6th Army (Wehrmacht)
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|German 6th Army
|Active||10 October 1939 – 3 February 1943
5 March 1943 – 6 May 1945
|Walther von Reichenau
The 6th Army was a designation for a Germany field army that saw action in World War II. A massive army that fielded, at its peak, up to a million men, the 6th Army was involved in fighting in Belgium, the invasion of France, defending the German Western front, and ultimately committed to the invasion of the Soviet Union. The 6th army notably fought in the Battle of Stalingrad, in which it was ultimately encircled and completely destroyed by the defending Russians. The 6th army is the first German army group to be completely destroyed, with its commander Friedrich Paulus being the first German field marshal to ever surrender. The utter defeat of the 6th army at Stalingrad is considered a major turning point in the Second World War, paving the way to the Soviet Offensives that would destroy as much as 80 percent of the German military. After the battle of Stalingrad, approximately 107,800 surviving soldiers of the 6th Army entered Soviet captivity; of which only about 6,000 survived the captivity.
Originally numbered as the 10th Army, this combat unit was formed on 10 October 1939 with General Walther von Reichenau in command. Its primary mission was to guard the western defenses of Germany against British and French attacks during the Polish campaign. During the invasion of the Low Countries the 6th Army saw active service linking up with paratroopers and destroying fortifications at Eben Emael, Liège, and Namur during the Battle of Belgium. The 6th Army was then involved in the breakthrough of the Paris defences on 12 June 1940, before acting as a northern flank for German forces along the Normandy coast during the closing stages of the Battle of France.
The 6th Army began its involvement in the Russian Campaign as the spearhead of Army Group South. Shortly after being promoted to Field Marshal, von Reichenau died in an aircraft accident while being transported to a hospital after a heart attack in January 1942. He was succeeded by his former chief of staff, General der Panzertruppen Friedrich Paulus. Paulus led the 6th Army to a major victory at the Second Battle of Kharkov during the spring of 1942. This victory also sealed the 6th Army's destiny because it was selected by the OKH for the attack on Stalingrad.
On 28 June 1942, Army Group South began Operation Blau; the German Army's summer offensive into southern Russia. The goals of the operation were to secure both the oil fields at Baku, Azerbaijan, and the city of Stalingrad on the river Volga to protect the forces advancing into the Caucasus. After two months, the 6th Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad on 23 August. On the same day, over 1,000 aircraft of the Luftwaffe's Luftflotte 4 bombed the city, turning it into a massive inferno. Destroyed in a matter of hours, Stalingrad was now a charnel house; defended by the weak Soviet 62nd Army under the command of General Vasily Chuikov.
Despite having the initiative, the 6th Army failed to obtain a quick victory. The Red Army put up determined resistance, taking the fight to the rubble-clogged city streets. Though having almost complete air superiority over Stalingrad, and with more artillery pieces than the Soviets, progress was reduced to no more than several meters a day. Soviet casualties in the ghastly urban fighting were horrendous, while German casualties were just as appalling. Eventually, by mid November, the 62nd Army had been pushed to the banks of the Volga; holding only three small bridgeheads along the riverfront. However, despite continued fighting, the 6th Army was unable to eliminate the remaining Soviet troops holding out in Stalingrad.
On 19 November the Stavka launched Operation Uranus, a massive attack by Soviet forces on the flanks of the German army. The first pincer attacked far to the west of the Don, with the second thrust beginning a day later attacking far to the south of Stalingrad. The 6th Army's flanks were protected by Romanian and Hungarian troops, who were ill-equipped to deal with such an attack. Very quickly, the Romanians and Hungarians were routed, and on 23 November, the pincers of the attack met at Kalach-na-Donu.
The 6th Army was encircled, and a major relief operation, which quickly failed, was undertaken by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein on 12 December. After an additional month of fighting, the 6th Army was almost destroyed. Paulus was promoted by Hitler to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall on 31 January 1943, ostensibly in part because until that day no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered. In other words, Adolf Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide, but Paulus soon surrendered to the Soviet forces, contrary to orders by his political chief. The remaining forces of the 6th Army, under the independent command of General Karl Strecker, surrendered two days later in the Tractor Factory, just to the north of the prominent hill Mamaev Kurgan. Although this was not the definitive end of the 6th Army, the Battle of Stalingrad was one of the worst military disasters in German history. For the first time, an entire German field army had been destroyed.
Reformation – Battles in the East
During the last days of the Stalingrad encirclement, Hitler, in denial of events, had one man from every division in the 6th Army flown out in order to 'reconstitute' a new 6th Army (A.O.K. 6). This new formation became active on 5 March 1943, and was commanded by General Karl-Adolf Hollidt and based on Army Detachment Hollidt. It later fought in Ukraine and Romania as part of Army Group South and Army Group South Ukraine. The army was again largely destroyed in a large encirclement during the Iassy-Kishinev Operation, but this time the army HQ survived. The 6th Army was the only German army to be encircled and destroyed thrice (including the final capitulation).
Army Group Fretter-Pico
In October 1944, under the command of General of Artillery Maximilian Fretter-Pico, the 6th Army encircled and destroyed three Soviet tank corps of Mobile Group Pliyev under the command of Issa Pliyev in the Battle of Debrecen. During this time, the 6th Army had the Hungarian Second Army placed under its command, and it was known as "Army Group Fretter-Pico" (Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico).
Command passed to General der Panzertruppen Hermann Balck in December 1944. In January 1945, one of the 6th Army's subordinate units, the IX SS Mountain Corps, was encircled in Budapest. SS-Gruppenführer Herbert Otto Gille's IV SS Panzer Corps was transferred to the 6th Army's command and a relief attempt, codenamed Operation Konrad, was launched during the 46-day long Siege of Budapest.
Army Group Balck
After the failure of Konrad III, the 6th Army was made part of "Army Group Balck" (Armeegruppe Balck). This army group fell back to the area near Lake Balaton. Several units, including the III Panzer Corps, were involved in Operation Spring Awakening, while the rest of the Sixth Army provided defence for the left flank of the offensive, in the region west Székesfehérvár. After the failure of the offensive, the Sixth Army held the line until a major Soviet offensive, the Vienna Operation on 15 March 1945. This offensive tore a gap in the 6th Army between the IV SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Hungarian Army (subordinated to Balck's command), shattering the formation.
By the end of March 1945, the 6th Army was involved in a retreat towards Vienna. The shattered remnants of 6th Army surrendered to the Americans on 9 May 1945.
Soon after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Sixth Army's surgeon, the staff doctor Gerhart Panning, learned about captured Russian dumdum bullets by using Jewish POWs. To determine the effects of this type of ammunition on German soldiers, he decided to test them on other human beings after asking SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) and a member of the SD Paul Blobel for some "guinea pigs", (Jewish POWs).
In July 1941 while conducting operations in Right-bank Ukraine, the Sixth Army bloodlessly captured the Ukrainian village of Bila Tserkva. Immediately after the village's capitulation, Sixth Army police units separated the Jewish population of the city into a ghetto and required that they wear the Star of David as identification. Two weeks after the occupation, members of Einsatzgruppen marched the Jews out of the village, 800 men and women in all, to be shot. The Sixth Army provided logistical support for this massacre, providing drivers, guards, weapons and ammunition. Afterwords ninety children aged twelve and under were left, their parents having been killed the night before. A staff officer with the division that made the village their headquarters wrote of their conditions:
"The rooms were filled with about 90 children. There was an indescribable amount of filth; Rags, diapers, refuse lay everywhere. Countless flies cover the children, some of whom were naked. Almost all of the children were crying or whimpering. The stench was unbearable. In the above mentioned case, measures were taken against women and children which were no different from atrocities committed by the enemy.".
— Lieutenant Helmud Groscurth (1941):06:18
Sixth army headquarters was faced with a decision on what to do with the leftover children. The division commander passed the decision up to Walter von Reichenau, then commander of the Sixth Army, who personally authorized the massacre.:06:54 All the children were murdered:07:27 by Sixth Army regulars.
The commander, Walther von Reichenau was a committed, fanatical Nazi, had this to say about the expected conduct of soldiers under his command:
"The soldier in the eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities which have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations. Therefore the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just revenge on subhuman Jewry. The Army has to aim at another purpose, i.e., the annihilation of revolts in hinterland which, as experience proves, have always been caused by Jews...".
Immediately after this order was issued, Sixth Army records show a dramatic increase in shootings, rapes and massacres committed by Sixth Army constituent units. The BBC upon examining the now released records of the Sixth Army, stated that there were "so many executions, and so many victims that it was impossible to keep them a secret.":08:13
During their march of destruction across The Ukraine, the Sixth Army was implicated in massacres, rapes and plundering in Vinnytsia, Kiev, and Kharkov. After the war, defeated German commanders argued that the Heer had only a limited role in the war crimes, with the deprivations being caused by the Einstgruppen and SS divisions. However, the occupation of Kharkov gives lie to those assertions. The city never became part of Reichskommissariat Ukraine because of its proximity to the front. The staff of the LV. Armeekorps acted as the occupational authority, using 57.ID as occupation force. Generalmajor Anton Dostler was Stadtkommandant until December 13, when he was succeeded by Generalleutnant Alfred von Puttkamer, and Kharkov was transferred to the Heeresgebiet of the Sixth Army and put under the joint authority of the Stadtkommandant and Feldkommandantur 757.
German troops acting under the authority of the 'Reichenau-Befehl' of October 10 (effectively an order to kill anybody associated with communism) terrorized the population that was left after the battle. Many of the Soviet commanders' corpses were hung off balconies to strike fear in the remaining population. Many people frantically began to flee, causing chaos.
The Sixth Army confiscated large quantities of food to be used by its troops, creating acute food shortages in the Ukraine. By January 1942 around one-third of the Kharkov's 300,000 remaining inhabitants suffered from starvation. Many would die in the cold winter months. Civilians survived the famine by making stews out of boiled leather and sawdust, and making omelets out of coagulated blood. Survivors bitterly remembered these "meals" for the rest of their lives.
The 6th Army was commanded by the Oberkommando der 6. Armee (AOK 6) (English: "Supreme Command of the 6th Army"). Its commanders-in-chief were:
- Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau (10 October 1939 – 29 December 1941)
- Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus (30 December 1941 – 3 February 1943)
- General Karl-Adolf Hollidt (5 March 1943 – 7 April 1944)
- General Maximilian de Angelis (8 April 1944 – 16 July 1944)
- General Maximilian Fretter-Pico (17 July 1944 – 22 December 1944)
- General Hermann Balck (23 December 1944 – 8 May 1945)
Chiefs of staff
- General Arthur Schmidt (15 May 1942 – 3 February 1943)
- Lower, Wendy (2005), "The Holocaust and Colonialism in Ukraine: A Case Study of the Generalbezirk Zhytomyr, Ukraine, 1941–1944", The Holocaust in the Soviet Union Symposium Presentations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Center For Advanced Holocaust Studies, p. 6
- "The Wehrmacht: Warcrimes (part 2)". BBC. Retrieved 2013-11-03.
- von Reichenau, Walter (October 10, 1941). "Secret Field Marshal v.Reichenau Order Concerning Conduct of Troops in the Eastern Territories, 10 October 1941". Stuart D. Stein, The School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of the West of England. Retrieved 2009-12-18. "The soldier in the eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities which have been inflicted upon German and racially related nations. Therefore the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just revenge on subhuman Jewry. The Army has to aim at another purpose, i.e., the annihilation of revolts in hinterland which, as experience proves, have always been caused by Jews"
- Margry 2001, p. 9
- "The Wehrmacht: Warcrimes (part 1)". BBC. Retrieved 2013-11-03.