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In November, 1942, three months after the battle of Stalingrad began, the Soviet Union, launched Operation Uranus, a counterencirclement of the German forces in and around the city, in two prongs.

The larger, northern prong debouched from the south bend of the Don heading southeast, and four days later reached the appointed rendezvous point at Kalach, 40 miles west of Stalingrad, which contained the main German line of communications.

A day or so later, the smaller, southern prong of the attack was launched from the west bank of the Volga, on a northwesterly course with Kalach three days distant. About one day into the advance, it was counterattacked, and briefly halted by the German 29th Motorized Division, before this division was redeployed to resist the northern thrust. But had the Germans known what was going on, they might have reinforced the 29th Motorized, and at least stopped the southern thrust from arriving at Kalach to complete the encirclement.

Suppose this had happened. Was the capture of Kalach by the northern group sufficient by itself to isolate the Germans? Is there reason to believe that the northern thrust would have been able to complete the encirclement on its own by marching past Kalach to the Volga if this were not the case? Or would the Germans have been able to escape from Stalingrad if they had managed to stop the southern thrust from reaching Kalach?

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As it is currently phrased, it is way too speculative. Could be salvageable, though. –  Lohoris Feb 12 '12 at 19:35
    
@Lohoris: Changed the emphasis of the question to start with the factual events (Was the capture of Kalach by itself sufficient to isolate the Germans...?) And asked for reasons to be believe that the northern thrust would have succeeded on its own. –  Tom Au Feb 13 '12 at 13:45
    
A large part of that was morale, and the effect of the different scenario on German morale is hard to pin down without pure speculation –  DVK Feb 15 '12 at 20:00
    
There was a second rail line heading southwest towards Kotelnovko (the direction of the relief effort). But it followed the Volga banks for some distance so it might have been easy to cut by the Soviets even if the southern prong made only modest gains. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 22:31

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Consider the supply condition of the Germans in Stalingrad. They'd been on a logistical shoestring for a long time, and that had been feeding basic supplies and munitions primarily, since the Germans were in what was essentially a siege. The Germans did try to interfere with the encirclement, but could only get relatively few vehicles a short distance from the city.

I don't know what the horse situation was, but horses are high-maintenance transport, and less useful in a siege, so I'd expect the Germans to be low on healthy horses.

If Paulus had been ordered to break out, his forces would have been forced to leave their heavier equipment behind, and retreat, not well organized, underarmed, in good tank country. No ready-to-fight formations would have broken out.

This probably would mean the loss of the Axis forces in the Caucasus, since without the Stalingrad garrison to contain, the Red Army would have been freer to attacks south. The original Soviet plan turned out to be overambitious, but the sudden collapse of the German pocket might have made it work.

So, I don't see that stopping the southern pincer would have been useful, if the northern one had continued.

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I remember seeing somewhere (I think it was in the "Battlefield" series of documentary) that horses had been retired from the front since it was relatively stable and having the horses meant that they had to provide food for them (thus straining logistics more). –  SJuan76 Apr 21 at 12:40

To Oldcat replying to your comment of 3/26:

Please bear with me for another day as my intent is to get set up to correspond directly here within the next couple of days. I'm having a computer issue now that I must get repaired but I did want to forward you some info to read and consider regarding your comment.

The following information from the Army Historical Series is still used as part of the study material for officer training in our armed forces. It was compiled by historians, using records from both the German and Soviet armed forces.

The material contained was signed off on to be included in the publication by an advisory councel of armed forces representatives that included representatives of U.S. Army Training and Doctorine Command, U.S. Military Academy, The Citadel, U.S. Army Commandand General Staff College, The National Archives and Records Administration, The Adjutant General Center, U.S. Army War College, the Deputy Surgeon General and the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

The link is:

http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-EF-Decision/USA-EF-Decision-23.html

In case the link didn't come through properly, the publication is part of the Army Historical Series titled Hyperwar: Moscow to Stalingrad. The portion I ask you to review is chapter 23, pages 478 through 485.

The information about the Soviet forces, movements and strengths in this publication became available around the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

This read will allow you to see precisely the fighting status of Sixth Army, the Soviet forces and the original German relief effort for Stalingrad. It also gives a clear understanding of Hitler's reasoning on why to leave Sixth Army in Stalingrad versus allowing them to break out.

Based on my understanding of this, I respectfully disagree that the Germans did not have strength to break Sixth Army out. Nor would they have left most of their transport and heavy equipment behind. There was a plan in place for fuel and supplies for the army both before and after they were to link up with the relief forces.

If Hitler had allowed Manstein and Paulus to follow the breakout plan as it was originally written and approved, there is little doubt they could have linked up to the West of Stalingrad. Russian strength there was still relatively low just after the encirclement was completed. Even so, Hitler's waffling and tinkering with the plan and forces to be used changed times and the overall strength of the relief effort. So, we will never really know one way or the other...

I agree, it would have taken more than just Sixth Army to make the breakout. But that force, along with the relief forces originally planned and available, would likely have been sufficient to help create and hold an ally allowing for the withdrawl.

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There is a quite long discussion of options in the David Glantz' series on Stalingrad (four thick volumes). Paulus was the one that vetoed the breakout. There were no outside forces to create an instant relief force, as the Germans hardly planned to be encirled. By the time one had been gathered up, the Soviets had plenty of troops on hand to cope with it. But you don't just get an Army of 250000 men fighting in a city up and marching west like getting on a bus out of town. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 22:28
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In a teletype conference with Manstein on 23 December, Paulus told him that he could have the Sixth Army ready to go in 6 days from the time he was given the order. He then asked Manstein "Do you empower me to begin the preparations? Once begun, they cannot be reversed." to which Manstein replied "That authority I cannot give today. I am hoping for a decision tomorrow." Paulus likely did ultimately make the final call but only after requesting--and never receiving permission to proceed before it was too late. –  kevin king Mar 26 at 23:17
    
So like I said, Paulus could not instantly move, did make the call, and was not able to break out in the short window before Soviet followup armies moved into the gap. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 23:42
    
Note that 23 December is six weeks after the start of the Uranus offensive, and the day the counteroffensive was abandoned by the Germans. Little Saturn on December 16 made escape from Stalingrad impossible and the capture of Rostov probable without immediate retreat. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 23:56
    
We'll just have to dissagree on some of this. Just so you know, I love where we live lots more and will fight for your right to be wrong. Have a GREAT night! –  kevin king Mar 27 at 0:06

Yes, the Soviets needed both prongs to succeed at the Battle of Stalingrad. Their goal was to encircle the German Sixth Army which occupied approximately 90% of the city.

The Battle for Stalingrad had raged since 17 July, 1942 and both sides were completely committed to winning control of the city that bore Stalin's name.

The Germans in and around the city were at the end of a supply line which was several hundred miles long. By attacking from both North and South, the Russians could use the Volga River which bordered the Eastern side of the city and served as the front line of the battle ground, to completely encircle the attacking German army.

Once the Germans were surrounded, the troops could no longer be supplied over land. Estimates vary but it is safe to say the daily supply requirements of food, fuel ammunition, etc. for an army of about 265,000 is somewhere between 600 and 700 tons. That's daily!

I guess it could be argued that even if one end of the Russian pincer attacks failed, the other could complete the encirclement--in twice the time. In the case of Stalingrad, that may have worked given Hitler's insisting that the army hold the position even when they could have made a breakout.

In the end the loss of Sixth Army, it's equipment, manpower and the fighting capabilities of such a force could never be justified by any short term gains made by occupying Russian troops in the battle. What a waste! On the Russian side, things worked exactly as planned.

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Welcome to the site. A pretty good answer. –  Tom Au Mar 26 at 13:12
    
Hitler's orders aside, the Sixth Army was in no position to make a breakout. Much of Its transport had been sent to the rear for the winter. You aren't going to get far walking hundreds of miles across the steppe, and you'd have to abandon most heavy equipment. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 16:53

Here are the FACTS that we know.

1) The capture of Kalach was highly disruptive to German supply. through that city ran the main east-west road, and east-west railroad to Stalingrad. As it was, they could barely keep the 6th Army supplied with this city in their hands. If the Soviets had it but there had been a gap in the south, the Germans could have gotten SOME supplies through, but at a fraction of the normal rate, leaving the 6th Army on "short rations."

2) The German high command, beginning with Hitler, was committed to keeping the 6th Army in the "kettle" in and around Stalingrad. Even if there were a gap to the south, the Germans would not have used it for escape, preferring instead to open a route for resupply. Thus, the 6th Army would have remained "trapped" in and around Stalingrad.

3) The Germans never intended to use the 29th Motorized to keep open an escape route to the south (even though it temporarily served this purpose), preferring, instead, to use it (unsuccessfully) to stop the northern pincer. Once the Soviets reached Kalach from the north, this became moot.

4) Therefore, it would ultimately resolved itself into a battle between the resupplying German forces, and the progressively larger Soviet surrounding forces. This, in fact, was the case with the Manstein relief expedition in December.

On these facts, we could infer a few things:

1) The likelihood is that the Soviets would have closed the gap over time. At the very least, the Germans would have been engaged in a (probably losing) war of attrition to keep it open.

2) Leaving a gap open would not have been worst strategy for the Soviets. One German division took some 50% casualties in the north retreating WITHIN the Stalingrad pocket. The German high command rejected the alternative of a 50%-70% loss in retreat versus the 100% casualties actually suffered. As Sun Tzu wrote: "If you surround the enemy, leave an outlet; do not press an enemy that is cornered. These are the principles of warfare."

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