July 23rd in German History: Operation Edelweiss

German troops in the Caucuses.

The Eastern Front of the Second World War is often boiled down to one battle, the Battle of Stalingrad, in American history classes. Even that battle receives very little attention, and numerous other, and similarly important, battles are forgotten. One forgotten battle was the Edelweiss Offensive. That operation saw German forces fail to capture the Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses, setting the stage for Stalingrad and the eventual defeat of Germany in the east.

On July 23rd, 1942, Adolf Hitler approved the commencement of Operation Edelweiss, and attempted to gain control of the Baku oil fields and more broadly to conquer the Caucuses. The German forces, totaling 167,000 soldiers, 4,540 artillery pieces, and 1,130 tanks, were charged first with taking Rostov-on-Don and then advancing to the Caspian Sea. The First Panzer Army, commanded by Edwald von Kliest, captured Rostov on the first day of the offensive. They pushed forward, defeating counter-attacks by Soviet troops and taking numerous cities, including Stavropol and Mozdok. The offensive continued into September, but, like all other German offensives in the Soviet Union, began to run out of steam. German tanks began to break down and run out of fuel, and German soldiers suffered as temperatures decreased. Further, the mountains of the southern Caucuses made movement and supply more difficult, and entrenched Russia troops inflicted heavy casualties. At the towns of Malgobek and Vladikavkaz, the offensive was stopped.

Although gains had been made during Edelwiess, the territory conquered was beyond the reach of German supply lines and was strategically vulnerable. The Soviets still possessed cohesive formations in the Caucuses, and so were able to maintain pressure on German lines. The oil fields were left uncaptured, leading to Case Blue and the following destruction of the German Army. The role of Edelweiss shows us that even the most important battles are not significant in a vacuum, rather the turning points in history are made such by previous events.

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