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Even as Hitler was speaking these happy words, however, the operational wheels were falling off of Blue. The initial operational plan (Directive 41) had called for a very complex set of maneuvers designed to produce small but airtight encirclements quite close to the start line. Such clearly defined plans were necessary, Hitler felt, in order to give the young soldiers in his army an early taste of victory. He and his chief of the general staff, Colonel General Franz Halder, were also anxious to avoid the kind of operational chaos that had manifested itself during the drive on Moscow in 1941, when it seemed as if every German commander was fighting his own private war. Modern historians have a love affair with Auftragstaktik, but clearly it has its dangers, and both Hitler and Halder were determined to run a tighter ship this time.

Unfortunately for them, the Soviet retreat, chaos and all, had knocked the air out of this idea from the start. The outcome of one army tethered to the tight plans of its high command and the other fleeing from the scene was a pair of what the Germans called Luftstossen—blows into the air—great German pincer movements that closed on nothing much in particular. It happened at Millerovo on July 15, and then again at Rostov on July 23. The amount of ground covered had been impressive; Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, in particular, had driven from Voronezh all the way down to Rostov in a single month. In the end, however, the Wehrmacht had achieved little beyond eating through its already limited pile of supplies.

Hitler’s response turned this puzzling misfire into an absolute catastrophe. “Directive 45” was a fundamental reworking of Operation Blue. The original timetable had called for smashing all the Soviet armies in the Don bend, taking Stalingrad as a northern flank guard for the army’s drive into the Caucasus, and only then launching the drive into the oil fields. Now, less than a month into the operation, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to secure Stalingrad and the Caucasus at the same time. Historians usually identify this decision to launch a “dual offensive” as the great blunder of the campaign, with an army already running low on manpower and equipment trying to do everything at once, and it is hard to argue with the common wisdom.

The problems were evident early. The German drive into the Caucasus (Operation Edelweiss) received priority in terms of supply and transport, and was thus able to explode out of the box, lunging forward hundreds of miles and seizing one of the USSR’s three great oil cities, Maikop; but the drive on Stalingrad (Operation Fischreiher, or “Heron”) was a tough grind from the start. This imbalance led, within a week, to another reversal of priorities. Stalingrad was now the primary target. Edelweiss lost supply, air cover, and an entire panzer army, with Hoth motoring north to join Paulus. The entire Caucasus campaign was left in the hands of just two German armies, First Panzer on the left and Seventeenth on the right, with the Romanian Third Army holding the extreme right wing.

This was the moment that both halves of the dual campaign—the drive east to Stalingrad and the drive south to the Caucasus—came to a screeching halt. In German parlance, the freewheeling war of movement (Bewegungskrieg) suddenly turned into the static war of position (Stellungskrieg), just the sort of grinding attritional struggle that the Wehrmacht knew it could not win.

In the south, the Germans got stuck on the approaches to the high mountains, their two armies facing a solid wall of eight Soviet armies comprising the Transcaucasus Front (further divided into a “Black Sea Group” and a “North Group” of four armies apiece). In the north, Sixth Army reached Stalingrad at the end of September, its arrival punctuated by a Luftwaffe raid on the city that reduced much of it to rubble; Fourth Panzer Army joined it on September 2, and the Luftwaffe announced the coming of Hoth by smashing the city a second time, churning up a great deal of rubble, killing thousands more civilians, and nearly bagging the Soviet commander in Stalingrad, General Vasili I. Chuikov of the Sixty-second Army.

The two German armies had met and reestablished a continuous front directly in front of Stalingrad. Now was a time for decisions. In front of the Germans lay a great city, with a population of some six hundred thousand and a large heavy-industry base. Just a few months earlier, the Wehrmacht had suffered some seventy-five thousand casualties reducing the much smaller city of Sevastopol, the bloodiest encounter of the spring by a considerable margin. Stalingrad, moreover, presented an unusual set of geographical problems. Rather than a collection of neighborhoods radiating out of some central point, the city was one long urbanized area stretching along the right bank of the Volga for nearly thirty miles, as straight as a railroad tie.

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