Military history

Part Five

The Air-Bridge

‘The misty cloud hung low,’ wrote Hans Dibold, a doctor with the 44th Infantry Division, ‘it all but touched one’s head. In that cloud the engine of a lost transport plane wailed forlornly.’

The term ‘air-bridge’ was seldom used in the theatre of operations. The idea of a permanent link over the heads of the Russians gratified the illusionists looking at maps and charts in Berlin and Rastenburg. Hitler would suddenly demand information, so every general and staff officer, desperate to have the figures to hand, constantly badgered airfield commanders for the latest statistics and proof of action. This compulsive interference from above only made things worse. Luftwaffe generals in Germany had leaped to obey Hitler’s decision to resupply the Sixth Army by air, allocating thoroughly unsuitable aircraft like the Ju-86, an aeroplane used for training pilots, to make the numbers look better. Even the use of gliders was considered until somebody observed that Russian fighters would destroy them with ease.

Chaos was also caused by rear airbase commanders sending forward Junkers 52s before they had been adapted for winter operations, simply to prove that they were reacting to the Führer’s call quickly. The mass of transport aircraft arriving without warning had caused chaos, particularly since an air-supply operations group was not in place to take control. At the end of November, General Fiebig and the staff of VIII Air Corps took over responsibility, and the situation greatly improved, even though fundamental flaws in the whole project condemned it to failure from the start.

General von Richthofen had warned that they would need six full-sized airfields within the Kessel, not just one, and also properly trained ground staff. His fear about the shortage of runways was rapidly justified under bad weather conditions. The best day had been 19 December, when 154 aircraft landed with 289 tons, but good flying days were rare indeed. Weather was not the only problem. The airfield at Pitomnik attracted all the enemy’s attention, so shot-up and crashed aircraft frequently made it unusable for short periods. Their burnt-out metal carcasses were pushed out into the snow beside the runway, forming a ‘widely strewn machine graveyard’. Landing by night was doubly dangerous. The air-defence batteries at Pitomnik had an almost impossible balance to maintain. They needed to use searchlights to pick out Soviet night bombers, but the base of their beams provided a target for Russian artillery.

The strain on Luftwaffe aircrew was intense. ‘Young and inexperienced aircrews were badly shaken’ by the sights at Pitomnik, above all the miserable condition of the wounded waiting by the side of the runway for evacuation, and the piles of frozen corpses, left by the field hospital there because the ground was frozen too hard to bury them.

Whatever the Sixth Army’s gratitude for the Luftwaffe’s efforts, exasperation was inevitable. When one consignment was opened and found to contain only marjoram and pepper, Lieutenant-Colonel Werner von Kunowski, the Sixth Army’s Quartermaster, exploded: ‘Which ass was responsible for this load?’ An officer with him joked that at least the pepper could be used in close-quarter combat.

After the Soviet attack on Tatsinskaya, the transport fleet was greatly reduced, leaving a much smaller pool from which serviceable aircraft could be tasked. Also, the new Ju-52 airbase at Salsk, just over 200 miles from Pitomnik, was close to the maximum operational range, so any aircraft whose engines burned up oil could not be used. In desperation, some of the Luftwaffe’s largest four-engined aircraft – the Focke-Wulf 200 Condor, which could take up to six tons, and the Junkers 290, which could manage a load of up to ten tons – were brought into service, but they were vulnerable and lacked the solidity of the old ‘Tante Ju’ trimotor. Once Salsk also came under threat, in mid-January, the remaining JU-52S had to move north-west to Zverevo north of Shakhty. This new airfield consisted of a packed-snow runway on open agricultural land. There was no accommodation, so ground crew, control staff and aircrew lived in igloos and tents.

Icing became an even greater problem in the air, while on the ground, engines became harder and harder to start. Heavy snowfalls often brought bases to a halt, since every plane had to be dug out of drifts. There were few anti-aircraft defences at Zverevo, and on 18 January, Soviet fighters and bombers, coming in eighteen waves during the course of the day, managed to destroy another fifty JU-52S on the ground. This was one of the few really effective operations by Red Army aviation, whose pilots still lacked confidence.

Richthofen and Fiebig had felt from the beginning that they had no choice but to make the best of a doomed job. They expected little understanding from above. ‘My trust in our leadership has rapidly sunk below zero’, Richthofen told General Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe chief-of-staff, on 12 December. A week later, on hearing that Goering had told Hitler that the supply situation in Stalingrad was ‘not so bad’, he had written in his diary: ‘Apart from the fact that it would do his figure a power of good to spend a little time in the Kessel, I can only assume that my reports either are not read or are given no credence.’

While Goering did nothing to stint his appetite, General Zeitzler, in a gesture of solidarity with the starved troops in Stalingrad, reduced his own rations to their level. According to Albert Speer, he lost twenty-six pounds within two weeks. Hitler, informed of this diet by Martin Bormann, ordered Zeitzler to return to normal eating. As a concession, Hitler banned champagne and brandy at Führer headquarters ‘in honour of the heroes of Stalingrad’.

The vast majority of civilians in Germany had little idea of how close the Sixth Army was to final defeat. ‘I hope that you’ll break the encirclement soon,’ a young woman wrote to her soldier penfriend in mid-January, ‘and when you do, you’ll be given leave straight away.’ Even the Nazi Party chief of Bielefeld wrote in mid-January to General Edler von Daniels to congratulate him on the birth of his child, his Knight’s Cross and promotion and said that he looked forward to seeing him ‘very soon back amongst us again’.

The atmosphere of unreality pervaded the most senior government circles in Berlin. Speer, deeply disturbed by the situation at Stalingrad, accompanied his wife, ‘who like everybody else still suspected nothing untoward’, to a performance of The Magic Flute at the opera. ‘But sitting in our box, in those softly upholstered chairs among this festively attired audience, all I could think of was that same kind of crowd at the Paris Opera when Napoleon was retreating in Russia, and of the now identical suffering of our own soldiers.’ He fled back to his ministry, seeking escape in work, and tried to suppress his ‘horrible feelings of guilt’ towards his brother, a private in the Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

Speer’s parents had recently rung him in panic. They had just heard that their youngest son Ernst was lying in ‘a primitive field hospital’ in a stable, ‘only partly roofed and without walls’ suffering from jaundice with fever, swollen legs and kidney pains. Speer’s mother sobbed on the telephone: ‘You can’t do this to him.’ And his father said: ‘It’s impossible that you, you of all people, can’t do something to get him out.’ Speer’s sense of helplessness and guilt was compounded by the fact that the year before, following Hitler’s order that senior officials must not use influence on behalf of relatives, he had fobbed off his brother with a promise to get him transferred to France once the campaign was over. Now the last letter from Ernst in Stalingrad said that he could not stand watching his fellow patients die in the field hospital. He had rejoined his comrades in the front line, despite his grotesquely swollen limbs and pathetic weakness.

Within the Kessel, as the Sixth Army waited for the final Russian offensive, stories spread not just of an SS Panzer Corps approaching, which Hitler had promised for mid-February, but even of an air-transported division being flown into the Kessel to bolster their defences.

Some rumours lost all touch with reality. Darker spirits claimed that the Fourth Panzer Army had got to within a dozen miles of their lines, but Paulus had then told General Hoth not to advance any further. Some soldiers even convinced themselves later that Paulus, as part of a secret deal with the Russians, had betrayed them. According to another story, ‘the Russians have issued an order, that anyone who shoots a [captured] German pilot will be severely punished, because they were needed to fly transport planes in the rearmost areas, such was the shortage of Soviet aircrew’.

Rumours were bound to spread in their strange communities, whether the encampments round the airfields, or dugouts in balkas on the steppe, grouped together like a troglodyte village. If there was any wood to burn in the small bunker stoves, smoke emerged from little chimney stacks, made from empty food tins rammed together. Duckboards, tables, even bunks as men died, were broken up as fuel. The only substitute for real warmth was a fug, created with packed bodies and tarpaulins, but men still shivered uncontrollably. The comparative heat did little more than stir their lice into activity, and drive them wild with itching. They often slept two to a bunk with a blanket over their heads in a pathetic attempt to share body heat. The rodent population swelled rapidly on a diet of dead horses and humans. Out in the steppe, mice became voracious in their search for food. One soldier reported that mice had ‘eaten two of his frozen toes’ while he was asleep.

When rations arrived, on a sledge pulled by a starved pony, stiff, ungainly figures, wrapped in rags, emerged to hear the latest rumours. There was no fuel to melt snow for washing or shaving. Their hollow-cheeked faces were waxen and unshaven – the beards pathetically straggly from calcium deficiency. Their necks were thin and scrawny like those of old men. Their bodies crawled with lice. A bath and clean underwear were as distant a dream as a proper meal. The bread ration was now down to under 200 grams per day, and often little more than 100 grams. The horseflesh added to ‘Wassersuppe’ came from local supplies. The carcasses were kept fresh by the cold, but the temperature was so low that meat could not be sliced from them with knives. Only a pioneer saw was strong enough.

The combination of cold and starvation meant that soldiers, when not on sentry, just lay in their dugouts, conserving energy. The bunker was a refuge which they could hardly face leaving. Often, their minds went blank because the chilling of their blood slowed down both physical and mental activity. Books had been passed round until they disintegrated or were lost in the mud or snow, but now few had the energy left to read. In a similar way, Luftwaffe officers running Pitomnik airfield had given up chess in favour of skat because any effort of concentration was beyond them. In many cases, however, the lack of food led not to apathy but to crazed illusions, like those of ancient mystics who heard voices through malnutrition.

It is impossible to assess the numbers of suicides or deaths resulting from battle stress. Examples in other armies, as already mentioned, rise dramatically when soldiers are cut off, and no army was more beleaguered than the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Men raved wildly in their bunks, some lay there howling. Many, during a manic burst of activity, had to be overpowered or knocked senseless by their comrades. Some soldiers feared breakdown and madness in others as if it were contagious. But the greatest alarm was provoked when a sick comrade had dilated nostrils and black lips and the whites of his eyes turned pink. The fear of typhus seemed curiously atavistic, almost as if it were a medieval plague.

The sense of approaching death could also stimulate an intense awareness of all that they were about to lose. Tough men dreamed feverishly of images of home, and wept silently at the idea of never seeing wife or children again. More reflective characters re-examined memories, or studied the world about them, especially their comrades, with a new interest. Some even had enough emotion left to feel sorry for the starving horses gnawing desperately at a piece of wood.

For the first week or ten days in January, before the Soviet offensive broke, men tried not to let their true degree of wretchedness show in letters home. ‘I received a quarter litre of vodka and thirteen cigarettes for the New Year,’ wrote a soldier called Willy to his parents in a letter which never reached them, ‘but all the food I’ve got now is a piece of bread. I’ve never missed you more than today when we were singing the “Wolgalied”. I’m sitting in a cage here – it’s not made of gold but of the Russian encirclement.’ Many soldiers camouflaged the truth even further. ‘We can only count upon the fact that spring will start soon,’ a soldier called Seppel wrote home. ‘The weather is still bad, but the main thing is to be healthy and have a good stove. The Christmas holidays passed well.’ Others, however, did not try to conceal their feelings: ‘The only thing left to me is to think about the three of you,’ a soldier wrote to his wife and children.

Some desperate to escape considered self-inflicted wounds. Those who went through with it did not just risk execution. Even if no suspicions were aroused, they risked death from their own action. A light flesh wound was not enough to earn a flight out of the Kessel. A shot through the right hand was too obvious, and with so few soldiers left in the front line, the wound had to be disabling if they were to be released from combat duties. But once the final Soviet advance began, even ‘a light wound which hindered movement, practically signified death’.

From early January, an increasing number of German soldiers began to surrender without resistance or even to desert to the enemy. Deserters tended to be infantrymen at the front, partly because they had more opportunity. There were also cases of officers and soldiers who refused evacuation, out of bravery and an almost obsessive sense of duty. Lieutenant Löbbecke, the commander of a company of tanks in 16th Panzer Division, had lost an arm in the fighting, but soldiered on without having the wound properly treated. His divisional commander could not persuade him to go for treatment. Eventually, General Strecker got hold of him.

‘I request permission to stay with my men,’ Löbbecke said immediately. ‘I cannot leave them now when the fighting is so desperate.’ Strecker, presumably from the smell, realized that the stump of Löbbecke’s arm was putrefying. He had to order him on to an aircraft out of the Kessel to a base hospital.

For the truly incapacitated, the only hope of evacuation back to a field hospital was by sled or in an ambulance. Their drivers were already recognized as ‘steering-wheel heroes’, because of the very high casualty rate. A moving vehicle – and ambulances were among the very few allowed any fuel – immediately attracted Russian ground fire or air attack.

Walking wounded and sick made their own way to the rear through the snow. Many stopped to rest and never rose again. Others arrived in spite of appalling wounds or advanced frostbite. ‘One day somebody knocked at our bunker,’ remembered a Luftwaffe lieutenant at Pitomnik. ‘Outside stood an older man, a member of the Organisation Todt engaged on road repair. Both his hands were so badly swollen from frostbite that he would never be able to use them again.’

Reaching the general hospital by the airfield was still far from a guarantee of evacuation or even treatment in the large tents, which did little to keep out the cold. Wounds and frostbite represented only a small part of the workload, which threatened to overwhelm doctors. There was a jaundice epidemic, dysentery and all the other sicknesses, accentuated by undernourishment and often dehydration, since there was no fuel to melt the snow. The wounded were also far more exposed to Soviet air attack than they had been at the front. ‘Every half-hour Russian aircraft attacked the airfield,’ reported a corporal later. ‘Many comrades who were just about to be saved, having been loaded into aircraft, and were waiting to take off, lost their lives at the very last moment.’

The evacuation by air of the wounded and sick was just as unpredictable as the incoming supply flights. On three days, 19 and 20 December and 4 January, over a thousand were taken on each occasion, but the overall average, including days when no flights were possible, between 23 November and 20 January came to 417.

Selection for the aircraft was not made by the severity of wounds. It developed into a ruthless triage due to the shortage of aircraft space. ‘Only the lightly wounded, those able to move themselves, could hope to get away,’ recounted an officer courier. ‘There was enough room for only about four stretchers inside a Heinkel fuselage, but you could pack in nearly twenty walking wounded. So if you had been severely hit, or were so sick that you could not move, you were as good as dead.’ Luck, however, could still intervene. By pulling rank, this officer managed to get an infantry non-commissioned officer, who had been lying at the airfield for three days with a bullet lodged in his back, on to his aircraft. ‘How this man had got to the airfield, I never knew.’ He also pulled another NCO, an elderly man with a high fever, on board.

The Feldgendarmerie, hated by the troops and known as the ‘chain dogs’ because of the metal crescent gorget, hung on a chain, which they wore round their necks, guarded access to the runway, checking papers minutely to make sure that no malingerers got through. As hope of escape diminished in January, they resorted more and more to their sub-machine-guns to hold back the wounded and malingerers.

Many more wounded fitted into the giant, four-engined Focke-Wulf Condors, of which a few were used from the second week of January. They were, however, exceptionally vulnerable if overloaded. One sergeant in the 9th Flak Division watched the lumbering acceleration of a Condor on to which two of his wounded comrades had just been loaded. As the aircraft rose steeply after take-off to gain height, the helpless human cargo inside must have shifted or rolled towards the back, because the tail suddenly dropped. The engines screamed as the nose pointed almost vertically into the sky, then the whole aircraft fell back to the ground just beyond the perimeter and exploded in a fireball with a ‘deafening sound’.

Further out, soldiers at the west end of the Kessel witnessed the fate of Junkers transports, knowing full well that their heavy outbound loads consisted of wounded comrades. Often these aircraft ‘could not gain height quickly enough and ran into heavy flak, thus coming to a terrible end. I saw from my trench on several occasions this apocalyptic fate and was very, very depressed.’

As well as flying out wounded, couriers and certain specialists, the aircraft still brought in some officers and men who had gone on leave just before the Kessel was closed. Because of the news blackout in Germany, many of them had no idea of what had happened in their absence until their train reached Kharkov. Manstein’s aide, Alexander Stahlberg, described how his twenty-one-year-old cousin by marriage, Gottfried von Bismarck, arrived at Army Group Don headquarters at Novocherkassk on 2 January after Christmas leave at home in Pomerania. He had received an order to fly into the Kessel to rejoin the 76th Infantry Division. Manstein, on discovering the circumstances, invited him to his table for dinner, where conversation was unrestrained. Both Manstein and Stahlberg greatly admired the way the young man, with no complaint, upheld the Potsdam tradition of the 9th Infantry Regiment by returning to a lost battle, not for Hitler, but out of a Prussian devotion to duty. Bismarck himself, however, put it in less glorious terms. ‘I was a soldier, I had received an order and was obliged to accept the consequences.’

General Hube, when he returned to the Kessel on 9 January, the eve of the Soviet offensive, told Paulus and Schmidt that Hitler simply refused to acknowledge the possibility of defeat at Stalingrad. He had not listened to his account of conditions in the Kessel, instead he had tried to convince him that a second relief attempt might well be brought forward.

Some of Hube’s officers were downcast that he, of all people, seemed to have been taken in by one of Hitler’s performances of mesmerizing optimism – the ‘sun-ray cure’. ‘I was deeply disappointed’, recorded Hube’s intelligence officer, Prince Dohna, ‘how easily such a brave and upright soldier could be persuaded.’ Others, however, heard that Hube had even dared ‘to advise Hitler to try to finish the war’, and when Hube died in a plane crash the following year, rumours spread that Hitler might have had a hand in it. In a way, both sides were right. When Hube had reported to Army Group headquarters before flying back into the Kessel, Manstein certainly believed that he had been taken in by one of Hitler’s displays of confidence. On the other hand, he subsequently discovered that Hube had dared suggest to Hitler that he might do better to hand over supreme command of the army to a general, so that he would not be damaged personally if the Sixth Army were lost.

Hube had been one of the Führer’s favourite commanders, but his evident belief that the Sixth Army was doomed only confirmed Hitler’s suspicion that all generals were infected with pessimism. Paulus recognized this. He came to the conclusion that only a highly decorated young warrior might appeal to Hitler’s romantic notions and thus be in a better position to persuade him to listen to the truth.

Paulus had an obvious candidate for this mission in the form of Captain Winrich Behr, whose black panzer uniform with the Knight’s Cross was likely to produce the right effect on the Führer. And Behr, responsible for updating not only the situation map, but also all the facts and figures in reports, was one of the best-briefed officers at Sixth Army headquarters.

Behr received so little warning of his mission on the morning of 12 January, two days after the start of the Soviet offensive, that he did not have time to offer to take letters home from his colleagues. He bundled up the Sixth Army war diary in his belongings to take it to safety, then hurried to Pitomnik. The runway was already under fire from heavy mortars as well as artillery. As Behr ran to the Heinkel III, filling with wounded, the Feldgendarmerie armed with sub-machine-guns had to hold back hundreds of others trying to rush, or even crawl, to the plane.

The flight to Taganrog took one and a half hours. To his surprise, it was even colder down by the Sea of Azov than at Stalingrad. A staff car was waiting for him and he was taken to Field Marshal von Manstein’s headquarters. Manstein assembled some of his officers and asked Behr to report on the situation. Behr described everything: the famine; the casualty rates; the exhaustion of the soldiers; the wounded lying in the snow, waiting for evacuation, their blood frozen; the pitiful shortage of food, fuel and ammunition. When Behr had finished, Manstein told him: ‘Give Hitler exactly the same description as you gave me.’ An aeroplane had been ordered for the next morning to take him to Rastenburg. The Führer was expecting him.

The following morning was just as cold, even though the bright sun gave a deceptive impression of warmth. At the airfield the Luftwaffe officer assigned to fly Behr to East Prussia did not bother to take his gloves with him when he went out to warm up the motors. When he returned to the building he had no skin left on his hands from touching frozen metal. Another pilot had to be found.

Behr finally reached the Wolfsschanze in the early evening. His belt and pistol were taken from him at the guardroom. From there, he was escorted to the operations room, where eighteen months later Stauffenberg brought his briefcase filled with explosives. There were between twenty and twenty-five senior officers present. After ten minutes, the doors opened and Hitler appeared. He greeted the young panzer captain.

Heil Herr Hauptmann!

Heil mein Führer!’ replied Behr, rigidly at attention in his black uniform, with the Knight’s Cross at the neck. Behr already knew from his brother-in-law, Nicolaus von Below, who was Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, what the Führer’s tactics were when a ‘Cassandra’ brought bad news. He always tried to control the conversation, imposing his version of events, and overwhelming his interlocutor, who knew only about a single sector of the front, with a powerful impression of the overall situation. This was exactly what happened.

When Hitler had finished recounting his plans for Operation Dietrich, a great counter-attack with SS panzer divisions turning defeat into victory, he said to Behr: ‘Herr Hauptmann, when you return to General Paulus, tell him this and that all my heart and my hopes are with him and his Army.’ But Behr, well aware that this was Hitler’s ‘trick’, knew that he must not allow himself to be silenced.

‘Mein Führer,’ he answered. ‘My commander-in-chief gave me the order to inform you of the situation. Please now give me permission to deliver my report.’ Hitler, in front of so many witnesses, could not refuse.

Behr began to speak, and Hitler, rather to his surprise, made no attempt to interrupt him. He did not spare his audience any detail, including the growing desertions of German soldiers to the Russians. Field Marshal Keitel, unable to bear such frankness in the Führer’s presence, shook his fist at Behr from behind Hitler’s back in an attempt to silence him. But Behr continued relentlessly with his description of the exhausted, starving and frozen army, faced by overwhelming odds, and without the fuel or ammunition to repulse the new Russian offensive. Behr had all the figures of the daily deliveries by air in his head. Hitler asked if he was certain of these statistics, and when Behr replied that he was, he turned to a senior Luftwaffe officer and asked him to explain the discrepancy.

‘Mein Führer,’ replied the Luftwaffe general, ‘I have here the list of planes and cargoes dispatched per day.’

‘But mein Führer,’ Behr interrupted. ‘For the Army, what is important is not how many planes were sent out, but what we actually receive. We are not criticizing the Luftwaffe. Their pilots really are heroes, but we have received only the figures I have told you. Perhaps some companies retrieved odd canisters and kept them, without notifying their headquarters, but not enough to make a difference.’

Some senior officers tried to deflect Behr’s criticisms with ‘idiotic questions’, but Hitler proved surprisingly helpful, probably because he wanted to appear to defend the interests of the Stalingradkämpfer against the general staff. But when Behr came to the situation facing the Sixth Army, Hitler turned back to the great map dotted with little flags as if nothing had changed. Behr knew that these flags, ‘the same as months before’, now represented ‘divisions with only a few hundred men left’. Yet Hitler once again resorted to his message of reversing the whole situation by a brilliant counterstroke. He even proclaimed that a whole SS Panzer Army was already grouping round Kharkov, poised to strike towards Stalingrad. Behr knew from Field Marshal von Manstein that the SS formations being brought eastwards would need several more weeks. ‘I saw then that he had lost touch with reality. He lived in a fantasy world of maps and flags.’ For Behr, who had been an enthusiastic and ‘nationalistic young German officer’, the revelation came as a shock. ‘It was the end of all my illusions about Hitler. I was convinced that we would now lose the war.’

Behr was not sent straight back to the Kessel as planned. He saw Hitler again the next day at noon, with Field Marshal Milch, who was ordered to galvanize Luftwaffe relief efforts to Stalingrad. Behr was later summoned by Hitler’s senior military aide, General Schmundt, and subjected to a long and searching, although friendly, interview. Schmundt, one of Hitler’s most loyal admirers (he was to die eighteen months later from Stauffenberg’s bomb), quickly sensed that the young panzer captain had lost his faith. Behr admitted this openly when the question was put. Schmundt therefore decided that he should not be sent back to Paulus, in case he passed on his misgivings. Behr would return to the Black Sea coast, and work there at Melitopol as part of the new ‘Special Staff’ to be set up under Field Marshal Milch to help Fortress Stalingrad hold out to the last.

At Rastenburg, General Stieff and also Lieutenant-Colonel Bern-hard Klamroth, who knew Behr well from before the war, took him aside and asked – ‘in a coded manner’ – whether he would join a movement to oust Hitler. Behr, who had only just seen the truth

‘about Hitler’s disastrous leadership, felt that he could not do a complete about-turn. Klamroth understood, but warned him to be careful with Manstein. ‘At table he is very much against Hitler, but he just shoots his mouth off. If Hitler were to order him to turn left or right, he would do exactly what he was told.’

Klamroth’s criticism was not exaggerated. For all the disrespect Manstein showed for the Führer in private among trusted subordinates and with his dachshund’s trick of raising its paw in the Nazi salute, he did not want to risk his own position. In his memoirs, he used what might be called the stab-in-the-back argument: a coup d’état would have led to an immediate collapse of the front and chaos inside Germany. He was still part of the officer class, whose anti-Bolshevik loathing had been moulded by the 1918 mutinies and revolution. Behr took Klamroth’s advice, and was cautious when he reported back to Army Group Don.

Manstein’s fear of Hitler was soon demonstrated. The frank discussions among his own officers about responsibility for the Stalingrad disaster unnerved him so much that he issued an order to his chief of staff that ‘Discussions about the responsibility for recent events must cease’ because ‘they can do nothing to change the facts of the matter and can only cause damage by undermining confidence’. Officers were also strictly forbidden to discuss ‘the causes for the destruction of the Sixth Army’ in their personal correspondence.

The Führer now wanted, whatever the outcome, a heroic example for the German people. On 15 January, he awarded Paulus the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross and announced 178 other important decorations for members of the Sixth Army. Many recipients still failed to recognize how double-edged these honours were.

Manstein, on the other hand, while despising Hitler’s motives, knew that he too needed to prolong the agony of the Sixth Army. Every extra day that it held on gave him more time to pull the two armies in the Caucasus back to a defensible line. Hitler, through one of his grotesque twists of logic, could now argue that his decision to order Paulus to maintain his position had been correct.

The madness of events seems to have become slightly infectious. Max Plakolb, the Luftwaffe officer in charge of the radio operators at Pitomnik, recorded several strange messages of exhortation they received from their own senior commanders. On 9 January, the day that the Soviet ultimatum was proclaimed, Plakolb and another member of his team received orders to fly out of the Kessel. ‘ Taking leave of those staying behind was hard. Each one wrote a letter home, which we took with us.’ But like almost everyone escaping the Stalingrad Kessel at that time, he experienced a sensation of being born again. ‘Thus did this 9 January become my second birthday.’ Those escaping, however, were bound to undergo some form of survivor guilt. ‘We never heard anything more of those comrades left behind.’

Everyone who had the chance entrusted last letters or small important possessions to comrades allotted a place on the aircraft. The piano-playing battalion commander from 16th Panzer Division had fallen sick, so Dr Kurt Reuber persuaded him to take the ‘Fortress Madonna’ with him. Reuber also managed to finish a last picture for his wife when his commanding officer’s departure was delayed by a day because of bad weather. His last letter to her from Stalingrad went with it. He saw no point in shrinking from the reality of what they faced. ‘Scarcely an earthly hope remains…’

It was some time before soldiers realized that the Christmas post delivered on 22 December was probably the last they would receive from the outside world. Odd batches came through afterwards, one as late as 18 January, but the regular Luftpost effectively ceased after 13 January, when soldiers were told that they had a last chance to write home. Many mentioned in their letters that they only had time ‘to scribble a couple of lines’. As a doctor observed in a letter to his father, ‘The mood here is very mixed. Some take it very badly, others lightly and in a composed way. It is an interesting study in character.’

The main contrast seems to be between those who wrote to impress their family with the patriotic symbolism of their approaching death, and those who wrote out of love. The latter, unlike the fervent nationalists, usually started their letter as gently as possible: ‘Perhaps this will be the last letter from me for a long time.’

A Major von R. wrote to his wife: ‘You are always my first and last thought. I am certainly not abandoning hope. Things are, however, so serious, that one does not know whether we will see each other again. Our men have been and still are achieving the impossible. We must not be less brave than them.’

The word ‘fate’ seems to be about the only word shared equally. ‘Dear parents,’ wrote a corporal. Tate has decided against us. If you should receive the news that I have fallen for Greater Germany, then bear it bravely. As a last bequest, I leave my wife and children to your love.’

Those most devoted to the regime focused far more in a self-important way on national honour and the great struggle, than on family farewells. They wrote of the ‘fateful battle of the German nation’, while still maintaining that ‘our weapons and our leadership are still the best in the world’. In an attempt to derive a meaning from the grotesque tragedy, they buoyed themselves up with the idea that future generations would see them as the defenders of Europe from Asiatic bolshevism. ‘This is a heroic struggle, the like of which the world has never experienced in such cold,’ wrote a sergeant. ‘German heroes guarantee Germany’s future.’

These letters were never delivered. Captain Count von Zedtwitz, the chief of Fourth Panzer Army’s field-post censorship, had been given the task of studying letters from the Stalingrad Kessel, to report on morale and feelings towards the regime. Although his reports bent over backwards to avoid sounding defeatist, it appears that Goebbels ordered that this last collection of post should be held back and eventually destroyed. The above quotations come from a sample apparently copied by Heinz Schröter, a junior officer formerly attached to the Sixth Army’s propaganda company, who had been commissioned by the propaganda ministry to write an epic account of the battle.*

Other letters had already been intercepted in a very different way. General Voronov recorded that, on 1 January, ‘we heard in the evening that a German transport plane had been shot down over our positions. About 1,200 letters were discovered in the wreckage.’

At Don Front headquarters, the department run by Captain Zabashtansky and Captain Dyatlenko went to work with every spare interpreter as well as all the German ‘anti-fascists’ on the mailbags for three days. They included letters in diary form from General Edler von Daniels to his wife. According to Voronov and Dyatlenko, the latest letter of 30 December revealed much about the weak defences of the 376th Infantry Division on the south-western flank, which tied in with what the NKVD interrogators had managed to find out from prisoners.

Until the final Soviet offensive began on 10 January, the main preoccupation of the Sixth Army remained the same. ‘Enemy No. 1 is and always remains hunger!’ wrote a doctor. ‘My dear parents,’ a corporal wrote home pathetically, ‘if it’s possible, send me some food. I’m so ashamed to write this, but the hunger is too much.’

German soldiers started to take great risks, venturing forward into no man’s land to search the corpses of Russian soldiers for a crust of bread or a bag of dried peas, which they would boil in water. Their greatest hope was to find a twist of paper containing salt, for which their bodies ached.

The hunger pains of German soldiers in the Kessel were indeed bad, but others suffered far more. The 3,500 Russian prisoners of war in the camps at Voroponovo and Gumrak were dying at a rapidly accelerating rate. Several German officers were deeply shocked to discover during January that these prisoners were reduced to cannibalism, and made verbal reports. When Russian troops reached the camps at the end of January, the Soviet authorities claimed that only twenty men remained alive out of the original 3,500.

The spectacle which greeted the Russian soldiers – to judge by the film taken by newsreel cameras rushed to the spot – was at least as bad as those seen when the first Nazi death camps were reached. At Gumrak, Erich Weinert described the scene: ‘In a gully, we found a large heap of corpses of Russian prisoners, almost without clothes, as thin as skeletons.’ The scenes, particularly those of the ‘Kriegsgefangen-Revier’ filmed at Voropovono, may have done much to harden the hearts of the Red Army towards the new defeated.

Many of the thousands of Hiwis still attached to German divisions were starving too. Girgensohn, after carrying out an autopsy on one corpse, told the German officer in charge that this particular Hiwi had indeed died of hunger. This diagnosis ‘left him completely astonished’. He claimed that his Hiwis received the same rations as German soldiers.

Many were treated quite well by their German officers, and there are numerous accounts demonstrating mutual trust during the last battle. But by then Russians in German uniform knew that they were doomed. There were no places for them on the aircraft flying out, and the encircling Soviet armies were accompanied by NKVD troops waiting to deal with them.

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