Operation Wintergewitter


Operation Wintergewitter

:"This article is about" Operation Wintergewitter - Eastern Front. "For" Operation Wintergewitter - Italian Front, "see" Operation Wintergewitter (Winter Storm) - Italian Front.

Operation Winter Storm (German "Unternehmen Wintergewitter") was the German Fourth Panzer Army's attempt to relieve the German Sixth Army from encirclement during the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II.

On 12 December 1942, Operation Winter Storm commenced and was able to advance just halfway to its objective before a Soviet outflanking move further to the north forced the relief force of the German Army ("Wehrmacht Heer") to break off and withdraw, condemning the Sixth Army to defeat and capture.

Background

Operation Uranus resulted in the German Sixth Army being surrounded by Soviet forces. The operation had also pushed back the main body of Army Group South ("Heeresgruppe Süd") by sixty to eighty miles. While Fourth Panzer Army's XLVIII Panzer Corps established a line on the Chir River, its southern wing had been shattered and only skeleton forces managed to prevent the 51st Army (Soviet Union) from breaking into Kotelnikovo, a railhead eighty miles south of Stalingrad, by turning them away at Pakhlebin a couple of miles to the north of that town. Therefore any relief attempt depended on gathering armored forces from elsewhere. The freshest of the troops chosen was the 6th Panzer Division, then refitting in France after nine months on the Eastern Front. From Army Group Center came the 17th Panzer Division from the Zhizdra front, and from Army Group A ("Heeresgruppe A") in the Caucasus came the 23rd Panzer Division, recovering from the narrowly averted disaster before Orzhonikidze. These three divisions constituted the LVII Panzer Corps.

The plan

Where to launch the relief attempt was key. The bridgehead over the Don at Verkhne-Chirskaya was physically closest to Stalingrad, but the Russians saw this coming and made sure this bridgehead was knocked out before the anticipated German reinforcements could be assembled. In any case the Don was insufficiently frozen for troops to cross safely — the weather in late November and early December 1942 ranged intermittently from snow to heavy rain.

Instead, LVII Panzer Corps was assembled at Kotelnikovo. With 6th Panzer in the middle, 17th Panzer to its left and 23rd Panzer to its right, plus the remnants of the Romanian Fourth Army holding the thinly-manned flanks facing the Kalmyk steppes, the offensive began on 12 December. Two rivers lay in the force's path — the Aksai River and the Myshkova River. The force made good progress at first, reaching and crossing the Aksai by the end of the first day but being drawn into heavy fighting at The 8th of March collective farm at Verkhne-Kumsky, and around the railway ganger's hut immediately to the north of the Aksai's banks. The relief force ground towards the Myshkova, using up precious time, but could not cross. In Stalingrad itself, General Friedrich Paulus dithered as to whether to instruct his exhausted and freezing troops to break out to the south, where they would join with Hoth's panzer force at Abganerovo and together withdraw to Kotelnikovo. Without a direct order from Adolf Hitler, he could not make the decision. Obsessed with not withdrawing from where his forces had set foot, Hitler did not give that order, and Paulus stayed put. Whether his fuel- and food-lacking forces could have gotten themselves out of Stalingrad at all, by then is open to question.

Thrust and counter-thrust

As the relief force made its thrust, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov hit the Axis front line further to the north. The Italian Eighth Army on the middle Don was suffering the same effects of the cold weather, and its initially stubborn resistance was eventually overcome by the T-34s that came crashing through their positions on 16 December. Having brushed aside the Italian forces, the 24th Tank Corps added insult to injury by making for Tatsinskaya, the air base closest to Stalingrad and from which the German Air Force ("Luftwaffe") had been embarking on the hopelessly ambitious task of supplying half a million fighting men in uncertain weather. On Christmas Day the Soviet tanks drove through snowstorms to the airfield and roamed about for hours, blowing away the German transport planes at their leisure.

Seeing that this force was swinging to the left in order to come down behind the German relief army, Erich von Manstein had to detach the 6th Panzer Division from the Myshkova and rushed it to the Italians' aid, saving the position there for the moment but dooming the relief attempt. Accordingly, the Soviet 51st Army then attacked the relief force anew, driving it back to and beyond Kotelnikovo by 29 December and now threatening both Rostov and the entire Army Group A of 400,000 men still bottled up on the Terek River in the Caucasus. Hitler made the decision to pull this Army Group out altogether, consigning the 6th Army at Stalingrad to its fate.

Popular Culture

* Panzer Command


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