On Nov. 19, 1942, the Soviet Union launched Operation Uranus. Its goal was to envelop and destroy the German army fighting in the city of Stalingrad. Uranus closed the noose on the Germans a few days later.
I have been writing about the four great battles of 1942 that extinguished the Axis powers’ chances of winning World War II. So far, I’ve written about Midway, Guadalcanal and El Alamein. Now, it is time to write about the most massive, brutal and crucial of those four battles: Stalingrad. It was a battle that stretched over five months, from late August 1942 to early February 1943, but Operation Uranus was its decisive moment. As with the other battles I’ve discussed, Stalingrad did not win the war for Russia. What it did was make a German victory impossible.
The Battle of Stalingrad had its origins in a pivotal German miscalculation at the start of the war. Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Germany’s invasion of the east, was designed to destroy the Soviet Union, securing Germany’s eastern flank and thereby guaranteeing German control of continental Europe. The invasion began on June 22, 1941.
But the Germans made a critical error even before the invasion began. Barbarossa was a three-pronged attack. One was into the Baltic states and then toward Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), the second was toward Moscow, and the third was into the south, designed to capture Ukraine and then the Caucasus. Formulating the plan in this way violated one of the principles of warfare, one sacred to the German high command: the concentration of forces. By dividing their forces, none of the Germans’ goals were achieved. Leningrad held out in spite of Germany’s blockade, the Germans were stopped just outside of Moscow, and the southern thrust wasn’t set up to succeed.
The Germans’ blunder was rooted in an intelligence failure. The Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence, severely underestimated the size of Soviet reserves. Based on those estimates, German high command mistakenly believed it didn’t need to concentrate its forces. The Germans envisioned an initial battle of encirclement to capture Soviet armies, followed by an advance against feeble reserves, ending in victory well before the end of winter 1941.
The German plan also didn’t account for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that December. Germany had hoped the Japanese would attack Siberia, pinning down the Soviet army stationed there. After Pearl Harbor, however, the Soviets knew that Siberia was secure. Japan could fight on only one front at a time, and the United States would keep it busy. This freed up the Soviets to shift their eastern forces – forces that German intelligence thought would be irrelevant to the European war – to Moscow, where they were instrumental in blocking the German advance.
This intelligence failure cost the Germans a victory in 1941. They might have knocked the Soviet Union out if they had taken Moscow, but that’s unclear. Leningrad was a strategic sideshow. But the war could certainly have been won in the south. And the crucial battle in the south was at Stalingrad.
The Meat Grinder
Modern wars and economies run on oil, and the Soviets’ major source of oil was Baku, in Azerbaijan. The city in the South Caucasus had been developed by the Nobel Brothers (the family for whom the prize is named) in the mid-to-late 19th century and had been Europe’s first major source of oil. Had the Germans focused their entire invasion on the south and captured the land bridge between the Volga and the Don rivers, Baku’s oil wouldn’t have been able to flow to Soviet factories, and no amount of lend-lease could have made up for it. But because of their faulty intelligence, the Germans felt as though they could have all three goals in 1941. They were wrong.
By the next spring, the Germans had realized their mistake. It was now Stalin who fell victim to bad intelligence. Stalin believed (and the Germans led him to believe) that the main German assault in 1942 would be toward Moscow. Instead, Germany concentrated its forces in a thrust toward the Volga, the Don and the city of Astrakhan, intent on cutting off Baku. Stalin was stunned when the Germans launched Case Blue in the south.
By August 1942, the Germans had reached Stalingrad. It was a way station for them that they expected to take easily before crossing the Volga and advancing toward Astrakhan. The Soviets immediately understood the threat that Case Blue posed, but their forces were concentrated in the wrong place.
Without a massed army to throw into the fight, the Soviets implemented a meat grinder strategy. They shipped poorly trained, poorly armed troops across the Volga to be annihilated by the Germans. The Soviets’ hope was that this would buy them time to shift their forces south for a counterattack. The Germans misunderstood the threat. They thought Stalin was sending tens of thousands of soldiers to their deaths simply to keep the Germans off-balance, and they decided that the Soviets were on their last legs. Instead of withdrawing from Stalingrad and engaging in a battle maneuver – the sort of thing the Germans were best at – they accepted the worst kind of warfare for themselves: a static urban battle that put the attackers at a massive disadvantage.
Some have said that Hitler and Stalin saw Stalingrad first and foremost as a potential propaganda victory; that they were less concerned with its strategic value and more concerned with capturing or defending a city named after the Soviet leader. That just wasn’t the case. Stalin had to keep Hitler from crossing the Volga. Hitler was sure that the Soviets were down to a suicide strategy and that if Germany could hold on a little longer, the Soviets would fall and the road to Astrakhan would be clear. Their mistakes were understandable, and German generals saw things the same way, despite what they said in their postwar memoirs.
While the static battle raged, in September and October, the Soviets were stealthily massing forces north and south of the city. On Nov. 19, 1942, they launched their counterattack, Operation Uranus. Soviet forces struck to the north and south of Stalingrad, encircling it and trapping the German Sixth Army, which had been fully committed to the battle. The Soviets targeted troops allied with Germany – Italian, Romanian and Hungarian – knowing they were the least motivated and least resilient. The Germans knew this too, but they didn’t have enough troops to hold the line so they had no other choice but to use their allies.
Once they had the city surrounded, the Soviets held firm. Rather than suffer more casualties entering Stalingrad, they opted to try to starve the Germans out. Hitler told the Sixth Army to hold and did not try to relieve it until the end of December. Withdrawal would mean that the war was lost. In the meantime, the Germans launched a weak offensive into the Caucasus in a last-ditch bid to take Baku directly. Crossing the Caucasus in early winter, however, was impossible.
Baku was there for the taking in 1941, but by 1942, the Soviets were ready for war. Even after the start of the Battle of Stalingrad, Germany may have been able to recover if it could have given the Soviet troops in the city an alternative to the meat grinder. The troops there were trapped between the ruthlessness of the Germans and the ruthlessness of their compatriots. For the Soviet soldiers on the west bank of the Volga, the slogan was, “There is no land east of the Volga.” They faced certain death from the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, if they retreated, and certain death from the Germans if they were captured. This failure on the part of the Germans to give the Soviet troops in Stalingrad an incentive to surrender was a great failure. It cost them time and, eventually, the battle.
Beyond Stalingrad, if the Germans had reached Astrakhan, there would have been no Allied invasion of France. With the eastern front secure, Germany would have been able to transfer the majority of its forces to the west. The oil from Baku would have fueled Hitler’s war machine through Allied bombing, and the Germans could have built aircraft to respond in kind. Instead, they underestimated the reserves and resilience of the Soviets; they failed to understand that Stalingrad could be bypassed on the way to Astrakhan; and unlike Stalin, they didn’t have agility to shift strategy quickly.
The Wehrmacht was not broken at Stalingrad, but by 1943, it was out of serious offensive options. The Germans needed to make peace, and apparently there were contacts with the Soviets. But the Germans insisted on retaining a great deal of their conquests. The Soviets had no reason to accept any such offer. They knew that if the Germans kept any captured territory, they would rebuild and strike again. And they knew that Germany was facing a war of attrition on two fronts that it could no longer win.
Midway and Guadalcanal dashed any hopes of a Japanese victory in the Pacific War. El Alamein closed the door on the Germans’ effort to cut off the Suez Canal. And Stalingrad eliminated the possibility of a Soviet defeat. These facts stem from geopolitical realities. The Japanese needed to control the flow of raw materials to Japan. They could jump out to an early lead over the U.S., but unless they could compel the U.S. to sue for peace, they couldn’t hold their advantage. The Germans needed the Soviets’ resources, but like the Japanese, they needed to win quickly or they wouldn’t win at all. They couldn’t sustain a two-front war.
Germany and Japan were both mighty powers with crippling vulnerabilities that they tried to rectify through war. For a time, they were able to create the illusion that they were stronger than they were. It was an illusion so powerful that they themselves began to believe it. They became blind to the fact that to win, everything had to go perfectly. In any human endeavor, nothing goes perfectly.