Military history

The Fortress Without a Roof

During the first week of December, the Russians made determined attacks to split the Sixth Army. In heavy defensive fighting, its panzer divisions lost almost half of their remaining 140 tanks. They were badly handicapped by the shortage of fuel and ammunition. On 6 December, a battle group from the 16th Panzer Division was sent into a counter-attack on foot because they had no fuel for their half-tracks. Lieutenant von Mutius, the young officer who had been so proud to be the last member of the Wehrmacht to withdraw across the Don, was the second-in-command.

Their objective was a hill north of Baburkin which they managed to seize, but suddenly Russian tanks appeared out of a balka supported by infantry. The battle-group commander gave the order to pull back. ‘A systematic withdrawal was impossible,’ reported a sergeant-major later. ‘Each man ran for his life. The enemy fired after us with all their weapons. Half of the battle group was wiped out. Lieutenant von Mutius was badly wounded. In order to prevent worse casualties, he kept shouting “Spread out!’” The sergeant-major was convinced he had saved many lives, as he lay there helplessly waiting for the Russians. The survivors thought him ‘a real hero’.

After numerous attacks, Soviet commanders realized that the besieged were far from beaten. The 57th Army of the crucial southwestern sector had suffered heavy casualties. Explanations for Soviet failure were interesting. One report – ‘artillery and infantry did not interact very well when storming the enemy defence line’ – sounds like a circumlocution for heavy casualties from friendly fire. ‘Soldiers are not well enough instructed on the need to dig trenches,’ was another unhelpful observation. Their failure to do so led to ‘irreparable losses from German tanks and aeroplanes’. No mention was made of the fact that the ground was frozen hard, and that entrenching tools were in very short supply.

Behind the lines, NKVD officers and interpreters worked late into the night interrogating German prisoners, including the first deserters, as well as ‘tongues’ captured by reconnaissance companies. ‘The bolsheviks often seized prisoners from us,’ reported a lieutenant from the Austrian 44th Hoch- und Deutschmeister Infantry Division. Don Front intelligence was trying to identify demoralized divisions, on which attacks should be concentrated. It soon observed that the 44th and the 376th Infantry Divisions, both of which had retreated from across the Don, had not been able to dig proper bunkers. Most of their men, during this period when the weather changed from hard frost to rain and back to hard frost again, were existing in holes in the ground covered by tarpaulins. The NKVD was particularly interested in any signs of national resentment. ‘It is said of Austrian soldiers that they don’t fight well,’ replied a Lieutenant Heinrich Boberg, when interrogated by Captain Dyatlenko on 10 December. ‘There is an element of truth in this, but I would not say it is true of the 44th Infantry Division. Austrians have historical reasons for not being as rigid as Prussians. And because Austrians are used to getting on with other nationalities, they don’t have the same sort of national pride as Prussians do.’ The Nazi designation of ‘Ostmark’ for Austria seemed to disappear remarkably quickly from an Austrian’s vocabulary when captured.

Once the major attacks of early December ceased, Don Front continued to maintain pressure on the 44th Infantry Division with raids, using Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft. Yet Sixth Army morale remained, on the whole, remarkably robust. Another senior lieutenant from the 16th Panzer Division later reported that, at that stage, ‘doubts about a positive outcome to the battle simply did not arise’. Landsers, especially those out in the snow-covered steppe, joked about ‘the fortress without a roof. Most of the younger ones, educated under a totalitarian system, did not expect to be told the reasons for their plight. The Führer’s assurance was, for them, a promise that would never be broken.

Rations were soon reduced drastically, but officers and NCOs assured them that this situation would not last. The Luftwaffe would bring in what they needed, and then a great relief force, led by Field Marshal von Manstein, would advance from the south-west to break the encirclement. Many soldiers convinced themselves, or perhaps were told by less imaginative officers, that they would be out by Christmas. ‘Since the 22nd of November we’ve been surrounded,’ a soldier in the 376th Infantry Division wrote home. ‘The worst is past. We all hope that we’ll be out of theKessel before Christmas… Once this battle of encirclement is over, then the war in Russia will be finished.’ Some were persuaded that they would immediately be given leave, and actually spend Christmas at home with their families.

Those responsible for administering the air-supply operation were far less optimistic. The Sixth Army’s chief quartermaster signalled on 7 December: ‘Rations cut to between a third and a half so that the army can hold out until 18 December. The lack of fodder means that the bulk of the horses will have to be slaughtered by the middle of January.’

The Luftwaffe officers in charge of Pitomnik airfield, drawn from the 9th Flak Division, had no illusions. They knew that a minimum of 300 flights a day would be needed to restore the Sixth Army’s fighting capacity, and that was out of the question. In any case, the greatly strengthened and bolder Red Army aviation, as well as anti-aircraft fire round the edge of the Kessel, represented a formidable challenge to the lumbering Junkers 52 trimotors. Jeschonnek and Goering did not consider that the airfields might lie within range of Soviet heavy artillery. Worst of all, they made no allowance for the weather, even after the experiences of the previous winter. There would be many days with zero visibility, and many when the temperature would be so low that it would be almost impossible to start aircraft engines, even with fires lit underneath them. Apart from Richthofen, however, Luftwaffe officers, either within the Kessel or outside, did not dare speak out. ‘It was defeatism if you voiced doubts,’ said one of them.

As well as bringing in fuel, ammunition and food – in theory two tons per Junkers 52, and rather less for a Heinkel 111 – the aircraft would fly out the wounded from the general field hospital next to Pitomnik airfield. Perhaps the best indication of officer pessimism was the secret decision to send out all German nurses, even before most of the wounded, to ensure that they never fell into Russian hands. Although great efforts were made to keep this secret, officers from the 369th Croat Infantry Regiment heard and lobbied the Luftwaffe to fly out their mistresses, disguised as nurses. The lieutenant whom they approached rather admired the Croats as soldiers and promised to help. His colonel, however, took a high moral line. ‘But surely it doesn’t matter’, the lieutenant replied, ‘whether they’re Croat whores, nursing sisters or whatever. They must be got out to save them from the Russians.’ The colonel still refused. The lieutenant later suspected that the Croats managed to smuggle their women on to planes.

Encampments, bunkers and tents spread to the side of the airfield. There were numerous headquarters and signals detachments with radio masts and vehicles, as well as the general field hospital. Pitomnik rapidly became the main focus for Soviet fighter and bomber regiments. During the course of 10, 11 and 12 December, Soviet aircraft carried out forty-two air raids.

The Russians, despite all their air activity over the Kessel, still did not realize how large a force they had surrounded. Colonel Vinogradov, the chief of Red Army intelligence at Don Front headquarters, estimated that Operation Uranus had trapped around 86,000 men. The probable figure, including allies and Hiwis, was nearly three and a half times greater: close to 290,000 men. The allies included the remnants of two Romanian divisions, the Croat regiment with 100th Jäger Division and a motor-transport column of Italians who had picked a bad moment to come to find wood in the ruins of Stalingrad.*

In the fighting west of the Don and on the northern flank, Strecker’s XI Corps had suffered most. The Austrian 44th Infantry Division lost nearly 2,000 men, the 376th 1,600, and the 384th over 900. Officers throughout the Sixth Army sat down at makeshift tables in earth bunkers under the snow to write by candlelight to next of kin: ‘I have the sad duty to have to inform you that…’

With the Sixth Army reduced to conditions very similar to those in the First World War, older soldiers found themselves remembering the existence of the Western Front and its gallows humour. After the cold of mid-November, a wet period of thaw had set in, with ‘General Mud’ reappearing briefly before ‘General Winter’. Some returned to the old practices of trench life, such as resorting to the only certain source of warm liquid, when relieving themselves, to rinse the caked mud from their hands.

The construction of trenches and bunkers varied according to the circumstances of each division. Those who had been forced to withdraw or take up new positions faced heavy labour, although much of the work was given to Hiwis and other Russian prisoners. The Germans had learned from the street fighting in Stalingrad. They dug bunkers under knocked-out tanks and made better use of existing features. But in the first days after the encirclement, the ground had still been frozen, and even fires did little to soften the earth before digging. Out in the steppe, the greatest shortage was wood both for fires and for beams to cover the earth bunkers. Peasant houses close to the front line did not last long. Any inhabitants who had already packed straw round their houses, then a layer of planks and logs outside to insulate them for winter, were soon evicted. If they had stayed, they would have seen their home rapidly dismantled, as German soldiers took planks, beams, doors and even windows to improve their dugouts.

Soldiers, having demolished the houses of civilians, revealed an instinctive desire to turn their own dugout into a new home. The revetted communications trenches and the earthworks round the entrances to bunkers gave no impression of what one might find within. They fashioned frames for picture postcards or cherished snapshots. Some things were always respected. No man would touch or insult the photograph of a comrade’s wife or children. Officers made sure that they had bunks, benches and a table. General Edler von Daniels, the commander of 376th Infantry Division, had a bunker complex designed by one of his staff with impeccable architectural plans after they moved to their new position on the south-west flank. The commanding officer of Dr Kurt Reuber, the priest serving as a doctor with 16th Panzer Division, had a particularly large bunker dug so that he could fit a piano inside, which had been abandoned by another division. And there, underground, unheard above and muffled by the earth walls, he played Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. His interpretation was beautiful, but also, it seems, obsessive. ‘The commanding officer played on, even when the walls trembled from bombardments and soil trickled down.’ He even continued to play when officers came in to report on the fighting outside.

Some units were fortunate enough to retain their old positions. The 297th Infantry Division, south of Stalingrad, had finished its elaborate underground sanatorium before the Russian offensive. They feared that they might lose it together with all the hospital equipment, beds, crockery and cutlery brought by train from Germany. But when the front line of the Kessel was established, their precious hospital, to their relief, was still just a few miles behind the new front line.

Many soldiers had still not received proper winter clothing before the encirclement, so they resorted to improvisation with varying degrees of success. Under their uniforms, more and more of them wore articles of Soviet uniform – buttonless tunic shirts and baggy quilted trousers and the highly prized quilted jackets. In hard frosts, a steel helmet became like a freezer compartment, so they wore puttees, scarves and even Russian foot bandages wrapped round their heads as insulation. Their desperation for fur gloves led them to kill stray dogs and skin them. Some even tried to make tunics out of amateurishly cured horse hide from the knacker, but most of these articles were uncomfortably crude, unless a former saddler or cobbler could be bribed to help.

The most insanitary conditions tended to occur in those units which had been forced by the Soviet attacks to take up new positions in the open steppe at the western end of the newly formed Kessel. ‘Miserably frozen at night,’ the artillery officer who had withdrawn across the Don wrote in his diary. ‘How long are we expected to sleep in the open? The body won’t stand it much more. On top of that the filth and the lice!!!’ In such conditions, troops had not yet had a chance to dig communications trenches and latrines. Soldiers were sleeping, packed together like sardines, in holes in the ground covered by a tarpaulin. Infections spread rapidly. Dysentery soon had a debilitating and demoralizing effect, as weakened soldiers squatted over shovels in their trenches, then threw the contents out over the parapet.

Letter writers generally spared their relatives the full squalor of their lives. ‘We squat together’, wrote Kurt Reuber, ‘in a hole dug out of the side of a gully in the steppe. The most meagre and badly equipped dugout. Dirt and clay. Nothing can be made of it. Scarcely any wood for bunkers. We’re surrounded by a sad landscape, monotonous and melancholic. Winter weather of varying degrees of cold. Snow, heavy rain, frost then sudden thaw. At night you get mice running over your face.’

The progressive infestation of clothes really started during the chaotic days of the encirclement, with constant movement. ‘The plague of lice was frightful,’ wrote a corporal in a panzer regiment, ‘because we had no opportunity to wash, change clothes or hunt them down. In my helmet, I found about 200 of these faithful little beasts.’ An unknown soldier was prompted to write a new version of a favourite song:

Underneath the lantern

in a little house

I sit every evening

searching for a louse…

During the long nights of the Russian winter, there was ample opportunity for conversations about home and how much better life had been before coming to Russia. In the 376th Infantry Division, they bemoaned their departure from Angoulême for the Ostfront, leaving behind cafés, cheap wine, and French girls. Other thoughts went further back, to the triumphant welcome home in the summer of 1940. The waving crowds, the kisses and the adulation had been largely inspired by the idea that the fighting was as good as over. The vast majority of the country had cheered Hitler for having brought them through a short victorious war with so few casualties.

Often, when thoughts turned to home, harmonicas played sentimental tunes in the bunker. After such a dramatic reversal of fortune, men grasped at rumours more than ever before, with constant questions and ill-informed speculation. Even their officers had little idea of the true situation. Another subject, linked to the chances of getting out, was the perfect wound which would not cripple, or be too painful, yet would still qualify its recipient for evacuation by air. Comrades who had gone on leave just before the encirclement were viewed with admiring envy, while those who had returned just before faced good-natured, but no doubt deeply provoking, jokes. One person who never complained of his bad luck was Kurt Reuber. He had returned to his unit just two days before the Kessel was closed. It would soon be hard to tell whose services would be more needed, those of the doctor or those of the priest.

Besieged Germans imagined that the Red Army soldiers opposite them lacked for little, in either rations or warm clothing, but this image was often inaccurate. ‘Because of bad communications, food is not brought forward in time for soldiers at the front,’ ran one Don Front report. ‘The failure of officers and commissars to use bunkers to warm up soldiers’, said another, ‘has led to many men having to be sent to hospital with frostbite, mostly in the feet.’

The best-equipped Soviet soldiers were the snipers. Little was denied them. Out in the snowfields of the steppe in their white camouflage suits, they operated in pairs, one with a telescope and the other with the long-range rifle. They crawled forward at night into no man’s land, where they dug snow-holes and hides from which to watch and shoot. Their casualty rates were much higher than in the city, because they had fewer choices for concealment and lines of escape. But the ‘sniper movement’ still attracted more volunteers than it could train or use.

Any lingering problems with morale usually reflected the Soviet authorities’ indifference to the individual soldier. The obsession with secrecy meant that men not directly involved in Operation Uranus had not been told about it until up to five days after the start. At first sight, the most surprising aspect of this time of triumph is the number of deserters from the Red Army who continued to cross the lines to the surrounded German Army, thus entering a trap, but this paradox seems to be explicable mainly through a mixture of ignorance and mistrust. Colonel Tulpanov, the sophisticated NKVD officer in charge of recruiting German officers, admitted quite openly to one of his star prisoners, the fighter pilot Count Heinrich von Einsiedl, that: ‘These Russians were most astonished to hear from the Germans the same story that had been put out by their own propaganda. They had not believed that the Germans were encircled.’

Zhukov was characteristically to the point when he described the encirclement of the Sixth Army as ‘a tremendous education for victory for our troops’. Grossman was also right when he wrote: ‘The morale of the soldiers has never been so high.’ (Interestingly, neither of these observations exactly confirmed the official Soviet propaganda line that ‘the morale of an army depends on the socially just and progressive order of the society it defends’.)

Red Army soldiers now took a predictable pleasure in taunting the enemy who had so recently taunted them. Some companies sent out a patrol at night with a scarecrow dressed up as Hitler. They then erected it in no man’s land, and hung a placard inviting Landsers to shoot at it. The scarecrow would be booby-trapped with a couple of grenades, in case a German officer sent out a patrol to remove it the next night. On a more organized basis, NKVD propaganda companies set up their loudspeakers. For hours on end, the loudspeakers blasted out tango music, which was judged to convey a suitably sinister mood, interspersed by messages prepared on gramophone records to remind the beleaguered troops of their hopeless position. At first, these activities had little influence, but later, when German hopes began to fade, the effect became cumulative.

The Red Army, realizing that the Germans had to economize on artillery shells, because they were so heavy to fly in, went in for probing attacks, trying to provoke a reply. The most overworked troops at this time were the divisional reconnaissance companies that acted as pathfinders for these raids. ‘We were like gypsies, here today gone tomorrow,’ remembered an officer who was one of five survivors from the original company of 114 men. Patrols, usually of five or six men, would penetrate the Kessel and hide up near roads in white snowsuits to observe traffic and troop movements. On their return, they would seize a ‘tongue’ for interrogation.

Patrolling activity was particularly intense on the south-western flanks of the Kessel. Soviet commanders were certain that the Germans would make an attempt to break out, and they wanted to be forewarned. The flat, snow-covered steppe was dangerous for reconnaissance patrols, with the machine-gun posts enjoying good fields of fire. On one occasion, early in December, however, a reconnaissance party, backed by a raiding group, slipped up to the trenches opposite only to find them empty. The Germans had pulled back to warmer bunkers behind. After the first Russian infantrymen had explored the trenches and fire bunkers undisturbed, the commander of the reconnaissance party inspected the booty, including a long sheepskin coat. Then, next to the field telephone, he spotted ‘a white mug with a rose’ on it. It seemed incomparably beautiful because he had not seen a completely civilian object for so long. But his company commander then arrived, and decided, rather over-ambitiously for such a small force, to try to seize more ground. Once they advanced, everything quickly went wrong. The Germans countered with tanks, and their own artillery refused to fire in support because they had not received an order through the proper chain of command. A very messy fight ensued, and while the reconnaissance party was pulling back, the young commander received a serious wound in the leg from a shell burst. As he lay in the snow looking at the blood on his white camouflage suit, he thought of the mug with the rose.

Sometimes when Russian and German recce groups passed each other at night in no man’s land, they pretended not to see each other. Each had specific orders not to be deflected from their task by a firefight. If, however, small groups met head on, then the struggle was often conducted in deadly silence with knives or sharpened bayonets. ‘When I killed a German with a knife for the first time,’ a Russian recce platoon commander from the marine infantry remembered, ‘I saw him in my dreams for three weeks afterwards.’ One of the biggest dangers, however, was returning to your own lines away from where you were expected.

Fortunately for the Russian troops, the deficiencies in winter clothing, which had been serious, were made up after the successful completion of Operation Uranus. Almost all soldiers received rabbit-fur gloves, quilted jackets, sheepskin jerkins and a grey fur ushanka to which they transferred the red star from their summer cap.

A constant trickle of new arrivals brought divisions up to strength. For the ingénu, to join a platoon of battle-hardened soldiers was always daunting, but profiting from their experience offered a better chance of survival than joining an untested formation. Once the new soldier had accepted that survival was relative rather than absolute, and he learned to live minute by minute, the strain eased.

For a young Soviet citizen, the most shocking experience was not soldierly coarseness, but the frank speaking of frontoviki on political subjects. Many expressed themselves in a way that prompted new arrivals to glance over their shoulders in alarm. They declared that life after the war should be different. The terrible existence for those who worked on collective farms and in factories must be improved, and the privileges of the nomenklatura restricted.

At this stage of the war, the risk of being denounced at the front was really quite small. As one veteran put it: ‘A soldier felt that, having paid with his blood, he had the right to free speech.’ He had to be far more careful if evacuated to a field hospital, where informants and political officers were vigilant for any criticism of the regime. (Danger returned at the front towards the end of the war during the advance into Germany. The army’s task was almost over, and the NKVD Special Departments, by then SMERSH, wasted no time in reimposing the Stalinist terror.)

Soldiers tantalized themselves with talk of food at home, as well as daydreaming. Some platoons were fortunate enough to have a gifted storyteller inventing modern fairy tales. They played cards (although it was officially forbidden) and chess. Now that they were in fixed positions for a little time, it was worth carving proper pieces and fashioning a board. Most of all they reminisced. Muscovites talked constantly of their home city, not so much to impress comrades from the provinces, but out of a genuine homesickness in the emptiness of the steppe.

Writing home was ‘very difficult’, confessed the lieutenant of marine infantry. It was ‘impossible’ to tell the truth. ‘Soldiers at the front never sent bad news home.’ His parents kept all his letters, and when he reread them after the war, he found that they contained no information whatsoever. In general, a letter home usually started as an exercise in reassuring mothers – ‘I am alive and healthy, and we eat well’ – but the effect was rather dissipated by subsequent remarks to the effect that they were all ready to sacrifice their lives for the Motherland.

Within platoons, there were anecdotes and jokes and teasing, but this, apparently, was seldom cruel among those of equal rank. There was also a surprising lack of crudeness. They talked of girls ‘only when in a special mood’, which usually meant when sentimentality was stimulated by the vodka ration or certain songs. Each company was supposed to have at least one concertina for purposes of morale. The Red Army’s favourite song around Stalingrad in those last few weeks of 1942 was Zemlyanka(‘The Dugout’), a Russian counterpart to Lili Marlene, with a similar lilting melody. This haunting song by Aleksey Surkov, written the previous winter – sometimes also known from its most famous line as ‘The Four Steps to Death’ – was initially condemned as ideologically unsound because of its mood of ‘excessive pessimism’. But Zemlyanka proved so popular with front-line troops that commissars had to look the other way.

The fire is flickering in the narrow stove

Resin oozes from the log like a tear

And the concertina in the bunker

Sings to me of your smile and eyes.

The bushes whispered to me about you

In a snow-white field near Moscow

I want you above all to hear

How sad my living voice is.

You are now very far away

Expanses of snow lie between us

It is so hard for me to come to you,

And here there are four steps to death.

Sing concertina, in defiance of the snowstorm

Call out to that happiness which has lost its way

I’m warm in the cold bunker

Because of your inextinguishable love.

Within the Kessel, Sixth Army discipline was maintained rigidly. Hitler, meanwhile, in a typical attempt to secure loyalty, started to become generous with promotions and medals. Paulus was raised to Colonel-General.

For soldiers, the main source of consolation was the Führer’s promise that he would do everything to secure their release. In fact, General Strecker was convinced that soldiers complained remarkably little about the drastic reduction in their rations because they were convinced that they would soon be saved. During one of his visits to the front line, a sentry held up a hand on hearing artillery fire in the distance. ‘Listen, Herr General,’ he said. ‘Those must be our rescuers approaching.’ Strecker was deeply affected. ‘This faith of an ordinary German soldier is heart-warming,’ he noted.

Even anti-Nazi officers could not believe that Hitler would dare to abandon the Sixth Army. The blow to the regime and morale at home in Germany would be far too great, they reasoned. Also the approach of Christmas and the New Year stimulated the notion that things were bound to change for the better. Even the sceptical Groscurth was more optimistic. ‘Things seem to be slightly less bleak’, he wrote, ‘and one can now hope that we’ll be got off the hook.’ But he still referred to Stalingrad as the ‘Schicksalsstadt’ – ‘the city of fate’.

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