Military history

Part Four
ZHUKOV’S TRAP

15
Operation Uranus

Soon after five in the morning, on Thursday, 19 November, the telephone rang in Sixth Army headquarters. The operations staff were housed in Golubinsky, a large Cossack village on the right bank of the Don. Outside, it had started to snow, which, combined with freezing fog, prevented sentries from seeing more than a few yards.

The call was from Lieutenant Gerhard Stock, the javelin gold-medallist with the Romanian IV Army Corps on the Kletskaya sector. His message was logged in the war diary: ‘According to the statement of a Russian officer captured in the area of the 1st Romanian Cavalry Division, the expected attack should start today at five o’clock.’ Since there was still no other sign of the offensive starting, and it was after five, the duty officer did not wake the army chief of staff. General Schmidt was furious if disturbed by a false alarm, and there had been a good deal of those recently from the Romanian divisions to their north-west.

In fact, all through the night, Soviet sappers in white camouflage suits had been crawling forward in the snow, lifting anti-tank mines. The massed Russian artillery and mortar batteries loaded at 7.20 a.m. Russian time, 5.20 a.m. German time, on receipt of the code-word ‘Siren’. One Soviet general said that the freezing white mist was ‘as thick as milk’. Front headquarters considered a further postponement, due to the bad visibility, but decided against it. Ten minutes later, the guns, howitzers and Katyusha regiments received the order to prepare to fire. The signal was relayed by trumpets, which were clearly heard by the Romanian troops opposite.

At Sixth Army headquarters, the telephone rang again. Wasting few words, Stock told Captain Behr, who answered it, that trumpet calls had signalled the start of a massive bombardment. ‘I have the impression that the Romanians will not be able to resist, but I will keep you informed.’ Behr did not hesitate to wake General Schmidt this time.

On the two main sectors chosen for the offensive from the north, some 3,500 guns and heavy mortars had been concentrated to blast a route for a dozen infantry divisions, three tank corps and two cavalry corps. The first salvos sounded like sudden thunderclaps in the still air. Shooting into a haze which was impenetrable to their forward observation officers, the artillery and Katyusha batteries were unable to make any corrections, but having ranged in a few days earlier, their fire remained accurate.

The ground began shaking as if from a low-intensity earthquake. The ice in puddles cracked like old mirrors. The bombardment was so intense that thirty miles to the south, medical officers in the 22nd Panzer Division were woken from a heavy sleep, ‘because the ground trembled’. They did not wait for orders. ‘The situation was clear.’ They loaded up their vehicles ready to head for the front.

Russian soldiers on the Don and Stalingrad Fronts also heard the distant rumble of artillery and asked their officers what was happening. Commanders had to reply: ‘I don’t know.’ The obsession with secrecy was so great that no announcement was made until the outcome of the battle was well and truly decided. Most, of course, guessed, and could hardly contain their excitement. Stalin, in his speech twelve days before on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Revolution, had made a broad hint about a great counter-attack, with the words, ‘there will be a holiday in our street too’.

After one hour, Soviet rifle divisions, unsupported by tanks, advanced. The guns and Katyusha batteries, still shooting blind, increased their range to take on the Romanian second line and artillery. The ill-equipped Romanian infantry, although shaken by the heavy bombardment, straightened up in their trenches, and fought back bravely. ‘The attack was repulsed,’ reported a German officer with the 13th Romanian Infantry Division. A second assault, this time supported by tanks, was also beaten off. Eventually, after another round of shelling, the Soviet guns abruptly ceased shooting. The mist seemed to make the silence deeper. Then, the Romanians heard the sound of tank engines.

The massive artillery preparation, which had churned up the snow and mud of no man’s land, did not improve the going for the T-34S. It had also concealed the routes through the minefields. The sappers carried on the back of the second or third tank, ready in case the lead vehicle hit a mine, soon had to respond to the order ‘Sappers, jump off!’ Under fire from the Romanian infantry, they ran forward to clear a fresh route.

The Romanian soldiers stood up bravely to several more waves of Soviet infantry, and managed to knock out a number of tanks, but without enough anti-tank weapons, they were doomed. Several groups of tanks broke through, then attacked sideways. Unable to waste further time with infantry attacks, the Soviet generals sent their armoured formations straight at the Romanian lines en masse, and the main breakthroughs came around midday. The 4th Tank Corps and the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps smashed through the Romanian IV Corps on the Kletskaya sector, and headed south. The Soviet cavalrymen, with sub-machine-guns slung across their backs, cantered on their shaggy little cossack ponies over the snow-covered landscape almost as fast as the tanks. The T-34S, with their turrets hunched forward on their hulls, looked equally impatient to be at the enemy.

Half an hour later, some thirty miles to the west, General Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army shattered the defences of the Romanian II Corps. The broad tracks of the T-34S crushed the barbed wire, and collapsed the trenches. The 8th Cavalry Corps soon followed. Its mission was to protect their right flank and widen the encirclement westwards.

Wind had dispersed the fog a little in the middle of the morning, so some aircraft from the Soviet 2nd, 16th and 17th Air Armies went into the attack. The Luftwaffe bases seem to have suffered from poorer visibility, or else their air controllers would not take the same

risks as their Russian counterparts. ‘Once again, the Russians have made masterly use of the bad weather,’ wrote Richthofen, with more feeling than accuracy, in his diary that night. ‘Rains, snow and icy mists have put a stop to all flying. VIII Air Corps managed with great difficulty to get one or two aircraft off the ground. To seal off the Don crossings by bombing is not possible.’

Sixth Army headquarters were not officially informed of the offensive until 9.45 a.m. The reaction at this stage indicates that, although the threat was taken seriously, it was certainly not regarded as mortal. The attacks in Stalingrad, even those involving panzer divisions, were not halted.

At five past eleven, General von Sodenstern, the chief of staff of Army Group B, rang Schmidt to inform him that General Heim’s XXXXVIII Panzer Corps had been sent north to Bolshoy to support the Romanians. (The corps had in fact been advancing towards the Kletskaya sector, when, to Heim’s fury, orders relayed from Hitler in Bavaria had dictated the change of direction.) Sodenstern suggested that the Sixth Army should tell General Strecker’s XI Corps to send troops to strengthen the defences east of Kletskaya, where the Romanian 1st Cavalry Division was holding on. So far they had heard of only twenty enemy tanks sighted – ‘up to now only a weak attack’. At half past eleven, a regiment from the Austrian 44th Infantry Division was told to move westwards that night. This was the start of a process which was to tie down part of the Sixth Army within the Don bend, and gravely hinder its freedom of action.

In spite of the liaison officers and new telephone lines that had been laid, little detailed information was getting through. The first hint that the situation might be more dangerous than previously thought did not arrive until over two hours after the Soviet break-through. News came of ‘an enemy armoured spearhead’ (in fact Major-General Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps) which had broken right through the 13th Romanian Infantry Division and advanced over six miles to Gromky. This news had already sown panic in several Romanian formation headquarters: ‘boxes of files and personal luggage’ were thrown on to trucks, and their personnel departed in a rush. There was even more uncertainty about the progress of the larger attack by Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army, further to the west.

The reassuring idea of sending the so-called XXXXVIII Panzer Corps north to counter-attack demonstrated how much senior German officers had allowed themselves to be corrupted by Hitler’s own delusions. A panzer corps should have been more than a match for a Soviet tank army, but in serviceable battle tanks this one did not even amount to a full division. The 22nd Panzer Division had little more than thirty serviceable tanks and was so short of fuel that it needed to borrow the Romanians’ reserves. Jokes about the sabotage by mice had run round the army, but few laughed once the implications became apparent.

Changes of orders only made things worse. Instead of deploying Heim’s panzer corps en bloc as planned, the 1st Romanian Panzer Division was diverted when already on the move. This separation led to further disasters. A surprise Soviet attack on its headquarters destroyed the German liaison officer’s radio set, the only means of communication with General Heim’s headquarters, and all contact was lost for the next few days.

The most astonishing aspect of this day’s events was the lack of reaction from General Paulus. Having failed to organize a mechanized strike force before the enemy offensive, he continued to do nothing. The 16th and 24th Panzer Divisions were left with many of their key units bogged down in street-fighting in Stalingrad. Nothing was done to bring up fuel and ammunition ready to resupply their vehicles.

During the afternoon of 19 November, the Soviet tanks advanced southwards in columns through the freezing mist. Because there were so few landmarks in this snowbound waste, local civilians had been attached as guides to the point units, but this was not enough. The visibility was so bad that the commanders had to steer by compass.

The advance was doubly dangerous. Drifting snow concealed deep gullies. In places tall steppe grass, covered in hoar frost, stuck up above the snow, while further on drifts extended in deceptively soft curves. Tank crews were thrown about so much that only their padded leather helmets saved them from being knocked senseless. Many limbs, mainly arms, were broken inside hulls and turrets, but the tank columns did not halt for any casualty. Behind they could see flashes and explosions as their infantry finished clearing the first and second lines of trenches.

Commanders with the 4th Tank Corps, advancing south beyond Kletskaya, anxiously watched their left flank, waiting for a counterattack from the Germans. They knew the Romanians were incapable of it. As the blizzard intensified, snow blocked gunsights, and filled the slits of the coaxially mounted machine-gun beside the main armament. When night began to fall at about half past three in the afternoon, commanders gave the order to turn on headlights. There was no alternative if they wished to keep going.

On the western breakthrough, General Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps sighted large fires ahead. They were part of a collective farm which the Germans had rapidly abandoned after setting the buildings ablaze. Clearly, the enemy were aware of their presence. The tank drivers turned off their headlights when German artillery opened fire.

It was Butkov’s 1st Tank Corps to the right which finally encountered the gravely weakened XXXXVIII Panzer Corps. The German tanks still suffered from electrical problems, and their narrow tracks slid around on the black ice. The fighting in the gathering dark was chaotic. The usual German advantages of tactical skill and coordination were entirely lost.

The order from Army Group headquarters to block the broken dam near Kletskaya with part of XI Corps and 14th Panzer Division was already hopelessly late when it was issued. Headquarters Army Group B and Sixth Army were blinded by the absence of clear information. ‘It is not even possible to get an overview of the situation through air reconnaissance,’ wrote General von Richthofen in his diary. The Russians had also managed to confuse the picture, by launching attacks along almost all of Sixth Army’s sectors.

At 5 p.m., by which time Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps had advanced over twenty miles, General Strecker’s XI Corps was ordered to form a new line of defence running southwards to protect Sixth Army’s rear. But German commanders, including Richthofen, still did not guess the Red Army’s objective. ‘Hopefully’, he wrote, ‘the Russians will not reach the railway line, the main artery for our supplies.’ They still could not imagine that the Russians were attempting a complete encirclement of the Sixth Army.

At 6 p.m., General von Seydlitz’s headquarters received instructions that the parts of the 24th Panzer Division which had not been engaged in the fighting in Stalingrad were to leave for the area of Peskovatka and Vertyachy near the Don crossings. Yet it was not until ten o’clock that night – seventeen hours after the start of the offensive – that Sixth Army received a firm order from Colonel-General von Weichs to break off fighting in Stalingrad. ‘Change of situation in area of Third Romanian Army compels radical measures with the objective of moving forces as rapidly as possible to cover the rear flank of Sixth Army and secure lines of communication.’ All offensive activities in Stalingrad were ‘to be halted with immediate effect’. Panzer and motorized units were to be sent westwards as quickly as possible. Due to the total lack of preparation for such an eventuality, this would not prove at all rapid. Chuikov’s 62nd Army, as might have been expected, also launched strong attacks to prevent the Germans disengaging.

The 16th Panzer Division, ‘in whose ranks many Russian Hiwis had been drafted to fill large gaps’, was also ordered westwards to the Don. Like the 24th Panzer Division, it would have to replenish from reserve depots on the way, since there was not enough fuel in the immediate vicinity of Stalingrad. But first of all, the division had to extricate itself from the fighting round Rynok. This meant that although part of the division moved westwards the next evening, some of the tanks of the 2nd Panzer Regiment did not finally receive the order ‘move out’ until three in the morning on 21 November, forty-six hours after the opening of the Soviet attack.

Since the Soviet attacks were taking place to Sixth Army’s rear, and outside its area of responsibility, Paulus had waited for orders from above. Army Group B, meanwhile, was having to react to orders relayed from the Führer in Berchtesgaden. Hitler’s determination to control events had produced a disastrous immobilism when the greatest rapidity was needed. Nobody appears to have sat down to reassess enemy intentions. By sending the bulk of Sixth Army’s panzer regiments back across the Don to defend its left rear flank, all flexibility was lost. Worst of all, it left the southern flank open.

On the Fourth Panzer Army’s front to the south of Stalingrad, German regiments heard the artillery barrages on the morning of 19 November well over sixty miles to their north-west. They guessed that the big attack had started, but nobody told them what was happening. In the 297th Infantry Division, whose right flank adjoined the Romanian Fourth Army, Major Bruno Gebele, the commander of an infantry battalion, suffered ‘no particular anxieties’. Their sector stayed quiet the whole day.

The earth was frozen hard, the steppe looked exceptionally bleak as the wind from the south whipped up the fine, dry snow like white dust. Their neighbouring division to the left, the 371st Infantry Division, could hear the ice floes on the Volga grating against each other. That night their divisional headquarters heard that all Sixth Army attacks in Stalingrad had been stopped.

Next morning, the freezing mist was again dense. Yeremenko, the commander of the Stalingrad Front, decided to postpone the opening bombardment despite nervous telephone calls from Moscow. Finally, at 10 a.m., the artillery and Katyusha regiments opened fire. Three-quarters of an hour later, the ground forces moved forward into the channels through minefields cleared by sappers during the night. South of Beketovka, the 64th and 57th Armies supported the thrust by the 13th Mechanized Corps. Twenty-five miles further south, by lake Sarpa and lake Tsatsa, the 4th Mechanized and the 4th Cavalry Corps led the 51st Army into the attack.

The German neighbours of the 20th Romanian Infantry Division watched ‘masses of Soviet tanks and waves of infantry, in quantities never seen before, advancing against the Romanians’. Gebele had been in touch with the commander of the adjoining Romanian regiment, Colonel Gross, who had served in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and so spoke good German. Gross’s men had only a single 3.7-cm horse-drawn Pak for the whole of their sector, but the Romanian peasant soldiers fought bravely, considering that they had been left on their own. Their officers and senior NCOs ‘were never to be seen at the front, and spent their time instead in various buildings in the rear with music and alcohol’. Soviet reports credited the Romanian defences with much better armament than was the case. The first tank from the 13th Tank Brigade to break through was said to have crushed no fewer than four anti-tank guns under its tracks and destroyed three fire points.

Gebele watched the attack from an observation post on his sector. ‘The Romanians fought bravely, but against the waves of Soviet attack, they had no chance of resisting for long.’ The Soviet attack appeared to proceed ‘as if on a training ground: fire – move – fire – move’. Yet newsreel images of T-34 tanks racing forwards, spewing snow from their tracks, each vehicle carrying an eight-man assault group in white camouflage suits, tend to hide often terrible deficiencies. The attack formations south of Stalingrad were desperately short of supplies, owing to the difficulty of ferrying them across the nearly icebound Volga. Divisions started to run out of food on the second day of the offensive. By the third day, the 157th Rifle Division had neither meat nor bread. To resolve the problem, all vehicles in 64th Army, including those which served as ambulances, were switched to reprovisioning the advance. The wounded were simply left behind in the snow.

The enthusiasm of most of the attacking troops was clearly evident. It was seen as a historic moment. Fomkin, a linesman with the 157th Rifle Division, volunteered to walk ahead of the attacking tanks to lead them through the minefield. One cannot even doubt the report of the political department of the Stalingrad Front about the happiness of troops ‘that the long-awaited hour had come when the defenders of Stalingrad would make the enemy’s blood flow for the blood of our wives, children, soldiers and officers’. For those who took part, it was the ‘happiest day of the whole war’, including even the final German surrender in Berlin.

The violated Motherland was at last being avenged, yet it was Romanian, not German, divisions which bore the brunt. Their infantry, in the opinion of General Hoth’s chief of staff, suffered from ‘panzer-fright’. According to Soviet reports, many of them promptly threw down their weapons, raised their hands and shouted: ‘Antonescu kaputt!’ Red Army soldiers apparently also found that many had shot themselves through the left hand, then bandaged the wound with bread to prevent infection. The Romanian prisoners were rounded up into columns, but before they were marched off to camps, many – perhaps even hundreds – were shot down by Red Army soldiers on their own account. There were reports of bodies of Soviet officers found mutilated at a Romanian headquarters, but this was probably not what triggered the spontaneous killings.

Although the breakthroughs in the south-east were achieved rapidly, the attack did not go according to plan. There were ‘cases of chaos in the leading units’ due to ‘contradictory orders’. This seems to be a euphemism for Major-General Volsky’s caution and lack of control over his columns from the 4th Mechanized Corps, which became mixed up as they advanced westwards from the line of lakes.*

To Volsky’s north, Colonel Tanashchishin’s initial problem with the 13th Mechanized Corps was the shortage of lorries to keep his infantry advancing at the same rate as the tanks. But then he came up against much harder opposition than the Romanians. The only German reserve on that part of the front, General Leyser’s 29th Motorized Infantry Division, advanced to intercept Tanashchishin’s corps some ten miles south of Beketovka. Even though Leyser’s division managed to inflict a sharp reverse on the Soviet columns, General Hoth received orders to withdraw it to protect the Sixth Army’s southern flank. The Romanian VI Army Corps had virtually collapsed, there was little chance of re-establishing a fresh line of defence, and even Hoth’s own headquarters were threatened. The 6th Romanian Cavalry Regiment was all that was left between the southern armoured thrust and the river Don.

The success of Leyser’s attack suggests that if Paulus had established a strong mobile reserve before the offensive, he could have struck south with it, a distance of little more than fifteen miles, and quite easily smashed the lower arm of the encirclement. On the following day, he could then have sent it north-westwards in the direction of Kalach to meet the main threat from the northern offensive. But this presupposed a clear appreciation of the true danger, which both Paulus and Schmidt lacked.

On that morning of Friday, 20 November, at about the time the bombardments commenced south of Stalingrad, Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps, nearly twenty-five miles deep into the rear beyond Strecker’s XI Corps, switched its advance south-eastwards. The 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps was meanwhile turning in to attack XI Corps from behind. Strecker was trying to establish a defence line south from the greater Don bend to protect this open gap behind the whole army. The bulk of his corps meanwhile faced the Soviet 65th Army to the north which kept up the pressure, with constant attacks, to hinder any redeployment.

With the Romanians ‘fleeing wildly, most of them leaving behind their weapons’, the 376th Infantry Division had to pull round to face westwards, while trying to make contact with part of 14th Panzer Division to its south. The Austrian 44th Infantry Division also had to redeploy, but ‘much material was lost because it could not be moved owing to the shortage of fuel’.

To their south, the panzer regiment of 14th Panzer Division still had no clear idea of the enemy’s direction of approach. Having advanced westwards for a dozen miles, it then withdrew in the afternoon back to Verkhne-Buzinovka. On the way, it ran into a flanking regiment of the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps which it virtually annihilated. Over the first two days, the panzer regiment destroyed thirty-five Soviet tanks. On the other hand, an unprotected flak detachment, using its ‘eighty-eights’ as anti-tank guns, was overrun by a Russian attack.

‘The catastrophic fuel situation’ continued to hamper the other panzer and motorized divisions, starting to move westwards from Stalingrad to reinforce this new front. They were also suffering from a shortage of tank crewmen after Hitler’s order to send every available man into Stalingrad as infantry. The other decision bitterly regretted was the withdrawal of Sixth Army’s horses to the west. The new war of movement suddenly imposed by the Russians forced German infantry divisions to abandon their artillery.

The Romanian collapse accelerated as the Soviet spearheads went deeper. Few of their rear support troops had been trained to fight and staff officers fled their headquarters. In the wake of the advancing tanks, wrote one Soviet journalist, ‘the road is strewn with enemy corpses; abandoned guns face the wrong way. Horses roam the balkas in search of food, the broken traces dragging on the ground after them; grey wisps of smoke curl up from the trucks destroyed by shellfire; steel helmets, hand grenades and rifle cartridges litter the road.’ Isolated groups of Romanians had continued to resist on sectors of the former front line, but the Soviet rifle divisions from the 5th Tank Army and 21st Army soon crushed them. Perelazovsky had contained a Romanian corps headquarters which, according to General Rodin, was so hurriedly abandoned that his 26th Tank Corps found ‘staff papers scattered on the floor and officers’ fur-lined greatcoats hanging on racks’ – their owners having fled into the freezing night. More important for the Soviet mechanized column, they captured the fuel dump intact.

Meanwhile, the 22nd Panzer Division, unable to resist the T- 34s of 1st Tank Corps, had retreated. It made an attempt to attack north-eastwards the following day, but was soon surrounded. Reduced to little more than the equivalent of a company of tanks, it later fought its way out and retreated south-westwards, harried by the Soviet 8th Cavalry Corps.

In the meantime, Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps, having smashed part of the 1st Romanian Panzer Division which got in its way, also started its advance across the open steppe to the south-east. The Soviet columns had been told to forget the enemy left behind and concentrate on the objective. If Luftwaffe air reconnaissance had been able to identify the roughly parallel courses of the three tank corps during the afternoon of 20 November, then alarm bells at Sixth Army headquarters might have rung earlier.

The main Romanian formation still fighting effectively at this time was the ‘Lascar Group’. This consisted of remnants from the V Army Corps, gathered together by the intrepid Lieutenant-General Mihail Lascar, when cut off between the two great Soviet armoured thrusts. Lascar, who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross at Sevastopol, was one of the few senior Romanian officers the Germans really respected. He held out on the assumption that XXXXVIII Panzer Corps was coming to his relief.

Sixth Army headquarters, twelve miles north of Kalach at Golubinsky, seems to have started the morning of Saturday, 21 November, in a relatively optimistic mood. At 7.40 a.m., ‘a not unfavourable description of the situation’ was dispatched to Army Group B. Paulus and Schmidt, who still perceived the attacks on Strecker’s left flank by the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps as the main threat, clearly thought that their forces brought westwards from Stalingrad would transform the situation.

During the course of that morning, however, Paulus and Schmidt received a series of nasty shocks. Different signals all pointed to the same conclusion. Army Group B warned them that Sixth Army’s southern flank was now threatened from both sides. A report came in that a large armoured column (in fact part of Kravchenko’s 4th Tanks Corps) was less than twenty miles to their west. It was heading for the Don High Road, the showpiece of German military engineering on the west bank which linked most of the bridges on that vital stretch of the river. Sixth Army had no troops in the area capable of meeting the threat. To make matters worse, many of Sixth Army’s repair bases and supply depots lay exposed. Paulus and Schmidt at last recognized that the enemy was aiming for a full encirclement. The diagonal Soviet thrusts, from both the north-west and south-east, were almost certainly aiming for Kalach and its bridge.

The disastrous German reactions to Operation Uranus had lain not just in Hitler’s belief that the Russians had no reserves, but in the arrogant assumptions of most generals as well. ‘Paulus and Schmidt had expected an attack,’ explained an officer with Sixth Army head-quarters, ‘but not such an attack. It was the first time that the Russians used tanks as we did.’ Even Richthofen implicitly admitted this when he wrote of the enemy offensive as ‘for him an astonishingly successful breakthrough’. Field Marshal von Manstein, on the other hand, felt (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) that Sixth Army headquarters had been far too slow to react and extremely negligent in its failure to foresee the threat to Kalach – the obvious Don crossing between the two breakthroughs.

Soon after midday, most of Paulus’s headquarters staff were sent eastwards to the railway junction of Gumrak, some eight miles from Stalingrad, so as to be close to the bulk of the Sixth Army. Meanwhile, Paulus and Schmidt flew in two Fieseler Storch light aeroplanes to Nizhne-Chirskaya, where they were joined by General Hoth on the following day for a conference. At Golubinsky, they left behind columns of smoke rising into the freezing air from burning files and stores, as well as several unserviceable reconnaissance aircraft on the adjacent airstrip which had been set on fire. In their hurried departure, they also missed a ‘Führer decision’ relayed on by Army Group B at 3.25 p.m. It began: ‘Sixth Army stand firm in spite of danger of temporary encirclement.’

There was little hope of holding positions on that afternoon of 21 November. The accumulation of delays to the panzer regiment of 16th Panzer Division had left a hole below Strecker’s XI Army Corps and the other assorted groups attempting to form a new defence line. This was rapidly exploited by the Soviet 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps and 4th Mechanized Corps. Strecker’s divisions, increasingly threatened from the north and north-east as well, had no option but to start withdrawing towards the Don. The ill-considered plan of sending the Sixth Army’s panzer regiments westwards was now revealed to have been a dangerous diversion of effort.

Kalach, the principal objective for three Soviet tank corps, was one of the most vulnerable points of all. There was no organized defence, only an ill-assorted collection of sub-units, mainly supply and maintenance troops, a small detachment of Feldgendarmerie and a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery.

The transport company and workshops of the 16th Panzer Division had already established themselves in Kalach for the winter. ‘The first news of any change in the situation’ did not reach them until 10 a.m. on 21 November. They subsequently heard that the Russian tank columns which had broken through the Romanians to the north-west were now advancing towards their sector of the Don. At around 5 p.m. they heard for the first time of the breakthrough south of Stalingrad. They had no idea that Volsky’s mechanized corps, despite all the hesitations which had enraged Yeremenko, was approaching Fourth Panzer Army’s former headquarters, only thirty miles to their south-east.

The defences at Kalach were not only thoroughly inadequate for the task, they were also badly managed. On the west bank, on the heights above the Don, there were four Luftwaffe flak emplacements, and another two anti-aircraft guns on the east bank. Only a group of twenty-five men from the Organisation Todt were assigned to the immediate security of the bridge, while the scratch battalion of rear troops remained in the town on the east bank.

Major-General Rodin, the commander of 26th Tank Corps, gave the task of capturing the bridge at Kalach to Lieutenant-Colonel G. N. Filippov, the commander of the 19th Tank Brigade. Leaving Ostrov at midnight, Filippov’s column advanced eastwards to Kalach during the early hours of 22 November. At 6.15 a.m., two captured German tanks and a reconnaissance vehicle, with their lights switched on to disarm suspicion, drove on to the temporary bridge across the Don and opened fire on the guards. Another sixteen Soviet tanks had meanwhile plunged into thick scrub on the heights above the river to cover them. It was the point from which German panzers had gazed down upon the town on 2 August.

Several Soviet tanks were set on fire, but Filippov’s boldness had paid off. The detachment guarding the bridge was driven off, and enough T-34S crossed to fight off belated attempts to blow the bridge. Russian motorized infantry appeared on the Don heights, then another group of tanks appeared. Two more attacks followed, supported by artillery and mortars from the Don heights across the river. By mid-morning, Soviet infantry broke into the town. There was chaos in the streets, packed with Romanian stragglers separated from their units. It was not long before the few heavy weapons manned by the scratch battalion were out of ammunition or out of action, even though the drivers and mechanics had sustained few casualties. Having blown up their workshops, they withdrew from the town, climbed into trucks and drove back to find their division in Stalingrad. The way was open for the link-up the next day between the 4th and 26th Tank Corps, coming from the northern flank, and Volsky’s 4th Mechanized Corps, coming from south of Stalingrad.

Guided towards each other by green recognition flares fired at intervals into the sky, the Russian spearheads met in the open steppe near Sovietsky with bear-hug embraces, a scene which was re-enacted at a later date for Soviet propaganda before newsreel cameras. The celebratory exchanges of vodka and sausage between tank crews at the time were unfilmed, but far more genuine.

News spread rapidly on the German side, with the phrase, ‘We’re surrounded!’ That Sunday, 22 November, was for Protestants the day of remembrance of the dead. ‘A sombre Totensonntag 1942,’ wrote Kurt Reuber, a priest serving as a doctor with 16th Panzer Division, ‘worry, fear and horror.’ Many, however, were not too concerned on first hearing the news. Encirclements had happened the winter before, and been broken, but better-informed officers, on further reflection, began to realize that this time there were no reserves to rescue them quickly. ‘We became very much aware of what danger we were in’, remembered Freytag-Loringhoven, ‘to be cut off so deep into Russia on the edge of Asia.’

Forty miles to the west, the last pocket of Romanian resistance was coming to an end, even though in the early hours of that day, General Lascar had rejected the Red Army’s demand for surrender. ‘We will continue to fight without thought of surrender’, he declared, but his troops, although resisting bravely, were without supplies and short of ammunition.

The Soviet crossing at Kalach immediately put the XI Army Corps, to the north, in grave danger. It had already been fighting a defensive battle on almost three sides amid uncertainty and chaos, compounded by rumours. This confusion was revealed in the fragments of a diary taken from the body of a German artillery officer:

20.11.…is the offensive coming to a halt??!! Change of position northwards. We have only one gun left. All the others are out of action.

Saturday, 21.11. Enemy tanks early… Change of position to the rear. Russians already extremely near. Own infantry (motor-cyclists and pioneers) called in for close protection. Today still more Romanians passed by without stopping. We’re pulling out. Already under pressure from Russians on two sides. New fire position. Only stayed a short time, then another change of position rearwards. Build a bunker.

Sunday, 22.11. Alarm at 3.30 a.m. Ordered out as infantry! Russians approaching. Romanians retreating. We can’t hold this position on our own. We’re anxiously waiting for another order to change position.

During this retreat, German infantry divisions found themselves in the open fighting off cavalry attacks ‘as if it were 1870’, as one officer put it. Their greatest problem was transport, mainly because of the shortage of horses. In some cases the solution adopted was brutally simple. An ΝCO would grab three-quarter-starved Russians from one of the prisoner-of-war cages to serve as draught animals. ‘When the retreat started on 20 November,’ reported one Russian prisoner of war, ‘we were put instead of horses to drag the carts loaded with ammunition and food. Those prisoners who could not drag the carts as quickly as the Feldwebel wanted were shot on the spot. In this way we were forced to pull the carts for four days, almost without any rest. At the Vertyachy prison camp, an encirclement of barbed wire without any shelter, the Germans selected the least unhealthy prisoners and took them with them.’ The remainder, the sickest prisoners, were left behind to starve and freeze in the snow. ‘Only two out of ninety-eight were still alive’, when they were discovered by an advance unit of the 65th Army. Photographers were summoned to record the horrific scene. Pictures were printed in the press and the Soviet government formally accused the German command of a war crime.

The 376th Infantry Division was the most exposed to the Russian attack, which was ‘extraordinarily rapid’, according to its commander, General Edler von Daniels. The division, reduced to 4,200 men, when trapped on the west bank of the Don as part of XI Army Corps, pulled back in a south-eastwards direction on 22 November. Two days later, in the early morning, the division crossed the Don by the bridge at Vertyachy.

The tank regiment of 16th Panzer Division had meanwhile been advancing, having finally crossed the Don on the night of 22 November to support XI Corps. On the way, it had managed to pass by its armoured workshops at Peskovatka, where some new and freshly repaired tanks were collected. From its position on the southern side of the German bridgehead in the Don loop, the panzer regiment attempted a counter-attack in the direction of Suchanov on 23 November in heavy mist, but was ambushed by Soviet infantry, in white camouflage suits, armed with anti-tank rifles. In the face of enemy strength, and owing to the acute shortage of fuel, the 16th Panzer Division was pulled back. It took up positions ready to cover the retreat, but communications were so bad that almost all orders had to go via dispatch rider.

The German retreat eastwards across the Don, back towards Stalingrad and away from the rest of the Wehrmacht, was in many ways worse than the retreat from before Moscow, the previous December. Fine snow, hard and dry, drove across the steppe, lashing their faces, however much they turned their collars up against the wind. Despite the bitter lessons of the previous year, many soldiers had still not yet received winter uniform. The lines of retreat were littered with discarded weapons, helmets and equipment. Most Romanian soldiers had little more than their brown uniforms. They had thrown away their steel helmets in the retreat. The luckier ones, mainly officers, wore Balkan sheepskin caps. Shot-up and burnt-out vehicles had been pushed to the side of the road or down the embankment. At one point there was an anti-aircraft gun whose barrel had exploded, curling out and back like an exotic flower. Closer to the bridges over the Don, there were solid traffic jams of trucks, staff cars, dispatch riders desperately trying to get through, farm carts and the odd field gun towed by exhausted and undernourished horses. From time to time there would be waves of panic, with cries of ‘Russian tanks!’ The Soviet 1 6th Tank Corps was attacking down through the 76th Infantry Division towards Vertyachy, threatening to cut off German units left west of the Don.

Some of the ugliest scenes developed at the approaches to the bridge at Akimovsky, with soldiers shouting, jostling and even fighting to get across to the eastern bank. The weak and the wounded were trampled underfoot. Sometimes, officers threatened each other for not letting their men pass first. Even the Feldgendarmerie detachment armed with sub-machine-guns was unable to restore a semblance of order. A considerable number of soldiers, to avoid the chaos and congestion, tried to cross the frozen Don on foot. The ice was thick and strong near the banks, but in the centre there were weak spots. Those who fell through the ice were doomed. Nobody even thought of going to their aid. Comparisons to the Berezina were uppermost in most people’s minds.

Occasionally, on these lines of retreat, an officer as unshaven as the men around him decided that it was his duty to halt the disintegration. He drew his pistol to round up a few stragglers, then, using them as a core, press-ganged others until their force snowballed. Heavy weapons and gun crews would also be commandeered to form an improvised combat group. The scratch force, with varying degrees of compulsion, then took up positions and waited for Soviet tanks or cavalry to appear out of the icy mist.

Across the Don, on the east bank, every village was packed with German soldiers who had lost their divisions, all seeking food and shelter from the terrible cold. The exhausted and half-starved Romanians, who had been retreating for over a week already, received little sympathy from their allies. ‘The numerous Romanians’, observed one officer, ‘were forced to bivouac outside.’ The lines of retreat took in the supply depots, but this only added to the chaos. A panzer officer later reported on the chaos in Peskovatka, ‘especially the frantic and nervous behaviour of a Luftwaffe flak unit’, blowing up, burning and destroying stores and transport ‘in a wild fashion’. Passing soldiers plundered any supply dump they found. From the mountains of cans, they filled rucksacks and pockets until they bulged. Nobody ever seemed to have an opener, so they used bayonets, in their impatience, often not knowing what the tin contained. If they discovered one with coffee beans, they poured them into a steel helmet and pummelled them with the hilt of the bayonet like a crude pestle and mortar. When soldiers who had not received any winter clothing saw supply troops throwing new outfits on to fires, they rushed over to seize them from the flames for themselves. Meanwhile the Feldpostamt was burning letters and parcels, many of which contained food sent from home.

Far more terrible scenes were to be found in field hospitals. ‘Here everything’s overflowing,’ reported an NCO from a repair depot in Peskovatka suffering badly from jaundice. ‘The lightly wounded and sick must find accommodation for themselves.’ He had to spend the night in the snow. Others suffered much more. There were trucks parked on the frozen mud of the yard outside, still full of wounded, with bandaged heads and stumps. The drivers had disappeared and corpses were not removed from their midst. Nobody had offered the living any food or drink. The orderlies and doctors inside were too busy, and passing soldiers tended to ignore their cries for help. Malingerers or walking wounded who tried to gain entry to the field hospital found themselves referred to an NCO charged with rounding up stragglers to reform them as scratch companies. Frostbite casualties, unless very severe cases, were given ointment and bandages, then also marched off for duty.

Inside, patients dozed apathetically. There was little oxygen left in the heavy, damp air, but at least it was warm. Orderlies removed field bandages, many already crawling with grey lice, cleaned wounds, gave tetanus injections and rebandaged them. A man’s chances of survival depended essentially on the type and place of injury. The missile – whether shell splinter, grenade fragment or bullet – mattered less than the point of entry. The triage was straightforward. Those with serious head wounds and stomach wounds were placed to one side and left to die, because such operations took a full surgical team between ninety minutes and two hours to complete, and only about one patient in two survived. A priority was given to walking wounded. They could be sent back into the battle. Stretchers took up too much room and too much manpower. Shattered limbs were also dealt with quickly. Surgeons with rubber aprons and scalpels and saws, working in pairs, performed rapid amputations on limbs held down by a couple of orderlies. The ration of ether was reduced to make it stretch further. Severed matter was dropped into pails. The floor around the operating table became slippery with blood, despite the occasional hurried swab with a mop. A blend of sickly smells overcame all traces of the usual field-hospital carbolic. The surgical production line seemed endless.

Troops still left on the western bank of the Don wondered if they would escape. ‘Right on towards the Don,’ continued the diary entries of the artillery officer. ‘Will it go off all right? Will we get through to the big pocket? Is the bridge still standing? Hours of suspense and anxiety. Defence sections to right and left of the route. Often the road is itself the front line. At last the Don! Bridge intact: A stone drops from our hearts! On the far side take up a fire position. Russians pushing forwards already. Cavalry crossed the Don to our south.’

‘A number of tanks had to be blown up,’ a corporal reported later, ‘because we did not get fuel in time.’ The 14th Panzer Division was left with only twenty-four tanks which could be repaired, so its spare crews were reorganized as an infantry company armed with carbines and machine pistols. Senior officers were close to despair. Early on the morning of 25 November, Prince zu Dohna-Schlobitten, the intelligence officer of XIV Panzer Corps, overheard a conversation between General Hube and his chief of staff, Colonel Thunert, in which they used phrases such as ‘last resort’ and ‘a bullet through the head’.

The temperature dropped drastically. The hardness of the ground meant a much higher casualty rate from mortar fire, but it was not so much the frozen earth as the frozen water which affected the retreat. The dramatic frost meant that the Don would soon be easily passable for the enemy. During the following night, Soviet infantry were able to cross the Don near Peskovatka. Early the next morning, the patients in the field hospital woke to the sound of mortar and machine-gun fire. ‘Everyone was running around like headless chickens’, reported the NCO with jaundice from the repair depot, who had survived the night outside after finding there was no room for him. ‘On the road there were queues of vehicles, one behind the other, while mortar bombs fell all around. Here and there one of them was hit and burned out. The badly wounded could not be transported, because of a lack of trucks. A hastily assembled company of soldiers from a variety of units managed to repulse the Russians just before they reached the field hospital.’

That evening, staff at XIV Panzer Corps headquarters received the order to destroy ‘all items of equipment, files and vehicles that were not absolutely necessary’. They were to pull back across the Don towards Stalingrad. By the following day, 26 November, 16th Panzer Division and part of the 44th Infantry Division were among the last troops of Sixth Army left west of the Don. That night they crossed the bridge at Luchinsky to the Stalingrad side of the river. For the 16th Panzer Division, this was ‘the very same bridge that we had crossed twelve weeks before in our first attack on the city on the Volga’.

A company of panzer grenadiers from its 64th Panzer Grenadier Regiment covered the withdrawal under the command of Lieutenant von Mutius. Their task was to defend the bridge, allowing through stragglers until half past three in the morning, when the three-hundred-yard-long bridge across the Don was to be blown. At ten past three, the eager young Mutius admitted to his company sergeant-major, Oberfeldwebel Wallrawe, that he was ‘very proud’ to be ‘the last officer of the German Wehrmacht to cross this bridge’. Wallrawe made no comment. Twenty minutes later, with the panzer grenadiers back across to the east bank of the Don, the engineers blew the bridge. The Sixth Army was now sealed off between Don and Volga.

Triumph did not mellow the attitude of Red Army men towards their enemy. ‘I feel much better because we have started to destroy Germans,’ wrote one soldier to his wife on 26 November. ‘This was the moment when we began to beat the snakes. We are capturing plenty. We hardly have time to pass them on back to prison camps. Now they are starting to pay for our blood, and for the tears of our people, for insults and for robbery. I received winter uniform so don’t worry about me. Things go well here. Soon I will be home after the victory. Sending 500 roubles.’ Those still in hospital, recuperating from wounds received earlier, bitterly regretted missing the fighting. ‘The battles are strong and good now,’ wrote one Russian soldier to his wife, ‘and I am lying here missing all this.’

There were numerous Soviet claims of German atrocities that are hard to assess. Some, no doubt, were exaggerations or inventions for propaganda purposes, others were basically true. Advancing Soviet troops encountered women, children and old men evicted from their homes by the German Army, with their possessions on small sledges. Many had been robbed of their winter clothing. Vasily Grossman reported similar stories from the southern axis of advance. He wrote that Red Army soldiers searching their prisoners were angry to find on many the pathetic loot from peasant homes – ‘old women’s kerchiefs and earrings, linen and skirts, babies’ napkins and brightly coloured girls’ blouses. One soldier had twenty-two pairs of woollen stockings in his possession.’ Gaunt civilians came forward to tell of their suffering under German occupation. Every cow, every hen, and every sack of grain that could be found had been seized. Old men were flogged until they revealed where they had concealed their grain. Homesteads had been burned, with many civilians marched off for slave labour and the rest left to starve or freeze. Revenge was often exacted by small groups of Russian troops, especially when drunk, on Germans who fell into their hands. Meanwhile NKVD squads descended on liberated villages. They arrested 450 collaborators. The biggest round-up would come just over a month later in Nizhne-Chirskaya where Cossacks had denounced NKVD agents to the German Secret Field Police. Some 400 camp guards were also executed, of whom 300 were Ukrainians.

Grossman watched the German prisoners of war being escorted back. Many had ragged blankets over their shoulders instead of greatcoats. String or wire served in the place of belts. ‘On this vast, flat, bleak steppe, one can see them from a long way off. They pass us in columns of two to three hundred men, and in smaller groups of from twenty to fifty. One column, several miles long, slowly wends its way, faithfully reproducing every bend and turn in the road. Some of the Germans speak some Russian. “We don’t want war,” they call out. “We want to go home. To hell with Hitler!” Their guards observe sarcastically: “Now when our tanks have cut them off, they are ready to shout about not wanting war; but before that the thought never entered their heads.” ‘The prisoners were shipped across the Volga in barges towed by tugs. ‘They stand packed together on deck, wearing tattered field-grey greatcoats, stamping their feet and blowing on their frozen fingers.’ A sailor watching them observed with grim satisfaction: ‘Now they’re getting a sight of the Volga.’

In Abganerovo, Soviet infantry found the railway junction was congested with abandoned freight cars, which to judge from their markings, had been taken from several countries in occupied Europe. French-, Belgian- and Polish-manufactured motor cars stood there, each branded with the black eagle and swastika of the Third Reich. For the Russians, the wagons full of supplies were like an unexpected Christmas. The sense of depriving the mighty German Army of its ill-gotten chattels was doubly pleasurable, but the old problems of semi-chronic alcoholism still arose. The commander, second-in-command and eighteen soldiers of a company on the southern flank became casualties from drinking a captured supply of German antifreeze. Three died, while the remaining seventeen were ‘in a serious condition in a field hospital’. On the northern flank, a captured Russian officer told Prince Dohna that when his battalion, half-starved from ration shortages, captured a Romanian supply dump, 150 men died ‘owing to excessive consumption’.

Meanwhile in Stalingrad itself, the 62nd Army found itself in a strange position. Although forming part of the new encirclement of the Sixth Army, it remained cut off from the east bank of the Volga, short of supplies and its wounded unevacuated. Every time a boat hazarded a crossing through the dangerous ice floes, German artillery opened fire. Yet the atmosphere had changed now that the attackers had become the besieged. The men of the 62nd Army were still not quite able to believe that the turning point had come. Russian soldiers, with no prospect of any more tobacco supplies until the Volga froze solid, sang to divert their thoughts from their craving for nicotine. The Germans listened from their bunkers. They did not shout insults any more.

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