Martyrdom on the Volga

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In war, it is often glibly said that ‘fortune favours the bold’; whether the bold actually deserve or receive such benefit is seldom questioned. By late December 1942, any last luck had run out for the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as it had done so for the Soviet defenders of Sevastopol six months earlier. Common to these two sieges was the remarkable courage and stoicism of the troops involved. But the results of both battles showed that no amount of risk-taking or individual valour displayed at the tactical level could alter necessarily the overall operational and strategic odds. Nations who send their sons and daughters into overexposed outposts abroad would do well to remember this, as many conflicts since the Second World War, including those in Indo-China, Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated amply.

Manstein dedicated his account of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom on the Volga’ to the ‘German soldiers, who starved, froze and died there’. Noting the unlikelihood of any monument being erected to commemorate their sacrifice, he declared eloquently, ‘the memory of their indescribable suffering, their unparalleled heroism, fidelity, and devotion to duty will live on long after the victors’ cries of triumph have died away and the bereaved, the disillusioned and the bitter at heart have fallen silent’. His moving paean for the dead was prompted by the famous epigram of Simonides, dedicated to the brave Spartans who fell to a man at Thermopylae: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.’

For all their fortitude, was the sacrifice of over 225,000 men from the twenty German and two Rumanian divisions and supporting troops worth it? What had it achieved? The lost battle of Stalingrad resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe for Hitler. Worse than the defeat a year earlier at Moscow, it had far more severe political and military consequences. If the losses of the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies smashed on either side of Stalingrad are included, together with the complete collapse of the Italian Eighth Army on the Upper Don and the subsequent defeat of the Hungarian Second Army in January 1943, then the Soviet winter counter-offensive was nothing less than a strategic disaster for the Axis cause. It showed all interested powers, including Germany’s allies and ‘concerned’ neutrals such as Turkey, that the Third Reich had severely overreached itself and could never hope to win against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the net result of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequent operations in its winter campaign was the removal of the surviving Axis contingents from the Eastern Front and the evacuation of German forces from the Caucasus. Although the Red Army had suffered terrible losses in making these gains, everything Hitler hoped for in Operation BLUE had vanished. His fantasy of crossing over the southern Russian frontier and advancing to the Middle East and Iran remained just that – a vain dream devoid of all reality.

The only operational benefit of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom’ was that it had tied down so many Soviet forces for so long, and that Operation SATURN had been downgraded to LITTLE SATURN. Had the Germans lost Rostov-on-Don, the prime terrain objective of SATURN in December 1942, then Army Group A, and particularly a large chunk of First Panzer Army, could not have escaped destruction. Despite Manstein’s and Zeitzler’s constant urging, Hitler’s permission to start this urgently required withdrawal from the Caucasus (and at this stage only a partial one at that) came characteristically late on 29 December 1942 in ‘response to the insistence of Don Army Group’. None the less, Stalin was unable to inflict in full measure his intended mortal blow on the German Army in the East, the Ostheer. Army Groups A and Don survived to fight another day notwithstanding the grievous loss of Sixth Army, Germany’s strongest. As we shall see, Manstein managed to stabilize the southern wing of the front and the Soviet winter offensive was brought to a halt in March 1943 in spectacular fashion, offering a brief glimpse of victory. Yet nothing could disguise the harsh fact that the destruction of so many Axis forces (the equivalent of no less than fifty-five divisions) in the meantime had ‘fundamentally changed the situation to the detriment of Germany and her allies’. The strategic balance had now shifted in favour of the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

For the German people, moreover, there was no way of disguising the magnitude of the catastrophe at Stalingrad and the psychological blow it represented. Too many soldiers’ letters had reached the homeland for it to be brushed aside as a mere setback. Goebbels had tried to counter anguish and defeatism in his famous speech of 18 February 1943 at the Berlin Sportpalast, declaring ‘total war’. The strategic truth, however, had already been drawn on the battlefield. Marshal Zhukov, even stripping away the bombastic tone of his memoirs, hit the nail on the head when he explained the ‘causes of the German debacle’ and the Soviets’ ‘epoch-making victory’:

[The] failure of all Hitlerite strategic plans for 1942 was due to an underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet State, the indomitable spirit of the people. It also stems from an over-estimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities. [Secondly,] utilization of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, accurate detection of weak points in the enemy defences led to the defeat of the German troops in the operation[s] codenamed URANUS, SMALLER SATURN [and] RING.

Zhukov could not avoid listing a number of other contributory factors, not least the ‘Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils . . . and commanders’, ‘who fostered in soldiers confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield’.

For both sides, there was as much a psychological as any physical turning point. Germany’s offensive operations had culminated. In view of the Soviet superiority, the only option available was to switch to a strategic defence. How aggressively it could be conducted at the operational level would depend on the time, space and forces available, and above all, on the skill of its commanders. As Manstein was soon to show, the Red Army could still be defeated in the field.

In the meantime, the final agony of Stalingrad is briefly told. In the grand scheme of the Second World War, it is tempting to describe the German defeat on the Volga in terms of a ‘decisive point’. Although such vocabulary is valid in any strict, detached, military analysis of campaign, it obscures the irrefutable fact that the battle was a human disaster. Manstein was surely right, therefore, to remind his readers:

The death-struggle of Sixth Army, which began around the turn of the year [1942-43], is a tale of indescribable suffering. It was marked not only by the despair and justified bitterness of the men who had been deceived in their trust, but even more by the steadfastness they displayed in the face of an undeserved and inexorable fate, and by their high degree of bravery, comradeship and devotion to duty, and by their calm resignation and humble faith in God.

None the less, it is perfectly appropriate to examine Hitler’s and Manstein’s decision-making during the last few, debilitating weeks of the Sixth Army: after all, the fate of so many thousands of soldiers rested on their political and military leaders.

By late December 1942, the combat power of the encircled troops in Stalingrad had diminished dramatically. On the 26th, when only 70 tonnes of supplies were flown into the pocket, Paulus reported that ‘bloody losses, cold, and inadequate supplies have recently made serious inroads on divisions’ fighting strength’. Moreover, it was ‘no longer possible to execute [a] break-out unless [a] corridor is cut in advance and [my] Army [is] replenished with men and supplies’. So Paulus was in no doubt as to the nature of the impending disaster. He concluded his report with a plea: ‘radical measures [are] now urgent’. None was available.

Back at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, the mood had turned to one of frustration and resignation for there was nothing now that could save Sixth Army. As Engel recorded, ‘here [is] deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders.’ However unrealistic the prospect, he felt that the army commander ‘could have got out with the bulk of his men, albeit at a high cost in material’. Yet the fact remained that ‘Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.’ In the face of unfolding events he was powerless to change, the Führer had turned ‘very quiet’, and was ‘almost never seen except at daily situation conferences and to receive reports’.

By the end of the year, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been pushed back to its line of departure, then further west still towards Rostov-on-Don. Building on the success of the Stalingrad counter-offensive, the Soviet Middle Don operation had sealed Sixth Army’s fate. As Zhukov noted accurately, the encircled German force ‘had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, and the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.’

On 9 January 1943, following instructions by the supreme command in Moscow, the Soviet Don Front presented Sixth Army with a surrender ultimatum. The demand was summarily rejected the same day by Paulus on Hitler’s orders. Manstein did not defer. Perhaps tilting at the obvious criticism after the war, he went to considerable lengths in his memoirs to explain why, in his view, a capitulation on this date would not have been appropriate. His rather banal comments that, ‘if every Commander-in-Chief were to capitulate as soon as he considered his position hopeless, no one would ever win a war’ and ‘even in situations apparently quite bereft of hope it has often been possible to find a way out in the end’ provided little justification. What mattered far more was the operational rationale for sustaining the struggle in Stalingrad at such high human cost. The critical consideration, therefore, which he stressed repeatedly, was the fate of the entire southern wing of the German Army on the Eastern Front. So Manstein was on safer ground when he stated:

this in turn brings us to the crucial point which justifies Hitler’s order to refuse to capitulate and also barred the Army Group from intervening in favour of such action at that particular time. No matter how futile Sixth Army’s continued resistance might be in the long run, it still had – as long as it could conceivably go on fighting – a decisive role to fulfil in the overall strategic situation. It had to try to tie down the enemy forces opposing it for the longest possible space of time.

Strictly speaking, he was right in his assessment. Sixth Army’s prolonged and heroic stand on the Volga continued to fix seven armies of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, powerful forces which otherwise could have been employed elsewhere to ‘telling effect’. That said, the conduct of war ought never to be reduced to the moves of an elaborate chess game: the humanitarian imperative to end a lost battle and so prevent any further loss of life must at some stage take precedence over military considerations.

Manstein maintained to his deathbed the deeply held conviction that Germany was not doomed to defeat as a result of Stalingrad. One of his central themes in Lost Victories is that it would have been possible to have come to some sort of draw, however illusory that view might now appear. For all his professional military capabilities, Manstein was not a politically astute man. In propounding his solution, he failed to appreciate the utter determination of Stalin and the Soviet people not only to free their sacred Motherland (Rodina), but also to punish the Fascist invaders and render the aggressor incapable of mounting a war of conquest ever again. He also underestimated the strength of feeling against Germany held by the Western Allies, who at the Casablanca conference (14-24 January 1943) had demanded unconditional surrender.

It would be far too simple, however, to dismiss out of hand Manstein’s perspective that ‘in those days it was by no means certain that Germany was bound to lose the war in the military sense’. Accepting that the military is but one instrument of national power, in early 1943 Germany had yet to realize the full potential of its war economy: that would take another year under Albert Speer’s best efforts. Furthermore, despite its huge losses on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht still had considerable reserves of men and equipment, much of it being squandered in the totally futile defence of Tunisia or dissipated to little benefit in other peripheral theatres such as Norway or the Balkans. The fundamental issue Manstein raised was whether a military stalemate could have been brought about, and if, in turn, it would have caused ‘a similar state of affairs in the political field’. He felt a ‘draw’ ‘would have been entirely within the bounds of possibility if the situation on the southern wing of German armies could in some way have been restored’. All his efforts during and following the disaster at Stalingrad were aimed at achieving that one objective – staving off defeat – as opposed to the pursuit of ultimate victory.

In the weeks that followed Sixth Army’s defiant refusal to capitulate, the Soviet forces slowly but surely pushed in the German defence. Operation RING, designed to reduce the pocket, was prosecuted with ruthless ferocity. Throughout this period, bad weather and heavy fighting continued to hinder aerial resupply. Freezing and worn out, German troops fought on: the sapping starvation of the survivors accelerated, as did the appalling suffering of the injured and wounded. Manstein was not immune to the human misery involved, observing that it was but ‘a cruel necessity of war which compelled the [German] Supreme Command to demand that one last sacrifice of the brave troops of Stalingrad’.

Within Stalingrad, the situation worsened steadily and losses mounted alarmingly. The bread ration was cut from 200 to 100 grams a day; after all the horses had been slaughtered, the dogs came next. When the airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak were lost on 12 and 22 January respectively, the inevitable end drew much closer: no supplies in; no wounded out. The start of a series of concentrated Soviet blows to liquidate the German hold of the city centre began on 22 January. On 24 January, Paulus signalled: ‘Fortress can be held for only a few days longer. Troops exhausted and weapons immobilized as a result of non-arrival of supplies. Imminent loss of last airfield will reduce supplies to a minimum. No basis left on which to carry out mission to hold Stalingrad.’ He requested permission to break out in small organized groups. In response, he received a stark message ‘Re break-out: Führer reserves right of final decision.’ It never arrived.

By this late stage, Manstein had realized the futility of any further sacrifice in Stalingrad and pressed Hitler hard to give Paulus permission to enter into surrender negotiations. The Führer refused point-blank. That same day (24 January 1943), the Soviets had broken through the last remaining coherent front and split the German forces in the city into three smaller segments. Within a week, Paulus (promoted to field marshal to encourage him not to fall into the hands of the Russians alive) and his immediate staff had surrendered at their final command post, the Univermag department store in Red Square.

In one of those great ironies of history, it was Colonel Ivan Andreevich Laskin, a hero of the defence of Sevastopol and now chief of staff of the 64th Army, who arranged the cessation of hostilities in Stalingrad. The guns fell silent on 2 February when the last defenders of XI Corps in the northern pocket gave up. No fewer than 90,000 Germans were captured of which only 5,000 came back to their Fatherland. Although the fighting had stopped, cold, disease and malnutrition in Stalingrad was soon replicated in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps; only the very strongest and exceptionally lucky pulled through.

Manstein had done his very best to relieve Stalingrad. When that attempt failed for lack of forces, he felt compelled by military logic, and in accordance with Hitler’s instructions, to require Sixth Army to fight on. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, he had urged the Führer to agree to its surrender when the airlift was broken and when any further resistance was no longer justified on military grounds. Of the German leader’s role, Manstein wrote:

It was certainly to Hitler’s credit that he accepted responsibility unreservedly and made no attempt whatever to find a scapegoat. On the other hand, we are confronted by his regrettable failure to draw any conclusions for the future from a defeat for which his own errors of leadership were to blame.

One consequence of Stalingrad was the temporary loosening of Hitler’s micro-control of operations in early 1943. It led to timely evacuations from the exposed Demyansk and Rzhev salients that forestalled Soviet blows and created much needed reserves. Manstein also exploited this situation in stabilizing the southern wing of the Eastern Front by the end of March. Without gaining sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he would have achieved anything like the fleeting operational success he gained.

Extracting any flexibility from the Führer, however, drained him. His mounting frustration over Hitler’s way of war caused him to consider tendering his resignation on several occasions. When Hitler denied him urgent reinforcements for Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote to Zeitzler on 5 January 1943 asking to be relieved of command:

Should these proposals not be approved and this headquarters continue to be tied down to the same extent as hitherto, I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by my continuing as commander of Army Group Don. In the circumstances it would appear more appropriate to replace me by a sub-directorate of the kind maintained by the Quartermaster-General.

Hitler refused his request. Matters came to a head again towards the end of the month with the Führer’s rejection of his demand to allow Sixth Army to surrender. His principal subordinates again advised him against resignation. His ‘closest collaborator’ Busse, according to Manstein’s account, is recorded saying in late 1942: ‘If I had not kept begging him [Manstein] to stay for the troops’ sake, he’d have chucked the job back at Hitler long ago.’

Notwithstanding his stated desire to step down, Manstein was probably right in his assertion that Hitler would not have accepted his resignation. The Führer tolerated and needed him for another year. The army group commander had further professional ambitions in any case. He knew that he was well qualified to take over from either Zeitzler or Keitel, or to assume overall command of the Eastern Front. This was a view shared by many of Germany’s generals who criticized the conduct of operations. Hermann Balck, for example, commented in his diary on 17 February 1943 that ‘the solution generally desired throughout the Army’ is for ‘Manstein to assume as Commander-in-Chief East’.

Of more enduring interest are Manstein’s comments against military resignation. He concluded that a senior commander ‘is no more able to pack up and go home than any other soldier’. Furthermore, ‘the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician, who is always at liberty to climb off the band-wagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the Government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered.’ True enough for a politician in a democracy, but dictators such as Hitler are not in the habit of standing down: they either die of natural causes or come to a premature, violent end.

In early 1943, Manstein faced fighting some very difficult battles with Hitler in order to prevent any further disintegration on the southern wing as a result of renewed Soviet attacks. He had been wrestling with this problem since his assumption of command. With Stalingrad soon to fall, resolution of this issue became ever more urgent. It all revolved around securing a more coherent command of the Wehrmacht and the Eastern Front.

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