While the German drive into central Stalingrad was being halted, Chuikov asked an aide, “What’s the situation like on the left wing of the southern city?” In fact, that situation could hardly have been worse. Only one Soviet defensive line remained unbroken, and it was anchored to the huge grain elevator, still filled with wheat. By September 16, a vicious fire fight centered around the elevator.
A German soldier named Wilhelm Hoffmann later wrote, “Our battalion, plus tanks, is attacking the elevator, from which smoke is pouring-the grain in it is burning, the Russians seem to have set light to it themselves. The battalion is suffering heavy losses. There are not more than 60 men left in each company.”
Two days later, Hoffmann noted: “Fighting is going on inside the elevator. The Russians inside are condemned men. The battalion commander says, ‘The commissars have ordered those men to die in the elevator.’ If all the buildings of Stalingrad are defended like this, then none of our soldiers will get back to Germany.”
September 20: “The battle for the elevator is still going on. The Russians are firing on all sides. We stay in our cellar; you can’t go out into the street. Sergeant Major Nuschke was killed today running across a street. Poor fellow, he’s got three children.”
September 22: “Russian resistance in the elevator has been broken. Our troops are advancing toward the Volga. We found about 40 Russians dead in the elevator building. Half of them were wearing naval uniforms-sea devils. One prisoner was captured, seriously wounded, who can’t speak, or is shamming.”
Remarkably, that one prisoner, Andrei Khozyainov, who was a member of a marine infantry brigade, survived to tell the Russian side of the battle for the grain elevator.
“I was called to the battalion command post,” he wrote, “and given the order to take a platoon of machine gunners to the grain elevator and, together with the men already in action there, to hold it come what may. At dawn a German tank carrying a white flag approached from the south. We wondered what could have happened. Two men emerged from the tank, a Nazi officer and an interpreter. Through the interpreter the officer tried to persuade us to surrender to the ‘heroic German army,’ as defense was useless and we would not be able to hold our position any longer. ‘Better to surrender the elevator,’ affirmed the German officer. ‘If you refuse you will be dealt with without mercy. In an hour’s time we will bomb you out of existence.’
“‘What impudence,’ we thought, and gave the Nazi lieutenant a brief answer: ‘Tell all your Nazis to go to hell!'”
Throughout that day, the beleaguered Russians managed to beat back the German attacks, but conditions inside the grain elevator were becoming worse. Khozyainov recalled, “The grain was on fire, the cooling water in the machine guns evaporated, the wounded were thirsty, but there was no water nearby.”
On September 20, a dozen German tanks shelled the elevator. “The explosions were shattering the concrete; the grain was in flames. We could not see one another for dust and smoke, but we cheered one another with shouts. German submachine gunners appeared from behind the tanks. There were about 150 to 200 of them. They attacked very cautiously, throwing grenades in front of them. We were able to catch some of the grenades and throw them back. On the west side of the elevator the Germans managed to enter the building, but we immediately turned our guns on the parts they had occupied. Fighting flared up inside the building. We sensed and heard the enemy soldiers’ breath and footsteps, but we could not see them in the smoke. We fired at sounds.”
At last the Russians realized they could not hold their position much longer. On the night before the elevator fell Khozyainov and others attempted to break out-and stumbled onto an enemy mortar battery. “We overturned the three mortars and a truckload of bombs,” said Khozyainov . “The Germans scattered, leaving behind seven dead, abandoning not only their weapons, but their bread and water. And we were fainting with thirst. ‘Something to drink! Something to drink!’ was all we could think about. We drank our fill in the darkness. We then ate the bread we had captured from the Germans and went on. But alas, what then happened to my comrades I don’t know, because the next thing I remember was opening my eyes on September 25 or 26. I was in a dark, damp cellar, feeling as though I were covered with some kind of oil. I had no tunic on and no shoe on my right foot. My hands and legs would not obey me at all; my head was singing.
“A door opened, and in the bright sunlight I could see a submachine gunner in a black uniform. I had fallen into the hands of the enemy.” The Russian defense of the elevator had blunted the Fourth Panzer Army’s drive in the south. But on September 27, the fighting flared up again in central Stalingrad. Assorted German infantry units of the Sixth Army drove to the top of Mamayev Hill, and the battered defenders-including 2,000 Siberian reinforcements of the 284th Rifle Division- were forced to retreat and dig in on the northeastern slope. Meanwhile, Paulus renewed his offensive in the northern industrial area. After a Stuka bombardment, German units stormed across a Russian minefield, taking heavy casualties but advancing about 2,000 yards. “One more such day,” Chuikov later remarked, “and we would have been thrown into the Volga.”