Military history

Not One Step Backwards

On 28 July 1942, while Hitler was still celebrating the capture of Rostov, Stalin sensed that the moment of crisis was at hand. Soviet forces retreating from Paulus’s Sixth Army faced annihilation west of the Don. If the Germans then advanced across the Volga, forty miles further on, the country would be cut in two. Convoy PQ-17 had just been destroyed in the Barents Sea and the new Anglo-American supply line across Persia would soon be threatened. The Soviet Union faced strangulation.

That day, Stalin suddenly stopped pacing up and down his office in the Kremlin while listening to a report from General Vasilevsky. ‘They’ve forgotten my Stavka Order!’ he burst out. This order, issued the previous August, stated that ‘anyone who removes his insignia during battle and surrenders should be regarded as a malicious deserter, whose family is to be arrested as the family of a breaker of the oath and betrayer of the Motherland. Such deserters are to be shot on the spot. Those falling into encirclement… and who prefer to surrender are to be destroyed by any means, while their families are to be deprived of all state allowance and assistance.’

‘They’ve forgotten it!’ Stalin said again. ‘Write a new one on the same lines.’

‘When do you want me to report with the new order?’ Vasilevsky asked.

‘Today. Come back as soon as it is ready.’

Vasilevsky returned that evening with the draft of Order No. 227, more commonly known as ‘Not One Step Backwards’. Stalin made many changes, then signed it. The order was to be read to all troops in the Red Army. ‘Panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of positions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military tribunal.’ Anyone who surrendered was ‘a traitor to the Motherland’. Each army had to organize ‘three to five well-armed detachments (up to 200 men each)’ to form a second line to shoot down any soldier who tried to run away. Zhukov implemented this order on the Western Front within ten days, using tanks manned by specially selected officers. They followed the first wave of an attack, ready ‘to combat cowardice’, by opening fire on any soldiers who wavered.

Three camps were set up for the interrogation of anyone who had escaped from German custody or encirclement. Commanders permitting retreat were to be stripped of their rank and sent to penal companies or battalions. The first on the Stalingrad Front came into being three weeks later on 22 August, the day before the Germans reached the Volga.

Penal companies – shtrafroty – were to perform semi-suicidal tasks such as mine clearance during an attack. Altogether some 422,700 Red Army men would ‘atone with their blood for the crimes they have committed before the Motherland’. The idea so appealed to the Soviet authorities that civilian prisoners were transferred from the Gulag to shtraf units, some say almost a million, but this may well be an exaggeration. Promises of redemption through bravery usually proved to be false, mainly because of bureaucratic indifference. Men were left to die in their ranks. On the Stalingrad Front, the 51st Army was told to round up officers who had escaped from encirclement. The first group of fifty-eight officers heard that they would be sent in front of a commission to allocate them to new units, but nobody bothered to interrogate them. Instead, they found themselves, without trial or warning, in penal companies. By the time the mistake came to light nearly two months later, they were ‘already wounded or killed’.

The system of NKVD Special Departments, re-established the year before to deal with ‘traitors, deserters and cowards’, was strengthened. The Special Department or OO (Osobyi Otdel) dated back to 1919, when Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, wanted complete control over the armed forces. In April 1943, less than two months after the battle of Stalingrad finished, the Special Departments, under their chief, Viktor Abakumov, became SMERSH, the acronym for Smert Shpionam – Death to Spies.

Rifle divisions had an NKVD Special Department staff of up to twenty officers, with one ‘Operational representative’ per battalion, and a headquarters guard unit of twenty to thirty men, who held prisoners and executed ‘cowards and traitors’. The Special Department officer recruited his own agents and informers. According to a former SMERSH informer, he tended to be ‘pale because they usually worked during the night’, and, on parade, he ‘looked closely in our faces as if he knew something bad about each one of us’.

NKVD Special Departments took their work of rooting out spies and traitors with great seriousness. An officer, using the name Brunny, wrote to the author and journalist llya Ehrenburg complaining that the newspapers did not publish enough in praise of the Special Departments. ‘It is very difficult to discover an experienced fascist spy. This requires great intelligence and a good eye. An NKVD soldier should be very keen and know the special rules of this game. The press publishes much about the terrible deeds of the Germans, which is necessary. But it is also important to make our soldiers hate traitors.’

The Wehrmacht tried to exploit the Stalinist approach to loyalty. One German instruction strongly recommended that Soviet prisoners should be warned ‘of the treatment which awaits them at the hands of the NKVD’ should they manage to escape ‘from German captivity and return to the Red Army’.

Another department of the NKVD, set up by Beria in the autumn of 1939, dealt with enemy prisoners of war. Its first major task had been the liquidation of over 4,000 Polish officers in the forest at Katyn. In the summer of 1942, however, its officers were underemployed because so few Germans were captured during the Axis advance.

Every member of a small detachment from the 29th Motorized Division of Fourth Panzer Army was interrogated by Lieutenant Lepinskaya from the political department of South-Western Front headquarters. Her questions to gauge their morale provided little encouraging material. ‘Most of the soldiers want to fight to the end,’ she had to report. ‘No cases of desertion or self-inflicted wounds. Officers strict but fair.’

Lepinskaya had more luck with Romanian prisoners. An officer admitted that his men hated Marshal Antonescu for having ‘sold their motherland to Germany’. Romanian soldiers were even more forthcoming. They told her of ‘fist-fights with Germans’, even that a German officer had been killed after he shot two of their comrades. Their own officers were ‘very rude’ to them and often struck them. There had been numerous cases of self-inflicted wounds, despite lectures from officers that they were ‘a sin against the Motherland and God’. Lepinskaya concluded that the Romanians were clearly in a ‘low political moral state’. Her report was passed rapidly back to Moscow.

The advance across the Don steppe provided many mixed experiences for the Sixth Army after the winter snows. General Strecker, the commander of XI Corps, found it ‘as hot as Africa, with huge dust clouds’. On 22 July, his chief of staff, Helmuth Groscurth, recorded a temperature of ‘53 degrees in the sun’.

Sudden rains, while temporarily turning tracks to mire, did little to solve the water shortage, which was the main preoccupation of the German Landser during that time. The Red Army polluted wells during the retreat, while collective farm buildings were destroyed, and tractors and cattle driven to the rear. Supplies which could not be moved in time were rendered unusable. ‘The Russians have poured petrol over the grain supplies,’ a corporal wrote home on 10 August. ‘Soviet bombers drop phosphorus bombs at night to set the steppe on fire,’ reported a panzer division. But many of the columns of black smoke on the horizon were started by cordite burns round artillery positions.

The German gunners in shorts, with their bronzed torsos muscled from the lifting of shells, looked like athletes from a Nazi propaganda film, but conditions were not as healthy as they might have appeared. Cases of dysentery, typhus and paratyphus began to increase. Around field ambulances, cookhouses and especially butchery sections, ‘the plague of flies was horrible’, reported one doctor. They were most dangerous for those with open wounds, such as the burns of tank crewmen. The continual movement forward made it very difficult to care for the sick and wounded. Evacuation by a ‘Sanitäts-Ju’ air ambulance was the best hope, but Hitler’s insistence on speed meant that almost every transport aircraft had been diverted to deliver fuel to halted panzer divisions.

For soldiers of the Sixth Army, the summer of 1942 offered the last idylls of war. In Don Cossack country, the villages of whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs, surrounded by small cherry orchards, willows and horses in meadows provided an attractive contrast to the usual dilapidation of villages taken over by collective farms. Most of the civilians, who had stayed behind in defiance of Communist evacuation orders, were friendly. Many of the older men had fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. Only the previous spring, just a few weeks before the German invasion, Cossacks had risen in revolt at Shakhty, north of Rostov, declaring an independent republic. This had been stamped out by NKVD troops with a rapid and predictable brutality.

To the surprise of a company commander in the 384th Infantry Division, Cossacks remained friendly even after looting by his soldiers. They handed over eggs, milk, salted cucumber and even a whole ham as a gift. He then arranged to purchase geese for two Reichsmarks a bird. ‘To be honest, people give everything they have if you treat them correctly,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I’ve never eaten so much as here. We eat honey with spoons until we’re sick, and in the evening we eat boiled ham.’

During the rapid German advances, Stalin sought to blame his generals. He kept changing commanders in the vain hope that a ruthless new leader could galvanize resistance and transform the situation. He even rang one army commander to dismiss him, then told him to call to the telephone one of his own corps commanders who was to be his replacement. A sense of failure and disaster spread, destroying the confidence partially rebuilt after the battle before Moscow. The Red Army, still suffering from Stalin’s premature offensives early in the year, lacked trained troops and experienced NCOs and officers. Most of the conscripts hurled into battle had often received little more than a dozen days’ training, some even less. Young peasants drafted in from collective farms were pitifully ignorant of modern warfare and weaponry. A cavalryman who found an aluminium tube on the ground thought he could use it as a handle for his horsebrush. It proved to be an incendiary bomb, which blew up in his hands.

The Germans never ceased to be astonished at the profligacy of Russian commanders with their men’s lives. One of the worst examples came during the defensive battles west of the Don. Three battalions of trainee officers, without weapons or rations, were sent against the 16th Panzer Division. Their commandant, who surrendered after the massacre, told his captors that when he had protested ‘about this senseless task’, the army commander, who was clearly drunk, had bellowed at him to get on with it.

The Red Army still suffered from the old fear of initiative left from the purges. But out of the latest disasters in the south, which finally destroyed the reputations of Stalinist witch-hunters, a new breed of commander was starting to emerge – energetic, pitiless and much less afraid of commissars and the NKVD. Zhukov’s achievements provided the light and the hope for many other rising officers, furious at the Red Army’s humiliations.

General Vasily Chuikov, soon to become the army commander in Stalingrad, was one of the most ruthless of this new generation. His explosions of temper were compared to those of Zhukov. His strong, peasant face and thick hair were typically Russian. He also had a robust sense of humour and a bandit laugh which exposed gold-crowned teeth. Soviet propaganda later portrayed him as the ideal product of the October Revolution.

Chuikov had missed the first disastrous six months of war, having been in China as a military attaché accredited to Chiang Kai-shek. After his recall to the Soviet Union, he became acting commander of a reserve army near Tula. Early in July, when still suffering from a spinal injury, he received orders to move his incomplete divisions, now designated the 64th Army, to hold the Germans west of the Don.

Chuikov, accompanied by his chief commissar, Konstantin Kirkov-ich Abramov, reached Stalingrad Front headquarters on 16 July. They heard that the enemy was advancing rapidly towards the Don, but nobody had any details. The 62nd Army was spread out on the upper part of the Don’s eastern loop, and Chuikov had to bring his divisions in to cover the lower part, south of the river Chir. He was understandably worried about the morale of the army on his left, having intercepted a lorry full of officers with spare cans of fuel, escaping to the rear without permission.

Just to his right, above the river Chir, the Austrian 44th Infantry Division was heavily engaged against three divisions of 62nd Army. The fighting was particularly brutal. A captured corporal told his interrogator that an officer had ordered them to shoot two wounded Red Army soldiers they had found ‘hiding in a ditch’. Further north, however, the Germans had broken through in strength, cutting off many regiments when they reached the Don at Kamensky.

German reconnaissance planes quickly pinpointed the weak points along the Don, and the deployment of Chuikov’s forward divisions. On 25 July, the Germans attacked in force. This baptism of fire for the 64th Army was not made any simpler by dust storms, nor by the fact that essential detachments were still stuck behind in Tula. The next morning brought a German armoured attack, and although the panzers terrified the crews of the light T-60 tanks, who tried to hide in gullies, their shells could do little to the heavy KV tanks.

‘They had a longer range,’ explained a German panzer commander. ‘We could not attack them across the open. So, like ships at sea, I pulled my tanks right back out of sight, made a wide detour, and attacked them from behind.’ The Russian heavy tanks scattered, except for one which had lost a track; its traverse mechanism had jammed, so the turret could not turn. We lined up behind him, and started to shoot. We counted our hits on this tank, but none of them penetrated the armour. Then, I saw the hatch of the tank move. I guessed that they wanted to surrender, so over the radio I told my company to cease fire. The Russians then opened the hatch completely and climbed out.’ The crew were totally confused, shaken and deafened, but not one of them was even wounded. ‘It was depressing to realize how inferior our tank guns were.’

The German strike through the right flank of 62nd Army to the Don soon caused chaos. A rumour spread in the rear echelons of Chuikov’s 64th Army on 26 July that German tanks were about to cut them off. A stampede to the pontoon bridge over the Don began. The panic then infected front-line troops. Chuikov sent staff officers to the river bank to restore order, but German aircraft had already spotted the opportunity. Waves of Richthofen’s Stukas appeared and several of Chuikov’s senior officers were among those killed.

The 62nd Army was in an even worse position. The 33rd Guards Rifle Division, commanded by Colonel Aleksandr Utvenko, found itself trapped on the west bank of the Don, attacked by two German divisions. ‘They would have quickly finished us off if we had not dug ourselves in deeply,’ Utvenko told the writer Konstantin Simonov shortly afterwards. His division, down to 3,000 strong, was having to send the wounded on carts and camels to the rear at night. The Germans were also sustaining heavy losses. On just one battalion sector, 513 German corpses were dragged into a balka, or gully. The Russians were so short of ammunition that they had to attack to capture enemy guns and ammunition. They had so little to eat that they boiled wheat from surrounding fields. On 11 August, the remains of the division split into small groups to fight through to the Don. ‘I myself reloaded my pistol five times,’ Utvenko recounted. ‘Several commanders shot themselves. Up to 1,000 men were killed, but they sold their lives dearly. One man took a leaflet out of his pocket and started walking towards the Germans. Galya, a woman interpreter on our staff, shouted: “Look at him! The snake is going to surrender!”, and she shot him with her pistol.’

The last pocket of resistance, having run out of anti-tank ammunition, was overrun by German panzers. Utvenko and his remaining companions jumped from a small cliff into a marsh, where he was wounded in the feet by shrapnel from a shellburst. Able only to crawl, Utvenko spent the next day hiding in a field of sunflowers with some twenty soldiers. That night, they collected more survivors, and swam across the Don. Eight of them drowned. Utvenko was pulled across by his adjutant, a former gynaecologist called Khudobkin, who had an epileptic fit just after they reached the far bank. Utvenko remarked afterwards that it was fortunate he had not had it in the river. ‘If we don’t die here,’ Khudobkin replied, ‘we’ll survive the war.’ Khudobkin had a particular reason for believing he would live. His mother had received notification of his death in the Crimea, where he had been badly wounded, and she had organized a church service. According to Russian superstition, if your memorial service took place when you were still alive, you would not go to an early grave. Simonov clearly sensed in that terrible summer of 1942 that this idea was symbolic for the whole country.

Despite the disasters and chaos from bad communications, Red Army units continued to fight back. They made the most of night raids, since an attack during daylight immediately brought a response from the Luftwaffe. The German company commander who kept a diary in the 384th Infantry Division recorded on 2 August: ‘Russians resisting hard. These are fresh troops and young.’ And again the next day: ‘Russians resisting hard. They are getting reinforcements all the time. One of our sapper companies avoided battle. Very shameful.’ His own soldiers then began to suffer badly from stomach-ache, perhaps due to contaminated water. ‘It’s terrible here,’ he wrote a few days later. ‘Such terrifying nights. Every single one of us is tense. One’s nerves don’t stand a chance.’

In an attempt to counter Luftwaffe air superiority, Red Army aviation regiments were transferred hurriedly from the central and northern fronts. A regiment of night-fighters landing for the first time at a new base to support the Stalingrad Front discovered that their aerodrome was no more than a large field planted with watermelons and surrounded by tomato plants, which the local peasants continued to harvest even while fighters landed and took off. The regiment’s presence was soon spotted by a Focke-Wulf reconnaissance aircraft, and when strafing Messerschmitts came in just above ground level, the adjacent peasant market was caught in their fire. In an instant the rural scene became one of total chaos, with panic-stricken horses rearing in the shafts of wagons, children screaming, awnings ripped by machine-gun bullets and stallholders killed among their fruit and vegetables. Less damage was done to the night-fighter regiment, which found itself forced to maintain an exhausting schedule of sorties. Often there was no time to eat at the field kitchen by the side of the runway, so ground crew would bring plates out to the aircraft at dispersal and pilots ate in their cockpit. The rules of security drummed into the ground personnel by commissars were so absolute that they never counted the number of aeroplanes on the field, or even how many failed to return from a mission.

In the confused air skirmishes at this time, Major Kondrashov, the commander of the regiment, was shot down behind German lines. His left leg, which he later lost, was mangled in the crash, but a peasant woman who lived nearby managed to drag him clear of the wreckage and care for him in her house. The site had been marked by fellow pilots from his regiment, and soon after dawn, two of them landed by her house. They carried Kondrashov out and bundled him into the rear seat of one of the aircraft. The pilot then flew him to a military hospital.

Aerial dogfights over the Don during those last days of July and early August attracted the attention of the whole battlefield below. German infantrymen and panzer crews alike would shade their eyes with a hand against the sun, peering up at the blue sky and vapour trails. Russian aircraft generally attacked ground targets at midday. It was such a regular run that Messerschmitt 109s would often make sure that they were around, ready to jump them. There were cheers whenever an enemy machine was hit, and the stricken aircraft, pouring smoke, corkscrewed down and exploded on the ground. The reputation of star fighter pilots began to grow within the German Army as well as the Luftwaffe.

In this war of movement, the staffs of panzer and motorized divisions seldom bothered to have their headquarters camouflaged. Working in hastily pitched tents through the night on new sets of orders, or checking ammunition and casualty returns, they found that their spirit lamps attracted swarms of insects, not enemy bullets. They caught up on sleep during the day, their heads nodding and rolling around, as the headquarters vehicles moved to the next location.

The commander of the 16th Panzer Division, General Hans Hube, would take a nap in the middle of a battle in front of his staff, thus inspiring confidence in his unflappability. ‘Papa Hube’, as he was known to his troops, made an immediate impression with his powerful, solid face and black artificial hand, having lost an arm in the First World War. Hube was a creature of firm habit and organization. Battle or no battle, he made sure that he ate regularly every three hours, ‘consuming so many calories and vitamins’. Although no intellectual he was a brilliant, clear-thinking man’, according to more than one officer who knew him well. Hitler admired him greatly as a soldier, but because this ‘old warhorse’ was a realist who said what he felt, the Führer considered him ‘too pessimistic’ towards the end of the battle of Stalingrad.

A number of Hube’s panzer commanders made dismissive remarks about the stupidity of the enemy, leaving tanks halted in the open, and thus presenting perfect targets for Stukas or the 88-mm antiaircraft guns, deadly in a ground role. They knew that the T-34 was overall a much better armoured fighting vehicle than anything which Germany had yet produced. On the other hand its gunsight was not very good, few Russian commanders had decent binoculars, and even fewer had radios. The Red Army’s greatest weakness, however, was its poverty of tactics. Their tank forces failed to use terrain properly and demonstrated little familiarity with the principles of fire and movement. And, as Chuikov readily acknowledged, they were incapable of coordinating attacks with Red Army aviation.

Complacency sometimes led the Germans into relaxing their guard. At first light on 30 July, a group of T-34S, having approached under cover of darkness, surprised Hube’s headquarters in a village. Officers struggled into their clothes as shells exploded among the headquarters and rear-echelon vehicles. Podewils, the war correspondent then attached to the division, stuck his head outside. ‘Not an encouraging sight’, he noted in his diary. ‘Vehicles of every sort chaotically trying to overtake each other as fast as they could to get away!’ The Germans had also been surprised on the previous day by another unexpected skirmish, which Hube drily called a ‘Hussar affair’.

The initial shock was soon over. A company from the 2nd Panzer Regiment arrived, and very soon six T-34S were ablaze in the open on some marshy low ground. One T-34, in a suicidal attack, charged at the divisional transport vehicles in the village, but suddenly encountered a German panzer which, ‘with a direct hit at point-blank range, literally blasted its turret into the air’. Hube, after observing the early morning action, remarked to Podewils: ‘You’d better go up to the front line. It’s safer there.’ Podewils and his companion left later in the morning. They drove forward over the corduroy road across the marsh. One of the blackened T-34S still smouldered. It gave off ‘the smell of burnt flesh’.

At corps headquarters he heard that over the last eight days the Red Army had sent nearly a thousand tanks across the Don: just over half of them had been destroyed. These figures were greatly exaggerated. The Red Army commander had only 550 tanks allocated, and many of them never managed to cross the Don. Wildly over-optimistic reports from the front were largely to blame. One panzer crewman observed that ‘whenever a Russian tank was hit, almost every panzer in the battle claimed it as a kill’. Yet the sight of so many destroyed Russian tanks impressed all who saw it. General von Seydlitz said that from afar the shot-out KVs looked like ‘an enormous herd of elephants’. Whatever the exact figure destroyed, many Germans felt convinced that they must be close to total victory. The Russian hydra could not go on for ever growing more heads for them to chop off.

The Führer, again frustrated at the slow progress, reverted to the original plan of the Fourth Panzer Army assisting the Sixth Army to capture Stalingrad. The loss in time and the cost in fuel were not mentioned. Hoth’s armoured divisions reacted quickly. Advancing north against very weak opposition, they soon threatened Kotelnikovo, just under a hundred miles south-west of Stalingrad. But the main question was whether they could make up for Hitler’s changes of plan. General von Richthofen, on the basis of the air reconnaissance reports, noted in his diary on 2 August: ‘The Russians are throwing forces from all directions towards Stalingrad.’

Paulus, in a confident mood according to Richthofen, launched pincer attacks led by 16th and 24th Panzer Divisions and supported by Richthofen’s Stukas. After two days of fighting, they surrounded eight rifle divisions and all the artillery left west of the Don. The encirclement was finally accomplished at Kalach. From the top of a small precipice overlooking the ‘quiet Don’, the first panzer crews gazed across at the town of Kalach in the violet evening light. The setting sun behind their tanks threw long shadows in front of them towards the east. Beyond Kalach, the steppe stretched ahead to Stalingrad. Kalach itself consisted mainly of small workshops, a dilapidated railway station and ‘hÖchst primitiv’ wooden shacks.

After their success, the panzer crews joked among themselves with relief and happiness, coming down from the tension of battle. Songs rang out from some of the tanks. But soon their commanders pulled them back into ‘hedgehog’ defensive position. After dusk had fallen, the thousands of Russian stragglers trapped on the west bank started to attack, and the night was continually broken with bursts of machine-gun fire, flares and crackling exchanges of rifle fire.

The next day, the Germans started to clear the woods systematically, a number of officers comparing it to a rather large deer shoot. The prisoners taken included a senior signals officer and his personnel, most of whom were women. That night, another battle broke out, this time by moonlight, around the German positions. The following morning, the Germans set fire to the dry brush to drive the remaining Russians out of the woods. Finally, the area was regarded as ‘cleansed of enemy’. Few escaped. Of the 181st Rifle Division of 62nd Army, which had been 13,000 strong at the start of the fighting, only 105 men slipped back across the Don.

The fighting had indeed been hard. Many German soldiers did not share Paulus’s confidence, nor Hitler’s opinion that the enemy was finished. On the first day, the anti-tank battalion of the 371st Infantry Division lost twenty-three men. More and more often, Sixth Army soldiers, like those in the 389th Infantry Division, were hearing the ‘Urrah!’ of charging Soviet infantry. One soldier writing home was utterly dejected by ‘the many, many crosses and graves, fresh from yesterday’, and the implications for the future. Heavy losses in other divisions also seem to have dented morale. The 76th Infantry Division had to detail extra soldiers for burial parties. One of those men selected told his Russian interrogator, when captured a month later, that he and his two companions had had to deal with seventy-two corpses in a single day. An artillery corporal, on the other hand, who had worked for twenty-nine hours without a proper break, was in no doubt about a victorious outcome for the Wehrmacht. ‘The Russians can shoot as much as they want, but we’ll shoot more. It’s a great pleasure when a couple of hundred Russians attack. One self-propelled assault gun is enough, and they all make a run for it.’

Some units were rewarded with extra rations of chocolate and cigarettes for their exertions, which they enjoyed during the relative cool of the evening. The fighting had been hard. ‘The only consolation’, a pioneer wrote home, ‘is that we will be able to have peace and quiet in Stalingrad, where we’ll move into winter quarters, and then, just think of it, there’ll be a chance of leave.’

Nowhere was Stalin’s ‘Not one step back’ order more applicable than in the threatened city that bore his name. The civil-war battle, which took place when the town was still called Tsaritsyn (in Tartar it meant the town on the Tsaritsa, or yellow river), was invoked along with the myth that Stalin’s leadership there had turned the tide against the White armies and saved the Revolution. The regional military committee did not shrink from using every measure to turn the city into a fortress. The task was far from easy. Stalingrad curved for twenty miles along the high western bank of the Volga. The defenders would have a broad stretch of exposed water behind them, across which all supplies and reinforcements would have to come.

Throughout the region, the population was mobilized. All available men and women between sixteen and fifty-five – nearly 200,000 –were mobilized in ‘workers’ columns’, organized by their district Party committees. As in Moscow the year before, women in kerchiefs and older children were marched out and given long-handled shovels and baskets to dig anti-tank ditches over six feet deep in the sandy earth. While the women dug, army sappers laid heavy anti-tank mines on the western side.

Younger schoolchildren, meanwhile, were put to work building earth walls round the petroleum-storage tanks on the banks of the Volga. Supervised by teachers, they carried the earth on wooden stretchers. A German aircraft suddenly appeared. The girls did not know where to hide, and the explosion from a bomb buried two fourteen-year-old girls. When their classmates dug them out, they found that one of them, Nina Grebennikova, was paralysed with a broken back. Her shocked and weeping friends cleaned off the wooden stretcher, and carried her on it to a Stalingrad hospital, next to where the Tsaritsa gorge opens on to the Volga.

Anti-aircraft defences were a high priority, but many of the guns had not yet received shells. Most batteries were formed with young women, mainly Komsomol members, who had been recruited in April with the inescapably pointed question: ‘Do you want to defend your Motherland?’ Batteries were sited on both banks of the Volga to defend key installations, such as the power station at Beketovka just to the south, and the large factories in the northern sector of the town. There, the workers on arms-production lines, such as the Stalingrad tractor factory, which had converted to the production of T-34 tanks, received rudimentary military training.

The Stalingrad Defence Committee issued decree after decree. Collective farms were ordered to hand their grain reserves over to the Red Army. Tribunals were set up to try those who failed in their patriotic duty. Failure to denounce a member of the family who deserted or failed to enlist carried a ten-year sentence. The director of a high school ordered to take sixty-six of his seventeen-year-old pupils to enlist them at the district military commission, was put in front of a tribunal because thirty-one of them deserted en route.

Tribunals also dealt in absentia with civilian ‘deserters’, most of them denounced by retreating refugees. Those pronounced guilty were sentenced as a ‘Traitor to the Party and to the Soviet State’. All too often guilt was a matter of timing. Y. S., who ran away when her village was bombed, was sentenced to six months’ labour camp ‘for deserting her place of work’, while A. S., who refused to leave her home when the Germans were approaching, was condemned in absentia as a ‘traitor to the Motherland’. A minimum of ten years in a Gulag labour camp awaited her.

For some time to come, the political department of the Stalingrad Front paid ‘special attention to the investigation of male conscripts from regions of the Ukraine liberated by the Red Army in the winter 1941/2’. Those who had ‘refused to evacuate’ their towns and villages were, by definition, suspect of being ‘systematically anti-Soviet’ and of having collaborated with the Germans.

Declarations in Moscow about freedom of religion carried little weight in the Stalingrad region. The head of the agricultural bank in one district, who sent his brother, an officer in the Red Army, some prayers, ‘advising him to recite them before battle’, was condemned for ‘Anti-Party action’. Civilians also had to be very careful about commenting on the speed of the German advance or the incompetence of the Russian defence. A. M., a worker in a Volga fish-factory, was accused of’political and moral degeneracy’ and ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ because he allegedly ‘praised the Germans and blackened the leaders of the Party, the Government and the Red Army’.

Stalin, warned of the atmosphere of panic behind the front, resorted once again to changing commanders. Having dismissed Timoshenko on 21 July, to replace him with General V. N. Gordov, supervised by Vasilevsky, he then decided in early August to split the front into two commands, with the southern part extending from the Tsaritsa (see Map 6) in the centre of Stalingrad southwards into the Kalmyk steppe. Colonel-General Andrey Yeremenko, who had not yet entirely recovered from his leg wound, on hearing of his appointment to command the southern half, argued against splitting the front through the centre of Stalingrad, but this only irritated the supreme commander-in-chief.

Yeremenko flew down on 4 August in a Douglas transport aircraft and landed at the small airfield on the north-west edge of the city. Khrushchev met him with a car and they drove to the headquarters. For Yeremenko, the lack of information about the enemy was depressing. Five days later, Stalin reorganized the front commands again and promoted Yeremenko to command both. But Stalin, still nervous, sent Zhukov down to investigate and report back.

The chief danger, as Yeremenko soon spotted, was a simultaneous attack from Paulus’s Sixth Army attacking across the Don from the west and Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army attacking from the south-west. The whole of the lower Volga was in danger, and there was panic in Astrakhan after German bombing. The oil refineries by the estuary into the Caspian burned for a week, emitting filthy black clouds. Other raids caused chaos, for the ports were packed with refugees, and the quays piled with factory machinery, destined for evacuation eastwards. Now, apart from the desert, the only escape route was across the Caspian Sea.

Few forces were available to oppose Hoth’s forces in the semi-barren Kalmyk steppe, which Russians from the north thought of as ‘the end of the world’. Lev Lazarev, who commanded a detachment of marine infantry there, said of the area: ‘It’s not Russia, it’s Asia. It was hard to understand the reason to fight for such territory, yet we all knew that we had to stand or die there.’ With no soldiers available, the Soviet military authorities had turned to the navy. Brigades of sailors were transferred by rail across Siberia from the Far East fleet. Their officers were eighteen-year-old cadets originally from the naval academy in Leningrad, where they had fought in the early part of the siege. In August, while the sailors were en route from the Far East, the cadets received three weeks’ field training on the Kalmyk steppe. These eighteen-year-olds awaited the tough sailors they were to command with trepidation. But they did not disgrace themselves in battle. The casualty rate for the young lieutenants would be terrible. Out of Lazarev’s class of twenty-one cadets, only two remained alive the following year.

On the German side, meanwhile, a sense of unease began to grow in spite of their victories. ‘After the Don we will advance to the Volga,’ wrote the company commander who kept a diary in the 384th Infantry Division. But he recognized the danger. Germany simply did not have ‘enough troops to push forward along the whole front’. He began to suspect that the war had developed a momentum of its own. It would not come to an end when they reached the great river that was supposed to mark their final destination.

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