Military history

21
Surrender Out of the Question

The front out in the steppe had been comparatively quiet during the first week in January. Most of the time, there had been little more than the dull crack of a sniper’s rifle, the odd burst of machine-gun fire, and the distant whistle at night of a signal flare going up: altogether what a lieutenant called ‘the usual melody of the front’. After the broadcast and leaflet drops on 9 January, German soldiers knew that the final offensive was imminent. Sentries, shivering uncontrollably, had an even stronger reason to stay awake.

One soldier remarked to a chaplain on his rounds just before the offensive: ‘Just a little bit more bread, Herr Pfarrer, then come what may.’ But the bread ration had just been reduced to seventy-five grams. They all knew that they would have to face the Soviet onslaught weak from hunger and disease and with little ammunition, even if they did not entirely understand the reason.

There was both a fatalism – ‘one spoke about death just like about a breakfast’ – yet also a will to believe. Ordinary soldiers believed the stories of the SS Panzer Corps and reinforcements landing by air. In the 297th Infantry Division, soldiers continued to be convinced, ‘that the relief force has already reached Kalach… the Grossdeutschland and the Leibstandarte divisions’. A star shell seen to the west was instantly interpreted as a signal from them. Even junior officers were misinformed by their superiors, as a lieutenant told his NKVD interrogator. Right into the first week of January, his regimental commander in the 371st Infantry Division was still telling them: ‘Help is close.’ The shock was great when they heard ‘through informal sources’ (presumably Luftwaffe personnel) about the failure of the attempt to rescue them and Army Group Don’s retreat to the west.

The NKVD, on the other hand, was soon shaken to discover the number of Russians now fighting for the Germans in the front line at Stalingrad, not just labouring as unarmed Hiwis. German accounts certainly seem to indicate that a considerable proportion of the Hiwis attached to Sixth Army divisions in the Kessel were now fighting in the front line. Many officers testified to their skill and loyalty. ‘Especially brave were the Tartars,’ reported an officer in the factory district of Stalingrad. ‘As anti-tank gunners using a captured Russian weapon, they were proud of every Soviet tank they hit. These fellows were fantastic’ Lieutenant-Colonel Mäder’s battle group, based on two grenadier regiments from the 297th Infantry Division at the southernmost point of the Kessel, contained no fewer than 780 ‘combat-willing Russians’, nearly half his force. They were entrusted with key roles. The machine-gun company had twelve Ukrainians ‘who conducted themselves really well’. Their worst problem, apart from lack of food, was the shortage of ammunition. The battle group’s nine field guns were rationed to an average of one and a half shells per gun per day.

Operation Koltso, or ‘Ring’, began early on Sunday, 10 January. Rokossovsky and Voronov were at the headquarters of 65th Army when the order ‘Fire!’ was given over the radio at five past six, German time. Guns roared, bouncing on their chassis from the recoil. Katyusha rockets screamed into the sky leaving dense trails of smoke. The 7,000 field guns, launchers and mortars continued for fifty-five minutes in what Voronov described as ‘an incessant rolling of thunder’.

Black fountains appeared all over the snow-covered steppe, obliterating the white scene. The bombardment was so intense that Colonel Ignatov, an artillery commander, remarked with grim satisfaction: ‘There are only two ways to escape from an onslaught of this character – either death or insanity.’ In an attempt to be nonchalant, General Edler von Daniels described it as a ‘very unpeaceful Sunday’ in a letter to his wife. The grenadier regiment from his division in the front line was in no mood for levity, finding itself extremely vulnerable in its hastily prepared positions. ‘The enemy munition reserves’, wrote their commander, ‘were so huge, that we had never experienced anything like it.’

The south-western protuberance of the Kessel, the ‘Marinovka nose’, defended by the 44th, 29th Motorized and the 3rd Motorized Infantry Divisions, was strengthened at the last moment by part of the 376th. Every regiment was desperately under strength. The 44th Infantry Division had to be reinforced with artillerymen and even personnel from construction battalions. Several tanks and heavy weapons were allotted to the sector. Just behind the pioneer battalion’s position were two self-propelled assault guns and an 88-mm antiaircraft gun. But in the bombardment, the pioneers saw their own battalion headquarters blasted to pieces. ‘Nobody came out,’ wrote one of them. ‘For an hour, a hundred guns of various calibres and Stalin Organs fired away,’ wrote a lieutenant in the same division. ‘The bunker swayed continually under the bombardment. Then the Bolsheviks attacked in terrifying masses. Three waves of men rolled forward, never flinching. Red banners were borne aloft. Every fifty to a hundred yards there was a tank.’

The Landsers, their fingers so swollen from frostbite that they could hardly fit inside the trigger guard, fired from shallow fox-holes at the riflemen advancing across the snowfields with long spike bayonets fixed. Russian T-34S, some carrying infantry like monkeys on the backs of elephants, lurched across the steppe. The high winds which cut through clothing had blasted away the snow, exposing the top of the colourless steppe grass. Mortar shells rebounded off the frozen earth and exploded as air bursts, causing far more casualties. The defences of the 44th Infantry Division were soon smashed, and its survivors, once in the open, were at the mercy of the enemy as well as the elements.

During the afternoon, the 29th and 3rd Motorized Infantry Divisions in the main protuberance of the nose started to find themselves outflanked. In the 3rd Motorized Infantry Division, the replacement soldiers were apathetic. ‘Some of them were so exhausted and sick,’ wrote an officer, ‘and thought only of slipping away to the rear at night, that I could only keep them in their positions at pistol point.’ Other accounts suggest that many summary executions were carried out during this last phase, but no figures are available.

Sergeant-Major Wallrawe’s scratch company of panzer grenadiers, Luftwaffe troops and ‘Cossacks’ held out until ten o’clock on the first night, when they received the order to pull back because the enemy had broken past them. They managed to take up a position north of Karpovka station, but were soon pushed back again. ‘From this day on, we had neither warm bunker nor warm food nor any peace!’ wrote Wallrawe.

These weakened divisions, with little ammunition, stood no chance against the mass attacks of the Soviet 21st and 65th Armies, backed by the ground-attack aircraft of the 16th Air Army. The Germans had fortified Marinovka and Karpovka on the south side of the nose with pillboxes and gun emplacements, but this was of little use with the main thrusts coming from the bridge of the nose. German attempts to counter-attack with odd groups of their remaining tanks and weakened infantry were doomed. The Russians used heavy mortar fire to separate the infantry from tanks, then obliterated the survivors in the open. The Don Front political department hammered home the slogan: ‘If the enemy does not surrender, he must be destroyed!’

While the 65th and 21st Armies attacked the ‘Karpovka nose’ on that first day, the 66th Army attacked the 16th Panzer and the 60th Motorized Infantry Divisions at the northernmost point, where the undulating hills were stained a blackish yellow colour, burned bare by Soviet trench mortars. The remaining tanks of the 2nd Panzer Regiment once again scored hit after hit on waves of T-34S charging across the open, and forced the survivors to withdraw.

Meanwhile, on the southern sector, the 64th Army began to bombard the 297th Infantry Division and the 82nd Romanian Regiment attached to it. Soon after the shelling began, Colonel Mäder received a call from a divisional staff officer: ‘Those pigs of Romanians have made a run for it.’ The furthest battalion had retreated, leaving a hole half a mile wide on the flank of his battle group. The Russians, spotting the opportunity, sent in tanks, and pushed a hole deep into the line. The position of the whole division was at risk, but its pioneer battalion, led by Major Götzelmann in a semi-suicidal counter-attack, managed to seal the gap for a time.

This partly Austrian division, which had not suffered like those withdrawn across the Don, managed to maintain a robust defence. Over the next two days, it continued to fight off the 36th Guards Rifle Division, the 422nd Rifle Division, two brigades of marine infantry and part of the 13th Tank Corps. When a soldier ‘with previous convictions’ tried to desert to the Russians, he was shot down by his own comrades before he reached enemy lines. But within a few days, after intense propaganda attempts, more than forty others deserted to the enemy.

The main Soviet effort was concentrated on the advance from the west. By the end of the second morning, 11 January, Marinovka and Karpovka were captured. The victors counted 1,600 German corpses.

As soon as the fighting was over, peasant women appeared as if from nowhere and rushed over to the German trenches to search for blankets, either for their own needs, or as currency. Erich Weinert, accompanying the advancing troops, saw Russian soldiers throwing the files off the backs of trucks captured at a headquarters so that they could use the vehicles themselves. ‘Karpovka looks like an enormous jumble sale,’ he wrote. But amid the chaos of abandoned and destroyed military material, he saw the results of the terrible opening bombardment. ‘The dead are lying, grotesquely twisted, their mouths and eyes still wide open with horror, frozen stiff, with their skulls torn open and their bowels hurled out, most of them with bandages on their hands and feet, still soaked with yellow anti-frostbite ointment.’

The Sixth Army’s resistance, when one considers its physical and material weakness, was astonishing. The most telling measure lies in the casualties it inflicted during the first three days. The Don Front lost 26,000 men and over half its tank force. Soviet commanders made little attempt to reduce casualties. Their men provided easy targets, advancing in extended line. Brown clumps of Russian dead littered the snow-covered steppe. (White camouflage suits were reserved mainly for reconnaissance companies and snipers.) The anger of Russian soldiers and officers was vented on their German prisoners, skeletal and lice-infested. Some were shot on the spot. Others died when they were marched off in small columns, and Soviet soldiers sprayed them with machine-gun fire. In one case, the wounded commander of a shtraf company forced a captured German officer to kneel before him in the snow, cried out the reasons why he was seeking revenge, then shot him.

During the early hours of 12 January, the Soviet 65th and 21st Armies reached the west bank of the frozen Rossoshka river, thus eliminating the Karpovka nose. Those troops who withdrew, still intending to fight, had to manhandle their anti-tank guns with them. In some cases, Russian prisoners were again used as draught animals, and worked to death. It was so cold and the ground was frozen so hard, General Strecker noted, that ‘instead of digging trenches, our soldiers build up defensive snow banks and snow bunkers’. The panzer grenadiers of 14th Panzer Division, ‘resisted bitterly, even though they had virtually no more ammunition, out in the open on the frozen steppe’.

Few members of the Sixth Army felt like celebrating Goering’s fiftieth birthday that day. The shortage of fuel and ammunition was catastrophic. Sixth Army headquarters was not exaggerating in its signal to General Zeitzler the next morning. ‘Munitions coming to an end.’ When Wallrawe’s mixed group, occupying old Russian positions dug the previous summer, faced another major attack the following morning they could ‘open fire only at the closest range because of the lack of ammunition’.

The lack of fuel in this retreat made the evacuation of the wounded more difficult than ever. Incapacitated patients who had been piled in trucks, which then ground to a halt, just froze to death in the open. Those ‘soldiers with blue-black faces’ who reached Pitomnik airfield were shaken by the scene. ‘The airfield’, noted a young officer, ‘was in chaos: heaps of corpses, which men had carried out of the bunkers and tents which house the wounded, and dumped; Russian attacks; bombardments; Junkers transport planes landing.’

Lightly wounded soldiers and malingerers, appearing like a horde of beggars in rags, tried to rush the aircraft as they landed, in an attempt to board. Unloaded cargo was thrown aside or ransacked for food. The weakest in these hordes were trampled underfoot. The Feldgendarmerie, rapidly losing control of the situation, opened fire on numerous occasions. Many of the badly wounded with legitimate exit passes doubted that they would ever escape from this hell.

Sergeant-Major Wallrawe, meanwhile, had received a shot in the stomach. This was usually a death sentence in the Kessel, but he saved himself through determination. Two of his corporals carried him back from their position, and put him on a truck with other wounded. The driver headed straight for Pitomnik airfield. With only two miles left to go, they ran out of fuel. The driver was under orders to destroy the vehicle in such circumstances. He could do nothing for the wounded, who were ‘left to their fate’. Wallrawe, despite the intense pain from his wound, knew that he would die unless he made it on to a plane. ‘I had to crawl the rest of the way to the airfield. By then night had fallen. In a huge tent I received some medical help. Bombs from a sudden air raid fell among the hospital tents, destroying a number of them.’ In the chaos which ensued, Wallrawe managed to get himself on to an outbound ‘Ju’ at three in the morning.

At Pitomnik a chance coincidence might save a wounded man’s life, while hundreds of others were left to die in the snow. Alois Dorner, a gunner with the 44th Infantry Division who had been wounded in the left hand and left thigh by shell splinters, was appalled by the scenes at Pitomnik. ‘Here was the greatest misery that I have seen in my whole life. An endless wailing of wounded and dying men… most of them had received nothing to eat for days. No more food was given out to the wounded. Supplies were reserved for fighting troops.’ (It is hard to tell how far this was official policy. Senior officers at Sixth Army headquarters have strongly denied it, but some subordinate commanders appear to have instituted it on their own authority.) Dorner, who had not eaten since 9 January, was also expecting to die, when in the night of 13 January, the Austrian pilot of a Heinkel 111 passed by and happened to ask where he came from. ‘I’m from near Amstetten,’ he replied. His fellow Austrian called over another member of his crew, and together they carried Dorner to the plane.

On the northern flank, 16th Panzer and 6oth Motorized Infantry Divisions had been beaten back, leaving a dent in that sector, while in Stalingrad itself, Chuikov’s 62nd Army attacked the 100th Jäger and the 305th Infantry Divisions, retaking several blocks. Meanwhile, the main Soviet advance from the west continued through driving snow, crushing in the western side of the Kessel. The 29th Motorized Infantry Division was effectively wiped out. A lack of fuel forced the 3rd Motorized Infantry Division to abandon their vehicles and heavy weapons and retreat on foot through the thick snow. There was little hope of establishing a new defence line on the open steppe when soldiers did not have the strength to dig in.

The Soviet 65th and 21st Armies pushed on towards Pitomnik, assisted by the 57th and 64th Army’s breakthroughs on the southern flank, where the 297th Infantry Division, including Mäder’s battle group, was forced backwards. Their right-hand neighbour, Edler von Daniels’s 376th Infantry Division, was cut off. Early in the afternoon of 14 January, Sixth Army headquarters signalled: ‘376 Infantry Division is destroyed. It is probable that Pitomnik airfield will only be usable until 15 January.’

News of Soviet tank attacks now caused ‘panzer-fright’ in German ranks. There were hardly any anti-tank guns left with ammunition. Nobody had time to reflect on the way they had despised the Romanians for just such a reaction two months before.

At this rather late stage in the battle, Hitler decided that the Sixth Army must be given more help to hold out. His motives were almost certainly mixed. He may have been genuinely shocked to find from Captain Behr how little help was getting through, but he must also have wanted to make sure that Paulus had no excuse for surrender. His solution – a characteristic move triggering great activity for little tangible result – was to establish a ‘Special Staff’ under Field Marshal Erhard Milch to oversee the air-supply operation. One member of Milch’s staff described this belated move as ‘Hitler’s excuse to be able to say that he had tried everything to save the soldiers in the Kesse!’.

Albert Speer accompanied Milch to the airfield, when he was setting off to take up his new role. Milch promised to try to find his brother and have him flown out of the Kessel, but neither Ernst Speer, nor even the remains of his unit, could be found. They had all disappeared, ‘missing presumed dead’. The only trace, Speer recorded, was a letter which came out by air, ‘desperate about life, angry about death, and bitter about me, his brother’.

Milch and his staff reached Taganrog believing that they could achieve a great deal, but, as a senior Luftwaffe transport officer wrote, ‘One look at the actual situation was enough to convince them that nothing more could be done with the inadequate resources available’.

The morning of 15 January, their first day of work, did not mark an encouraging start. Milch received a telephone call from the Führer demanding that the Stalingrad airlift be increased. As if to underline his efforts, Hitler that day awarded Paulus the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross. At lunchtime Goering rang Milch to forbid him to fly into the Kessel. Fiebig then reported that Pitomnik had fallen to the Russians (in this he was slightly premature), and that the radio beacons in Gumrak had not yet been set up, which meant that transport aircraft should not be dispatched.

The remaining Messerschmitt 109s flew out of Pitomnik soon after dawn the next morning, when the advancing Russians were in view. Those which diverted to Gumrak airfield landed to find heavy snow, which had not been cleared. At midday, Gumrak also came under artillery bombardment, and the Messerschmitts and Stukas there flew out of the Kessel for the last time on Richthofen’s orders. Paulus protested in vain.

That day a battalion of the 295th Infantry Division surrendered en bloc. Voronov’s leaflet promising correct treatment of prisoners appears to have had some effect. ‘It was senseless to run away,’ the battalion commander said during his interrogation by Captain Dyatlenko. ‘I told my men that we would surrender in order to save lives.’ This captain, who had been an English teacher, added, ‘I feel very bad because this is the first case of a whole battalion of German troops surrendering.’

Another battalion commander who surrendered later, this one with the 305th Infantry Division in Stalingrad, spoke of the ‘unbearable conditions in our battalion’. ‘I could not help my men and I avoided meeting them. Everywhere in our regiment I heard soldiers talk of the suffering from cold and hunger. Every day our medical officer received dozens of frostbite casualties. Because the situation was so catastrophic, I considered that surrendering the battalion was the best way out.’

Pitomnik airfield and its field hospital were abandoned with great suffering. Those who could not be moved were left behind in the care of a doctor and at least one orderly, the standard practice in a retreat. The rest of the wounded either limped, crawled or were dragged on sledges along the pitted road of iron-hard ice which led over eight miles to Gumrak. The few trucks left with any fuel were frequently stormed, even when they were already full of wounded. A Luftwaffe captain reported on conditions along the route on 16 January, the day Pitomnik fell: ‘Heavy one-way traffic consisting of retreating soldiers, who appear like complete down and outs. Feet and hands are wrapped in strips of blanket.’ In the afternoon he recorded a ‘considerable increase in stragglers from various arms who had supposedly lost contact with their units, begging for food and shelter’.

At times the sky cleared completely, and the sun on the snow was blinding. As evening fell, the shadows became steel blue, yet the sun on the horizon was a tomato red. The condition of almost all soldiers, not just the wounded, was terrible. They limped on frost-bitten feet, their lips were cracked right open from frost, their faces had a waxen quality, as if their lives were already slipping away. Exhausted men slumped to the snow and never rose again. Those in need of more clothes stripped corpses of clothing as soon as they could after the moment of death. Once a body froze, it became impossible to undress.

Soviet divisions were not far behind. ‘It is severely cold,’ Grossman noted as he accompanied the advancing troops. ‘Snow and the freezing air ice up your nostrils. Your teeth ache. There are frozen Germans, their bodies undamaged, along the road we follow. It wasn’t us who killed them. The cold did. They have bad boots and bad coats. Their tunics are thin and look like paper… There are footprints all over the snow. They tell us how the Germans withdrew from the villages along the roads, and from the roads into the ravines, throwing their arms away.’ Erich Weinert, with another unit, observed crows circling, then landing, to peck out the eyes of corpses.

At one point, on approaching Pitomnik, Soviet officers started to check their bearings, because far ahead they had sighted what appeared to be a small town on the steppe, yet none was marked on their maps. As they came closer, they saw that it consisted of a huge military junkyard, with shot-up panzers, trucks, wrecked aircraft, motor cars, assault guns, half-tracks, artillery tractors and almost every other conceivable item of equipment. The greatest satisfaction for Russian soldiers came from seeing abandoned and shot-up aircraft by the airfield at Pitomnik, especially the giant Focke-Wulf Condors. Their advance eastwards towards Stalingrad produced constant jokes about being ‘in the rear of the Russians’.

During this stage of the retreat, German hopes of SS panzer divisions and air-landed reinforcements finally expired for most men. Officers knew that the Sixth Army was indeed doomed. ‘Several commanders’, recorded a doctor, ‘came to us and begged for poison to commit suicide.’ Doctors were also tempted by the idea of oblivion, but as soon as they considered it carefully, they knew that their duty was to stay with the wounded. Of the 600 doctors with the Sixth Army, none capable of working flew out.

Casualty clearing stations at this time were so overcrowded that patients shared beds. Often when a severely wounded man was carried in by comrades, a doctor would wave them away because he already had too many hopeless cases. ‘Faced with so much suffering,’ recorded a Luftwaffe sergeant, ‘so many men in torment, so many dead and convinced that there was no possibility of help, without a word we carried our lieutenant back with us. Nobody knows the names of all those unfortunate men who, huddled together on the ground, bleeding to death, frozen, many missing an arm or a leg, finally died because there was no help.’ The shortage of plaster of paris meant that doctors had to bind shattered limbs with paper. ‘Cases of post-operative shock soared,’ recorded a surgeon. Diphtheria cases also increased greatly. The worst part was the growth of lice on the wounded. ‘On the operating table we had to scrape lice off uniforms and skin with a spatula and throw them into the fire. We also had to remove them from eyebrows and beards where they were clustered like grapes.’

The ‘so-called hospital’ at Gumrak was even worse than that at Pitomnik, largely because it was swamped by the influx. ‘It was a form of hell,’ reported a wounded officer who had retreated from the Karpovka nose. ‘The corpses lay in heaps beside the road, where men had fallen and died. Nobody cared any more. There were no bandages. The airfield was under bombardment, and forty men were packed into a bunker dug for ten, which shook with every explosion.’ The Catholic chaplain at the hospital was known as the ‘Death king of Gumrak’ because he was giving extreme unction to over 200 men a day. Chaplains, after closing the eyes of the dead, used to snap off the bottom half of the identity disk as official proof of death. They soon found their pockets heavy.

Doctors nearby also worked in the ‘death ravines’, with the wounded lying in the tunnels dug out of the side for horses. For one doctor, the place, with its cemetery just above, was Golgotha. This central dressing station and centre for cranial injuries had to be abandoned, with the most severely wounded left behind. When the Russians arrived a few days later, they machine-gunned most of the bandaged figures. Ranke, a divisional interpreter, suffering from a head wound, rose up and yelled at them in Russian. In astonishment, the soldiers stopped shooting and took him to their commissar, who in turn sent him on behind the retreating Germans to demand surrender.

If Russian soldiers were in a mood for vengeance, then the frozen corpses of Red Army prisoners in the open camp nearby provided much to fire their anger. The survivors were so badly starved that when their rescuers gave them bread and sausage from their rations, most died immediately.

*

The Kessel would have collapsed far more rapidly if some men had not retained a hard core of belief in the cause for which they were fighting. A Luftwaffe sergeant with the 9th Flak Division wrote home: ‘I am proud to number myself among the defenders of Stalingrad. Come what may, when it is time for me to die, I will have had the satisfaction of having taken part at the most eastern point of the great defensive battle on the Volga for my homeland, and given my life for our Führer and for the freedom of our nation.’ Even at this late stage, most fighting units continued to show dogged resistance, and there were examples of outstanding courage. General Jaenecke reported that ‘an attack by twenty-eight Russian tanks near Bassagino station was halted by a Lieutenant Hirschmann, operating an anti-aircraft gun entirely on his own. He destroyed fifteen T-34S in this engagement.’ At this closing stage of the battle, leadership made more difference than ever. Apathy and self-pity were the greatest dangers, both to military order and to personal survival.

On the sectors which had not yet been broken, starving men were too exhausted to go outside the bunker to hide their tears from their comrades. ‘I am thinking about you and our little son,’ wrote an unknown German soldier in a letter which never reached his wife. ‘The only thing I have left is to think of you. I am indifferent to everything else. Thinking about you breaks my heart.’ Out in the fire-trenches, men were so cold and weak that their slow, uncoordinated movements made them appear as if they were drugged. Yet a good sergeant would keep a grip on them, making sure that rifles were still cleaned and grenades stocked ready to hand in excavated shelves.

On 16 January, just after the capture of Pitomnik, Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal, complaining that the Luftwaffe was only parachuting supplies. ‘Why were no supplies landed tonight at Gumrak?’ Fiebig replied that landing lights and ground-control radios were not working. Paulus seemed to be unaware of the chaos at the airfield. The unloading parties were badly organized and the men too weak to work properly – ‘completely apathetic’, was the Luftwaffe’s opinion. Discipline had broken down among the lightly wounded as well as stragglers and deserters drawn to the airfield and its promise of salvation. The Feldgendarmerie ‘chain dogs’ were starting to lose control over the mobs of starving soldiers, desperate to get away. According to Luftwaffe reports, many were Romanians.

By 17 January, the Sixth Army had been forced back into the eastern half of the Kessel. There was comparatively little fighting over the next four days, as Rokossovsky redeployed his armies for the final push. While most German regiments at the front followed orders, disintegration accelerated in the rear. The chief quartermaster’s department recorded that ‘the Army is no longer in any position to supply its troops’. Almost all the horses had been eaten. There was almost no bread left – frozen solid, it was known as ‘Eisbrot’. Yet there were stores full of food, held back by overzealous quartermasters, which the Russians captured intact. Some of those in authority, perhaps inevitably, exploited their positions. One doctor later described how one of his superiors, right in front of his eyes, ‘fed his dog with thickly buttered bread when there was not a single gram available to the men in his dressing station’.

Paulus, convinced that the end was near, had sent a signal on 16 January to General Zeitzler recommending that units which were still battleworthy should be allowed to break out southwards, because to stay in the Kessel meant either imprisonment or death through hunger and cold. Even though no immediate reply was obtained from Zeitzler, preparatory orders were issued. The following evening, 17 January, a staff officer with the 371st Infantry Division told Lieutenant-Colonel Mäder that: ‘On the codeword “Lion” the whole Kessel would fight its way out on all sides. Regimental commanders were to assemble fighting groups of around two hundred of their best men, inform the rest of the line of march, and break out.’

A number of officers had already started to ‘consider ways to escape Russian captivity, which seemed to us worse than death’. Freytag-Loringhoven in 16th Panzer Division had the idea of using some of the American jeeps captured from the Russians. His idea was to take Red Army uniforms and some of their very reliable Hiwis, who wanted to escape the vengeance of the NKVD, in an attempt to slip through enemy lines. This idea spread to the staff of the division, including its commander, General Angern. Even their corps commander, General Strecker, was briefly tempted when he heard about it, but as an officer with strong traditional values, the idea of leaving his soldiers was out of the question. One group from XI Corps subsequently made the attempt, and a number of other small detachments, some on skis, broke out to the south-west during the last days of the Kessel. Two staff officers from Sixth Army headquarters, Colonel Elchlepp and Lieutenant-Colonel Niemeyer, the chief of intelligence, died out in the steppe.

Paulus clearly never considered the idea of abandoning his troops. On 18 January, when a last post from Germany was distributed in some divisions, he wrote just one line of farewell to his wife, which an officer took out for him. His medals, wedding ring and signet ring were also taken out, but these objects were apparently seized by the Gestapo later.

General Hube received orders to fly out from Gumrak early the next morning in a Focke-Wulf Condor to join Milch’s Special Staff. On 20 January, after his arrival, he in turn sent a list of ‘trusted and energetic officers’ to be sent out to join him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority were not specialists in supply or air transport, but officers from his own panzer corps, especially his old division. Hube, no doubt, felt justified, since Sixth Army headquarters had stipulated that panzer specialists were among those entitled to evacuation by air.

General-Staff-trained officers were also included in the specialist category, but the most curious priority of all was what might best be described as the Sixth Army’s Noah’s Ark. Sergeant-Major Philipp Westrich from 100th Jäger Division, a tilelayer by trade, was ‘flown out of the Kesselon 22 January 1943 on the orders of Sixth Army, which requested one man from each division’. Lieutenant-Colonel Mäder and two NCOs were selected from the 297th Infantry Division, and so the list went on, division by division. Hitler, having given up Paulus’s Sixth Army for dead, was already considering the idea of rebuilding another Sixth Army – a phoenix’s egg snatched from the ashes. On 25 January, the idea became a firm plan. Hitler’s chief adjutant, General Schmundt, recorded: ‘The Führer decreed the reforming of the Sixth Army with a strength of twenty divisions.’

Officer couriers, taking out vital documents, had been selected on compassionate grounds. Prince Dohna-Schlobitten, who left on 17 January, was given the job for XIV Panzer Corps headquarters, not because he was the chief intelligence officer, but because he had the most children of any officer on the staff. Soon afterwards, Sixth Army headquarters insisted that officers flown out as specialists should double as couriers. Captain von Freytag-Loringhoven, selected because of his record as the commander of a panzer battalion, was ordered first to collect dispatches and other documents from army headquarters. There he saw Paulus, who ‘seemed absolutely bent under the responsibility’.

At Gumrak airfield, after a long wait, he went out to one of five Heinkel bombers, escorted by Feldgendarmerie, who had to force back the wounded and sick at the point of their sub-machine-guns. At the moment of leaving the Kessel, he inevitably had mixed feelings. ‘I felt very badly about leaving my comrades. On the other hand it was a chance to survive.’ He had tried to get Count Dohna (a distant cousin of Prince Dohna) out as well, but he had been too sick. Although securely packed into the aircraft, with some ten wounded soldiers, Freytag-Loringhoven could see that they were not out of danger. Their Heinkel remained stationary beside the runway while the other four took off. A pump had jammed during refuelling. Artillery shells began to fall closer. The pilot threw aside the pump, and ran back to the cockpit. They took off, lifting slowly, with their heavy load of wounded, into the low cloud base. At about six thousand feet, the Heinkel suddenly came up out of the cloud and into ‘wonderful sunshine’, and Freytag-Loringhoven was another who felt as if he ‘had been reborn’.

When they landed at Melitopol, ambulances from the base hospital were waiting for the wounded, and a staff car took Freytag-Loringhoven to Field Marshal Manstein’s headquarters. He had no illusions about his appearance. He was in ‘a very bad state’. Although a tall, well-built man, his weight had fallen to 120 pounds. His cheeks were cavernous. Like everyone in the Kessel, he had not shaved for many days. His black panzer overalls were dirty and torn, and his fieldboots were wrapped in rags as a protection against frostbite. Stahlberg, Manstein’s ADC, immaculate in his field-grey uniform, was clearly taken aback. ‘Stahlberg looked at me and I saw him wondering, “Does he have lice?” – and I certainly did have lice – and he shook hands very cautiously with me.’

Stahlberg took him straight in to see Manstein, who gave him a much more friendly welcome. The field marshal immediately got up from his desk and came round to shake hands without any apparent qualms. He took the dispatches and questioned the young captain closely about conditions in the Kessel. Yet Freytag-Loringhoven felt that he was essentially ‘a cold man’.

Manstein told Freytag-Loringhoven that he would be attached to Field Marshal Milch’s Special Staff established to improve the airlift. He reported first to Colonel-General von Richthofen, who just acknowledged his arrival and said that he was too busy to see him. Field Marshal Milch on the other hand, ‘an old Nazi’ whom he had not expected to like, proved ‘much more human’. He was horrified by Freytag-Loringhoven’s appearance. ‘My God, look at the state of you!’ After asking about the conditions in Stalingrad, Milch said: ‘Now you must have good food.’

He gave orders that Freytag-Loringhoven should receive special rations of meat, butter and even honey. The exhausted young panzer commander was then shown to one of the sleeping compartments on the luxury train. ‘It was the first time that I had seen a bed in nine months. I did not care about my lice. I threw myself into the white linen and decided to postpone my visit to the delousing station until first thing the next morning. The comfort and the warmth – it was minus twenty-five degrees outside – was an unbelievable contrast.’

Those officers coming out to work on Milch’s Special Staff were disorientated at first by their transformation to another world of plenty and possibility. But they still had no clear idea of what could and could not be expected of an airlift. ‘Is it possible to fly in tanks one by one?’ was one of Hube’s questions at his first meeting with Milch.

Milch himself, like anybody who had not set foot inside the Kessel, still could not grasp how truly terrible conditions were within. On receiving Paulus’s signal on 18 January that the Sixth Army would be able to hold out for only a few days more because they were virtually out of fuel and ammunition, he told Goering in a telephone conversation: ‘Those in the Fortress appear to have lost their nerve.’ Manstein was of the same opinion, he added. They both seem to have instinctively adopted a policy of personal sympathy for individuals at the same time as they distanced themselves from the horrors suffered by the abandoned army.

The wider implications of the impending disaster were left to Führer headquarters and the propaganda ministry in Berlin. ‘The Stalingrad Kessel is approaching the end,’ Goebbels had declared at his ministerial conference three days before. ‘The German press must prepare appropriate coverage of the victorious outcome of this great battle in Stalin’s city – if necessary with supplements.’ The ‘victory’ was supposedly one of moral symbolism.

Helmuth Groscurth, Strecker’s chief of staff and the most active member of the opposition to the regime in the Kessel, was determined that the facts of the disaster be communicated to senior officers to provoke them into action. He arranged a passage out for one of his trusted colleagues, Major Count Alfred von Waldersee. Waldersee was to go straight to army headquarters, at the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, to see General Olbricht, a senior member of the opposition, and then the retired General Beck, with the message that ‘only an immediate strike’ against Hitler could now save the Sixth Army. Beck asked Waldersee to go straight to Paris to see General von Stülpnagel and Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Rundstedt’s reply was ‘so depressing’ that Waldersee lost all hope of achieving anything.

Groscurth sent a last letter to his brother on 20 January, the birthday of his daughter Susi – ‘who soon will have a father no more, like thousands of other children’, he wrote. ‘The torment goes on and will get worse by the hour. We are pushed back into the narrowest area. We will, however, fight on to the last round, as ordered, particularly since we are told that the Russians have been killing all prisoners, which I doubt… People have no idea what’s going on here. Not a single promise is kept.’

Sixth Army headquarters sensed that Milch’s staff did not appreciate how bad things were. ‘There is not a single healthy man left at the front,’ it reported that day, ‘everyone is at least suffering from frostbite. The commander of the 76th Infantry Division on a visit to the front yesterday came across many soldiers who had frozen to death.’

The Soviet offensive began again with renewed force on that morning of 20 January. The 65th Army broke through north-west of Gonchara, which was captured that night. Gumrak, only a few miles away, was the main objective.

The evacuation of the airfield and nearby headquarters the following evening was chaotic as Katyusha batteries opened up. That night, Milch’s staff received a signal from Sixth Army headquarters: ‘Gumrak airfield unusable from 22 January at 04.00 hours. At that time the new airfield of Stalingradsky will be clear for landing.’ This was optimistic. The landing strip at Stalingradsky was incapable of taking large aircraft. General Paulus was by then entirely fatalistic, and almost certainly suffering from deep depression. A Luftwaffe major just returned from the Kessel reported to Field Marshal Milch that Paulus had told him: ‘Whatever help arrives from now on will be too late. We have had it. Our men have no strength left.’ When the major tried to brief him on the general situation to the west facing Army Group Don, he had replied: ‘Dead men are no longer interested in military history.’

Because of the lack of fuel, 500 wounded men were left in the field hospital at Gumrak. As dawn rose on the morning of 22 January, Russian infantry could be seen in the distance, advancing in extended line ‘as if on a hare shoot’. As the enemy approached to within rifle range, officers from 9th Flak Division who had been responsible for the airfield packed into the last vehicle, a staff car. A hundred yards down the road they found a soldier from the field hospital, both of whose legs had been amputated, trying to propel himself along on a sled. The Luftwaffe officers stopped, and tied his sled to the back of the car as he requested, but it overturned almost as soon as they started again. One lieutenant suggested that he cling on to the front, since there was no room left inside. The wounded man refused to hold them up any longer. They were by then within range of the Russian infantry. ‘Leave me!’ he shouted. ‘I haven’t got a chance anyway.’ The Luftwaffe officers knew that he spoke the truth. Anybody who could not walk at this point was already as good as dead. They drove on and the crippled soldier sat slumped in the snow by the side of the icy track, waiting for the Russians to arrive and finish him off.

He may well have been shot, like many wounded by the wayside. The Communist writer, Erich Weinert, attempted to claim that ‘abandoned cripples’ trying to hobble after their comrades had got in the way of ‘the gunfire of the advancing Red Army’. The truth was that the Red Army, like the Wehrmacht, made little provision for enemy wounded. Reports that the 500 left behind in the field hospital at Gumrak in the care of two sick orderlies and a divisional chaplain were massacred are, however, inaccurate. The Red Army just left them to fend for themselves on ‘water from snow and horse carcasses’. Those who survived were moved to the camp at Beketovka ten days later.

The spectacle of defeat grew more terrible the closer retreating soldiers came to Stalingrad. ‘As far as the eye can see, lie soldiers crushed by tanks, helplessly moaning wounded, frozen corpses, vehicles abandoned through lack of fuel, blown-up guns and miscellaneous equipment.’ Meat had been hacked from the flanks of a dead horse beside the road. Men dreamed of coming across a parachute container, packed with supplies, but they had been either seized on landing, or lost in the snowfields.

Although the collapse in the centre could not be stemmed, in many sectors German battle groups carried out a dogged fighting retreat. Early in the morning of 22 January, the remnants of the 297th Infantry Division were pushed back from the Voroponovo sector towards the southern outskirts of Stalingrad. Major Bruno Gebele and the survivors of his battalion awaited the next onslaught. Their only artillery support consisted of several mountain howitzers commanded by a sergeant, who was told to hold his fire until the Russians were between 200 and 250 yards away. Shortly before seven o’clock, as the remnants of Gebele’s battalion sheltered from artillery fire in their bunkers, a sentry gave the alert: ‘Herr Major, sie kommen!

Gebele had time only to yell ‘Rausf His soldiers threw themselves into their fire positions. A mass of snow-suited infantry was charging towards them, baying ‘Urrah! Urrah! Urrah!’ The first ones were only forty yards away when the German grenadiers opened fire with light machine-guns, rifles and machine pistols. The Russians suffered terrible losses. ‘The first wave was killed or left lying there, the second also, and then a third wave came. In front of our position the Soviet dead piled up and served as a sort of sandbag wall for us.’

The Russians did not abandon the attack. They simply changed its direction, and concentrated against the flanking detachments. At nine-thirty, they broke through the Romanians over to the left. An anti-tank round hit Gebele’s second-in-command, who was standing next to him, killing him instantly. Gebele himself then felt a massive blow to his left shoulder. A bullet from the same burst of machine-gun fire had also killed his chief clerk, Feldwebel Schmidt, having gone straight through his steel helmet. The enraged Gebele, resting a carbine on the snow wall in front of him, was able to get off a few shots, using his good arm and shoulder.

Another wave of Russian infantry came at them. Gebele screamed to his surviving men to open fire again. A staff sergeant tried firing a light mortar, but the range was so short that the headwind made a couple of the bombs fall on their own positions. Eventually, having held out for seven hours, Gebele saw that a Russian flag had appeared on a water tower to their rear. They had been outflanked. He gathered the last survivors of his battalion, and led them back towards the centre of Stalingrad. Inside the city, they were shaken by the scenes of destruction and military collapse. ‘It was bitterly cold,’ wrote one of them, ‘and surrounded by such chaos, it felt as if the world was coming to an end.’

That 22 January – the day after Goebbels had prepared the stage-management of the Stalingrad tragedy by calling for ‘total war’ – Sixth Army received the signal from Hitler which sealed its fate. ‘Surrender out of the question. Troops fight on to the end. If possible, hold reduced Fortress with troops still battleworthy. Bravery and tenacity of Fortress have provided the opportunity to establish a new front and launch counter-attacks. Sixth Army has thus fulfilled its historical contribution in the greatest passage in German history.’

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