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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

2 Answers 2

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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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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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