Military history

18
Der Manstein Kommt!

Snow began to fall heavily at the end of the first week of December. Drifts filled balkas, forcing those who lived in caves excavated from their sides to dig their way out. There was little fuel for any vehicles, and the horses pulling ration carts were so starved that their strength had to be spared on the smallest hills. Chaplain Altmann of the 113th Infantry Division, after hitching a ride on one, recorded: ‘I can’t remain seated, because the horse is so ill-nourished that he cannot stand the slightest strain.’

Altmann was above all struck by the pathetic youth of soldiers in the regiment he was visiting. Their first question was utterly predictable: ‘When are we going to get more to eat?’ He also noted that although it was only the second week of December, ‘already their wretched bunkers in the middle of this treeless steppe have Christmas decorations’. At battalion headquarters, he received a telephone call warning him of an unChristmas-like duty. ‘Tomorrow morning at dawn, execution of a German soldier (nineteen-year-old, self-inflicted wound).’

Although all soldiers suffered badly from hunger, most still had no idea of the size of the supply problem facing the Sixth Army. Hitler, when ordering Paulus to stay in place, had promised that more than one hundred Junkers 52 transport aircraft would be delivering supplies, yet during the air-bridge’s first week of operations from 23 November the airlift did not even average thirty flights a day. Twenty-two transport planes were lost through enemy action and crashes on 24 November, and another nine were shot down the following day. Heinkel 11 is had to be taken off bombing missions in a desperate attempt to make up the losses. Richthofen rang Jeschonnek three times in an attempt to convince him that they lacked the aircraft to supply the Sixth Army by air. Goering could not be contacted. He had left for Paris.

The airlift did not provide anything like the bare minimum of 300 tons a day promised. Just 350 tons arrived during the course of the whole week. Out of this 350 tons, there were only 14 tons of food for a ration strength by then reduced to 275,000. Three-quarters of the total load consisted of fuel, of which part was for the Luftwaffe’s own aircraft based at Pitomnik to protect the transport aircraft from Russian fighters. The Pitomnik-based Messerschmitts, however, were now facing fearsome odds as well as often appalling flying conditions. One captured pilot told his NKVD interrogator how, flying out of Pitomnik as escort, his Me-109 had been cut off and attacked by six Russian fighters.

In the second week up to 6 December, 512 tons (still less than a quarter of the minimum) arrived, delivered by an average of 44 transport aircraft a day. Only 24 tons were food supplies. More and more draught animals had to be slaughtered to make up the shortage. Soldiers saw their rations diminishing rapidly, but they convinced themselves that the situation would not last. They admired the bravery of the Luftwaffe crews and developed a great affection for ‘Tante Ju’ – the Junkers trimotors flying out wounded comrades and taking their letters home to Germany. ‘I’m well and healthy,’ they wrote in December, reassuring their families at home. ‘Nothing worse can happen,’ was another constant refrain. ‘Don’t be worried for me, I’ll soon be home safe and sound.’ They still hoped for a Christmas miracle.

Stalin, meanwhile, had been hoping for a second decisive blow, almost immediately after the encirclement of the Sixth Army. Operation Uranus had been seen at the Stavka as the first part of a master strategy. The second, and most ambitious phase, would be Operation Saturn. This called for a sudden offensive by the armies of South-West and Voronezh Fronts, smashing through the Italian Eighth Army to advance south to Rostov. The idea was to cut off the rest of Army Group Don and trap the First Panzer and the Seventeenth Armies in the Caucasus.

Even before Sixth Army started to dig in on the steppe between the Don and the Volga, Vasilevsky had been discussing the next stage with the commanders of the South-West and Voronezh Fronts. He submitted his initial project to Stalin on the night of 26 November. The estimated start date for Saturn, allowing for redeployment and reinforcement, was 10 December. Stalin agreed, and told him to proceed. A more immediate preoccupation, however, had to be addressed first. This was the question of how Manstein would react to save the Sixth Army.

Stalin began to suffer from a characteristic bout of impatience. He wanted everything to happen at once – both Operation Saturn and the rapid destruction of the Sixth Army. He had already given orders for the 2nd Guards Army, the most powerful force in the Red Army, to deploy west of Stalingrad, ready for the attack on Rostov. But as Vasilevsky discovered in the first week of December, even with seven Soviet armies deployed against them, Paulus’s divisions were going to be much more difficult to destroy than they had imagined.

On 28 November, Stalin asked Zhukov for an assessment of enemy intentions. Zhukov sent his report the next day. ‘The trapped German forces are not likely to try to break out without help from a relief force from the direction of Nizhne-Chirskaya and Kotelnikovo,’ he wrote. His predictions proved accurate, but a close study of the situation showed that this was the only practicable choice. After sending his answer to Stalin, Zhukov discussed the situation with Vasilevsky, who had now been told by Stalin to focus his attention entirely on the reduction of the Sixth Army. The two generals privately agreed that they would probably have to postpone Operation Saturn and instead consider an Operation Little Saturn. The plan would be to crash into the rear and left flank of Manstein’s Army Group Don. This would bring any drive to relieve Stalingrad to an abrupt halt.

*

Manstein’s plan to rescue the Sixth Army – Operation Winter Storm – was developed in full consultation with Führer headquarters. (See Map 5.) It aimed to break through to the Sixth Army and establish a corridor to keep it supplied and reinforced, so that, according to Hitler’s order, it could maintain its ‘cornerstone’ position on the Volga, ‘with regard to operations in 1943’. Manstein, however, who knew that Sixth Army could not survive the winter there, instructed his headquarters to draw up a further plan in the event of Hitler’s seeing sense. This would include the subsequent breakout of Sixth Army, in the event of a successful first phase, and its physical reincorporation in Army Group Don. This second plan was given the name Operation Thunderclap.

Winter Storm, as Zhukov had predicted, was originally planned as a two-pronged attack. One thrust would come from the area of Kotelnikovo, well to the south, and around a hundred miles from the Sixth Army. The other would start from the Chir front west of the Don, which was little more than forty miles from the edge of the Kessel, but the continuing attacks of Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army against the German detachments along the river Chir ruled out that start-line. This left only the LVII Panzer Corps round Kotelnikovo, supported by the rest of Hoth’s very mixed Fourth Panzer Army, to relieve Paulus’s trapped divisions.

The LVII Panzer Corps, commanded by General Friedrich Kirchner, had been weak at first. It consisted of two Romanian cavalry divisions and the 23rd Panzer Division, which mustered no more than thirty serviceable tanks. The 6th Panzer Division, arriving from France, was a vastly more powerful formation, but its members hardly received an encouraging impression. The Austrian divisional commander, General Erhard Raus, was summoned to Manstein’s royal carriage in Kharkov station on 24 November, where the field marshal briefed him. ‘He described the situation in very sombre terms,’ recorded Raus. Three days later, when the first trainload of Raus’s division steamed into Kotelnikovo station to unload, his troops were greeted by ‘a hail of shells’ from Soviet batteries. ‘As quick as lightning, the panzer grenadiers jumped from their wagons. But already the enemy was attacking the station with their battle-cries of “Urrah!”’

Hoth was indeed glad to see the 6th Panzer Division. It had been refitted in Brittany, and was fully up to strength, with 160 long-barrelled Panzer Mark IVs and forty assault guns. The division soon had a chance to try out its new equipment. On 3 December, it became involved in a wild battle with the Soviet 4th Cavalry Corps near the village of Pakhlebin, seven miles north-west of Kotelnikovo. The panzer crews, exhilarated as their tank tracks crunched through the crust of ice in their outflanking armoured charge, cut off the 81st Cavalry Division, inflicting heavy losses. General Raus, pleased with the result, referred to the engagement as ‘the Cannae of Pakhlebin’. The arrival of Raus’s division confirmed Yeremenko’s suspicions that the Germans were about to strike north-eastwards from Kotelnikovo, yet Stalin still refused to transfer reserves to the threatened sector.

Also on 3 December, Hoth produced his proposal for ‘Winter Storm’, which began: ‘Intention: Fourth Panzer Army relieves Sixth Army’, but valuable time was lost. The 17th Panzer Division, which was to complete his strike force, had been held back, on the orders of Führer headquarters, as a reserve behind the Italian Eighth Army. In the end it did not join Hoth’s force until four days after the operation had begun. Hitler nevertheless insisted that no more time should be wasted. He was also impatient to discover how the new Tiger tank, with its 88-mm gun, would perform. The very first battalion to be formed had been rushed to the Ostfront and added to Kirchner’s force. On the evening of 10 December, the commanders received the ‘Order for the Relief Attack to Stalingrad’.

On 12 December, after a brief artillery bombardment, Hoth’s panzers struck north. The German soldiers inside the Kessel listened eagerly to the distant sound of fighting. Confidence seemed boundless. Excited rumours ran round the Sixth Army. ‘Manstein is coming!’ soldiers said to each other, almost like the Easter greeting of the Orthodox Church. For Hitler loyalists, the distant guns were proof once more that the Führer always kept his word.

Hitler, however, had not the slightest intention of allowing the Sixth Army to break out. In his midday conference at the Wolfsschanze, he told Zeitzler that it was impossible to retreat from Stalingrad because this would involve sacrificing ‘the whole meaning of the campaign’ and argued that too much blood had been shed. As Kluge had warned Manstein, he was still obsessed with the events of the previous winter and his order to Army Group Centre to hold fast. ‘Once a unit has started to flee,’ he lectured the army chief of staff, ‘the bonds of law and order quickly disappear in the course of flight.’

The Soviet commanders did not expect Manstein’s offensive quite so soon. Yeremenko immediately feared for the 57th Army, which held the south-west corner of the Kessel. Vasilevsky was at 51st Army headquarters with Khrushchev on 12 December when the news of the German attack was received in a radio signal. He tried to ring Stalin in Moscow, but could not get through. Not wanting to waste a moment, he contacted General Rokossovsky, the commander of the Don Front, and told him that he wanted to transfer General Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army to the command of the Stalingrad Front to block Manstein’s offensive. Rokossovsky protested strongly, and to Vasilevsky’s dismay when he finally got through to the Kremlin on the telephone that evening, Stalin was angry at what he thought was an attempt to force him into a decision. He refused to give an answer and forced Vasilevsky to spend a very anxious night.

In the meantime, Yeremenko had ordered the 4th Mechanized Corps and the 13th Tank Corps to block the headlong advance of the German armour. The 6th Panzer Division moved forward some thirty miles in the first twenty-four hours, crossing the river Aksay. Finally, after discussions in the Kremlin which lasted into the early hours of the next morning, and more telephone calls with Vasilevsky, Stalin agreed to the transfer of the 2nd Guards Army two days hence.

On the second day of the offensive, 6th Panzer Division reached Verkhne-Kumsky. Rain poured down in what was to prove a brief thaw. On the high ground round this village began what General Raus described as ‘a gigantic wrestling-match’. This furious three-day ‘revolving battle’ became costly. It proved a success locally – Hoth’s divisions and the Tiger tanks advanced to the line of the Myshkova, once 17th Panzer Division arrived and Richthofen threw in maximum air support – but events there soon proved irrelevant to the fortunes of the Sixth Army. They were being decided some 125 miles to the north-west.

Stalin quickly realized that Zhukov and Vasilevsky had been right. The most effective way to smash the whole attempt to relieve Paulus’s army was by blocking Hoth’s advance on the Myshkova, while delivering the decisive blow elsewhere. He agreed to the idea of adapting Operation Saturn. Orders were prepared on the first day of the fighting at Verkhne-Kumsky, instructing the commanders of the Voronezh and South-West Fronts to prepare to launch an amended version, known as Little Saturn. The plan was to smash through the Italian 8th Army into the rear of Army Group Don, rather than strike at Rostov. Their armies were to be ready to attack in three days’ time.

Yeremenko was still nervous. With Hoth’s Panzer Corps on the line of the Myshkova river, the 6th Panzer Division was less than forty miles from the edge of the Kessel, and the 2nd Guards Army, delayed by renewed blizzards, would not be fully in position to counter-attack before 19 December. He expected the Sixth Army’s panzer forces to break out from the south-west of the Kessel at any moment, but he did not know that Hitler still refused his permission, and that Paulus’s seventy remaining tanks had only enough fuel to advance a dozen miles.

Field Marshal von Manstein sent Major Eismann, his intelligence officer, into the Kessel by air on 19 December. His mission, Manstein claimed later, was to brief Paulus and Schmidt to prepare the Sixth Army for Operation Thunderclap. Different versions and different interpretations of what was said at this meeting will never be resolved. It is, however, clear that Manstein still avoided taking the responsibility for disobeying Hitler. He would not give Paulus a clear lead, and refused – no doubt, for sound reasons of security – to fly into the Kessel to discuss the matter with him face to face. Yet Manstein must have known from the start that Paulus, a firm believer in the chain of command, would never have broken out without a formal order from higher command. Manstein’s efforts in his memoirs to absolve himself from any blame for the fate of Sixth Army are curiously exaggerated, as well as unfair on Paulus. It would appear that he suffered from an uneasy conscience, and yet nobody blamed him.

*

On 16 December, just four days into Hoth’s offensive, the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, as well as the Soviet 6th Army further up the Don, attacked south. Slowed by thick, freezing mist, with their tank formations blundering into minefields, the Soviet operation did not get off to a good start. Within two days, however, the Italian Eighth Army had crumbled after some acts of fierce resistance. There was no reserve ready to counter-attack, now that the 17th Panzer Division had joined Hoth’s operation east of the Don, so the Soviet tank columns broke out southwards into open, snow-covered steppe. The great freeze in the region which began on 16 December did little to slow the brigades of T-34S rampaging in Army Group Don’s rear. Railway junctions and stations were captured just after wagons full of equipment had been set ablaze by German support troops before they fled.

The gravest threat to the Germans was the 150-mile advance of Major-General Vasily Mikhailovich Badanov’s 24th Tank Corps. On the afternoon of 23 December, it overran Skassirskaya, just to the north of Tatsinskaya, the main Junkers 52 base for Stalingrad. General Fiebig had received an order from Führer headquarters that his aircraft were not to abandon the airfield until it came under artillery fire. Nobody in Hitler’s entourage seems to have considered the possibility that an armoured column might arrive at the edge of the field and then open fire.

Fiebig and his officers were furious. One could always recapture an airfield, but if the transport aircraft were lost, then so was the Sixth Army. They had no ground troops to defend ‘Tazi’, as the Luftwaffe called it. All they could do was to divert seven flak guns to cover the road, and prepare all serviceable aircraft for take-off in the early hours of the morning. There were so many that this did not prove easy. ‘Around the runway it looked like chaos,’ noted Richthofen’s chief of staff, who was present. ‘With engines running, one could hardly understand a single word.’ To make matters worse, there was a fairly thick mist, cloud was down to 150 feet and light snow was falling.

At 5.20 a.m., the first shells exploded. The bulk of the Soviet tanks had come across country, not up the road. Many pilots, because of the noise and chaos on the airfield, did not at first realize what was happening, even when two Junkers 52s caught fire. Fiebig himself gave the order over the radio, ‘Off you go, head for Novocherkassk!’ The pilots did not waste time. ‘The flight from Tatsinskaya’ had started. Considering the earlier confusion, there was impressively little panic. The aircraft took off in a steady stream, despite a mounting rate of casualties. For the Russian T-34s, it was like a shooting range at a fairground. Some of the Soviet tanks fired wildly as they advanced across the snow. One even rammed a Junkers trimotor taxiing into position for take-off. The explosion and fireball consumed them both. Numerous other aircraft crashed into one another on the runway or were destroyed by gunfire. Visibility was becoming worse by the minute, and the remaining aircraft had to negotiate burning wrecks to escape. Finally at 6.15 a.m., General Fiebig’s machine, one of the last to take off, was airborne. Altogether 108 Ju-52 trimotors and 16 Ju-86 trainers were saved, but the loss of 72 aircraft represented roughly 10 per cent of the Luftwaffe’s total transport fleet.

Badanov, after this bold raid, found himself cut off for five days, badly mauled and out of ammunition. Stalin was unstinting in his appreciation. The formation was retitled the 2nd Guards Tank Corps, and Badanov was the first to receive the new Order of Suvorov. Red Army propaganda claimed that his tanks had destroyed 431 aircraft in all, but this was a typically wild exaggeration. The important result, however, was that Tatsinskaya was never used for transport missions again. The Luftwaffe had to move even further out to a completely makeshift airfield.

The outcome of Hoth’s rescue mission had already been decided. The threat to the left flank of Army Group Don, and the possibility of a breakthrough towards Rostov (apparently confirmed by the interrogation of the chief of staff of the 3rd Guards Army, who was captured on 20 December), forced Manstein to reconsider his whole position. The panzer divisions on the Myshkova were also receiving a heavy battering, with 6th Panzer Division losing 1,100 men in a single day. On the evening of 23 December, Hoth’s panzer corps received the order to pull back, without any explanation. ‘Right down to the most junior soldier it was absolutely clear’, wrote General Raus, ‘that this signified defeat at Stalingrad. Although nobody yet knew the reasons behind the order, officers and men had a strong inkling that something ugly must have happened.’

That same night, Paulus and Manstein discussed the position in a conference conducted via teleprinter. Manstein warned that the 4th Panzer Army had met heavy resistance and that the Italian troops on the northern flank had collapsed. Paulus asked whether he had finally received permission for the Sixth Army to break out. Manstein replied that he still had not obtained agreement from supreme headquarters. He was sparing with the details. If Paulus had been given sufficient information to update his operations map, he would have seen that the Sixth Army was beyond help.

On 16 December, a hard and bitter wind had begun to blow from the north-east. Everything was rimed in frost: telegraph lines, stunted trees, the debris of war. The ground froze so hard that footsteps began to have the ring of walking on metal. As night fell, following a vivid red sunset, the white landscape briefly turned an arctic blue. The Russian defenders of Stalingrad welcomed the cold as natural and healthy. ‘Yesterday and today winter really started here,’ a soldier wrote to his wife. ‘Good frosts. I live very well, but no letters from you.’

Nobody was happier than the members of Chuikov’s 62nd Army in Stalingrad itself, after five weeks of listening to the terrible grinding of the ice floes on the virtually unnavigable Volga, and subsisting off the emergency reserve of twelve tons of chocolate and tiny supply drops by U-2 biplanes. The river finally froze solid on the night of 16 December, when a mass of ice floes crushed and stuck firm. First a footway over the ice was made with planks. Then motor highways were constructed using branches and water poured over them, which froze and bound the surface. In the course of the next seven weeks, tracked vehicles, 18,000 lorries and 17,000 other vehicles crossed over. Any wounded could now be driven straight across the ice to the field hospital. Guns were later trundled across to the west bank, including a 122-mm howitzer which was needed to break the deadlock in the Red October works. On minimum elevation, it was used at short range to blast the main office building, which the Germans had turned into a fortress.

Most fortunate of all for the 62nd Army, the shortage of shells for the German artillery meant that the constant shelling of Volga crossing points was no longer possible. The bank itself often offered a peaceful scene. It resembled an early frontier mining settlement, with makeshift huts and tarpaulin shelters over holes in the bank. As men split logs, or sawed wood, a regimental postman walked past in the frozen sunshine to headquarters with his leather mailbag, hoping for a mug of hot tea from the copper samovar. Others went by bearing thermos containers with hot food for the troops in forward positions. Soldiers could now walk back in batches over the ice to steam baths set up on the east side of the river, to return clean and deloused the next night.

On 19 December General Chuikov crossed to the east bank of the Volga for the first time since changing his headquarters in October. He crossed the ice on foot, and when he reached the far side, he apparently turned to gaze at the ruins which his army had held. Chuikov had come over for a party given by the commander of NKVD troops, Major-General Rogatin, in honour of the twenty-fourth anniversary of the founding of the Special Department of the Cheka. Chuikov on his return, when very drunk, fell through a hole in the ice, and had to be fished out of the freezing water. The commander of the 62nd Army nearly met an ignominious and anti-climactic end.

While the Russians welcomed the low temperatures, the doctors in Paulus’s army dreaded them, for several reasons. The resilience of their patients, both the sick and the wounded, declined. Frost in an open wound could rapidly prove lethal. The hardness of the ground when shells, Katyusharockets and mortar bombs exploded, seemed to be the only explanation for the great increase in stomach wounds with which they were faced. And from the middle of December there was ‘a steadily increasing number of serious frostbite cases’. The feet were not just swollen and purple – a degree treated with ointment, a bandage and return to duty – but black and potentially gangrenous, often requiring rapid amputation.

As early as the second week of December, doctors had started to notice a more disturbing phenomenon. An increasing number of soldiers died suddenly ‘without having received a wound or suffering from a diagnosable sickness’. Rations were indeed severely reduced, but for doctors, it still appeared to be far too early for cases of death by starvation. ‘The suspected causes’, wrote the pathologist entrusted with the inquiry, ‘included exposure, “exhaustion” [none of the approximately 600 doctors in the Kessel ventured to mention starvation] and above all a hitherto unidentified disease.’

On 15 December, Dr Girgensohn, the Sixth Army pathologist then working in the hospital next to Tatsinskaya airfield, received the order to fly into the Kessel next day. ‘Unfortunately we don’t have a spare parachute for you,’ the pilot told him when he reported next morning at dawn, but they were forced to turn back. Finally, on 17 December, they reached the Kessel. The pilot told him they were over Pitomnik, and Girgensohn, peering through the small window, saw ‘in the white blanket of snow a brown cratered landscape’.

Girgensohn found General Doctor Renoldi, the chief medical officer, in a railway carriage dug into the ground on the edge of the airfield. Renoldi pretended to know nothing about Girgensohn’s mission, because Dr Seggel, a specialist in internal medicine at Leipzig University, had requested his presence, and Renoldi, at that stage, considered the issue exaggerated.* From Pitomnik, Girgensohn was taken to the army field hospital next to Gumrak station and also close to Paulus’s headquarters. His base was a wood-lined bunker, dug into the steep side of a balka. This accommodation was indeed ‘luxurious’, since it contained an iron stove and two double bunk beds with, to his astonishment, clean sheets. It was a great contrast to the nearby accommodation for the wounded, which largely consisted of unheated tents in temperatures down to minus twenty.

Girgensohn had preliminary discussions with divisional medical officers, then travelled round the Kessel, carrying out post-mortems on the corpses of soldiers who had died from no obvious causes. (Such was the shortage of wood in this treeless waste that a fork or crossroads along the snowbound route was marked by the leg from a slaughtered horse stuck upright in a mound of snow. The relevant tactical sign and directional arrow were attached to the top of this gruesome signpost.) The autopsies had to be carried out in a variety of inconvenient places: tents, earth bunkers, peasant huts, even in railway wagons. The extreme cold had maintained the cadavers in good condition, but most were frozen solid. Thawing them out proved very difficult with the shortage of available fuel. An orderly had to spend the night turning the corpses stacked around a small cast-iron oven. On one occasion, he fell asleep, and the result was ‘a corpse frozen on one side and seared on the other’.

The cold was so bad that it was both difficult and painful for Girgensohn to pull on his rubber gloves. Each evening, he typed up the results by candlelight. In spite of such difficulties, which included Soviet air attacks and artillery bombardments, Girgensohn managed to perform fifty autopsies by the end of the month. In exactly half of this sample, he found clear signs of death by starvation: atrophy of the heart and liver, a complete absence of fatty tissue, a severe shrinkage of muscle.

In an attempt to compensate for the low-calorie diet of bread and ‘Wasserzuppe’ with a few tiny bits of horsemeat, Army Group Don flew in small tins of meat paste with a high fat content, but this proved counter-productive. Quite often, when a sergeant was making his rounds of the sentry positions and a soldier said, ‘I’m fine, I’ll now have something to eat,’ and then consumed some of the high-fat meat paste, the man was dead by the time the sergeant made his next round. Death from starvation, Girgensohn observed, was ‘undramatisch’.

The highest proportion of cases of death by starvation occurred in the 113th Infantry Division. Here at least, Girgensohn discovered a clear explanation. The quartermaster of the division had cut rations before the encirclement to hoard them as a precaution against insufficient supplies during the autumn rains. As a result, the men were already undernourished by the second half of November. Then, after several divisions had lost all their supplies during the retreat, Sixth Army headquarters centralized all remaining supplies to share them out equally. Thus the quartermaster’s prudence backfired badly against his division.

Girgensohn, who spent seven years in Russian labour camps after the surrender, never lost his interest in the subject. He has always vigorously disputed any suggestion of ‘stress illness’, both as a condition in itself, and as an explanation for many of the unexplained deaths, even though recent research, which has shown that rats deprived of sleep for three weeks will die, suggests that humans deprived of sleep burn out rapidly. The pattern of Russian night attacks and constant activity to allow no rest undoubtedly had a contributory effect, as he acknowledges. But his explanation, after all these years, is more complex. He became convinced that the combination of exhaustion, stress and cold gravely upset the metabolism of most soldiers. This meant that even if they received the equivalent of, say, 500 calories a day, their bodies absorbed only a fraction. Thus, one could say that Soviet tactics, combined with the weather conditions and food shortages, produced, or at least contributed to, an accelerated process of starvation.

Severe malnutrition also reduced a patient’s ability to survive infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and dysentery in the earlier period of the encirclement, and more serious diseases right at the end, particularly typhoid and typhus. Out in the steppe there was no water for washing bodies, let alone clothes, simply because there was not enough fuel to melt snow and ice. ‘There’s little new here,’ wrote a panzer grenadier lieutenant in the 29th Motorized Infantry Division. ‘Top of the list is the fact that every day we become more infested with lice. Lice are like the Russians. You kill one, ten new ones appear in its place.’ Lice would be the carriers for the epidemics which decimated the survivors of Stalingrad.

The immediate concerns of medical staff, however, still focused on weakness from lack of food. ‘Slowly, our brave fighters are starting to become decrepit,’ wrote an assistant doctor. He went on to describe an amputation at the thigh which he performed by torchlight in a dugout without any form of anaesthetic. ‘One is apathetic towards everything and can only think about food.’

The need of German soldiers for hope was mixed with a hatred for the Bolshevik enemy and a longing for revenge. In a state of what was called ‘Kesselfever’, they dreamed of an SS Panzer Corps smashing through the encircling Russian armies to rescue them, thus turning the tables in a great, unexpected victory. They tended to be the ones who still listened to Goebbels’s speeches. Many kept up their spirits by singing the Sixth Army’s song, Das Wolgalied, to the tune by Franz Lehár: ‘There stands a soldier on the Volga shore, keeping watch there for his Fatherland’.

The operational propaganda department at Don Front headquarters, using its German Communist assistants, decided to exploit the Landser’s fondness for songs. They broadcast from their loudspeaker vans an old favourite, which in present circumstances had a cruel twist: ‘In the homeland, in the homeland, there awaits a warm reunion!’ The German Communists under NKVD supervision consisted of Walter Ulbricht (later the East German president), the poet Erich Weinert, the writer Willi Bredel and a handful of German prisoners – four officers and a soldier – who had been recruited to the anti-Nazi cause. They taught ‘criers’, who were Red Army men chosen to crawl forward to dead ground in front of German lines and shout slogans and items of news through megaphones. Few of them knew any German, and most were killed.

The main activity of the propaganda detachment was to prepare 20- to 30-minute programmes on a gramophone record, with music, poems, songs and propaganda (especially the news of the breakthrough on the Italian Army’s front). The programme was then played on a wind-up gramophone, and broadcast by the loudspeakers, either mounted on the van, or sometimes pushed forwards on sledges with a wire running back. Most propaganda broadcasts of this sort immediately attracted German mortar fire, on the order of officers afraid that their men might listen. But during December, the response became weaker owing to the shortage of munitions.

Different sound tricks were adopted, such as ‘the monotonous ticking of a clock’ followed by the claim that one German died every seven seconds on the Eastern Front. The ‘crackling sound of the propaganda voice’ then intoned: ‘Stalingrad, mass grave of Hitler’s army!’ and the deathly tango dance music would start up again across the empty frozen steppe. As an extra sonic twist, the heart-stopping shriek of a real Katyusha rocket would sometimes follow from a ‘Stalin organ’ launcher.

Russian leaflets had greatly improved, now that they were written by Germans. Prisoner interrogations by the 7th Department confirmed that ‘the ones with the most effect are those which talk about home, wives, family and children’. ‘Soldiers eagerly read Russian leaflets even though they don’t believe them,’ admitted one German prisoner. Some ‘cried when they saw a leaflet representing the corpse of a German soldier and an infant crying over it. On the other side were simple verses by the writer Erich Weinert.’ The prisoner had no idea that Weinert, who had specially written the poem, ‘Think of Your Child!’, was very close by, attached to Don Front headquarters.

Perhaps the most effective piece of propaganda was to persuade German soldiers that they would not be shot on capture. Many of their officers had relied on the argument that surrender was out of the question because the Russians would kill them. One leaflet ended with a declaration by Stalin which began to convince even junior commanders that Soviet policy had changed: ‘“If German soldiers and officers give themselves up, the Red Army must take them prisoner and spare their lives.” (From Order No. 55 by the People’s Commissar for Defence, J. Stalin.)’

The first encirclement of a large German army, trapped far from home, ordered to stay put and finally abandoned to its fate, has naturally created an intense debate over the years. Many German participants and historians have blamed Paulus for not having disobeyed orders, and broken out. Yet if anybody was in a position to give Paulus, who was deprived of vital information, a lead in the matter, it should have been his immediate superior, Field Marshal von Manstein.

‘Can one serve two masters?’ Strecker noted when Hitler rejected Operation Thunderclap, the breakout plan to follow Operation Winter Storm. But the German Army only had a single master. The servile record since 1933 of most senior officers had left it both dishonoured and politically impotent. In fact, the disaster and humiliation of Stalingrad were the price which the army had to pay for its hubristic years of privilege and prestige under the National Socialist umbrella. There was no choice of master, short of joining the group round Henning von Tresckow and Stauffenberg.

Much time has been spent debating whether a breakout was feasible in the second half of December, yet even panzer commanders acknowledged that ‘the chances of a successful breakout diminished with every week’. The infantry had even fewer illusions. ‘We survivors’, a corporal wrote home, ‘can hardly keep going owing to hunger and weakness.’ Dr Alois Beck, quite rightly, disputed the ‘legend’ that ‘a breakout would have succeeded’. The Russians would have shot the ‘half-frozen soldiers down like hares’, because the men in their weakened state could not have waded through over a foot of snow, with its crust of ice on the surface, carrying weapons and ammunition. ‘Every step was exhausting,’ observed a staff officer from Sixth Army headquarters. ‘It would have been like the Berezina.’

The whole ‘Breakout or Defence’ debate is thus a purely academic diversion from the real issues. In fact one suspects that the formidably intelligent Manstein recognized this at the time. He made a great play of sending Major Eismann, his intelligence officer, into the Kessel on 19 December to prepare the Sixth Army for Operation Thunderclap. Yet Manstein knew by then that Hitler, who had again reaffirmed his determination not to move from the Volga, would never change his mind.

In any case, Manstein must have realized by then that the relief attempt was doomed. Hoth’s panzer divisions were being fought to a standstill on the Myshkova, with heavy casualties, even before the bulk of Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army had deployed. And Manstein, who had kept himself well informed of developments within the Kessel and the state of the troops, must have realized that Paulus’s men could never have walked, let alone fought, for between forty and sixty miles through the blizzards and deep frosts. The Sixth Army, with fewer than seventy under-supplied tanks, stood no chance of breaking through the 57th Army. Most important of all, Manstein knew by 19 December that Operation Little Saturn, with three Soviet armies breaking through into his rear, was changing the whole position irrevocably.

Quite simply, Manstein sensed that, in the sight of history and the German Army, he had to be seen to make every effort, even if he believed, quite correctly, that the Sixth Army’s only chance of saving itself had expired almost a month earlier. His apparently uneasy conscience after the event must have been due to the fact that, with Hitler’s refusal to withdraw from the Caucasus, he had needed the Sixth Army to tie down the seven Soviet armies surrounding it. If Paulus had attempted a breakout so few of his men would have survived, and in such a pitiable condition, that they would have been of no use to him in the moment of crisis.

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