Southwest of Stalingrad, Soviet Union December 23, 1941

On this date in 1942 the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) ended Oper­a­tion Winter Storm (German, Unter­nehmen Winter­gewitter), the 11‑day attempt by German Army Group Don, a new forma­tion commanded by Field Marshal Erich von Man­stein, to break the Soviet envelop­ment of Gen. Friedrich Paulus’ German Sixth Army during the Battle of Stalin­grad (August 23, 1942, to Febru­ary 2, 1943). Army Group Don included units already on the Eastern Front: the Sixth Army trapped since Novem­ber 23, 1942, in and around Stalin­grad (today’s Volgo­grad), Col.‑Gen. Her­mann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, which led the drive to relieve the trapped Axis armies, and remnants of the mauled Third and Fourth Romanian Armies.

When Winter Storm kicked off on December 12, 1942, the German relief column made rapid progress for the first two days. Man­stein’s objec­tive was straight­forward: break through the sur­rounding Soviet siege lines, reach the Sixth Army, then evac­u­ate Paulus’ com­mand. The com­bined force (rescuers and rescued) would fall back to a more defen­sible posi­tion west of the Stalin­grad pocket. But Adolf Hitler, the over­all comman­der in chief of the Wehr­macht, envisioned the German rescue corri­dor as a perma­nent resupply and rein­force­ment route to Stalin­grad, enabling Paulus and his men to stay put. (Hitler was loathe to give up the impor­tant indus­trial city and river and rail termi­nus on the Volga River named for his archenemy.)

Paulus insisted that his army was low on food, transpor­ta­tion, fuel, winter gear, and ammu­ni­tion and too exhausted to break out; instead, how about an air bridge by the Luft­waffe para­chute-dropping the neces­sary supplies to resist in place? Luft­waffe chief Her­mann Goering was agree­able, but the aerial effort even­tually came up short for myriads of reasons. Mean­while, the over­land relief column, in the face of intense Soviet pres­sure, freezing temper­a­tures, and bliz­zard condi­tions, managed to slog within 25 miles of Stalin­grad by Decem­ber 22, 1942. But the Sixth Army break­out never mate­ri­alized: Soviet forces had inserted them­selves between the would-be rescuers and Paulus, who did nothing on his own initi­a­tive to link up with the approaching relief column. The next day, Decem­ber 23, a frus­trated Man­stein called off Winter Storm. Increasing Soviet strength had made Stalin­grad’s rescue too expen­sive in both armor and man­power. On Decem­ber 24 the Red Army went on the offen­sive, pushing Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army spear­head back to its starting point by month’s end. Sadly for Man­stein there just weren’t enough combat-effec­tive divi­sions or reserve units at the field marshal’s dis­posal to have ever achieved a suc­cess­ful rescue of the German Sixth Army, much less con­duct offen­sive oper­a­tions else­where on the Eastern Front. Besides, Anglo-American landings in North Africa (Oper­a­tion Torch) would soon have the effect of draining off men and equip­ment that might otherwise had been available the following month.

Early in February 1943 the 5-month-long Battle of Stalin­grad would con­clude with the deaths of 150,000 out of an ini­tial 250,000 sol­diers trapped in the Stalin­grad pocket, many perishing in brutal hand-to-hand street fighting. Some 110,000 sur­vivors, weakened by their inju­ries, star­va­tion, cold, and dis­ease, would meet cer­tain death in Soviet cap­tiv­ity. (Only about 5,000–6,000 POWs sur­vived to return home.) Liqui­da­tion of the trapped men at Stalin­grad was a stunning blow to home-front morale and to Hitler’s own plans to liqui­date the Soviet Union (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa). Stalin­grad was thus a major turning point in World War II, marking the beginning of the Axis collapse on the Eastern Front as 4.5 million Red Army troops began a cascading series of offensives that engulfed everything before them.

Operation Winter Storm and the Eastern Front, November 1942 to March 1943

Eastern Front between mid-November 1942 and March 1, 1943

Above: Map of the Eastern Front between Novem­ber 1942 and March 1943. Oper­a­tion Winter Storm (Decem­ber 12–23, 1942) took place in the theater shown in tan sand­wiched between the coral of Southern Russia. The Stalin­grad pocket (coral oval) lies on the right bank of the Volga River.

Operation Winter Storm: Ju 52 transport approaches Stalingrad airfield, late 1942 Operation Winter Storm: German Panzer VI heavy tank, late 1942

Left: A three-engine Ju 52 approaches one of seven air­fields near Stalin­grad. The Luft­waffe’s “air bridge,” which included cargo planes and bombers pressed into ser­vice, could not deliver the mini­mum 700 tons of supplies needed each day by the besieged Germans, Roma­nians, Ital­ians, Croa­tians and “volun­teer auxil­iaries” (Hilfs­willige, Soviet POWs and civil­ians), who numbered around 300,000. The most success­ful day, Decem­ber 19, 1942, saw the Luft­waffe’s Transport­gruppen deliver a mere 262 tons in 154 flights. Winter weather condi­tions, tech­ni­cal fail­ures, heavy Soviet anti­air­craft fire, fighter inter­cep­tions, and marauding Soviet tanks even­tu­ally led to the loss of 488 German air­craft. Some 266 Junkers Ju 52s were destroyed, or one-third of the fleet’s strength on the Eastern Front. The Luf­twaffe also lost close to 1,000 highly expe­ri­enced air­crew before the air­lift collapsed upon the loss of the last air­field on Janu­ary 23, 1943. After that there were only inter­mit­tent air drops of ammunition and food until the German surrender at Stalingrad in early February 1943.

Right: A battalion of Panzer VI (Tiger I) heavy tanks, armed with an 88mm high-velo­city gun, was deployed to Field Marshal Man­stein’s Army Group Don in an effort to strengthen the German drive to Stalin­grad. On Decem­ber 12, 1942, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army’s LVII Panzer Corps began its effort to rescue German forces trapped in the Stalin­grad pocket. Despite early gains, the LVII Panzer Corps was only able to come within 30 miles of the southern edge of Gen. Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army front. After a partic­u­larly success­ful Soviet raid on a German-occupied air­strip and destruc­tion of several dozen air­craft being used by the Luft­waffe to resupply forces inside the Stalin­grad pocket, Man­stein ordered the spear­head panzer corps to go on the defen­sive. By Decem­ber 24 the panzer corps—indeed, all of Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army—was in full retreat. The inabil­ity of the rescue column and Paulus’ refusal to attempt a break­out forced Man­stein to aban­don Oper­a­tion Winter Storm on Decem­ber 23, 1942. In just over five months the Red Army had liqui­dated the largest German army ever assembled, after which Hitler’s Third Reich was con­signed to fight a defen­sive war. At Stalin­grad Nazi Germany for the first time looked squarely into the face of calamitous defeat.

The Battle for Stalingrad, August 1942 to February 1943