(incorporating Museum Review)
by J O E O Mahncke
The German attack on Russia, codenamed Operation 'Barbarossa', began on 22 June 1941. In his order of the day, Hitler addressed his soldiers waiting at the border, by announcing the final date and hour of the attack and informing them that 160 Russian divisions were waiting beyond the border. If the Germans had 3 000 000 soldiers ready, the Russians had 4 500 000. Stalin and his generals and commissars have always maintained that Hitler attacked Russia without provocation and at a time when Russian preparedness was at its lowest. This is debatable.
Stalin knew of Hitler's plan at least six months before Operation 'Barbarossa' began. The 'how' will be touched upon later. Directive No 21, the attack on Russia, was issued by Hitler on 18 December 1940 and it was to be kept secret. However; when the Germans attacked, they discovered that the Russians were prepared, perhaps less than their generals wished, but they were ready nevertheless.
The Germans employed a three-pronged assault. In the north, Heeresgruppe Nord (Army Group North) had as their goal the reaching and taking of Leningrad on the Ladoga sea. In the centre, Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre), the strongest prong, had Moskau as their goal. In the south, Heeresgruppe Sued (Army Group South) had orders to reach and take Rostow and open up the advance towards the oilfields of Baku.
To assist the German armies, the Roumanians marched to join Heeresgruppe Sued, and in the north two Finnish armies were to push against the railway line which led from Murmansk to the south. The ultimate objective of all armies was to reach a position at a line extending from Archangelsk in the north to Astrachan on the Kaspian sea, a distance of approximately 2 000 km. That this imaginary line was not reached was due to three factors; the vastness of the country which the Germans had to capture and occupy, the adverse climatic conditions with very hot summers, very wet autumns and springs and icy winters, and the fighting capability and spirit of the Russian soldier to whom communism was a religion for which he was ready to die.
In the south, Stalingrad was the centre of the industrial Don area and a bridge across the river Wolga and the most eastern point of the German frontline.
It is always dangerous to try to reconstruct war history with hindsight, especially if one was not there. A narration of the events leading up to the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, the connecting episodes, and the final drama played out within the devastated city, must be approached with circumspection and respect.
To apportion blame afterwards is convenient but does not always do justice to the decisions taken or to the actions following such decisions. Nevertheless, I will try to demonstrate how fact and failings combined to result in one of the most desperate battles of the Russian war.
Other engagements may have been more protracted and costly, but for sheer heroism, agony and suffering, Stalingrad was without equal. Here two fanatical political opponents and two political systems came to grips with each other; and despite the terrible cost, neither was prepared to give ground.
Stalin refused to yield from the city which carried his name. 'Here we stand, here we die' he ordered. Hitler; to destroy his adversary's aura and all that the Bolshevists represented, had vowed to take Stalingrad and stay there at all costs.
The tragedy of Stalingrad was not the result of an individual wrong decision taken during the autumn and winter of 1942/43. The disaster developed gradually, unobserved for months and then, when it exploded, it was too late to save the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers from their fate. As such the battle can be likened to a Greek drama where the fateful events gradually advance at a measured pace to rush towards the cataclysm in five sudden steps.
Let us look at the Russian side first. Although General Tchuikow was the military leader; the real power of command lay with Stalin's political war adviser; Nikita Chruschtschow, and both reported to General Jeremenko, the Supreme Commander of the Stalingrad frontline. All three were excellent commanders, experienced in winter warfare and absolutely ruthless against their soldiers and themselves when faced with a critical situation. In favour of the obnoxious Chruschtschow, it must be said that when the situation was desperate, he always succeeded in wresting another division or additional tanks from Stalin's jealously-guarded personal reserves to assist the defenders.
The Russian troops were mostly from elite units, experienced and fresh. They knew how to fight and survive in the most atrocious winter conditions and were often superior to the German soldiers in tolerating pain and extreme hardship. They accepted their lot stoically and, after being ordered to defend the city or be executed, fought till they died.
Although credit can be given to the Russians for their ability to fight the Germans to a standstill, it should not be forgotten that Stalin had inside information about Hitler's war plans long before Operation 'Barbarossa' began. This intelligence assisted him in drafting his orders with foresight.
The spy Richard Sorge, who worked as a press attaché at the German embassy in Tokyo, was one source of information. He notified Stalin that Japan would not attack the Russian armies in the Far East, thus allowing him to withdraw his Siberian divisions to Moskau, Stalingrad and Kursk. Sorge was unmasked and hanged by the Japanese in 1944.
A second source of information was the Rote Kapelle (red chapel), a spy ring consisting of communists active in political circles, in the army staff at Berlin and in industry. This ring sent intelligence via a contact person in Switzerland to Moskau until it was broken up and most of its members executed.
But the main supplier of secret information to Stalin was a man whom one would have least suspected. He was Martin Bormann, Hitler's personal secretary, closest party confidante, and a party minister. After Stalingrad, Bormann formed a triumvirate of himself, Himmler and Keitel with the purpose of shutting Hitler off from the advice of other prominent figures and in doing so possibly also succeeding in shielding him from the worsening realities of a war almost lost. He owned the only unrestricted radio station in Germany and, probably out of vanity, megalomania and an all-pervading inferiority complex, betrayed his master by divulging the war secrets he knew. Bormann's body was never found after the fall of Berlin. Remains, which the Russians claimed were his, were discovered, but never properly identified. In fact, Bormann was spirited away by the Russians and kept at a secret hideout near Moskau as a guest until his death in the early sixties.
Even conceding that Stalin could not have based his war strategy entirely on spy reports, the intelligence he received must have assisted him.
Originally the city of Stalingrad did not feature prominently in the German operational plans. It had been decided merely to eliminate the city as an armaments producer and a harbour on the Wolga by artillery shells and Stuka bombs. However; when the reports indicated that the attacks on Stalingrad progressed better than expected, the plans were changed and the city became a focal point for the German Supreme Command, and in July 1942, when Stalin gave his famous order to defend Stalingrad or die, the dies were cast and the enemies held on with determined doggedness until the savage end.
The Russian armies selected the positions of the Roumanian divisions to achieve a dramatic breakthrough, thereby endangering the German armies and army groups in the whole area, especially the groups Manstein and Kleist, and at the same time also threatening Hoth and his 4th Panzerarmee, who had to retreat and regroup to prevent an even bigger disaster. This left the 6th Army in Stalingrad to fight for itself.
The courage of the Roumanian and the much smaller Italian units on the Russian front has often been criticised. Neither presented any match for the Russian troops, especially the Italians who had never experienced such a harsh winter and had not been properly equipped, and their arms not well cared for. The core of German officers and NCO's could not prevent a rout when the enemy attacked. The Roumanian units, especially when led by energetic and determined commanders, put up a better fight, sometimes even with distinction, receiving mention in battle reports of the war diary of the German Supreme Command. However, the bulk of the units did not put up any resistance.
After the disaster a witch-hunt began and accusations were slung backwards and forwards. Undoubtedly, the situation would have developed differently had German troops held the sensitive flanks, but at that time no German units could be spared anywhere and substitute units had to be deployed with unfortunate results.
The German troops on this broad sector of the Russian front had already survived months of bloody fighting under difficult weather and supply conditions. It must be remembered that, being 4 000 km away from their Heimatland, with the Indian border closer than the German one, the logistical problems across the wide expanse of Russia, not to mention the actions of the Russian partisans, presented a great headache for the Germans. Their conduct and staying power at Stalingrad and elsewhere can therefore only elicit fullest admiration.
Reserves of any importance were not on hand at the front. In consequence half-trained units, scraped together from rear bases and from anyone who could fire a gun, were thrown into battle. Even Luftwaffe soldiers with very little or no infantry training were hastily formed into units, called 'Luftwaffen-Felddivisionen', and thrown into the battles only to perish. In contrast, twenty-nine divisions, fully-equipped and at the peak of their performance, stood idle in the west in France. But Hitler; expecting a landing by the Allies who fed clever bogus intelligence reports about an early coming of the second front, refused to consider the pleas of his generals to release some of these divisions for the Russian front.
A number of these divisions were Waffen-SS, a separate arm of the forces and the apple of Hitler's eye. They were invariably better equipped, armed and fed than the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, and this led to a generally cynical judgement of the Waffen-SS. However, generalisations are unhelpful. The units of the Waffen-SS in Russia proved their worth and fought hard, sometimes more fanatically than their army counterparts.
The German soldier in Russia was not the same as the one who had fought in Poland, France or North Africa. He had been well-trained, but during the prolonged battles and marches through the vast Russian steppe he had become worn out and many divisions should have been replaced with fresh units. However; replacements were hard to find as the blanket had become too thin.
The hellish winter conditions in Russia, endless snow, groundless mud, frost, fog and ice and the numbing week-long storms with temperatures of 30 degrees below sapped their strength and, due to totally inefficient winter clothing, frostbite almost became enemy number one. Complete regiments were decimated and one division was even put out of action in this way, to be referred to afterwards as the 'Asthma Division'. In 1944 it was discovered that the Army General Staff Quartermaster, General Wagner; and other officers, had apparently withheld orders for the production of winter uniforms for Operation 'Barbarossa' and was therefore responsible for the supply debacle. General Wagner, who had connections to the instigators of the unsuccessful '20 July 1944' attempt on Hitler's life, was sentenced and executed for sabotage.
Even long before November 1942, Hitler had decided that Stalingrad had to be held at all costs and something had to be done rapidly to place 6th Army in a position to execute his order. Unfortunately, the Chief of the Army General Staff, General Halder, had resigned from his post two months previously after a series of serious disagreements with Hitler. His successor, General Zeitzler, although eminently suitable and a very able tactician, was not made of the same steely mould and, against the combined front of Feldmarschall Keitel and General-oberst Jodl, could not influence the plans which Hitler wanted accomplished.
Feldmarschall Keitel in particular played a decisive role in Hitler's HQ, and his character is best described by the nickname he had been given by his officers, 'Lakeitel'. As Chief of Supreme Command of the Armed Forces he had considerable influence on Hitler; although not always the best and often enough, after supporting a staff officer's suggestion in private, reneged on his stand in front of Hitler. He was one of the main accused at the Nuremberg war trials, and was sentenced to death and hanged. Generaloberst Jodl, Chief of Armed Forces Executive Body, and one of the few who on occasion contradicted Hitler vehemently and was almost fired for his troubles, eventually suffered the same fate.
Already in November 1942 it became clear that the concept of a successful defence of Stalingrad rested on the adequate supply of arms, ammunition, fuel, rations and hospital equipment. As the trap began to close and roads were cut off one by one, supply by air became the only alternative.
Simple statistics proved that such an operation required vast numbers of transport aircraft. The generals, especially those in the Luftwaffe, warned that, taking logistical difficulties and adverse winter conditions into consideration, an air bridge to Stalingrad was a temporary measure at best and that the defenders would eventually have to withdraw if the 6th Army was to be preserved to continue operating.
Hitler refused to contemplate this scenario and sank into deep melancholia waiting for a miracle to happen. Albert Speer, War Armaments Minister, wrote in his memoirs that at the moment Hermann Goering arrived and announced, 'Mein Fuehrer, the air bridge to 6th Army in Stalingrad is personally guaranteed by me. You can rely on the Luftwaffe.'
Hitler immediately perked up and from then on used Goering's promise to counter any argument by his staff. General Zeitzler voiced his doubts at once but Goering replied gruffly that the whole business was in the hands of the Luftwaffe and would be done.
This was one of the few occasions when Hitler; usually an expert on figures and statistics, swallowed Goering's argument unchecked, simply because he believed in the impossible, and he was proved tragically wrong.
In fact, the Luftwaffe General Staff had already worked out that supply by air was impossible using only the transport aircraft available on the Russian front, and even if all Ju 52 aircraft from all fronts were assembled, including the ones from Europe and North Africa where they could not be spared, only 750 aircraft would have been available and success would still not have been guaranteed. Furthermore, Generaloberst Jeschonnek, Chief of Luftwaffe General Staff, linked certain conditions to an air bridge, including tolerable weather conditions and the availability of suitable airfields close to the front. Goering refused to listen to his expert's doubts, withdrew to his private estate to be alone, and from then on the drama gained momentum.
The commander of 6th Army, Generaloberst Paulus, reported that in order to defend Stalingrad, the army would require between 650 to 1 000 tons of supplies daily. This figure depended on the scale of activities expected of them and whether or not the 50 000 horses could be used as meat or whether fodder also had to be flown in.
Later events proved that a daily supply of between 300 to 350 tons would have been adequate to keep 6th Army fighting, but this figure was only reached on a few days with the daily average being 95 tons.
The winter weather played havoc with flight schedules. Generaloberst von Richthofen, Chief of Luftlotte 4, and his commander of VIII Fliegerkorps, Generalleutenant Fiebig, were responsible for organizing and maintaining the air bridge to Stalingrad. It was a gruelling, thankless task.
The Luftwaffe lost 550 aircraft used in the air bridge. This meant that every third aircraft was destroyed by the Russian flak, enemy fighters and especially the weather. The force not only included Ju 52 but also a variety of other aircraft types, like the He 111, FW 200, Ju 86, Ju 90 and Do 177.
Graphically described, the soldier's daily rations in November 1942 consisted of 200 g bread, 200 g horsemeat (including bones), 30 g cheese, 30 g fat and 3 cigarettes. But this diet, already woefully insufficient for fighting under extreme winter conditions, had to be cut drastically by mid-January 1943 to 75 g bread, 200 g horsemeat (including bones), 24 g vegetables, 12 g fat, 11 g sugar and 1 cigarette.
Operation 'Wintergewitter' Generaloberst Hoth's attack using his 4th Panzerarmee to relieve Stalingrad, began on 12 December. He had to fight through 100 km of heavily defended enemy territory. If early November had brought dry frost, this changed to storms with rain and then again to frost, making the essential roads impassable. The weather was especially disastrous for the tanks, including the new Tiger tanks which with their superior armour were too heavy and less manoeuvrable than the Russian T 34.
Eight days later Hoth had to call a halt almost within sight of the city, and they could even observe the flares above the ruins. Everyone expected that Operation 'Donnerschlag' the break-out of 6th Army to join forces with Hoth's Panzerarmee only 50 km away, would begin at that time. However, Hitler refused to give the order, insisting on a defence to the last soldier and the last bullet.
One of the key players in this drama was Generaloberst Paulus. Much has been written about him, not all of it complimentary, but as he himself said, whichever way he turned, whatever orders he issued, he would ultimately be held responsible for the outcome of the battle, guilty or not.
He was a bad choice for the job. A Rommel, a Guderian, a Reichenau might have led differently, might have broken out with the 6th Army before it was too late, even contrary to Hitler's strict order. The question of disobedience of a definite order will be touched upon later.
General Paulus was born in 1890 and became a career officer. He served in the First World War as a troop commander, but had an unremarkable record: For a short time he had been a commander; then he had a battalion for just a year. He had also been a lecturer on tactics, also of short duration, when he collected the nickname 'Fabius Cunctator' (Fabius the Hesitant) from his students. He was a well-bred, intelligent officer with excellent manners. A diligent worker; seldom presenting personal opinions and judgements, he nevertheless had a gift of translating his commanding general's tactical intentions into polished and precise orders. As such he was always the second most important man in any staff he served and had been promoted steadily until he reached the rank of Generalleutnant. From 1940 to 1942 he was Quartermaster General with the Army General Staff and had been marked for further promotion to a very senior staff position. In 1941 he was sent to North Africa by his superior to check on and discipline the 'crazy Rommel', and it appears as if Paulus not only concurred with this judgement but even played with the idea of replacing Rommel with himself.
A picture of Paulus as a staff officer shows him as ambitious, non-abrasive and non-committal. Before he could be promoted to the very senior staff position, however; he had to serve as commanding officer of an army for a prescribed period, and when Feldmarschall von Reichenau died suddenly, Paulus was given command of 6th Army. It was a unique case in German military history that a Generalleutnant with no fighting nor commanding experience was promoted over the heads of more senior and far more experienced generals. It meant that Paulus, who during his career had given only advice to commanding generals and left the responsibility to them, found himself in the position of being commanding general (with quick promotion to Generaloberst) in Stalingrad himself. He did not measure up to the responsibility. In a crisis situation, intellect counts less than character and courage.
In Stalingrad, Paulus had two options. Firstly, he could opt for an immediate break-out under difficult conditions with a limited chance of success, leaving behind the sick and wounded and suffering high losses. Secondly, he could choose to remain in the city while being decimated by the continuous Russian attacks, sickness, famine, and facing the certain destruction of his army. Feldmarschall von Manstein, Paulus' commanding officer, offered him a third alternative - to prepare for the eventuality of a break-out and, if the situation should improve, to use his on-the-spot knowledge to change the course of events.
Paulus chose to wait. He was known as a man who deliberated three times before making a decision. Hitler had ordered him to stand and fight at all costs; he had also promised him that the Luftwaffe would supply his army with all it needed, and lastly, he was totally in the dark about the overall situation on this wide sector of the front and how a withdrawal might effect the position of army groups close to Stalingrad.
During these months, the winter weather was atrocious. Flying was only possible for a few hours or a few days in succession and this restricted not only the transport aircraft but also the fighters protecting the transporters, and the Stuka and bombers which had to destroy enemy tanks and gun emplacements. As long as airfields were available as jump-off points outside the city and others inside for landings, there was still hope. It did not last. One by one the Russians wrested the fields from the Germans until in January 1943 the Luftwaffe was forced to rely on air drops of supplies, which did not always reach their targets. Often, supply containers (bomb canisters which were converted to carry rations) disappeared in snow drifts or the weak soldiers were unable to carry them to their trenches.
The Russians also constructed dummy drop areas complete with correct flare procedures, which lured German aircraft to drop supplies outside German positions. If the weather at the airfields outside the city was clear or passable, the airfields within might be fog-bound or covered with deep overnight snow and then the aircraft had to turn back. If the airfields in Stalingrad were open, fog and storms forced aircraft to remain on the ground at the jump-off points and then bitter complaints from the defenders came thick and fast.
The crews flew whenever possible, always dicing with death, especially at the landing strips which were often blocked by crashed aircraft, shell craters and snow drifts, and many paid the ultimate price.
Aircraft mechanics had perhaps the most gruelling jobs. They had to work on the planes in the open, hampered by snow, ice and crushing cold. At times, repair work was almost impossible, and even starting the engines became a mammoth task since the warming generators were primitive and work had to begin before midnight to have the aircraft ready by daylight. Even then, equipment froze and instrument failures were common.
The Russians most certainly had similar problems and life for the soldier on the ground was no better than the life of German soldier. Nevertheless, the Russians knew they were winning and made every effort to crush 6th Army once and for all.
The two most important airfields for the Germans were Morosowskaja and Tarzinskaja, 180 km and 220 km away from Stalingrad respectively. The others, Ssalsk, Nowotscherkask and Rostow were even further away, therefore less suitable because the maximum load had to be reduced, and fewer numbers of severely wounded could be evacuated.
During the Second World War; casevac was in its infancy and in Russia often doubfful. Very often wounded soldiers had to be left behind when their units had to fall back and when German troops had retaken the position, the men would be discovered murdered and badly mutilated. On Christmas eve 1942, the Russians overran the airfield at Tarzinskaja. Three days later they took Morosowskaja. From January 1943, the situation in Stalingrad deteriorated at a fast pace. The last month of defence in the city can best be understood in the short, terse comments from the war diary of the German Supreme Command. While other events on all fronts and in the political theatres of Europe occupied almost all space in the diary, it is chilling that the drama in Stalingrad did not even receive more than two or three lines in the diary. It was as if the 6th Army had already been written off.
On 1 January, the entry read, 'An attack at the north-western sector has been repulsed.' The next few days merely recorded heavy enemy attacks, penetrations and infiltrations. 6 January brought a new note of desperation when the chronicler wrote that the physical condition of the defenders was getting worse and that supplies of food and ammunition were running low. On 13 January, massive snow storms, which hindered air drops, were noted. Massed Russian tanks also gained ground. The next day the airfield at Pitomnik was lost. The end in Stalingrad was in sight.
It would be unfair to blame Paulus exclusively for the loss of his army. Hitler had repeatedly issued the order to hold on, and if Paulus had accepted Manstein's option and prepared for a break-out, Hitler would most certainly have heard about it and would have fired him immediately, plunging the 6th Army into a worse situation. Furthermore, it must be remembered that Paulus did not know the overall state of affairs and believed that holding out would assist the German army groups. Above all, Hitler had promised air supplies.
Subsequent research has shown that Paulus' army actually tied down sixty sizeable Russian units and helped the Germans to withdraw to more defensible positions. Paulus can really only be blamed for the fact that throughout the battle he never once formed his own plan of action and remained passive. Instead he made continuous demands for increased supplies, explained his predicament over and over again to the Supreme Command, blamed his subordinate generals for losing their nerve, and blamed the Luftwaffe for not doing their utmost. He also placed his own and his staff's comfort above tactical necessities when it suited him, thereby depriving the Luftwaffe of the airfield Gumrak for a time.
In the final analysis it has become clear that whatever Paulus had done, 6th Army would not have survived, especially since a new Russian army was already on its way to the south of Stalingrad to cut off any escape routes which might not be covered by units already dug-in.
Any criticism whether or not Paulus should have acted against Hitler at a stage when success, however slim, was still on the cards, must be left open. In war; orders are issued to be obeyed.
The last chapter of Paulus' command was a tragic one. Having been promoted to Feldmarschall by Hitler the previous day, he capitulated only on behalf of himself and his staff, thereby following his orders that surrender of the 6th Army was out of the question. As Paulus said, he surrendered 'without fuss'.
Almost immediately, the Russians flew him to Moskau where he was interrogated for many months. They may also have brainwashed him because he joined the National Committee for a Free Germany, a communist political propaganda organisation. Some of his generals followed him, among them General von Seidlitz-Kurzbach, commander of an army corps, and Generalleutnant Schmidt, Paulus' Chief of Staff. In broadcasts directed at the German troops, Paulus spoke vehemently against Hitler and the German Nation, a turnabout which contrasted starkly with his previously enthusiastic support of Hitler and his system.
After the war; Paulus' captors sent him to the Nuremberg war trials as a witness for the Russian prosecution. As such he specifically accused Keitel and Jodl of war crimes and kept studiously aloof from his former colleagues. Asked by a reporter about the fate of the prisoners of war in Russian camps, he replied, 'Tell their mothers they are all well'. He could have added, 'in their graves'.
The former Feldmarschall was repatriated to Dresden in 1953 in what was then the German Democratic Republic, after being informed by West Germany that he was not welcome there, and he died in 1957. After the fall of Stalingrad, Hitler mercilessly criticized Paulus and said, 'This man took the easy way out. He should have shot himself like other commanders threw themselves on to their swords when they had lost a battle. We can expect him shortly to speak over Moskau radio against us together with Schmidt and Seidlitz. How can one be such a coward?' It has been written that from then on Hitler's fantasy world was increasingly filled with visions of a cataclysmic collapse and this led to his strategy of a grandiose destruction of Germany.
On 8 January 1943 the Russians sent an emissary with a note asking the Germans to surrender. The note was passed on to Paulus who issued an order forbidding anyone to start negotiations with the Russians. No one did. But one day later Russian aircraft dropped leaflets on the German positions, signed by Generaloberst Rokossowski, commander of the Don frontline, promising surrendering German soldiers good treatment, food, hospital care, and after the war a guaranteed return to the country of their choice. However, small print at the bottom of the leaflet read, 'Who still resists will be mercilessly massacred'.
The 6th Army did not accept the surrender. One reason for this was that they doubted that the Russians would abide by their promise as they were known for their bad treatment of prisoners. Another reason was a new development in the strategic planning of Hitler's staff news of which had been brought into the city by General Hube after he had been briefed at HQ. There were plans to strengthen the frontline, drastically improve the supply by air and assist the 6th Army in its fight. Paulus believed this.
The massed Russian attacks began once again on 10 January and continued despite a temperature of 35 degrees below and a howling storm. The conditions on the German side deteriorated with alarming rapidity. On 6 January, Feldmarschall Milch, Inspector General of the Air Force in Germany, arrived at Richthofen's HQ with authority from Hitler to improve the air supply situation. Milch explained that he was determined to stamp out gross negligence and incompetence.
Richthofen saw Milch's arrival as a vote of mistrust in his command and asked to be relieved of his position. However; Hitler refused, saying that in his post, Milch had a few aces up his sleeve which he could play to change the desperate predicament. As had almost become routine at this stage of the war when things did not go the way the Supreme Command was expecting, and when the exhausted troops could not reach their goals, Hitler and his staff never blamed themselves but looked for a scapegoat. Eventually, they found one in Generaloberst Jeschonnek, Chief of Luftwaffe General Staff. He had suggested the air bridge to Goering subjected to certain conditions and this was his undoing. From then on, Jeschonnek became the punching ball between Hitler and Goering and, eventually, in desperation and blaming himself for the loss of Stalingrad, this excellent and fair-minded officer saw no other way out and shot himself six months later when Goering's abuse reached its peak.
In spite of his supercritical and unforgiving attitude, Milch's visit did not change anything. He found fault with everybody and everything, threatened the firing squad and totally lost sight of the fact that in war nothing runs as smoothly as it has been planned at a desk thousands of miles away. He had to admit defeat and took no further action. Even Hitler resigned himself to the loss of Stalingrad.
On 15 January 1943, the war diary reported that some units, having run out of ammunition, defended themselves with cold steel. The defence was so weak that the Russian Stuka had a free run over the German positions. Five days later ammunition was almost depleted everywhere. Gumrak, the last occupied airfield in the city, was overrun by the enemy on 24 January. Supplies almost stopped completely and the wounded were no longer evacuated. Despite all this, fighting still continued.
The supply of food reached such a low level that a desperate order was issued not to distribute any rations to the sick and wounded. On 30 January, Hitler promoted Paulus to Feldmarschall. Why he did this has not been recorded. At best it was a futile gesture in the face of the imminent fall of Stalingrad. The old German military code stipulated that only a general who led his army to victory in battle could be promoted to Feldmarschall and promotion was not automatic. However, under Hitler, promotion to higher rank was sometimes based on other criteria than merit.
By 31 January 1943 it was all over. A handful of small groups continued to fight because they had not been given orders to surrender or because they preferred to die rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. They fought on despite ice, storm, hunger and hopelessness, and the observer will find it hard to understand how these soldiers continued and how they kept up their courage in the face of the inevitable. The last resistance ceased on 2 February 1943.
The final statistics of killed, wounded or prisoners are confusing as from early January, records were no longer kept. For many years Russian reports were used, but experience has shown that the Russians were more interested in disseminating propaganda than hard facts. They hardly bothered to feed their prisoners or provide them with shelter during their long marches into camps. Only the officers fared a little better.
The Russians claimed to have captured 91 000 soldiers out of the total strength, in December 1942, of 230 000, a very low figure indeed. It was in their interests to keep the published numbers of prisoners as low as possible since they feared echoes from the outside world once it became clear in 1955 how few survivors had returned. But the world could not care less.
The latest research indicates that about 240 000 German soldiers were trapped in the city, and in total about 200 000 soldiers, the sick, dying and wounded included, were captured. By taking the winter, the weak state of the prisoners and the careless treatment into consideration, it is possible that half of them died on the long marches into the camps, and the rest during the following eight to twelve years in the slave gulags. Only 6 000 soldiers returned.
At noon on 2 February 1943, Army Group Don received a radio message, 'Cloud ceiling five thousand meters. Visibility twelve kilometres. Clear sky, scattered cloud. Temperature 30 degrees below. Above Stalingrad fog and red dust. Weather station closing down'. And then, as a last sentence, a simple, poignant farewell, 'Greeting to all at home'. The last curtain over the tragedy at Stalingrad had fallen.
Translations of excerpts from the memoirs of General der Flieger (rtd) Alfred Mahncke follow:
3 October 1942, Chonskaja
We moved from Maikop to this village as more and more hospitals open up in this city. The increase in the need for hospital beds is a direct result of the escalation in the fighting on our front.
I am puzzled by the fact that neither Hitler nor Goering have visited their soldiers on the Russian front this past summer. This is not right. Hitler has taken overall command of all his forces, and it is customary for a commander to visit his troops on special occasions, be they successes or defeats. Even a heavy workload should not prevent him from doing this.
Totally unacceptable, though, is Goering's absence. He is Chief of the Luftwaffe and in his case definitely not overburdened with work. He is absent for long periods from HQ and lives in Karinhall or in his cottage in the Schorfheide without doing anything. He could visit his forces if he wanted to. Maybe he is scared of Russia and its dangers? In any case, what is he really doing?
The senior officers in the Luftwaffe are not satisfied with conditions within the service and more than one of them would like to resign. Already Hitler confers about all important decisions directly with the Chief of Staff. Does he mean that he has at last discovered the shortcomings of his 'most loyal follower'? How much could we gain if Goering handed over the reins to Kesselring and excused himself due to pressure of work?
23 November 1942, Essentuki
I have been given a new command very much out of the blue. Operation 'Belgrad', the logistical supply of Luftlotte 4 during the forced march advance towards Stalingrad, and probably the most complex job of such magnitude as far as the Luftwaffe is concerned, is over. The decision by Supreme Command to curtail the advance across the Kaukasus has changed operational plans.
My new title is 'Kommandeur der Luftlottentruppen' of Luftlotte 4 under Generaloberst von Richthofen. However; this is a rather vague description. Fortunately, a discussion with Richthofen brought clarity. He told me that I have to build up a fighting force from all the small and medium Luftwaffe units scattered across our area of command. They are to be assembled and trained under the new Luftwaffen-Felddivision Suedost, of which I will be chief. After training, which should take no longer than four weeks, we will be attached to Generaloberst Kleist's 1st Panzerarmee.
The Luftwaffen-Felddivisionen were a brainchild of the Supreme Command of the Army who were of the opinion, fully justified in my mind, that the Luftwaffe had sucked up soldiers like a sponge, mainly to bolster Goering's ego. He had always desired a Luftwaffe with as many officers and other ranks as possible. It never occurred to him that the Luftwaffe was overpopulated.
Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff after being told of this proposal, had serious misgivings about detaching Luftwaffe staff since they would need to be trained well before they could be useful to the army. However; he was overruled and had to consent. It had been planned to form twenty-two divisions with 170 000 men but this figure was never reached. I realized soon enough that I would only be able to form two 'Jaeger-Regiments' - rifle regiments, of two battalions each, simply because no more trained Luftwaffe soldiers were available. All the rest needed training badly, and my customary support units were still somewhere in Germany. It looked as if my division No 15 would remain patchwork for some time.
One evening I had dinner with Generalleutnant Fiebig (VIII Fliegerkorp s). He was in a sombre mood. Things were not going well for us. Air cover had become too thin on all sectors and many squadrons had to complete up to seven sorties a day which eroded men and equipment.
Afterwards we walked in the darkness outside. In the distance hungry searchlights nervously fingered the sky, then were extinguished, only to probe the sky again. This was the front of Stalingrad.
What would happen if the army could finish off Stalingrad? Would we carry on marching forever deeper into Russian territory? Hitler considered the retreat of the Russian armies a success of his battle plans. What would he decide to do?
While I worked in Essentuki, I joined Richthofen and his staff as often as possible for discussion and meals. He was one of the outstanding Luftwaffe officers, head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries. He loved to have guests at his table, famous frontline officers of course, but also artists, writers and painters who came in search of subjects. Party greats were not included unless it was unavoidable.
Afternoons and evenings belonged to his desk and telephone, but from early morning he personally flew his aircraft, visiting all his units and many army commanders in his operational sector. He demanded a lot from his subordinates, supervised battles from the air, and conferred with army commanders about combined operations, never suffering fools or incompetents. His style was uncomplicated and direct and he was therefore known as a 'strong gentleman'. With his trim figure, craggy face and flashing eyes, he had something of a chivalrous Landsknecht in him.
He loved soldiers' songs and had asked for a male choir to be formed from Russian POWs. They entertained him and his guests on some evenings, especially with Russian folksongs. One day, after I had listened to their performance, I said to Richthofen that I wondered how many of the singers were possible spies. He answered drily, 'Probably all of them.'
When the Russians broke through the Roumanian positions north of Stalingrad and widened the gap dramatically, I was given orders to close all crossing points across the river Mantysch and round up all retreating soldiers including supply units, police, auxiliary troops and many others who used the chaos to disappear westwards.
This was done successfully and I handed them over to Panzerarmee 4, before reporting to their commander, Generaloberst Hoth. His command post was at Kotelnikowo. We had not seen each other for some time, now his hair was white and his face worry-lined. He told me that, although everything seemed fine at this stage, a crisis could break out at any moment; consequently any infusion of additional troops was a present from the gods.
This not only referred to the many stragglers I had brought but also to my Flak batteries which I expected to arrive any day for my division. 1ff had hoped to keep them together to be deployed as a single unit, I was sadly disappointed. Within hours the situation became so desperate that I had to let them go. They were moved piecemeal to the front and wiped out.
A few days later Hoth asked me to send him my regiments. I refused, pointing out the deficiencies. I must have sounded like a broken record. Then I flew to Richthofen to explain. The weather was appalling. It rained, clouds covered the ground, the temperature zero. I flew with my Storch close to the ground to prevent my wings from icing up, and using telegraph poles for orientation. After landing we discovered that big chunks of ice had formed on the wings and in theory I should have crashed already. All I had noticed was a bit of sluggishness in handling the Storch. Richthofen listened to all I had to say, gave me another two weeks to complete training, and invited me to dinner.
Two days later, after Christmas, I flew once again to Hoth's HQ. It was really gallows-humour when we wished each other a Happy Christmas while the guns thundered close by. He offered me a very expensive cigar from his box and said 'Well, my dear M., this is the last and only present I can give you.' He told me that his units were under severe pressure from all sides and that he had to withdraw.
On the other side of Kotelnikowo, next to the airfield, in a small wooden hut, was the advance post of IV Fliegerkorps. I flew across and just as I landed, received a report that Russian tanks were only five kilometres away. Stukas had attacked and scattered them but about 20 or 30 T34s were moving towards us, with no German troops anywhere to stop them. We all left the airfield together in haste, without losses, and returned to the safety of Ssalsk.
On 2 January 1943, I received an urgent call from Richthofen. By the sound of his sharp and agitated voice, I sensed that something was drastically wrong. He told me that I had to leave my division at once and take command of a new job between Don and Donze. I was thunderstruck and replied that now that my units had just joined the fighting near Proletarskaja I did not want to desert them as commanding officer. Richthofen merely replied, 'That's all very well, but I need you here and as soon as possible.'
One day later I reported to him for a briefing. The situation was that Stalingrad could not be relieved. It had become impossible. The 6th Army would have to carry on occupying the city, but to guarantee their survival they were to be supplied with everything they required by air. Richthofen doubted that this could be achieved with the limited number of aircraft available but Hitler had given the order in the face of considerable dissent from his generals, and now it was our job to do the impossible. Generalleutnant Fiebig would be responsible for the air bridge itself with all Ju 52 and bombers from Luftflotte 4, and my job as divisional commander of Air Force Division Donez (the new title) would be to assemble all short-range aircraft squadrons (fighters, Stuka, destroyers, spotters, etc.) and lead them in flying operations to assist German ground troops, especially AA Hollidt and AA Fretter Pico which were gradually retreating to the Donez river.
I left Tarzinskaja at once where the bulk of my units were stationed. Fortunately, this airfield, so vital for Stalingrad, had just been recaptured from the enemy.
The date was 4 January. A cruel snowstorm blew and fog almost totally enveloped the field. But I had to try and take off. Using a W 34 with blind-flying instrument I tried my best but was forced to return. At midday I used my Storch and creeping at low level to avoid being seen by Russian fighters, I was lucky to find and land at Tarzinskaja. The field was in a sorry state. Burnt-out Ju 52, destroyed trucks, deep craters, exploded ammunition dumps, destroyed Russian tanks and guns littered the area. Clearly the field was unsuitable for transport aircraft. I touched down on solid ice and the Storch slid on like a nightmare, endlessly being pushed by the wind, until it ended up softly in a snowdrift without any damage.
Ice crystals hit my face and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I stumbled to an earthbunker at the edge of the field. Entering the dugout, I saw a few officers in the light of a smelly carbide lamp. I asked them to call my unit commanders together and opened the discussion by inviting their opinions and suggestions.
By candlelight, and with the wind blowing through paper-covered windows, a sad tale unfolded. We did not have enough aircraft and replacements were slow in arriving. Repair work was almost impossible to carry out, equipment was lacking and most of the experienced aircrews had been lost while the new crews had been insufficiently trained. I promised improvements, even if I had to kick a few backsides, and left.
From then on I used the Storch almost every day to visit commanding generals in my area and discuss strategy. Their comments were bleak. Most divisions had been bled to death by the continuous heavy fighting and some resembled burnt-out shells. In consequence, the commanders wanted my units everywhere on the extended frontline and their calls for help never really stopped. It was often difficult to decide whom to help first with my limited resources.
We could not stay in Tarzinskaja for long. On 7 January, I used our Stuka to keep Russian tanks away from the field, but three days later we had to yield and transferred to Schachty.
The demands for help came thick and fast almost on an hourly basis, but I could do less and less. The temperature dropped to 30 degrees below and a storm froze body and soul. Despite all this adversity, officers and men did their very best. They cursed and they swore but they did their duty - as the code commanded.
The fate of the 6th Army in Stalingrad was still uppermost in our minds. Officers who had been flown out on Hitler's orders gave us a glimpse of life in the cauldron. Under the unrelenting pressure of a fanatical enemy and the hostile environment which threatened their lives, the soldiers stopped thinking and became more and more victims of moral decay, added to which the clever Russian propaganda, promising them heaven on earth if they would just lay down their arms, did the insidious work.
It did not surprise me that the 6th Army felt betrayed and deserted by its supreme leaders because they had promised everything, and now they accused the Luftwaffe of failing them too.
Quite unexpectedly a special envoy from Hitler arrived from Germany on 16 January at Luffflotte 4. He was Feldmarschall Milch who had been ordered to improve the air bridge to Stalingrad. The generals from the Luftflotte were taken aback although not entirely surprised by this new move. Things like this had become customary under the military command structure of the Third Reich. Firstly, the soldiers were exhausted by orders demanding the impossible with insufficient resources and when everything went wrong, the leaders became fidgety, then suspicious, and eventually despatched a special envoy who always arrived too late. In the end they never looked for mistakes among their own, but laid the blame on others. Richthofen, quite understandably, felt that Milch's arrival was an expression of Hitler's distrust and offered to resign.
Hitler did not accept and explained that Milch had access to reserves, including cargo sailplanes and destroyer aircraft with long-range fuel tanks which could turn the tide. As with so many other promises, however, the new ones did not materialize to alter the fate of Stalingrad.
Richthofen remained in charge of the Luftflotte. He visited me in Schachty a few times to unburden himself. The tough and uncompromising man was close to resignation.
23 January 1943, Schachty
One gains the impression that the Russians can do with us whatever they like. We have lost the initiative on a wide sector of the front. Although it was quiet for two days along Hollidt's and Fretter-Pico's frontline, we now have heavy fighting near Rostow-Novotscherkask where the Russians attack our weak lines; during the night they infiltrate more troops and appear in our rear the next morning.
I prepare for our retreat to Rowenki. Most of our trucks have been lost during the winter months and we have to travel by rail which is very time-consuming. The situation in Stalingrad gets worse by the hour. Even our army communiques admit this. It has become impossible to rescue any survivors. They have to defend themselves to the bitter end and under subhuman conditions and in desperate loneliness.
The end in Stalingrad came quickly but not mercifully. Paulus capitulated with his staff only, but the 6th Army did not exist anymore. Although a radio message from the city alerted us that small groups of soldiers might try to break out, I did not believe that they had much of a chance. They were 400 km away from our lines. If they had had sleds or skis, sufficient food and weapons, they might have succeeded. As it was, the temperature was 20 below, and my search aircraft never spotted anyone.
The last few months had taken their toll on many of my units. Fortunately, my staff was in a better frame of mind. However, a clash occurred between Richthofen and me out of the blue. He visited me at my forward command post at Woroschilowgrad in the thick of an air battle. I reported to him and he gave his consent to all my orders. Close to evening after the last aircraft had returned to us, I flew back to Rowenki followed by Richthofen.
At the field we walked about a bit and discussed my plans for the following day. Something must have irritated him. He started an argument and censored me sharply. I don't remember his reasons. One word led to another and he became loud and aggressive.
Without a word I saluted, turned and left him standing. Back at my office I telephoned the Chief of Staff of the Luftflotte, reported the altercation and told him that I was unable to work any longer under such conditions. My letter requesting a tranfer would reach him in the morning.
Later that night the Chief of Staff called back advising me to hold my letter. Richthofen had simmered down and would visit me within the next few days. He arrived, we talked the matter over rationally and he offered his hand to erase any ill-feeling. This was the only time that a cloud had come between us. It was a weakness of his strong-willed personality that he could become unfair and aggressive at times, but he knew himself only too well not to realize when he had gone too far. Then he apologized. In military jargon we called him a pressure-cooker.
9 February 1943, Gorlowka
Things look bad again. The enemy attacks us all the time and he also outflanks us. If this goes on, another cauldron will be created and we will be right in the centre of it. I'm always surprised by the improvements of Russian tactics and by their spirited attacks which are driven home with much rigour. One does not have to be a pessimist to look into the future with much worry.
11 February 1943
The Russians are now in our rear after cleverly exploiting a soft spot in our lines. During the night they infiltrated with 230 tanks and support units. I can help very little as I have only ground attack aircraft at my disposal. The bulk of my units has been deployed further south near Rostow where they are desperately needed.
On 16 February 1943 von Richthofen was promoted to Feldmarschall. He was 45 years old.
Our stay in Gorlowka was only of a temporary nature. I could judge this by the fact that the huge supply depots near by were moved back. In consequence our rations were poor. On some days every soldier (officers and men) received six slices of bread only.
Hitler made a rare visit to von Manstein's Heeresgruppe Sued to listen to arguments by his generals to withdraw in the face of the Russian offensive. But Hitler merely appealed to all soldiers and Luftflotte 4 to hold out at all costs. I was at a loss to understand his reasoning. The enemy was already on the march to Dnjepopetrowsk and Saporoshe which were in our rear. A new cauldron threatened us once again.
Then the unexpected happened. The new Russian offensive ground to a halt and the thaw arrived, bringing all operations to a dead stop with its bottomless mud.
Towards the end of March, Richthofen called all his commanding generals and divisional commanders together. He gave us a detailed report-back about the operations last summer; praised the conduct of soldiers and officers, while singling me out for the part I had played in support of the army divisions which had enabled them to hold out against the enemy. Richthofen was not a friend of many words and seldom discussed achievements, but when he offered praise it was something to be valued indeed.
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