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Tactics at Stalingrad

LAURENCE REES: And where did the idea for Operation Uranus - the Soviet plan to encircle the Germans in Stalingrad - come from?

ANTONY BEEVOR:  The idea for Operation Uranus almost certainly came from a combination of Zhukov and Vasilevsky. There have been debates about whether it was more Zhukov or whether it was more Vasilevsky, but I think actually there is no doubt about it. There’s also been a great debate, mainly from David Glantz, on the whole question of whether Operation Uranus, the encirclement of the 6th Army, was the key operation, or was it an alternative offensive on that Rzhev Front. In fact I think that there’s no doubt about it and certainly Russian historians seem to have no doubt about it that Stalingrad, Operation Uranus, was the principle operation and that the Rzhev one was, in fact, a diversion. I mean, it was a very expensive one, they lost up to a million men in that particular way. And the defining difference between the two was actually in ammunition allocation, that the Stalingrad Front was actually getting twice as much ammunition per gun as the Rzhev Front. So from that point of view I think there is no doubt about it, Stalingrad was the key.

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent did the Romanians let the Germans down?

ANTONY BEEVOR: The weakness of the Romanians was obvious, because they had virtually no anti-tank guns and their command structure was pretty corrupt. All the cement and many of the materials were used for constructing rather luxurious quarters for the officers behind the lines while the men at the Front simply froze in the mud. And the soldiers were very badly treated both by officers and by their own NCO’s, so morale was pretty low. But even if they’d had excellent morale, even if they’d been German soldiers, their lack of anti-tank guns meant that when the Soviet tank brigades attacked they were simply incapable of holding them.

LAURENCE REES: So really there was nothing, given the way Paulus had behaved in Stalingrad, that could be done? Once that encirclement happened, it was all over for the Germans?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Once the encirclement happened, and there had been that failure to hold back armoured forces to break the encirclement while it was still happening, they faced this dilemma: do we try to break out immediately while the men still have strength? Because, remember, at this stage the snow was starting to come down. It wasn’t yet very thick but it was already difficult, they were short of fuel, and the question was do we wait for more fuel and ammunition before we make our break out or do we try to break out straight away? Well, the answer was that their only chance was right at the beginning before the encirclement was strengthened and really established. But Hitler refused any idea of any break out and Goering persuaded him in the most irresponsible way imaginable that somehow the Luftwaffe would be capable of re-supplying this army a quarter of a million strong. It was preposterous.

LAURENCE REES: Why was Goering making that kind of statement? Did he really believe the entire Sixth army in Stalingrad could ever be supplied by air?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Well, Goering’s irresponsibility was pretty staggering. I think that he felt that the Luftwaffe had not received the admiration, or respect, that it deserved for its role in fighting in Russia, and he often claimed that his boys were capable of anything. But their transport fleet - and obviously the whole of the re-supply depended on their transport fleet - had in fact actually been rather reduced. This was largely due to the battle of Crete the year before, and even with all of the aircraft construction going on in Germany they still hadn’t made it back up to full. And then he underestimated the weather. Goering had never really been to the Russian Front during Winter, so he had no idea of what it was like when you had to put fires under the engines of aircraft simply before you could even turn over the engine, and where the runways had to be swept of snow before you could even hope to take off. And then the notion of flying in sufficient ammunition, fuel and food for such a large force: I don’t think he had even done a proper calculation at that stage. Certainly his senior staff officers were simply appalled when they heard what he’d promised.