10

The Motherland Overwhelms the Fatherland

January 1942–February 1943

Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.

A lieutenant in the 24th Panzer Division at Stalingrad, 19421

In their original conception the plans for Operation Barbarossa had not even mentioned the city of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd). Hitler’s idea was to reach a line running from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, with Leningrad, Moscow and the Volga river, upon which Stalingrad lies, well within the German-occupied zone. Yet because by the summer and autumn of 1942 Leningrad and Moscow still held out, and indeed the Soviets had been launching counter-offensives since December 1941, Stalingrad was to loom large in Hitler’s calculations. In January and February 1942, Russian attacks along the line from Finland down to the Crimea had seen several notable successes. Although Leningrad and Sevastopol could not be relieved, nor Kharkov recaptured, Rostov was retaken and the immediate threat to Moscow was lifted by the recapture of Kallinin and Kaluga and the elimination of German salients close to the city. By the time the great thaw set in between March and May, the Russians had advanced their front westwards by 120 miles near Rostov and up to 150 miles further north, bringing it close to Smolensk.

The Wehrmacht’s response was the second German summer offensive, Fall Blau (Operation Blue), intended to achieve in 1942 what they had seemed so close to grasping in 1941. It was launched on 8 May with no fewer than fifty-one divisions, including many from the satellite countries of Italy, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, as well as a division of Spanish volunteers. There was something of a Faustian compact involved in the use of these non-German troops, for although they made up the numbers necessary for warfare in Russia, they were not always as reliable or as effective as German and Austrian troops. Nonetheless, Blau won early and significant successes: Sevastopol fell to amphibious attack on 2 July and the Russians were then expelled from the rest of the Crimea. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, who had commanded Army Group Centre in the invasion, was sacked and replaced by Kluge in December 1941 for failing to take Moscow, but was recalled to command Army Group South in February 1942. He had captured Voronezh by 7 July and the Eleventh Army of the newly created field marshal Erich von Manstein took the Kerch peninsula, from which it could cross into the Caucasus. At this key moment, on 13 July 1942, Hitler took the vital decision to try to capture Stalingrad and the Caucasus in the same campaigning season. He therefore sacked Bock again and split Army Group South into two, giving the separate parts different but complementary tasks. Army Group B in the north under General Baron Maximilian von Weichs was to clear the Don and Donets valleys and capture Stalingrad. This would provide cover for Army Group A in the south, under Field Marshal Wilhelm List, to capture first Rostov and then the whole of the oil-rich Caucasus. ‘If we do not capture the oil supplies of the Caucasus by the autumn,’ Hitler said, ‘then I shall have to face the fact that we cannot win this war.’2 When autumn came, it was not a remark of which anyone was to remind him.

On 22 July 1942, having been transferred from Army Group B to Army Group A five days earlier, the Fourth Panzer Army crossed the Don east of Rostov. Hitler believed that Stalingrad could be taken by the Sixth Army alone, so he sent the Fourth Panzer Army southwards. Yet only a week later, on 29 July, he countermanded this order, and the Fourth Panzer Army was instead directed to attack Stalingrad from the south. Few things disorientate and demoralize troops more than the countermanding of recently issued orders, as it implies confusion at the very highest level of command. As Hitler’s power depended on seeming omniscient, even 1,000 miles behind the lines, this was dangerous. Paul von Kleist, whose First Panzer Army led the drive into the Caucasus, believed Hitler had made a fatal error, writing later of this incident:

The Fourth Panzer Army was advancing on my left. It could have taken Stalingrad without a fight at the end of July, but was diverted south to help me in crossing the Don. I did not need its aid. It merely congested the roads I was using. When it turned north again a fortnight later, the Russians had gathered just enough forces at Stalingrad to check it.3

The OKH Chief of Staff, Franz Halder, continually warned against Hitler’s over-confidence, pointing out the presence of Russian divisions that had not existed even the previous autumn, and predicting disaster for the Sixth Army in its thrust towards Stalingrad. On 23 July, Halder confided to his (fortunately well-hidden) war diary, about how the Führer, when faced with his realism,

explodes in a fit of insane rage and hurls the gravest reproaches against the General Staff. This chronic tendency to underrate enemy capabilities is gradually assuming grotesque proportions and develops into a positive danger… This so-called leadership is characterized by a pathological reacting to the impressions of the moment and a total lack of any understanding of the command machinery and its possibilities.4

Halder told Lieutenant-General Kurt Dittmar of OKH that Hitler ‘was a mystic, who tended to discount, even when he did not disregard, all the rules of strategy’.5 A week later, on 30 July, Halder recorded that Jodl ‘announces pompously that the fate of the Crimea will be decided at Stalingrad and that, if possible, it would be necessary to divert forces from AGp.A to AGp.B, if possible, south of the Don’.6 The diversion of such forces meant that neither army group was able to achieve its objectives under Operation Blau, and on 9 September Hitler dismissed List and took personal command of Army Group A, a post for which he was entirely unqualified, not least because he intended to stay in East Prussia directing its operations from his headquarters, codenamed the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair).

Though over-optimistic, the desire to take the important industrial city of Stalingrad was perfectly understandable. With its capture, the oil terminal of Astrakhan would be within reach, and the Russians would be denied the use of the Volga for transportation. Furthermore, Army Group A in the Caucasus would be safe from another Soviet winter offensive, attacks northwards could be launched again, and the fall of Stalin’s own name-city would be as good for German morale as it would be bad for Russian. Its capture therefore seemed to make sense at the time. What made less sense was the way that Manstein’s Eleventh Army, which was badly needed in the south as a reserve in case Blau did not go according to plan, was suddenly reallocated to Leningrad.

Although the British and Americans initially had little faith that the Russians could survive Operation Barbarossa, and privately feared the worst until the Germans were turned back from Moscow in December 1941, by mid-1942 the Western Allies recognized that they could give the Russians invaluable help by drawing off German units. Stalin certainly underlined this point in his meetings with Churchill in Moscow between 12 and 15 August 1942, and did not hide his ire that no Second Front – as a large-scale assault in the west was (rather inaccurately) named – would be in the offing that year. Although General Marshall wanted to launch such an operation as soon as practicable, President Roosevelt, Churchill and Brooke all believed that an over-hasty return to the Continent might be suicidal. The most that Churchill would offer was a small-scale amphibious assault, designated a ‘reconnaissance in force’, on the French port of Dieppe, on the Channel coast.

This attack, which was undertaken on 19 August 1942, was not large enough to require any German forces to be diverted from the Eastern Front, yet was easily large enough for its failure to be a shattering blow to the 5,100 Canadians and 1,000 British Commandos and American Rangers who had to carry it out. Supported by 252 ships (though none larger than a destroyer, and thus unable to provide heavy gunfire from the sea) and sixty-nine squadrons of aircraft (which nonetheless gave only intermittent air support), Operation Jubilee was also large enough to be spotted in the Channel by a German coastal convoy, yet not large enough to achieve anything of consequence once it landed, even had it been a success. The intelligence was faulty, the planning – undertaken by the Director of Combined Operations, Lord Mountbatten – was profoundly flawed, and the results were little short of catastrophic. Within six hours of landing, three-quarters of the Canadian forces had been killed, wounded or captured, and all seven battalion commanders wounded. The Commandos and Rangers also suffered heavily.

Efforts were made, both at the time and since, to present the Dieppe Raid as having taught the Allies valuable lessons about the way the French coast could be assaulted, which were subsequently put to invaluable use in Normandy in June 1944. In fact sheer common sense ought to have told the Combined Chiefs of Staff that Mountbatten’s plan was misconceived from the outset, that tanks could not attack up shingle beaches with high esplanade walls, that proper sea and air support was required and that surprise was essential.

Meanwhile in the east General Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army was designated to take Stalingrad (he had a force of around 280,000 men at the start of the battle), and by Sunday, 23 August the 16th Panzer Division had crossed the steppe to reach the Volga just north of the city. Once there, however, the Germans could do little to interdict the river traffic because they had no naval weaponry or river-mines. They had brought along their exterminatory ideology, however, so when the Wehrmacht there were no SS involved in the battle of Stalingrad – reached the hospital for mentally handicapped children in the city, they promptly shot all the ten- to fourteen-year-old patients.7

In the short term, Army Group A did well in the Caucasus. Rostov fell on 23 July, Kleist’s First Panzer Army captured Stavropol on 5 August, and the Germans seemed about to grasp the region. At their furthest point, elements of the First Panzer Army almost reached Ordzhonikidze and were less than 50 miles from Grozny and only 70 miles from the Caspian Sea. The loss of the Caucasus, from where the Russians took 90 per cent of the oil that fuelled their tanks, planes, ships and industry, would have been catastrophic for the Allied cause. The Russians could not retake it except by crossing the 1,300-yard-wide River Volga, and by the late summer Stalingrad, on the west bank on the bend of that river, seemed about to fall. ‘What’s the matter with them?’ Stalin asked of the local military commanders there. ‘Don’t they realize that this is not only a catastrophe for Stalingrad? We would lose our main waterway and soon our oil too.’8 The stakes could therefore hardly have been higher.

*

The battle of Stalingrad is deservedly considered to be the most desperate in human history. The German Sixth Army was sucked into a house-by-house, street-by-street, factory-by-factory struggle often even more attritional than the trench warfare of the Great War. The city is 25 miles long and hugs the western bank of the River Volga, confusingly called the right bank because the river flows southwards towards the Caspian. Visiting Volgograd today, and viewing the city-length battlefield, one is immediately struck by the problems faced by the Germans in their assault. To the north lie three huge factories – from north to south, the Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory, the Barrikady (Barricades) Arms Factory and the Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) Factory. In the centre is the 300-foot-high Mamayev Kurgan, the highest hill in the city (originally the burial mound of the Tatar Duke Mamayev) and all the southern approaches to the city are dominated by an enormous reinforced-concrete Grain Elevator, which stayed in Russian hands throughout the siege, supplied by trenches and gullies connecting it to the Volga. The Wehrmacht had to capture these formidable obstacles in order to take the city.

The Red October Factory specialized in recycling metal, the Barrikady Factory in military hardware, and the Tractor Factory, named after the monstrously cruel ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police, makes tractors to this day, which roll past his larger-than-life-sized statue there. In 1942 it had been turned over to making tank chassis. These three brick and concrete buildings – each half a mile long and between 500 and 1,000 yards wide – were originally erected for industrial production rather than defence, of course, but their sturdy structures might just as easily have been designed specifically for keeping out enemy armies. Although the three great factories and their adjacent Settlements (that is, workers’ tenement blocks) were well spaced, they were connected by roads that were not metalled in 1942. ‘In Russia,’ the old saying goes, ‘we have no roads, only directions.’

As well as reaching the Volga north of Stalingrad, on 23 August the Germans bombed the city’s giant oil storage tanks, setting them alight. The Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star newspaper) journalist Vasily Grossman, who specialized in reporting the activities offrontoviki (front-line troops), wrote of how:

The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up to see a black firmament streaming with oil.9

The oil burnt for more than a week, and the pillars of heavy smoke could be seen throughout the region. At one point a spillage caused the Volga itself to catch fire. The battlefield commander of the Russian forces in the city, General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, recalled that ‘clouds of thick black smoke hung over us. Flakes of ash and soot descended on us all the time, so that everything at the command post turned black and looked black.’ The Luftwaffe dropped not just conventional bombs, but any random pieces of metal that could do damage such as plough-shares, tractor wheels, harrows and empty metal casks, which Chuikov remembered ‘whistled about the heads of our troops’.10 Grossman interviewed many of the leading figures in the defence of Stalingrad, including Chuikov, and he recorded in his 1964 novel Life and Fate: ‘An iron whirlwind howled over the bunker, slicing through anything living that raised its head above the earth’s headquarters.’11

Chuikov had joined the Red Army in 1918 aged eighteen. He fought in the Civil War and the Russo-Polish War and attended the elite Frunze Military Academy, before becoming Soviet military attaché to China for eleven years after 1926, thereby escaping some of the worst years of the purges. A protégé of Zhukov, he had fought in the Polish and Finnish campaigns of 1939–40 before being given command of the Soviet Sixty-second Army in Stalingrad. ‘He was a tough street-fighter, described by one of his staff officers as a “coarse” man – gruby – who had been known to hit officers whose performance displeased him with a big stick he carried.’12 For all that, he was a leader, who staked everything on the Red Army remaining on the right bank of the Volga.

The Luftwaffe’s initial bombing policy, which had the effect of turning Stalingrad almost into a lunar moonscape, eventually worked in the Soviet defenders’ favour. The rubble had to be fought over brick by brick, exactly the kind of warfare that benefited the far larger but less well-equipped Russian Army. Before the Germans’ arrival, Stalingrad had been inadequately fortified, with Chuikov observing that the barricades outside the city could be pushed over by a truck. Both K. A. Gurov, the Sixty-second Army’s senior commissar, and General N. I. Krylov, its chief of staff, agreed that the defences were ‘laughable’, and Chuikov accurately told Grossman that ‘In the defence of Stalingrad, divisional commanders counted more on blood than barbed wire.’13 Chuikov coined the expression ‘the Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting’ and, for all the Germans’ martial skill and bravery in that school, it was the Russians who graduated summa cum laude. The Germans called the brutal, hand-to-hand, no-quarter-given fighting in cellars and sewers, with rifles, bayonets, grenades and even spades, Rattenkrieg (rat warfare). Grossman cited an occasion when a German and a Russian patrol were both in the same house, unaware of the other’s proximity. When the Germans wound up a gramophone on the floor below, betraying their presence, the Soviet troops made a hole in the floor and fired through it with a flame-thrower. So close-quarter was the combat at times that when Major-General V. Zholudev’s 37th Guards Infantry Division broke into houses inShturmovaya (storming groups), their weapon of choice was the knife.14

The Germans on the right bank had the advantage of heavy weaponry, but when the Russians were able to get hold of long-barrelled anti-tank guns, and use them on the flanks of Panzers sent into Stalingrad, they could be highly effective. ‘When you’ve hit it,’ a thirty-eight-year-old rifleman called Gromov told Grossman, describing the destruction of a German tank,

‘you see a bright flash on the armour. The shot deafens one terribly, one has to open one’s mouth. I was lying there, I heard shouts: “They’re coming!” My second shot hit the tank. The Germans started screaming terribly. We could hear them clearly. I wasn’t scared even a little. My spirits soared. At first, there was some smoke, then crackling, then flames. Evtikhov had hit one vehicle. He hit the hull, and how the Fritzes screamed!’ (Gromov has light green eyes in a suffering, angry face.) 15

Once Soviet reinforcements arrived at the railway station on the left bank during the battle, they were ferried across the Volga, on boats that took appalling punishment from the Luftwaffe. Grossman described how ‘Those launches that did get through to Chuikov were holed fifty to seventy times in only a few minutes. They arrived at the right bank with their decks covered in blood.’16 The journalist, who himself crossed the river under fire, fortified by ‘a huge amount’ of cider from a nearby collective farm, found the Volga ‘terrifying like a scaffold’.17 Most crossings took place after nightfall, when the Stukas could no longer operate, and sometimes the smaller launches were buried under the sand of the beaches during the day, ready to be dug up and used the following evening. The 10th NKVD Rifle Division policed the crossing points, shooting deserters and preventing civilians from escaping. Stalin believed that the presence of civilians would make the troops fight harder, but after the air raids of 23 August 300,000 were evacuated, nonetheless leaving 50,000. Of these, only around 10,000 survived the battle, including 904 children, a mere nine of whom could be reunited with their parents.18

On 28 August, responsibility for the overall defence of the Stalingrad sector was given to General Georgi Zhukov, a commander who fully deserves the subtitle of his recent biography: The Man Who Beat Hitler.19 Born of peasant parents, Zhukov was conscripted into the Russian Army in 1914 and joined the Red Army in October 1918, serving first in the cavalry and then in armoured mobile units before joining the High Command. At the battle of Khalkin Gol in August 1939, Zhukov proved that even a decapitated Red Army could defeat the modern, efficient Japanese. Commanding in Mongolia also kept Zhukov away from the Winter War against Finland, in which few Russian generals shone. After June 1941 he assisted Voroshilov in the defence of Leningrad, being brought back to Moscow by Stalin to co-ordinate the great 1941 winter counter-offensive. He was therefore a natural choice for the overall command of the Stalingrad campaign. Although much of the war was spent at the Stavka, the Russian High Command in Moscow, Zhukov’s driver estimated that he covered more than 50,000 miles by road and wore out three aircraft visiting the various fronts. Decisive, tough, energetic, personally brave, occasionally cruel – he would strike officers and occasionally attended the executions of subordinates – Zhukov was a meticulous planner and always showed complete confidence in ultimate victory. High casualty rates never unnerved him in the slightest. It was always going to take such a commander – one who displayed the military equivalent of Stalin’s political ruthlessness – to win this existential struggle.

Meanwhile, Franz Halder’s diary entry for 30 August illustrates Hitler’s highly strung nature as he committed the cardinal error of fighting according to the enemy’s strengths rather than his own: ‘Today’s conferences with [the] Führer were again the occasion of abusive reproaches against the military leadership of the highest commands. He charges them with intellectual conceit, mental non-adaptability, and utter failure to grasp essentials.’20 The next day Hitler declared that it was all a ‘Problem of toughness! The enemy will need his strength sooner than we do… So long as the enemy suffers losses in his approach, let him run; someone will collapse; not us. By [the time of the fall of St] Petersburg [that is, Leningrad] six to eight divisions are free.’ He later spoke of ‘World War I circumstances. Heavy barrages’ – that is, precisely the war of attrition he most needed to avoid, and probably the only type of warfare which the Soviets could win against the Wehrmacht.21 Hitler’s error in not fighting a war of manoeuvre in Russia, but instead contesting with maximum mutual attrition cities such as Stalingrad, is all the more reprehensible from one who had himself fought in the trenches of the Great War.

Understanding the propaganda blow that would follow its fall, Stalin told the Stavka on 12 September that his name-city – later one of the ‘hero-cities’ of the Soviet Union – had to stay in Russian hands at all costs.22 Yet at dawn the next morning the Sixth Army launched its major offensive, with the 295th Infantry Division driving straight for the Mamayev Kurgan, which today contains the graves of 35,000 soldiers of both sides. By the evening of 13 September the German 71st Infantry Division had broken into the city centre. On the 14th the main railway station changed hands five times in one day, and was to change hands another thirteen times over the next three days.23

The battle of Stalingrad is suffused with legends and, as with all great battles, some events are blown out of proportion – often by the veterans themselves – whereas other moments that might in truth have been equally important are minimized by posterity, sometimes because of the sheer lack of survivors. Fierce historiographical battles have also inevitably been fought over the fiercest battle ever contested. Generals became jealous of each other’s fame, and politicians of generals, thus further blurring the testimony. Finally, political ideology during the Cold War also badly skewed the history. One undeniably extraordinary moment in the battle, however, came at 17.00 hours on 14 September during the crossing of the Volga by the 13th Guards Rifle Division, under the Spanish Civil War hero General Alexandr Rodimtsev, which charged up the steep bank to engage the Germans, who had reached to within 200 yards of the river. Rodimtsev’s division of over 10,000 men was reduced to only 320 survivors by the end of the battle.

Grossman vividly recorded the many perils of the river crossing:

‘He’s diving, the louse!’ someone shouted. Suddenly, a tall and thin bluish column of water sprang up about fifty metres from the barge. Immediately after another column grew and collapsed even closer, and then a third one. Bombs were exploding on the surface of the water, and the Volga was covered with lacerated foamy wounds; shells began to hit the side of the barge. Injured men would cry out softly, as if trying to conceal the fact of being wounded. By then, rifle bullets had already started whistling over the water.24

The story of Stalingrad is also indelibly linked to the phenomenon of snipers, the more successful of whom, such as Anatoly Chekhov and Vasily Zaitsev, became heroes throughout the Soviet Union. With near-destroyed buildings littering the city, well-hidden sharp-shooters on both sides could keep up an accurate and debilitating fire against almost anyone moving anywhere. Counter-sniper actions became part of the Stalingrad myth, too, since flushing snipers out was costly and difficult. ‘I killed forty Fritzes in eight days,’ claimed Chekhov, who served in the 13th Guards Rifle Division. Even though Zaitsev began as a sniper only on 21 October, his supporters claimed that he shot 149 people; and another sniper, Zikan, allegedly killed 224.25 When the Germans persuaded starving Russian children to fill their water bottles from the Volga, in return for a crust of bread, Red Army snipers shot these ‘traitors to the Motherland’ as they returned from the river. The extent to which the (notoriously untruthful) Soviet propaganda machine exaggerated the snipers’ totals can never now be checked, but reports of exploits such as Zaitsev’s were good for morale, and today he is buried in pride of place on the Mamayev Kurgan. Women also made good snipers, and Tanya Chernova of the 284th Siberian Division claimed eighty kills in three months.

During the battle of Stalingrad, the NKVD shot around 13,500 Russian soldiers – the size of an entire fully manned division – for treachery, cowardice, desertion, drunkenness and ‘anti-Soviet agitation’. The condemned men were ordered to undress before execution, so that their uniforms could be reissued ‘without too many discouraging bullet-holes’.26 Stalin’s ‘Not One Step Back’ Order No. 227 of July 1941 had made provision for each army command to detail up to one thousand men to ‘combat cowardice’. In circumstances as terrible as those at Stalingrad, any lesser punishment would probably have led to mutinies and mass desertion. ‘The only extenuating cause for withdrawing from a firing position’, Komsomol (Young Communist League) members were told, ‘is death.’27

Burials during the battle took place at night, with volleys fired not into the air, but at the German lines. Chuikov ordered that the no man’s land between the front lines should be kept as small as possible, both to wear down the enemy’s nerves and to give the Luftwaffe as little opportunity as possible to strafe the Russian lines, for fear of killing their own troops. (Ever-present Russian black humour was at its sharpest during Soviet friendly-fire incidents, with jokes such as ‘Here we go, the Second Front has opened at last!’) 28 The close proximity of the lines meant that soldiers could call out to each other. ‘Rus,’ one German joked about the Russians’ supposedly unreliable Uzbecki troops, ‘do you want to swap an Uzbeck for a Romanian?’ There were incidents of grenades being tossed such short distances that they could be tossed back before they exploded.

Coming at right angles from the Volga is a succession of deep, narrow balkas (gullies), which can still be seen today and which were fought over with particular fierceness as they provided good cover for both defenders and attackers, who could turn each other’s flanks if they won possession. ‘Command posts or mortar units use it,’ Grossman wrote of the series of balkas. ‘It is always under fire. Many people have been killed here. Wires go through it, ammunition is carried through it.’ Describing the German onslaught of 27 September 1942 in the first volume of his memoirs, The Beginning of the Road, Chuikov recalled that telephone communication broke down, constant smoke hampered visual reconnaissance, Staff and signals officers were killed and his command post was under attack the entire time, and he remembered concluding: ‘One more attack like that and we’ll be in the Volga.’29 There were in fact plenty more attacks just like that, with Chuikov’s headquarters having to move once more, but the Red Army somehow managed to hold on to at least parts of the right bank throughout the battle.

The failure to dislodge the Soviets was one of the reasons that Hitler dismissed Halder as chief of the General Staff on 24 September. ‘After [the] situation conference,’ wrote Halder, ‘farewell by the Führer. My nerves are worn out; also his nerves are no longer fresh. We must part. Hitler talked of the necessity for educating the General Staff in fanatical faith in The Idea. He is determined to enforce his will also onto the army.’30 Hitler appointed in Halder’s place the recently promoted Brigadier-General Kurt Zeitzler, who had ‘a reputation for brutality towards subordinates and subservience to superiors’, and certainly showed lickspittle servility towards Hitler.31

‘There were daily quarrels all summer,’ Halder later told his Nuremberg interviewer about his relations with Hitler.

The point upon which we had our final disagreement was the decision of an offensive on the Caucasus and Stalingrad – a mistake, and Hitler didn’t want to see it. I told him the Russians would put in another million men in 1942 and get another in 1943. Hitler told me I was an idiot – that the Russians were practically dead already. When I told Hitler about Russian armament potentials, especially for tank materials, Hitler flew into a rage and threatened me with his fists. Hitler issued several orders to the Eastern Front, contrary to military advice. This caused the setback. Then he blamed the army group for the defeat and claimed that they were purposely at fault. At that point I became furious, struck my fists on the table, made scenes, et cetera… those arguments were provoked by me because in twenty years of general staff work I have served with many superior officers and have not had arguments and I have always got along.32

A fundamental cause of the defeat on the Eastern Front was the continual tension between the OKH and the OKW. Hitler resented the supposed snobbery, suspected the loyalty and despised the caution of his generals. Instead of a permanent consultative body of experts preparing situation reports and future possible operations, such as the Stavka in Moscow, the Chiefs of Staff in London and the Joint Chiefs in Washington, Nazi Germany just had the noontime Lagevortrag (situation conference), at which Jodl submitted Warlimont’s daily assessments. Hitler worked through Jodl and Keitel, whom he trusted but whom the OKH generals came to despise for their cowardice before the Führer. Orders were not debated with the Commander-in-Chief, Brauchitsch, who was simply expected to carry them out. It was a system that almost deliberately failed to use the best brains in the Wehrmacht hierarchy.

On 30 September, Hitler made a radio broadcast promising the German Volk that Stalingrad would fall. Yet from nightfall that evening the 39th Guards Infantry Division under Major-General Stiepan Guniev was ferried across the Volga to defend the Red October Factory, an operation which Guniev continued ‘even when the grenades of German tommy-gunners were bursting at the entrance’ to his command post. The next day, 1 October, the situation in Chuikov’s headquarters was such that with the ‘Fumes, smoke – we could not breathe. Shells and bombs bursting all around us. So much noise that however loud you shouted no one could hear you… Many times the radio operator would be killed with the microphone in his hands.’ When the Front HQ asked their whereabouts, Chuikov’s command post answered: ‘We’re where the most flames and smoke are.’33 Yet all this came before Paulus’ most powerful offensive.

The three huge factories and their adjacent Settlements were turned into a hecatomb during the fighting of early October 1942. Chuikov estimated that the 308th Infantry Division under Colonel L. N. Gurtiev fought off ‘not less than a hundred ferocious attacks’ in the course of the battle.34 At the Tractor Factory, north of the Barrikady complex, one regiment, commanded by a Colonel Markelov, had just eleven men left standing after only twenty-four hours of fighting.35 Yet right up until Paulus’ great offensive of 14 October, artillerymen and engineers at the Tractor Factory were still repairing tanks and guns with the help of workers from the Barrikady. Within the factory itself individual areas such as the sorting shop, calibration shop, warehouse and foundry became mini-battlefields in themselves, changing hands several times during the struggle. On 5 October alone, 2,000 enemy sorties were counted by the Russians, with the communal bath-house of the Red October Settlement changing hands five times. Chuikov could not find time to wash for an entire month. He took the terrible losses philosophically, saying that the experience gained in fighting the Germans ‘compensated for our physical losses. Of course, the loss of men is a bitter thing – but war is war.’36

Dawn on Monday, 14 October 1942 saw the massive Sixth Army offensive by which Paulus tried finally to force the Sixty-second Army off the right bank of the Volga. Three whole infantry divisions and more than 300 tanks were thrown against the factory district. Chuikov sent all the women and wounded back across the Volga, and on the night of 15 October many of the 3,500 wounded had to crawl towards the medical centres because there were no longer enough medical orderlies and stretchers to carry them.37A building has been preserved at one of the ferry crossings near the factory district, called Crossing 62, and there is hardly a brick of it that does not contain a bullet or artillery scar of some kind. The heroism of the forty-day defence of the Barrikady Settlements by Colonel L. Lyudnikov’s 138th Red Banner Rifle Division, as it was pushed back to a 700-yard perimeter on the Volga and surrounded on three sides by the Germans at this crossing, was one of the epics of a battle that was full of them.

‘Women soldiers proved themselves to be just as heroic in the days of fighting as men,’ recorded Chuikov. For all the ferocity of the battle, at Stalingrad women served on or near the front line, in their capacity as doctors carrying out operations, medical orderlies as young as fifteen carrying wounded men (and especially their weapons) off the battlefields, telephonists (one of whom was buried twice under the rubble in one day but kept on working once freed), radio operators, sailors in the Volga Fleet, anti-aircraft gunners, and especially pilots, known by the Germans as the Flying Witches. Most doubled as blood-donors. Stalingrad might have been an abattoir, but it was an equal-opportunities one. Around 490,000 women fought in front-line roles in the Soviet armed forces during the Great Patriotic War, and a further 300,000 in other roles.38 This was something Nazi ideology would never have permitted the Wehrmacht to copy, yet it significantly contributed to the Soviet war effort. Some 40 per cent of all Red Army front-line doctors were women; graduates of the Central Women’s School for Snipers were credited with killing 12,000 Germans; three regiments of the 221st Aviation Corps were women, as were thirty-three Heroes of the Soviet Union.39

One act of particularly extraordinary heroism seen in the factory district was that of Marine Mikhail Panikako, who was about to throw a Molotov cocktail at a tank when a bullet hit it, drenching him with the burning liquid. ‘The soldier burst into a living sheet of flame,’ wrote Chuikov. ‘Despite the terrible pain he did not lose consciousness. He grabbed the second bottle. The tank had come up close. Everyone saw a man in flames leap out of the trench, run right up to the German tank and smash the bottle against the grille of the engine-hatch. A second later an enormous sheet of flame and smoke engulfed both the tank and the hero who had destroyed it.’40 Today, Panikako’s self-sacrifice can be seen as part of the superb 160-foot-long panorama in the Stalingrad Military Museum in Volgograd. Even when strained through the sieve of wartime and Cold War propaganda, such acts of courage were clearly outstanding, on both sides.

Also synonymous with Stalingrad heroism was the defence undertaken by Sergeant Jakob Pavlov and his Shturmovaya (storming groups), from 28 September for fifty-eight consecutive days, of a four-storey house 300 yards from the river.41 With machine guns and long-barrelled anti-tank guns, and their tactic of denying Panzers any easy targets, this platoon of the 42nd Guards Regiment held out valiantly under Pavlov, their lieutenant having been blinded. ‘Pavlov’s small group of men, defending one house,’ recalled Chuikov proudly, mischievously but accurately, ‘killed more enemy soldiers than the Germans lost in taking Paris.’42 It helped their subsequent fame that they came from a very wide geographical cross-section of the Soviet Union – including Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, an Uzbecki, a Tajik, a Tatar and an Abkhazian – and therefore seemed to symbolize the unity of the Motherland as well as her courage. What little remained of Pavlov’s House, as it is called, has been preserved.

Chuikov described the Sixth Army’s offensive of 14 October as having brought ‘fighting of unprecedented ferocity. Those of us who had already been through a great deal will remember the enemy attack all our lives. We recorded 3,000 sorties by every type of aircraft on that day!… It was a sunny day, but the smoke and dust cut visibility down to a hundred yards.’ The German attacks on the Tractor and Barrikady Factories numbered 180 tanks, which broke through Zholudev’s 37th Division at 11.30 hours and went on to attack Colonel V. A. Gorishny’s 95th and Gurtiev’s 308th Divisions and the 84th Armoured Brigade. In the course of the day Zholudev had to be excavated from his dug-out, where he had been buried by a direct hit. By midnight the Germans had cut off the Tractor Factory on three sides and had entered the workshops. The fate of Stalingrad hung in the balance.

The story of how the Red Army soldiers hung on to the right bank through Paulus’ assault of mid-October is one of quite extraordinary heroism, appalling self-sacrifice and complete lack of alternative considering what the NKVD was doing to anyone who left his post. Courage was uppermost, however, as German six-barrelled mortars kept the Volga under constant bombardment. With the thousands of wounded crawling back towards the ferries, ‘We often had to step over bodies,’ Chuikov recalled, and ‘Everything on the bank was covered in ash and dust.’43 Yet the Germans took the Tractor Factory on 16 October, and by the end of the 18th only five men from the thousands-strong workers’ detachment of the Barrikady Factory were still alive. By 23 October the Soviets were finally forced out of the Red October Factory, too, but not for long. Eight days later they advanced a hundred yards in the environs of Novoselskaya Street and won back the factory’s open-hearth, calibration and profiling shops, and soon afterwards the finished-products warehouse as well. Chuikov was greatly helped by the Soviet artillery on the left bank – 250 guns of 76.2mm calibre and fifty heavy guns – which kept the Germans under constant fire and which had been heavily reinforced by 203mm and 280mm guns in mid-October.44 On the right bank, however, the lorries carrying the Katyusha rockets had to be reversed right back into the Volga itself in order to give them the necessary elevation of fire, so close had the Germans got to the river.

After the war there was a good deal of ill-tempered argument about which Russian units had fought hardest, even though there was plenty of glory to go around. Whenever possible, Chuikov was sent reinforcements, and in the course of the battle the Sixty-second Army was bolstered by a total of seven infantry divisions, one infantry brigade and an artillery brigade, all of which were flung into the human meat-grinder almost as soon as they arrived. The general paid tribute to the activities of the Red Army outside the city, which drew off considerable German forces, writing that ‘They held Paulus back by the ears.’ As for the Wehrmacht: ‘Some inexplicable force drove the enemy to keep on attacking. It seemed as though Hitler was prepared to destroy the whole of Germany for the sake of this one city.’

Tsaritsyn (which was Tatar for ‘yellow river’ and had nothing to do with the tsars) had changed its name to Stalingrad in 1925 in recognition of Stalin’s successful defence of the city during the Civil War. Important though it was strategically for both sides, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that they would not have committed the resources they both did – at one point in October neither had any tactical reserves left whatsoever – had the city been called Tsaritsyn or Volgograd, as in its earlier and later incarnations. The mano a mano nature of the struggle between the two dictators was personalized in a way that Hitler publicly acknowledged when on 8 November 1942 he again broadcast about capturing Stalingrad, in a speech from Munich, the birthplace of National Socialism. ‘I wanted to reach the Volga, to be precise at a particular spot, at a particular city,’ he said. ‘By chance it bore the name of Stalin himself.’ The battle had thus taken on a symbolic significance far removed from its strategic one. In his speech Hitler claimed that ‘Time was of no importance,’ but in fact winter was fast closing in, just as it had been when he had failed to take Moscow the previous year. The Sixth Army’s next great offensive began at 18.30 hours on Wednesday, 11 November – coincidentally the anniversary of the Great War Armistice – with five infantry divisions as well as the 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions attacking on a 3-mile-wide front between Volkhovstroyevskaya Street and Banna Gully, just south of the Barrikady Factory warehouse. ‘Exceptionally heavy fighting went on all day for every yard of ground,’ wrote Chuikov, ‘for every brick and stone. Fighting with hand grenades and bayonets went on for several hours.’

Simultaneously, attacks were made on the Mamayev Kurgan, whose height made it such a commanding position that neither side could allow the other to position artillery there, and which thus saw so much bombardment that its actual underlying physical shape was transformed during the battle. It was also said that shellfire was so unremittingly hot there that winter that snow never had a chance to settle on its slopes.45 Certainly the fighting around the huge water-tanks on the hillside was continuous for 112 days from the second half of September to 12 January 1943. Historians simply cannot say, or even estimate, how often the summit changed hands, for, as Chuikov notes, there were no witnesses who survived all through the whole battle for it, and in any case no one was keeping count. At one point the life expectancy of soldiers there was between one and two days, and to see a third day made one a veteran. Rodimtsev’s, Gorishny’s and Batyuk’s divisions all fought there with distinction (and to near-annihilation). At one point, when telephone communication was lost between Chuikov’s headquarters and Batyuk’s divisional command post at the Mamayev Kurgan, a signaller called Titayev was sent to re-establish it. His corpse was found with the two ends of the wire clamped tightly together between his teeth, after he had used his own skull as a semi-conductor.46

The German attack of 11 November succeeded in reaching the Volga along a front of 600 yards, splitting the Russian forces for the third time during the battle. But as Chuikov crowed, ‘Paulus had been unable to capitalize on his superior strength, and had not achieved what he intended. He had not thrown the 62nd Army into the icy Volga.’ With Paulus’ Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army in possession of three-quarters of the city, but Chuikov’s Sixty-second Army still holding out on the right bank and receiving heavy reinforcements, the Germans decided to pour yet more forces from the Don and the south into the city, their places being taken by the Romanian Third Army and Italian Eighth Army along the Don to the north-west and the Romanian Fourth Army to the south of Stalingrad. This was to give the Russians their great chance.

At a two-and-a-half-hour meeting of generals at the Führer’s office in Berlin during the planning of Barbarossa back in March 1941, at which Hitler spoke about German goals in Russia and the means of attaining them – ‘Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples’ – he had said that he was under ‘No illusions about our allies! Finns will fight bravely… Romanians are no good at all. Perhaps they could be used as a security force in quiet sectors behind very strong natural obstacles [rivers]… The fortunes of large German units must not be tied to the uncertain staying power of the Romanian forces.’47 Yet he did not take his own advice, for that is precisely what now happened at Stalingrad. It was Zhukov who masterminded the double envelopment of Stalingrad from north and south which, once successfully completed on 23 November 1942, was no less successfully defended from Manstein’s counter-attack in December and then developed into an unbreakable stranglehold in January 1943, ending with the German surrender there the following month. Chuikov was left as the tethered goat in the city, to distract the German wolf, and for four days after Thursday, 19 November Zhukov flung four army groups (called fronts) into the great assault, codenamed Operation Uranus. The secret logistical buildup had been impressive: in the first three weeks of November, 160,000 men, 430 tanks, 6,000 guns and mortars, 14,000 vehicles and 10,000 horses had been ferried across the Volga and Don rivers. By then, over 1.1 million men were ready to take part in both Uranus (the encirclement of Stalingrad) and Operation Saturn (a wider swing all the way to Rostov). In Uranus, the Voronezh, South-west and Don Fronts attacked north of Stalingrad and the Stalingrad Front came around the south in a classic pincer movement. The initial bombardment by 3,500 Russian guns, mortars and rockets at 07.30 hours on Thursday, 19 November woke up German soldiers more than 30 miles away. From 1944, that day was ever after known in Russia as Artillery Day, in commemoration of the salvoes launched before the infantry assault at 08.50. German minefields had been cleared by Russian engineers working through the night before the offensive.

The Romanians fought bravely, but Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks of the South-west Front soon created a 7-mile gap in the lines of General Petre Dumitrescu’s Third Romanian Army, and five divisions were swiftly trapped in the bend of the River Don. Every gap was exploited and expanded, and it was fitting that it had to fall to Kurt Zeitzler to break the news to Hitler, because three weeks earlier it had been he who had confidently assured the Führer that the Soviets were ‘in no position to mount a major offensive with any far-reaching objective’.48 On Friday, 20 November, the southern pincer ripped into the Fourth Romanian Army, where these forces too met with quick success, and forged an even larger, 17-mile gap, through which the IV Cavalry and IV Mechanized Corps were poured. Wide, sweeping, confident cross-country tank movements characterized Uranus just as they had the opening phases of Barbarossa, and Weichs’ Army Group B outside the city was pushed back westwards. The Russians closed the ring around Stalingrad at Sovietskiy village near Kalach-on-Don on the night of Monday, 23 November. ‘Dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape, they fired green flares periodically so that they did not miss each other, or think the other force were Germans.’49 The troops from the two connecting units came together with such speed, and at night, that they had to re-enact the whole scene the next day with cheering and mutual hugging for the propaganda footage.50

In a sense it was not the Germans who lost the battle of Stalingrad; they had taken the whole city except for a Russian toe-hold on the right bank; rather it was the Romanian Third Army and the Italian Eighth Army to the north and the Romanian Fourth Army in the south of the city who were comprehensively outfought. When the encirclement was completed, around 275,000 of Paulus’ army were trapped. Yet the pincers were still thin, in places only a few miles deep, so at this point Hitler ought to have ordered Paulus to attempt an immediate breakout. He did not, believing that Manstein, then flying down from Leningrad, could command yet another regrouping of the Wehrmacht in southern Russia and break through from the south-west, during which the Luftwaffe could keep Paulus provisioned with food and equipment.

Göring – against advice from the Luftwaffe generals on the spot – promised the Führer that he could fly 550 tons of supplies per day into Stalingrad.51 Yet that was based on having 225 Junkers Ju-52s serviceable every day, whereas in fact there were only about eighty serviceable at any one time, supported by two squadrons of Heinkel He-111s which could carry only 1.5 tons each.52 Admittedly, Göring hoped to bring in other planes from different theatres, but it would never have been enough to service an army of a quarter of a million men indefinitely. The statistics were discouraging for the Sixth Army’s hopes for survival: Paulus requested 750 tons a day, Göring promised 550, the Luftwaffe generals said 350 were possible, but the planes available could actually manage only half that, even before the bad weather closed in, after which an average of only 100 tons per day were delivered.53

Paulus needed to move fast to escape the giant trap that had been sprung around him, and to meet Manstein coming north-eastwards to his relief, but Hitler refused him permission to move, and Paulus himself did not want to attempt it. ‘I gave the order finally for the Sixth Army to break out,’ Manstein told his interviewer at Nuremberg in June 1946, ‘but then Paulus said it was too late and not possible. Hitler did not want the Sixth Army to break out at any time, but to fight to the last man. I believe that Hitler said that if the Sixth Army tried to break out, it would be their death.’54 A decade after the war, and thus with the benefit of both hindsight and little likelihood of being gainsaid, Zeitzler claimed that, back in November 1942, ‘I had told Hitler that if a quarter of a million soldiers were to be lost at Stalingrad, then the backbone of the entire Eastern front would be broken.’55 The Führer hardly needed to be told of the importance of Stalingrad, himself exhorting the troops of the Sixth Army and the Fourth Armoured Army on 26 November:

The battle around Stalingrad is reaching its climax… My thoughts and those of the German people are with you in these grave hours! Whatever the circumstances, you must hold on to the Stalingrad position which has been won with so much blood under the leadership of resolute generals! Your resolve must be so unshakeable that, as at Kharkov in the spring, this Russian breakthrough too will be annihilated by the measures that have been put in hand. Everything that lies in my power is being done to help you in your heroic struggle.56

Earlier that same month Hitler had issued a similar ‘Stand or die’ order to Rommel at El Alamein; henceforth there were to be many such messages, in which the Führer forsook strategic manoeuvre, replacing it with a blind, unyielding test of willpower, one in which flesh and blood were set against steel and fire.

Stalingrad was an important transport hub, industrial city and oil refinery, but not so important as to justify the emphasis the Nazis put on its capture, in fighting that still today results in mines and shells and especially bones being uncovered every springtime. Hitler was not merely being hubristic when he ordered Paulus to stay in Stalingrad, however. He also needed to withdraw Army Group A from the Caucasus, which had to be covered by Stalingrad.

‘Hitler’s veto on any breakout appears incredibly rash when one considers the forces involved,’ wrote Mellenthin. ‘For this was no ordinary army invested at Stalingrad; the Sixth Army represented the spearhead of the Wehrmacht, in what was intended to be the decisive campaign of the war.’57 Stalingrad certainly was that, but not for the reason Hitler intended, for in the event Manstein’s rescue bid was stopped short of its destination. With a fraction of the necessary supplies being dropped by the IV Luftflotte Junkers of Luftwaffe Field Marshal Baron von Richthofen – a cousin of the Great War ace the Red Baron – whose aircraft were put out of action by Russian fighters, anti-aircraft guns and the weather conditions, Paulus’ army started to die on its frostbitten feet. Casualties, disease, exhaustion, starvation and above all the debilitating cold later rendered a breakout impossible anyway. (Richthofen developed a brain tumour in 1944, and died the next year.)

Chuikov now faced a renewed danger on the ground, since the Volga had started to freeze over on 12 November. Stalingrad lies on the edge of the windy, treeless steppes and was thus particularly vulnerable to temperatures that could reach as low as –45 Celsius. It was not unknown for German soldiers to build walls of frozen corpses behind which to hide from the elements. The freezing of the river speeded up once the temperature dropped to –15 Celsius in late November, but was not complete until 17 December. Before then, the ice floes made any river crossing impossible even for armoured boats, so the Sixty-second Army had to stay on short rations until trucks were able to cross the river. ‘We were going to have to fight on two fronts,’ recorded the Russian commander, ‘against the enemy and the Volga.’ With ammunition and food supplies dropping off dangerously, Chuikov recalled how the ‘ice-floes piled up and formed obstructions, and made a disgusting crunching noise which made our flesh creep and sent shudders up our spines, as if someone were sawing into our vertebrae’.58 Once the ice was thick enough, however, 18,000 trucks and 20,000 other vehicles crossed over to resuscitate the still-besieged Red Army.59 Meanwhile, the desperate hand-to-hand fighting in the factory district continued unabated.

By mid-December, the dire position of the Sixth Army could only possibly be alleviated by Manstein coming to the rescue. His Army Group Don looked effective on paper, consisting of two Panzer divisions, one infantry division, Hoth’s headquarters and some Romanians, and it set out on 12 December to try to cross the 62 miles to the city in Operation Wintergewitte (Winter Tempest). ‘I have considered one thing, Zeitzler,’ Hitler said of Stalingrad at the Wolfschanze that same afternoon,

Looking at the big picture, we should under no circumstances give this up. We won’t get it back once it’s lost… To think that it would be possible to do it a second time, if we go back there and the matériel stays behind, is ridiculous. They can’t take everything with them. The horses are tired, and they don’t have any more strength to pull. I can’t feed one horse with another. If they were Russians, I’d say ‘One Russian eats up the other one.’ But I can’t let one horse eat the other horse.60

It is unclear whether he reached this conclusion on practical or humanitarian grounds. Talking of the heavy artillery in the city, especially howitzers, Hitler added: ‘We can’t replace what we have in there. If we abandon it, we abandon the whole purpose for the campaign. To think that I will come back here next time is madness… We won’t come back here, so we can’t leave.’

Manstein’s plan was for Paulus to break out once Hoth’s tanks came to within 20 miles of the perimeter. However, on 16 December Zhukov unleashed Operation Little Saturn to turn Hoth back. Once again, it was their allies who proved the bane of the Wehrmacht: the Soviet South-west Front destroyed the Italian Eighth Army on the middle Don, opening a 60-mile gap and allowing the Russians to attack Manstein’s right flank towards Rostov. The loss of Rostov would have cut off Kleist, who in November had been named commander of Army Group A in the Caucasus, so Hoth’s force was weakened to prevent this happening, thereby wrecking his chances of getting close enough to Stalingrad to prise the Sixth Army out.

On 19 December Manstein ordered Paulus to break out to the south-west, but Paulus now preferred to follow Hitler’s orders to stay put. (‘Dear Field Marshal,’ Paulus had replied in a postscript to an earlier request, ‘In the circumstances I hope you will overlook the inadequacy of the paper and the fact that this letter is handwritten.’61) Manstein’s under-strength divisions nonetheless got to within 35 miles of Stalingrad, but the whole momentum of Winter Tempest stalled when on 23 December Hoth’s armour was forced to halt on the River Mishkova, unable to make any further headway in the face of tough Russian opposition and the monstrous weather conditions. The irony of the operation’s codename was not lost on anyone. If Stalingrad was the turning point of the war, the halt on the River Mishkova was what prevented it from turning back again. By 28 December Manstein had to pull Hoth’s force back in order to prevent its encirclement.

Yet, even if Manstein had got the whole way to Stalingrad, it is not certain that Paulus could have been rescued. On one day 180 tons of supplies got through, but for three weeks he had received only 120 tons a day, and after Christmas the nightly average was down to only 60 tons.62 It is hard to imagine the despair felt when the starving Germans opened a container that had been successfully parachuted into the city only to find that it held a kilo of ground pepper and a case of condoms.63 Once the airfields at Morovskaya and Tatsinskaya on the Don had fallen to the Russians at Christmas, the closest German-held airfields to Stalingrad were even more distant, further cutting down the number of possible flights.

The first German death by starvation within what they were calling the Kessel (cauldron) was recorded on 21 December. In early December the daily bread ration for the encircled forces was 200 grams per head, which was cut further at Christmas. They were also given, recalled a survivor, Colonel H. R. Dingler, ‘watery soup which we tried to improve by making use of bones obtained from horses we dug up’. The lack of petrol meant that tanks had to be kept in the rear of infantry, with the result that ‘when the Russians broke in – as later on they did – counter-thrusts lacked every vestige of momentum.’64 Paulus’ army was disintegrating, and probably could not have crossed the 20 miles back to safety even if Hoth had broken the stranglehold.

Lice infections broke out because it was too cold to wash; the frozen bodies of horses littered the roads; sentries who fell asleep at their posts didn’t wake up; with petrol being hoarded by the commissariat for the breakout, there was no fuel to turn the abundant snow into desperately needed water; bread that had frozen solid, called Eisbrot (ice bread), provided a taunting reminder of how close they were to salvation if only they could find fuel. ‘The men were too weak to dig fresh emplacements or communication trenches,’ records one historian of the Sixth Army’s plight in the Kessel that Christmas; ‘when forced out of their old positions they would simply lie on the ground behind heaped-up snow “parapets”, numb with cold and the inevitability of death. To be wounded might be lucky, more often it was a stroke of hideous misfortune among comrades too exhausted to lift a man onto a stretcher; where medical services had no anaesthetic other than artificially induced frostbite.’65

There were terrible scenes at Pitomnik airport as Junkers attempted to fly the wounded and others away to safety. Soldiers who rushed to get on to planes without documentation were shot, and there were two cases of men hanging on to the tail wheels of planes, who soon afterwards fell to their deaths. The self-discipline of the Wehrmacht collapsed at Pitomnik, as desperation to escape overcame the most famed Teutonic virtue of the Army. When the cratered runway proved too badly damaged by Russian artillery fire to use, and twenty men had to be unloaded from one plane, a Lieutenant Dieter recalled:

At once there was a terrific din, everyone shouting at once, one man claimed that he was travelling by order of the Army Staff, another from the SS that he had important Party documents, many others who cried about their families, that their children had been injured in air raids, and so on. Only the men on stretchers kept silent, but their terror showed in their faces.66

It was understandable; those wounded men whose stretchers were offloaded and placed too far away from the stoves in the makeshift shanties at the perimeter of the airfield simply froze to death.

On Christmas Day the Germans were finally expelled from the Tractor Factory, and an ingenious method was used to get them out of the main office building of the Red October Factory, when a storming group of Lieutenant-General V. P. Sokolov’s division carried a 122mm howitzer into the factory piece by piece, which they then reassembled inside the walls. After a few rounds at point-blank range, ‘the German garrison in the factory ceased to exist.’ The next day Paulus received only 70 tons of supplies, less than 10 per cent of what he knew he needed for survival. A German soldier, Wilhelm Hoffman of the 267th Regiment of the 94th Infantry Division, made a last entry in his diary, writing: ‘The horses have already been eaten. I would eat a cat; they say its meat is also tasty. The soldiers look like corpses or lunatics, looking for something to put in their mouths. They no longer take cover from Russian shells; they haven’t the strength to walk, run away and hide. A curse on this war…’67 It was about this time that Dingler and his comrades ‘began to discuss what to do if the worst came to the worst. We talked about captivity. We talked about the question of committing suicide. We discussed the question of defending what we held to the last bullet but one… There was no compulsion from above in any direction. These things were left to be decided by the individual himself.’68

On 8 January 1943, the commander of the Don Front, General Konstantin Rokossovsky, dropped leaflets offering the Germans an honourable surrender, sufficient rations, care for the wounded and repatriation to Germany after the war, all on the condition that their military equipment be handed over undamaged. Tempting as it was, this was refused, because – so Dingler told Mellenthin – they did not trust the Russians, still hoped against hope that they might escape and wanted to give Army Group A enough time to withdraw from the Caucasus. Rokossovsky therefore opened up a major offensive against the southern and western parts of the perimeter on 10 January, codenamed Operation Ring. ‘The cover of the tomb is closing over us,’ was the perceptive judgement of a Colonel Selle at that time, and so many German soldiers were now committing suicide that Paulus had to issue an order forbidding it as dishonourable.69 As the so-called Marinovka nose, the south-western protuberance of the Kessel, came under Russian attack, some German troops found that their fingers were so badly swollen from frostbite that they could not fit inside their rifles’ trigger guards. Summary execution was resorted to in order to keep the German troops fighting, in conditions so cold that mortar shells ‘rebounded off the frozen earth and exploded as air bursts, causing more casualties’.70 Yet once the Marinovka had fallen, it was even worse for the defenders, as they were now forced out into the open. ‘There were no trenches and no places for the riflemen,’ recalled Dingler; ‘the decimated troops, overtired, exhausted, and with frostbitten limbs, simply lay in the snow.’ All heavy weaponry had to be disabled – often by means of a grenade down the barrel – and then abandoned. The Kessel’s last contact with the outside world came on 23 January when Gumrak airfield – ‘a snowy desert filled with aircraft and vehicles’ – fell to the Russians. ‘Everywhere lay the corpses of German soldiers too exhausted to move on,’ Dingler wrote. ‘They had just died in the snow.’

Saturday, 23 January also saw the Führer issuing another rather predictable order to Paulus: ‘Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round, and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution to the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.’71 One week later, Hitler appointed Paulus a field marshal, in order to prevent him from surrendering, because no German field marshal had ever before surrendered his forces in the field. There’s a first time for everything, however, and at 07.35 hours on Sunday, 31 January Paulus was captured in his bunker, and his (southern) pocket of forces in the Kessel collapsed. The basement under the 1937-built Univermag (central department store) where Paulus and his chief of staff General Arthur Schmidt made their makeshift headquarters, is one of the few places where Germans did not suffer from chilblains and frostbite. On display there today are Paulus’ drawings dated November 1942 of red elephants outside the city trampling on the German flag in their march to Stalingrad, pictures which imply a severe lack of confidence in ultimate victory.

Hitler was disgusted and sarcastic at his Führer-conference at the Wolfschanze at 12.17 the next day, 1 February, equating the Sixth Army with a suicidal rape victim, to the Army’s disadvantage. ‘True to form,’ he told Zeitzler,

they surrendered themselves. Because otherwise, you gather yourselves together, build an all-round defence, and shoot yourself with the last cartridge. If you can imagine that a woman, after being insulted a few times, has so much pride that she goes out, locks herself in, and shoots herself dead immediately – then I have no respect for a soldier who shrinks back from it and prefers going into captivity.72

At least Hitler was to practise what he preached in that respect. Meanwhile, on 15 January, the Red Army reintroduced gradations of rank signified by epaulettes and other such badges of seniority, for reasons of discipline, morale and ease of recognition during battle. Some thought this step reminiscent of tsarism, although it was not a view that was expressed too vocally.

Two days after Paulus’ capture, the northern pocket surrendered too. Paulus, Schmidt, twenty-two other generals and a further 91,000 soldiers shuffled off into Soviet captivity, the only survivors of the 275,000 or so (estimates vary) Germans, Romanians, Italians and Russian anti-Soviet volunteers who had been cut off within the Kessel on 23 November 1942.73 An even greater percentage of German prisoners died in two years of Russian captivity before the end of the war than Russians died in four years of German captivity. Of the more than 90,000 Wehrmacht soldiers who surrendered at Stalingrad, only 9,626 ever returned to Germany, and some of them not until 1955.

The Soviets meanwhile lost 479,000 killed or captured in the Stalingrad campaign between 17 July 1942 and 2 February 1943, and a further 651,000 sick or wounded, a total of 1.13 million.74 ‘Stalingrad had become a symbol of resistance unparalleled in human history,’ wrote Chuikov. Such hyperbole is often written by old soldiers about their past battles, but in his case it was true. Chuikov’s memoirs were written with some bitterness during the Cold War, in 1959; the general was angry with Western historians downplaying the importance of his battle. Specifically attacking J. F. C. Fuller, Winston Churchill, Omar Bradley, Heinz Guderian, Kurt von Tippelkirsch ‘and other apologists of imperialism’, he went to great pains to point out the differences between El Alamein and Stalingrad. ‘At El Alamein the British were faced by four German divisions and eight Italian divisions,’ he argued,

and what is more, the main German and Italian forces managed to avoid being defeated in battle; on the Volga and the Don, however, in the period of the counter-attack by the Soviet armies from 19 November 1942 to 2 February 1943, thirty-two divisions and three brigades belonging to Nazi Germany and her satellites were destroyed. Sixteen more of the enemy’s divisions suffered serious defeat… In the battle of Stalingrad, Humanity saw the dawn of victory over Fascism.75

Chuikov was only slightly exaggerating the figures, and it is worth pointing out that little humanity was shown by the defenders of Humanity, even towards their own citizens. It is not known how many Russians – deserters or prisoners, known as Hiwis, short forHilfswillige (volunteer helper) – fought for the Germans. No fewer than 150,000 served with the SS alone during the war, which was probably merely ‘the tip of the iceberg’.76 It was an embarrassing subject for the post-war Soviet authorities, so details about their service are sketchy, but it is estimated that over 20,000 Hiwis surrendered or were captured at Stalingrad. It is still not known what the NKVD did to them, although there are accounts of their being worked to death in camps, and of others ‘being beaten to death, rather than being shot, to save ammunition’.77 With the NKVD, it is best to err on the most brutal side of estimates.

A total of twenty German divisions – thirteen infantry, three Panzer (the 14th, 16th and 24th), three motorized and one anti-aircraft – had been lost by the Wehrmacht, as well as two Romanian divisions, a Croat regiment, service troops and members of the German construction unit known as the Organisation Todt. ‘The destruction of these divisions was bound to alter the whole balance of power on the Eastern Front,’ commented Mellenthin with some understatement. Zeitzler agreed, writing in 1956 that Stalingrad ‘was the turning point of the entire war’.78 The historian Nigel Nicolson considered Stalingrad to be ‘even worse than 1812, for at least Napoleon’s army was retreating: from Stalingrad there was no retreat. The nearest comparison might be if the British Expeditionary Force had been totally destroyed at Dunkirk.’79 With the remains of the Sixth Army in captivity, German strength in southern Russia was halved; moreover, the half-million men whom Zhukov had detailed to besiege Stalingrad were now available for other duties, and would be directed against Manstein, who was busy withdrawing, often asking for permission from the OKW only after he had given his orders. Manstein owned a pet dachshund that raised its paw when it heard the command ‘Heil Hitler’, but he himself showed a more independent spirit.

Stupidly, the Nazis attempted to pretend that the Sixth Army had not been captured at all, but had died fighting the Bolsheviks. ‘True to its oath of allegiance to fight to the last breath,’ a communiqué from the OKH announced on 3 February, ‘the Sixth Army under the exemplary command of Field Marshal Paulus has succumbed to the superiority of the enemy and unfavourable circumstances… Generals, officers, non-commissioned officers and men fought shoulder to shoulder down to the last bullet.’ Nonetheless, ‘the sacrifice of the Sixth Army was not in vain.’80 As the truth filtered back, especially after the Soviets paraded the POWs through the streets of Moscow in front of the world’s media, the credibility of German communiqués was further undermined.

Superlatives are unavoidable when describing the battle of Stalingrad; it was the struggle of Gog and Magog, the merciless clash where the rules of war were discarded. Merely staying alive in the frostbitten winter of 1942/3 was an achievement, but the two vast armies fought each other hand to hand and house to house throughout it, with a desperation and on a scale never before seen in the annals of warfare. Around 1.1 million people died in the battle on both sides, with only a few thousand civilians still there out of the half-million who had lived there before the war.

Charles de Gaulle’s (necessarily very private) comment when he visited the area in November 1944 on his way to Moscow to meet Stalin – ‘Un grand peuple’ – referred to the Germans, for having got that far and endured that much.81 Today it is impossible not to agree with him, however appalling the decision-making of their High Command, and especially their Supreme Warlord. Yet in the street battles of Stalingrad it had been the Russian fighting man who had prevailed, defending his Motherland. The unbelievably dogged resistance shown by the ordinary Russian soldier had delivered victory. Operation Barbarossa had indeed, as Hitler had predicted, made ‘the world hold its breath’ and it was only after Stalingrad that it could finally begin to exhale.

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