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The image of two punch-drunk fighters is one of the oldest clichés in military history, but perfectly describes what was happening. It was a question of reserves, physical and mental: Who would better stand the strain in one of the century’s great mano a mano engagements? It had it all: bitter cold, swirling snowstorms, and a majestic wall of mountains and glaciers standing watch in the background. The road network failed both sides, so columns had to crowd onto branch roads where they were easy prey for enemy fighter-bombers. Rarely have Stukas and Sturmoviks had a more productive set of targets, and the losses on both sides were terrible.

By November 3, the 13th Panzer Division had fought its way over the highlands and was a mere two kilometers from Ordzhonikidze. By now, a handful of battalions was carrying the fight to the enemy, bearing the entire weight of the German campaign in the Caucasus. For the record, they were the 2nd of the 66th Regiment (II/66th) on the left, II/93rd on the right, with I/66th echeloned to the left rear. Deployed behind the assault elements were the I/99th Alpenjäger, the 203rd Assault Gun Battalion, and the 627th Engineer Battalion. The engineers’ mission was crucial: to rush forward and open the Georgian Military Road the moment Ordzhonikidze fell.

Over the next few days, German gains were measured in hundreds of meters: six hundred on November 4, a few hundred more on November 5. By now, it had become a battle of bunker-busting, with the German assault formations having to chew their way through dense lines of fortifications, bunkers, and pillboxes. Progress was slow, excruciatingly so, but then again the attackers didn’t have all that far to go. Overhead the Luftwaffe thundered, waves of aircraft wreaking havoc on the Soviet front line and rear, and pounding the city itself. Mackensen’s reserves were spent, used up a week earlier, in fact. It must have been inconceivable to him that the Soviets were not suffering as badly or worse.

But Mackensen was wrong. On November 6, the Soviets launched a counterattack, their first real concentrated blow of the entire Terek campaign, against the 13th Panzer’s overextended spearhead. Mixed groups of infantry and T-34 tanks easily smashed through the paper-thin German flank guards and began to close in behind the mass of the division itself, in the process scattering much of its transport and cutting off its combat elements from their supply lines. Supporting attacks against the German left tied up the 23rd Panzer Division and the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division just long enough to keep them from coming to 13th Panzer’s assistance. There were no German reserves, and for the next three days, heavy snowstorms kept the Luftwaffe on the ground. Indeed, the 13th Panzer only had the strength for one last blow—to the west, as it turned out—to break out of the threatened encirclement. After some shifting of units, including the deployment of the 5th SS-Panzer Division Wiking in support, the order went out on November 9. The first convoy out of the pocket used tanks to punch a hole, followed by a convoy of trucks filled with the wounded. Within two days, a badly mauled 13th Panzer was back on the German side of the lines. The drive on Ordzhonikidze had failed, as had the drive on the oil fields of Grozny, and, indeed, the Caucasus campaign itself.

But how close it had been! Consider the numbers. Take a German army group of five armies and reduce it to three, and then to two. Give it an absurd assignment, say a 700-mile drive at the end of a 1,200-mile supply chain, against a force of eight enemy armies, in the worst terrain in the world. Wear down its divisions to less than 50 percent of their strength, both in men and tanks. Then make it 33 percent. Feed them a hot meal perhaps once a week. Remove them from the control of their professional officer corps and put them into the hands of a lone amateur strategist. Throw them into sub-zero temperatures and two feet of snow.

Add it all up, and what do you get? Not, surprisingly, an inevitable defeat, but a hard-driving panzer corps, stopped but still churning its legs, less than two kilometers from its strategic objective. Karl von Clausewitz was right about one thing: war is, indeed, “the realm of uncertainty.”

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