General Paulus’s First Battle
The curious chain of events which brought General Friedrich Paulus to command the Sixth Army began with Hitler’s angry disappointment towards the end of 1941. And a year later, a very similar frustration would lead to the disaster which befell Paulus and his divisions.
In November 1941, while the world’s attention was focused on the approaches to Moscow, the situation in the eastern Ukraine had fluctuated wildly. At the climax of Army Group South’s advance, the leading divisions of Kleist’s First Panzer Group reached Rostov-on-Don on 19 November in driving snow. The following day, they seized the bridge over the great river, the last barrier before the Caucasus. But the Soviet commander, Timoshenko, reacted quickly. The left flank of the German spearhead was weakly guarded by Hungarian troops, and a thrust there, combined with counter-attacks across the frozen Don, soon forced Kleist back.
Hitler was furious, having just exulted in the illusion that both Moscow and the Caucasian oilfields lay within his grasp. To make matters worse, this was the first withdrawal by the German Army during the Second World War. He refused to believe that Field Marshal von Rundstedt lacked the strength and the supplies, and he refused to accept that Kleist should be permitted to pull back his troops, many of them badly frost-bitten, to the line of the river Mius.
Rundstedt indicated on 30 November that if confidence no longer existed in his leadership, then he wished to be relieved of his command. Early the next morning, Hitler dismissed him. He ordered Reichenau, the commander of the Sixth Army, to take over and halt the withdrawal immediately. This, Reichenau attempted – or pretended – to do. A few hours later, a shamelessly short time, he sent a message to Führer headquarters with the information that withdrawal behind the Mius had become inevitable. Reichenau, an overactive bulldog of a man whose apoplectic expression was heightened by his monocle, did not endear himself to Rundstedt, who later described him as a ‘roughneck who used to run around half naked when taking physical exercise’.
On 3 December, the Führer flew down to the Ukraine in his Focke-Wulf Condor to find out what had happened. He first spoke to Sepp Dietrich, the commander of the SS Leibstandarte Division. Dietrich, to Hitler’s astonishment, supported Rundstedt’s decision to withdraw.
Both Rundstedt and Reichenau had their headquarters at Poltava, where Charles XII of Sweden, the first modern invader of Russia, had been defeated by Peter the Great in 1709. Hitler made his peace with Rundstedt, who had not yet departed. It was agreed that the old field marshal should still return home, although now it would be for sick leave. Nine days later, he received a cheque for RM250,000 from the Führer as a birthday present.
Hitler, still slightly suspicious of Reichenau, at first insisted that he remain commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army as well as of Army Group South. But over dinner, while the Führer carefully chewed his millet and pumpkin and potato puffs, Reichenau argued convincingly that he could not run two headquarters at once. He recommended that General Paulus, his former chief of staff, should take over the Sixth Army. Hitler assented, although without much enthusiasm. Thus, on New Year’s Day 1942, Paulus, who had never even commanded a division or corps, found himself catapulted up the army list to the rank of General of Panzer Troops. Five days later, he became commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army, just after Timoshenko launched a major, but ill-coordinated, offensive towards Kursk.
Friedrich Wilhelm Paulus came of Hessian yeoman stock. His father had risen from the post of bookkeeper in a reformatory to become the Chief Treasurer of Hesse-Nassau. The young Paulus had applied to join the imperial navy in 1909, but was refused. A year later, the army’s enlargement offered an opening. Paulus, almost certainly feeling at a social disadvantage in the Kaiser’s army, was obsessed with his turnout. His contemporaries called him ‘der Lord’. In 1912, he married Elena Rosetti-Solescu, the sister of two brother officers, members of a Romanian family with princely connections. She disliked the Nazis, but Paulus, who had joined the Freikorps in the fight against bolshevism after the First World War, most probably shared Reichenau’s admiration of Hitler.
As a company commander in the 13th Infantry Regiment, the tall and fastidious Paulus was competent yet uninspired when compared with Erwin Rommel, the commander of the machine-gun company. Unlike Rommel, a robust leader prepared to ignore his superiors, Paulus possessed an exaggerated respect for the chain of command. His work as a staff officer was conscientious and meticulous. He enjoyed working late at night, bent over maps, with coffee and cigarettes to hand. His hobby was drawing scale-maps of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. He later appeared to his son’s brother officers in the 3rd Panzer Division as ‘more like a scientist than a general, when compared to Rommel or Model’.
Paulus’s good manners made him popular with senior officers. He even got on well with that rumbustious thug Reichenau, when he became his chief of staff in August 1939. Their teamwork impressed other senior officers during the first year of the war, in which their most memorable moment was taking the surrender of King Leopold of the Belgians. Not long after the conquest of France, General Haider summoned Paulus to Berlin to work as chief planner on the general staff. There, his most important task lay in evaluating the options for Operation Barbarossa. Once the invasion was well under way, Reichenau asked Haider to let him have his chief of staff back again.
Paulus’s ‘fantastic leap’ to army commander, as friends described it in letters of congratulation, was marred exactly a week later. On 12 January 1942, his patron, Field Marshal von Reichenau, went for his morning run at Poltava. The temperature was twenty degrees below zero. Reichenau felt unwell during lunch, and suddenly collapsed from a heart attack. Hitler, on hearing the news, ordered Dr Flade, the Sixth Army’s senior medical officer, to bring him straight back to Germany. The unconscious Reichenau was strapped to an armchair fastened inside the fuselage of a Dornier.
The pilot insisted on landing at Lemberg to refuel, but he crash-landed some distance from the field. Doctor Flade, despite a broken leg, fired signal flares to attract help. By the time the party finally reached the hospital in Leipzig, Reichenau was dead. Flade reported to Paulus afterwards that the ill-omened crash had been almost like a film. ‘Even his field marshal’s baton had been broken in two.’ Hitler ordered a state funeral, but did not attend. He gave Rundstedt the distinction of representing him.
Although Paulus’s rather aloof manner made him appear cold, he was more sensitive than many generals to the well-being of his soldiers. He is also said to have cancelled Reichenau’s order of 10 October 1941, encouraging the ‘severe’ treatment of Jews and partisans, yet when the Sixth Army reached Stalingrad, its Feldgendarmerie was apparently given the task of arresting Communist activists and Jews to hand them over to the SD Sonderkommando for ‘punitive measures’.
Paulus certainly inherited a heavy legacy. From the very start of Barbarossa, the massacres of Jews and gypsies had been deliberately mixed in, whenever possible, with the execution of partisans, mainly because the phrase ‘jüdische Saboteure’ helped to cloud the illegality of the act and to bolster the notion of a ‘judeo-bolshevik’ conspiracy. The definition of partisan and saboteur was soon widened far beyond the terms of international law, which permitted a death sentence only after a proper trial. In an order of 10 July 1941, Sixth Army headquarters warned soldiers that anyone in civilian clothes with a close-cropped head was almost certain to be a Red Army soldier and should therefore be shot. Civilians who behaved in a hostile fashion, including those who gave food to Red Army soldiers hiding in woods, were also to be shot. ‘Dangerous elements’, such as Soviet officials, a category which extended from the local Communist Party secretary and collective-farm manager to almost anyone employed by the government, should, like commissars and Jews, be handed over to the Feldgendarmerie or the SD-Einsatzkommando. A subsequent order called for ‘collective measures’ – either executions or the burning of villages – to punish sabotage. According to the evidence of SS-Obersturmführer August Häfner, Field Marshal von Reichenau himself gave the order early in July 1941 for 3,000 Jews to be shot as a reprisal measure.
The behaviour of many soldiers in Army Group South was particularly gruesome. Reichenau’s Sixth Army headquarters issued the following order on 10 August 1941: ‘In various places within the army’s area of responsibility, organs of the SD, of the Reichsführer’s SS and chiefs of the German Police have been carrying out necessary executions of criminal, bolshevik and mostly Jewish elements. There have been cases of off-duty soldiers volunteering to help the SD with their executions, or acting as spectators and taking photographs.’ It was now forbidden for any soldiers, ‘who have not been ordered by a superior officer’, to take part in, to watch or to photograph any of these executions. Later, General von Manstein’s chief of staff passed the message to the Offizierkorps of the Eleventh Army in the Crimea that it was ‘dishonourable for officers to be present at the execution of Jews’. German military logic, in another of its distortions of cause and effect, does not appear to have acknowledged the possibility that officers had already shamed themselves by furthering the aims of a regime capable of such crimes.
Occasionally atrocities were halted, but not for long. On 20 August, chaplains from the 295th Infantry Division informed Lieutenant-Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, the chief of staff, that ninety Jewish orphans in the town of Belaya Tserkov were being held in disgusting conditions. They ranged from infants up to seven-year-old children. They were to be shot, like their parents. Groscurth, the son of a pastor and a convinced anti-Nazi, had been the Abwehr officer who, that spring, had secretly passed details of the illegal orders for Barbarossa to Ulrich von Hassell. Groscurth immediately sought out the district commander and insisted that the execution must be stopped. He then contacted Sixth Army headquarters, even though Standartenführer Paul Blobel, the head of the Sonderkommando, warned Groscurth that he would report his interference to Reichsführer SS Himmler. Field Marshal von Reichenau supported Blobel. The ninety Jewish children were shot the next evening by Ukrainian militiamen, to save the feelings of the Sonderkommando.
Groscurth wrote a full report which he sent direct to headquarters Army Group South. Appalled and furious, he wrote to his wife: ‘We cannot and should not be allowed to win this war.’ At the first opportunity, he went on leave to Paris to see Field Marshal von Witlzleben, one of the leading members in the anti-Hitler movement.
The massacre of the innocents in Belaya Tserkov was soon dwarfed by a far greater atrocity. Following the capture of Kiev, 33,771 Jews were rounded up in the last days of September, to be slaughtered by Sonderkommando 4a and two police battalions in the ravine of Babi Yar outside the city. This ‘Gross-Aktion’ was once again entirely within the Sixth Army’s area of responsibility. Reichenau, along with certain key officers from his headquarters who attended the town commandant’s planning conference on 27 September 1941, must have known their fate in advance, even if the soldiers detailed to assist in the round-up may have been taken in by the cover story of’ evacuation’. Soviet Jews did not imagine what awaited them. They had little idea of Nazi anti-Semitism, because under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, no criticism of National Socialist policies had been published. The town commandant in his proclamation posters had also lulled suspicions with the instruction: ‘You should bring with you identity papers, money and valuables as well as warm clothing.’ The Sonderkommando, which had expected 5,000–6,000 Jews, was astonished to find that more than 30,000 had turned up.
Field Marshal von Reichenau’s notorious order to the Sixth Army of 10 October 1941, which was supported by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, quite clearly makes the Wehrmacht chain of command jointly responsible for atrocities against Jews and civilians in the Ukraine. ‘In this eastern theatre of war, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of war, but also the ruthless standard-bearer of a national ideal and the avenger of all the bestialities perpetrated on the German peoples. For this reason the soldier must fully appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.’ Their duty was to ‘free the German people forever from the Jewish-Asiatic threat’.
Reprisal burnings and executions did not end with Reichenau’s death and Paulus’s arrival. For example, on 29 January 1942, some three weeks after the new commander-in-chief of Sixth Army took over, the village of Komsomolsk near Kharkov with 150 houses was burned to the ground. During this operation, eight people were shot and two children, presumably so terrified that they stayed hidden, were burned to death.
German soldiers were bound to mistreat civilians after nearly nine years of the regime’s anti-Slav and anti-Semitic propaganda, even if few of them consciously acted at the time out of Nazi values. The nature of the war produced emotions that were both primitive and complex. Although there were cases of soldiers reluctant to carry out executions when ordered, most natural pity for civilians was transmuted into an incoherent anger based on the feeling that women and children had no business to be in a battle zone.
Officers preferred to avoid moral reflection. They concentrated instead on the need for good military order. Those who still believed in the rules of war were often horrified at the conduct of their soldiers, but instructions to respect procedures had little effect. ‘Interrogations should end with the release of the prisoner, or putting the prisoner in a camp,’ emphasized an order from the 371st Infantry Division. ‘Nobody should be executed without the order of the officer in charge.’
They also despaired at the scale of looting. Few soldiers offered to pay the locals for livestock and produce, mainly because the German government refused to provide adequate rations. ‘The Landsers go to vegetable gardens and take everything,’ a company commander in the 384th Infantry Division wrote in his diary later that summer, during the advance to Stalingrad. ‘They even take household items, chairs and pots. It’s a scandal. Severe prohibitions are published, but the ordinary soldier hardly restrains himself. He is forced into such conduct by hunger.’ The effects were particularly serious in a country of such extreme climate as Russia. The plundering of food reserves condemned the civil population to death by starvation when winter came. Even honey-making became impossible, because the sugar needed to keep bees alive during the winter was seized.
The terrible truth, which very few officers could bear to recognize, was that the army’s tolerance or support for the Nazi doctrine of a ‘race war’ on the eastern front, exempt from normal military and international law, was bound to turn it into a semi-criminal organization. The failure of generals to protest demonstrated a total lack of moral sensibility, or of moral courage. Physical courage was unnecessary. The Nazis, in the earlier stages of the Russian campaign, would not have dared to do anything worse to a senior officer who objected than remove him from his command.
Hitler’s ability to manipulate generals was uncanny. Although most generals in the Sixth Army were not convinced Nazis, they were nevertheless loyal to Hitler, or certainly pretended to be. For example, a letter written on 20 April would be dated ‘Führer’s Birthday’ and proclamations were signed ‘Long Live the Führer!’ But it was perfectly possible for a general to keep his independence and his career unharmed, using military rather than political exhortations. General Karl Strecker, the commander of XI Corps and an unashamed old warhorse, made a point of never acknowledging the regime. He signed proclamations to his soldiers: ‘Forward with God. Our belief is in victory. Hail my brave fighters!’ More important, he personally countermanded illegal orders from above, on one occasion driving from unit to unit to make sure that officers understood him. He chose Groscurth as his chief of staff and, together, they were to direct the last pocket of resistance at Stalingrad, loyal to their own sense of duty, but not to the Führer.
Contrary to all rules of war, surrender did not guarantee the lives of Red Army soldiers. On the third day of the invasion of the Ukraine, August von Kageneck, a reconnaissance troop commander with 9th Panzer Division, saw from the turret of his reconnaissance vehicle, ‘dead men lying in a neat row under the trees alongside a country lane, all in the same position – face down’. They had clearly not been killed in combat. Nazi propaganda, simultaneously provoking both atavistic fears and hate, incited soldiers to kill as much out of the former as the latter, yet at the same time it also reminded them that they were brave German soldiers. This produced a powerfully destructive combination, for it is the attempt to control the outward signs of cowardice which produces the most violent reaction of all. The greatest fear that Nazi propaganda encouraged among troops was a fear of capture. ‘We were afraid,’ Kageneck acknowledged, ‘afraid of falling into the hands of the Russians, no doubt thirsty for revenge after our surprise attack.’
Officers with traditional values were even more appalled when they heard of soldiers taking pot-shots at the columns of Soviet prisoners trudging to the rear. These endless columns of defeated men, hungry and above all thirsty in the summer heat, their brown uniforms and fore-and-aftpilotka caps covered in dust, were seen as little better than herds of animals. An Italian journalist, who had seen many columns, wrote: ‘Most of them are wounded. They wear no bandages, their faces are caked with blood and dust, their uniforms are in rags, their hands blackened. They walk slowly, supporting one another.’ The wounded generally received no medical assistance, and those who could not march or who collapsed from exhaustion were shot. Soviet soldiers were not allowed to be transported in German military transport in case they infected it with lice and fleas. It should not be forgotten that 600 Soviet prisoners of war were gassed in Auschwitz on 3 September 1941. This was the first experiment there with Zyklon B.
For those who reached prisoner-of-war camps alive, the chance of survival turned out to be not much better than one in three. Altogether, over three million Red Army soldiers out of 5.7 million died in German camps from disease, exposure, starvation and ill-treatment. The German Army itself, not the SS nor any other Nazi organization, was responsible for prisoners of war. Its attitude was reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s remark in 1914 that the 90,000 Russian prisoners captured at Tannenberg ‘should be left to starve’.
On the southern front, a German camp at Lozovaya, overrun by Timoshenko’s January advance, revealed appalling conditions, with Red Army prisoners dying ‘O f cold, of starvation, of brutal maltreatment’. Yury Mikhailovich Maximoν of the 127th Rifle Division, captured in the autumn of 1941, was one of those taken to Novo-Aleksandrovsk. The so-called camp there had no huts, just open ground with a barbed-wire fence. The 18,000 men were fed from twelve cauldrons in which odd hunks of horseflesh were boiled. When the guards on duty gave the order to come forward to receive food, sub-machine-gunners shot down anybody who ran. Their corpses were left there for three days as a warning.
German officers at the front wanted prisoners to be better treated for practical reasons. ‘Their information on enemy numbers, organization and intentions may give us more than our own intelligence services can provide,’ read an instruction from the chief intelligence officer of the 96th Infantry Division. ‘Russian soldiers’, he added, ‘respond to interrogation in a naive way.’ The OKW propaganda department at the same time issued orders that Russian desertion must be encouraged to save German lives. But intelligence staffs at the front knew well that this could ‘work only if promises made to deserters are kept’. The trouble was that they were usually treated just as badly as any other prisoners.
Stalin’s dislike of international law had suited Hitler’s plan for a war of annihilation, so when the Soviet Union proposed a reciprocal adherence to the Hague convention less than a month after the invasion, its note was left unanswered. Stalin did not usually believe in observing such niceties, but the ferocity of the German onslaught had shaken him.
Within the Red Army, there was no formal equivalent to the illegal orders issued to the Wehrmacht, but members of the SS, and later other categories such as camp guards and members of the Secret Field Police, were almost certain to be shot after capture. Luftwaffe pilots and panzer crews also risked lynching, but on the whole the shooting of prisoners was random rather than calculated, while acts of wanton cruelty were localized and inconsistent. The Soviet authorities desperately wanted prisoners, especially officers, for interrogation.
For partisans, including Red Army detachments, hospital trains were regarded as legitimate targets, and few pilots or gunners spared ambulances or field hospitals. A doctor with the 22nd Panzer Division observed: ‘My ambulance had a machine-gun mounted on top and a red cross on the side. The red cross symbol was a farce in Russia, and served only as a sign for our own people.’ The worst incident took place on 29 December 1941, when a German field hospital was overrun at Feodosia on the Crimean coast. Soviet marine infantry, many of them apparently drunk, killed about 160 German wounded. A number of them had been thrown out of the windows, others were taken outside, soaked in water and left to freeze to death.
The occasional, primitive atrocity committed by Red Army soldiers during the first eighteen months – there would almost certainly have been more if they had not been retreating so rapidly – prompted many Germans to make comparisons with the Thirty Years War. A truer link, however, would have been to the Russian civil war, one of the cruellest of twentieth-century conflicts, which Hitler’s crusade against bolshevism had reignited. But as the war progressed, Russian outrage and a terrible desire for revenge was fired much more by news of German acts in the ‘O ccupied territories’: villages burned to the ground in reprisals, and civilians starved, massacred or deported to work camps. This impression of genocide against the Slavs aroused, along with the desire for revenge, a pitiless determination not to be beaten.
General Paulus did not take over the Sixth Army at an easy moment, and he was probably more shaken by Reichenau’s death than he showed. His first experience of senior command in January 1942 coincided with Stalin’s ill-judged general offensive, following the Red Army’s success round Moscow. In fact, it was a difficult time for all German forces on the southern front. General von Manstein’s Eleventh Army in the Crimea had not yet managed to seize Sevastopol, and a surprise attack by Red Army troops from the Caucasus at the end of December had taken the Kerch peninsula. Hitler, apoplectic with rage, had the corps commander, General Count von Sponeck, court-martialled.
Paulus moved Sixth Army headquarters forward to Kharkov, Marshal Timoshenko’s objective. The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees below zero, sometimes lower. German transport by rail and road was frozen solid, and horse-drawn carts could provide only the barest rations.
Timoshenko’s plan had been to cut off the industrial region of the Donbas and seize Kharkov in a huge encirclement, but only the southern part of the pincer had managed to pierce the German lines. This had been a successful thrust, taking a salient nearly sixty miles deep. But the Red Army lacked the resources and fresh troops, and after two months of bitter fighting, their attacks ground to a halt.
The Sixth Army held on, yet Paulus was uneasy. Field Marshal von Bock, whom Hitler had reluctantly appointed to command Army Group South, did not disguise his feeling that he had been overcautious in counter-attacking. Paulus kept his command, with the support of his protector, General Haider. His chief of staff, Colonel Ferdinand Heim, was moved instead. In his place came Colonel Arthur Schmidt, a slim, sharp-featured and sharp-tongued staff officer from a Hamburg mercantile family. Schmidt, confident of his own abilities, put up many backs within Sixth Army headquarters, although he also had his supporters. Paulus relied greatly on his judgement, and as a result he played a large, some say an excessive, role in determining the course of events later that year.
In the early spring of 1942, the divisions that were to perish at Stalingrad took little interest in staff gossip. Their immediate concerns were replenishment and rearmament. It said much for the professional resilience of the German Army (and much less for its sense of self-preservation) that memories of the terrible winter were virtually effaced as soon as spring and new equipment arrived. ‘Morale was higher again,’ remembered one commander, whose company at last had a full complement of eighteen tanks. ‘We were in a good state.’ They were not even greatly disturbed by the fact that even the long-barrelled version of the Panzer Mark III had only a 50-mm gun, whose shell often failed to penetrate Soviet tanks.
Although no announcement had been made within divisions, everyone knew that a major offensive would not be long in coming. In March, General Pfeffer, the commander of the 297th Infantry Division, said half-jokingly to a captain who was reluctant to be sent back to France for a battalion commander’s course: ‘Just be happy that you’re getting a break. The war will last long enough and be terrible enough for you to get a good taste of it.’
On 28 March, General Haider drove to Rastenburg to present the plans demanded by the Füihrer for the conquest of the Caucasus and southern Russia up to the Volga. He did not suspect that in Moscow, the Stavka was studying Timoshenko’s project for a renewed offensive in the area of Kharkov.
On 5 April, the Führer’s headquarters issued orders for the campaign to bring ‘final victory in the East’. While Northern Army Group, with Operation Northern Light, was planned to bring the siege of Leningrad to a successful conclusion and link up with the Finns, the main offensive – Operation Siegfried, renamed Operation Blue – would take place in southern Russia.
Hitler was still convinced of the Wehrmacht’s ‘qualitative superiority over the Soviets’, and saw no need for reserves. It was almost as though his removal of the army-group commanders had also effaced all memory of the recent failures. Field Marshal von Bock, the most rapidly reappointed, doubted that they had the strength to seize, let alone hold, the Caucasian oilfields. He feared that the Soviet Union was not running out of reserves as the Führer’s headquarters so firmly believed. ‘My great concern – that the Russians might pre-empt us with their own attack – ’he wrote in his diary on 8 May, ‘has not diminished.’
That same day, Bock welcomed General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, who had broken the Demyansk encirclement. Seydlitz, an artilleryman, was a descendant of Frederick the Great’s brilliant cavalry general, known in his youth for galloping between the sails of a windmill in full swing, but most famous for the great victory of Rossbach in the Seven Years War, where his massed squadrons carried the day. Walther von Seydlitz was also impulsive and, like his ancestor, he was also doomed to ill fortune and an embittered old age. Seydlitz had arrived that afternoon by air from Königsberg, where he had snatched a few days’ leave with his wife, before taking over command of LI Corps under Paulus. When he and his wife had said goodbye at the airfield, they never imagined, ‘that it was a farewell for almost fourteen years’.
Seydlitz went forward to Kharkov the next day. The city, he found,
had not been seriously damaged when captured. ‘The buildings mainly date from tsarist times, except for a new university in bombastic Stalinist style, and a huge American-built tractorworks. In the centre almost everything is built of brick, while further out, houses are made of wood.’ In his new corps, he found that he had two Austrian divisions, the 44th Infantry Division, successor to the old Habsburg Hoch– und Deutschmeister regiment, and General Pfeffer’s 297th Infantry Division.
On 10 May, Paulus submitted to Field Marshal von Bock his draft plans for Operation Fridericus, the elimination of the Barvenkovo salient gained by Timoshenko during the January offensive. Bock’s fears of a Russian attack proved correct even sooner than he had feared. Timoshenko had assembled 640,000 men, 1,200 tanks and nearly a thousand aircraft. On 12 May, six days before the scheduled start of Operation Fridericus, the Red Army launched twin attacks from around Volchansk and from the Barvenkovo salient to cut off Kharkov. Bock warned Paulus not to counter-attack too hurriedly or without air support, but Soviet tank brigades broke through the front of General Walther Heitz’s VIII Corps and by that evening, Russian tank units were a dozen miles from Kharkov.
Next morning, Bock realized that the enemy breakthrough round Volchansk was more serious than he had realized. Paulus’s Sixth Army received a heavy battering from different directions. In seventy-two hours of fighting, much of it in heavy rain, sixteen battalions were destroyed. Paulus was convinced that a holding action, giving ground where necessary, was the only solution. Bock, however, had other ideas. He persuaded Haider to convince Hitler that a bold counter-attack with Kleist’s First Panzer Army could transform a setback into victory. The Führer, who lived for such moments, immediately recognized the opportunity. Claiming the idea for his own, he galvanized Kleist into moving his First Panzer Army rapidly into position to strike at the enemy’s southern flank. He ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate every available attack group to pin down Timoshenko’s formations until Kleist was ready.
Kleist struck at the southern side of the Barvenkovo salient before dawn on 17 May. By midday, his spearhead had advanced ten miles, even though his panzer divisions had to engage the T-34 at close range, otherwise their ‘shells bounced off like fireworks’.
That evening, Timoshenko signalled Moscow, pleading for reinforcements to stop Kleist. According to Zhukov, Timoshenko did not warn Moscow that his armies were likely to be encircled, but the chief commissar of the front, Nikita Khrushchev, claimed that Stalin persistently refused to allow them to withdraw from danger. (This later formed one of his indictments of Stalin during his famous denunciation in 1956 at the XX Party Congress.) Finally, on 19 May, Timoshenko called off the offensive, with Stalin’s agreement, but it was too late.
Bock decided that the moment had come for Paulus to attack from the north to seal the trap. The fighting which resulted, a gradual compression of over a quarter of a million Soviet troops, led to unusual situations. According to a senior NCO in the 389th Infantry Division, his grenadier regiment found itself in a merciless battle with what he described as a ‘bandit battalion’ of women soldiers, commanded by a redhead. ‘The fighting methods of these female beasts showed itself in treacherous and dangerous ways. They lie concealed in heaps of straw, and shoot us in the back when we pass by.’
Just as the ring was closing, part of the 2nd Panzer Regiment and some mechanized artillery found themselves cut off at nightfall within the massed Russians. Their commander was the legendary Hyazinth Graf von Strachwitz, known as the ‘Panzer-Kavallerist’. The forty-nine-year-old Strachwitz, a renowned cavalryman in the First World War – his troop had been so far to the front in the advance of 1914 that they had seen Paris in the distance – still retained the dark moustache and the dashing good looks of a 1920s film star. More important, he had not lost the uncanny nose for danger which had made his reputation as a lucky commander.
As this small force from 16th Panzer Division had no idea of the situation around them when darkness fell, Strachwitz ordered a hedgehog defence until daybreak. Just before first light, he took Captain Baron Bernd von Freytag-Loringhoven, who was one of his squadron commanders, and two of the artillery officers up a small hill, ready to look around. As the four officers were focusing their binoculars, Strachwitz suddenly grabbed Freytag-Loringhoven by the arm and dragged him down the slope. He shouted a warning to the two gunners, but they were not quick enough. Both were killed by a shell from a Russian battery on another small hill. Strachwitz, wasting no time, ordered the drivers to start up, and the tanks and vehicles charged in a body out of the vast arena, to rejoin the rest of the division.
Red Army soldiers fought back bitterly for more than a week during humid spring weather. They made desperate charges – sometimes with arms linked – at the German lines at night, but the trap was firm and they were massacred in their thousands under the curiously dead light of magnesium flares. The bodies piled in front of the German positions testified to their suicidal bravery. The survivors wondered if they would ever get out. One unknown Russian soldier trapped in the pocket wrote on a scrap of paper how, watching ‘the German searchlights playing on the clouds’, he wondered if he would ever see his sweetheart again.
Less than one man in ten managed to escape. The 6th and 57th Armies, caught in the ‘Barvenkovo mousetrap’, were virtually annihilated. Paulus and Kleist’s armies had secured nearly 240,000 prisoners, 2,000 guns and the bulk of Timoshenko’s tank force. Their own losses were not much more than 20,000 men. Congratulations arrived from all quarters. Paulus found himself fêted in the Nazi press which, reluctant to praise reactionary aristocrats, made much of his modest family origins. The Führer awarded him the Knight’s Cross and sent a message to say that he fully appreciated ‘the success of the Sixth Army against an enemy overwhelmingly superior in numbers’. Schmidt, Paulus’s chief of staff, argued in later years that the most influential effect of this battle was on Paulus’s attitude towards Hitler. The Führer’s decision to back the ambitious counter-attack convinced Paulus of his brilliance and of the superior ability of OKW to judge the strategic situation.
Ironically in the circumstances, Paulus also received an unusually emotional letter of appreciation from Major Count Claus von Stauffenberg of the general staff, who had stayed as his companion during part of the battle. ‘How refreshing it is’, wrote Stauffenberg, ‘to get away from this atmosphere to surroundings where men give of their best without a thought, and give their lives too, without a murmur of complaint, while the leaders and those who should set an example quarrel and quibble about their own prestige, or haven’t the courage to speak their minds on a question which affects the lives of thousands of their fellow men.’ Paulus either did not notice, or more likely he deliberately ignored, the coded message.
Paulus was clearly reluctant to examine Hitler’s faults, yet after the way the plans for Barbarossa had been changed at the Führer’s whim the previous year, he should have been able to assess the real danger for field commanders. Hitler, intoxicated with the notion of his own infallibility, and profiting from almost instant communications with their headquarters, would try, godlike, to control every manoeuvre from afar.