Operation Schwerin I

(German city)

'Schwerin I' was a German operation by Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army using General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s LI Corps to secure the western bank of the Volga river in Stalingrad between the Krasny Oktyabr steel factory and Krasny Barrikady ordnance factory during the Battle of Stalingrad (11/13 November 1942).

The objective of the 6th Army's attempt to take Stalingrad river was the Volga river or, more specifically, the 10-mile (16-km) stretch of its right (western) bank between the refinery and tank farm in the south-west, to the east on Mamai hill, and Rynok in the north-east. By this time early in October 1942 Stalingrad was no longer a major city but rather the shattered wreck of an urban and industrial centre, and the Axis and Soviet troops who were now Stalingrad’s most numerous inhabitants were engaged in a battle for an urban and industrial corpse, and were well aware of this fact. Yet, oddly enough, the area whose possession was now being contested ever more precious even as its size decreased at the cost of its seizure and retention increased. But in terms of what had made Stalingrad a German objective in the first place, the matter had already been decided: the Volga river was closed to traffic and every tiny area still in Soviet hands could be subjected to German artillery and even small arms fire. Thus in the strict terms of military logic Stalingrad itself was not longer an issue, but this logic was no longer believed by either side as the battle had come to acquire its own rationale for continued fighting.

No longer only the 'Clausewitz' (i) final phase of the 'Blau II' offensive, the Battle of Stalingrad had become a huge and appallingly bloody battle being fought on the world stage: Adolf Hitler could therefore not consider the battle over until the last pockets of organised Soviet resistance had been eliminated from the right bank of the Volga river, and Iosif Stalin conversely knew that the battle had to be decided in favour of the Soviets to show that Nazi ideology and power could be checked and defeated. These dovetailed but entirely opposed concepts ensured that the campaign of the summer of 1942 was now being refought in scaled-down form along the western bank of the Volga river. Moreover, for Stalin each small area of ground which was held for yet another day partially offset the near-collapse of the Soviet forces during July and August, and brought start of the 'Uran' operation to trap the 6th Army one day closer to implementation, and for Hitler the final expulsion of Soviet power from its last toeholds in Stalingrad could be used to help expunge the memory of what had by now become a victory which had been lost.

The stakes were not even, however, for while Stalin had little to lose and possibly much to gain, if he wanted to possess the river bank Hitler had to admit the loss of the initiative and to fight on the Soviets' terms. This he did on 6 October, when he reconfirmed the total occupation of Stalingrad as the most important task for Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B'.

In the course of the week which followed, Hitler and von Weichs worked with Paulus to rehabilitate the 6th Army, as far as was possible, for another offensive into the city. Hitler cancelled the 4th Panzerarmee's projected advance to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea estuary of the Volga river, and instructed its commander, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth, to transfer Generalmajor Ferdinand Heim’s 14th Panzerdivision, his last complete armoured formation, to the 6th Army. von Weichs and Hitler also authorised Paulus to take another two infantry formations, Generalleutnant Richard von Schwerin’s 79th Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Oppenländer’s (from 1 November Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 305th Division from his flank on the Don river. For a month the 6th Army had been working on plans to push its front forward to the north, between the Volga and Don rivers, and to secure a better line for the winter.

The two objectives were now forgotten, and von Weichs ordered Paulus to instruct the troops on the northern part of the front to prepare their winter positions along the line on which they currently stood. Unhappy with the delay imposed by the movement of the divisions involved, Hitler ordered an intensification of the bombing of the Soviet positions to deprive the Soviets of any chance to rebuild their defences. Even so, the Soviet defence was in fact becoming steadily stronger. On 8 October, a major concentration of Soviet heavy artillery began to fire into Stalingrad from the eastern bank of the Volga river.

Two days later, General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army assumed responsibility for the Don river front in the area to the east of the Khoper river. Thus it seemed that an increasing proportion of the German strength was being drawn into Stalingrad. Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee was also having to rely on Romanian formations to hold most of its loose front on the chain of lakes to the south of Beketovka. In the Axis camp everyone, especially the increasingly reluctant Romanians themselves, appreciated fully that they were neither trained nor equipped for the type of warfare now typical of the Eastern Front. The 4th Panzerarmee had first-hand experience of the Romanians in action for, on 28 September, several Romanian divisions on the army’s right flank in the area to the south of Beketovka had failed to check a essentially half-hearted Soviet attack and had panicked themselves into a retreat which lasted two days and required the intervention of a Panzer division to bring it to a halt. Hoth had commented that German commands including Romanian troops had to reconcile themselves to the fact that moderately heavy fire, even when not followed by a Soviet attack, were sufficient to cause the Romanians to fall back and that their reports of the situation were worthless since the Romanians never knew where their units were and their estimates of Soviet strength were highly exaggerated.

The 14th Panzerdivision and 305th Division were ready with the LI Corps on 13 October, but the 79th Division was still in transit and the 6th Army was still waiting for the the arrival of several trainloads of ammunition. Nevertheless, although he might be short of ammunition in two days should the trains not arrive in time, Paulus decided to resume the offensive on the following day, for he deemed further delay to be as problematical as a start with insufficient ammunition as the weather was deteriorating and, though rain might not affect the fighting in the city to a major degree, it might paralyse the delivery of the army’s supplies.

Lacking the strength to make a single sweep through Stalingrad and having few other possibilities, Paulus proposed to take what was left of the city by sections, working from north to south. In the first stage, General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps was to drive through Rynok and Spartakovka to reach the mouth of the Gorodishche river, while the LI Corps took the Dzerzhinsky Traktornogo Zavoda (tractor factory) and the brick works, thereby taking and occupying the length of the Volga river’s bank to the south of the Gorodishche river. The LI Corps was then to turn to the south and take the Barrikady Boepripasov Zavod (ordnance factory), the bread bakery, the Krasny Oktyabr Stalelityeinyi Zavod (Red October steel plant) and Lazur Khimicheskii Zavod (chemical plant).

During the advance the advance was to be led by assault pioneer units, which were to carve corridors by levelling entire blocks of buildings with explosives; Panzergrenadier units, operating as shock groups, were to establish and maintain the corps' forward momentum; and infantry units were to undertake clearance and mopping-up, the bitter task of winkling out and destroying the Soviet resistance on a yard-by-yard and man-by-man basis. For the first, the system was to work: describing the events of 14 October, General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov, currently commander of the 64th Army, said that those of them who had already been through a great deal would remember this German assault for the rest of their lives. The men of the 6th Army who survived the Stalingrad battle later remembered the assault on the tractor factory as the only genuinely complete success in the battle for the north of Stalingrad.

Early in the morning of 14 October, Paulus established his forward command post in Gorodishche in the area to the west of the tractor factory. The armour and Panzergrenadiers of the 14th Panzerdivision had started to advance at the break of day in light rain, and were in the tractor factory by 10.00. On the 14th Panzerdivision's left, the 305th Division pushed through the workers' settlement toward the Gorodishche river. To the north of this river, the XIV Panzerkorps had started to clear several hills in the area to the west of Spartakovka, and in the afternoon the right flank of the 14th Panzerdivision reached the brick works. The division pressed forward right through the night, and by 07.00 on 15 October one of its Panzergrenadier regiments had reached the bank of the Volga river in the area to the east of the tractor factory, thereby cutting into two the bridgehead of General Leytenant Vladimir I. Kolpakchy’s 62nd Army. By the fall of night on 15 October, the XIV Panzerkorps had reached the western edge of Spartakovka, the tractor factory and brick works had been occupied, and the 14th Panzerdivision's line to the south of the brick works was just 300 yards (275 m) from Chuikov’s command post dug into the cliff above the Volga river to the east of the gun factory.

The 14th Panzerdivision and 305th Division turned to the south during the morning of 16 October, and had taken half of the ordnance factory by 12.00. During the day, the LI Corps and XIV Panzerkorps also made contact on the Gorodishche river in the area to the west of Spartakovka, and encircled parts of several Soviet divisions between there and Orlovka. When the ordnance factory and the accommodation blocks to the west of it were taken on 17 October, it seemed that the battle could not last more than another two or three days before the Germans could claim victory, but Paulus nonetheless decided to bring in the 79th Division to be on hand to cope with any eventualities.

The Soviet resistance had started to strengthen during the previous two days, especially 17 October, and several fresh Soviet battalions had been identified. At the same time the 6th Army strength was fading once more. Paulus’s whole front now lay within the range of the Soviet artillery concentrations across the Volga river, and the nights were as exhausting as the days as Soviet warplanes maintained their bombing effort right through the dark hours. The Oberkommando des Heeres’s liaison officer reported that the Soviet nocturnal air superiority had assumed intolerable proportions; the men could get no rest, and their endurance was strained to its limits; and the losses in men and matériel were unsustainable in the long run. One of Hitler’s adjutants reached the 6th Army on 17 October to make an assessment of the progress of operations, and he was taken by Paulus and Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt, the 6th Army's chief-of-staff, to an observation post from which he could see some of the fighting, and then gave him a statistical rundown: since 13 September, the 6th Army had lost 343 officers and nearly 13,000 other ranks killed, wounded and missing, bringing its total losses in the time since it had crossed the Don river on 21 August to 1,068 officers and 39,000 men; the Soviet losses, based on the number of prisoners taken (17,900 after 13 September and a total of 57,800 since 21 August) were considerably greater than those of the 6th Army, but nothing like as severe as the Soviet losses in previous battles. The intensity of the fighting could be deduced from the ammunition consumed, which for the month of September amounted to 25 million rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunition, 500,000 rounds of anti-tank ammunition, and 750,000 rounds of artillery ammunition of all calibres.

On 18 October, even as the infantry continued to clear pockets of resistance in the ordnance, the LI Corps re-sited its artillery and rocket launchers against the next objectives, the bread bakery and metallurgical works. But there had been heavy rain during the night, and by 12.00 the approaches to the Don river bridges, across which all of the army’s supplies had to pass, had become passable only with difficulty. Paulus thought the 6th Army might be able to resume its advance during the afternoon of the following day if the artillery and infantry were ready by then, if the roads did not get worse, and if the weather did not keep the German air support on the ground. But the roads in fact became still less passable as the rain, now accompanied by intermittent snow, continued for two more days, and there were still several Soviets pockets holding out in the workshops of the ordnance factory on 21 October, the day on which the weather started to improve.

The LI Corps started to advance once more on 23 October with the 79th Division in the lead. It had taken half of the metallurgical works, the accommodation blocks to the west of the bread bakery, and most of the bakery itself by the afternoon and, by the fall of night, had driven a spearhead through to the Volga river. On the next day, the XIV Panzerkorps, which had been diverted by Soviet attacks on the northern part of its front, took the western two-thirds of Spartakovka. But from this time the two corps' momentum started to decline rapidly. The XIV Panzerkorps' men had been in action without a break for 10 days, and the 79th Division, which had been at the Don river bridgeheads for weeks before coming into Stalingrad, had even from its arrival at Stalingrad, been fresh only by comparison with the the LI Corps' other divisions. The 6th Army's infantry strength was being eroded in large numbers of small but costly actions around or inside workshops and buildings in the metallurgical plant and against Soviet forces holding the Volga river bank as far north as the brick works.

On 24 October and for the week which followed, the LI Corps was embroiled by day in close-quarter fighting for what would seem to be very minor objectives, namely workshops nos 1, 5 and 10 in the metallurgical plant as well as a furnace in the same plant, and by night in trying to disrupt the Volga river traffic of boats being used to bring Chuikov replacements for the men his army had lost during the day,

On 1 November, von Weichs, Paulus and their chiefs-of-staff met to assess how best their attack on Stalingrad could be boosted by the advent of of fresh forces as the strength of the 79th Division had declined so far that the formation could no longer be considered for employment in larger missions. Paulus thought in terms of exchanging the 79th Division and Generalleutnant Otto Kohlermann’s (soon Generalmajor Han-Adolf von Arensdorff’s 60th Division (mot.). The latter was currently committed on the northern front of the XIV Panzerkorps, but the time which would be needed to effect the exchange was deemed lengthy, however, and the 60th Division (mot.) would need a few days of rest and its current sector was very far from inactive. von Weichs suggested the possibility of committing two regiments of Generalmajor Hans-Georg Leyser’s 29th Division (mot.), which was closer to the central part of the Stalingrad fighting and currently serving as the mobile reserve for both the 4th Panzerarmee and Romanian 3rd Army. Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV, had made an offer which seemed to the conferees to be two-edged: von Richthofen had said he would be willing to relinquish some of the air force’s allocation of railway capacity to allow the army to secure the delivery of more artillery ammunition on the grounds that the fighting within Stalingrad was now at quarters so close that the Luftwaffe was no longer in a position to make an effective tactical contribution.

Two days later, General Georg von Sodenstern, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'B', told Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt, his 6th Army counterpart, that the Oberkommando des Heeres would not allow the two regiments to be detached from the 29th Division (mot.), but had instructed von Weichs to gibe Paulus five combat engineer battalions from divisions in the line on the Don river. The concept of using these had come to Hitler via Luftwaffe channels from von Richthofen, who had an enthusiastic penchant for interference in ground warfare matters and had been impressed with the performance of the pioneers in the assault on the tractor factory. von Sodenstern said that it was the belief of staff of Heeresgruppe 'B' that the receipt of the pioneer battalions would benefit the 6th Army, but Schmidt averred that the pioneers could in no way be seen as a substitute for infantry, for the pioneers were specialists in the defeat of bunkers and other fortifications, and what the 6th Army needed was greater infantry strength. The attack on the tractor factory, Schmidt added, had succeeded because the assault engineer and Panzergrenadier units had then been backed by infantry units to undertake the essential task of mopping up in the wake of the assault teams.

On 17 October Chuikov had moved his command post to the river bank to the east of the chemical plant, and was also very interested in the 6th Army's difficulties. Seeing the decline of the pressure on his forces during the last days of the month, he knew his army would survive for at least one further German attack, but also appreciated that his army’s situation was not good: Chuikov himself put the situation as being one in which he and his men were dangling their legs in the Volga river. All that the 62nd Army now held on the western bank were two small bridgeheads, each about 875 yards (800 m) deep, of which one comprised parts of Rynok and Spartakovka, and the the other the area the chemical plant with a narrow tail extending upstream toward into the brick works via the metallurgical plant. Soviet replacements continued to come across the river in numbers as great as the area could accommodate, and the artillery on the east bank was now playing a major, perhaps decisive, role as indicated by the fact that the 6th Army attributed the swift decline of the 79th Division's capabilities largely to the effect of the Soviet artillery.

By now the predominant Soviet effort was being made elsewhere as the build-up to the 'Uran' undertaking to cut off the 6th Army was reaching its end. The South-Eastern and Ryazan-Ural divisions of the railway system, previously reserved for the nourishment of the Stalingrad area, were running at 1,000% of their normal capacities, railway workers were stationed along the track to supplement the mechanical signal systems and thereby make it feasible to run trains at intervals considerable shorter and closer than was standard, and railway wagons were being lifted off the tracks at the railheads so that the empty wagons would not have to be hauled back and so slow the delivery process. From the railheads, 27,000 trucks and horse-drawn vehicles were employed to deliver unloaded freight items, especially ammunition and assault troops and equipment, to the front. Troops moved only at night and bivouacked under cover during the day to avoid detection by German aerial reconnaissance. Between 1 and 19 November, vessels of the Volga Flotilla carried 160,000 troops, 430 armoured fighting vehicles, 600 pieces of artillery and 14,000 motor vehicles across the river to Stalingrad Front.

Between 1 and 10 November, General Georgi K. Zhukov and General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, as Stavka representatives, held conferences and undertook inspections to ensure that the plans had been fully understood and preparations had been effected as required: as yet, these were matters which could not be taken for granted in the Soviet forces, and required a great deal of direct supervision and checking.

In his speech of 7 November commemorating the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin replaced his previous 'not a step back' urging in favour of the confident assertion that the Germans had already felt the force of the Soviet forces' blows at Rostov-na-Donu, Moscow and Tikhvin, and that the day was imminent when the Germans would feel the force of new blows by the Soviet forces. On 13 November, Zhukov and Vasilevsky expatiated on 'Uran' to the members of the Politburo and the Stavka, and assured them that every command level fully understood the plan and their places in it, and knew the nature of the terrain and the infantry, armour, artillery and air co-ordination tactics which were to be employed.

The 6th Army was meanwhile still on the offensive, and another round in the fight for Stalingrad had yet to be fought. On 3 November von Weichs informed Paulus that the general situation demanded that the battles around and in Stalingrad had to be brought to a swift conclusion, adding that the 6th Army would be receiving the five pioneer battalions within the week, and that these were to be combined with infantry under Panzergrenadier regimental staffs. The next objective was to be the Lazur Khimicheskii Zavod. Two days later, however, von Sodenstern telephoned Schmidt to tell him the army group had just received word that Hitler believed that the ground to the east of the gun factory and metallurgical plant should first be taken. The two chiefs-of-staff agreed, as too did General Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, this this would be so costly that it would render impossible the planned attack on the chemical plant. Nevertheless, on the following day Paulus received from Heeresgruppe 'B' an order promulgated by Hitler that the two sections of the city still held by the Soviets to the east of the ordnance factory and metallurgical plant were to be captured before any resumption of the attack to take the chemical plant, and only after the western bank of the Volga river was wholly in German hands in those places was the attack on the chemical plant to be begun.

On 7 November the German artillery began counter-battery fire against the Soviet artillery across the river, and Paulus informed von Weichs that the 6th Army would start to move 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 which were not seen as causes for any great alarm, but at the same time were far from reassuring. One of these observations was that in the short course which the army was running to qualify non-commissioned officers from other branches as lieutenants in the infantry, some of the candidates had stated that they would prefer to remain with their original branches: in response, Paulus ordered such men to be dropped from the course and sent to the infantry. Another worrying observation was that several days had seen the temperature falling to below freezing point, a fact which heralded the imminent end of the autumnal rain.

On 8 November and the days following it, there were increasingly frequent reports about the build-up of the Soviet strength in the Don river bridgeheads opposite Romanian 3rd Army. On 10 November Heeresgruppe 'B' transferred the headquarters of the XLVIII Panzerkorps, commanded by Heim with the rank of Generalleutnant, into the sector held by the Romanian 3rd Army and alerted the 29th Division (mot.) to ready itself to move behind the Romanians at very short notice.

A quirk of nature, however, confronted the 62nd Army with one short-term difficulty inasmuch as the Volga river, unlike other Russian rivers, does not freeze quickly. First it forms slush, then ice floes which conglomerate along the banks, and then a massive coat of drifting ice capable of sinking the strongest boat but too treacherous for men or animals to cross. It is weeks or, in some years, months before the river’s surface freezes solid. This interval between the formation of the first ice and the solid freezing of the surface could have resulted in a long period of isolation for the 62nd Army during the approach of winter in 1942.

In freezing cold, four hours before the break of day on 11 November the LI Corps launched its assault to the east of the ordnance factory. When Paulus reached his forward command post, shortly before 10.00, he learned that the assault was making ground, but only slowly. By the fall of night, one spearhead had reached the cliff overlooking the Volga river and another was on the river’s bank. The 6th Army reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres that the attack to the east of the ordnance factory achieved limited success against numerically strong Soviet forces who defended themselves bitterly. Paulus added that he would regroup his forces on the following day and resume the assault on 13 November.

By 12 November, Paulus had also had to start keeping an ever more watchful eye on the Romanian 3rd Army, and in the course of this day von Weichs ordered Paulus to extract 10,000 men from his engineer and artillery units to man a support line behind the Romanians. Meanwhile, Hoth was trying to make sense of the movements of the Soviet forces opposite his 4th Panzerarmee, and it was clear that these movements were not of a defensive nature.

On 14 November, in the area to the east of the ordnance factory, the LI Corps undertook what were described as successful shock troop actions, taking two blocks of houses and one large building designated as the commissar’s house. On the Volga river, the ice was starting to conglomerate along the banks. Two days later, after another regrouping. the LI Corps launched more shock troop actions and reported that it had managed a further narrowing of the Soviet bridgehead in the area to the east of the ordnance factory.

During the night of 15/16 November, however, the 62nd Amy counterattacked along the whole line and was beaten off, but von Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s dispositions were so unsettled that it was impossible to undertake shock troop actions on the following day. In the meantime, the drift ice on the Volga river had compacted into an almost solid cover extending as much as 80 yards (75 m) from the banks.

By this time there could be no further thought of one last major effort in Stalingrad. Artillery and troops were now prepared to depart the city to the Romanian 3rd Army and the 4th Panzerarmee. On the morning of 17 November there was an exchange between Hitler and Paulus. The former informed the later that he was fully aware of the difficulties of the fighting in Stalingrad and of the decline in combat strengths. But the drift ice on the Volga river posed even greater difficulties for the Soviets. If the Germans exploited this period in which the 62nd Army could not be reinforced, the would save themselves much blood later. Hitler continued to the effect that he expected that the leadership and the troops would once more, as they often had in the past, devote all their energy and spirit to at least getting through to the Volga river at the ordnance factory and the metallurgical plant and taking these sections of the city. To this Paulus replied that he and all the commanders at Stalingrad were entirely in the sense of Hitler’s order to exploit the Soviet weakness occasioned by the drift ice on the Volga river.

While Hitler’s expectations had been scaled down, Paulus’s capabilities had become smaller still. The only progress of any kind on 17 and 18 November was the very limited extent of the gains by 'Schwerin II' in the north, when the XIV Panzerkorps had been nibbling at the Soviet defences in Spartakovka and Rynok for some weeks. Paulus proposed that after further regrouping, a thrust to the Volga river out of the northern part of the metallurgical plant should be essayed on 20 November, but his plan, as limited and ultimately pointless as it was, was overtaken by the start of 'Uran', whose success ultimately sealed the fate of the 6th Army.