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In operational terms, therefore, it was not so much a city as a long, fortified bridgehead on the western bank of the river. The Germans could never put it under siege. Behind it flowed a great river, behind the river a huge mass of artillery that could intervene in the battle at will, and behind the artillery a vast, secure, and rapidly industrializing Soviet hinterland.

Not for the first time in this war, the Wehrmacht had conquered its way into an impasse. It could not go forward without sinking into a morass of urban fighting. Every German officer knew what a city fight would mean. The preferred way of war, Bewegungskrieg, would inevitably degenerate into Stellungskrieg. Indeed, Hitler and the General Staff had designed the entire convoluted operational sequence in 1942 for the very purpose of avoiding this prospect. At the same time, however, it could not simply go around Stalingrad, and there was no possibility of staying put, not with Paulus and Hoth both sitting out on the end of a very long and vulnerable limb.

Given a choice of three unpalatable alternatives, the German army made the only decision consonant with its history and traditions, dating back to Frederick the Great, Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, and Moltke. On September 5, the big guns roared, the panzers stormed forward, and the Stukas screamed overhead. The assault on Stalingrad had begun.

Every student of the war knows what happened next—how the fighting broke down into battles for the crumbling buildings and rubble-strewn streets of the dying city. Both sides incurred huge losses. The Germans, as usual, kept attacking, driving ever closer to the Volga riverbank that was their operational objective. Their last shot (Operation Hubertus, in November) would take them just a few hundred yards away from it. The Soviets were managing to hold on, just barely, to an ever-narrowing strip along the river.

In operational terms, the “dual offensive” was now firmly stuck in neutral, and this at a moment when Rommel, too, had come to a dead stop in the desert. His own last shot—the offensive at Alam Halfa, August 30 to September 7—had also broken down against a revived British Eighth Army. The Wehrmacht was in deep trouble, shorn of its own ability to maneuver and seemingly helpless against enemy strength that was waxing on all fronts.

And yet, modern war—and the peculiar German variant of it, Bewegungskrieg, remained unpredictable. Even in extremis, with a balance of forces that had gone bad and a logistical situation that edged ever closer to disaster, the Wehrmacht could still show occasional flashes of the old fire. Take the Caucasus. As the summer turned into fall, with the Black Sea front frozen in place, the focus of the campaign shifted to the east, along the Terek. The last of the major rivers in the region, it was deep and swiftly flowing, with steep, rocky banks that sheltered a number of key targets: the cities of Grozny and Ordzhonikidze (modern Vladikavkaz), as well as the Ossetian and Georgian military roads. These roads were the only two routes through the mountains capable of bearing motor traffic, and taking them would give the Wehrmacht effective control of the Caucasus. The Georgian Road was the key. Running from Ordzhonikidze down to Tbilisi, it would give the Germans the potential for a high-speed drive through the mountains to the Caspian Sea and the rich oil fields around Baku, the greatest potential prize of the entire campaign.

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