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Posted on Mar 10, 2008 in Stuff We Like

No Encirclement at Stalingrad?

By Dana Lombardy

Perhaps the most famous turning point on the Eastern Front in World War II was the Red Army’s victory at the battle of Stalingrad. For two months, from mid-September to mid-November 1942, and with its back against the Volga River, the Soviet 62nd Army grimly hung on to a steadily shrinking perimeter of this industrial town as elements of the German 6 th Army made repeated attacks to conquer Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s city.

On November 19, as winter set in, a massive counter-offensive overran the 6 th Army’s weak flanks and trapped twenty-three German and Romanian divisions and nearly a quarter million men inside a huge pocket. After a relief attempt by ground and supply of the besieged troops by air both failed, the last German units surrendered on February 2, 1943. Only 91,000 Axis soldiers were left to march into captivity.


Without substantial reinforcements that were not historically available, or a different attitude by Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler to permit the immediate breakout of 6 th Army in November, was a different conclusion really possible?

An alternative outcome at Stalingrad is not just a fantasy “what if” scenario. However, in order to present this hypothesis, we need to examine what happened that November 1942 about 600 miles north of Stalingrad in the German bulge around Rzhev near Moscow.

For many years after World War II, the disastrous 1942 Soviet attack outside of Moscow remained buried in their archives virtually unknown in the West. In 1999, the University of Kansas Press published historian David Glantz’s groundbreaking study Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat (reprinted in paperback in 2005). This book revealed that there were two major offensives planned by Georgi Zhukov, Stalin’s Chief of the General Staff, that winter: Operation Uranus at Stalingrad, and Operation Mars at Rzhev. The two operational objectives were similar: break through the enemy lines at two opposing points with tanks and then push on with these armored “pincers” to link up and encircle the Axis forces.

At Stalingrad, the Soviet plan worked. At Rzhev, despite initial success, the Soviet assault became a catastrophe – the Red Army lost 1,600 tanks and more than 330,000 soldiers in just three weeks. Why?

Soviet forces employed directly in both operations were about the same. Operation Mars: 668,000 men; 2,000 tanks; 1,170 planes. Operation Uranus: 700,000 men; 1,400 tanks; 1,463 planes. So what was different?

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  1. This is hypocracy. The German Army near Moscow had familiatrity with the landscape as they had traversed it one year before. They could fall back to familiar reinforced defensive positions, and were not bogged down in rural fighting in a city which had captured the epitomy of the German and Russian concept of victory. I would also add the lines of communications were much better for the pre-established German forces before Moscow from the previous failures the winter before. (Railway tracks had been relaid to accomodate German freight, road maps made, work arounds on problems in all climates, etc. etc. )

  2. I would disagree with Gerald on the lines of communication. Central Russia was heavily forested whereas the Russian steppes were fairly devoid. The German’s used the forest to their advantage to channel the Russian tanks, creating kill zones. They didn’t have a lot of defensive lines to fall back on outside of Moscow, they just did it better.
    The Romanian’s, Italian’s & Hungarian’s although generally good fighters, lacked the leadership & weapon’s especially anti tank guns to stop the Russians. But, if the German mobile forces had been keep in reserve rather than chewed up piecemeal, they could have done just like Manstein did in the spring to the Russian forces. They would most certainly have given the 6th Army time to withdraw (if Paulus had the guts)but could also have given Manstein more punch when he started his relief effort.

  3. Such disparity is certainly due to a number of factors… no one thing could have caused two drastically different outcomes. However, as a former regular Armor officer I can tell you that any flat, open area is considered by tankers to be “tank country”. I think that is a key factor in the success of the Stalingrad breakthrough.

    During the days of the Cold War, we constantly worried about sudden Soviet advances into West Germany. And, the area we worried the most about was Northern Germany because of its flat plains… tank country. When tanks break through defenses in open areas you cannot predict the paths they will take even if you know their destination!

  4. regards 6 army at stalingrad. when attack by russians began if the germans had had an effective panzer force to support the italian and rumanian forces they may have blunted this attack and been able to stop the enciclement. The speed at which the russian forces rolled up the italians and the romanians caught the germans by surprise and not having effective reserves they just could not react to the attack. Paulus should have known better and ensured his flanks were covered by german units capable of thwarting russian attacks of this nature and could have done so relatively easily had he managed his available resources better. He was doomed by being shortsighted and should have used italian and romanian forces in stalingrad allowing german units bettor fighting opportunitys in the steppes regions. The german high command was also shortsighted as they also took their eye off the ball and focused only at Stalingrad instead of a much wider area around the entire city and region. Given this they could have had an opportunity to draw the russian attack in and stopped it cold. Once done Stalingrad would have fallen, the Volga river would have been cut and german forces could then have attacked south into the oilfields.

  5. Eurastus is right! That was the secret…altough was very simple to anticipate…Stalingrad was 95% destroied by germans before september 1942. Big mistake to insist on 5% insted to consolidate flanks. Don’t blame the romanian soldiers…good fighters…remember Odessa, Sevastopol, Crimeea, Caucasus…they where just poor equiped at the Don Bend.
    My opinion was a bad decisions from german command center to insist on the city of Stalingrad.

  6. The real difference was that the Italians “never stopped running”, as a German general told Count Ciano in response to his question about the fighting ability of the Italians at Stalingrad. It was as simple as that. The Romanians were at least trying to fight as the ran. The Italians never looked back.

  7. If General Paulus had not held Stalingrad until february, army group B would have been trapped in Caucasus. Manstein anticipated the German south front could not have been restored unless given the time Paulus and his men bought him. The war had alredy become a disaster to the germans and Stalingrad was only its logic continuation.

  8. My thoughts and feelings towards the Stalingrad campaign is that facing the Soviet onslaught along the Don-Volga bend on Nov 19 was too little, too late. (Too far forward and overextended.) The Germans along that sector might have had a better chance had they stopped as soon as they had failed to storm Stalingrad in one go. Not to mention that they did not advance all the way to Stalingrad until only recently, so no time to even construct extensive defensive positions to face the Soviet onslaught.

    So, if the Germans were to have change stretegic/operational plan, they would have had to do so before the end of summer, before they gambled away all of their stack of cards.

  9. Paulus should never have been given the job of 6th Army since he never had commanded anything anywhere near before,far too cautious by letting the 62nd army fall back into the city as well as not doing enough to capture the ferry point which would have meant the russians could not have brought forces into the city centre,as well as having only 50,000 men and 20 tanks in the city at the start of the battle.