Operation Blue was the codename for the attack ordered by Adolf Hitler on the Soviet Union’s oil fields in the Caucasus region in 1942. Operation Blue was to fail when the Sixth Army was effectively destroyed at the Battle of Stalingrad. Operation Barbarossa had failed in that the Soviet Union had not surrendered and Moscow had not been captured. However, the success of Barbarossa was such that vast regions of the Soviet Union were in the hands of the Nazis – Byelorussia and the Ukraine were major centres of industry while Kiev and Kharkov were the third and fourth largest cities in the USSR respectively. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all captured and the German war machine held a line that measured nearly 1000 miles from the north near Lake Ladoga to the Sea of Azov in the south. Hitler now ordered that his war machine needed the oil fields in the southwest of the USSR and that the campaign would start after the Russian winter had ended in 1942.
For once Hitler and his senior Wehrmacht strategists agreed on an initial plan. Operation Blue must involve just a single point of attack for maximum effect, a so-called Schwerpunkt. All agreed that the size of the front meant that there could be no overall offensive along the whole line. But almost immediately after this agreement, there were differences expressed. Senior army generals wanted the target for Operation Blue to be Moscow once again. Hitler disagreed and told his generals that the attack would be on the oil fields. He ordered this for two reasons. If the Red Army was starved of fuel it would collapse. If the German military had access to the same oil, it would prosper. Therefore, Hitler ordered that Army Group South would be the beneficiary of whatever was required in terms of military hardware for its attack on Grozny in the Caucasus and Maikop by the Black Sea. Hitler argued that he was right with regards to the attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940 when his generals had doubted whether it would be a success. He blamed the failure of Barbarossa on the army’s lack of resolve and fighting spirit. Now with Operation Blue they could prove their worth, Hitler argued. He told the Wehrmacht’s High Command, “Either I get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, or I must put an end to this war.”
Operation Blue began on June 22nd 1942, exactly a year to the day of the start of Operation Barbarossa. However, it was very nearly delayed when an army major was shot down while flying over and surveying the Russian lines. He had taken a briefcase with him containing the plans for Operation Blue for that sector and it fell into the hands of Russian troops. The briefcase was immediately sent to Moscow and its contents studied. Stalin decided that its contents were a deliberate ploy to fool the commanders of the Red Army that the attack was going to be in the south when actually it was going to be against Moscow. Therefore he refused to order the movement of troops away from Moscow to the south. No one in the Red Army’s hierarchy was willing to argue with Stalin.
The generals in the Wehrmacht thought about delaying the attack but it went ahead. As with Barbarossa, it was very successful to start with. In early July, Hitler told General Halder, “The Russian is finished.” The very success of Operation Blue was to be its undoing and arguably was to change the course of World War Two in Europe. Hitler believed that because the Red Army in the south was crumbling against the mechanised onslaught of the Wehrmacht’s attack, too many German troops were actually involved and fewer were needed. He concluded that men could be withdrawn to other sectors while still allowing the attack to succeed. He ordered that Army Group South should be divided in two. Group A was to push for the oilfields of the Caucasus and Maikop before moving on to Baku. Group B was to engage the Russians in the region west of the River Don. Therefore the force that was to attack the oilfields was halved in terms of its strength. Also the two-army groups were to act independently as opposed to supporting one another. The Sixth Army under Paulus, the largest formation in Group B, was stripped of the support of the 4th Panzer as this group was ordered to support Group A. However, Hitler later reversed this decision such was the chaos that his leadership could cause. He had divided in two Army Group South, moved a Panzer formation away and then ordered its return to Group B. However, as commander-in-chief of the military, his orders had to be obeyed especially as all members of the military had sworn an oath of loyalty to Hitler.
Why did Hitler do this? It is said that while studying a map of the south of Russia he saw the city of Stalingrad on it. Up to this point, Stalingrad had played little part in any plan of attack. The city would have become involved at some time in the war but it was not initially seen as a major target.
General Ewald von Kleist commanded the First Panzer Army. After the war he said:
“The capture of Stalingrad was subsidiary to the main aim. At the start (of the attack) Stalingrad was no more than a name on the map to us.”
Hitler realised that the city had been named after the man who represented all that Hitler despised – an East European Communist. Stalin also governed a country that had many millions of Jews in its population. The city, it is thought, become a personal affront to Hitler and he ordered that the city had to be attack, conquered and neutralised. This new target became the responsibility of Paulus and the Sixth Army. Stalin was wily enough to realise that Hitler would not be able to resist an attack on the city named after him and in mid-July martial law was declared in the city and on July 28th the order ‘Not One Step Back’ (Order 227) was given to every Russian military unit. The civilian population was ordered to build trenches and tank traps to the west of the city. Operation Blue had started as a massive attack to capture the oilfields in the southwest of the USSR. It was to lead to the battle that many military historians believe changed the course of the war in Europe and led to the destruction of the Sixth Army.