Military history

22
A German Field Marshal Does Not Commit
Suicide with a Pair of Nail Scissors!

Whenever Luftwaffe planes flew over, men looked up longingly, and continued to stare at the sky well after the tiny dot had disappeared. ‘With heavy hearts’, wrote one soldier, ‘we gazed after the German aircraft and thought how wonderful it would be to be able to fly away, out of this inferno in which we had been abandoned.’ After the capture of Gumrak airfield early on the morning of 22 January, only a handful of planes had managed to land at the small Stalingradsky landing strip. The ‘air-bridge’, and thus the last line of escape, had collapsed.

Resupply now depended on canisters dropped by parachute, ‘the supply bombs’, but despite Sixth Army’s requests for red canopies, the Luftwaffe continued to use white. The system of drops became even more hit-and-miss, because few units had any recognition panels left and VIII Air Corps lost radio contact with Sixth Army head-quarters on 24 January. Hube had a message dropped telling soldiers in the ruins of Stalingrad that, on hearing aero-engines, they should lie down on the snow-covered ground in the form of a cross to signify ‘German soldiers here’. When the light or visibility was bad, they fired signal flares into the air to direct aircraft as they approached, but the Russians all around would immediately shoot flares of similar colour into the sky to confuse the pilots. Strong winds also blew many loads across the rapidly changing front lines into enemy hands. Some men were so desperate that they risked trying to retrieve canisters right out in the open. Russian snipers picked them off with ease. In the ruins of Stalingrad, starving German soldiers attempted to ambush Soviet soldiers just to get their bread bag.

The fall of Gumrak had meant yet another terrible journey for the wounded, many of whom had already been transferred from Pitomnik, having failed to find a place on an aeroplane there. ‘Exhausted wounded men dragged themselves to the ruins of the town’, one survivor reported, ‘crawling like wild animals on all fours, in the hope of finding some sort of help.’

The conditions in Stalingrad in the makeshift hospitals were even more appalling than at Gumrak, with around 20,000 wounded packed into cellars under the ruins of the city, to say nothing of the sick, which may well have brought the total to 40,000. Some 600 badly wounded men filled the cellars of the Stalingrad theatre, with no light and no sanitation. ‘Moans, calls for help and prayers’, wrote a doctor from the 60th Motorized Infantry Division, ‘were mixed with the thunder of the bombardment. A paralysing smell of smoke, blood and the stench of wounds filled the room.’ There were no more bandages, no medicine, and no clean water.

A number of doctors from front-line units received orders to help out in the network of tunnels in the Tsaritsa ravine. This complex, like galleries in a mine, now contained over 3,000 seriously wounded or seriously ill soldiers. Dr Hermann Achleitner, on arriving for duty, was reminded immediately of the phrase: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ The piles of frozen corpses outside shocked him deeply. Inside, the image of hell was increased by improvised oil lamps as the only source of light. The fetid, deoxygenated air was disgusting to breathe. He was greeted by pitiful cries of ‘Give us something to eat!’ The patients received only one thin slice of stale bread per day. The doctors turned this into a sort of soup, which was hot and made it go a little further. The lack of bandages was serious for the cases of severe frostbite. ‘Often’, he noted, ‘toes and fingers stayed behind in the filthy old bandages, when we changed them.’ Delousing was impossible. Medical orderlies changing bandages found a grey mass of lice crawling on to their own wrists and arms from the patient. When a man died, the lice could be seen leaving his body en masse in search of living flesh. The doctors did what they could to isolate cases of typhus as soon as it was diagnosed, but they knew that it would not be long before they had an epidemic on their hands. A young German soldier, surveying the misery around, was heard to murmur: ‘They must never know at home what is happening here.’

The retreat from the steppe, as the Kessel was crushed by Rokos-sovsky’s armies, brought the number of Germans crowded into the ruined city to over 100,000 men. Many, if not most, of them were suffering from dysentery, jaundice and other sicknesses, their faces tinged a greenish yellow.

The reactions of Stalingrad civilians were not always hostile, as wounded men from the 297th Infantry Division discovered. ‘Two Stalingrad women rubbed my frozen legs for an hour to prevent the effects of severe frostbite,’ wrote an officer. ‘Again and again, they looked at me with compassion and said: “So young and yet he must already be dying!” ‘The same group of soldiers, to their astonishment, found several Russian women in a partly wrecked house. They had just baked some bread, and agreed to exchange a loaf for a hunk of frozen horsemeat.

Regiments and divisions were utterly meaningless. The 14th Panzer Division had fewer than eighty men still able to fight. Hardly a single tank or heavy weapon with ammunition remained. In such a hopeless situation, discipline was starting to break down. Resistance continued largely through fear of Russian revenge, following Paulus’s rejection of surrender.

Unthreatened by anti-tank guns, Soviet T-34s crushed German weapon pits and gunners alike under their tracks. Bunkers and fortified buildings were destroyed with a field gun wheeled up to almost point-blank range. German soldiers now suffered a terrible sense of powerlessness, unable to do anything for their wounded comrades or even for themselves. Their own merciless advances of the previous summer seemed to belong to an entirely different world. On 25 January, Paulus and Colonel Wilhelm Adam, one of his senior staff officers, received light head wounds from a bomb explosion. General Moritz von Drebber surrendered with part of the 297th Infantry Division three miles south-west of the mouth of the Tsaritsa. The Soviet colonel who came to take his surrender is said to have demanded: ‘Where are your regiments?’ Moritz von Drebber, according to this version broadcast two days later on Soviet radio by the novelist Theodor Plievier, another German Communist of the ‘Moscow Emigration’, glanced around at the remaining handful of men, broken by exhaustion and frostbite, and replied: ‘Do I really have to explain to you, Colonel, where my regiments are?’

The chief medical officer of the Sixth Army, General Renoldi, was one of the first generals to give himself up. (Red Army intelligence first heard as a result of his interrogation that Paulus was in a state of collapse.) Some generals, however, took an active role. Hube’s replacement, General Schlömer, was shot in the thigh, and General von Hartmann of the 71st Infantry Division was killed by a bullet through the head. General Stempel, the commander of the 371st Infantry Division, shot himself, as did a number of other officers as the enemy seized the south of Stalingrad up to the Tsaritsa river.

On 26 January at dawn, tanks of the 21st Army met up with Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division north of the Mamaev Kurgan, near the Red October workers’ settlements. The scenes were predictably emotional, especially for Chuikov’s 62nd Army, which had been fighting on its own for almost five months. ‘The eyes of the hardened soldiers who met were filled with tears of joy,’ wrote Chuikov. Bottles were passed back and forth in fierce celebration. The Stalingrad Kessel was split in two, with Paulus and most of the senior officers bottled up in the smaller, southern pocket, and General Strecker’s XI Corps in the northern part of the city round the Stalingrad tractor factory. His only link with the outside world was the 24th Panzer Division’s radio set.

Over the next two days, German and Romanian stragglers, the wounded and shell-shocked, as well as still-active combat groups, all withdrew into the ever-diminishing southern pocket, where Paulus and Schmidt had set up new headquarters, under the Univermag department store on Red Square. The last symbol of German occupation was the swastika banner hanging from a makeshift flagpole fastened to the balcony above the main entrance. The remains of Colonel Roske’s 194th Grenadier Regiment provided its defending force. Roske was promoted to General as the new commander of the extinct 71st Infantry Division.

The increasing number of senior officers who were surrendering meant that Don Front’s 7th Department, responsible for ‘Operational propaganda’, was busier than ever. So many prisoners had been brought in for interrogation since the offensive started that it had been hard to select the ‘more interesting’ ones.

Captain Dyatlenko received a signal ordering him to return immediately to Don Front headquarters. Another captured German general had already been brought in for interrogation. Dyatlenko knew it was worth spending time on this new arrival, General Edler von Daniels. The search through the mailbags of the crashed transport aeroplane at the beginning of the month had produced the letters in the form of a diary which Daniels had written to his wife. Daniels, like most newly captured prisoners, was in a vulnerable state. As an experienced interrogator, Dyatlenko knew that the best tactic was the least expected one. He questioned his prisoner obliquely about his ‘Kessel-baby’, then took him off balance by suddenly producing the letters and papers which Daniels thought were safely back in Germany.

‘Herr General,’ Dyatlenko records having said to him. ‘Please have your papers back. This is your property and you can put it in your family archive when you return home after the war.’ Apparently Daniels was overcome with gratitude. He accepted tea and biscuits and Russian cigarettes, and then ‘answered our questions’. Dyatlenko kept at him until evening. After a break for dinner, he carried on until midnight.

On many occasions, such a refined approach was not necessary. The psychological confusion and the anger of defeat, produced docility if not cooperation from officers who felt both personally betrayed, and also guilty towards their own men for having assured them of the Führer’s promises of salvation. During interrogation, they often made a point of uttering derogatory remarks against Hitler and the regime. They called Goebbels ‘the lame duck’ and bitterly regretted that the overweight Goering had not undergone a ‘Stalingrad diet’. But it certainly appeared to their Russian captors that these generals had recognized the real character of their Führer only when they experienced the treacherous way in which he had behaved towards them and the Sixth Army. Few of them had described him or his policies as criminal when they were advancing deep into Russia and atrocities were being committed so close behind their front lines that they must have been aware of them, if not in some cases directly responsible.

From these interviews with captured officers, Don Front head-quarters formed the firm impression that Paulus ‘was under great strain, playing a role that had been forced on him’. They were increasingly convinced that Paulus was virtually a prisoner in his own headquarters, guarded by his chief of staff. Dyatlenko had no doubt that Schmidt was ‘the eyes and hand of the Nazi Party’ in the Sixth Army, because captured officers reported that ‘Schmidt was commanding the Army and even Paulus himself.

Colonel Adam, when interrogated later by Dyatlenko, told him that Schmidt had been the one who gave the order for the truce envoys to be sent back. (Dyatlenko did not reveal that he had been one of them.) The senior officers at Sixth Army headquarters had apparently been well aware of the contents of the oilskin pouch. On that morning of 9 January, when Dyatlenko and Smyslov waited in the bunker, they had read during breakfast the leaflets dropped by Russian planes with the text of the ultimatum. That same morning, General Hube had flown back into the Kessel from his visit to Hitler. He had brought the order that there was to be no surrender. According to Adam, this had strengthened General Schmidt’s intransigent position at Sixth Army headquarters.

On 29 January, the eve of the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power, Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal of congratulation from its ruined cellar. ‘To the Führer! The Sixth Army greet their Führer on the anniversary of your taking power. The swastika flag still flies over Stalingrad. May our struggle be an example to present and future generations never to surrender in hopeless situations so that Germany will be victorious in the end. Heil mein Führer! Paulus.’

This signal, grotesque in the circumstances, seems more likely to have been drafted and sent by General Schmidt. The words certainly had his ring to them. Paulus, at that stage, was ill from dysentery, shaken by events and demoralized, so it is not hard to imagine him just giving a nod of approval when shown the message form. Groscurth, for example, had reported in a letter not long before: ‘Paulus is in a state of physical and moral disintegration.’

On 30 January, the anniversary itself, Goering made a broadcast from the air ministry, comparing the Sixth Army to the Spartans at Thermopylae. This speech was not well received in Stalingrad, where it was listened to on radios. The fact that it was Goering, of all people, who was delivering ‘our own funeral speech’, heaped insult upon injury. Gottfried von Bismarck described the effect as ‘macabre’. In the theatre cellars in Stalingrad, which were packed with wounded, Goering’s voice was instantly recognized. ‘Turn it up!’ somebody shouted. ‘Switch it off!’ yelled others, cursing him. The broadcast finished with Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Some officers joked bitterly that the ‘suicide of the Jews’ on the top of Masada might have been a more appropriate comparison than Thermopylae. They did not realize quite how accurate they were. Hitler was indeed counting on a mass suicide, above all of senior officers.

Hitler’s own speech was delivered by Goebbels later on that anniversary day, having been delayed by RAF bombers. It rang with bitter defiance, but the streak of self-justification was too raw to be hidden. He devoted only a single sentence to Stalingrad, the disaster which cast such a shadow over the regime’s day of celebration: ‘The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be an exhortation to everyone to do his maximum in the struggle for Germany’s freedom and our nation’s future, and in a wider sense for the preservation of the whole of Europe.’ It was the first admission that from then on the Wehrmacht would be fighting to stave off defeat.

The next day, Hitler, as if to offset any sense of disaster, created no fewer than four new field marshals, including Paulus. It was the largest group of senior promotions since the victory over France. When the signal came through announcing his promotion to General Field Marshal, Paulus guessed immediately that he had been presented with a cup of hemlock. He exclaimed to General Pfeffer at his last generals’ conference: ‘I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.’ Another general told his NKVD interrogator that Paulus had said: ‘It looks like an invitation to commit suicide, but I will not do this favour for him’. Paulus instinctively disapproved of suicide. When he heard that some of his men were choosing a ‘soldier’s suicide’ – standing on top of their trenchworks waiting to be shot down by the enemy – he gave orders to forbid the practice.

Hitler was not, of course, concerned with saving lives, he was interested only in creating potent myths. He clearly hoped that senior army officers would follow the example of Admiral Lütjens on the Bismarck, a fantasy no doubt encouraged by news of the deaths of Generals von Hartmann and Stempel.

The reduction of the southern pocket continued rapidly. By 30 January, Soviet troops had penetrated right to the very centre of the city. In the cellars where the main mass of Germans sheltered from the cold and the artillery fire, there was a mood of despair and dread anticipation. In the old NKVD headquarters, the winter sky was visible through the smashed dome. The stone floor was covered with rubble and fallen masonry, and the cage-like structure of stairs and railings was twisted. A red-cross flag outside the entrance enraged a German infantry officer, who saw it as a signal of surrender. He went down to the cellar, where the doctors continued to operate in the light of a field-hospital gas-lamp, while they waited for the Russians to arrive. Gaunt and wild-eyed, the officer threatened them with his sub-machine-gun. ‘What’s going on here? There’ll be no surrender! The war goes on!’ Many men were unbalanced by battle stress or hallucinations due to severe malnutrition. The cellars were filled with men raving in delirium. Dr Markstein, a Danziger, just shrugged. ‘This is a dressing station,’ he said. The deranged warrior did not shoot them, he disappeared ghost-like back into the gloom without another word.

When General von Seydlitz, in the same building, released his divisional commanders on 25 January to decide for themselves whether or not to surrender, Paulus relieved him of his command. He placed all of Seydlitz’s divisions under General Walter Heitz, the commander of VIII Corps. Heitz then issued an order that anyone who attempted to surrender should be fired upon. When Seydlitz and over a dozen other officers surrendered – they included Generals Pfeffer, Korfes and Sanne – bursts of machine-gun fire were aimed at them from German lines as the Russians led them away. Seydlitz claimed later that two German officers were mortally wounded as a result of Heitz’s ‘apocalyptic order’.

General Heitz, however, having given the order ‘We fight to the last bullet but one’, does not appear to have included himself and his headquarters in this rhetorical flourish. An officer under his command remarked that his staff, almost certainly with his knowledge, had already prepared white flags.

Colonel Rosenfeld, the Luftwaffe commander of 104th Flak Regiment, adopted the rhetoric expected by the regime. ‘The swastika flag flies above our heads,’ he signalled on the evening of 30 January. ‘The order of our supreme commander-in-chief will be followed to the last. Long live the Führer.’ That night Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal, warning that individual commanders were surrendering because their troops had no more ammunition, but also adopted similar flourishes to those of Rosenfeld, claiming that they were ‘listening to the national anthem for the last time with arms raised in the German salute’. Again, this sounds more like Schmidt’s style than that of Paulus. Whatever the truth, few soldiers had either the wish or the energy to share such emotions. ‘During that night of 30 January’, recorded a sergeant, ‘each man was preoccupied with his own thoughts, with gnawing uncertainty, with painful wounds and frostbite, with thoughts of home, and with our fate.’ Officers especially expected execution. Many removed their badges of rank.

In the middle of that same night, General Voronov in his izba at Don Front headquarters awoke in a panic from a restless sleep. The idea had suddenly come to him that Paulus might escape on an aircraft landing on the ice of the Volga. Stalin’s reaction to the loss of such a prize was evidently not hard to imagine. He jumped out of bed at once and telephoned to give orders for guns along the east bank at Stalingrad to be trained on the ice as a precaution.

By early next morning, 31 January 1943, Shumilov’s 64th Army had secured virtually all of the centre of Stalingrad. Ruined buildings and cellars had been cleared with grenade and flame-thrower. Red Square was subjected to an intense mortar and artillery bombardment, before Russian soldiers moved in on the Univermag department store. Roske’s remaining grenadiers above Paulus’s headquarters in the basement finally laid down their weapons. At 7.35 a.m., Captain Behr on Milch’s staff received the signal: ‘Russians at the entrance. We are preparing to surrender.’ Ten minutes later, as Senior Lieutenant Fyodor Ilchenko went down into the packed and stinking basement, came the signal: ‘We are surrendering.’ Behr then passed on the message to Manstein’s headquarters at Army Group Don. Back in Germany, the official communiqué announced: ‘In Stalingrad the situation is unchanged. The defenders’ spirit is unbroken.’

Staff officers from General Shumilov’s headquarters arrived to discuss surrender terms with General Schmidt in the basement. Paulus remained in an adjoining room, while Adam kept him informed of every step. Whether this was a ploy to allow Paulus to distance himself from the surrender, or a further example of Schmidt handling events because Paulus was in a state of virtual collapse, is not clear. Finally, two hours after Lieutenant Ilchenko’s appearance, General Laskin arrived to take Paulus’s formal surrender, before he, Schmidt and Adam, were taken to Shumilov’s headquarters by staff car, as General Roske had apparently insisted. Like their men, the three men who emerged into the sunlight had incipient beards, even if their faces were not quite as cadaverous as those of their soldiers. Colonel Adam, Vasily Grossman noted, had the flaps of his ushanka fur hat down ‘like the ears of a pedigree dog just out of the water’. Newsreel cameramen were waiting to record the event.

Those still in the cellars of the city centre waited until Red Army soldiers appeared. Waving the barrels of their sub-machine-guns, they ordered the Germans to throw their weapons in a corner and file out. The defeated made ready for captivity by wrapping the rags from torn-up uniforms round their boots. Some German soldiers called out ‘Hitler kaputt!’ as a signal of surrender. Russian soldiers might reply ‘Kameraden, Krieg kaputt! Paulus kapituliert!,’ but mostly they shouted ‘Faschist!’ or ‘Fritz! Κomm! Komm!

When Soviet troops entered the theatre cellars, they gave the order: ‘Whoever’s capable of walking, get outside to be marched to a prison camp.’ Those who set off assumed that the wounded left behind would be looked after. They discovered only later that the Red Army operated on the principle that those prisoners who could not march were finished off where they lay.

In one or two cases, rage and despair produced an explosive mixture. In the NKVD building, every German expected to be shot in reprisal, after an officer, who had concealed his pistol, suddenly shot a Russian major at point-blank range, then turned the gun on himself. Somehow the moment of anger among the Russian troops passed, and the prisoners were spared.

The surrender at Stalingrad produced a volatility in which the fate of a German was utterly unpredictable. Soviet soldiers, whether deliberately or by accident, set fire to the improvised hospital full of wounded in the pioneer barracks by the airfield. Two Luftwaffe flak officers, who had been escorted to an upstairs room by Russian soldiers, in the belief that the red patches on their collars signified high rank, escaped by jumping out of a shattered window. They landed by the latrine, and when soldiers appeared ready to shoot them, the younger lieutenant saved both their lives by quick thinking and acute psychology. He told his companion to pull down his trousers. The Russians laughed and spared them. They could not shoot men with their trousers down.

The NKVD Special Department groups were searching for Hiwis and also for ‘fascist dogs’, by which they meant ‘SS, Gestapo, panzer troops, and Feldgendarmerie’. A number of German soldiers, wrongly identified as SS, who laughed at the suggestion, were pushed to one side and executed with sub-machine-guns. Apparently Red Army soldiers from a Siberian division turned away in disgust from the spectacle. The same account, based on the interrogation six months later of a woman Soviet intelligence officer by the Secret Field Police, records the execution of a group of twenty-three Hiwis.

The NKVD’s search for Hiwis was relentless. Any man not in full German uniform risked being shot on the spot, as one battalion commander from the 297th Infantry Division discovered. ‘Soviet soldiers suddenly stopped us, and because of my lack of uniform and cap, wanted to shoot me as a “Hiwi”. Only a doctor’s knowledge of Russian saved me.’

A considerable number of Hiwis proved loyal to the Germans right to the end. In the ruins of Stalingrad just before the surrender, some soldiers from the 305th Infantry Division were starving. The Hiwis with them disappeared, and they thought that they had seen the last of them, but the Russians returned with food for them. Where they had found it, they would not say. The loyalty of these Russians was not always reciprocated, however. Shortly before the surrender, one officer was asked by his warrant officer: ‘What shall we do with our eight Hiwis? Should I shoot them?’ The lieutenant, taken aback at such cold-bloodedness, rejected the idea. He told the Hiwis to hide or slip out as best they could. They were on their own.

The fate of the Hiwis rounded up at the end of the battle of Stalingrad is still unclear, partly because the files of the 10th NKVD Division remain firmly closed. There is no way of knowing how many had died during ten weeks of encirclement and the last three weeks of intense fighting. Some were shot on capture, a handful were used as interpreters and informers, then almost certainly killed later, but most were marched off by the NKVD. Even members of Red Army intelligence did not know what happened to them afterwards. They may well have been massacred – there were accounts later of captured Hiwis being beaten to death, rather than shot, to save ammunition – but in the early part of 1943 the Soviet regime wanted to increase its force of slave labour, especially when it was transferring Gulag prisoners to shtraf companies. A solution of working Hiwis to death certainly offered a more vicious revenge since it would have protracted their suffering. On the other hand, both Stalin and Beria were so obsessed with treason that only instant death might have satisfied them.

During the last few days of the battle, the Soviet military authorities were increasingly anxious to prevent small groups escaping their net. Three German officers in Red Army uniform, led by a lieutenant-colonel, were captured on 27 January. A Russian lieutenant from a tank regiment cornered another two officers, and was wounded when they fired at him. Of the nine or ten groups of Germans estimated to have broken out of the ring, none of them appear to have escaped, but by then Army Group Don had been forced back beyond the river Donets, over 200 miles from theKessel. There is, however, an unconfirmed and unconvincing story of a soldier who did make it, but was killed next day when a bomb hit the field hospital in which he was being treated for exhaustion and frostbite. Others are said to have tried to escape southwards out into the steppe and seek shelter with the Kalmyks, who had been friendly, but the Kalmyks themselves, like numerous other peoples from the southern regions of the Soviet Union, soon attracted the revenge of Beria’s NKVD.

Russian soldiers from front-line units, especially Guards divisions, are said to have been more correct in their treatment of the vanquished than second-line units. But some drunken soldiers, celebrating victory, shot prisoners, despite orders to the contrary. Even members of elite formations rapidly stripped their captives of watches, rings and cameras, as well as the Wehrmacht’s highly prized mess tins in aluminium. Many of these items would then be bartered for vodka. In some cases a decent pair of jackboots would be seized off a prisoner, who would be thrown the Russian’s decrepit cast-offs in return. One doctor lost his prized copy of Faust, a small leather-bound edition printed on onion paper, which a Russian soldier wanted for rolling makhorka cigarettes. Blankets were also snatched off backs, sometimes just for the satisfaction of revenge because the Germans had taken the warm clothes of so many Russian civilians.

As the gaunt prisoners stumbled out of cellars and bunkers, their hands held high in surrender, their eyes searched for a piece of wood that could serve as a crutch. Many were suffering from such bad frostbite that they could hardly walk. Almost everyone had lost toenails, if not toes. Soviet officers observed that the Romanian soldiers were in an even worse state than the Germans. Apparently their rations had been cut off earlier in an attempt to maintain German strength.

The prisoners kept their eyes down, not daring to look at their guards or the ring of emaciated civilians who had emerged from the ruins in such astonishing numbers. All around, odd shots broke the silence of the former battlefield. Those in bunkers sounded muffled. Nobody knew whether each report signified the end of a soldier found hiding, of one who had offered resistance in some way, or of a severely wounded soldier receiving the coup de grâce.

These defeated remnants of the Sixth Army, without weapons or helmets, wearing woollen caps pulled down or even just rags wrapped round their heads against the hard frost, shivering in their inadequate greatcoats fastened with signal cable as a belt, were herded into long columns of march. A group of survivors from the 297th Infantry Division was confronted by a Russian officer, who pointed at the ruins around and yelled at them: ‘That’s how Berlin is going to look!’

Field Marshal Paulus, accompanied by Lieutenant Lev Bezyminsky of Red Army intelligence, was driven from 64th Army headquarters in his own staff car to Don Front headquarters outside Zavarykino, some fifty miles from Stalingrad. Schmidt and Adam followed under escort in another car. They were shown to their quarters, another five-walled izba. A permanent guard detachment under Lieutenant C. M. Bogomolov awaited them. The other ‘Stalingrad generals’ were brought to another izba close by, where they were watched by Lieutenant Spektor and a platoon of men.

Bogomolov and his men, keenly conscious of the historic moment, eyed their charges with fascination. The tall Paulus had to duck low on entering. Following Adam’s example, he had abandoned his dress cap for an ushanka fur hat. He still wore the uniform of a colonel-general. Paulus was followed by General Schmidt and Colonel Adam, who impressed the guards by his ‘rather good command of Russian’. Paulus’s soldier driver came last carrying their heavy suitcases. The Mercedes staff car was promptly appropriated by General W. I. Kazakov, the Front artillery commander.

Paulus and Schmidt occupied the inner room of the izba, while Colonel Adam and the escort were quartered in the outer room. They were joined by two NKVD agents sent from Moscow by Beria. Late in the evening, General Malinin, the front chief of staff, and Colonel Yakimovich, a senior staff officer, arrived. Bezyminsky, acting as interpreter, informed Paulus and Schmidt that their task was to search their luggage for ‘forbidden articles’, which included all sharp metal objects. Schmidt exploded. ‘A German Field Marshal’, he yelled, ‘does not commit suicide with a pair of nail scissors!’ Paulus, who was exhausted, signalled to him with a wave of the hand not to bother, and handed over his shaving kit.

Shortly before midnight, Paulus was told that the Red Army commanders were now assembled and waiting to interview him. Lieutenant Yevgeny Tarabrin, the German-speaking NKVD officer sent to escort him everywhere, heard Paulus whisper to Schmidt, as he helped him into his overcoat: ‘What should I say?’

‘Remember you are a General Field Marshal of the German Army,’ Schmidt is said to have hissed back. More surprising, and most significant to the ears of Red Army intelligence, the Russian officer reported that Schmidt used the du intimate form of address to his superior.*

Only half an hour before the meeting began, Captain Dyatlenko of the NKVD received orders to report to the izba used by Marshal Voronov, who had just been promoted by Stalin. ‘So Captain,’ Voronov greeted him affably. ‘You no doubt remember the time the old man didn’t want to receive you. Well, now he’s visiting us himself. And you’re going to receive him.’

Voronov was sitting at the table with General Rokossovsky, the front commander, and General K. F. Telegin, the front commissar. A photographer appeared wearing a fur-lined flying jacket. To Dyat-lenko’s astonishment, he treated Voronov with relaxed familiarity. It transpired that this was the famous documentary film-maker Roman Karmen, who had become friendly with Voronov during the Spanish Civil War. Karmen lined up the chair destined for Paulus, to get the right shot through the door from Voronov’s bedroom. He knew that the result was to be used to tell the world of the Soviet Union’s great victory.*

The atmosphere was tense in Voronov’s izba when their ‘guest’ arrived. The tall, thin, stooping Paulus presented a grey figure, with his ‘mouse-coloured’ uniform and face ashen from nervous strain. His hair was turning to ‘pepper and salt’, and even the growth of beard was black and white. Only when Paulus approached the table did Voronov indicate the empty chair. ‘Sit down, please,’ he said in Russian. Dyatlenko jumped to his feet, and interpreted. Paulus made a half-bow and sat down. Dyatlenko then introduced the two Soviet commanders. ‘The Representative of the Stavka, Marshal of Artillery Voronov! Commander of the Don Front, Colonel-General Rokos-sovsky!’ Paulus jerked to his feet and made half-bows in each man’s direction.

Voronov began to speak, pausing every few moments for Dyatlenko to translate. ‘Herr Colonel-General, it is rather late and you must be tired. We have also been working a lot during the last few days. This is why we will now discuss just one problem which is urgent.’

‘Excuse me,’ Paulus broke in, taking Dyatlenko off balance. ‘But I am not a colonel-general. The day before yesterday, my headquarters received a signal saying that I had been promoted to general field marshal. It is also written in my military identity papers.’ He touched the breast pocket of his tunic. ‘It was not possible, however, to change my uniform in the circumstances.’

Voronov and Rokossovsky exchanged glances of ironical amusement. General Shumilov had already informed Don Front head-quarters of Paulus’s last-minute promotion.

‘So, Herr General Field Marshal’, Voronov resumed, ‘we are asking you to sign an order addressed to the part of your army which still resists, telling them to surrender to prevent the useless loss of life.’

‘It would be unworthy of a soldier!’ Paulus burst out before Dyatlenko had finished his translation.

‘Is it possible to say’, asked Voronov, ‘that to save the lives of your subordinates is behaviour unworthy of a soldier when the commander himself has surrendered?’

‘I didn’t surrender. I was taken by surprise.’

This ‘naive’ reply did not impress the Russian officers, who were well aware of the circumstances of the surrender. ‘We are talking of a humanitarian act,’ Voronov continued. ‘It will take us only a couple of days or even just a few hours to destroy the rest of your troops who continue to fight on. Resistance is useless. It will only cause the unnecessary deaths of thousands of soldiers. Your duty as an army commander is to save their lives, and this is even more the case because you yourself saved your life by surrendering.’

Paulus, who had been playing nervously with the packet of cigarettes and ashtray laid on the table for his use, shirked the question by sticking to formulae. ‘Even if I did sign such an order, they won’t obey. If I have surrendered, I automatically cease to be their commander.’

‘But a few hours ago you were their commander.’

‘Since my troops were split into two groups,’ Paulus persisted, ‘I was the commander of the other pocket only in theory. Orders came separately from Führer headquarters and each group was commanded by a different general.’

The argument went ‘round and round in circles’. Paulus’s nervous tic was even more pronounced, and Voronov too, knowing that Stalin was waiting in the Kremlin to hear the result, began to show the strain. His upper lip twitched, the legacy of a car crash in Belorussia. Paulus, in his blocking tactics, even claimed that if he did sign the paper, it would be regarded as a forgery. Voronov replied that, in that case, they would have one of his own generals brought over to witness the signature, and he would be sent into the north Kessel with the paper to guarantee its authenticity. But Paulus, however lame his arguments sounded, stuck to his refusal to sign. Voronov finally had to accept that any further attempt to persuade him was useless.

‘I must inform you, Herr General Field Marshal,’ Dyatlenko translated, ‘that by your refusal to save the lives of your subordinates, you are taking on a heavy responsibility for the German people and the future of Germany.’ Paulus stared at the wall, depressed and silent. In this ‘tormented pose’ only the tic in his face indicated his thoughts.

Voronov then brought the interview to a close by asking Paulus if his lodging was satisfactory, and whether he needed a special diet because of his illness. ‘The only thing I would like to request,’ Paulus replied, ‘is to feed the many prisoners of war, and to give them medical attention.’ Voronov explained that ‘the situation at the front made it difficult to receive and cope with such a mass of prisoners’, but that they would do all they could. Paulus thanked him, stood up and gave another half-bow.

Hitler heard the news at the heavily guarded Wolfsschanze deep in the East Prussian forest, a place once described by General Jodl as a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp. He did not bang the table this time, he stared silently into his soup.

His voice and anger returned the next day. Field Marshal Keitel and Generals Jeschonnek, Jodl and Zeitzler were all summoned to the Führer’s midday conference. ‘They have surrendered there formally and absolutely,’ said Hitler in angry disbelief. ‘Otherwise they would have closed ranks, formed a hedgehog, and shot themselves with their last bullet. When you consider that a woman has the pride to leave, to lock herself in, and to shoot herself right away just because she has heard a few insulting remarks, then I can’t have any respect for a soldier who is afraid of that and prefers to go into captivity.’

‘I can’t understand it either,’ replied Zeitzler, whose performance on this occasion makes one wonder about his assurances to Manstein and others that he had done everything to convince the Führer of the true situation regarding the Sixth Army. ‘I’m still of the opinion that it might not be true; perhaps he is lying there badly wounded.’

Hitler kept coming back again and again to Paulus’s failure to commit suicide. Clearly, it had entirely sullied the myth of Stalingrad in his imagination. ‘This hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling… What is Life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway… What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.’

The northern pocket, with the remnants of six divisions under General Strecker, still held out. Strecker, with the headquarters of XI Corps in the Stalingrad tractor plant, signalled: ‘Troops are fighting without heavy weapons or supplies. Men collapsing from exhaustion. Freezing to death still holding weapons. Strecker.’ His message was robust, but conspicuously avoided Nazi clichés. Hitler, who received the signal after the meeting with Zeitzler, replied late in the afternoon: ‘I expect the north Kessel to hold out to the last.’ To emphasize the point still further, he issued a Führer directive a short time later: ‘XI Army Corps must resist to the last to tie down as much enemy strength as possible to facilitate operations on other fronts.’

The four Soviet armies had redeployed rapidly to crush the last pocket. With a concentration of 300 field guns to just over half a mile, the factory district was smashed once again. Any surviving bunkers were destroyed at point-blank range, some with field guns, some with flame-throwers, sometimes with tanks driving right up and sticking their barrel into an embrasure.

Strecker believed that, purely to help Manstein, there was a military purpose served by fighting on, but he utterly rejected any idea of self-destruction for propaganda purposes. In his mind, there was no doubt where the duties of an officer lay, as a conversation with a regimental adjutant shortly before the end showed.

‘When the time comes,’ the adjutant assured him, ‘we will commit suicide.’

‘Suicide?’ exclaimed Strecker.

‘Yes, Herr General! My colonel will also shoot himself. He believes we should not allow ourselves to be captured.’

‘Well let me tell you something. You will not shoot yourself, nor will your colonel shoot himself. You will go into captivity along with your men and will do everything you can to set a good example.’

‘You mean…’, the young officer’s eyes lit up, ‘I don’t have to shoot myself.’

Strecker spent most of the night of 1 February at the regimental headquarters of an old friend, Colonel Julius Müller. A single candle burned in one corner of the bunker as the small group present talked about the recent fighting, past friends and the imprisonment ahead. ‘No one mentions all the suffering,’ Strecker noted, ‘no one speaks bitterly.’ In the early hours of the morning, Strecker stood up. ‘Müller, I have to go,’ he said. ‘May you and your men go with God.’ Strecker was greatly taken with Thomas Carlyle’s description of God as ‘the true Field Marshal’. No doubt, his vision of heaven was a place of perfect military order.

‘We will do our duty, Herr General,’ Müller replied as the two men shook hands.

Strecker had already rejected the requests of his divisional commanders to surrender, but at four in the morning of 2 February, Generals von Lenski and Lattmann asked Strecker once more for permission. Strecker refused again. Lenski then said that one of his officers had already left to negotiate terms with the Russians. Strecker saw no point in continuing. He and Groscurth drafted their final signal. ‘XI Army Corps has with its six divisions performed its duty down to the last man in heavy fighting. Long live Germany!’ It was received by Army Group Don. Strecker asserted later that he and Groscurth had deliberately omitted any acclamation of Hitler, but the version recorded and then sent on to East Prussia ended with ‘Long live the Führer!’ Somebody must have thought it politic to make the signal more palatable at the Wolfsschanze.

When two Russian soldiers appeared looking rather hesitant at the entrance of the command bunker, Groscurth shouted at them to fetch a general. Strecker wrote afterwards that many of their own soldiers were ‘only barely alive’.

Foreign journalists were taken on a tour of the factory district a few days later. ‘What the normal relief of the terrain had been no one could tell,’ wrote the British correspondent, Alexander Werth. ‘You wound your way up and down, up and down; what was a natural slope, or what was the side of a dozen bomb-craters that had merged into one, no one could say. Trenches ran through the factory yards; through the workshops themselves; at the bottom of the trenches there still lay frozen green Germans and frozen grey Russians and frozen fragments of human shape, and there were tin helmets, German and Russian, lying among the brick debris, and the helmets were half-filled with snow. There was barbed wire here, and half-uncovered mines, and shell cases, and more rubble, and fragments of walls, and tortuous tangles of rusty steel girders. How anyone could have survived here was hard to imagine.’

The morning of 2 February began with a thick mist, which was later dispersed by sun and a wind which whipped up the powdery snow. As news of the final surrender spread among the 62nd Army, signal flares were fired into the sky in an impromptu display. Sailors from the Volga flotilla and soldiers from the left bank crossed the ice with loaves of bread and tins of food for the civilians who had been trapped for five months in cellars and holes.

Groups and individuals walking about embraced those they met in wonder. Voices were subdued in the frozen air. There was no shortage of figures in the colourless landscape of ruins, yet the city felt deserted and dead. The end was hardly unexpected, or even sudden, yet the Russian defenders found it hard to believe that the battle of Stalingrad had finally come to an end. When they thought about it, and remembered the dead, their own survival astonished them. Out of each division sent across the Volga, no more than a few hundred men survived. In the whole Stalingrad campaign, the Red Army had suffered 1.1 million casualties, of which 485,751 had been fatal.

Grossman looked back over the last five months. ‘I thought of the wide dirt road leading to the fishermen’s village on the bank of the Volga – a road of glory and death – and the silent columns marching along it in the choking dust of August, in the moonlit nights of September, in the drenching rains of October, in the snows of November. They had marched with a heavy step – anti-tank men, machine-gunners, simple infantrymen – they had marched with a grim and solemn silence. The only sound that had come from their ranks was the clank of their weapons and their measured tread.’

Very little that was recognizable remained from the city which had existed before Richthofen’s bombers appeared on that August afternoon. Stalingrad was now little more than a battered and burned skeleton. About the only landmark left standing was the fountain with statues of little boys and girls dancing round it. This seemed an unsettling miracle after so many thousands of children had perished in the ruins all around.

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