February 2 marks the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad’s conclusion, a turning point in World War Two on the Eastern Front. The following article by Strategicus is from the February 5, 1943 edition of The Spectator.
Now that the battle of Stalingrad has at length closed it begins to be possible to form an estimate of the nature and dimensions of the German defeat. It could scarcely be more complete and unqualified. The capture or destruction of 330,000 men is an immense achievement; and when the account is swelled by the vast amount of material which Germany has lost this must be recognized as one of the worst defeats German arms have ever suffered. The circumstances that led up to it merely swell its importance. Hitler has made so many boasts with impunity, and either he or his commissioned spokesmen have burned their boats so lavishly that it might be concluded they have nothing further to lose. But the flagrant manner in which Hitler associated his name with Stalingrad, and pledged his word that it would fall and be held, list now have repercussions on his prestige. He established himself in power by proving his generals wrong and himself the greater leader. It cannot be thought that this disaster will leave his prestige undiminished.
He has claimed, and it must be admitted, that the long-drawn-out defense has served him well. For long it locked up the through-traffic on three important railways. Until the final chapter it detained about Stalingrad powerful Russian forces with all their equipment. They were not only numerically strong, but they formed part of the elite of the Russian command, and, as the staff quite rightly left nothing to chance, they were well provided with every sort of material at Russia’s disposal. Of course, it has paid a splendid interest; but think what that force might have accomplished if it had been flung in west of Voronezh when the enemy dam gave way last week, or on the Salsk front when the German resistance faltered. When the fighting in Crete left the battlefield to invade newspaper columns voices were heard in the Far East asking what was the use of fighting battles that could only end in defeat. The Sixth Army has given the answer.
It does not stand alone, as can now be seen in the area between Tikhoretsk and the Sea of Azov. There the Seventeenth Army and the First Panzer Army are emerging in a similar role. It was not, of course, designed for them. When Hitler launched his armies on his grandiose strategy it was with visions of an irruption into Iran sparkling in his brain. List was to win him the wreath of Tamerlane and, with the Rising Sun’s assistance, to cause the final ruin of the British Empire. Yet it and Hitler’s irresponsibility that led to the debacle of Stalingrad and sowed the seeds of disaster in the Caucasus. Now, all that List can do is to withdraw his forces from their unhappy plight as rapidly as their safety demands, as completely as the German situation in Russia necessitates, and as slowly as the threat to his line of escape will permit. If he can escape, and at the same time pin down a little longer the Russian forces that are threatening him, he will once again, like Paulus, assist in relieving the pressure that grows steadily more menacing against the main German position.
Hitler asks too much of his soldiers. He asked too much of Paulus. He is now asking too much of List. But at a certain stage in their progress that is the way with all spendthrifts. It was for this reason that Hitler’s supreme command of the German Army was of such value to us. The Wehrmacht was capable of very great things. It was one of our main hopes that Hitler would commit it to the impossible, so that its epitaph might be the same as that of the last German onslaught upon Europe. “The German Army was so completely defeated because it was committed to tasks that were beyond its strength” — so wrote the Military Coroner in the Militarwochenblatt.
List’s problem at this moment is to withdraw from below the Don a force which was originally between twenty-two and twenty-four divisions. The reason for the withdrawal is, of course, the impossibility of maintaining them in their positions under the pressure of the Russian offensive. Hitler wished at least to keep them in the Caucasus so that they might be in a position to resume his attempt to break through to the Middle East next year and, in the meantime, cut off the Russians from access to the vital oil. That luxury he can no longer afford in view of the immediate threat to their safety and the growing strain upon his forces over the main Russian front; and we may note that, with the fall of Tikhoretsk, Baku and Stalingrad are no longer without rail communication, and the oil will soon be flowing once more into central Russia.
But the fall of Tikhoretsk means much more than that to Hitler. In all probability it implies the release of some of the Russian units hitherto engaged in the Stalingrad area and heralds an increase in the pressure in other parts of the front. But, with regard to List, it has a more serious implication. It means that his direct way of escape through Rostov is dosed. There still remains open the single- track line that runs through Krasnodar with a number of ramifications up to Kushchevka on the main line that connects Rostov and Baku through Tikhoretsk. The Russians are now closing in on Krasnodar; but even the fall of that junction would not cut off List’s line of escape, and it would equally not cut off Novorossisk. This part of the Kuban territory is not badly supplied with railways, and Novorossisk could still evacuate its garrison, if necessary, through the junction of Timoshevskaya on the single-track line already referred to. A more dangerous threat lies in the advance westward from Tikhoretsk. This points straight towards the one north-and-south line yet remaining open.
The real question is how far it is possible for such a force as that which List originally commanded to escape by this rather roundabout single-track railway if the Russians maintain their recent rate of progress. They have now been reinforced by some of the first-rate units used about Stalingrad, and are said to be within artillery range of the bottle-neck of Rostov. They can be trusted to make every effort to close it and cut off List’s retreat. Indeed, on general grounds, it would seem impossible for twenty-two divisions to be withdrawn through Rostov before either the bottle-neck is closed or the alternative railway line of retreat is cut. It is, however, probable that some part of the force has already been evacuated. The withdrawal of the rest is a gamble, with the odds on a Russian success. It is almost certain that List will be compelled to abandon the bulk of his heavy equipment, and if the Rostov route is cut, the Kerch strait and the Azov port of Yeisk offer only the most desperate alternatives.
It is probable that the question will be settled within the next few days. Perhaps before this article is read it will be already obvious either that the bulk of List’s force is clear or that it is trapped; and everyone will be marveling at another first-class humiliation inflicted on the “invincible” German army. But this is very far from being the end of the Caucasus episode. When the force is out of the wood, or liquidated, there will be other great Russian forces set free for other tasks, and the directions in which they may be used have begun to appear. Hitler cannot design, of course, to avert a threat to some other part of his front by the sacrifice of 200,000 or 300,000 men at Stalingrad or below the Don. The cost would be as great as the risk. But he cannot view with any enthusiasm the escape of a battered remnant of a great army, bereft of at least all its heavy equipment, at the expense of a reinforced thrust at one of the now many sensitive areas.
The Russian front, in fine, cannot be left as it is. There must be a readjustment not only because many sectors are visibly yielding, and not only because the enemy can no longer hold this extensive front against the sort of attack it is now called upon to face. If the latter counseled a withdrawal, the former compels it; and it is no easy operation to readjust on a large scale under acute pressure. Furthermore, not only the reinforcements derived from release of the units hitherto occupied about Stalingrad, but now, in a short time, the troops from below the Don must be expected. This does not exhaust the full complexity of the problem facing the Germans. They have recently been laying great emphasis upon the material equipment of the attacking Russian armies; and it is certain that the Russian artillery, particularly, has proved an unwelcome surprise. There will be a good deal more heard of this now that the Stalingrad resistance has finally broken down.
The Germans are already speaking about strong fresh forces about Voronezh and the Donetz. In both directions they have been compelled to give ground recently. The more important Russian success is in the neighborhood of the Donetz, where about Svatovo, in a region which is well supplied with railways, the resistance has been broken. But in this part of the front one can easily see possible defensive lines to which the Germans might retreat. It is the central and northern sector of a possible line that is most interesting; and there can be no doubt that the Russians have no mind to allow the Germans to move at their own pace to a resting-place of their own choice; and they have the force to call the tune. Much more, therefore, is bound up with the fate of List’s army than at first appears, and the developments of the immediate future will be marked on many parts of the main Russian front.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.