The Stalingrad Front Versus Sixth Army's Northern Flanks: The First Kotluban Offensive
Seventy-four years ago one of the Second World War's most important battles raged in the Russian city of Stalingrad. That fighting still attracts the attention of history enthusiasts to this day, but what is often forgotten is that what was happening outside Stalingrad had an enormous impact on events inside the city.
General of Panzer Troops Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army and Colonel General Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army spent September of 1942 battering the Soviet Southeastern Front's 62nd (commanded by Lieutenant General Anton Ivanovich Lopatin until relieved in mid-September by Lieutenant General Vasilii Ivanovich Chuikov) and 64th Army's back into Stalingrad. For many readers that struggle is the key to understanding what happened within Stalingrad. However, at the same time and on Sixth Army's northwestern flank, Lieutenant General Andrei Ivanovich Eremenko's Stalingrad Front was not sitting idle. Far from it.
On September 3, 1942 the Stalingrad Front included the 1st Guards Army, 4th Tank Army, 21st Army, 24th Army, 63rd Army, and 66th Army; all told roughly 335,000 men and 350-400 tanks. Facing them were Sixth Army's XVII Army Corps (35,000 men in two infantry divisions and one panzer division with 66 tanks), XI Army Corps (45,000 men in three infantry divisions and one light infantry division), VIII Army Corps (32,000 men in two infantry divisions) and XIV Panzer Corps (32,000 men and roughly 115 tanks in one panzer and two motorized divisions). Further south the Sixth Army's LI Army Corps and Fourth Panzer Army's XXXXVIII Panzer Corps (along with IV Army Corps 94th Infantry Division) assaulted Stalingrad which was primarily defended by the Southeastern Front's 62nd and 64th Army's (104,000 men and 146 tanks). Germany's Luftflotte 4 dominated the skies over Stalingrad and it's suburbs.
Stalin, Deputy Supreme Commander Georgii Konstantinovich Zhukov, and Chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Mikhailovich Vasilevsky were determined to not let Stalingrad fall. But for them the battle within the city was a bit of a sideshow. They saw the main action as occuring outside the city where they envisioned the decisive battle being fought. To that end, they gathered powerful reserves and launched incessant counterattacks along Sixth Army's northwestern flank. Initial counterattacks had been directed at XIV Panzer Corps during the final week of August. However, on August 30th Zhukov ordered Stalingrad Front to launch what would become a nine day offensive. The goal was to penetrate the corridor Sixth Army held from the Don to the Volga Rivers and link up with the 62nd Army in Stalingrad.
The primary army responsible for carrying out these orders would be the Stalingrad Front's 1st Guards Army (80,000 men and 309 armored fighting vehicles in three Tank Corps and eight rifle divisions) under General Kirill Semenovich Moskalenko. Stalingrad Front's other armies would play the supporting role to 1st Guards Army's spearhead. Moskalenko's army looked like a powerful formation on paper. Nevertheless, it's tank corps were unbalanced formations weak in infantry and artillery (with artillery shortages afflicting his battered rifle divisions as well). In addition, Moskalenko had been given only three days to prepare. Furthermore, the 1st Guards Army included several units that would not arrive until the night before the planned attack (most notably Major General Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov's 7th Tank Corps). The entire offensive was rushed and disjointed with the 4th Tank Army attacking the day before 1st Guards Army, but 24th and 66th Army's not starting their attacks until days later.
Sixth Army's VIII Army Corps (384th and 76th Infantry Divisions) and XIV Panzer Corps (the 16th Panzer Division and 3rd and 60th Motorized Divisions) stood in opposition, defending 26 and 29 mile kilometer front's respectively. The VIII Army Corps occupied well dug in defensive positions with ample artillery support; albeit only mustering small reserves due to the drawn out nature of their front. XIV Panzer Corps seemed like a potent force. However, it had not only been defending the corridor driven to the Volga nearly two weeks earlier and along the edge of Stalingrad's nothern suburbs, but it was also supposed to be playing the key role in taking Stalingrad's factory district.
On September 2nd the 4th Tank Army opened the Stalingrad Front's offensive by hitting VIII Army Corps. The Russian tankers and riflemen went nowhere fast against the German infantry divisions. This allowed the Germans to concentrate on stopping the 1st Guards Army's impending assault. Preceeded by a weak artillery bombardment that missed the most important defensive positions, Moskalenko's Army attacked XIV Panzer Corps early on the morning of September 3rd. Advancing across open terrain (the attached picture of a German armored column in the region gives a good idea of the kind of exposed terrain the 1st Guards Army had to attack across) the 1st Guards Army ran into a buzzsaw of German air power and strongpoints featuring abundant heavy weapons. Regardless, the 1st Guards Army managed to cut the German corridor in half and come within 4km of reaching 62nd Army's defensive positions. Unfortunately for the Russians that's as far they got before bogging down amidst the German defensive belt.
When 1st Guards Army resumed it's attack the next day the rest of Stalingrad's Front's army's still couldn't provide support and the Guardsmen suffered another day of awful casualties, with 7th Tank Corps alone losing 77 tanks. The next day the 4th Tank Army, 24th Army, and 66th Army joined 1st Guard's Army's attack but German artillery in particular played an important role in bringing the offensive to a screeching halt. In the week that followed the Stalingrad Front would beat itself to a bloody pulp against the German defensive front, with the four Soviet army's losing as many as 80,000 of their combined 250,000 men and 300 of 400 tanks thrown into the attack. The Germans didn't escape scot-free, with 3rd Motorized Division suffering over 700 casualties in September's first two weeks, however their losses in men and material were far lower. Nevertheless, the Red Army's bloody bill had paid for something tangible.
That's because the intensity of the fighting (known most commonly as the first Kotluban offensive, after a town in the area) caused Paulus to modify his assault into Stalingrad. This alteration came at a critical point in the battle when the Soviet 62nd Army was a reeling, beaten force anything but the veteran formation it would become under Chuikov's subsequent command. The Red Army's ability to impact the German plans for taking Stalingrad began from the first day of the Soviet offensive when XIV Panzer Corps was forced to shift assets away from Stalingrad's northern suburbs to bolster the defensive effort against 1st Guards Army. When the Stalingrad Front's 66th Army joined the attack this left the XIV Panzer Corp's commander, General Gutav Anton von Wietersheim, no choice but to redirect the bulk of 16th Panzer Division to warding off the 66th Army's efforts. This meant that not only did the 62nd Army still hold Stalingrad's northern suburbs, but XIV Panzer Corps was not able to advance into the all-important factory district when it was most vulnerable and as previously planned by Paulus serve as one of three corps tasked with taking the city. In addition, Paulus redirected significant air assets north to the corridor battle and on September 5th ordered LI Army Corps (the middle corps) to temporarily halt it's advance into Stalingrad. When resumed LI Army Corps subsequent attack ended up being more to the northeast than east, further providing breathing space for a 62nd Army suffering heavily under the hammer blows being delivered by the Fourth Panzer Army's XXXXVIII Panzer Corps (the southern corps of the German advance into Stalingrad). The Stalingrad Front's costly attacks tying down XIV Panzer Corps thus meant it would be the Germans turn to pay in blood during the months to come.