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This week in history: Operation Uranus traps German Army during WWII

On Nov. 19, 1942, the Soviet Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a massive counterattack intended to surround the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Ultimately successful, the operation cut off the Sixth Army from its supply lines and led to Soviet victory in the battle two months later.

In the spring of 1942, the German Wehrmacht launched Case Blue, the push to capture eastern Ukraine, the Caucasus mountains, the Donets Basin and beyond. The attack met with initial success as the poorly trained, equipped and led Red Army frequently retreated or surrendered. The Red Army held Moscow the previous December in the face of a ruthless German assault, but most Germans attributed their failure to take the Russian capital to bad weather rather than to the Red Army's martial prowess.

Events in the spring and summer of 1942 seemed to bolster that idea as the German high command and with its leader Adolf Hitler. By August, elements of the Wehrmacht were invested in the Caucasus mountains, driving south to capture the oil fields in the area. In order to protect this drive's left flank, Hitler ordered the powerful Sixth Army to capture the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River. The Soviets, however, stubbornly defended the city and Hitler ordered more and more units to bolster the Sixth Army.

A military force that was designed for mobility and “shock and awe” tactics, the Sixth Army was now forced to engage in the bitter attrition and slogging movement of urban street fighting. Its principal opponent in the city was the Soviet 62nd Army, under the resourceful commander Vasily Chuikov. Chuikov fought an increasingly desperate battle to maintain toe holds on the western bank of the river in the city. The Germans, however, appeared to have more men and better equipment. Chuikov begged for reinforcements and more recruits, and often with little or no training and few weapons, they crossed the Volga into the city daily.

In Moscow, Stalin ordered that the city that bore his name would be held at all costs. To that end, he demanded that Chuikov receive all the reinforcements that could be sent. Members of the Stavka, the Red Army high command, had other ideas, however. By late September, Red Army generals Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky began to see an opportunity. The Germans, for all of their apparent might, were overextended. In many spots to the north and south of the city, the German lines were being held by inferior Romanian units.

Planning soon began for a massive counterattack code named Operation Uranus. The plan called for two massive drives launched from the north and the south of the city, with the goal of cutting through the units protecting the German flanks and linking up, effectively surrounding the German Sixth Army in the city and cutting it off from its supply lines.

In addition to the obvious military risks associated with the actual attack itself, the plan required another large risk. Large amounts of reinforcements and supplies intended for the 62nd Army would have to be redirected to Operation Uranus' forces. Chuikov and his men would have to hold out against the ferocious German onslaught for a month and a half with little direct support. This they did, enduring furious attacks day after day, as well as the constant pounding from German aircraft and heavy guns.

Despite Stalin's fear that Stalingrad would completely fall, he deferred to Zhukov's judgment. The general knew that many Red Army attacks against the Germans had failed in the past because of inadequate preparation and planning. He was determined to wait until all was in readiness, despite the grim reports coming from Chuikov at the front.

In the book, “Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945," historian Richard Overy wrote, “On November 13, Zhukov and Vasilevsky visited Stalin to lay before him the final plans for the operation. He was in unaccustomed good humor and agreed to everything. The launch date he left to Zhukov's discretion. After one final inspection, November 19 was fixed as the date for the blow on the northern flank, November 20 for the attack from the south-east.”

Zhukov perhaps knew that he had much riding on the success of this operation personally. Stalin was not a man to forgive failure, certainly not on an epic scale as Operation Uranus could conceivably turn out to be. The Soviet leader had left mountains of corpses in his wake, and in 1937-38 thousands of officers had been purged from the Red Army, many of them shot or sent to Gulags. Zhukov had engineered the successful defense of Moscow nearly a year earlier and had won Stalin's support. Failure at Stalingrad, however, could very well mean a death sentence for Zhukov and Vasilevsky.

Overy notes that only a few days earlier, the chief of staff for the German Army, Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, had suggested a strategic withdrawal from the city. To this, an increasingly stubborn and irrational Hitler responded with, “I won't leave the Volga!” It was a time of monumental decisions for both sides. Around midnight on Nov. 18-19, Chuikov, unaware of Operation Uranus, received a message briefing him on the plan.

In the book “Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War,” historian Chris Bellamy wrote: “At 07.20 Russian time, 05.20 German time — either way, it was still dark — at least 3,500 of the 13,000 Russian guns, heavy mortars and 'Guards mortars' — katyushas (rockets) — available for the entire counteroffensive were loaded. That was just the artillery to support the first pincer, from the north. At 07.30 they fired… and at 08.50 the infantry attack went in.”

The northern assault hit the Third Romanian Army, which was not prepared to deal with such a massive attack supported by Soviet armor. After a valiant, but relatively brief defense, the Romanians began to crumble. By the end of the day, the Romanians had been routed. The attack on the north was a complete success and the Germans began to shift more units to bolster their line, but by the next morning an equally dangerous situation developed to the south.

The morning of Nov. 20 saw the Red Army strike the Fourth Romanian Army south of Stalingrad, which was part of the German Fourth Panzer Army. Like its sister unit to the north, the Romanian Fourth soon collapsed and left the line open to the advancing Red Army. Though the Germans offered a tougher resistance, they too were forced back or surrendered.

The commander of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, Friedrich von Paulus, quickly understood what the Russians were attempting to do and contemplated a breakout before the trap closed. Hitler, however, ordered him to hold his position at all costs. Hermann Goering, the head of the German Air Force and Hitler's lackey, promised that he could keep the Sixth Army supplied by air. It was a promise that had no basis in reality.

Within two days, the Red Army forces from the northern and southern attacks linked up, cutting off the Sixth Army from the rest of the Wehrmacht. Fighting continued for the next few days, as local units attempted to break through the Soviet ring, but all such assaults proved futile. Operation Uranus had worked perfectly. Now the Red Army, rather than the Germans, had the initiative at Stalingrad.

For the Germans, the tenor of the battle had changed completely. Instead of simply trying to defeat the last pockets of resistance on the west bank of the river and conquer the entire city, now the priority was on rescuing the Sixth Army. Unwilling to allow von Paulus to breakout to the west, Hitler ordered increasingly powerful and increasingly futile attacks upon the Soviet lines in an attempt to relieve Sixth Army.

Erich von Manstein, perhaps Germany's greatest general of the war, was brought into orchestrate the Sixth Army's relief, but to no avail. Every day the soldiers of the Sixth Army had to make due with less and less, until all realistic chance of victory, resupply or breakout had disappeared. Finally, in early February 1943, von Paulus surrendered to the Red Army.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com