Military history

11
Traitors and Allies

‘We Russians were ideologically prepared for the battle of Stalingrad,’ said an officer veteran. ‘Above all, we had no illusions about the cost, and were prepared to pay it.’ The complete truth would have been to say that the Soviet state and perhaps a majority of the soldiers had few illusions. It is not an insult to their courage – if anything, it confirms it – to remember also the minority who would not, or could not, stand the appalling strain of the battle.

The Soviet authorities were pitiless. ‘In the blazing city,’ wrote Chuikov, ‘we did not suffer cowards, we had no room for them.’ Soldiers and civilians alike were warned with Stalin’s quotation from Lenin: ‘Those who do not assist the Red Army in every way, and do not support its order and discipline, are traitors and must be killed without pity.’ All ‘sentimentalism’ was rejected. In total war, there were bound to be miscarriages of military justice, just as front-line troops risked being killed by their own artillery or aircraft.

Establishing a ferocious discipline was hard at first. Not until 8 October did the political department of the Stalingrad Front feel able to report to Moscow that ‘the defeatist mood is almost eliminated, and the number of treasonous incidents is getting lower’. That the Soviet regime was almost as unforgiving towards its own soldiers as towards the enemy is demonstrated by the total figure of 13,500 executions, both summary and judicial, during the battle of Stalingrad. This included all crimes classed by the commissars as ‘extraordinary events’, from retreating without orders to self-inflicted wounds, desertion, crossing over to the enemy, corruption and anti-Soviet activities. Red Army soldiers were also deemed guilty if they failed to shoot immediately at any comrades seen trying to desert or to surrender to the enemy. On one occasion in late September, when a group of Soviet soldiers surrendered, German tanks advanced rapidly to protect them from fire directed at them from their own lines.

Chuikov’s weakest units were the militia Special Brigades, made up mainly of workers from factories in the northern part of Stalingrad. Blocking groups of well-armed Komsomol volunteers or NKVD detachments were placed behind them to prevent retreat. Their commissars in black leather jackets and armed with pistols reminded the writer Konstantin Simonov of Red Guards in 1918. In the case of the 124th Special Brigade, facing the 16th Panzer Division up at Rynok, the blocking groups behind the lines forced those who were cracking under the strain to escape to the enemy. Dobronin reported to Khrushchev that, on 25 September, a group of ten deserters, including two NCOs, crossed over to the Germans. The following night another five men slipped away. According to the German report on the interrogation of the first group of these very same deserters, their company strength was down to fifty-five men. ‘Since their last attack on 18 September, in which they suffered heavy losses, they have been given no more tasks. Behind the front line there is a second line of Party and Komsomol members, armed with heavy machine-guns and machine pistols.’

A Soviet senior lieutenant from Smolensk deserted for a different reason. He had been captured in the battle for the Don bend in August, but managed to escape from German custody soon afterwards. When he reported for duty again with the Red Army, ‘he was arrested according to an order of Stalin, treated as a deserter’, and sent to a penal company in 149th Special Brigade sector.

Others deserted for reasons which led the Germans into a false optimism. ‘Morale among the Russians is really bad,’ an NCO from the 79th Infantry Division wrote home. ‘Most deserters are driven over to us through hunger. It’s possible that the Russians will suffer from a famine this winter.’

*

Soviet records reveal a great deal about the mentality of the time. When three soldiers deserted from the 178th Reserve Rifle Regiment, a lieutenant was ordered to go off and grab three other men, either soldiers or civilians, to make up the loss. Many if not most deserters were from batches of civilian reinforcements drafted in to make up numbers. For example, a large proportion of the ninety-three deserters from 15th Guards Rifle Division had been ‘citizens of Stalingrad evacuated to Krasnoarmeysk’. ‘These men were completely untrained and some of them had no uniforms. In the haste of mobilization, their passports were not taken from many of them.’ This, the report to Moscow acknowledged, was a serious mistake. ‘Clad in civilian clothes and having passports, they easily managed to get back over the Volga. It is necessary and urgent to take passports from all soldiers.’

Commissars were incensed by rumours that the Germans allowed Russian and Ukrainian deserters to go home if they lived in the occupied territories. ‘A shortage of political training is exploited by German agents, who carry out their work of corruption trying to persuade unstable soldiers to desert, especially those whose families are left in the territories temporarily occupied by the Germans.’ These refugees from the German advance lacked any news on the fate of their families and homes.

Sometimes deserters were shot in front of an audience of a couple of hundred fellow soldiers from their division. More usually, however, the condemned man was led off by a squad from the guard detachment of the NKVD Special Department to a convenient spot behind the lines. There, he was told to strip so that his uniform and boots could be reused. Yet even such a straightforward task did not always go according to plan. After an execution in the 45th Rifle Division, a suspicious medical orderly found that the condemned man still had a pulse. He was about to shout for help, when an enemy artillery bombardment began. The executed soldier sat up, then climbed to his feet, and staggered off in the direction of the German lines. ‘It was impossible to tell’, ran the report to Moscow, ‘whether [he] survived or not’.

The Special Department of the 45th Rifle Division must have contained unusually inaccurate marksmen; in fact one wonders whether they were encouraged in their work with an extra ration of vodka. On another occasion, they were ordered to execute a soldier, condemned for a self-inflicted wound. He was stripped of his uniform as usual, shot, and then thrown into a shell hole. Some earth was thrown over the body, and the firing party returned to divisional headquarters. Two hours later, the supposedly executed soldier, his underclothes caked in blood and mud, staggered back to his battalion. The same execution squad had to be called out to shoot him again.

In many cases, the authorities in the deserter’s home neighbourhood were also informed. The family could then be persecuted under Order No. 270 as an extra punishment but, above all, as a warning. Commissars and the Special Department officers on the Stalingrad Front saw reprisals against close relatives as absolutely essential to deter others who might be tempted to run away.

NKVD Special Departments, when investigating cases of desertion, undoubtedly put heavy pressure on a suspect to denounce others. A newly arrived soldier in 302nd Rifle Division (51st Army) was accused by a comrade of having said: ‘If I am sent to the front line, I will be the first to cross to the Germans.’ ‘Under interrogation’, he is claimed to have confessed to persuading five others to go with him and ‘revealed’ their names, but he may have been pushed by the NKVD into inventing a conspiracy which had never existed.

Commissars blamed ‘the carelessness and good-heartedness of officers’ for desertion in a unit. But there were also countless cases of officers using their accepted right to shoot to kill as ‘an extreme measure to be used only on active service when a Red Army man refuses to fulfil a military order or retreats from the field of battle’. On a rare occasion, however, the authorities considered that officers had been overharsh. ‘During the night of 17/18 October, two soldiers disappeared from [204th Rifle Division in 64th Army]. The regimental commander and the commissar ordered the company commander to execute the platoon commander of the men who had deserted.’ This nineteen-year-old junior lieutenant had joined the regiment only five days before, and scarcely knew the two deserters from his platoon. ‘The company commander obeyed the order. He went to his trench and, in the presence of the commissar, shot him dead.’

*

Commissars, wanting to vaunt the all-embracing nature of the Soviet Union, could have pointed to the fact that nearly half the soldiers of the 62nd Army were not Russian. Propaganda sections, however, had good reasons to remain silent on the subject. Far too much was expected of the levée en masse from Central Asia. ‘It is hard for them to understand things,’ reported a Russian lieutenant sent in to command a machine-gun platoon, ‘and it is very difficult to work with them.’ The lack of familiarity with modern technology also meant that they were more likely to be confused and terrorized by air attack. Language difficulties and consequent misunderstandings naturally made things worse. One formation, 196th Rifle Division, which was mostly Kazakh, Uzbek and Tartar, ‘received such severe losses that it had to be withdrawn from the front to be reconstituted’.

The commissars realized that things were badly wrong, but their only prescription was predictable: ‘To indoctrinate soldiers and officers of non-Russian nationality in the highest noble aims of the peoples of the USSR, in the explanation of their military oath and the law for punishing any betrayal of the Motherland.’ Their indoctrination cannot have been very successful, because many clearly had little idea what the war was about. A Tartar in 284th Rifle Division, unable to stand the fighting any more, decided to desert. He crawled forward in the dark from his position without being seen, but then lost his bearings in no man’s land. Without realizing, he crossed back into the sector occupied by 685th Rifle Regiment. He found a command bunker and entered. Convinced that he had reached his destination, he presumed that the officers staring at him must be German officers wearing Russian uniform as a sort of disguise. ‘He announced that he had come to surrender,’ the report recorded. ‘The traitor was executed.’

Commissars also faced a bureaucratic problem. ‘It is very difficult to classify extraordinary events’, the front political department explained to Shcherbakov in Moscow, ‘because we cannot tell in many cases whether a soldier deserted or crossed over to the enemy.’ ‘In battle conditions’, the department reported on another occasion, ‘it is not always possible to determine for sure what happened to particular soldiers or groups of men. In 38th Rifle Division, a sergeant and a soldier who went off to collect their company’s rations were never seen again. Nobody knew what had happened to them. They might have been buried by a large shell, or they might have deserted. Unless there are eyewitnesses, we can only suspect.’

The fact that officers often failed to count their soldiers properly did not help. Some absentees were listed as traitors, and then found to have been evacuated to a field hospital with serious wounds. Even a soldier who discharged himself from hospital to return to his unit to fight could find himself listed as a deserter and condemned. On occasions, the carelessness of officers was deliberate. The deaths of soldiers were sometimes not reported in order to obtain more rations, a practice as old as organized armies, but now defined as ‘criminal disorder on the military roll’.

Dobronin’s acknowledgement of the statistical difficulties should certainly be remembered when looking at the total of 446 desertions during September. No mention is made of the other category, ‘crossing over to the enemy’. Yet even Stalingrad Front’s own reports of group desertions indicate a serious problem. For example, after twenty-three men from a single battalion deserted over three nights, ‘a protective zone’ was ‘set up in front of the front line’, and officers formed ‘a twenty-four-hour guard’.

Self-inflicted wounds were regarded as desertion by dishonesty. A soldier from Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division, who was suspected of having shot himself in the hand, was escorted to the dressing station. He tried to escape in the dark when German artillery opened up, but was dragged back. A committee of doctors examined him and declared that the wound had been self-inflicted. The prisoner was then executed in front of an audience of soldiers drawn from his battalion. Even officers were charged with self-inflicted wounds. A nineteen-year-old lieutenant in 196th Rifle Division, having been accused of shooting himself through the left palm with a sub-machine-gun, was executed in front of an audience of officers from his formation. The report implies, with unconvincing logic, that his guilt was self-evident because he had ‘tried to hide his crime by applying a bandage’.

Malingerers were seen to belong in the same category. ‘Eleven soldiers in a field hospital pretended to be deaf and dumb,’ Dobronin recorded, then added with grim satisfaction: ‘but as soon as the medical commission decided that they were fit for military duty, and their papers were passed to the military tribunal, they started talking.’

The ultimate self-inflicted wound was suicide. Like the Wehrmacht, the Soviet authorities defined it as ‘a sign of cowardice’ or the product of ‘unhealthy moods’. Even the definition of cowardice could take many forms. One pilot, who baled out of his burning plane, tore up his Communist Party candidate’s card immediately after landing, because he thought he had come down behind German lines. On his return to base, the commissar accused him of cowardice under Stalin’s Order No. 270, even though Soviet propaganda emphasized that the Germans executed Communists on the spot.

The NKVD and the political department of Stalingrad Front worked extremely closely on any hint of ‘anti-Soviet’ activity. For example, ‘men found with German leaflets were handed over to the NKVD’. It was dangerous to pick one up, even for rolling a cigarette of makhorka tobacco. A soldier who lost his temper and told a superior officer what he thought of him and the Red Army, could face an accusation of ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ or ‘non-belief in our victory’. Corporal K. in the 204th Rifle Division was executed for having ‘discredited the leaders of the Red Army and uttered terroristic threats against his commanding officer’. Those who criticized the regime, like two soldiers in the 51st Army, were also handed over to the NKVD. One had ‘spread fascist statements that collective farm workers were like slaves’, and the other had said that ‘Soviet propaganda lies to raise morale in the army’.

Cases of ‘anti-Soviet activities’, which were often treated as synonymous with the crime of ‘treason to the Motherland’, seem to have been comparatively rare in the front line. Officers generally followed the informal advice of the Russian Army in 1812: ‘When soldiers mutter, officers should not listen.’ Most recognized that in war, when men faced death, they needed to say what they thought. Among front-line comrades, soldiers did not shrink from criticizing the incompetence, corruption and bullying of Communist Party officials. The constant risk of being killed at any moment made them careless of commissars and Special Department informers. With their trenches so close to the Germans, there seemed little difference between an enemy bullet and that final ration from the Soviet state, the NKVD’s ‘nine grams of lead’.

Most of the reported cases of anti-Soviet activities took place behind the lines. Newly arrived recruits who grumbled were more likely to be denounced by fellow conscripts. A Stalingrad civilian in Training Battalion 178 who ventured to say that they would freeze and starve when winter came, was quickly arrested ‘thanks to the political consciousness of Trainees K. and I.’. NKVD paranoia stretched back among the transport and engineer detachments of the Stalingrad Front on the east bank of the Volga. Twelve soldiers and five officers, including two senior officers, were arrested in October for ‘anti-Soviet activities of a defeatist nature’. ‘A majority of those arrested are from the occupied territories’, the report added, claiming for good measure that they had a plan ‘to betray the Motherland and join the enemy’.

The newspaper reports which claimed that frontoviki eagerly discussed the heroic leadership of Comrade Stalin in their trenches, and went into the attack with the battle-cry ‘Za Stalina!’(‘For Stalin’), were pure propaganda. Yury Belash, a soldier poet, once wrote a verse:

To be honest about it –

in the trenches the last thing we thought about

was Stalin.

However much the Soviet press played up stories of personal heroism, the authorities’ total lack of respect for the individual was clearly confirmed by the propaganda at Stalingrad. Newspapers took up the slogan, apparently coined by Chuikov at a meeting of the military council: ‘Every man must become one of the stones of the city.’ One of Chuikov’s officers added admiringly that the 62nd Army ‘cemented the stones of the Stalin-inspired city like living concrete’. This theme reached its ultimate expression in the monstrous post-war memorial constructed on the Mamaev Kurgan, where the figures of soldiers among the ruins are deliberately portrayed in a bas-relief of brickwork. This monument to the Soviet Union, not to the soldiers themselves, virtually turns them into a terracotta army, like those of Chinese emperors.

Even day-to-day administrative policy confirmed the impression of soldiers as discardable items. New boots, uniforms and equipment were reserved for new armies being formed in the rear. For front-line soldiers at Stalingrad, replacement items did not come from the quartermaster’s store, they came off the bodies of dead comrades. Nothing was wasted when it came to burial. Men were even sent forward at night into no man’s land to strip corpses to their underclothes. The sight of fallen comrades, left semi-naked in the open, revolted many. When winter came in its full force, snow-camouflage suits became especially precious. A wounded soldier would try to take off the white coverall before it became bloodstained. It was a well-known occurrence for a soldier, too badly wounded to remove his snow-camouflage suit, to apologize for any marks to those taking it from him.

Grossman, a close observer of his fellow countrymen at Stalingrad, rejected the idea that they had been completely brutalized into indifference. ‘Life is not easy for a Russian,’ he wrote, ‘but in his heart he does not feel that this is unavoidable. During the war at the front, I observed just two feelings towards events: either an incredible optimism or a complete gloom. No one can bear the thought that the war is going to last a long time, and anyone who says that only months and months of hard work will lead to victory is not believed.’ The truth was that in such a terrible battle you could think only about surviving for the rest of that day or even hour. To look forward to any point beyond was dangerous dreaming.

Soldiers at least had some sort of purpose and fairly regular rations to keep them going. The civilians trapped in Stalingrad had virtually nothing. How over 10,000 of them, including 1,000 children, were still alive in the city’s ruins after over five months of battle, remains the most astonishing part of the whole Stalingrad story.

Soviet sources claim that between 24 August, the day after the first air raids, when Stalingrad inhabitants were finally allowed to cross the Volga, and 10 September, 300,000 civilians were evacuated to the east bank. It was totally inadequate, considering the swollen population of the city. What was not admitted at the time was that well over 50,000 civilians were trapped on the west bank, partly due to the NKVD’s control of river crossing.

The last official evacuation was chaotic and tragic. The crowd was huge. It included many families that had been refused permission to leave until the last moment, often without any good reason. The steamer became dangerously overloaded, so no more people were allowed on board. Those left behind on the jetty stood watching the ferry leave. They despaired for themselves, but then, ‘only fifty yards out from the jetty, it was hit by a bomb’ and sank, blazing, in front of their eyes.

Many civilians could not even get near the river’s edge, having been trapped behind German lines by the Sixth Army’s rapid advances. Hitler, on 2 September, had ordered Stalingrad to be cleared of civilians, yet the first exodus was more spontaneous than organized. A large column of refugees left the city heading west into German-occupied territory on 14 September, with their few remaining possessions piled on handcarts or carried in cardboard suitcases. A German correspondent saw civilians caught by shellfire turned into a bloody mess of torso and torn clothes, with a severed hand stuck in telegraph wires overhead. Yet those who escaped to safety in German territory had little hope of finding food. Detachments from the Sixth Army were already at work, requisitioning and harvesting any crops in the region for their own use. Even Cossack farmers, some of them former White Guards, who had welcomed the Germans as liberators with bread and salt, were robbed of all livestock and grain.

The sight of refugees could produce strange confusions of thinking, as a senior ΝCO from the 295th Infantry Division unintentionally revealed in a letter home. ‘Today I saw many refugees coming from Stalingrad. A scene of indescribable misery. Children, women, old men – as old as grandpa – lie here by the road only lightly clothed and with no protection from the cold. Although they’re our enemy, it was deeply shocking. For that reason we can’t thank our Führer and the Good Lord enough, that our homeland has still been spared such terrible wretchedness. I have already seen much misery during this war, but Russia surpasses everything. Above all Stalingrad. You won’t understand this – one has to have seen it.’

The many thousands of women and children left behind in the city sought shelter in the cellars of ruins, in sewers and in caves dug into steep banks. There were apparently even civilians cowering in shell holes on the Mamaev Kurgan during the worst of the fighting. Many, of course, did not survive. Simonov, on his first visit, was astonished. ‘We crossed a bridge over one of the gullies intersecting the city. I shall never forget the scene that opened out before me. This gully, which stretched to my left and right, swarmed with life, just like an anthill dotted with caves. Entire streets had been excavated on either side. The mouths of the caves were covered with charred boards and rags. The women had utilized everything that could be of service.’

He wrote of the ‘almost incredible’ suffering of all those in Stalingrad, whether soldier or civilian, but then quickly dismissed any notion of sentimentality – ‘these things cannot be helped: the struggle being waged is for life or death’. He then went on to describe the body of a drowned woman washed up on the Volga shore holding on to a charred log ‘with scorched and distorted fingers. Her face is disfigured: the suffering she underwent before death released her must have been unbearable. The Germans did this, did it in front of our eyes. And let them not ask for quarter from those who witnessed it. After Stalingrad we shall give no quarter.’

Although shelter was the first priority, civilians faced the virtual impossibility of finding food and water. Each time there was a lull in the bombardments, women and children appeared out of holes in the ground to cut slabs of meat off dead horses before homeless dogs and rats stripped the carcass. The chief foragers were children. Younger, smaller and more agile, they presented less of a target. They sneaked down at night to the badly burned grain elevator south of the Tsaritsa, which the Germans had finally captured. There, they often managed to fill bags or satchels with scorched wheat and scamper away, but German sentries, protecting the silos for their own army’s use, shot a number of them. Those who attempted to steal German Army ration tins were also shot on the spot, both in Stalingrad itself, and in the rear areas.

German soldiers made use of Stalingrad orphans themselves. Daily tasks, such as filling water-bottles, were dangerous when Russian snipers lay in wait for any movement. So, for the promise of a crust of bread, they would get Russian boys and girls to take their water-bottles down to the Volga’s edge to fill them. When the Soviet side realized what was happening, Red Army soldiers shot children on such missions. A precedent for such ruthlessness had been set during the early stages of the siege of Leningrad, when civilians had been used by German troops as a shield. Stalin had immediately issued an order that Red Army troops were to kill any civilians obeying German orders, even if they were acting under duress. This instruction was implemented in Stalingrad. ‘The enemy’, reported the 37th Guards Rifle Division, ‘forced civilians forward to drag back dead German soldiers and officers. Our soldiers opened fire no matter who tried to carry away the fascist corpses.’ Other children were much luckier. They attached themselves to Soviet regiments and headquarters. Many were used as runners, scouts or spies, but the smaller orphans, some as young as four or five, were just mascots.

Sixth Army headquarters established one Kommandantur for the centre and north of the city, and another for south of the Tsaritsa. Each had a company of Feldgendarmerie responsible, among other things, for guarding against sabotage and registering and evacuating civilians. Instructions were issued that anyone who failed to register would be shot. Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star on their sleeve. The Feldgendarmerie worked closely with the Secret Field Police under Kommissar Wilhelm Möritz. One Kommandantur officer, captured after the battle, admitted during interrogation that their tasks had also included the selection of ‘suitable’ civilians for forced labour in Germany and the handing over of Communist activists and Jews to the SD. Soviet sources claim that the Germans executed over 3,000 civilians during the fighting, and that more than 60,000 civilians from Stalingrad were transported back to the Reich, on Hitler’s order, as slave labour. The number of Jews and Communists arrested by the Sixth Army’s Feldgendarmerie and handed over to the SS is not given. Sonderkommando 4a, following the Sixth Army’s advance, had reached Nizhne-Chirskaya in the wake of XXIV Panzer Corps on 25 August, and promptly massacred two truck-loads of children, ‘the majority aged between six and twelve’. They had also executed a number of Communist officials and NKVD informers denounced by Cossacks, whose ‘Kulak’ families had suffered greatly at the regime’s hands. The Sonderkommando remained in the Stalingrad area until the fourth week of September.

A major evacuation of civilians took place on 5 October, and the last at the beginning of November. Batches of civilians were selected for loading on to cattle trucks at railheads to the rear. The misery of refugees was all too evident. The wise took every blanket they could carry to barter for food in the weeks ahead. These Stalingrad civilians were marched first to an improvised camp near the village of Voro-ponovo (now Gorkovsky), then on to other camps at Marinovka, Kalach and Nizhne-Chirskaya.

The treatment they received was still not quite as bad as that suffered by captured Russian soldiers. In the cage near Gumrak there were, by 11 September, over 2,000 prisoners of war, many of them from worker militia battalions. Soviet officers were left to keep order, if necessary with their fists, when the food was thrown in over the wire. No medical facilities were provided. A Soviet doctor did what he could for the wounded, but ‘in hopeless cases, he could only put them out of their misery’.

Subsequent round-ups were more brutal. Finally, ‘a huge black crowd’ was forced out into the first snows. This last and largest group of Stalingrad civilians was marched to Karpovka and other camps. Conditions were appalling. Even the name ‘camp’ was optimistic, since they were just a large encirclement of barbed wire on the open steppe. There were no huts. The prisoners tried to dig holes in the ground with their bare hands to escape the biting winds, then huddle together. On the night of 7 November, the anniversary of the revolution, the Russian prisoners celebrated, singing quietly among themselves, but that evening it began to rain heavily. Towards morning, the temperature fell rapidly, bringing a hard frost and they shivered uncontrollably in their sodden clothes. Many died. In one hole, the mother next to Valentina Nefyodova sat clasping an infant son and an infant daughter on her knees: the girl survived, but the boy died in her arms. Nefyodova’s teenage cousin also froze to death that night.

The guards in these camps were mostly Ukrainians in German uniform.* Many were bulbovitsi, extreme right-wing nationalists named after Taras Bulba, who treated their victims terribly. Not all the guards, however, were cruel. Some allowed their charges to escape, in exchange for a bribe. But escapers were soon hunted down in the open steppe by Feldgendarmerie. In the Morozovsk camp, however, the Goncharov family, mother, grandmother and two children, were saved by the kindness of a German doctor, who arranged for them to be moved to a nearby farmstead because the eleven-year-old Nikolay was suffering from such bad frostbite.

Of the thousands who still managed to avoid the round-ups in the city, leading a troglodyte existence under the rubble – ‘no one knows how’ – virtually all fell sick from food poisoning or polluted water. On the outskirts of the town, children crept out, like wild animals at night, to search for roots and wild berries. Many survived for three or four days on a piece of stale bread given to them by either a German or a Russian soldier, depending on the front line. Women were often forced to offer their emaciated bodies to survive or to feed an infant. There are even reports of improvised brothels in the ruins. In several instances, love of a sort grew in the unpromising circumstances between Russian women and German soldiers. It was almost invariably a fatal liaison. A Stalingrad woman accused of ‘signalling to the enemy with a white handkerchief, was found to have ‘hidden three fascists’ in her cellar. She was handed over to the NKVD. The three German soldiers were shot on the spot.

On the sectors away from the city itself, fewer German prisoners seem to have been killed on capture, once Soviet military intelligence started to become more sophisticated. Their need for accurate information from prisoners grew rapidly in October, while Zhukov and his staff were planning the great counterstroke.

The Soviet interrogation of German prisoners of war, which usually took place on the day after capture, followed a fairly set pattern. The chief objective was to identify their formation and assess its current strength, supply situation and morale. German prisoners were also asked such questions as: Had they been a member of the Hitler Youth? What did they know of preparations for chemical warfare? What partisan actions had they heard about or witnessed? How effective were Soviet propaganda leaflets? What did their officers tell them about Communists? What had been their division’s route of advance since June 1941? (This was to see whether they could be linked to war crimes reported in any areas through which they had passed.) If the prisoner had come from a farming family, did they have Russian prisoners of war working for them at home? What were their names? Letters from home were confiscated to see if they gave any indication of civilian morale back in Germany. During the late summer and autumn of 1942, after the RAF’s ‘thousand-bomber raids’, NKVD interrogators were particularly interested in their effect on civilian morale and also on soldiers at the front. Later, when the NKVD was shaken to discover that so many Soviet citizens, mainly former Red Army soldiers, were attached to the German Army, interrogators tried to discover from prisoners how many had been with each company.

Out of an instinct of self-preservation, prisoners often said what they expected the Russians to want to hear. In some cases it also happened to be the truth. ‘Older soldiers’, said another corporal, ‘do not believe the propaganda stuffed into our heads by Goebbels. We remember the unforgettable lessons of 1918.’ By mid-September, captured Germans soldiers were openly admitting to their Russian interrogators that they and their comrades were ‘afraid of the approaching winter’.

Many of the prisoner interviews were carried out by Captain N. D. Dyatlenko of the NKVD, a German speaker transferred to the 7th Department of Stalingrad Front. Lieutenant-Colonel Kaplan, the 62nd Army’s deputy chief of intelligence, on the other hand, had to interrogate prisoners through his interpreter Derkachev. Kaplan clearly wasted little time when he got to work. After a badly wounded corporal revealed that 24th Panzer Division was reduced to sixteen tanks, Kaplan noted at the bottom of the page: ‘The interrogation was not completed because the man soon died of his wounds.’

Already aware of the tensions between the German and Romanian armies, Kaplan was also interested in strained relations within the Wehrmacht. Austrian prisoners, perhaps in the hope of better treatment, complained of the behaviour of German officers who discriminated against them. A thirty-two-year-old Czech in the 24th Panzer Division, who was captured on 28 September, even volunteered to fight for the Soviet Union. Red Army intelligence’s main priority at this time, however, was to form an accurate assessment of the Germans’ dependence on allied divisions along the Don Front and in the Kalmyk steppe.

A number of German regimental commanders at this time were horrified at the replacements they were being sent. One in the 14th Panzer Division wrote that ‘very energetic measures’ were needed to correct the ‘absence of strength of will and bravery’.

The greatest weakness, however, remained the allied troops, represented as full armies on Hitler’s situation map. The morale of Italians, Romanians and Hungarians alike had been shaken by isolated partisan raids on their trains to the front. It soon began to suffer badly from Russian air attack, even when few casualties were inflicted. And when they faced a Russian ground attack with Katyusha rockets from a ‘Stalin organ’, their troops began to wonder what they were doing there.

Soviet aircraft dropped leaflets written in Hungarian, Italian and Romanian, telling allied soldiers not to die uselessly for the Germans. This propaganda worked best on national minorities. Serbs and Ruthenians drafted into the Hungarian forces were the most likely to desert. ‘How can we possibly trust those who are not Hungarians?’ wrote Corporal Balogh in his diary. Red Army intelligence reported to Moscow that a number of small groups formed plans to desert together even before they reached the front. When the Russians attacked they hid in their trenches and waited to surrender.

A Ruthenian deserter from another regiment interviewed by the NKVD reported that most of his comrades were praying ‘God keep me alive’ for ‘whole days as they sat in their trenches. The majority of soldiers don’t want to fight, but they are afraid to desert because they believe the officers’ stories that the Russians will torture and shoot them.’

One of the greatest problems with allied armies was confusion. Front-line units were continually being shelled or bombed by their own allies. ‘God help us and make this battle short,’ wrote Corporal Balogh. ‘Everyone is bombing and shelling us.’ Less than a week later, he wrote: ‘Oh God, stop this terrible war. If we are to take part in it for much longer our nerve will break… Will we ever again have a nice pleasant Sunday at home? Will we have the chance to lean on our gates again? Will they remember us at home?’ Morale became so low that the Hungarian military authorities forbade soldiers to write home in case it led to severe unrest back in Budapest. Even bribery failed to work. Before the next attack, the soldiers were encouraged ‘with the best meal possible – chocolate slabs, preserves, lard, sugar and goulash’, but most of them suffered badly from stomach-ache afterwards, because ‘a man here isn’t accustomed to such a meal’.

‘The Russians have remarkable marksmen,’ wrote Balogh on 15 September. ‘God, don’t let me be their target. We are facing the best Russian units,’ added the ill-informed corporal, ‘Siberian riflemen under the command of Timoshenko. We are cold, but it is not winter yet. What would happen in winter if we are left to stay here? Help us, Blessed Virgin, to return home.’ The next day’s entry – another plea to ‘God and the Blessed Virgin’ – was the very last. Balogh’s diary, retrieved from his body near the bank of the Don, was translated into Russian a few days later at the headquarters of General Vatutin’s South-West Front and sent to Moscow.

The Italian 8th Army, which held the Don flank between the Hungarians and the 3rd Romanian Army, had caused concern to the Germans ever since late August. Führer headquarters was forced to agree that XXIX Army Corps should be used to strengthen the Italian defence. Its staff issued the following advice to liaison officers: ‘You should treat them politely, and a political and psychological understanding is necessary… The climate and environment in Italy makes an Italian soldier different from a German soldier. Italians tire more easily on one hand, and on the other they are more exuberant. You should not be superior towards our Italian allies who came here fearlessly into hard and unfamiliar conditions to help us. Don’t call them rude names, and don’t be sharp with them.’ Understanding did little to change the Italians’ manifest lack of enthusiasm for the war. A sergeant, when asked by a Soviet interpreter why his whole battalion surrendered without firing a shot, replied with sound civilian logic: ‘We did not fire back because we thought it would be a mistake.’

The Sixth Army, in a show of Anti-Comintern unity, even had an allied unit in the form of the 369th Croatian Regiment attached to the Austrian 100th Jäger Division. On 24 September, the Poglavnik of Croatia, Dr Ante Pavelić, arrived by air to inspect his troops and present medals. He was greeted by General Paulus and a guard of honour provided by Luftwaffe ground troops.

Strategically, the most important allied formations were the two Romanian armies on either flank of Paulus’s Sixth Army. Not only were they ill-equipped, they were not even up to strength. The Romanian regime, under pressure from Hitler to provide more troops, had drafted more than 2,000 civilian convicts sentenced for rape, looting and murder. Half of them were sent to 991 Special Straf-battalion, but so many deserted on its first encounter with the enemy that the unit was disbanded, and the remainder transferred to the 5th Infantry Division on the Don Front opposite Serafimovich.

Romanian officers appear to have been unusually paranoid about the enemy infiltration of their rear. Outbreaks of dysentery were regarded with more than suspicion. ‘Russian agents’, declared a warning circular from 1st Romanian Infantry Division, ‘have been carrying out mass poisonings in the rear to cause casualties among our troops. They use arsenic, one gram of which is enough to kill ten people.’ The poison was supposedly concealed in matchboxes, and the ‘agents’ were identified as ‘women, cooks and helpers connected with the provision of food’.

Germans of all ranks who came in contact with their allies were often dismayed at the way in which Romanian officers treated their men. They had an attitude of ‘lords and vassals’. An Austrian count, Lieutenant Graf Stolberg, reported: ‘Above all the officers were no good… they did not take any interest in their men.’ A pioneer corporal from 305th Infantry Division noticed that the Romanian field kitchens prepared three sets of meals – ‘one for officers, one for NCOs and one for the men, who got only a little to eat’.

Relations between the two allies were expressed in frequent brawls. ‘To avoid in future lamentable incidents and misunderstandings between Romanian and German soldiers, whose friendship is sealed with blood shed in the common cause on the field of battle,’ the commander-in-chief of the Third Romanian Army recommended the organization of ‘visits, dinners, parties, small feasts and so on, so that Romanian and German units should establish a closer spiritual link’.

During the early autumn of 1942, Red Army intelligence officers had only an inkling of the Wehrmacht’s dependence on ‘Hiwis’ – short for ‘Hilfswillige’ or volunteer helper. While some were genuine volunteers, most were Soviet prisoners of war, drafted from camps to make up shortages in manpower, primarily as labourers, but increasingly even in combat duties.

Colonel Groscurth, the chief of staff of XI Corps in the greater Don bend, observed in a letter to General Beck: ‘It is disturbing that we are forced to strengthen our fighting troops with Russian prisoners of war, who already are being turned into gunners. It’s an odd state of affairs that the “Beasts” we have been fighting against are now living with us in the closest harmony.’ Sixth Army had over 50,000 Russian auxiliaries attached to its front-line divisions, representing over a quarter of their strength. The 71st and the 76th Infantry Divisions had over 8,000 Hiwis each, roughly the same number of men, by mid-November, as their total German strength. (There is no figure for the number of Hiwis attached to the rest of the Sixth Army and other ancillary formations, which, according to some estimates, would bring the total to over 70,000.)

‘Russians in the German Army can be divided into three categories,’ a captured Hiwi told his NKVD interrogator. ‘Firstly, soldiers mobilized by German troops, so-called Cossack sections, which are attached to German divisions. Secondly, Hilfswillige made up of local people or Russian prisoners who volunteer, or those Red Army soldiers who desert to join the Germans. This category wears full German uniform, with their own ranks and badges. They eat like German soldiers and are attached to German regiments. Thirdly, there are Russian prisoners who do the dirty jobs, kitchens, stables and so on. These three categories are treated in different ways, with the best treatment naturally reserved for the volunteers. The ordinary soldiers treated us well, but the worst treatment came from officers and NCOs in an Austrian division.’

This particular Hiwi had been one of eleven Russian prisoners taken from the camp at Novo-Aleksandrovsk, at the end of November 1941, to work for the German Army. Eight were shot when they collapsed on the march from starvation. This survivor was attached to a field kitchen with an infantry regiment, where he peeled potatoes. Then he was transferred to looking after horses. Many of the so-called Cossack units formed for anti-partisan and rear-area repression, which he mentioned, contained a high proportion of Ukrainians and Russians. Hitler loathed the idea ofUntermensch Slavs in German uniforms, so they had to be redefined as Cossacks, who were considered racially acceptable. This reflected the fundamental disagreement between the Nazi hierarchy, obsessed with the total subjugation of the Slav, and professional army officers who believed that their only hope was to act as the liberators of Russia from Communism. As early as the autumn of 1941, German Army intelligence had come to the conclusion that the Wehrmacht could not possibly win in Russia unless it turned the invasion into another civil war.

Hiwis who were induced, through promises, to volunteer from prison camp, were soon disabused. The Ruthenian deserter, during his interrogation, described some Hiwis he had encountered when looking for water in a village. They were Ukrainians who had deserted to the Germans in the hope of getting home to their families. ‘We believed the leaflets,’ they told him, ‘and wanted to get back to our wives.’ Instead, they found themselves in German uniform being trained by German officers. Discipline was ruthless. They could be shot ‘for the smallest fault’, such as falling behind on route marches. Soon they would be sent to the front. ‘Does this mean you will kill your own people?’ asked the Ruthenian. ‘What can we do?’ they answered. ‘If we run back to the Russians, we would be treated as traitors. And if we refuse to fight, we’ll be shot by the Germans.’

Most front-line German units seem to have treated their Hiwis well, albeit with a measure of affectionate contempt. An anti-tank gun detachment in 22nd Panzer Division west of the Don used to give their Hiwi, whom they of course called ‘Ivan’, a greatcoat and a rifle to guard their anti-tank gun when they went down to the local village for a drink, but on one occasion they had to run back to rescue him because a group of Romanian soldiers, having discovered his identity, wanted to shoot him on the spot.

To the Soviet authorities, the idea of former Red Army soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht was distinctly disturbing. They jumped to the conclusion that the purges and the work of the Special Departments had not been nearly thorough enough. The Stalingrad Front political department and the NKVD were obsessed with the use of Hiwis to infiltrate and attack their lines. ‘On some parts of the front’, Shcherbakov was informed, ‘there have been cases of former Russians who put on Red Army uniform and penetrate our positions for the purpose of reconnaissance and seizing officer and soldier prisoners for interrogation.’ On 38th Rifle Division’s sector (64th Army) on the night of 22 September, a Soviet reconnaissance patrol had bumped into a German patrol. The Red Army soldiers reported on their return that there had been at least one ‘former Russian’ with the Germans.

The phrase ‘former Russian’ was to serve as a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of men in the course of the next three years, as SMERSH concentrated on the question of treason, which lay so close to Stalin’s heart. By summarily stripping opponents and defectors of their national identity, the Soviet Union attempted to suppress any hint of disaffection in the Great Patriotic War.

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