Operation Hubertus (ii)

Hubert

This was the German fourth and final offensive by Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army and part of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee of Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ in their effort to take Stalingrad (11/15 November 1942).

By this time the battle for control of Stalingrad had become the battle of attrition that Paulus had feared for some time. His forces’ shortage of heavy weapons and ammunition were serious, but the most crucial lack was that of combat troops. None of the German divisions was anywhere near its establishment strength, and the only reinforcements being received were a trickle of convalescents returning to front-line duty. Paulus appealed on several occasions for a major reinforcement, and believed strongly that time was running short for his 6th Army to secure the remaining tenth of the devastated city still held by General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov’s 62nd Army of General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front. As his forces regrouped early in November, Paulus became increasingly concerned by the fact that his men lacked the clothing and equipment for winter warfare, and also by the import of intelligence reports of increasing Soviet activity along his north-western and south flanks, which he thought presaged a major Soviet offensive.

von Weichs and General Georg von Sodenstern, his chief-of-staff, met their 6th Army subordinates, Paulus and Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt respectively, during 1 November to discuss the question of ‘how the attack on Stalingrad can be nourished with new forces, since the strength of [Generalmajor Heinrich Kreipe’s] 79th Division has so far declined that it can no longer be considered for larger missions’. Paulus thought of exchanging the 79th Division, which was in the centre of the Stalingrad front outside the Krasny Oktyabr steel factory, for Generalmajor Hans-Adolf von Arenstorff’s 60th Division (mot.), which was part of General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps on the northern part of the front. Getting the one out of the line in the centre and moved to the north and the other out of the north and moved into the centre of the line would inevitably require take some time, however, and the 60th Division (mot.), which was in a sector which could hardly be described as quiet, would also need a few days of rest before it could make a useful contribution to the German effort in the centre.

von Weichs proposed possibly taking two regiments from Generalmajor Hans-Georg Leyser’s 29th Division (mot.), which was closer to the sector which required reinforcement and was acting as the mobile reserve for both the 4th Panzerarmee and General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army.

Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV, had made an offer both welcome and troublesome. He had said he would be willing to relinquish some of his air force’s allocation of railway haulage space to allow the army to bring in more artillery ammunition as the fighting in Stalingrad was being fought as quarters so close that he believed the Luftwaffe incapable of intervening effectively.

Two days later, von Sodenstern informed Schmidt that the Oberkommando des Heeres would not allow two regiments to be detached from the 29th Division(mot.) but had instructed von Weichs to let Paulus have five combat engineer battalions from divisions in the line along the Don rover. The idea of using the engineer units had reached Adolf Hitler, through Luftwaffe channels, from von Richthofen, who had a habit of making unsolicited suggestions for the conduct of the ground war and had been impressed with the performance of the combat engineer units in the assault on the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory. von Sodenstern said that the staff of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ believed that the reinforcement of the 6th Army with engineer battalions would be of considerable benefit, but Schmidt responded that the engineer battalions could not be truly effective replacements for infantry: Schmidt added that while the engineers were very capable in tasks such as bunker busting and the destruction of other major targets, what the 6th Army needed was infantry strength. The attack on the tractor factory, Schmidt pointed out, had been successful because the army had then possessed the infantry strength to mop up behind the engineers and the Panzergrenadiers.

Chuikov, who on 17 October had shifted the command post of his 62nd Army to the western bank of the Volga river bank just to the east of the Lazur chemical factory, also had an interest, though of a different sort, in the problems of the 6th Army. As he saw the German pressure on his front decrease during the last days of October, he knew that his army would survive for at least one more round. Even so, Chuikov appreciated that his army’s situation was not good: as he himself later put it, he and his troops were sitting with their legs dangling in the Volga, so narrow was their hold on the river’s western bank on Stalingrad. All that the 62nd Army held on the western bank were two small bridgeheads about 820 yards (750 m) deep, one comprising parts of Rynok and Spartacus and the other around the Lazur chemical factory with a narrow, ragged nose extending into the metallurgical plant and upstream along the river bank to the brickworks. Soviet replacements continued to come across the river in numbers as great as the area could accommodate, and the artillery on the eastern bank had become a prominent, and perhaps even a decisive, factor in the battle: the 6th Army attributed the decimation of the 79th Division largely to the massed artillery that the Soviets were now able to deploy.

But while Chuikov and his 62nd Army held out in Stalingrad in a truly heroic effort, the Soviets were concentrating their efforts in sectors outside the beleaguered city, for the build-up for ‘Uran’ was nearing its end so that great pincers could be launched, from the line of the Don river to the north-west of the city and the lakes to the south of the city, to meet in the area of Kalach and Sovetskiy and thus cut off the 6th Army. The South-Eastern and Ryazan-Ural divisions of the railway system, which were those serving the region of Stalingrad, were running at 10 times their normal capacities. Gangs of railway workers were stationed along the track to supplement the mechanical signal systems and to make it possible to run trains at closer intervals, and wagons were being heaved off the tracks at terminal points so that did not have to make the return trip without loads. From the railheads, 27,000 trucks and horse-drawn vehicles delivered ammunition, weapons, fuel, equipment and other supplies to the front. Troops moved only at night and bivouacked under cover during the day to avoid the attentions of von Richthofen’s tactical warplanes. In the period between 1 and 19 November, vessels of the Volga Flotilla carried 160,000 troops, 430 tanks, 600 pieces of artillery, and 14,000 motor vehicles across the river to Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front.

Between 1 and 10 November, General Georgi K. Zhukov and General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet forces and the chef-of-staff respectively, was the Stavka representatives who undertook a series of conferences and inspections to ensure that the plan for ‘Uran’ was fully understood and that all necessary preparations had been made. These were things that could not yet be taken for granted in the Soviet army, and demanded a considerable amount of on-the-spot elucidation and checking.

In his speech on 7 November commemorating the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Iosif Stalin dropped the defensive connotation of his previous ‘Not a step back!’ watch phrase and switched to a more confident note by telling his listeners that the Germans had already felt the force of the Soviets blows at Rostov-na-Donu, Moscow, and Tikhvin, and would in the near future feel the force of new Soviet blows.

On 13 November, Zhukov and Vasilevsky explained ‘Uran’ to the members of the Politburo and the Stavka and assured them that all formations and units, front front right down to regimental levels, knew and understood the plan, the nature of the terrain, and the full spectrum of all-arms co-ordination.

The 6th Army was still on the offensive, however, and there would be another round in the contest for the city. On 3 November von Weichs informed Paulus that the general situation demanded that the battles around Stalingrad be ended rapidly. The 6th Army, von Weichs added, was to receive five assault pioneer battalions in the week, and that these were to be combined with infantry under Panzergrenadier regimental staffs. The next objective was to be the Lazur chemical factory. Two days later, however, von Sodenstern telephoned Schmidt to tell him that the army group had just received word that Hitler had expressed the opinion that the area to the east of the Barrikady gun factory and Krasny Oktyabr metallurgical plant ought to be taken first.

The two chiefs-of-staff agreed, as too did Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the army general staff, that this would consume too much of the 6th Army’s limited combat capability and would therefore in all probability rule out a subsequent attack on the Lazur chemical factory. Even so, on the following day Paulus received a teletype order from Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to the effect that Hitler had ordered that before resuming the attack to capture the Lazur chemical factory, the 6th Army was to take the two sections of the city to the east of the ordnance factory and to the east of the metallurgical plant still held by the Soviets, and that only after the western bank of the Volga river was entirely in German hands was the attack on the chemical factory to be started.

On 7 November, the German artillery began counter-fire against the Soviet artillery across the river, and Paulus informed von Weichs that the 6th Army would start to move into the area to the east of the ordnance factory on 11 November and the metallurgical plant on 15 November at the earliest. As it waited, the 6th Army made some random observations that caused no immediate alarm but were nonetheless not reassuring. One such observation was that in a short course being run to qualify non-commissioned officers from other branches as infantry officers, a number of the candidates declared they would rather not be infantry officers and asked to be returned to their original branches: Paulus ordered the men dropped from the course and sent to the infantry. Another such observation was that several days of temperatures below freezing point signalled the end of the autumnal rains and indicated that winter was about to descend on Stalingrad. From 8 November reports on the Soviet build-up in the Don river bridgeheads opposite the Romanian 3rd Army became more frequent. On 10 November Heeresgruppe ‘B’ moved the headquarters of General Hans Cramer’s XLVIII Panzerkorps into the sector of the Romanian 3rd Army and alerted the 29th Division (mot/) for a move in behind the Romanian 3rd Army at very short notice.

On the other hand, owing to a quirk of nature, the 62nd Army was confronted with the most immediately ominous new development. Unlike other Soviet rivers, the Volga does not freeze quickly: it first forms slush, then ice floes that accrete along the banks, then a massive layer of drifting ice than can sink the strongest boat but is too treacherous to be crossed by men or animals on foot. Thus it is a matter of weeks or, in some years, months before the surface freezes solid. This meant that the 62nd Army faced an extended period of isolation during the advent of the full winter of 1942/43.

In these circumstances Paulus decided on ‘Hubertus’ (ii) as a last effort to complete the seizure of shattered Stalingrad. All available forces were to be concentrated in Oberst Herbert Selle’s so-called Gruppe ‘Schwerin’ controlled by Generalleutnant Erwin Jaenecke’s 389th Division under the supervision of von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps. Five battalions of assault pioneers, each with combat engineers trained in the demolition of fortifications and currently being readied for delivery into Stalingrad by air, were earmarked to lead the assault in combination with the assault engineer teams already inside the Stalingrad pocket (Hauptmann Welz’s 179th Pionierbataillon of the 79th Division, Hauptmann Weimann’s 308-man 294th Pionierbataillon of the 294th Division and Hauptmann Pfitzner’s 389th Pionierbataillon of the 389th Division). The new teams were Hauptmann Drewitz’s 285-man 45th Pionierbataillon from the 6th Army which arrived on 4 November, Hauptmann Gast’s 459-man 50th Panzerpionierbataillon from the 22nd Panzerdivision which arrived on 6 November, Major Krüger’s 319-man 162nd Pionierbataillon from the 62nd Division which arrived on 6 November, Hauptmann Traub’s 305th Pionierbataillon of the 305th Division which arrived on an unspecified date, and Hauptmann Lund’s 382-man 336th Pionierbataillon from the 336th Division which arrived on 6 November. The standard weapons of these teams were sub-machine guns, flamethrowers and demolition charges. A dozen experimental assault guns mounting 150-mm (5.9-in) guns would join other armoured vehicles for the street fighting, and in an effort to reduce strongpoints, 210-mm (8.27-in) howitzers would maintain a steady fire for several days. Paulus emphasised these extraordinary preparations in an order to his troops on the eve of the attack. At the same time, however, special aid stations and field burial formations quietly moved up to the front lines. When the officers of the new pioneer battalions met in Stalingrad on 9 November, they were met by Major Josef Linden, who was to command their phase of the operation. Among the targets shown to these officers was the Krasny Barrikady ordnance factory, which appeared to be ‘loosely hanging corrugated steel panels that creaked eerily in the wind; a perfect mess of iron parts, gun barrels, T-beams and huge craters’.

Everywhere cellars had been transformed into strongpoints, and every unturned stone threatened a booby trap. At the Krasny Barrikady factory the combat engineers were ordered to direct their first assaults at two Soviet strongpoints, the so-called Chemist’s Shop and Red House. The troops began the careful task of readying their demolition charges and flamethrowers, confident that they would take both within a matter of minutes.

The Soviet defenders were well aware of what was afoot. Compressed into a zone only 6 miles (10 km) long and at most 1 mile (1.6 km) deep, with the freezing Volga river at their backs, the exhausted Soviet troops entrenched themselves in cellar bunkers protected by heavy machine guns and anti-tank guns. Steel plates with holes drilled through exposed only the muzzles of the guns, while mines and booby traps were strewn with abandon. Penal companies were organised into tank-killer combat groups. Shells for heavy artillery were withheld by the Stalingrad Front, but despite the straits in which the 62nd Army now found itself, Chuikov was nonetheless able to distribute sparse ammunition and food supplies to the men still in the factories.

The 62nd Army was indeed at the end of its tether, for the weeks of fighting had taken their toll on even the stolid Soviet morale, and the commissars of the 62nd Army were ordered into the front lines to maintain discipline.

At 03.00 on 11 November, ‘Hubertus’ (ii) began with short and violent German artillery barrage, and then 10 battalions of German infantry, supported by tanks and pioneers, stormed toward the Krasny Barrikady factory, the Krasny Oktyabr factory and nearby ruins. Seven German divisions moved on a 3.2-mile (5-km) front between Volkhovstroyevskaya street and the Banny gully, and the Soviet defenders prepared themselves to meet the Germans head-on. An isolated Soviet command under Polkovnik Gorokhov attempted to relieve the pressure by counterattacking from the railway bridge over the mouth of the Mechetka stream toward the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory. Fighting was unusually bitter, even by the fanatic standards of Stalingrad, and quarter was neither asked nor given. Near the Krasny Oktyabr factory, one group of the German pioneer assault troops encountered a Soviet assault group that was just moving into position and, inside a work hall, heavily armed soldiers fired point-blank into each other. Some German units were forced back to their start lines, and Soviet local counterattacks with a few tanks blunted other advances. The Chemist’s Shop fell almost at once, but the occupants of the Red House fought off attacks throughout the day and night.

When Paulus arrived at his forward command post, just before 10.00, he learned that the attack was making progress, albeit only slowly. By the fall of dark, one of the corps’ spearhead had reached the cliff overlooking the river and another had reached the river’s western bank. The 6th Army reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres that the attack to the east of the ordnance factory achieved a partial success against a numerically strong foe resisting with great bitterness. Paulus added that he would regroup the next day and resume the advance.

At dawn on the following day, 12 November, when the engineers finally broke into the place, the Soviet defenders pulled back into the cellar and the Germans then ripped up the floorboards, tossed down containers of vehicle fuel and ignited them with rifle fire, and then lowered and detonated satchel charges. At long last they were in full possession of the Red House, where they then had to remain as they were trapped by withering fire from the Krasny Barrikady factory.

Meanwhile, elements of Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 305th Division and Generalmajor Erich Magnus’s 389th Division made better progress, winning ground on the western bank of the Volga river around the devastated oil depot and Krasny Barrikady factory. To the south, three German divisions were laboriously clearing extemporised Soviet bunkers. After five hours of the grim close-quarter fighting, Paulus committed his tactical reserve, overrunning the right flank of the 95th Division and reaching the Volga river in the area of the Krasny Oktyabr factory on a 600-yard (550-m) front. This isolated the 138th Division from the remnants of the 62nd Army. When Soviet reinforcements tried to land from across the river, they were driven back by heavy Flak and machine gun fire. The 138th Division, trapped in an angle of land only 400 yards (365 m) wide and 100 yards (90 m) deep, behind the Krasny Barrikady factory, was written off.

But this time there was not the tension that there had previously been among the officers of the 62nd Army, for they knew this had to be the Germans’ last effort to take Stalingrad. Though the fighting was hard and the situation fluidly critical, Soviet commanders were optimistic. The casualties on each side were extremely heavy. Both German and Soviet commanders called on their superior formations for ever more men, and pestered their subordinate units for detailed situation reports from subordinate commands, but all requests up and down the chains of command were futile. The 336th Pionierbataillon of the 336th Division lost 18 men to a booby trap even before they had left their start positions. Defending the open ground in front of the Krasnaya Barrikady factory, the 118th Guards Regiment had 230 men when the fighting began on 11 November, and lost 244 men (a figure including reinforcements) in the first five hours of fighting. The German engineers had lost 440 men in the same period. At the oil depot, the commander of the 112th Guards Regiment could field less than 100 men in each of his battalions, and every other staff officer was dead. General Major Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 138th Division numbered only 700 effectives. A number of regiments simply ceased to exist in the cauldron around the Krasny Barrikady factory. The 138th Division was in a very precarious position. Chuikov took to calling him by radio each hour to tell him help was on the way. This was pure bluff, intended to deceive German listeners, for in fact Chuikov had no help to spare for Lyudnikov. The relief of the trapped division was to be a matter of men creeping toward his position building by building. Indeed, with the dawn of the next day, everywhere in the city the Soviet troops began to counterattack, block by block, house by house, and room by room.

Despite their losses, the Germans doggedly resumed their attacks on the morning of 12 November. But such attrition could not long be survived and the shattered city itself frustrated all efforts by each side to create co-ordinate operations. By the evening of 12 November, all four of the German pioneer-spearheaded thrusts had broken down into savage little battles that did not differ from the previous street fighting.

By 12 November Paulus was having also to keep an eye on the situation of the Romanian 3rd Army, and during this day he was ordered by von Weichs to extract 10,000 from his engineer and artillery units to man a support line behind the Romanians. Meanwhile, Hoth was trying to establish the significance of the considerable Soviet movements opposite his 4th Panzerarmee, though he was absolutely sure that the Soviets were not merely strengthening their defences.

To the east of the ordnance factory, on 13 November, the LI Corps conducted what the the 6th Army defined as ‘successful shock troop actions’, taking two blocks of houses and one large building called the ‘commissar’s house’. On the Volga river, the ice was beginning to pile up along the bank. Two days later, after regrouping once more, the LI Corps launched more shock troop actions and farther narrowed the Soviet bridgehead to the east of the ordnance factory. During the night of 15 November, the 62nd Army counterattacked along the whole line and was halted and then driven back. von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s dispositions were so upset, however, that it was impossible to undertake even shock troops actions on the following day. Meanwhile the drifting ice on the Volga river had been compacted into an almost solid cover extending as much as 80 yards (75 m) from the shore.

There could be no more thought or talk of one last big German push in Stalingrad. Soviet artillery and troops were standing by to leave rather than to reinforce the Soviet positions in the city, and was seen to be moving to the north-west, where the defensive line was manned by the Romanian 3rd Army, and to the south, where it was held by the 4th Panzerarmee.

Dozens of clashes ebbed and flowed in the city for another three days before ‘Hubertus’ (ii) was called off on 15 November. Right to the end, though, so tight and intermixed were the German and Soviet lines that German and Soviet troops often found themselves defending positions in the same building.

On the morning of 17 November, Hitler informed Paulus that he was aware of the difficulties of the fighting in Stalingrad and of the 6th Army loss of combat strength, but that the drift ice on the Volga river posed still greater difficulties for the Soviets, and therefore that if the 6th Army exploited this opportunity the Germans would save much blood later. He therefore expected that the leadership and the troops would once again, as they often had in the past, devote all their energy and spirit to penetrating at least to the Volga river in the area of the ordnance factory and metallurgical plant, and taking these sections of the city. Paulus replied that both he and this subordinate commanders in Stalingrad were acting entirely in accord with Hitler’s intention to exploit the Soviet weakness occasioned during the last few days by the drift ice on the Volga river, and that Hitler’s order would give the troops a fresh impulse.

Hitler’s expectations had diminished, but the capabilities of the 6th Army had diminished still further. The only progress of any kind made by the aftermath of ‘Hubertus’ (ii) on 17 and 18 November, and that not substantial, was in the north where Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps had been grinding its way forward at Spartacus and Rynok for weeks. Paulus proposed, after another regrouping, to attempt a thrust to the Volga river out of the northern part of the metallurgical plant sector on 20 November.

At dawn on 19 November, the sound of a huge Soviet artillery bombardment away to the north-west signalled the start of the Soviet ‘Uran’ counter-offensive not only to relieve the city but to trap and then destroy the 6th Army.