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Posted on Mar 10, 2008 in Stuff We Like

No Encirclement at Stalingrad?

By Dana Lombardy

At Rzhev in late 1942 the German lines had been stable since late 1941 and consisted of fortified zones occupied by veteran German divisions. At Stalingrad, the Soviet breakthrough attacks were against smaller and weaker Romanian divisions in the open steppes of southern Russia. At Rzhev, the German 9th Army had four panzer divisions and two motorized divisions in reserve. At Stalingrad, only one panzer and one motorized division were available to stop or counterattack the Soviet armored thrusts.

The 9th Army’s commander, Walther Model, was a skillful defensive general who would earn the nickname the “Führer’s Fireman” for his ability to save deteriorating situations. Model also stood up to Hitler when he disagreed with Germany’s dictator. By comparison, 6th Army’s commander Friedrich Paulus was a competent but not imaginative commander who fought the battle “by the book” and blindly obeyed Hitler.


These are the reasons why the two huge Soviet winter offensives in 1942 turned out so differently. But was there really any alternate outcome at Stalingrad?

Paulus not only used one of his precious few panzer divisions (the 16th ) and motorized divisions (the 3rd ) to hold a stretch of the frontline, he also decimated two more panzer divisions in the repeated attacks to take Stalingrad (14th and 24th ). Hitler never sent Paulus any fresh divisions, so the “reinforcements” fed into the urban combat were stripped from other sections of 6th Army’s front.

These four divisions could have provided 6th Army with about the same mobile reserve force that stopped the Soviets at Rzhev. Even if these four weakened divisions were badly outmatched in the open steppes outside of Stalingrad, they might have delayed the Soviet armored pincers and could also have attempted to link up with the German relief forces that attacked in December (Operation Winter Storm).

It did not require fantasy decisions by Hitler or imaginary divisions to avert the German debacle at Stalingrad. Better management of his divisional assets could have given Paulus the best chance to prevent the disaster that befell his army.

Join the Forum discussion about this topic. Weigh in with your opinion:

“Was there any possibility for the Germans to prevent the disaster at Stalingrad? Or was the Red Army going to eventually win there no matter how well the 6th Army handled its reserves?” [discuss at the bottom of this page!]


Dana Lombardy recently joined the staff of ACG Online as an Associate Editor. Since 1971, Dana has contributed as an editor, writer, cartographer, graphic artist and designer for more than 100 history books and magazines and two dozen wargames, including his award-winning Streets of Stalingrad (three separate editions since first released in 1979). A frequent speaker on the seminar circuit, he has made nearly twenty television appearances, including multiple episodes of The History Channel’s "Tales of the Gun" series. Dana was Publisher of Napoleon Journal from 1996-2000.

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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.