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Stalingrad: Why the Factory District Assault Failed

on Thu, 12/15/2016 - 21:04

By September 26, 1942 the German Sixth Army had taken the bulk of Stalingrad's southern and central sectors. Though the 62nd Army stood nearly as strong on September 26th in terms of personnel as it had two weeks prior it's tank strength had dropped considerably from where it had once been. For instance, the primary armored reinforcements sent into the city consisted of light tanks that failed to replace the much more valuable T-34 medium tanks and KV-series heavy tanks lost in the September fighting. In short, the 62nd Army was in trouble.

However, Paulus was not able to build on the momentum granted by the September victories and maintain the pressure on the 62nd Army. Instead, the only major reinforcement he received late in September consisted of the 100th Jager Division - a light division short of the men and hitting power offered by a full-strength infantry division. As a result, Paulus' horribly weakened assault elements (the 24th Panzer, 29th Motorized, and 71st, 94th, 295th, 389th Infantry Divisions along with three assault gun battalions) failed to entirely eliminate the 62nd Army's defensive positions in the Workers Villages, at that time shielding the factory district against direct attack from the west. Though the Sixth Army largely cleared central Stalingrad of Soviet troops and took most of the Mamaev Kurgan - it was only after a tremendous and costly effort. An undertaking matched in its intensity by the desperate battle to destroy the salient in and around the village of Orlovka held by 62nd Army in Stalingrad's northwestern suburbs; all neccessary pre-conditions to taking the Factory District itself.

What was remarkable is that this battered German force, in conjunction with the 100th Jager Division was still able to accomplish all of the above, and punch into and substantially loosen the 62nd Army's hold on the approaches to the Factory District while virtually destroying the 23rd Tank Corps (Chuikov's primary armored force), 112th Rifle Division, and kill or capture nearly all the 6,000 plus men that had been fighting in the Orlovka salient anchoring the 62nd Army's hold on Stalingrad's northwestern suburbs. However, as much as the western and northern approach to the factory district were delaying the German advance, the 62nd Army's defense of the factory district's southern approaches crumbled in the face of the 24th Panzer Division's kampfgruppe's blasting their way through central Stalingrad.

During late September, and in spite of being able to put no more than two dozen tanks into the battle, the 24th Panzer Division had plowed a nearly six kilometer path toward the Factory District. Then in early October it came within 1.5 kilometers of the Volga and nearly split Chuikov's defenses in two. This success came at a huge cost to the division's panzer-grenadier regiments in particular (see the exhausted appearance of the German infantry in Stalingrad in the picture accompanying this article) but if the Germans could exploit this advance then the 24th Panzer could have raced to the Volga and seized the landing stages north of the Red October Factory as well as take Chuikov's command post. To that point, had there been available even a weak panzer or infantry division to exploit 24th Panzer Division's thrust the 62nd Army's defense of Stalingrad likely would have been made untenable by as early as October's first days - given an exploitation force could have turned north along the Volga and surrounded the 62nd Army's main body. Nevertheless, that wasn't the case. Instead, and as Sixth Army's assault groupings did their greatest damage late in September and early in October (having cut 62nd Army's personnel in the city to under 45,000 men and only 21 operational tanks) the German divisions leading the way suffered irrepairable short-term damage. Paulus was thus forced to largely suspend his attacks and await more meaningful reinforcements; granting vital breathing space to Chuikov.

The reinforcements for Sixth Army's forces in Stalingrad included the belated re-introduction of the 14th Panzer Division into the battle. The 14th Panzer Division had spent the critical days in mid-late September resting for a planned drive southeast toward the Caspian Sea of all things, once again showing how much the Germans were at times their own worst enemy. This was followed by 14th Panzer's commitment against the heavily destructive Soviet attacks on mostly Romanian positions south of Stalingrad (the Red Army absolutely mauled the poorly equipped Romanian VI Corps on the open steppe). Only on October 9th did the 14th Panzer Division finish stablizing and repairing the hole blown in the Romanian lines, disengage, and head north into Stalingrad. Such was the battering the 14th Panzer Division had taken that it took four more days to rest and refit before being ready for combat operations within the city. In addition, during October the Sixth Army's assault elements within Stalingrad finally received the 79th Infantry Division (taken from Sixth Army's XVII Army Corps) and the 305th Infantry Division (taken from Sixth Army's VIII Army Corps). The problem was that these reinforcements came two weeks too late.

That's because the Sixth Army's main combat grouping in Stalingrad was a shattered shell of it's former self. In particular, the 24th Panzer Division, which had played such a key role in breaking the 62nd Army's defenses in southern and central Stalingrad, was a panzer division in name only. It deployed a tank park averaging around 20 vehicles in operating condition, but just as importantly the continuous fighting had whittled the panzer division's 21st and 26th Grenadier Regiments down to a mere 896 and 923 men. By October 1st the 24th Panzer Division as a whole was down to thirty percent of its authorized combat strength. Remember, the 24th Panzer Division had achieved its successes during September by mostly operating while divided into two complementary combined-arms kampfgruppen possessing the strength and flexibility to shatter dug-in Soviet defensive positions. Those days were gone by early October. In comparison, one should note that during October of 1942 the 15th and 21st Panzer Division's (who had been parked in Egypt for the better part of two months) Panzer-Grenadier Regiments averaged over 1,500 men apiece while fielding almost 120 tanks per each division's panzer regiments. All of this as Rommel's armor waited for the British 8th Army's inevitable attack as part of the ongoing strategically insignificant yo-yo that was the war in the North African desert.

Moreover, and just as important as what the Germans weren't doing was what the Soviet command had done. As Chuikov's command reeled under the German body blows, the 62nd Army received (now part of Eremenko's Stalingrad Front - renamed from the Southeastern Front with the old Stalingrad Front now the Don Front under it's highly capable new commander - Lieutenant General K.K. Rokossovsky) the 37th and 39th Guards Rifle Divisions and 308th Rifle Division along with the rebuilt 42nd and 92nd Rifle Brigades. In one fell swoop Chuikov's teetering army had once more been replenished. This allowed him to stiffen his defenses and consolidate his hold on the Factory District in preparation for Sixth Army's increasingly delayed assault.

Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that when Paulus finally rebooted his attack on the factory district it would move at a glacial pace, with a lack of mobile firepower and infantry alike causing formerly formidable kampfgruppen deprived of reinforcements to devolve into battalion sized elements lacking the striking power needed to root the Soviet defenders from the factory district. When help did arrive, in mid-October and in the form of the 14th Panzer and 79th and 305th Infantry Divisions - it hardly mattered. These reinforcements, instead of serving as an echelon for exploiting the assault force's efforts, became the assault force. The battalions from these three divisions, as well as numerous pioneer battalions stripped from the Sixth Army's division's outside Stalingrad, replaced worn out units as the spearhead instead of capitalizing on success and collapsing the 62nd Army's defenses in the factory district. All of which would have been possible late in September but whose window had nearly slammed shut by the middle of October. Remarkably enough, by early in November even this small assault grouping had pushed the 62nd Army back into a tiny strip of land along the Volga; with virtually all of Stalingrad in German hands. Nevertheless, for the reasons discussed and due to the tremendous blood and sacrifice of the Soviet 62nd Army - Stalingrad's factory district would never completely fall. This is why when dawn came on November 19th the German Sixth Army had been ripened for an epic defeat. 

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