The Battle for Central and Southern Stalingrad During The First Three Weeks of September 1942
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 Army (commanded by Lieutenant General Anton Ivanovich Lopatin until relieved in mid-September by Lieutenant General Vasilii Ivanovich Chuikov) back into Stalingrad and to toward the Volga River. The initial German plan for taking Stalingrad had been for the XIV Panzer Corps to penetrate south along the Volga from where it had reached Stalingrad's northern suburbs late in the day on August 23rd. Meanwhile the LI Army Corps would strike from the west, driving the Soviet 62nd Army before it. Finally, Fourth Panzer Army's XXXXVIII Panzer Corps would penetrate the city from the southeast.
Nevertheless, Soviet pressure on XIV Panzer Corps caused Paulus to modify his planned assault. 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. In particular, the Stalingrad Front's 1st Guards and 66th Armies had forced XIV Panzer Corps to shift assets away from Stalingrad's northern suburbs. Paulus redirected significant air assets north to the corridor battle and on September 5th ordered LI Army 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 prong of the German advance into Stalingrad). In fact, rather than the German Sixth Army spearheading the initial assault into Stalingrad proper, the Fourth Panzer Army played an equally significant role during much of September. For that matter the linchpin of the German assault into the southern part of Stalingrad early in September of 1942 revolved around the efforts of the understrength but capably led 24th Panzer Division.
Nevertheless, the first week of September had proven tough going for the 24th Panzer Division (pictured with this article advancing in Stalingrad's suburbs). Though this was in part because the division had been so depleted that most of the time it could put no more than three dozen tanks onto the battlefield, the reality was that the Soviet defensive effort also had been extremely stout. Such was the intensity of the fighting that the 24th Panzer Division's commader had been badly wounded, and his replacement killed. Then, after a temporary commander led the division for the better part of a week, Major General Arno Lenski took over as the 24th Panzer's commanding officer on September 14th. However, during these weeks the 24th Panzer was able to work closely with the 14th Panzer Division (also able to field 35-40 tanks) and the 29th Motorized Division (with roughly 25 tanks in running condition and all together with these three divisions forming XXXXVIII Panzer Corps) and pound the 62nd Army's positions south of the eastward flowing Tsaritsa River. This river, because of its position in a deep ravine, helped shield the southern part of the city center from direct attack. Nevertheless the defending Soviet 244th Rifle Division could not hold up to such a concentrated assault. An assault that included not only as many as 100 tanks then in operating condition within the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps three divisions but also featured ample air support from Lutflotte 4.
As the second week of September had begun, and the Stalingrad Front's first Kotluban offensive peetered out, Luftflotte 4 had been able to concentrate substantial airpower to support the German drive into the city. Between September 5th and 12th alone Luftflotte 4 flew approximately 938 sorties per day. In response, the woefully understrength Soviet 8th Air Army could only respond with a third as many sorties. Even after Stavka redirected the Soviet 16th Air Army to assist 8th Air Army it wasn't enough. On September 9th the 24th Panzer Division (with 24 tanks in operating condition) spearheaded the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps in a drive that threatened to split 62nd Army from the 64th Army in Stalingrad's southern sector and suburbs. At this point, Eremenko (Stalingrad Front's commander) requested Lopatin be relieved. Stavka responded, and General Chuikov took over 62nd Army and its 54,000 men and 115 tanks. Most of the 62nd Army's armor resided in the 27th and 133rd Tank Battalions and 23rd Tank Corps. Chuikov's manpower was spread between the aforementioned armored formations as well as twelve rifle divisions, four rifle brigades, and two motorized brigades.
Chuikov's position couldn't have been worse. The night after he took command the German 29th Motorized Division followed the path blazed by 24th Panzer Division and reached the Volga River in Stalingrad's southern suburb of Kuporosnoe - isolating the battered 62nd Army in Stalingad. In just over one week of fighting the Soviet 62nd and 64th Army's went from putting 104,000 men and 225 or so tanks into the field, to only 90,000 men and 144 tanks on September 13th. Some 54,000 of these men and 100 of the tanks were in 62nd Army, with roughly half of these tanks in the Army's 23rd Tank Corps. In opposition, the German forces fighting in Stalingrad included the 29th Motorized Division, 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions, and 71st, 94th, 295th, and 389th Infantry Divisions as well as three assault gun battalions; all together 80,000 men and 110 tanks and assault guns.
Nevertheless, the Germans inadvertantly helped Chuikov when General Hermann Hoth, commanding Fourth Panzer Army, turned the 14th Panzer Division south to attack the 64th Army's bridgehead over the Volga in Stalingrad's southern suburbs. This left the 24th Panzer Division as the sole panzer division assaulting Stalingrad proper in the middle of September. Moreover, the grind of weeks of intense fighting had virtually taken the panzer out of the panzer division. On most days in September 1942 the 24th Panzer fielded around 20 tanks in operating condition, with the division's armor park peaking at 34 tanks in running condition on October 17th before dropping to around 14 'runners' early in November. This meant that the 24th Panzer division had the equivalent of just over one full strength company of tanks in operating condition on any given day during most of the battle for Stalingrad.
The Soviet attacks northwest of Stalingrad tied down XIV Panzer Corps to such an extant that Stalingrad's southern and central sectors constituted the primary focus of Paulus' efforts in September. To that end, in the middle of the month Hoth transferred command over XXXXVIII Panzer Corps to Paulus. The main German assault began on September 13th, spearheaded by the LI Army Corps in the center and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps to the south. Though the intense German artillery and air bombardment severed much of Chuikov's ability to communicate with his army's component rifle divisions and tank brigades, the 62nd Army still managed to post a strong defensive effort, including against the 24th Panzer Division which faced not only the 244th Rifle Division but the 133rd Tank Brigade's nearly two dozen heavy KV tanks. Chuikov aggressively counter-attacked the slow-going German advance, but achieved little other than weakening his defensive front. As a result, the 71st Infantry Division from LI Army Corps was able to drive east to within hundreds of meters of Chuikov's command post and even reach the shores of the Volga near the vital central landing stage. Nevertheless, the timely arrival of the 10,000 man strong 13th Guards Rifle Division helped stabilize the situation. In contrast, Paulus failed to exploit the 71st Infantry Division's advance.
Nevertheless, on September 15th it was the 24th Panzer Division's turn to lead the way in Stalingrad's southern sector. The 24th Panzer Division divided into two kampfgruppen for it's attack, Edelsheim and Hellermann. Of the two, Kampfgruppe Edelsheim was by far the stronger, containing the bulk of 24th Panzer Division's hitting power as follows:
- 10 tanks from Panzer Abteilung Lancken
- 26th Panzer Grenadier-Regiment plus 1st Battalion from the 21st Panzer Grenadier-Regiment
- Part of 670th Panzer Jager Battalion (including five 76.2mm self-propelled guns)
- 2nd Company, 40th Panzer Jager Battalion
- 4th Motorcycle Battalion (minus it's 1st Company)
- 40th Panzer Pioneer Battalion's 1st and 3rd Companies as well as all flamethrowers
- 89th Panzer Artillery Regiment (minus it's 4th Battery)
Within hours of beginning its early morning assault, Kampfgruppe Edelsheim (supported by elements of Kampfgruppe Hellermann and Luftflotte 4) advanced two kilometers into the southern part of Stalingrad and then turned north to slice another two kilometers toward central Stalingrad, losing only five of its 25 tanks in the process (with three knocked out by friendly fire from 71st Infantry Division). Now, four kilometers may not sound like much, but in the context of the fighting within Stalingrad a single day advance of this depth was monumental.
A follow-up thrust on September 16th further destablized 62nd Army's defensive positions to such an extant Chuikov was forced to withdraw his left-wing deep into the city's southern sector, albeit with several Soviet units infiltrating and recapturing important buildings lost in the initial German thrust. The Germans lacked the infantry to consolidate the gains made by 24th Panzer Division and completely encircle the temporarily cut-off Soviet troops. This allowed many Soviet units to escape the carnage in part and dig in amongst the Grain Elevator, Lumber factory, and Food Combine's numerous buildings. Together, this would greatly complicate the German attack as XXXXVIII Panzer Corps was forced to deal with dug-in Soviet infantry not only in areas it thought it had cleared but before it as well. The effort to dislodge these forces from the southern part of Stalingrad would consume much German effort in the final weeks of September. Here again Paulus may have acted imprudently. He yanked 24th Panzer from the line to redeploy north to assist in the attack on the factory district - prematurely as it turned out given the 94th Infantry Division (also with orders to reploy north) and 29th Motorized Division would struggle throughout much of the remainder of September to clear the rest of southern Stalingrad.
Nevertheless, before it was pulled from the line 24th Panzer Division and the 71st Infantry Division had been able to link up on September 17th. This meant that the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps and LI Army Corps held a unified front for the first time in the battle. Furthermore, the 244th Rifle Division and 42nd Rifle Brigade had been cut off in a pocket just south of central Stalingrad. In addition, the Germans had brought substantial combat power into the city center and less than one kilometer from Chuikov's command post near the Volga. All told, the Soviet 62nd Army had been pushed into a narrow strip reaching at best four kilometers west of the Volga and running seventeen kilometers along the river's length. Moreover, the 62nd Army had suffered tremendous armored losses in Southern Stalingrad; totalling 46 tanks and including 23 T-34's. The 24th Panzer Division, however, was down to 23 tanks in operating condition: seven Panzer II, nine Panzer III, 5 Panzer IV (four with the long barrel 75mm gun), and two command tanks. Though the southern half of the city was in danger of falling Chukov once again received timely support as the Stalingrad Front's Second Kotluban offensive kicked off to the northwest of Stalingrad. Moreover, Chuikov received reinforcements that would make the German task that much harder within the city; with this time Eremenko granting him the 92nd Naval Infantry Brigade and 137th Tank Brigade (albeit with the latter consisting of only 15 T-60 light tanks hardly capable of replacing the substantial losses in T-34's endured in the fight against XXXXVIII Panzer Corps).
This highlights something else that is often overlooked within Stalingrad, the reinforcement battle. Though the German Sixth Army hammered the Soviet 62nd Army, Chuikov's command received a steady drip of reinforcements from Stavka that enabled him to largely maintain his army's strength at approximately 50,000 men throughout much of the battle. The 13th Guards Rifle Division's deployment had been crucial in restoring 62nd Army's defensive front at a critical point in the battle when Chuikov's command was on the verge of being totally defeated. In fact, throughout September and October Stavka would feed into Stalingrad nine rifle divisions, two tank brigades, two naval rifle brigades, and numerous smaller units - roughly 100,000 men.
In contrast, throughout all of September and October the Germans only added three infantry divisions to those fighting in the city (100th Jager, 79th Infantry Division, and 305th Infantry Division) all while shuttling 14th Panzer, 24th Panzer, and 29th Motorized Division in and out of the battle. Moreover, the divisions fighting in the city weakened over time. The Sixth Army should have fielded 132 combat battalions in its ranks, yet by mid-September could only deploy 109 battalions. Core divisions participating in the fighting within Stalingrad were already chewed up. For instance, the losses sustained by the 389th Infantry Division meant it consolidated its nine infantry battalions down to six. This highlighted all the more why the Germans needed to wrap up the fight for the city as fast as possible. For the Germans, the tragic irony is that they could have done exactly that.
The Germans in many cases proved nearly as much a detriment to their chances as did the Red Army. For instance, there was Paulus' lack of timeliness when he reinforced his units in Stalingrad. One can only imagine what would have happened had the 100th Jager Division been available to exploit the 71st Infantry Divisions drive to the Volga in mid-September, or the 24th Panzer Division's near contemporaneous drive through southern Stalingrad; instead of what happened in reality when Paulus waited until September 25th to bring up the division as a reinforcement. In contrast, Stavka acted much more decisively in bringing in reserves when needed. Then again, Stavka had prepared for such circumstances whereas the Germans had not. Now, before you scream 'wait a second the Red Army was generating rifle divisions as fast as they were being destroyed so of course Stavka had the reserves available' - don't forget that for all the post-war talk about German manpower shortages and quantitative factors influencing the war's outcome the reality was that the Germans had enough available combat power to have decisively influenced the battles in Southern Russia: they just chose unwisely in deploying it.
To that point, please note what we are discussing when we are talking about "reserves". The 13th Guards Rifle Division numbered 10,000 men, the 100th Jager Division was a comparably sized force. Yet, the 13th Guards Rifle Division, though virtually destroyed within days of being committed to battle, proved just enough to stop the Germans before they split the city in two and made 62nd Army's survival in Stalingrad completely untenable. The narrowness of success or failure within Stalingrad is often overlooked when the wisdom of the Stavka's strategy in using 62nd Army as a sponge to absorb Sixth Army's attention is considered. Simply put, Stalin and Stavka were playing a dangerous game as they built up their reserves on Sixth Army's flanks.
In both September and October the Sixth Army came exceedingly close to destroying the 62nd Army and taking Stalingrad. If Paulus had been a more aggressive commander, or if the German high command had acted with more deciseveness in prosecuting the campaign in Southern Russia (that Hitler himself had just months before declared would decide the war) then the battle for Stalingrad may have ended well before November began. Regardless of Paulus' tardiness in deploying his reserves, it has to be considered what was possible if Paulus hadn't needed to look over his shoulder as Stalingrad Front pounded into Sixth Army's northwestern flank (a prominent reason 100th Jager wasn't redeployed earlier from XI Army Corps). For instance, if he had possessed even one more infantry or panzer division on hand to exploit circumstances exactly such as those created by 71st Infantry Division or 24th Panzer Division in mid-September then in all likelihood Stalingrad would have fallen.
What makes this all the more galling from the German perspective is that such reserves existed. For instance, veteran German panzer and infantry divisions spent the entire month of September in a strategic dead-end deep in the North African desert with by that point no ability to press further east into Egypt or defeat the British Commonwealth forces arrayed before them. This happened at not only enormous logistical expense to the Germans, but happened at the same time the war-deciding battles in southern Russia played out in such a way that single divisions had an outsized influence on battlefields where victory or defeat came down to mere kilometers or even hundreds of meters.