Military history

6
How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Early on 1 June, Hitler took off from the airfield near Rastenburg in his personal Focke-Wulf Condor for the headquarters of Army Group South at Poltava. The subject of the conference was the great summer offensive. He was in an exhilarated mood when he greeted Field Marshal von Bock and his senior commanders, including Kleist of First Panzer Army, Hoth of Fourth Panzer Army and Paulus of Sixth Army. The senior Luftwaffe officer present was Colonel-General Baron Wolfram von Richthofen.

Richthofen, a cousin of the ‘Red Baron’, whose squadron he had joined in 1917, was a hard-faced man, both intelligent and arrogant. His record of ruthlessness spoke for itself. He had commanded the Condor Legion in Spain, when the technique of carpet-bombing was invented and had been directly responsible for the destruction of Guernica in 1937, an event which came to symbolize the horror of modern war. It was Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps which destroyed Belgrade in April 1941, killing 17,000 civilians: an act for which his commander-in-chief, General Alexander Löhr, was executed after the war by the Yugoslavs. The following month, during the invasion of Crete, Richthofen’s aircraft reduced the Venetian architecture of both Canea and Heraklion to rubble.

During the conference, Hitler hardly mentioned Stalingrad. As far as his generals were concerned it was little more than a name on the map. His obsession was with the oilfields of the Caucasus. ‘If we don’t take Maikop and Grozny,’ he told his generals, ‘then I must put an end to the war.’ At that stage, the only interest in Stalingrad was to eliminate the armaments factories there and secure a position on the Volga. The capture of the city itself was not considered necessary.

The first phase of Operation Blue was to capture Voronezh. The second was to trap the bulk of the Soviet forces in a great pincer movement west of the Don. The Sixth Army would then move towards Stalingrad to secure the north-east flank, while Kleist’s First Panzer Army and the Seventeenth Army would occupy the Caucasus. After Bock had finished his presentation, Hitler spoke. He made it all sound so simple. The Red Army was finished after the winter fighting, and the victory at Kharkov had again confirmed German supremacy. So certain was Hitler of success in the south, that as soon as Sevastopol fell, he planned to send Manstein’s Eleventh Army northwards. He even told Manstein about his dream of sending armoured columns through the Caucasus into the Middle East and India.

Before Operation Blue could start in earnest, two lesser offensives had to be performed to straighten the front and prepare the start-line, with bridgeheads across the river Donets. On the afternoon of 5 June, as a last treat, many officers and soldiers from the Sixth Army went to the Kharkov ballet. The unpaid dancers had been kept alive through the winter on Wehrmacht rations. That day, they danced Swan Lake and the packed audience, sweating in their feldgrau uniforms, greatly enjoyed their interpretation of Prince Siegfried’s tragedy, trapped by the wicked Rothbart. (This curious conjunction of two code-names – Siegfried, the original name for Operation Blue, and Rothbart, the German equivalent of Barbarossa – was entirely coincidental.) After the performance, the audience hurried back to their units. On that hot moonless night, leading elements from the Sixth Army started to move north-eastwards to the Volchansk sector.

On 10 June, at two in the morning, companies from the 297th Infantry Division began to cross the Donets by assault boat. Having secured a foothold on the far side, pioneer companies set to work constructing a sixty-yard pontoon bridge. By evening tanks of the 14th Panzer Division were rattling across. The next morning, a bridge further upstream was seized before the Soviet troops guarding it could blow their charges. But this crossing was so narrow that, on the following day, traffic jams built up between minefields on both sides of the route, marked by white tape. A cloudburst turned the dirt road into a morass. Then two shells exploded, blasting fountains of mud and black smoke into the air. This panicked the horses of a baggage wagon. They reared, then bolted off the road, through the white tape. A mine exploded. One horse was blown to bits, the other fell to the ground bleeding. Their wagon caught fire. Flames then spread to another one close by, which was loaded with munitions. Small-arms ammunition and grenades started to explode in an instant battle.

The pattern of skirmishes, successes and relatively minor mishaps continued the next day. A major on the staff of a Swabian division was sitting next to his general on a railway embankment during a visit to a point unit. He was killed instantly by a shot from a Russian sniper concealed in a thicket. Their driver was also hit, in the left shoulder. The general, having ordered the infantry and a pair of self-propelled assault guns to exact revenge, had the corpse of his staff officer placed in his vehicle, and left ‘the fateful place’. During dinner that evening in the headquarters mess tent, junior officers debated the advantages of a sudden death. Some regarded the major’s unexpected end as desirable, almost a military ideal, others were depressed, seeing it as the robbery of a life, reducing the body of an officer to the level of shot game. The general remained angrily silent throughout, clearly unsettled by the death of a subordinate from a bullet intended for himself.

While the Sixth Army and the First Panzer Army secured the start-line for Operation Blue, due to start on 28 June, all the headquarters concerned were thrown into confusion. On 19 June, Major Reichel, the operations officer of 23rd Panzer Division, flew in a Fieseler Storch light aircraft to visit a front-line unit. Contrary to all security procedures, he had taken with him a set of detailed orders for the whole operation. The Storch was shot down just beyond German lines. A patrol sent out to recover the bodies and the documents found that the Russians had got there first. Hitler, on hearing the news, became almost incoherent with rage. He demanded that Reichel’s divisional commander and corps commander should face a court martial.

The great irony was that Stalin, when told of the captured papers, dismissed them out of hand as forgeries. Reverting to his obsessive obstinacy of the previous year, he refused to believe anything which contradicted his own view that Hitler would again strike at Moscow. South-Western Front headquarters sent Reichel’s papers to the Kremlin by aircraft, but Stalin, during his meeting on 26 June with General Golikov, the commander of the threatened Bryansk Front, threw the papers aside angrily when he saw that Golikov believed them to be authentic. Golikov was sent straight back to his headquarters to prepare a quick pre-emptive attack to recapture Orel. He and his staff worked on a draft plan all the next day and through most of the night, but their labours were wasted. The German offensive began a few hours later.

On 28 June, the Second Army and the Fourth Panzer Army, which were deployed near Kursk, attacked due east towards Voronezh, not north towards Orel and Moscow, as Stalin expected. A forward air controller from the Luftwaffe, usually a lieutenant aided by a couple of NCOs with one of the latest radio sets, was attached to the headquarters of the leading panzer divisions, ready to call in air strikes. Once the initial breakthough was achieved, Hoth’s panzer divisions advanced rapidly, with Richthofen’s Stukas smashing strong-points or tank concentrations ahead.

The breakthrough of Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army caused great alarm in Moscow. Stalin agreed to Golikov’s requests for more tanks, and transferred several brigades from the Stavka reserve and Timoshenko’s South-Western Front. But because of bad communications, their deployment for a counter-strike took time. A Focke-Wulf 189 from a close reconnaissance squadron located their concentration areas and, on 4 July, Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps struck again.

On 30 June, Paulus’s Sixth Army crossed the start-line prepared on the eastern side of the river Donets. It had the Second Hungarian Army on its left and First Panzer Army on its right. The resistance encountered was stronger than expected, with T-34S and anti-tank guns both dug in and camouflaged from the Stukas as well as the panzers. This form of fighting, however, put the Russian tank troops at a disadvantage because the far more experienced German panzer troops outmanoeuvred them easily. Soviet crews either fought to the end without moving, or they made a run for it at the last moment. ‘The Russian tanks come out of their emplacements like tortoises’, wrote an observer, ‘and try to escape by zigzagging. Some of them still wear their camouflage netting like green wigs.’

The German divisions advanced across immense fields of sunflowers or corn. One of the main dangers they faced was from Red Army soldiers, cut off by the rapid advance, attacking from behind or from the flank. On many occasions, when German soldiers fired back, the Red Army soldiers fell, feigning death, and lay there without moving. When the Germans approached to investigate, the Soviet soldiers waited until almost the last moment, then ‘shot them at close range’.

In spite of their relentless advance, German staff officers remained uneasy after the capture of Major Reichel’s plans. They had already been debating privately whether or not Kharkov had been a decisive victory: now, they feared a trick. They did not know if the enemy was preparing reserve armies for a surprise counter-attack, or planning to withdraw into the hinterland, extending their supply lines further across vast regions with poor communications. At this stage, however, their fears were greatly exaggerated. The chaos on the Soviet side was so great, owing to the breakdown in communications, that staff officers and commanders were having to fly around in biplanes, dodging the Messerschmitts, trying to locate their troops.

The Reichel affair cast a long shadow. This idea of the cunning Russian trap was perpetuated and enhanced after the battle of Stalingrad by many survivors and German historians of the Cold War period, who ignored the rather obvious fact that Stalin’s greatest mistake since the invasion had been to refuse to let his forces retreat. The Red Army’s starting to withdraw ahead of the Germans in July 1942 was not part of a devilish plan. Quite simply, Stalin had at last accepted the wisdom of allowing commanders to evade encirclement. As a result, the German pincer attack west of the Don closed uselessly.

The Stavka, however, was agreed that Voronezh, a vital communications centre, should be defended to the last. They knew that if they did not hold on there, and prevent the Germans advancing across the upper Don, then the whole of Timoshenko’s South-Western Front would be outflanked.

Voronezh was to be the first major battle for the recently mechanized 24th Panzer Division, which until the year before had been the Wehrmacht’s only cavalry division. Flanked by the Grossdeutschland and 16th Motorized Divisions, 24th Panzer Division charged headlong at Voronezh. Its panzer grenadiers reached the Don on 3 July, and secured a bridgehead on the far side. The following evening, panzer grenadiers from the Grossdeutschland captured the bridge on the main road to Voronezh in an audacious coup de main, before the Russians realized what had happened.

Hitler flew once more to Poltava, on 3 July, with his retinue, to consult with Field Marshal von Bock. He was again in triumphant mood with the capture of Sevastopol, and had just made Manstein a field marshal. ‘During the conversation’, wrote Bock in his diary, ‘the Führer took great pleasure in the idea that the English get rid of any general when things go wrong, and thus were burying any initiative in their army!’ The German generals present were forced to join in the sycophantic laughter. Although the Führer was clearly in exuberant form, he was also anxious not to allow the Soviet armies to escape, especially those south-east of Voronezh within the Don bends. It looked as if the town would fall rapidly.

Hitler then made a disastrous compromise decision. He allowed Bock to continue the battle for Voronezh with the one panzer corps already engaged, while sending the rest of Hoth’s army southwards. But the German forces left behind lacked the strength to achieve a rapid result. The Soviet defenders held out in ferocious street-fighting, where the Germans lost their main advantages.

More by happenstance than strategy, the fighting at Voronezh was part of a phase for the Red Army of concentrating defence on cities, not on arbitrary lines on the map. The new flexibility had allowed Timoshenko’s armies to pull back, avoiding encirclement, but they had already been so badly mauled that on 12 July a new army group command – the Stalingrad Front – was established by Stavka directive. Although nobody dared voice the defeatist suggestion that the Red Army might be forced back as far as the Volga, a suspicion began to grow that this was where the main battle would have to be fought. The most significant evidence was the prompt dispatch from Saratov of the 10th NKVD Rifle Division, whose five regiments came from the Urals and Siberia. Its divisional headquarters took over command of all local NKVD units and militia battalions, set up an armoured train detachment and two tank-training battalions, and took control of the river traffic across the Volga.

These seemed glorious days for German front-line regiments. ‘As far as the eye can see’, wrote an observer, ‘armoured vehicles and half-tracks are rolling forward over the steppe. Pennants float in the shimmering afternoon air.’ Commanders stood fearlessly erect in their tank turrets, one arm raised high, waving their companies forward. Their tracks stirred up dust and propelled it outwards like smoke clouds in their wake.

These days were especially intoxicating for young officers, racing to retake Rostov-on-Don. The recovery of their morale with the spring weather, the new equipment and the great success at Kharkov had laid to rest the nightmare of the previous winter. ‘It was almost as if we had two parts to our head,’ explained Count Clemens von Kageneck, a lieutenant in 3rd Panzer Division soon to win the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. ‘We were charging ahead exultantly and yet we knew that the enemy would attack again in the winter.’ They had also half-forgotten Russia’s ability, with its huge distances, extreme weather and bad roads, to grind down their modern machinery and force them back to the tactics and conditions of the First World War.

In the early months of the campaign, the infantry calculated carefully how far they had marched since they crossed the frontier on the morning of Barbarossa. Now they did not bother any longer. They tramped ahead, their faces caked with sweat and dust, at the ‘10-Kilometer-Tempo’ (six miles per hour) in an attempt to keep up with the motorized formations. Panzer commanders also seemed to forget that the artillery of most German divisions was still unmechanized, their plodding trace-horses coughing regularly in the dust-clouds, and gun crews swaying with fatigue on their backs. Yet technology and the flatness of the steppe brought one great advantage. Any wounded from the advance-to-contact engagements were rapidly evacuated by ‘Sanitäts-Ju’, a Junkers 52 converted into an air ambulance.

Struck by the limitless horizon and expanse of sky, and perhaps also influenced by the sight of vehicles swaying crazily in and out of potholes like ships in a heavy swell, the more imaginative saw the steppe as an uncharted sea. General Strecker described it in a letter as ‘an ocean that might drown the invader’. Villages became the equivalent of islands. In the sun-baked steppe, they also offered the most likely source of water. But a panzer commander might spot an onion-domed church tower in the distance, then on arrival, find beside it the rest of the village destroyed, perhaps with timbers still smouldering. Only the brick chimneys remained standing. The carcasses of horses and livestock lay around, their bellies swollen in the heat forcing their legs grotesquely in the air. Often, the only sign of life would be the odd cat, miaowing in the ruins.

In a village unscathed by the fighting, an old peasant might appear hesitantly, then snatch off his cap as if for a barin before the revolution, and hurry to draw water for the visitors. Some of the village women might meanwhile be driving their geese off into a nearby gully or copse, to conceal them, but they soon found that German soldiers had as good a nose as any Communist Party requisition group.

Soldiers did not just take turnips and onions from the fields, they raided almost every allotment or kitchen garden that they passed. Chickens, ducks and geese were the favourite spoils of war because they were so portable and easy to prepare for the pot. Clemens Podewils, a war correspondent attached to the Sixth Army, described in his diary the arrival of a combat group in one village on 30 June following a sharp skirmish. ‘Black figures jump down from tanks and half-tracks. Suddenly a great execution is carried out. The poultry, with bloody ruffs and beating their wings in a paroxysm, was carried back to the vehicles. The men jumped back on board, the tank tracks ground the soil, and the vehicles moved on again.’ The one thing which they did not bother to take from the locals that summer was their sunflower seeds, which German soldiers jokingly called ‘Russian chocolates’.

There is an unsettling disparity in many accounts, with no connection made between horrifying scenes and their own involvement. ‘A really small boy stood in our way,’ wrote a twenty-year-old theology student in a letter. ‘He no longer begged, he just muttered: “Pan, bread”. It was eerie how much sorrow, suffering and apathy could exist in a child’s face.’ Shortly afterwards, the same theology student turned soldier, just before his death, revealed the lyricism of an early nineteenth-century Romantic: ‘Germany, I have not yet used this word, you country of big, strong hearts. You are my home. It is worth one’s life becoming a seed for you.’

German allies looted with their own paradoxical notion of morality that it must be right to steal from Communists. ‘Our lads have stolen three jugs of milk,’ wrote a Hungarian corporal in his diary. ‘The women had brought the milk down to the basement, when our lads appeared with grenades and pretended to throw them. The women were scared and ran away, and our lads took the milk. We pray to God to help us in future as well.’

That July, Hitler became increasingly impatient with delays that were essentially his own fault. Panzer divisions would streak ahead in sudden breakthroughs, but then came to a halt at a crucial moment when fuel ran out. This represented a doubly goading delay for the Führer, with his eyes constantly straying across the map to the oilfields of the Caucasus.

His feverish mood pushed him into the most disastrous change of plan, which in fact wasted more time and more precious fuel as formations were redirected. The central stage of Operation Blue had been a rapid advance by Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army towards Stalingrad to cut off Timoshenko’s retreating troops, before the attack was launched against Rostov and across the lower Don into the Caucasus. But Hitler was so desperate to speed the attack into the Caucasus, that he decided to run the two stages concurrently. This, of course, greatly reduced the concentration of force. Entirely against Haider’s advice, he diverted Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army southwards and also deprived Sixth Army of XL Panzer Corps, thus slowing its advance down into a slow, frontal assault towards Stalingrad.

Field Marshal von Bock could not conceal his exasperation at the Führer’s arbitrary decision to split Operation Blue from a coherent two-stage whole into two totally separate parts. Hitler also decided to divide Army Group South into two. Field Marshal List, a Bavarian, was to take Army Group A into the Caucasus, while Field Marshal Baron von Weichs was to command Army Group B, with the Sixth Army as its largest formation. The Führer, only too well aware of Bock’s disapproval, dismissed him, blaming him for the delay at Voronezh. Hitler thus changed not only the organization, but also the timing and the sequence which formed the logic of Operation Blue. His next step, two weeks later, was to increase its scope considerably, while reducing the forces available still further.

The Führer’s attention was focused firmly on the approaches to the Caucasus, as he waited impatiently for signs of a great battle of encirclement, trapping Timoshenko’s forces on the steppe north of Rostov. But the only encirclement achieved was a comparatively small one by XL Panzer Corps at Millerovo on 17 July. The panzer divisions, wasting no time, left other troops to round them up. They wheeled south-eastwards, and their point units reached the town and railway station of Morozovsk on the following day. On the next day after that, they reached the lower Don, an advance of 125 miles in just over three days.

Once again, the fate awaiting Soviet prisoners was terrible. Stepan Ignatevich Odiniktsev, a clerk in 60th Cavalry Division, was one of those captured at Millerovo on 17 July. Along with thousands of other Russian prisoners, he was herded to a makeshift cage at Morozovsk, next to the main railway line which ran east to Stalingrad and westwards back through the Ukraine. Some prisoners were dispersed over the following weeks to other hastily erected camps, and Odiniktsev found himself in another open barbed-wire cage near the village of Golubaya. ‘We were starved to death,’ he recounted after being found over three months later by Red Army troops. ‘On the best days we received a little rye in boiled water. Meat from a dead horse was a delicacy. We were constantly beaten with rifle butts, sometimes without any reason. Each day, dozens of people died from starvation or beating.’ Although the NKVD was highly suspicious of any Red Army soldier taken by the Germans, Odiniktsev’s interrogator believed his story. ‘This man’, he scribbled in pencil at the bottom of the typed report, ‘looks like a skeleton covered with skin.’

So rapid was the German advance at this time that, on 19 July, Stalin personally ordered the Stalingrad Defence Committee to prepare the city for war immediately. The Stavka feared that Rostov would not hold out for long. The Seventeenth Army was poised to cross the Don on the Black Sea side, First Panzer Army was advancing on the city from the north, and part of Fourth Panzer Army was about to strike across the Don to the east of it. On 23 July, 13th and 22nd Panzer Divisions backed by panzer grenadiers from the SS Wiking Division, struck right into the heart of Rostov as far as the main Don bridge. Fighting in the city was fierce, especially the defence by NKVD troops of their headquarters, but by the end of the following day, the last main pockets of resistance were crushed in an operation of systematic clearance, building by building. The Führer was exultant. The retaking of Rostov obliterated his bad memories of the previous winter.

Hitler had arrived at his new advanced headquarters at the Ukrainian town of Vinnitsa on 16 July. As an alternative to the Wolfsschanze at Rastenburg, it was code-named Werwolf. (The word Wolf, the old German version of Adolf, clearly gave the Führer an atavistic thrill.) He was no doubt reassured to know that Vinnitsa was ‘fudenrein’ – ‘cleansed of Jews’ – after mass executions by a police battalion the previous autumn. The town, it later transpired, had also been the site of Stalinist atrocities in 1938 when NKVD troops massacred over 10,000 Ukrainians, but the Germans did not discover the graves until 1943.

The Werwolf complex of large and comfortable log cabins had been built in a pine wood north of the town. The deceptively simple ‘Führer house’ was built round a private courtyard. Hitler, paranoid in enemy territory, also had a concrete bunker. His bodyguard, Rattenhuber, described the security precautions at Vinnitsa during his interrogation by SMERSH officers soon after the end of the war. Stalin, who was obsessed with every personal detail about Hitler, received a special report from Abakumov, the head of SMERSH.

The effort and attention to detail, when serving the Führer’s needs and safety, were reminiscent of a Byzantine court. Before he arrived, Gestapo teams searched the walls for microphones and explosives. A large vegetable garden was organized by a German horticultural firm, Zeidenspiner, and dug by the Todt Organisation. Hitler’s personal chef, Hauptsturmführer Fater, had to go out to select the vegetables himself. Any other vegetable destined for the Führer’s plate had to be dug up under the eye of an appointed courier who then brought the produce direct to the kitchen. All the food was chemically analysed before cooking, and sampled by a taster before it reached his plate. Samples from the water supply also had to be checked several times a day. Mineral water was bottled in the presence of couriers, and brought in. Even the laundry was X-rayed to ensure that no explosive had been concealed. Oxygen tanks were stored outside the bunker ready to pump in air, because Hitler was afraid of noxious vapours from the ferroconcrete. The Gestapo supervised the filling of these tanks and tested them regularly.

The Führer’s stay during the second part of July coincided with a period of great heat. The temperature was close to forty degrees. Hitler, sweating profusely, was most uncomfortable, especially in his state of feverish impatience during the advance on Rostov. Unable to bear the wait, he kept goading Haider to speed the operation. He had so convinced himself that the Red Army was in the final stages of collapse that on 23 July he rewrote Operation Blue, in Führer Directive No. 45. ‘In a campaign which has lasted little more than three weeks, the deep objectives outlined by me for the south flank of the Eastern Front have been largely achieved. Only weak enemy forces have succeeded in escaping encirclement and reaching the far bank of the Don.’

Hitler, having already ignored the strategic rationale on which the whole plan had been based, now increased its objectives at a stroke. Sixth Army would take and occupy Stalingrad. He was no longer content with the original idea of just advancing to the Volga and destroying the arms factories. Paulus should then send motorized groups down the Volga to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Army Group A under Field Marshal List was now ordered to seize the whole of the eastern seaboard of the Black Sea and most of the rest of the Caucasus.

List, on receiving this order two days later, stared in disbelief. He could only conclude that Hitler possessed intelligence confirming the collapse of the Red Army which had not been passed down. The army commanders also heard that Manstein’s Eleventh Army, having now completed the conquest of the Crimea, was leaving for the Leningrad front, and that the Grossdeutschland and the SS Leibstandarte panzer grenadier divisions were to be sent back to France. ‘The constant underestimation of enemy potential’, wrote Haider in his diary, ‘is gradually taking on a grotesque form and becoming dangerous.’

Hitler tried to justify this high-risk gamble on the basis of reinforcements arriving from their allies. Although the Führer could be most persuasive in his full, uplifting, propaganda flow – what Rommel cynically called a ‘sun-ray cure’ – he convinced few generals on this particular subject. When he spoke in grandiose terms of the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies, the Second Hungarian Army and the Eighth Italian Army, they knew perfectly well that they could never be equated to a full German corps, let alone an army, mainly because of their lack of defence against tank attack. German generals also shared the opinion formed by Field Marshal von Rundstedt about this ‘absolute League of Nations army’, which included Romanians (whose officers and NCOs were in his view ‘beyond description’), Italians (‘terrible people’) and Hungarians (‘only wanted to get home quickly’). With a couple of exceptions, such as the Slovaks (‘first rate, very unassuming’) and Romanian mountain troops, he and other German commanders considered them ill-equipped, ill-armed, ill-trained, and completely unprepared for warfare on the Ostfront.

Although arrogantly expressed, many of Rundstedt’s observations are confirmed from other sources. Diaries, letters and Soviet interrogation reports make the lot of allied soldiers and NCOs painfully, and sometimes pathetically, clear. Corporal István Balogh was part of the 1st Hungarian Motorized Brigade which left Budapest railway station on 18 June, ‘amid silent people and sad sounds of bugles’, destined for ‘the blood-soaked land of Russia’. ‘Mother of God guarding over Hungary,’ he wrote in a minute diary, which was taken from his body on the bank of the river Don three months later and sent to Moscow, ‘pray for us and defend us from all sins and disasters! Amen.’ Moods were very mixed as they departed, with sadness, an ancient dread of the Russian steppe and moments of febrile optimism. In some of the troop trains ‘songs were heard’, another Hungarian recounted later when interrogated. ‘Soldiers and officers drank wine and there was gaiety. Nobody knew what war was really like.’

Five days later, Balogh’s train passed some of the battlegrounds of the previous year. ‘Everywhere crushed Russian tanks can still be seen. We look at them and fear the idea of this Red hell moving against Hungary. Thanks be to God that this has been stopped. We are firmly confident that we shall smash the Red danger for Europe.’ On 1 July at Ivanovka, they heard artillery fire for the first time. ‘Everywhere the remains of burnt-out German vehicles can be seen. Aren’t the Germans starting to lose their military luck? Believe in God so that good fortune will stay with us in spite of some defeats.’

The vast majority of all allied soldiers were conscripts, of whom at least half were illiterate. A lack of familiarity with technological advance made them liable to panic if attacked by tanks or aircraft. Their daily pay, as a Romanian cavalry lieutenant acknowledged when captured, was only ‘enough to buy one litre of milk’. The medical services appeared to have changed little since the previous century.

Morale in Hungarian units was not improved by the way the officers treated their men. Field punishment in the allied armies could be arbitrary, if not chaotic. ‘A man went to his comrade without the permission of his detachment commander,’ Corporal Balogh recorded on 3 July. ‘They wanted to hang him, but changed the punishment to eight hours’ guard at night, but this was also postponed. Three other soldiers were hanged, however. To my regret, it is as if we were still living in the fourteenth century.’ Romanian soldiers could still be condemned to flogging by their officers. Disciplinary measures had become even more necessary after the Romanian forces suffered 98,000 casualties in the siege of Odessa during the late summer of 1941. Few of them had understood the reason for continuing to advance east of the Dniester, once Bessarabia had been reoccupied.

The Balkan attitude to war remained primitive in other ways. A number of soldiers expressed their disappointment at the shortage of pickings in Russia after all that their officers had promised them. ‘The habit of looting is in the blood of Germans and Hungarians alike,’ one of them naively admitted to his NKVD interrogator after capture.

The true weakness of these allied armies was not put to the test until that autumn. By the time that Hitler came to recognize, but not to acknowledge, the mistake, it was too late to evade disaster. When one contemplates Hitler’s almost compulsively over-optimistic ambitions at this stage, it is clear that he never read, or never digested, Leo Tolstoy’s tale, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ written in 1886. In it a wealthy peasant named Pahom is told of the rich earth in the land of the Bashkirs beyond the Volga. They are simple folk and he will be able to get all the land he wants from them without much trouble. When Pahom reaches the land of the Bashkirs, they tell him that for a thousand roubles he can have as much land as he can walk round in a day. Pahom, despising them for their lack of sophistication, is exultant. He is certain that he can enclose a huge distance. Almost as soon as he starts out, however, he spots one attractive feature after another that he decides to include, a pond over there, or a stretch of land that would be good for flax. Then, he notices that the sun is starting to go down. Realizing that he risks losing everything, he runs faster and faster to make it back in time. ‘I have grasped too much’, he tells himself, ‘and ruined the whole affair.’ The effort kills him. He dies at the finishing post, and that is where he is buried. ‘Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed,’ was Tolstoy’s conclusion. The difference in the story less than sixty years later was that it was not a single man buried there in the steppe, but hundreds of thousands of proxies.

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