Alexander Stahlberg, who had begun his military life as a cavalry volunteer, became an officer and in 1942 was appointed aide-de-camp (ADC) to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group South on Germany’s front in Russia. Manstein had already established his reputation as the leading practitioner of mobile operations on the Eastern Front.
At the time of Stahlberg’s appointment, the Red Army had just broken through the German line north and south of Stalingrad, at points held by contingents from Germany’s allies, Italians, Romanians and Hungarians, and had encircled the German Sixth Army inside the city. In December, Hitler would order Manstein to mount a counter-offensive (Operation Winter Storm) with the object of breaking through the Russian encirclement and restoring contact with Sixth Army. As Hitler refused to contemplate allowing Sixth Army to break out towards Manstein, the operation would fail and the defenders of Stalingrad would eventually succumb to cold and starvation. Field Marshal Paulus, their commander, surrendered the Stalingrad pocket on I February 1943, against Hitler’s orders expressly forbidding capitulation.
The next day, 18 November 1942, I reached Vitebsk and the headquarters of the Eleventh Army shortly before dark, in a car belonging to the headquarters. I had myself announced to the Commander-in-Chief with some trepidation. When I entered Manstein’s study he rose from his armchair, laid aside a book he had been reading, tapped the ash from a fat cigar and accepted my posting orders. Then he shook hands and asked me to sit down opposite him.
He was wearing a white linen uniform jacket of the kind we liked to wear off duty in peacetime. For the first time in my life, I saw the golden epaulettes with the crossed marshal’s batons close at hand.
He began the conversation in a very friendly, not to say charming manner. [Stahlberg’s cousin, Henning] Tresckow had told him something about me, including the fact that his [Manstein’s] brother-in-law, Conrad von Loesch, his wife’s brother, a casualty of the Polish campaign, had been married to a cousin of mine. So there would be plenty for us to talk about.
Then he asked me about myself, and especially about my military career. I began by telling him that I had joined the 6th (Prussian) Cavalry Regiment as a volunteer in 1935 because the NSDAP [the Nazi Party] in Stettin had tried to force me to become a Party Member. Without going into this point, he exclaimed with obvious pleasure that in that case I must have been serving alongside his previous aide, Specht. That was how I learned that ‘Pepo’, as we had called him in Schwedt, had been killed. The Field Marshal wanted to know if I had known him well and I had to say no, as I was older than he. During Reserve exercises, as an N CO, I had had to give the officer cadets riding instruction once or twice. Specht had been remarkable for sitting his horse perfectly from the first day, and had been better at all the cavalry exercises than many a veteran trooper — and certainly better than I was. The Field Marshal enjoyed talking about him and I could see how deeply Specht’s death had affected him.
I also referred to the death of his eldest son, Gero — Tresckow had told me of it — and he talked to me about him. Then he suddenly reached behind him and gave me a letter from his desk to read. It came from the editorial office of the Völkischer Beobachter, the official party newspaper of the NSDAP. In words of contrived courtesy it informed the Field Marshal that the paper was prepared to print the notice of his son Gero’s death only if the reference to the biblical text (Acts 8:39) which was to appear above the notice was removed. The verse ended with the words: ‘... he went on his way rejoicing.’ Through this — undoubtedly perfectly inoffensive — text his wife and he had wanted to express two things: firstly, that he and his family were Christians, and secondly, that Gero had been a particularly happy human being. He would therefore tell the Völkischer Beobachterthat the notice was to appear unchanged and with the biblical text. After all, he had given his rank when he signed it. He looked at me questioningly.
After a pause, I asked: ‘Does it have to be the Völkischer Beobachter, sir? The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung seems to me a more suitable place for this notice. It too is conformist, of course, but I have always noticed that “our families” prefer that paper.’ He answered quickly that the Deutsche Allgemeine had received the notice in the same post as the Völkischer Beobachter and had not refused to print it. That was why he was going to insist that the Völkischer Beobachter should also print it in full.
At that point Manstein was obviously unaware that the Deutsche Allgemeine had already carried the death announcement on 7 November, having deleted the biblical text without reference to the family. The newspaper had acted independently, in accordance with the rules of the Ministry of Propaganda for the obituaries of the fallen, whereas the Party newspaper had at least written. When writing this account, I sought out Gero von Manstein’s obituary in the Völkischer Beobachter at the Press Institute of the Free University of Berlin. It was published on 22 November 1942, without the biblical text. So that was how the Nazi Party treated even Field Marshals.
All this lies in the past now, but it epitomizes National Socialist propaganda policy, with its curious nuances, and it reveals the inhumanity and rigour of the demands it made on people. This first conversation with Manstein covered other subjects as well, and I was well aware that I was being tested. He made me report in detail on the fighting at Tikhvin and above all the battle south of Lake Ladoga, when he had led us. Quite suddenly he interrupted me. ‘I’ll make you an offer,’ he said. ‘If you like, we’ll give each other a try.’ I accepted at once, because I was impressed by his personality and his approach to a much younger man. I felt I could work well for him.
Then he outlined mv job, of which I had only a vague idea, summing up: ‘You will be my constant companion, you will be present at all my conversations, you will take brief minutes of our daily doings, in so far as they are important. You will listen to my telephone conversations, write for me and keep my files, both the military and some of the private ones.’
I interjected that I was not clear to what extent a lieutenant could share the official and other life of a Field Marshal; above all, I could not imagine that there were not some matters which a Field Marshal had to deal with privately and in the strictest of confidence. He rejected this at once, emphatically: in wartime it did not apply, at least not for him. I persisted: after all, he might be talking to the Fuhrer. ‘Then you will be there, unless accompanying officers are excluded on his orders.’ Then I objected that although I could type a little, I had not learned shorthand. ‘That is actually a good thing,’ he said. ‘I do not care for shorthand in the work of the General Staff, because the shorthand-writer records everything he hears, including trivia. I expect you to recognize what is important and what is not. The less you write, the better. I hope,’ he continued, ‘that I shall soon be able to dictate to you. And I expect you — though not overnight — to be able to transfer the sense of my dictation reliably to paper from your notes.’
I felt quite dizzy at what was in store for me. After a pause, during which he presumably watched my reactions, he began again, stressing something of extreme importance to him: he had worked on the General Staff in the First World War, so he knew the military hierarchy well enough to know that with each promotion a senior officer ran more risk of isolation. On the so-called path of duty, each upward step was necessarily a kind of additional filter and it was up to me to tell him important things which other people thought should be kept from him. Obviously he did not expect me to burden him with gossip, but he attached great importance to knowing what, in my view, he ought to know. What he meant, in a word, was this: ‘Whatever you know I too must know, if you consider it necessary!’
I was delighted. This was a superior entirely to my taste. I was to work for a man of real consequence, who had honoured me with the greatest trust.
I then learned that the entire operations staff of the Eleventh Army (the new Army Group Don) was to move into the waiting command train that evening, to be ready to cross Russia southward towards Stalingrad, where the Red Army had launched a massive offensive a few days before in an attempt to pose a serious threat to the entire German Southern Front, including our Italian, Hungarian and Romanian allies. Hitler had made Manstein Commander-in-Chief of this distant section in order, as the General Staff Officer says: ‘to restore the situation’, or in plain language, to save what could be saved.
Whilst we waited for the orders from OKH [Army High Command], I made my most important preliminary visits round the headquarters, in precise order of seniority, according to custom.
General Friedrich Schulz was Manstein’s Army Chief of Staff and his closest colleague since the Crimean campaign. He welcomed me with great warmth. Word had already gone round among the staff that Tresckow had recommended me, and I had a clear sense of the reputation my cousin enjoyed. Not only that evening, but countless times in the years that followed, people would speak to me of Henning, so that I became aware of the responsibility I shouldered as ‘Tresckow’s man’.
I at once felt both trust and liking for General Schulz and no less so for his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Otto Feil, who kept the Army’s War Diary. Feil was soon one of my closest friends on that large staff.
Things were quite different with the ‘Ia’, the First General Staff Officer, Colonel Theodor Busse. When I went to his office, he offered me a chair facing him, turned the light of a standard lamp on me and questioned me about everything he was interested in without my being able to see his face. So there was a wall between us from the start.
The headquarters had as its mobile command post a special railway train of about ten express-train carriages. It was equipped with everything an operational department needed in war, with radio and telegraph equipment as well as its own armament. The Field Marshal had a former saloon carriage which had seen better days and which had been converted into a study and briefing room, with two large sleeping compartments next to it for himself and me, as his aide-de-camp, as well as compartments for the batmen. It was a wonderful old carriage, more elegant than any I had seen before. It was said to have belonged to the Queen of Yugoslavia. Precious art-nouveau marquetry decorated the panelled walls and heavy silk curtains contrasted oddly with its current use.
Two days later, whilst we were visiting two of the corps still under the Field Marshal’s command, the expected order arrived from OKH confirming the creation of a new Army Group Headquarters from Headquarters Eleventh Army under the title Army Group Don. The new formation was to move immediately to the South to relieve the Sixth Army, threatened by encirclement at Stalingrad, and to ‘reconstruct’ the defensive front on both sides of the city.
On that day (20 November), I was present at a strategic discussion of great significance. Only a very defective situation map of Southern Russia was available for the discussion, yet the sparse entries were enough to lead Manstein and his staff to the conclusion that there could be no question of a ‘restoration of the former front line’.
I now realized what the ‘leadership’ of the Supreme Command — in other words, Hitler — really meant: it was neither flexible nor dynamic, but unimaginative, uninventive and, above all, static. I now held the key to my own terrible experiences and the destruction of the 12th Panzer Division in more than a year of battles between Leningrad and the Volkhov.