On to Stalingrad Cover

On to Stalingrad

Operation Winter Thunderstorm and the Attempt to Relieve Sixth Army, December 1942

Horst Scheibert, translated by Janice W. Ancker

Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 2022, 144 pages

Book Review published on: January 12, 2024

In late November 1942, Soviet forces tightened the noose around the neck of Gen. Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army, which was hanging on by a thread at Stalingrad, amidst starvation, depravation, and lethal cold. Adolf Hitler had earlier refused the option of strategic retreat, in part, because of the name of the city. In lieu of a retreat, Operation Winter Thunderstorm, a rescue attempt, sought to bash through Soviet lines and relieve the encircled units.

In the opening pages of On to Stalingrad: Operation Winter Thunderstorm and the Attempt to Relieve Sixth Army, December 1942, author Horst Scheibert recalls previous deployments of his division, noting it had experienced significant victories; good leadership was a hallmark, which kept casualties relatively low. This, in turn, meant precious commodities like seasoned noncommissioned officers and officers, who had sweated together in many of the same prior deployments, had experienced combat and were filled with esprit. In this respect, the division’s combat readiness was high. “Every soldier felt far superior to his Russian counterpart, had confidence in his weapons, and confidence in his well-trained leaders. Particularly in the panzer regiment there existed a relationship between all service ranks that was rich in trust and shared destiny. They fought as one team.”1

This relief operation started off auspiciously enough. Many previously held positions were recaptured and the Germans inflicted egregious casualties on their enemy. They also brought superior tank forces, but, of course, tanks were only part of the equation. Infantry strength and pesky anti-tank troops remained stubbornly and persistently in favor of Joseph Stalin’s forces. German commanders, while possessing a greater knack for operational details and their incorporation of combined arms, lacked precious personnel. That said, many of the newly formed Soviet units lacked significant combat experience, having previously faced almost exclusively Romanian forces.2 So now, facing the tested combat power of a well-practiced German armored division, it was quite understandable the Russians would sometimes make some seemingly inexplicable blunders. But they were not the only ones who committed errors. Consider German overreliance on powerful and complex, but often unreliable, tanks such as the Panzer IV, to duel with the vaunted Soviet T-34.

For eleven days, a fierce German effort was met by a heavy, albeit often clumsy, series of Soviet counterattacks. For a brief spell, Paulus’s beleaguered troops felt a rush of hope. But those hopes were soon dashed, and the fate of the German Sixth Army was sealed. However, the effort to rescue the battered force often gets overlooked in discussions about the campaign for Stalingrad. This accounting of that rescue attempt, originally published in Germany in 1956, is the work of Scheibert, a respected historian and officer who served in the 6th Panzer Division, part of the rescue force. In recounting the story, Scheibert includes many excerpts from war diaries and many telegrams, providing the reader with a more personal account of the operation, from its conceptualization in mid-November straight through the German offensive and Soviet counteroffensive.

The unsurprising stated purpose of this volume is to “represent as clearly as possible the situation.” Scheibert seeks “to rescue from oblivion these difficult campaigns which were so momentous in their goals, tragic in their outcome, but rich in lessons learned.”3 He contends a persistent complaint regarding publications dealing with the attempt to relieve Stalingrad “are almost all tarnished by inaccuracies as to time, locations, and numbers. There are also distortions, both intentional and unintentional, as well as exaggerated and embroidered versions of events.” To remedy this perennial problem, Scheibert has leveraged a fairly large number of documents and insists his account “places particular emphasis on objectivity.”4 But other factors beyond these already mentioned serve to corrupt the record as well. Of the men involved, a great many perished in the battle. Scheibert offers personal testimony on this point. Just over a month into his unit’s deployment (from 3 December 1942 on), out of eight combat company commanders, only Scheibert was still available for duty; apparently, this was reflective of other units, too. It is the dearth of informed persons with sufficient grasp of the facts that explains why only former members of higher leadership staffs or outside observers have written on this subject.

While some zealous tactics enthusiasts will, no doubt, enjoy the book for the detail wrung from reports and battlefield messages liberally posted within the book’s pages, this reviewer found most of the writing to be tedious and the reports so numerous and meticulous that it could easily overwhelm all but the most detail-craving souls out there. In short, this is a book with a narrow audience. Certainly, some readers will be tickled with the very tactical perspective; however, it is likely others will find the profusion of field reports to be like quicksand—difficult, if not impossible, to escape from. The most useful facet of this fairly slender 144-page recollection is Scheibert’s succinct, but sporadic, analysis that makes sense of much of the minutia contained in the countless field reports. It’s almost as if the field reports are intended to stand in for narrative. Unfortunately, field reports—at least to the untrained eye—make for a rough, disjointed, and patchy explanation of what is unfolding.

Though Scheibert includes a telling situation assessment submitted on the eve of the attack by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who foreshadows the difficulties that lay ahead, he does not leverage it sufficiently. In that report, Manstein diplomatically but effectively notes air resupply is woefully inadequate to the task at hand.25 In the same report, Manstein also bemoans the fact he is short of every other type of weapon or supply vis-à-vis the enemy. As such, he brazenly advises higher headquarters—knowing full well Hitler will likely see or hear of his commentary—that attempting to hold and defend all ground (essentially Hitler’s edict on the Eastern Front) “appears pointless.”6 In saying so, he was characteristically candid. It was this candor, and an independent streak, that would eventually cause him to lose Hitler’s favor in 1944, despite their ideological similarities, and never lead troops in battle again.

The author provides the reader with a total of sixteen maps, but they are of limited use to all but the savviest tacticians, and ill-suited to those looking to understand the big picture. This account, for the most part, is an “in the weeds” accounting of what transpired from the vantage point of a young tank commander.

What would have enhanced the book’s appeal was more analysis from the author regarding the implications of various battlefield developments. Scheibert is to be commended for his meticulous effort to record with precision the events connected to this doomed rescue mission; however, while historians revel in such details, the general reader of history is usually in search of summations and analysis of the significance of one development in relation to others. Alas, the reader will not get much of that here.

Bottom line: A treasure trove, or wellspring, of material for those obsessed with knowing specific details, but, at the same time, a tsunami of information for those simply looking to understand the Battle of Stalingrad, the attempted rescue of the Sixth Army, and/or connections between the battle and other, simultaneous combat operations in World War II. Therefore, it is a worthy addition to the collection of the most ardent historian. For everyone else, let us hope Scheibert’s work serves to enhance future overviews.


  1. Horst Scheibert, On to Stalingrad: Operation Winter Thunderstorm and the Attempt to Relieve Sixth Army, December 1942, trans. Janice W. Ancker (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2022), 7–8.
  2. Ibid., 34.
  3. Ibid, 1.
  4. Ibid, 2.
  5. Ibid., 45. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, a widely respected master of the operational art, recognized strategic thinker, and Adolf Hitler’s choice to command the ill-fated rescue operation, was sent to relieve a surrounded German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, as quoted in his 9 December 1942 Situation Report to the German High Army Command.
  6. Ibid., 47.

Book Review written by:Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas