In ‘Stalingrad,’ Jochen Hellbeck uses forgotten interviews to take us inside the battle that turned the tide of World War II

By Alan Cate

By Jochen Hellbeck

PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $29.99

Yorktown and Gettysburg rank highest among American martial epics of valor and victory. Most Brits would probably choose the World War II aerial Battle of Britain as their “finest hour.” To the French, Verdun – with its defiant cry, “they shall not pass” – represents a national Calvary of agony and endurance in World War I.

For the Russian people, even more deeply engraved on the national psyche, it’s Stalingrad, “the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history.” This titanic five-month encounter, with roughly a million casualties – dead, wounded, captured or missing – on each side, culminated in a shattering defeat of the Nazi invaders by the Soviets.

Military historians universally recognize it as the turning point of the Second World War, or, as it’s known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War.

In “Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich” (PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $29.99), Jochen Hellbeck assembles what amounts to an histoire totale, or all-encompassing chronicle, of this pivotal contest. The book, previously published to great acclaim in Germany, centers around a remarkable collection of oral histories gathered by Soviet researchers during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the battle in 1942-43.

This documentary trove languished in the basement of a Moscow archive until Hellbeck, a German-born historian who teaches at Rutgers University, came upon it in 2008.

Comprising 215 eyewitness accounts – thousands of typescript pages – from participants ranging from generals to privates, as well as civilians, these interviews paint, writes Hellbeck, a “multifaceted picture” of incredible bravery and fortitude. Due, however, to their “candor and complexity,” they were censored during the war.

Afterward, the scholar who compiled them fell into political disfavor, and his project was buried and forgotten for more than six decades.

Hellbeck’s signal achievement lies in how he deploys and supplements his sources. He begins with an overview of the battle, placing it in the context of both the war and Soviet society. He reminds us that the U.S.S.R. did more than any country to defeat the Nazis and paid a much higher price.

The Red Army inflicted about 75 percent of all the casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht. Roughly 27 million Soviet citizens died – around 15 percent of Russia’s prewar population. In contrast, American World War II deaths number just over 400,000.

This introductory section also describes the origins of the interview project and its methodology, which Hellbeck hails for its “rigor” and “scholarly ethos.”

This volume’s most creative aspect resides in the “Rashomon”-like narratives Hellbeck produces by ingeniously weaving together numerous individual responses, and grouping “them chronologically and by location,” as if in a single conversation.

Thus we get multiple angles of vision on events such as the capture of the overall German commander at Stalingrad or a costly, failed assault on a Nazi-held position. Hellbeck aptly likens the effect to “a chorus of soldierly and civilian voices.”

The book also contains gripping, stand-alone accounts. Nurse Vera Gurova was among the nearly 1 million women who served in the Red Army. She and her sisters elicited this from her commander: “They can’t do what a man can do physically, but they outdo men in terms of courage.”

Sniper Vasily Zaytsev killed 242 Germans and was honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union. Explaining his remorseless hatred for the enemy, he commented to his interviewer, “you see girls hanging from the trees. Does that get to you?”

Rounding out “Stalingrad” are many photos, transcripts of German prisoner interrogations, excerpts from the diary of a dead German soldier and a brief coda that describes the battle’s aftermath and the unhappy fate of the band of researchers who tried to capture the Stalingrad experience in full.

Besides illuminating the human side of this colossal battle, Hellbeck also revises the common Western image of the Red Army as a horde driven forward “by pistol-waving political officers.”
To be sure, savage penalties were meted out to perceived shirkers. One general casually remarked that he personally “shot the commander and commissar of one regiment, and a short while later” executed “two brigade commanders” for their failings.

Nevertheless, Hellbeck’s findings compellingly suggest that it wasn’t just, or even mostly, coercion that motivated Soviet troops. Rather, it was a combination of effective “political conditioning” and genuine patriotism that inspired them.

Hellbeck concludes with a visit to the giant memorial in Volgograd, the name that replaced Stalingrad in 1961 as part of that era’s de-Stalinization. Words penned about the battle and its heroes by the renowned Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman are engraved on an exterior wall: “An iron wind struck them in the face, yet they kept moving forward. . . . Are these mortals?”

Inscribed inside the monument is this response: “Yes, we were mortal and few of us survived, but we all discharged our patriotic duty to our sacred Motherland.”

Wyndham Attacked

Wyndham Aeradio after the Japanese raid. Bullet holes can be seen in the upper part of the building. Note the bicycle propped out the front ready for a quick getaway
Wyndham, the West Australian coastal town close by the border with the Northern Territory, which was twice attacked by Japanese aircraft in March 1942. The first raid, carried out shortly after 10 a.m. on 3 March 1942—the same day as Broome, Western Australia, was similarly hit— involved eight Zero fighters from Koepang, in Timor. A RAAF DH–84 Dragon navigation training aircraft, which had just landed, was caught on the ground and set alight by strafing. Also set on fire was the airfield hangar and a fuel dump comprising a large quantity of 44-gallon drums which had been delivered only a week earlier. A second aircraft, a Lockheed 10 operating a commercial service for MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co., had cleared the area just minutes before the enemy fighters arrived and thus escaped being caught up in the raid.
The second attack, again focused on the aerodrome, was conducted by seven bombers on 23 March. This saw a chain of about 30 large craters blasted along the runway, but there was no other damage. An hour later three Zeros appeared and made low-level strafing runs, but with little significant effect.

Broome Attacked

An aircraft burning at Broome, Western Australia following the Japanese air raid on the town on 3 March 1942. The aircraft is probably a United States B-24 Liberator
Transporting passengers to and from a Dutch seaplane in Roebuck Bay near Broome, a few months before the attack.
Broome, the pearling town on the north coast of Western Australia, was subjected to four Japanese air attacks between March 1942 and August 1943. The first attack came while the limited port facilities were heavily stretched coping with a large influx of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. During the last stages of this evacuation, flying boats and land planes had been operating a shuttle service from Broome to bring out thousands of Allied personnel and Dutch civilians from Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java. As a consequence, there were sixteen big flying boats moored in Roebuck Bay at dawn on 3 March—all highly vulnerable in an area only 2,400 metres long and 1,200 metres wide.
The appearance of a Japanese reconnaissance plane about 3 p.m. the previous day had been an unmistakable portent that an enemy attack was possible, indeed likely, yet pilots ignored warnings to leave at the first opportunity after daybreak. Only one aircraft—a small float-plane from the American cruiser Houston, sunk two days earlier in the Bantam Bay battle—had taken off from the alighting area that morning before nine long-range Zero fighters dropped down from the overcast at 9.20 a.m. Six of the attacking aircraft, flying in line-ahead formation, swept in from the sea and crossed the harbour entrance at a height of about 500 feet, while another three circled overhead as a protection against opposing fighters (of which there were none).
Three of the Zeros concentrated on strafing the moored flying boats, their explosive bullets quickly accounting for every one of them. Several of the trapped aircraft had been almost ready for take-off and were filled with passengers, many of them women and children, who were forced to take to the water. The Japanese pilots showed restraint in not further attacking those thus rendered helpless, or a party of 25 evacuees who were gathered on the wharf about to board their aircraft, but casualties were nonetheless heavy.
While these scenes were being played out on the harbour, the second attack group of three Zeros turned their attention to the aerodrome. Seven Allied aircraft had been standing there when the attack began: a RAAF Hudson bomber, a Dutch Lodestar bomber and a Dutch DC–3 cargo plane, and two American B–17E Flying Fortress and two B–24 Liberator bombers. One of the Liberators, carrying 33 passengers and crew, attempted to take off as the Zeros began their attack runs. It was promptly shot down into the sea in flames, and the other machines were all destroyed on the ground.
Within fifteen minutes the Japanese pilots had fulfilled their mission and departed on a return course for their base. When about 80 kilometres north of Broome they encountered another Dutch DC–3, one of the last Allied aircraft to escape from Java, which happened to be carrying a large quantity of diamonds. This was also promptly shot down, raising the Zeros’ tally of Allied aircraft destroyed to 24. In fact, the pilot of this machine managed to crash-land on the beach at Carnot Bay, from where a number of its passengers were rescued by missionaries from Beagle Bay several days later.
The number of people killed in the raid has never been determined accurately but is estimated at 70, including 32 who perished in the downed Liberator; approximately another 30 people were wounded. As Gillison’s volume of the Official History states: 
The evacuation of civilians from Java was conducted with inevitable haste and later, in the war cemetery at Broome, the graves of 29 unidentified victims of the raid gave solemn proof of the absence of records listing the names of the passengers embarked in Java. 
The Japanese attackers did not escape unscathed, having been forced to fly through a considerable volume of machine-gun and rifle fire from the flying boats and personnel on the shore. Most notable was a Dutch air force crewman who took up a machine-gun which had been removed from its mountings for repair and cradled it in his arms to engage any Zero which came within range, despite suffering burns to his arm supporting the gun’s barrel. One of the attackers was shot down and crashed, and damage from ground fire forced another to ditch near Roti Island while returning to base at Koepang in Timor (the pilot not being rescued until 21 March). Bullet holes were found in six of the seven aircraft which reached their base safely.
At 10.45 a.m. on 20 March Broome’s aerodrome was the target of a raid by seven bombers. During this attack the north–south runway was cratered and rendered temporarily unusable by several explosions, a Stinson civil aircraft was burnt out, but there was only one fatal casualty recorded. Further attacks on 27 August 1942 and 16 August 1943 produced neither damage nor casualties.

Bombing of Darwin: 70 years on

The Neptuna exploding at Darwin wharf on February 19, 1942. (Ref – PH0238/0885) (Northern Territory Library)

Japanese bombs land inland and along the foreshore of Darwin harbour during the first air raid on February 19, 1943. (ref – 012953)
Dense clouds of smoke rise from oil tanks hit during the first Japanese air raid on Australia’s mainland, February 19, 1942. In the foreground is HMAS Deloraine, which escaped damage. (Ref – 128108)
1942-02-19. Darwin, NT. The Australian merchant ship, Zealandia, on fire in Darwin Harbour after receiving a direct hit during the first Japanese raid on Darwin by naval aircraft from the Japanese 1st and 2nd carrier divisions. This photograph was taken from HMAS Swan by a member of the crew. (donor P Schneider) (Ref – P01214.003)
An air campaign mounted by Japanese forces against Australia’s major northern port city, in what was the first time that Australia as a sovereign state had come under direct attack from a foreign enemy. Although other northern centres were also raided from the air in this period, Darwin was the principal target of the Japanese. In the twenty-month period between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943, a total of 64 attacks took place.
The first and biggest raid was that of 19 February which was carried out by two formations of naval aircraft. The first wave (of 188) was launched from four aircraft carriers of the First Carrier Fleet under Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, positioned in the Arafura Sea off the eastern tip of Timor about 350 kilometres north-west of Darwin, while the second (comprising 54 land-based machines of the 1st Air Attack Force) flew off from captured airfields at Kendari in the Celebes and at Ambon. The object of the attack was to eliminate Darwin’s utility as a base from which the Allies could interfere with the Japanese invasion of Timor, which was due to begin the following day, and also the invasion of Java which was in preparation. The capacity of Darwin-based forces to cause problems for either of these operations, however, had been overestimated. This has led to suggestions in later years that the Japanese used ‘a sledgehammer to crack an egg’.
Darwin nonetheless represented a most attractive target at the time, with 47 naval and merchant ships crowded in the harbour. The air defences for so important a base were totally inadequate, comprising just two RAAF squadrons—nos.12 and 13— equipped with a mixture of modern Lockheed Hudson and obsolete Avro Anson medium bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, and Australian-made Wirraway advanced trainers. Due to dispersal policies, only nine Hudsons and five unserviceable Wirraways were at Darwin on 19 February; six of the Hudsons were aircraft of No.2 Squadron, RAAF, which had just arrived that morning on evacuation from Timor. Also present were ten P40 Kittyhawk fighters of the US Army Air Force, which were staging through on their way to Java.
Early warning of the incoming raiders was available to Darwin’s defenders from several sources—among them a navy coastwatcher on Melville Island and a Catholic missionary on Bathurst Island—but, through confusion, these reports were not handled expeditiously by RAAF operations staff. The information was also passed to the senior naval officer, Captain Edward Thomas, who was reportedly expecting precisely such an attack by the enemy, yet he failed to override a decision at the Area Combined Headquarters to disregard the reports. Consequently, when the alert was finally sounded at 9.58 a.m. the first group of 27 Japanese bombers were already practically over the town, approaching from the south-east at 14,000 feet.
The attack commenced when nine low-flying Zero fighters strafed an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as she passed through the harbour boom moments before the first air-raid siren wailed the alarm. Other shipping riding at anchor was then subjected to devastating pattern-bombing, dive bombing and machine-gun sweeps which sank three naval vessels and five merchantmen, and saw another ten ships of various types damaged. More bombs fell in the town itself, adding some fifteen civilians to the day’s death toll of at least 243; this figure was not necessarily complete but merely represented the best assessment possible at the time. The number of wounded was not less than 250, and according to some sources went as high as 320.
While the largest number of casualties were among ships’ crews, equally bad was the scene at the wharf. Here, a hit from just one heavy bomb at the land-end of the jetty killed 21 labourers gathered for their morning break, blew a locomotive into the sea, and demolished a span so that men remaining on the wharf were separated from the shore. Several vessels anchored alongside, denied any hope of manoeuvring out of danger, were ‘sitting ducks’. The 6,600-tonne motor vessel Neptuna was set on fire and blew apart after flames reached 200 depth charges stored in her hold.
Allied fighter opposition to the attack was quickly brushed aside and destroyed. Four of five Kittyhawks on patrol over the town when the first Japanese planes arrived were shot down, as were all five of another flight which had been refuelling and attempted to get airborne as the attack commenced. Darwin was completely at the mercy of the Japanese by the time the ‘all clear’ was sounded at 10.40 a.m. Eighty minutes later, the second wave of aircraft arrived to renew the assault for a further twenty minutes. This time the focus was the RAAF station, which was subjected to medium-level pattern-bombing. Only six lives were lost here, but nine aircraft were destroyed on the ground—including six Hudsons—and most of the base’s buildings were wrecked.
Local reaction to this first attack later attracted severe criticism, so that—even though news of the extent of the disaster was strictly suppressed—the government felt it necessary to appoint a commission of inquiry under Justice Charles Lowe to examine events surrounding it. Both civilians and servicemen were accused of fleeing the town in panic, or of engaging in unrestrained looting of damaged and abandoned premises. Incidents of both undoubtedly occurred amid the confusion and muddle which inevitably followed such an event, but their extent and nature have been greatly exaggerated. By many reliable accounts, the exodus which did take place (in the expectation that the raid was the prelude to a seaborne invasion) was hurried yet otherwise quite orderly.
Irrespective of the controversy generated, it remained indisputable that the Japanese had scored a major success at very little cost. In addition to the damage inflicted at Darwin, the flight-path of the attacking formations had accidentally passed over two Filipino-manned ships carrying supplies for US forces besieged on Corregidor, and a US Navy Catalina amphibious aircraft; all were destroyed. Claims of the number of attacking aircraft lost during 19 February vary widely, from two which the Japanese officially admitted to the five ‘certainties’ and five ‘probables’ maintained by the Australian services; the best and most plausible estimate is seven. The pilot of a Zero which crash-landed on Melville Island was captured by a Tiwi Aborigine and delivered into army hands, becoming the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil.
Although further air attacks were made at irregular intervals, it was not until 25 April that a comparatively large number of aircraft (24 bombers with twelve escorting fighters) were again used. The raid launched two days later from Koepang was even larger, this time comprising sixteen bombers and 27 fighters, but losses caused by bombing during the month were—with a couple of exceptions— not very extensive. On 2 April a fuel storage tank was hit and about 30,000 gallons (136,000 litres) burned, while on 27 April buildings, water and power supply lines received significant damage. Four raids in June were on a similar scale (18–27 bombers), but thereafter mainly small numbers of aircraft were used in ineffective night attacks. The enemy returned in force on 30 July when 27 bombers and 15–20 fighters appeared over the town, and three raids on 23, 26 and 27 November were again relatively heavy, with 12–18 bombers being employed.
By the first months of 1943 the attacks were becoming less frequent but still occasionally involved large numbers of aircraft. That on 15 March—Darwin’s fifty-third raid—saw 24 bombers and fifteen fighters engaged; that on 20 June used 30 bombers and 21 fighters, and was undertaken for the first time by the Japanese Army’s 7th Air Division on Timor. Not just Darwin but inland airstrips up to 100 kilometres to the south were targets of the Japanese campaign. Hughes was attacked in August and again in November 1942, Livingstone in September 1942, Batchelor and Pell in October 1942, while Coomalie was hit on 2 March 1943.
Initially unable to match the Japanese in numbers or operational performance of aircraft, nor tactics, the Allied air units progressively built up in the area and became more proficient, and increasingly exacted a toll on the enemy’s raiding missions. Particularly notable for its success in the air was the USAAF’s 49th Fighter Group. By the time the three squadrons of this formation left the area in September 1942, their members claimed 75 enemy machines shot down for the loss of twenty of their own aircraft, and they had virtually put a stop to daylight raids.
The arrival at Darwin in January 1943 of three squadrons of Mark V Spitfire fighters, specially sent out from England amid great secrecy in June 1942, decisively tipped the balance against the Japanese. Although these units—formed into No.1 Fighter Wing, RAAF, under Group Captain Allan Walters and later Group Captain Clive Caldwell— had some setbacks in gaining this ascendancy, by mid-year the rate of Japanese losses had become so severe as to make Darwin an unprofitable target. Despite the Fighter Wing losing 44 of its own aircraft in its first six months of combat, only seventeen had been directly caused by enemy action; and in return, the Spitfires had accounted for 63 Japanese machines and probably destroyed thirteen more. Public awareness of what happened at Darwin in February 1942 did not become widespread until 1945, when the report of the Lowe commission was finally released. The myth of the ‘shameful’ evacuation stemmed from half-true publicity generated by newspapers at that time and perpetuated since by several sensationalised accounts.

Slava-class cruisers

The Soviet program also produced three more cruiser classes during the 1980s and early 1990s, the first being the 20-ship Sovremenny- class designed for antiship warfare. They were followed by the 13-vessel Udaloy-class, which mounts weapons arrays for use against submarines. The final group of vessels that were completed between 1983 and 1989 are the two Slava-class cruisers. These vessels are a smaller, cheaper version of the Kirov class and are designed primarily as surface strike ships. All are conventionally powered. Together with the Kirov-class and two more units of the Kiev-class that were completed between 1981 and 1983, they are the final units produced by the Soviet Union before the collapse of the communist regime.

Men and women who operate cruisers do so in an environment where the future of their ships is questionable. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War have led to a massive reduction of the world’s cruiser force. Due to financial constraints that were a contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet system, Russia has been forced to scrap, decommission, or sell several of its cruisers. In 1990, three of the Kiev-class cruisers and both of the Moskva-class ships were retired from service and sold for scrap. The fate of the additional unit of the Kiev-class, Minsk, is perhaps one of the most unusual in the history of cruisers. Minsk was sold to private interests in China in the early 1990s, purportedly for conversion into a casino and entertainment complex.

Two ships of the Kirov-class remain operational; the other two have been placed in reserve. One of these latter vessels, Kirov (now renamed Admiral Ushakov), suffered the nightmare of all crews that serve on nuclear-powered vessels. In 1990, this vessel had a nuclear accident and subsequently entered a shipyard in 1999 for repairs, but a lack of funds probably will lead to its being scrapped. The other reserve unit has been inoperable since the early 1990s in lieu of needed repairs. Like its sister ship, this vessel will also probably be discarded from lack of funds to make repairs. The situation is so poor that the Russian Navy is reportedly asking for donations to fund the repair project. Both units of the Slava-class are still in service.

The Sovremenny-class has been reduced to nine ships. Four of the other units have been scrapped, while two others are derelict vessels awaiting disposal. An additional unit of the class has been hulked as a storage ship; another two have been sold to China. Two units were also placed in reserve, but the low budget of the Russian Navy has led to their deterioration at anchor. One sank while in reserve, and the other is entirely unserviceable. Of the 13 Udaloy-class ships, seven remain in service. Three were sold for scrap in the mid-1990s; another suffered a fire in 1991 and 1995 and is now a derelict. An additional unit has been in overhaul since 1990 and will probably not be reactivated owing to budget constraints. Only one Kara-class cruiser remains in service. By 1994, the old cruisers of the Kynda-, Kresta I-, and Kresta II-classes were all sold for scrap, and only one unit of the Kashin-class remained in service. In 2002, the result of all these reductions in the former Soviet Navy has led to a 21-ship cruiser force for the Russian Navy.