Here's What You Need to Know: German and Romanian forces at Stalingrad failed to stem the tide of the resurgent Soviet Red Army.
World War II involved some of the most complex alliance systems in the history of warfare. During the course of the conflict, former antagonists became allies and former allies became foes. Of all the alliances struck during the war, the German-Romanian alliance is the one least studied despite the enormous significance of the relationship.
Romania was Nazi Germany’s largest ally on the Eastern Front, providing over 300,000 troops in the conflict against the Soviet Union. Despite the Romanian contribution, the German military took its ally for granted. Consequently, the German Army made serious mistakes and miscalculations that led to the catastrophe at Stalingrad, a debacle from which Nazi Germany never recovered.
Romania’s Folding Borders
Prior to its entry as a belligerent into World War II, Romania suffered an extremely complex and unenviable geopolitical situation. Romania fought on the side of the Allies in World War I and after the war received territorial concessions from the newly formed Soviet Union and Hungary. During the interwar years, Romania continued a close relationship with its former allies, Great Britain and France. When Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia in early 1939, Romania received an Anglo-French security guarantee.
By the summer of 1940, Romania found itself surrounded by hostile neighbors with territorial ambitions. Its neighbor to the north, Hungary, laid claim to the northern half of the Romanian province of Transylvania. To the east, the Soviet Union coveted Romania’s eastern provinces of Bessarabia and Bucovina. To make matters worse for Romania, in May and June 1940 Germany inflicted a crushing defeat on Britain and France. Situated between the military powers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and with its closest friends defeated, Romania lay ripe for ravaging.
The Soviet Union moved first. On June 26, 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum to Romania, demanding that the Romanians hand over the entire province of Bessarabia and the northern portion of Bucovina. To make matters more difficult, they gave the Romanian government only four days to evacuate the two territories. On June 28, Romania responded that it would acquiesce to the Soviet demands but that it would need more time to vacate Bessarabia and Bucovina. The Soviets reacted by immediately invading the two provinces, and the Romanians avoided a military conflict by quickly withdrawing from the two regions.
The Hungarians victimized Romania next. Since the end of World War I, Hungary had sought the northern region of Romania known as Transylvania. On July 15, 1940, the German and Italian governments ordered Romania and Hungary to negotiate a settlement. The conference took place in Vienna, but negotiations and military threats failed to pry the region from Romanian control. On August 30, 1940, the Germans and Italians unilaterally awarded northern Transylvania to Hungary. The Romanians were given two weeks to evacuate. Known as the Dictate of Vienna, this land grab further increased the bitter enmity between Romania and Hungary.
The final territorial indignity came at the hands of Romania’s neighbor to the south, Bulgaria. Once again, the Germans forced Romania to cede territory, giving the Bulgarians southern Dobruja on September 7, 1940. In a period of less than three months, Romania lost over 100,000 square kilometers of territory, home to 6.7 million Romanian citizens. The immediate result was the collapse of the Romanian government led by King Carol II, who had proclaimed himself dictator in January 1938.
A Pragmatic Alliance With the Axis
In one of his last acts as regent, Carol appointed Marshal Ion Antonescu of the Romanian Army as prime minister. Antonescu immediately forced Carol to abdicate and then assumed the king’s authoritarian powers. Although Antonescu had leaned toward the British and French, in September 1940 France was a conquered nation and Britain could not offer aid to Romania. In an act based more on pragmatism than political belief, Antonescu requested that Germany send a military mission, and on October 12, 1940, the first German troops began arriving in Romania.
As Germany prepared to invade Russia in 1941, Romania faced a momentous decision. Antonescu traveled to Munich where on June 11 Hitler informed him of his plans to invade the Soviet Union. Antonescu pledged Romania’s support in liberating Bessarabia and Bucovina but made no promises as to further operations. At this point, the liberation of Romanian territory was the first and only war aim of the Romanians.
As the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies stood ready on the Prut River, now the new boundary between Romania and the Soviet Union, Marshal Antonescu issued a proclamation to his men: “I am ordering you: Cross the River Prut. Crush the enemy in the east and north. Release your brothers overrun and enslaved by the red yoke of Bolshevism. Restore to Romania’s body the traditional land of the Bassarab dynasty and the forests in Bucovina, your own grain fields and pastures. Soldiers, today you are taking the road of Stephen the Great’s victory in order to conquer by your sacrifices what your ancestors possessed by their struggle. Forward! Be proud that centuries have left us here as guards to justice and as a wall of defense of Christendom.”
With these words the Romanians joined the German Eleventh Army in the invasion of Bessarabia and Bucovina. Despite the presence of over 400,000 Soviet troops, 700 tanks, and some difficult fighting, the two regions were liberated within a month. By mid-August, the Romanian troops arrived on the western bank of the Dnestr River, the former border between Romania and the Soviet Union.
Following the Germans into Russia
The arrival at the former border forced another decision upon Marshal Antonescu. His choices were to advance into Russia alongside the German Army or declare Romania’s war goals complete with the liberation of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina and advance no further. Hitler sent Antonescu a formal request asking the Romanians to continue their advance alongside the German Army. Hitler enticed Antonescu with an offer of the Russian region of Transnistria, which Antonescu refused.
Ultimately, however, Antonescu decided to send his forces across the Dnestr River and into the Soviet Union. He reasoned that if the Germans failed to destroy the Soviet Army, the Soviets would return and reoccupy Romanian territory. Further, Antonescu feared that if Romania did not continue as Hitler’s ally it would be unable to argue for a reversal of the Dictate of Vienna or, worse, that Hitler would award the Hungarians the remainder of Transylvania as punishment. Since the Hungarian Second Army was marching farther into Russia alongside the Germans, Antonescu’s concerns over Transylvania were well founded. Believing he had little choice, Antonescu ordered his armies to cross the Dnestr.
The Romanians spent the remainder of 1941 campaigning in southern Russia and conducting siege operations at Odessa. In the spring and summer of 1942, the Romanian armies engaged in heavy fighting in the Crimea while to the north the German Army attempted to capture Stalingrad. As Hitler funneled more and more German units into Stalingrad, a need arose to protect the German flanks. The task fell to the German allies, the Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians.
Brushed Aside at Stalingrad
By October 1942, the Romanian Third Army moved from the Crimea to the north of Stalingrad to protect the German left flank while the Romanian Fourth Army held the southern flank. The Italian Eighth Army held the line to the north of the Romanian Third Army. On the Italian left the Hungarian Army was dug in. Because of the long-standing antagonism over Transylvania, the Germans used the Italians as a buffer between the Hungarians and the Romanians to keep them from fighting each other.
The Romanian Third Army consisted of 10 divisions totaling 171,256 men. It held a line anchored on the southern bank of the Don River with the exception of bridgeheads the Soviets had established at Kletskaya and Serafimovich. Each division was assigned to defend a line approximately 20 kilometers long, about twice the recommended distance. The Third Army contained the only Romanian divisions trained by the Germans and consequently was a significantly better fighting force than the Fourth Army, which defended the open steppes south of Stalingrad.
By mid-November 1942, the Fourth Army could boast only 75,380 troops assigned to hold a line over 200 kilometers long. Poorly trained and even more poorly equipped, the men of the Fourth Army lived in holes in the ground covered by canvas as the temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees Celsius. These living conditions combined with inadequate clothing and supplies of ammunition led to very low morale. Reserves for both the Third and Fourth Armies were limited.
In October and November 1942, Soviet General Georgi Zhukov began assembling more than a million troops for the Soviet counteroffensive code-named Operation Uranus. Zhukov’s plan called for an attack on the German flanks held by the Romanians. The offensive was to slice through the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies and break through to the rear and encircle the German Sixth Army inside Stalingrad. The pincer movement was to meet at the strategic bridge at Kalach, thereby cutting off the Axis line of retreat.