Military history

12
Fortresses of Rubble and Iron

‘Will Stalingrad turn into a second Verdun?’ wrote Colonel Groscurth on 4 October. ‘That’s what one’s asking here with great concern.’ After Hitler’s speech at the Berlin Sportpalast four days before, claiming that nobody would ever shift them from their position on the Volga, Groscurth and others sensed that the Sixth Army would not be allowed to break off this battle, whatever the consequences. ‘It has even become a matter of prestige between Hitler and Stalin.’

The great German assault against the factory district in northern Stalingrad had started well on 27 September, but by the end of the second day, German divisions knew that they were in for their hardest fight yet. The Red October complex and the Barrikady gun factory had been turned into fortresses as lethal as those of Verdun. If anything, they were more dangerous because the Soviet regiments were so well hidden.

Officers from Gurtiev’s 308th Rifle Division of Siberians, on reaching the Barrikady factory and its railway sidings, took in ‘the dark towering bulk of the repair shops, the wet glistening rails already touched in spots with rust, the chaos of shattered freight cars, the piles of steel girders scattered in confusion over a yard as large as a city square, the heaps of coals and reddish slag, the mighty smoke-stacks pierced in many places by German shells’.

Gurtiev designated two regiments to defend the plant, and the third to hold the flank including the deep ravine running through to the Volga from the workers’ housing estate, which was already in flames. It soon became known as the ‘Gully of Death’. The Siberians wasted no time. ‘In grim silence they dug into the stony earth with their picks, cut embrasures in the walls of the workshops, fashioned dugouts, bunkers and communications trenches.’ One command post was set up in a long concrete-sided bay which ran under the huge sheds. Gurtiev was well known as a tough trainer of troops. When waiting in reserve east of the Volga, he had made them dig trenches, then brought in tanks to roll over them. ‘Ironing’ like this was the best way to teach them to dig deep.

Fortunately for the Siberians, their trenches were ready by the time the Stukas arrived. The ‘screechers’ or the ‘musicians’, as the Russians called the dive-bombers with their wailing sirens, caused fewer casualties than usual. The Siberians had kept their trenches narrow, to reduce their exposure to bomb fragments, but the continual shock waves from bomb explosions made the earth vibrate as if from an earthquake and caused a sick pain in the stomach. The heavy percussion left everyone temporarily deaf. Sometimes, the shock waves were so intense that they shattered glass and threw radio sets out of tune.

These aerial softening-up attacks, known as ‘house-warmings’, lasted most of the day. Next morning, the Barrikady yards were carpet-bombed by Heinkel 111 squadrons, and shelled by artillery and mortars again. Suddenly the German guns ceased firing. Even before the shouted warning, ‘Get ready!’, the Siberians prepared themselves, knowing full well what the uneasy lull heralded. Moments later they heard the grinding and metallic screech of tank tracks on rubble.

The German infantry discovered over the next few days that Gurtiev’s Siberian division did not sit waiting for them. ‘The Russians made attacks every day at first and last light,’ an NCO from the 100th Jäger Division reported. Chuikov’s appallingly wasteful policy of repeated counter-attacks astonished German generals, although they were forced to acknowledge that it wore down their troops. The most successful defensive measures, however, were the heavy guns on the east bank of the Volga, once their fire plans were coordinated.

In the Red October plant, detachments from the 414th Anti-Tank Division had concealed their 45-mm and 96-mm guns in the rubble, using lumps of discarded metal as camouflage and protection. They were sited for firing from ranges as short as 150 yards or less. By dawn on 28 September, two regiments of the 193rd Rifle Division had also crossed the Volga, and rapidly prepared positions. Their ‘house-warming’ was carried out by massed Stuka attacks the following day. The German advance made further reinforcements an urgent need. The 39th Guards Rifle Division was sent across even though it was only a third of its proper strength.

The German attacks grew heavier into October, especially when reinforced with the 94th Infantry and the 14th Panzer Division as well as five combat engineer battalions flown in specially. On the Soviet side, units were completely fragmented, and often all communications broke down, but individuals and groups fought on without orders. On the Barrikady sector, Sapper Kossichenko and an unnamed tank driver, each with one arm shattered, pulled the pins from grenades with their teeth. At night, sappers continually ran forward carrying more anti-tank mines, two at a time, ‘holding them under their armpits like loaves of bread’, to bury them in the rubble of the approaches. The German attacks, wrote Grossman, were eventually blunted by ‘dogged, rugged, Siberian obstinacy’. One German pioneer battalion in a single attack at this time sustained forty per cent casualties. The commander returned from visiting his men, stony-faced and silent.

Chuikov’s divisions were badly mauled, exhausted and very short of ammunition. Yet on 5 October, General Golikov, Yeremenko’s deputy commander, crossed the river to pass on Stalin’s order that the city be held and the parts occupied by the Germans recaptured. Chuikov disregarded such an impossible instruction. He knew that his only chance of holding on depended on massive artillery bombardments from across the river. The Germans soon made Yeremenko’s urgings irrelevant. After a relatively quiet day on 6 October, they launched a heavy assault on the Stalingrad tractor plant with the 14th Panzer Division attacking from the south-west and the 60th Motorized from the west. One of the 6oth’s battalions was virtually destroyed by salvoes of Katyushas fired at maximum range. The extra elevation was achieved by backing the launcher trucks so that their rear wheels hung over the steep Volga bank. Meanwhile, part of the 16th Panzer Division attacked the northern industrial suburb of Spartakovka, pushing back the remains of the 112th Rifle Division and the 124th Special Brigade. Chuikov’s army, now down to a drastically reduced area along the west bank, felt that it was being relentlessly pushed back into the river.

The Volga crossings became increasingly vulnerable with the 62nd Army’s perimeter so drastically reduced. German batteries and even machine-guns on direct fire ranged in on the landing points. A narrow pontoon bridge from Zaitsevsky island to the west bank had been built by a battalion of Volga watermen from Yaroslavl. This enabled a constant ant-like stream of bearers to cross during darkness, carrying rations and ammunition. Its small size reduced the target, but for those treading the constantly moving planks, the shells exploding in the river either side made each journey terrifying. Cargo boats were still needed for larger and heavier items, as well as evacuating the wounded. Replacement tanks were taken across by barge. ‘As soon as dusk falls’, wrote Grossman, ‘the men responsible for the river crossing come out of their dugouts, bunkers, trenches and hidden shelters.’

Close to the landing points on the east bank there were field bakeries in bunkers, underground kitchens providing hot food in thermos containers, even bathhouses. Despite such comparative comforts, the regime on the east bank was virtually as harsh as in the city itself. The cargo boats and their crews, drafted into the 71st Special Service Company, came directly under the new NKVD commander, Major-General Rogatin, who also commanded the military office of the River District.

Casualty rates among the riverboat crews ranked with those of front-line battalions. For example, the steamer Lastochka(‘the Swallow’), while evacuating wounded, received ten direct hits on a single crossing. The surviving members of the crew repaired the holes during the day, and were ready to sail again the following night. Losses could also be heavy from accidents under pressure. On 6 October, an overloaded boat capsized and sixteen men out of twenty-one were drowned. Shortly afterwards, another craft landed in the dark at the wrong place and thirty-four people were killed in a minefield. Although slightly late in the day, the incident prompted the authorities to ‘encircle minefields with barbed wire’.

The strain of the work often led to an alcoholic binge if the opportunity arose. On 12 October, when NKVD troops searching for deserters carried out a spot check on houses in the riverside village of Tumak, they found a ‘disgraceful scene’. A captain, a commissar, a stores sergeant, a corporal from the Volga flotilla and the local secretary of the Communist Party had ‘drunk themselves out of consciousness’, as the report put it, and were lying on the floor ‘in a sleeping state with women’. Still in their hopelessly inebriated condition, they were dragged in front of ‘the chief of NKVD troops in Stalingrad, Major-General Rogatin’.

There were the odd scandals on land as well. On 11 October, in the thick of the fighting for the Stalingrad tractor plant, T-34S from the 84th Tank Brigade, with soldiers from the 37th Guards Rifle Division clinging on to turrets and engine decks, counter-attacked the 14th Panzer Division on the south-west side of the works. Both of these Soviet formations were newcomers to the west bank. One tank driver, failing to spot a shell hole through his hatch visor, drove into it. According to the report ‘the infantry company commander, who was drunk’, flew into a rage at the jolt they received and jumped down. ‘He ran round to the front of the tank, opened the hatch and fired two shots, killing the driver.’

In that second week of October, a lull occurred in the fighting. Chuikov rightly suspected that the Germans were preparing an even bigger attack, probably with reinforcements.

Paulus was under as much pressure from Hitler as Chuikov was from Stalin. On 8 October, Army Group B, on orders from Führer headquarters, had instructed the Sixth Army to prepare another major offensive against northern Stalingrad to start at the latest by 14 October. Paulus and his headquarters staff were dismayed by their losses. One of his officers noted in the war diary that 94th Infantry Division was reduced to 535 front-line troops, ‘which signifies an average fighting strength per infantry battalion of three officers, eleven NCOs and sixty-two men!’ He also described 76th Infantry Division as ‘fought out’. Only the 305th Infantry Division, recruited from the northern shores of Lake Constance, could be spared within the Sixth Army to strengthen the formations already committed.

The Germans, with shouted taunts and leaflets, made no secret of their preparations. The only question was the precise objective. Reconnaissance companies from Soviet divisions were out every night to seize as many ‘tongues’ as possible. Hapless sentries or ration-carriers were dragged back for intensive interrogation, and the prisoner, usually out of sheer terror after all the Nazi propaganda about Bolshevik methods, was only too eager to talk. The intelligence section at 62nd Army headquarters soon concluded from a combination of sources that the main thrust would again be directed against the tractor plant. The remaining workers there and at the Barrikady, who had been repairing tanks and anti-tank guns right through the fighting, were either drafted into front-line battalions or, in the case of specialists, evacuated across the Volga.

Fortunately for the 62nd Army, their intelligence analysis proved correct. The German objectives were to clear the tractor factory and the brickworks on its southern side, then push on to the Volga bank. Chuikov’s risky decision to bring regiments from the Mamaev Kurgan to the northern sectors paid off. He was, however, horrified to hear that the Stavka had reduced the Stalingrad Front’s allocation of artillery ammunition. This was the first hint that a major counterattack was in preparation. Stalingrad, he suddenly realized with mixed emotions, now represented the bait in an enormous trap.

On Monday, 14 October, at 6 a.m. German time, the Sixth Army’s offensive began on a narrow front, using every available Stuka in General von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet. ‘The whole sky was full of aircraft,’ wrote a soldier in 389th Infantry Division, waiting to go into the attack, ‘every flak gun firing, bombs roaring down, aircraft crashing, an enormous piece of theatre which we followed with very mixed feelings from our trenches.’ German artillery and mortar fire smashed in dugouts, and phosphorus shells ignited any remaining combustible material.

‘The fighting assumed monstrous proportions beyond all possibility of measurement,’ wrote one of Chuikov’s officers. ‘The men in the communication trenches stumbled and fell as if on a ship’s deck during a storm.’ Commissars clearly felt an urge to become poetic. ‘Those of us who have seen the dark sky of Stalingrad in these days’, Dobronin wrote to Shcherbakov in Moscow, ‘will never forget it. It is threatening and severe, with purple flames licking the sky.’

The battle began with the main attack on the tractor plant from the south-west. At midday, part of XIV Panzer Corps recommenced its push from the north. Chuikov did not hesitate. He committed his main armoured force, the 84th Tank Brigade, against the major assault of three infantry divisions spearheaded by the 14th Panzer Division. ‘Our support from heavy weapons was unusually strong’, wrote an NCO in the 305th Infantry Division. ‘Several batteries of Nebel-werfer, Stukas shuttle-bombing and self-propelled assault guns in quantities never seen before bombarded the Russians, who in their fanaticism put up a tremendous resistance.’

‘It was a terrible, exhausting battle’, wrote an officer in 14th Panzer Division, ‘on and below the ground, in ruins, cellars, and factory sewers. Tanks climbed mounds of rubble and scrap, and crept screeching through chaotically destroyed workshops and fired at point-blank range in narrow yards. Many of the tanks shook or exploded from the force of an exploding enemy mine.’ Shells striking solid iron installations in the factory workshops produced showers of sparks visible through the dust and smoke.

The stamina of Soviet soldiers was indeed incredible, but they simply could not withstand the force at the central point of the attack. During the first morning, the German panzers broke through, cutting off Zholudev’s 37th Guards and the 112th Rifle Division. General Zholudev was buried alive in his bunker by an explosion, a common fate during that terrible day. Soldiers dug him out and carried him to army headquarters. Others seized the weapons of the dead and fought on. The dust-covered German panzers smashed right into the huge sheds of the tractor plant, like prehistoric monsters, spraying machine-gun fire all around, and crunching the shards of glass from the shattered skylights under their tracks. During the close-quarter fighting which followed, there were no clear front lines. Bypassed groups of Zholudev’s guardsmen would suddenly attack as if from nowhere. In such conditions, a wise German medical officer set up his forward dressing station inside a smelting furnace.

By the second day of the offensive, 15 October, Sixth Army headquarters felt able to record: ‘The major part of the tractor works is in our hands. There are only some pockets of resistance left behind our front.’ The 305th Infantry Division also forced the Russians back across the railway lines at the brickworks. That night, after 14th Panzer Division’s breakthrough into the tractor works, its 103rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment boldly cut through to the Volga bank by the oil tanks, harried by Soviet infantry attacking out of gullies. Fortunately for 62nd Army, Chuikov had been persuaded to move his headquarters, because communications were so bad. The fighting had hardly slackened. The 84th Tank Brigade claimed to have destroyed ‘more than thirty medium and heavy fascist tanks’ for the loss of eighteen of their own. The brigade’s human losses were ‘still being calculated’ when the report went in two days later. Although the figure for German tanks was almost certainly optimistic, the brigade’s junior commanders demonstrated inspiring courage that day.

The commissar of a light-artillery regiment, Babachenko, was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery when a battery was cut off. The defenders’ farewell radio message received at headquarters read: ‘Guns destroyed. Battery surrounded. We fight on and will not surrender. Best regards to everyone.’ Yet, using grenades, rifles and sub-machine-guns, the gunners broke the enemy encirclement and made a fresh stand, helping to restore the sector’s line of defence.

There were countless cases of unsung bravery by ordinary soldiers – ‘real mass heroism’, as the commissars put it. There were also trumpeted incidents of individual bravery, such as a company commander of 37th Guards Rifle Division, Lieutenant Gonychar, who with a captured machine-gun and just four men, managed to disperse an attacking German force at a critical moment. Nobody knew how many Red Army soldiers died that day, but 3,500 wounded were taken back across the Volga that night. The overworked medical orderlies suffered so many casualties that many of the wounded crawled to the river bank alone.

German commanders out in the steppe demanded constant news of progress in the city. ‘Factory walls, assembly lines, the whole superstructure collapses under the storm of bombs,’ wrote General Strecker to a friend, ‘but the enemy simply reappears and utilizes these newly created ruins to fortify his defensive positions.’ Some German battalions were down to fifty men. They sent back the corpses of their comrades at night for burial. Inevitably, a certain cynicism arose in German ranks about their leadership. ‘Our General,’ a soldier of 389th Infantry Division wrote home, ‘Jeneke [Jaenecke] he’s called, received the Knight’s Cross the day before yesterday. Now he’s achieved his objective.’

During the six days of fighting from 14 October, the Luftwaffe maintained relays of aircraft attacking river crossings and troops. There was hardly a moment when German aircraft were not overhead. ‘The help of our fighter force is needed,’ noted the political department of Stalingrad Front in a coded criticism of Red Army aviation passed on to Moscow. In fact, the 8th Air Army was down to fewer than 200 machines of all types, of which only two dozen were fighters. Yet even Luftwaffe pilots shared the growing suspicion of ground troops that the Russian defenders of Stalingrad might prove invincible. ‘I cannot understand’, one wrote home, ‘how men can survive such a hell, yet the Russians sit tight in the ruins, and holes and cellars, and a chaos of steel skeletons which used to be factories.’ These pilots also knew that their effectiveness would soon decrease rapidly as daylight hours shortened and the weather deteriorated.

The successful German thrust to the Volga just below the Stalingrad tractor plant entirely cut off the remains of the 112th Rifle Division and the militia brigades which had been facing XIV Panzer Corps to the north and west. While encircled fragments of Zholudev’s 37th Guards Rifle Division continued to fight on in the tractor plant, the remnants of the other formations were squeezed southwards. The great threat to the 62nd Army’s survival was a German thrust down the river bank, cutting off Gorishny’s division from the rear.

Chuikov’s new headquarters were in constant danger. Its close-defence group was frequently thrown into the fighting. Since the 62nd Army lost communications so often, Chuikov asked permission for a rear headquarters group to cross to the left bank, while a forward group, including the whole military council, remained on the east bank. Yeremenko and Khrushchev, only too aware of Stalin’s reaction, refused point-blank.

Also on 16 October, the Germans pushed down from the tractor works towards the Barrikady plant, but the combination of Russian tanks buried in the rubble and screaming salvoes of Katyusha rockets from the river bank broke up their attacks. That night, the rest of Lyudnikov’s 138th Rifle Division was brought across the Volga. As they marched forward from disembarkation, they had to step over ‘hundreds of wounded crawling towards the landing stage’. The fresh troops were thrown into an oblique line of defence just north of the Barrikady works.

General Yeremenko also crossed the river that night to assess the situation for himself. Leaning heavily on a walking stick after his wounds the previous year, he limped up the bank to the overcrowded bunkers of 62nd Army headquarters. The craters and smashed timbers of dugouts which had received direct hits left little to the imagination. Objects and individuals alike were covered in dust and ash. General Zholudev broke down in tears, recounting the destruction of his division in the tractor works. Yet next day, after Yeremenko’s return, Front headquarters had to warn Chuikov that even less ammunition would be available.

After the Germans had cut off the Soviet forces north of the Stalingrad tractor plant on the night of 15 October, Chuikov received little encouraging news from them, only ‘many requests’ from the headquarters of 112th Rifle Division and 115th Special Brigade for permission to withdraw across the Volga. Both headquarters apparently provided ‘false information’, claiming that their regiments had been virtually wiped out. This request to withdraw, tantamount to treason after Stalin’s order, was rejected. During a lull in the fighting several days later, Chuikov sent Colonel Kamynin to the enclave to check the state of their regiments. He found that 112th Rifle Division still had 598 men left, while 115th Special Brigade had 890. The senior commissar, according to the report, ‘instead of organizing an active defence… did not emerge from his bunker and tried in a panic-stricken way to persuade his commander to withdraw across the Volga’. For ‘their betrayal of Stalingrad’s defence’ and ‘exceptional cowardice’, the accused senior officers and commissars were later court-martialled by the Military Council of 62nd Army. Their fate is not recorded, but they can have expected little mercy from Chuikov.

Diversionary offensives were mounted on 19 October by the Don Front to the north-west, and by 64th Army to the south. These efforts took the pressure off the 62nd Army for only a few days, but the breathing-space enabled shattered regiments to be pulled back across the Volga to re-form with reinforcements. Spiritual help came in a strange form. Rumours spread that Comrade Stalin himself had been seen in the city. An old Bolshevik who had fought in the siege of Tsaritsyn even claimed that the Great Leader had appeared in his former headquarters. This visitation, reminiscent of St James’s miraculous appearance to the Spanish Army when fighting the Moors, had absolutely no foundation in truth.

One prominent civilian, however, was particularly keen to visit the west bank at this time. This was Dmitry Manuilsky, the Comintern veteran responsible for German affairs, who had made a doomed attempt with Karl Radek to launch a second German revolution in October 1923 before Lenin finally expired. He had later been the Ukrainian largely responsible for Stalin’s devastation of the Ukraine in 1933. Manuilsky had a special interest which was to manifest itself later, but Chuikov firmly refused his requests to visit the west bank.

Back in Berlin, Goebbels’s moods vacillated again between a conviction that the fall of Stalingrad was imminent – he gave orders on 19 October that all recipients of the Knight’s Cross should be brought back for press interviews – and moments of caution. Concerned that the German people might be disappointed at the slow progress, he felt that they should be reminded of how far the German armies had advanced in just sixteen months. He gave orders that signs should be put up in German cities showing the distance to Stalingrad. Three days later he ordered that names such as Red October and Red Barricade should be avoided at all costs when reporting the tough fighting, in case it encouraged ‘Communist-infected circles’.

During the huge battles for the northern industrial sector of the city, house-fighting, with local attacks and counter-attacks, had continued in the central districts. One of the most famous episodes of the Stalingrad battle was the defence of ‘Pavlov’s house’, which lasted for fifty-eight days.

At the end of September, a platoon from the 42nd Guards Regiment had seized a four-storey building overlooking a square, some 300 yards in from the top of the river bank. Their commander, Lieutenant Afanasev, was blinded early in the fighting, so Sergeant Jakob Pavlov took over command. They discovered several civilians in the basement who stayed on throughout the fighting. One of them, Mariya Uly-anova, took an active part in the defence. Pavlov’s men smashed through cellar walls, to improve their communications, and cut holes in the walls, to make better firing points for their machine-guns and long-barrelled anti-tank rifles. Whenever panzers approached, Pavlov’s men scattered, either to the cellar or to the top floor, from where they were able to engage them at close range. The panzer crews could not elevate their main armament sufficiently to fire back. Chuikov later liked to make the point that Pavlov’s men killed more enemy soldiers than the Germans lost in the capture of Paris. (Jakob Pavlov, made a Hero of the Soviet Union, later became the Archimandrite Kyrill in the monastery at Sergievo – formerly Zagorsk – where he attracted a huge following of the faithful that had nothing to do with his fame from Stalingrad. He is now very frail.)

Another story, more of a vignette gleaned from letters, concerned Lieutenant Charnosov, an artillery observer from the 384th Artillery Regiment. His observation post was at the top of a shell-wrecked building from where he called down artillery fire. His last letter to his wife read: ‘Hello, Shura! I send kisses to our two little birds, Slavik and Lydusia. I am in good health. I have been wounded twice but these are just scratches and so I still manage to direct my battery all right. The time of hard fighting has come to the city of our beloved leader, to the city of Stalin. During these days of hard fighting I am avenging my beloved birthplace of Smolensk, but at night I go down to the basement where two fair-haired children sit on my lap. They remind me of Slavik and Lyda.’ On his body was found his wife’s previous letter. ‘I am very happy that you are fighting so well,’ she had written, ‘and that you have been awarded a medal. Fight to the last drop of your blood, and don’t let them capture you, because prison camp is worse than death.’

This exchange of letters was seen as exemplary, and also as typical of the moment. They may well be genuine, but like many others, they revealed only a partial truth. When soldiers sat down in the corner of a trench or ill-lit cellar to write home, they often had trouble expressing themselves. The single sheet, which would later be folded into a triangle, like a paper boat, because there were no envelopes, seemed both too large and too small for their purposes. The resultant letter stuck, as a result, to three main themes: enquiries after the family at home, reassurance (‘I’m getting along all right–still alive’), and preoccupation with the battle (‘we are constantly destroying their manpower and equipment. Day or night, we won’t leave them in peace’). Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad were well aware that the whole nation’s eyes were on them, but many must have tailored part of their letters because they knew that the Special Departments censored mail carefully.

Even when they wanted to escape when writing to their wife or sweetheart, the battle stayed with them always, partly because a man’s worth was defined by the opinion of his comrades and commander. ‘Mariya,’ wrote a certain Kolya, ‘I think you will remember our last evening together. Because now, this minute, it is exactly a year since we were parted. And it was very difficult for me to say goodbye to you. It’s very sad, but we had to part because it was the order of the Motherland. We are carrying out this order as well as we can. The Motherland requires those of us who are defending this town to resist to the end. And we are going to carry out that order.’

The majority of Russian soldiers seem to have subsumed their personal feelings within the cause of the Great Patriotic War. They may have been more afraid of the censor than their German counterparts; they may have been more effectively brainwashed by the Stalinist regime, and yet the concept of self-sacrifice comes across as much more than an ideological slogan. It appears almost atavistic, a moral compulsion in the face of the invader. ‘People might reproach me’, wrote a Red Army lieutenant in Stalingrad to his bride of a few weeks, ‘if they read this letter about the reason why I am fighting for you. But I can’t distinguish where you end, and where the Motherland begins. You and it are the same for me.’

A comparative study of letters home written by officers and soldiers on both sides is most instructive. In many of the letters from Germans in Stalingrad at this time, there is often a hurt, disabused, even disbelieving note at what was happening, as if this was no longer the same war on which they had embarked. ‘I often ask myself, wrote a German lieutenant to his wife, ‘what all this suffering is for. Has mankind gone crazy? This terrible time will mark many of us for ever.’ And despite the optimistic propaganda of imminent victory at home, many wives sensed the truth: ‘I can’t stop worrying. I know that you are fighting constantly. I will always be your faithful wife. My life belongs to you and to our world.’

There was also a surprising number of dissatisfied Russian soldiers who either forgot that their letters were censored, or were so downcast that they no longer cared. Many complained about their rations. ‘Aunt Lyuba,’ wrote one young soldier, ‘please send me some food. I am ashamed to ask you, but hunger makes me do it.’ Many admitted that they were reduced to scavenging, and others told their families that soldiers were falling ill ‘because of bad food and insanitary conditions’. One soldier suffering from dysentery wrote: ‘If it goes on like this, it won’t be possible to avoid an epidemic. We also have lice, which are the first source of disease.’ The soldier’s prediction soon proved correct. In Hospital 4169, soldiers with typhus were rapidly isolated. The doctors thought that ‘the wounded caught typhus from local people on the way to the hospital and that it spread from there’.

As well as complaints about bad food and conditions, strong traces of defeatism still surfaced. The commissars, always ready to jump at their own shadows in the Stalinist night, were clearly unsettled by the results of NKVD postal censorship. ‘In 62nd Army alone, in the first half of October, military secrets were divulged in 12,747 letters,’ the political department reported to Moscow. ‘Some letters contain clear anti-Soviet statements, praising the fascist army and failing to believe in the victory of the Red Army.’ A few examples were quoted. ‘Hundreds and thousands of people die every day,’ wrote a soldier to his wife. ‘Now it is all so hard that I do not see a way out. We can consider Stalingrad as good as surrendered.’ At a time when most Russian civilians had been living off little more than soups made from nettles and other weeds, a soldier in the 245th Rifle Regiment wrote to his family: ‘In the rear they must be shouting that everything should be for the front, but at the front we have nothing. The food is bad and there is little of it. The things they say are not true.’ Almost any form of honesty in a letter home was fatal. A lieutenant who wrote that ‘German aircraft are very good… Our anti-aircraft people shoot down only very few of them’ was also identified as a traitor.

The danger did not lie only with the censors. A very naive eighteen-year-old Ukrainian, drafted as a reinforcement into Rodimtsev’s division, told fellow soldiers that they should not believe all that they were told about the enemy: ‘In the occupied territory, I have a father and a sister and the Germans there don’t kill or rob from anyone. They treat people well. My sister has been working for Germans.’ His comrades arrested him on the spot. ‘The investigation is under way,’ the report to Moscow concluded.

One form of political repression within the Red Army was in fact easing at this time. Stalin, in a deliberate policy to boost morale, had already announced the introduction of awards with a decidedly reactionary flavour, such as the Orders of Kutuzov and Suvorov. But his most overt reform, announced on 9 October, was Decree 307, which re-established the single command. Commissars were downgraded to an advisory and ‘educational’ role.

Commissars were appalled to discover quite how much Red Army officers loathed and despised them. Officers in aviation regiments were said to have been particularly insulting. The political department of Stalingrad Front deplored the ‘absolutely incorrect attitude’ which had emerged. One regimental commander said to his commissar: ‘Without my permission, you have no right to enter and speak to me.’ Other commissars found their ‘living standards decrease’, since they were ‘forced to eat with the soldiers’. Even junior lieutenants dared to remark that they did not see why commissars should receive officers’ pay any more, ‘because now that they are no longer responsible for anything, they will read a newspaper and go to bed’. Political departments were now considered an ‘unnecessary appendix’. To say that commissars were finished, Dobronin wrote to Shcherbakov in a clear attempt to seek support, was ‘a counter-revolutionary statement’. Dobronin had already revealed his own feelings when, earlier in October, he reported, without criticism, that a soldier had said: ‘They’ve invented the Orders of Kutuzov and Suvorov. Now they should also have medals of St Nicholas and St George, and that’ll be the end of the Soviet Union.’

The principal Communist awards – Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star – were still, of course, taken very seriously by the political authorities, even if the Red Star had become something of a Stakhanovite ration issued to every man who destroyed a German tank. When, on the night of 26 October, the chief of the manpower department of 64th Army lost a suitcase containing forty Orders of the Red Banner, while waiting for a ferry to cross the Volga, a terrible consternation ensued. One might almost have thought that the defence plans for the whole of the Stalingrad Front had been lost. The suitcase was finally rediscovered two miles away on the following day. Only a single medal was missing. It may well have been taken by a soldier who decided, perhaps warming to the idea after a few drinks, that his efforts at the front had been insufficiently recognized. The chief of the manpower department was put in front of a military tribunal, charged with ‘criminal carelessness’.

Soldiers, on the other hand, had a much more robust attitude toward these symbols of bravery. When one of them received an award, his comrades dropped it in a mug of vodka, which he then had to drink, catching the medal in his teeth as he drained the last drops.

The real Stakhanovite stars of the 62nd Army were not in fact the destroyers of tanks, but snipers. A new cult of ‘sniperism’ was launched, and as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution approached, the propaganda surrounding this black art became frenzied, with ‘a new wave of socialistic competition for the largest numbers of Fritzes killed’. A sniper on reaching forty kills would receive the ‘For Bravery’ medal, and the title of ‘noble sniper’.

The most famous sniper of them all, although not the highest scorer, was Zaitsev in Batyuk’s division, who, during the October Revolution celebrations, raised his tally of kills to 149 Germans. (He had promised to achieve 150, but was one short.) The highest scorer, identified only as ‘Zikan’, killed 224 Germans by 20 November. For the 62nd Army, the taciturn Zaitsev, a shepherd from the foothills of the Urals, represented much more than any sporting hero. News of further additions to his score passed from mouth to mouth along the front.

Zaitsev, whose name means hare in Russian, was put in charge of training young snipers, and his pupils became known as zaichata, or ‘leverets’. This was the start of the ‘sniper movement’ in the 62nd Army. Conferences were arranged to spread the doctrine of ‘sniperism’, and exchange ideas on technique. The Don and South-West Fronts took up the ‘sniper movement’, and produced their star shots, such as Sergeant Passar of 21st Army. Especially proud of his head shots, he was credited with 103 kills.

Non-Russian snipers were singled out for praise: Kucherenko, a Ukrainian, who killed nineteen Germans, and an Uzbek from 169th Rifle Division who killed five in three days. In 64th Army, Sniper Kovbasa (the Ukrainian word for sausage) worked from a network of at least three trenches, one for sleeping and two fire trenches, all connected. In addition, he dug fake positions out to the side in front of neighbouring platoons. In these he installed white flags attached to levers, which he could agitate from a distance with cords. Kovbasa proudly claimed that as soon as a German saw one of his little white flags waving, he could not help raising himself in his trench to take a better look, and shout ‘Rus, komm, komm!’ Kovbasa then got him from an angle. Danielov in 161st Rifle Regiment also dug a false trench, and fashioned scarecrow figures with bits of Red Army equipment. He then waited for inexperienced German soldiers to shoot at them. Four of them fell victim. In 13th Guards Rifle Division Senior Sergeant Dolymin, installed in an attic, picked off the crews of an enemy machine-gun, and a field gun. The most prized targets, however, remained German artillery spotters. ‘For two days [Corporal Studentov] tracked an observation officer and killed him with the first shot.’ Studentov vowed to raise his score to 170 Germans from 124 by the anniversary of the Revolution.

All the star snipers had their own techniques and favourite hiding places. ‘Noble sniper’ Ilin, who was credited with ‘185 Fritzes’, sometimes used an old barrel, or pipe, as a hide. Ilin, a commissar from a Guards rifle regiment, operated on the Red October sector. ‘Fascists should know the strength of weapons in the hands of Soviet supermen,’ he proclaimed, promising to train ten other snipers.

Some Soviet sources claim that the Germans brought in the chief of their sniper school to hunt down Zaitsev, but that Zaitsev outwitted him. Zaitsev, after a hunt of several days, apparently spotted his hide under a sheet of corrugated iron, and shot him dead. The telescopic sight off his prey’s rifle, allegedly Zaitsev’s most treasured trophy, is still exhibited in the Moscow armed forces museum, but this dramatic story remains essentially unconvincing. It is worth noting that there is absolutely no mention of it in any of the reports to Shcherbakov, even though almost every aspect of ‘sniperism’ was reported with relish.

Grossman was fascinated by the character and life of snipers. He got to know Zaitsev well, and several others, including Anatoly Chekov. Chekov had followed his father, a drunkard, to work in a chemical plant. He had ‘learned the dark sides of life’ since childhood, but also discovered a love of geography, and now dreamed of different parts of the world during the long days in hides, waiting for a victim to appear. Chekov turned out to be one of those naturally gifted killers which wars bring out. He had excelled at sniper school and as a twenty-year-old in Stalingrad, he seemed to experience no fear – ‘just as the eagle is never afraid of heights’. He possessed a rare skill for camouflage in hides at the top of tall buildings. To prevent the muzzle flash from giving away his position, he improvised a flash concealer for the end of his barrel and never fired in bad light. As a further precaution to reduce the visibility of the flash, he tried to position himself in front of a white wall.

One day, he took Grossman with him. The easiest, and most regular, targets were the soldiers who brought forward food containers to the front-line positions. It was not long before an infantryman on ration detail appeared. Using the telescopic sight, Chekov aimed two inches above the tip of the nose. The German soldier fell backwards, dropping the food container. Chekov quivered with excitement. A second soldier appeared. Chekov shot him. Then a third German crawled forward. Chekov killed him too. ‘Three,’ Chekov murmured to himself. The full score would be noted down later. His best was seventeen kills in two days. Shooting a man carrying water-bottles was a bonus, Chekov remarked, since it forced others to drink polluted water. Grossman posed the question whether this boy, who dreamed of foreign parts and ‘who wouldn’t hurt a fly’, was not ‘a saint of the Patriotic War’.*

The sniper cult produced imitators with different weapons. Manen-kov of 95th Rifle Division became renowned with the long and unwieldy PTR (anti-tank) rifle. He became a Hero of the Soviet Union after destroying six tanks in the fighting round the Barrikady gun factory. A Lieutenant Vinogradov in 149th Artillery Division became famous as the best grenade thrower. When he and twenty-six men were cut off without food for three days, the first message Vinogradov passed back was a request for grenades, not rations. Even when wounded and deaf, Vinogradov was ‘still the best Fritz-hunter’. He once managed to stalk and kill a German company commander and take his papers from the corpse.

As the German divisions pushed southwards from the tractor works towards the line of defence at the Barrikady factory, Chuikov, on the night of 17 October, changed his headquarters yet again. He ended up on the river bank, level with the Mamaev Kurgan. A strong force of Germans broke through to the Volga the next day, but were forced back in a counter-attack.

The only reassuring news was from Colonel Kamynin, sent to the pocket of resistance left north of the tractor works in Rynok and Spartakovka. The situation had been restored, and the troops were in general fighting bravely. There were still problems, however, with the militia brigades. On the night of 25 October, a whole section of 124th Special Brigade, ‘formerly workers at Stalingrad tractor works’, set out to cross over to the Germans. Only a single sentry had been against the idea, but he had agreed to join them when threatened. Out in no man’s land, the sentry pretended that he had a problem with a foot cloth, and stopped. He took the opportunity to escape from the others, and ran back to the Russian lines. The deserters fired after him, but without success. The sentry, Soldier D., reached his regiment safely, but was then arrested and court-martialled ‘for not taking decisive measures to inform his commanders of the forthcoming crime and preventing the traitors from deserting’.

The battle of attrition continued around the Barrikady factory and Red October, with attack and counter-attack. A battalion command post of the 305th Infantry Division, according to one officer, was ‘so close to the enemy that the regimental commander could hear the Russian “Urrah!” at the other end of the telephone’. A Russian regimental commander, however, was in the midst of the fighting. When his headquarters was overrun, he radioed for a Katyusha strike right on to his own position.

German soldiers had to admit that ‘the dogs fight like lions’. Their own casualties mounted rapidly. The cries of ‘Sani! Hilfe!’ from the wounded became almost as much part of the scene as the explosions, and the sounds of ricochets off the rubble. Yet the 62nd Army was reduced to several bridgeheads on the west bank, none more than a few hundred yards deep. Streets were taken, Soviet positions pushed back even closer to the Volga, the Barrikady gun factory partially overrun. The 62nd Army’s last crossing point was under direct machine-gun fire, and all reinforcements had to be thrown into that sector to save it. Soviet divisions were reduced to a few hundred men each, but they still fought back at night. ‘We felt at home in the dark,’ wrote Chuikov.

‘Father,’ a German corporal wrote home, ‘you kept telling me: “Be faithful to your standard and you’ll win.” You will not forget these words because the time has come for every sensible man in Germany to curse the madness of this war. It’s impossible to describe what is happening here. Everyone in Stalingrad who still possesses a head and hands, women as well as men, carries on fighting.’ Another German soldier also wrote home in bitter mood: ‘Don’t worry, don’t be upset, because the sooner I am under the ground, the less I will suffer. We often think that Russia should capitulate, but these uneducated people are too stupid to realize it.’ A third soldier surveyed the ruins around him. ‘Here a saying from the Gospel often passes through my thoughts: No stone will be left standing one upon another. Here it is the truth.’

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