This was the German plan to seize the agriculturally fertile areas of the Caucasus region and also to take the oilfields situated at and to the south-west of Maykop, around Grozny and near Baku on the coast of the Caspian Sea (23 July/18 November 1942).
The operation was authorised by Adolf Hitler on 23 July, and was to use Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s 17th Army (supported by the four divisions, including two Romanian, of General Franz Matenklott’s XLII Corps detached from Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army), part of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV and, as an allied contribution, General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army. Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was supported to the east by Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and by the rest of Luftflotte IV. Accompanied by some 15,000 oil industry workers tasked with bringing the oilfields, after they had been captured, into full German service, totalled some 167,000 men, 1,130 armoured fighting vehicles, 4,540 pieces of artillery and 1,000 warplanes.
The campaign passed to a number of stages, and these were known to the Soviets as a number of discrete undertakings such as the ‘Tikhoretsk-Stavropol Defensive Operation (25 July/5 August), ‘Armavir-Maykop Defensive Operation’ (6/17 August), ‘Novorossiysk Defensive Operation (19 August/26 September), ‘Mozdok-Malgobek Defensive Operation’ (1/28 September), ‘Tuapse Defensive Operation’ (25 September/20 December) and ‘Nalckik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation’ (25 October/12 November).
Several German petroleum companies, such as Ost-Öl and Karpaten-Öl, had been awarded 99-year leases to exploit the Caucasian oilfields, and had started to prepare for their new financial opportunity by stockpiling large quantities of piping. A special economic inspection organisation, headed by Generalleutnant Nidenfuhr, was created, bombing of the oilfields was forbidden and, to protect the newly taken and reactivated installations again attempted demolition and/or sabotage by the Soviets, single dedicated SS guard and Cossack regiments were formed. Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr intelligence apparatus, created ‘Schamil’ to plan and execute special forces airborne undertakings to drop in the area of Grozny, Malgobek and Maykop to work with local fifth-column elements in tasking the oil installations and holding them until relieved by conventional forces arriving overland.
The oil, which Heeresgruppe ‘A’ hoped would sustain its own operations and from which Hitler expected to fuel the whole of the German war machine, was produced in fields situated at and to the south-west of Maykop, around Grozny, and near Baku on the west coast of the Caspian Sea. These represented the German forces’ ultimate strategic objectives for the summer of 1942 as a result of their potential importance to the German war effort and, conversely, the presumed effect of their loss on the Soviet ability to further German aggression. On the map these strategic objectives appeared, by comparison with the distances the German forces had already covered in reaching the line of the Don river, comparatively close at hand, but the distances the Germans would actually have to cover in order to reach them were still very considerable, and also demanded the passage of terrain varying from high snow-covered mountains to steppe area more akin to arid desert than useful grasslands. Ignoring mountains, rivers, deserts and road (or rather non-road) conditions, and also the circuitous paths often demanded by military situations, the straight-line distances from Rostov-na-Donu were 180 miles (290 km) to Maykop, 400 miles (645 km) to Grozny and 700 miles (1125 km) to Baku. The scale of the undertaking is nicely suggested by the fact that the distance to Baku was somewhat more than the whole distance of the advance across the USSR to Rostov-na-Donu.
The greatest advantage enjoyed by Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the later part of July 1942 was that the Soviet grip on this huge area was militarily weak as he armies defending it were mostly the shattered remnants of past defeats. On 28 July, the Stavka had merged what was left of General Leytenant Rodion I. Malinovsky’s South Front into Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front. This controlled the 9th, 12th, 18th, 24th, 37th, 47th 51st and 56th Armies, as well as single independent infantry corps and cavalry corps. Six of the eight armies had made the retreat to the Don river, and two of them, the 9th and 24th Armies, had suffered so badly that they had to be sent to the rear to be rebuilt. Two formations, the 47th and 51st Armies, had been resurrected after the Soviet defeat in the Battle of the Kerch peninsula in May 1942.
Faced with the need to protect a curved front of more than 250 miles (400 km), Budyonny had split his forces into General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s Maritime Operational Group and Malinovsky’s Don Operational Group. The Maritime Operational Group had the 18th, 47th and 56th Armies as well as the two independent corps, and was considerably stronger than the Don Operational Group, and was tasked with covering Krasnodar and the Black Sea naval bases at Novorossiysk and Tuapse. The Don Operational Group had the 12th, 37th and 51st Armies for the defence of the entire sweep of territory to the east of Krasnodar. By 31 July, the 51st Army had been driven away to the north-east, and was then transferred to the Stalingrad Front.
Behind the North Caucasus Front, General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front had the 45th and 46th Armies as well as another of the Kerch armies, the 44th Army, with which to hold the Black Sea coast between Tuapse to Batumi, the mountain passes and the Turkish border, and also to defend the approaches to Baku on the Caspian Sea. To achieve this latter task, Tyulenev planned to locate the 44th Army along the Terek river and back it with a second line of defence along the Sudak river.
Even though the 4th Panzerarmee was ordered to break contact with the rest of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and turn the axis of its advance from south-east down the western bank of the Volga river toward Astrakhan on the north coast of the Crimean Sea to north-east in the direction of Stalingrad, Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had only one significant problem during the first week of August, and that was its increasingly acute shortage of fuel and this its loss of momentum. On 4 August, List predicted that the Soviets probably intended to make a stand to the south of the Kuban river to protect Maykop and the Black Sea naval bases, but as the Soviet troops were losing cohesion it was to be assumed that a rapid assault to the south-east with sufficient mobile strength would meet with no serious opposition at any point to the north-west of Baku. Operations over the next days appeared to support List’s contention. The 17th Army, which was being followed by the Romanian 3rd Army to guard the coast, reported that the Soviets were retreating at an increasing rate. The 1st Panzerarmee had established a bridgehead across the Kuban river, and on 5 August bridged the river and captured 51 loaded trains on the railway line, to the south of the river, kinking Kropotkin and Armavir. The headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ now readied General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps to spearhead the advance into the mountains to the south of Armavir. On 6 August the infantry of the 17th Army drove forward 30 miles (48 km). Moreover, by crossing the Kuban river, the 1st Panzerarmee had forced the 12th Army to the west into the area of the Maritime Operational Group, thereby reducing the Don Operational Group to just the 37th Army.
In one respect, though, List’s prediction was already beginning to develop cracks. On the Terek river, to the left of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, the Stavka had ordered the Trans-Caucasus Front to create a new North Operational Group, under the command of General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov, on the basis of the 44th Army and the headquarters of the 9th Army. This North Operational Group was of little consequence at the time of its creation, but seven divisions and four brigades were coming to join it from the Turkish border, and the Stavka was sending two guards infantry corps (seven brigades) and 11 independent infantry brigades by rail to Astrakhan and thence by sea to Makhachkala. Thus Heeresgruppe ‘A’’s advance to the Black Sea would not be uncontested.
However, Soviet changes in the area of the Terek river were of no aid to their forces struggling on the Kuban river, which the 1st Panzerarmee had now crossed in strength and was pushing to the south-west in the direction of Maykop, guided night and day by sheets of flame and clouds of smoke many thousands of feet tall as the Soviets had fired the oil refineries and tank farms.
Even so, 9 August was good for Heeresgruppe ‘A’. Despite temperatures as high as 100° F (38° C) and a major dust storm, the 17th Army took Krasnodar on the northern bank of the Kuban river while the 1st Panzerarmee passed through Maykop and reached the oilfields, where it found all the above-ground equipment completely destroyed but the wells themselves unfired. Air reconnaissance reported large Soviet columns streaming away to the south, and List concluded that the Soviets had in all probability abandoned any intention of making a stand anywhere to the north of the main part of the Caucasus mountain range.
The 17th Army was encountering more of a fight on the Kuban river than it had anywhere else on the 140-mile (225-lm) progress from Rostov-na-Donu, but even so the most urgent problem facing Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was not concerned directly with the Soviets but resulted rather from its orders under Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July, which had outlined the army group’s tasks in ‘Edelweiss’ (i). Almost the full strength of the 1st Panzerarmee was being drawn to the army group’s right flank and, just as had happened at Rostov-na-Donu a fortnight earlier, this was causing a logistically difficult and tactically disadvantageous concentration of divisions around Maykop.
While on the earlier occasion List and his staff had permitted themselves be governed entirely by instructions from the Oberkommando des Heeres, they now had their own plan. This was designed to maintain the spirit of the Führerweisung Nr 45, stop the westward pull on the 1st Panzerarmee, and make it possible to pursue the opportunities evident in the east. The army group plan would also create another major division in the offensive, but this seemed to be of no great significance in comparison with the advantages which could, of as the army group believed, would be gained. The plan was to reorganise the army group and, by transferring General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Maximilian de Angelis’s XLIV Corps, both in the area of Maykop, from the 1st Panzerarmee to the 17th Army, make it possible for Ruoff’s significantly strengthened force capable of clearing the Black Sea coast, and at the same time release von Kleist’s forces to drive to the south-east in the direction of Grozny, Makhachkala and Baku. The changes in the two armies would have the effect of extending the inter-army boundary between the 17th Army and 1st Panzerarmee about 100 miles (160 km) to the east, increasing the 17th Army’s front and shortening that of the 1st Panzerarmee by removing from the latter the responsibility for the area opposite Anapa in the north-west and Sukhumi in the south-east.
The one operational and tactical problem in this thinking was the Caucasus mountain range. The passes to the west of Mt Elbrus offered shortcuts, albeit difficult, to the coast between Tuapse and Sukhumi, and their opening to the German forces would both assist and secure the 17th Army’s advance. To the east of Mt Elbrus, the Grusinian and Ossetian Military Roads could provide access to the trans-Caucasian region, and it would be necessary for the 1st Panzerarmee to take control of these before it continued past Grozny to Makhachkala and Baku on the Caspian Sea. To advance into the mountains, Heeresgruppe ‘A’ the headquarters of General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps with Generalleutnant Hubert Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision, Generalleutnant Karl Eglseer’s 4th Gebirgsdivision and General de brigadâ Ion Dumitrache’s Romanian 2nd Mountain Division. List desired to put the corps headquarters, one of the German divisions and the Romanian division to the west of Mt Elbrus and leave the other German division for the military roads. The OKH approved the plan in general, but Hitler insisted on having both of the German mountain divisions to the west of Mt Elbrus, which left the 1st Panzerarmee with just one untried non-German division for the execution of a highly critical mission.
The reorganisation was to take effect as soon as the 1st Panzerarmee had full possession of the Maykop oilfields and the 17th Army had cleared the lower reaches of Kuban river which, it was believed, would take only a few days more but in fact required a considerably longer time. Both armies found the pace of their advances rendered steadily slower as they reached the outlying mountains. These were not nearly as high as the mountains of the main range, but were nonetheless steep and cut by heavily wooded gorges. To the south of Krasnodar and along the Kuban river to the east of this city, the 17th Army had to contend not only with mountainous terrain but, for the first time since it crossed the Don river, the type of concerted Soviet resistance which required it to switch to methodical and therefore slower attack.
As noted above, tfter Rostov-na-Donu had been taken on 23 July, the leading elements of the 1st Panzerarmee had moved toward Caucasus mountain range. Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision was directed through the gorges of the Kuban river basin and by means of the Marukhsky pass, Teberda and Uchkulan was to reach the Klukhorsky pass, and simultaneously to reach and hold the Khotyu-tau pass and so block the upper reaches of the Baksan river and the Donguz-Orun and Becho passes. Concurrently with these flanking movement, the German plan demanded that other forces should the cross Caucasus mountains by the Sancharo, Klukhorsky and Marukhsky passes to reach Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Sukhumi and Tbilisi. The leading formation in this part of the undertaking was Eglseer’s 4th Gebirgsdivision, which got to a position within 19 miles (30 km) of Sukhumi.
In order to secure the desired axis of advance from the Kuban region, capture the passes leading to Mt Elbrus and shield the right flank of ‘Edelweiss’ (i), a vanguard detachment of 150 men advanced from the Old Karachay via the Khurzuk-aul and Ullu-kam gorges to the Khotyu-tau pass, which was occupied without Soviet interference. The starting point of the operation toward Krasnodar, Maykop and Pyatigorsk was thus reached on 10 August.
While the diminution on the pace of the German advance was unexpected, it was accompanied by an unanticipated success. On 12 August the XLIX Gebirgskorps drove into the mountains to the south of Armavir and in four days was engaged with the Soviet rearguards at the important Klukhorsky pass, some 30 miles (48 km) to the west of Mt Elbrus, and was forming a party to climb its 18,481-ft (5644-m) height and plant a German flag on its summit, a task which was achieved on 21 August after one mountain battalion had deceived the Soviet defence and reached the Kadar gorge.
If the mountain troops managed to cross the mountains and reach the coast near Sukhumi, they would undermine the entire Soviet defence of the area to the north as far as Novorossiysk. To assist in exploiting that prospect, the army group despatched two battalions of specialised high-mountain troops in seized motor buses from Stalino.
The German advance into the mountains severely shocked the Soviet high command, which had presumed that the mountains could in effect defend themselves with the aid of just a few units. The Trans-Caucasus Front had allocated Sergatskov’s 46th Army to hold the passes and the military roads, and this formation had supposedly been at work fortifying them since June. According to all the post-war Soviet accounts, the blame for the failure to make a better initial showing rested with the Trans-Caucasus Front, which showed complacency, and the 46th Army, which revealed an overall ineptitude in mountain warfare.
Another, and different, problem lay in the fact that the Germans placed a great reliance on what they perceived as the instability of the area and anti-Soviet feelings of its inhabitants, which they sought to increase by establishing agents and provocateurs among the nationalist elements in the Caucasus both before and during ‘Edelweiss’ (i). There were no actual uprisings against the Soviets, but many of the mountain peoples welcomed the invaders as liberators and, in many cases, made available guides. Some men from this region, taken prisoner earlier in the war, had already enlisted in German service, and the high-mountain battalions had with them platoons of Cherkess, Chechen and Dagestani personnel.
When the 17 Army reached Krymsk, mid-way between the Kuban and Novorossiysk, on 17 August, List issued a directive putting the reorganisation of the army group into effect on the following day. The 17th Army then became responsible for all of the territory to the west of Mt Elbrus, and at the same time acquired three short-term tasks: the first was to complete the advance to Novorossiysk with its original forces; the second was to drive along the road extending to the south-west from Maykop to Tuapse with the two corps taken over from the 1st Panzerarmee; and the third was to push the XLIX Gebirgskorps through the Caucasian passes and down the south-eastern slope of the mountains to Sukhumi. The 1st Panzerarmee, whose XL Panzerkorps under General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg was nearing the Terek river and III Panzerkorps under General Eberhard von Mackensen was approaching from the north-west, now had to cross the Terek river, take Ordzhonikidze and Grozny, and open the Grusinian Military Road.
None of these missions seemed difficult, and certainly not impossible. The 17th Army had cover 25 miles (40 km) to reach Novorossiysk and about the same to Tuapse. The approach to Sukhumi depended on which of a dozen passes was used. List and Ruoff preferred the Klukhorsky pass, some 50 miles (80 km) to the north-east of Sukhumi and required a major curve to the east, but in exchange offered a route usable by motor vehicles over most of its length, while the others were usable only by men and pack animals. The 1st Panzerarmee’s spearhead approaching the Terek river was about 65 miles (105 km) from Ordzhonikidze and 90 miles (145 km) from Grozny.
The pace of the Germans advance was slowing, however, in the face of more difficult terrain and weather conditions, and the steadily improved quality of the Soviet defence. Whereas an advance of 30 miles (48 km) per day had been feasible in the first part of ‘Edelweiss’ (i), by 18 August the typical day’s advance was in the order of 5 miles (8 km), and the 17th Army had often reduced to progress of 2 miles (3.2 km) or less.
General Wilhelm Wetzel’s V Corps had been at Krymsk on 17 August and was still in action there on 20 August. Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Ludwig Müller’s XXXIV Corps were pinned in seesaw battles in the mountains to the south and west of Maykop. Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps was into the Sancharo pass to the north-east of Sukhumi and through the Klukhorsky pass, but was making steadily slower progress.
Constantly short of fuel, the 1st Panzerarmee reached Mozdok on the northern bank of the Terek river on 24 August and then had to plan its assault across this fast-flowing river which, as it was the final natural line of defence before Grozny and Makhachkala, would certainly be held in strength by the Soviets.
Although to some extent still on the retreat everywhere, the Soviet forces were beginning to gain the advantages of a narrower front and shorter lines of communication, especially in areas which were excellent for defensive purposes. The North Caucasus Front had the 47th and 56th Armies around Novorossiysk, and the 12th and 18th Armies to the north and east of Tuapse. The Trans-Caucasus Front’s North Operational Group had the 37th, 9th and 44th Armies along the Terek river, and the 58th Army being raised at Makhachkala.
Heeresgruppe ‘A’, on the other hand, was in effect being bled dry not so much by combat with the Soviets, but by the spasmodic but apparently never-ending removal of formations to bolster other army groups. Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) and Generalmajor Wilhelm von Apell’s 22nd Panzerdivision left during the second week of August, the former to go to the Western theatre via a detour to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and the latter to Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army. Moreover, by the time these divisions had left, Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had been informed that it was to lose one Flak division and two rocket-launcher regiments. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Gabriele Nasci’s Italian Corpo d’armata Alpino (Generale di Brigata Luigi Reverberi’s 2a Divisione alpina ‘Tridentina’, Generale di Brigata Umberto Ricagno’s 3a Divisione alpina ‘Julia’ and Generale di Divisione Emilio Battisti’s 4a Divisione alpina ‘Cuneense’) appeared briefly in the area of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ during the middle of the month and then was diverted to Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8th Army without ever reaching the front.
von Richthofen informed List on 20 August that he had to concentrate all but very small elements of his Luftflotte IV to the attack on Stalingrad on the direct orders of Hitler, though he thought that the aircraft could be back within 10 days. Two days later, Hitler, who was worried about what he thought might be a strong Soviet concentration to the west of Astrakhan, ordered List to station Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.) at Elista on the 1st Panzerarmee’s extreme left flank, but to provide the fuel to move the division 150 miles (240 km) from Voroshilovsk to Elista, von Kleist had to order the draining of the tanks of one Panzer division.
On 24 August, List went to Armavir to consult with Ruoff, Generalmajor Ernst-Felix Faeckenstedt (von Kleist’s chief-of-staff) and Konrad, and later sent a summary of the resulting conference to the OKH. In this List said that his army group’s operations had ‘lost their mobility’, and that fuel shortage and the loss of divisions and air support had provided the Soviets with the opportunity to dig in and bring up reserves. As a result, the progress of the campaign was being affected significantly for the worse, and in view of the long distances required and the lateness of the season this required serious thought. The extent of the slowing of the campaign became more evident on the very next day, when the 1st Panzerarmee had to call off its attempt to reach Grozny via Ordzhonikidze as it lacked the fuel to do so, and to begin regrouping for a frontal attack across the Terek river via Mozdok.
On 26 August List returned to the subjects he had raised with the OKH two days before. When it crossed the Kuban river, List wrote, the army group had anticipated having the 17th Army in control of the Black Sea coast and the 1st Panzerarmee on the coast of the Caspian Sea by the end of September, but as a result of the reasons given earlier, the operations so far had taken more than the time allotted to them. Consequently, unless they could still reach the objectives, which would take substantial reinforcements and air support, they would soon have to be allowed to take up winter positions and that the time for doing that was almost on the XLIX Gebirgskorps in the Caucasus mountains, where there had already been several snowstorms at higher altitudes. The decision, List ended, could not be delayed past 15 September.
List’s reports did have an effect, but not that which the army group commander had intended. He received no indication of reinforcement, and when Generalleutnant Hans von Greiffenberg, List’s chief-of-staff, tried to find out when the army group could expect to regain an adequate measure of air support, he was informed that the warplanes would return only when Stalingrad had been taken or its seizure given up as impossible. In the situation conference of 29 August, Hitler was clearly very annoyed about the conduct of Heeresgruppe ‘A’[/]’s operations and demanded that List report in person. Hitler was adamant that the problems lay not in the original plan, but in the fact that List had not regrouped when he saw difficulties beginning to emerge. Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the OKH’s general staff, later informed List that Hitler had also raised several specific complaints. These included information from the Luftwaffe that the terrain to the north of Novorossiysk was not dissimilar to the park-like woods outside Berlin and that a vigorous attack could have taken it easily. He also thought that the XLIV Corps had failed to concentrate its forces sufficiently for the attack on Tuapse, and that the XLIX Gebirgskorps ought not to have gone into the eastern mountain passes, the Sancharo and Klukhorsky passes, but instead those farther to the west.
When he arrived at Hitler’s headquarters in the Ukrainian town of Vinnitsa on 31 August, however, List had a reception altogether different from that he had expected. In the meantime the 17th Army had made some progress toward Novorossiysk, and List had begun placing greater strength onto the approaches to this objective. In a god mood, Hitler invited List to lunch, and the atmosphere was so relaxed that later it was difficult to determine what, if anything, had been decided. Hitler told List he really did not have any objections to the way Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had deployed its forces, although he would have preferred to see the mountain corps somewhat closer to the Tuapse road.
Hitler apparently believed that List, who had come armed with aerial photographs from which to show why the mountain corps should be halted, had undertaken to keep the corps going and to shift its main effort farther to the north-west. On the other hand List apparently believed Hitler had agreed to let the mountain corps’ future operations depend on whether or not the army group could find an airfield from which its supplies could be delivered by air. Not in contention, however, was the fact that Hitler had authorised ‘Blücher II’ as an amphibious attack eastward across the Strait of Kerch to destroy the Soviet pocket holding out against the Romanian 3rd Army on the Taman peninsula, and in he process bring into the Taman peninsula one German infantry division and one Romanian mountain division. The undertaking was executed on 2 September. Hitler had diverted enough warplanes from the Stalingrad front to provide beach-head support and to hold off the Soviets’ Black Sea Fleet.
On the same day the 1st Panzerarmee established a bridgehead across the Terek river at Mozdok, and on 6 September the [w]17th Army entered Novorossiysk, taking the centre of the city and the naval base. List then wished to concentrate on the capture of Tuapse and commit the entire XLIX Gebirgskorps, less light security screens to be left in the passes on that objective, but Hitler demanded that advances be continued both toward Tuapse and through the western passes toward Sukhumi.
On 7 September General Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, travelled to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ at Stalino, to meet List and Konrad. Using aerial photographs and captured Soviet maps, List showed Jodl was would be entailed by the continuance of the XLIX Gebirgskorps’ operation as demanded by Hitler: a long approach march over a single mountain trail, transporting all supplies by pack animals, of which the corps had 1,900 less than would be required, and exposure to attacks on both flanks. Jodl returned to Vinnitsa to convey to Hitler the unanimous recommendation of the local commanders that the mountain corps’ operations should be discontinued.
During the afternoon of 9 September, on Hitler’s instruction, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW, called on Halder to tell him that List should resign his command and to infer changes in other senior positions, including those of Halder and Jodl. Keitel later told Jodl’s deputy, General Walter Warlimont, whose status also was in question, that he too expected to be relieved. The morning after he talked to Halder, Keitel had a private interview with List at the latter’s headquarters, and List then resigned. Command of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was then exercised directly by the OKH until 22 November, when von Kleist was appointed as army group commander.
The atmosphere at the situation conference in Vinnitsa on 11 September was very subdued, and Hitler, who normally did most of the talking, said almost nothing. For the next two weeks, Hitler transacted very little business through either the OKW or the OKH. Not naming a successor to List, Hitler ordered Ruoff and von Kleist to submit to him, every other day, situation reports and maps detailed down to battalion level, and to sent to him by telegraph, via the OKH, any tactical proposals and requests. This meant, in effect, that Hitler exercised direct command of the army group via the OKH, and left the army group’s headquarters to deal only with administrative matters.
There were also command changes, though on a lesser level, on the Soviet side. On 1 September, as the Germans were approaching Novorossiysk, Budyonny had been relieved as commander of the North Caucasus Front, which was itself transformed into Cherevichenko’s Black Sea Operational Group of the Trans-Caucasus Front. The Black Sea Operational Group had the 47th, 56th, 18th, 12th and 46th Armies deployed from north-west to south-east on the south-western side of the Caucasus mountains between Anapa and Mt Elbrus, and the North Operational Group had the 37th, 9th, 44th and 58th Armies deployed from west to east between Mt Elbrus and the west coast of the Caspian Sea just to the north of Makhachkala.
It was at this juncture that the campaign appeared to be nicely balanced at the military level, although the stakes were still far from even. While Hitler had reached the point of having to contemplate at least a major disappointment and possibly a large-scale failure, the USSR was facing a national catastrophe. On 6 September, Soviet radio broadcast an impassioned plea from Iosef Stalin for a fight to the end with no thought of further retreat. Heeresgruppe ‘B’ reported Stalin’s plea to the men of its 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army, on the grounds that it was a sign of Soviet desperation, but Heeresgruppe ‘A’ did not follow suit, possibly because it might have been interpreted more ambiguously by the men of the 1st Panzerarmee and 17th Army. As if in response to Stalin’s plea, on 11 September, the slow advance of the 17th Army was finally halted at a cement factory on the southern outskirts of Novorossiysk: here the army remained for the next 360 days until the German ‘Krimhilde’ withdrawal from the Kuban into eastern Crimea. During the morning of 14 September, the X Guards Rifle Corps struck the 1st Panzerarmee’s open left flank to the north of the Terek river and came close to cutting off the bridgehead at Mozdok.
By the middle of September, the 1st Panzerarmee and 17th Army had each been halted, and had either to complete its operational task without delay, or to find the positions it could hold during the approaching winter. The 1st Panzerarmee had to make its flank secure and clear the last Soviets forces from the bend of the Terek river to the west of Mozdok in order to give itself a solid hold on the river before attempting to resume its advance toward Ordzhonikidze and Grozny. Hitler sent SS-Gruppenführer under Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s 5th SS Panzerdivision ‘Wiking’ from the 17th Army to give von Kleist additional strength when he started to advance once more. The 17th Army was in the process of extracting two mountain regiments to the west out of the passes and preparing to make its main effort on Tuapse, if and when could be provided with the required air support.
On 16 September, von Kleist told Hitler, through the OKH, that his strength was just sufficient to keep on fighting until the arrival of the SS division allowed him to advance once more. Two days later, General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps made a tentative attack on the western face of the Mozdok bridgehead but suddenly found itself making rapid progress through the Soviet defences. The eight days which followed were reminiscent of the first days: in the valleys and on the ridges inside the Terek river bend, wherever the Germans attacked the Soviets gave way. On 21 September, von Kleist decided to commit the 3rd SS Panzerdivision ‘Wiking’ as soon as it arrived and then strike to the south in the direction of Ordzhonikidze, with Generalleutnant Traugott Herr’s 13th Panzerdivision moving along the western bank of the Terek river through the ‘Elkhotovo Gate’, and the 3rd SS Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hermann Recknagel’s 111th Division advancing to Malgobek and then to the south along the northern extension of the Grusinian Military Road.
The 3rd SS Panzerdivision crossed the Terek river after dark on 25 September and moved into the line to the north of Malgobek during the same night. von Kleist sent to Steiner a message that all eyes were on his division. The SS division advanced during the morning which followed, and by the afternoon of the following day reached a position only 1 mile (1.6 km) from Malgobek, but here it was brought to a halt without climbing the heights to the south from which it might have been able to effect a breakthrough. By that time the 13th Panzerdivision had reached Elkhotovo and also stopped. von Kleist believed that the SS division had the strength, in numbers and weapons, to have pushed the 35 miles (55 km) to Ordzhonikidze, but lacked the internal organisation required as it had almost 2,000 non-German men (half of them Dutch and Belgian, and the half Scandinavian with the exception of a few Swiss).
On 3 October, again via the OKH, Kleist asked to be informed about the strength and likely timing of the reinforcements which the 1st Panzerarmee need to continue its advance to Makhachkala via Ordzhonikidze and Grozny. The OKH refused to be drawn in any definitive manner, and a week later Hitler answered that, depending on developments at Stalingrad, the army would get either one or two mobile divisions later in the month, and that until that time its task was to ready itself for an advance after the arrival of the reinforcements.
With the 1st Panzerarmee committed in the Terek river bend, on 23 September the 17th Army began its advance on Tuapse, against the 18th Army, along the road from Maykop with Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps followed two days later by Müller’s XXXIV Corps. The straight-line distance to be covered was some 30 miles (48 km), but on the ground across the western end of the main Caucasus mountain range the distance was somewhat greater. Shaumyan, 20 miles (32 km) from Tuapse, was the first objective of the advance, and from there the march would trend downhill. The longest part of the advance, and also that over the worst terrain, was that to be made by the mountain regiments of Generalmajor Hubert Lanz’s Division ‘Lanz’ on the eastern flank. von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV was able to provide adequate air support after Ruoff had insisted that any advance was impossible without it.
Right from its start, the advance was slow, and without the type of Soviet error which had benefitted the 1st Panzerarmee in the Terek river bridgehead, the 17th Army found it very difficult to generate and maintain any real momentum. The Soviet forces were well positioned and determined, with good defences, everywhere, and combat was largely larger than platoon level. The weather was also appalling during this late part of the summer, with very heavy rain in the valley through which the road wended, and almost winter conditions in the mountains. On the sixth day of his offensive, Ruoff had to report that his experienced troops, after a campaign of more than two months, were dead, wounded or just exhausted, and their replacements undertrained and not sufficiently hardened. After another 10 days, the offensive was closing on Shaumyan, and Ruoff thought the defence might be weakening as the Soviets had not launched counterattacks in the past day or two despite the danger to Shaumyan.
On 10 October, at the same time that he told von Kleist to wait for reinforcements, Hitler ordered Ruoff to drive straight on to Tuapse after taking Shaumyan.
On 11 October, the the Stavka replaced Cherevichenko with General Major (three days later General Leytenant) Ivan Ye. Petrov as commander of the Black Sea Operational Group. Ruoff said he proposed to do as Hitler had ordered, but he reminded the army group and the OKH that the Tuapse operation, so far, had cost him 10,000 casualties.
This marked the high point of the German advance in ‘Edelweiss’ (i), for although fighting continued to 12 November, the 1st Panzerarmee and 17th Army made no further progress of any significance, and the attention of Hitler and the German high command was focussed increasingly on the unfolding disaster at Stalingrad at the culmination of ‘Fischreiher’.