Stalingrad Kessel Collapses I

On 16 January 1943, just after the capture of Pitomnik, Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal, complaining that the Luftwaffe was only parachuting supplies. ‘Why were no supplies landed tonight at Gumrak?’ Fiebig replied that landing lights and ground-control radios were not working. Paulus seemed to be unaware of the chaos at the airfield. The unloading parties were badly organized and the men too weak to work properly – ‘completely apathetic’, was the Luftwaffe’s opinion. Discipline had broken down among the lightly wounded as well as stragglers and deserters drawn to the airfield and its promise of salvation. The Feldgendarmerie ‘chain dogs’ were starting to lose control over the mobs of starving soldiers, desperate to get away. According to Luftwaffe reports, many were Romanians.

By 17 January, the Sixth Army had been forced back into the eastern half of the Kessel. There was comparatively little fighting over the next four days, as Rokossovsky redeployed his armies for the final push. While most German regiments at the front followed orders, disintegration accelerated in the rear. The chief quartermaster’s department recorded that ‘the Army is no longer in any position to supply its troops’. Almost all the horses had been eaten. There was almost no bread left – frozen solid, it was known as ‘Eisbrot’. Yet there were stores full of food, held back by overzealous quartermasters, which the Russians captured intact. Some of those in authority, perhaps inevitably, exploited their positions. One doctor later described how one of his superiors, right in front of his eyes, ‘fed his dog with thickly buttered bread when there was not a single gram available to the men in his dressing station’.

Paulus, convinced that the end was near, had sent a signal on 16 January to General Zeitzler recommending that units which were still battleworthy should be allowed to break out southwards, because to stay in the Kessel meant either imprisonment or death through hunger and cold. Even though no immediate reply was obtained from Zeitzler, preparatory orders were issued. The following evening, 17 January, a staff officer with the 371st Infantry Division told Lieutenant-Colonel Mäder that: ‘On the codeword “Lion” the whole Kessel would fight its way out on all sides. Regimental commanders were to assemble fighting groups of around two hundred of their best men, inform the rest of the line of march, and break out.’

A number of officers had already started to ‘consider ways to escape Russian captivity, which seemed to us worse than death’. Freytag-Loringhoven in 16th Panzer Division had the idea of using some of the American jeeps captured from the Russians. His idea was to take Red Army uniforms and some of their very reliable Hiwis, who wanted to escape the vengeance of the NKVD, in an attempt to slip through enemy lines. This idea spread to the staff of the division, including its commander, General Angern. Even their corps commander, General Strecker, was briefly tempted when he heard about it, but as an officer with strong traditional values, the idea of leaving his soldiers was out of the question. One group from XI Corps subsequently made the attempt, and a number of other small detachments, some on skis, broke out to the south-west during the last days of the Kessel. Two staff officers from Sixth Army headquarters, Colonel Elchlepp and Lieutenant-Colonel Niemeyer, the chief of intelligence, died out in the steppe.

Paulus clearly never considered the idea of abandoning his troops. On 18 January, when a last post from Germany was distributed in some divisions, he wrote just one line of farewell to his wife, which an officer took out for him. His medals, wedding ring and signet ring were also taken out, but these objects were apparently seized by the Gestapo later.

General Hube received orders to fly out from Gumrak early the next morning in a Focke-Wulf Condor to join Milch’s Special Staff. On 20 January, after his arrival, he in turn sent a list of ‘trusted and energetic officers’ to be sent out to join him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority were not specialists in supply or air transport, but officers from his own panzer corps, especially his old division. Hube, no doubt, felt justified, since Sixth Army headquarters had stipulated that panzer specialists were among those entitled to evacuation by air.

General-Staff-trained officers were also included in the specialist category, but the most curious priority of all was what might best be described as the Sixth Army’s Noah’s Ark. Sergeant-Major Philipp Westrich from 100th Jäger Division, a tilelayer by trade, was ‘flown out of the Kessel on 22 January 1943 on the orders of Sixth Army, which requested one man from each division’. Lieutenant-Colonel Mäder and two NCOs were selected from the 297th Infantry Division, and so the list went on, division by division. Hitler, having given up Paulus’s Sixth Army for dead, was already considering the idea of rebuilding another Sixth Army – a phoenix’s egg snatched from the ashes. On 25 January, the idea became a firm plan. Hitler’s chief adjutant, General Schmundt, recorded: ‘The Führer decreed the reforming of the Sixth Army with a strength of twenty divisions.’

Officer couriers, taking out vital documents, had been selected on compassionate grounds. Prince Dohna-Schlobitten, who left on 17 January, was given the job for XIV Panzer Corps headquarters, not because he was the chief intelligence officer, but because he had the most children of any officer on the staff. Soon afterwards, Sixth Army headquarters insisted that officers flown out as specialists should double as couriers. Captain von Freytag-Loringhoven, selected because of his record as the commander of a panzer battalion, was ordered first to collect dispatches and other documents from army headquarters. There he saw Paulus, who ‘seemed absolutely bent under the responsibility’.

At Gumrak airfield, after a long wait, he went out to one of five Heinkel bombers, escorted by Feldgendarmerie, who had to force back the wounded and sick at the point of their sub-machine-guns. At the moment of leaving the Kessel, he inevitably had mixed feelings. ‘I felt very badly about leaving my comrades. On the other hand it was a chance to survive.’ He had tried to get Count Dohna (a distant cousin of Prince Dohna) out as well, but he had been too sick. Although securely packed into the aircraft, with some ten wounded soldiers, Freytag-Loringhoven could see that they were not out of danger. Their Heinkel remained stationary beside the runway while the other four took off. A pump had jammed during refuelling. Artillery shells began to fall closer. The pilot threw aside the pump, and ran back to the cockpit. They took off, lifting slowly, with their heavy load of wounded, into the low cloud base. At about six thousand feet, the Heinkel suddenly came up out of the cloud and into ‘wonderful sunshine’, and Freytag-Loringhoven was another who felt as if he ‘had been reborn’.

When they landed at Melitopol, ambulances from the base hospital were waiting for the wounded, and a staff car took Freytag-Loringhoven to Field Marshal Manstein’s headquarters. He had no illusions about his appearance. He was in ‘a very bad state’. Although a tall, well-built man, his weight had fallen to 120 pounds. His cheeks were cavernous. Like everyone in the Kessel, he had not shaved for many days. His black panzer overalls were dirty and torn, and his fieldboots were wrapped in rags as a protection against frostbite. Stahlberg, Manstein’s ADC, immaculate in his field-grey uniform, was clearly taken aback. ‘Stahlberg looked at me and I saw him wondering, “Does he have lice?” – and I certainly did have lice – and he shook hands very cautiously with me.’

Stahlberg took him straight in to see Manstein, who gave him a much more friendly welcome. The field marshal immediately got up from his desk and came round to shake hands without any apparent qualms. He took the dispatches and questioned the young captain closely about conditions in the Kessel. Yet Freytag-Loringhoven felt that he was essentially ‘a cold man’.

Manstein told Freytag-Loringhoven that he would be attached to Field Marshal Milch’s Special Staff established to improve the airlift. He reported first to Colonel-General von Richthofen, who just acknowledged his arrival and said that he was too busy to see him. Field Marshal Milch on the other hand, ‘an old Nazi’ whom he had not expected to like, proved ‘much more human’. He was horrified by Freytag-Loringhoven’s appearance. ‘My God, look at the state of you!’ After asking about the conditions in Stalingrad, Milch said: ‘Now you must have good food.’

He gave orders that Freytag-Loringhoven should receive special rations of meat, butter and even honey. The exhausted young panzer commander was then shown to one of the sleeping compartments on the luxury train. ‘It was the first time that I had seen a bed in nine months. I did not care about my lice. I threw myself into the white linen and decided to postpone my visit to the delousing station until first thing the next morning. The comfort and the warmth – it was minus twenty-five degrees outside – was an unbelievable contrast.’

Those officers coming out to work on Milch’s Special Staff were disorientated at first by their transformation to another world of plenty and possibility. But they still had no clear idea of what could and could not be expected of an airlift. ‘Is it possible to fly in tanks one by one?’ was one of Hube’s questions at his first meeting with Milch.

Milch himself, like anybody who had not set foot inside the Kessel, still could not grasp how truly terrible conditions were within. On receiving Paulus’s signal on 18 January that the Sixth Army would be able to hold out for only a few days more because they were virtually out of fuel and ammunition, he told Goering in a telephone conversation: ‘Those in the Fortress appear to have lost their nerve.’ Manstein was of the same opinion, he added. They both seem to have instinctively adopted a policy of personal sympathy for individuals at the same time as they distanced themselves from the horrors suffered by the abandoned army.

The wider implications of the impending disaster were left to Führer headquarters and the propaganda ministry in Berlin. ‘The Stalingrad Kessel is approaching the end,’ Goebbels had declared at his ministerial conference three days before. ‘The German press must prepare appropriate coverage of the victorious outcome of this great battle in Stalin’s city – if necessary with supplements.’ The ‘victory’ was supposedly one of moral symbolism.

Helmuth Groscurth, Strecker’s chief of staff and the most active member of the opposition to the regime in the Kessel, was determined that the facts of the disaster be communicated to senior officers to provoke them into action. He arranged a passage out for one of his trusted colleagues, Major Count Alfred von Waldersee. Waldersee was to go straight to army headquarters, at the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, to see General Olbricht, a senior member of the opposition, and then the retired General Beck, with the message that ‘only an immediate strike’ against Hitler could now save the Sixth Army. Beck asked Waldersee to go straight to Paris to see General von Stülpnagel and Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Rundstedt’s reply was ‘so depressing’ that Waldersee lost all hope of achieving anything.

Groscurth sent a last letter to his brother on 20 January, the birthday of his daughter Susi – ‘who soon will have a father no more, like thousands of other children’, he wrote. ‘The torment goes on and will get worse by the hour. We are pushed back into the narrowest area. We will, however, fight on to the last round, as ordered, particularly since we are told that the Russians have been killing all prisoners, which I doubt… People have no idea what’s going on here. Not a single promise is kept.’

Sixth Army headquarters sensed that Milch’s staff did not appreciate how bad things were. ‘There is not a single healthy man left at the front,’ it reported that day, ‘everyone is at least suffering from frostbite. The commander of the 76th Infantry Division on a visit to the front yesterday came across many soldiers who had frozen to death.’

The Soviet offensive began again with renewed force on that morning of 20 January. The 65th Army broke through north-west of Gonchara, which was captured that night. Gumrak, only a few miles away, was the main objective.

The evacuation of the airfield and nearby headquarters the following evening was chaotic as Katyusha batteries opened up. That night, Milch’s staff received a signal from Sixth Army headquarters: ‘Gumrak airfield unusable from 22 January at 04.00 hours. At that time the new airfield of Stalingradsky will be clear for landing.’ This was optimistic. The landing strip at Stalingradsky was incapable of taking large aircraft. General Paulus was by then entirely fatalistic, and almost certainly suffering from deep depression. A Luftwaffe major just returned from the Kessel reported to Field Marshal Milch that Paulus had told him: ‘Whatever help arrives from now on will be too late. We have had it. Our men have no strength left.’ When the major tried to brief him on the general situation to the west facing Army Group Don, he had replied: ‘Dead men are no longer interested in military history.’

Because of the lack of fuel, 500 wounded men were left in the field hospital at Gumrak. As dawn rose on the morning of 22 January, Russian infantry could be seen in the distance, advancing in extended line ‘as if on a hare shoot’. As the enemy approached to within rifle range, officers from 9th Flak Division who had been responsible for the airfield packed into the last vehicle, a staff car. A hundred yards down the road they found a soldier from the field hospital, both of whose legs had been amputated, trying to propel himself along on a sled. The Luftwaffe officers stopped, and tied his sled to the back of the car as he requested, but it overturned almost as soon as they started again. One lieutenant suggested that he cling on to the front, since there was no room left inside. The wounded man refused to hold them up any longer. They were by then within range of the Russian infantry. ‘Leave me!’ he shouted. ‘I haven’t got a chance anyway.’ The Luftwaffe officers knew that he spoke the truth. Anybody who could not walk at this point was already as good as dead. They drove on and the crippled soldier sat slumped in the snow by the side of the icy track, waiting for the Russians to arrive and finish him off.

He may well have been shot, like many wounded by the wayside. The Communist writer, Erich Weinert, attempted to claim that ‘abandoned cripples’ trying to hobble after their comrades had got in the way of ‘the gunfire of the advancing Red Army’. The truth was that the Red Army, like the Wehrmacht, made little provision for enemy wounded. Reports that the 500 left behind in the field hospital at Gumrak in the care of two sick orderlies and a divisional chaplain were massacred are, however, inaccurate. The Red Army just left them to fend for themselves on ‘water from snow and horse carcasses’. Those who survived were moved to the camp at Beketovka ten days later.

The spectacle of defeat grew more terrible the closer retreating soldiers came to Stalingrad. ‘As far as the eye can see, lie soldiers crushed by tanks, helplessly moaning wounded, frozen corpses, vehicles abandoned through lack of fuel, blown-up guns and miscellaneous equipment.’ Meat had been hacked from the flanks of a dead horse beside the road. Men dreamed of coming across a parachute container, packed with supplies, but they had been either seized on landing, or lost in the snowfields.

Although the collapse in the centre could not be stemmed, in many sectors German battle groups carried out a dogged fighting retreat. Early in the morning of 22 January, the remnants of the 297th Infantry Division were pushed back from the Voroponovo sector towards the southern outskirts of Stalingrad. Major Bruno Gebele and the survivors of his battalion awaited the next onslaught. Their only artillery support consisted of several mountain howitzers commanded by a sergeant, who was told to hold his fire until the Russians were between 200 and 250 yards away. Shortly before seven o’clock, as the remnants of Gebele’s battalion sheltered from artillery fire in their bunkers, a sentry gave the alert: ‘Herr Major, sie kommen!’

Gebele had time only to yell ‘Rausf His soldiers threw themselves into their fire positions. A mass of snow-suited infantry was charging towards them, baying ‘Urrah! Urrah! Urrah!’ The first ones were only forty yards away when the German grenadiers opened fire with light machine-guns, rifles and machine pistols. The Russians suffered terrible losses. ‘The first wave was killed or left lying there, the second also, and then a third wave came. In front of our position the Soviet dead piled up and served as a sort of sandbag wall for us.’

The Russians did not abandon the attack. They simply changed its direction, and concentrated against the flanking detachments. At nine-thirty, they broke through the Romanians over to the left. An anti-tank round hit Gebele’s second-in-command, who was standing next to him, killing him instantly. Gebele himself then felt a massive blow to his left shoulder. A bullet from the same burst of machine-gun fire had also killed his chief clerk, Feldwebel Schmidt, having gone straight through his steel helmet. The enraged Gebele, resting a carbine on the snow wall in front of him, was able to get off a few shots, using his good arm and shoulder.

Another wave of Russian infantry came at them. Gebele screamed to his surviving men to open fire again. A staff sergeant tried firing a light mortar, but the range was so short that the headwind made a couple of the bombs fall on their own positions. Eventually, having held out for seven hours, Gebele saw that a Russian flag had appeared on a water tower to their rear. They had been outflanked. He gathered the last survivors of his battalion, and led them back towards the centre of Stalingrad. Inside the city, they were shaken by the scenes of destruction and military collapse. ‘It was bitterly cold,’ wrote one of them, ‘and surrounded by such chaos, it felt as if the world was coming to an end.’

That 22 January – the day after Goebbels had prepared the stage-management of the Stalingrad tragedy by calling for ‘total war’ – Sixth Army received the signal from Hitler which sealed its fate. ‘Surrender out of the question. Troops fight on to the end. If possible, hold reduced Fortress with troops still battleworthy. Bravery and tenacity of Fortress have provided the opportunity to establish a new front and launch counter-attacks. Sixth Army has thus fulfilled its historical contribution in the greatest passage in German history.’

Whenever Luftwaffe planes flew over, men looked up longingly, and continued to stare at the sky well after the tiny dot had disappeared. ‘With heavy hearts’, wrote one soldier, ‘we gazed after the German aircraft and thought how wonderful it would be to be able to fly away, out of this inferno in which we had been abandoned.’ After the capture of Gumrak airfield early on the morning of 22 January, only a handful of planes had managed to land at the small Stalingradsky landing strip. The ‘air-bridge’, and thus the last line of escape, had collapsed.

Resupply now depended on canisters dropped by parachute, ‘the supply bombs’, but despite Sixth Army’s requests for red canopies, the Luftwaffe continued to use white. The system of drops became even more hit-and-miss, because few units had any recognition panels left and VIII Air Corps lost radio contact with Sixth Army head-quarters on 24 January. Hube had a message dropped telling soldiers in the ruins of Stalingrad that, on hearing aero-engines, they should lie down on the snow-covered ground in the form of a cross to signify ‘German soldiers here’. When the light or visibility was bad, they fired signal flares into the air to direct aircraft as they approached, but the Russians all around would immediately shoot flares of similar colour into the sky to confuse the pilots. Strong winds also blew many loads across the rapidly changing front lines into enemy hands. Some men were so desperate that they risked trying to retrieve canisters right out in the open. Russian snipers picked them off with ease. In the ruins of Stalingrad, starving German soldiers attempted to ambush Soviet soldiers just to get their bread bag.

The fall of Gumrak had meant yet another terrible journey for the wounded, many of whom had already been transferred from Pitomnik, having failed to find a place on an aeroplane there. ‘Exhausted wounded men dragged themselves to the ruins of the town’, one survivor reported, ‘crawling like wild animals on all fours, in the hope of finding some sort of help.’

The conditions in Stalingrad in the makeshift hospitals were even more appalling than at Gumrak, with around 20,000 wounded packed into cellars under the ruins of the city, to say nothing of the sick, which may well have brought the total to 40,000. Some 600 badly wounded men filled the cellars of the Stalingrad theatre, with no light and no sanitation. ‘Moans, calls for help and prayers’, wrote a doctor from the 60th Motorized Infantry Division, ‘were mixed with the thunder of the bombardment. A paralysing smell of smoke, blood and the stench of wounds filled the room.’ There were no more bandages, no medicine, and no clean water.

A number of doctors from front-line units received orders to help out in the network of tunnels in the Tsaritsa ravine. This complex, like galleries in a mine, now contained over 3,000 seriously wounded or seriously ill soldiers. Dr Hermann Achleitner, on arriving for duty, was reminded immediately of the phrase: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ The piles of frozen corpses outside shocked him deeply. Inside, the image of hell was increased by improvised oil lamps as the only source of light. The fetid, deoxygenated air was disgusting to breathe. He was greeted by pitiful cries of ‘Give us something to eat!’ The patients received only one thin slice of stale bread per day. The doctors turned this into a sort of soup, which was hot and made it go a little further. The lack of bandages was serious for the cases of severe frostbite. ‘Often’, he noted, ‘toes and fingers stayed behind in the filthy old bandages, when we changed them.’ Delousing was impossible. Medical orderlies changing bandages found a grey mass of lice crawling on to their own wrists and arms from the patient. When a man died, the lice could be seen leaving his body en masse in search of living flesh. The doctors did what they could to isolate cases of typhus as soon as it was diagnosed, but they knew that it would not be long before they had an epidemic on their hands. A young German soldier, surveying the misery around, was heard to murmur: ‘They must never know at home what is happening here.’

The retreat from the steppe, as the Kessel was crushed by Rokos-sovsky’s armies, brought the number of Germans crowded into the ruined city to over 100,000 men. Many, if not most, of them were suffering from dysentery, jaundice and other sicknesses, their faces tinged a greenish yellow.

The reactions of Stalingrad civilians were not always hostile, as wounded men from the 297th Infantry Division discovered. ‘Two Stalingrad women rubbed my frozen legs for an hour to prevent the effects of severe frostbite,’ wrote an officer. ‘Again and again, they looked at me with compassion and said: “So young and yet he must already be dying!” ‘The same group of soldiers, to their astonishment, found several Russian women in a partly wrecked house. They had just baked some bread, and agreed to exchange a loaf for a hunk of frozen horsemeat.

Regiments and divisions were utterly meaningless. The 14th Panzer Division had fewer than eighty men still able to fight. Hardly a single tank or heavy weapon with ammunition remained. In such a hopeless situation, discipline was starting to break down. Resistance continued largely through fear of Russian revenge, following Paulus’s rejection of surrender.

Unthreatened by anti-tank guns, Soviet T-34s crushed German weapon pits and gunners alike under their tracks. Bunkers and fortified buildings were destroyed with a field gun wheeled up to almost point-blank range. German soldiers now suffered a terrible sense of powerlessness, unable to do anything for their wounded comrades or even for themselves. Their own merciless advances of the previous summer seemed to belong to an entirely different world. On 25 January, Paulus and Colonel Wilhelm Adam, one of his senior staff officers, received light head wounds from a bomb explosion. General Moritz von Drebber surrendered with part of the 297th Infantry Division three miles south-west of the mouth of the Tsaritsa. The Soviet colonel who came to take his surrender is said to have demanded: ‘Where are your regiments?’ Moritz von Drebber, according to this version broadcast two days later on Soviet radio by the novelist Theodor Plievier, another German Communist of the ‘Moscow Emigration’, glanced around at the remaining handful of men, broken by exhaustion and frostbite, and replied: ‘Do I really have to explain to you, Colonel, where my regiments are?’

The chief medical officer of the Sixth Army, General Renoldi, was one of the first generals to give himself up. (Red Army intelligence first heard as a result of his interrogation that Paulus was in a state of collapse.) Some generals, however, took an active role. Hube’s replacement, General Schlömer, was shot in the thigh, and General von Hartmann of the 71st Infantry Division was killed by a bullet through the head. General Stempel, the commander of the 371st Infantry Division, shot himself, as did a number of other officers as the enemy seized the south of Stalingrad up to the Tsaritsa river.

On 26 January at dawn, tanks of the 21st Army met up with Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division north of the Mamaev Kurgan, near the Red October workers’ settlements. The scenes were predictably emotional, especially for Chuikov’s 62nd Army, which had been fighting on its own for almost five months. ‘The eyes of the hardened soldiers who met were filled with tears of joy,’ wrote Chuikov. Bottles were passed back and forth in fierce celebration. The Stalingrad Kessel was split in two, with Paulus and most of the senior officers bottled up in the smaller, southern pocket, and General Strecker’s XI Corps in the northern part of the city round the Stalingrad tractor factory. His only link with the outside world was the 24th Panzer Division’s radio set.

Over the next two days, German and Romanian stragglers, the wounded and shell-shocked, as well as still-active combat groups, all withdrew into the ever-diminishing southern pocket, where Paulus and Schmidt had set up new headquarters, under the Univermag department store on Red Square. The last symbol of German occupation was the swastika banner hanging from a makeshift flagpole fastened to the balcony above the main entrance. The remains of Colonel Roske’s 194th Grenadier Regiment provided its defending force. Roske was promoted to General as the new commander of the extinct 71st Infantry Division.

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