This was the German central portion of the ‘Blau’ triple summer offensive of 1942 on the Eastern Front, later redesignated as ‘Clausewitz’ (30 June/31 July 1942).
The undertaking was launched by Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army (18 German divisions of General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps, General Karl Hollidt’s XVII Corps, General Hans von Obstfelder’s XXIX Corps, General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps, and General Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps) of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. The object of the offensive was to advance to the south-east from an area just to the west of Kharkov and destroying the Soviet forces to the west of the Don river in the area of Stary Oskol and then, with the support of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee after completing its involvement in ‘Blau I’, farther progress on a south-west axis along the ‘Donets corridor’ to the west of the Don river with the object of reaching, but initially not of taking, Stalingrad at the apex of the great westward bend of the Volga river and only a short distance from the eastward bend of the Don river at Kachalinskaya.
On the other side of the front line, the Stavka had failed to come to the correct assessment of the axis along which the German summer offensive was aimed. This was despite the fact that the Soviets had the German plan as, on 19 June, the observation aeroplane in which Major Joachim Riechel, the chief of operations of Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s 23rd Panzerdivision, Major Joachim Reichel, was the passenger was shot down over Soviet-held territory near Kharkov. The Soviets recovered maps, detailing the exact German plans for 'Blau', and these were delivered to the Stavka in Moscow. Iosif Stalin came to the decision that these were a 'plant' as part of a German deception ruse, and remained sure that the primary German strategic goal in 1942 would be Moscow, in part as a result of 'Kreml', the German deception plan aimed at that city. As a result, the main strength of the Soviet area was deployed father to the north, although the direction from which the 'Blau' offensives would be launched was still defended by the Bryansk, South-West, South and North Caucasian Fronts. With about 1 million soldiers in the front line and another 1.7 million in reserve, the Soviet forces threatened by the 'Blau' offensives nonetheless amounted to about 25% all Soviet troops.
After their reverses in the opening days of the 'Blau' offensives, the Soviets reorganised their front-line forces several times. Over the course of the campaign, the Soviets also fielded General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s (from 14 July General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin’s) Voronezh Front, General Leytenant Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s (from 23 July General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov’s) Stalingrad Front, General Leytenant Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Transcaucasus Front, and General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov’s Caucasus Front, though not all of these were in existence at the same time.
With the German thrust expected in the north, the Stavka planned several local offensives in the south to weaken the strength and resolve of the Germans. The most important of these local offensives was aimed at the city of Kharkov and was to be undertaken primarily by Timoshenko’s South-West Front and supported by General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South Front. This 'Izyum Bridgehead Offensive Operation' was scheduled to start on 12 May, shortly before a planned German offensive in the area, and proved disastrous for the Soviet operation, which ended with the 2nd Battle of Kharkov that was a major Soviet defeat and severely weakened the Soviet forces. At the same time, the Axis forces' clearance of the Kerch peninsula at the eastern end of Crimea and 'Storfang' (the battle of Sevastopol), which lasted until July at the other end of Crimea, weakened the Soviets still further and made it possible for the Germans to supply Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ across the Strait of Kerch via the Kuban peninsula in the south of the Sea of Azov.
A key element in the triplet of 'Blau' operations was effective close air support by the Luftwaffe. The Soviet air forces were contained by German air superiority, and further interdiction of Soviet air strength was provided by attacks on airfields and lines of communication. This made it possible for the German air force to operate as a spearhead rather than a support force, ranging on ahead of the tanks and infantry to disrupt and destroy defensive positions. As many as 100 German aircraft were concentrated on a single Soviet division in the path of the spearhead during this phase. Within 26 days the Soviets had lost 783 aircraft of General Major Stepan A. Kravsovsky’s 2nd Air Army, General Major Konstantin A. Vershinin’s 4th Air Army, General Major Sergei Goryunov’s 5th Air Army and General Major Timofei T. Khriukin’s 8th Air Army, whereas the Germans had lost only 175 aircraft.
The 4th Panzerarmee comprised General Werner Kempf’s XLVIII Panzerkorps (one Panzer, one Panzergrenadier and two motorised infantry divisions) and General Erich Straube’s XIII Corps (three infantry divisions), and was followed by General de corp de armatâ Corneliu Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps (six divisions). With air support for ‘Blau II’ provided by the nine fighter, nine bomber and three dive-bomber Gruppen of General Martin Fiebig’s VIII Fliegerkorps within Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s (from 20 July Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s) Luftflotte IV, ‘Blau II’ got under way on schedule as the 6th Army attacked and split General Major Vasili N. Gordov’s 21st Army and General Leytenant Dmitri I. Ryabyshev’s 28th Army of General Leytenant Fyedor Ya. Kostenko’s South-West Front.
On 9/10 July Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was divided into Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the south and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in the north, and and the pace of the German advance was initially slow as much of the army group’s transport had been switched from the area of what was to be Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to that of the imminent Heeresgruppe ‘B’.
At the end of June 1942 the 18 divisions of the 6th Army’s five corps included Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s 3rd Panzerdivision, von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s (from 20 July Generalmajor Erwin Mack’s) 23rd Panzerdivision, and Generalmajor Max Fremerey’s 29th Division (mot.) of Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) (from 9 July the XL Panzerkorps commanded from 20 July by General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg).
By the fourth day of its offensive, the 6th Army had met von Weichs’s (from 15 July Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s) 2nd Army near Stary Oskol, in the process cutting off parts of General Major Aleksei I. Danilov’s 21st Army and General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s 40th Army.
During the second week of the German summer campaign there emerged the first of several differences between Adolf Hitler and von Bock about the progress of operations. It was the intention of the German leader that the Don river should provide protection for the left flank of the German advance, and also that all of the German armoured formations should move rapidly south to reinforce the forces involved in ‘Blau III’, leaving only the smallest possible number of infantry formations to hold the line of the Don river. In his Führerweisung Nr 41 of 5 April and his 12 April order to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, Hitler had insisted on the seizure of Voronezh, despite the fact that this lay slightly beyond the eastern bank of the Don river. By 3 July Hitler had become somewhat less certain of what he wanted, and decided that it might not be necessary to seize Voronezh, and accordingly informed von Bock to take it or not as he though suitable, although he also added that von Bock’s decision, whatever it was, was not to delay the shift of the German armour to the south-east.
Given his concerns about some Soviet tank formations to his south, the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ became increasingly reluctant to despatch troops to the south, and an immediate consequence was that the one corps of the 4th Panzerarmee already launched in this direction lacked the strength to envelop the formations of the 21st and 28th Armies pulling back to the east under pressure of the 6th Army’s progress. By 8 July von Bock had released further Panzer formations from Voronezh for movement to the south, but within a day or so the movement of these formations stopped near Tikhnaya Sosna as they exhausted their fuel. As a result it was 13 July before the 4th Panzerarmee reached Boguchar, and in all von Weichs and Paulus took only 30,000 prisoners.
The 4th Panzerarmee was the other major formation involved in the advance on Stalingrad, and reverted to the command of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ (redesignated from Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and now under the command of von Weichs) at the end of July. The 4th Panzerarmee had turned sharply to the north-east after crossing the lower part of the Don river and was advancing along the railway linking Kotelnikovo and Stalingrad with the five divisions of General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army falling back before it. Hoth’s progress was slowed not so much by Soviet resistance, which was weak, but rather by fuel shortages, which frequently immobilised a significant part of his formation.
The 4th Panzerarmee comprised General Rudolf Veiel’s XLVIII Panzerkorps and General Erich Straube’s XIII Corps, in all four divisions of which only one was a Panzer formation, and in its rear followed Dragalina’s six-division Romanian VI Corps.
The 6th Army’s 'Fischreiher' offensive into the Don bend and to the Volga river began on 22 July but made only slow progress as Generalmajor Eduard Wagner, the quartermaster-general, acting on the instructions embodied in Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July, had diverted the bulk of the available transport capacity from the area of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to that of Heeresgruppe ‘A’. Once made, this radical error could not easily be undone and as a result the 6th Army was stalled for 10 days.
Commanding the Bryansk Front, Golikov was dispatched by Moscow to the danger area of Voronezh, leaving his deputy, General Leytenant Nikandr Ye. Chibisov, in command. General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, who had taken over on 11 May from Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov as chief of the general staff, was attached by the Stavka to Chibisov’s Bryansk Front, by then consisting of General Major Filipp F. Zhmachenko’s 3rd Army, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army, General Major Aleksandr I. Lizyukov’s 5th Tank Army and General Leytenant Grigori A. Khaliuzin’s 48th Army, as well as two tank and one cavalry corps detached from the high command reserve. According to Vasilevsky, the Bryansk Front at that time mustered 1,000 tanks, of which 800 were T-34 medium and KV heavy machines, and possessed strength adequate for the defeat of the thrust on Voronezh by von Weichs and Hoth. For a number of reasons the front failed to do so, however, although the pressure it exerted between Livny and Voronezh had the effect of pinning and keeping Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee in the north, when according to Hitler’s directive it should have been moving south-east down the right bank of the Don river.
On 5 July Vasilevsky was recalled to Moscow, where Iosif Stalin and the Stavka had decided on a command reorganisation to meet the new threat. On 7 July, meanwhile, Golikov formed a new Voronezh Front from the Bryansk Front with himself as commander: the new front comprised the 40th, 3rd and 6th Armies, together with three additional rifle and one tank corps. Only one week later Golikov handed over to General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin who, after returning from an appointment as chief-of-staff of the North-West Front, had become a deputy chief of the general staff once more. On 12 July the South-West Front was re-formed as the Stalingrad Front, still under the command of Timoshenko, with three new armies drawn from the reserve and deployed north of the Don river and in the Don bend. Destined to become famous in the defence of Stalingrad, these formations were General Leytenant Vladimir Ya. Kolpakchy’s 62nd Army, General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 63rd Army and General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov’s 64th Army, each having a strength of only six infantry divisions. To these were to be added General Major Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 38th Army and General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 28th Army both on the verge of conversion into tank armies, General Leytenant Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 57th Army, and General Major Aleksei I. Danilov’s 21st Army. These last four formations were all remnants of the South-West Front. Having presided over the successive defeats of Kharkov and the Donets river, Timoshenko was recalled to Moscow on 23 July and replaced as commander of the Stalingrad Front by General Leytenant Vasili N. Gordov.
Stalingrad itself was threatened, and the same process now followed as had characterised the defence of Leningrad and Moscow in the previous year. Many thousands of workers built three lines of defensive works ringing the city from the west, the outer of which was nearly 300 miles (480 km) in length. More than 80 home guard and worker battalions were already in existence, and the number was steadily increased as battalions were successively brought into the line to receive their baptism of fire. By the middle of July the Soviet forces had by then withdrawn to the eastern bank of the Don river except for a substantial pocket in the Don river bend with its western limit set largely by the Chir and Tsimla rivers.
The Stalingrad Front had been entrusted with the defence of an area extending some 450 miles (725 km) from a northern junction with Vatutin’s Voronezh Front to a southern junction with General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South Front on the Sarpa lakes. On 5 August the Soviet high command decided that the Stalingrad Front’s line was too long for effective control, and therefore divided this original Stalingrad Front into a new Stalingrad Front under Timoshenko’s successor, Gordov, between Pavlovsk to the Volga river and therefore north of the city of Stalingrad, and a new South-East Front, under General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko opposite Stalingrad, responsible for the southern flank toward the Kalmyk steppe.
This was a decision later seen as having been short-sighted as, when the campaign became centred in the area round Stalingrad, effective co-ordination of the defence was made more difficult and further compounded by the mutual dislike of Eremenko and Gordov.
During the last two weeks in July, the 6th Army began to tighten its grip on the Soviet bridgehead to the west of the Don river bend, which was occupied in the north by the 62nd Army and in the south by the 64th Army, together with the 1st and 4th Tank Armies being created, as noted above, out of the 38th and 28th Armies respectively. The 62nd and 64th Armies each comprised the equivalent of some six infantry divisions and several tank battalions. Largely as a result of the fact that they were involved in re-equipping from the infantry to the tank role, the 1st and 4th Tank Armies were disorganised and lacking in adequate training for their new role. Another negative factor was their lack of their establishment strength of tanks.
In accordance with the ‘stand and fight’ order issued on 28 July by Stalin, the Soviet formations were prohibited from any withdrawal to the eastern bank of the Don river. The 6th Army attacked the Soviet bridgehead to the west of the Don in a enveloping attack each of whose pincers was based on one Panzer corps and one infantry corps. This cut off the 62nd Army and 1st Tank Army, pinning them against the Don to the west of Kalach, and the encirclement of the quasi-pocket so created was completed and cut off from the river by the movement round its flanks and rear of General Gustav von Wietersheim’s XIV Panzerkorps and General Willibald Freiherr von Langermann und Erlenkamp’s XXIV Panzerkorps.
The 1st Tank Army counterattacked without securing any improvement in the Soviet situation. The fighting lasted over the next few days, and although they did manage to destroy the bridge over the Don river at Kalach, the Soviets had finally to surrender, losing 35,000 men killed or taken prisoner, as well as almost 270 tanks and 600 pieces of artillery.
The next German step was to remove the Soviet forces, mainly the 4th Tank Army and part of the 1st Guards Army, from the area farther to the north near Sirotinskaya on the apex of the Don river’s great eastward bend, and this was achieved by 15 August, when the Soviets surrendered 13,000 men and pulled the survivors back over the river. Try as they might, however, the Germans could not eliminate the Soviet bridgehead on the western bank of the Don river to the south of Kremensk, and this small western lodgement later became a key to the Soviets’ eventual crushing defeat of the 6th Army. Elsewhere the Soviet troops maintained their hold on the eastern bank of the Don rover.
Meanwhile, to the south of the Don river, the 4th Panzerarmee had driven the 51st Army, now effectively shattered, out onto the Kalmyk steppe, where its presence still constituted a threat, albeit only limited, to the right flank of ‘Blau II’, and the Axis troops moved over the Aksai river, which was held by three of the 64th Army’s infantry divisions as a flank guard. The divisions counterattacked, gaining no success against the Germans but limited success against the Romanian VI Corps, which approached breaking point but was rallied by its German liaison officers. The 4th Panzerarmee then pressed ahead to Tinguta, less than 50 miles (80 km) from Stalingrad, and prepared to advance up the Volga river’s western bank to the city. This thrust fell on the 64th Army on the west and part of the 51st Army on the east, and on 5 August Hoth’s forces breached Stalingrad’s outer defence perimeter on each side of Abganerovo. A fierce tank battle developed around Tinguta railway station, and Hoth realised that his 4th Panzerarmee could advance no farther until some of the weight had been lifted from it by a renewed advance over the Don river by the 6th Army, which was still held up about 62 miles (100 km) to the west.
The weight of the 4th Panzerarmee’s thrust had severely worried the Soviet high command, which was nonetheless adamant that the south-eastern sector of the perimeter would be held, and on 28 July had issued another ‘stand and fight’ order. On 12 August, in the aftermath of the major Soviet defeat in the Don river bend to the west of Kalach, Vasilevsky visited Stalingrad and decided that the division of local command, decreed only a week earlier, had been a mistake and decided to rectify matters by the creation of a unified command. The Stalingrad Front (63rd, 21st, 1st Guards, 4th Tank, 24th and 66th Armies) was put under the overall control of Eremenko, former commander of the South-East Front’s 62nd, 64th, 57th and 51st Armies; Gordov remained with the Stalingrad Front and Golikov, newly arrived from the Voronezh Front, took over the South-East Front, and both of these officers became Eremenko’s deputies. In the 15 days to the end of August the 62nd Army was completely rebuilt, and the 1st Guards, 21st, 63rd and 4th Tank Armies were strongly reinforced and also reorganised.
On the other side of the front line, Heeresgruppe ‘B’ now planned to annihilate the 66th, 4th Tank and 62nd Armies in the neck of land separating Vertyachy on the Don river and Stalingrad on the Volga river, and also to check any Soviet effort to pour reinforcements into the area. To achieve this object, the 6th Army was to throw four bridges across the Don river at Vertyachy and then advance to the west in the direction of Stalingrad on a narrow front comprising one infantry corps in the centre and one Panzer corps on each flank. At the same time the 4th Panzerarmee was to attack to the north from the high ground north of Tinguta and reach the Volga river to the south of Stalingrad. The arrival of the two German armies on the Volga would trap many Soviet formations in the sector to the south-west of Stalingrad, and these would then be wiped out.
Before the Germans were ready to resume the offensive, though, the Stalingrad Front on 20 August started a major attack on the German northern flank from the Kremensk bridgehead, gaining some ground and pinning down a German corps of one Panzer and three infantry divisions. At the same time, Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army started to arrive farther to the west, this Italian formation having been shifted from Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ in the south to a new position facing north against the Don river and in the process releasing German troops for a more offensive part in the proceeding which were about to start. The sector was to be no sinecure for the Italians, however, for on 20 August the 63rd and 21st Armies to the north of the river started probing the sector, and indeed secured another bridgehead on the southern side of the Don river between Yelanskaya and Serafimovich.
The 6th Army’s land bridge operation started at dawn on 23 August as the XIV Panzerkorps, heavily supported by the aircraft of von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV, speedily overcame the defences of General Leytenant Anton I. Lopatin’s 62nd Army and by nightfall had advanced more than 50 miles (80 km), which was a very considerable achievement, as Generalmajor Hans-Valentin Hube’s 16th Panzerdivision arrived on the western bank of the Volga river between Yerzovka and Rynok, immediately to the north of Stalingrad.
On 23/24 August Stalingrad was heavily bombed, much of the city being burned out, combat began in the northern outskirts of the town. Soviet communications broke down, and for a time the Soviet resistance was both weak and poorly co-ordinated. After communications with Moscow had been re-established, Vasilevsky had a painful conversation with Stalin, who had thought that the city had fallen. By 25 August, however, the XIV Panzerkorps had been checked and was suffering heavy casualties, being stretched out in a long corridor, nearly 30 miles (48 km) long but only 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, whose 60 miles (100 km) of flank were strongly attacked.
The 6th Army now needed the reduction in the Soviet pressure which would be created by the 4th Panzerarmee’s planned thrust from the south. There was a problem here, however, as the German armoured formation was facing a major obstacle in the form of the heavily mined area to the north of Tinguta, which formed a part of the inner defence belt of the city, so Hoth was compelled to break off the attack and shift the weight of his effort some 20 miles (32 km) farther to the west. The necessary regrouping took time, and it was not until 31 August that General Viktor von Schwendler’s IV Corps and General Rudolf Veiel’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, spearheaded by Generalleutnant Bruno Ritter von Hauenschild’s 24th Panzerdivision, cut the railway line to the south of Pitomnik fewer than 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Stalingrad. The 62nd and 64th Armies retired to the east in response to orders to fall back into Stalingrad’s inner defensive perimeter.
The 4th Panzerarmee and the 6th Army finally linked near Pitomnik on 3 September. Erroneously seeing the Soviet withdrawal as the first step toward a retirement to the eastern bank of the Volga, Heeresgruppe ‘B’ ordered the 6th Army and 4th Panzerarmee to press into the city from the west, but the 4th Panzerarmee’s attempt failed because of the Soviet strength on the flanking high ground at Beketovka, and the 6th Army lacked the strength required to make the final effort.
The evacuation of Stalingrad’s civilian population, which totalled some 600,000 persons, meanwhile continued. The city itself had not been fortified at this time, but the destruction of many of its buildings blocked the German axes of advance far more efficiently than any man-made defences could ever have achieved. One of the main difficulties suffered by the defenders of the city was that the Germans soon had the town and the river under observation, both from the air and from the high ground of the Kurgan hills and the sand dunes in the south. All movements and every attempt to run supplies across the river by daylight were immediately detected by the Germans, who responded accurately with artillery fire and so brought such efforts to a halt.
So great was the imminent threat at the end of August that the Soviet high command attached General Georgi K. Zhukov to the headquarters of the Stalingrad Front, which had just been moved out of Stalingrad north to Malaya Ivanovka on the land bridge mid-way between the Volga and Don rivers. The 1st Guards Army was brought east from the Kremensk bridgehead and concentrated, together with the 66th Army and General Major Dmitri T. Kozlov’s 24th Army, on the Don river’s western bank immediately to the north-west of Stalingrad. The two latter armies were both poorly trained and had been thrown together hastily using elderly men. On 11 September command of the 62nd Army, which had been reduced in strength to only some 50,000 men, was assumed by Chuikov in succession to General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov, the chief-of-staff and temporary commander. By this time Stalingrad’s defensive perimeter had been reduced to a strip, long and narrow, along the western bank of the Volga river, at its widest point no more than 10 miles (16 km) across and at its narrowest mere 4 miles (6.4 km) across. To the north of the town the Germans held about 5 miles (8 km) of the Volga river’s western bank, their positions in this area separating the 66th Army in the north from the 62nd Army in the city. Immediately south of the city, flanking the 62nd Army, was the 64th Army.
Inside the city itself with the 62nd Army was an NKVD (secret police) division commanded by Colonel Aleksandr A. Sarayev, who was also the commander of the city’s garrison. The primary task of this division was policing operations against the Soviet army formations which, under the German hammer blows, were rapidly breaking up and streaming to the rear, but was itself soon to be drawn into the battle, having been put under command of the 62nd Army despite NKVD pressure.
During July and August there had been great Soviet chaos between the Don and Volga rivers: many formations had disintegrated, numerous men had melted away, and great snaking columns of refugees, many with their cattle and agricultural equipment, trudged slowly east toward the Volga ferries and bridges despite German air attacks. When Chuikov arrived at his new headquarters on the Mamayev-Kurgan, he found that his armour had unilaterally pulled back onto the eastern bank of the Volga river and that nearly all of his principal subordinates had disappeared. One of the characteristics of Soviet troops was the unpredictability of their fighting capacity, and at this decisive time a high proportion of Soviet troops, especially the infantry, were committed to battle with little or no training and revealed a propensity to break under the first shock of battle. Within 48 hours Chuikov had managed to dispel this fear.
Although the Germans lacked any intelligence of new armies (there were none) being gathered on the eastern bank of the Volga opposite Stalingrad, it was clear that the 62nd and 64th Armies were receiving major reinforcements from across the river at night by means of the Volga Flotilla’s vessels. Each of the Soviet armies was reckoned at eight full infantry divisions, but to these were added many miscellaneous detachments (some of them the remnants of broken formations) and substantial numbers of home guard and workers battalions.
von Weichs, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘B’, was sure that the German offensive had to be resumed and completed before the Soviet forces could gain additional strength. On 7 September General Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps of the 6th Army attacked with Generalleutnant Carl Rodenberg’s 76th Division on the right and Generalleutnant Rolf Wuthmann’s 295th Division on the left: fighting their way east from the area of Gumrak, these two formations advanced on to the Mamayev-Kurgan elevation and to the city centre, moving forward on a very narrow front and systematically fighting their way along the 4 miles (6.4 km) to the Volga river. On 14 September the Germans had taken the main railway station and detachments had reached the edge of the river, and in the process cut the 62nd Army in two. About 5 miles (8 km) farther to the south, on 10 September Veiel’s XLVIII Panzerkorps attacked to the north-east along the junction of the 62nd and 64th Armies, and the combat’s ferocity reached new heights. In Minina, in south-western outskirts of the city, the 24th Panzerdivision of the XLVIII Panzerkorps was attacking through scattered buildings and settlements separated by thick scrub and across deep ravines caused by seasonal flash floods. T-34 medium and T-60 light tanks, supplemented by artillery, had been dug in and cleverly camouflaged, but the infantry accompanying the German tanks was able to negotiate the terrain impassable by armour and killed the gun crews while also taking out the tanks with anti-tank grenades.
But then the 24th Panzerdivision was counterattacked by determined Soviet infantry emerging from the area’s tangle of vegetation, and driven back. By 14 September the Germans had taken the old town of Tsaritsyn, to the south of the Tsaritsa stream, and the XLVIII Panzerkorps was on the banks of the Volga river from the area east of the main railway station to Kuporosnoye farther down the river, where it linked with the LI Corps.
By this time the 62nd Army was wholly separated from the 64th Army, which lay to the south of the city. Thus 14 September marked the zenith of German fortunes. German aircraft were mining the Volga; the old town, the city centre and the main railway station had been taken, and German street-fighting teams roamed throughout the dock area. Despite the severity of the fighting to date, however, the German formations had still to experience the ghastly experience of combat in urban areas. Close-quarter fighting of this type always favours the defenders and causes heavy losses among the attackers. Because of the limited fields of vision available in the wreckage of Stalingrad, German tank, artillery and mortar fire support could not always be used to beneficial effect, and there were enormous problems in pinpointing targets for air attack, especially as the defenders soon learned that the best way to improve their own chances was to huddle as close to the German positions as possible. The German numbers were so inadequate that they were forced to attack on very narrow fronts, and they were completely incapable of securing their gains against the activities of small Soviet units, regular and irregular, infiltrated into the areas behind the front line.
On the night of 14 September the 13th Guards Division was ferried across the river to the western bank, and the first real inklings that the tide was starting to turn against the Germans came when this first major reinforcement was supplemented over the next few days by the arrival of two more infantry divisions, one rifle brigade and even one tank brigade.
On 15 September the fighting flared round the main railway station, which changed hands several times on the following day, and at much the same time Soviet detachments were attacking toward Mamayev-Kurgan. The Germans then opted for a change in tactics: rather than try to hold all their gains, they narrowed their attacks still further and, maintaining some flexibility, constantly changed the axes of their attacks. This resulted in little further success, however, and during the second half of September the fighting died down with the XLVIII Panzerkorps and LI Corps holding in the southern end of the city.
On 20 September Paulus reported that in the absence of reinforcements the 6th Army could achieve no more, and both he and von Weichs were beginning to entertain doubts about the continued security of the flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ as the 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army were at the head of a long and notably exposed salient. To the south the flank was uncovered except for a single German motorised formation, Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.), far off in the Kalmyk steppe, and when Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps took up a flanking position near the chain of lakes centred on Lake Tsatsa it suffered a sharp defeat by comparatively small Soviet forces. This confirmed to the Germans that Romanian formations were unreliable unless led by German officers and supported by German units. This fact was as evident to the Soviets as to the Germans, moreover, yet the Germans nonetheless intended that General de corp de armatâ Constantin Constantinescu-Clap’s Romanian 4th Army should take command of the Romanian VI Corps and General de divizie Flora Mitranescu’s Romanian VII Corps, and should also become responsible to the 4th Panzerarmee for the defence of the southern sector of Heeresgruppe ‘B’’s front.
The northern flank of the salient from Stalingrad west to the Kremensk bridgehead was covered by three German corps, none of which could be spared to force a decision in the city as they were under attack by larger Soviet forces moving down the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers, and from the Kremensk bridgehead. To the west of Kremensk, the protection of the northern flank along the Don river was entrusted to three allied formations, namely General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army which was just moving into place, Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army and Vezérezredes Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army. The 8th Army had already yielded territory to a Soviet probing attack across the river and, although it had then managed to check the Soviet advance, but the German forces were unable to eliminate this new bridgehead between Yelanskaya and Serafimovich.
The problem that was now looming over the German forces in the centre of the Eastern Front lay with the fact that Hitler was adamant that the whole of Stalingrad, now little more than rubble, must be taken before he would consider action to clear the danger spots on the flanks of Heeresgruppe ‘B’. Meanwhile this army group, like Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and the Luftwaffe, was condemned to a hand-to-mouth logistical existence at the end of a long and insecure railway line which extended more than 1,200 miles (1930 km) from eastern Germany. As a result ammunition and fuel were severely rationed. Moreover, neither Heeresgruppe ‘B’ nor the Oberkommando des Heeres had available any effective troop reserves, and by the end of September Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had become bogged down in the Caucasus.
The first cold weather of the new winter would arrive shortly, and the experiences of the previous winter should have suggested both the immediate withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ from the Caucasus to Rostov-na-Donu and the planning of the evacuation, should this become necessary, of the 6th Army and 4th Panzerarmee from Stalingrad to the line of the Kalitva and Donets rivers. This would have shortened the fronts to be held, and also permitted the building up of major reserves. Rational thinking of this nature was impossible as long as Hitler believed, as he did, that the USSR was in its terminal throes. Hitler also believed that such withdrawals, even on a temporary basis, would have a decidedly adverse effect on the thinking of Turkey and Germany’s allies. Thus on 6 October Heeresgruppe ‘B’ stressed to its subordinate formations that the seizure of the whole of Stalingrad had been ordered by Hitler as the army group’s most important task, and that this would require the commitment of all the available forces. On 14 October Hitler issued an order in which he described the Soviets as being severely weakened and the current positions on the Eastern Front as the starting points for the 1943 German offensive campaign.