The changing strategic focus of Axis forces in the summer of 1942 for the southern assault towards the Volga and the Caucasus (‘Operation Blue’) was signalled by the sudden increase in air attacks on railway communications across the southern zone as a prelude to the new campaign. In May and June a majority of attacks were directed at the southern Ukraine, the area around Voronezh and the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea coast leading to the Caucasus, 59 per cent of all German sorties. By the time Operation Blue started on 28 June the German Air Force had already inflicted substantial damage on rail centres and killed an estimated 1,400 people, including the two deadliest raids so far, when 415 mostly evacuees were burned to death at Kavkazskaia station and 466 killed at the rail centre at Kochetkova. In July attacks on railways targets more than 100 kilometres from the front line intensified, taking up almost two-thirds of all raids. These included the preliminary raids on Stalingrad and the region around the city as it became clear with German operational successes that the city would soon be an object within the grasp of Army Group South. There were 59 raids on the Stalingrad region, four on the city itself, doing little damage but killing 99 people. By August the German Air Force devoted one-third of all raids on the Eastern Front to the Stalingrad area, 17 per cent to the Caucasus.
The commander of the German Fourth Air Fleet for the campaign against Stalingrad was Wolfram von Richthofen, the officer who had commanded the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and who had led the ferocious aerial assault on the Crimean city of Sebastopol in June 1942. This month-long campaign saw the progressive destruction of the fortress city by a combination of repeated air strikes and the effects of 2,000 artillery pieces around its perimeter. The 390 bombers and dive-bombers available to von Richthofen pounded the city into ruins, leaving at the end only 11 undamaged buildings. When they did not drop bombs, the aircraft carried scrap metal – old engines, ploughs, rail track – which they dropped on the defenders. Sometimes they dropped leaflets asking Wie geht es? (‘How’s it going?’). Thousands of civilians were evacuated across the Black Sea, attacked by aircraft as they went. Those who chose to stay or were ordered to do so lived a subterranean existence in the hundreds of caves, tunnels and storerooms on the rocky peninsula which gave a natural protection. The local authorities counted only 173 dead after the first days of bombing, though many more died from the powerful artillery barrage. The shelters were filled with stale air, making it difficult to breathe, and were piled high with a jumble of goods and luggage. The Russian journalist Boris Voyetekhov found himself in one of the largest underground caverns, where machinery turned out a stream of grenades, newspapers were typeset and printed, the party officials worked on their reports and artists worked on posters encouraging greater effort. In the underground post office, the postmen wrote ‘to be looked for after the war’ on letters that could not be delivered to the streets of rubble on the surface. Sebastopol finally fell on 1 July.
Much against his will, von Richthofen was moved from the Sebastopol campaign shortly before its conclusion to set up headquarters for the new operation in which he was to play a leading part. The German Air Force allocated more than half of all aircraft to the Eastern Front, 1,155 in total, for Operation Blue. But the number of serviceable aircraft available to von Richthofen for the drive on the Volga and the Caucasus that developed from mid-July was only around 750, divided between the VIIIth and IVth air corps, the first for the drive across the Don steppe to Stalingrad, the second to support operations further south in the Caucasus. Most of the air force action was in direct support of ground forces and in combat against the Soviet Air Force which proved unable to contest air superiority successfully, although night-bombing attacks against German bases inflicted some effective damage. As Army Group B, under the command of General Friedrich Paulus, pushed its way rapidly across the steppe towards Stalingrad, the way was paved for a bombing assault on the city. This has always been treated in the literature as the most deadly bombing operation not only of the entire Eastern war, but of any day of raiding before Hiroshima.
The situation at Stalingrad, both at the time and since, has encouraged a popular sense of historical extremes, and there is no disguising the mounting drama as German armies, the Sixth Army under Paulus, the Fourth Panzer Army under General Hoth, pushed back the embattled Stalingrad defenders of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies into a narrowing zone in front of the city and, by September, back into the city itself. The Soviet Eighth Air Army commanded by General T. Khriukin had only 454 aircraft when the assault started, of which just 172 were fighters. There were too few heavy anti-aircraft guns, since Stalingrad had not been expected to be a major target. The balance of air power lay for the moment with the German Air Force. On 21 August the German army crossed the Don River and pushed on towards the city; the bank of the Volga was reached on 23 August. On that day von Richthofen was apparently ordered by Hitler’s headquarters to bring together as many of his scattered air units as possible to support a major bombing attack on the city. Around 400 Ju88 and He111 bombers were available. There is no record in the War Diary at Supreme Headquarters, where Hitler watched closely the course of the campaign, to indicate that a heavy bombing of the city was ordered that day, but air force records show that the bomber force flew 1,600 sorties against targets in Stalingrad, dropping around 1,000 tons of bombs, though it seems likely that this took place over a six-day period and not all on 23 August. Because of poor anti-aircraft defence, bombers could fly at around 2,000–3,000 metres to drop their bombs. Soviet records show that they came in waves of 70–90 aircraft, sometimes in much smaller formations.
The attacks were not simply directed at destroying the city, which would be of little help in trying to capture it a few days later, but were concentrated on key military, administrative and economic targets, including the large oil-storage depots on the bank of the Volga. German air intelligence had produced detailed maps of Stalingrad, along with other cities, showing the key industrial sites and military installations. These included the vast ‘Dzerzhinskii’ tractor factory and the Red October metalworks, as well as an oil refinery. From early August the Soviet reports indicate attacks on warehouses, quays and industrial installations. The attacks on 23 August produced extensive damage to the main industrial installations and the communications system. The burning oil produced a vast fog of black smoke that contributed more than anything else to the sense that the raids on that day had substantially destroyed the city, but it was the bombing of the city centre the following day, 24 August, that did the most damage. Destruction of the central water supply system that day robbed the fire service of water at a critical juncture and allowed the fires to take hold, destroying or damaging around 95 per cent of the buildings in the central district. The standard figure cited for the losses of the Soviet population who remained in the city has been put at 40,000, which would indeed make 23 August 1942 the most deadly day of bombing before the atomic attacks.
There can be little doubt that this figure, like the exaggerated death toll at Rotterdam, will not stand up to scrutiny. No one doubts that by mid-September, pounded by a circle of heavy guns and tanks, bombed and dive-bombed regularly to destroy military resistance, the city was heavily destroyed. When Churchill’s interpreter, Arthur Birse, was invited to tour Stalingrad later in 1943, he found it an incredible sight: ‘A collection of scattered and broken remains … The streets, as far as I could distinguish any, were mounds of rubble. The inhabitants lived in dugouts and cellars.’ Yet the Soviet records of the damage to Stalingrad from the air (rather than the massive damage inflicted by artillery and tanks) present quite a different picture. The bombing of 23 August was not given particular prominence in the reports produced at the time, which focused instead on the regular raiding that took place over the whole period from 23 to 29 August, resulting in a cumulatively severe level of damage. The death from bombing of 40,000 people would almost certainly have been treated, as it was in Hamburg in July 1943, as a disaster without precedent and could have been produced only by a major firestorm. The report from the local air defence authorities for August simply records ‘Starting from mid-August the city experienced non-stop air bombing by large groups of enemy planes.’ The assessment of casualties for the six-day period of heavier raiding arrived at a figure of over 1,815 dead and 2,698 severely injured, many of the fatalities inflicted at the Volga River crossings. In September the number of raids fell from 100 to 69, mostly on the city, burning down many of the buildings still standing. Data was recorded as incomplete, which under the circumstances is unsurprising, but the recorded death toll was 1,500 for the whole month, not including those killed by the continuous artillery fire. Death statistics for October were again incomplete, but those recorded numbered 380. Between July and October 1942 the local civil defence authorities counted 3,931 deaths, a figure much more consistent with the scale of the raiding and the tonnage of bombs dropped.
There is little doubt that these figures understated the actual deaths from bombing, given poor communications and the emergency conditions, but no margin of error could turn this figure into 40,000. There are other factors to bring into account in reducing this statistic: Stalingrad was a city of 440,000, many of whom were in fact evacuated (or fled) across the Volga as the German army approached; no pre-atomic bombing succeeded anywhere in killing at least 10 per cent of the population in a single day. The German bomber force was anyway much smaller than the later Allied forces which could indeed obliterate half a city under the right circumstances. There were only 400 aircraft, all of them medium bombers, and the final tally of 1,000 tons represented what the same force had dropped on London in one night without exacting more than 1,000–2,000 deaths. Stalingrad was a modern city, with wide roads, parks, and a great many more stone and concrete buildings than less modern Russian cities. As in other more modern cities it would have been difficult to generate a firestorm sufficient to consume 40,000 people. As it was, the figures of over 1,800 in August and 1,500 in September were the highest death tolls recorded in the Soviet Union from bombing throughout the war. In the end the figure of 40,000, like the ‘20,000 dead’ in Rotterdam, has fitted a popular view of German atrociousness, but not the facts.
After the bombing in August 1942 the capability of von Richthofen’s Fourth Air Fleet declined steadily, the victim of persistent attrition from a reviving Red Air Force, and of the deteriorating weather and supply lines. By 20 September there were only 129 fully operational bombers left, some of which were used to attack Soviet oil production at Grozny in a raid on 10 October. At the same time the PVO defence of the region was greatly expanded. By November there were 1,400 Soviet aircraft on the Stalingrad front, with more in reserve, and thanks to reforms introduced by Novikov, following his promotion to air force commander-in-chief in April, the air units were centrally controlled, fitted with radio communication and more tactically adept. When Paulus and his Army Group were finally cut off and encircled at Stalingrad, Göring promised to supply the pocket using all the transport and bomber aircraft that could be spared. The result was the loss not only of 495 transport and bomber aircraft, but also of some of the experienced training officers brought out of Germany to boost the declining pool of regular pilots. One of the aircraft lost was a Heinkel He177, one of a first group of 20 sent to southern Russia for trials. Only seven were fit for service and the group commander was shot down on his first mission. The failure of the supply programme to keep the Sixth Army fighting contributed to the cooling of relations between Hitler and Göring, and marked a turning point in the offensive capabilities of the German Air Force. In his first post-war interrogation, Göring complained, without much justification, about the crisis of the German bomber arm prompted by the events in Russia: ‘I built the Luftwaffe as the finest bomber fleet, only to see it wasted at Stalingrad. My beautiful bomber fleet was used up in transporting munitions and supplies … I always was against the Russian campaign.’