(Nov. 26, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Thirty-Seventh Soviet Army, commanded by Major Gen. Anton Lopatin, was driving the elite SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler Panzerdivision, commanded by Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich, from the city of Rostov on Don, which Dietrich’s Panzerdivision had captured on Nov. 21, after four days of fighting.
Gen. Lopatin’s Thirty-Seventh Army was a reformulation of the Thirty-Seventh Army which had been virtually destroyed in the defense of Kyiv earlier in the fall. It was now a part of the Southern Front, commanded by Col.-Gen.Yakov Cherevichenko, a Ukrainian who grew up near Rostov on Don.
Gen. Lopatin’s Thirty-Seventh Army was assisted in recapturing Rostov by the Ninth and Fifty-Sixth Armies, commanded by Fyodor Kharitonov and Lt. Gen. Fyodor Renezov.
Dietrich’s Panzerdivision was a part of First Panzerarmee, commanded by Gen. Ewald von Kleist. German propaganda crowed that the, “...gateway to the Caucasus...,” was now open. Gen. von Kleist’s First Panzerarmee was a part of Armeegruppe South, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt.
Rostov on Don, is located on the Don River, 20 miles from the Sea of Azov, and currently has a population of more than one million. With access to the Don River and the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov, it is a very important seaport. It is to be distinguished from the much smaller town of Rostov, located 125 miles northeast of Moscow, with a population of 31,000.
Because of the exhaustion of his soldiers and equipment, Field Marshal von Rundstedt asked Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German Army, on Nov. 3, during the latter’s visit to the front, that Armeegruppe South be allowed to halt for the winter on the Dnieper River and rebuild for an offensive in 1942.
Instead, the Supreme Warlord ordered Armeegruppe South to capture the oilfields at Maikop, 200 miles distant, and to simultaneously capture Stalingrad, 300 miles distant. On top of that, the two cities were 450 miles apart! Field Marshal von Rundstedt laughed out loud at this nonsense.
On Nov. 13, the brass from OberKommando Heere (OKH) — Army High Command — met with the brass of the three armeegruppes to discuss the situation. The conference was held at Orsha, which had a population of 37,000, and is located halfway between Minsk and Smolensk. It was attended by Gen. Franz Halder, chief of OKH.
By this time, Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s Armeegruppe South was 750 miles from its starting point in Eastern Poland and even further from its supply bases in Germany. And already, the dreaded Russian Winter had arrived.
After hearing Gen. von Kleist’s warnings that his left flank was vulnerable, that his tanks were ineffective in the freezing weather, and that III Armeekorps, commanded by Eberhard von Mackensen (of which Dietrich’s Panzerdivision was a part) was threatened with annihilation, Field Marshal von Rundstedt authorized the withdrawal of First Panzerarmee from Rostov-on-Don, 50 miles west to Tagenrog, which currently has a population of 250,000, on the Mius River, on Nov. 28.
This was the first time that any Axis army had suffered such a serious reversal. The next day, Hitler ordered that Rostov be held, although the German troops had already been withdrawn.
Field Marshal von Rundstedt, the senior, and most respected German officer, responded by declining to follow the Führer’s order, saying: “It is madness to attempt to hold. In the first place, the troops cannot do it, and in the second place if they do not retreat, they will be destroyed. I request that this order be rescinded. If confidence in my leadership no longer exists, I beg to request someone be substituted who enjoys the necessary confidence of the Supreme Command.”
Hitler, on Dec. 1, dismissed the field marshal and replaced him with Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, who had been commander of Sixth Army. At Field Marshal von Reichenau’s recommendation, Friedrich Paulus succeeded him in command of Sixth Army. Field Marshal von Reichenau didn’t last long, suffering a fatal heart attack on Jan. 17, 1942.
Hitler visited Armeegruppe South’s headquarters at Poltava, on Dec. 3, where he was made to understand the correctness of Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s decision. He, then apologized to the field marshal, said that it had been a misunderstanding, asked that the field marshal take a period of leave, “...and then once more place your incomparable services at my disposal.”
The field marshal left Poltava and returned to his home in Kassel, Germany. On Dec. 12, his 66th birthday, the field marshal received a cheque from the dictator for 250,000 Reichsmarks (roughly the equivalent of $110,000 today).
On July 24, 1942, the Seventeenth Army, commanded by Richard Ruoff, and Gen. von Kleist’s First Panzerarmee captured the city again from the Fifty-Sixth Army, commanded by Viktor Viktorovich Tsyganov. The Red Army recaptured the city on Feb. 14, 1943.
In the meantime, Field Marshal von Rundstedt was appointed to succeed Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben as Commander-in-Chief West, in March 1942. He was fired from this position as well after a telephone conference on July 1, 1944 with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the Chief of the High Command of the Wehrmacht.
With the Allied forces grinding ever east in Normandy, Allied armies slogging up the Italian Peninsula, and the Red Army having just destroyed Armeegruppe Cener, Field Marshal Keitel began wailing on the telephone, “What shall we do?,” to which Field Marshal von Rundstedt replied, “Make peace, you fools!” and slammed down the phone. He was replaced the next day with Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, and left France on July 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on May 5, 2008, for the, “...courage, endurance and mass heroism exhibited by defenders of the city in the struggle for the freedom and independence of the Motherland,” named Rostov on Don a cCity of Military Glory.” Tagenrog was also so honored on Nov. 3, 2011.
Next week: Pearl Harbor
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.