The Soviet counteroffensive operation to trap German 6th Army by ringing the open country to the west of Stalingrad was code named URANUS. It began on November 19, 1942, and lasted to February 2, 1943. The Red Army also launched a diversionary attack against Army Group North in the center of the larger Eastern Front, against the Rzhev bulge on November 25. At the time there were 2.5 times as many Soviet troops and tanks, and 50 percent again as many VVS aircraft, facing Army Group Center than faced Army Group South. That was because Stalin still believed the main German strategic threat was against Moscow, not at Stalingrad or in the Caucasus. Concentrating forces farther north may also have reflected Stalin’s and the Stavka’s strong preference for offensive operations over defense, and the fact their long-term strategy was to advance along the shortest and most direct route to Germany. The fatal thrust against German 6th Army at Stalingrad would be made by a Front whose presence west of Rokossovsky’s Don Front was wholly concealed by a maskirovka operation. URANUS thus began with a stunning attack north of the city by a fresh and well-equipped Southwestern Front under General Nikolai Vatutin. It cut right through 3rd Rumanian Army and advanced 100 miles into the Axis rear, before turning south to partly encircle 6th Army. Meanwhile, the other arm of the Soviet encirclement struck south of the city two days later, as Yeremenko led a reinforced Stalingrad Front through 4th Rumanian Army deep into the Kalmyk steppe and the rear of German 6th Army. This was Blitzkrieg in reverse: Soviet tanks and mobile infantry that the Abwehr did not even suspect existed swept ahead. Armored columns gobbled huge chunks of territory while leaving enemy strongpoints undigested and isolated in the rear, to be reduced later by friendly follow-on troops. The pincers met at Kalach on the Don on November 23. German 6th Army and tens of thousands of Hiwis, Rumanians, and other Axis troops were trapped in a huge kotel.
General Paulus asked his Führer for permission to retreat. He hoped to fight westward to link with a newly formed and scratch Army Group Don under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who was hurriedly recalled from the Caucasus and ordered to break through to the city. Paulus’ request was denied: he was ordered to stay put and fight. Hermann Göring boasted to Hitler that the Luftwaffe alone could resupply 6th Army. It failed miserably in that task: winter weather, lack of a suitable transport aircraft or numbers of aircraft in the Luftwaffe battle order, loss of more airfields as the Red Army compressed the pocket, and the sheer tonnage needs of food, fuel, and ammunition needed defeated the air lift. Frostbite and hypothermia overtook the front, marking a heavy toll on both armies and on civilians still trapped in the city. By late November freezing and surrounded Axis troops were worst off, as supplies were reduced far below minimum requirements. Outside the western perimeter of the kotel Manstein assembled a hodgepodge of German, Rumanian, Italian, and Hungarian divisions for a relief mission. WINTERGEWITTER (“Winter Storm”) was launched on December 10. Within four days it ran into a Soviet counterstorm, as the Stavka let loose yet another counteroffensive that formed a second set of deep pincers looking to complete a double encirclement of all Axis forces within the Stalingrad battle zone. Code named LITTLE SATURN, this new drive smashed through underequipped and demoralized Rumanian, Hungarian, and Italian armies north of the city. Those troops quickly gave up the ghost to the Red Army. Rapid advances by armored and motorized units stretched out 200 miles west of the city, threatening to trap Manstein’s Army Group Don. Manstein pulled out of the closing trap, halting all efforts to reach 6th Army on December 24 and reversing his line of march. The relief effort was over. Fighting, freezing, and dying inside Stalingrad went on for several more weeks.
As the last airfields available to 6th Army were overrun, the last Luftwaffe aircraft to leave the tightening noose abandoned German wounded amidst scenes of decadent corruption and a total collapse of military discipline into “sauve qui peut” desperation. Virtually all resupply of 6th Army ended, except for occasional air drops. Inside the city, Soviet storm groups retook several strongpoints on December 3. On the last day of 1942 remnants of a long-isolated Soviet division— “Lyudnikov’s island”—was reunited to one of the larger 62nd Army bridgeheads. On January 10 Operation RING was launched as an annihilation battle to finish off 6th Army. The Mamaev Kurgan was retaken the next day, as well as the Red October Factory. Paulus’ men were alternately frozen or slaughtered on a daily basis through the end of January. On January 26 the outer formations conducting RING met the inner defenders of Stalingrad. Just 110,000 frozen 6th Army survivors lived to see Paulus disobey his Führer and surrender himself and his men on January 31st, to Soviet 64th Army, which had fought into Stalingrad from the south. After five months of war without mercy and a final massive artillery bombardment personally overseen by Chuikov, the final capitulation and end of all resistance in the north of the city came on February 2. The captured enemy throng were a ragged lot. They were ceremonially marched down the banks of the Volga in front of singing Red Army divisions, before being shipped off to prison camps.
A broadcast from Hitler’s Wolfsschanze HQ in the Rastenberg Forest proclaimed “the sacrifice of the Army, bulwark of a historical European mission, was not in vain.” In fact, when the battle for Stalingrad and Operation URANUS and other attendant operations were over, the Axis order of battle was shorter by 50 ravaged divisions, or 300,000 men, including 110,000 dead. Fully 22 divisions or their surviving elements had surrendered. German 6th Army and Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies were gone, along with all equipment, supporting armor, and guns. 4th Panzer Army was bloodied and mauled, a remnant of its former self. Most Germans who surrendered faced years of hard imprisonment and forced labor. Nine out of ten prisoners taken that January never returned to their homes: they died in Soviet captivity from infected wounds, tuberculosis, cold, hunger, or mistreatment, many in the first months of captivity. Survivors were shipped east to forced labor camps or mines; many would remain there for 10 years or more. One of the most important military consequences of Stalingrad was to reinforce Hitler’s distrust of top generals, even as the successful counteroffensive helped Stalin see that he should interfere less often or directly with the military professionals of the Stavka and his experienced and tough Front commanders.
For the first time in the war Axis soldiers had tasted the iron in the mouth of bitter defeat on the Eastern Front. An entire Wehrmacht field army was lost, along with two Rumanian armies and substantial elements of the Italian and Hungarian armies. After Stalingrad a cruel worm began to burrow into the mind of the German nation and its army: Germany could lose the war. Mainly for that reason, and because of its acceleration of attrition of the Wehrmacht, Stalingrad was one of the great turning points in World War II. But only one: the war was too vast for any single battle or campaign to decide its outcome. There was much grinding attrition to come, and many millions more lives to forfeit. It is also worth recalling that news of defeat at Stalingrad came on the heels of the first great defeat of the Germans at Second El Alamein and Anglo-American TORCH landings in North Africa. The Wehrmacht was badly overstretched, and Hitler had made too many enemies for Germany. In 1992, it was revealed that Soviet casualties at Stalingrad were far higher than previously reported: a staggering 1.3 million. Several tens of thousands of Soviet dead from the fight inside the city were buried in the Mamaev Kurgan. Long after the war, several of their former commanders were laid there with them, including Chuikov at his own request.