April 8, 2014

Operation “Wintergewitter”: Last Hope for the Sixth Army

Soviet infantry in Stalingrad

Erich von Manstein, the newly appointed  Army Group Don commander, developed a plan to rescue the encircled Sixth Army. Since withdrawal was forbidden by Hitler, an armored force had to break through the Soviet encircling forces and establish contact with Paulus’s Army. The operation to liberate Sixth Army was named “Wintergewitter” (Winter Storm).

The Plan

The operation was assigned to the Fourth Panzer Army. According to the plan two Panzerkorps would attack towards Stalingrad.

    23rd Panzer-Division
    2. Logo of the 23rd Panzer-Division.
  • On the right side, LVII Panzerkorps would form the main effort. It consisted of the weakened 23rd Panzer-Division, fighting at the Caucasus, and the formidable 6th Panzer-Division, restored to full strength in France. When 6th Panzer-Division reached the front it possessed some 200 tanks and assault guns. LVII Panzerkorps would assemble around the city of Kotelnikovo, some 100 miles from the encircled Sixth Army. During the attack the korps eastern flank would be protected by Romanian cavalry units. General der Panzertrupe Friedrich Kircner, an experienced panzer general, was in command.
  •  On the left side XLVIII Panzerkorps, on the Chir bank, was forty miles away from Stalingrad and it would form the secondary effort. However, the thrust from the Chir river never materialized because the Soviet Fifth Tank Army stroke first. With XLVIII Panzerkorps pinned only LVII Panzerkorps could join the attack. 

6th Panzer-Division
3. Logo of the 6th Panzer-Division.

So, by 9 December, it had become clear that only the 6th and the 23rd Panzer-Divisions would participate in “Wintergewitter”. Manstein wanted also to bring in the 17th Panzer-Division, at the time part of Army Group B, but Hitler refused.  

4. The German advance toward Stalingrad and
the subsequent movement of the 6th Panzer-Division.

The German Advance

The Aksay (Bolshoy Log) River
5. The Aksay (Bolshoy Log) River.
The Soviets tried to disrupt the concentration of the German forces at Kotelnikovo, with the use of the 4th Cavalry Corps. The Soviet Corps was annihilated by the 6th Panzer-Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Erhard Raus, and the concentration of the LVII Panzerkorps went on uninterrupted. Wintergewitter was launched on 12 December 1942. The initial progress was good and on the second day LVII Panzerkorps reached the Aksay river. That same day Manstein reported to Hitler that LVII Panzerkorps alone couldn’t make it to the Stalingrad pocket. After that Hitler released the 17th Panzer-Division.

Beyond the Aksay lurked the Soviet Third Tank Army, echeloned in depth. The two opponents were wildly intermixed in the battle that followed.
Motorized troops advancing in southern Russia
6. Motorized troops advancing in southern Russia.
The Germans succeeded in isolating Soviet tank units, attacking them from all sides and annihilating them to the last tank. The “revolving tank battle” lasted for two days and was a German success. However, the 6th Panzer-Division had to turn east to assist the 23rd Panzer-Division. The pursuit of the beaten Soviet forces was left to the 17th Panzer-Division, which lacked the strength to achieve a decisive result.

As soon as the threat against the 23rd Panzer-Division was cleared, the 6th Panzer-Division resumed its advance towards Stalingrad. On 19 December LVII Panzerkorps had pushed to the Mishkova river, thirty-five miles from the Stalingrad pocket. Manstein informed Hitler that LVII Panzerkorps probably couldn’t reach the Sixth Army and in any case it couldn’t establish permanent contact with the encircled troops. In his opinion the Sixth Army had to break out towards the German lines. Hitler refused. 

Soviet Reaction

Italian POWs
7. Italian POWs.
The Soviet High Command decided to block the German advance towards Stalingrad, but to deliver the decisive blow somewhere else in the front. That course of action would overstretch the limited German reserves. 

On 16 December the Italian Eighth Army was overwhelmed by the First and Third Guards Armies and the Sixth Soviet Army. Russian tanks penetrated as far as 150 miles into Manstein’s rear. Army Group Don was in grave danger. Wintergewitter was cancelled on 23 December and the 6th Panzer-Division was transferred to the area north of the lower Don to bolster the collapsed front. The remaining 17th and 23rd Panzer-Divisions were forced to withdraw. Thus the operation to relief Stalingrad ended. Despite the overall German failure, the Red Army lost some 400 tanks in the fighting between the Aksay and the Mishkova rivers and a quick thrust towards Rostov was no longer possible. That kept the door open for the German Armies still in the Caucasus and saved thousands of German troops.

Wintergewitter showed that the Germans still possessed tactical superiority on the field, but their lack of reserves condemned their efforts into half-measures.

A German Sd.Kfz.10 in Russia
8. Through snow and mud. A German Sd.Kfz.10 in Russia, 22 December 1942.

Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad. London: Penguin,1998.
Carruthers, Bob. German Tanks at War. London: Cassell, 2000.
Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 20-230. "Russian Combat Methods in World War II." Historical Study. 1950.
Newton, Steven H. Panzer Operations – The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus 1941-1945. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2003.
Rebentisch, Dr. Ernst. To the Caucasus and the Austrian Alps: The History of the 23. Panzer-Division in World War II. Winnipeg: J.J. Fedorowicz, 2009.
Tsouras, Peter G. Panzers on the Eastern Front – General Erhard Raus and his Panzer Divisions in Russia 1941 - 1945. London: Greenhill, 2002.
Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin - the German Defeat in the East. 1968. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 2002.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0406-0022-001/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Luigi Chiesa, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Plbcr, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
4. DA PAM 20-230
5. Гайдук, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-218-0545-15/Dieck/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. fotoreporter sovietico sconosciuto, via Wikimedia Commons
8. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-031-2406-19/Schelm/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

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