show the Germans that the Red Army had no intention of attacking &ndash whilst bridges on the attack route were built several feet under water so as to avoid detection from the air.

Stalin finally rubber-stamped the plan for Operation Uranus on 13 November. This was the first time he let a major military offensive go forward without any significant interference. He even left it up to Zhukov to decide the precise date of the attack.

Operation Uranus was finally launched on the morning of 19 November 1943. Ivan Golokolenko, a Red Army soldier who took part, remembers the moment when an address from Stalin was read to the troops who were preparing to attack: &lsquoThere was something fatherly, something paternal about it. It said: &lsquoDear generals and soldiers, I address you my brothers. Today you start an offensive and your actions decide the fate of the country &ndash whether it remains an independent country or perishes.&rsquo And those words really reached my heart&hellip I was close to tears when the meeting was over. I felt a real upsurge, a spiritual upsurge.&rsquo

The Red Army moved forward and caught the Germans and their allies completely by surprise. On 23 October, less than a month before the start of Operation Uranus, General Zeitzler, the new Chief of the Army General Staff, had told Hitler that the Soviets were &lsquoin no position to mount an offensive with any far-reaching objective.' i

With much of the fighting going on west of the River Don, nearly a hundred miles away from Stalingrad, it would have been difficult for the Germans to move to help their beleaguered allies even if they had moved swiftly. But, even so, the German response to Operation Uranus was scarcely urgent. Hitler had taken time off from his wartime military headquarters at the Wolf&rsquos Lair in East Prussia and was back at his house, the Berghof, in southern Bavaria. He only flew back to the Wolf&rsquos Lair on 20 November.

Meantime, just ten days into the offensive, Red Army units met up at Kalach, west of Stalingrad, and the Sixth Army was trapped. &lsquoWe felt inspiration,&rsquo says Ivan Golokolenko. &lsquoWe felt confidence that we were capable of beating the enemy successfully, and this operation remained the most memorable &ndash the brightest &ndash event. I remember I felt as if I had wings, I felt as if I was flying. Before that I used to feel depressed, but now it was as if I had opened my wings and I was capable of flying in the sky.&rsquo

Hitler ordered Field Marshal von Manstein to mount Operation Winter Tempest, an attempt to rescue the Sixth Army, and instructed General Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, to hold fast and not attempt a breakout himself. But Manstein&rsquos force soon ground to a halt, battered by some of the sixty divisions that the Soviets had placed in the ring around Stalingrad. Similarly, Goering&rsquos brash promise that his Luftwaffe could supply the trapped Sixth Army from the air came to nothing.

But, as Antony Beevor explains, Operation Uranus was more than just a hugely successful military operation: &lsquoI think that the point was that Stalin had realised what mistakes he&rsquod made. Hitler refused to acknowledge any mistakes, but Stalin realised the mistakes he&rsquod made and that&rsquos when he started to listen to his generals and that is why Stalingrad was not just a turning point psychologically in the war, it was a real turning point in the handling of Soviet armies. It was also a turning point in the confidence of generals being able to face up to Stalin a little bit more, and also have less fear of the NKVD, and I think that this is a very important thing. Beria [the head of the NKVD &ndash the Soviet secret police] used to threaten generals in the crudest way possible but generals were now realising that in fact they were starting to get more of a whip hand.&rsquo

By Christmas Eve 1942, with the withdrawal of Manstein&rsquos relief attempt, it was clear that the Sixth Army was doomed. And the scene was set for one of the greatest military disasters in German history.

i Quoted in John Keegan (ed.), The Times Atlas of the Second World War, Times Books, 1989, p. 104

Wilhelm Hoffman

Wilhelm Hoffman was a soldier in the 267th Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division of the German 6th Army who chronicled the Battle of Stalingrad in his journal, and is cited in many documentaries and books concerning that topic. [1] [2] His journal provides a firsthand account of what the German 6th Army was experiencing and how they were coping with the situation, without the outside interpretive influence of propaganda and censorship. Although it is limited in information because it only gives the account of one person, it is still one of the few unaltered German accounts to survive World War II.

As the battle begins in August 1942, Wilhelm and his comrades are in high spirits. His commander believes if they complete their objectives quickly, they will be home for Christmas. Wilhelm also has faith that “the Führer will carry this thing through to a successful end.” As the battle begins, he is shocked to see how hard the Russian soldiers are fighting to defend the city. A captured Soviet officer informs his commander that the Russians will defend Stalingrad to the last round. He initially refers to the resistance as barbaric and fanatical, but as the battle continues the Russians begin to begrudgingly earn his respect, at one point saying “The Russians are not men, but some kind of cast-iron creatures.”

One of the most notable accounts from the journal is the brutal six-day-long battle between 16 and 22 September 1942 over a grain elevator where, according to him, only 40 Russian soldiers (he refers to them as "devils") were found dead in the elevator at the end of the engagement, while his battalion in comparison, suffered disastrously heavy losses.

By 28th of September his regiment reaches the Volga and they celebrate, believing the battle to be almost over. His regiment however is sent to capture the factories along the river, and this results in very high casualties. Morale breaks down, as the men now believe that they are doomed, and many hope to get wounded and sent away from the front.

By late November the Soviets launch a major counterattack, and the 6th Army is encircled. As rations get lower, the Germans begin to starve. Erich von Manstein’s forces attempt to break the encirclement, bringing hope to the besieged soldiers, but he is defeated. Hoffman’s final journal entry is on 26 December, with the final phrase “A curse on this war!” While the exact fate of Hoffman is unknown, it is believed that he perished not long after in the bitter fighting. [3]

Wrecked: How the Soviets Crushed the Nazis After Stalingrad

Meet Operation Gallop: the post-Stalingrad push that helped further turn the tide on the Eastern front.

For the next few days, Vatutin continued to receive good news from the front. His planning of Gallop seemed to be validated as reports came from the First Guards Army stating that Kremennaya had fallen, the 19th Panzer Division was retreating toward Lisichansk to the south, and that Krasny Liman was also taken.

In the Sixth Army sector, Kharitonov finally crossed the Krasnaya River after the 298th Infantry Division, fearing encirclement by advancing units of the Sixth Army and the Voronezh Front’s Third Tank Army, abandoned its positions on the eastern bank. From February 2-5, the 298th fought through Soviet units already in its rear before finally reaching a new defensive line around Chuguyev on the Northern Donets River.

Sixth Army units also forced General Georg Postel’s 320th Infantry Division to retreat from the Krasnaya. While the Sixth Rifle Division attempted to surround Postel’s division, the 267th Rifle Division and 106th Rifle Brigade drove on to Izyum, which would fall on February 5.

Sensing victory, Vatutin sent in Group Popov to act as the vanguard of the Soviet attack. A counterattack by some of the First Panzer Army’s XL Panzer Corps, commanded by General Sigfrid Henrici, halted Popov’s advance in several areas. Other elements of Henrici’s corps struck the First Guards Army around Slavyansk, forcing Kuznetsov to halt his attack. Farther south, Lelyushenko’s Third Guards Army had now crossed the Donets River near Voroshilovgrad and was engaged in breaking through the defenses of Army Abteilung Hollidt.

Preventing a Soviet Breakthrough

The battle around Slavyansk was pivotal for the Germans trying to stop Vatutin’s push westward. As long as the town was in von Manstein’s hands, Vatutin would have to extend his forces to bypass it, lengthening his supply lines and offering his flanks to German counterattacks.

By February 4, Vatutin found himself facing an increasingly stubborn opponent. Elements of Henrici’s XL Panzer Corps were clinging to Slavyansk, fending off the First Guards Army with vicious counterattacks. Kuznetzov threw more units into the battle for the town, but Henrici’s men held firm.

About 55 kilometers east of Slavyansk, the First Guards Army’s Sixth Guards Rifle Corps, commanded by General Ivan Prokofevich Alferov, was embroiled in a savage fight for control of Lisichansk. General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Army Corps was charged with the defense of the sectors north and south of the town.

General Karl Casper’s 335th Infantry Division, newly arrived from France, was one of the divisions tasked with defending the area south of Lisichansk near the town of Krymskoye. Alferov’s 44th Guards Rifle Division gained a small bridgehead on the western bank of the Donets and fought off repeated counterattacks by the 335th. Seeing that further assaults were a waste of manpower, Casper ordered his men to cordon off the bridgehead, hoping that reinforcements would be sent to break the Soviet line.

At Lisichansk, Alferov’s 78th Rifle Division tried an end run. The 78th crossed the Northern Donets at several points, but once again German forces moved in to seal them off. For the moment, it was a stalemate.

Frustrated, Vatutin threw the 41st Guards Rifle Division into the Lisichansk battle. Defended by Schmidt’s 19th Panzer, the Soviets had to clear the town street by bloody street. Aided by elements of the 78th Guards and 44th Guards Rifle Divisions, the Russians finally forced Schmidt’s men out of the town to positions in the southwest. The Sixth Guards Rifle Corps followed fast on their heels, but Schmidt was able to work his units like a boxer, bobbing, weaving, and shifting constantly to frustrate any further breakthrough.

Negotiating a Retreat with Hitler

On February 6, Hitler called von Manstein to his headquarters at Zaporozhye. The German leader was surprisingly docile, almost apologetic, as he opened the conversation by taking full responsibility for the Stalingrad disaster. Von Manstein was taken aback by the statement because Hitler never blamed himself for any of the misfortunes suffered by the German Army.

With the surprising admission out of the way, the two men turned to the situation at hand. Von Manstein was blunt as he began explaining the position of his Army Group. He told Hitler that under no circumstances could the area between the Don and the Donets be held with the existing forces available.

“The only question is whether, in trying to hang on to the whole basin, we want to not only lose the area but also Heeresgruppe Don,” he said. “We will also eventually lose Heeresgruppe A. The alternative is to abandon part of the Basin at the right moment to avert the catastrophe threatening to overtake us.”

According to von Manstein, Hitler remained “utterly composed” during the ensuing conversation. Continuing, he told Hitler that trying to hold the entire Basin would allow the Soviets to send strong enough forces to slice through the thinly held German line and envelop the entire southern wing of the Eastern Front. Therefore, he proposed using the First Panzer Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, which were facing General Andrei Ivanovich Yeremenko’s Southern Front, to form a strike force to intercept the forces that Vatutin undoubtedly already had in mind for his continued advance.

Moving the Fourth Panzer Army back from the Lower Don would mean giving up the area between the Lower Don and the Mius River to the armies of Yeremenko’s Southern Front, but it would also shorten the German line. To protect the southern flank, Army Abteilung Hollidt would also have to withdraw to the Mius. It was a risky plan, but the alternative meant almost certain disaster.

When von Manstein finished, it was Hitler’s turn. The Führer could find no flaws in the plan, but his aversion to giving up ground to the enemy was still paramount. He argued that every foot of land cost the Russians men and materials—much more than it cost the Germans. There were also political considerations, such as the effect such a withdrawal would have on Turkey, which was watching developments in Southern Russia very carefully.

Hitler promised reinforcements, cajoled, and used his famous charm and eloquence to convince von Manstein to remain on the Don, but von Manstein would not budge. The impasse went on most of the afternoon, but then Hitler suddenly gave in. Finally having the Führer’s blessing, von Manstein hurriedly flew back to his Stalino headquarters to begin issuing orders for the retreat.

A Fighting Withdrawal

Unless an early thaw suddenly hit the area, armored and mechanized units scheduled to pull back would have little problem reaching the Mius ahead of the Soviets. The infantry units of the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Abteilung Hollidt were a different matter. Vulnerable to Russian armored and mechanized forces, the retreating infantry would have to leave a rear guard to conduct a fighting withdrawal while main elements of the division remained on guard against Soviet ambushes and armored raids.

The Soviets were by no means idle as the Germans prepared to withdraw to the shorter Mius Line. The South Front’s 44th Army took the city of Azov-on-the-Don. Around Salvyansk, where fighting was still raging, Red Army units also took the town of Kramatorsk, some 15 kilometers south of the city.

The following day, February 8, Kharitonov’s Sixth Army liberated Andreyevka on the eastern bank of the Northern Donets, about 50 miles southeast of Kharkov. The Soviet commander then turned his forces northeast to strike at Zmiyev, which was on the river’s western bank. If Kharitonov could take the town and hold it, the way would be open for an attack on Kharkov from the south.

Kharitonov’s spearhead ran headlong into the 2nd Regiment of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) Panzergrenadier Division commanded by SS Standartenführer (Colonel) Theodore Wisch. Wisch’s 1st Battalion, under SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Hugo Kraas, gave the advancing Russians a bloody nose at a small village northeast of Zmiyev. Supported by assault guns, Kraas’s men counterattacked, driving the Soviets back.

Late morning found the Russians launching wave after wave of infantry against the village, but the SS held firm. The Soviets then proceeded to attack up and down the line of Wisch’s regiment. Supported by assault guns, some panzer companies, engineers, and a flak unit, Wisch successfully held his positions while causing heavy casualties to the Soviet 111th Rifle Division.

Holding Slavyansk

Meanwhile, the battle for Slavyansk continued unabated. General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzer Division was charged with holding the town. The division was down to only 35 serviceable tanks as it fought to defend Slavyansk against units of General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Gagen’s 4th Guards Rifle Corps.

Born in 1895, Gagen was a tough no-nonsense commander who had fought in the brutal battles in the winter of 1941-1942 along the Volkhov River. He was determined to drive the Germans out of the town at whatever the cost. Gagen’s 195th Rifle Division had been roughly handled by the 7th Panzer as it tried to fight its way into the eastern part of the town. The Soviet general threw in the 57th Guards Rifle Division in an attempt to take the town from the north and west, but the Germans continued to hold, counterattacking when the situation required it.

Wrecked: How the Soviets Crushed the Nazis After Stalingrad

Meet Operation Gallop: the post-Stalingrad push that helped further turn the tide on the Eastern front.

Overhead, Red Air Force bombers and ground attack aircraft roamed the skies over the embattled town. German flak batteries tried to drive them away, but the Soviet pilots pressed on, dropping their deadly cargo on von Funck’s position. Red Army artillery also kept up a deadly fire, but the German panzergrenadiers and the engineers of the division were still able to hold the Russians at bay.

Holding Slavyansk helped give other units of the First Panzer Army a chance in their move westward. More of Henrici’s XL Panzer Corps was already arriving in the area to bolster the 7th Panzer. Although General Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzer Division had little more than a dozen tanks, it was a welcome sight to the men of von Funck’s command. Colonel Gerhard Grassman’s 333rd Infantry Division was in similar shape, having been savaged in earlier actions.

Both sides realized the value of the area between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, where the German defenses ran along the Krivoy Torets River. If the Soviets could force the Germans from their tenuous positions, Vatutin could use Group Popov’s forces to make a deep thrust to the southwest, which would basically cut off the First and Fourth Panzer Armies from the rest of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe. Accordingly, Vatutin pushed more artillery units into the area to give his troops an added punch.

Henrici’s XL Panzer Corps, weak as it was, defended the area with great skill. Coordinated attacks by the 4th Guards Tank Corps, 3rd Tank Corps, and the 4th Guards Rifle Corps were repulsed again and again. Balck’s 11th Panzer brazenly counterattacked Soviet armor with its few remaining tanks, leaving several T-34s blazing furiously on the battlefield, while the 7th Panzer fended off combined armored-infantry attacks, leaving hundreds of Red Army soldiers dead in the snow.

Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller, commanding the 7th Panzer’s 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment, was in the thick of the fighting. Keeping on the move, von Steinkeller went from company to company urging his men to hold firm. An artillery observer followed him, ready to call in fire as the situation demanded. He would later receive the Knight’s Cross, in part for his actions during the battle.

Popov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps, commanded by Pavel Pavlovich Poluboyarov, succeeded in crossing the Krivoy Torets, threatening the rear of the 7th Panzer Division. Henrici immediately ordered Balck’s 11th Panzer Division, supported by a regiment from the 333rd Infantry Division, to counterattack. The Germans were met with the blazing guns of Poluboyarov’s tanks in front and from dug-in antitank weapons firing from the eastern bank of the Krivoy Torets.

Despite the Soviet fire, Balck and his infantry support were able to push the 4th Guards back along the river valley. Russian infantry accompanying Poluboyarov’s tanks panicked and fled, forcing the armor to fend for itself. German sources indicate that 45 Russian tanks were destroyed during the fighting—a significant loss that could only partially be made good by the reinforcements that were trickling in after a grueling journey over extended supply roads.

Vatutin, fed up with the inability of his forces to take Slavyansk and the positions along the Krivoy Torets, reshuffled his units for an all-out assault. Kuznetsov’s First Guards Army was ordered to coordinate with Popov for the attack, while Red Air Force units were given orders to support the operation at all costs.

Underestimating the German Position

The westward movement of German units, as per von Manstein’s plan, had given Vatutin, Golikov, and STAVKA a false sense of optimism. Hitler never conceded territory—every Russian commander knew that. He had shown it by letting his army freeze at the gates of Moscow and the stubborn refusal to retreat from Stalingrad only reinforced that view.

To the Russian mind the retreat of Heeresgruppe Don from the eastern Don Basin could only be viewed as a somewhat panicked rout. The stubborn resistance around Slavyansk was seen as a desperate attempt to save the fleeing German divisions from being overwhelmed by troops of the South West Front and the South Front, and it was assumed that once the Krivoy Torets line was taken the enemy would collapse.

To crack the German defenses Vatutin ordered the First Guards Army to shift south toward the Krasnoarmeiskoya sector, about 60 kilometers southwest of Slavyansk, to threaten the enemy rear. While that move was taking place, the 35th Guards Rifle Division of Gagen’s 4th Guards Rifle Corps forced units of the 333rd Infantry Division out of Lozovaya, a key rail center and supply dump located about 120 kilometers west of Slavyansk. Although the 35th Guards did not press their attack further, taking the town created a dangerous new bulge in the already extended and increasingly confusing lines of battle.

Part of Vatutin’s plan was to use Popov’s 4th Guards Tank and 3rd Tank Corps to smash their way into Slavyansk, paving the way for the 18th and 10th Tank Corps to strike southwest toward Artemovsk. With Slavyansk secured, the 4th Guards Tank and 3rd Tank Corps were to advance to link up with the First Guards Army at Krasnoarmeiskoye. Together, the two tank corps and units of the First Guards Army would then move southeast to Stalino to trap German units retreating from the eastern Don Basin.

As Vatutin prepared his operation, he received new orders from STAVKA. Golikov’s forces were making good progress toward Kharkov and, lulled by the belief that the Germans were indeed in the midst of a massive disorganized withdrawal to the Dniepr, Moscow saw a new chance to bag several enemy divisions in an even bigger pocket than Vatutin had planned.

Vatutin was therefore given the task of setting up blocking forces to prevent an enemy withdrawal to Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk. At the same time, he was ordered to advance southwest to cut off German and Axis forces in the Crimea. The STAVKA plan was overly ambitious by a wide margin, considering that the South West Front had already been in combat for more than two weeks and had received little in the way of supplies or reinforcements.

With Kharitonov’s Sixth Guards Army already supporting Golikov’s drive on Kharkov, it would again fall to Kuznetsov and Popov, along with Lelyushenko’s Third Guards Army, to accomplish this new mission. The First Guards Army would have the dual tasks of taking Slavyansk with Alferov’s Sixth Guards Rifle Corps while other units continued on a westward drive toward Zaporozhye. While this was occurring, Group Popov would make a lightning strike to Krasnoarmeiskoye, taking the town’s rail center and threatening the German rear.

Both Kuznetsov and Popov had voiced doubts about Vatutin’s earlier proposal. Their units had been manhandled by the Germans, and losses in men and equipment had still not been made good. The two Soviet generals had even graver doubts about the new plan. Supplying their forces as they moved south and west would be a nightmare with the existing supply line, which was already stretched to the limit.

Popov, in making his dash to the south, would have a total of about 180 tanks spread between his four tank corps. He had enough fuel for one refueling and ammunition for two resupplies. The infantry units in his command were in even worse shape. Despite STAVKA’s assertions that the Germans were on the run, the field commanders had a more cautious view of the situation.

Vatutin brushed aside his commanders’ doubts. These were orders from Moscow and had to be obeyed. The consequences of disobedience were well known, and no Soviet general in his right mind would think about going against the Kremlin at this stage of the war.

A Bold Penetration

Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps was chosen to spearhead the new attack. In the early hours of February 11, the Soviet armor began its 85 kilometer charge to Krasnoarmeiskoye. Led by the 14th Guards Tank Brigade, Polubarov’s forces cut through the German defenses and moved quickly down the one good road in the area. Following fast on the heels of the 14th were the 3rd Guards Mechanized Brigade, the 7th Ski Brigade, the 9th Guards Tank Brigade, and other corps units.

The deep thrust caught the Germans off guard, and by mid-morning the 14th Guards Tank Brigade had taken Krasnoarmeiskoye. With the town secured, the victorious Soviet troops helped themselves to the supplies left in a supply dump by the retreating enemy. The loot, especially the fuel and rations, was a welcome sight to the exhausted Russians.

Another important benefit, not readily apparent to the troops at the scene, was the severing of a vital German supply and communications line. With the capture of Krasnoarmeiskoye, the important Dnepropetrovsk-Mariupol rail line was rendered useless, leaving units of the First Panzer Army and Army Abteilung Hollidt in dire straits.

Group Popov’s dramatic march to Krasnoarmeiskoye threw German plans for defending the western Don Basin into disorder. The defense of Slavyansk was now in jeopardy due to the Soviet units to the south and west of the position. Von Mackensen was also in the midst of planning an attack to recapture Kramatorsk, but that too had to be put on hold in light of Popov’s success.

What if the Germans in 1942 only seized Stalingrad in 1942 and did not go south.

The Volga was. If the Germans control a long stretch of the Volga, it is much harder for the USSR to move oil from the South and Lend-Lease from Persian ports. It is also the final eastern border of the Greater Reich.

Stalingrad was a sound objective. The Volga is wide and makes a good defensive line. By cutting off the oil to the south, they can deny the USSR strategic mobility in the 1943. So if the Volga line can be held over the counterattack over the winter by the additional reserves the Germans hold, then the Germans will be the only one with major tank offensives after 1943. Simply the benefit of after Kursk-type battle the Russians not being able to launch an armor counter attack is huge. Same for the 1944 offensive. Success here will extend the war by at least a year. And there is a possibility that with fewer oil resources available, the German summer offensive in 1943 could work.

While the fighting spirit and reserves of the Soviets is legendary, it is not unlimited. And with the right butterflies, we have to talk about will Russia be in the war by the time D-Day occurs.

Snake Featherston

Snake Featherston

The Volga was. If the Germans control a long stretch of the Volga, it is much harder for the USSR to move oil from the South and Lend-Lease from Persian ports. It is also the final eastern border of the Greater Reich.

Stalingrad was a sound objective. The Volga is wide and makes a good defensive line. By cutting off the oil to the south, they can deny the USSR strategic mobility in the 1943. So if the Volga line can be held over the counterattack over the winter by the additional reserves the Germans hold, then the Germans will be the only one with major tank offensives after 1943. Simply the benefit of after Kursk-type battle the Russians not being able to launch an armor counter attack is huge. Same for the 1944 offensive. Success here will extend the war by at least a year. And there is a possibility that with fewer oil resources available, the German summer offensive in 1943 could work.

While the fighting spirit and reserves of the Soviets is legendary, it is not unlimited. And with the right butterflies, we have to talk about will Russia be in the war by the time D-Day occurs.

The Volga, yes. Stalingrad and its particular portion of it, not necessarily. That is a rather small region to cram in the entire striking force of the drive to the south, and if the Germans just go there and stop, the Soviets will begin a series of counterattacks above and more slowly below Stalingrad. This is the 1942 version of the drive only to Moscow. The claim that the Soviets need the Volga region to produce tanks is somewhat belied by Stalingrad's gutting in the OTL battles and this not imairing the USSR, as well as this view relying on a rather certain neglect of a difference between Russian geography and industrial power and Soviet.

The overwhelming majority of Lend-Lease came in through the Pacific, not Persia. Nor is it exactly clear how a narrow, hammering attack focused purely on the Stalingrad region cuts off Soviet access to the south, as per the requirements of the OP. The Germans had troops as far south as Ordzikhondize IOTL, and were able to cut their way straight through the Volga twice in the course of the Stalingrad battles of OTL to no effect. All this also ignores that even focusing purely on Stalingrad Germany's means were far too underwhelming for the scale of the task set to them in the usual pattern. Of course I get that the idea that the Nazis can somehow win the War in the East has no regard for logistical or strategic realities of this sort, relying instead on vague statements involving butterflies and total handwaving of certain all too vital realities of this particular war.

Wrecked: How the Soviets Crushed the Nazis After Stalingrad

Meet Operation Gallop: the post-Stalingrad push that helped further turn the tide on the Eastern front.

A Quartermaster’s Nightmare

Logistically, both sides were facing a quartermaster’s nightmare and both the German and Soviet commanders were in dire straits. With Kharkov gone and the Russians occupying Grischino and Krasnoarmeiskoye, the only supply line open to the First Panzer Army and Army Abteilung Hollidt was the railway that ran through Zaporozhye. The task of supplying German units by this route was hampered by the fact that a main bridge spanning the Dniepr River, destroyed during the 1941 Soviet retreat, had not yet reopened. Supplies had to be unloaded from trains and reloaded to trucks and wagons before making their way farther eastward.

Group Popov was in a similar situation. Reinforcements were trickling in to the 4th Guards Tank Corps but supplies were a different matter. Von Mackensen’s orders to Henrici were being carried out by ad hoc units and units taken away from their parent regiments. Although the Soviet armored columns came under some fire as they strove to reach Krasnoarmeiskoye, the supply formations continued to bear the brunt of the German attacks.

Some good news came to Vatutin on February 16 when the rest of the 7th Panzer Division, finally ordered to give up its defense of Slavyansk, pulled out and headed toward Krasnoarmeiskoye. Units of the First Guards Army finally were able to occupy the entire town, but the victorious Soviets were in no condition to pursue the 7th. The 3rd Panzer Division quickly lengthened its lines to cover the 7th as it raced southwest to join elements of the division already engaging Gagen’s 4th Tank Corps.

Von Manstein’s Plan to Take Kharkov

On February 17, Hitler flew to meet von Manstein at Zaporozhye. Not one to mince words, von Manstein laid out the situation as follows: “Army Abteilung Hollidt had just occupied the Mius River Line, followed closely by the South Front. For the time being, the line could be effectively defended.”

The First Panzer Army had halted the Soviets at Grischino and Krasmoarmeiskoye, but the issue there had still not been decided. Von Mackensen’s panzer army was also still involved in heavy fighting at Kramotorsk, Lisichansk, and the Slavyansk area, with the issue in all three sectors still in doubt. The forces retreating from Kharkov, now gathered under Army Abteilung Kempf, were withdrawing southwest toward Poltava and the Mozh River.

At first, Hitler refused to believe the seriousness of the situation. Already furious at the loss of Stalingrad, and then Kharkov, he could not believe that the Soviets still had the men and equipment to carry out another operation that could threaten the entire southern wing of his eastern armies. Von Manstein let him rant for a while before submitting a plan to save his threatened Heeresgruppe.

Von Manstein played his hand masterfully, laying out his formula to retake Kharkov. At the mention of recapturing the city, Hitler immediately calmed down and began to listen intently.

Kharkov could only be taken if the southern flank of the Heeresgruppe was secure, so von Manstein proposed consolidating Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps into one striking force, taking it away from the Kharkov sector and sending it southeast toward Pavlograd. This action would prevent any further Russian advance on Dnepropetrovsk.

At the same time, Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, which had made the bitter retreat from the Caucasus, would concentrate its units west of Zaporozhye. Together, the two forces would strike the elements of the First Guards Army and the Sixth Army that were advancing toward the vital Dniepr crossings while the First Panzer Army would once again take on Group Popov.

Throughout his briefing, von Manstein continuously played on the premise that the one condition necessary to retake Kharkov was the survival of the First Panzer Army and Army Abteilung Hollidt. When the Soviet threat in the southern Don Basin was eliminated, the Kharkov operation could begin.

Hitler Concedes Operational Control to Von Manstein

Although Hitler was swayed by von Manstein’s argument, he was not totally convinced of the plan. The following day, February 18, he again met with von Manstein to discuss the operation. Von Manstein was essentially calling for freedom to maneuver without micromanagement from Hitler or Berlin.

In another heated exchange, Hitler once again voiced his opinion that, although the number of Soviet units facing von Manstein looked impressive on paper, they were really burned-out shells of what were once divisions and brigades. Although he was partially correct, the armies that had taken Stalingrad were already on the move and the threat of the South Front bursting through Army Abteilung Hollidt’s Mius River line would more than overpower the existing German forces in the southern Don Basin.

In the midst of the meeting, von Manstein received reports that units of the First Guards Army had taken Pavlograd and Novomosskovsk, bringing the Soviets to within 20 kilometers of Dnepropetrovsk. Army Abteilung Hollidt also reported several small enemy penetrations along its Mius River defenses. The report also indicated that the Russians were consolidating around Kharkov while sending spearheads farther westward.

A report from Krasnoarmeiskoye indicated that the newly arrived elements of the 7th Panzer Division were trying to break the 4th Guards Tank Corps. Overcoming fierce resistance from the 14th Guards Tank Brigade, units of the 7th succeeded in taking the town center before being stopped by a Russian counterattack. On the western side of the town the Wiking Division ran headlong into defenses set up by the 12th Guards Tank Brigade and was immediately stalled by heavy defensive fire.

Von Manstein used these developments to hammer home his ideas for destroying the Soviet incursion in the Don Basin. He pointed out that once the muddy season arrived operations at the front would grind to a halt and the Russians could use their rail lines to resupply and reinforce their divisions holding positions deep inside the German lines.

With their men and materiél built up once more, the southern German forces would be in even greater danger of being pinned against the Sea of Azov, and Kharkov would be virtually untouchable. The next day, Hitler suddenly gave von Manstein what amounted to a carte blanche for operations in southern Russia and then climbed aboard his transport plane and left.

Krasnoarmeiskoye Falls to the Germans

The German field marshal wasted no time in implementing his plan. Krasnoarmeiskoye was hit hard by the 333rd Infantry Division and the Wiking Division, while the 7th Panzer Division swung north of the town. Poluboyarov’s units in the town were now caught in a vise that could only be loosened by attacks from the outside. Popov had already ordered his 3rd Tank Corps to relieve the embattled forces in the town as quickly as possible, but that attempt was soon thwarted.

While the 3rd Tank Corps was racing south, Balck’s 11th Panzer Division moved into blocking positions south of Kramatorsk near the village of Gavrilovka. As the 3rd Tank Corps sped toward Krasnoarmeiskoye its flank was shattered by a full-scale attack from Balck’s division. Burning Soviet tanks littered the landscape as the Russians desperately tried to regroup to meet the attack, but Balck’s men had already achieved their objective of halting the rescue attempt.

By the end of the day, Krasmoarmeiskoye was all but in German hands, Grischino had fallen, and Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps was nothing more than a skeleton of a unit with almost all of its tanks destroyed. Leaving the 333rd to mop up Poluboyarov’s corps, von Manstein ordered the Wiking to join the 7th Panzer and head north toward the leading elements of Group Popov’s 10th Tank Corps, which had moved into defensive positions around the town of Dobropolye.

February 20 was the final day for the Russian forces inside Krasnoarmeiskoye. Down to only 12 tanks, the Soviets could do little against the pressure brought to bear by the 333rd. In small groups, some of the Red Army soldiers were able to break through gaps in the German line and head north toward the 13th Guards Tank Brigade, which was guarding the area around Barvenkovo.

STAVKA’s Strategic Stubbornness

STAVKA’s plan was falling apart, but no one seemed to want to face that reality. Krasnoarmeiskoye was once again in German hands, and the First Panzer Army was hammering away at the Soviet units stretched out on the road south of Kramatorsk. In the north, von Manstein had sent Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps to link up with General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, which was part of the Fourth Panzer Army. Together, the two corps struck the Sixth Army near Krasnograd.

In the air, Field Marshal Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4 hit the Soviets with about 1,000 sorties that precluded any attempt by the Russians to form a coherent defense. The increasingly frantic calls from his commanders prompted Popov to ask Vatutin for permission to withdraw his forces. The request was forcefully denied.

Despite the troubling news coming from the Don Basin, Stalin and his general staff still believed they were on the verge of a great victory. New intelligence reports concerning German concentrations were ignored by STAVKA, which was still in a state of euphoria after the victory at Stalingrad. The unrealistic goals set for the Don Basin offensive were part of that euphoria, and it was now costing the Red Army dearly.

Millions Dead: The Soviets Gave Everything (and More) to Beat the Nazis

Key point: Berlin struck first and hard. It caused more damage than Stalin ever dreamed, and yet they blundered enough that they could not win.

“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” —Winston Churchill (1950)

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, as the sun slumbered, 3.6 million soldiers, 2,000 warplane pilots, and 3,350 tank commanders under skilled German command crouched at the border of Soviet-occupied Poland ready to invade the Communist nation Joseph Stalin had ruled with steel-fisted brutality for years.

Shortly after 3 am, in an operation Adolf Hitler called “Barbarossa,” a three-million-man Axis force struck Soviet positions along a 900-mile-long front. German aircraft bombed military bases, supply depots and cities, including Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Brest in Belarus, and others up and down the frontier. The night before, German commandos had snuck into Soviet territory and destroyed Red Army communications networks in the West, making it difficult for those under attack to obtain direction from Moscow.

By the end of the first day of combat, some 1,200 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed, two-thirds while parked on the ground. The poorly led Soviet troops who were not killed or captured buckled under the German onslaught.

Stalin was staggered by the German ambush. Germany’s unannounced act of war violated the nonaggression pact that Hitler and Stalin had signed less than two years earlier and placed at risk the very survival of the Soviet Union.

At first, Stalin insisted that it was just a provocation triggered by some rogue German generals and refused to order a counterattack until he heard officially from Berlin. The German declaration of war finally arrived four hours later.

Hitler justified Barbarossa on the basis that the Soviet Union was “about to attack Germany from the rear.” Eventually, after much dithering, Stalin ordered the Red Army to “use all their strength and means to come down on the enemy’s forces and destroy them where they have violated the Soviet border,” but oddly directed that until further orders “ground troops were not to cross the border.”

The Soviet dictator lacked the heart to inform the Russian people that the Germans had invaded. That bitter task fell to Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, who reported the assault in a radio broadcast more than eight hours after the conflict began. Sadly, Axis bombs and bullets had already alerted millions to the disaster.

Despite the urging of his military officers, Stalin, fearing he would be blamed for the losses, declined to take on the title of commander in chief of the Red Army. He did not even meet with the Politburo until 2 pm on that traumatic day.

Lacking sufficient skilled military leadership, the shocked Red Army reacted slowly and fearfully. As the Germans stormed east and mauled the Soviet troops, Stalin’s generals asked for permission to retreat to reduce casualties, move to defensive positions, and prepare for a counterattack. Stalin refused. His poorly equipped, trained, and led soldiers were ordered to stand their ground regardless of the consequences.

In the first 10 days of combat, the Germans thrust some 300 miles into Soviet territory and captured Minsk and more than 400,000 Red Army troops. At least 40,000 Russian soldiers died each day. Axis forces gained almost total air control and destroyed 90 percent of Stalin’s mechanized forces. Twenty million people who had been living under Soviet control were suddenly living in Axis territory. Many of those in areas previously invaded by Stalin (e.g., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland) initially welcomed the Germans as liberators.

Stalin seemed close to a nervous breakdown. The losses were so humiliating that, despite being the head of government, he retreated to his summer home and, during several gloomy June days of heavy drinking, refused to answer his phone or play any role in his nation’s affairs, leaving the ship of state to flounder helplessly. On June 28, he muttered, “Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have ****ed it up.”

Senior Soviet leaders mustered the courage to visit Stalin’s dacha on June 30. Upon arrival, they found him despondent and disheveled. He nervously asked, “Why have you come?” Stalin apparently thought that his underlings were there to arrest him. But they, long cowed by the dictator’s brutal intimidation, simply beseeched him to return to work at the Kremlin. He eventually did so.

Certainly, Operation Barbarossa was spawned by Hitler’s hatred of communism and dream of world domination. But Stalin’s many missteps in the previous two years enticed Hitler to attack and contributed significantly to Barbarossa’s early successes. Stalin’s blunders included purging the Soviet military of its leaders, entering into a treaty with Hitler that triggered a world war that subsequently ravaged Russia, launching a bumbling attack on Finland in late 1939, misreading Hitler, adopting a flawed plan of attack on Germany, and ignoring warnings of Hitler’s forthcoming Axis invasion of the Soviet Union.

In furtherance of Lenin’s goal of provoking a worldwide communist revolution, Stalin sought to undermine capitalist governments across Europe. He sought to destroy anyone abroad or at home who might stand in the way of his brand of communism. According to Stalin, “As long as the capitalist encirclement exists there will continue to be present among us wreckers, spies, saboteurs and murderers.”

In a 1937 speech, the “man of steel” (which is what “Stalin” means in Russian) made his brutal stance clear: “Anyone who tries to destroy the unity of the socialist state, who aims to separate any of its parts or nationalities from it, is an enemy, a sworn enemy of the state and of the peoples of the USSR. And we will exterminate each and every one of these enemies, whether they are old Bolsheviks or not. We will exterminate their kin and entire family. We will mercilessly exterminate anyone, who with deeds or thoughts threatens the unity of the socialist state.”

This thinking gave rise to the Great Terror in which Stalin had millions of Soviet citizens arrested for “counterrevolutionary crimes” or “anti-Soviet agitation.” In 1937 and 1938, at least 1.3 million people were convicted of being “anti-Soviet elements.” More than half were executed—on average 1,500 people shot dead each day.

Stalin used the Great Terror to eliminate potential threats within the Soviet military. He removed some 34,000 Red Army officers from service. Of those, 22,705 were shot or went “missing.” Out of 101 members of the Red Army’s supreme leadership, Stalin had 91 arrested and 80 shot. Eight of nine senior admirals in the Soviet navy were put to death. By 1939, he had essentially decapitated the military forces responsible for protecting the Soviet Union from invasion.

In Hitler’s 1925 autobiography, Mein Kampf,he declared both his fierce opposition to Marxism and Germany’s need to acquire more territory to provide “living space” for its people. Hitler made clear that one source of such lands would be “Russia and her vassal border states.”

Following Hitler’s 1933 rise to power in Germany, the fascist policies he implemented were directly targeted against Stalin’s communism. Over the next half-dozen years, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty that basically forbade Germany from rearming, Germany’s military might and expansionist aspirations grew at a fearsome rate. Hitler added to Germany’s territory by absorbing Austria in 1938 and large parts of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. His gaze then fell upon neighboring Poland.

Stalin was right to fret about Hitler’s goal of seizing fertile lands to the east of Germany, including Ukraine. Stalin recognized that the Soviet Union and its Red Army in the late 1930s were not ready for war. He could buy time and seek to retard Hitler’s appetite either by forming an alliance with Germany’s traditional foes, Great Britain and France, or by pursuing a nonaggression treaty with Hitler.

In early 1939, Stalin began negotiations with France and Great Britain aimed at a treaty that would leave Hitler facing opponents to the east and west of Germany. These efforts, however, were impeded by the reluctance of both France and Great Britain to enter into a treaty with a communist nation bent on undermining capitalist democracies and especially one led by an unpredictable and ruthless dictator like Stalin. The negotiations proceeded fitfully.

Several months later, seeking to thwart a treaty among Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, Hitler secretly invited Stalin to discuss a nonaggression pact (the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the two countries’ foreign ministers). Hitler’s covert plan for a late summer attack on Poland, which both France and Great Britain had promised to defend, motivated him to strike a deal with Stalin so that Germany would not face a hostile military to the east.

In late August 1939, Hitler and Stalin stunned the world by announcing that their two nations had agreed to a trade and nonaggression pact. This came about only after Stalin obtained Hitler’s secret promise that the two nations would invade and carve up Poland between them, and Germany would facilitate Stalin’s desire to take over Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, and parts of Finland.

On August 19, Stalin justified his unlikely deal with Hitler to the Politburo: “The question of war and peace has entered a critical phase for us. Its solution depends entirely on the position which will be taken by the Soviet Union. We are absolutely convinced that if we conclude a mutual assistance pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seek a modus vivendi with the Western Powers. War would be avoided, but further events could prove dangerous for the USSR.

Wrecked: How the Soviets Crushed the Nazis After Stalingrad

Meet Operation Gallop: the post-Stalingrad push that helped further turn the tide on the Eastern front.

“Contain the Popov Tank Group”

Realizing the precarious position of the German troops holding the river lines to the east of Krasnoarmeiskoye, von Mackensen called upon the 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking. Commanded by SS Gruppenführer (Major General) Felix Steiner, the Wiking was a multinational division made up of Germans, Norwegians, Danes, Swiss, Finns, Walloons, and Estonians. It had just arrived in the Don Basin after an arduous retreat from the Caucasus, and its troops were exhausted.

As elements of the division were just passing through Stalino, Steiner received the following message: “PanzerArmy H.Q. to Division Wiking Urgent! Powerful enemy forces, Popov Tank Group, across the Donets near Izyum advancing southward toward Krasnoarmeiskoye. Wiking Division to immediately turn to the west. Attack toward Krasnoarmeiskoye. Contain the Popov Tank Group. (signed) von Mackensen”

Steiner immediately ordered his division to halt. His original orders were to head north from Stalino to the Konstantinovka area, and the advance units of his Germania Regiment were already headed in that direction. With his chief of staff, Steiner hastily issued new orders. Artillery was regrouped, and the Nordland Regiment was ordered to take the lead in the new westward advance while Germania turned its units around. The division’s Westland Regiment was also readied to join in the mad race to stop the Soviets.

With Nordland’s reconnaissance platoon leading the way, the regiment hastened toward Krasnoarmeiskoye. By the end of the day, the advance guard under SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Wolfgang Joerchel had overpowered weak Russian forward positions and taken Hill 180, which overlooked the entire Krasnoarmeiskoye sector. Joerchel quickly sent for other battalions of the regiment, which deployed south and west of the town to contain any further Soviet expansion in those directions.

Much of Group Popov was spread out along the road from Kramatorsk to Krasnoarmeiskoye in defensive positions. Von Mackensen realized that Wiking did not have the capability to contain and destroy the Red Army units along the entire length of the road, so he issued new orders to other divisions of his command.

The occupation of Slavyansk was still of utmost importance. Shuffling his forces, von Mackensen ordered two regiments of the 333rd Infantry Division to make a forced march toward Krasnoarmeiskoye. As the weary infantry slogged toward its new goal, the 7th Panzer and 11th Panzer, which were fighting in the areas around Slavyansk and east of the Krivoy Torets River, were ordered to turn their units westward. The 3rd Panzer Division was ordered to extend its line to take over the defensive positions of the two departing divisions. Von Mackensen planned to use the two divisions to strike at Group Popov’s extended supply line while Wiking and the two regiments of the 333rd kept up the pressure at Krasnoarmeiskoye.

The movements of the German divisions to their assembly areas were surprisingly fast, and the attack on the supply line began in the early hours of February 12. Soviet defense positions had been set up in each village along the supply road from Kramatorsk, and several strong antitank companies had been brought forward to reinforce the village bastions.

“Assistance urgently required. Long live Stalin!”

At Krasnoarmeiskoye Steiner planned to use the Germania to flank the town from the west. Supported by the two regiments of the 333rd, Germania was ordered to take the village of Grischino, northwest of the town. While the other Wiking regiments assaulted Krasnoarmeiskoye from the south, elements of von Funck’s 7th Panzer would attack from the east and secure the town’s northern flank.

Polubayarov, knowing his precarious position, had kept the units of his 4th Guards Tank Corps on high alert. Each subordinate commander was told to be ready for a German counterattack, and orders were given down to company level to fortify lines of approach that could be used by the enemy. Each soldier was to make the Germans pay for every meter of land, every house, and every hill that the Red Army had recently liberated on its valiant march to Krasmoarmeiskoye.

SS Standartenführer (Colonel) Jürgen Wagner commanded the Germania Regiment. His men stormed forward into a withering fire from the Soviet positions as they began the assault. Rifle and machine gun bullets slapped around them like angry bees, while tank and antitank shells tore into their ranks. Grenadiers fell, their blood turning the churned up snow a bright crimson, but Wagner continued to urge his men to attack.

The artillery commander of the Wiking, SS Oberführer (Senior Colonel) Herbert-Otto Gille, deftly moved his artillery battalions closer to support the attacks on Krasnoarmeiskoye and Grischino. Supported by flak units, Gille’s artillery smashed one Soviet position after another, giving the Germans a chance to rush forward.

Wagner swung his regiment around Grischino and finally broke into the northern edge of the town. At the South West Front headquarters a frantic radio message, which must have been garbled in transmission, was received from the Russian commander defending Grischino. “Have been attacked by 5 SS Panzer Divisions, can only hold out with difficulty. Assistance urgently required. Long live Stalin!”

Once inside the town, Wagner’s men found themselves bogged down in house-to-house fighting. It was the same for the other Wiking regiments at Krasnoarmeiskoye. In the close fighting, Gille’s artillery was of little use. The lines were too close, and the Soviets used every house as a strongpoint. For the time being the battle for both towns was a stalemate.

The 88s of Rovny

North of Krasnoaremiskoye elements of the 7th and 11th Panzer Divisions drove westward in a forced march. The Germans ran headlong into the 10th Tank Corps and the 41st Guards Rifle Division. Heavy defensive fire from the Russians forced the panzers to slow and finally stop their attack. Seeing that the Soviets could not be broken, the divisions turned toward Kramatorsk to prepare for a new attack on that town.

At Grischino and Krasnoarmeiskoye the battle continued unabated. Wiking had now been joined by the two regiments of the 333rd, and Gille’s artillery was hammering the Russian rear areas. In addition, the Soviets were now running short of supplies.

Although Henrici’s XL Panzer Corps had its various units involved in several actions stretching from Kramatorsk to Krasnoarmeiskoye, he still had the opportunity to disrupt the supply line to the 4th Guards Tank Corps. Armored reconnaissance companies fought running battles with Soviet supply columns trying to make their way south, and the roads were soon littered with flaming trucks. The hit-and-run tactics of the Germans struck as the Russians were spread out in single file and usually ended with the destruction of most of the supplies.

Poluboyarov, growing desperate, ordered the 9th Independent Guards Tank Brigade to try and breach the closing ring around Krasnoarmeiskoye. The 9th hit the Westland Regiment north of Krasnoarmeiskoye near the village of Rovny. More than a dozen tanks with mounted infantry pierced the German line and made a push toward the center of the village.

The regimental commander, SS Sturmbannführer Erwin Reichel, had just taken over after SS Sturmbannführer Harry Polewacz was killed in combat. Reichel ordered a battery of 88mm guns supported by Panzergrenadiers into the center of Rovny as the Soviets approached. When the Russians reached the interior of the village, the 88s destroyed almost all of the tanks. The stunned Russian survivors fled, leaving 12 blazing hulks and dozens of dead behind.

“Throw Everything in”

Vatutin was not about to give up on Group Popov. Gathering all available reserves, the Soviet general sent them to reinforce the spearhead at Krasnoarmeiskoye. When word was received that Russian reinforcements were headed south, new orders were sent to the scattered German forces of the First Panzer Army. The Wiking and the 11th Panzer Division were told to halt their attacks on February 14 and attempt to pin down the Russian forces at Krasnoarmeiskoye and Kramatorsk. Meanwhile, the battle to hold the Slavyansk area would continue. Von Mackensen also ordered Henrici to use whatever resources necessary to keep pressure on the supply columns following the reinforcements heading toward Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps.

Henrici angrily replied to the order, “What am I supposed to use? My men are stretched to the limit already.”

“Just do it,” von Mackensen replied. “Throw everything in. I don’t care how you do it—just get it done!”

While things were strained in the First Panzer Army, the situation around Kharkov was at a critical stage. By February 10, Golikov’s 40th and 69th Armies were battling on the outskirts of the city, with the recently arrived II SS Panzer Corps putting up fierce resistance. Bitter fighting raged for the next five days, and Hitler personally intervened, ordering the corps commander, SS Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant General) Paul Hausser, to hold the city at all costs.

Infuriated at what amounted to a death sentence for his men, Hausser disregarded the order and pulled his SS divisions out of Kharkov, forcing other defending German units to disengage as well. On February 16, Golikov reported to Moscow that Kharkov was once again in Soviet hands.

The Aftermath Of The Battle Of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad marked the turning point of World War II. In the end, it was the fight against the Soviets, not against western Europe, that led to the Nazis' defeat. After the Battle of Stalingrad, even the tone of the Nazi propaganda changed. The loss had been so devastating that it could not be denied, and it was the first time that Hitler publicly acknowledged defeat.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda specialist, gave a speech after the battle stressing the mortal danger that Germany faced, and calling for total warfare on the Eastern front. Thereafter, they launched Operation Citadel, attempting to destroy the Red Army at the Battle of Kursk, but they would fail yet again.

This time, the Nazis would not recover.

Next, take a look at 54 photos of the Battle of the Bulge that capture the Nazis' last-ditch counteroffensive. Then learn about the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of World War I.