In street warfare the Germans forfeited all their advantages in mobile tactics

Wednesday, August 30th, 2023

The Stalingrad campaign, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), is one of the most poignant examples ever recorded of a ruler engineering his own destruction:

When the army chief of staff, Franz Halder, protested the self-defeating operations, Hitler removed him. Only in the late stages when the German 6th Army had been isolated and a quarter of a million men were about to be lost was Erich von Manstein able to induce Hitler to grant just enough leeway to keep the entire southern wing of the German army from being destroyed as well.

After Stalingrad, Germany surrendered the initiative in Russia. Hitler never could summon enough strength thereafter to alter the balance of power against him. Despite heroic efforts by his soldiers, he had doomed himself to the slow, inevitable destruction of his army and his regime.

Two elements of the 1942 campaign stand out. First, Hitler committed the oldest and most obvious mistake in warfare: he neglected the principle of concentration and split his efforts between capturing Stalingrad on the Volga River and seizing the oil fields of the Caucasus.


This brought on the second element of the campaign: Hitler, instead of being satisfied with an advance to the Volga and interdicting traffic on the river, which had been his stated aim, insisted on 6th Army capturing the city itself. This forced it to concentrate in the built-up area at the end of an extremely deep salient, offering the Russians an invitation to lock 6th Army in place by launching a street-by-street urban battle.


Yet Hitler refused to allow 6th Army to withdraw, and — because he had committed his other forces to the Caucasus — had insufficient troops to strengthen either flank of the salient.


At every stage Hitler made disastrous decisions — dividing his army in the first place, insisting on seizure of Stalingrad, refusing to allow 6th Army to retreat, failing to go all out to save the army once it had been surrounded, and refusing to heed evidence that the Russians were about to isolate the two army groups in the far south.


The German army in the east (Ostheer) came out of the winter of 1941–1942 with 2.4 million men on the front, counting replacements, more than 600,000 fewer than had started the campaign in June 1941. The situation was worst among infantrymen, whose numbers had fallen 50 percent in the south and 65 percent in the center and north. This weaker army had to defend a line that, since Hitler prohibited straightening out loops and protuberances, wove in and out for 2,800 miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The quantity of German weapons was declining as well. Tank production was below 600 units a month. When Halder told Hitler Soviet tank manufacture was more than three times as great, Hitler slammed the table and said it was impossible. “He would not believe what he did not want to believe,” Halder wrote in his diary.

At least the Mark IV tanks had been rearmed with long-barreled high-velocity 75-millimeter guns and could meet the Soviet T-34s on better terms. But nearly a third of the artillery pieces were old French cannons, the number of combat-ready aircraft had fallen to half what it had been in June 1941, while shortages of fuel and ammunition were great and growing.


Hitler now made an irretrievable error. He had concluded, because of the initial success of the offensive, that Soviet strength had been broken, and diverted Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army south to help Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army cross the lower Don to open a path to the Caucasus.

“It could have taken Stalingrad without a fight at the end of July,” Kleist said after the war. “I did not need its aid, and it merely congested the roads I was using. When it turned north again, a fortnight later, the Russians had gathered sufficient forces at Stalingrad to check it.”

Panzer leader Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin voiced the opinion of nearly all senior officers in this campaign. When Stalingrad was not taken in the first rush, it should have been shielded with defensive troops and not attacked directly.

“By concentrating his offensive on a great city and resorting to siege warfare,” Mellenthin wrote, “Hitler was playing into the hands of the Russian command. In street warfare the Germans forfeited all their advantages in mobile tactics, while the inadequately trained but supremely dogged Russian infantry were able to exact a heavy toll.”


In his original plan, Hitler intended four armies to press into the Caucasus, while one went toward Stalingrad. Now three armies marched on Stalingrad — an objective of infinitely less importance than the oil fields — while two armies drove into the Caucasus.

This was lunacy to every professional soldier, and Halder protested to Hitler. But the Fuehrer paid no attention, and also ignored evidence of powerful Soviet formations to the east of the Volga and in the Caucasus.


General Gustav von Wietersheim, commanding 14th Motorized Corps, watched his strength decline. He recommended that 6th Army be withdrawn to the west bank of the Don, forty-five miles away. The only result was that Hitler removed him because he was “too pessimistic.”

As the German offensives stumbled to a halt, radical changes in leadership came about. On September 10 Hitler relieved List, because his army group had not captured the whole Caucasus. He did not name a successor, and commanded the army group himself in his spare time from supreme headquarters.

Hitler’s long conflict with Halder came to a head. Hitler reproached Halder and the army general staff, calling them cowards and lacking drive. When Halder presented proof of new Soviet formations totaling 1.5 million men north of Stalingrad and half a million in the southern Caucasus, Hitler advanced on him, foaming at the mouth, crying out that he forbade such “idiotic chatter” in his presence.

Halder, who looked and acted like a prim schoolmaster, persisted in explaining what would happen when the new Russian reserve armies attacked the overextended flanks that ran out from the Stalingrad salient. On September 24, Hitler dismissed him.

Hitler said arguments with Halder had cost him half his nervous energy. The army, he said, no longer required technical proficiency. What was needed was the “glow of National Socialist conviction.” He couldn’t expect that from officers of the old German army.

The new chief of staff was Lieutenant General Kurt Zeitzler, a tank expert and man of action. Zeitzler soon took note of the cliques and intrigue in Hitler’s headquarters, became excessively cautious, and did nothing to challenge Hitler’s decision to keep 6th Army at Stalingrad.

Yet, as Field Marshal Manstein wrote: “A far-sighted leader would have realized from the start that to mass the whole of the German assault forces in and around Stalingrad without adequate flank protection placed them in mortal danger of being enveloped as soon as the enemy broke through the adjacent fronts.”


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Even if Hitler had been smarter and focused the armies on getting to the Caucasus and its essential oil fields, would that have changed the course of the war?

    I read some years ago a biography of Stalin which described an incident where, during the German advance into the USSR, Stalin summoned a high Communist Party official to send him to the oil fields with instructions to destroy them rather than let them fall into German hands.

    But Stalin warned the official — If one tonne of oil falls into German hands, we will shoot you; and if the USSR loses one tonne of oil because you destroyed the wells prematurely, we will shoot you.

    Now there was a motivating message!

  2. lucklucky says:

    Except for a nazi nuclear bomb, Germany was lost. They had not enough human resources to win the war.

  3. Jim says:

    Rise by the Führerprinzip, fall by the Führerprinzip.

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