Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part II

Von Richthofen was delighted (as Hitler was, when informed that day), but did not stop there. Late in the afternoon, Fiebig’s corps carried out what the fleet chief called his “second great attack of the day”: an immense raid on Stalingrad itself. Bombers smashed buildings to rubble with high explosives and torched various residential areas with incendiaries, leaving houses, schools and factories wildly burning. In some suburbs, the only structures left standing were the blackened brick chimneys of incinerated wooden houses. “Never before in the entire war had the enemy attacked in such strength from the air”, wrote Lieutenant-General Vasili Chuikov with pardonable exaggeration, not having witnessed the even-heavier annihilation raids on Sevastopol. The abrasive but talented commander of the Sixty-Second Army was not exaggerating at all, however, when he added that “the huge city, stretching for nearly thirty-five miles along the Volga, was enveloped in flames. Everything was blazing, collapsing. Death and disaster descended on thousands of families.”

Estimating fatalities is difficult because of a paucity of reliable statistical data. Yet this hellish attack caused at least as many deaths as similar-sized Allied raids on German cities. For example, it certainly claimed as many victims as the Allied attack on Darmstadt during the night of 11 and 12 September 1944, when the Royal Air Force unloaded almost 900 tons of bombs and killed over 12,300 citizens. The Stalingrad death total may, in fact, have been twice that of Darmstadt, due to tile fact that the Russian city was poorly provided with air-raid shelters. Recent popular accounts have advanced a figure of around 40,000, although this seems extravagant when compared to the death tolls in German cities hit by similar bomb tonnages. The post-war official Soviet history merely states: “In one day, scores of thousands of families lost a member, and thousands of children, their mothers and fathers.”

Raids continued almost without pause for another two days, although with steadily decreasing intensity. Von Richthofen flew over Stalingrad on the morning of 25 August, in order to watch that day’s “great fire-attack”. The city, he later noted in his diary, was “destroyed, and without any further worthwhile targets”. He then landed at the forward airfield of one of his bomber units, 25 kilometres from the ruined metropolis. The sky was full of “thick, black fire-clouds reaching all the way from the city.” After another heavy bombing attack in the afternoon, he added, the dense volcano-like clouds climbed 3,500 metres into the sky. The level of destruction was impressive (except, of course, to the tormented souls who tied the holocaust and now huddled in deep ravines outside the city). Flames leapt from huge oil storage containers and fuel tankers on the Volga, across the surface of which spilled oil burned. That evening, Generalmajor Pickert, head of the 9th Flak Division, recorded his own impressions in his diary: “At dusk I went on another 14 kilometres, then spent the night in the open … against a backdrop of magnificent smoke and flames, with Stalingrad burning and Russian searchlights blazing. A fantastic picture in the moonlight.”

Aside from these massive raids, the Axis advance on Stalingrad stalled for several days. Hube’s troops encountered stiff resistance from the Soviet Sixty-Second Army and the citizens’ militia. Their morale intact despite Fliegerkorps VIII’s best efforts, these courageous defenders refused to allow Germans to bulldoze through the rubble-strewn streets of Rynok, Stalingrad’s northern-most suburb, into the Spartakovka industrial region. Powerful Soviet attacks inflicted punishing blows on Hube’s division. It had raced to the Volga with such speed that it now found itself stranded at the river, separated from other German divisions by over 20 kilometres and surrounded by enraged enemy forces seeking revenge for the destruction of their city. On 26 August, a particularly strong attack sliced a chunk off Fourteenth Panzer Corp’s northern flank in the Kremenskaya region. This, and Hube’s constant panicky requests for supplies and reinforcements, prompted von Wietersheim to request that his corps withdraw from the Volga. Paulus refused, but frantically directed Fifty-First and Eighth Army Corps to close the gap between themselves and von Wietersheim’s corps, bolster the vulnerable northern flank and push supplies forward to Hube’s encircled division, still suffering heavy losses as it clung to the Volga. Fliegerkorps V/IJ effectively supported these endeavours, pinning down enemy troops assailing Hube’s division and repelling repeated Soviet attempts to stab into Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ exposed northern flank from the Kremenskaya bridgehead. In its brief daily report on air operations, the German Naval Staff’s war diary for 28 August was unusually generous in its praise of Fiebig’s units: “The supply road for our forces which reached the Volga River was freed and attacks against it were repulsed, thanks to the splendid support of the Air Force. Tank attacks south of Kremen[skaya] were repulsed with particularly severe losses.”

Von Richthofen, always aggressive and prepared to take risks-unlike Paulus, whom the air chief accurately described two weeks later as “worthy but uninspiring” -insisted that the army could take Stalingrad even now if it launched an all-out assault. Losses would be high, but, in the present circumstances, acceptable. He was disgusted by what he called the army’s lack of fighting spirit and its unwillingness to suffer losses to obtain major goals. He had made similar complaints during the assault on Sevastopol. On 22 June, he had grumbled in his diary: “I wish that everyone would just push a little more energetically. The view that advancing cautiously avoids losses is simply not correct, because small losses each day SOOI1 mount up the longer it takes.” History, he now believed, was clearly repeating itself. Therefore, on 27 August, he sent his operations officer, Oberst Karl-Heinz Schulz, to express in no uncertain terms to Goring and Jeschonnek his intense frustration “at the army’s weakness in nerves and leadership”. Schulz returned the next day, informing von Richthofen that Goring had responded sympathetically to his views. In fact, both the Reichsmarschall and the Fuhrer had expressed anger at the army’s slow progress and granted von Richthofen permission, as a “morale booster’, expressly to “request” it to act more aggressively.

The following day, this “morale booster” flew to Hoth’s command post to pass on the Fuhrer’s sentiments and, hopefully, to spur him on in a friendly manner. Hoth, meanwhile, had heard from the army group that even he had been included in von Richthofen’s self-righteous accusations to the High Command. The Panzer commander was outraged that he, of all people, whose army frequently sat idle for want of fuel, not courage, should be accused of lacking fighting spirit. He confronted von Richthofen immediately. Shocked by the Panzer leader’s anger, the airman emphatically denied that he had mentioned him to the High Command. This should be taken with a large measure of salt, given that the previous month he had privately described Hoth as “ageing and doubtless weary” and only a few days earlier had commented harshly that Fourth Panzer Army had “worn-out leadership and feeble troops”. Highly embarrassed, he blamed Goring for “twisting” his complaints about army leadership and even unfairly bawled out Jeschonnek on the telephone. Hoth was apparently satisfied; at least von Richthofen believed so. This was the first open clash between the arrogant airman and his army colleagues; it would not be the last.

As it happened, Hoth’s army surged forward that very day, in an operation that clearly demonstrated his courage and ability. For the last week or so, his army had been stuck halfway between Tinguta and Kransarmeysk, unable to advance past a line of heavily fortified hills guarding Stalingrad’s southern approaches. His Panzers and guns hammered away at those positions and the Soviet Sixty-Fourth Army’s constantly-attacking troops and armour. The loss of thousands of men and scores of tanks for only minor gains proved to Hoth that he could not advance on Stalingrad from his present position. He had to regroup and strike towards the city from a sector held less tightly by the enemy. as Under cover of darkness and light but steady attacks by Fiebig’s Stukas and ground attack aircraft, he slowly pulled the bulk of his tanks and other mobile units from the front, replacing them with infantry formations (including numerous elements of the Rumanian Sixth Army Corps) to camouflage his actions. Regrouping his armoured units behind Tinguta, almost fifty kilometres behind their earlier positions, he prepared them for their new drive to Stalingrad. Assisted by a strong concentration of aircraft, they raced forward on 29 August, sweeping northwest for 20 kilometres before wheeling northeast towards the city with considerable momentum. Flanking the strongly-defended hills that had cost them dear in lives and time, they smashed through the surprised enemy forces vainly trying to block their path. Late that day they reached the Karpovka river. The next day-as von Wietersheim finally opened the pocket in which Hube’s division lay trapped and pushed forward supplies-they crossed the Karpovka and took a bridgehead at GavriIovka, less than thirty kilometres southwest of Stalingrad. The Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, rightly fearing encirclement, withdrew to the suburbs and hastily erected new positions amongst surviving buildings and piles of rubble. The former prepared to defend the ruined metropolis from attack against its northern and northwestern suburbs, whilst the latter guarded its southern precincts.

“Everything’s going well,” von Richthofen excitedly wrote on 30 August, momentarily forgetting his recent bout of bitter frustration. Believing Stalingrad’s capture to be imminent, and determined to shatter the enemy’s will to resist-an unrealistic goal, as his experiences at Sevastopol should have shown-he ordered fresh terror attacks on the city. Throughout that day and the next, Fiebig’s corps struck the city with everything available, diverting aircraft only occasionally to smash enemy airfields east of the Volga.

The army, meanwhile, made pleasing progress. When Fourth Panzer Army pushed forward from the Karpovka river on 31 August, von Weichs ordered Hoth to meet Paulus’ Sixth Army at Pitomnik (fifteen kilometres east of the city), having crushed the enemy forces currently between them. From Pitomnik, they would together drive into the centre of Stalingrad, roughly following the line of the Tsaritsa river. However, Hoth reported on 2 September that virtually no enemy forces lay between his army and Voroponovo Station (only ten kilometres from Stalingrad), prompting von Weichs to instruct the Panzer commander to swing east into the city without waiting for Paulus. Determined to provide them with maximum support, von Richthofen had Fiebig pound enemy positions in and around Stalingrad with his entire corps. The latter responded with characteristic gusto, launching a 24-hour, relentless raid against the already-ruined city on 3 September (which Hermann Plocher wrongly claimed was the “first heavy air raid on the city”). This crushing attack, similar in scale to that of 23 August, destroyed Sixty-Second Army’s command centre and almost killed Chuikov, its commander. As he vividly recalled:

The enemy’s air reconnaissance must have detected our command post and promptly sent in bombers…. After sitting like this [in a tiny earth bunker] under bombardment for several hours, we began to grow accustomed to it and took no notice of the roar of engines and the explosive of bombs. Suddenly our dug-out seemed to be thrown into the air. There was a deafening explosion. Abramov [the Member of the Military Council] and I found ourselves on the floor, together with the overturned desks and stools. Above us was the sky, choked with dust. Lumps of earth and stone were flying about, and around us people were crying out and groaning. When the dust had settled a little, we saw an enormous crater some six to ten yards from our dug-out. Round it lay a number of mutilated bodies, and scattered about were overturned trucks and our radio transmitter, now out of action. Our telephone communications had also been destroyed.

Behind the Luftwaffe’s downpour of steel, which pinned the Soviets to the ground and temporarily ended their resistance, Fourth Panzer Army established contact with Sixth Army at Gonchary, near Voroponovo. Paulus and von Richthofen-the hatchet apparently buried after recent tension over the latter’s accusations to the High Command-studied the burning ruins through field glasses from the relative safety of an infantry command post. Despite the fact that the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies had escaped capture and withdrawn into the city (where they would later offer tenacious resistance), both commanders concluded that victory at Stalingrad was only days away. Back in his Ukrainian headquarters, the Fuhrer, whose own concerns about progress evaporated as soon as his troops reached the city’s outskirts, also claimed that Stalingrad was as good as won. The entire male population, he informed a disgusted Halder, would have to be “disposed of” as soon as possible, because it constituted a dangerous, fanatical Communist element.

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