This was the Soviet offensive, more formally known as part of the 'Stalingrad Strategic Offensive Offensive', to cut off and encircle the Axis forces attempting to take Stalingrad on the Volga river (19/30 November 1942).
While General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front was supporting the efforts of General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov’s 62nd Army within Stalingrad itself against the forces of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus, comprising Paulus’s own 6th Army and part of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, Iosif Stalin and the Stavka were concerned not only with the defeat of this German local effort but with the wholesale destruction of the German forces supporting the Stalingrad offensive, and thus reversing the overall course of the war on the Eastern Front up to this time, which had for the most part been characterised by German retention of the strategic initiative. ‘Uran’ was planned to reverse this trend, and was developed in Moscow from the early part of September 1942 even as the German forces were closing on Stalingrad.
It was at a time early in May 1942 that the Germans began preparatory operations for their ‘Blau’ offensive against the Soviet forces facing Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, the highest-level formation operating in the southern part of the USSR, and the main German offensive started on 28 June. After breaking through the Soviet forces by 13 July, German forces encircled and captured Rostov-na-Donu. On 13 July Adolf Hitler divided Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ into Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s more northerly Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s more southerly Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to facilitate the simultaneous seizures of Stalingrad and the oilfields of the Caucasus region on two divergent axes.
Responsibility for the capture of Stalingrad was allocated to the 6th Army, which immediately wheeled toward the Volga river and began its advance with potent air support from Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV. On 7 August two Panzer corps flanked and encircled a Soviet force of 50,000 men and about 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles, and on 22 August German forces began to cross the Don river at the head of its great eastward bend, between Kachalinskaya and Kalach, to complete the first stage of their advance toward the Volga river. On the following day, after crossing the narrow ‘land bridge’ between the Don and Volga rivers, the Germans began the Battle of Stalingrad as the vanguards of the 6th Army penetrated into the western suburbs of this key industrial city. By November the 6th Army had occupied most of Stalingrad, pushing the Soviet defenders right back to the very edge of the Volga river’s western bank.
By this stage, there were already the first indications from aerial reconnaissance, interrogation of prisoners and other intelligence sources that the Soviets were preparing an offensive designed to drive the Axis forces back from Stalingrad. Even so, the focus of the German high command was still fixed on the seizure of Stalingrad as much for ideological as objectively military purposes. Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, had even been dismissed on 1 September after daring to warn of the dangers emerging along the over-extended flanks of the 6th Army and 4th Panzerarmee.
It was as early as September, in fact, that the Stavka had begun to plan a series of counteroffensives to bring about, it hoped, the destruction of the Axis forces in the southern USSR, the armies fighting in Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, and farther to the north Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Ultimately, command of Soviet efforts to relieve Stalingrad was entrusted to General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the Soviet general Staff.
The Stavka developed two major operations against the Axis forces near Stalingrad, namely ‘Uran’ and ‘Saturn’ (i), and also planned a ‘Mars’ (i) to engage Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and inflict serious damage on it as well prevent it from sending German reinforcements south. Overall co-ordination was ultimately entrusted to General Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and first deputy people’s commissar of defence, ably backed by Vasilevsky and General Polkovnik Nikolai N. Voronov, a deputy people’s commissar for defence. The Stavka appreciated that the weakest points in the Axis salient stretching toward Stalingrad were its flanks, which were held in the north-west by General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and in the south by General de corp de armatâ Constantin Constantinescu-Clap’s Romanian 4th Army, under the overall command von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, to support the main offensive effort by the 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army.
The Soviets planned to launch their very substantial double enveloping movement in mid-November to coincide with the Anglo-US ‘Torch’ landings in French North-West Africa and also with the arrival of the winter’s first frosts. In the north General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front and General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Don Front were to sweep to the south and south-east from Serafimovich and Kletskaya on the Don river, as the outer and inner arms respectively of the pincer, against the Romanian 3rd Army, and in the east General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front was to drive to the west and north-west from the line of the Sarpa, Tsatsa and Barmantsak lakes through the junction of General de divizie Florea Mitranescu’s Romanian VII Corps and General de divizie Corneliu Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps constituting the left and right wings of the Romanian 4th Army and 4th Panzerarmee respectively. It was planned that the two thrusts would meet at Kalach on the Don river in an area to the due west of Stalingrad, and thus cut off the 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army.
The main thrusts were based on the use of the substantial mobile formations of the South-West and Stalingrad Fronts, comprising respectively General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 1st Guards Army, General Leytenant Prokofi L. Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army and General Major Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 21st Army, and General Leytenant Mikhail S. Shumilov’s 64th Army, General Major Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 57th Army and General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army. The primary mobile formations of the South-West Front were the 5th Tank Army (I and XXVI Tank Corps, VIII Cavalry Corps and six infantry divisions), III Guards Cavalry Corps and IV Tank Corps, while the mobile formations of the Stalingrad Front were the IV and XIII Mechanised Corps together with the IV Cavalry Corps.
Completing the Soviet line-up was the Don Front, which supported the inner flank of the South-West Front against General Karl Strecker’s XI Corps and General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps of the 6th Army, with General Leytenant Pavel A. Batov’s 65th Army, General Major Ivan V. Galanin’s 24th Army and General Leytenant Aleksei S. Zhadov’s 66th Army.
The Soviet strength was in the order of 1.1435 million men, 895 armoured fighting vehicles, 13,450 guns and mortars, 100 batteries of multiple rocket-launchers, and 1,500 aircraft. The movement of these vast resources through the autumn mud was a formidable logistical undertaking, but the six Soviet air armies allocated to ‘Uran’ under the overall control of General Aleksandr A. Novikov, commander-in-chief of the air forces, were generally successful in preventing German reconnaissance aircraft from discovering all but the sketchiest details, even when the Soviets had to build some 500 ferry points between Saratov and Astrakhan to facilitate the movement of men, matériel and supplies from rear areas into the assault areas.
As the Soviet preparations were completed Zhukov was moved to the Kalinin Front and West Front to supervise the offensive they were to launch as the '2nd Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Mars') as the means of pinning the German forces of von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in that theatre. Vasilevsky remained in the south to co-ordinate the efforts of the South-West, Don and Stalingrad Fronts in ‘Uran’.
The first heavy frost of winter was recorded on 1 November, and from this time the Germans began to worry increasingly about the vulnerability of their position on the Don river, especially as no German reinforcements could be made available except by halting the offensive of List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the Caucasus. This feeling of Axis insecurity was reinforced by the discovery that Soviet artillery on the northern bank of the Don river was being strengthened, and that even local air superiority was passing from the 400 aircraft of General Martin Fiebig’s VIII Fliegerkorps of von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV , supplemented by very much smaller numbers of Romanian, Italian and Hungarian aircraft, to the 1,500 aircraft available to the four Soviet air armies facing the VIII Fliegerkorps.
Given its object of trapping the Axis forces in Stalingrad, ‘Uran’ was based on the use of major Soviet mechanised and infantry forces to encircle the German and other Axis forces directly around Stalingrad. As the Soviet preparations were begun, it was determined that the offensive would be launched along stretches of front to the 6th Army’s rear, so denying the Germans the ability to effect a timely reinforcement of the sectors in which the Axis forces were radically over-extended. As noted above, ‘Uran’ had therefore been conceived as a double envelopment: striking to the south and south-east from the Don bridgeheads in the area to the north-west of Stalingrad, and to the south-west and north-west from the area of the Sarpa, Tsatsa and Barmantsak lakes in the area to the south of Stalingrad, the Soviet mechanised forces were to pierce the defences of the Italian and Romanian armies facing them and penetrate deep into the German rear, while another concentric attack would be committed closer to Stalingrad in an effort to destroy the German forces fighting to take the city.
As the Soviets made their preparations, Germany’s senior commanders, largely influenced by their belief that the Soviets, in strengthening their forces opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ farther to the north, could not simultaneously undertake another major offensive in the Stalingrad area farther to the south, continued at first to discount any possibility of an imminent Soviet offensive.
The ‘Blau’ offensives had involved German and other Axis forces stretched over a front more than 300 miles (480 km) wide and also over a very considerable depth, and then the decision to take Stalingrad had stretched Axis forces ever more thinly as formations were drawn away to the east. Early in July, for example, the 6th Army was holding 100 miles (160 km) of front while also being committed to an offensive which involved an advance in the order of 250 miles (400 km). Heeresgruppe ‘B’, which had been split from Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to leave the latter’s remnants to operate in the Caucasus as Heeresgruppe ‘A’, seemed strong on paper: it comprised the German formations of Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 2nd Army, the 6th Army and the 4th Panzerarmee as well as Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and Constantinescu-Clap’s Romanian 4th Army, Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8a Armata and Altábornagy Gusztáv Vitéz Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army. The army group’s reserves comprised only Generalleutnant Ferdinand Heim’s XLVIII Panzerkorps (with Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 22nd Panzerdivision and General de divizie Radu Gherghe’s Romanian 1st Armoured Division) and two infantry divisions. The army group’s flanks were held largely by allied armies specifically to leave the higher-grade German forces to spearhead continued operations in Stalingrad and in the Caucasus.
While Adolf Hitler believed that his non-German allies, even if unsuited to offensive operations, could nonetheless hold the Axis flanks in defensive fighting, the reality was that these formations were dependent on generally obsolete equipment and horse-drawn artillery, and their morale was often poor as a result of their indifferent training and leadership by badly trained officers who often treated their men with indifference at best and harshness at worst. The nature of the equipment of the non-German forces can be illustrated from the fact that the Romanian 1st Armoured Division was equipped with about 100 Czechoslovak-built PzKpfw 38(t) tanks armed with a 37-mm gun wholly ineffective against the Soviet T-34 medium tank carrying a 76-mm (3-in) gun. The allied armies were also stretched very thinly along the sections of front they were to hold: for example, Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army occupied a line 85 miles (140 km) long, while Constantinescu-Clap’s Romanian 4th Army protected a sector no less than 170 miles (270 km) long. The Italian 8a Armata and Hungarian 2nd Army were positioned between the two Romanian formations.
The German field commanders had an altogether lower estimation than their senior commanders, away in Germany, of their allies’ real combat capabilities. The Italian troops were held in particularly low esteem by the Germans, but this resulted largely from their poor equipment and obsolete weapons: Italian weapons were of low quality, there was virtually nothing in the way of specialised anti-tank weapons, hand grenades rarely detonated, and field artillery pieces and mortars were of inadequate calibres. This should all be taken in context, however, for in many cases the German formations were in little better condition: they had been severely weakened by months of combat, and while the Soviets raised entire new armies, the German high command attempted to maintain its existing mechanised units with inadequate reinforcements of men and matériel. Moreover, during the course of the German offensives between May and November 1942, two high-quality motorised divisions, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Division ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ (mot.) and Generalmajor Walter Hörnlein’s Division ‘Grossdeutschland’ (mot.), had been redeployed from Heeresgruppe ‘A’ on the Eastern Front to western Europe within the context of the German effort to create a motorised reserve for use in the event of an Allied landing in France.
The 6th Army had also suffered large numbers of casualties during the fighting in the city of Stalingrad proper. In some cases, such as that of Rodt’s 22nd Panzerdivision, their equipment was little if any better than that of the Romanian 1st Armoured Division. German formations were also overextended along large stretches of front: for example, Strecker’s XI Corps had to defend a front of about 60 miles (100 km).
In overall terms, the Axis forces about to become involved in ‘Uran’ totalled more than 250,000 German troops with unknown numbers of armoured fighting vehicles and pieces of artillery, and 732 aircraft of which only 402 were serviceable; 143,300 Romanian troops with 134 tanks, 827 pieces of artillery and an unknown number of aircraft; 220,000 Italian troops; and an unknown number of Hungarian troops.
To oppose these Axis forces, the Soviets had massed 11 armies and various independent tank corps and brigades to hold Stalingrad and break though the Axis flanks to the north-west and south of the city. The Soviet preparations for the offensive faced many difficulties, however, and on 8 November the Stavka ordered a postponement of the offensive’s planned launch as transportation delays had prevented the timely arrival of many formations and units to their starting points. As the final preparations were made, the formations and units already in position undertook exercises and war games to practise the defeat of any Axis counterattack and the exploitation of any breakthrough with mechanised forces.
The Soviets went to considerable pains to conceal their preparations with decreases in radio traffic, camouflage, enhanced operational security, use of couriers rather than radio for communications, and active deception such as an increase of troop movements around Moscow away to the north. Troops were also ordered to build defensive fortifications, and fake bridges were started to divert Axis attention from the real bridges being prepared for the crossing of the Don river.
The Soviets also increased smaller-scale operations against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and also simulated the establishment of major formations to maintain the idea of a large-scale offensive in the centre of the Eastern Front.
Within Stalingrad itself, Chuikov’s 62nd Army was under constant attack and bombardment, which made mobilisation more difficult. The 38 engineer battalions allocated to the Stalingrad Front were responsible for ferrying ammunition, personnel and tanks across the Volga river while also carrying out minor reconnaissance efforts along sections of the front which were to be the breakthrough points of the impending offensive. In three weeks the Soviets moved some 111,000 men, 420 tanks and 556 pieces of artillery across the Volga river.
On 17 November Vasilevsky was recalled to Moscow, where he was shown a communication to Stalin from General Major Vasili T. Volsky, commander of the IV Mechanised Corps, urging that ‘Uran’ be postponed and entirely re-planned as, Volsky believed, the offensive as currently conceived offensive would fail as a result of the state of the forces earmarked for the operation. Other adverse factors were the failure of the supply services to issue many of the Soviet troops with adequate winter clothing, and inadequate intelligence about the 6th Army.
The Soviet high command agreed that the offensive would not be called off, and Stalin personally rang Volsky, who said that he would of course carry out his part in the operation if ordered to do so.
‘Uran’ was nonetheless postponed to 17 November, and then for another two days when Zhukov was informed that the air units allotted to the operation were not ready. Thus it was on 19 November that ‘Uran’ was finally launched. A German liaison officer with the Romanian 3rd Army had received a call that morning offering intelligence on an attack which would start after 05.00 on that same morning. The officer in fact received the message after 05.00 and, not wanting to wake Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt, the 6th Army’s chief-of-staff, with what seemed to have been a false alarm, also failed to warn the Romanian 3rd Army command of the information he had received.
Although Soviet commanders suggested postponing the initial artillery bombardment because of the presence of thick fog, Vatutin decided to proceed as planned. On receipt of the appropriate codeword, the Soviet artillery commanders launched an 80-minute bombardment against almost all of the non-German formations protecting the German flanks. Some 3,500 pieces of artillery fired on the Romanian 3rd Army and the northern shoulder of the 6th Army’s flank. Although the fog prevented the Soviet gunners from correcting their aim, their weeks of preparation and ranging made it possible for them to lay down accurate fire on positions right along the front. The effect was devastating, as communication lines were severed, ammunition dumps destroyed and forward observation points smashed. Many Romanian personnel who survived the bombardment began to flee. Soviet heavy artillery targeting Romanian artillery positions and second-echelon formations also caught the retreating Romanian soldiers.
The offensive against the Romanian 3rd Army began at 08.50, spearheaded by 21st Army and 65th Army on the left and the 5th Tank Army and 1st Guards Army on the right. The first two Soviet assaults were repulsed by the Romanians, and the devastation caused by the artillery bombardment actually made it more difficult for Soviet armour to make progress through the minefields and shattered terrain. Its lack of heavy anti-tank artillery then caused the Romanian defence to fail, and the IV Tank Corps and III Guards Cavalry Corps had broken though by 12.00. Soon after this the 5th Tank Army broke through General de divizie Nicolae Dascalescu’s Romanian II Corps, and the 5th Tank Army was followed through the breach by the VIII Cavalry Corps.
As the Soviet armour navigated through the fog by compass, overrunning Romanian and German artillery positions, three Romanian infantry divisions began to fall back in disarray, and the Romanian 3rd Army had been outflanked to the west and the east, the latter by the 21st Army advancing from its bridgehead at Kletskaya, some 32 miles (50 km) to the east, with the support of the 65th Army of the Don Front.
After receiving the news of the Soviet attack, the headquarters of the 6th Army did not order Generalleutnant Johannes Bässler’s 14th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Bruno Ritter von Hauenschild’s 24th Panzerdivision, engaged in Stalingrad, to reorient themselves to bolster the Romanian defence, but instead gave the task to General Hans Cramer’s XLVIII Panzerkorps. Understrength and poorly equipped, this formation had fewer than 100 serviceable modern tanks with which to tackle the major Soviet armoured breakthrough. Furthermore, the corps’ vehicles lacked fuel, and their shortage of tanks forced commanders to organise tank crews into infantry companies.
During the fighting which followed, the 22nd Panzerdivision was almost completely destroyed: the division had entered combat with fewer than 30 serviceable tanks and left with just one tank company. Cramer’s XLVIII Panzerkorps also lost touch with one of its formations, General de brigadâ Gheorghe Georgescu’s Romanian 20th Division. The Romanian 1st Armoured Division, attached to the XLVIII Panzerkorps, engaged the XXVI Tank Corps after losing touch with its German corps commander, and had been defeated by 20 November.
As the Soviets continued their advance to the south, many of their tank crews began to suffer the effects of the worsening blizzard, including the blocking of gun sights and, as the tanks lost traction and skidded, broken bones. The blizzard also affected the Axis forces, however, and made it essentially impossible to plan and execute any co-ordinated undertaking.
The rout of the Romanian 3rd Army was well under way by the end of 19 November. The 21st Army and 5th Tank Army took some 27,000 Romanian prisoners, the bulk of three divisions, and then continued their advance to the south. Soviet cavalry was used to exploit the breakthrough, to sever communications between the Romanians and the Italian 8a Armata, and to block any possible counterattack against the Soviet flank.
While Soviet warplanes attacked retreating Romanian troops, the Luftwaffe was able to provide only negligible opposition.
The withdrawal of General de brigadâ Constantin Bratescu’s Romanian 1st Cavalry Division, originally positioned on the left flank of Generalleutnant Alexander Edler von Daniels’s German 376th Division, allowed the 65th Army to bypass the German defences.
By now the nature of the whole strategic threat was apparent to von Weichs, who initially ordered the 6th Army to turn round first its mobile formations and then its whole effort in preparation for a break-out before the Soviet pincers could close fully in the army’s rear. Hitler was furious with von Weichs, however, and ordered Paulus to continue his offensive against Stalingrad without any thought for a break-out. The German leader’s only concession was that General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps was authorised to co-ordinate the efforts of Paulus’s only three armoured formations (Bässler’s 14th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Günther Angern’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Arno von Lenski’s 24th Panzerdivision) in the planned westward counter-offensive across the Don river in a hopeless attempt to halt the 5th Tank Army.
As the Germans began to react late on 19 November, another attack developed on the 6th Army’s other flank, to the south of Stalingrad. Here, early in the morning of 20 November the Stavka telephoned Eremenko, commander of the Stalingrad Front, instructing him to begin his portion of the offensive on schedule, at 08.00, but Eremenko responded that he would do only if the fog dissipated. Although the 51st Army opened its artillery bombardment of the Romanian 4th Army as planned because front headquarters was unable to contact the army, the rest of the forces prepared for the operation received their orders to postpone the attack until 10.00.
Then the 51st Army engaged General de divizie Corneliu Dragalina’s Romanian VI Corps, taking many prisoners. As the 57th Army joined the attack at 10.00 slightly farther to the north, the situation rapidly developed so much in favour of the Soviets that the Stalingrad Front could commit its armoured corps. Generalleutnant Max Pfeffer’s German 297th Division could only watch as its Romanian support elements put up no real resistance to the Soviet thrust. However, confusion and lack of control caused the Soviet IV and XIII Mechanised Corps to falter as they began their exploitation of the breakthroughs. The Germans in this case responded quickly by redeploying their only reserve in the area, Generalleutnant Hans-Georg Leyser’s 29th Division (mot.). Despite initial victories against Soviet armoured forces, the Romanian collapse forced the division again to redeploy in an attempt to support the southern defences. The 29th Division (mot.)’s counterattack cost the Soviets about 50 tanks, and caused Soviet commanders to worry about the security of their left flank. However, the German division’s redeployment meant that by the end of the day only the Romanian 6th Cavalry Regiment was positioned between advancing Soviet forces and the Don river.
As the 51st Army and 57th Army of the Stalingrad Front launched their offensive on 20 November, the Don Front’s 65th Army continued to apply pressure to Strecker’s XI Corps along the northern shoulder of the 6th Army’s flank. The IV Tank Corps advanced beyond the XI Corps, and the III Guards Cavalry Corps drove into the German formation’s rear. Generalleutnant Arnold Szelinski’s 376th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Deboi’s 44th Division began to redeploy to face the Soviets on their flanks, but were severely hindered by shortage of fuel. The remaining Panzer regiment of the 14th Panzerdivision tackled and destroyed a flanking regiment of the III Guards Cavalry Corps, but its anti-tank artillery suffered heavy casualties when it was overrun by Soviet forces.
By the end of the day the I Tank Corps was pursuing the retreating XLVIII Panzerkorps, while the XXVI Tank Corps had captured Perelazovsky, on the Kurtlak river almost 80 miles (130 km) to the north-west of Stalingrad.
The Soviet offensive continued on 21 November, with formations of the Stalingrad Front achieving penetrations of up to 30 miles (50 km).
By this time remaining Romanian units in the north were being destroyed in isolated battles, while the Soviets began to engage flanking portions of the 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army. Rodt’s 22nd Panzerdivision managed to make a short-lived counterattack but was reduced to little more than a single Panzer company and forced to withdraw to the south-west. Having destroyed most of the Romanian 1st Armored Division, the XXVI Tank Corps continued its advance to the south-east, generally avoiding any entanglement with isolated Axis forces, although the remnants of Dragalina’s Romanian V Corps were able to regroup and extemporise a defence in the hope that the XLVIII Panzerkorps would be able to come to their support.
During the day it was reported to Paulus that the Soviet forces were now fewer than 25 miles (40 km) from his headquarters, and that there were left no formations with which to resist the Soviet advance.
In the south, after a brief halt, the IV Mechanised Corps continued its advance as three columns drove to the north, north-west and south-west, driving the German defenders from several towns.
Given the fact that the German forces in and around Stalingrad were now clearly at significant risk, Hitler ordered the German forces in the area to establish an all-round defensive position and designated the forces between the Don and Volga rivers as the Festung ‘Stalingrad’, in the process removing all hope that the 6th Army would be allowed to break out of the forthcoming encirclement. The 6th Army, other Axis units, and most of the 4th Panzerarmee’s German units were now on the verge of total encirclement by the on-sweeping Soviet forces. Only Generalmajor Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 16th Panzergrenadierdivision began to fight its way out.
Lack of co-ordination between tanks and infantry as the Soviet tank corps attempted to exploit the breakthrough along the German southern flank allowed much of the Romanian 4th Army to escape wholesale destruction. On 22 November the IV and XXVI Tank Corps began to cross the Don river from west to east and continued their advance toward nearby Kalach. The German forces defending this town, for the most part supply and maintenance personnel, were not aware of the Soviet offensive until 21 November, and even then did not know the strength of the Soviet forces which were approaching them. By 22 November the 5th Tank Army had advanced some 62 miles (100 km) to the Liska river, a mere 19 miles (30 km) from its objective at Kalach where, on the night of 22/23 November a Soviet coup-de-main party used two captured German tanks and a reconnaissance vehicle to approach an unsuspecting bridge guard and take and hold this vital structure in preparation for the arrival of the IV and XXVI Tank Corps. The Soviet forces had broken into the town by mid-morning and driven out the surviving defenders, allowing the XXVI and IV Tank Corps to link with the IV Mechanised Corps approaching from the south-east.
The encirclement of German forces in Stalingrad was completed on 22 November, and on that day Soviet formations also continued to fight isolated pockets of Romanian resistance, such as that offered by General de divizie Gheorghe Leventi’s Romanian V Corps. Fighting continued on 23 November as the Germans attempted in vain to mount local counterattacks to break the encirclement. On 23 November the five surviving divisions of the encircled Romanian 3rd Army surrendered near Raspopinskaya, and the leading elements of the IV Tank Corps met their counterparts of the IV Mechanised Corps of the Stalingrad Front’s 51st Army on the Karpovka river just to the west of Sovetskiy.
By this time the Axis formations and units inside the new pocket were starting to move toward the eastern part of the pocket in an attempt to avoid the attentions of the Soviet tank formations, while those which did manage to escape the encirclement moved to the west toward German and other Axis forces.
‘Uran’ trapped between 200,000 and 250,000 German soldiers within an area stretching some 30 miles (50 km) from east to west and about 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. The pocket contained four infantry corps and one Panzer corps of the 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army, as well as surviving elements of two Romanian divisions, a Croat infantry regiment and a number of specialist units. The matériel in the pocket included about 100 tanks, 2,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 10,000 trucks. The lines of retreat into Stalingrad were littered with helmets, weapons and other equipment, and heavy equipment which had been destroyed was merely pushed to the side of roads. The surviving bridges across the Don river were jammed with traffic as fleeing Axis soldiers made their way to the east. Many wounded Axis soldiers were trampled underfoot, and many of those trying to cross the river on foot fell through the ice and were drowned. Hungry soldiers scavenged supplies from Russian villages, and supply dumps were often looted. The last stragglers crossed the Don on 24 November, and the bridges were then blown to seal the approaches into the Stalingrad pocket.
Yet even in the midst of this chaos, the men of the 6th Army began to construct defensive lines despite their problems with lack of fuel, ammunition and food, and being further degraded physically by the increasing cold of the deepening Russian winter. The 6th Army also had to plug the gaps in the line left by the disintegration of the Romanian forces.
On 23 November, some German units destroyed or burned everything not necessary for a break-out operation, and began to pull back toward the northern end of Stalingrad. However, the 62nd Army was able to destroy Generalleutnant Georg Pfeiffer’s 94th Division as this formation attempted to move across open terrain, and the division’s survivors were allocated to the 16th Panzerdivision and 24th Panzerdivision.
Although most of Germany’s senior commanders believed that the Axis forces trapped in the pocket could and should break out to the south-west to link with the rest of the rest of the 4th Panzerarmee, on 23/24 November Hitler decided instead that the trapped formations should hold their position in Stalingrad on the basis of supply from the air.
For this, the forces in the pocket needed a minimum of 670 tons of supplies per day, a task which the depleted Luftwaffe was in no condition to fulfil despite the assurances of Reichsmarschall Herman Göring to the contrary. Furthermore, the Soviet air forces had by now reached the levels of strength and skill to pose a very severe threat to German aircraft attempting to fly into and out of the encirclement. Although by December the Luftwaffe had assembled a fleet of some 500 aircraft, this was still insufficient to supply the pocket’s forces with the supplies they needed: during the first half of December the trapped forces received less than 20% of their daily requirements.
Meanwhile the Soviets tightened their outer encirclement with the intention of destroying the encircled German units: while the fighting within Stalingrad was left in the hands of the 62nd Army, the rest of the perimeter was held, clockwise from the southern edge of the 62nd Army, by the 64th, 57th, 21st, 65th, 24th and 66th Armies. The Soviet armies were to attack the Axis pocket in the east and the south, aiming to split the Axis formations into smaller groupings. These orders came into effect on 24 November, and were executed without any major regrouping or movement of reserves. The outer encirclement extended about 200 miles (320 km), although only three-quarters of that distance was actually covered by Soviet troops, and lying some 10 miles (16 km) inside this outer perimeter was an inner perimeter.
At the time 'Uran' ended on 30 November, the outer edge of the Soviet advance had reached, from north-west to south-east, the line of the Chir river at Bokovskaya, via Chernyshevskaya, Georgiyevskiy, Oblivskaya and Surovikino to this river’s junction with the Don river near Nizhne Chirskaya, then along the Don river as far to the south-west as the point at which the Kurmoyarsky Aksai river flows into it, and finally to the east via Kotelnikovo to an unfixed eastern end on the steep rise to the south of Lake Barmantsak.
The Stavka also began to plan ‘Saturn’ for the destruction of the Italian 8a Armata and the isolation of the German forces in the Caucasus. The Stavka planned for the offensive to start on about 10 December. The German forces in the area had been further reallocated as Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein arrived to assume command of the new Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ comprising the 4th Panzerarmee, 6th Army and Romanian 3rd Army and 4th Army. Moreover, von Manstein was already planning ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) to effect the relief of the forces in the Stalingrad pocket.