Military history


By the end of the summer of 1942 Adolf Hitler seemed to be once more on top of the world. German U-boats were sinking 700,000 tons of British-American shipping a month in the Atlantic—more than could be replaced in the booming shipyards of the United States, Canada and Scotland. Though the Fuehrer had denuded his forces in the West of most of their troops and tanks and planes in order to finish with Russia, there was no sign that summer that the British and Americans were strong enough to make even a small landing from across the Channel. They had not even risked trying to occupy French-held Northwest Africa, though the weakened French, of divided loyalties, had nothing much with which to stop them even if they attempted to, and the Germans nothing at all except a few submarines and a handful of planes based in Italy and Tripoli.

The British Navy and Air Force had been unable to prevent Germany’s two battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from dashing up the English Channel in full daylight and making their way safely home from Brest.* Hitler had feared that the British and Americans would certainly try to occupy northern Norway—that was why he had insisted on the dash from Brest so that the three heavy ships there could be used for the defense of Norwegian waters. “Norway,” he told Raeder at the end of January 1942, “is the zone of destiny.” It had to be defended at all costs. As it turned out, there was no need. The Anglo–Americans had other plans for their limited forces in the West.

On the map the sum of Hitler’s conquests by September 1942 looked staggering. The Mediterranean had become practically an Axis lake, with Germany and Italy holding most of the northern shore from Spain to Turkey and the southern shore from Tunisia to within sixty miles of the Nile. In fact, German troops now stood guard from the Norwegian North Cape on the Arctic Ocean to Egypt, from the Atlantic at Brest to the southern reaches of the Volga River on the border of Central Asia.

German troops of the Sixth Army had reached the Volga just north of Stalingrad on August 23. Two days before, the swastika had been hoisted on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak (18,481 feet) in the Caucasus Mountains. The Maikop oil fields, producing annually two and a half million tons of oil, had been captured on August 8, though the Germans found them almost completely destroyed, and by the twenty-fifth Kleist’s tanks had arrived at Mozdok, only fifty miles from the main Soviet oil center around Grozny and a bare hundred miles from the Caspian Sea. On the thirty-first Hitler was urging Field Marshal List, commander of the armies in the Caucasus, to scrape up all available forces for the final push to Grozny so that he “could get his hands on the oil fields.” On that last day of August, too, Rommel launched his offensive at El Alamein with every hope of breaking through to the Nile.

Although Hitler was never satisfied with the performance of his generals—he had sacked Field Marshal von Bock, who commanded the whole southern offensive, on July 13 and, as Halder’s diary reveals, had constantly nagged and cursed most of the other commanders as well as the General Staff for not advancing fast enough—he now believed that the decisive victory was in his grasp. He ordered the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army to swing north along the Volga, after Stalingrad was taken, in a vast encircling movement which would enable him eventually to advance on central Russia and Moscow from the east as well as from the west. He believed the Russians were finished and Halder tells of him at this moment talking of pushing with part of his forces through Iran to the Persian Gulf.15 Soon he would link up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. He had no doubt of the accuracy of a German intelligence report on September 9 that the Russians had used up all their reserves on the entire front. In a conference with Admiral Raeder at the end of August his thoughts were already turning from Russia, which he said he now regarded as a “blockadeproof Lebensraum,” to the British and Americans, who would soon, he was sure, be brought “to the point of discussing peace terms.”16

And yet, as General Kurt Zeitzler later recalled, appearances even then, rosy as they were, were deceptive. Almost all the generals in the field, as well as those on the General Staff, saw flaws in the pretty picture. They could be summed up: the Germans simply didn’t have the resources—the men or the guns or the tanks or the planes or the means of transportation—to reach the objectives Hitler had insisted on setting. When Rommel tried to tell this to the warlord in respect to Egypt, Hitler ordered him to go on sick leave in the mountains of the Semmering. When Halder and Field Marshal List attempted to do the same in regard to the Russian front, they were cashiered.

Even the rankest amateur strategist could see the growing danger to the German armies in southern Russia as Soviet resistance stiffened in the Caucasus and at Stalingrad and the season of the autumn rains approached. The long northern flank of the Sixth Army was dangerously exposed along the line of the upper Don for 350 miles from Stalingrad to Voronezh. Here Hitler had stationed three satellite armies: the Hungarian Second, south of Voronezh; the Italian Eighth, farther southeast; and the Rumanian Third, on the right at the bend of the Don just west of Stalingrad. Because of the bitter hostility of Rumanians and Hungarians to each other their armies had to be separated by the Italians. In the steppes south of Stalingrad there was a fourth satellite army, the Rumanian Fourth. Aside from their doubtful fighting qualities, all these armies were inadequately equipped, lacking armored power, heavy artillery and mobility. Furthermore, they were spread out very thinly. The Rumanian Third Army held a front of 105 miles with only sixty-nine battalions. But these “allied” armies were all Hitler had. There were not enough German units to fill the gap. And since he believed, as he told Halder, that the Russians were “finished,” he did not unduly worry about this exposed and lengthy Don flank.

Yet it was the key to maintaining both the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army at Stalingrad and Army Group A in the Caucasus. Should the Don flank collapse not only would the German forces at Stalingrad be threatened with encirclement but those in the Caucasus would be cut off. Once more the Nazi warlord had gambled. It was not his first gamble of the summer’s campaign.

On July 23, at the height of the offensive, he had made another. The Russians were in full retreat between the Donets and upper-Don rivers, falling rapidly back toward Stalingrad to the east and toward the lower Don to the south. A decision had to be made. Should the German forces concentrate on taking Stalingrad and blocking the Volga River, or should they deliver their main blow in the Caucasus in quest of Russian oil? Earlier in the month Hitler had pondered this crucial question but had been unable to make up his mind. At first, the smell of oil had tempted him most, and on July 13 he had detached the Fourth Panzer Army from Army Group B, which had been driving down the Don toward the river’s bend and Stalingrad just beyond, and sent it south to help Kleist’s First Panzer Army get over the lower Don near Rostov and on into the Caucasus toward the oil fields. At that moment the Fourth Panzer Army probably could have raced on to Stalingrad, which was then largely undefended, and easily captured it. By the time Hitler realized his mistake it was too late, and then he compounded his error. When the Fourth Panzer Army was shifted back toward Stalingrad a fortnight later, the Russians had recovered sufficiently to be able to check it; and its departure from the Caucasus front left Kleist too weak to complete his drive to the Grozny oil fields.*

The shifting of this powerful armored unit back to the drive on Stalingrad was one result of the fatal decision which Hitler made on July 23. His fanatical determination to take both Stalingrad and the Caucasus at the same time, against the advice of Halder and the field commanders, who did not believe it could be done, was embodied in Directive No. 45, which became famous in the annals of the German Army. It was one of the most fateful of Hitler’s moves in the war, for in the end, and in a very short time, it resulted in his failing to achieve either objective and led to the most humiliating defeat in the history of German arms, making certain that he could never win the war and that the days of the thousand-year Third Reich were numbered.

General Halder was appalled, and there was a stormy scene at “Werewolf” headquarters in the Ukraine near Vinnitsa to which Hitler had moved on July 16 in order to be nearer the front. The Chief of the General Staff urged that the main forces be concentrated on the taking of Stalingrad and tried to explain that the German Army simply did not possess the strength to carry out two powerful offensives in two different directions. When Hitler retorted that the Russians were “finished,” Halder attempted to convince him that, according to the Army’s own intelligence, this was far from the case.

The continual underestimation of enemy possibilities [Halder noted sadly in his diary that evening] takes on grotesque forms and is becoming dangerous. Serious work has become impossible here. Pathological reaction to momentary impressions and a complete lack of capacity to assess the situation and its possibilities give this so-called “leadership” a most peculiar character.

Later the Chief of the General Staff, whose own days at his post were now numbered, would come back to this scene and write:

Hitler’s decisions had ceased to have anything in common with the principles of strategy and operations as they have been recognized for generations past. They were the product of a violent nature following its momentary impulses, which recognized no limits to possibility and which made its wish-dreams the father of its acts …17

As to what he called the Supreme Commander’s “pathological over-estimation of his own strength and criminal underestimation of the enemy’s,” Halder later told a story:

Once when a quite objective report was read to him showing that still in 1942 Stalin would be able to muster from one to one and a quarter million fresh troops in the region north of Stalingrad and west of the Volga, not to mention half a million men in the Caucasus, and which provided proof that Russian output of front-line tanks amounted to at least 1,200 a month, Hitler flew at the man who was reading with clenched fists and foam in the corners of his mouth and forbade him to read any more of such idiotic twaddle.18

“You didn’t have to have the gift of a prophet,” says Halder, “to foresee what would happen when Stalin unleashed those million and a half troops against Stalingrad and the Don flank.* I pointed this out to Hitler very clearly. The result was the dismissal of the Chief of the Army General Staff.”

This took place on September 24. Already on the ninth, upon being told by Keitel that Field Marshal List, who had the over-all command of the armies in the Caucasus, had been sacked, Halder learned that he would be the next to go. The Fuehrer, he was told, had become convinced that he “was no longer equal to the psychic demands of his position.” Hitler explained this in greater detail to his General Staff Chief at their farewell meeting on the twenty-fourth.

“You and I have been suffering from nerves. Half of my nervous exhaustion is due to you. It is not worth it to go on. We need National Socialist ardor now, not professional ability. I cannot expect this of an officer of the old school such as you.”

“So spoke,” Halder commented later, “not a responsible warlord but a political fanatic.”19

And so departed Franz Halder. He was not without his faults, which were similar to those of his predecessor, General Beck, in that his mind was often confused and his will to action paralyzed. And though he had often stood up to Hitler, however ineffectually, he had also, like all of the other Army officers who enjoyed high rank during World War II, gone along with him and for a long time abetted his outrageous aggressions and his conquests. Yet he had retained some of the virtues of more civilized times. He was the last of the old-school General Staff chiefs that the Army of the Third Reich would have.* He was replaced by General Kurt Zeitzler, a younger officer of a different stripe who was serving as chief of staff to Rundstedt in the West, and who endured in the post, which once—especially in the First World War—had been the highest and most powerful in the German Army, as little more than the Fuehrer’s office boy until the attempt against the dictator’s life in July 1944.

A change in General Staff chiefs did not change the situation of the German Army, whose twin drives on Stalingrad and the Caucasus had now been halted by stiffening Soviet resistance itself. All through October bitter street fighting continued in Stalingrad itself. The Germans made some progress, from building to building, but with staggering losses, for the rubble of a great city, as everyone who has experienced modern warfare knows, gives many opportunities for stubborn and prolonged defense and the Russians, disputing desperately every foot of the debris, made the most of them. Though Halder and then his successor warned Hitler that the troops in Stalingrad were becoming exhausted, the Supreme Commander insisted that they push on. Fresh divisions were thrown in and were soon ground to pieces in the inferno.

Instead of a means to an end—the end had already been achieved when German formations reached the western banks of the Volga north and south of the city and cut off the river’s traffic—Stalingrad had become an end in itself. To Hitler its capture was now a question of personal prestige.When even Zeitzler got up enough nerve to suggest to the Fuehrer that in view of the danger to the long northern flank along the Don the Sixth Army should be withdrawn from Stalingrad to the elbow of the Don, Hitler flew into a fury. “Where the German soldier sets foot, there he remains!” he stormed.

Despite the hard going and the severe losses, General Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army, informed Hitler by radio on October 25 that he expected to complete the capture of Stalingrad at the latest by November 10. Cheered up by this assurance, Hitler issued orders the next day that the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, which was fighting south of the city, should prepare to push north and south along the Volga as soon as Stalingrad had fallen.

It was not that Hitler was ignorant of the threat to the Don flank. The OKW diaries make clear that it caused him considerable worry. The point is that he did not take it seriously enough and that, as a consequence, he did nothing to avert it. Indeed, so confident was he that the situation was well in hand that on the last day of October he, the staff of OKW and the Army General Staff abandoned their headquarters at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine and returned to Wolfsschanze at Rastenburg. The Fuehrer had practically convinced himself that if there were to be any Soviet winter offensive at all it would come on the central and northern fronts. He could handle that better from his quarters in East Prussia.

Hardly had he returned there when bad news reached him from another and more distant front. Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps was in trouble.

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