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After enduring months of bitter and costly defensive combat at Stalingrad, on 19 November 1942, Red Army forces struck a massive blow against the hitherto triumphant German Army. To the Germans' utter consternation, within one week Soviet forces encircled German Sixth Army in the deadly Stalingrad cauldron. Ten weeks later, the army's tattered remnants surrendered, ending the most famous battle of the German-Soviet War.
History states the titanic Battle of Stalingrad altered the course of war on the German Eastern Front and set the Wehrmacht and German Reich on its path toward utter and humiliating defeat. History accorded enduring fame to the victors of Stalingrad. The victorious Red Army seemingly never again suffered strategic or significant operational defeat1. The architects of the Stalingrad victory entered the annals of military history as unvanquished heroes who led the subsequent Soviet march to victory. Foremost among them was Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgiy Konstantinovich Zhukov, the hero of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin.
History, however, has misinformed us. The muses of history are fickle. They record only what was reported and ignore what was not. The adage, "To the victors belong the spoils," applies to history as well as war. As a spoil of war, history also exerts a powerful influence over future generations. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of Germany's war on the Eastern Front. The victorious Germans proudly recounted the triumphant course of the war to late 1942. Thereafter, the victorious Soviets proclaimed their martial feats, and few Germans disputed them.
The place names of 1941 and 1942 fame, such as Minsk, Kiev, Smolensk, and Kharkov, properly evoke images of German triumph, while the names Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Byelorussia, and Berlin resound as unqualified Soviet victories. These images, however, are deceptive and flawed. For example, despite the impressive German advances in 1941 and 1942, German Operations Barbarossa and Blau [Blue] failed, Moscow and Leningrad remained in Soviet hands, and catastrophic German defeats followed, which culminated in the destruction of the German Reich.
Likewise, the history of the later war years has misled us to an even greater extent by failing to qualify seemingly unending Soviet battlefield success. Understandably, the Soviets were quite reluctant to tarnish their record, and the Germans often avoided the unpleasantness by simply attributing defeat to a demented Hitler and overwhelming Soviet strength. The resulting Soviet combat record thus resembled a seamless, unblemished march to inevitable victory. This flawed historical mosaic has perverted the war's history by masking numerous Soviet failures and defeats, which punctuated the Red Army's admittedly victorious march. It has also elevated the reputations of certain victorious Soviet commanders such as G. K. Zhukov and I. S. Konev to almost superhuman proportions, covering up the fact that, after all, they too were human and, as such, demonstrated characteristic human weaknesses.
This article begins the process of correcting the historical record of this most terrible war by identifying the flaws and by placing those famous battles, which have already been recorded and extolled, in their proper context. This is an impartial process, for almost as much has been forgotten about the period of German victory before late 1942 as has been forgotten about the Soviet triumphant march after late 19422.
Soviet Operation Mars is the most glaring instance where the historiography of the German-Soviet War has failed us3. Originally planned for late-October 1942, but postponed until 25 November, Operation Mars was intended to be a companion piece to Operation Uranus, the code-name for the Soviet's Stalingrad strategic counteroffensive. By conducting Operations Mars and Uranus, the Soviet Stavka [Headquarters of the High Command] sought to regain the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front and set the Red Army on the path to total victory. Planned and conducted by Marshal G. K. Zhukov and a host of other famous Soviet generals and appropriately named for the God of War, Operation Mars formed the centerpiece of Soviet strategic designs in fall 1942. Its immense scale and ambitious strategic intent made Operation Mars at least as important as Operation Uranus and likely more important. In its fickleness, however, history has forgotten Operation Mars because it failed, while it has extolled Operation Uranus because it succeeded.
Today, sufficient German and Soviet archival materials are available to permit correction of this historical mistake and to commemorate properly the sacrifices of the half million Red Army soldiers and the many Germans who fell during the operation, a figure which exceeds the military death toll of the United States Armed Forces throughout the entire war.
© THE RUSSIAN BATTLEFIELD, 1998-2011