This was a German attempt to relieve the forces trapped at Stalingrad on the Eastern Front (12/23 December 1942).
Undertaken by the main strength of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, the operation managed to advance only half way to its objective before the Soviet ‘Malyi Saturn’ outflanking moves farther to the north-west and south-east forced the relief force to end its effort and withdraw, thus dooming Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army and the smaller part of the 4th Panzerarmee to defeat and final surrender in Stalingrad.
Late in November 1942 the Soviets completed ‘Uran’ to encircle and trap a very large number of Axis personnel in and around the city of Stalingrad, and at the same time continued to allocate as many resources as they could to the development of the eventual launch of the planned ‘Saturn’ strategic offensive designed to cut off Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, fighting in the northern part of the Caucasus to the south of the Don river and the western side of the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, from the rest of the German forces on the Eastern Front.
The German forces inside the Stalingrad pocket and also directly outside it were now reorganised as Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein.
In an effort to nourish the forces trapped at Stalingrad, meanwhile, the Luftwaffe undertook a major air supply effort, but this was a venture doomed to failure in spite of the promises of Reichsmarschall Herman Göring that his vaunted force could supply the needs of the 6th Army in all essentials such as food, fuel, ammunition and medicine. When it became clear that the Luftwaffe was incapable of fulfilling its commander’s promises, the German military decided that a successful break-out could occur only if launched as early as possible, and von Manstein quickly decided on a relief effort. von Manstein was at first told that he would be allocated four Panzer divisions for ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), but as a result of Adolf Hitler’s reluctance to weaken other sectors of the Eastern Front by redeploying major formations to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’, the task of opening a corridor to the 6th Army fell to that part of the 4th Panzerarmee which was not trapped in Stalingrad and now became Generaloberst Herman Hoth’s Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’. It was a notably daunting task, for even if the ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) effort was able to secure an initial superiority of forces over the formations of General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front holding the southern perimeter of the area gained in ‘Uran’, the Soviets could call on major reinforcements from the several nearby armies tasked with the destruction of the encircled German forces and their own offensive around the lower reaches of the Chir river.
In summary, ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) took the Soviets by complete tactical and operational surprise, and therefore made major gains on the first day as the leading elements of the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ had the benefit of considerable air support and were thus easily able to defeat counterattacks by Soviet troops. By 13 December Soviet resistance had considerably slowed the German offensive, and though the Germans took the area surrounding Verkhne-Kumsky and were able to reach the rapidly extemporised Soviet defence line along the Myshkova river just to its north, the Soviets launched ‘Malyi Saturn’ on 16 December. This defeated Generale d’Armata Vittorio Ambrosio’s Italian 8a Armata on the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and thus threatened the survival of von Manstein’s entire group of forces. As resistance and casualties increased, von Manstein appealed to Hitler and to Paulus for the 6th Army break-out to the south-west to meet the north-eastern movement of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), but was denied. The Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ continued its attempt to open a corridor to the 6th Army to through to 18/19 December, but was unable to achieve significant progress without a break-out by the 6th Army, which might have drawn Soviet strength from Hoth’s front. So on 23 December von Manstein was forced to end ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), and on the following day the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ started to pull back to its start line. This effectively ended all hopes for the survival of the German forces trapped in the Stalingrad area.
It was on 23 November that the Soviets completed their ‘Uran’ encirclement of the Axis forces in Stalingrad, where almost 300,000 Axis personnel (German, Romanian and other contingents including anti-Soviet Russian volunteers) were now trapped inside a ring comprising about 1.1 million Soviet troops. It was this which led Hitler to create the new Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ to command the forces between Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to the north and Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ to the south. Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ therefore had the German 4th Panzerarmee and 6th Army, and as well as General de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and General de corp de armatâ Constantin Constantinescu-Claps’s Romanian 4th Army. By this time the German high command had come to the decision that the forces trapped in Stalingrad would not attempt to break out, but instead remain in Stalingrad so that they could interdict vital river traffic on the Danube and constitute the threat of a new German land offensive to reach Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga river and thereby sever the bulk of the Soviet forces and their supporting industries from the vital oil supplies of the Caucasus region.
In this concept the Axis forces in Stalingrad could pose a credible threat, and indeed do as little as remain in existence, only if they could be supplied. This could be achieved only by air, and the requirement was some 670 tons per day. Despite Göring’s assurances that his Luftwaffe could achieve the airlift requirement, as supposedly proved by the fact that his aircraft had successfully supported the German forces (though smaller at at considerably shorter range) trapped in the Demyansk pocket earlier in the year. Experience soon showed that the force of 500 transport and bomber aircraft assembled for this task was inadequate, and suffered very heavy losses to Soviet anti-aircraft guns and fighter capability both more numerous and more effective than they had been earlier in the year. Moreover, aircraft serviceability was low as a result of winter maintenance problems, and flight operations were also notably hazardous during the winter: by a time early in December, therefore, more German aircraft involved in the supply operation at Stalingrad were being lost in accidents than to Soviet fighter attack. As a result, the 6th Army was actually receiving less than 20% of its daily needs.
Given the unexpectedly large size of the Axis forces isolated in Stalingrad, on 23 November the Stavka decided to strengthen the outer encirclement of Soviet forces preparing to destroy these Axis forces in and around the city. On 24 November, therefore, several Soviet formations began to dig themselves in and prepare field fortifications against the possibility of a German offensive from the west or south. The Soviets also reinforced the inner encirclement round Stalingrad (clockwise from the north the 66th, 62nd, 64th, 57th, 21st, 65th and 24th Armies) to prevent the possibility of a successful break-out. However, this required the use of more than half of the Soviet strength in the area.
Planning for ‘Saturn’ began on 25 November with the object of destroying the Italian 8a Armata and severing all land communications between the German forces to the west of the Don river and those operating in the Caucasus. At much the same time a start was made on the planning of ‘Koltso’ to destroy the Axis forces in the Stalingrad pocket.
As ‘Uran’ ended, the German forces inside the encirclement were too weak to attempt any break-out on their own. Half of the armour which had proved essential in breaking through into the city had already been destroyed during the defensive fighting which followed, and fuel and ammunition for the surviving vehicles were in very short supply as the Luftwaffe was finding it impossible to comply with Göring’s promise.
It was in these circumstances that von Manstein proposed the ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) offensive to break the Soviet encirclement of Stalingrad. von Manstein believed that the Luftwaffe’s failure demanded the relief of the forces in the Stalingrad pocket as the earliest possible date. On 28 November von Manstein sent Hitler a detailed report of his army group’s situation, this including the strength of the 6th Army and the ammunition quantities available to the German artillery inside the city. The increasingly dire strategic situation which had now developed made von Manstein very concerned about the desirability of waiting to receive all the reinforcements which he had been promised for the offensive.
In the event the Stavka postponed ‘Saturn’ to 16 December as Soviet forces were still struggling to clear the Germans from the lower line of the Chir river, which flows into the Don river just to the north-east of Nizhne Chirskaya. The Soviet offensive in the area began on 30 November, involving something in the order of 50,000 men, which forced von Manstein to commit Generalmajor Heinrich Eberbach’s (from 4 December General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s) XLVIII Panzerkorps in an attempt to hold the area. In response, General Leytenant Prokofii L. Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army (a little fewer than 71,000 men, 252 tanks and 814 pieces of artillery) was reinforced by General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 5th Shock Army, newly created on the basis of forces drawn from the existing formations of General Polkovnik Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front and Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front. The Soviet offensive tied down the XLVIII Panzerkorps, which was the formation which von Manstein had initially selected to spearhead the main attack on the Soviet encirclement. The Soviets were warned of the impending German assault when they discovered that Generalleutnant Erhard Raus’s 6th Panzerdivision was detraining at Morozovsk, and therefore held back several armies from the attack on the lower part of the Chir river to prepare for a possible attempt by the German forces in Stalingrad to break out.
The relief operation was originally scheduled to include General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps of the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’, including Raus’s 6th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Boineburg-Lengsfeld’s 23rd Panzerdivision, and General Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ with Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision, Oberst Eberhard Rodt’s 22nd Panzerdivision and three infantry divisions. In total, it was planned that four Panzer divisions, four infantry divisions and three Luftwaffe field divisions would be committed to ‘Wintergewitter’ (i), whose task would be to open a temporary passage to the 6th Army.
Based on non-combat soldiers, headquarters staffs and both Luftwaffe and army personnel unattached to other units, the Luftwaffe field divisions were poorly trained and lacked seasoned officers and other ranks as well as adequate artillery of both the field and anti-tank types.
Many of the personnel promised for ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) did not arrive, however, in part as a result of the poor transportation service to the front, and in part as some units originally selected for transfer to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ were retained by their original commands. Others of the units in Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ were incapable of undertaking offensive operations as a result of their losses during the previous month’s combat, and several new formations which had been promised did not arrive on time. On the other hand, the 11th Panzerdivision was one of the most complete German armoured divisions on the Eastern Front as it had only just been transferred from high command reserve, and the 6th Panzerdivision was also complete because it had been transferred to von Manstein from western Europe. The utility of the 11th Panzerdivision was compromised, however, when the Soviets launched their offensive against the Axis forces along the lower reaches of the Chir river as this pinned the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ to the defensive.
Because of this, and because he believed that a thrust originating from the position of the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ would be too obvious, von Manstein decided to use the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ and the XLVIII Panzerkorps as the main components of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i). Despite attempts to build strength for the offensive, the Germans found that their position along the lower Chir was becoming ever more difficult, and the Soviet breakthrough was blunted only by the arrival of the 11th Panzerdivision, which destroyed most of two Soviet tank brigades. Thus the XLVIII Panzerkorps became embroiled in the defensive battles for the Chir river as the Soviets sought to take the airfield at Tatsinskaya being used for the aerial supply of the Axis forces in Stalingrad. Although the LVII Panzerkorps was reluctantly released to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ by Heeresgruppe ‘A’, Generalleutnant Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin’s 17th Panzerdivision was ordered back to its original area of concentration, and did not prepare to go to Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ until 10 days after the date when it had been requested.
Given the difficulty in concentrating sufficient strength, and seeing that the Soviets were concentrating greater mechanised strength along the Chir river, von Manstein decided to launch ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) with just the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ driving to the north-east from the line of the Kurmoyarsky Aksai river, which flows into the Don river from the east some 30 miles (50 km) farther to the south than the Chir river’s debouchment into the Don river from the west. von Manstein hoped that the 6th Army would launch an offensive of its own, to the south-west, so that the two German spearheads would meet probably in the area of the Myshkova river. von Manstein was therefore gambling on Hitler’s final acceptance of the fact that the only plausible method of avoiding the death of the 6th Army was allowing it to break out, and on Paulus’s agreement to his formation’s break-out from the Stalingrad pocket. On 10 December von Manstein told Paulus that the relief operation would begin on the following day.
For ‘Uran’, General Georgi K. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and the first deputy people’s commissar of defence, had mustered 11 armies. In an effort to bolster the offensive capabilities of the Stalingrad Front, more than 420 tanks, 111,000 men and 556 pieces of artillery had been shipped over the Volga river in a period of three weeks. The Soviet army and air forces were thus able to commit more than one million men, 13,500 pieces of artillery, 890 tanks and 1,100 combat aircraft organised into 66 infantry divisions, five tank corps, 14 tank brigades, one mechanised brigade, one cavalry corps, and 127 artillery and mortar regiments. As the encirclement closed and the Soviets continued with secondary operations, General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army was positioned on the edge of the outer encirclement with 34,000 men and 77 tanks. South of this formation was General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 28th Army, with 44,000 men, 40 tanks and 707 pieces of artillery and mortars.
At much the same time the Soviets started to built their strength for ‘Saturn’ for the isolation and destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in the Caucasus.
On 12 December the LVII Panzerkorps began its offensive to the north-east in the direction of the Axis forces trapped in the Stalingrad pocket. The 6th Panzerdivision and 23rd Panzerdivision made considerable progress, taking the Soviets by surprise and threatening the rear of the Soviet 51st Army. The German drive was to have been spearheaded by the PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks of Oberleutnant Post’s 503rd schwere Panzerabteilung, but this unit did not reach the Don front until 21 December.
The initial progress of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) was rapid, and some units advanced as much as 32 miles (50 km) in this first day. The Germans were aided by the element of surprise as the Stavka had not expected ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) to begin as early as it did, and General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff and deputy people’s commissar for defence, was not able to detach General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army to block the German spearheads. The initial advance had been so quick that the 6th Panzerdivision was able to capture Soviet artillery before it could be destroyed, and the Soviet resistance decreased considerably after the 6th Panzerdivision and 23rd Panzerdivision had overrun the main body of Soviet infantry. Although Soviet infantry quickly reinforced villages lying on the path of the German offensive, the Soviet cavalry in the area was exhausted from weeks of combat and was incapable of offering any serious resistance.
Despite these early successes, however, the LVII Panzerkorps was unable to achieve decisive results. Soon there were reports of heavy pressure building against the 23rd Panzerdivision despite this formation’s first-day success. On 13 December the 6th Panzerdivision made contact with the 5th Tank Army, which was engaged in the reduction of the German defences along the Chir river, and the German armour engaged and defeated the Soviet armour as the the former forced the crossing of the Aksai river, which flows from the east into the Don river about one-third of the distance from the debouchments of the Kurmoyarsky Aksai river to the south and the Chir river to the north. There now began a major armoured battle began around the village of Verkhne-Kumsky, and though they sustained heavy losses, the Soviets were able to push the Germans back to the northern bank of the Aksai river by the end of the day, while failing to retake the village itself. However, the Soviet losses near Verkhne-Kumsky gave the 6th Panzerdivision a brief superiority in tank numbers. The fighting for Verkhne-Kumsky lasted for three days as the Soviets launched a number of counterattacks on the German bridgeheads across the Aksai river and the German defenders in the village where, however, the German defenders were able to pin the Soviet armour and destroy it with well-emplaced anti-tank guns. With the benefit of effective support from the air, the Germans were able to achieve a local success and resume their advance toward the Myshkova river. The 6th Panzerdivision had suffered heavy losses, and now took a brief respite to recover: minor damage to surviving tanks was repaired and the majority of the tanks incapacitated during the fighting at Verkhne-Kumsky were recovered and restored to combat capability.
The offensive of the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ now forced the Stavka to recalculate its forces and intentions for ‘Saturn’, and on 13 December Stalin and the Stavka authorised the redeployment of the 2nd Guards Army from the South-West Front to the Stalingrad Front, which it would reach in time for use against the German forces on 15 December. The 2nd Guards Army had about 90,000 men organised as the I, II and XIII Guards Corps. At the same time ‘Saturn’ was redesigned and scaled down into ‘Malyi Saturn’ with the more limited objective of breaking through the Italian 8a Armata to engage the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. Thus the alignment of the offensive’s axis was shifted from the south to the south-east, and its launch date was pushed back to 16 December.
In the meantime, General Major Vasili T. Volsky’s IV Mechanised Corps and General Major Trofim I. Tanaschishin’s XIII Tank Corps continued to counterattack German forces neat the Aksai river in an effort to hold them in check pending the arrival of the 2nd Guards Army.
General Leytenant Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army and General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army, in conjunction with General Major Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army, launched ‘Malyi Saturn’ on 16 December. Despite early problems with the unexpectedly stubborn resistance of the Italian formations, the Soviets managed to overrun part of the Italian 8th Army by 18 December. The breakthrough was small and quickly contained, but nonetheless proved the possibility of a threat to the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ even as the city of Rostov-na-Donu was threatened by the 3rd Guards Army on the right flank. In combination with the heavy losses of the German armoured divisions trying to force their way to the Myshkova river, this compelled von Manstein to reconsider the advisability on pressing ahead with ‘Wintergewitter’ (i). von Manstein decided that his army group could not defend its left flank while also sustaining the attempt to relieve the 6th Army. Even though the 6th Panzerdivision had been able to cross the Myshkova river by the night of 19 December, the LVII Panzerkorps had still to secure any major progress against increased Soviet opposition despite the belated arrival of the 17th Panzerdivision: it now seemed that the LVII Panzerkorps would have to go on the defensive.
Furthermore, the Soviet armoured raid on Tatsinskaya at this time managed to destroy the airfield and several dozen aircraft being used by the Luftwaffe to resupply forces inside the Stalingrad pocket, forcing von Manstein to order the XLVIII Panzerkorps onto the defensive, instead of reserving it to bolster his forces committed to the breakthrough to Stalingrad. The German situation was exacerbated on 18 December, when Hitler turned down von Manstein’s pleas and flatly refused the 6th Army permission to begin a break-out toward the rest of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’.
On 19 December von Manstein despatched his chief intelligence officer into Stalingrad to give Paulus an accurate account of the strategic situation in which Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ now found itself. Paulus was not impressed, although he agreed that the best option continued to be a break-out at a time as early as possible. The 6th Army’s chief-of-staff, Generalmajor Arthur Schmidt, argued that a break-out was not a practical proposition, and instead suggested that Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ should ensure a better level of daily air supply to the beleaguered 6th Army. Despite the fact that he had initially agreed with von Manstein’s intelligence officer, Paulus now came to the conclusion that a break-out was out of the question in the light of the 6th Army’s exhaustion and lack of mobility, and also of Hitler’s order against it. Although on this same day the LVII Panzerkorps managed to break through the Soviet line along the Aksai river and drive to a point only 30 miles (50 km) from the southern edge of the 6th Army’s front, the trapped Axis forces therefore made no attempt to link with the relieving forces. After this the 6th Army lacked the the strength for any break-out effort as it had fewer than 70 serviceable tanks, only limited supplies and infantry that was in no condition to attempt an attack in the blizzard which had developed over the past few days.
On 23 December, therefore, von Manstein had no option but to order the 6th Panzerdivision to end its offensive and redeploy to the southern reaches of the Chir river and there strengthen the German defences against the continuing Soviet offensive. By the following day the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ was in full retreat back to its start line and Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ went over to the defensive.
With ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) defeated, the Stavka was now able to concentrate its energies on the destruction of Axis forces in the Stalingrad pocket and the westward expansion of its winter offensive. The Soviets were able to commit little short of 150,000 men and 630 tanks against the retreating Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’, and although Volsky’s III Guards Mechanised Corps, as the IV Mechanised Corps had been redesignated on 18 December, was withdrawn for rehabilitation and re-fitting, the 51st Army, the I Guards Corps and VII Tank Corps struck at the retreating Germans between the Myshkova and Aksai rivers. In three days the Soviets broke through the Romanian positions shielding the LVII Panzerkorps’ flank and threatened the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ from the south, forcing the Germans to continue their withdrawal to the south-west. During this time the XLVIII Panzerkorps, spearheaded primarily by Balck’s 11th Panzerdivision, was attempting to hold its position along the Chir river. In this the corps was largely successful, but had then to be rushed to the defence of Rostov-na-Donu as a Soviet breakthrough seemed imminent after the partial collapse of the Italian 8th Army.
As the Soviet formations pursued the Armeegruppe ‘Hoth’ toward the Aksai river and broke through the German defence on the Chir river, they also began to prepare for the ‘Koltso’ operation to destroy the German forces in Stalingrad. Here the surviving Axis formations were already running out of essential supplies, and the dire nature of their situation was emphasised by the fact that, by the end of 1942, the gap between the 6th Army and the nearest German forces outside of the encirclement was more than 40 miles (65 km), and most of the German formations in this region of the Eastern Front were extremely weak. Hitler’s obstinate insistence on the retention of Stalingrad to the last risked the existence, and finally lost, the 6th Army. The end of ‘Wintergewitter’ (i) also allowed the Soviets to continue their effort to isolate the German forces in the Caucasus from a time in the middle of January 1943. On the other hand, the Soviet encirclement of the 6th Army and the operations to destroy it did in fact tie down larger numbers of Soviet troops, and this had an adverse effect on Soviet operations in other sectors.