Before the offensive
That night, the Soviet staff were much more nervous. This was the first attempt at an encirclement of this magnitude since the start of the war. Additionally, so far all attempts to attack have been unsuccessful. For instance, summer battles wore down the 4th Tank Army to the point that it was the subject of a morbid joke: "Fourth tank army? More like four tank army."
This time, everything that could be used in an offensive was gathered. Sadly, in the late fall of this difficult year, this wasn't much. Even the corps of the 5th Tank Army, the ace up the sleeve of the South-West Front, bore little resemblance to optimal strength. For instance, the 119th Tank Brigade had 39 tanks out of 63.
There were also doubt (later confirmed) about the amount and condition of trucks that were going to "feed" the attacking tanks.
On the other side of the mechanized pincer, the Stalingrad Front, there was also no shortage of problems. "Readiness of tank units for battle, with the exception of 90th and 235rd Tank Brigades, was low. Tank drivers had little experience, and most of them have never seen combat before. Gunners had little practice. Motorized infantry was poorly trained to perform offensives, and there was little cohesion within units due to their hurried assembly."
The only hope was that the Germans weren't the same as they were in the summer. Also, the first strike wasn't aimed at the Germans.
The pincers close
At dawn on November 19th, artillery shells and Katyusha rockets rained on the positions of the 3rd Romanian Army. When infantry hit after the barrage, the Romanian front slowly started to fall apart. Tank units didn't enter battle until the afternoon. Quickly penetrating the remains of the Romanian defenses, they marched on.
Soviet losses were relatively low that day, but a battalion of the 159th Tank Brigade "excelled" that day. An order received at noon that changed the direction of attack deviated from the explored route and went straight into a minefield. By itself, this was not a problem, as the tanks carried two platoons of sappers with metal detectors, but when the first two T-34s blew up on mines, the battalion commander falsely assumed that he was under attack and ordered tanks to rush forward. As a result, ten T-34s were immobilized within minutes. These losses were disappointing, but were insignificant compared to the overall success of the day. The most important thing was the the 5th Tank Army was able to successfully move forward for nearly the entire day.
Serious resistance was only encountered late in the day, at the Ust-Medvinskiy farm. According to the reports of the brigade, the farm was occupied by a "German infantry battalion, serving as a blocking squad for the Romanians, as well as remnants of Romanian forces". In reality, this was the German 22nd Tank Division, moving up from behind the Romanians.
If this was a fully formed division, this counterattack could have been a serious hazard to teh Soviet plan. Fortunately, the defenders of Stalingrad "shaved off" some of its numbers, and it had about thirty tanks remaining. By noon of November 20th, two Soviet tank brigades knocked the Germans out of Ust-Medvinskiy, capturing "many cars, motorcycles, 2 supplies warehouses, and a spare parts warehouse". The Germans retreated south of the farm and fortified there. Attempts to knock them out from the front cost one destroyed tank and two knocked out. After this, the commanders of the 5th Tank Army sent units around the main German defensive lines.
On November 20th, the Stalingrad Front moved into an attack. It didn't have its own tank army. The 4th and 13th Mechanized Corps had to encircle the enemy. They had a relatively easy time punching through the Romanian defenses. The 4th Corps managed to make a clean break, but the number of the other one proved unlucky. First, a reserve German motorized division was sent to greet them. Second, their vehicles once again ended up on an enemy minefield by accident, taking significant losses.
Nevertheless, most Soviet tanks were driving deeper and deeper into the German rear.
In a Blitzkrieg fashion
This was the riskiest moment in the operation. The tanks rushed forward, the infantry was finishing the last of the Romanians, and lagged behind. Supplies were lagging too. There was a distinct shortage of trucks. The tanks were akin to snails that carry everything they own on their backs. For instance, the 117th Tank Brigade had 150 shells per tank, 100 of which were inside, and the rest were in boxes on its sides. Some tanks also carried 200 L fuel drums.
These supplies could not have lasted the entire operation. The Germans helped out or rather, their warehouses did. Captured supplies, especially gasoline, allowed trucks to be loaded with the most important thing: ammunition. Several trucks from the motorized infantry battalions were transferred to carrying supplies, and the riflemen were moved to tank riders.
Who knows what could have happened if the Germans were able to throw a fresh tank division in to battle. However, the 6th Tank Division that was sent into the crisis zone from France was still far away.
At dawn on November 22nd, advance units of the 26th Tank Corps reached a bridge across the Don near the city of Kalach. The capture resembled something from 1941. When Soviet tank silhouettes appeared in the pre-dawn twilight, the bridge guards simply could not believe that the enemy was here, in the deep rear. The Germans did not have enough time to blow up the bridge or put up a meaningful fight. This valuable crossing fell into Soviet hands without a fight.
Kalach itself was taken the next day. By that time, the 26th Tank Corps only had 35 tanks left out of 160, barely half a brigade! Nevertheless, the tankers fulfilled their mission.
That day, the 4th Mechanized Corps of the Stalingrad Front captured the city Sovetskiy. The trophies consisted of German warehouses and supplies, but most importantly, the railroad that was supplying the German 6th Army was cut.
On November 23rd, at 16:00, tanks of the 4th Mechanized Corps met up with the 26th Tank Corps. The pincers closed, trapping Paulus' army. The two month long agony of the German forces trapped at the Volga began.
Andrei Ulanov is an historian and an author of books and articles on the Great Patriotic War. His most prominent works are "Order in Tank Forces" and "First T-34s" (co-authored with Dmitriy Shein). Currently, he is working on books on AT measures of Soviet infantry and combat use of T-34 tanks in 1942.
- CAMD RF, specifically fond 3398 (1st Tank Corps), opis 1 (operations)
- A. Isayev, Neivzestniy Stalingrad
- V. Adam, Katastrofa na Volge
- F.V. Mellentin, Tankoviye srazheniya 1939-145 gg Boyevoye primeneniye tankov vo Vtoroy mirovoy voyne