Germans on the Volga

Autor: František Novotný 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 45.869

After a failed frontal assault on Moscow in the autumn of 1941, Hitler decided on a flanking attack from the south as part of the planned 1942 summer offensive. On 28 June 1942, the German Army Group "A" launched an attack on Voronezh and the advance then turned south along the Don. Before its mouth to the Sea of Azov, this river forms a large bend to the east, which at its extreme point approaches up to 45 km to the Volga, just in the area of Stalingrad. One of Stalin's "communism" constructions was the Volga-Don Canal, which crossed the neck at these points and reinforced the city's importance as a transportation hub and a massive industrial base.

Economic and strategic importance of Stalingrad

If the former Caricyn had a population of 150,000 in 1926, it reached the half-million mark in 1939 under Stalin, which was crossed after the evacuation in 1941. The city stretched only 20 km on the west bank and continued another 30 km south through a string of suburbs. Railway lines to Moscow, the Donetsk Coal Basin and the Caucasus crossed there, not to mention that it served as a major transhipment point for inland river traffic to the industrial areas on the upper Volga and further down the Kama to the Urals. It was also the place where grain surpluses from the North Caucasus and the Don region were collected, making Stalingrad the largest grain reservoir of the USSR. The city had a number of grain and oil mills, not to mention numerous other food processing plants.

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The most important port on the Volga handled 6 to 8 million tons of oil from the Caucasus region annually, and Stalingrad's refineries had an annual capacity of 700,000 tons of fuel. It also processed timber floated by rafts from the northern Volga for the needs of the Caucasus regions.

The proximity of Donetsk's coal and Ukrainian iron ore spurred the creation of massive steel mills and a related arms industry. In 1930/31, the tractor plant "Derzhinsky" was established with 20,000 employees and a monthly production of 3,200 crawler tractors (later with a monthly production of 250 T-34 tanks). It took steel from the steelworks "Red October", which was another Stalingrad industrial giant with 12,000 workers, and the large "three" was complemented by the "Red Barricades" steelworks with its own steelworks and Martin furnaces. Its production was 100 heavy and medium guns per month.


German advance to the Don River between 7 May and 23 July
commons.wikimedia.org

Attack on Stalingrad

The Germans were well aware of the importance of Stalingrad. Capturing the city would kill several birds with one stone. Firstly, Russia's most important thoroughfare - the Volga River - would be cut off and the enemy cut off from its oil resources; secondly, the enemy's huge weapons base would be destroyed; and thirdly, the southern flank of the Russian line-up would be exposed, giving a good base for an attack on Moscow from the south. But the fall of Stalingrad also opened up wider strategic possibilities, for the city was the gateway to Grozny and to Baku - the Caspian oil fields and to advancing further south and east, to the Persian Gulf and the borders of India, dreams that 6th and 4th Panzer Army were initially allocated. In particular, the 6th Army, advancing south along the Don, threatened to encircle Soviet forces on both the Southwestern and Southern Fronts. With the Germans still planting 1st Panzer Army along the Don, the Soviets had to retreat. In July 1942, the Germans filled almost the entire area of the Don bend, and Rostov fell on July 24. Then, on Hitler's orders, the operational plan was altered on the basis of the dazzling successes to date - the 4th Panzer Army was rolled south to penetrate the Caucasus in the rear of the 1st Panzer Army, and the task of taking Stalingrad was left entirely to Paulus's 6th Army.

In August 1942, the Germans succeeded in this modified plan. Units of the 6th Army were rapidly approaching Stalingrad, on 21 August mountain hunters in the 4th Army's formation raised the Nazi flag on the Elbrus, and on 27 August the Germans penetrated to the Terek River. The shores of the Caspian Sea lay tantalisingly close.


German infantry preparing to attack
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-107-40 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

Germans on the Volga

On Sunday, August 23, 1942, the Luftwaffe carried out perhaps the most horrific raid on Stalingrad ever undertaken. The whole city was on fire and would be so for many weeks to come. The Russian public knew nothing of this, nor of the fact that the Germans later occupied virtually the entire city and reached the Volga both above and below the city. Adding to the horrors of the fighting was the unprecedented heat and steppe fires in the area.

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Soviets prepare to repel a German attack on the outskirts of Stalingrad.
commons.wikimedia.org

The German spearhead that first touched the Volga was the 1st Detachment of the 2nd Panzer Regiment of the 16th Panzer Division under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Count Strachwitz. On that same bombing Sunday, 23 August, with the first rays of sunlight at 3:05, his tanks went on the offensive. The neck of land between the Don and the Volga stretched out before them. At noon, Strachwitz's tanks crossed the Prolov-Stalingrad railway line and by about 3:00 p.m. had covered 60 km in one sweep to the Volga, rolling into the northern settlements of Vinnovka and Pechetka. Here the Germans were attacked by direct fire from 37 anti-aircraft guns. They had to destroy every last one of them to make way. Only then did they find out that the guns were manned by women - workers from the plant "Barricades". Before the Sunday sun had set, German tanks were already standing near the settlement of Rynok on the banks of the Volga. The 24th Panzer Division was the next to break through to the river a week later at Karpovka, and at Gavrilovka it was the first German unit to penetrate Stalingrad's inner defensive belt. On Monday, August 31, Soviet commanding officer Colonel-General Jerjomenko had to order the 62nd and 64th Armies, which were defending Stalingrad, to withdraw to the central defensive zone. The Germans had victory in their grasp, with the Luftwaffe continuously bombing the city and the river crossings.


German soldiers of the 24th Panzer Division in action during the fighting for the southern station in Stalingrad on September 15, 1942
commons.wikimedia.org

There is no country beyond the Volga

This slogan of the Red Army in besieged Stalingrad, with which the sentiments of every Russian resonated, best describes why the Germans failed. The Wehrmacht's penetration of the Volga did not mark the end, but the beginning of the fiercest and fiercest fighting that was fought during World War II. Despite their best efforts, the Germans were unable to expand the salient on the bank, the first of which was captured by Lieutenant Colonel Strachowitz. The Russian soldiers held the remaining bridgehead on the west bank to the last man. Stalin ordered the evacuation of the city and the arms factories. For 4 months, workers under fire would build tanks in the tractor plant and defend themselves with them right in the production halls. The conquest of the city will turn into hitherto unrecognized battles not only for every house but for every floor, every room, and every cellar.

The Soviets may lose 90% of the city, but the terrain plays in their favor. The high western bank of the Volga ends in a steep, tens of metres high cliff. In its face, units of the 62nd and 64th armies dig rest stops and envelopment areas, forward ammunition dumps and other necessary shelters that the Germans can neither shell nor bomb. On the contrary, they are as close as it gets to the Soviet artillery. For on the eastern bank, which is flat, the Red Army concentrates hundreds of guns, which will fire on demand to cover Russian remnant positions on the western bank and break up German attacks. At the time when this was possible, the Germans did not have the appropriate engineer assets to cross the river and make it impossible to build a massive Russian artillery position, but more importantly, they did not even think of doing so.


Soviet soldiers attack, February 1943. The destroyed building of the railway workers is visible in the background.
RIA Novosti archive, image #44732 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

They also suffered a loss of operational momentum when Hitler left the capture of Stalingrad to the 6th Army alone, and by giving the 4th Army a different task, he fragmented the operational plan between several objectives (which is the same mistake the Japanese made in the Pacific theater of operations that summer). After the crisis that the Russian defenses will undergo in mid-September, the Germans will not be able to break the Soviet artillery superiority in any way in October, because - most importantly - the Red Army will also gain air superiority in the area, albeit at the cost of huge losses.

Finally, on 19 and 20 November 1942, the Soviets launch Operation Uranus, a pincer manoeuvre that will make the besiegers look surrounded, to their utter surprise. Its first outline is presented by Generals Zhukov and Vasilevsky to Stalin on the night of 14 September 1942, ironically the day the Germans feel most on top of things; their infantry 71st Division has just made a surprise break through the centre of the city to the Volga. Three days later, several German newspapers even print a special edition with the headline "Stalingrad has fallen", but Goebbels stops distribution at the last minute. He waits for confirmation of the message from Paulus, but never gets it...

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Prisoner Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus , hitherto commander-in-chief of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad, arrives at the headquarters of the Soviet 64th Army in Beketovka with his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Arthur Schmidt and his aide Colonel Wilhelm Adam.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-F0316-0204-005 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

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