This was a Soviet offensive, more formally known as the 'Middle Don Offensive Operation' within the 'Stalingrad Strategic Offensive Operation', in the Stalingrad and Caucasus regions of the southern USSR to pin the German forces which might otherwise have been available for transfer north to the assistance of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army contained in Stalingrad by ‘Uran’ (16/29 December 1942).
After it had passed responsibility for the Stalingrad sector to Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heersgruppe ‘B’ retained just one primary role, namely the protection of the rear of its southern neighbours, Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’. On the potentially decisive 200-mile (320-km) length of the Don river from Voronezh downstream to Veshenskaya, this was the task of Altábornagy Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army and Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army. The capability of these two formations was considered by the Germans to be poor, for the Romanians had been seen as the most effective of the German allies and their 3rd Army, commanded by General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu, had collapsed totally in ‘Uran’.
Even the simplest glance at a map reveals the great strategic and operational vulnerability of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’, whose very existences depended on the small number of railway lines extending into the steppe regions to the east of the Dniepr, Donets and Don rivers. The most critical locations on these railway lines were of course the bridges which carried them of the great rivers, and most specifically all which was delivered by rail to the east out of the bend of the Dniepr river depended on the bridges at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. The distance from Dnepropetrovsk to the Soviet line at Novaya Kalitva, opposite the centre of the Italian 8th Army’s sector, was in the order of 250 miles (400 km), while that from Dnepropetrovsk to the front on which Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was operating on the Chir river was about 330 miles (530 km), and to the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ about 580 miles (935 km). The Soviets had no need to strike as far to the west as Dnepropetrovsk, however, for on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ their forces were within 80 miles (130 km) of three crossings over the Donets river, namely those at Voroshilovgrad, Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and Belokalitvenskaya. An advance of 150 miles (240 km) from the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ would therefore take them all the way to Rostov-na-Donu. Both Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ were dependent on the railway line through Rostov-na-Donu, and the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was 350 miles 565 km) and the right flank of the 4th Panzerarmee 220 miles (355 km) from Rostov-na-Donu.
The particulars of the German situation were, of course, of considerable interest to the Soviets, and during the night of 23 November, Iosif Stalin instructed General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff, to draft the basic plan for an offensive by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front and the left wing of General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front toward Millerovo and Rostov-na-Donu. It seems that during this same night Stalin also talked to General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko, latterly commander of the 1st Guards Army and now commander of the 38th Army, about a possibly even larger offensive to liberate Kharkov and the Don river basin. In the last week of the month, Vasilevsky and General Polkovnik Nikolai N. Voronov, who would be co-ordinating the operation as the Stavka’s representatives, worked on the plan with Vatutin and Golikov, the front commanders, Vatutin and Golikov. General Georgi K. Zhukov, first deputy commissar for defence and deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces, who had gone to General Polkovnik Maksim A. Purkayev’s Kalinin Front and General Polkovnik Ivan S. Konev’s West Front to supervise ‘Mars’, nevertheless remained in close touch with Stalin and Vasilevsky about strategic operations farther to the south.
On 2 December, Stalin and the Stavka approved the southern operation as ‘Saturn’ and set the readiness date as 10 December. The objectives were firstly to encircle the Italian 8th Army and the elements of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ inside the Don river bend and secondly, by taking Rostov-na-Donu and the lower reaches of the Don river, to cut off the 4th Panzerarmee and Heeresgruppe ‘A’. On the right, General Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army and General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Armies of the the South-West Front, the latter army to be formed by dividing the 1st Guards Army and adding rifle divisions and a mechanised corps from the reserves, were to break through the Italian 8th Army’s left flank near Boguchar, drive almost due south to Millerovo, cross the Donets river at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, and press ahead to the south in order to take Rostov-na-Donu. On the right of the two guards armies, General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army of Golikov’s Voronezh Front would provide flank cover and advance on Voroshilovgrad. To form the second arm of the envelopment, General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army would break through across the Chir river and push along the right side of the Don river’s lower reaches to Rostov-na-Donu.
On 4 December, in Moscow, Stalin and Vasilevsky decided that the time was also now ripe to complete the destruction of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army in Stalingrad, and Stalin gave the operation the codename ‘Koltso’. The basic plan was to split the German pocket along a west/east axis and destroy the two parts in succession. The main effort would be a thrust through the pocket from the west by the Don Front, which was to be allocated General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army from Stavka reserve and be ready to start by 18 December. At the same meeting, Stalin and Vasilevsky decided to strengthen South-West Front’s left flank for ‘Saturn’ by adding General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 5th Shock Army.
‘Saturn’ had not started and ‘Koltso’ was not yet ready when von Manstein began his attempt to relieve the German forces in Stalingrad with his ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) operation. Though the timings are not certain, Vasilevsky was at the headquarters of the Don Front on the morning of 12 December and, a a time after learning of the German operation, telephoned Stalin to ask for the 2nd Guards Army to be transferred to the Stalingrad Front. This was approved, but the loss of the 2nd Guards Army put ‘Koltso’ into abeyance.
On the night of 13 December, according to Vasilevsky, the Stavka decided to reduce ‘Saturn’. Zhukov later said that he, Vasilevsky and the general staff had already decided for a ‘smaller Saturn’ at the end of November, when he had also told Stalin to expect a German offensive toward the Stalingrad pocket from the Kotelnikovo area.
In any event, ‘Saturn’ was thus revised as ‘Malyi Saturn’ (otherwise 'Malen’kii Saturn'). In this revised plan, instead of heading to the south on the line connecting Millerovo and Rostov-na-Donu via Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, the right-hand arm of the envelopment was to advance to the south-east inside the bend of the Don river and the left-hand arm, instead of heading to the south-west, was to advance to the west. The two arms were to meet near Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. The changes in direction reduced the projected depth of the Soviet advance by half.
The development of ‘Saturn’ into ‘Malyi Saturn’ may have been, at least in part, a reflection of the greater degree of caution imposed on the Soviet high command by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front. The West Front and Kalinin Front had begun ‘Mars’ on the morning of 25 November, and in its first phase this offensive repeated the pattern of the fighting at Stalingrad, with massive Soviet thrusts from the east and the west designed to pinch off the German salient centred on Rzhev. However, ‘Mars’ was opposed by Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s battle-hardened 9th Army and, after General Major Nikolai I. Kiriukhin’s (from 4 December General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin’s) 20th Army, which was undertaking the main effort of the West Front onslaught on the eastern face of the salient, lost more than half its tanks by committing them piecemeal in attempting to effect a breakthrough, one Panzer corps was able to hold the Soviets with ease. The Kalinin Front’s attacks on the west, to the south of Bely and along the line of the Luchesa river, fared better and achieved penetration depths of 18.67 and 9.33 miles (30 and 15 km) respectively. Then a 9th Army counterattack on 7 December turned the break-in to the south of Bely into a pocket, in which the Germans eventually counted 15,000 Soviet dead and took 5,000 prisoners. On 11 December, the West Front launched a second attempt, and in the course of the first two days of this renewed Soviet offensive the 9th Army destroyed 295 Soviet tanks. On 13 and 14 December ‘Mars’ became steadily less effective, leaving only the penetration along the Luchesa river to be contested in the period into the beginning of January 1943.
As noted above, the success of ‘Uran’, launched on 19 November 1942, in trapping some 300,000 men of Paulus’s 6th Army and Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee in Stalingrad, had persuaded the Soviet high command that further operations could be undertaken in short order to exploit this victory, and as a result the Stavka planned ‘Saturn’ as a sustained winter campaign of highly ambitious offensive operations. The first stage of this concept was initially planned with the object of cutting off the whole of von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the Caucasus, but this original ‘Saturn’ (known as ‘Bol’shaya Saturn’ after the creation of the ‘Malyi Saturn’ concept) had to be revised very rapidly after von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ had launched ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) on 12 December in an attempt to relieve the forces trapped at Stalingrad.
While Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army, transferred to General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front, blocked the German advance on Stalingrad, the modified ‘Malyi Saturn’ was launched on 16 December as a pincer movement designed to cut off the relieving forces involved in ‘Wintergewitter’ (i).
The Soviet offensive started on 16 December with a concentrated 90-minute artillery bombardment of Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army, which was holding the southern bank of the Don river, in the area to the north-west of Stalingrad, between Altábornagy Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army and Generaloberst Karl Adolf Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’. General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army and General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army broke into the 8th Army’s line along the Don river to the east of Novaya Kalitva, and smashed through it to start a penetration of some 40 miles (65 km) into the Axis rear by 19 December, when the Soviet forces captured one of the main supply dumps of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ at Kantemirovka. Some 130,000 men of the Italian 8th Army were encircled on the Don as the Soviet forces advanced to Millerovo. In places the Italians resisted the Soviet attack, although outnumbered by a factor of 9/1 in some sectors, but suffered huge losses. von Manstein sent Generalleutnant Erhard Raus’s 6th Panzerdivision to the Italians’ aid, but only 45,000 Italians survived after bloody fighting to join the Panzer division at Chertkovo as late as 17 January 1943.
On 17 December, General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army joined the first two armies to extend the Soviet push downstream along the river and also slightly to the east of south: this crushed the Italians’ right wing and helped to trap its remnants at Verchnyakovsky, where some 15,000 survivors eventually surrendered. By the third day of ‘Malyi Saturn’, all three armies had broken through, and on 20 December Generale di Divisione Ettore de Blasio’s 3rd Divisione celere ‘Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta’ and Generale di Divisione Carlo Pellegrini’s 2nd Divisione di fanteria ‘Sforzesca’ of General Hans von Obstfelder’s German XXIX Corps on the Italian 8th Army’s right flank collapsed, triggering the similar collapse of the two Romanian divisions of General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. Within four days, the South-West Front’s armies, rapidly supplemented by General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army to the left of the 3rd Guards Army, had torn a 100-mile (160-km) breach in the Axis front.
For the Germans, the problem was now to find a way to screen the deep northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ against the 1st Guards Army, 3rd Guards Army and 6th Army, which between them controlled four tank corps and one mechanised corps in addition to considerable quantities of infantry. Although the 5th Tank Army had not managed to make gains or to develop a level of momentum comparable with those of the three armies on its left, a single Soviet envelopment could be just as dangerous as a double envelopment for the Axis forces. The Oberkommando des Heeres transferred a corps headquarters, commanded by General Maximilian Fretter-Pico, from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to assume control of the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ as the Armeeabteilung ‘Fretter-Pico’. To this new command the Oberkommando des Heeres allocated one fresh infantry division, the headquarters and elements of Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision, and the remnants of one weak German corps which had been located behind the Italian 8th Army as a backstop. With this diverse miscellany of forces, von Fretter-Pico was tasked to protect the Donets river bridges at Voroshilovgrad and Kamensk-Shakhtinsky (unprotected as the Soviets were not, at least for the for the moment, making for them) and somehow to extend a defence line to the east of the Donets river to link with the formations of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’.
On 23 December von Manstein informed Adolf Hitler that he would have to take one division, or possibly two divisions, away from General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps, currently constituting the leading edge of the faltering ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), to cover the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. von Manstein added that this would necessarily entail the end of the chances of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) to relieve the 6th Army in the shorter term and would therefore demand long-term air supply for this cut-off army. The army needed 550 tons of supplies per day, but Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV responsible for the task, believed that 200 tons per day were the most which could be delivered. If, as it seemed, an adequate level of air supply could not be guaranteed, von Manstein believed that the sole, though nonetheless risky, hope for the 6th Army was to break-out to meet ‘Wintergewitter’ (i). The appearance along the Myshkova river of Soviet reinforcements, in the form of General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army, von Manstein added, meant that the Soviets would soon be going over to the offensive in that area too, which would be extremely dangerous as Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee had to place its reliance for flank protection on the indifferent troops of General de corp de armatâ Constantin Constantinescu-Claps’s Romanian 4th Army.
The depth of the Soviet push had completely uncovered the left flank of the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’, which was still striving to push through to Stalingrad in ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), and the Romanian divisions which Hollidt used in a desperate effort to remedy the deteriorating situation were most severely handled. The German command in the USSR felt that there was a good chance that Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ might now be cut off by a Soviet offensive toward Rostov-na-Donu, but as everything had to be referred to Hitler in Germany, and thus suffered considerable delay as the German leader was in conference with the Italian leadership, local decisions became the order of the day, especially as the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ was now just 30 miles (48 km) from the 6th Army in Stalingrad. It was vital for the Germans to stem the unhindered rampage of the 1st Guards Army, 3rd Guards Army and 6th Army, so General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps (reinforced by an extra Panzer division) was sent to the south-west toward Morozovsk to prevent General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army from being cut off on the upper reaches of the Chir river on the left flank of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’. Hoth was himself forced to give up Raus’s 6th Panzerdivision of General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps as additional support for the Romanian 3rd Army.
Hitler’s response, which contained, as was all too often the case, no decision at all, reached von Manstein early in the morning of the following day, and authorised von Manstein to transfer parts of the LVII Panzerkorps to his army group’s left flank to protect the air bases at Morozovsk and Tatsinskaya as these were essential for the air supply effort needed so desperately for the nourishment of the 6th Army with essentials such as food, fuel, ammunition and medicine. But, Hitler insisted, the LVII Panzerkorps was nonetheless to remain on the Myshkova river until the advance to Stalingrad could be resumed. Hitler also told von Manstein that one battalion of PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks was being delivered to the army group by rail, and would cross into the USSR near Brest Litovsk during the day.
On 24 December, the XXIV Tank Corps of the 1st Guards Army drove a spearhead through to Tatsinskaya, and the XXV Tank Corps and I Guards Mechanised Corps of the 3rd Guards Army came within artillery range of Morozovsk: thus the Germans lost the use of both airfields, together with large numbers of irreplaceable aircraft (Junkers Ju 52/3m transports at Tatsinskaya, and Heinkel He 111 bomber-transports at Morozovsk). On the same day Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army drove the LVII Panzerkorps back to the Aksai river. In an effort to hold the air supply base at Morozovsk and to retake that at Tatsinskaya, von Manstein had been compelled to take Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision from the 4th Panzerarmee, and out of the staff of the XVII Corps, under the temporary command of Generalleutnant Dietrich von Choltitz, now allocated to the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’, which had been created on 23 November, the responsibility for the whole of the army group’s northern front. von Manstein pulled the headquarters of the Romanian 3rd Army behind the Donets river, where it was to collect Romanian stragglers and start work on the construction of of defences downstream of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.
So far the Soviets had confined their effort to the German forces to the west of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), but on 24 December they extended their effort into the area to the east of this faltering German thrust, which had been halted on 23 December by the efforts of General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 5th Shock Army, General Leytenant Trofim K. Kolomiets’s 51st Army and Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army of General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front. The Stalingrad Front had now concentrated its hold on the lower reaches of the Chir river and on the Myshkova river, and Eremenko was ready to launch his counter-offensive, initially against Constantinescu-Clap’s Romanian 4th Army on the right flank of Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’. Here the 51st Army unleashed its VI Mechanised Corps on the right and its III Guards Mechanised Corps and XIII Mechanised Corps on the left to punch through the Romanian forces toward Kotelnikovo. These forces struck deep into the Romanian rear, and Hoth had to pull back his LVII Panzerkorps (Generalleutnant Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s 17th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Erwin Mack’s 23rd Panzerdivision), already under intense pressure from the II Guards Mechanised Corps and the VII Tank Corps of the 2nd Guards Army attacking to the south-west from the Myshkova river. Kotelnikovo, from which ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) had started on 12 December, fell to the VII Tank Corps on 29 December. Farther to the north-west the 5th Shock Army and 5th Tank Army had also gone over to the offensive across the lower Chir river, and the plight of the German forces was acute, with a renewed possibility that Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ would be cut off.
In order to gain a measure of relief at Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk, von Manstein had been compelled to reduce the effective strength of the 4th Panzerarmee by one-third, but despite this fact Hitler still hoped that the arrival of SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’ and Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision would permit a rapid resumption of the advance toward Stalingrad, but the situation report filed by von Manstein on 25 December demonstrated how sketchiness of this hope. In a matter of just a few days, von Manstein reported, General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army and the Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army of Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front would attempt to trap and encircle the 4th Panzerarmee on the Aksai river. Nothing could be expected of General de divizie Corneliu Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps and General de brigadâ Florea Mitranescu’s Romanian VII Corps, and Raus’s 6th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s (from 26 December Generalleutnant Nikolaus von Vormann’s) 23rd Panzerdivision of the LVII Panzerkorps could muster only 19 tanks between them.
If the 6th Army was not to be abandoned entirely to its fate in Stalingrad, a Panzer corps (two divisions) and one infantry division would have to be shifted from Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to the 4th Panzerarmee, and at least one infantry division would have to be added to the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’.
The two days which followed revealed that von Manstein was not exaggerating the plight in which his army group was caught. On 26 December, Paulus reported that casualties, daytime temperatures as low as -15° F (-26° C), and hunger had so sapped the strength of the 6th Army to the extent that a break-out and evacuation was impossible unless a corridor was first opened to the pocket and sizeable quantities of essential supplies were delivered. On the next day, the Romanian VII Corps, on the eastern flank of the LVII Panzerkorps, collapsed and was routed. In the aftermath of this, the best which Hoth believed could do was to pull the LVII Panzerkorps back to Kotelnikovo, where it might be possible to make another, although only temporary, stand.
Hitler was still looking for a cheap way out of the imbroglio, and on 27 December ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to hold their current positions while Heeresgruppe ‘B’, in order to shield the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, retook the line of the rail line linking Rossosh and Millerovo. Hitler informed von Manstein that Heeresgruppe ‘A’ could spare no divisions, his Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ would have to make do with the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’, the 7th Panzerdivision and the battalion of Tiger tanks already on their way to it. von Manstein rightly but vainly protested that the 4th Panzerarmee’s two Panzer divisions and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 16th Panzergrenadierdivision now faced no fewer than 32 Soviet formations and units (infantry divisions and brigades, and tank, mechanised and cavalry corps) while, in Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee was holding a well-constructed line and was opposed by only an equal number of Soviet units, and Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s 17th Army was faced by no more than 24 Soviet formations and units. von Manstein was convinced, he told Hitler, that events would inevitably demand a shift of forces from Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, and the more rapidly the decision to do so was taken, the less costly it would be.
Hitler’s response was Operations Order No. 2, by which Heeresgruppe ‘A’, while holding its line on the north-east coast of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus, was to swing its left flank back by stages to Salsk on the Sredny Yegorlyk river, some 110 miles (180 km) to the south-east of Rostov-na-Donu, where it would be able to assume responsibility for its own flank defence. If necessary, the 4th Panzerarmee was permitted to fall back to the line linking Tsimlyansky and Salsk. For the best possible co-ordination of these movements, von Manstein was to assume command of both army groups at a time to be decided by himself. Hitler ignored von Manstein’s earlier assertion that his taking control of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ would be useful only if he received total operational freedom.
The last days of 1942 saw the arrival of yet another crisis. On the afternoon of 28 December, Hoth had to rescue the LVII Panzerkorps by allowing it to withdraw past Kotelnikovo to the Sal river. This opened the left bank of the Don river as far as Rostov-na-Donu, however, and at the same time exposed the deep right flank of the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’, and on the following day the Soviets debouched from a small bridgehead they held on the Don river near Potemkinskaya, forcing Hollidt to relocate Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision to Tsimlyansky, about 70 miles (115 km) farther downstream on the Don river, in order to block the advance of the debouching Soviet forces toward Rostov-na-Donu. As a result, Hitler ordered von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision to be retained at Rostov-na-Donu in case it was needed for any last-ditch defence of that city.
On 28 December, von Manstein had informed Hitler that the 4th Panzerarmee could no longer hold a wide front in the area to the south of the Don river, and also that the line of the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ could be broken from the north or south at any time. von Manstein said he intended to turn the 4th Panzerarmee to the east in the area to the south of the Sal river in order to shield the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ despite the fact that the Soviets might cut through to Rostov-na-Donu between the Sal and Don rivers. The Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ would have to be drawn back, possibly to a line slightly forward of the Donets river but more probably to the river itself.
On 1 January 1943 von Manstein told Paulus that the main task of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ was still the relief of the 6th Army, but that this formation would have to hold in the pocket for a time longer. von Manstein added that Hitler had ordered Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, to increase the weight of air deliveries to Stalingrad to a minimum of 300 tons per day. It is uncertain whether von Manstein knew that this was in fact a valedictory message, and that the 6th Army was, in effect, to be abandoned as relief by land was now impossible, and relief by air was also little more than theoretical. What von Manstein now had to face was that his Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ faced a fight for its own survival.
As they reached the line linking Millerovo and Morozovsk via Tatsinskaya on 24 December, the 6th Army, 1st Guards Army and 3rd Guards Army had effectively accomplished their part of ‘Malyi Saturn’, and on taking Kotelnikovo during the morning of 29 December, the 2nd Guards Army and 51st Army had destroyed the last of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i).
By this time Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov was back in Moscow, after his co-ordination of ‘Mars’, and working with Stalin on plans for a general offensive similar to that undertaken in the winter on 1941/42. The orders for the first phase of this operation in the region to the south of Stalingrad were despatched during the night of 31 December/1 January. In an undertaking which Vasilevsky called ‘Don’, the Stalingrad Front (renamed as the South Front on 1 January) was to leave the three armies currently involved in operations round the Stalingrad pocket and attack toward Salsk and along the southern side of the Don river toward Rostov-na-Donu with the 2nd Guards Army, 51st Army and 28th Army, the last being redeployed from the east into the area to the north of Elista. Attached to the South Front for this operation, the 5th Shock Army was to advance down the northern side of the Don river toward Rostov-na-Donu. The South-West Front was to liberate Morozovsk and Tatsinskaya and then wheel its armies to the west in the direction of the Donets river ands cross this waterway as part of what Zhukov called ‘Bol’she Saturn’ (larger Saturn). On 29 December, Zhukov had also ordered instructed Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front to ready itself to take the offensive out of the area between Novorossiysk and Tuapse to Krasnodar, Tikhoretsk and Rostov-na-Donu. If all of these operations worked, the Soviet forces would clear the Donets basin as far to the west as the line linking Slavyansk and Mariupol, and in the process trap and destroy the 4th Panzerarmee, 17th Army and 1st Panzerarmee.
On the other side of the front, Hitler ignored von Manstein’s report of 28 December and on 1 January announced in a supplement to his Operations Order No. 2 his intention to send Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Division ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.) in addition to SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Georg Keppler’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and one other Waffen-SS division for the relief of Stalingrad, a task for which Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ were to retain the best possible jumping-off positions. The supplement also ordained that all the provisions of Operations Order No. 2, in which Hollidt had been ordered not to withdraw any farther than to the line linking Morozovsk and Tsimlyansky, were to remain in effect.
Even Hitler could not have expected that the divisions to be used in the relief effort could be redeployed before the middle of February, but to imagine that the Soviets would give the Germans that much time was sheer foolishness. Though what might come next could easily be imagined, as von Manstein had in fact foretold, almost nothing had been done by the transition of 1942 into 1943 to improve the German position. The withdrawals approved by Hitler were conceived and executed on a piecemeal basis, and Hitler was still thinking of ‘definitive’ lines and starting to lose still more focus in vague nebulous plans for a major counter-offensive. The decision to angle back the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was correct, but after Hitler had issued the order for its execution he revealed no willingness for its expeditious implementation and, indeed, appeared to approve of delays. On 2 January, in a report to General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, von Manstein pointed out that though it should have been appreciated, as soon as the 6th Army had been encircled in ‘Uran’, that the Soviets were planning and preparing for a major offensive on the Eastern Front’s southern flank and might fall on the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, nothing had been done by the higher command echelons in Germany until the last few days about the evacuation of the wounded and heavy equipment from the Caucasus region, and that the result would inevitably be either to delay the movements of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ or to compel the sacrifice of large quantities of matériel. Because the Oberkommando des Heeres was controlling all the major movements of the forces allocated to Heeresgruppe ‘A’, von Manstein also noted, there was no point in his assumption of command over Heeresgruppe ‘A’. Moreover, given the fact that the Oberkommando des Heeres had also ordered the diversion of the 7th Panzerdivision and 11th Panzerdivision, which had been intended as reinforcements for the 4th Panzerarmee, all he could achieve in the way of protecting Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was to instruct Hoth to have his 4th Panzerarmee hold for as long as he could keep his flanks free. Heeresgruppe ‘A’ would therefore have to accelerate the pace of its withdrawal and play a m ore active role in the defence of its rear by the redeployment of one corps to Salsk.
Unlike some earlier reports, this did produce at least one effect: no longer did Hitler mention the possibility of von Manstein taking command of Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
During the initial days of 1943, as the 1st Guards Army, 3rd Guards Army and 5th Tank Army descended on it from the north and east, the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ embarked on a hard-pressed retreat of 90 miles (145 km) to the Donets river. On 3 January the Armeeabteilung ‘Fretter-Pico’ warned that no reliance should be placed on Generalleutnant Ernst Sieler’s 304th Division, deployed to maintain contact with the left flank of the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’, as this formation lacked both training and combat experience, and therefore might quickly become stricken with panic. As it was known by this time that Vatutin had grouped two tank corps to the east of the boundary between the two army detachments for an attack, probably toward the Donets river crossing at Belokalitvenskaya, on 4 January Hitler had to order the redeployment of Generalleutnant Erich Schneider’s 4th Panzerdivision from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to prevent a breakthrough. One day later, having retreated 40 miles (65 km) in six days, the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ was forced to abandon all hopes of restoring German control over Morozovsk, the major airlift base closest to Stalingrad. Hitler tried to call a halt ‘for the sake of morale and to conserve the strength of the troops’ on 6 January, but with Soviet forces probing across the Don river father to the south and threatening to advance down the Donets river from the north, Hollidt had no chance to hold his formation in any line on the eastern side of the Donets river for more than a just few days.
On the other side of the Don river, the 4th Panzerarmee aligned its two Panzer divisions and the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’ along the Kuberle river, a southern tributary of the Sal river. In the gap between the Don and Sal river, the III Guards Tank Corps pushed downstream along the southern bank of the Don river and, at the end January’s first week, despatched reconnaissance patrols which approached as close as 20 miles (32 km) to Rostov-na-Donu. Hitler urged von Manstein to commit the battalion of Tiger heavy tanks sent to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, and predicted this this battalion could destroy the entire tank corps, When committed in what was their crews’ first combat task, the Tiger tanks failed: the battalion claimed the destruction of 18 Soviet tanks, but had half of its 20 Tiger tanks were also damaged, and Hoth had to report that the crews were in need of greater training and experience before being committed to combat once again.
As single Soviet mechanised corps and guards infantry corps began to pass round the 4th Panzerarmee’s northern flank on 6 January, Hitler had to let von Manstein remove the 16th Panzergrenadierdivision from Elista. von Manstein warned that the division could do no more than effect a short-term stabilisation of the 4th Panzerarmee’s line and, protesting that everything was expected of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and nothing was possible for Heeresgruppe ‘A’, once more requested the transfer of a corps from Heeresgruppe ‘A’.
During the second week of January, fresh problems were emerging farther to the north against Heeresgruppe ‘B’. Here the second stage of the Soviet operations began on 13 January as four armies of Golikov’s Voronezh Front encircled and destroyed Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army near Svoboda on the Don river, and an attack still farther to the north nearly encircled Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s (from 3 February Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s) German 2nd Army. The German 2nd Army managed to escape, but was compelled to retreat. By 5 February formations of the Voronezh Front were approaching Kursk and Kharkov.
The Italian 8th Army’s Corpo d’Armata alpino, commanded by Generale di Corpo d’Armata Gabriele Nasci, comprised Generale di Brigata Luigi Reverberi’s 2nd Divisione alpina ‘Tridentina’, Generale di Brigata Umberto Ricagno’s 3rd Divisione alpina ‘Julia’ and Generale di Divisione Emilio Battisti’s 4th Divisione alpina ‘Cuneense’, together with Generale di Brigata Etelvoldo Pascolini’s 156th Divisione di fanteria ‘Vicenza’ to their rear. At this point the corps was largely unaffected by the Soviet offensive on its right flank until 13 January, when the second stage of ‘Malyi Saturn’ began with the attack of four armies of Golikov’s Voronezh Front to encircle and destroy the Hungarian 2nd Army near Svoboda on the Don river in an area to the north-west of the Italians. The Soviets then attacked and pushed back the remaining units of Generalleutnant Martin Wandel’s (from 14 January Generalleutnant Arno Jahr’s, from 20 January Generalleutnant Karl Eibel’s and from 21 January Oberst Otto Heidkämper’s) XXIV Panzerkorps on the left flank of the Corpo d’Armata alpino and at the same time fell on the Italian formation.
The Italians held their front, but within three days the Soviets advanced 125 miles (200 km) past the Italians’ left and right flanks. The Alpino corps now had to prevent itself from being cut off. Although the Italian corps was ordered to hold its front at all costs, on 15 January it nonetheless started preparations for a general retreat, which Nasci ordered on 17 January. At this time the 3rd Divisione alpina and 4th Divisione alpina had already been very hard hit, only the 2th Divisione alpina was still capable of conducting effective combat operations, as in the Battle of Nikolayevka on 25/27 January. By 1 February the Italian formation had reached the area of Kharkov, where the Axis forces managed to organise a defensive line, but the Italians had paid a very heavy price: the 4th Divisione alpina had been destroyed, and only about 10% of the 3rd Divisione alpina now survived (about 1,200 of the initial strength of 15,000 men) and only 33% of the 2nd Divisione alpina (about 4,250 of the initial strength of 15,000 men).
Farther to the south, however, in the course of the second week of January the fronts of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ slowly started to stabilise. The Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ moved its Panzer divisions back and forth to counter threats from the north and the south, but nonetheless continued its retreat to the Donets river, and Hitler allowed the 4th Panzerarmee to hinge back to a north-facing line along the Manych Canal.
Though slowed by its heavy equipment and by what von Manstein, at least, saw as an over-cautious concern about what the Soviets might do, the 1st Panzerarmee steadily narrowed the gap between the army groups. By the end of the third week in the month, the Armeeabteilung ‘Fretter-Pico’ had managed to extract some 14,000 of men from an encirclement near Millerovo and was aligned behind the Donets river. The Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ had also gained the protection, albeit modest, of this river, which was still frozen. On the Manych Canal, between the Don river and Prolyetarskaya, the 4th Panzerarmee had established a strongpoint defence, and the 1st Panzerarmee had extended its left flank northward to link with the 4th Panzerarmee in a location to the east of Salsk. At their closest points, the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ and 4th Panzerarmee were 165 and 190 miles (265 and 305 km) respectively from the Stalingrad pocket, but by then any distance, however small or great, was totally irrelevant to the plight of the 6th Army.
Thus, by 5 February troops of the Voronezh Front were approaching Kursk and Kharkov, and the German forces were in disorganised retreat all across the southern part of Ukraine. It was this which was the trigger for the start of the third stage of the Soviet offensive, which was an ambitious operation for the Voronezh Front to advance to the Dniepr river and encircle the 2nd Army, and for the South-West Front and South Front, both under Malinovsky’s command, to capture Voroshilovgrad and drive to the south to the Sea of Azov, so encircling both von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. The operations began well. The Soviets captured Kursk on 8 February 1943 and Kharkov on 16 February, and the Germans abandoned Rostov-na-Donu on 18 February. A gap had been driven between Heeresgruppe ‘A’, which was now compressed into a tightening beach-head opposite the Kerch peninsula, and Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, while Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army threatened to drive another gap between Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ by advancing through Dniepropetrovsk.
Moreover, the surrender of Stalingrad on 2 February 1943 had freed General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front for further operations. An ambitious plan was made to follow the success at Kursk with an attack on Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the salient at Orel before breaking out toward Bryansk. This time, however, the Stavka was asking more than could feasibly be undertaken by the exhausted troops. Logistic difficulties in redeploying the armies from Stalingrad some 400 miles (645 km) to the north-west delayed the start of the offensive until 25 February. And tenacious German defence meant that only minor gains were made to the west of Kursk and none at all at Orel.
Meanwhile, in order to save the position in the south, the Oberkommando des Heeres took the decision to abandon the Rzhev salient near Moscow and thereby free sufficient German troops to make a successful counter-offensive in the eastern part of eastern Ukraine. von Manstein’s counter-offensive, stiffened by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps equipped with Tiger heavy tanks, opened on 20 February and fought its way from Poltava back into Kharkov in the third week of March, upon which the spring thaw intervened. This left a bulge in the front centred on Kursk, and thus paved to the Battle of Kursk in July.