In the winter of 1942, a noose tightened around over 200,000 men in the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, beat his chest promising that aircraft could provide everything the encircled soldiers needed. However, German generals were not as optimistic. Too many men needed food, ammunition, and other necessities. Many kilometers of snowy steppe separated the airstrip at Morozovsk and Tatsinskiya from Stalingrad proper.
The only chance of survival for Paulus' army was a breakthrough. Sooner, rather than later, while the army could still fight.
Army Group "Don", commanded by Erich von Manstein, was tasked with breaking through the encirclement. It was difficult for the famous commander to come up with the units to do so. Of course, he was promised fresh men for a counterattack, including the 2nd SS Tank Corps, which included three tank divisions with new Tiger tanks. However, the corps would not reach Stalingrad until February. Even if the Red Army would remain passive until then, the 6th Army would run out of horses to eat.
The operation to break through the encirclement was titled "Winter Storm". General Hoth's 57th Tank Corps served as the battering ram. It included three tank divisions: 6th, 17th, 23rd, but only the first was fresh and well equipped. The other two were fighting for several months and were fairly bloodied. In total, Hoth could muster 250 tanks and SPGs. In late 1942, this was not a lot, especially while surviving Romanian and Italian soldiers told tales of how thousands of Soviet tanks flattened their positions.
Geography played into Germany's hands. When the Red Army was shutting the trap, the 6th Army could not predict where the breakthrough would happen. Now, the front stretched over hundreds of kilometers, giving Manstein plenty of room to maneuver.
Soviet command viewed the German foothold at the Chir river. About 40 kilometers separated it from Paulus. However, Manstein realized that this would be an obvious place to strike from. In his plans, only an auxiliary strike would start at Chir. Later, it was cancelled altogether. Near Kotelnikovo, where the Germans were gathering their forces, Soviet intelligence managed to discover only the 6th Tank Division (called 6th Motorized in documents), and command assumed the Germans were preparing to defend. There was even a plan to attack Romanian forces on their flank, destroy them, and encircle the alleged defenders. Considering the underestimation of enemy forces, this attack was unlikely to succeed. However, it was not meant to be: Manstein made his move first.
Thunder in December
The first winds of the "winter storm" blew at the 302nd Rifle Division. At 6:30 on December 12th, after a short artillery barrage, enemy tanks and motorized infantry moved towards Soviet positions. German aircraft constantly bombed the division's ranks, headquarters, and supply lines. The division's reports count over 200 sorties. The 51st Army HQ also came under a dive bomber attack which killed, among other, the chief of intelligence Colonel Yurov.
If the 302nd Division backed away under the enemy's first blows, organized resistance ended in that sector at 12:00. Those who were left alive "retreated haphazardly". Surviving officers only managed to begin rounding up and reorganizing their units in the evening.
Everything that could be found was rushed to close the breach: infantry, anti-tank units... Someone had to slow down Hoth's tanks there and then so that elements of the 2nd Guards Army could stand in their way. Only other tanks could fight a tank attack in the winter steppe, namely tanks from the 13th Tank and 4th Mechanized Corps.
As of the evening of December 12th, V. Volskiy's 4th Mechanized Corps had 44 T-34s and 50 light T-70s ready to fight. Another 37 T-34s and 29 T-70s were undergoing repairs. T. Tanaschishin's 13th Tank Corps had 28 functional T-34s and 21 T-70s.
If our tank corps ran into the Germans in the open steppe, the result would be cinematic, but tragic. Fortunately, the situation developed differently. German commanders, doubting the reliability of Romanian forces covering their flanks, tried to advance along a wide front to protect their supply lines. This meant that every advancing Kampfgruppe was individually weaker.
On December 13th, the Germans reached the Aksai river. Now, only Myshkova river separated them from Paulus. That day, Tanaschishin's 13th Tank Corps came under the steamroller. As a result of the day's battles, it had 20 T-34s and 16 T-70s (plus three tanks of an unspecified type) remaining.
The 4th Mechanized Corps joined the battle later, on December 15th, at the Verkhne-Kumskiy farmstead. That day was filled with fierce fighting. Volskiy's motorized riflemen and tankers tried to knock the Germans out of Verkhne-Kumskiy, the Germans stubbornly resisted and constantly attempted counterattacks. The 36th Mechanized Brigade, moved out to Vodyanskiy and supported by the 158th Independent Tank Regiment and 482nd Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, had it worse. The Germans took Vodyanskiy with up to 70 tanks, sweeping aside the first and second battalions of the 36th Brigade. The remainder of the brigade retreated to the 8th of March farm. To compensate his newfound lack of infantry, Volskiy was assigned the 1378th Regiment from the newly arrived 87th Rifle Division.
The 4th Mechanized Corps had 21 T-34s and 36 T-70s left by the evening. However, the German 6th Tank Division was kicked out of Verkhne-Kumskiy and even knocked back past the Aksai.
This was only the beginning. The 17th Tank Division finally joined up with the 6th and 23rd, allowing Hoth to concentrate his forces beyond the Aksai. Most of the fighting was happening around the hill near Verkhne-Kumskiy and the nearby 8th of March farm. However, they didn't manage to penetrate the defenses of the 4th Mechanized Corps and other elements of the 51st Army. The German armoured fist was diminishing with every minute. By noon, the two tank companies from the 6th Division's Kampfgruppe that was attacking Verkhne-Kumskiy were down to two functional tanks.
Finally, on the night of December 16th to 17th, Raus' tankers reported that Verkhne-Kumskiy was theirs. Corps command, thinking that the Soviet defenses in this sector were defeated, withdrew the 6th Division's elements from there to help the 23rd Tank Division. However, on the morning of December 18th, the remaining 17th Tank Division discovered, to their surprise, that the Russians still had plenty of fight left in them.
With support from aircraft, the Germans began another offensive on December 19th at 5 am. The defenses of the 4th Mechanized Corps only fell after six hours of battle. The strike force of the 6th Tank Division captured a bridge across Myshkovka by dusk. By then, the 5th Shock and 2nd Guards Armies managed to form a new line of defense. Over the past week, the German tank divisions were significantly reduced in strength. Just over 100 tanks remained out of the 250 that Hoth began his breakthrough with. Only a converging attack from Paulus could achieve victory, but Paulus did not attack.
The fate of Winter Storm was decided by the four days that Volskiy and his 4th Mechanized Corps won for the Red Army. The victory was won at a cost. As of December 22nd, the corps had 11 T-34s and 8 T-70s left. Volskiy tallied up the results on January 1st of the new year.
"Currently, each brigade contains 70-90 fighting men per motorized infantry battalion. The 482nd Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment lost all its equipment and is being withdrawn to rearm. The remaining three 45 mm guns were transferred to the 59th Motorized Brigade. All tanks in tank regiments were either lost in battle, handed off to the 7th Tank Corps, or sent to repairs."
Soviet command celebrated the corps' success by reforming it into the 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps. This happened back on December 18th, 1942. The German attack missed its mark. The 6th Army was doomed. Approximately one and a half months later, Paulus' troops raised the white flag and surrendered.