Stalingrad should never have happened. That is, the siege that trapped and destroyed the German Sixth Army was avoidable. But, through a combination of strategic dithering, tactically idiotic orders, and overconfidence, instead of attacking Stalingrad in the beginning of summer 1942 when the city was vulnerable, Sixth Army did not attack until late August when defenses under Lt. Gen. Vasili Chuikov were being organized.
The fight for Stalingrad quickly escalated into a test of political wills between Hitler and Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin. Chuikov vowed, “We shall either hold the city or die there.” Despite frightful losses, Chuikov more than made good on his promise. By holding Sixth Army in place at Stalingrad, he allowed Stavka (the Soviet military high command) to launch at the end of November Operation Uranus, a counterattack that successfully isolated and surrounded Sixth Army.
“Sixth Army must know that I am doing everything to help and to relieve it. I shall issue my orders in good time.”
— Adolf Hitler to Gen. Friedrich Paulus, commander Sixth Army
When told of its situation, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, declared, “I personally guarantee the supplying of Stalingrad by air.” It was a claim quickly proved impossible.
Meanwhile Adolf Hitler tasked Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of the newly created Army Group Don, with the responsibility of breaking through the Red Army cordon to reach Sixth Army. If ever there were anyone who had the brains to accomplish this mission, it was Manstein.
Regarded by his peers as the Wehrmacht’s most brilliant general, Manstein won Hitler’s favor in 1940 with his bold plan for an offensive in the West having as its main thrust a panzer attack through Belgium’s Ardennes forest. In Operation Barbarossa, he conducted a series of highly successful attacks, most notably the conquest of the Crimea, and was promoted to field marshal in July 1942.
Army Group Don’s actual fighting strength amounted to little more than a corps – and was spread over two hundred miles. By far the largest German fighting force in the region was the 230,000-man Sixth Army. Though technically a part of Army Group Don, its commander Gen. Friedrich Paulus received his orders directly from Hitler, who also had a personal representative on Paulus’s staff to ensure compliance.
Manstein’s plan, Codenamed Operation Winter Storm (German: Unternehmen Wintergewitter), originally called for a thrust with four panzer divisions, four infantry divisions, and three Luftwaffe Field Divisions. But Eastern Front generals loath to part with units needed for their own overextended fronts and Red Army activity on Manstein’s right flank around the lower Chir River reduced the effort to about 50,000 men and 250 tanks – a pitifully small force for such a gigantic task.
Operation Winter Storm was launched on Dec. 12 and, amazingly, took Red Army commanders in the area by surprise – they were not expecting an attack for at least another week. German forces initially made deep penetrations. But Red Army generals quickly responded and by the next day the advance began to dangerously slow. Manstein’s plan also called for a coordinated effort by Paulus, codenamed Thunderclap, to effectuate a link up.
On Dec. 19, after negative responses to his radioed requests, Manstein ordered his intelligence chief Maj. Hans Eismann to fly to Stalingrad and convince Paulus to initiate Thunderclap. In a desperate situation that demanded decisive action, Paulus, a career staff officer with little prior command experience, prevaricated. Instead, Paulus’s chief of staff, the ardent Nazi Maj. Gen. Arthur Schmidt, effectively sealed Sixth Army’s fate by stating, “It is quite impossible to break out just now. . . . Sixth Army will still be in position at Easter. All you people have to do is to supply it better.” The meeting concluded and Eismann flew back to headquarters.
By Dec. 23, Operation Winter Storm had shot its bolt, halting about thirty miles from Sixth Army lines. The next day, under increasing pressure from Red Army attacks, Manstein’s troops began a fighting withdrawal.
On Feb. 2, 1943, recently promoted Field Marshal Paulus surrendered and the 90,000 survivors of Sixth Army marched into captivity, which only about 7,000 would survive.
In his autobiography Inside the Third Reich, Minister of Production Albert Speer recalled that news of Sixth Army’s fate shook the Nazi hierarchy to its core, with some questioning for the first time Hitler’s leadership. “For hitherto there had always been a success to offset every setback; hitherto there had been a new triumph to compensate for all losses or at least make everyone forget them. Now for the first time we had suffered a defeat for which there was no compensation.”