In January 1943, the once-invincible German Wehrmacht was reeling, being pushed back across a 175-mile portion of the Russian front by the Red Army. Stalingrad had just fallen, along with its 600,000 men, to a brutal months-long battle. A two-pronged Russian army was threatening to surround and annihilate a German battlegroup even larger than the one lost at Stalingrad near their headquarters on the Don River. In the chaos of this titanic struggle, two German generals helped turn could have been the destruction of the German ability to resist in the east into a stunning victory.
(This is part one of a two-part series.)
German forces had invaded the USSR in June 1941 and had driven into the heart of their enemy almost as fast as their vehicles would carry them, smashing one Red Army division after another. By mid-1942 the German offensive began to lose steam, as the Soviets recovered from the initial shock and Wehrmacht supply lines got increasingly long and perilous. Hitler ordered a renewed strategic offensive called “Case Blue” in June 1942 with one thrust headed towards the oil fields of the Caucus mountains, and the other towards Stalingrad.
Hitler’s forces initially succeeded in the attack and by early November 1942 had penetrated through most of the city and were within only a few hundred yards of the Volga river and ultimate victory. While the Germans had been obsessed with taking the Volga through Stalingrad, however, the Soviets were preparing a large-scale counter-offensive. To relieve pressure on Stalingrad, they started attacking German forces north and south of Stalingrad beginning in late November 1942. The Wehrmacht was unable to deal with the twin threats to their forces and still maintain enough pressure in Stalingrad.
The Red Army troops eventually succeeded in bringing the two attacking thrusts together and sealed off the troops attacking Stalingrad. The Russian strategy worked, as Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, commander of the German Sixth Army that was attacking Stalingrad, surrendered his forces on February 2, 1943. Numerous German troops had launched heroic attempts to break through the Soviet lines to rescue the Sixth Army, but all were beaten back.
After nearly two years of being pushed back thousands of miles in their own country, the Red Army was now a red wave of troops flooding the Germans and driving them further and further back towards their homeland. With every tactical victory, the Soviets became more and more experienced, confident, and successful. Every German attempt to thwart the Red Army troops seemed futile. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was ruthless in his attacks and would not hesitate to throw wave after wave of his troops into the Germans, totally unconcerned about casualties.
By early February, the Germans were entirely on the defensive, trying more to slow rather than defeat the USSR armies. Hitler had not helped matters by giving orders to his generals to hold at all costs. In his rage at having lost the battle of Stalingrad, he demanded that his troops not give one inch of soil without contesting it. This, however, denied the Germans one of their greatest strengths: an expert combination of fire and maneuver.
To defeat a mobile armored force across thousands of miles of open plains, it is sometimes necessary to cede ground to gain maneuver space. The intent is to give one's own forces the room required to hit an opponent in the flanks, which can't be done if they are in continuous contact with their opponent across a broad front. Hitler's hold-at-all-costs orders deprived German tacticians this flexibility, and they paid for it with battlefield losses.
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Possibly the greatest strategist and field commander in the German Wehrmacht was Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. He had been placed in command of Army Group Don (later renamed Army Group South) in late November 1942 to try and rescue Paulus’ Sixth Army. Owing to the onslaught of Soviet divisions, however, Manstein’s greater concern now was preventing the collapse of the entire German Army in Russia.
Even before Stalingrad had fallen, the Red Army opened a massive new thrust into German-occupied territory and gashed open a breach 175 miles wide. Manstein, however, did not panic and remained confident he could defeat the Russian attack. He needed Hitler, however, to rescind his hold-at-all-costs order. Manstein, for whom Hitler had high regard, asked permission to large-scale withdrawals to set up a counterstroke. Hitler refused point blank. Manstein did not relent and took the very unusual—and risky—move to request Hitler fly to his forward headquarters in Zaporozhe, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the main line of contact.
After showing Hitler the strategic and tactical situation facing him—and seeing the rolling tide of Russian troops heading his way—Hitler relented and allowed Manstein to execute his mission as he saw fit. Without hesitation, the Field Marshal began issuing orders and repositioning his troops for the coming counterstroke.
Manstein’s intent was to have two large German forces hold firm on the German far left and right and have his troops in the center withdraw under the apparent pressure from still-advancing Russian troops. In addition, Manstein positioned a powerful panzer force to counterattack into the flank of the Russians once they advanced to a certain point.
The Russians, meanwhile, were blind as to the purpose of the withdrawals Manstein ordered. From their perspective, the movement of German troops was just the latest in a series of retreats that had begun during the battle of Stalingrad. They had seen entire corps and divisions of German and Axis armies retreat under the flood of the Red Army. The Russians were now supremely confident and fearlessly plunged headlong into each fight. And that’s exactly what Manstein was counting on.
On February 21, 1943, Manstein’s Army Detachment Hollidt and First Panzer Army were holding their positions against Russian attack along the Mius river to the northeast of a city called Stalino. To the northwest, the Fourth Panzer Army positioned itself to launch the counterattack. Meanwhile, the Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps held on the other “shoulder” of Manstein’s plans, composed of five panzer divisions. As they had done for weeks, the Russians continue to press headlong everywhere the Germans fell back. The trap was now set.
(This is part one of a two-part series, you can read the second article here .)
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a Foreign Policy Fellow for Defense Priorities and a member of the Center for Defense Information’s Military Advisory Board. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1 .