Operation Uranus was one of the key turning points of the war. It was not just the moment when Red Army soldiers showed they could mount a sophisticated offensive and defeat the Germans, but also the first major sign that Stalin was prepared, at last, to trust his generals.
The objective of Operation Uranus was to destroy the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. And though the attack was launched in mid-November 1942, its origins go back to September and Marshal Zhukov’s visit to the Stalingrad front. When he returned to the Kremlin he reported to Stalin that the situation in the city was dire – reinforcements were urgently needed. But Zhukov mentioned to Marshal Vasilevsky, who was also present at the meeting with the Soviet leader, that a ‘new solution’ needed to be found to the situation in Stalingrad.
Stalin overheard the remark and told Zhukov and Vasilevsky to work out a plan that would relieve Stalingrad. In doing so, Stalin was – as far as he was concerned – showing considerable restraint. Up to now he had originated many of the ideas for major military actions himself, and been intimately involved in their planning. This ‘hands on’ leadership had not proved successful. Earlier in the year his interference in plans for the Soviet attack on Kharkov had hugely contributed to military disaster for the Red Army.
Zhukov and Vasilevsky now worked on the plan that would become Operation Uranus. And in doing so they showed that Soviet tactics were becoming more sophisticated – almost more German. ‘They learnt from the Germans,’ says Marshal Makhmud Gareev, who worked with Zhukov during the war. ‘They not only learnt from the Germans, but they learnt from their own mistakes.’
The final plan for Operation Uranus was reminiscent of both German strategy and the Soviet theory of ‘deep operations’ that had been advanced in the 1930s and then rejected at the time of Stalin’s purge of Soviet officers. The idea was not to attack the Sixth Army directly in Stalingrad, but rather to mount two pincer movements, one from the north and the other from the east. These separate thrusts would then meet up west of Stalingrad and trap the Germans in a giant encirclement. One of the strengths of the plan was that it meant that the Red Army would – initially at least – be fighting weaker units of Romanians, Hungarians and Italians who had been tasked by the Germans with protecting their flanks.
Stalin approved the plan, and Zhukov now pushed forward with the organizational phase of this gigantic undertaking, with more than a million Red Army soldiers taking part in the offensive. But the disaster at Kharkov, back in spring 1942, had shown that mere superiority in numbers did not guarantee success for the Soviets. They knew that they had to demonstrate that they more than matched the Germans not just in numbers, but in tactics and battlefield intelligence.
Zhukov helped instigate a policy of ‘maskirovka’ – deception – in order to deceive the Germans about true Soviet ambitions. Defensive fortifications were built in the open – in an attempt to show the Germans that the Red Army had no intention of attacking – whilst bridges on the attack route were built several feet under water so as to avoid detection from the air.
Stalin finally rubber-stamped the plan for Operation Uranus on 13 November. This was the first time he let a major military offensive go forward without any significant interference. He even left it up to Zhukov to decide the precise date of the attack.
Operation Uranus was finally launched on the morning of 19 November 1943. Ivan Golokolenko, a Red Army soldier who took part, remembers the moment when an address from Stalin was read to the troops who were preparing to attack: ‘There was something fatherly, something paternal about it. It said: ‘Dear generals and soldiers, I address you my brothers. Today you start an offensive and your actions decide the fate of the country – whether it remains an independent country or perishes.’ And those words really reached my heart… I was close to tears when the meeting was over. I felt a real upsurge, a spiritual upsurge.’
The Red Army moved forward and caught the Germans and their allies completely by surprise. On 23 October, less than a month before the start of Operation Uranus, General Zeitzler, the new Chief of the Army General Staff, had told Hitler that the Soviets were ‘in no position to mount an offensive with any far-reaching objective.'i
With much of the fighting going on west of the River Don, nearly a hundred miles away from Stalingrad, it would have been difficult for the Germans to move to help their beleaguered allies even if they had moved swiftly. But, even so, the German response to Operation Uranus was scarcely urgent. Hitler had taken time off from his wartime military headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia and was back at his house, the Berghof, in southern Bavaria. He only flew back to the Wolf’s Lair on 20 November.
Meantime, just ten days into the offensive, Red Army units met up at Kalach, west of Stalingrad, and the Sixth Army was trapped. ‘We felt inspiration,’ says Ivan Golokolenko. ‘We felt confidence that we were capable of beating the enemy successfully, and this operation remained the most memorable – the brightest – event. I remember I felt as if I had wings, I felt as if I was flying. Before that I used to feel depressed, but now it was as if I had opened my wings and I was capable of flying in the sky.’
Hitler ordered Field Marshal von Manstein to mount Operation Winter Tempest, an attempt to rescue the Sixth Army, and instructed General Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, to hold fast and not attempt a breakout himself. But Manstein’s force soon ground to a halt, battered by some of the sixty divisions that the Soviets had placed in the ring around Stalingrad. Similarly, Goering’s brash promise that his Luftwaffe could supply the trapped Sixth Army from the air came to nothing.
But, as Antony Beevor explains, Operation Uranus was more than just a hugely successful military operation: ‘I think that the point was that Stalin had realised what mistakes he’d made. Hitler refused to acknowledge any mistakes, but Stalin realised the mistakes he’d made and that’s when he started to listen to his generals and that is why Stalingrad was not just a turning point psychologically in the war, it was a real turning point in the handling of Soviet armies. It was also a turning point in the confidence of generals being able to face up to Stalin a little bit more, and also have less fear of the NKVD, and I think that this is a very important thing. Beria [the head of the NKVD – the Soviet secret police] used to threaten generals in the crudest way possible but generals were now realising that in fact they were starting to get more of a whip hand.’
By Christmas Eve 1942, with the withdrawal of Manstein’s relief attempt, it was clear that the Sixth Army was doomed. And the scene was set for one of the greatest military disasters in German history.
i Quoted in John Keegan (ed.), The Times Atlas of the Second World War, Times Books, 1989, p. 104
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