In twelve hours the panzers moved thirty-six miles and reached the Volga north of the city and advance units reached the suburb of Rynok, where the tramcars were still running. When they had encountered resistance at the Barrikady factory in Rynok, and silenced it with the guns of their tanks, they looked over the carnage of the battle scene. They saw pieces of bodies covered with bits of calico and lace. They had been fighting women, the women workers of the factory. Some of the tankers vomited.
There had been virtually no resistance to General Paulus’s march. The morrow should bring the culmination of the Fuehrer’s current dream. Stalingrad would be theirs.
That was what the Germans said. But the Russians were ready to dispute them. That night of August 23, the Military Commission sent General Yeremenko a message:
You have enough strength to annihilate the enemy. Combine the aviation of both fronts and use it to smash the enemy. Set up armored trains and station them on the Stalingrad belt railroad. Use smoke to deceive the enemy. Keep after the enemy not only in the daytime but also at night. Above all do not give way to panic, do not let the enemy scare you, and keep faith in your own strength.
There was no question about it; the Russians were going to fight for Stalingrad.
Hitler’s preoccupation with Stalingrad had now become intense. After the 4th Panzer Army reached the banks of the Volga on August 23 he kept pressing General Paulus to hurry up and capture Stalingrad. Goering showed up for the situation meetings and announced that his Luftwaffe’s air reconnaissance to the north of Stalingrad had not uncovered any Soviet troop concentrations worth bothering about. So what was the delay all about? Hitler could not understand.
The more he thought about Stalingrad, the more determined he became to make an example of the city, and that had been carried out admirably. Just as soon as Paulus captured Stalingrad the female population was to be deported to become slave laborers and whores for the Germans, and the male population was to be exterminated.
The fires started by the German bombers burned all night. The bombing had destroyed the water mains, and the fire fighters were nearly helpless. All they could do was rescue people and try to pull down burning buildings to keep the fires from spreading.
Dar Gova, the southern section of Stalingrad down by the Volga, was a nest of workers’ houses, white bungalows surrounded by picket fences and flower gardens. By morning this pleasant workers’ community had become a wasteland of ash and charred wood. The nearby sugar plant was in ruins. Only a huge grain elevator still stood.
North of the elevator the Tsaritsa Gorge marked the line of the city center. Here were a hundred blocks of stores, office buildings, and apartments, bounded on the east by the Volga and the ferry landing and an avenue along the Volga shore. Farther north this was cut by another deep ravine, the Krutoy Gully. On the western side of the Krutoy Gully lay another residential district, which had also been destroyed by flame.
In the center of the city the railroad station was partially destroyed, and east of it the office buildings occupied by the city and party authorities had been wrecked. Pravda’s building on Red Square was in ruins, and so was the post office on the east side of the square. On the northeast corner stood the ruins of Univermag department store. Its most useful part now was the huge warehouse beneath the store.
North of Red Square some of the white-brick apartment buildings still stood on the wide boulevards, many of them now rutted and pocked with bomb craters and shell holes. Most of the concrete and brick buildings, even those still standing, had been gutted by the flames. Here and there a tall smokestack rose over the rubble that had been a factory.
Some of the oil storage tanks along the Volga had been set aflame, and they had spewed their fiery contents down into the water, to set fire to the docks and jetties. Most of the boats and ships pulled up at the docks had been bombed out, sunk, or burned.
That night Luftwaffe General Richthofen told his officers that they had made the equivalent of two thousand bomber sorties on Stalingrad. He was eminently satisfied with the destruction he had wrought. This should help bring the Russians to their knees.
As one German soldier wrote home: “The whole city is on fire; on the Fuehrer’s orders our Luftwaffe has sent it up on flames. That’s what the Russians need, to stop them resisting….”
Late that night, August 23, General Yeremenko prepared the daily situation report which must be sent to Moscow before midnight. It told how Germans had pierced the Russian defenses on the left flank in the Vertyachi-Peskovada area, and how in the Latashinka sector they had gotten to the Volga. The front was thus cut in two. The German units that had entered the northern suburbs of Stalingrad had been halted, but the tractor factory was under fire and the two rail lines linking Stalingrad with the north and northwest and river communications were all in danger. The bombing of the city had hurt grievously and impeded military operations. All the officials of the area, including Commissar Khrushchev, signed the report. Then Yeremenko telephoned Stalin in Moscow. He told the dictator honestly that the situation was very bad and that some of the party and civil officials wanted to blow up the factories and transfer everything movable across the Volga. He and Commissar Khrushchev opposed the idea.
Stalin was furious and cursing. He was also adamant:
Evacuation and destruction of plants would be interpreted as a decision to surrender Stalingrad. He said the State Defense Committee forbade it. That meant Stalin forbade it. The defense must be organized to stop the Germans.
“Not a step back” now became the watchword of Stalingrad.
That night Stalin ordered General Alexander Vasilevsky from Moscow to fly to Stalingrad and assess the situation and give General Gordov a hand in rescuing the 64th Army.
On August 24 at 4:30 in the morning Group Drumpen of the 16th Panzer Division launched an attack against Spartakovka, the northern-most industrial suburb of Stalingrad. The attack began with bombing by the Stukas, and then the tanks, grenadiers, artillery, and engineers moved forward. The infantry was absent, because in the forty-mile run of August 23 the 16th Panzer Division had outrun the 3rd and 30th Motorized divisions. The 3rd Motorized Division was twelve miles back and the 60th was twenty-two miles behind the panzers. All three units were little islands in a sea of Russian hatred.
General Hube, seeing his danger out in front, ordered his troops into a “hedgehog,” a circular pattern with the division’s heavy artillery in the center, covering all angles.
Still, the advance on the twenty-third had been so rapid, and the Russians so stunned, that the Germans expected an easy victory. Instead, they ran into a rocklike defense in the northern outskirts of the city where the NKVD men had organized the defense. On the grounds of the tractor factory, General Feklenko’s troops fought. At Tinguta, General Golikov’s tanks stopped the German advance.
The suburb, they found, was heavily fortified, and every building was a barricade. A dominating hill known to the Germans as “the big mushroom” bristled with pillboxes, machine-gun nests, and mortars. Rifle battalions and workers militia from the factories and elements of the 62nd Army were here. They had their orders from Stalin: “Not a step back.”
By noon it was apparent to the Germans that with the forces available they could not take Spartakovka. The Russians launched a counterstroke and had two of General Hube’s combat groups on the defensive.
Those T-34 tanks from the tank factory, some of them still unpainted and without gunsights, attacked straight from the assembly lines. Some of them penetrated the German lines as far as the command post of the 64th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The one success of the Germans this morning was the capture by the Panzer Jaegers of one ferry landing on the Volga, the one that linked the city with the railroad to Kazakhstan. They then prevented the Russians from receiving reinforcements across the river from that part of the east bank.
But by day’s end the position of the 16th Panzer Division was perilous. The Soviets were holding the approaches to the northern part of the city and were bringing in troops from Voronezh. The success of the German effort depended on holding and strengthening that slender corridor across the land from Kalach to the Volga. In this day’s fighting the Germans had actually been forced back more than a mile.
The 3rd Motorized Division had left the Don bridgehead at the same time as 16th Panzer Division on the morning of August 23, but had been sidetracked, first by taking a covering position in the Kuzmichi area, and then by the capture of a Russian supply column, which yielded jeeps and tractors and trucks. While they were assembling the loot they were attacked, first by a section of Russian tanks and then by the 35th Russian Rifle Division, reinforced by tanks, which was driving south to counter the Germans.
The Soviet 35th Rifle Division moved south in the rear of the 3rd Motorized Infantry Division and overran the rear sections of the XIV Panzer Corps and forced its way between the bridgehead formed by the Germans and the Tartar Ditch, and stopped the German infantry from closing the gap and reaching Stalingrad. As a result the German communications were cut, and the 16th Panzers were out on a lonely limb. The 3rd Motorized Division did manage to link up with the 16th Panzer Division, but now it had to be a defensive linkup over eighteen miles extending from the Volga to the Tartar Ditch. The Russians were attacking from all sides. Supplies could reach the Volga only by air or by Panzer convoy along the narrow corridor.
On August 24 the Russian 62nd Army withdrew slowly along the Karpovka River and the rail line. General Hoth had forced the 64th Army back to Tundutovo, but it was holding.
At his command post General Paulus read the situation reports of his three divisions. There was no more talk in the command post about “lightning victory.” Now the problem was to preserve these three units, each of them perilously open to attack. Paulus needed reinforcements and supplies. He called on the Luftwaffe to begin dropping ammunition and food to the 16th Panzers.