Hitler’s HQ Werewolf, Vinnitsa 1942

The photo on the left depicted Graf von Stauffenberg with Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim at the OKH headquarters in Vinnytsia city.

Werewolf, Vinnitsa, 18 September 1942

Late than night Major Engel was writing in his diary of the day’s events at the Führer Headquarters:

F. seems determined to get rid of Keitel [Chief of OKW] and Jodl . . . asked what successor he was thinking of. He mentioned Kesselring or Paulus . . . the chief of staff [Halder] would have to go beforehand, there was simply nothing more there. At the moment he trusted nobody among his generals, and he would promote a major to general and appoint him Chief of the General Staff if only he knew a good one . . . Basically he hates everything in field grey, irrespective of where it comes from, for today I heard again the oft-repeated expression that he longed ‘for the day when he could cast off this jacket and ride roughshod’.

Hitler had made it clear that the General Staff officers were out of touch. “‘Same old song: too old, too little experience at the front.” Chief said he had a better impression from younger General Staff officers,’ such as Major von Stauffenberg, who often made statements before Hitler that affected operational decisions.

Werewolf, Vinnitsa, 20 September 1942

Hitler had not been happy with Colonel Gehlen’s report:

I have told you, Gehlen, that the Russian is kaput, finished. And now you give me a report that says they have a million and a quarter men in reserve. What do take me for, a fool? After their losses, such a thing is impossible!

Gehlen’s Foreign Armies East had, in fact, done a superlative piece of order-of-battle analysis. If anything, they underestimated Soviet numbers.

Hitler’s reasoning was confounded by the fact that, with almost the same number of men at the front as the Germans, Stalin had been able to amass 1,242,470 men in Stavka reserve while the Germans essentially had no strategic reserve. Gehlen’s office estimated that the Soviet class of 1925 was providing Stalin with 1,400,000 more men. The German class was little more than one-third that number.9

Halder received another disquieting report that went into his next briefing for Hitler. The information was as of the 14th and rated the fighting strength of all the infantry battalions in 6th Army. Seydlitz’s LI Corps, which had been in the hardest fighting, was bleeding away. Of its 21 infantry battalions, 12 were rated as weak, 6 as average, and 3 as medium-strong. The pioneer battalions were rated average.10 Halder knew that Hitler would not want to hear this; his mind always needed to assume every division was at full strength. He then kept assigning missions that dead men could not fulfill.

Gehlen’s statistics-laden briefing which Halder supplemented with LI Corps’ waning strength had been the last straw. Hitler acted quickly to decapitate the General Staff that he so despised. He summoned Halder and told him, ‘Herr Halder, we both need a rest. Our nerves are frayed to the point that we are of no use to each other.’ Halder took the hint and resigned.

Halder went to his room to pack and pen a note to his protégé Paulus. ‘A line to tell you that today I have resigned my appointment. Let me thank you, my dear Paulus, for your loyalty and friendship and wish you further success as the leader you have proved yourself to be.’ Even before Halder’s aide could drop the note off at the OKW dispatch office, Paulus was reading the message from Werewolf giving him his old boss’s job. He was to report immediately and turn his army over to Seydlitz. He felt an immense sense of relief even though his men had just raised the swastika flag over the huge and now shattered Univermag department store in the city centre. He would no longer be responsible for bleeding 6th Army to death. Over the last six weeks, his army had suffered 7,700 dead and 31,000 wounded; fully 10 per cent of 6th Army had been lost. Every day the fighting got harder, the Russians more determined, and his losses were not replaced. He thought that now perhaps his near uncontrollable tic might go away.11

Next it was Jodl’s turn to be humbled. Hitler assembled the OKW staff to announce the immediate promotion of Major von Stauffenberg to Generalmajor (brigadier general) and his appointment as deputy chief of OKW’s Operations Staff. He came over to shake the stunned Stauffenberg’s hand. The new general noted that the Führer’s hand was trembling. Stauffenberg’s appointment was seen for what it was, a rebuke to Jodl. Hitler clearly thought he needed a minder.

Most angry was Bormann. Hitler apparently had not known that Stauffenberg was a deeply religious Catholic. It was too late to get to Hitler to warn him off. The Führer would lose too much face. What Bormann did not know was that Stauffenberg had come to find Hitler and his Nazis repugnant and had been so alarmed at the treatment of the Jews and the assault on religion that he been drawn into the anti-Hitler plot by Tresckow.

Now that he had got their attention, Hitler had one more announcement. ‘I have decided to replace Weichs as well. A man with more ruthlessness is required at this decisive stage in the struggle against Bolshevism. Manstein will now command Army Group B.’

Werewolf, Vinnitsa, 24 September 1942

Manstein had been summoned back to the Werewolf by Hitler to report on his findings at Stalingrad. Stauffenberg joined the meeting. The field marshal was shocked by Hitler’s condition. He had not seen him since their meeting in July. ‘Well, well, Manstein. What have you found out? When will the city fall now?’

‘It’s not going to fall, mein Führer.’ Hitler jerked as it struck. His face started to redden as rage rippled through his body. ‘It’s not going to fall unless we act more boldly than we have.’ He laid it on thick. ‘We are beating our heads against a stone wall at Stalingrad. The Russians just keep feeding men into the city. It’s become another Verdun.’

Hitler stood up and began to pace. He screamed, ‘I will never give up Stalingrad! Do you hear me, Manstein. Niemals! Never! It is a battle of prestige between Stalin and myself.’

‘Mein Führer, there is another way to win this battle.’ He then laid out his plan. Hitler focused intently on it. Stauffenberg made a few positive and insightful comments. As Manstein finished he said, ‘Mein Führer, I will present you Stalingrad as an early Christmas present, a very early present.’

That night Stauffenberg invited the field marshal to dine with him alone to discuss details of the plan. It became clear that he had something else to discuss.

You have seen the Führer. I tell you frankly, he cannot continue to exercise the high command in his present physical condition. He is near a complete breakdown. Herr Feldmarschall, you are the one who is predestined, through talent and rank, to take the military command.

Since that was Manstein’s goal, he could only have been flattered that the man who had been described by everyone as the most brilliant officer on the General Staff had come to the same conclusion. His brief time with Stauffenberg convinced him that the man more than lived up to his reputation; he had breathed new life into OKW and was bringing very able men with front experience onto the staff. Hitler clearly favoured him. His unheard-of promotion had surprised but not alarmed Manstein. War requires fresh, young talent.

Manstein could take a hint. ‘I will be quite willing to discuss the matter of the high command with Hitler, but let me make this clear, Stauffenberg. I will not be a party directly or indirectly to any illegal undertaking.’

Stauffenberg replied,

While the operational solution you have discussed is brilliant, and no one but you could execute it, Germany is at the end of its resources. There are no reserves on the Eastern Front. Every army group is under pressure and is becoming weaker by the day. It is not every day that we will capture an Allied convoy to live off its booty. If no one takes the initiative, everything will continue on like before, which signifies that we will eventually slide into a major catastrophe.

‘You could not be more mistaken,’ Manstein replied with some heat. ‘It is the course that you suggest that will lead to the collapse of the fronts and even civil war. A war is not truly lost as long as it is not considered as being lost; he stated firmly. ’The Reich has not yet met that crisis you speak of, but if and when it comes I am positive the Führer will recognize it and turn over the high command to someone qualified.’

You clearly have not been around him these last months, Herr Feldmarschall. I do not think he is capable of such a decision because it would be a repudiation of his leadership. Consider what title we call him by? The Leader! Leadership is the essence of his power. To turn over the high command to someone else would be like committing suicide.

‘Stauffenberg, you will not discuss this matter with me again.’

The younger man said only one word. ‘Tauroggen.’

Manstein reddened in the face and struck the table with his fist. ‘Tauroggen has nothing to do with it.’ Tauroggen was where the Prussian General Yorck von Wartenburg had defied the orders of his king and taken his army over to the Russian emperor in the struggle against Napoleon. His was an honoured place in German military history where his disobedience was the supreme act of patriotism for he had disobeyed his king to serve the higher needs of the nation.

Stauffenberg would not give up. ‘Tauroggen also entails an extreme loyalty.’

The field marshal drank it in and suddenly became affable. ‘What good would a staff be if the staff officers could no longer speak with complete freedom?’ He then recited a famous quotation. ‘Criticism is the salt of obedience.’ They finished their meal in near silence.

Werewolf, Vinnitsa, 4 October 1942

Stauffenberg took his visitor for an after-dinner stroll through the towering pinewoods outside the Führer Headquarters. Their aides followed respectfully out of earshot:

I tell you, Tresckow, I am in the very good graces of the GroFaZ [Grosster Feldheer aller Zeit– the greatest warlord of all time]. I have replaced a number of our more stodgy staff with ‘young fire eaters from the front’, as he calls them. ‘Just what I wanted! Front Soldaten [front soldiers].’ You can’t swing a cat without hitting a Knight’s Cross, a German Cross in Gold, and a wounds badge. And they have breathed a new energy and inventive positive attitude. He has come out of his seclusion to dine with the new crew. Your recommendations have been very helpful in my selection of new men.

Standing there in the moonlight, his handsome features were eerily silhouetted – clean, honest, and determined. Tresckow commented, ‘Every one of them vetted on his honour to end this regime.’

Stauffenberg said, ‘Kluge is with us. But Manstein continues to deflect my appeals.’

Tresckow kicked some of the old pine needles aside with his boot. Their breath was already frosting in the air. You could feel the autumn coming and the Russian winter behind it, a thought that made every veteran of the war on the Ostfront shudder. ‘You know, Stauffenberg, there is an old saying that if you strike at a king, you must kill him. We cannot risk merely arresting Hitler as some of our more foolish generals and those civilians in Berlin advise. They want to put him on trial.’

‘No!’ hissed Stauffenberg. ‘One does not put the Devil through the criminal justice system. Then we would have civil war as the Nazis and the SS rallied to free him.’

‘What then of Goring and Himmler? Both of them are salivating to be his successor.’

The other man said, ‘We must decapitate the entire hydra or set them upon each other. It is the Army that must come out of this as the saviour of Germany.’

Tresckow took him by the hand, gripped it hard as he looked him full in the face. ‘Then we must be sure to place our trust in the true Saviour.’

Werewolf, Vinnitsa, 26 October 1942

Hitler had been beside himself with self-righteous delight at the fall of the Caucasus – a victory that his generals had done their best to persuade him not to attempt. Once again, he told the OKW staff, it was his understanding of the economic aspects of war that had guided the road to this splendid victory. Once again, his intuition and will had trumped all the arid professionalism of his generals. Now that Astrakhan was on the point of falling, he began to count all the economic resources and military booty.

Manstein encouraged him in this distraction because it gave him the cover to concentrate German theatre resources in the decisive battle. He shook his head when he thought how lucky Army Group A had been to subdue the Caucasus and Transcaucasus. He had certainly thought it would be a mountain pass too far. By all the rules of war, the campaign should have bogged down and thus dissipated German forces too much to concentrate decisively anywhere. The field marshal had to conclude that it was only some sort of miracle of the sort the devil seemed to favour Hitler with that had brought such a victory. But just when he had thought that he could count on Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army in the final showdown on the Volga, Hitler had insisted that it seize Astrakhan instead.

He would throw a sop to the Führer but still concentrate most of 1st Panzer Army for the counterstroke to the Soviet offensive he knew was coming. Gehlen kept insisting that the heavier blow was aimed at Army Group Centre. Be that as it may, Manstein was certain that Kluge was not nearly in so dangerous a situation as Army Group B.

He had sent a staff officer by aircraft with his oral order to Kleist to leave the Turkish corps of former Soviet POWs to invest Astrakhan. It was an act of supreme ruthlessness. He knew they stood little chance against the Soviet 28th Army, but all he needed them to do was divert the enemy and buy him time. The remaining panzer, infantry and Gebirgsjäger corps were to cross the Volga north of Astrakhan and strike northwest parallel to the river in the direction of Stalingrad.

Manstein knew that his callous treatment of the former Soviet POWs fighting for the Germans would appeal to Hitler and smooth the way for what he wanted to do in any case. He might not have been as forthcoming had he not needed Hitler’s approval of supporting 1st Panzer Army by air in its long dash from Astrakhan to Stalingrad. He needed Goring’s Ju 52 transports. To his relief, Hitler jumped at the idea of taking Stalingrad from the rear, and to his surprise Goring was eager to throw the resources of the Luftwaffe into the effort. He realized this was the opportunity for him to make a decisive contribution to the victory.

Sovietski, 3 November 1942

General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach HQ

Seydlitz felt as if a primeval force was blasting out of the radio at him. Hitler was in a rage, that state that had overawed and terrified countless men. He could picture Hitler frothing at the mouth that his orders had not been obeyed to the letter. ‘What is going on? How dare you not obey your orders?’ the voice demanded. He then looked at the radio operator, drew his finger across his throat. The sergeant’s eyes dilated to saucer size as he realized the general had ordered him to cut off the Führer. The general just winked at the sergeant. ‘Damned ionosphere.’

The ionosphere was acting up all over the place from the perspective of OKW. It was amazing how a conspiracy could affect the weather so conveniently. The patient efforts of Stauffenberg and Tresckow to place reliable men in critical positions were paying off. However, the need to win the battle had subsumed but not replaced the plot against Hitler. The plotters were patriots who did not see a catastrophic German defeat on the edge of Asia to be a necessary precursor to removing Hitler. The hecatomb of disaster was a price they were not willing to pay. They would win the battle and get rid of Hitler, but winning the battle required disregarding the Führer orders.

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