Military history

The City of the Dead

The silence that fell on 2 February in the ruined city felt eerie for those who had become used to destruction as a natural state. Grossman described mounds of rubble and bomb craters so deep that the low-angled winter sunlight never seemed to reach the bottom, and ‘railway tracks, where tanker wagons lie belly up, like dead horses’.

Some 3,500 civilians were put to work as burial parties. They stacked frozen German corpses like piles of timber at the roadside, and although they had a few carts drawn by camels, most of the removal work was accomplished with improvised sleds and handcarts. The German dead were taken to bunkers, or the huge anti-tank ditch, dug the previous summer, and tipped in. Later, 1,200 German prisoners were put to work on the same task, using carts, with humans instead of horses pulling them. ‘Almost all members of these work parties’, reported a prisoner of war, ‘soon died of typhus.’ Others – ‘dozens each day’ according to an NKVD officer in Beketovka camp – were shot on the way to work by their escorts.

The grisly evidence of the fighting did not disappear swiftly. After the Volga thawed in spring, lumps of coagulated blackened skin were found on the river bank. General de Gaulle, when he stopped in Stalingrad on his way north to Moscow in December 1944, was struck to find that bodies were still being dug up, but this was to continue for several decades. Almost any building work in the city uncovered human remains from the battle.

More astonishing than the number of dead was the capacity for human survival. The Stalingrad Party Committee held meetings in all districts ‘liberated from fascist occupation’, and rapidly organized a census. They found that at least 9,796 civilians had lived through the fighting, surviving in the battlefield ruins. They included 994 children, of whom only nine were reunited with their parents. The vast majority were sent off to state orphanages or given work clearing the city. The report says nothing of their physical or mental state, witnessed by an American aid worker, who arrived very soon after the fighting to distribute clothes. ‘Most of the children’, she wrote, ‘had been living in the ground for four or five winter months. They were swollen with hunger. They cringed in corners, afraid to speak, to even look people in the face.’

The Stalingrad Party Committee had higher priorities. ‘Soviet authorities were immediately reinstalled in all districts of the city’, it reported to Moscow. On 4 February, Red Army commissars held a political rally for the ‘whole city’, both civilian survivors and soldiers. This assembly, with its long speeches in praise of Comrade Stalin and his leadership of the Red Army, was the Party’s version of a service of thanksgiving.

The authorities did not at first allow civilians who had escaped to the east bank to return to their homes, because of the need to clear unexploded shells. Mine-clearance teams had to prepare a basic pattern of ‘special safe paths’. But many soon managed to slip back over the frozen Volga without permission. Messages appeared chalked on the side of ruined buildings, testifying to the numbers of families broken up by the fighting: ‘Mama, we are all right. Look for us in Beketovka. Klava.’ Many people never discovered which of their relatives were alive or dead until after the war was over.

A large contingent of German prisoners, many of whom were too weak to stand, were also forced to attend a political rally in the centre of Stalingrad, and listen to long harangues from three of the leading German Communists: Walter Ulbricht, Erich Weinert and Wilhelm Pieck.

The state of most prisoners at the time of the surrender was so pitiful, that a considerable death rate was predictable in the weeks and months to follow. How far this was exacerbated by ill-treatment, casual brutality, and above all logistic deficiencies is impossible to calculate. Of the 91,000 taken prisoner at the end of the battle, almost half had died by the time spring arrived. The Red Army itself acknowledged in subsequent reports that orders for the care of prisoners had been ignored, and it is impossible to tell how many Germans were shot out of hand during or soon after their surrender, often as vengeance for the deaths of relatives or comrades.

The death rate in the so-called hospitals was terrifying. The tunnel system in the Tsaritsa gorge, redesignated ‘Prisoner of War Hospital No. 1’, remained the largest and most horrific, only because there were no buildings left offering any protection against the cold. The walls ran with water, the air was little more than a foul, sickly recycling of human breath, with so little oxygen left that the few primitive oil lamps, fashioned from tins, flickered and died constantly, leaving the tunnels dark. Each gallery was not much wider than the casualties lying side by side on the damp beaten earth of the tunnel floor, so it was difficult, in the gloom, not to step or trip on feet suffering from frostbite, provoking a hoarse shriek of pain. Many of these frostbite victims died of gangrene, because the surgeons could not cope. Whether they would have survived amputation in their weakened state and without anaesthetic is another matter.

The condition of many of the 4,000 patients was pitiful in the extreme, and the doctors were helpless as fungus spread on rotten flesh. They had almost no bandages left and no medicaments. Ulcers and open sores provided easy entry points for tetanus from the filth around. Sanitary arrangements, which consisted of a single bucket to scores of men suffering from dysentery, were unspeakable, and at night there were no lamps. Many men were too weak to raise themselves from the ground and there were not enough orderlies to answer the constant cries for help. The orderlies, already weak from undernourishment and soon fever-ridden themselves, had to carry polluted water up from the ravine.

The doctors did not even have a reliable list of patients’ names, let alone proper medical notes. Second-line Russian troops, and also members of ambulance units, had stolen their medical equipment and drugs, including analgesics. The Protestant chaplain of the 297th Division was shot in the back of the neck by a Soviet major when he bent over to help a wounded man.

Russian medical officers were appalled by the conditions. Some were sympathetic. The Russian commandant shared out his cigarettes with German doctors, but other Soviet personnel traded bread for any watches which had survived the earlier rounds of looting. Dibold, the doctor from the 44th Infantry Division, described how when a woman army surgeon, jolly and with the strong red face of peasant ancestors, came in to bargain for watches, a young Austrian from a poor family produced a silver pocket watch. He handed over this heirloom, no doubt given to him on going off to war, and in return he received half a loaf. This he divided among the other men, keeping the smallest portion for himself.

Misery also brought the scum to the surface. Certain individuals exploited the helplessness of former comrades with a previously unimaginable shamelessness. Thieves robbed from corpses and from the weakest patients. If anyone had a watch, wedding ring or other valuable left, it was soon snatched in the dark. But nature had its own form of poetic justice. The robbers of the sick rapidly became typhus victims from infected lice transferred with the booty. One interpreter, infamous for his activities, was found to have a large bag of gold rings hidden on him when he died.

At first, the Soviet authorities provided no rations at all. NKVD and Red Army files now show that, even though surrender was known to be imminent, virtually no preparation had been made to guard, let alone to feed, the prisoners. The German Communist, Erich Weinart, claimed that heavy snow had hampered the transport of supplies, but this is unconvincing. The real problem was a mixture of brutal indifference and bureaucratic incompetence, above all a lack of coordination between army and NKVD.

There was also a deep reluctance to allow German prisoners rations when the Soviet Union was so desperately short of food. Many Red Army soldiers were badly undernourished, to say nothing of civilians, so the idea of giving any food at all to invaders who had plundered their country seemed almost perverse. Rations finally started to arrive after three or four days, by which time many men had eaten virtually nothing in almost two weeks. Even for the sick there was little more than a loaf of bread between ten men, plus some soup made from water with a few millet seeds and salted fish. It would have been unrealistic to expect better treatment, especially when one considers the Wehrmacht’s record on the treatment of its own prisoners, both military and civilian, in the Soviet Union.

The greatest fear of doctors for their patients, however, was not death by starvation but a typhus epidemic. Many had expected an outbreak in the Kessel when the first cases appeared, but had not dared voice their concerns in case it started a panic. In the tunnel system, they continued to isolate the different diseases as they appeared, whether diphtheria or typhus. They begged the authorities to provide delousing facilities, but many Red Army soldiers and almost all the civilians in the region were themselves still infested.

It was not surprising that so many died. There seemed to be little reason left to fight for life. The prospect of seeing families again was remote. Germany was so far away that it could have been another world, a world which now seemed to have more to do with pure fantasy. Death promised a release from suffering, and towards the end, drained of pain as well as strength, there was no more than a sense of floating weightless. The ones most likely to survive seemed to be those who fought on, either through religious faith, or an obstinate refusal to die in such squalor, or out of a determination to live for their family’s sake.

A will to live played just as important a part in those marched off to prison camps. What Weinert described as ‘limping and shuffling ghosts in rags’ followed the back of the man in front. As soon as the exertion of the march warmed their bodies, they could feel the lice become more active. Some civilians grabbed blankets from their backs, spat in their faces and even threw stones. It was best to be close to the front of the column and, safest of all, to stay near one of the escorts. Some soldiers whom they passed, contrary to Red Army orders, took pot shots for fun at the columns of prisoners, just as German soldiers had fired at columns of Red Army prisoners in 1941.

The luckier ones were marched straight to one of the designated collection camps in the area, although they varied greatly in distance. Those from the northern pocket, for example, were marched over twelve miles to Dubovka, north of Stalingrad. It took two days. During the night, they were shepherded into the roofless remains of buildings – destroyed by the Luftwaffe, as their guards did not fail to remind them.

Thousands, however, were taken on what can only be described as death marches. The worst, without food or water in temperatures of between twenty-five and thirty degrees below zero, followed a completely zigzag route from the Tsaritsa ravine, via Gumrak and Gorodishche, finally ending up on the fifth day at Beketovka. From time to time, they heard shots in the freezing air, as another victim collapsed in the snow, unable to walk any further. Thirst was as great a threat as weakness from hunger. Although surrounded by snow, they suffered the fate of the Ancient Mariner, knowing the dangers of consuming it.

Shelter was seldom available at night, so the prisoners slept in the snow together. Many woke to find close comrades dead and frozen stiff beside them. In an attempt to prevent this, one of the group was designated to stay awake ready to wake the others after half an hour. Then they would all move as briskly as they could to reactivate the circulation. Others did not even dare to lie down. Hoping to sleep like horses, they stood together in a group with a blanket over their heads to keep in some warmth from their breath.

Morning brought not relief, but dread of the march ahead. ‘The Russians had very simple methods,’ observed a lieutenant who survived. ‘Those who could walk, were marched off. Those who could not, either through wounds or sickness, were shot or left without food to die.’ Having quickly grasped this brutal logic, he was prepared to barter his woollen pullover for milk and bread from a Russian peasant woman at the night stop, because he knew that otherwise he would collapse from weakness the next day.

‘We set out with 1,200 men,’ recounted a soldier from the 305th Infantry Division, ‘and only a tenth, about 120 men, were left alive by the time we reached Beketovka.’

The gateway to the main camp at Beketovka was another entrance which deserved the superscription: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’

On their arrival, the guards searched prisoners for valuables once again, then made them stand for ‘registration’. The prisoners soon discovered that standing out in the freezing weather for hours and hours, parading in groups of fives for ‘counting parade’, would be a daily penance. Finally, after the NKVD had carried out an initial processing, they were led off to the wooden huts, where they were packed in, forty or fifty men to a room, ‘like herrings in a barrel’, recorded a survivor. On 4 February, an NKVD officer complained to Don Front headquarters that the situation was ‘extremely critical’. The camps at Beketovka had received 50,000 prisoners, ‘including also sick and wounded’.

The NKVD camp authorities were overwhelmed. They had no motor transport at all and tried to beg the army for a single truck. Water was eventually brought to the camp in iron barrels on carts towed by camels. A captured Austrian doctor noted his first impression: ‘Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, filthy snow and urine-yellow ice offered the only relief for an unbearable thirst… Every morning more corpses.’ After two days, the Russians provided some ‘soup’, which was no more than a sack of bran tipped into warm water. Anger at the conditions led to prisoners scraping handfuls of lice off their own bodies and throwing them at their guards. Such protests provoked summary execution.

Right from the start, the Soviet authorities set out to divide the prisoners of war, first on national lines, then political. Romanian, Italian and Croat prisoners of war were given the privilege of working in the kitchens, where the Romanians in particular set out to gain revenge on their former allies. The Germans had not only got them into this hell, they believed, they had also cut off their supplies in the Kessel to feed their own troops better. Gangs of Romanians attacked individual Germans collecting food on behalf of their hut and seized it. The Germans retaliated, by sending escorts to guard their food carriers.

‘Then came another shock,’ recorded a Luftwaffe sergeant-major. ‘Our Austrian comrades suddenly ceased to be Germans. They called themselves “Austritsy”, hoping to secure better treatment – as indeed happened.’ Germans felt bitter that ‘all the guilt of the war was heaped on those of us who remained “Germans”,’ particularly since Austrians, with an interesting turn of logic, tended to blame Prussian generals, rather than the Austrian Hitler, for their predicament.

The struggle to stay alive remained paramount. ‘The dead each morning were laid outside the barrack block,’ wrote a panzer officer. These naked, frozen corpses were then stacked by working parties in an ever-extending line down one side of the camp. A doctor estimated that at Beketovka the ‘mountain of bodies’ was ‘about a hundred yards long and six feet high’. At least fifty to sixty men died every day, estimated the Luftwaffe warrant officer. ‘We had no tears left,’ he wrote later. Another prisoner used as an interpreter by the Russians later managed to get a look at the ‘death register’. He noted down that up to 21 October 1943, 45,200 died in Beketovka alone. An NKVD report acknowledges that in all the Stalingrad camps, 55,228 prisoners had died by 15 April, but one does not know how many had been captured between Operation Uranus and the final surrender.

‘Hunger’, observed Dr Dibold, ‘changed the psyche and character, visibly in behaviour patterns and invisibly in men’s thoughts.’ German as well as Romanian soldiers resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Thin slices of meat cut from frozen corpses were boiled up. The end product was offered round as ‘camel-meat’. Those who ate it were quickly recognizable, because their complexion acquired a hint of red, instead of the grey-green pallor of the majority. Cases were reported from other camps in and around Stalingrad, even in a camp housing prisoners captured during Operation Uranus. One Soviet source claims that ‘only at gunpoint could prisoners be forced to desist from this barbarism’. The authorities ordered more food, but incompetence and corruption in the system blunted any measure.

The accumulated effect of exhaustion, cold, sickness and starvation dehumanized prisoners in other ways. With dysentery rife, those who collapsed and fell into the hell-hole of the latrines were left to drown, if still alive. Few had the strength or the will to pull them out. Their terrible fate below was ignored. The need of others suffering from dysentery to use the latrine was far too urgent.

Curiously, the latrine saved one starving young lieutenant, a count whose family owned several castles and estates. He overheard a soldier say something in the unmistakable dialect of his district, and quickly called out, asking where he was from. The soldier gave the name of a small village nearby. ‘And who are you and where do you come from?’ he asked in return. The officer told him. ‘Oh yes,’ the soldier laughed. ‘I know. I used to see you go past in your red Mercedes sports car, off to shoot hare. Well, here we are together. If you are hungry, perhaps I can help.’ The soldier had been chosen as a medical orderly in the prison hospital, and because so many of the inmates died before they had a chance to eat their bread ration, he managed to accumulate a bag of leftover crusts to share with others after each spell of duty. This utterly unexpected intervention saved the young count’s life.

Survival often ran counter to expectation. The first to die were generally those who had been large and powerfully built. The small thin man always stood the best chance. Both in the Kessel and later in the prison camps, the equally minute ration scales were almost bound to reverse the normal survival of the fittest, because they made no allowance for the size of the individual. It is interesting that in Soviet labour camps, only horses were fed according to their size.

When spring arrived, the Soviet authorities began to reorganize the prisoner-of-war population in the region. Altogether some 235,000 former members of the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, including those captured during Manstein’s attempted relief operation in December, as well as Romanians and other allies, had been held in around twenty camps and prison hospitals in the region.

The generals were the first to leave. Their destination was a camp near Moscow. They departed in what junior officers cynically dubbed the ‘White Train’, because its carriages were so comfortable. Great bitterness was caused by the fact that those who had given orders to fight to the end had not just outlived their own rhetoric, but now enjoyed incomparably better conditions than their men. ‘It is the duty of a general to stay with his men,’ remarked one lieutenant, ‘not to go off in a sleeping-car.’ Chances of survival proved brutally dependent on rank. Over 95 per cent of soldiers and NCOs died, 55 per cent of junior officers and just 5 per cent of senior officers. As the foreign journalists had noted, few of the senior officers had shown signs of starvation just after the surrender, so their defences were not dangerously weakened in the same way as their men’s. The privileged treatment which the generals received, however, was a revealing testimony to the Soviet Union’s sense of hierarchy.

Small numbers of officers were sent to camps in the region of Moscow, such as Lunovo, Krasnogorsk and Suzdal. Those selected for ‘anti-fascist education’ were sent to the fortified monastery of Yelabuga, east of Kazan. Conditions of transport were most certainly not up to those provided for the generals. Out of one convoy of 1,800 men in March, 1,200 died. In addition to typhus, jaundice and diphtheria, scurvy, dropsy and tuberculosis had now emerged. And as soon as spring arrived properly, the number of cases of malaria rose rapidly.

The diaspora of soldiers and junior officers was considerable, with 20,000 sent to Bekabad, east of Tashkent, 2,500 to Volsk, north-east of Saratov, 5,000 down the Volga to Astrakhan, 2,000 to Usman, north of Voronezh, and others to Basyanovsky, north of Sverdlovsk, Oranky near Gorky, and also to Karaganda.

When prisoners were registered before departure, many put down ‘agricultural labourer’ as their profession in the hope of being sent to a farm. Hardened smokers collected camel dung and dried it to have something to smoke on the journey. After the experience of Beketovka, they were certain that the worst must be over, and the prospect of movement and change had its own appeal, but they soon discovered their mistake. Each railway wagon, with up to a hundred men forced into each one, had a single hole in the middle of the floor as a latrine. The cold was still terrible, but thirst was again the worst affliction, for they were given dried bread and salt fish to eat, but little water. So desperate did they become, that they licked the condensation frozen to metal parts inside the truck. At stops men allowed out often could not resist seizing handfuls of snow and forcing it into their mouths. Many died as a result, usually so silently that their comrades only realized that they had gone much later. Their corpses were then stacked by the sliding door of the wagon, ready for unloading. ‘Skolko kaputt?’ Soviet guards would shout out in their pidgin-German at stops. ‘How many dead?’

Some journeys lasted up to twenty-five days. The transports via Saratov, then across Uzbekistan to Bekabad, were among the worst. In one wagon only eight men remained alive out of 100. When prisoners finally reached the reception camp in sight of the Pamir mountains, they discovered that it had been established for the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam. Their relief to hear that they were to be deloused, at last, soon turned to dismay. They were clumsily shaved all over, which could ‘only be compared to sheep-shearing’, then sprayed with powder. A number died from the primitive chemicals used.

There were no huts to live in, only earth bunkers. But the worst surprise was a German corporal who had joined the Soviets as a guard commander. ‘No Russian ever treated me with such brutality,’ wrote the same prisoner.* Fortunately, movement between camps in this parallel Gulag was frequent. From Bekabad, many went to Kokant or, best of all, to Chuama, where there were much better medical facilities, and even a crudely improvised swimming pool. The Italian prisoners there were already well organized, catching sparrows to supplement the soup.

Those left behind in Stalingrad found that the collection camp at Krasnoarmeysk had been turned into a labour camp. The food at least improved with kasha (buckwheat porridge) and fish soup, but the work was often dangerous. When spring arrived, many of them were put to work retrieving Volga river craft sunk by the Luftwaffe and the German Army. One Russian shipyard manager, shaken by the number of prisoners who died on this work, swore his daughter to secrecy before telling her about it.

The NKVD’s grip on Stalingrad had not slackened. German prisoners working from both banks of the Volga had noticed that the first building in the city to be repaired was the NKVD headquarters, and almost immediately there were queues of women outside with food parcels for relatives who had been arrested. Former Sixth Army soldiers guessed that they too would be prisoners there for many years. Molotov later confirmed their fears, with his declaration that no German prisoners would see their homes until Stalingrad had been rebuilt.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!