Sixty-seven years ago this month, two German spearheads were heading towards their respective rendezvous with destiny. One, made up of the 6th Army, was driving on the key industrial city of Stalingrad against what was already some pretty stiff opposition. It was slow going, made even slower by 6th Army’s precarious supply situation and the caution of its commander, General Friedrich von Paulus. The other, however, was a multi-army extravaganza–including the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, the 17th Army, and the Romanian 3rd Army–that was hurtling forward at top speed, lunging deep into the Caucasus mountains. Operation Edelweiss had already conquered one of the Soviet Union’s three principal oil cities, Maikop, and the other two, Grozny and Baku, glittered on the far horizon. The Soviets had done a pretty good job of wrecking Maikop before they left, true. As distressing as that must have been to its new overlords, however, getting Maikop pumping again was an engineering problem, not some sort of mystery, and engineering had always been a German specialty. Already the Panzers were concentrating on the Terek river, less than 100 miles from Grozny.
The Germans still had a long way to go, but then again, they had already come pretty damn far. The Wehrmacht had opened the campaign by crossing the Manych river and driving into Asia. It was now campaigning on no fewer than three continents at the same time. The Soviet defenders had not yet coalesced into any sort of coherent line, and the roads in the Caucasus were filled with columns moving south: German Panzers, retreating Soviet columns, and the poignant site of 100,000s of civilian refugees crowding the roads, heading south and east. Moreover, one entire German army had not yet even made its appearance in the theater. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army was still in the Crimea, preparing to cross the Straits of Kerch. A concentric drive by five armies would put immense pressure on the Soviet defenses in this isolated region, and might even overload them altogether. The stakes were tremendous. The Wehrmacht was always tough on the operational and tactical levels. Seizure of some of the world’s greatest oilfields might have been a solution to its principal strategic weakness: supply and logistics.
Most historians have tended to treat the Caucasus operation as an inevitable failure, and have relegated it to the status of a footnote, a sideshow to Stalingrad. It would be interesting to go back in time to mid-August 1942 and sample Soviet opinion on that point.