Military history


The Tide Turned

The October battles petered out at the end of the month, mainly due to exhaustion and a shortage of ammunition. The reorganised Soviet artillery across the river was now able to hammer German concentrations even more effectively as they prepared to attack. Paulus, under pressure from Hitler, still mounted assaults, but they were much smaller in scale to avoid the Soviet artillery and Katyusha batteries and because the German divisions were so short of men. Most dangerously of all, Paulus accepted Hitler’s order to use panzer troops as infantry. It meant that he had no armour in reserve in case of surprise attack.

Hitler’s obsession with taking Stalingrad – an ersatz victory to compensate for his failure to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus – had not slackened. He talked about it on 8 November in a broadcast speech from Munich. ‘I wanted to reach the Volga,’ he declared with unsubtle irony, ‘to be precise at a particular spot, at a particular city. By chance it bore the name of Stalin himself.’ He then boasted that ‘time is of no importance’.

Hitler could not have been more wrong. Time was of great importance. Winter was approaching rapidly, and so, therefore, was the season of Soviet offensives. German soldiers called the worst climatic conditions ‘weather for Russians’ for that very reason. Grossman, unaware of any plans, wrote to his father on 13 November, just under a week before the great attack.

I work a lot, the work is stressful, and I am pretty tired. I have never been to such a hot spot as this one. Letters don’t reach me here, only once they brought me a whole bundle of letters, among them was a letter and a postcard from you . . . It is quite frosty here now, and windy.

Neither Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia nor the German Sixth Army had fully realised that the Stavka in Moscow was using the 62nd Army as the bait in an enormous trap. The Germans knew that there was a threat to their flanks – the left rear along the River Don was manned by the Third Romanian Army and the front to the south of Stalingrad was held by the Fourth Romanian Army. A Soviet build-up was spotted, but the scale and the ambition of the operation was grossly underestimated. Any suggestion that the Red Army could carry out a huge encirclement of the Sixth Army in the way that German panzer groups had surrounded Soviet armies the year before was considered unthinkable.

General Chuikov, still holding on in Stalingrad itself, had his own problems. The Volga was freezing over but had not yet frozen solid. The large ice floes coming down the river meant that taking supplies across was now extremely hazardous. But on 19 November, Operation Uranus began 150 kilometres north-west of Stalingrad, with a massive assault on the Romanian Third Army. The next morning, another attack fifty kilometres south of Stalingrad smashed open the Fourth Romanian Army. It took the Germans until midday on 21 November to appreciate that the 300,000 men of the Sixth Army were about to be cut off and that there was nothing that they could do about it.

Grossman had managed to have himself attached to IV Cavalry Corps which protected the left and outer flank of the two attacking mechanised corps. According to Ortenberg, Grossman ‘watched the beginning of the advance from the observation post of the division, and then, walking with the advancing troops, he described expressively all that he had seen on the way’.

Soviet troops prepare for Operation Uranus round Stalingrad, November 1942.

A soldier who had been a prisoner of war during the last war looks at a diving plane: ‘Must be my lad bombing,’ he says.

They run into the attack protecting their faces with sapper spades. In the attack, a rifle is better than a sub-machine gun.

The Romanian troops, dressed in brown uniforms and Balkan sheepskin caps, lacked modern equipment, leadership and anti-tank guns. They soon threw down their rifles and shouted ‘Antonescu kaputt!’,1 but surrender did not save them. Thousands of prisoners were shot out of hand, and the frozen roads were littered with the detritus of a defeated army.

Troops are marching. Their spirits are higher now. ‘Ah, it would be great to get to Kiev.’ Another man: ‘Ah, I’d like to get to Berlin!’

An image: a strongpoint destroyed by a tank. There is a flattened Romanian. A tank has driven over him. His face has become a bas-relief. Next to him, there are two crushed Germans. There is one of our soldiers, too, lying in the trench half buried.

Empty cans, grenades, hand grenades, a blanket stained with blood, pages from German magazines. Our soldiers are sitting among the corpses, cooking in a cauldron slices cut from a dead horse, and stretching their frozen hands towards the fire.

A killed Romanian and a killed Russian were lying next to each other on the battlefield. The Romanian had a sheet of paper and a child’s drawing of a hare and a boat. Our soldier had a letter: ‘Good afternoon, or maybe good evening. Hello, Daddy . . .’ And the end of the letter: ‘Come and visit us, because when you aren’t here, I come back home as if to a rented flat. I miss you very much. Come and visit, I wish I could see you, if only for an hour. I am writing this and tears are pouring. That was your daughter Nina writing.’

During the rapid advance, when there was no clear front line, Grossman found himself in unexpected danger. He was accompanied by Aleksei Kapler, the film director who became the first love of Svetlana Stalin. For daring to fondle the tyrant’s young daughter, Kapler was beaten up by Beria’s men and sent to the Gulag for ten years in 1943. After Stalin’s death, Kapler recounted his adventure with Grossman during this advance. ‘We wandered into an empty house and decided to stay there for the night. Then some soldiers appeared. We saw their shadows on the ceiling and realised that they were not our soldiers, because their helmets were different from ours. They turned out to be Romanians. Fortunately they did not spot us and went away.’

Red Army soldiers were furious to find what their Romanian prisoners had looted from the homes of the local population. ‘Old women’s kerchiefs and earrings, linen and skirts, babies’ napkins and brightly coloured girls’ blouses. One soldier had twenty-two pairs of woollen stockings in his possession.’

The greatest joy was that of liberated civilians.

‘How did we find out that our troops had arrived? We were listening by the window: “Yegor, crank the engine!” [we heard] “Ours!” we cried.’

They soon expressed their loathing of the Romanians who, following the German example, had whipped or beaten civilians until they revealed where they had hidden their food.

Romanians. An old man called them ‘turkeys’. Real Gypsies. They kept saying all the time: ‘War is bad, we should go home.’ [Yet] they whipped the old man four times. They forced him to go and harvest cereals, and took the grain. They had fruit drops and canned food to eat.

Some civilians had also suffered from Soviet military action.

A babushka told us how one of our own pilots wounded her: ‘He dropped a bomb, the son of a bitch, fuck him,’ she says angrily, then looks at the commander who is changing his boots and corrects herself: ‘Son of a bitch, sonny. There are no cows, no cows to drive to the pasture, no cows to let back in. There is no life [left] for us.’

Grossman’s notes contributed to his article ‘On the Roads of the Advance’ about the offensive south of Stalingrad.

Ice is moving down the Volga. Ice floes are rustling, crumbling, crushing against one another. The river is almost wholly covered with ice. Only from time to time can one see patches of water in this wide, white ribbon floating between the dark snowless banks. The white ice of the Volga is carrying tree trunks, wood. A big raven is sitting sulkily on an ice floe. A dead Red Fleet soldier in a striped shirt floats past. Men from a freight steamer take him from the ice. It is difficult to tear the dead man out of the ice. He is rooted in it. It is as if he doesn’t want to leave the Volga where he has fought and died.

Barges full of captured Romanians pass us. They are standing in their skimpy greatcoats, in tall white hats, stamping their feet, rubbing their frozen hands. ‘They’ve seen the Volga now,’ say the sailors.

A group of two hundred prisoners usually marches under the guard of two or three soldiers. The Romanians march in an organised manner, some groups are even lined up and keeping in step, and this makes those who see them laugh . . . Prisoners move on and on in crowds, their mess tins and flasks rattling, belted with pieces of rope, or wire, blankets of different colours upon their shoulders. And women say, laughing: ‘Oh, these Romanians are travelling just like Gypsies.’

Romanian corpses are lying along the roads; abandoned cannons camouflaged with dry steppe grass point eastwards. Horses wander about in balkas dragging behind them broken traces, vehicles hit by shellfire are giving off a blue-grey smoke. On the roads lie helmets decorated with the Romanian royal coat of arms, thousands of cartridges, grenades, rifles. A Romanian strongpoint. A mountain of empty, sooty cartridges by the machine-gun nest. White sheets of writing paper are lying in the communication trench. The brown winter steppe has turned brick red from blood. There are rifles with butts splintered by Russian bullets. And crowds of prisoners are moving towards us all the time.

They are searched before being sent off to the rear. Heaps of peasant women’s belongings that were found in rucksacks and pockets of Romanians look comic and pitiful. There are old women’s shawls, women’s earrings, underwear, skirts, swaddling clothes. The further on we move, the more abandoned vehicles and cannons we see. There are trucks, armoured vehicles and staff cars.

We enter Abganerovo. An old peasant woman told us about the three months of the occupation. ‘It became empty here. Not a single hen to cackle, not a single cock to sing. There isn’t a single cow left to let out in the morning and let in in the evening. Romanians have pinched everything. They whipped almost all our old men: one didn’t report for work, another one failed to hand in his grain. The starosta in Plodovitaya was whipped four times. They took away my son, a cripple, and with him a girl and a nine-year-old boy. We’ve been crying for four days, waiting for them to return.’

Abganerovo station is full of captured materiel. The Germans had already managed to alter the railway track.2 There are French and Belgian freight carriages here, and Polish ones, too. There are whole trains loaded with flour, corn, mines, shells, fat in big square tins, freight cars full of ersatz valenki with thick wooden soles, sheepskin hats, equipment, searchlights. Our medical teplushkas look pitiful and destitute with their hastily made bunk beds covered with dirty rags. Soldiers grunt as they carry paper sacks of flour out of the freight cars and load them on to trucks. A [Nazi] eagle is printed boldly on each sack.

The faces of Red Army soldiers have become bronze red from the severe winter winds. It isn’t easy to fight in this kind of weather, to spend long winter nights out in the steppe under this icy wind that penetrates everywhere, yet the men are marching cheerfully. This is the Stalingrad advance. The army is in exceptionally high spirits.

By 26 November, over a quarter of a million men from Paulus’s Sixth Army, the largest formation in the Wehrmacht, had been surrounded between the Volga and the Don. The Red Army, underestimating the size of the force it had surrounded, immediately launched a series of attacks to smash the perimeter, but the Germans, believing that Hitler would never abandon them, resisted fiercely.

A happy, bright day. Preliminary bombardment. Katyushas. Ivan the Terrible. Roaring. Smoke. And failure. The Germans have dug themselves in, we couldn’t hunt them out.

Grossman reads a newspaper, perhaps checking one of his own articles in Krasnaya Zvezda. The camel in the background may be the famous Kuznechik who accompanied the 308th Rifle Division all the way from Stalingrad to Berlin.

The weather became increasingly harsh, with snow and hard frosts, which reduced the chances of the Sixth Army being able to fight its way out. The Red Army was far more used to such conditions.

At the front line out in the steppe, winter. A hole covered with a groundsheet. A stove made from a helmet. A chimney from a brass shell. The fuel [consists of] tall weeds. On the march, one soldier carries an armful of tall weeds, another one a handful of chips, the third one a shell, the fourth one the stove.

At the beginning of December, Grossman returned to the east bank opposite Stalingrad. He wrote to the editor of Krasnaya Zvezda.

Comrade Ortenberg, I am planning to leave for the city tomorrow. I had wanted to start a big essay,3 but I realise that I have to postpone writing and spend some time collecting material in the city. As the crossing is complicated now,4 my trip is going to take at least a week. This is why you should not be angry if there is a delay in sending you my work. In the city, my plan is to have conversations with Chuikov and divisional commanders and to visit the front units. Also I would like to inform you that I will need to visit Moscow, approximately in January. I would be very grateful, if you could summon me back. In fact, I feel somewhat overloaded with impressions and overexhausted after the three months of tension in Stalingrad. If something unfortunate and unexpected happens during my visit to the city, could you please help my family? Vasily Grossman.

Grossman managed to get across and went to 62nd Army headquarters. Life was much quieter, since the now besieged Germans were short of ammunition as well as food. Their survival depended entirely on resupply by air to Pitomnik airfield, in the centre of the encircled area. Goering had told Hitler it was perfectly possible to resupply the Sixth Army by air, even though his own Luftwaffe generals had warned him that such a huge task was impossible. The soldiers of the Sixth Army were encouraged to hold out with vain stories of an SS panzer army coming to their aid. General Chuikov told Grossman: ‘There was a rumour among Germans that Hitler himself had visited Pitomnik and that he had said: “Stand firm! I am leading an army to rescue you.” (He was dressed as a corporal).’

This battlefield legend bore a resemblance to the equally untrue story on the Soviet side during the desperate September days that Stalin himself had been seen in Stalingrad.

Chuikov also outlined the situation his own 62nd Army faced due to virtual impossibility of resupply across the half-frozen Volga. They had to rely almost entirely on radio communications with the east bank, because all the land-lines had been snapped by the ice. Their one great advantage, however, remained the artillery positions concentrated on the west bank. Their resupply of ammunition was not affected.

Grossman described Chuikov’s bunker in an article entitled ‘Military Council’.

When one enters a bunker and the underground quarters of officers and soldiers, one feels again an ardent wish to retain for ever in one’s memory the remarkable traits of this unique life. The lamps and the chimney made from artillery shell cases, cups made of brass shell bases standing on tables near crystal glasses. Next to an anti-tank grenade sits a china ashtray on which is written ‘Wife, don’t make your husband angry’. There is a huge dull electric bulb in the commander-in-chief’s bunker, and a smile from Chuikov, who says: ‘Yes, and a chandelier. Aren’t we living in a city?’ And this volume of Shakespeare in General Gurov’s underground office . . . All these samovars and gramophones, blue family sugar bowls and round mirrors in wooden frames on the clay walls of basements. All this everyday life, with peaceful household things rescued from the burning buildings.

Grossman, although fiercely satisfied by the inevitable victory over the Sixth Army, became increasingly depressed by the way his work was rewritten in the editorial offices of Krasnaya Zvezda and wrote about it to his wife on 5 December.

I work a lot. You can probably see that from the newspaper. If you saw how they cut and distort [my writing], and not only that, they also add new phrases to my poor pieces, you would probably be more upset than happy about the fact that my writing sees the light at all. The editorial office has adopted a rule of cutting off the end of any essay, replacing dots with commas, crossing out the descriptions that I particularly like, changing titles and inserting phrases like: ‘This faith and love virtually made miracles.’ This editing is done in haste by professional editors, and sometimes I have to read a phrase several times to understand its meaning. All this upsets me very much because I am working in very difficult conditions . . .

Chuikov’s 62nd Army remained on short rations – including makhorka and vodka – during the slow freezing of the Volga. Finally, on 16 December, the river froze solid. First, a footbridge across the ice was made with planks. Then, a proper route across the river could be laid, with branches and twigs doused in water to strengthen the surface. This meant that it could soon take trucks and even heavy artillery. ‘Good frosts!’ Red Army soldiers wrote home in satisfaction. In less than two months, 18,000 trucks and 17,000 other vehicles are said to have driven across the ice. Grossman celebrated this development in an article entitled ‘The New Day’.

All those who, for a hundred days, held on to the Volga crossing and crossed the dark grey icy river, looked into the eyes of a quick, pitiless death. One day someone will sing a song about those who are now asleep on the Volga’s bed . . .

At night, we could walk upon the Volga. The ice was two days old and did not bend any longer beneath our feet. The moon lit the network of paths, uncountable tracks of sledges. A liaison soldier was walking in front of us, quickly and confidently as if he’d spent half of his life walking on these intermingling paths. Suddenly the ice started cracking. The liaison soldier came to a wide ice clearing, stopped and said: ‘Aha! We must have taken the wrong path. We should have stayed to the right.’ Liaison men always utter this sort of consoling phrase, no matter where they take you.

Barges smashed by shells have frozen into the ice. There’s a bluish glistening of ice-covered hawsers. Sterns rise steeply up, so do the bows of sunken motor boats.

Fighting is still going on in the factories . . . Guns fire with hollow bangs, rumblings, and the explosions of shells resound drily and clearly. Often, bursts of machine-gun and sub-machine-gun fire can be heard distinctly. This music is fearfully similar to the peaceful work of the plant, like riveting or steam hammers beating steel bars, and flattening them. It is as if liquid steel and slag pouring into a mould are lighting the fresh ice on the Volga with a pink, quick glow.

The sun rises and illuminates the edges of large holes made by heavy bombs. The depths of these frightening holes are always in a gloomy penumbra. The sun is afraid to touch them . . .

The sun shines over hundreds of railway tracks where tanker wagons are lying like killed horses, with their bellies torn open; where hundreds of freight carriages are jammed one on top of another, blasted there by the force of an explosion, and crowded around cold locomotives like a panic-stricken herd huddling around its leaders.

We are walking on a wasteland covered with holes from bombs and shells – German snipers and lookouts can see the place well, but the skinny Red Army soldier in a long trenchcoat is walking by my side calmly and without haste. He explains soothingly: ‘You wonder whether he can’t see us? Well, he can. We used to crawl here at night, but now it is different: he is saving rounds and shells.’

Past a heap of rust-coloured metal rubbish, past the colossal steel-pouring ladles, past steel plates and broken walls. Red Army soldiers are so used to destruction here that they fail to notice all this. On the contrary, an item of interest here is an intact glass in a window of the destroyed factory office, a tall chimney, or a wooden house that has miraculously survived. ‘Please look. That house is still alive,’ passers-by say, smiling.

Not surprisingly, Grossman was suffering from severe strain by mid-December, when he wrote again to his father.

I think I will be in Moscow in January. I am well, but my nerves have suffered a lot. I’ve become angry and irritable, I keep attacking my colleagues. They are frightened of me now. I cannot leave this place right away and I don’t want to. You see, now that fortune has turned in our direction, one does not want to leave the place where one had seen the hardest possible moments.

As his departure from Stalingrad approached, Grossman became increasingly preoccupied with his experiences there.

Red Army soldiers wound the gramophone up. ‘What record shall we put on?’ one of them asked. Several voices spoke up at once. ‘Our one. That one.’

Then a strange thing happened. While the soldier was looking for the record, I thought: It would be so wonderful to hear my favourite song in this black, destroyed basement. And suddenly, a solemn, melancholy voice began to sing: ‘A snowstorm is howling outside the windows . . .’ The Red Army soldiers must have liked this song very much. Everyone sat in silence. We must have heard the same refrain of the song a dozen of times:

‘My Lady Death, we beg you,
Please wait outside.’

These words and Beethoven’s immortal music sounded indescribably powerful here. For me, this was probably one of the most emotional moments in the whole war . . . And I remembered a little letter written in a child’s hand, which was found by a dead soldier in a strongpoint. ‘Good afternoon, or maybe good evening. Hello, Tyatya [Daddy] . . .’ And I remembered this dead Tyatya, who was probably reading the letter when he was dying, and the crumpled sheet lay by his head.

1 Marshal Ion Antonescu (1882–1946), the Romanian dictator, had been Germany’s staunchest supporter in the invasion of the Soviet Union, but the collapse of his ill-equipped forces in the Stalingrad campaign produced intense German resentment against their unfortunate ally.

2 The Russian gauge railway track was different to that of Western Europe.

3 Grossman is almost certainly referring to ‘Stalingrad Army’.

4 The Volga had still not frozen solid, so crossing the river was extremely dangerous and unpredictable.

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