In utmost secrecy, generals Georgi Zhukov and Alexandr Vasilevski (Bio Vasilevski) had begun drafting a plan to eliminate the Axis forces at Stalingrad. They noticed the flanks of 6. Armee were poorly defended. The Germans had mainly deployed Romanians and Italians there. Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt had called this assembly of Axis forces the "ideal army of the League of Nations." These armies were smaller than the German and the men were far less armed and trained. Although the Germans knew this they opted to deploy the entire 6. Armee in Stalingrad anyway.
Operation UranusWhile Adolf Hitler still took many military decisions all by himself, Joseph Stalin granted his generals increasingly more freedom. Although he himself wished the attack to take place early November, he permitted Zhukov and Vasilevski to wait until the circumstances were most favorable.
The two generals wanted to penetrate the weak northwestern and southern flanks and in so doing surround 6. Armee. They wanted to give Stalingrad a wide berth in order to prevent 6. Armee from eventually launching a quick counter attack. In deepest secrecy, a massive combat force was assembled, numbering over a million men, nearly 1,000 tanks, some 14,000 guns and mortars and some 1,250 aircraft. By the way, this force was hardly larger than the entire Axis forces in the area. Colonel-general Nikolai N. Voronov, supreme commander of the Red Army artillery and representative of Stavka, was to coordinate the artillery barrage. Keeping the attack a secret had succeeded very well. Many Germans did expect an attack but were skeptical about the Soviet capability to launch such a massive offensive.
On August 24th, the Soviets had captured two bridgeheads on the south bank of the Don in two counter attacks, one on Serafimovich and the other on Kletskaya. In October 1942, General de Armată Petre Dumitrescu, commander of the Romanian 3rd Army, had submitted a proposal to recapture these two bridgeheads but it was rejected by the Germans as no troops could be made available.
On November 19th, 1942, at 07:20 Russian time, the Soviets were ordered to load their guns, mortars and Katyushas. They opened the attack out of the two bridgeheads at Serafimovich and Kletskaya in the northwest. According to a Soviet general, the fog was "thick as milk" and postponement of the attack was considered briefly. Ten minutes later, Voronov’s artillery, a total of 3,500 pieces, unleashed an 80 minute barrage on the Romanian army. Dozens of miles behind the front, officers of the 22. Panzerdivision even woke up as the earth shook like in an earthquake. Right after the barrage the infantry moved in, supported by tanks. The Romanians fought like lions but the Soviets were just too strong, scattering the Romanians in all directions. The only unit capable to stop the steam roller was the XXXXVIII Panzerkorps, stationed in the Romanian rear area. This corps however was far too weak as it had yielded a few of its units to others and many of its tanks were out of service because mice had eaten through the electricity cables. The few tanks still operational crossed the path of the 5. Tank Army of Colonel-general Romanenko. They inflicted some damage but Romanenko simply drove past the corps without being delayed noticeably.
In the morning of November 20th, 51st and 57th armies began their advance to the northwest out of the area near the lakes south of Stalingrad. The attack was to commence at 08:00 hours but was postponed until 10:00 due to heavy fog. The Soviets here also easily broke through the lines of the Romanian 4th Army.
6. Armee is surroundedOn November 23rd, the ring was closed. The two Soviet spear heads met near Kalakh where they captured the bridge across the Don intact. In total almost two entire German armies were surrounded, consisting of five corps, each consisting of 21 German and two Romanian divisions. A Croatian regiment belonged to one of those divisions. Surrounded units of 4. Panzerarmee were added to 6. Armee, making 6. Armee over 300,000 strong. They faced seven Soviet armies and four air fleets.
German reactions to the encirclement were mixed. Some, mainly junior commanders, thought an attempt at breakout should be made immediately. Others did not feel like leaving their positions, not only because it had taken so much trouble to capture them but also because the ruins of the city offered at least some protection against the Russian winter. As it was, the rear area of the army had to be defended. Paulus had already dispatched his armored divisions to the Don. He also understood immediately, he needed support from the air and supplies. If necessary, he also wanted a free hand to break out of the Cauldron. The response came almost immediately, not from the commander of Heeresgruppe B, Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs but from Adolf Hitler himself. 6. Armee was to hold its positions and be aware he would do anything necessary to help and relieve it. He would issue his orders in due time. Moreover he ordered Paulus to pull all units of 6. Armee west of the Don back east in the direction of Stalingrad. In the night of November 23rd, Hitler designated Stalingrad a Festung (Fortress) which was to be defended to the last.
The air liftAdolf Hitler asked Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Bio Göring) whether his Luftwaffe was capable of supplying 6. Armee from the air. Generalleutnant Eduard Wagner, Oberquartiermeister (quartermaster-general) at the O.K.H. had estimated the number of surrounded troops at 300,000 but there was uncertainty about this number. An estimated minimum of 500 tons had to be flown in daily and to achieve this, some 500 Junkers Ju 52-3m transport aircraft would be required. Yet the numbers were adapted, the absolute minimum was set at 300 tons a day and 300 aircraft. To General der Infanterie Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the general staff of the army and Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, chief of the general staff of the Luftwaffe, it seemed impossible to supply 6. Armee by air. Hitler and Jeschonnek had discussed an air lift before. Hitler compared this one to the air lift in the spring of 1942 near Demyansk. However, a third of the number in Stalingrad had to be resupplied there, in spring instead of in winter and with negligible resistance from the Red Air Force. Yet Göring ignored all advice and with utter disdain for the possibilities, he took on the job of supplying 6. Armee by air.
Plans were also drafted to relieve 6. Armee. On November 21st, Hitler had ordered the establishment of Heeresgruppe Don commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein. Its main goal was to relieve 6. Armee although the unit hardly received any troops for it. Von Weichs, Paulus and his five corps commanders were unanimous in their opinion: 6. Armee must break out before the Red Army could stabilize its front southwest of Stalingrad. Generalmajor Arthur Schmidt, chief of staff of 6. Armee reminded Paulus that Hitler had expressly ordered to hold on. Paulus was not a person to ignore Hitler, whatever his own ideas might be. Schmidt also reminded him, there would be insufficient fuel for a breakout to the southwest and that the army would be far too weak on the exposed steppe.
The air lift that started on November 25th, fell far short of its goals. Over the first five days, only some 175 tons was flown in but mainly because of bad weather. Fierce Soviet anti-aircraft defenses and attacks by fighters inflicted grievous losses on the air fleet. Over the entire duration of the air lift, the Luftwaffe flew an average of only 117 tons into the cauldron. The target of 300 tons daily was only reached three times.
Operation WintergewitterErich von Manstein had been given a difficult task: his Heeresgruppe Don consisted of 6. Armee, 4. Panzerarmee and the Romanian 3rd Army. The majority by far of these were surrounded themselves. Von Manstein ordered Generaloberst Hermann Hoth (Bio Hoth) the commander of 4. Panzerarmee – now rebaptized Armeegruppe Hoth – to launch Operation Wintergewitter, the relief of Stalingrad. Hoth and his staff had little or nothing to do any more since most of 4. Panzerarmee was surrounded at Stalingrad. Hoth’s spear head was to consist of LVII. Panzerkorps commanded by General der Panzertruppe Friedrich Kirchner which had been extracted from Heeresgruppe A.
It was not Hoth’s intention to fight himself all the way to the Cauldron. 6. Armee itself would have to meet the relief forces half way. This operation was code named Operation Donnerschlag. Von Manstein knew very well Hitler would never permit this so he had hidden this in his plans of operation. Although his forces were far from complete, Von Manstein sent Hoth on his way on December 12th.
Initially, Soviet resistance was light. 51st Army commanded by General-major Trufanov, the first unit to be engaged by Hoth, was obviously not strong enough to stop the German attack. They did slow down Armeegruppe Hoth considerably though.
Coinciding with Operation Wintergewitter, the Soviets launched an operation of their own, code named Little Saturn. This operation was aimed at the Italian 8th Army. By a rapid advance south, the Soviets hoped to cut off the retreat of Heeresgruppe A out of the Caucasus. 6. Armee though continued tying down seven Soviet armies at Stalingrad so less troops could be made available to Little Saturn. For Heeresgruppe A to survive, it was important 6. Armee should hold on. Although he has never been clear about it, in Hitler’s opinion all Armeegruppe Hoth had to do was to open up a corridor in order to provide 6. Armee with badly needed supplies.
Hoth is pushed backWhen it dawned on the Soviets that Hoth’s offensive was a serious action, it was decided to transfer 2nd Guards Army commanded by Lieutenant-general Malinovski – which was to take part in the attack on the Italian 8th Army – to the area between 6. Armee and Hoth’s spear head. 5th Shock Army commanded by Lieutenant-general Popov and 7th Tank Corps commanded by General-major Rotmistrov were closing in on the area as well.
Strangely enough, Paulus showed little enthusiasm for a breakout. He seemed to be willing to wait until Hoth had managed to fight himself through to him. Hoth, who now faced stiff resistance himself, could only hope for a breakout by Paulus towards the rear area of the Soviet forces. Therefore, Von Manstein contacted Paulus but he evaded the issue. It was the chief of staff of 6. Armee, Generalmajor Arthur Schmidt who took the decision. He was a convinced Nazi and excluded a breakout. He was of the opinion, 6. Armee had not enough fuel and would be too weak on the open steppe. There was to be no breakout.
The German soldiers in the south of the Cauldron could see the flashes of gunfire that lit up the night sky and they could hear the explosions. Shortly before Christmas, the spirits were high. Hoth stood at 30 miles from the Cauldron and the men of 6. Armee were convinced they would be relieved. On Christmas Eve, 2nd Guards Army launched its attack and Hoth was forced to retreat. The soldiers in the Cauldron saw the flashes on the horizon disappear slowly. The chance at relief had been lost.