Military history


Hitler’s frustrations over the lack of success in the Caucasus and at Stalingrad came to a head on 24 September, when he dismissed General Haider, the chief of the Army General Staff. Both men had been suffering from a form of nervous exhaustion with each other. Haider had been exasperated with what he regarded as the erratic and obsessive meddling of an amateur, while the Führer saw any implied criticism of his leadership as the resentment of reactionary generals who did not share his will for victory. Hitler’s main concern, Haider noted in his diary that night, was the ‘necessity of indoctrinating the General Staff in a fanatical belief in the Idea’. This preoccupation with subjugating the general staff became a substitute struggle in itself. The consequences were not hard to imagine. A dangerous situation could easily turn into a disaster.

In the wake of the row with Jodl and List, Paulus heard that he would be appointed to replace Jodl as the chief of the Wehrmacht command staff. General von Seydlitz was strongly tipped as his successor to command Sixth Army. Hitler, however, decided to stick with faces he knew well. Jodl was reinstated and the sycophantic Field Marshal Keitel remained in place to reassure the Führer of his military genius and assist in the Nazification of the Army. Professional officers referred to him as ‘Lakeitel’ or ‘the nodding donkey’, but they held many other generals in contempt too for their moral cowardice. ‘The general staff is heading directly towards its own destruction,’ wrote Groscurth to General Beck, later the head of the July Plot. ‘It no longer contains a shred of honour.’ Groscurth’s only consolation was that his corps commander, General Strecker, and fellow staff officers at XI Corps headquarters felt the same way. ‘It is a real pleasure to be together with such men.’

The dismissal of Haider, as well as marking the end of the general staff as an independent planning body, also removed Paulus’s sole remaining protector at a critical moment. Paulus must have been secretly dejected to lose the chance of a new appointment. Hitler had said that with the Sixth Army he could storm the heavens, yet Stalingrad still did not fall. A team from the propaganda ministry awaited its capture, ‘ready to film the raising of flags’, and the press begged to be allowed to proclaim ‘Stalingrad Gefallen!’, because Paulus’s own headquarters had announced on 26 September that ‘the battle flag of the Reich flies over the Stalingrad Party building!’ Even Goebbels started to become concerned that the German press was depicting events ‘in much too rosy a light’. Editors were instructed to emphasize the toughness and complexity of the fighting. A week later, however, he became certain that ‘the fall of Stalingrad can be expected with certainty’, then another three days later, his mood changed yet again, and he ordered that other subjects should be brought to the fore.

The pressure and criticism Paulus had received ‘from morning to night’ for not having taken Stalingrad made him ‘highly nervous’, according to Groscurth. The strain exacerbated his recurring dysentery. Staff officers noticed that the tic from which he suffered on the left side of his face became more pronounced. In Sixth Army headquarters at Golubinsky, a village on the west bank of the Don, he stared at the detailed, large-scale map of Stalingrad. Much of the city had already been taken, and his intelligence staff estimated that the Soviet casualty rate was running at roughly double the German. He could only hope that Hitler was right about the enemy running out of reserves at any moment. His own resources were dissipating rapidly, and the astonishing tenacity of the enemy dismayed them all.

Much of the criticism directed against him was based on the fact that the Sixth Army, with two corps from the Fourth Panzer Army, was the largest formation in the German Army, at nearly a third of a million men strong. Outsiders, with no experience of the fighting, could not understand the problem. One can certainly argue that Paulus could have used his troops better, but his critics appeared to forget that while around eight of his divisions were committed to the fighting in the city, another eleven divisions manned nearly 130 miles of front, stretching across the greater and lesser Don bends and then over the steppe to the Volga north of Rynok, as well as a strip south of Stalingrad opposite Beketovka. (See Map 4.) Only a single division remained in reserve.

On the northern flank, out in the increasingly bleak steppe, Strecker’s XI Army Corps, General Walther Heitz’s VIII Army Corps and Hube’s XIV Panzer Corps faced constant attacks from four Soviet armies, attempting to relieve pressure on the city itself. On the right, General Jaenecke’s IV Army Corps (opposite General Shumilov’s 64th Army) linked up with the weak Romanian Fourth Army, an over-extended defence line which petered out in the northern Caucasus. In all, Yeremenko’s command included Chuikov’s 62nd Army, the 64th Army round Beketovka, the 57th Army down to beyond lake Sarpa, the 51st Army holding the line of the rest of the lakes and then the 28th Army stretching down into the emptiness of the Kalmyk steppe.

For the German, Romanian and Russian armies on the southern flank, the war in the steppe was essentially like the First World War, only with better weapons and the occasional appearance of modern aircraft. For the armoured formations out on both flanks, the sunbaked plains, over which they had charged like warships at full speed just weeks before, now struck them as deeply depressing. The lack of trees and mountains made southern Germans and Austrians homesick. The rains of the rasputitsa produced squalid conditions. Soldiers in dugouts, listening to the rain, and watching the level of water rise above their ankles, had little to do but think about trench foot and observe sodden rats chewing corpses in no man’s land. Reconnaissance patrols, raids and probing attacks offered the only activity on both sides. Small groups crept forward to the enemy line, then hurled grenades forward into the trenches. The only change came on 25 September when 51st and 57th Armies attacked the Romanian divisions south of Stalingrad along the line of salt lakes and pushed them back, but it did not succeed in diverting German divisions from the city.

Fighting in Stalingrad itself could not have been more different. It represented a new form of warfare, concentrated in the ruins of civilian life. The detritus of war – burnt-out tanks, shell cases, signal wire and grenade boxes – was mixed with the wreckage of family homes – iron bedsteads, lamps and household utensils. Vasily Grossman wrote of the ‘fighting in the brick-strewn, half-demolished rooms and corridors’ of apartment blocks, where there might still be a vase of withered flowers, or a boy’s homework open on the table. In an observation post, high in a ruined building, an artillery spotter with a periscope might watch for targets through a convenient shell-hole in the wall, seated on a kitchen chair.

German infantrymen loathed house-to-house fighting. They found such close-quarter combat, which broke conventional military boundaries and dimensions, psychologically disorientating. During the last phase of the September battles, both sides had struggled to take a large brick warehouse on the Volga bank, near the mouth of the Tsaritsa, which had four floors on the river side and three on the landward. At one point, it was ‘like a layered cake’ with Germans on the top floor, Russians below them, and more Germans underneath them. Often an enemy was unrecognizable, with every uniform impregnated by the same dun-coloured dust.

German generals do not seem to have imagined what awaited their divisions in the ruined city. They lost their great Blitzkrieg advantages and were in many ways thrown back to First World War techniques, even though their military theorists had argued that trench warfare had been ‘an aberration in the art of war’. The Sixth Army, for example, found itself having to respond to Soviet tactics by reinventing the ‘storm-wedges’ introduced in January 1918: assault groups of ten men armed with a machine-gun, light mortar and flame-throwers for clearing bunkers, cellars and sewers.

In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed ‘Rattenkrieg’ by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled their generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events. ‘The enemy is invisible,’ wrote General Strecker to a friend. ‘Ambushes out of basements, wall remnants, hidden bunkers and factory ruins produce heavy casualties among our troops.’

German commanders openly admitted the Russian expertise at camouflage, but few acknowledged that it was their aircraft which had produced the ideal conditions for the defenders. ‘Not a house is left standing,’ a lieutenant wrote home, ‘there is only a burnt-out wasteland, a wilderness of rubble and ruins which is well-nigh impassable.’ At the southern end of the city, the Luftwaffe liaison officer with 24th Panzer Division wrote: ‘The defenders have concentrated and fortified themselves in the sections of the town facing our attacks. In parkland, there are tanks or just tank turrets dug-in, and anti-tank guns concealed in the cellars make it very hard going for our advancing tanks.’

Chuikov’s plan was to funnel and fragment German mass assaults with ‘breakwaters’. Strengthened buildings, manned by infantry with anti-tank rifles and machine-guns, would deflect the attackers into channels where camouflaged T-34 tanks and anti-tank guns waited, half-buried in the rubble behind. When German tanks attacked with infantry, the defenders’ main priority was to separate them. The Russians used trench mortars, aiming to drop their bombs just behind the tanks to scare off the infantry while the anti-tank gunners went for the tanks themselves. The channelled approaches would also be mined in advance by sappers, whose casualty rate was the highest of any specialization. ‘Make a mistake and no more dinners’ was their unofficial motto. Wearing camouflage suits, once the snow came, they crawled out at night to lay anti-tank mines and conceal them. An experienced sapper could lay up to thirty a night. They were also renowned for running out from cover to drop a mine in front of a German tank as it advanced.

Much of the fighting consisted not of major attacks, but of relentless, lethal little conflicts. The battle was fought by assault squads, generally six or eight strong, from ‘the Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting’. They armed themselves with knives and sharpened spades for silent killing, as well as sub-machine-guns and grenades. (Spades were in such short supply, that men carved their names in the handle and slept with their head on the blade to make sure that nobody stole it.) The assault squads sent into the sewers were strengthened with flame-throwers and sappers bringing explosive charges. Six sappers from Rodimtsev’s guards division even managed to find a shaft under a German stronghold and blew it up, using 300 pounds of explosive.

A more general tactic evolved, based on the realization that the German armies were short of reserves. Chuikov ordered an emphasis on night attacks, mainly for the practical reason that the Luftwaffe could not react to them, but also because he was convinced that the Germans were more frightened during the hours of darkness, and would become exhausted. The German Landser came to harbour a special fear of the Siberians from Colonel Batyuk’s 284th Rifle Division, who were considered to be natural hunters of any sort of prey. ‘If only you could understand what terror is,’ a German soldier wrote in a letter captured by the Russians. ‘At the slightest rustle, I pull the trigger and fire off tracer bullets in bursts from the machine-gun.’ The compulsion to shoot at anything that moved at night, often setting off fusillades from equally nervous sentries down a whole sector, undoubtedly contributed to the German expenditure of over 25 million rounds during the month of September alone. The Russians also kept up the tension by firing flares into the night sky from time to time to give the impression of an imminent attack. Red Army aviation, partly to avoid the Messerschmitts by day, kept up a relentless series of raids every night on German positions. It also served as another part of the wearing-down process to exhaust the Germans and stretch their nerves.

The Russians used both their twin-engined night bombers, which attracted the fire of every German flak battery on the front, and large numbers of manoeuvrable little U-2 biplanes which dropped small bombs on night raids. ‘The Russkies keep buzzing over us the whole night long,’ a pioneer corporal wrote home. The worst part was the eerie change in sound. In the distance, the U-2 sounded like one of its many nicknames, the ‘sewing machine’. Then, as the pilot approached his target, he would switch off the engine to glide in like a bird of prey. The only sound would be the swishing of air through its struts, until the bomb fell. Even though the bomb load was only 400 kilos, the aircraft’s psychological effect was considerable. ‘We lie exhausted in our holes waiting for them,’ wrote another soldier. The U-2 attracted more nicknames than any other machine or weapon at Stalingrad. Others included ‘the duty NCO’, because of the way it crept up unannounced, the ‘midnight bomber’, the ‘coffee-machine’ and the ‘railway crow’. Sixth Army requested Army Group headquarters to keep up Luftwaffe pressure on Russian airfields with round-the-clock attacks. ‘The Russians’ unchallenged air superiority at night has reached an unbearable level. The troops get no rest, and their strength will soon be completely dissipated.’

There is no overt reference in surviving files to cases of battle stress. German medical authorities tended to use the euphemism of ‘exhaustion’, like the British, but their prescription was closer to the brutal simplicity of the Red Army. The German Army had refused even to acknowledge its existence. In 1926, nearly seven years before Hitler took power, war neurosis was simply abolished as a condition along with the pension that had gone with it. Take away the disease, went the argument, and you take away the reason for leaving the front line. Breakdown was classified as cowardice, and therefore could be a capital offence. It is thus impossible to say what proportion of disciplinary offences on either side at Stalingrad, especially desertion, was caused by battle shock and general strain. All one can be certain about from studies of comparable situations is that the rate of battle-shock casualties must have started to rise sharply in September as soon as the war of movement turned into a war of virtually stationary annihilation. Psychological casualties would have started to soar – if one goes by British studies of battle-shock cases at Anzio and Normandy – as soon as troops were pinned down or surrounded.

Chuikov’s main disagreement with senior officers at front headquarters concerned the positioning of divisional, army and front artillery regiments. Eventually, he won the argument that they should be based on the east bank of the Volga, because there was simply not enough room for them with his troops on the west bank. It would also have been increasingly difficult to transport sufficient supplies of artillery shells across the Volga, and ‘in Stalingrad, a field-gun was worth nothing without shells’.

‘One house taken by the Russians, one taken by the Germans,’ scribbled Vasily Grossman in his notebook just after his arrival. ‘How can heavy artillery be used in such a battle?’ He soon discovered the answer. Soviet artillery massed on the far side of the Volga, as Chuikov had insisted, did not attempt to shell German front-line positions. Their purpose was to hammer enemy lines of communications and, above all, smash battalions forming up for an attack. To achieve this, scores of Soviet artillery observation officers concealed themselves like snipers at the top of ruined buildings. The Germans, well aware of the danger they represented, treated them as a high-priority target for their own snipers, or anti-tank guns.

Whenever a German troop concentration was spotted, and the target coordinates passed back to the batteries on the east bank by wireless or field telephone, the volume of fire was devastating. ‘On the other side of the Volga’, wrote Grossman, ‘it seemed as if the whole universe shook with the mighty roaring of the heavy guns. The ground trembled.’

The only artillery batteries to remain on the west bank were Katyusha rocket launchers mounted on lorries. Hidden behind the high Volga bank, they would reverse out, almost to the water’s edge, fire their sixteen rockets in rapid succession, then drive back in again. The Soviet multiple-rocket launcher was the most psychologically effective of the Red Army’s longer-range weapons. Its sixteen 130-mm rockets, each nearly five feet long, were fired in rapid succession, with a heart-stopping noise. Many of those experiencing a salvo of Katyushas for the first time thought that they were under air attack. Red Army soldiers had coined the name Katyusha for the rocket after the crescendo in the tune of that name, the most popular Russian song of the whole war. In it, Katyusha promises her fiancé to keep their love alive in her heart while he defends the Motherland at the front.

Russian soldiers affected to despise the German counterpart, the six-barrelled mortar, known as the Nebelwerfer. They called it the ‘footler’, or the ‘donkey’ because it made a braying noise, or the ‘Vanyusha’ (meaning little Ivan, just as Katyusha was the diminutive of Katya). There was a joke in the 62nd Army about what would happen if ‘Vanyusha tried to marry Katyusha’.*

Chuikov soon recognized that the key infantry weapons in Stalingrad would be the sub-machine-gun, the grenade and the sniper’s rifle. After the Winter War, following the devastating attacks of Finnish ski troops, shooting on the move, the Red Army accepted the idea of sub-machine-gun squads of eight men, designed to be carried into battle if necessary on the back of a T-34. In Stalingrad street-fighting, this size of squad proved ideal for close-quarter fighting. During house-and bunker-clearing, the hand grenade proved essential. Red Army soldiers called it their ‘pocket artillery’. It was also effective in defence. On Chuikov’s orders, grenades were stocked ready to hand in recesses dug into the side of every trench. Not surprisingly, there were many accidents caused by untrained soldiers. The second-in-command of a company was killed and several men were badly wounded when a newly arrived recruit mishandled a grenade. Others were killed when soldiers, mainly from Central Asia, tried to fit captured German detonators in their own grenades. ‘Further weapon training is needed,’ the chief of the political department reported to the military council of Stalingrad Front.

Another weapon, often as dangerous to the user as to its intended victims, was the flame-thrower, which was effectively terrifying when clearing sewer tunnels, cellars and inaccessible hiding places. The operator knew that as soon as the enemy sighted him, he would be the first target for their bullets.

Red Army soldiers enjoyed inventing gadgets to kill Germans. New booby traps were dreamed up, each seemingly more ingenious and unpredictable in its results than the last. Angered at their inability to fight back against the Stuka attacks, Captain Ilgachkin, a battalion commander, decided with one of his soldiers, Private Repa, to construct their own form of anti-aircraft gun. They fastened an anti-tank rifle to the spokes of a cartwheel which in turn was mounted on a tall stake driven into the ground. Ilgachkin made complicated calculations on the basis of the gun’s muzzle velocity, and the estimated speed of a diving aircraft, but whether ‘the gaunt and melancholy’ Repa paid much attention to these figures is another matter. In any case their contraption achieved a certain success, with Repa managing to bring down three Stukas?

The real anti-aircraft batteries also amended their tactics. The Stukas came over at an altitude of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, then half-rolled to drop into a dive at an angle of about seventy degrees, their siren screaming. They came out of the dive at just under 2,000 feet. Anti-aircraft gunners learned to put up a curtain of fire to hit them either at the point of going into the dive, or at the point of coming out. Shooting at them on the way down was a waste of ammunition.

Another device was dreamed up by Vasily Ivanovich Zaitsev, who soon became the most famous sniper in the Stalingrad army. Zaitsev attached the telescopic sight from his sniper’s rifle to an anti-tank gun to take on machine-gun nests, by slotting a shell right through their loophole. But he soon found that the charges in the mass-produced shells were not consistent enough for precision shooting. Fame could be achieved even with conventional weapons. Bezdiko, the ace mortarman in Batyuk’s division, was renowned for having achieved six bombs in the air at the same time. These stories were exploited in an attempt to spread a cult of the expert to every soldier. The 62nd Army’s slogan was: ‘Look after your weapon as carefully as your eyes.’

The ‘garrisons’ holding the fortified buildings so central to Chuikov’s strategy, who included young women medical orderlies or signallers, suffered great privations when cut off for days at a time. They had to endure dust, smoke, hunger and, worst of all, thirst. The city had been without fresh water since the pumping station was destroyed in the August raids. Knowing the consequences of drinking polluted water, desperate soldiers shot at drainpipes in the hope of extracting a few drops.

Supplying forward positions with food was a constant problem. An anti-tank detachment had a Kazan Tartar cook who filled a large army thermos with tea or soup, fastened it to his back and crawled up to the front-line positions under fire. If the thermos was hit by shrapnel or bullets, the hapless cook was soaked. Later, when the frosts became really hard, the soup or tea froze and he was ‘covered in icicles by the time he got back’.

With ill-defined front lines, and a defence in depth of no more than a few hundred yards in places, command posts were almost as vulnerable as forward positions. ‘Shells exploding on top of our command post were a common occurrence,’ wrote Colonel Timofey Naumovich Vishnevsky, the commander of the 62nd Army’s artillery division, to a friend from hospital. ‘When I left the bunker, I could hear sub-machine-gun fire on all sides. Sometimes it seemed as if the Germans were all around us.’ A German tank came right up to the entrance of his bunker and ‘its hull blocked the only way out’. Vishnevsky and his officers had to dig for their lives to escape into the gully on the far side. The colonel was badly wounded. ‘My face is completely disfigured,’ he wrote, ‘and consequently I will now be the lowest form of life in the eyes of women.’

German command bunkers ran little risk of being overrun during September and October, and the standard three feet of earth on top of the wooden beams served as sufficient protection only against Katyushas. The main danger was a direct hit from the heavy artillery across the Volga. Divisional and regimental commanders were concerned with personal comfort as well as efficiency. A wind-up gramophone often sat next to a crate of brandy or wine brought from France. Some officers took to wearing sports trousers, even tennis shorts, when down in the damp, heavy air of their bunkers, because their combat clothes were infested with lice.

It was much more of an upside-down world for their soldiers. Instead of saying ‘good-night’, they wished each other a ‘quiet night’ for the dangerous hours of darkness. In the frosty morning, they emerged stiff in every joint, seeking a patch of sunshine in the bottom of the trench like lizards to absorb the warm rays. Feeling braver in the daylight, the Germans shouted insults and threats from their front lines: ‘Russkies! Your time has come!’ or ‘Hei, Rus, bul-bul, sdavaisa!’, their pidgin Russian for: ‘Surrender or you’ll be blowing bubbles!’ The notion of pushing Soviet troops back into the Volga, where they would drown like a stampeding herd, became a constant refrain.

During lulls in the battle, Russian soldiers too sought patches of sun, out of enemy sniper fire. Trenches were sometimes like a ‘tinker’s factory’, as shell cases were made into oil lamps, with a piece of rag for a wick, and cartridge cases into cigarette lighters. The ration of rough makhorkatobacco, or lack of it, was a constant preoccupation. Connoisseurs insisted that no fancy paper should be used when rolling makhorka into fat, shaggy cigarettes, only newspaper. The printer’s ink was supposed to contribute to the taste. Russian soldiers smoked constantly in battle. ‘It’s permissible to smoke in action,’ an anti-tank rifleman told Simonov, ‘what’s not permissible is to miss your target. Miss it just once and you’ll never light up again.’

Even more important than tobacco was the vodka ration, theoretically 100 grams a day. Men fell silent when the vodka was produced, everyone eyeing the bottle. The strain of battle was so great that the ration was never considered enough, and soldiers were prepared to go to desperate lengths to meet their need. Surgical spirit was seldom used for its official purpose. Industrial alcohol and even anti-freeze were drunk after being passed through the activated carbon filter of a gas mask. Many soldiers had thrown their gas masks away during the retreats of the previous year, so those who had held on to them could bargain. The result could be much worse than just a bad headache. Most recovered because they were young and healthy and did not resort to it frequently, but those who tried too often went blind.

In the armies out in the steppe, soldiers often drank up to a litre of spirit a day in winter. The balance above the official ration was made up by failing to report casualties and sharing out their allocation, or through bartering uniform or bits of equipment with villagers behind the lines. Home-brews obtained this way out on the Kalmyk steppe included ‘every imaginable sort of alcohol, even a spirit made from milk’. Such commerce proved more dangerous for civilians than soldiers. A ‘military tribunal of NKVD Forces’ sentenced two women to ten years each in the Gulag for trading alcohol and tobacco in exchange for parachute silk to make underclothes.

The medical services in the Red Army were seldom regarded as a high priority by commanders. A seriously wounded soldier was out of the battle, and senior officers were more concerned with replacing him. Yet this attitude did not deter the very bravest figures on the Stalingrad battlefield, who were the medical orderlies, mainly female students or high-school graduates with only the most basic first-aid training.

The commander of 62nd Army’s hundred-strong sanitary company, Zinaida Georgevna Gavrielova, was an eighteen-year-old medical student, who had received the job on the basis of a strong recommendation from the cavalry regiment in which she had just served. Her medical orderlies, few of them much older than herself, had to conquer their terror and crawl forward, often under heavy fire, to reach the wounded. They then dragged them out of the way, until it was safe to carry them on their backs. They had to be both ‘physically and spiritually strong’, as their commander put it.

There was no question of medical personnel being non-combatant. The beautiful Gulya Koroleva, a twenty-year-old from a well-known Moscow literary family, had left her baby son in the capital and volunteered as a nurse. Serving with the 214th Rifle Division in the 24th Army on the northern flank, she was credited with having ‘brought over a hundred wounded soldiers back from the front line and killed fifteen fascists herself. She was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Natalya Kachnevskaya, a nurse with a Guards Rifle Regiment, formerly a theatrical student in Moscow, brought back twenty wounded soldiers in a single day and ‘threw grenades at the Germans’. Stalingrad Front headquarters also singled out (posthumously) the bravery of another female orderly, Kochnevskaya, who had volunteered for the front, and carried more thantwenty soldiers out of the firing line. Although wounded twice, she carried on bandaging and carrying officers and soldiers.*

The sacrifices of these medical orderlies were often wasted through the subsequent treatment of their charges. The casualties they carried or dragged down to the edge of the Volga were left uncared for until, long after nightfall, they were loaded like sacks of potatoes on to the supply boats, empty for the return crossing. When the wounded were offloaded on the east bank, the conditions could be even worse, as an aircraft woman discovered.

The survivors of a disbanded aviation regiment who spent the night asleep in woods east of the Volga awoke at dawn to strange sounds. Mystified, they crept through the trees towards the river bank to investigate. There, they saw ‘thousands of wounded, as far as the eye could see’, left on the sandy banks, having been ferried back across the Volga during the night. The casualties were calling for water, or ‘screaming and crying, having lost arms or legs’. The ground-crew staff went to help as best they could. The former maternity nurse, Klavdia Sterman, vowed that as soon as they reached Moscow, she would apply to transfer to a front-line medical unit.

Survival was far from guaranteed even on reaching one of the score of field hospitals on the east bank of the Volga. Conditions in Red Army hospitals, despite the presence of some of the finest Russian doctors, made them seem more like a meat-processing factory. The field hospital at Balashchov, which specialized in arms and legs, some six miles from the city, was very meagrely equipped. Instead of normal hospital beds, it had three-tiered bunks. One young woman surgeon, newly arrived, was worried not only about the physical state of the wounded. ‘They often closed in on themselves and wanted no contact with anybody else.’ She at first presumed that the wounded soldiers brought back across the Volga out of the ‘hell’ of Stalingrad would never want to return. ‘On the contrary: it became apparent that soldiers and officers wanted to go back to the front.’ Amputees certainly showed no sense of relief at missing the fighting. In fact, most of those incapacitated or permanently scarred, like the artillery colonel whose face had been sliced up by shrapnel, felt that they were no longer proper men.

Bad rations did not help either recovery or morale. Grossman, in an emotional state, clearly assumed that this was Russia’s fate at that time. ‘In hospital,’ he jotted in his notebook, ‘the wounded are given a very small piece of salted herring by nurses who cut them up with great care. This is poverty.’ In those days, before his eyes were opened, he seemed unable to recognize the truth. Soviet logic mercilessly dictated that the best rations went to the fighting troops. The wounded, if they were lucky, received three helpings of kasha, or buckwheat porridge, a day, nothing more. The salted herring seen by Grossman was an unusual treat.

A more revealing hint of the state of mind controlling the Stalingrad Front medical services came from the results of ‘socialist competition’ in hospitals, reported to Shcherbakov in Moscow. The caterers came first, the surgeons came second, and the drivers came third. Any criteria on which this exercise was based utterly demeaned the genuine sacrifice of medical workers, who gave so much of their own blood for transfusion – sometimes twice in an evening – that they frequently collapsed. ‘If they don’t give blood’, a report explained, ‘soldiers will die’.

In the great battle of attrition, the shipments of wounded to the east bank had to be matched by fresh ‘meat for the cannon’ taken across the Volga into the city. The Stavka drip-fed the 62nd Army with reinforcement divisions as their predecessors were shot to pieces. The new battalions were marched forward at nightfall for embarkation under the eyes of the NKVD troops. They could only stare across at the city on the skyline opposite, lit by fires, and try to ignore the smell of burning. Patches of the river were still aflame with oil. There were also NKVD detachments on many of the ships, ready to shoot anyone who dived overboard in a final attempt to avoid their fate on the west bank. German shellbursts in the river ahead were enough to make many lose their head. If anybody panicked, a sergeant or officer would shoot the offender on the spot and roll his body over the side.

The boats on which they had embarked bore every sign of the crossing’s dangers. One of the fire-fighting launches, refitted as a naval craft for the Volga flotilla, was said after one outward and return trip to have received 436 bullet and shell holes; only a single square yard of hull was untouched.

The easiest targets for German guns were the rafts used by engineer regiments to ferry heavy supplies, such as timber for bunkers, across to the city. When one of these rafts drifted on to the west bank, and soldiers there ran forward to help unload, they found a sapper lieutenant and three of his men so riddled by machine-gun fire that ‘it seemed as though iron teeth had savagely torn the sodden logs of the raft and these human bodies’.

Sixth Army headquarters knew that, with winter approaching, there was no time to lose. Even before Red Square and the grain silos south of the Tsaritsa were seized, it started to prepare for a knock-out blow in the industrial, northern half of the city.

Chuikov had moved to his new headquarters on the Volga river bank half a mile north of the Red October metalworks early on the morning of 18 September. His staff officers, however, had chosen an unprotected site just below a huge oil-storage tank, which they assumed to be empty.

Great efforts were made to bring across more ammunition and supplies at night, as well as reinforcements, which landed on the bank behind the Red October and Barrikady plants. Unessential personnel who could be better used elsewhere were evacuated. Most of the anti-aircraft defences round Stalingrad power station had been knocked out and their ammunition dump destroyed, so the young women from the surviving gun crews were withdrawn across the Volga on 25 September, and reassigned to other batteries on the east bank.

At 6.00 (German time) on the morning of Sunday, 27 September, the offensive opened with concentrated Stuka bombing. As the Stukas peeled off, one by one, dropping into the attack with sirens screaming, their gull-winged shapes were black silhouettes against an autumnal dawn. On the ground, a total of two panzer divisions and five infantry divisions advanced to crush the main triangular salient which stuck out westwards from the Volga bank.

The 62nd Army pre-empted the main thrust of the German operation, north of the Mamaev Kurgan, with several spoiling attacks on its southern side. These seemed to confirm the hyperactive suspicions of some German staff officers that Russian signallers had sneaked into their territory and tapped into German landlines. They could not accept that the preparations for their attack had been so obvious.

The main Soviet effort had been to prepare anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields in front of the main factories which extended northwards from the Mamaev Kurgan for five miles – the Lazur (‘Azure’) chemical plant, the Red October metalworks, the Barrikady weapons factory and the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.

The heavily laden Landsers started to move forwards to their start lines during the bombardment, down and up the sides of balkas turned into scree slopes with rubble. They were breathless from exertion as well as dry-mouthed from fearful anticipation of the battle ahead. On the left, part of the 389th Infantry Division prepared to advance towards the Barrikady workers’ housing. One observer described them as ‘white symmetrical blocks of buildings and little houses with their corrugated tin roofs sparkling’. The air bombardment soon set them ablaze. In the middle, the 24th Panzer Division pushed forward from the small airfield. The Austrian 100th Jäger Division attacked the Red October workers’ settlements. Meanwhile, at the base of this flank, the top of the Mamaev Kurgan was retaken from Gorishny’s 95th Rifle Division, which had been crushed by the air and artillery bombardment.

The Red Army again proved itself pitiless towards its own civilians. During the fighting for the Barrikady workers’ settlements, a sergeant in the 389th Infantry Division (a former police sergeant from Darmstadt) observed that ‘Russian women who came out of the houses with their bundles and then tried to seek shelter from the firing on the German side, were cut down from behind by Russian machine-gun fire’.

The enemy’s attack had been so strong that Chuikov said to himself: ‘One more battle like that and we’ll be in the Volga.’ A little later, Khrushchev rang through from front headquarters to make sure that morale was holding. Chuikov replied, thinking no doubt of the fate of the 95th Rifle Division on the Mamaev Kurgan, that their main concern was German air power. Khrushchev also spoke to Gurov, the army commissar, urging him to greater efforts.

The next morning, Monday, 28 September, the Luftwaffe concentrated its attacks on the west bank and Volga shipping to destroy the 62nd Army’s lifeline. The anti-aircraft guns of the Volga flotilla were in such constant use during this period that the rifling was rapidly worn smooth. Five supply boats out of six were seriously damaged. Chuikov begged for more support from the 8th Air Army, to keep off the Luftwaffe while he threw additional regiments into a counter-attack to retake the summit of the Mamaev Kurgan. They forced the Germans back, but the summit itself ended as a no man’s land between the two sides. The vital task for Chuikov was to prevent the Germans establishing it as an artillery fire-base, from where they could control northern Stalingrad and the river crossings. That evening, Chuikov and his staff could feel some relief that the worst had been averted, but they knew that the loss of shipping was serious. Thousands of wounded lay on the river bank, unevacuated, and the front-line troops would soon run out of ammunition as well as rations.

On Tuesday, 29 September, the Germans began to crush the apex of the remaining triangle of Soviet territory. The village of Orlovka was attacked from the west by part of the 389th Infantry Division, and from the north-east by the 60th Motorized Infantry Division. The resistance of the outnumbered Soviet troops was so desperate that a corporal from the 389th wrote home: ‘You can’t imagine how they’re defending Stalingrad – like dogs.’

The Soviet armies to the north again attacked XIV Panzer Corps on 30 September. The 60th Motorized Infantry Division and the 16th Panzer Division between them claimed to have destroyed seventy-two tanks, in a ‘major defensive success’ against at least two Soviet rifle divisions and three tank brigades. The Don Front’s costly attack did not deflect much pressure away from Orlovka or the industrial plants, but it helped slow the elimination of the Orlovka salient, a process which in the end took the Germans nearly ten days.

The 24th Panzer Division, most of the 389th Infantry Division and the 100th Jager Division advanced towards the Red October metalworks and the Barrikady gun factory – ‘the confusing tangle of a completely destroyed factory area’, as one Jäger described the huge complex, in which almost every window and roof had been smashed by bombing, with rusted machinery twisted out of recognition. ‘Already the first comrades were falling. The cries for medical orderlies increased. The fire intensified, but not just from in front, it was also now coming from both sides.’ Russian artillery shells and mortar-bomb explosions also caused heavy casualties with stone fragments from the rubble as well as shrapnel.

Next day, to speed the attack on the Red October complex, Paulus ordered the 94th Infantry Division and 14th Panzer Division up from the southern sector of the city. On the Russian side, the hard-pressed 62nd Army also received some badly needed reinforcements when General Stepan Guriev’s 39th Guards Rifle Division crossed the Volga. It was sent straight in to bolster the line on the right of the Red October works. Another fresh division, Colonel Gurtiev’s 308th Rifle Division, a second formation made up mainly of Siberians, also started to cross the Volga, but these additions barely made up the losses already suffered.

Chuikov soon faced an unexpected danger. On 1 October, the 295th Infantry Division infiltrated down gullies on Rodimtsev’s right flank. His guardsmen countered savagely, ambushing them at close quarters, with sub-machine-guns and grenades. But during the night, a large group of German infantry clambered through the main drain running down the Krutoy gully, and reached the Volga bank. They turned south and attacked the rear of Rodimtsev’s division. This raid coincided with another breakthrough on the right. Rodimtsev reacted quickly, ordering every company he could spare into impromptu counter-attacks, and the situation was saved.

On 2 October, the Germans attacked the oil-storage tanks on the river bank just above Chuikov’s headquarters. The tanks were not empty after all. Direct hits from German bombs or shells set them on fire. Burning oil poured down the hill, all around the headquarters and out into the river. Only the radio transmitter worked. ‘Where are you?’ Stalingrad Front headquarters signalled repeatedly. The reply eventually came back: ‘We’re where the most smoke and flames are.’

During the first week of October, Chuikov clearly had started to wonder whether they would be able to hold the rapidly narrowing strip of river bank. Everything depended on the Volga crossing. He knew that his badly mauled regiments had inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans, but the outcome of the battle depended on nerve as much as resources. They had no alternative but to stick with the 62nd Army’s slogan: ‘For the defenders of Stalingrad there is no ground on the other side of the Volga.’ This really had become a sacred oath for many soldiers. One of the most famous acts of courage occurred at this time on the southern part of the factory district, when German tanks advanced on a position held in the ruins of a school by a detachment of marine infantry attached to 193rd Rifle Division. They had run out of anti-tank grenades, so Marine Mikhail Panikako seized two petrol bombs. As he was poised to throw the first one, a lucky German bullet shattered it in his hand, covering him in flames. He hurled himself forward over the last few yards, and flung himself against the side of the tank, smashing the other one in a ball of fire on the engine decks behind the turret.

German commanders were also alarmed. Their men were exhausted, and morale had suffered. Soldiers in the 389th Infantry Division, for example, did not disguise their hopes that they would have to be posted back to France because of the heavy casualties they had suffered. German war cemeteries behind the lines were growing every day. Those who heard Hitler’s speech on 30 September from the Berliner Sportpalast were not encouraged when he boasted that the Allied powers did not appreciate Germany’s achievements, above all their advance from the Don to the Volga. Once again throwing down a gauntlet in the face of fate, Hitler insisted that ‘no man will shift us from this spot’.

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