Military history

14
All For the Front!

The plan for Operation Uranus, the great Soviet counterstroke against the Sixth Army, had an unusually long gestation when one considers Stalin’s disastrous impatience the previous winter. But this time his desire for revenge helped control his impetuousness.

The original idea dated back to Saturday, 12 September, the day that Paulus met Hitler at Vinnitsa, and that Zhukov was summoned to the Kremlin after the failed attacks against Paulus’s northern flank. Vasilevsky, the Chief of the General Staff, was also present. There, in Stalin’s office, overlooked by recently installed portraits of Aleksandr Suvorov, the scourge of the Turks in the eighteenth century, and of Mikhail Kutuzov, Napoleon’s dogged adversary, Zhukov was made to explain again what had gone wrong. He concentrated on the fact that the three understrength armies sent into the attack had lacked artillery and tanks.

Stalin demanded to know what was needed. Zhukov replied that they should have another full-strength army, supported by a tank corps, three armoured brigades and at least 400 howitzers, all backed by an aviation army. Vasilevsky agreed. Stalin said nothing. He picked up the map marked with the Stavka reserves and began to study it alone. Zhukov and Vasilevsky moved away to a corner of the room. They murmured together, discussing the problem. They agreed that another solution would have to be found.

Stalin possessed sharper hearing than they had realized. ‘And what’ he called across, ‘does “another” solution mean?’ The two generals were taken aback. ‘Go over to the General Staff,’ he told them, ‘and think over very carefully indeed what must be done in the Stalingrad area.’

Zhukov and Vasilevsky returned the following evening. Stalin did not waste time. He greeted the two generals with businesslike handshakes, to their surprise.

‘Well, what did you come up with?’ he asked. ‘Who’s making the report?’

‘Either of us,’ Vasilevsky replied. ‘We are of the same opinion.’

The two generals had spent the day at the Stavka, studying the possibilities and the projected creation of new armies and armoured corps over the next two months. The more they had looked at the map of the German salient, with the two vulnerable flanks, the more they were convinced that the only solution worth considering was one which would ‘shift the strategic situation in the south decisively’. The city of Stalingrad, Zhukov argued, should be held in a battle of attrition, with just enough troops to keep the defence alive. No formations should be wasted on minor counter-attacks, unless absolutely necessary to divert the enemy from seizing the whole of the west bank of the Volga. Then, while the Germans focused entirely on capturing the city, the Stavka would secretly assemble fresh armies behind the lines for a major encirclement, using deep thrusts far behind the point of the apex.

Stalin at first showed little enthusiasm. He feared that they might lose Stalingrad and suffer a further humiliating blow, unless something was done immediately. He suggested a compromise, bringing the points of attack in much closer to the city, but Zhukov answered that the bulk of the Sixth Army would also be much closer, and could be redeployed against their attacking forces. Eventually, Stalin saw the advantage of the much more ambitious operation.

Stalin’s great advantage over Hitler was his lack of ideological shame. After the disasters of 1941, he was not in the slightest bit squeamish about reviving the disgraced military thinking of the 1920s and early 1930s. The theory of ‘deep operations’ with mechanized ‘shock armies’ to annihilate the enemy no longer had to remain underground like a heretical cult. On that night of 13 September, Stalin gave this plan for deep operations his full backing. He instructed the two men to introduce ‘a regime of the strictest secrecy’. ‘No one, beyond the three of us, is to know about it for the time being.’ The offensive was to be called Operation Uranus.

Zhukov was not just a good planner, he was the best implementer of plans. Even Stalin was impressed by his ruthlessness in the pursuit of an objective. Zhukov did not want to repeat the mistakes of early September with the attacks north of Stalingrad, using untrained and badly equipped troops. The task of training was huge. Zhukov and Vasilevsky sent reserve-army divisions, as soon as they were formed, to relatively quiet parts of the front for training under fire. This also had the unintended advantage of confusing German military intelligence. Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, the highly energetic but overrated head of Fremde Heere Ost, began to suspect that the Red Army was planning a large diversionary offensive against Army Group Centre.

Reconnaissance reports and prisoner interrogations confirmed the original hunch that Operation Uranus should aim for the Romanian sectors on each flank of the Sixth Army. In the third week of September, Zhukov made a tour of the northern flank of the German salient in the greatest secrecy. Aleksandr Glichov, a lieutenant from 221st Rifle Division’s reconnaissance company, was ordered to report to divisional headquarters one night. There he saw two Willys staff cars. A colonel interviewed him, then told him to hand over his sub-machine-gun and get in the front of one of the staff cars. His task was to guide a senior officer along the front.

Glichov had to wait until midnight, when a burly figure, not very tall and almost dwarfed by bodyguards, appeared out of the headquarters bunker. The senior officer climbed into the back of the car without a word. Glichov, following instructions, guided the driver from one unit command post to the next along the front. When they returned shortly before dawn, he was given back his sub-machine-gun and told to return to his division with the message that his task had been completed. Many years after the war, he learned from his former commanding officer that Zhukov was the senior officer he had escorted that night, sometimes within two hundred yards of the German lines. It may not have been necessary for the deputy supreme commander to interview each unit commander himself about the ground and the forces opposite, ‘but Zhukov was Zhukov’.

While Zhukov made his secret inspection along the northern flank, Vasilevsky had visited the 64th, 57th and 51st Armies south of Stalingrad. Vasilevsky urged an advance to just beyond the line of the salt lakes in the steppe. He did not give the real reason, which was to establish a well-protected forming-up area for Operation Uranus.

Secrecy and deception plans were vital to camouflage their preparations, yet the Red Army had two even more effective advantages in its favour. The first was that Hitler refused to believe that the Soviet Union had any reserve armies, let alone the large tank formations necessary for deep operations. The second German misconception was even more helpful, although Zhukov never acknowledged this. All the ineffective attacks mounted against XIV Panzer Corps on the northern flank near Stalingrad had made the Red Army appear incapable of mounting a dangerous offensive in the region, least of all a swift and massive encirclement of the whole Sixth Army.

During the summer, when Germany was producing approximately 500 tanks a month, General Haider had told Hitler that the Soviet Union was producing 1,200 a month. The Führer had slammed the table and said that it was simply not possible. Yet even this figure was far too low. In 1942, Soviet tank production was rising from 11,000 during the first six months to 13,600 during the second half of the year, an average of over 2,200 a month. Aircraft production was also increasing from 9,600 during the first six months of the year, to 15,800 for the second.

The very suggestion that the Soviet Union, deprived of major industrial regions, could outproduce the Reich, filled Hitler with angry disbelief. Nazi leaders had always refused to acknowledge the strength of Russian patriotic feeling. They also underestimated the ruthless programme of evacuation of industry to the Urals and the militarization of the workforce. Over 1,500 factories had been evacuated from the western regions of the Soviet Union to behind the Volga, particularly the Urals, and reassembled by armies of technicians slaving through the winter. Few factories had any heating. Many had no windows at first, or proper roofing. Once the production lines started, they never stopped, unless halted by breakdowns, power failures, or shortages of particular parts. Manpower posed less of a problem. The Soviet authorities simply drafted in new populations of workers. Soviet bureaucracy wasted the time and talents of its civilian people, and squandered their lives in industrial accidents, with as much indifference for the individual as military planners showed towards their soldiers, yet the collective sacrifice – both forced and willing at the same time – represented a terrifyingly impressive achievement.

At a time when Hitler still refused to countenance the idea of German women in factories, Soviet production depended on the mass mobilization of mothers and daughters. Tens of thousands of dungareed women – ‘fighters in overalls’ – swinging tank turrets on hoists down production lines, or bent over lathes, believed passionately in what they were doing to help the men. Posters never ceased to remind them of their role: ‘What was Your Help to the Front?’

Chelyabinsk, the great centre of war industries in the Urals, became known as Tankograd. Soon, tank-training schools were established near the factories. The Party organized links between workers and regiments, while factories made collections to pay for more tanks. A tank gunner called Minakov composed a rhyme which seized the imagination of the Ural production lines:

For the death of enemies

For the joy of friends

There is no better machine

Than the T-34!

Somebody later suggested that production-line workers should form the First Ural volunteer tank regiment. The organizers claimed to have received, within thirty-six hours of putting up the first poster, ‘4,363 applications to join the tank regiment, of which 1,253 Were from women’.

Even the slave-labour camps devoted to munitions production achieved a far higher output than their equivalents in Germany. There were also far fewer cases of sabotage. Gulag prisoners still believed in defeating the invader.

Allied aid is seldom mentioned in Soviet accounts, for reasons of propaganda, but its contribution towards keeping the Red Army fighting in the autumn of 1942 should not be overlooked. Stalin complained to Zhukov about the quality of the Hurricane fighters offered by Churchill, and the British and American tanks provided did not compare to the T-34. Consignments of British ammunition boots and greatcoats were just as unpopular with Soviet soldiers, because of their uselessness for winter warfare. But American vehicles – especially Ford, Willys and Studebaker trucks and jeeps – and food, whether the millions of tons of wheat in white sacks stamped with the American eagle and cans of Spam or corned beef from Chicago, made a huge, yet unacknowledged, difference to the Soviet Union’s ability to resist.

Zhukov knew the importance of having the right commanders for mechanized warfare. At the end of September, he persuaded Stalin to appoint General Konstantin Rokossovsky, a former victim of Beria’s NKVD, commander of the Don Front, which stretched from the northern tip of Stalingrad westwards to Kletskaya, just beyond the great Don bend. At the same time Lieutenant-General Nikolay Vatutin was put in charge of the new South-Western Front on Rokossovsky’s right flank, which faced the Third Romanian Army.

On 17 October, Don Front headquarters gave the order that all civilians ‘within fifteen miles of the front line’ must be evacuated by 29 October. Apart from security considerations, the military authorities wanted to be able to hide troops in villages by day, during their approach marches. It was a considerable operation, since the evacuees would be taking ‘their own cattle, sheep, pigs and hens and food for a month’. The cows were to act as draught animals, and all collective-farm tractors, combine harvesters and other valuable machinery were to be withdrawn. Several thousand civilians were drafted into a construction corps over 100,000 strong, repairing roads and bridges along the Saratov–Kamyshin–Stalingrad route and all others leading to the front.

From the newly laid Saratov–Astrakhan railroad, lines diverted to railheads in the steppe where the Stavka reserves would detrain, well to the rear, before proceeding to concentration areas behind the front. The strain on the Soviet railways system, moving 1,300 wagons a day to the three fronts, was immense. Confusion was inevitable. One division was left packed in troop trains for nearly two and a half months on sidings in Uzbekistan.

The plan for Operation Uranus was simple, yet daringly ambitious in its scope. The main assault, over a hundred miles west of Stalingrad, would be launched south-eastwards from the Serafimovich bridgehead, a forty-mile-long stretch south of the Don which the Romanian Third Army had not had the strength to occupy. This point of attack was so far to the rear of the Sixth Army that German mechanized forces in and around Stalingrad would not be able to get back in time to make a difference. Meanwhile, an inner strike would cut down from another bridgehead south of the Don at Kletskaya, then attack the rear of Strecker’s XI Army Corps stretched across the greater and the lesser Don bends. Finally, from south of Stalingrad, another armoured thrust would attack north-westwards to meet up with the main assault around Kalach. This would mark the encirclement of Paulus’s Sixth Army and part of Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army. Altogether some 60 per cent of the whole tank strength of the Red Army was allocated to Operation Uranus.

Soviet security proved better than one might have expected, considering the number of Red Army prisoners and deserters passing through Wehrmacht hands. German intelligence had failed during the summer of 1942 to identify the creation of five new tank armies (each roughly the equivalent of a panzer corps) and fifteen tank corps (each the equivalent of a strong panzer division). As the moment of retribution approached, the Red Army paid great attention to maskirovka, a term covering deception, camouflage and operational security, by greatly reducing the quantity of radio traffic. Orders were given in person and not written down. Active deception measures included stepping up activity around Moscow. The Germans identified the Rzhev salient as the most likely area for a Soviet offensive in November. Meanwhile in the south, front-line divisions along the sectors vital for Operation Uranus were ordered to construct defence lines, purely for the benefit of German air reconnaissance, while the Voronezh Front, which was not involved, received orders to prepare bridging equipment and boats, as if for an offensive.

Troop activity in other sectors was concealed by the construction of defences, which gave the opposite impression to plans for an offensive. The approach marches of formations for Operation Uranus were made at night, with troops hiding up during the day, a difficult task on the bare steppe, but Red Army camouflage techniques were remarkably effective. No fewer than seventeen false bridges were constructed over the Don to attract the Luftwaffe’s attention away from the five real ones, over which crossed the 5th Tank Army, the 4th Tank Corps, two cavalry corps and numerous rifle divisions.

South of Stalingrad, the 13th Mechanized Corps, the 4th Mechanized Corps, the 4th Cavalry Corps and supporting formations – altogether over 160,000 men, 430 tanks, 550 guns, 14,000 vehicles and over 10,000 horses – were brought across the lower Volga in batches at night, a difficult and dangerous operation, with the ice floes coming down the river. They had to be camouflaged by dawn. The Red Army could not of course hope to conceal the forthcoming operation entirely, but, as one historian put it, their ‘greatest feat was in masking the scale of the offensive’.

In the early autumn of 1942, most German generals, although they did not share Hitler’s conviction that the Red Army was finished, certainly considered it close to exhaustion. Staff officers, on the other hand, tended to take a more sceptical view. When Captain Winrich Behr, a highly decorated officer from the Afrika Korps, joined Sixth Army headquarters, Lieutenant-Colonel Niemeyer, the chief of intelligence, welcomed him with a much more sombre assessment than he had expected. ‘My dear friend,’ he said, ‘come and see the situation map. Look at all the red markings. The Russians are starting to concentrate in the north here, and in the south here.’ Niemeyer felt that senior officers, although concerned by a threat to their lines of communication, did not take the danger of encirclement seriously.

Paulus and Schmidt, who saw all of Niemeyer’s reports, thought his concern exaggerated. Both generals expected quite heavy attacks with artillery and tanks, but not a major offensive deep into their rear, using the German’s own Schwerpunkt tactics. (After the event, Paulus seems to have fallen into that very human mistake of convincing himself that he had seen the true danger all along. Schmidt, however, was quite frank in his admission that they had gravely underestimated the enemy.) General Hoth, on the other hand, appears to have had a much clearer view of the threat posed by an attack from south of Stalingrad.

Most generals back in Germany were convinced that the Soviet Union was incapable of two offensives, and Colonel Gehlen’s assessments, although deliberately delphic to cover any eventuality, continued to point to an attack against Army Group Centre as the most likely area for the main winter offensive. His organization had failed to identify the presence of the 5th Tank Army on the Don Front opposite the Romanians. Only a signals intercept shortly before the offensive pointed to its involvement.

The most striking aspect of this period was the apparent assumption by Paulus and Schmidt that, once Sixth Army staff had passed back their reports, nothing more could be done since the threatened sectors were outside their area of responsibility. This passivity was entirely contrary to the Prussian tradition, which regarded inactivity, waiting for orders and failing to think for yourself as unforgivable in a commander. Hitler, of course, had set out to crush such independence in his generals, and Paulus, who was by nature more of a staff officer than a field commander, had acceded.

Paulus has often been blamed for not disobeying Hitler later, once the scale of the disaster was clear, but his real failure as a commander was his failure to prepare to face the threat. It was his own army which was threatened. All he needed to do was to withdraw most of his tanks from the wasteful battle in the city to prepare a strong mechanized force ready to react rapidly. Supply and ammunition dumps should have been reorganized to ensure that their vehicles were kept ready to move at short notice. This comparatively small degree of preparation – and disobedience to Führer headquarters – would have left the Sixth Army in a position to defend itself effectively at the crucial moment.

Hitler had decreed in a Führer instruction of 30 June that formations should not liaise with their neighbours. General Schmidt was nevertheless persuaded by members of the headquarters staff to ignore this order. An officer with a wireless set from Sixth Army was attached to the Romanians to the north-west. This was Lieutenant Gerhard Stock, who had won a gold medal for javelin-throwing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. General Strecker also made arrangements to send a liaison officer from XI Corps.

The first warnings of a build-up on the Don flank had come in late October. General Dumitrescu, the commander-in-chief of the Third Romanian Army, had long argued that his sector could only be defended if they held the whole bank, using the river Don itself as their major anti-tank obstacle. Dumitrescu had recommended seizing the rest of the southern bank at the end of September, but Army Group B, while accepting his argument, explained that all spare troops had to be concentrated on Stalingrad, whose capture was still assumed to be imminent.

Once the Romanians began to notice the enemy build-up, they became increasingly anxious. Each of their divisions, only seven battalions strong, had to cover a front of twelve miles. Their greatest defect was a lack of effective anti-tank weapons. They had only some horse-drawn 37-mm Pak anti-tank guns, which the Russians had nicknamed the ‘door-knocker’ because its shells could not penetrate the armour of the T-34. Romanian artillery batteries were also severely short of ammunition, because priority had been given to the Sixth Army.

Dumitrescu’s staff reported their concerns to Army Group headquarters on 29 October, and Marshal Antonescu also drew Hitler’s attention to the dangerous situation which his troops faced, but Hitler, while still expecting news of the final conquest of Stalingrad almost any day, was also distracted by other momentous events. Rommel’s retreat from the battle of El Alamein was soon followed by warnings of the Anglo-American invasion fleet heading for North Africa. The landings of Operation Torch also focused his attention on France. The entry of German forces into the unoccupied zone on 11 November took place on the day that Paulus launched his final assault in Stalingrad.

By then the warnings of a Soviet offensive against the salient had started to accumulate rapidly. The liaison officer reported on 7 November that ‘the Third Romanian Army is expecting a strong enemy attack with tanks on 8 November in the Kletskaya-Raspopinskaya sector’. The only trouble was that the Romanians continually expected the Russian offensive to begin in the next twenty-four hours, and when nothing happened, especially after the uneventful twenty-fifth anniversary of the Revolution, this began to have the effect of the boy crying wolf.

General von Richthofen, on the other hand, was increasingly convinced by the evidence of his air reconnaissance squadrons. Even during Paulus’s assault on 11 November, he diverted part of VIII Air Corps to attack Russian concentrations opposite the Third Romanian Army. The following day he wrote in his diary: ‘On the Don, the Russians are resolutely carrying on with their preparations for an offensive against the Romanians. VIII Air Corps, the whole of Fourth Air Fleet and the Romanian air force are keeping up continuous attacks on them. Their reserves have now been concentrated. When, I wonder, will the attack come!’

On 14 November, he recorded: ‘Weather getting steadily worse, with mists that cause wing icing and freezing-cold rain storms. On Stalingrad front all quiet. Our bombers have carried out successful raids on the railways east of Stalingrad, dislocating the flow of reinforcements and supplies. Fighters and fighter-bombers have been concentrating on smashing up the Russian approach march to the Don.’

German air sweeps over the Soviet rear areas caught part of the 5th Tank Army crossing the Don and nearly produced two important casualties. German aircraft surprised Khrushchev and Yeremenko at Svetly-Yar, where they were receiving a delegation from Uzbekistan bringing thirty-seven railway wagons of presents to the defenders of Stalingrad, including wine, cigarettes, dried melon, rice, apples, pears and meat.

The reaction to the threat by the various levels of command – Führer headquarters, Army Group B and Sixth Army headquarters – was not just a question of too little, too late. Hitler’s infectious illusions also played their part. He covered himself by issuing orders for the reinforcement of the Romanians with German troops and minefields, but he refused to accept that there were neither the resources nor sufficient formations available.

All that could be spared to strengthen the threatened northern flank was the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Ferdinand Heim, Paulus’s former chief of staff. On paper, this formation appeared powerful, with 14th Panzer Division, 22nd Panzer Division and the 1st Romanian Panzer Division as well as an anti-tank battalion and a motorized artillery battalion, but on closer examination it proved much less impressive. The whole panzer corps had fewer than a hundred serviceable modern tanks between three divisions.

The 14th Panzer Division, which had been ground down in the Stalingrad fighting, had not been given a chance to refit. The Romanian contingent was equipped with Skoda light tanks from Czechoslovakia, which did not stand a chance against the Russian T-34. The 22nd Panzer Division, as a reserve formation, had been starved of fuel, and during its long period of immobility, mice had sought shelter from the weather inside the hulls. They had gnawed through the insulation of electric cables and no replacements were immediately available. Meanwhile, other regiments in the division were continually split up, and sent hither and thither in answer to cries for help from Romanian units. To keep the Romanians calm, detachments as small as a couple of tanks and a pair of anti-tank guns were sent ‘on a wild-goose chase’ from one sector to another like an increasingly unconvincing stage army. The Fiihrer’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, claimed that ‘Hitler was misinformed about the quality of this panzer corps’, but even if that were true, he was the one who had created the atmosphere in which his headquarters staff avoided uncomfortable truths.

South of Stalingrad, the only reserve formation behind the Romanian VI Corps was the 29th Motorized Infantry Division, but on 10 November it was told that ‘on receiving the codeword “Hubertusjagd”, it was to set off within the shortest time possible towards Perelazovsky in the Third Romanian Army area.’ Perelazovsky was the focal point of XXXXVIII Panzer Corps. Despite all of General Hoth’s warnings, the threat to the southern flank was not taken seriously.

The weather in the first half of November made the approach march for Soviet formations difficult. Freezing rain was followed by sudden, hard frosts. Many units, in the rush to prepare for Operation Uranus, had not received winter uniforms. There was a shortage not just of gloves and hats, but even of basic items such as standard Red Army foot cloths, worn instead of socks.

On 7 November, when 81st Cavalry Division in 4th Cavalry Corps crossed the Kalmyk steppe to the southern flank, fourteen men, mainly Uzbeks and Turkomans who had not been given winter uniforms, died of frostbite ‘due to the irresponsible attitude of commanders’. Officers rode on ahead, unaware of what was happening behind. Frozen soldiers fell from their horses, unable to hold on, and NCOs, not knowing what to do, just threw them on to carts where they froze to death. In one squadron alone they lost thirty-five horses. Some soldiers tried to shirk the battle ahead. In 93rd Rifle Division, during the approach march, there were seven cases of self-inflicted wounds, and two deserters were captured. ‘In the next few days’, Stalingrad Front reported to Shcherbakov, ‘other traitors will be tried too, among them a member of the Communist Party, who when on sentry, shot himself in the left hand.’

The atmosphere in the Kremlin had become increasingly nervous ever since Zhukov had the unenviable task of warning Stalin that the launch of Operation Uranus would have to be postponed by ten days to 19 November. Transport difficulties, mainly the shortage of lorries, meant that the attacking formations had not yet received their allocations of fuel and ammunition. Stalin, though afraid that the enemy would get wind of what was afoot and escape the trap, had no option but to agree. He badgered the Stavka for information on any change in the Sixth Army’s dispositions. Then, on 11 November, Stalin became anxious that they did not have enough aircraft to hold off the Luftwaffe. But the scale and detail of Zhukov’s plans eventually reassured him. This time, he felt, they would at last get their revenge.

Zhukov and Vasilevsky flew back to Moscow to brief him on 13 November. ‘We could tell he was pleased’, wrote Zhukov, ‘because he puffed unhurriedly on his pipe, smoothed his moustache and listened to us without interrupting.’

Red Army intelligence, for the first time, had made a determined attempt to coordinate its various sources. It was its first real opportunity to prove itself since all the earlier disasters, which were largely due to Stalin’s obsessive preconceptions, totally discounting any accurate material produced.* Most intelligence came from ‘tongues’ seized by reconnaissance patrols, probing attacks and air reconnaissance. Signals intelligence from radio units also helped confirm the identity of a number of German formations. Artillery reconnaissance worked fairly well, with General Voronov supervising the concentrations of regiments on the key sectors. The sappers, meanwhile, were mapping out friendly and enemy minefields in advance. The main problem was the freezing fog, about which General von Richt-hofen also complained bitterly.

On 12 November, the first heavy fall of snow coincided with a series of reconnaissance missions. White camouflage suits were issued, and groups sent out to capture prisoners were told to check whether new formations had been moved into the sectors targeted for breakthrough. The reconnaissance company of 173rd Rifle Division for the first time discovered Germans preparing concrete bunkers. Other prisoners taken by raiding parties up and down the front soon confirmed that although concrete bunkers had been ordered, no new formations had arrived. On the Third Romanian Army’s front, they discovered that senior officers had commandeered all the supplies to concrete their headquarters in the rear first, and none were available for first-line positions. Russian troops manning these sectors where the offensive was about to take place ‘knew something was going to happen, but they did not know exactly what’.

The major preoccupation in Moscow at this time was the lack of reliable information on the state of Sixth Army morale. So far during the fighting round Stalingrad not even a full regimental headquarters had been overrun, so apart from odd letters and orders taken at a junior level they had little to go on. At last, on 9 November, Major-General Ratov of Red Army intelligence was passed a captured document from the 384th Infantry Division opposite the lesser Don bend, a mixture of Saxon and Austrian regiments. He immediately saw that here at last was the evidence they had been waiting for. Translated copies were sent immediately to Stalin, Beria, Molotov, Malenkov, Voroshilov, Vasilevsky, Zhukov, and Aleksandrov, Chief of the Division of Propaganda and Agitation. General Ratov could no doubt imagine the glee which its contents would excite in the Great Leader’s heart. They were doubly encouraging since this formation from Dresden had not been involved in the street fighting in Stalingrad.

‘I am well aware of the state of the division,’ wrote General Baron von Gablenz to all commanders in the 384th Infantry Division. ‘I know that it has no strength left. It is not surprising, and I shall make every effort to improve the division’s state, but the fighting is cruel and it becomes crueller every day. It is impossible to change the situation. The lethargy of the majority of soldiers must be corrected by more active leadership. Commanders must be more severe. In my order of 3 September 1942, No. 187-42,1 stipulated that those who desert their post would be court-martialled… I will act with all the severity that the law requires. Those who fall asleep at their posts in the front line must be punished with death. There should be no doubt about this. In the same category is disobedience… expressed in the following ways: lack of care of weapons, body, clothing, horses and mechanized equipment.’ Officers must warn their soldiers that ‘they should count on staying in Russia for the whole of the winter’.

*

Soviet mechanized formations, which had been camouflaged well behind the lines, moved forward to their start-line positions. Smokescreens were laid to cover them crossing the Don into the bridgeheads, and just behind the front line, loudspeakers from propaganda companies blasted out music and political messages to cover the sound of engines.

On the three ‘Stalingrad axis’ fronts, just over one million men were now assembled. General Smirnov, chief of medical services, had 119 field hospitals with 62,000 beds ready for casualties. Orders were given three hours before the attack. Red Army units were told that they were to make a deep raid on the enemy’s rear. Encirclement was not mentioned. The troops were fiercely excited at the thought that the Germans did not know what was going to hit them. This was the start of the fight back. Vehicles were checked and checked again. They had huge distances to cover in front of them. Their engines were listened to ‘as a physician would a heart’. The time for writing letters, shaving, washing foot bandages, and playing chess or dominoes was over. ‘Men and commanders had been ordered to rest, but they were too keyed up. Everybody was turning over in his mind whether everything had really been done.’

On that eve of battle, the Germans did not sense that the next day would be any different. The Sixth Army’s daily report was brief: ‘Along the whole front, no major changes. Drift-ice on the Volga weaker than on the day before.’ That night, a soldier longing for leave, wrote home, reflecting on the fact that he was ‘2,053 miles from the German frontier’.

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