Military history

Hitler’s Obsession

The task of informing the Führer about the great Soviet breakthrough on 19 November fell to the Army Chief of Staff, General Zeitzler, who had remained behind in East Prussia. Hitler was at the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, which was where he had received news of Stalin’s agreement to the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939. On that occasion, he had banged the dinner table in triumph, to the surprise of the ladies of his court. ‘I’ve got them!’ he had shouted, leaping to his feet. Tve got them!’ This time, his reaction appears to have been one of nervous anger.

The Wehrmacht Supreme Command war diary referred, with revealing disingenuousness, to ‘alarming news of the Russian offensive which has been long expected by the Fuhrer’. Hitler’s reaction to the unsuccessful counter-attack of the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps that day was even more indicative. After his clumsy interference had failed to stop the Romanian collapse, he wanted a scapegoat, and ordered General Heim’s arrest.

Hitler recognized, although he did not admit it, that the whole of the German position in southern Russia was now at risk. On the second day of the offensive, he ordered Field Marshal von Manstein to return to the south from Vitebsk to form a new Army Group Don. Manstein was the most admired strategist in the German Army and had worked successfully with Romanian forces in the Crimea.

In the physical absence of the Führer, the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht was paralysed. During 21 November, the day that Paulus and Schmidt abandoned their headquarters at Golubinsky when threatened by a column of Soviet tanks, Hitler’s chief adjutant, General Schmundt, was preoccupied with ‘alterations to the uniforms of officers and Wehrmacht officials’.

The Führer’s order to the Sixth Army to stand firm despite the threat of ‘temporary encirclement’ eventually caught up with Paulus when he reached Nizhne-Chirskaya. Paulus was also told to take under command all of Hoth’s troops south of Stalingrad and the remains of the Romanian VI Army Corps. The key part was: ‘Keep open rail lines as long as possible. Orders to follow on subject of resupply by air.’ Paulus, whose instinct was to consider withdrawal from the Volga to join up with the rest of Army Group B, was extremely reluctant to react to this abrupt decree until he felt that he had a better understanding of the overall situation.

He had flown to Nizhne-Chirskaya because the headquarters prepared there for the winter possessed secure communications with Army Group B and the Wolfsschanze near Rastenburg. But Hitler, on hearing of his arrival, suspected that he wanted to escape the Russians. He ordered him to fly back at once to join the rest of his staff at Gumrak within the encirclement. When General Hoth arrived early next morning, 22 November, he found Paulus angered and upset by Hitler’s insinuation that he had abandoned his men. Paulus’s chief of staff, General Schmidt, was on the telephone to General Martin Fiebig, the commander of VIII Air Corps. Schmidt re-emphasized that the Sixth Army urgently needed fuel and ammunition to break out, and Fiebig repeated what he had said the previous afternoon: ‘It’s impossible to resupply a whole army by air. The Luftwaffe hasn’t got enough transport aircraft.’

The three generals spent most of the morning assessing Sixth Army’s predicament. Schmidt did much of the talking. It was he who had spoken to General von Sodenstern at Army Group B the previous evening and heard details of the Soviet advance south-eastwards from Perelazovsky. Sodenstern had told him bluntly: ‘We have nothing to stop them with. You’ve got to help yourselves.’

During the discussion, Major-General Wolfgang Pickert, the commander of the Luftwaffe 9th Flak Division, entered the room. Schmidt, a classmate from staff college, called across with the favourite phrase of their instructor: ‘Decision with reasons, please!’ Pickert replied without hesitation that he intended to pull his division out at once.

‘We also want to get out,’ Schmidt replied, ‘but first of all we must form an all-round defence to form a defence line on the southern side where the Russians are attacking.’ He went on to say that they could not abandon the divisions on the west bank of the Don, and that Sixth Army would be in no position to break out for another five to six days. For the operation to have any chance of success, ‘we must have fuel and ammunition delivered by the Luftwaffe’. General Hube had already radioed that his tanks were about to come to a halt.

‘That makes no difference,’ Pickert retorted. He did not intend to lose a whole flak division with all its weapons. ‘The Sixth Army can never be supplied by air if we stay put.’ Schmidt did not disagree, but pointed out that they had little idea of the overall situation, nor did they know what reserves were available to higher command. He emphasized that the lack of fuel and horses meant that ‘more than 10,000 wounded and the bulk of heavy weapons and vehicles would have to be left behind. That would be a Napoleonic ending.’

Paulus, after his study of the 1812 campaign, was evidently haunted by the vision of his army’s disintegration, cut to pieces as it struggled to escape across the snow-covered steppe. He did not want to go down in history as the general responsible for the greatest military disaster of all time. There must also have been a natural temptation for Paulus, never renowned for an independence of thought, to defer decisions that were politically and strategically dangerous, now that he knew that Field Marshal von Manstein was about to take over. But Manstein, unable to fly down from the north because of the weather, was stuck in his headquarters train, delayed by partisan action.

Paulus had the instincts of a staff officer, not those of a battle-group leader reacting to danger. He could not countenance a breakout unless it was properly prepared and supplied, and formed part of an overall plan approved by higher command. Neither he nor Schmidt seems to have appreciated that speed was the decisive factor. They had failed utterly to prepare the heavy mobile force which offered their only hope of smashing the encirclement before it was in place. Now they failed to appreciate that once the Red Army consolidated its position, almost every factor, but especially the weather, would turn increasingly against them.

Much time had already been lost by sending tank regiments to the rear across the Don. With confirmation that morning of the loss of Kalach, they had to tell Strecker’s XI Army Corps and Hube’s XIV Panzer Corps to prepare to pull back to the east bank to join up with the rest of Sixth Army. At the end of the morning, Schmidt communicated the relevant orders to General Hube and to Colonel Groscurth, Strecker’s chief of staff.

At 2.00 p.m. that afternoon, Paulus and Schmidt flew back to the new headquarters at Gumrak inside the Kessel, or encircled area. Paulus brought along a supply of good red wine and Veuve-Cliquot champagne – a curious choice for someone supposedly planning to get out quickly. Once he reached the new Sixth Army headquarters by Gumrak railway station, he started to contact his corps commanders. He wanted their views on the Führer’s order, renewed that evening, to take up a ‘hedgehog’ defence and await further orders. ‘They all shared our view,’ wrote Schmidt later, ‘that a breakout to the south was necessary.’ The most outspoken was General von Seydlitz, whose headquarters were only a hundred yards away.

Paulus’s signal at 7.00 p.m. set out to paint a stark picture. ‘Army surrounded’ were his first words, even though the ring had not yet been sealed. It was a weak and badly structured signal, which did not follow the correct format. Most crucially of all, Paulus failed to propose a firm course of action. He asked for ‘freedom of action if it proves impossible to achieve all-round defence on the southern flank’.

At a quarter past ten that night, Paulus received a radio message from the Führer. ‘The Sixth Army is temporarily surrounded by Russian forces. I know the Sixth Army and your commander-in-chief and have no doubt that in this difficult situation it will hold on bravely. The Sixth Army must know that I am doing everything to relieve them. I will issue my instructions in good time. Adolf Hitler.’ Paulus and Schmidt, convinced despite this message that Hitler would soon see reason, began to prepare plans for a breakout to the south-west.

Hitler, on that evening of 22 November, was setting out with Keitel and Jodl in his special train from Berchtesgaden for Leipzig, from where an aeroplane would take him to Rastenburg. During the journey north, he halted the train every few hours to speak to Zeitzler. He wanted to check that Paulus would not be given permission to withdraw. During one of these conversations, the Führer told Zeitzler: ‘We’ve found another way out.’ He did not say that he had been talking on the special train again to General Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe chief of staff, who had already indicated, despite warnings from Richthofen, that an air-bridge to supply the Sixth Army might be possible on a temporary basis.

Reichsmarschall Goering, on hearing what the Führer wanted, immediately summoned a meeting of his transport officers. He told them that 500 tons a day was needed. (The Sixth Army’s estimate of 700 tons was ignored.) They replied that 350 tons would be the maximum, and then only for a short period. Goering, with breathtaking irresponsibility, promptly assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could maintain the Sixth Army in its present position by air. Even on the lower figure, no allowance was made for bad weather, unserviceable aircraft or enemy action.

Early next morning, 24 November, the hopes of all the generals involved in the fate of the Sixth Army were firmly dashed. Another Führer decision reached Paulus’s headquarters at 8.30 a.m. In it, the boundaries of what Hitler now termed ‘Fortress Stalingrad’ were clearly laid down. The front on the Volga was to be held ‘whatever the circumstances’.

Zeitzler had been confident the evening before that Hitler was coming to his senses. Now, the Führer demonstrated indubitably that the opinion of all the generals responsible for the Stalingrad operation counted for nothing. Their feelings were summed up by Richthofen in his diary, when he wrote that they had become little more than ‘highly paid NCOs’. Hitler’s notion of the power of the will had completely parted company with military logic. He was fixated with the idea that if the Sixth Army withdrew from Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht would never return. He had sensed that this was the high-water mark of the Third Reich. Also, rather pertinently in the case of such an egomaniac, his personal pride was at stake after his boasts about Stalin’s city during the Munich Bierkeller speech less than two weeks before.

Such a combination of circumstances was perhaps bound to produce moments of bitter irony. Just before the Führer decision was issued, General von Seydlitz, the commander of LI Corps in Stalingrad, had decided to jump the gun. He considered it ‘completely unthinkable’ that an army with twenty-two divisions ‘should go into all-round defence and thus deprive itself of all freedom of movement’. He prepared a long memorandum on the subject for headquarters Sixth Army. ‘Already the minor defensive battles over the last few days have used up our ammunition reserves.’ The supply situation was decisive. It was their duty to ignore the catastrophic order to stay put.

On that evening of 23 November, Seydlitz ordered 60th Motorized Infantry Division and the 94th Infantry Division to burn their stores, and blow up their positions, then withdraw from their positions on the north side of Stalingrad. ‘In thousands of rapidly lit fires,’ wrote the quartermaster of the 94th Infantry Division, ‘we burned overcoats, uniforms, boots, documents, maps, typewriters as well as food supplies. The general burned all his own equipment himself.’ The Red Army, alerted by the explosions and flames, caught the already weakened division in the open as it withdrew from Spartakovka, and inflicted nearly 1,000 casualties. The neighbouring formation, the 389th Infantry Division in the Stalingrad tractor plant also suffered in the confusion.

Hitler, furious to hear of this withdrawal, blamed Paulus. To prevent any further disobedience to his orders, he made the extraordinary decision to split the command in the Kessel. General von Seydlitz, whom he believed to be a fanatic of resistance, was made commander-in-chief of the north-eastern part of the Kessel, including Stalingrad itself. The signal arrived at 6 a.m. on 25 November. A little later in the morning, Paulus took Captain Behr with him on a visit to Seydlitz’s headquarters nearby. Paulus handed over the signal relayed from Army Group Don. ‘Now that you have your own command,’ he said pointedly, ‘you can break out.’ Seydlitz could not hide his embarrassment. Manstein, who was appalled by the idea of splitting a command, managed to have it redefined in a less nonsensical fashion.

Paulus’s encounter with General von Seydlitz was not the only difficult interview in the wake of the Stalingrad encirclement. At the Wolfsschanze, Marshal Antonescu was subjected to a tirade in which the Führer blamed the Romanian armies for the disaster. Antonescu, the most loyal of Hitler’s allies, replied with feeling. Both dictators, however, calmed down, not daring to cast aside an alliance which neither of them could repudiate. But their peacemaking was not reflected further down.

Romanian officers were furious that the German high command had ignored all their warnings, especially about the lack of anti-tank defences. Meanwhile German troops, unaware of Romanian losses, accused their allies of having caused the disaster by running away. Many unpleasant incidents developed between groups of soldiers on both sides. After his ill-tempered meeting with Antonescu, even Hitler was forced to acknowledge that some attempt must be made to restore relations between the allies. ‘According to a Führer decree,’ Sixth Army headquarters informed corps commanders, ‘criticisms of the failings of Romanian officers and troops are to cease.’ The tension between the allies was not hard to imagine for the Soviet authorities, who promptly organized the airdrop of 150,000 propaganda leaflets in Romanian.

Hitler remained merciless in his desire for retribution against General Heim, the commander of XXXXVIII Panzer Corps. ‘The Führer ordered General Heim to be relieved of his command immediately,’ noted General Schmundt in his diary just after Hitler’s return to the Wolfsschanze. ‘The Führer himself will decide on all further measures of military discipline in this matter.’

Many senior officers suspected that Hitler wanted not just Heim as the scapegoat for the disaster, but the whole officer corps. Groscurth had written scathingly of ‘the grateful army of the victorious Party’, not long after Hitler’s radio broadcast in which he had claimed victory over the caste of general staff officers in their broad-striped breeches. Like that other anti-Nazi, Henning von Tresckow, Groscurth also believed that the general staff was no longer worthy of the name, because of its craven submission to Hitler. Yet the officer corps still remained the only group capable of opposing a totalitarian state.

Tresckow believed that a dramatic disaster could provoke change provided that the army had a widely respected commander in a key position who was prepared to stand up to Hitler. Field Marshal von Manstein certainly commanded the necessary respect, so Tresckow, when the opportunity arose, arranged for his young cousin, Alexander Stahlberg, to become Manstein’s new aide. The timing appeared opportune. Stahlberg reported for duty on 18 November, two days before Hitler chose Manstein as the commander-in-chief of the new Army Group Don.

Manstein’s military qualities and intelligence were undeniable, but his political instincts were much less predictable, despite encouraging appearances. Manstein despised Goering and loathed Himmler. To his most trusted colleagues, he admitted to Jewish antecedents. He could also be scathing about Hitler. As a joke, his dachshund Knirps had been trained to raise his paw in salute on the command ‘Heil Hitler!’ On the other hand, his wife was a great admirer of Hitler, and more important, Manstein, as already mentioned, had even issued that order to his troops mentioning ‘the necessity of hard measures against Jewry’.

Manstein’s luxurious headquarters train of wagons-lits – the drawing room on wheels had belonged to the Queen of Yugoslavia – halted on its circuitous way south in Smolensk. There, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Hans Günther von Kluge, boarded the train to brief Manstein informally on the situation in southern Russia. Kluge, influenced by Tresckow, was one of the few active field marshals ready to join a plot. He told Manstein that Hitler had placed the Sixth Army in an untenable position. The situation map unfolded in the carriage clearly demonstrated the danger.

Kluge tried to impress on Manstein one piece of advice. The Führer’s attempts to control movements down to battalion level must be stopped from the start. ‘And be warned,’ Kluge added in emphasis. ‘The Führer ascribes the survival of the Ostheer during the great crisis of last winter, not to the morale of our soldiers and all our hard work, but exclusively to his own skill.’ Very soon after this meeting, the Red Army launched an offensive against Army Group Centre to prevent the German command from bringing troops down to break the Stalingrad encirclement.

The heated train continued through the Russian landscape covered by the first snows of winter. Manstein and his staff officers discussed music and mutual friends and relations, played chess and bridge, and skirted round politics. Lieutenant Stahlberg, hearing that Manstein was related to the late President von Hindenburg, wondered which of the field marshals in this war might become ‘the saviour of the Fatherland’ in the event of total defeat. ‘Certainly not me,’ Manstein replied swiftly.

The field marshal’s birthday, his fifty-fifth, fell on 24 November, the day of their arrival at the headquarters of Army Group B. General von Weichs, showing Manstein the updated operations map, did not conceal the gravity of the situation. The signal from Führer headquarters had just arrived, ordering the Sixth Army to maintain Fortress Stalingrad and await resupply by air. Manstein, according to his aide, appeared surprisingly optimistic. Even the 150-mile gap between the German troops on the southern side of the Stalingrad Kessel and Army Group A down in the Caucasus did not deter Manstein from selecting the old Don Cossack capital of Novocherkassk for his headquarters. He had Don Cossacks in sheepskin hats and Wehrmacht uniform as the guards on the main entrance. ‘When we entered or left the house,’ his aide-decamp reported, ‘they stuck out their chests and stood to attention as if for His Imperial Majesty the Tsar himself

Hitler gave strict instructions that the news of the encirclement at Stalingrad was to be kept from the German people. On 22 November, the communiqué had admitted that there had been an attack on the north front. The next day, just after the complete encirclement of the Sixth Army, only counter-attacks and enemy casualties were mentioned. A subsequent announcement made it sound as if the Soviet attacks had been beaten back with heavy losses. Finally, on 8 December, three weeks after the event, it was acknowledged that there had also been an attack south of Stalingrad, but there was still no hint that the Sixth Army had been cut off. The fiction was maintained into January through the vague formula ‘the troops in the area of Stalingrad’.

The Nazi authorities could not, of course, prevent the rapid spread of rumour, especially within the army. ‘The whole Sixth Army is surrounded,’ a soldier in a field hospital heard almost immediately from the chaplain. ‘That’s the beginning of the end.’ Attempts to silence soldiers and officers with disciplinary measures backfired, and the lack of frankness only increased the sense of unease in Germany. Within a few days of the encirclement, civilians were writing to the front asking if the rumours were true. ‘Yesterday and today’, wrote a paymaster from Bernburg, ‘people have been saying that there has been a breakthrough in your area?!’

The Nazi authorities believed that they could suppress everything until a relief force was ready to break through to Stalingrad. Paulus, meanwhile, may have been deeply sceptical of Goering’s guarantee to supply Sixth Army by air, but he felt unable to dismiss the arguments of his own chief-of-staff that they could at least hold on until early December, when Hitler promised a breakthrough to relieve them.

Paulus faced what Strecker called ‘the most difficult question of conscience for every soldier: whether to disobey his superior’s orders in order to handle the situation as he deems best’. Officers who disliked the regime and despised the GRÖFAZ (‘Greatest Commander of All Time’), as they privately referred to the Führer, hoped that Paulus would oppose this madness and trigger a reaction throughout the army.* They thought of General Hans Yorck von Wartenburg’s revolt at Tauroggen in December 1812, when he refused to fight any longer under Napoleon, an event which triggered a wave of patriotic feeling in Germany. Many believed in the comparison. General von Seydlitz apparently invoked it in conversation with Paulus, when trying to persuade him to break out; so did Colonel Selle, the Sixth Army’s Engineer-in-Chief. Schmidt, on the other hand, considered that: ‘Such an action against orders would become a mutiny with political undertones.’

Paulus’s answer to Selle sounded fatalistic indeed: ‘I know that the history of war has already pronounced judgement on me.’ Yet he was right to reject the Tauroggen comparison. Yorck, without any communications, could claim to act in the name of the King of Prussia without being deprived of his command. But in an age when every headquarters was in constant touch by radio, courier and teleprinter, the order for a commander’s arrest would be communicated immediately. The only actor in this drama capable of playing the part of Yorck was Manstein, as Tresckow and Stauffenberg had recognized, but Manstein, they would discover, had no intention of accepting such a dangerous role. ‘Prussian field marshals do not mutiny,’ he said the following year, emphatically contradicting the Yorck tradition when approached by a representative of Army Group Centre.

Many historians have also given the impression that almost every officer in the Sixth Army believed that an attempt should be made immediately to break out of the Russian encirclement. This is misleading. Corps commanders, divisional commanders and staff officers were firmly in favour of a breakout, but in the infantry especially, regimental and battalion commanders were much less convinced. Their troops, especially those who were already dug in with bunkers, did not want to abandon their positions and heavy weapons to ‘march out into the snow’, where they would be exposed to Russian attack in the open. Soldiers were also reluctant to move because they believed the promises of a strong counter-attack coming to rescue them. The slogan in support of this at the end of Paulus’s order of the day on 27 November – ‘Hold on! The Führer will get us out!’ – had proved very effective. (Schmidt later tried to deny that this phrase had emanated from Sixth Army headquarters, and even suggested that it was invented by a subordinate commander.)

Within the Kessel, soldiers tended to believe the ‘Hold on!’ slogan as a firm promise. So did many officers, but others instinctively guessed the reality. One remembered how a fellow lieutenant of panzer grenadiers, on receipt of the news, signalled with his eyes for him to come to his vehicle so that they could discuss the situation in private.

‘We’re never going to get out of this one,’ he said. ‘This is a unique opportunity which the Russians aren’t going to let slip by.’

‘You’re a real pessimist,’ the other replied. ‘I believe in Hitler. What he’s said he’ll do, he’ll stick to.’

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