This was the German southern component of the summer offensive of 1942 in the USSR, later redesignated as ‘Dampfhammer’, and undertaken by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, formed from the southern formations of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ on 7 July (25 July/November 1942).
As originally conceived, the plan for ‘Blau III’ was based on an advance from the north-western edge of the Sea of Azov at Taganrog, which was currently the southern end of the Eastern Front, along the northern bank of the Don river toward a junction at Stalingrad with the ‘Blau II’ advance of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army of von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, but the army group’s modest strength and lack of the heavy bridging equipment needed to cross the Donets river near its junction with the Don river required a revision of the plan for a start point at Artemovsk on the upper Donets river, 150 miles (240 km) farther to the north. In its definitive form, therefore, ‘Blau III’ mandated an eastward drive by List’s left-hand formation, Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee with 15 divisions (including four Romanian, three Panzer and one motorised), to shield the right flank of the 6th Army’s advance through the ‘Donets corridor’ toward Stalingrad, while List’s right-hand formation, Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’, comprising Ruoff’s own 17th Army and Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army, had the task of pinning the Soviet forces between the Sea of Azov and Tsimlyansky, up the Don river from Rostov-na-Donu.
In its original form, the ‘Blau’ triple offensive had been designed to yield a major strategic encirclement of Soviet forces in the manner that had been planned and successfully executed on several occasions in 1941, but the various changes in the concept curtailed the vision on which it had been conceived, and thus transformed it into a series of operational-level encirclements. So successful was Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in ‘Blau III’, however, that its offensive’s scope was later extended in ‘Edelweiss’ (i) to a drive into the Caucasus, with the objects of taking the oilfields at Maykop, Grozny and Baku (the last on the Caspian Sea) and the Black Sea port of Batumi close to the Turkish frontier.
Ultimately, though, the first stages of the German summer campaign of 1942 against the USSR had failed to achieve their full objectives. Despite faults in the execution of the strategic plan and Adolf Hitler’s steady stream of interference, the real reason for German failure was the fact first that the region’s Soviet army group, General Leytenant Fyedor Ya. Kostenko’s South-West Front, lacked the strength and cohesion to offer a determined and effective resistance, and second that the attacking formations lacked the mobility to catch and trap the retreating Soviet troops. This lack of German mobility was a direct consequence of Germany’s overall shortage of motorised troops in combination with supply and transport capabilities that were manifestly inadequate for the task demanded of them.
By the middle of July Hitler had come to believe that the Soviet forces in the south had been virtually destroyed, and so ‘sure’ was this determination that realistic planning for continued operations was effectively impossible.
Thus when Hitler decided on 13 July, against the advice of Generaloberst Franz Halder, chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, to concentrate all the German armour available on the Eastern Front against Rostov-na-Donu, Heeresgruppe ‘B’ could no longer advance on Stalingrad. Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s (from 15 July Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s) 2nd Army was pinned in the north by the attacks of General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s Bryansk Front, and Vezérezredes Gustáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army assumed responsibility for the defence of the Don river front between Voronezh and Pavlovsk, leaving only the 6th Army to cover the long river line south of Pavlovsk and at the same time to advance into the Don river bend. Even when the Italian 8th Army arrived from the south to take over the Don sector immediately to the south of the Hungarians, the situation of the 6th Army’s position was only marginally improved.
Halder disagreed with Hitler’s plans. By 19 July, after several days of argument during which the weather deteriorated and again brought the armour to a halt, there emerged a compromise. Two more corps, one of them a Panzer formation, were allotted to the 6th Army, and Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee were to cross the line of the lower Don river between Rostov-na-Donu and Zimlyanskaya on a front of about 125 miles (200 km).
More serious difficulties were yet to arise. On 11 July Hitler had signed his Führerweisung Nr 43, in which Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army was ordered to undertake ‘Blücher II’ to cross the Strait of Kerch from the eastern end of Crimea into the Taman peninsula and Kuban to take the Black Sea ports of Anapa and Novorossiysk. A mere eight days later Hitler changed his mind once more and now decided that only von Manstein’s Romanian mountain divisions (General de corp de armatâ Gheorghe Avramescu’s Mountain Corps) would cross into the Taman peninsula, thus freeing the 11th Army’s German divisions for service in other theatres.
On 23 July Hitler issued his Führerweisung Nr 45 for ‘Edelweiss’ (i), covering the offensive into the Caucasus, and in the preamble of this document stated that the aim of the offensive to the west of the Don river had already been achieved and that only weak forces from Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s South-West Front had succeeded in reaching the eastern bank of the Don river. List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, which had come into existence on 7 July by the separation of the southern portion of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, whose northern portion became von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, was ordered to destroy the Soviet forces to the south and south-east of Rostov-na-Donu. After this had been achieved, the new army group’s most important task was not, as might have been expected, the seizure of the oilfields and the Caucasus passes, but the occupation of the entire eastern coast of the Black Sea, thereby eliminating the ports and bases for Vice Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet. This was an entirely new strategic aim, carried forward from Führerweisung Nr 43. Although the occupation of the Black Sea coast was given as the most important task, this did not prevent Hitler from ordaining the seizure of Maykop and Grozny (to be carried out at the same time as the Black Sea coastal undertaking) and then an advance on Baku. Heeresgruppe ‘B’ was to seize Stalingrad and advance down the Volga river to Astrakhan in its delta on the north-western coast of the Caspian Sea.
On 4 July Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘B’ had comprised 64 German and 26 allied divisions. Excluding dead, wounded and missing, the Soviet losses in the two or three weeks of fighting had amounted to no more than 80,000 prisoners, a figure which was insignificant within the context of the huge number of men which were available to the USSR. According to a German high command estimate by Oberst Reinhard Gehlen, heading the Fremde Heere Ost intelligence department concerned with the Soviet army, in the middle of August the Soviet army’s strength, over the whole of the Eastern Front, amounted to 254 infantry divisions, 83 infantry brigades and 68 tank brigades, of which about one half were believed to be fit for battle. In addition, Gehlen estimated that there were another 73 infantry divisions, 66 infantry brigades and 86 tank brigades in reserve.
From the other side of the front line, however, the situation looked more serious. Golikov’s Bryansk Front and Timoshenko’s South-West Front had been broken open and a great gap, nearly 200 miles (320 km) wide, had been driven between them. General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South Front had maintained a continuous line against the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’, but it had lost all contact with the South-West Front to its north since the night of 7 July. The headquarters of the South-West Front had fallen back to Kalach on the Don river bend, and was separated in physical and communications terms from all its formations. The Soviet high command had tried without success, as a result of difficult radio conditions, to shift command of the South-West Front’s formations to the South Front.
Strongly supported by the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers of Major Graf Clemens von Schönborn-Wiesentheid’s (from 20 July Major Alfons Orthofer’s) Sturzkampfgeschwader 77 of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s (from 20 July Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s) Luftflotte IV, List’s forces retook Rostov-na-Donu on 23 July without encountering significant Soviet resistance. The Luftwaffe had air superiority during this first phase of the operation and could therefore make effective use of its close support capability without suffering undue losses, thereby considerably easing the task of the ground forces.
With the Don river crossing secured and the 6th Army's advance flagging on the Volga river front, there now came another major change in the location at which the German armour was to be deployed. Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee was removed from Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and returned to Heeresgruppe ‘B’ for use on the Volga river front, but as it was concentrated on a narrow front beside von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee to the east of Rostov-na-Donu and had already secured bridgeheads over the lower Don river at Zimlyanskaya and Nikolayevsk, it had to turn sharply left and move to the north-east along the southern bank of the Don river toward Stalingrad. This led to an enormous German waste of fuel, which was already critically scarce, as formations were transferred by air as well as by land to the Volga river front. Moreover, this divergence of axes led to the gradual opening of a huge gap, several hundreds of miles wide, the area of the Kalmyk steppe between Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘B’ as the two army groups continued their advances to the south-east and east respectively.
Despite the loss of Rostov-na-Donu to the 1st Panzerarmee on 23 July, Malinovsky’s South Front had used to good advantage the wet weather, during which the German armour had been partly immobilised, to pull back its troops behind the lower Don river so that the front faced to the north. Immediately behind Malinovsky stood the troops of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front.
Commanding Heeresgruppe ‘A’, List had his three armies (two German and one Romanian) disposed in two tactical groupings. The first was the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ comprising Ruoff’s own 17th Army (five infantry divisions) and General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army (one infantry and three cavalry divisions), and the second was von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee (three Panzer, two motorised infantry, four infantry and one Slovak divisions). It is worth emphasising, however, that the 1st Panzerarmee had fewer than 400 tanks fit for battle at this time.
In accordance with Hitler’s latest directive, the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ was to strike out with the object of meeting General Franz Mattenklott’s XLII Corps, consisting mainly of Romanian troops, which was to cross the Strait of Kerch from Crimea into the Kuban and clear the Black Sea coast. The 1st Panzerarmee was to move away from the 17th Army on a divergent south-east axis toward Voroshilovsk, Grozny and Baku.
List was unenthusiastic about his assignment. An officer of considerable ability and experience, List was nonetheless already beset by major difficulties. From Rostov-na-Donu to Baku is more than 700 miles (1125 km) in a direct line, and the width of his frontage along the line of the Caucasus was more than 800 miles (1290 km). The Caucasus mountain range is, in places, up to 15,000 ft (4575 m) high, and can be reached only by crossing the great Don river and the network of smaller rivers which flow in an east/west direction and thus lay across his path. The plain lying south of the Don river was covered by huge cornfields and then a hot, waterless steppe. List rightly feared that his formations would rapidly outrun their supplies, and that the mobility of the Panzer and motorised formations would thereby become severely restricted. While it was likely that the Soviet resistance would be poorly co-ordinated and steadily weaken, it was to become clear that the Soviet commanders, whatever their orders, had no intention of standing firm and fighting to the death. Thus no matter how fast and far they marched, the German forces could not overtake the retreating or fleeing Soviet formations, whose men were accustomed to the geography and conditions of the area and unburdened by heavy equipment, most of which had been abandoned or evacuated.
On 25 July the Germans began their ‘Blau III’ offensive from the three main bridgeheads over the Don river. The South Front tried to hold its positions as it was the standard Soviet policy to hold ground rather than seek to draw the Axis forces farther into the depths of Russia, lengthen their lines of communications and so weaken their formations over time and distance before finally turning and destroying them. However, the exhausted and disorganised formations of the South Front were unable to hold firm and the 37th and 12th Armies fell back from the onslaught of the 1st Panzerarmee. The 51st Army soon found itself on the verge of encirclement from the west by the 4th Panzerarmee, which had moved out from its Zimlyanskaya bridgehead on its circuitous north-eastward march on Stalingrad, and was steadily driven to the east until it linked up with the southern elements of the Stalingrad Front. To the south of the Don river, the 1st Panzerarmee crossed the Sal river and the Manych Canal, and the Soviet defences were breached to a depth of 50 miles (80 km) along a front of some 100 miles (160 km). The Soviet communications system simply fell apart and some of the Soviet forces disintegrated and ran.
Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had already lost the 1st SS Regiment ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, which had already returned to France, and the Division ‘Grossdeutschland’, in reality a motorised division, was scheduled to follow.
In the area of the lower Don river the Soviet air force was by now beginning to be both strong and aggressive. With List’s air support reduced just to General Kurt Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps, which currently comprised a mere two Stuka and three fighter Gruppen, the Soviet air forces managed to gain air superiority nearly everywhere, except in those very few areas where the Luftwaffe was able to concentrate its strength and thus create local superiority.
After the battle of Rostov-na-Donu, General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s 56th Army, General Major Fyedor A. Parkhomenko’s 9th Army and General Major Vladimir N. Martsinkevich’s 24th Army had been withdrawn to refit, and the South Front had General Leytenant Fyedor V. Kamkov’s 18th Army and General Major Piotr M. Kozlov’s 37th Army deployed to the south of the Don river, together with General Major Andrei A. Grechko’s 12th Army and General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army from the North Caucasus Front deployed on the extreme right.
Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front, located to the rear in reserve, comprised only General Major Grigori P. Kotov’s 47th Army, General Major Nikolai Ya. Kirichenko’s XVII Cossack Cavalry Corps and some independent infantry corps. On the Black Sea coast and along the Turkish and Iranian frontiers General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, which hitherto had been responsible for the security of the USSR’s southern frontiers, was reinforced and ordered back from the borders in order to secure Grozny, Baku and the passes over the Caucasus mountains, and to prepare them for defence.
The North Caucasus Front was absorbed into the South Front on 28 July, because of his seniority Budyonny being put in notionally overall but actually nominal command. This new front, which continued to be known as the North Caucasus Front, was split into two groups, the Don Group under Malinovsky consisting of only the 37th and 12th Armies with the task of holding the 1st Panzerarmee’s drive toward Grozny, and the Coast Group under General Leytenant Yakov T. Cherevichenko consisting of the 18th, 56th and 47th Armies, together with General Major Nikolai Ya. Kirichenko’s XVII Cossack Cavalry Corps and an infantry corps. Each of these groups was allocated a supporting air army.
The German progress was more a pursuit than an advance, but the whole operation was nonetheless nearly as hard on the Germans as on the Soviets: the marching infantry were once again being driven forward at the rate of 32 miles (50 km) per day in conditions of increasing dust, sand, heat and aridity. The Panzer and motorised formations asked constantly for the aerial delivery of fuel, but had to halt on the frequent occasions on which their demands could not be met. Even so, the advance was surprisingly fast and constantly took the Soviets by surprise.
After crossing the Don river on 25 July, the formations of Heeresgruppe 'A' started to fan out on a front 125 miles (200 km) wide between the Sea of Azov and Zimlyanskaya. The 17th Army, together with elements of the 11th Army and the support of the Romanian 3rd Army, now manoeuvred to the south and also to the south-west in the direction of the Black Sea’s eastern coast, while the 1st Panzerarmee attacked to the south-east. While the 17th Army could advance only steadily, the 1st Panzerarmee was able to roam at will through the Soviet lines. On 29 July the Germans cut the last direct railway between central Russia and the Caucasus region, causing Iosif Stalin and the Stavka enormous consternation: this was reflected in the issue if Order No. 227: 'Not a step back!'. The Germans took Salsk, to the south of the Manych river, on 31 July and then continued to the south and captured Stavropol on 5 August. Although the army group had made ground rapidly during its advance, by 3 August its vanguard comprised only light mobile forces as most of its armour was by now lagging asa result of fuel shortages and logistical failures. Despite the best efforts of Fliegerkorps IV, which flew in supplies around the clock, the supply situation was beyond short-term solution.
Malinovsky’s South Front was able to maintain a cohesive existence, but was nonetheless in a state of very great confusion. Some divisions had only a few hundreds of men, and the communication and supply and transport services were almost entirely disrupted. To the south and east of the Don the roads and tracks were crammed with refugees, lorries, carts, agricultural machinery and herds of cattle, all moving away from the German advance.
At the beginning of August technicians began to remove oil equipment from Maykop, but the rapid German approach made evacuation impossible and the remaining installations were demolished or set on fire. On 5 August Voroshilovsk fell, and on the following day the I Independent Corps broke in front of Armavir, and the 18th and 12th Armies fell back to the south in the direction of the mountains. The Germans pursued the Soviet forces to the foothills, on 8/9 August using special forces to seize the Maykop oilfields (but little refined fuel) and the larger part of the railway system (but virtually no rolling stock). As it entered Maykop on 9 August, the 1st Panzerarmee had more than 300 miles (480 km) in less than two weeks, and soon after this took Pyatigorsk and, on 12 August.
The German advance had been very successful though logistically problematical up to this stage, but the Germans forces' ever lengthening lines of communication were an increasing hindrance to continued advance. The worst problem was the shortage of vehicle fuel. As the Black Sea was not considered safe for operationally significant movements of men, equipment and fuel, as there were still large numbers of Soviet submarines, fuel had to be delivered either by rail through Rostov-na-Donu, or by air. As a result the German armour was sometimes motionoess for weeks. Even the petrol trucks were without supplies, and fuel had to be brought up on camels.
With the Soviets preferring to retreat rather than stand and fight, the number of Soviet troops who were captured was well short of expectations, and totalled only 83,000. At the same time, the focus of the German high command was now shifting ineluctably from the oilfields of the Caucasus to the struggle at Stalingrad, and the Oberkommando des Heeres began to redeploy some of von Kleist’s mobile forces to assist in the battle. von Kleist was also required to give up the whole of General Job Odebrecht’s II Flakkorps and most of his Luftwaffe support with the exception of limited numbers of reconnaissance aircraft. At the same time, the Soviets brought in a bomber force of about 800 aircraft, a third of which were operational. In the effective absence of German air cover and Flak units, the Soviet bombers were able to harass and slow the German advance. The quality of the Soviet resistance also began to increased, many of the forces now used coming from local levies. von Kleist believed that these levies fought with greater determination in defence of their home territory. The number of replacements and quantities of supplies which the Soviets committed also increased. Faced with these difficulties, the Axis advance slowed from 28 August.
On the 1st Panzerarmee's right flank, meanwhile, the 17th Army of the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ had taken Krasnodar and was closing on the Taman peninsula from the north. Before the middle of August, though, the North Caucasus Front noted that the German forces were losing momentum even as its own resistance was steadily increasing in capability. New formations were raised in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and reinforcements and supplies were brought in by rail and by sea through Astrakhan and Makhach Kala along the west coast of the Caspian Sea, the only routes by which the Caucasus was still linked to the rest of the USSR. Grozny, Makhach Kala and Baku were covered by numerous defence lines, mainly based on the mountain rivers, which were developed by military engineers and the civilian population.
On the west coast of the Black Sea the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ was now having great difficulty in moving into the Taman peninsula and advancing toward the major naval base at Novorossiysk, which was defended by the 47th Army and marine infantry brigades. The fighting was particularly fierce near Krymsk and in the heavily wooded foothills.
Hitler was urging List to reach the coast in strength so that he could move down the Black Sea’s eastern coast to Batumi and the Turkish border. This strategy would have split Heeresgruppe ‘A’ into segments on each side of the Caucasus without any provision their supply. The XLIX Gebirgskorps had already taken the Sancharo and Klukhor passes and secured the southern flank of Mt Elbrus, on whose peak, the highest of the Caucasus mountains, German mountain troops hoisted the Nazi flag on 21 August.
but List was unwilling to risk a direct thrust on the port of Sukhumi unless this could be assured of some support from the west along the coast.
Hitler was very dissatisfied with the way in which List had conducted the campaign. On 31 August List was called to Vinnitsa, where the German leader was affable in a face-to-face meeting but then, as soon as List taken to the air on his flight back to Stalino, launched a tirade against him.
The battle for the Caucasian passes had started on 18 August when two divisions of General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps, moving south from Cherkessk to the west of Mt Elbrus, drove back the III Corps of General Major Vasili F. Sergatskov’s 46th Army and seized a number of passes hitherto regarded by the Trans-Caucasus Front as impregnable. The German mountain troops could then advance no farther toward Sukhumi on the coast because of supply difficulties and because the Soviets were making good use of the very difficult country and mountain rivers so favourable to the defence.
On 28 August the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ drove back the 47th Army and reached the Black Sea coast at Anapa, about 30 miles (48 km) to the west of Novorossiysk. List was still severely restricted by supply difficulties and the brigades of oil specialists and engineers which had followed closely behind the troops to exploit the Soviet oilfields had found little that could be rapidly developed.
By the end of August Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front had taken over the responsibility for the defence of the mountain range. Cherevichenko’s former Coast Group was renamed the Black Sea Group of the Trans-Caucasus Front, while the responsibilities of the former Don Group were taken over by Maslennikov’s North Group of the Trans-Caucasus Front consisting of General Leytenant Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 44th Army, General Leytenant Konstantin A. Koroteyev’s 9th Army and General Major Piotr M. Kozlov’s 37th Army. The North Group stood on the Kuma and Terek rivers, barring the progress of the 1st Panzerarmee toward Grozny and Baku.
The activity of the Soviet air force increased in intensity at this time, all the more successfully because, as noted above, the IV Fliegerkorps supporting Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had lost a number of its fighter Gruppen transferred to the Stalingrad area. In the south-east, the 1st Panzerarmee was still 60 miles (95 km) from Grozny and 350 miles (565 km) from Baku. An attempt had been made to close on Astrakhan from the north by sending Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.) across the Kalmyk steppe to Elista, but, although some reconnaissance elements did in fact reach the Caspian Sea, the division hardly came within 100 miles (160 km) of Astrakhan, which was in any event held by General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s newly formed 28th Army.
The time had come for von Kleist to make his final main thrust toward Grozny and Ordzhonikidze in 'Edelweiss' (i), which had been authorised on 23 July. The two Panzer corps of the 1st Panzerarmee were already 25 miles (40 km) to the east of Mozdok and had reached the Terek and Baksan rivers. Soviet air activity, German fuel shortages and the unexpectedly bitter fighting on the Baksan river combined to cause the Germans both delay and concern, and on 25 August it was decided to cross the Terek river on each side of Mozdok, and from the bridgehead so formed thrust the three Panzer divisions of General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XL Panzerkorps due east on Grozny, while General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps moved south into the Malgobek oilfields and Ordzhonikidze. Farther to the south, General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Panzerkorps (comprising at this time only General de brigadâ Ion Dumitrache’s Romanian 2nd Mountain Division and a regimental-sized group of Generalleutnant Traugott Herr’s 13th Panzerdivision) was to cut the Soviet military roads from Batumi and Tiflis in Georgia and so prevent further reinforcements arriving from the south.
Deserters and prisoners revealed that the North Group was being reinforced rapidly from the trans-Caucasus region, the Soviet occupation force in Iran, and the Russian heartland, and from this it was obvious that the German attack had to be mounted without delay. The North Group standing in the way of the 1st Panzerarmee’s eight divisions was estimated to consist of about 40 divisions and brigades. On 30 August the 1st Panzerarmee started to cross the Terek river, but the Soviets were then found to be so strong and their counterattacks so determined that the weight of the German thrust was switched south toward Elkhotovo and Malgobek, in face of a bitter defence by the 9th and 37th Armies, and the fighting was heavy and costly. A further threat developed against the Germans in the north, where on the open steppe flank the IV Guards Kuban Cossack Cavalry Corps, now commanded by Kirichenko, tried to encircle Mozdok.
On 1 September the Germans took Khulkhuta, mid-way between Elista and Astrakhan. Throughout August and September, German patrols harassed and interrupted the railway between Kizlyar, north-east of Grozny, and Astrakhan, and this marked the farthest the German forces were able to advance toward the Caspian Sea. Farther to the south, the 1st Panzerarmee's advance on Grozny stalled after meeting heavy resistance on the ground from Soviet forces supported by the 14th Air Army, which blunted their attacks. By late September and into early October, logistic problems, mechanical problems with armour and motor vehicles which had been too long without major overhaul and maintenance, and determined resistance meant the Axis were barely moving.
By the end of September the 1st Panzerarmee could do no more and had to stand on the defensive until or indeed if Hitler made good his promise to transfer Panzer divisions from the Stalingrad area. Even so, local attacks still gained some successes.
On 25 October, however, yet one more effort was made against the 37th Army’s seven divisions near Nalchik, about 70 miles (115 km) to the north-west of Ordzhonikidze. von Mackensen’s III Panzerkorps, now including two Panzer divisions, delivered a sharp and unexpected attack, supported by all available German aircraft of the IV Fliegerkorps. The headquarters of the 37th Army itself came under heavy air attack and speedily lost control of operations, and Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, fell on 26 or 28 October to the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division and 13th Panzerdivision, which in two days took 10,000 Soviet prisoners. The appearance of German armour on this flank caused concern, and within two days the Soviet divisions had been routed. the west of the city at Vladikavkaz. The German armour was then switched in the direction of Ordzhonikidze, and by 2 November reached a point only 5 miles (8 km) from the town. Snow was already falling, however, and here von Kleist came to a standstill at the most easterly point ever to be reached by German troops.
On 5 November the Germans captured Alagir, and the line between Alagir and Malgobek via Beslan marked the farthest the Germans were able to advance in the south. By this time, the huge gap between Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'B' had dangerously exposed the two army groups to a counter-offensive. In this gap was only the 16th Division (mot.), which was defending the left flank of the 1st Panzerarmee by securing the road toward Astrakhan.
In the western Caucasus and on the Black Sea front, the 17th Army of the Armeegruppe ‘Ruoff’ had continued to make only slow progress against bitter Soviet resistance. Ruoff’s objectives remained unaltered, and were therefore the occupation of the Taman peninsula and the capture of the Black Sea ports of Novorossiysk, Tuapse and Sukhum. At the end of August Romanian cavalry had already occupied the coast town of Anapa, and at the beginning of September the Soviets were driven out of the Taman peninsula. On 6 September German troops took the naval port of Novorossiysk and part of the town before being forced to a standstill by marine infantry brigades and the 47th Army, the latter comprising one mountain and one infantry division.
Meanwhile one German and five Romanian divisions had crossed the Strait of Kerch from eastern Crimea into the Taman peninsula, their passage covered by German navy U-boote and S-boote, which had entered the Black Sea from the Elbe river via the Danube river.
In an attempt to strengthen the 17th Army and improve the logistics situation, on 1/2 September Axis naval vessels delivered 30,605 men, 13,254 horses and 6,265 motor vehicles across the Black Sea to the Caucasus from Romanian ports. Thus reinforced, the Germans captured most of the Black Sea naval bases, but were stalled at Novorossiysk, where the 47th Army had dug in and prepared for a long siege. Novorossiysk fell on 10 September after a bitter four-day battle. This was List’s final, but incomplete, victory in the Caucasus as the 47th Army still held the heights south of the port, and several strategically important coastal roads. Several Axis attempts to push out of Novorossiysk were repulsed with heavy losses. The Axis forces also proved unable to overcome the defences that littered the coastal plain between Novorossiysk and Tuapse, and had the strength only to stabilise their line. Romanian losses were particularly high, the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division being nearly destroyed by a Soviet counterattack on 25/26 September.
On 23 September Ruoff’s force mounted 'Attika', a determined two-corps attack, with a total of seven divisions, against the 56th and 18th Armies covering Tuapse, and after a week had advanced 7 miles (11.25 km) against very determined resistance. By 7 October Cherevichenko had managed to stabilise the position, but a week later the Germans resumed the attack and the Soviet situation deteriorated once more. Petrov now replaced Cherevichenko as commander of the Black Sea Group, and the German attack was brought to a halt only a few miles from the town of Tuapse.
It is worth noting that during the first week of October, Hitler had come to the conclusion that the seizure of the Caucasian oilfields was unlikely before the onset of winter forced the German forces to cease offensive operations. Even so, Hitler was determined to deny the oilfields to the Soviets and ordered Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s Oberkommando der Luftwaffe to organise a bombing effort designed to inflict as much damage as possible on the oilfields and their installations.
On 8 October Hitler demanded that this air offensive to be carried out no later than 14 October as the air formations which would be used were soon to be needed for a major effort at Stalingrad. So, on 10 October, Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps of von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV was instructed to launch every available bomber against the oilfields at Grozny. However, Luftwaffe IV was now a very much degraded formation: the air fleet had begun the ‘Blau’ campaign with 480 bombers, of 323 were serviceable, but now had only 232, of which a mere 129 were available for operations. Even so, von Richthofen believed, his bombers were capable of delivering a severe blow.
The bombers were committed against Baku and Grozny, and attacks up to 12 October caused great destruction. For the Germans it had been a strategic error not to have made this effort earlier in the campaign as the destruction of the refineries would have been a more effective blow to the Soviets than the loss of Stalingrad. On 19 November, the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad compelled von Richthofen once more to withdraw his bomber units northward to the Volga front, thereby ending the aerial offensive. Much damage was done at Grozny, which could be reached by bombers operating from the airfields of the Terek river area, but the other oilfields were beyond the logistical reach of the German army as well as the Luftwaffe’s fighters. However, Grozny and the captured oilfields at Maykop produced only 10% of Soviet oil, and while the other oilfields could have been reached by German bombers, this would have required them to fly to and from their targets by the most direct and therefore predictable route, and without fighter escort. Such attacks could have been possible during August, when the strength of the Soviet air forces in the region was considerably less, but by October such an effort was not longer operationally feasible.