Wednesday 28 August 2013

World of Tanks History Section: Battle of Stalingrad

1. Introduction

The Battle of Moscow ended on April 20th, 1942. The German Army, whose advance seemed unstoppable, was thrown back from the capital of the USSR by 150-300 km. The Germans took heavy losses. While the Wehrmacht was still strong, it no longer had the ability to advance on all sections of the front simultaneously.

During spring mud, the Germans developed a plan for a summer offensive in 1942, codenamed Fall Blau (Case Blue). Initially, the target of the offensive were the oil wells of Grozniy and Baku, with possible further advance into Persia. Before the offensive, the Germans were going to "cut off" the Barvenkov Salient, a large foothold captured by the Red Army on the western shore of the Severskiy Donets river.

Soviet command was also gathering for a summer offensive in the Bryansk, South, and South-West fronts. Regrettably, despite the Red Army's initial successes that pushed the Germans back to Kharkov, the Germans managed to turn the situation around and deliver a crushing blow to Soviet forces. The South and South-Western fronts were weakened, and, on June 28th, Hermann Hoth's 4th tank army broke through between Kursk and Kharkov. The Germans were at the Don river.

At this point, Hitler made a personal change to Case Blue that cost the Germans dearly. He split Army Group South into two parts. Army Group A was to continue to the Caucasus. Army Group B was to march to the Volga, cut off strategic communications between the USSR and Central Asia, and capture the city of Stalingrad. Hitler wanted to take the city not only for practical reasons (the city was a large industrial center), but for ideological ones. Taking the city named after the Third Reich's greatest enemy would be a great victory for German propaganda.

2. Positions of forces and the first stage of the battle

Army Group B, advancing on Stalingrad, included Paulus' 6th Army. It consisted of 270 000 soldiers and officers, 2200 artillery units and mortars, about 500 tanks. The 6th army was supported from the air by the 4th air fleet of General Wolfram von Richthofen, consisting of about 1200 aircraft. Later, closer to the end of July, Hoth's 4th tank army was added to Army Group B, including the 5th, 7th, 9th army and 46th motorized corps. The latter included the Das Reich SS tank division.

The South-Western Front, renamed to the Stalingrad Front on July 12th 1942, had 160 000 soldiers, 2200 artillery and mortars, about 400 tanks. From 38 divisions that made up the front, only 18 were fully staffed. The rest had between 300 and 4000 people. The 8th air army assigned to the front also had a numeric disadvantage compared to Richthofen's. With these forces, the Front had to cover a defensive line more than 500 kilometers wide. The Soviet forces were further disadvantaged by the flat steppe terrain, on which enemy tanks could act unimpeded. Combined with the small amounts of anti-tank weapons, this made the tank menace critical.

The German advance started on July 17th, 1942. The advance guard of the 6th Army engaged elements of the 62nd Army on the river Chir, in the region of the Pronin settlement. By July 22nd, the Germans pushed the Soviets back 70 kilometers, to the main Stalingrad defensive line. The German high command, expecting to take the city swiftly, decided to encircle the Soviet forces at the Kletskaya and Suvorovskaya railroad stations, capture crossings across the Don river, and continue on to Stalingrad. Two strike groups have been created for this purpose, advancing from the north and the south. The north group was formed from elements of the 6th army. The south, from elements of the 4th tank army.

The north group delivered a strike on July 23rd, penetrated the front of the 62nd army, and encircled two of its infantry divisions and a tank brigade. By July 26th, forward German divisions made it to the Don. The Stalingrad Front command organized a counterattack using the front's mobile reserves, as well as the 1st and 4th tank armies, which were still incomplete. The tank army was a newly organized unit in the Red Army. It is unknown who first came up with this structure, but the first documented record of this unit type is credited to the head of GAU, Y. N. Fedorenko, in a report to Stalin. The state in which these tank armies were first envisioned did not last long, and they were seriously restructured. However, the tank armies at Stalingrad were of this specific type. The 1st tank army delivered an attack form the Kapach region on July 25th, and the 4th from the Trehostrovskaya and Kachalinskaya railroad stations on July 27th.

Fierce battles were fought on this section of the front until August 7-8th. The encircled units were freed, but a decisive victory over the German forces was not achieved. Forces of the Stalingrad Front were poorly trained, and several mistakes were made by commanding officers.

The southern offensive was stopped at the settlements of Surovkino and Rychovskiy. Nevertheless, the defensive lines of the 64th army were penetrated. Stavka ordered that the 64th army, reinforced with two infantry divisions and a tank corps, must destroy the enemy in the region of the Nizhne-Chirskaya station no later than the 30th.

Despite the fact that the units' combat ability was hampered due to being sent into battle before properly deploying, the Germans were pushed backwards, and a were in danger of being surrounded. The Germans brought fresh reinforcements into battle, and the fighting became even more fierce.

On July 28th, 1942, an event happened that cannot be left out. The famous order #227 of the People's Commissar of Defense was issued, more commonly known as "Not One Step Back". It severely increased the punishment for leaving the field of battle, introduced penal units for guilty soldiers and commanders, as well as special blocking squads: units that were tasked with detaining deserters and returning them into battle. This document, despite its cruelty, was received very positively, and improved discipline in the army.

By the end of July, the 64th army was forced to retreat past the Don. The Germans captured a series of footholds on the left shore of the river. Serious forces were concentrated in the region of the Tsymlyanskaya village: two infantry, two motorized, and one tank division. Stavka ordered the Stalingrad front to knock the Germans past the Don and restore the Don line of defense. On July 30th, the Germans attacked at Tsymlyanskaya, and by August 3rd progressed significantly, taking the Remontnaya railroad station, city of Kotelnikovo, and settlement of Zhutovo. The 6th Romanian Corps also made it to the Don at this point. The Soviets were forced to move to the left shore. On August 15th, the 4th Soviet tank army was forced to do the same, as the Germans were threatening to penetrate the front in its center and cut it in half.

By August 16th, the forces at Stalingrad retreated past the Don, and took up defensive positions in the city's fortifications. On August 17th, the Germans renewed their push, and managed to capture crossings by August 20th, as well as a foothold in the region of the Vertyachiy settlement. Efforts to throw back the Germans were unsuccessful. On August 23rd, a German force supported by aircraft broke through the defensive lines of the 62nd army and 4th tank army and reached the Volga. 2000 sorties were flown by German aircraft that day. Many areas of the city were destroyed, oil stores were burning. 40 000 civilians were dead. The enemy reached Rynok, Orlovka, Gumrak, Peschanka line. The battle migrated to Stalingrad's walls.

3. Battles in the city

When the Soviet forces retreated to the outskirts of Stalingrad, 6 German and one Romanian infantry divisions, two tank divisions, and one motorized division opposed the 62nd army. The Germans had 500 tanks, supported by at least 1000 aircraft. Stalingrad was in danger of falling into enemy hands. Stavka sent in two armies (10 infantry divisions, 2 tank brigades), re-equipped the 1st Guards Army (6 infantry divisions, 2 guards infantry divisions, 2 tank brigades), and assigned the 16th air army to the Stalingrad Front.

On September 5th and 18th, forces of the Stalingrad Front (Don Front after September 30th) weakened the Germans with two massive offensive operations, drawing away 8 infantry, two tank, and two motorized divisions. It was not possible to destroy the Germans completely. Fierce battles for the inner defensive line raged on.

Battles in the city started on September 13th, 1942, and continued until November 19th, when the Red Army began an offensive as a part of "Operation Uranus". From September 12th, the 62nd army was tasked with defending Stalingrad, under the command of Lieutenant-General V.I. Chuikov. This man, considered too inexperienced to lead before the battle, created a real hell for the enemy in the city.

On September 13th, 6 German infantry, three tank, and two motorized divisions were near the city. Until September 18th, fierce battles were fought in the central and southern parts of the city. The enemy was held back south of the train station, but the battle in the center was not as fortunate. The Germans pushed the Soviets back to the Krutoy ravine.

Especially fierce fighting for the train station took place on September 17th. In one day, it changed hands 4 times. The Germans left 4 tanks and 100 dead there. On September 19th, the left flank of the Stalingrad Front attempted to launch an offensive to take the train station, with subsequent attacks on Gumrak and Gorodishe. It was not possible to move up, but a large enemy force was held up in the fighting, which eased the job of forces in the center of the city. The defense here was solid enough that the enemy never made it to the Volga.

Understanding that the center of the city was impenetrable, the Germans sent their forces south, for an eastward strike in the direction of Mamayev Hill and the Krasniy Oktyabr settlement. On September 27th, the Soviets launched a preemptive attack with small infantry teams, armed with light machine guns, incendiary bottles, and anti-tank rifles. Fighting continued from September 27th to October 4th. These were the very same street battles in Stalingrad that freeze the blood in the veins of even the most hardened men. The two sides fought not for streets or neighbourhoods, not even for houses, but for separate floors and rooms. Hand to hand combat was as common as in the middle ages, when edged weapons ruled the battlefield. After a week, the Germans moved forward 400 meters. Everyone joined the fight: construction workers, engineers. The Germans slowly petered out. Similarly desperate struggles took place at the Barricade factory, Orlovka settlement, at the Silikat factory.

By the beginning of October, the area of Stalingrad controlled by the Red Army dwindled to the point that it could be completely covered by artillery and machine gun fire. The forces fighting in the city were supplied from across the Volga by anything that could float: boats, yachts, steamboats. German aircraft relentlessly bombed the crossings, making delivering supplies even more difficult.

While the 62nd army held and wore down the enemy, Stavka was preparing a massive offensive, aimed at destroying the German forces at Stalingrad.

4. "Uranus" and Paulus' surrender

At the start of the Soviet counteroffensive, aside from Paulus' 6th army, Stalingrad was also home to von Salmuth's 2nd army, Hoth's 4th tank army, as well as Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian forces.

On November 19th, the Red Army began a massive offensive operation on three fronts, codenamed "Uranus". Its start was signaled by 3500 guns and mortars. The barrage lasted 2 hours. In honour of this specific artillery barrage, November 19th was named "Artillery Day".

On November 23rd, the 6th army and Hoth's 4th tank army were encircled. On November 24th, 30 000 Italians surrendered at the village of Raspopinskaya. By that point, the territory occupied by the Germans was 40 km west-to-east and 80 km north-to-south. Subsequent compression of this territory proceeded slowly, as the Germans held on to every scrap of land. Paulus demanded a breakthrough, but Hitler forbade it. He did not lose hope that it was possible to penetrate the ring externally.

Erich von Manstein was tasked with the rescue mission. Army Group Don was tasked with freeing Paulus' army in December of 1942 with a strike from Kotelnikovo and Tormosina. On December 12th, operation "Winter Storm" began. The Germans did not advance with all forces. Only one tank division and one Romanian infantry division attacked on time. Two other incomplete tank divisions and some amount of infantry joined in later. On December 19th, Manstein's forces engaged Rodion Malinovkiy's 2nd Guards Army. By December 25th, "Winter Storm" was extinguished in the snowy Don steppes. The Germans returned to the initial positions, with heavy losses.

Paulus' forces were doomed. Hitler was the only person that disagreed. He was against retreat when it was still possible, and would not hear of surrender when the mouse trap finally and irreversibly clamped shut. Even when the Red Army captured the last airfield the Luftwaffe could supply Paulus' army with (as poor and unreliable as it was), he still demanded that Paulus and his men fight.

On January 10, 1943, the start of the operation to liquidate the German force began. It was named "Operation Ring". On January 9th, a day before it began, the Soviet army delivered an ultimatum to Paulus. By coincidence, the commander of the 14 tank corps, General Hube, arrived in the encirclement on the same day. He passed on the message that Hitler demands that Paulus continue fighting and that attempts to break open the encirclement will continue. Paulus followed his orders, and rejected the ultimatum.

The Germans resisted as the could. The offensive even briefly stopped between January 17th and 22nd. Soviet forces regrouped and resumed their attack. On January 26th, the German forces were cut in half. The north group was located in the region of the "Barricade" factory. The southern group, with Paulus, was located in the center of the city. Paulus' command center was located in the basement of the central general store.

On January 30th, Hitler awarded Paulus the title of Feldmarschal. By unwritten tradition, feldmarschals never surrendered. This was a suggestion from the Fuhrer that Paulus ought to end his military career. Paulus decided that it was wise to ignore some suggestions. On January 31st, at noon, Paulus surrendered. Another two days were spent on clearing out the rest of the city. On February 2nd, it was over. The Battle of Stalingrad was won.

90 000 soldiers and officers were captured. The Germans lost 800 000 soldiers and officers. 160 tanks and 200 airplanes were captured.

Original article available here.

Additionally, here is a map of Stalingrad stitched together from German aerial reconnaissance photos, provided by Rossmum. Watch out, it's 40 MB in size.

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