Military history

Part Three
‘THE FATEFUL CITY’

9
Time is Blood’: The September Battles

The first time the German people heard of the city of Stalingrad as a military objective was in a communiqué of 20 August. Just over two weeks later, Hitler, who had never wanted his troops to become involved in street-fighting in Moscow or Leningrad, became determined to sieze this city at any price.

Events on the Caucasus Front, supposedly his main priority, played a major part in his new obsession with Stalingrad. On 7 September, a day when Haider noted ‘satisfying progress at Stalingrad’, Hitler’s exasperation at the failure to advance in the Caucasus came to a head. He refused to accept that Field Marshal List did not have enough troops for the task. General Alfred Jodl, having just returned from a visit to List’s headquarters, observed at dinner that List had only followed the Führer’s orders. ‘That is a lie!’ screamed Hitler, and stormed out. As if to prove that he had been misquoted, instructions were sent back to Germany by teleprinter, ordering Reichstag stenographers to be sent to Vinnitsa to take down every word at the daily situation conference.

After the triumphs in Poland, Scandinavia and France, Hitler was often ready to despise mundane requirements, such as fuel supplies and manpower shortages, as if he were above the normal material constraints of war. His explosion on this occasion appears to have brought him to a sort of psychological frontier. General Warlimont, who returned after a week’s absence, was so shocked by Hitler’s ‘long stare of burning hate’ that he thought: ‘This man has lost face; he has realized that his fatal gamble is over, that Soviet Russia is not going to be beaten in this second attempt.’ Nicolaus von Below, the Führer’s Luftwaffe adjutant, also returned to find ‘a completely new situation’ ‘The whole of Hitler’s entourage made a uniformly depressing impression. Hitler suddenly was completely withdrawn.’

Hitler probably did sense the truth – he had, after all, told his generals that a failure to take the Caucasus would mean having to end the war – but he still could not accept it. The Volga was cut and Stalingrad’s war industries as good as destroyed – both of the objectives defined in Operation Blue – yet he now had to capture the city which bore Stalin’s name, as though this in itself would achieve the subjugation of the enemy by other means. The dangerous dreamer had turned to symbolic victory for compensation.

One or two spectacular successes remained to sustain the illusion that Stalingrad would be the crucible in which to prove the superiority of German might. In continued fighting on the north front, Count von Strachwitz, the star commander of 16th Panzer Division, had shown that in a prolonged tank battle success depended on a cool head, straight aim and rapidity of fire. The Russians sent in wave after wave of T-34S and Lend-Lease American tanks. The American vehicles, with their higher profile and thinner protection, proved easy to knock out. Their Soviet crews did not like them. ‘The tanks are no good,’ a driver told his captors. ‘The valves go to pieces, the engine overheats and the transmission is no use.’

‘The Russians attacked over a hill,’ recalled Freytag-Loringhoven, ‘and we were on the reverse slope. Over two days they kept coming in exactly the same way, exposing themselves on the skyline.’ More than a hundred were destroyed. ‘As far as the eye could see,’ a pioneer corporal wrote home, ‘there were countless shot-up and burned-out tanks.’ The forty-nine-year-old Strachwitz received the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, and was posted back to Germany soon afterwards on account of his age. He handed over command to Freytag-Loringhoven.

The Russian attacks at this point may have been appallingly wasteful and incompetent, but there could be no doubt about the determination to defend Stalingrad at any cost. It was a resolve which more than matched the determination of the invader. ‘The hour of courage has struck on the clock…’, ran Anna Akhmatova’s poem at that moment when the very existence of Russia appeared to be in mortal danger.

Since the fall of Rostov, any means of arousing resistance had become permissible. A picture in Stalinskoe znamiay the Stalingrad Front newspaper, on 8 September showed a frightened girl with her limbs bound. ‘What if your beloved girl is tied up like this by fascists?’ said the caption. ‘First they’ll rape her insolently, then throw her under a tank. Advance warrior. Shoot the enemy. Your duty is to prevent the violator from raping your girl.’ Such propaganda – almost a repeat of the theme in Konstantin Simonov’s poem ‘Kill Him!’ – was undoubtedly crude, yet its symbolism closely reflected the mood of the time. Alexey Surkov’s poem ‘I Hate’ was equally ferocious. The German violation of the Motherland could only be wiped out with bloody revenge.* On 9 September, an advance unit from the Fourth Panzer Army came across copies of Red Starwith Ilya Ehrenburg’s appeal to Soviet soldiers, which ended: ‘Do not count days; do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed. Kill the German – this is your mother’s prayer. Kill the German – this is the cry of your Russian earth. Do not waver. Do not let up. Kill.’

For Yeremenko and Khrushchev, the main decision at this moment of crisis was to chose a successor to the commander of 62nd Army, who clearly did not believe that Stalingrad could be held. On 10 September, 62nd Army fought a retreat right back into the city. It was cut off from the 64th Army to the south when the 29th Motorized Infantry Division broke through to the Volga at Kuporosnoe at the southern tip of Stalingrad. On 11 September, Yeremenko’s headquarters in the Tsaritsa gorge had come under heavy fire. Konstantin Simonov arrived at this moment. He was struck by the ‘sad smell of burnt iron’ as he crossed the Volga to the still smouldering city. In the airless bunker Khrushchev, ‘who was gloomy and replied

monosyllabically… took out a packet of cigarettes and tried lighting one match after another, but the flame died at once because the ventilation in the tunnel was so bad’.

Simonov and his companion went to sleep on their overcoats in a corner of the tunnel system close to the Tsaritsa entrance. When they awoke next morning, the place was deserted. ‘There were no staff officers, no typewriters, nobody.’ Eventually they found a signalman rolling up the last of the wire. They discovered that Front headquarters had been evacuated across the Volga. The constant cutting of land lines during the bombardment had forced Yeremenko and Khrushchev to seek Stalin’s permission to withdraw their command post to the other side of the river. The only major headquarters left on the west bank was that of the 62nd Army.

The following morning, General Chuikov received a summons to the new headquarters at Yamy of the joint military council for the Stalingrad and South-Western Fronts. It took him all day and most of the night to cross the Volga and find the spot. The glow from the blazing buildings in Stalingrad was so strong that, even on the east bank of the broad Volga, there was no need to switch on the headlights of his Lend-Lease jeep.

When Chuikov finally saw Khrushchev and Yeremenko the next morning, they stated the situation. The Germans were prepared to take the city at any price. There could be no surrender. There was nowhere to retreat to. Chuikov had been proposed as the new army commander in Stalingrad.

‘Comrade Chuikov,’ said Khrushchev. ‘How do you interpret your task?’

‘We will defend the city or die in the attempt,’ he replied. Yeremenko and Khrushchev looked at him and said that he had understood his task correctly.

That evening, Chuikov crossed by a ferry boat from Krasnaya Sloboda, along with two T-34 tanks, to the central landing stage just above the Tsaritsa gorge. As the craft approached the bank, hundreds of people, mainly civilians hoping to escape, emerged silently from shell craters. Others prepared to carry the wounded on board. Chuikov and his companions set off to find his headquarters.

After many false directions, the commissar of a sapper unit took them to the Mamaev Kurgan, the huge Tartar burial mound, also known as Hill 102, from its height in metres. There, Chuikov found 62nd Army headquarters and met his chief of staff, General Nikolay Ivanovich Krylov. The harsh and blunt Chuikov was very different from Krylov, a precise man, with an analytical mind, yet the two understood each other and the situation. There was only one way to hold on. They had to pay in lives. ‘Time is blood,’ as Chuikov put it later, with brutal simplicity.

Supported by Krylov and Kuzma Akimovich Gurov, the sinister-looking army commissar, with a shaven head and thick eyebrows, Chuikov began to instil terror into any commander who even contemplated the idea of retreat. Some senior officers had started to slip back over the river, abandoning their men, most of whom, as ‘Chuikov realized, also wanted to get across the Volga as quickly as possible, away from this hell’. He made sure that NKVD troops controlled every landing stage and jetty. Deserters, whatever their rank, faced summary execution.

There were many other alarming reports about the reliability of troops. Earlier that day, in 6th Guards Tank Brigade, a senior sergeant killed his company commander, then threatened the driver and radio operator with his pistol. As soon as they were out of the tank, he drove it off towards the lines of the German 76th Infantry Division. Because the sergeant had a white flag ready to stick out of the turret, the investigators concluded that this ‘experienced traitor’ had ‘planned all the details of his disgusting plot’ in advance. The two soldiers forced out of the tank at gun point were deemed to have ‘displayed cowardice’. Both faced the military tribunal later and were probably shot.

At that stage, 62nd Army was reduced to some 20,000 men. It had fewer than sixty tanks left. Many were only good for immobile fire points. Chuikov, however, had over 700 mortars and guns, and he wanted all the heavier artillery to be withdrawn to the east bank. His main preoccupation was to reduce the effect of the Luftwaffe’s overwhelming air superiority. He had already noticed the reluctance of German troops to engage in close-quarter combat, especially in the hours of darkness. To wear them down, ‘every German must be made to feel that he was living under the muzzle of a Russian gun’.

His most immediate concern was to control a mixture of troops he did not know, in positions he had not reconnoitred, just when the Germans were about to launch their first major attack. Chuikov described the improvised defences he found as little more than barricades which could be pushed over with the front of a truck. Sixth Army headquarters, on the other hand, exaggerated in the other direction, with reports of ‘strong positions with deep bunkers and concrete emplacements’. The real obstacle to the attackers, as they soon found, lay in the ruined cityscape.

That same day, 12 September, Paulus was at Hitler’s Werwolf headquarters at Vinnitsa with General Haider and General von Weichs, the commander-in-chief of Army Group B. Accounts of the discussions vary. Paulus claims to have raised the question of the extended left flank along the Don all the way back to Voronezh, and the lack of ‘corset’ stiffening for the Italian, Hungarian and Romanian armies. According to Paulus, Hitler’s plans were based on the assumption that the Russians were at the end of their resources, and that the Don flank would be strengthened with more allied formations. Hitler, who was interested only in Stalingrad, wanted to know how soon it would fall. Paulus presumably repeated the estimate he had given to Haider the day before: ten days of fighting, ‘then fourteen days of regrouping’.

The first phase of the German onslaught began the next morning at 4.45 a.m. German time, 6.45 a.m. Russian time. (Hitler still insisted on the Wehrmacht in Russia operating on the same time as his Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia.) On the left flank of LI Army Corps, the 295th Infantry Division headed for the Mamaev Kurgan and on the right, the 76th and the 71st Infantry Divisions attacked towards the main railway station and the central landing stage on the Volga. The officers of the 295th had fired their men with the idea that they would make it to the Volga in one rush.

The artillery and air assault on Soviet positions during the previous day had been intense. ‘A mass of Stukas came over us,’ wrote a corporal in the 389th Infantry Division, ‘and after their attack, one could not believe that even a mouse was left alive.’ The bombardment continued right through 13 September as well. From his command post on the Mamaev Kurgan, Chuikov watched it through periscope binoculars. A pall of dust from fragmented masonry turned the sky a pale brown. The ground vibrated continually from the explosions. Inside the bunker, fine soil, as if from an hourglass, trickled down between the logs which formed the low ceiling. Staff officers and signallers were coated in it. The shells and bombs also cut the field telephone cables. Linesmen sent out to discover a fault and make repairs stood little chance in the open. So frequent were the breaks that even the young women telephonists had to venture out. Chuikov managed to get through to Yeremenko on the rear link only once during the course of the day, and by the late afternoon he had completely lost contact with his divisions on the west bank. He was forced to resort to runners, whose life expectancy crossing the shell-torn city was even shorter than that of linesmen.

Although the Germans made progress into the western edge of the city, capturing the small airfield and barracks, their attempts to batter in the northern bulge proved unsuccessful. The fighting was much harder than expected. Many privately realized that they might well be spending the winter in Stalingrad.

Chuikov decided to move during that night to the former headquarters tunnel, which ran in from the Tsaritsa gorge and had a rear exit up into Pushkinskaya Ulitsa, a street close to the Volga bank. The line of the Tsaritsa gorge had also been the obvious choice for Paulus and Hoth as the boundary between their two armies. While Seydlitz’s divisions, to the north, pushed towards the Mamaev Kurgan and the main railway station, Hoth’s 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions and the 94th Infantry Division, to the south, advanced ready to strike towards the rectangular concrete grain elevator which dominated the Stalingrad skyline.

News of the 71st Infantry Division’s advance into the centre of Stalingrad just north of the Tsaritsa was greeted with fierce exultation at Führer headquarters. The same information reached the Kremlin that evening. Stalin was discussing the possibility of a great strategic counterstroke at Stalingrad with Zhukov and Vasilevsky, when Poskrebyshev, the chief of his secretariat, entered to say that Yeremenko was on the telephone. After speaking with him, Stalin told the two generals the news. ‘Yeremenko says the enemy is bringing up tank forces near the city. He expects an attack tomorrow.’ He turned to Vasilevsky. ‘Issue orders immediately for Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division to cross the Volga and see what else you can send over.’ An hour later, Zhukov was on an aeroplane back to Stalingrad.

In the early hours of 14 September, Chuikov and his staff made their way southwards through the destroyed city to the Tsaritsa bunker in two vehicles. The rubble-strewn streets were only just passable, and their short journey was frequently delayed. Chuikov was impatient because he had ordered a counter-attack and needed to be ready in the new headquarters. His troops surprised the Germans in several places, but they were smashed back at sunrise as soon as the Luftwaffe Stuka squadrons became operational. The only encouraging news he received that morning was that the 13th Guards Rifle Division would cross the river that night. But the enemy advances that day were so strong and rapid, that many began to doubt whether Rodimtsev’s troops would manage to land on the west bank.

The German 295th Infantry Division fought its way to the far slope of the Mamaev Kurgan, but the most immediate threat to Stalingrad’s survival came just to their south. ‘Both divisions [71st and 76th] managed to advance,’ went Sixth Army’s over-optimistic report, ‘with an attacking wedge, to the central station at midday, and 3.15 p.m., with the waterworks captured, they reached the bank of the Volga!’ The main station in fact changed hands three times in two hours in the morning, and was retaken by an NKVD rifle battalion in the afternoon.

General Aleksandr Rodimtsev’s uniform was filthy by the time he reached Chuikov’s headquarters early that afternoon. Ever since he had set foot on the west bank of the Volga, the constant air attacks had forced him to dive into craters for shelter. Humorous, yet with the intense air of a passionate student, Rodimtsev looked more like a Moscow intellectual than a Red Army general and Hero of the Soviet Union. The prematurely grey hair, cut short at the sides and standing high on top, made his head appear elongated. The thirty-seven-year-old Rodimtsev belonged to that tiny minority of people who could be said genuinely to scorn danger. In the Spanish Civil War, serving under the cover name ‘Pablito’, he had been a key Soviet adviser at the Battle of Guadalajara in 1937, when the Spanish Republicans put Mussolini’s expeditionary corps to flight. He was a hero to his troops, who claimed that their greatest fear if wounded was of a transfer to another formation when passed fit for duty.

Chuikov left Rodimtsev in no doubt about the danger of the position. He had just deployed his very last reserve, the nineteen tanks left from an armoured brigade. He advised Rodimtsev to leave all heavy equipment behind. His men needed just personal weapons, machine-guns and anti-tank rifles, and as many grenades as they could carry.

Chuikov summoned Colonel A. A. Sarayev, the commander of the 10th NKVD Rifle Division and also the garrison commander of Stalingrad. Sarayev, who had been in Stalingrad since July with five regiments of NKVD troops (just over 7,500 men), had greatly increased his empire. He had created a private army over 15,000 strong on both banks of the Volga. He also controlled the crossings and river traffic. Chuikov, who had little to lose at such a moment, threatened to ring Front headquarters at once if Sarayev did not accept his orders. Although Beria had threatened to ‘break the back’ of a commander in the Caucasus for even suggesting that NKVD troops should go under army command, Sarayev realized that in this case he would be wiser to obey. The wind from the Kremlin was starting to swing in the army’s favour.

The militia battalions under his command were ordered to occupy key buildings and hold them to the last. A regular NKVD battalion was sent up on to the Mamaev Kurgan, while two rifle regiments were ordered to block the enemy’s advance to the river. Rodimtsev’s guardsmen must be allowed to land. The NKVD troops fought bravely, suffering heavy casualties, and the division later received the Order of Lenin and the title ‘Stalingradsky’. Sarayev stayed in his post during the fighting, but soon lost his fiefdom. His successor as commander of NKVD forces, Major-General Rogatin, took over in the second week of October, with a new headquarters established on the east bank.

Another unpleasant encounter took place that evening. Across the Volga, Stalin’s civilian delegate, Georgy Malenkov, had summoned the senior officers of the 8th Air Army to Front headquarters. They thought, as they came in, that they must have been called there to receive medals. Yeremenko and Zhukov stood in the background. Malenkov, who on the first day of the war had disbelieved Admiral Kuznetsov’s report of the German air raid on Sevastopol, now turned his displeasure on the officers of Red Army aviation. He demanded to know which units had been in action on which days and then accused them of insufficient activity. He dictated court-martial sentences for the commanders. To make the point of his power, he called forward one officer, a short major with dark, brushed-back hair, and a face which was rather puffy from self-indulgence. ‘Major Stalin,’ he said to the son of Josef Vissarionovich.* ‘The combat performance of your fliers is revolting. In the last battle not one of your twenty-four fighters shot down a single German. What is it? Did you forget how to fight? How are we to understand this?’ Malenkov then humiliated General Khryukin, the commander of the 8th Air Army. Only the intervention of Zhukov brought the proceedings to a close. He reminded them that Rodimtsev’s division was about to cross the Volga. The fighter regiment responsible for covering them had better make sure that not a single German bomb was allowed to fall. The aviation officers filed out, too shaken to speak.

The Stavka had ordered the 13th Guards Rifle Division forward to Stalingrad three days before. Although over 10,000 men strong, a tenth of them had no weapons. The division was dispersed away from the sight of German air reconnaissance under the elms, Ukrainian poplars, and willows of the east bank around Krasnaya Sloboda. They were given little time to prepare after the journey south from Kamyshin. Rodimtsev, knowing the urgency, had harried his commanders all the way. Truck radiators had boiled over, the pack camels had been nervous and the dust raised by vehicles had been so thick that ‘the kites perched on the telegraph poles became grey’. On several occasions, the troops had scattered when yellow-nosed Messer-schmitts screamed in at low level to strafe their columns.

As they had approached the Volga, the parched dusty steppe ended, with maple trees announcing the nearness of water. An arrowed sign, nailed to a tree, bore the single word ‘Ferry’. Soldiers caught sight of the heavy black smoke ahead, and nudged their neighbours in the ranks. It had been the first indication of the battle which awaited them on the far side of the great river.

On the river bank, they were rapidly issued with ammunition, grenades and rations – bread, sausage and also sugar for their brew-ups. Rodimtsev, after his meeting with Chuikov, decided not to wait until darkness had completely fallen. The first wave of guardsmen were rushed forward in the twilight to a mixture of gunboats from the Volga flotilla and commandeered civilian craft – tugs, pinnaces, barges, fishing barques, even rowing boats. Those left to wait their turn on the eastern bank tried to calculate how long it would be before the boats returned for them.

The crossing was probably most eerie for those in the rowing boats, as the water gently slapped the bow, and the rowlocks creaked in unison. The distant crack of rifle shots and the thump of shell bursts sounded hollow over the expanse of river. Then, German artillery, mortars and any machine-guns close enough to the bank switched their aim. Columns of water were thrown up in midstream, drenching the occupants of the boats. The silver bellies of stunned fish soon glistened on the surface. One gunboat of the Volga flotilla received a direct hit, and twenty members of a detachment on board were killed. Some men stared at the water around them to avoid the sight of the far bank, rather like a climber refusing to look down. Others, however, kept glancing ahead to the blazing buildings on the western shore, their steel-helmeted heads instinctively withdrawn into the shoulders. They were being sent into an image of hell. As darkness intensified, the huge flames silhouetted the shells of tall buildings on the bank high above them and cast grotesque shadows. Sparks flew up in the night air. The river bank ahead was ‘a jumble of burned machines, and wrecked barges cast ashore’. As they approached the shore, they caught the smell of charred buildings and the sickly stench from decaying corpses under the rubble.

The first wave of Rodimtsev’s guardsmen did not fix bayonets. They leaped over the sides of boats into the shallow water of the river’s edge and charged straight up the steep, sandy bank. In one place, the Germans were little more than a hundred yards away. Nobody needed to tell the guardsmen that the longer they tarried, the more likely they were to die. Fortunately for them, the Germans had not had time to dig in or prepare positions. A battalion of the 42nd Guards Regiment on the left joined the NKVD troops, and pushed the Germans background the main station. The 39th Guards Regiment on the right charged towards a large red-brick mill (kept, bullet-riddled, to this day as a memorial), which they cleared in pitiless close-quarter combat. When the second wave arrived, the reinforced regiment pushed forward to the rail track which ran past the base of the Mamaev Kurgan.

The 13th Guards Rifle Division suffered 30 per cent casualties in the first twenty-four hours, but the river bank had been saved. The few survivors (only 320 men out of the original 10,000 remained alive at the end of the battle of Stalingrad) swear that their determination ‘flowed from Rodimtsev’. Following his example, they too made the promise: ‘There is no land for us behind the Volga.’

The Germans at first saw Rodimtsev’s counter-attack as little more than a temporary setback. They were convinced that their advance into the centre of the city was irreversible. ‘Since yesterday the flag of the Third Reich flies over the city centre,’ wrote a member of the 29th Motorized Infantry Division on the following day. ‘The centre and the area of the [main] station are in German hands. You cannot imagine how we received the news.’ But soldiers, shivering in the colder weather, ‘dream already of underground winter quarters, glowing Hindenburg stoves, and lots of post from our beloved homes’.

German infantry companies had advanced down the Tsaritsa gorge. The entrance to 62nd Army headquarters came under direct fire, and the Tsaritsyn bunker filled with wounded. Soon, the warm moist air became unbreathable. Staff officers were fainting from lack of oxygen. Chuikov decided to change the site of his headquarters yet again, this time by crossing the river, driving north, and then crossing back to the west bank.

The struggle became intense for the Mamaev Kurgan. If the Germans took it, their guns could control the Volga. One of the NKVD rifle regiments managed to retain a small part of the hill until reinforced by the remainder of Rodimtsev’s 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment and part of another division just before dawn on 16 September. The new arrivals attacked the summit and shoulders of the hill early that morning. The Mamaev Kurgan was now completely unrecognizable from the park where lovers had strolled a few weeks before. Not a blade of glass remained on the ground, now sown with shell, bomb and grenade fragments. The whole hillside had been churned and pocked with craters, which served as instant trenches in the bitter fighting of attack and counter-attack. Guardsman Kentya achieved fame by tearing down the German flag erected at the summit by soldiers of the 295th Infantry Division, and trampling on it. Much less was heard of unheroic episodes. A Russian battery commander on the Mamaev Kurgan was said to have deserted because ‘he was afraid of being held responsible for his cowardice during the battle’. The gun crews had panicked and run away when a group of German infantry broke through and attacked the battery. Senior Lieutenant M. had displayed ‘indecisiveness’ and had failed to kill Germans, a capital offence at such a time.

At eleven o’clock on the night of 16 September, Lieutenant K., a platoon commander in the 112th Rifle Division, some five miles to the north, discovered the absence of four soldiers and their ΝCO. ‘Instead of taking measures to find them and stop this act of treason, all he did was report the fact to his company commander.’ At about 1 a.m., Commissar Kolabanov went to the platoon to investigate. As he approached its trenches, he heard a voice call in Russian from the German positions, addressing individual soldiers in the platoon by name, and urging them to cross over: ‘You should all desert, they’ll feed you well and treat you well. On the Russian side, you’ll die whatever happens.’ The commissar then noticed several figures crossing no man’s land towards the German side. To his fury, other members of the platoon did not fire at them. He found that ten men, including the sergeant, had gone. The platoon commander was arrested and court-martialled. His sentence, presumably either execution or a shtraf company, is not recorded. In the same division, a captain apparently tried to persuade two other officers to desert with him, but one of them ‘did not agree and executed the traitor’, but one cannot be sure that this version of events was not camouflaging a personal argument.

The Germans counter-attacked again and again over the following days, but Rodimtsev’s guardsmen and the remnants of the NKVD rifle regiment managed to hold on to the Mamaev Kurgan. The 295th Infantry Division was fought to a standstill. Their losses were so heavy that companies were merged. Officer casualties were particularly high, largely due to Russian snipers. After less than two weeks in the line, a company in Colonel Korfes’s regiment of the 295th Infantry Division was on its third commander, a young lieutenant.

‘Skirmishes to the death’ continued on the Mamaev Kurgan and German heavy artillery continued to bombard Soviet positions for the next two months. The writer Vasily Grossman observed the shells throw the soil high into the air. ‘These clouds of earth then passed through the sieve of gravity, the heavier lumps falling straight to the ground, the dust rising into the sky.’ Corpses from the battle on its blackened slopes were disinterred and then buried again in the ceaseless, churning shellfire. Years after the war, a German soldier and a Russian soldier are said to have been uncovered during clearance work. The two corpses had apparently been buried by a shell burst just after they had bayoneted each other to death.

In Zhukov’s deliberate understatement, these were ‘very difficult days for Stalingrad’. In Moscow, US Embassy officials were certain that the city was finished, and the mood in the Kremlin was extremely nervous. On the evening of 16 September, just after dinner, Poskrebyshev came in silently and placed on Stalin’s desk a transcription from the General Staff main intelligence department. It was the text of an intercepted radio message from Berlin. ‘Stalingrad has been taken by brilliant German forces. Russia has been cut into two parts, north and south, and will soon collapse in her death throes.’ Stalin read the message several times, then stood for a few moments at the window. He told Poskrebyshev to put him through to the Stavka. Over the telephone, he dictated a signal to Yeremenko and Khrushchev: ‘Report some sense about what is happening in Stalingrad. Is it true Stalingrad has been captured by the Germans? Give a straight and truthful answer. I await your immediate reply.’

In fact the immediate crisis had already passed. Rodimtsev’s division had arrived just in time. Already during that day, German commanders were conscious of the reinforcements brought across the river, such as Gorishny’s 95th Rifle Division and a brigade of marine infantry detailed to reinforce the gravely weakened 35th Guards Rifle Division south of the Tsaritsa. The Luftwaffe also noticed an increase in the number of aircraft put up against them by the 8th Air Army, although Soviet fighter pilots still suffered from an instinctive fear of the enemy. ‘Whenever an Me-109 appears,’ complained a commissar’s report, ‘a merry-go-round starts, with everyone trying to protect their own tail.’

Luftwaffe personnel observed, above all, an intensification of antiaircraft fire. ‘As soon as Stuka squadrons appear,’ noted the liaison officer with 24th Panzer Division, ‘the sky was covered with countless black puffs from flak fire.’ A fierce cheer rose from Russian positions below when one of the hated Stukas exploded in mid-air in a burst of smoke, and bits of flaming wreckage dropped away. Even the much faster fighters suffered from the increasingly heavy fire from across the Volga. On 16 September, a Luftwaffe NCO, Jüirgen Kalb, was forced to bale out of his stricken Me-109 over the Volga. He parachuted into the river and swam to the river bank where Red Army soldiers awaited him.

Luftwaffe bomber crews were allowed little respite. Every aircraft was required for shuttle-bombing. On 19 September, one pilot calculated that in the last three months he had flown 228 missions: as many as during the previous three years over ‘Poland, France, England, Yugoslavia and Russia combined’. He and his crew were in the air six hours a day.

Based mostly on improvised airfields out in the steppe, their life on the ground was a rush of hastily snatched meals, jangling field telephones, and an intensive study of maps and air reconnaissance photographs in the operations tent. Back in the air, identifying targets was not easy when below stretched ‘an unbelievable chaos of ruins and fires’, and huge widening columns of black oily smoke billowed from the blazing oil tanks, blotting out the sun up to an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Mission requests came constantly from the army: ‘Attack target area A 11, north-west sector, the large block of houses, heavy enemy resistance there.’ The Luftwaffe pilots, however, did not feel they were achieving much by continuing to pulverize a wasteland of ‘torn apart, burnt-out factory sheds, in which not a wall was left standing’.

For the ground crews, ‘mechanics – armament, bomb and radio specialists’, preparing aircraft for take-off ‘three, four, five times a day’ there was no respite. For aircrews, their only moments of peace came at dusk and at dawn, but even then they did not linger long beside the airfield, gazing at the sky above this ‘limitless country’: already by the third week in September, the frosts were sharp. On 17 September, the temperature dropped suddenly. Men put on woollen garments under their jackets, which were in most cases disintegrating already. ‘The soldiers’ clothing’, noted a doctor, ‘was so worn out, that frequently they were obliged to wear items of Russian uniform.’

While the bitter struggle for the Mamaev Kurgan continued, an equally ferocious battle developed for the huge concrete grain silo down by the river. The rapid advance of Hoth’s XLVIII Panzer Corps had virtually cut off this natural fortress. The defenders from the 35th Guards Division cheered and joked when reinforcements from a marine infantry platoon commanded by Lieutenant Andrey Khozyanov reached them during the night of 17 September. They had two old Maxim machine-guns and two of the long Russian anti-tank rifles, which they used to fire at a German tank when an officer and an interpreter appeared under a flag of truce to ask them to surrender. German artillery then ranged on to the vast structure preparing the ground for the Saxon 94th Infantry Division, whose insignia were the crossed swords of Meissen porcelain.

The fifty-odd defenders fought off ten assaults on 18 September. Knowing that they could not expect resupply, they conserved their ammunition, rations and water carefully. The conditions in which they continued to fight over the next two days were terrible. They were choked with dust and smoke, even the grain in the elevator had caught fire, and they soon had almost nothing left to drink. They were also short of water to fill the barrel jackets of the Maxim machine-guns. (Presumably the marines resorted to their own urine for the purpose, as was so often the practice in the First World War, but Soviet accounts avoid such details.)

All their grenades and anti-tank projectiles had been expended by the time more German tanks arrived to finish them off on 20 September. Both Maxims were put out of action. The defenders, unable to see inside the elevator for smoke and dust, communicated by shouting to each other through parched throats. When the Germans broke in, they fired at sounds, not at objects. That night, with only a handful of ammunition left, the survivors broke out. The wounded had to be left behind. Although a fierce fight, it was hardly an impressive victory for the Germans, yet Paulus chose the huge grain silo as the symbol of Stalingrad in the arm badge he was having designed at army headquarters to commemorate the victory.

Similarly stubborn defences of semi-fortified buildings in the centre of the town cost the Germans many men during those days. These ‘garrisons’ of Red Army soldiers from different divisions held out defiantly, also suffering terribly from thirst and hunger. There was a violent battle for possession of the Univermag department store on Red Square, which served as the headquarters of the 1st Battalion of the 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment. A small warehouse known as ‘the nail factory’ formed another redoubt. And in a three-storey building not far away, guardsmen fought on for five days, their noses and parched throats filled with brick dust from pulverized walls. Their wounded died in the cellars, untended once their young nurse succumbed to a chest wound. Six men, out of what had originally been close to half a battalion, escaped in the last moments when German tanks finally smashed in the walls.

Of the German gains in the centre of the city, the most serious for the Red Army was their advance to the central landing stage. This enabled them to strike at the main night-time crossing points with artillery, Nebelwerfer launchers and machine-guns, firing by the light of magnesium parachute flares. They were determined to stop reinforcements and supplies from reaching the defenders.

The main station, having changed hands fifteen times in five days, ended with the Germans as occupants of the ruins. Rodimtsev, in agreement with Chuikov’s policy, ordered that the front line was always to be within fifty yards of the Germans, to make it hard for their artillery and aviation. The men of his division took a special pride in their marksmanship. ‘Each Guards soldier shot like a sniper’ and thus ‘forced the Germans to crawl, not to walk’.

German soldiers, red-eyed with exhaustion from the hard fighting, and mourning more comrades than they ever imagined, had lost the triumphalist mood of just a week before. Everything seemed disturbingly different. They found artillery fire far more frightening in a city. The shellburst itself was not the only danger. Whenever a tall building was hit, shrapnel and masonry showered from above. The Landser had already started to lose track of time in this alien world, with its destroyed landscape of ruins and rubble. Even the midday light had a strange, ghostly quality from the constant haze of dust.

In such a concentrated area, a soldier had to become more conscious of war in three dimensions, with the danger of snipers in tall buildings. He also needed to watch the sky. When Luftwaffe strikes went in, a Landser hugged the ground in exactly the same way as a Russian. There was always the fear of Stukas failing to see the red, white and black swastika flags laid out to identify their positions. Often, they fired recognition flares to underline the point. Russian bombers also came in low, certainly low enough to reveal the red star on the tailplane. Much higher in the sky, fighters twinkled in the sun. One observer noticed that they twisted and turned more like fish in the sea than birds in the air.

Noise assailed their nerves constantly. ‘The air is filled’, wrote a panzer officer, ‘with the infernal howling of diving Stukas, the thunder of flak and artillery, the roar of engines, the rattle of tank tracks, the shriek of the launcher and Stalin organ, the chatter of sub-machine-guns back and forth, and all the time one feels the heat of a city burning at every point.’ The screams of the wounded affected men most. ‘It’s not a human sound,’ one German wrote in his diary, ‘just the dull cry of suffering of a wild animal.’

In such circumstances, the longing for home became acute. ‘Home is so far away – Oh, beautiful home!’ wrote one wistfully. ‘Only now do we know quite how wonderful it is.’ Russian defenders, on the other hand, clearly regarded homesickness as a luxury they could not afford. ‘Hello, my dear Palina!’ wrote an unknown soldier to his wife on 17 September. ‘I am well and healthy. No one knows what’s going to happen but we shall live and we shall see. The war is hard. You have the information about what is happening at the Front from the news. The mission of each soldier is simple: to destroy as many Fritzes as possible and then to push them back towards the west. I miss you very much but nothing can be done as several thousand kilometres separate us.’ And on 23 September, a soldier called Sergey wrote to his wife Lyolya, with a simple message: ‘The Germans won’t withstand us.’ There was no mention of home.

A renewed attempt by the three Soviet armies on the northern front to attack the Sixth Army’s left flank failed on 18 September. The rapid redeployment of Luftwaffe squadrons against the threat, combined with counter-attacks from XIV Panzer Corps, proved far too effective on the open steppe. A second attempt failed the following day. All the three armies achieved, at great cost, was to spare the 62nd Army from Luftwaffe attack for less than two days.

Chuikov, knowing that there would be no let-up, started to bring Colonel Batyuk’s 284th Rifle Division, mainly Siberians, across the Volga. He held them in reserve below the Mamaev Kurgan, in case the Germans established themselves solidly round the central landing stage, and then thrust north up the river bank in an attempt to cut his army off from behind. On the morning of 23 September, a few hours after the last of Batyuk’s Siberians had reached the west bank of the Volga, the division was thrown into the attack in an attempt to clear the Germans from the central landing stage and link up with the Soviet troops isolated south of the Tsaritsa. But the German divisions, although suffering heavy losses, forced them back. On that day, which happened to be Paulus’s fifty-second birthday, the Germans finally secured the broad corridor which cut off the left wing of the 62nd Army in its pocket south of the Tsaritsa gorge.

With predictable thoroughness, the Germans continued their attempts to crush resistance in this southern sector of Stalingrad. Two days later they achieved a breakthrough. This led to a panic in two militia brigades, which were already virtually out of food and ammunition. The collapse, however, started at the top, as Stalingrad Front headquarters reported to Shcherbakov in Moscow. The commander of 42nd Special Brigade, ‘left the line of defence, pretending that he was off to consult with the staff of the army’. The same happened with the 92nd Special Brigade, despite its strengthening with marine infantry. On 26 September, the commander and commissar, followed by their staff, abandoned their men, also ‘pretending that they were off to discuss the situation with higher command’, but in fact they withdrew to safety on the large island of Golodny in the middle of the Volga. The following morning, ‘when the soldiers learned that their commanders had deserted them, the majority rushed to the bank of the Volga and started preparing rafts for themselves’. Some of them tried paddling out to Golodny island on tree trunks and pieces of driftwood, some just swam. The enemy, spotting their desperate attempts to escape, opened fire with mortars and artillery, and killed many in the water.

‘When Major Yakovlev, the commander of the machine-gun battalion, by then the highest-ranking officer of the brigade left on the west bank, learned that the brigade commander had deserted and sown panic among the troops, he took over command of the defence.’ He soon found he had no communications, since the signallers were among those who had escaped to the island. Aided by Lieutenant Solutsev, Yakovlev rallied the remaining troops, and established a defence line which, in spite of the shortage of men and ammunition, held against seven attacks over the next twenty-four hours. All this time, the brigade commander remained on the island. He did not even try to send more ammunition to the defenders left behind. In an attempt to hide what was happening, he sent fictitious reports on the fighting to 62nd Army headquarters. This did him little good. Chuikov’s staff became suspicious. He was arrested and charged with ‘Criminal disobedience of Order No. 227’. Although no details are given in the report to Moscow of the sentence pronounced by the NKVD tribunal, clemency is hard to imagine.

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