22 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Four: The beginning of the end

Soviet forces storm a factory in Stalingrad

Part Three

I have decided to move Kursk until tomorrow, to avoid an overly long post.

After the British victory at El Alamein ended Rommel's dreams of conquering Egypt and started a long retreat that would end up with the complete destruction of Axis forces in North Africa, Winston Churchill, always a man with a great turn of phrase, said this:

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning".
If El Alamein was the end of the beginning, Stalingrad has a strong case that it was the beginning of the end of the Second World War. After this, the Germans never gained another strategic victory (Operation Market Garden, for all the attention focussed on the failures at Arnhem, cannot be called one, as the Allies had still made a considerable advance).

It's been said before, but it's best to say it again: Hitler was a useless military commander. His military experience was spent entirely as a messenger; he never commanded a platoon, let alone an army. His micro-management proclivities cost the Wehrmacht dear, much like his (very brief in time) successor Karl Doenitz did with the Kriegsmarine's U-Boat forces, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any arm in any side in the entire war. Churchill, who had some more command experience and had previous naval leadership knowledge as First Sea Lord during the First World War, generally left his generals to get on with the job. Also, Hitler generally refused to countenance any form of withdrawal to more defensible lines and sacked a number of commanders for doing so without authorisation.

All of this resulted in the decision to draw up and then launch Case Blue; an attack by Army Group South, now split into Army Groups A and B, on Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil fields, as well as cutting the Volga river. This (so Hitler hoped) force the Soviet Union to sue for peace. The offensive was launched, over some pretty strong objections from Wehrmacht officers (including Fedor von Bock, who was dismissed for objecting to the splitting of Army Group South)  who knew what they were doing a bit more than Hitler, on 28 June 1942.

The Germans ran into resistance at Voronezh, but the Red Army forces there eventually withdrew - and this is the important bit - in good order. While a "tactical withdrawal" is sometimes mocked by wargamers as "running away", it has a significant difference from a disorderly rout (like the Old Guard at Waterloo) as it still leaves your forces in a relatively good condition.

With Voronezh captured, the Germans were feeling confident of victory. At this point Hitler made a fatal mistake. He diverted 4th Panzer Army from Stalingrad and retasked it with attacking the oil fields. In the process, it crossed the line of march of the 6th Army - and caused a massive traffic jam. One must remember that most of the roads of Europe at this time were single-lane paved highways at best and muddy tracks at worst. If a tank breaks down, or runs out of petrol; it's going to take a while to get it out of the way. Speaking of petrol, an army marches on it as much as food today. In the process of this giant jam, 4th Panzer Army had taken most of 6th Army's fuel... The whole mess delayed the Germans by two weeks - giving the Soviet Southern Front time to withdraw in good order to Stalingrad.

The Germans were advancing towards the Volga and meeting little resistance. At Army Group B, they were realising, to use the old cliché, that things were quiet... too quiet. You know what generally happens after that.

The Main Battle

German forces arrived in the Stalingrad area in late August, starting off with heavy bombing raids. Civilians started to flee across the Volga - with the ferries being used to bring reinforcements in, so naturally said ferries became targets. However, the ferries kept running.

By 1 September, things were becoming rather reminiscent of a game of Warhammer 40,000 (the Imperial Guard in said game bear strong resemblances to the Red Army, right down to the Commissars who shoot 'deserters'). Fighting ended up literally room-to-room in some cases. The rubble from shelling created more hiding places for the defenders.

The battle dragged on and on, turning into a bloody game of attrition. Individual acts of heroism stand out here - most notably Sgt Yakov Pavlov, whose platoon defended a key strong-point for 59 days. Famous snipers like Vasily Zaitsev and Tanya Chernova wreaked havoc (although there is very little evidence for the story depicted in Enemy at the Gates). T-34s went straight from the Krasny Oktyabr (that's Red October for non-Russian speakers) factory into battle. We haven't even mentioned the female fighter pilots.

The Soviet forces were having supply problems - they needed to hold out long enough for the Volga to freeze over completely and the Germans now controlled 90% of the city. When ice floes started to form, rendering the river temporarily unusable, supplies were air dropped, but most ended up in German hands.

The Germans having rather exposed flanks as a result of their advance (the Soviets had moved away and so they weren't too worried about them initially), guarded by weaker forces from other Axis powers like Romania, who weren't too keen to die in someone else's war of expansion. On 19 November, they launched a counter-attack (Operation Uranus) and a day later, a second one from the south (Operation Saturn). The attack routed the Romanians and rapidly cut off 6th Army's supply lines.

General von Paulus, commander of 6th Army, knew he was in trouble. He asked for permission to withdraw twice and was refused. Eventually 6th Army was surrounded - their horror was only just beginning.

Ill-advised attempts to re-supply by air and a failed attempt to relieve 6th Army just cost the Germans a lot of men and equipment. 6th Army was trapped in a Russian winter, starving to death. Ammo and medical supplies were running out.

As disaster loomed, Hitler evacuated everybody else from the Caucusus region. von Paulus asked for permission to surrender and was instead promoted to Field Marshal (so if he died, Hitler could use the fact that no German Field Marshal had ever been taken alive as propaganda). Eventually, he decided to surrender anyway on 31 January 1943. 90,000 Germans were captured - only 5,000 would return to Germany, some spending twelve years as POWs. von Paulus remained as a "guest" of the East Germans until his death in 1957.

The battle of Stalingrad was over.

After an ill-advised attack that claimed well over a million lives on both sides and devastated a city, Germany's martial reputation was gone. The Soviet army was now starting its long journey to Berlin.

Part Five

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