24 October 2014

After Action Report: War in the East - Case Blue

In this AAR of Gary Grigsby's War in the East, the first two months of Case Blue are covered. In part 1 of the series we see how the defense of the German invasion is handled by Stuart Hunt.

Published on 29 NOV 2010 1:30pm by Scott Parrino


Introduction

Comrade Marshal Huntski was thinking of a second cup of tea as he sat next to his steaming samovar on the veranda of his dacha near the Volga, enjoying the late June morning sunshine, reading his daily reports, when his aide burst in upon his thoughts.

“Comrade Marshal, the Hitlerites have broken in our lines up and down the front!  There are fierce battles raging but it seems many of our armies are in imminent danger of envelopment. 13th Army is being driven back towards Voronezh. Before Voroshilovgrad, we have lost communications with 37th and 9th Armies altogether.   The 56th is in Rostov, digging in to create a fortress, but the city is already part of the front line. Comrade Timoshenko is demanding an urgent telephone conference – he is on the line now…”

Huntski rose and moved inside to his operations room, to view the large wall map. He smiled wryly to himself. He had heard this kind of defeatist panic from his front line officers before – he knew what was needed. Discipline and sound Marxist-Leninist political doctrine had seen them all through the worst of the previous summer’s disasters. It would see them through again. He noted with satisfaction the disposition of the many divisions and brigades at this disposal on the great map before him.

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The front before the offensive - with German objectives highlighted.

So began the epic and gigantic clash of arms known as Fall Blau (Case Blue), the German plan to drive across the Lower Don, take Stalingrad to secure their left flank, and then seize the oil fields of the Caucasus. The protagonists, proxies for the two great dictators, were Feldmarschall von Sabre commanding German Army Group South, and Comrade Marshal Huntski of the Red Army. Huntski was STAVKA’s representative for military operations across all the Fronts and Military Districts from the Bryansk Front in the North to the Transcaucasus Front in the deep South. His field notes form the basis of this narrative. These were collated shortly after Huntski’s untimely death - the Marshal accidentally fell from a window in Comrade Beria’s offices in Moscow in late August, 1942 - and have only recently been re-discovered.

The Opening Moves

Once the reports that had come in over the next few days, had been confirmed and written up, the situation that was revealed to me on the map looked like this:

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The Russian position at the start of Turn 1.

A catastrophe! This was worse than even the initial panicky reports had suggested. Using powerful panzer and motorised divisions, rebuilt after the destructive winter campaigns, and launching from favourable positions taken after the defeat of our failed attempt to take Kharkov in May, von Sabre had encircled the better part of six infantry armies, together with many supporting tank brigades and corps, in three large pockets! If I could not free these troops, they would be lost, and my chances of retaining any kind of forward defences along the Don would be lost with them.   How could I free them, and, even more vitally, ensure their re-supply? Not for the last time, I would need to buy time with the lives of my men. 

In the North, I used the large number of movement points afforded my cavalry and armour to link up with supporting units breaking over the river Voronezh, and to help cut a tenuous link to the much larger encirclement to the South.   It was touch and go but the armoured breakout was successful in both of these efforts, mainly because 9th Panzer Division had had to break down into regimental-sized kampfgruppen, to create a contiguous front in order to seal the pocket in the first instance.

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 13th Army links up with 60th Army

Behind these breakout operations, I tried to shore up the defences along the Don and Voronezh river lines. During this re-deployment the Luftwaffe bombed one of my HQ units, causing not only significant casualties but also preventing their ability to relocate as ordered. The defenders of Voronezh would be out of command range of their HQ as a result – a significant factor in the subsequent action. 

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28th Army HQ disrupted by air attack.

In the centre, an even more tenuous escape route was cut through to the three armies cut off to the east of Voroshilovgrad. I recognised that the armour that broke in was likely to be enveloped next turn, but if I didn’t re-supply these armies, then they would simply be swept away in the coming week.   I needed to slow the Germans in any way I could - sacrifices would be necessary.

Behind this ‘forlorn hope’, I scraped together what reserves I could to try to secure Boguchar. This victory location seemed very exposed but, because of the shocking encirclements at the front, I had very few units available to support its defense. I could, however, influence the quality of the leadership.   I sacked the incompetent Nikishev as commander of the 57th Army and replaced him with my friend and trusted lieutenant, Maksim Purkaev, a staunch Comrade since the days of the Revolution and a Party Member since 1919. If anyone could hold the place, Maksim could: he is a fine and determined infantry commander, with good political sense. As I briefed him by telephone, I left no doubt as to where his duty lay, nor about the expectations that I had of his men.

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Maksim Purkaev appointed general of 57th Army.

Further, I assigned from my reserves a tank battalion, 3 regiments of artillery and some flak to Maksim’s direct command. I ordered Maksim to mobilise the local population to start digging trenches and anti-tank ditches, and he quickly organised these into four construction detachments. I was painfully aware that these defences may well prove to be a case of too little too late, but the cost in time and administration resources of this reorganisation was already very high.

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Comrade Purkaev Receives a Few Reserves

In Rostov, the gateway to the South that I was determined to keep firmly locked, I formed an Infantry Corps, and assigned more of my support units to the close defence of the city. I also appointed the reliable Sokolovsky as General Officer Commanding 56th Army. I ordered Sokolovsky to deploy the rest of the army along the lower Don – ‘not one step back’ was the general order.

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Creation of 1st Rifle Corps at Rostov.

I rushed two armies up from the Caucasus by train to fill the yawning hole South of the Don bend and along the Donets. This was a serious risk: if the enemy were to break through towards the oil fields, I would have little in the way of reserves to stop them, nor could I order the construction of the large scale field works that I knew would be the best way of stopping the German armour if they did come south. However, I had little choice as I had no front line left.   In the rear, in and around Stalingrad, my reserve armies started digging in.

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General situation along the Lower Don.