Military history

13
Paulus’s Final Assault

Out in the steppe, the routine of German divisions was a world apart from the fighting in the city. There were defence lines to be held and probing attacks to be repulsed, but life offered a much more conventional existence, especially back from the front. On Sunday, 25 October, the officers of a regiment in the Bavarian 376th Infantry Division invited General Edler von Daniels, their divisional commander, to a Munich Oktoberfest shooting contest.

The main preoccupation at that time was the preparation of good winter quarters. ‘It’s not an enticing picture out here,’ a soldier in the 113th Infantry Division wrote home. ‘For far and wide there are no villages, no woodland, neither tree nor shrub, and not a drop of water.’ Russian prisoners and Hiwis were put to work digging bunkers and trenches. ‘We really need to make good use of these men because we’re so short-handed,’ wrote a senior NCO. Out in the treeless steppe, infantry divisions were forced to send trucks and working parties into Stalingrad to fetch beams from the rubble of destroyed houses for the roofs of their bunkers. South of Stalingrad, the 297th Infantry Division excavated man-made caves in the sides of balkas to form stables, stores and eventually an entire field hospital, for which all the equipment arrived by rail from Germany. During the Indian summer of early and mid-October, Germans were keen to get their ‘Haus’ ready. Even the youngest soldiers recognized the implications of digging in: they would now be there for the whole winter.

Hitler issued his own instructions for the winter. He expected ‘a highly active defence’ and a ‘proud sense of victory’. Tanks were to be protected from the cold and bombardment in specially built concrete bunkers, but the necessary materials never arrived, so vehicles stayed in the open. Sixth Army headquarters also drew up elaborate plans for the winter. Even a Finnish training film, How to Construct a Sauna in the Field, was ordered, but none of these preparations carried much conviction. ‘The Fuhrer has ordered us to defend our positions to the last man,’ Groscurth wrote home to Germany, ‘something we would do of our own accord, since the loss of a position would hardly improve our situation. We know what it would be like to be stranded without shelter in the open steppe.’

Fuhrer headquarters also decided that the majority of Sixth Army’s draught animals should be sent over a hundred miles to the rear. This would save on the supply trains required to bring forward the huge quantities of fodder. Altogether some 150,000 horses, as well as a number of oxen and even camels, had accumulated between the Don and the Volga. Motor transport and repair units were also moved back. The reasons behind such a move were understandable from a purely logistic point of view, but it would prove a serious mistake in a crisis. The Sixth Army, especially the vast majority of its artillery and medical units, depended almost entirely on horses for their mobility.

Morale, according to a sergeant-major in the 371 st Infantry Division, ‘rises and falls with the quantity of incoming post’. Almost everyone seemed to be suffering from acute homesickness. ‘Here one must become a completely different person’, wrote a senior NCO of the 60th Motorized Infantry Division, ‘and that is not so easy. It’s exactly as if we were living in another world. When the post arrives, everybody rushes out of their “little houses” – and they just can’t be stopped. For the time being, I must stand by and watch with an indulgent smile.’

Thoughts were already turning to Christmas: the ‘most beautiful festival of the whole year’. Soldiers began to discuss presents with wives. On 3 November, one division put in its ‘requirements for musical instruments, party games, Christmas tree decorations and candles’.

Leave rosters were planned, a subject which excited more hopes and disappointments than any other. Paulus insisted that priority was given to soldiers ‘who have been in the eastern theatre without a break since June 1941’. For the lucky ones who set out on the long journey, time slipped past in a sense of unreality. Home now seemed to have the dreamlike quality of a former existence. Back among their families, men found it impossible to talk about their experiences. Many were dismayed to find how few civilians had any grasp of what was happening. Worst of all, it seemed pointlessly cruel to enlighten them, if it meant that wives would agonize all the more. The only reality now seemed to be the nightmare existence they could not escape. It was human to be tempted by ideas of desertion, but few took them seriously. The most vivid memory of their leave was saying goodbye. For many, it was the last time. They knew they were re-entering hell when they passed the sign on the main route into Stalingrad: ‘Entry to the city forbidden. Onlookers put their own lives and those of comrades in danger.’ Many found it hard to decide whether this was a joke or not.

New winter outfits started to be issued at the end of October. ‘It’s a typically German affair,’ noted one officer, ‘with reversible trousers and jacket, field-grey and white.’ But soldiers out in the waterless steppe were increasingly infested with lice. ‘For the time being there is no point in even thinking of washing. Today I killed my first batch of eight lice.’ Jokes about ‘the little partisans’ soon wore off. Some of the Russian Hiwis told their German companions of a folk remedy for getting rid of them. This consisted of burying each article of clothing under the ground with just one corner left above the soil. The lice moved there and could be burned off.

Regimental doctors began to be increasingly concerned about the general health of troops at this time. When the medical obituary of the Sixth Army was debated in Berlin by consultants late the next January, they charted a vertiginous rate of increase in the death rate from infectious diseases, dysentery, typhus, and paratyphus.* This ‘Fieberkurve’ had started to mount rapidly from as early as July. Although the total number of sick was roughly the same as the previous year, the Berlin specialists were astounded to establish that five times as many soldiers were succumbing.

The Russians themselves had noticed the number of ill Germans with surprise and spoken of a ‘German sickness’. The doctors in Berlin could only speculate that ‘the troops’ reduced resistance’ had been due to cumulative stress, and short rations. The most vulnerable appear to have been the youngest soldiers, those aged between seventeen and twenty-two. They alone accounted for 55 per cent of these deaths. Whatever the exact causes, there can be no doubt that the health of the Sixth Army was already a matter of serious concern in early November, when the worst prospect appeared to be no more than yet another winter in bunkers under the snow.

While the Soviet 64th Army launched attacks to bring troops down from Stalingrad, the 57th Army seized a dominant hill between the Romanian 20th and 2nd Infantry Divisions. Further out, down in the Kalmyk steppe, the 51st Army carried out raids deep into the Romanian positions. One night, Senior Lieutenant Aleksandr Nevsky and his company of sub-machine-gunners infiltrated through the defence line to raid the headquarters of the 1st Romanian Infantry Division in a village to the rear, where they caused chaos. Nevsky was badly wounded twice during the action. The Stalingrad Front political department, following the new Party line of invoking Russian history, decided that Nevsky must belong to the bloodline of his glorious namesake. This ‘fearless commander, the full inheritor of his ancestor’s glory’, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

In the city, the great German offensive had petered out at the very end of October through exhaustion and a lack of ammunition. The last attack by 79th Infantry Division against the Red October factory collapsed on 1 November under heavy artillery fire from across the Volga. ‘The effect of massed enemy artillery has decisively weakened the division’s attacking strength,’ noted Sixth Army headquarters. The 94th Infantry Division attacking the northern pocket at Sparta-kovka was also ground down

‘In the last two days’, noted a report to Moscow of 6 November, ‘the enemy has been changing his tactics. Probably because of big losses over the last three weeks, they have stopped using large formations.’ Along the Red October sector, the Germans had switched to ‘reconnaissance in force to probe for weak points between our regiments’. But these new ‘sudden attacks’ were achieving no more success than the old ones preceded by heavy bombardments.

Also during the first week of November, the Germans started ‘to install wire netting over windows and shell holes’ of their fortified houses so that hand grenades would bounce off. To break the netting, 62nd Army needed small-calibre artillery, of which it was short, yet it was increasingly difficult to ship anything across the Volga. Red Army soldiers started to improvise hooks on their grenades to catch on to the netting.

Soviet forces hit back in any way they could during early November. Gunboats of the Volga flotilla, some with spare T-34 tank turrets mounted on the forward deck, bombarded 16th Panzer Division at Rynok. And the ‘heavy enemy night bombing attacks’, continued to wear down the resilience of German soldiers.

‘Along the whole of the eastern front’, wrote Groscurth to his brother on 7 November, ‘we are expecting today a general offensive in honour of the anniversary of the October Revolution.’ But observance of the twenty-fifth anniversary was restricted on a local level to Soviet soldiers ‘exceeding their socialist promises to destroy Fritzes which they made in socialist competition’. Komsomol members especially were expected to keep an accurate tally of their score. In 57th Army, the chief political officer reported, ‘Out of 1,697 Komsomol members, 678 have not yet killed any Germans’. These underachievers were presumably taken in hand.

Some celebrations of the October Revolution did not attract the approval of the authorities. A battalion commander and his second-in-command bringing forward reinforcements for 45th Rifle Division ‘got drunk’ and were ‘missing for thirteen hours’. The battalion was left wandering around aimlessly on the east bank of the Volga. A number of Stalingrad Front divisions had little with which to celebrate, either because the special vodka ration was not delivered, or because it arrived too late. Several units did not even receive their food ration that day.

Many soldiers, deprived of vodka, resorted to desperate substitutes. In the worst case, the effects were not immediately apparent. The night after the anniversary celebration, twenty-eight soldiers from 248th Rifle Division died on an approach march out in the Kalmyk steppe. No medical assistance was sought and nobody admitted to knowing what the matter was. Officers pretended to think that they had died from cold and exertion on the march. The NKVD Special Department was suspicious, however, and autopsies were performed on twenty-four of the bodies. Death was determined to have been caused by excessive consumption of ‘anti-chemical liquids’. The soldiers had drunk large amounts of a solution designed to be taken in minute quantities in the case of a gas attack. This noxious liquid apparently contained some alcohol. One of the survivors was interviewed in hospital. He admitted that someone had claimed it was ‘a sort of wine’. The NKVD refused to accept that this might be a straightforward case of theft of army material and drunkenness. The case was deemed to be ‘an act of sabotage to poison soldiers’.

On 8 November, the day after the anniversary of the Revolution, Hitler made a long speech to the Nazi ‘Old Combatants’ in the Burgerbraukeller in Munich. The broadcast was heard by many in the Sixth Army. ‘I wanted to reach the Volga’, he declared with heavy irony, ‘to be precise at a particular spot, at a particular city. By chance it bore the name of Stalin himself. But don’t think that I marched there just for that reason, it was because it occupies a very important position… I wanted to capture it and, you should know, we are quite content, we have as good as got it! There are only a couple of small bits left. Some say: “Why aren’t they fighting faster?” That’s because I don’t want a second Verdun, and prefer instead to do the job with small assault groups. Time is of no importance. No more ships are coming up the Volga. And that is the decisive point!’.

His speech ranked among the greatest examples of hubris in history. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was already retreating from Alamein into Libya and Anglo-Americsan forces had just landed along the North African coast in Operation Torch. Ribbentrop took the opportunity to suggest an approach to Stalin through the Soviet embassy in Stockholm. ‘Hitler refused outright,’ noted his Luftwaffe adjutant. ‘He said that a moment of weakness is not the right time for dealing with an enemy.’ The fatuous boasts about Stalingrad, which followed this refusal, were not merely hostages to fortune: they were to trap him into a course for disaster. The political demagogue had manacled the warlord. Ribbentrop’s worst fears on the eve of Barbarossa were soon to be confirmed.

In Stalingrad, real winter weather arrived the next day, with the temperature dropping to minus eighteen degrees centigrade. The Volga, which because of its size was one of the last rivers in Russia to freeze over, started to become unnavigable. ‘The ice floes collide, crumble and grind against each other,’ noted Grossman, ‘and the swishing sound, like that of shifting sands, can be heard quite a distance from the bank.’ It was an eerie sound for soldiers in the city.

This was the period which General Chuikov had been dreading, what he called war on two fronts: the hostile Volga behind, and the enemy attacking their narrow strips of remaining territory from in front. Sixth Army headquarters, knowing the problems that the Russians faced, concentrated their fire again on the Volga crossing. One steamer of the Volga flotilla, bringing guns and ammunition across, was hit and settled in shallow water on a sandbank. Another boat came alongside, and all the cargo was transferred under heavy fire. The sailors working in the freezing water were as likely to die as the French pontonniers building the bridge across the Berezina more than a century before.

‘The blunt, broad bows of the barges slowly crush the white beneath them, and behind them the black stretches of water are soon covered with a film of ice.’ Boats creaked under the pressure of the ice and hawsers snapped under the strain. Crossing the river became ‘like a Polar expedition’.

During the first ten days of November, German pressure was kept up with constant, small-scale attacks, sometimes with tanks. The fighting may have been in smaller groups, but it was still just as fierce. A company of the 347th Rifle Regiment, dug in only 200 yards forward of the Volga, was down to nine men when overrun on 6 November, but its commander, Lieutenant Andreev, rallied his survivors and they counter-attacked with sub-machine-guns. A group of reinforcements, arriving just in time, cut off the Germans, and saved the 62nd Army’s northern crossing point. The Russians carefully watched the German system of signalling with flares, and turned it to their own advantage by adapting their colour combinations using captured cartridges. One platoon commander was credited with having tricked German artillery into switching their fire at a critical moment on to their own troops.

With such narrow strips of no man’s land, desertion remained an escape of last resort, but now there were cases of German soldiers attempting to cross the lines. In the centre of the sector of 13th Guards Rifle Division, a German soldier slipped forward from one of their defended houses towards a Russian-held building. His action was clearly supported by some of his comrades, because they called out: ‘Rus! Don’t shoot!’ But when the man was halfway across no man’s land, a newly arrived Russian soldier fired from a second-floor window and hit him. The wounded German crawled on, also screaming out: ‘Rus! Don’t shoot!’ The Russian fired again, and this time killed him. His body lay there for the rest of the day. That night, a Russian patrol crawled forward, but found that the Germans had already sent their own party forward to retrieve his weapon and documents. The Soviet authorities decided that ‘more explanatory work’ was needed ‘to explain to soldiers that they should not shoot deserters straight away’. Troops were reminded of Order No. 55, which dealt with encouraging enemy deserters through good treatment. On the same sector, ‘it was noticed that German soldiers raised their hands above the trench in order to be wounded’. The political department was immediately instructed to step up propaganda activities with broadcasting and leaflets.

*

On 11 November, just before dawn, the final German assault began. Newly organized battle groups from the 71st, 79th, 100th, 295th, 305th and 389th Infantry Divisions, reinforced with four fresh pioneer battalions, attacked the remaining pockets of resistance. Even though most of the divisions were severely depleted by the recent fighting, it was still a massive concentration.

Once again, VIII Air Corps Stukas prepared the way, but General von Richthofen had lost almost all patience with what he regarded as ‘army conventionality’. At the beginning of the month, in a meeting with Paulus and Seydlitz, he had complained that ‘the artillery isn’t firing and the infantry isn’t making any use of our bombing attacks’. The Luftwaffe’s most spectacular achievement, on 11 November, was to bring down the factory chimneys, but once again they failed to crush the 62nd Army in its trenches and bunkers and cellars.

Batyuk’s Siberians fought desperately to retain their foothold on the Mamaev Kurgan, but the main point of the enemy thrust was half a mile further north, towards the Lazur chemical factory and the so-called ‘tennis racket’, a loop of railway track and sidings resembling that shape. The main force for this attack was the 305th Infantry Division and most of the pioneer battalions flown in to reinforce the offensive. Key buildings were captured but then retaken by the Russians in bitter fighting. The following day, this attack came to a halt.

Further north, the men of Lyudnikov’s 138th Rifle Division, cut off behind the Barrikady factory with their backs to the Volga, resisted fiercely. They were down to an average of thirty rounds for each rifle and sub-machine-gun, and a daily ration of less than fifty grams of dried bread. At night, U-2 biplanes tried to drop sacks of ammunition and food, but the impact often damaged the rounds, which then jammed weapons.

On the night of 11 November, 62nd Army launched attacks, including 95th Rifle Division, south-east of the Barrikady plant. The intention, according to the report sent to Shcherbakov on 15 November, was to prevent the Germans from withdrawing troops to protect their flanks. This appears to contradict Chuikov’s account in his memoirs, where he asserts that he and his staff had no knowledge of the great counter-offensive launched on 19 November, until informed the evening before by Stalingrad Front headquarters.

The Soviet attackers, however, were halted almost immediately by the weight of German shelling, and forced to take cover. From 5 a.m. on 12 November, there was a ‘hurricane of fire’ lasting for an hour and a half. Then a strong force of German infantry attacked, managing to act as a wedge between two of the Russian rifle regiments. At 9.50 a.m. the Germans sent in more troops, part of them advancing towards the petrol tanks on the bank of the Volga. One of the Soviet rifle regiments managed to hold off the main attack, while other assault groups surrounded and cut down German sub-machine-gunners who had broken through. Three German tanks were also set on fire in the desperate fighting. The regiment’s first battalion was reduced to fifteen men. They somehow managed to hold a line seventy yards forward of the Volga bank until another battalion arrived.

Only one man survived from the marine infantry guarding the regimental command post. His right hand was smashed and he could no longer fire. He went down into the bunker, and on hearing that there were no reserves left, filled his cap with grenades. ‘I can throw these with my left hand,’ he explained. Close by, a platoon from another regiment fought until only four were left alive and their ammunition ran out. A wounded man was sent back with the message: ‘Begin shelling our position. In front of us is a large group of fascists. Farewell comrades, we did not retreat.’

The 62nd Army’s supply position became even more desperate because of the ice floes coming down the Volga. Icebreakers were needed at the banks where the river froze first. On 14 November, the steamer Spartakovets took 400 soldiers and 40 tons of supplies to the right bank just behind Red October, and on its return it brought back 350 wounded under fire, but few other craft got through. Rescue teams were on standby throughout the night to help any boat which became ice-bound, and thus an easy target for the German guns. ‘If they can’t finish the business,’ Richthofen noted caustically, ‘when the Volga’s icing up and the Russians in Stalingrad are suffering severe shortages, then they’ll never succeed. In addition, the days are constantly getting shorter, and the weather’s getting worse.’

Paulus was under heavy strain. His doctor warned him that he was heading for a breakdown if he continued without a rest. ‘Hitler was obsessed with the symbolism of Stalingrad,’ explained one of Paulus’s staff officers. ‘To clean up the last few points of resistance in November, he ordered that even tank drivers should be assembled as infantry for a last push.’ Panzer commanders were horrified at such a mad waste, but they could not get Paulus to cancel the order. In the end, they tried to scrape together enough reserve drivers, cooks, medical orderlies and signals staff – in fact anybody rather than their experienced tank crewmen – in order to keep their divisions operational. The very heavy losses in panzer regiments were to prove serious, if not disastrous, within a matter of days.

General von Seydlitz was deeply concerned. By the middle of November, Sixth Army headquarters judged that ‘42 per cent of his battalions must be considered “fought out”.’ Most infantry companies were down to under fifty men and had to be amalgamated. Seydlitz was also concerned about the 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions, which needed to refit, ready for the inevitable Soviet winter offensive. In his view, the fighting had been continued far too late into the year. Hitler himself had admitted to him during lunch at Rastenburg that German troops should start to prepare for ‘all the trials of a Russian winter’ at the beginning of October. The troops in Stalingrad had been specifically excluded from the instructions to prepare winter defences, and yet Hitler in Munich had boasted that time was of no importance.

The worst casualties were in experienced officers and NCOs. Only a small minority of the original combatants remained on both sides. ‘These were different Germans from those we had fought in August,’ remarked one Soviet veteran. ‘And we also were different.’ Front-line soldiers on both sides seemed to feel that the best and the bravest were always the first to die.

German staff officers were also worried about the next spring. Simple calculations showed that Germany could not sustain such casualties for much longer. Any notion of a heroic adventure had turned bitter. A strong sense of foreboding set in. As a symbol of determination for revenge, the new Red Army practice in Stalingrad, when saluting the death of a well-regarded commander, was to fire a volley or salvo ‘not in the air, but at the Germans’.

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