Hitler’s Axis ally fought both the Russian winter and the Red Army in the Eastern Front’s turning-point battle.
As morning broke on November 19, 1942, the soldiers of Romania’s 3d Army shivered in their trenches along ridges south of the Don River in southern Russia. Some winter uniforms had arrived but not nearly enough. For two months the soldiers had been protecting the left flank of German 6th Army, which was locked in a death match with Red Army defenders in the rubble of Stalingrad southeast of the Romanians’ position. The warm, beautiful autumn was over; the first snow had settled atop bunkers and pillboxes on November 16. More snow arrived around midnight November 18-19, and the morning sun was hidden behind a thick, frozen mist.
At 7:30 a.m., Soviet Katyusha rockets came whooshing through the fog, their terrifying sound joined within minutes by the shriek of shells from 3,500 artillery guns and heavy mortars. The Romanians’ nightmare had begun.
Many Romanian soldiers saw no good reason to die defending Germans. For most of their lives,their nation had not intended to be a German ally – in fact, quite the opposite. Post-World War I,Romania had annexed Transylvania from Hungary, took Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina from the new Soviet Union, and seized a portion of Bulgaria, uniting the majority of Romanian people into a single nation for the first time in centuries. It signed mutual defense agreements with Czechoslovakia,Greece, Poland, Turkey and Yugoslavia against future aggression by Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria or the Soviet Union.
A 10-year military rebuilding program began in 1935, overseen by the chief of general staff – later defense minister – General Ion Antonescu, a hero of the Great War.The country’s mishmash of artillery was standardized at 75 mm. Rifles,machine guns, light tanks and 100mm light howitzers were purchased from Czechoslovakia. France provided additional weapons and training, but Germany’s 1938 takeover of Czechoslovakia and May1940 conquest of France severed Romania’s weapons pipeline.
With its most powerful ally, France, defeated, Romania officially acknowledged Adolf Hitler’s “new European order” on May 29, 1940, and subsequently was pressured into allowing Germany and Italy to mediate an agreement over its disputed territories. Everything was handed back to the previous owners. Overnight Romania lost half its territory and population.
Romania’s King Carol II, already unpopular, was driven from the country. His 19-year-old heir, Mihai (Michael), was a paper monarch; real power lay with Antonescu, now prime minister, who proclaimed himself Conductator (leader). He was more nationalist than fascist, but as a proven military leader he had Hitler’s respect.
A QUICK VICTORY, BUT …
Germany’s June 22, 1941, invasion of the vast Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa, required more troops than Hitler could field. He promised the Conductator that Romania could have Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina back from the USSR if it joined the Nazi invasion. Antonescu proclaimed a “holy war” against the Soviet Bolshevists, and on July 2-3, Romanian and German troops of Army Group Antonescu began crossing the Prut River. By month’s end, the two lost territories were recaptured. (See Romanian Army in the East map, p. 36.)
Romania’s war seemed to be over. Half its army was demobilized.But Hitler dangled a plum in front of Antonescu: Capture the major port of Odessa, the “Marseilles of the Black Sea,” and it’s yours. The Conductator hoped a large commitment of troops would convince Hitler to hand over the lost lands in Transylvania as well – Hungary’s contributions to the Russian invasion were meager, after all.Romania became Europe’s third-largest Axis military force, behind only Italy and Germany itself.
Fortified Odessa fell to Romania’s 4th Army in mid-October1941 – the greatest independent success of the war by any minor Axis power – but Romania’s 70,000-100,000 casualties exposed the army’s weaknesses.
Essentially a peasant army, illiteracy rates were high. Discipline was brutal. A largely aristocratic officer corps had little in common with men in the ranks, but the antiquated practice of leading from the front caused horrendous officer casualty rates – 4th Army lost 4,600 officers before the end of the Odessa campaign, primarily junior officers.
Infantry and armor crews weren’t trained to work together. The army’s 37 mm and 47 mm anti-tank guns and its similarly equipped light tanks couldn’t stand up to heavier Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. Communications equipment was in short supply, and motorized/ mechanized transport was insufficient for an effective mobile reserve. Romania’s military simply was not up to the demands of modern mobile warfare.
Regardless, in January 1942, against the wishes of many of his officers, Antonescu agreed to further operations in the Soviet Union and the Crimea in exchange for equipment and training to modernize the Romanian army. Germany, unable to fulfill its own weapons needs, provided only a trickle of equipment, frequently obsolete.
Still, the Romanian divisions fielded in the summer of 1942 were greatly improved over those that bled themselves white at Odessa. Their men were better trained, particularly in marksmanship, and some support weapons had arrived. But many officers and men felt they were fighting Hitler’s war, not Romania’s, despite propaganda to convince them their cause was just and Germany’s victory certain.
THE STALINGRAD FRONT
Ordered to advance toward Stalingrad on September 19, 1942, Romanian VI Corps of General Constantin Constantinescu-Claps’ 4th Army impressed the Germans by marching nearly 500 miles in two months, covering over half the distance in just 20 days, often while encountering Soviet resistance.
Ordered to protect the Germans’ exposed right flank, 4th Army’s VI Corps (1st, 2d, 4th, 18th and 20th infantry divisions) took up positions beyond some lakes south of Stalingrad. On September29, a strong Soviet counterattack penetrated all the way to VI Corps’ headquarters. Additional attacks during October drove 1st and 4thdivisions back behind the lakes with heavy casualties before the Romanians stabilized their line. In the first two weeks of November, Romanian VII Corps (5th and 8th cavalry divisions) joined 4th Army,compacting divisional frontage but exacerbating supply problems. Its“160-mile front” was closer to 185 miles wide.
In September, Romanian 3d Army arrived. Consisting of I Corps(7th and 11th infantry divisions), II Corps (9th and 14th infantry divisions), IV Corps (13th and 15th infantry divisions and 1st Cavalry Division) and V Corps (5th and 6th infantry divisions), it replaced Italian and German troops south of the Don River to the northwest of Stalingrad. The army’s commander, General Petre Dumitrescu, had received Germany’s Ritterkreuz, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, for his performance in the September-October 1941Battle of the Sea of Azov.
Dumitrescu immediately recognized a serious threat. In late August 1942, Soviet counterattacks against the Italian and German divisions that Romanian 3d Army was replacing had seized two bridgeheads south of the Don, near Serafimovich and Kletskaya. Since the Don River was Dumitrescu’s primary defensive barrier, he appealed for German assistance to push the enemy back across the river. But the Germans, fixated on Stalingrad, showed little interest in clearing a bridgehead 150 miles to the northwest. No help was forthcoming, even though Romanian 3dArmy was protecting the only rail supply line into the embattled city.
The Soviets tested 3d Army’s mettle with a series of probing attacks and heavier assaults beginning October 14 and continuing into November. Sergeant Manole Zamfir of the Pioneers Company,36th Regiment of 3d Army’s 9th Infantry Division, wrote: “Pushed forward by their officers, the Russian soldiers were yelling [in Romanian]: ‘Brothers, why are you killing us? Antonescu and Stalin drink vodka together and we’re killing each other for nothing.’”
The Romanians repulsed each attack, inflicting heavy losses but also losing over 13,000 of their own soldiers. Romanian 13th and 14th divisions suffered the most casualties – a fact not lost on the Soviet command.
Romanian 3d Army’s front stretched approximately 85 miles. Divisional reserves were sent to expand the front lines, leaving only 15th Infantry, 7th Cavalry and1st Armored divisions in reserve. Barbed wire and landmines were in short supply, like everything else.
Many Romanian soldiers wondered, “Why die for Hitler?” Others believed they were fighting a “holy war against bolshevism” or “for a fully restored Romania,” but continuing hardships sapped morale. Pay could barely purchase a liter of milk a day. Rations often consisted of a single, small hot meal once a day and a small portion of bread; this was particularly true among Romanian 4th Army south of Stalingrad,which went 10 days without resupply in November.
In late October, reconnaissance by the Royal Romanian Air Force (Aeronautica Regalã Românã) indicated a Soviet buildup on the north side of the Don. The Germans were skeptical, but when their own intelligence confirmed it they began delivering a little more of the equipment they had promised, but some was still second-rate. For example, each Romanian division at Stalingrad received a half-dozen 75 mm Pak97/38 anti-tank guns – converted French field pieces only marginally better than the small-caliber anti-tank guns already in use.
On November 17, Romania’s defense minister Mihai Antonescu, a distant cousin of the Conductator, pressed Germany’s ambassador Manfred Freiherr von Killinger for more supplies and equipment: “The Russians are right now preparing a big action in exactly the region where our troops are situated. … I don’t want to lose [our army], for it is all we have.”
The “big action” was Operation Uranus, a plan to smash through the Axis flanks and encircle German 6th Army in Stalingrad. To assault the 155,500 Romanians and 11,000 Germans south of the Don, the Soviets’ South West Front and Don Front combined had massed over 338,000 men. Four rifle divisions would strike Italian troops west of the Romanians, but the crushing blow was aimed at strung-out 3d Army.
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
Operation Uranus opened with a massive Soviet artillery bombardment at 7:30 a.m. on November 19. The ground shook 30 miles away. The morning’s frozen mist concealed Romanian trenches, but Soviet gunners had ranged in during weeks of probing attacks, allowing for accurate targeting. Romanian artillery crews, however, couldn’t see to fire effectively on the advancing Soviet columns.
When the 90-minute bombardment ended, Russian infantry moved out through snow and mud, with some men riding atop tanks that crushed barbed wire or on sleds pulled behind the tanks.
The attackers may have expected to roll over a demoralized foe,but most Romanians held firm, cutting down enemy riflemen and knocking out light tanks as the Soviets came on in single-echelon formation. The attack fell behind schedule. The attackers penetrated in places, but progress was slow or stalled by late morning, when the Soviet 5th Tank Army ordered the mass of its tanks to attack on a 4-mile front. Between noon and 1 p.m., the spearhead crashed through the weakened Romanian 13thand 14th divisions. When 9th Division’s right flank collapsed, the division pivoted into an L shape and held – but the Romanian line was broken and the enemy poured through.
Tanks struck the Romanians’ weak rear areas. Elements of Soviet 4th Tank Corps rolled into Grominki, three miles from Kletskaya, around 2 p.m., setting 13th Division’s headquarters to flight; 14th Division’s headquarters had already been overrun. A counterattack by 15th division was driven back by Soviet tanks, but the division took a position among some small hills and inflicted enough casualties to force back the Soviets.
Romanian 7th Cavalry Division counterattacked in support of the broken 14th Infantry Division, but when it was struck by Soviet8th Cavalry Corps, it retreated with very heavy losses. Romanian11th Division bloodily repulsed an attack, foiling the Soviet plan to unhinge 3d Army’s left wing.
Throughout the morning, most of the attacking Soviet rifle divisions had failed to break through Romanian defenses until sufficiently supported by tanks and cavalry, but the afternoon saw Soviet armor and horsemen rampaging in the rear of 3d Army’s center. Hospitals and other rear echelon units fled south toward the Chir River.
To Germany’s famed Stuka pilot Ulrich Hans Rudel, flying below the low clouds with Stukageschwader 2 to bomb and strafe the Russians, the scene was one of unmitigated disaster – masses of Romanians were racing for the rear, some throwing away their weapons. “It is a good thing for them I have run out of ammunition to stop this cowardly rout,” he wrote in his memoir, Stuka Pilot.
SEND IN THE TANKS
Romanian 3d Army’s only fully mechanized reserve was its 1st Armored Division. German observers described Romanian tank crews as almost suicidally willing to fight, but their armor strength was weak. Of 105 serviceable tanks, 84 were Czechoslovakian Skoda S.IIa light tanks (LT-35s) weighing 10.5 tons each, with armor thickness of just 0.47-1.38 inches and carrying only a 37 mm gun and two 7.92 mm machine guns. Other Czech tanks (LT-34s), each armed only with a machine gun, had been distributed among the infantry divisions.
Romanian 1st Armored had received 11 each of German PzKw IIINs and PzKw Mark IVGs on October 17 but staged their first battalion drill just three days before the Russian assault began; only 19 of the 22 panzers were available on November 19. Two captured Soviet light tanks rounded out the division’s armor.
Romanian 1st Armored along with German 14th and 22d panzer divisions had been formed into the XLVIII Panzer Corps to provide a tank reserve in 3d Army’s rear, near the towns of Perefazovskii and Petrovo. However, XLVIII Panzer Corps had fewer than 85 medium and 100 light tanks with which to halt a Soviet force of nearly 150 heavy, 320 medium and 270 light tanks.
German 22d Panzer, ordered to counterattack, discovered that mice nesting in the tanks’ straw camouflage had chewed through electrical wires, as if even Russian rodents had joined the Soviet partisan effort. The 14th Panzer and Romanian 1st Armored were ordered to attack toward Kletskaya, but 1st Armored was disrupted in mid-deployment when Hitler intervened and insisted the two divisions attack southwest instead of southeast. After dark,1st Armored’s headquarters was hit by a surprise attack; the Soviet attackers were driven off but not before the German wireless through which XLVIII received its orders was destroyed.
Far to the rear, reports of the day’s actions were muddled. Lieutenant Colonel I. Chermanescu, with a radio company at Stalinosome 300 miles west, wrote: “I am optimistic, as [are] the majority around here, because even if we will lose some of our forces and a little ground, it’s them that will end up defeated.” Two days later, however, he called 3dArmy’s situation “critical.”
Romanian 3d Army’s center was breached on November 19; the flanks were assailed on the following days. Fragments of units on the eastern flank were forced back into the Stalingrad Pocket. In the west, Soviet 21st Cavalry, reinforced with tanks, broke through on the night of November 21-22. Groups of Romanian soldiers wandered the battle area aimlessly.
An ad hoc force – named the Lascar Group for its commander, Knight’s Cross winner General MihaiLascar – was formed from Romanian 5th, 6th and 15thdivisions and portions of 13th and 14th. On November 20, 15th Division, attacked by as many as 40 T-34tanks, drove off the enemy by cutting down the two supporting Soviet infantry battalions.
Forbidden by Antonescu from breaking out, Lascar Group refused a surrender demand on the afternoon of November 22, saying, “We will continue to fight without thought of surrender.” By November 26, Las car Group had ceased to exist. Its commander – soon to become the first non-German awarded a Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves – was on his way to a Soviet prisoner of war camp. He survived captivity to become Romania’s minister of defense, 1946-47.
Like Lascar Group, Romanian 1st Armored Division fought on as long as possible, rushing here and there, trying to stamp out individual flames in a fire beyond control. By December 2 it was behind the Chir River and down to 70 percent of its strength.
In all, Romanian 3d Army lost to combat and frostbite all but 5 percent of its combat troops and half of its rear services personnel. When facing only enemy infantry, it generally held, often inflicting sharp losses; but it proved too weak to knock out the masses of Soviet tanks thrown at it.
Defensive stands and local counterattacks continued along the Chir River line well into December. Italian XXIX Corps on the Romanians’ left was dislodged on December 18, and Russian tanks again poured into the rear, virtually annihilating Romanian 7th, 9th and 11th divisions before German Major General Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzer Division halted the Soviet attack. (See Battle Studies, September 2013 ACG.) On December 26, 3d Army fought its last significant battle before being withdrawn, striking a motorized rifle brigade of Soviet 1st Guards Mechanized Corps and knocking out two tanks, two armored cars and 10 anti-tank guns.
4TH ARMY DISINTEGRATES
South of Stalingrad on November 20, the Red Army’s Stalingrad Front sliced into Romanian 4th Army, just as the Soviet South West and Don fronts had done to 3d Army the previous day. At the time, 4th Army units were far below their authorized manpower strengths. Present for duty strength ranged from a high of 78 percent (18th Infantry Division) to lows of 30 percent (2d Infantry Division) and 25 percent (1st Infantry Division). Romanian 4th Army’s only mobile reserve was the 1,075-man, 120-vehicle 6th Motorized Rosiori.
At dawn on November 20, three Soviet rifle divisions, 4th Mechanized Corps and 4th Cavalry Corps tore through Romanian 1st Division’s left wing and 18th Division’s right and struck into 4th Army’s rear. Romanian 6th Motorized Rosiori, supported by a mechanized squadron and motorized 105 mm artillery battery, counterattacked in the afternoon, but a portion of its force was surrounded and destroyed. Only a minefield in which the Soviets lost 50 tanks slowed the enemy onslaught.
In the northern sector of this offensive, other Soviet rifle divisions broke through the weak Romanian2d Division, opening a gap that allowed Romanian 20th Division’sright wing to be overrun. A counterattack by 55 medium tanks of German 29th Motorized Division came to the rescue before being ordered to defend German 6th Army’s southern flank. Romanian 20thDivision would soon be forced into the Stalingrad perimeter.
Early on November 21, Romanian VI Corps’ headquarters was attacked and forced to retreat, but it formed a defense to the southwest from remnants of battered divisions and 6th Motorized Rosiori, aided by a few tanks and assault guns that a German liaison officer appropriated from German 4th Panzer Army’s workshop. This force offered a stiff but brief resistance when attacked on the night of November22-23 before falling back south of the Aksai River.
Romanian 4th Division was unmolested until November 23, when it was outflanked due to Romanian 1st Division’s loss of a key position the previous day. It began a fighting withdrawal but was outflanked on both the east and west by evening and lost some artillery before establishing a temporary defensive position.
Romanian 4th Army’s commander, General Constantinescu, wanted to pull all his units into a perimeter around Kotelnikovo but was ordered by German 4th Panzer Army to hold advanced positions: A relief column was being formed under German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to break through to Stalingrad from the area held by 4th Army. (See What Next, General? in the November 2012 ACG.)
A German detachment of motorized and armored troops with motorized Romanian heavy artillery arrived to drive back a Soviet thrust on November 26 and secure the Romanian flank; but by month’s end Constantinescu’s band of survivors had lost the Aksai River line, falling further back before the lead units of Manstein’s column began arriving.
Ordered to cover Manstein’s assembling troops, the Romanians gave ground but bought time with blood. By December 8, Constantinescu’s army was down to fewer than 40,000 men, over two-thirds of them rear area service personnel.
Four days later, Manstein’s Operation Winter Storm began. Romanian 4th Army, after a few days to rest and reorganize, was assigned to protect his right flank. It recaptured a few small towns and established a bridgehead across the Aksai before the Soviets counterattacked on December 24 with nearly 150,000 men and 635 tanks. On the night of December 26-27, Constantinescu ordered a withdrawal of all units, but apparently he didn’t notify the Germans. The highly mobile Soviet offensive caught the retreating Romanians anyway, virtually destroying 4th Army. Manstein blamed Romanian failures for the forced retreat of his LVII Panzer Corps, but he never explained how Constantinescu’s ragged band was supposed to stave off five Soviet mechanized, tank and cavalry corps.
The pitiful survivors of Romanian 3d and 4th armies were sent home to refit – except for the 12,600 Romanian soldiers who had been forced inside the Stalingrad Pocket, where they earned more than 50 Iron Crosses while sharing 6th Army’s fate of freezing, starvation and death. Fewer than 3,000 Romanians survived the Stalingrad siege to be taken prisoner. In all, Romania’s losses from November 19 into January are believed to be about 110,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured), over half of the strength of the country’s combat divisions.
In August 1944, in the Second Iasi-Kishinev (Jassy-Chisinau) Offensive, another Soviet tidal wave engulfed Romanian troops and rolled into Romania itself. King Mihai led a coup on August 23 that deposed Antonescu, and Romania belatedly joined the Allied cause in the vain hope of securing co-belligerent status as Italy had done. For the rest of World War II, Romanians fought against Germans and Hungarians – as they had expected to do when they began rebuilding their military in the 1930s.
Gerald D. Swick, editor for ArmchairGeneral.com, previously wrote about Romania for “The Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History” (ABC-CLIO, 2005). He recommends “Third Axis, Fourth Ally” by Mark Axworthy and www.worldwar2.ro for further information.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General.