Military history

The Volga is Reached!

On 21 August 1942, infantry companies from General von Seydlitz’s LI Corps crossed the Don at dawn in inflatable assault boats. They rapidly established a bridgehead near the village of Luchinsky. More and more companies paddled furiously over the broad expanse of water. A few miles downstream at Vertyachy, a whole battalion crossed the Don in relays in less than seventy minutes.

Once bridgeheads were secured, pioneer battalions went to work building pontoon bridges to take the tanks and other vehicles of General von Wietersheim’s XIV Panzer Corps. The German pioneers, intrigued by the mysterious contrasts of the ‘quiet Don’, referred to the river affectionately as ‘the stream’. A number of soldiers and officers in the Sixth Army seem to have fallen for this stretch of Don Cossack country. Some dreamed of having a farm there once the war was won.

Soon after midday on 22 August, the bridge was ready, and General Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, ‘the battering ram of the corps’, began to cross. The tanks, half-tracks, self-propelled assault guns, eight-wheeled reconnaissance vehicles and trucks rattled deafeningly over the pontoon bridge.

That night, as soon as the moon rose, Russian aircraft began their bombing runs. Vehicles were hit on both banks, and they burned brightly, illuminating the target area, but the bombs continued to miss the bridge itself. Hube’s divisional headquarters received reports of skirmishes around the edges of the bridgehead. From time to time, the shrieking whoosh of Katyusha rockets from ‘Stalin organs’ could be heard. The sound was unsettling, but the enemy batteries were firing blind. Behind the infantry screen the laagered panzer troops made final checks on their vehicles, or caught up on a little sleep. At 04.30 hours, as the dawn rose ahead of them in the east, Count von Strachwitz’s Abteilung of the 2nd Panzer Regiment, reinforced with panzer grenadier companies, moved forward towards the Volga. The tank crews, conscious of the historic event, found it ‘a very exhilarating moment’.

The steppe between the Don and Volga, stone-hard in the summer drought, offered fast going. Tank commanders standing in their turrets, wearing goggles against the dust, had to keep an eye out ahead for a hidden balka or gully that might not be visible to the driver. For the first dozen miles, the panzer crews sighted few enemy. The slightly rolling terrain of dry, rough grass seemed eerily empty.

The sun had still not risen high in the sky when General Hube, after a flurry of radio transmissions, suddenly halted his headquarters. Engines were switched off to conserve fuel. They waited in the baking heat. Soon the droning of a small aeroplane could be heard. A Fieseler Storch liaison aircraft appeared. It circled, then came in to land alongside the armoured vehicles. The pilot climbed out and strode over. It was General von Richthofen. Richthofen, now commander-in-chief of the Fourth Air Fleet, hardly bothered to conceal his mood of impatience with the army. ‘General Paulus is worried about his left flank,’ he had noted in his diary only three days before. He was also displeased when told that the Luftwaffe’s main priority was ‘to shoot up tanks!’ For fighter pilots, ground attack was regarded as menial and unnecessarily dangerous work. It had none of the skill of aerial combat and ran the risk of a lucky shot from the ground when Russian infantry lay flat on their backs and fired away with their rifles.

Richthofen, in shirtsleeves and with his uniform cap pushed back, exposing part of his shaved head, greeted Hube curtly. On orders from Führer headquarters, all of Fourth Air Fleet’s resources were to be diverted to the Stalingrad Front, ‘to cripple the Russians completely’. ‘Make use of today!’ he told Hube. ‘You’ll be supported by 1,200 aircraft. Tomorrow I can’t promise you any more.’

In the afternoon, the panzer crews looked up, squinting against the sunlight, to see waves of Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111 bombers, as well as squadrons of Stukas ‘in tightly packed groups’, flying towards Stalingrad. A mass of shadows passed across the steppe. On their return, the Stuka pilots ‘sounded their sirens’ to greet the advancing troops. The panzer crews waved back exultantly. In the distance, they could already see the columns of smoke rising from the city, which Sixth Army headquarters, in an excess of propagandists enthusiasm, described as ‘Stalingrad, the city of Stalin, the starting-point of the Red revolution’.

For the citizens of Stalingrad, Sunday, 23 August, was ‘a day which will never be forgotten’. The model city of which they were so proud, with its gardens along the high west bank of the Volga and the tall white apartment buildings which gave the place its modern, cubist look, became an inferno.

The loudspeakers in the streets attached to lamp-posts began to repeat: ‘Comrades, an air-raid warning has been sounded in the city. Attention, comrades, an air-raid warning…’ The population had heard so many false air-raid warnings, broadcast in the same monotonous voice, that few took this one seriously at first. Only after anti-aircraft batteries opened fire did people begin to run for cover. Those picnicking on the Mamaev Kurgan, the huge Tartar burial mound which dominated the centre of the city, were the most exposed. Down in the long broad streets which ran parallel to the Volga, the mass of refugees from outlying districts found little protection, apart from trenches in courtyards and gardens dug by block committees for those who could not reach a cellar in time.

Richthofen’s aircraft began to carpet-bomb in relays, ‘not just industrial targets, but everything’, said one student present that day. The high-explosive bombs oscillated gently as they dropped in sticks from the Heinkels. Descriptions of scenes in the city make it hard to imagine anyone surviving outside a cellar. Incendiary bombs showered on the wooden houses down the south-western edge of the city. They burned to the ground, but in the smoking ash, their spindly brick chimneys remained standing in rows like a surrealist graveyard. Closer to the banks of the great river, the shells of the tall white apartment blocks remained standing, even when hit, but most of the floors inside collapsed. Many other buildings were smashed open, or set afire. Mothers cradled dead babies, and children tried to rouse mothers killed beside them. Hundreds of other families were buried alive in rubble.

One German pilot, after his aircraft was hit by one of the women’s anti-aircraft batteries, managed to bale out, but when his parachute opened, he drifted straight down into a blaze. Those citizens of Stalingrad who saw his end were so shocked by the onslaught around that even the satisfaction of poetic justice was beyond them.

The huge petroleum-storage tanks on the Volga bank were also hit. A ball of flame rose about 1,500 feet into the sky, and over the following days, the column of black smoke could be seen from over two hundred miles away. Blazing oil spread across the Volga. Bombs destroyed the telephone exchange and waterworks, and the main Stalingrad hospital was straddled by a stick of bombs. Windows were blasted in and children hurled from their beds. They included Nina Grebennikova, the fourteen-year-old whose spine had been broken a week before by the bomb which fell near the petroleum-storage tanks. The attack on the hospital so terrorized members of the staff that they ran away, abandoning their patients, some of whom were left for five days without food or care.

One mother, caught in the open with a daughter whose legs froze in shell-shock, ‘literally had to drag her home’ through the bombing. No driver would attempt the journey. With virtually all the fathers away at the front, or now mobilized, women were left to cope with the appalling aftermath. Viktor Goncharov’s wife, helped by her eleven-year-old son, Nikolay, buried her father’s corpse in the yard of their apartment block, which had received a direct hit. ‘Before filling in the grave,’ the son remembered, ‘we searched for his head, but could not find it.’ Her mother-in-law, Goncharova, the wife of the Cossack veteran, was lost in the chaos. Somehow the old woman managed to live through the battle to come, surviving for just over five months in a bunker. They did not find each other again until the end of the war, nearly three years later.

The aerial assault on Stalingrad, the most concentrated on the Ostfront) represented the natural culmination of Richthofen’s career since Guernica.* Fourth Air Fleet aircraft flew a total of 1,600 sorties that day and dropped 1,000 tons of bombs for the loss of only three machines. According to some estimates, there had been nearly 600,000 people in Stalingrad, and 40,000 were killed during the first week of bombardment.

The reason why so many citizens and refugees still remained on the west bank of the Volga was typical of the regime. The NKVD had commandeered almost all river craft, while allotting a very low priority to evacuating the civil population. Then Stalin, deciding that no panic must be allowed, refused to permit the inhabitants of Stalingrad to be evacuated across the Volga. This, he thought, would force the troops, especially the locally raised militia, to defend the city more desperately. ‘No one bothered about human beings,’ observed one of the boys trapped behind with their mothers. ‘We too were just meat for the guns.’

While Richthofen’s bombers pounded Stalingrad, the armoured spearhead of 16th Panzer Division had advanced virtually unopposed across the steppe for nearly twenty-five miles. ‘Around Gumrak’, the division recorded, ‘enemy resistance became stronger and anti-aircraft guns began firing wildly at our armoured vehicles from the north-west corner of Stalingrad.’

This resistance came from the batteries operated by young women volunteers, barely out of high school. Few had fired the guns before, owing to the shortage of ammunition, and none of them had been trained to take on targets on the ground. They had switched targets from the bombers over the city on sighting the panzers, whose crews ‘seemed to think they were on a Sunday promenade’. The young gun crews furiously wound the handles, depressing the barrels to zero elevation – the Soviet 37-mm anti-aircraft guns were fairly crude copies of the Bofors – and traversed on to the leading armoured vehicles.

The German panzer crews quickly overcame their initial surprise, and deployed to attack some of the batteries. Stukas soon arrived to deal with others. This unequal battle was watched in anguish by Captain Sarkisyan, the commander of a Soviet heavy-mortar battalion, who later related what he saw to the writer Vasily Grossman. Every time the anti-aircraft guns fell silent, Sarkisyan exclaimed: ‘Oh, they’re finished now! They’ve been wiped out!’ But each time, after a pause, the guns started to fire again. ‘This’, declared Grossman, ‘was the first page of the Stalingrad defence.’

The German spearhead pushed on for the last few miles. At about four in the afternoon, just as the August sunlight was softening, they reached Rynok, to the north of Stalingrad, and there ‘the soldiers of the 16th Panzer Division gazed on the Volga, flowing past right before their eyes’. They could hardly believe it. ‘We had started early in the morning on the Don,’ recalled one of Strachwitz’s company commanders, ‘and then we were on the Volga’. Somebody in the battalion produced a camera and they took photographs of each other, standing on the backs of their vehicles, gazing through binoculars to the far shore. These were included in Sixth Army headquarters records with the caption: ‘The Volga is reached!’ The camera, turned southwards, took other souvenir pictures. One showed columns of smoke from the Luftwaffe raids and is recorded as ‘view from the outskirts of Stalingrad on fire’.

Soon after their arrival, the fighter ace Kurt Ebener and a companion from the ‘Udet’ fighter wing wheeled over the Volga just north of Stalingrad. The pilots spotted the tanks and panzer grenadiers below, and ‘a feeling of overwhelming joy and relief for their comrades on the ground below’ inspired victory rolls and other aerobatics in celebration.

Like the other panzer commanders, Captain Freytag-Loringhoven stood on top of his tank to gaze through binoculars across the wide river. The view was excellent from the much higher western bank. ‘We looked at the immense, immense steppe towards Asia, and I was overwhelmed,’ he remembered. ‘But I could not think about it for very long because we had to make an attack against another anti-aircraft battery that had started firing at us.’

The anti-aircraft battery crews were astonishingly resilient. According to Captain Sarkisyan, ‘the girls refused to go down into the bunkers’. One of them, called Masha, is said to have ‘stayed at her post for four days without being relieved’, and was credited with nine hits. Even if that figure is an exaggeration, like many at the time, the 16th Panzer Division’s report casts no doubts on their bravery. ‘Right until the late afternoon’, stated one account, ‘we had to fight, shot for shot, against thirty-seven enemy anti-aircraft positions, manned by tenacious fighting women, until they were all destroyed.’

The panzer troops were horrified when they found that they had been firing at women.* The Russians still find this squeamishness curiously illogical, considering that Richthofen’s bombers had killed many thousands of women and children in Stalingrad that very same afternoon. German officers in Stalingrad did not suffer chivalresque illusions much longer. ‘It is completely wrong to describe Russian women as “soldiers in skirts”,’ wrote one of them later. ‘The Russian woman has long been fully prepared for combat duties and to fill any post of which a woman might be capable. Russian soldiers treat such women with great wariness.’

The Soviet defenders of Stalingrad were in a dangerous position, partly because General Yeremenko had concentrated most of his available forces to slow Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army advancing on Stalingrad from the south-west. He had never imagined that Paulus’s forces would break through so suddenly and so boldly on his right.

Nikita Khrushchev joined him at the underground headquarters tunnelled deep into the Tsaritsa gorge. The threat they faced was so urgent that when two engineer officers arrived to report that their men had just finished building a pontoon bridge across the Volga, they were told to destroy it immediately. The two sappers stared at their commander-in-chief in horrified disbelief. Protests were cut short. It is not hard to imagine the panic there would have been in Stalingrad, to say nothing of the reaction in Moscow, if the Germans were to have carried straight through in one swoop and seized a bridgehead on the east bank of the Volga – as Strachwitz had in fact wanted to do.

Stalin was furious when he heard that German troops had reached the Volga. He forbade the mining of factories, the evacuation of machinery or any other action which ‘might be taken as a decision to surrender Stalingrad’. The city was to be defended to the very end. The Military Council had posters put up all over the city proclaiming a state of siege: ‘We shall never surrender the city of our birth. Let us barricade every street. Let us transform each district, each block, each building into an impregnable fortress.’ Many men panicked, including even the secretary of the Stalingrad Komsomol Committee, who ‘deserted his post’ and fled to the eastern bank without permission.

Those workers not directly involved in producing weapons for immediate use were mobilized in militia ‘special brigades’ under the commander of the 10th NKVD Division, Colonel Sarayev. Ammunition and rifles were distributed, but many men received a weapon only after a comrade was killed. In the northern industrial suburb of Spartakovka, badly armed worker militia battalions were sent into battle against the 16th Panzer Division with predictable results. Students from the technical university, digging trenches on the northern flank of the city, carried on although already under direct fire from 16th Panzer Division. Their faculty buildings near the Stalingrad tractor plant had been destroyed by bombs dropped in the first waves. The teaching staff helped form the nucleus of a local defence ‘destroyer battalion’. One of the professors was a company commander. The battalion commissar was a young woman mechanic from the tractor plant, which had been converted to build T-34S. There, volunteers jumped into the tanks even before they had been painted. As soon as ammunition, stacked in the factory, had been loaded, they drove them off the production line and straight into battle. These tanks lacked gunsights, and could only be aimed at almost point-blank range by the loader peering down the barrel while the gunner traversed the turret.

Hube sent off his motorcycle battalion, probing the northern flank. ‘Yesterday we reached the railway line’, a corporal wrote home next day, ‘and captured a train with weapons and supply vehicles, which had not even been unloaded. We also took many prisoners. Among them were many “soldiers in skirts”, whose faces are so repulsive that one can scarcely bear to look at them. Hopefully this operation won’t last much longer.’ The booty of American Lend-Lease material proved very popular. The officers of 16th Panzer Division especially appreciated the American jeeps, fresh in their new Russian markings, which they considered a much better vehicle than their own equivalent – the Kübelwagen.

Red Army aviation regiments were also thrown into the battle on 24 August, but a Yak stood little chance against a Messerschmitt 109, and the Shturmovik fighter-bombers, although armoured underneath, were extremely vulnerable when tailed by a competent pilot. German soldiers cheered from below when Luftwaffe pilots dispatched their enemy ‘mit Eleganz’, as if the air war was a sort of bullfight conducted for the pleasure of spectators on the ground.

German bombing raids on the city continued, with another ‘major air attack’ on the afternoon of 25 August. The power station at Beketovka was badly damaged, but soon repaired. Otherwise Luftwaffe squadrons continued pulverizing the length of the city. Many people lost all their possessions, but families spontaneously shared whatever they had left. They knew well that the next day they might find themselves in the same state; and nothing reduced the notion of private property more rapidly than such destruction from the sky.

Permission was at last given to allow Stalingrad women and children to cross to the east bank on the NKVD’s commandeered craft. Only a few steamers were spared, however, because most were needed for evacuating wounded and bringing back ammunition and reinforcements. The journey was certainly as hazardous as remaining on the west bank, because the Luftwaffe continued to attack boats crossing the Volga. The ferry jetty, upstream of the Tsaritsa gorge, was hit again, and the Shanghai restaurant just above it, a favourite peacetime meeting-place in a strip of park on top of the river bank, was burned to a shell. The families crossing saw blackened bodies floating past like charred logs, and patches of the river still burned with oil from the storage tanks. The children from the hospital, including Nina Grebennikova, tied to a stretcher, were moved across the Volga on 28 August, and taken to a field hospital on the east bank.

The guns of 16th Panzer Division had also been at work since that first Sunday evening, announcing their presence on the Volga by sinking a freight steamer and shelling a gunboat. They also shelled the railway ferry, leaving a tangle of burnt and destroyed carriages, and over the next few days sank seven river craft. The tank crews claimed them as ‘gunboats’ and did not seem to realize that they might be evacuating civilians.

On their third evening, German panzers sank a paddle-steamer taking women and children from the city to the east bank. Hearing screams and cries for help, soldiers asked their commander if they could use some of the pioneers’ inflatable boats to rescue them. But the lieutenant refused. ‘We know how the enemy fights this war,’ he replied. After night had fallen, the panzer crews pulled their blankets up over their heads so that they did not hear the cries any more. Some women managed to swim to the west bank, but most swam to a sandbank where they stayed the whole of the next day. The Germans did not fire when they were evacuated the next night, as proof that they were different from the Russians. ‘We wouldn’t hinder such a thing!’

Behind the foremost German positions on the Volga bank was a sort of semi-cultivated parkland, with oaks, walnut trees, sweet chestnut and oleanders, bordered by allotments with melons, tomatoes, vines and fruit trees. There the advance units of 16th Panzer Division dug in, using the vegetation for cover. The pioneer battalion’s head-quarters was hidden under a large pear tree. During lulls in the firing, panzer crews and combat engineers picked ripe fruit, using caps and helmets as baskets. After the weeks of desiccated steppe, to gaze upon the broad Volga, ‘like a calm lake’, from leafy shade, somehow intensified the sensation of having reached the end of their journey to the frontier of Europe. It seemed such a pity that the Russians continued to resist. Soldiers, at the very first opportunity, wrote home from the Volga, proud to be among the first to stand at the new eastern extremity of the German Reich. A few who had served in the Balkan campaign the year before found that their first glimpse of white apartment buildings on the high western bank had reminded them of Athens. This curiously inapposite connection led some of them to refer to Stalingrad as the ‘Akropolis’.

Units of Sixth Army still waiting to cross the Don were jealous of the glory seized by the vanguard. An anti-aircraft gunner wrote home: ‘Soon we too will have the right to sing: “There stands a soldier on the Volga bank”.’ An artilleryman also wrote home about the Wolgalied, for which Franz Lehár wrote the music: ‘The song will really be true in our case.’

Many were convinced that victory could not be far off. ‘You can’t imagine the speed of our dear motorized comrades,’ a soldier in the 389th Infantry Division wrote home. ‘And with it the rolling attacks of our Luftwaffe. What a feeling of security we get when our pilots are above us, because you never see any Russian aircraft. I would like to share with you a little glimmer of hope. Our division will have fulfilled its duty as soon as Stalingrad falls. We should then, God willing, see each other again this year. If Stalingrad falls, the Russian Army in the south is destroyed.’

The position of Hube’s division, however, was far from secure. The threat to the Volga river traffic, to say nothing of furious telephone calls from the Kremlin, increased the urgency for Yeremenko to order counter-attacks from the northern flank to crush the Germans’ narrow corridor. Russian artillery could fire into this strip, little more than four miles wide, from both sides, and the Germans were in no position to respond. Not only Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, but the rest of Wietersheim’s Corps was almost out of fuel.

On 25 August, Richthofen flew to join Paulus and General von Seydlitz at the headquarters of 76th Infantry Division. Paulus’s nervous tic on the left side of his face became more pronounced when he was under strain, and he also suffered from recurrent dysentery – what the Germans called ‘the Russian sickness’ – which did not help him relax. The intolerant Richthofen noted that the commander-in-chief of the Sixth Army was ‘very nervous’ about the situation. That night, the Luftwaffe dropped supplies to Wietersheim’s XIV Panzer Corps by parachute, but most fell into no man’s land or into enemy hands. The following morning, German air reconnaissance reported Soviet armoured forces gathering to the north.

Richthofen, like Hitler, subscribed to the view that a rapid victory at Stalingrad would solve all the problems of an extended left flank at a stroke by bringing about the final collapse of the Red Army. To weaken now was the biggest danger, like teetering on a tightrope. Paulus was perfectly aware of such logic. He persevered, keeping his faith in Hitler’s judgement that the Russian forces must be all but finished. When General von Wietersheim subsequently recommended the partial withdrawal of XIV Panzer Corps, Paulus dismissed him and promoted General Hube to take his place.

Much depended on the rapid advance of the Fourth Panzer Army from the south, but Hitler had obliged Hoth to leave a panzer corps behind in the Caucasus. He was thus reduced to XLVIII Panzer Corps and IV Corps. Also, as General Strecker observed at this time, ‘the closer the German attack gets to the city, the smaller are the daily gains’. An even fiercer defence was being prepared behind the lines. The Stalingrad Defence Committee issued its orders: ‘We will not abandon our city to the Germans! All of you, organize brigades, go to build barricades. Barricade every street… quickly in such a way so that the soldiers defending Stalingrad will destroy the enemy without mercy!’

On 27 August, the first rain for five weeks fell, but the real cause for delay to Hoth’s right flank had come from the resistance put up by Soviet troops around lake Sarpa, and near Tundutovo in the hills south of the Volga bend below Stalingrad. That day, for example, the penal company attached to the 91st Rifle Division repulsed numerous attacks by superior enemy forces. The political department of Stalingrad Front later reported to Shcherbakov: ‘Many men have compensated for their faults through bravery and should be rehabilitated and returned to their regiments.’ But once again, most of them died long before anything was done.

The advance went better two days later when Hoth suddenly switched XLVIII Panzer Corps over to the left flank out in the Kalmyk steppe. The German Army’s chief advantage lay in the close cooperation of the panzer division and the Luftwaffe. In the constantly changing battle, German infantrymen used the red flag with swastika as identification panels on the ground to ensure they were not bombed by their own aircraft. But the real danger of Stukas attacking their own ground forces by mistake came in fast-moving armoured operations.

Lieutenant Max Plakolb, the commander of a small Luftwaffe forward air control section, was attached to the headquarters of 24th Panzer Division. At this time, when 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions and 29th Motorized Infantry Division were starting to swing round the south-west of Stalingrad, Plakolb settled himself at the radio. The point units of 24th Panzer Division had advanced much faster than the neighbouring division, and Plakolb suddenly overheard on his radio a contact report: ‘Concentration of enemy vehicles…’ The pilot then proceeded to give 24th Panzer Division’s position. With ‘the greatest alarm’, since the Stukas were approaching, Plakolb called up the squadron himself, using the code word ‘Bonzo’, and persuaded them to abort their attack just in time.

So rapid was the advance of XLVIII Panzer Corps from the south that by the evening of 31 August its point units had reached the Stalingrad–Morozovsk railway line. Suddenly, it looked as if an opportunity of cutting off the remnants of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies had appeared. Paulus’s infantry divisions, slowly advancing eastwards from the Don, could never have got round the Russian rear. The only chance was to send XIV Panzer Corps down from the Rynok corridor to seal the trap, as Army Group headquarters strongly urged. This represented a considerable gamble, and Paulus decided against the plan. Hube would have had to turn his ill-supplied panzers round, break off the running battles and ignore the enemy armies then massing just to the north. Yeremenko, alerted to the danger, pulled his remaining forces back out of the trap.

In some cases the retreat was dictated by panic, rather than design. In 64th Army, the crews of Anti-Aircraft Battery 748 ran away, abandoning their guns. This incident rapidly became a case of conspiracy, in the ever-suspicious eyes of commissars, with the allegation that a member of the battery then ‘led a battalion of German sub-machine-gunners’ in an attack against the neighbouring 204th Rifle Division.

On Paulus’s northern flank, XIV Panzer Corps had hardly been idle. The Russians continually mounted diversionary attacks on both sides of the corridor. General Hube’s responses to these ill-coordinated lunges were sharp and successful. He moved his headquarters on 28 August into a tapering ravine which offered better protection against the nightly air attacks. He ensured himself an undisturbed night’s rest by sleeping in a straw-lined pit under his tank.

Russian bombers began to attack by day as well as night, flying in low over the Volga. Black puffs from the German flak guns marked their approach in the morning sky. On one occasion, a German fighter roared in at ground level above Hube’s ravine before climbing to attack the bombers in the clear sky. For those watching from the headquarters, this fighter seems to have offered the magical vision of an aerial Teutonic knight in shining armour. ‘This silver streak’, wrote one of those present in his diary with revealing emotion, ‘veered to the east over the river into enemy territory, a crystal, a harbinger of the dawn.’

On 28 August, Russian fighters also attempted to attack the new Luftwaffe base near Kalach, but a Messerschmitt 109 fighter group chased them off. Proud of their victory, the suntanned young fighter pilots assembled for debriefing, but their austere commander – who was known as ‘the Prince’ because of his resemblance to a medieval statue in a cathedral – did not congratulate them. Instead he passed on the order which had so irritated Richthofen. ‘Gentlemen, flying for fun and seeing who can shoot down the most enemy machines must stop. Every machine, every drop of fuel, every hour’s flying is irreplaceable. The easy ground life we are leading is completely irresponsible: in the air it is even more so. Every shot must go to assist the infantry, if there is no target in the air.’ Resentful murmurs greeted his words.

As is often the case at the end of August, the weather changed suddenly. On Saturday, 29 August, rain fell for almost a whole day and night. Soldiers were soaked, and trenches filled with water. ‘This shitty Russia’ was a common reaction in letters home at this time. They seemed so close to what they thought was their final objective after an advance of almost four months without respite.

The 16th Panzer Division at Rynok on the bank of the Volga no longer enjoyed its earlier mood of heady optimism. The allotments and orchards in which they had concealed their vehicles had been smashed by Soviet artillery fire, leaving shell craters and trees shattered by shrapnel. They were all concerned by the growing concentrations to the north. Hube would have come under strong pressure earlier if the Russian railhead at Frolovo had been closer to the front, and the Soviet infantry could have deployed more quickly. The 24th Army joined the 66th Army and the 1st Guards Army preparing for a counter-attack. Once formations had detrained, they marched off in different directions, but in the chaos, nobody seemed to know where they were. The 221st Rifle Division did not even know for sure to which army it belonged and its commander had no information on the positions or strength of the enemy.

On 1 September, he ordered the reconnaissance company to go off in groups of ten to find out where the Germans were. With soldiers mounted on local horses, they moved southwards across the Stalingrad–Saratov railway line. The division followed in a mass. Suddenly, German aircraft returning from a raid on the city sighted the advancing force. Some twin-engined Messerschmitt nos peeled off to strafe them while the other aircraft returned to base to bomb up again. They came back at around midday, but by then the division had deployed and the tempting target was dispersed.

The reconnaissance groups returned having sighted some German units, but they were unable to draw a front line for their commander. It simply did not exist in a recognizable form. The Russian commanders were ‘worried and angry’. Although their infantry greatly outnumbered the Germans facing them, none of their tanks, no artillery, and few of their anti-tank guns had arrived.

The situation proved even more disastrous for 64th Rifle Division, which was assembling to the rear. Morale collapsed under German air attacks, which also destroyed its field hospital killing many doctors and nurses. The wounded being taken to the rear recounted tales of horror which unnerved the inexperienced troops waiting in reserve to be marched forward. Individuals, then whole groups, began to desert. The divisional commander ordered the most fragile units to form up. He harangued and cursed them for such a cowardly failure to serve the Motherland. He then adopted the Roman punishment of decimation. With pistol drawn, he walked along the front rank counting in a loud voice. He shot every tenth man through the face at point-blank range until his magazine was empty.

Zhukov, having just been appointed Deputy Supreme Commander, second only to Stalin, had arrived in Stalingrad on 29 August to oversee operations. He soon discovered that the three armies earmarked for the operations were ill-armed, manned by older reservists, and short of ammunition, as well as artillery. On the scrambler line to Moscow, he persuaded Stalin that the attack must be delayed by a week. Stalin agreed, but the German advance to the western edge of the city, now that Seydlitz’s corps had linked up with Fourth Panzer Army, alarmed him again on 3 September. He rang General Vasilevsky, the chief of staff, demanding to know the exact position. As soon as Vasilevsky admitted that German tanks had reached the suburbs, his exasperation with Zhukov and other generals exploded. ‘What’s the matter with them, don’t they understand that if we surrender Stalingrad, the south of the country will be cut off from the centre and will probably not be able to defend it? Don’t they realize that this is not only a catastrophe for Stalingrad? We would lose our main waterway and soon our oil, too!’

‘We are putting everything that can fight into the places under threat,’ Vasilevsky replied as calmly as possible. ‘I think there’s still a chance that we won’t lose the city.’

A short time later Stalin rang back, then dictated a signal to be sent to Zhukov. He ordered that the attack must take place immediately, whether or not all the divisions were deployed or had received their artillery. ‘Delay at this moment’, he insisted, ‘is equivalent to a crime.’ Stalingrad might fall the very next day. After a long and argumentative telephone call, Zhukov finally persuaded him to wait two more days.

Whether or not Stalin had been right and Zhukov wrong is hard to tell. Paulus had time to reinforce XIV Panzer Corps, and the Luftwaffe took full advantage of its power against targets on the open steppe. The 1st Guards Army managed an advance of only a few miles, while 24th Army was forced right back to its start-line. But at least this unsuccessful offensive managed to deflect Paulus’s reserves at the most critical moment, when the tattered remnants of 62nd and 64th Armies fell back to the edge of the city.

The Germans also suffered one of their heaviest casualty rates that summer. No fewer than six battalion commanders were killed in a single day, and a number of companies were reduced to only forty or fifty men each. (Total casualties on the Ostfront had now just exceeded one and a half million.) The interrogation of Soviet prisoners indicated the determination which they faced. ‘Out of one company,’ ran a report, ‘only five men were left alive. They have received orders that Stalingrad will never be given up.’

Red Army soldiers felt that they had fought hard and well during the first ten days of the battle. ‘Hello my dear ones!’ wrote a soldier to his family. ‘Since the 23rd of August, we have been constantly involved in hard battles with a cruel cunning enemy. The platoon commander and commissar were badly wounded. I had to take over command. About seventy tanks came towards us. We discussed the situation between comrades and decided to fight to the last drop of blood. When the tanks rolled over the trenches, we threw grenades and bottles filled with petrol.’ In a very short space of time, most Russian soldiers became fiercely proud of fighting at Stalingrad. They knew that the thoughts of the whole country were with them. They had few illusions, however, about the desperate fighting which still lay ahead. Stalingrad at this moment had fewer than 40,000 defenders to hold off the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army. No commander forgot that ‘the Volga was the last line of defence before the Urals’.

The Germans were full of confidence during that first week of September. The fighting had been hard, a soldier wrote home, ‘but Stalingrad will fall in the next few days’. ‘According to what our officers tell us’, wrote a gunner in the 305th Infantry Division, ‘Stalingrad will certainly fall’. And the sense of triumph at Sixth Army headquarters was undisguised when, on 3 September, a staff officer recorded the link-up between the southern flank of LI Army Corps and the left flank of Fourth Panzer Army: ‘The ring round Stalingrad on the west bank of the Volga is closed!’ From the crossing of the Don on 23 August up to 8 September the Sixth Army claimed to have taken ‘26,500 prisoners, and destroyed 350 guns and 830 tanks’.

Paulus received a letter from Colonel Wilhelm Adam, one of his staff officers, who was on sick leave in Germany and bitterly regretted his absence at such a historic moment. ‘Here, everyone is awaiting the fall of Stalingrad,’ he wrote to his commander-in-chief. ‘One hopes it will be a turning point in the war.’ Yet on the edge of Stalingrad, the nights suddenly became colder, to the point of finding frost on the ground in the morning and a skim of ice in the canvas buckets for the horses. The Russian winter would soon be upon them again.

Only a very few, however, foresaw the worst obstacle facing the Sixth Army. Richthofen’s massive bombing raids had not only failed to destroy the enemy’s will, their very force of destruction had turned the city into a perfect killing ground for the Russians to use against them.

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