Stalingrad Kessel Collapses II

The increasing number of senior officers who were surrendering meant that Don Front’s 7th Department, responsible for ‘Operational propaganda’, was busier than ever. So many prisoners had been brought in for interrogation since the offensive started that it had been hard to select the ‘more interesting’ ones.

Captain Dyatlenko received a signal ordering him to return immediately to Don Front headquarters. Another captured German general had already been brought in for interrogation. Dyatlenko knew it was worth spending time on this new arrival, General Edler von Daniels. The search through the mailbags of the crashed transport aeroplane at the beginning of the month had produced the letters in the form of a diary which Daniels had written to his wife. Daniels, like most newly captured prisoners, was in a vulnerable state. As an experienced interrogator, Dyatlenko knew that the best tactic was the least expected one. He questioned his prisoner obliquely about his ‘Kessel-baby’, then took him off balance by suddenly producing the letters and papers which Daniels thought were safely back in Germany.

‘Herr General,’ Dyatlenko records having said to him. ‘Please have your papers back. This is your property and you can put it in your family archive when you return home after the war.’ Apparently Daniels was overcome with gratitude. He accepted tea and biscuits and Russian cigarettes, and then ‘answered our questions’. Dyatlenko kept at him until evening. After a break for dinner, he carried on until midnight.

On many occasions, such a refined approach was not necessary. The psychological confusion and the anger of defeat, produced docility if not cooperation from officers who felt both personally betrayed, and also guilty towards their own men for having assured them of the Führer’s promises of salvation. During interrogation, they often made a point of uttering derogatory remarks against Hitler and the regime. They called Goebbels ‘the lame duck’ and bitterly regretted that the overweight Goering had not undergone a ‘Stalingrad diet’. But it certainly appeared to their Russian captors that these generals had recognized the real character of their Führer only when they experienced the treacherous way in which he had behaved towards them and the Sixth Army. Few of them had described him or his policies as criminal when they were advancing deep into Russia and atrocities were being committed so close behind their front lines that they must have been aware of them, if not in some cases directly responsible.

From these interviews with captured officers, Don Front head-quarters formed the firm impression that Paulus ‘was under great strain, playing a role that had been forced on him’. They were increasingly convinced that Paulus was virtually a prisoner in his own headquarters, guarded by his chief of staff. Dyatlenko had no doubt that Schmidt was ‘the eyes and hand of the Nazi Party’ in the Sixth Army, because captured officers reported that ‘Schmidt was commanding the Army and even Paulus himself.

Colonel Adam, when interrogated later by Dyatlenko, told him that Schmidt had been the one who gave the order for the truce envoys to be sent back. (Dyatlenko did not reveal that he had been one of them.) The senior officers at Sixth Army headquarters had apparently been well aware of the contents of the oilskin pouch. On that morning of 9 January, when Dyatlenko and Smyslov waited in the bunker, they had read during breakfast the leaflets dropped by Russian planes with the text of the ultimatum. That same morning, General Hube had flown back into the Kessel from his visit to Hitler. He had brought the order that there was to be no surrender. According to Adam, this had strengthened General Schmidt’s intransigent position at Sixth Army headquarters.

On 29 January, the eve of the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power, Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal of congratulation from its ruined cellar. ‘To the Führer! The Sixth Army greet their Führer on the anniversary of your taking power. The swastika flag still flies over Stalingrad. May our struggle be an example to present and future generations never to surrender in hopeless situations so that Germany will be victorious in the end. Heil mein Führer! Paulus.’

This signal, grotesque in the circumstances, seems more likely to have been drafted and sent by General Schmidt. The words certainly had his ring to them. Paulus, at that stage, was ill from dysentery, shaken by events and demoralized, so it is not hard to imagine him just giving a nod of approval when shown the message form. Groscurth, for example, had reported in a letter not long before: ‘Paulus is in a state of physical and moral disintegration.’

On 30 January, the anniversary itself, Goering made a broadcast from the air ministry, comparing the Sixth Army to the Spartans at Thermopylae. This speech was not well received in Stalingrad, where it was listened to on radios. The fact that it was Goering, of all people, who was delivering ‘our own funeral speech’, heaped insult upon injury. Gottfried von Bismarck described the effect as ‘macabre’. In the theatre cellars in Stalingrad, which were packed with wounded, Goering’s voice was instantly recognized. ‘Turn it up!’ somebody shouted. ‘Switch it off!’ yelled others, cursing him. The broadcast finished with Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Some officers joked bitterly that the ‘suicide of the Jews’ on the top of Masada might have been a more appropriate comparison than Thermopylae. They did not realize quite how accurate they were. Hitler was indeed counting on a mass suicide, above all of senior officers.

Hitler’s own speech was delivered by Goebbels later on that anniversary day, having been delayed by RAF bombers. It rang with bitter defiance, but the streak of self-justification was too raw to be hidden. He devoted only a single sentence to Stalingrad, the disaster which cast such a shadow over the regime’s day of celebration: ‘The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be an exhortation to everyone to do his maximum in the struggle for Germany’s freedom and our nation’s future, and in a wider sense for the preservation of the whole of Europe.’ It was the first admission that from then on the Wehrmacht would be fighting to stave off defeat.

The next day, Hitler, as if to offset any sense of disaster, created no fewer than four new field marshals, including Paulus. It was the largest group of senior promotions since the victory over France. When the signal came through announcing his promotion to General Field Marshal, Paulus guessed immediately that he had been presented with a cup of hemlock. He exclaimed to General Pfeffer at his last generals’ conference: ‘I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.’ Another general told his NKVD interrogator that Paulus had said: ‘It looks like an invitation to commit suicide, but I will not do this favour for him’. Paulus instinctively disapproved of suicide. When he heard that some of his men were choosing a ‘soldier’s suicide’ – standing on top of their trenchworks waiting to be shot down by the enemy – he gave orders to forbid the practice.

Hitler was not, of course, concerned with saving lives, he was interested only in creating potent myths. He clearly hoped that senior army officers would follow the example of Admiral Lütjens on the Bismarck, a fantasy no doubt encouraged by news of the deaths of Generals von Hartmann and Stempel.

The reduction of the southern pocket continued rapidly. By 30 January, Soviet troops had penetrated right to the very centre of the city. In the cellars where the main mass of Germans sheltered from the cold and the artillery fire, there was a mood of despair and dread anticipation. In the old NKVD headquarters, the winter sky was visible through the smashed dome. The stone floor was covered with rubble and fallen masonry, and the cage-like structure of stairs and railings was twisted. A red-cross flag outside the entrance enraged a German infantry officer, who saw it as a signal of surrender. He went down to the cellar, where the doctors continued to operate in the light of a field-hospital gas-lamp, while they waited for the Russians to arrive. Gaunt and wild-eyed, the officer threatened them with his sub-machine-gun. ‘What’s going on here? There’ll be no surrender! The war goes on!’ Many men were unbalanced by battle stress or hallucinations due to severe malnutrition. The cellars were filled with men raving in delirium. Dr Markstein, a Danziger, just shrugged. ‘This is a dressing station,’ he said. The deranged warrior did not shoot them, he disappeared ghost-like back into the gloom without another word.

When General von Seydlitz, in the same building, released his divisional commanders on 25 January to decide for themselves whether or not to surrender, Paulus relieved him of his command. He placed all of Seydlitz’s divisions under General Walter Heitz, the commander of VIII Corps. Heitz then issued an order that anyone who attempted to surrender should be fired upon. When Seydlitz and over a dozen other officers surrendered – they included Generals Pfeffer, Korfes and Sanne – bursts of machine-gun fire were aimed at them from German lines as the Russians led them away. Seydlitz claimed later that two German officers were mortally wounded as a result of Heitz’s ‘apocalyptic order’.

General Heitz, however, having given the order ‘We fight to the last bullet but one’, does not appear to have included himself and his headquarters in this rhetorical flourish. An officer under his command remarked that his staff, almost certainly with his knowledge, had already prepared white flags.

Colonel Rosenfeld, the Luftwaffe commander of 104th Flak Regiment, adopted the rhetoric expected by the regime. ‘The swastika flag flies above our heads,’ he signalled on the evening of 30 January. ‘The order of our supreme commander-in-chief will be followed to the last. Long live the Führer.’ That night Sixth Army headquarters sent a signal, warning that individual commanders were surrendering because their troops had no more ammunition, but also adopted similar flourishes to those of Rosenfeld, claiming that they were ‘listening to the national anthem for the last time with arms raised in the German salute’. Again, this sounds more like Schmidt’s style than that of Paulus. Whatever the truth, few soldiers had either the wish or the energy to share such emotions. ‘During that night of 30 January’, recorded a sergeant, ‘each man was preoccupied with his own thoughts, with gnawing uncertainty, with painful wounds and frostbite, with thoughts of home, and with our fate.’ Officers especially expected execution. Many removed their badges of rank.

In the middle of that same night, General Voronov in his izba at Don Front headquarters awoke in a panic from a restless sleep. The idea had suddenly come to him that Paulus might escape on an aircraft landing on the ice of the Volga. Stalin’s reaction to the loss of such a prize was evidently not hard to imagine. He jumped out of bed at once and telephoned to give orders for guns along the east bank at Stalingrad to be trained on the ice as a precaution.

By early next morning, 31 January 1943, Shumilov’s 64th Army had secured virtually all of the centre of Stalingrad. Ruined buildings and cellars had been cleared with grenade and flame-thrower. Red Square was subjected to an intense mortar and artillery bombardment, before Russian soldiers moved in on the Univermag department store. Roske’s remaining grenadiers above Paulus’s headquarters in the basement finally laid down their weapons. At 7.35 a.m., Captain Behr on Milch’s staff received the signal: ‘Russians at the entrance. We are preparing to surrender.’ Ten minutes later, as Senior Lieutenant Fyodor Ilchenko went down into the packed and stinking basement, came the signal: ‘We are surrendering.’ Behr then passed on the message to Manstein’s headquarters at Army Group Don. Back in Germany, the official communiqué announced: ‘In Stalingrad the situation is unchanged. The defenders’ spirit is unbroken.’

Staff officers from General Shumilov’s headquarters arrived to discuss surrender terms with General Schmidt in the basement. Paulus remained in an adjoining room, while Adam kept him informed of every step. Whether this was a ploy to allow Paulus to distance himself from the surrender, or a further example of Schmidt handling events because Paulus was in a state of virtual collapse, is not clear. Finally, two hours after Lieutenant Ilchenko’s appearance, General Laskin arrived to take Paulus’s formal surrender, before he, Schmidt and Adam, were taken to Shumilov’s headquarters by staff car, as General Roske had apparently insisted. Like their men, the three men who emerged into the sunlight had incipient beards, even if their faces were not quite as cadaverous as those of their soldiers. Colonel Adam, Vasily Grossman noted, had the flaps of his ushanka fur hat down ‘like the ears of a pedigree dog just out of the water’. Newsreel cameramen were waiting to record the event.

Those still in the cellars of the city centre waited until Red Army soldiers appeared. Waving the barrels of their sub-machine-guns, they ordered the Germans to throw their weapons in a corner and file out. The defeated made ready for captivity by wrapping the rags from torn-up uniforms round their boots. Some German soldiers called out ‘Hitler kaputt!’ as a signal of surrender. Russian soldiers might reply ‘Kameraden, Krieg kaputt! Paulus kapituliert!,’ but mostly they shouted ‘Faschist!’ or ‘Fritz! Κomm! Komm!’

When Soviet troops entered the theatre cellars, they gave the order: ‘Whoever’s capable of walking, get outside to be marched to a prison camp.’ Those who set off assumed that the wounded left behind would be looked after. They discovered only later that the Red Army operated on the principle that those prisoners who could not march were finished off where they lay.

In one or two cases, rage and despair produced an explosive mixture. In the NKVD building, every German expected to be shot in reprisal, after an officer, who had concealed his pistol, suddenly shot a Russian major at point-blank range, then turned the gun on himself. Somehow the moment of anger among the Russian troops passed, and the prisoners were spared.

The surrender at Stalingrad produced a volatility in which the fate of a German was utterly unpredictable. Soviet soldiers, whether deliberately or by accident, set fire to the improvised hospital full of wounded in the pioneer barracks by the airfield. Two Luftwaffe flak officers, who had been escorted to an upstairs room by Russian soldiers, in the belief that the red patches on their collars signified high rank, escaped by jumping out of a shattered window. They landed by the latrine, and when soldiers appeared ready to shoot them, the younger lieutenant saved both their lives by quick thinking and acute psychology. He told his companion to pull down his trousers. The Russians laughed and spared them. They could not shoot men with their trousers down.

The NKVD Special Department groups were searching for Hiwis and also for ‘fascist dogs’, by which they meant ‘SS, Gestapo, panzer troops, and Feldgendarmerie’. A number of German soldiers, wrongly identified as SS, who laughed at the suggestion, were pushed to one side and executed with sub-machine-guns. Apparently Red Army soldiers from a Siberian division turned away in disgust from the spectacle. The same account, based on the interrogation six months later of a woman Soviet intelligence officer by the Secret Field Police, records the execution of a group of twenty-three Hiwis.

The NKVD’s search for Hiwis was relentless. Any man not in full German uniform risked being shot on the spot, as one battalion commander from the 297th Infantry Division discovered. ‘Soviet soldiers suddenly stopped us, and because of my lack of uniform and cap, wanted to shoot me as a “Hiwi”. Only a doctor’s knowledge of Russian saved me.’

A considerable number of Hiwis proved loyal to the Germans right to the end. In the ruins of Stalingrad just before the surrender, some soldiers from the 305th Infantry Division were starving. The Hiwis with them disappeared, and they thought that they had seen the last of them, but the Russians returned with food for them. Where they had found it, they would not say. The loyalty of these Russians was not always reciprocated, however. Shortly before the surrender, one officer was asked by his warrant officer: ‘What shall we do with our eight Hiwis? Should I shoot them?’ The lieutenant, taken aback at such cold-bloodedness, rejected the idea. He told the Hiwis to hide or slip out as best they could. They were on their own.

The fate of the Hiwis rounded up at the end of the battle of Stalingrad is still unclear, partly because the files of the 10th NKVD Division remain firmly closed. There is no way of knowing how many had died during ten weeks of encirclement and the last three weeks of intense fighting. Some were shot on capture, a handful were used as interpreters and informers, then almost certainly killed later, but most were marched off by the NKVD. Even members of Red Army intelligence did not know what happened to them afterwards. They may well have been massacred – there were accounts later of captured Hiwis being beaten to death, rather than shot, to save ammunition – but in the early part of 1943 the Soviet regime wanted to increase its force of slave labour, especially when it was transferring Gulag prisoners to shtraf companies. A solution of working Hiwis to death certainly offered a more vicious revenge since it would have protracted their suffering. On the other hand, both Stalin and Beria were so obsessed with treason that only instant death might have satisfied them.

During the last few days of the battle, the Soviet military authorities were increasingly anxious to prevent small groups escaping their net. Three German officers in Red Army uniform, led by a lieutenant-colonel, were captured on 27 January. A Russian lieutenant from a tank regiment cornered another two officers, and was wounded when they fired at him. Of the nine or ten groups of Germans estimated to have broken out of the ring, none of them appear to have escaped, but by then Army Group Don had been forced back beyond the river Donets, over 200 miles from the Kessel. There is, however, an unconfirmed and unconvincing story of a soldier who did make it, but was killed next day when a bomb hit the field hospital in which he was being treated for exhaustion and frostbite. Others are said to have tried to escape southwards out into the steppe and seek shelter with the Kalmyks, who had been friendly, but the Kalmyks themselves, like numerous other peoples from the southern regions of the Soviet Union, soon attracted the revenge of Beria’s NKVD.

Russian soldiers from front-line units, especially Guards divisions, are said to have been more correct in their treatment of the vanquished than second-line units. But some drunken soldiers, celebrating victory, shot prisoners, despite orders to the contrary. Even members of elite formations rapidly stripped their captives of watches, rings and cameras, as well as the Wehrmacht’s highly prized mess tins in aluminium. Many of these items would then be bartered for vodka. In some cases a decent pair of jackboots would be seized off a prisoner, who would be thrown the Russian’s decrepit cast-offs in return. One doctor lost his prized copy of Faust, a small leather-bound edition printed on onion paper, which a Russian soldier wanted for rolling makhorka cigarettes. Blankets were also snatched off backs, sometimes just for the satisfaction of revenge because the Germans had taken the warm clothes of so many Russian civilians.

As the gaunt prisoners stumbled out of cellars and bunkers, their hands held high in surrender, their eyes searched for a piece of wood that could serve as a crutch. Many were suffering from such bad frostbite that they could hardly walk. Almost everyone had lost toenails, if not toes. Soviet officers observed that the Romanian soldiers were in an even worse state than the Germans. Apparently their rations had been cut off earlier in an attempt to maintain German strength.

The prisoners kept their eyes down, not daring to look at their guards or the ring of emaciated civilians who had emerged from the ruins in such astonishing numbers. All around, odd shots broke the silence of the former battlefield. Those in bunkers sounded muffled. Nobody knew whether each report signified the end of a soldier found hiding, of one who had offered resistance in some way, or of a severely wounded soldier receiving the coup de grâce.

These defeated remnants of the Sixth Army, without weapons or helmets, wearing woollen caps pulled down or even just rags wrapped round their heads against the hard frost, shivering in their inadequate greatcoats fastened with signal cable as a belt, were herded into long columns of march. A group of survivors from the 297th Infantry Division was confronted by a Russian officer, who pointed at the ruins around and yelled at them: ‘That’s how Berlin is going to look!’

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.

The northern pocket, with the remnants of six divisions under General Strecker, still held out. Strecker, with the headquarters of XI Corps in the Stalingrad tractor plant, signalled: ‘Troops are fighting without heavy weapons or supplies. Men collapsing from exhaustion. Freezing to death still holding weapons. Strecker.’ His message was robust, but conspicuously avoided Nazi clichés. Hitler, who received the signal after the meeting with Zeitzler, replied late in the afternoon: ‘I expect the north Kessel to hold out to the last.’ To emphasize the point still further, he issued a Führer directive a short time later: ‘XI Army Corps must resist to the last to tie down as much enemy strength as possible to facilitate operations on other fronts.’

The four Soviet armies had redeployed rapidly to crush the last pocket. With a concentration of 300 field guns to just over half a mile, the factory district was smashed once again. Any surviving bunkers were destroyed at point-blank range, some with field guns, some with flame-throwers, sometimes with tanks driving right up and sticking their barrel into an embrasure.

Strecker believed that, purely to help Manstein, there was a military purpose served by fighting on, but he utterly rejected any idea of self-destruction for propaganda purposes. In his mind, there was no doubt where the duties of an officer lay, as a conversation with a regimental adjutant shortly before the end showed.

‘When the time comes,’ the adjutant assured him, ‘we will commit suicide.’

‘Suicide?’ exclaimed Strecker.

‘Yes, Herr General! My colonel will also shoot himself. He believes we should not allow ourselves to be captured.’

‘Well let me tell you something. You will not shoot yourself, nor will your colonel shoot himself. You will go into captivity along with your men and will do everything you can to set a good example.’

‘You mean…’, the young officer’s eyes lit up, ‘I don’t have to shoot myself.’

Strecker spent most of the night of 1 February at the regimental headquarters of an old friend, Colonel Julius Müller. A single candle burned in one corner of the bunker as the small group present talked about the recent fighting, past friends and the imprisonment ahead. ‘No one mentions all the suffering,’ Strecker noted, ‘no one speaks bitterly.’ In the early hours of the morning, Strecker stood up. ‘Müller, I have to go,’ he said. ‘May you and your men go with God.’ Strecker was greatly taken with Thomas Carlyle’s description of God as ‘the true Field Marshal’. No doubt, his vision of heaven was a place of perfect military order.

‘We will do our duty, Herr General,’ Müller replied as the two men shook hands.

Strecker had already rejected the requests of his divisional commanders to surrender, but at four in the morning of 2 February, Generals von Lenski and Lattmann asked Strecker once more for permission. Strecker refused again. Lenski then said that one of his officers had already left to negotiate terms with the Russians. Strecker saw no point in continuing. He and Groscurth drafted their final signal. ‘XI Army Corps has with its six divisions performed its duty down to the last man in heavy fighting. Long live Germany!’ It was received by Army Group Don. Strecker asserted later that he and Groscurth had deliberately omitted any acclamation of Hitler, but the version recorded and then sent on to East Prussia ended with ‘Long live the Führer!’ Somebody must have thought it politic to make the signal more palatable at the Wolfsschanze.

When two Russian soldiers appeared looking rather hesitant at the entrance of the command bunker, Groscurth shouted at them to fetch a general. Strecker wrote afterwards that many of their own soldiers were ‘only barely alive’.

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