Arnhem: The Battle at the Bridge

All this time John Frost’s men had been defending their positions at the Arnhem road bridge, waiting in vain for relief, either from their own division or from ground forces coming up from the south.

The composition of the force at the bridge did not change at all after most of the 2nd Battalion’s B Company and the other men who had been trying to make a crossing at the pontoon area came into the bridge perimeter, so the men who found themselves there on that Monday afternoon would be the ones who fought that gallant action which has passed so powerfully into airborne history. The exact number of men who formed the bridge garrison will never be known; what follows is the best available estimate:1

2nd Parachute Battalion: Battalion HQj HQ, Support and A Companies; B Company (less most of No. 4 Platoon) – 340 men.

1st Parachute Brigade HQ including Defence Platoon and Signals Section – 110 men.

1st Parachute Squadron, RE: HQ; A Troop; most of B Troop – 75 men.

3rd Parachute Battalion: C Company HQ; most of No. 9 Platoon; part of No. 8 Platoon – 45 men.

1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, RA: HQ; B Troop; one gun team of C Troop – 40 men.

250 Light Composite Company, RASC: No. 3 Platoon – 40 men, plus Major David Clark from Divisional HQ, RASC.

9th Field Company, RE* part of No. 2 Platoon – 30 men.

In addition there were an estimated 59 men from various units: 17 glider pilots, all or nearly all from B Squadron arriving with antitank guns; 8 men of the Reconnaissance Squadron under Major Gough; 12 men from Royal Artillery forward observation officer parties; 6 men of the RAOC; 5 men each from the REME and Intelligence Corps; 2 or 3 Military Police; 2 men from the ‘Jedburgh’ team; and one war correspondent.

The total force at the bridge thus numbered an estimated 740 men, equivalent to less than one and a half parachute battalions. Although many of those men were not trained to the standards of a parachute battalion, nearly all had valuable combat potential. Less than half of the force was from the 2nd Battalion. There was only one lieutenant-colonel – John Frost – but there were no less than thirteen majors among the sixty or so officers present. There was a good cross-section of units available, but one element not present would be sadly missed: there was no part of 16 Parachute Field Ambulance there. It had been anticipated that there would be easy evacuation of seriously wounded cases to that unit’s location at St Elizabeth Hospital, but that did not happen. Captains J. W. Logan and D. Wright, the medical officers of the 2nd Battalion and Brigade HQ, and their orderlies would have to treat all the wounded without any assistance from surgical teams.

Monday

Only one corner of the perimeter had been attacked during the night. This was a library or small school on the eastern side of the lower ramp held by Captain Eric Mackay and some men of A Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron. There were several covered approaches to what was really an exposed outpost, and the Royal Engineers found it difficult to hold. Sapper George Needham says:

We had started to prepare it for defence – smashing the windows and pulling down the curtains – but we had only been there about ten minutes when the Germans attacked, throwing grenades into the rooms. The building was too vulnerable, so Captain Mackay ordered us out, into the larger school building next door, where we joined B Troop. They objected and said, ‘Bugger off; go find your own place’, but Captain Mackay, being the man he was, persuaded them in no uncertain terms to let us in, and we started fortifying some of the empty rooms.

(The Royal Engineers were later joined in the school by Major ‘Pongo’ Lewis, the 3rd Battalion’s company commander, and twelve of his men. There was some argument after the war between the sappers and the infantry over who was in command in this building, the Van Limburg Stirum School, during the subsequent three days of its defence. Captain Mackay, in an article in Blackwood’s Magazine, claimed to have been in command and never mentioned the presence of the 3rd Battalion men. Major Lewis, in his short official report, did not mention the larger RE party. Both officers had been allocated this position separately, in the dark of that first night, and Major Lewis, though clearly the senior officer, probably did not interfere with Captain Mackay’s handling of the larger sapper party.)

Dawn found the airborne men prepared for a day that would be full of incident. They had completed the preparations for the defence of the buildings they had occupied by breaking all the windows to avoid injury from flying glass, moving furniture to make barricades at the windows, filling baths and other receptacles with water for as long as the supply remained functioning; these were all basic lessons learned in their house-fighting training. As soon as it started to get light, Major Munford wanted to begin registering the guns of No. 3 Battery of the Light Regiment on to likely targets:

There was some reluctance to allow me to do this. Some people were still harking back to the time the paras had suffered from the results of ‘drop-shorts’ in North Africa – not by the Light Regiment. But I persisted and was allowed to register on the approach road at the south end of the bridge – only about six rounds – but we got both troops ranged on to it and recorded it. ‘Sheriff’ Thompson, back at Oosterbeek, said it should be recorded as ‘Mike One’; ‘Mike’ was ‘M’ for Munford. Our signals back to the battery were working well.

The first intruder into the area was a lorry ‘full of dustbins clattering in the back’ which drove in between the buildings overlooking the ramp and the offices which Brigade HQ was occupying. Trigger-happy airborne men shot it up from both sides; the driver, presumably a Dutchman on a routine refuse-collection round, was probably killed. A similar fate befell three German lorries which appeared, probably also on a routine errand and not knowing of the British presence.

But attacks soon started, mainly from the east. The Germans did not know the precise strength or location of the British force, and the first attacks were only tentative probes by some old Mark III and IV tanks supported by infantry which were easily beaten off. One tank reached the road under the bridge ramp and was fired upon by an anti-tank gun. Lieutenant Arvian Llewellyn-Jones, watching from a nearby building, describes how an early lesson about the recoil of a gun in a street was learned:

The gun spades were not into the pavement edge, nor firm against any strong barrier. The gun was laid, the order to fire given, and when fired ran back about fifty yards, injuring two of the crew. There was no visible damage to the tank. It remained hidden in part of the gloom of the underpass of the bridge. The gun was recovered with some difficulty. This time it was firmly wedged. The Battery Office clerk, who had never fired a gun in his life, was sent out to help man the gun. This time the tank under the bridge advanced into full view and looked to be deploying its gun straight at the 6-pounder. We fired first. The aim was true; the tank was hit and it slewed and blocked the road.

These early actions were followed by a period of relative calm, described by John Frost as ‘a time when I felt everything was going according to plan, with no serious opposition yet and everything under control’.

Hauptsturmfiihrer Viktor Graebner was the commander of the 9th SS Panzer Division’s Reconnaissance Battalion, a unit of first-class troops well equipped with twenty-two armoured cars and halftracked armoured personnel carriers. Only the previous day his divisional commander had presented him with the ribbon and emblem of the Knight’s Cross, awarded to him for bravery in Normandy. He had then led his unit over the bridge, before the British arrived there, on a sweep down the main road to Nijmegen. Finding that area all clear, he turned back and was now preparing to return over the bridge to reach his divisional command post in Arnhem. He knew the British were at the north end of the bridge now; whether he actually intended to mount an attack or just dash through the British positions is not known.

Look-outs in the top rooms of the houses occupied by the airborne men drew to the attention of their officers the column of vehicles assembling on the bridge approach. The identification of the vehicles as German swiftly put paid to the initial hope that this might be the head of the ground-force column making excellent time and arriving to relieve the airborne force. Major Munford saw that the German vehicles would have to pass through the area he had registered as a target, and his signaller immediately made contact with the battery at Oosterbeek. Dennis Munford says:

I received permission to open fire and, when the German column moved off, all I had to do was call, ‘Target – Mike One’, and the boys at the battery did the rest. There was no need for further correction. The Germans had to drive through it. I ordered a cease-fire when they left the Mike One area and came on to the bridge; I didn’t want to damage the bridge.

The artillery fire was accurate. Some German motorcyclists were seen to be hit, but the shells were too light to inflict much damage on the armoured vehicles.

The first part of Graebner’s force set off over the bridge at top speed. These leading vehicles were armoured cars which threaded their way round the still burning lorries from the previous night’s action and over the string of mines laid on the roadway during the night, but these failed to stop the vehicles. The airborne men held their fire until the last moment, and some of those first armoured cars drove straight on through to the town without being stopped, but then the order to open fire was given and none of the other armoured cars survived the resulting hail of fire. More and more of the German unit were committed to reinforce the attack, including half-tracks packed with soldiers, some protected by armoured coverings but others with open tops. Nearly all the German vehicles were hit and stopped in a great tangle on the ramp between the houses on both sides occupied by the 2nd Battalion’s A Company and also overlooked by the Brigade HQ and other buildings. Piats accounted for some of these vehicles, but much of the damage was caused by two anti-tank guns. One of these, Sergeant O’Neill’s gun of B Troop, was at a corner of the Brigade HQbuilding. The other 6-pounder was that of Sergeant Cyril Robson of C Troop, which was in a street closer to the river on the west side of the bridge and considerably below the level of the ramp. Directed by Lieutenant Tony Cox in the window of the house above him, Robson fired solid-shot shells at the parapet at the side of the bridge until he cut a V-shaped section away and was then able to fire into the sides of the German vehicles passing the gap. It is believed that Robson’s gun destroyed more of the attacking vehicles than any other weapon. The Germans in the half-track personnel carriers which were hit or found their way blocked were exposed to a hail of small-arms fire, trapped in their vehicles or spilling out on to the open stretch of the ramp, unable to deploy into shelter. They were slaughtered. One of the early victims was seen to be flung out on to the roadway and literally cut to pieces by a hail of fire. Some of the vehicles toppled over or slewed off the embankment of the lower ramp, allowing the airborne men in the buildings there to join in the execution.

Nearly everyone in the British garrison joined in the firing. Major Freddie Gough was seen enthusiastically firing one of the machine-guns on his Reconnaissance Squadron jeep. It would be ironic if it was one of his shots that killed his opposite number, because Hauptsturmfuhrer Graebner was among the German dead. Lieutenant-Colonel Frost was not firing: ‘I was watching other people and picking up information. A commander ought not to be firing a weapon in the middle of an action. His best weapon is a pair of binoculars.’

Here are two typical descriptions of the action. Corporal Geoff Cockayne was in the Brigade HQ building:

I had a German Schmeisser and had a lot of fun with that. I shot at any Gerry that moved. Several of their vehicles – six or seven – started burning. We didn’t stay in the room we were in but came out to fire, keeping moving, taking cover and firing from different positions. The Germans had got out of their troop carriers – what was left of them – and it became a proper infantry action. I shot off nearly all my ammunition. To start with, I had been letting rip, but then I became more careful; I knew there would be no more. I wasn’t firing at any German in particular, just firing at where I knew they were.

Signalman Bill Jukes was in the 2nd Battalion HQ building:

The first vehicle which drew level with the house was hit, and the second rammed into it, blocking the roadway. The rest didn’t stand a chance. The crews and passengers, those still able to, began to pile out, and those of us armed with Stens joined in the general fusillade. One of the radio operators grabbed my Sten gun, which was leaning against the wall, but I snatched it away from him, telling him to go and get his own. I hadn’t waited five years to get a shot at the enemy like this only to be denied by some Johnny-come-lately to the section. It was impossible to say what effect my shooting had. There was such a volley coming from the windows along the street that nobody could have said who shot who. At least one German lived a charmed life that day. He slipped out of one of the half- tracks on the far side from us and ran for dear life between the houses on the other side of the ramp and disappeared from view. Anybody with that kind of luck should live for ever.

This action lasted for about two hours. Various reports put the numbers of vehicles hit and stopped, or jammed in the wreckage of other vehicles, at ten, eleven or twelve, mostly half-tracks. The number of Germans killed is estimated at seventy. The electrical system of one of the knocked-out vehicles on the ramp short-circuited, and the horn of the vehicle emitted ‘a banshee wailing’ after the battle from among the shattered and burning vehicles and the sprawled dead of the attack. The morale of the airborne men was sky high; their own casualties had been light.

That attack by the Germans over the bridge proved to be the high point of that first full day. After the attack was over, John Frost reviewed the situation of his force. He had left B Company at the pontoon area, 1,100 yards away, in the hope that it might assist the remainder of the brigade into the bridge area. His last wireless contact with the other battalions showed that the 1st Battalion was still at least two miles away on the outskirts of Arnhem and making only slow progress; there was no contact with the 3rd Battalion and no sign that it was any closer. Frost had earlier decided that B Company was in danger of being surrounded at the pontoon while performing no useful function there and had ordered it to come in. It has already been told how Major Crawley extricated most of his company but lost one platoon cut off. Frost met Crawley and directed him to occupy some of the houses in a triangular block of buildings on the western part of the perimeter to provide an outer defence there. After B Company’s casualties the previous day and the loss of No. 4 Platoon, there were only about seventy men in the company. Captain Francis Hoyer-Millar describes how Company HQ was greeted when it occupied its house:

The lady – elderly, but not old – didn’t seem to mind us fighting from her house, smashing windows and moving the furniture about, but she took me into one room and said, ‘Please don’t fire from here; it’s my husband’s favourite room’; he was away somewhere. We couldn’t agree with her of course, and anyway, the house burned down in the end.

Later in the day Sergeant-Major Scott came in and reported that our last platoon commander had been killed – ‘Mr Stanford’s had his chips.’ Doug Crawley and I were both distressed, not at the seeming callous manner of the report, but that we had no more platoon commanders.

Lieutenant Colin Stanford was not dead. He had been shot in the head while standing on the top of his platoon building studying the surroundings through binoculars, but he survived.

The next serious event was a sharp German attack from the streets on the eastern side of the perimeter against the houses defended by Lieutenant Pat Barnett’s Brigade HQ Defence Platoon and various other troops. Preceded by an artillery and mortar bombardment, two tanks led infantry under the bridge ramp and into the British positions. In a fierce action, the two tanks were claimed as knocked out and the infantry driven back. One tank at least was destroyed by Sergeant Robson’s anti-tank gun and possibly one by a Piat. The 75-millimetre battery back at Oosterbeek was also brought into this action, its fire being directed on this occasion by Captain Henry Buchanan of the Forward Observation Unit, a good example of the way this unit’s officers operated with battalions as extra observation officers for the Light Regiment until the guns of the ground forces came into range, but Buchanan would be killed on the following day.

The remainder of the day saw further minor attacks. One of the buildings on the eastern side of the perimeter held by part of No. 8 Platoon, 3rd Battalion, was overrun, and another, held by part of the Brigade HQ Defence Platoon, had to be abandoned, but no further ground was given. There then commenced a general shelling and mortar fire which would harass the British force throughout the remaining days of the bridge action. Both sides were settling down to a long siege. The day had been a most successful one for the airborne men. Their positions were almost intact, and every attack had been beaten off with heavy loss of German life. Up to three tanks and a host of other armoured vehicles had been destroyed. British casualties had not been heavy. The best estimate is that only ten men had been killed and approximately thirty wounded before nightfall from all of the British units present. But the force was clearly isolated, unlikely to be reinforced in the near future and likely to be the subject of increased German pressure; the Germans badly needed the bridge to pass reinforcements down to the battle now raging in the Nijmegen area. These reinforcements were being laboriously ferried across the Rhine further upstream at present. Another danger was a looming shortage of ammunition; profligate quantities had been expended during the day, and the last issue from the supply brought in by the RASC would be made that night.

A change in the command structure took place that evening. All through the day, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost had been directing the actions only of the 2nd Battalion. Major Hibbert had been running Brigade HQ and the other units, carrying out as far as possible the plan brought from England and hoping that Brigadier Lathbury would soon arrive. But Hibbert now heard, from a wireless link with the 1st Battalion, that Lathbury was missing and he formally asked Lieutenant-Colonel Frost to take over the running of the entire force at the bridge. So John Frost moved over to the Brigade HQ building, leaving his second in command, Major David Wallis, in charge of the 2nd Battalion. At 6.30 p.m. Frost heard from the 1st Battalion that it was stuck near St Elizabeth Hospital and that the 3rd Battalion was nearby. Frost, acting now as brigade commander, ordered both battalions to form a ‘flying column’ of at least company strength to reach the bridge before midnight. But neither battalion had the strength or the means for such an operation, and this was the last attempt John Frost would make to exercise command over the other units of the brigade.

This may be a suitable place to mention Dutch dismay at the failure to use local means of communication and to utilize more fully the services of the Dutch Resistance. All through the day just passed, parts of the local telephone service had been functioning normally, but because of official British fear of German penetration of the Resistance, units had been ordered not to use the telephone. Another Dutch complaint is over the failure to trust more local men as guides; this would have been of particular help to the battalions trying to get through to the bridge. Albert Deuss, one of the local Resistance survivors, says:

If they had trusted us, we could have brought them through houses and got them through to the bridge, but they did not trust us and preferred to fight through the tanks. We knew our own town and where our friends were and all the short cuts. We even had a special password from ‘Frank’, our contact in Rotterdam, and we expected the British to know all about it – but they did not.

The only Dutch officer at the bridge, Captain Jacobus Groenewoud, had been using local telephones, but only to contact the loyal names on his ‘Jedburgh’ list to ascertain where the known German sympathizers in Arnhem were.

The airborne men prepared to face their first full night at the bridge. The houses on the western side of the perimeter had hardly been attacked, so part of B Company was redeployed to the eastern sector. A house near the bridge was deliberately set on fire to illuminate the bridge area, and B Company was ordered to send out a standing patrol to make sure no Germans came across the bridge during the night and also to protect a party of Royal Engineers which was sent to examine the underside of the bridge to ensure that the Germans could not demolish it. Captain Francis Hoyer-Millar was in command of the B Company patrol:

I was told to take twelve men out. We went past the wrecked vehicles on the ramp and on to the bridge itself. It was a large expanse of open area, quite dark. I didn’t know what was over the top of the slope so I threw a grenade. We were surprised when five Germans emerged with their hands up; three of them were wounded. I don’t know how long they had been hiding there, almost inside our perimeter.

I put half of my men on either side of the road. We had no trouble from the Germans but we were annoyingly fired on by a Bren from the houses held by our men. I yelled, ‘Stop firing that bloody Bren gun. It’s only me.’ It was one of those silly things one says on the spur of the moment. John Frost got to hear about it and he always teased me about it afterwards.

It was soon after dark that John Frost lost his long-standing friend and second in command, Major David Wallis, who only that afternoon had been made acting commander of the 2nd Battalion. Major Wallis was making his rounds in the darkness and came to the house defended by A Company HQ and some sappers of the 9th Field Company. As he was leaving the rear of the house there was a burst of fire from a Bren gun, and Major Wallis was hit in the chest and died at once. The shots were fired by one of the Royal Engineers. A brother officer of Major Wallis says that he was known to ‘have a habit of speaking rather quietly and indistinctly, and his answer to the sentry’s challenge may not have carried or not have been understood’. A comrade of the unfortunate sentry says: ‘It was at a time when the next shape in a doorway could be the enemy, such was the proximity of the fighting; response time was very short, and a German grenade had a short fuse.’ The death of this officer resulted in another command change. John Frost appointed Major Tatham-Warter to command the 2nd Battalion; this was over the head of the more senior Major Crawley. Frost was ‘aware of a slight resentment, but Tatham-Warter was well in touch with the battalion positions and I chose him’.

Soon after 3.0 a.m. (on Tuesday) there was a one-sided action at the school building jointly manned by sappers of the 1st Parachute Squadron and 3rd Battalion men. A German force which had probably misidentified the building in the darkness assembled alongside it, standing and talking unconcernedly, directly under the windows manned by the airborne men on the second and third floors. Typical of the disputed history of that building’s defence, Captain Mackay says that he organized what happened next while Lieutenant Len Wright of the 3rd Battalion claims that Major Lewis did so. This is Len Wright’s description of events:

We all stood by with grenades – we had plenty of those – and with all our weapons. Then Major Lewis shouted, ‘Fire!’, and the men in all the rooms facing that side threw grenades and opened fire down on the Germans. My clearest memory was of ‘Pongo’ Lewis running from one room to another, dropping grenades and saying to me that he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much since the last time he’d gone hunting. It lasted about a quarter of an hour. There was nothing the Germans could do except die or disappear. When it got light there were a lot of bodies down there – eighteen or twenty or perhaps more. Some were still moving; one was severely wounded, a bad stomach wound with his guts visible, probably by a grenade. Some of our men tried to get him in, showing a Red Cross symbol, but they were shot at and came back in, without being hit but unable to help the German.

The defenders suffered no casualties.

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Final Assault on the Reichstag

A total of 89 heavy artillery guns and Katyusha rocket launchers were trained on the Reichstag for a thunderous barrage before the infantry stormed it, turning the structure into a ruin.

When the Reichstag was finally taken on 30 April 1945, Soviet soldiers swarmed through its elegant hallways to scrawl graffiti recording their presence, and their feelings about the Germans.

By the evening of the 28th April 1945, Marshal Zhukov’s lead forces were preparing the final assault on the Reichstag. Chuikov’s Eighth Guards advanced from the south, Berzarin’s Fifth Shock Army with 11th Tank Corps from the east, and Kuznetsov’s Third Shock Army the unit designated to make the actual seizure – from the north-west. The spearhead unit from Third Shock was General S. N. Perevertkin’s 79th Rifle Corps. They had two major obstacles to overcome before they reached the Reichstag building. First, the Moltke Bridge would have to be seized and a crossing of the Spree forced. To this task was assigned 171st Rifle Division. Then, after the corner building on the opposite Kronprinzenufer had been cleared, the 171st would have to join the 150th Division in neutralising the huge complex of the Ministry of the Interior – ‘Himmler’s House’ – which was expected to mount a terrific resistance. Late on the 28th, the Germans attempted to blow the Moltke Bridge, but the explosion left the centre section hanging precariously in place. The Soviet soldiers tried to force a crossing but were driven back by murderous fire from German pillboxes. Shortly after midnight, however, two Soviet battalions succeeded in blasting their way through the barricades and across the bridge, where they proceeded to clear the surrounding buildings to allow a crossing in force.

At 0700 hours the next morning, Soviet artillery began a 10-minute pounding of ‘Himmler’s House’. Mortars were also hauled up to the second floor of a next-door building and fired point-blank through the windows. The infantry began the assault, but it was another five hours before they managed to storm into the complex’s central courtyard. The fighting was intense and vicious. Close-range combat was pushed from room to room and up and down the stairways. Finally, at 0430 hours on 30 April, the Ministry of the Interior building was secured, and the Red Army troops began taking up their positions for the storming of the Reichstag.

While this battle raged, just a few hundred yards away, the last Fuhrer-conference was getting underway in the bunker. General Weidling reported on the situation, sparing nothing in his description of the city’s, and the Third Reich’s, plight. There was virtually no ammunition left, all of the dumps being now located in Soviet-occupied sectors of the city; there were few tanks available and no means for repairing those damaged; there were almost no Panzerfausts left; there would be no airdrops; an appalling number of the ‘troops’ left defending the city were red-eyed youngsters in ill-fitting Volkssturm uniforms, or feeble and frightened older men or those who had been earlier deemed unfit for military service. It was inevitable, Weidling told Hitler, that the fighting in Berlin would end soon, probably within a day, with a Soviet victory. Those present reported later that Hitler gave no reaction, appearing resigned to his fate and the fate he had inflicted on the country. Still, when Weidling requested permission for small groups to attempt break-outs, Hitler categorically refused. Instead he glared dully at the situation maps, on which the locations of the various units had been determined by listening in to enemy radio broadcasts. Finally, around 0100 hours, Keitel reported to the Fuhrer that Wenck was pinned down, unable to come to the Chancellery’s aid, and that the Ninth was completely bottled up outside the city. It was over. Hitler made his decision to kill himself within the next few hours.

Around noon on the 30th, the regiments of the l50th and l7lst Rifle Divisions were in their start positions for the attack on the Reichstag. In a solemn though brief ceremony, several specially prepared Red Victory Banners were distributed to the units of Third Shock Army which, it was thought, stood the best chance of being the first to hoist it over the Reichstag. In l50th Division, one banner was presented to 756th Rifle Regiment’s. First Battalion, commanded by Captain Neustroyev; another went to Captain Davydov’s First Battalion of the 674th Regiment; a third to the 380th’s First Battalion, led by Senior Lieutenant Samsonov. Banners were also given to two special assault squads from 79th Rifle Corps, both of them manned by elite volunteer Communist Party and Komsomol (Young Communist League) members.

At 1300 hours, a thundering barrage from 152mm and 203mm howitzers, tank guns, SPGs, and Katyusha rocket launchers – in all, 89 guns – was loosed against the Reichstag. A number of infantrymen joined in with captured Panzerfausts. Smoke and debris almost completely obscured the bright, sunny day. Captain Neustroyev’s battalion was the first to move. Crouching next to the captain, Sergeant Ishchanov requested and was granted permission to be the first to break into the building with his section. Slipping out of a window on the first floor of the Interior Ministry building, Ishchanov’s men began crawling across the open, broken ground towards the Reichstag, and rapidly secured entrances at several doorways and holes in the outer wall. Captain Neustroyev took the rest of the forward company, with their Red Banner, and raced across the space, bounding up the central staircase and through the doors and breaches in the wall. The company cleared the first floor easily, but quickly discovered that the massive building’s upper floors and extensive underground labyrinth were occupied by a substantial garrison of German soldiers. One floor at a time, they began attempting to reduce the German force. The task uppermost in everyone’s mind was to make their way to the top and raise the banner; the soldiers who succeeded in this symbolic act, it had been promised, would be made Heroes of the Soviet Union. Fighting their way up the staircase to the second floor with grenades, Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya managed to hang their battalion’s banner from a second-floor window, but their efforts to take the third floor were repeatedly thrown back. It was 1425 hours.

Immediately after the beginning of the attack on the Reichstag, German tanks counter-attacked against the Soviet troops dug in around the Interior Ministry building. The 380th Regiment, which had been attempting to storm the north-western side of the Reichstag, came under withering fire and was forced to back off and call for help from an anti-tank battalion. Meanwhile, on the second floor, Captain Neustroyev radioed a request for a combat group to support his men and ordered them to clean out the German machine-guns still on the second floor. Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya were entrusted with the banner once again, and the battalion readied for the battle to take the third floor.

Towards 1800 hours, another strong assault was launched up into the third floor of the Reichstag. This time the Red Army infantrymen succeeded in blasting their way through the German machine-gun positions. Three hundred Soviet soldiers now occupied the German parliament building but a much larger number of heavily armed German soldiers remained in the basement levels. However, the Soviets enjoyed the better position and after a number of tense hours, in the early morning hours of 1 May – the Soviet workers’ holiday, and the target date for their conquest of Berlin – they finally cleared the remaining Germans from the building. Even before all German opposition had been wiped out, at 2250 hours, two Red Army infantrymen climbed out onto the Reichstag’s decimated roof and hoisted the Red Victory Banner. Berlin was under the control of the armies of the Soviet Union.

Prokhorovka Melee I

Soviet and German deployments near Prokhorovka on the eve of the engagement of 12 July. The blue dashed line shows the frontline positions of the divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps in the evening of 11 July, and the red dashed line shows the position of Soviet forces directly opposing the II SS-Panzer Corps. The black dashed line shows the railway running from Prokhorovka southwest through the Psel corridor (the strip of land between the Psel River and a tributary of the Northern Donets River).

Observing the artillery’s work from his observation post, the army commander, Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov, could easily envision the conditions in the corps. A professional tanker with great combat experience, he understood better than anyone else the situation of the corps and brigade commanders in the situation that was taking shape. They were forced, as they say, to attack from scratch against an adversary that was plainly strong, judging from the course of combat operations over the preceding days.

Even Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov himself was not in an enviable position. He had no possibility (because of terrain conditions) to employ the full potential of his combat equipment. He had been deprived of a reserve (Trufanov’s detachment), a unit of the first echelon, and half the second echelon (two mechanized brigades of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and one tank brigade of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps). He had also not received the necessary support from the front’s artillery and aviation (having at his disposal only one howitzer regiment). In spite of all this, the commander was supposed to strike the strongest formation of the Fourth Panzer Army (which was fully-prepared to receive the attack), split it, and drive 30 kilometers deep into enemyheld territory. All this, while periodically repelling attacks from his own air force (about this, a little later).

A significant number of problems arose within the corps themselves. For example, the 29th Tank Corps commander Major General I. F. Kirichenko was not a novice in military affairs; as a brigade commander he had taken part in the fighting for Moscow, demonstrating not only personal courage, but also professionalism in a difficult situation. However, Kirichenko had never commanded such a major formation as a corps before, and the battle at Prokhorovka would be his first in his role as corps commander. In addition, the headquarters of the 29th Tank Corps had just been organized. While the staff had passed through an intensive four-month training course, the main test of the quality of combat training remained genuine battle itself. It is precisely combat that developed the professionalism of commanders and staff, initiated and honed the work routines in headquarters, and forged the ability to work together smoothly in the midst of battle.

The 18th Tank Corps had been added to the 5th Guards Tank Army just before the march to Prokhorovka. P. A. Rotmistrov had been previously acquainted with the 18th Tank Corps commander, General B. S. Bakharov, but this would be the first time they would be working together in a combat situation. The army commander had been dissatisfied with how Boris Sergeevich Bakharov had handled the corps march from Ostrogozhsk. His formation had lost a lot of vehicles en route; the corps commander and headquarters staff had plainly underestimated the difficulty of the assignment. Although by the morning of 12 July the brigades’ repair teams and crews had managed to restore most of the disabled vehicles to good working order and the corps was fully combat ready, Rotmistrov decided to send his chief of staff Major General V. N. Baskakov to the 18th Tank Corps, in order to assess the corps commander, to prevent mistakes on his part in the extremely complex situation, and to assist him in coordinating the work of his staff with the army units.

Tank combat is characterized by its highly dynamic nature and by sharp changes in the situation. Therefore, strict control over the tank formations, stable and efficient communications with the brigades, and the rapid processing of orders and instructions are extremely important. However, there were no conditions for fulfilling these demands, and problems arose in securing communications between the corps and the brigades, and especially between the brigades and their subordinate battalions. Furthermore, the command and control in several of the brigades were as yet untested by combat.

In short, the 5th Guards Tank Army was entering its first battle. Therefore, the army commander and the subordinate commanders at all levels strove to spend time in the forward units before the start of the battle. On the evening of 11 July General I. F. Kirichenko, leaving behind his chief of staff Colonel E. I. Fominykh at the command post, journeyed to Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade; his deputy Colonel A. V. Egorov went to A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade.

At 0830, the Katiushas of the 76th Guards Mortar Regiment fired its final volley from their position southwest of Prokhorovka. At the instant the explosions died away, a relative calm fell over the field. As eyewitnesses later recalled, for the next several minutes, a rustling wave passed across the field, like a heavy, but short summer squall. The dust raised by the explosions settled to the earth. For a few brief moments, everything fell silent. They were only seconds, followed immediately by the sound of a powerful, rising rumble. The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army were moving out of their jumping-off positions and accelerating into the attack.

The army commander attentively watched the departure of the tank brigades. He had been waiting for this moment for several months. Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov had been appointed to command an army that did not yet exist at the time. He had spent four months forming it, equipping it, and organizing the training of its staff and combat troops. Now the moment of its first trial by fire had arrived. For us, who did not travel that hard path, it is difficult today to understand the thoughts and feelings of a man, who was witnessing the combat baptism of his progeny.

Rotmistrov recalled after the war:

Our artillery’s squall of fire had not yet subsided, when the volleys of our Guards mortar regiments rang out. This signified the start of the attack, which my radio set duplicated. ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel’ – the chief of my radio apparatus Junior Technician-Lieutenant V. P. Konstantinov sent out over the radio. Immediately there followed the signals to attack from the commanders of the tank corps, the brigades, the battalions, the companies and the platoons.

I look through my binoculars and watch, as our glorious ‘Thirty-fours’ move out from under their cover and, accelerating, rush ahead. At the same instant, I spot a mass of enemy armor. It turned out that both we and the Germans went on the attack simultaneously. I’m surprised by how quickly our tanks and the hostile tanks are closing the distance to each other. Two enormous avalanches of tanks were moving towards a collision. The morning sun rising in the east blinded the eyes of the German tankers and brightly illuminated the contours of the fascist tanks for us.

Within several minutes, the tanks of the first echelon of our 29th and 18th Tank Corps, firing on the move, sliced head-on into the combat formations of the German fascist forces, having literally pierced the enemy’s formation with an impetuous, penetrating attack. The Hitlerites, apparently, had not expected to encounter such a large mass of our combat vehicles and such a decisive attack by them.

Unfortunately, Rotmistrov’s account is highly misleading. The actual course of the battle, as set forth in the documents of the brigades of the tank army’s first echelon, does not correspond with the army commander’s words. Incidentally, the sunrise on 12 July was at 0502. Therefore at 0830 it could not have blinded the eyes of the German tankers. However, the morning sun’s rays might have illuminated the contours of their tanks – if they had moved out on the attack, and were not staying concealed behind the positions of their anti-tank guns. At 0920, N. F. Vatutin reported to I. V. Stalin:

After a 30-minute artillery preparation, at 0830 the forces of Voronezh Front’s center (6th Guards Army, 1st Tank Army, 5th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army) went on the offensive according to plan. The forces of the 7th Guards Army are completing preparations to go over onto the offensive – the artillery preparation from 0900, the offensive at 0940.

The 5th Guards Tank Army command rested its plans on an impetuous lunge into the depth of the enemy’s from the first minutes of the attack. The area of Oktiabr’skii State Farm – the main fulcrum of the German positions, which indeed Zhadov’s Guardsmen proved unable to crack in the morning – was supposed to be enveloped on two sides: on one side, by the 18th Tank Corps’ 181st Tank Brigade, 170th Tank Brigade and the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment; on the other side, by the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade with three batteries of the 1446th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment. Infantry of the 5th Guards Army’s 33rd Guards Rifle Corps would follow behind the armor. It was assumed that the 181st Tank Brigade, attacking through the villages along the river would not encounter any heavy enemy resistance, since they (Andreevka and Vasil’evka) had only been abandoned by the tankers of the 2nd Tank Corps that morning; thus, its advance would be more rapid. Along the railway, the shock 32nd Tank Brigade was to clear a path for the main forces of the 29th Tank Corps. The 9th Guards Airborne Division and two regiments of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division were to consolidate the success of the 32nd, 170th and 181st Tank Brigades by mopping up the areas of Hill 252.2 and the villages along the river of any remaining enemy.

The second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th and Bakharov’s 18th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade and the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade with an artillery group) had the assignment to bolster the strength of the assault and to replenish the tank losses of the first echelon, suffered during the breakthrough of the defenses on Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. However, this plan collapsed in the first minutes of the attack.

The 29th Tank Corps went on the offensive in the sector Oktiabr’skii State Farm (incl.) – Iamki – Sazhinskii ravine (1.5 kilometers south of Iamki). Its attack formation had the 32nd Tank Brigade (63 tanks) and the 25th Tank Brigade (69 tanks) in the first echelon, and the 31st Tank Brigade (67 tanks) in the second echelon. To the right, between Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Psel River, the 18th Tank Corps was to advance. Its combat formation was arranged in three echelons: in the first – the 181st Tank Brigade (44 tanks) and the 170th Tank Brigade (39 tanks), supported by the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment (19 Churchill tanks); in the second – the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (which had no tanks); in the third – the tank brigade of the corps’ forward detachment (38 tanks). Thus, in the first attacking echelon of the two corps in a sector approximately 7 kilometers wide, four tank brigades and one tank regiment were attacking with a total of 234 tanks.

Immediately after the attack start, the field was covered by dozens of mushroom clouds of erupting earth from exploding bombs and shells, and dozens of tanks blazed up like torches. The battlefield became enveloped in a bluish-gray shroud of smoke and the exhaust gases of hundreds of armored vehicles, lit up by the fiery discharges from tank guns. The guide brigade in the 29th Tank Corps was Colonel A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade. Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade was supposed to follow it, but Moiseev’s battalions were slow in moving into their jumping-off positions, so Linev’s tanks in the first minutes of the attack were greeted by a hurricane of anti-tank fire from Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. Quickly, more than twenty tanks (almost one third of the brigade’s complement) blazed up like torches or began to emit thick plumes of dark smoke. The brigade’s combat formation was shattered, and the surviving tanks began to maneuver on the battlefield and to crawl away in different directions, trying to use any folds in the terrain in order to escape the ruinous fire. However, the sector was narrow, and approximately 100 armored vehicles had crowded into it, not including the self-propelled artillery, the artillery and the infantry of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division.

The commander of Leibstandarte’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 6th Company, Obersturmführer R. von Ribbentrop, described the scene from the German lines:

… I spotted the section leader of the company headquarters personnel, whom I had left at the infantry battalion’s command post. Shrouded in a gigantic cloud of dust, he was racing down the slope on his motorcycle, all the while extending his fist into the air: Move out at once!”

With that the company set itself in motion and deployed on the slope as if on the exercise field. It deployed with a precision that made my twenty-two-year-old heart beat faster. It was an especially uplifting feeling for me to lead these young but experienced soldiers into battle.

On reaching the crest of the slope we saw another low rise about 200 meters away on the other side of a small valley, on which our infantry positions were obviously located.

By radio I ordered my company to move into position on the slope ahead of us and take up the battle from there.

The small valley extended to our left and, as we moved down the forward slope, we spotted the first T-34s. They were attempting to outflank us from the left.

We halted on the slope and opened fire, hitting several of the enemy. A number of Russian tanks were left burning. For a good gunner, 800 meters was the ideal range.

As we waited to see if further enemy tanks were going to appear, I looked all around, as was my habit. What I saw left me speechless. From beyond the shallow rise about 150 to 200 meters in front of me appeared fifteen, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there was too many to count. The T-34s were rolling toward us at high speed, carrying mounted infantry.

My driver, Schueler, called over the intercom: ‘Sir, to the right, right! They’re coming! Do you see them?’

I saw them only too well. At that second I said to myself: ‘It’s all over now!’ My driver thought I had said ‘Get out!’ and began to open his hatch. I grabbed him rather roughly and hauled him back into the tank. Meanwhile, I had poked the gunner in the right side with my foot. This was the signal for him to traverse right.

Soon the first round was on its way and, with its impact the T-34 began to burn. It was only fifty to seventy meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. I saw SS Sergeant Papke jump clear, but that was the last we ever saw of him. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames.

The avalanche of enemy tanks rolled straight towards us: Tank after tank! Wave after wave! It was a simply unimaginable assembly, and it was moving at very high speed.

We had no time to take up defensive positions. All we could do was fire. From this range every round was a hit, but when would a direct hit end it for us? Somewhere in my subconscious I realized that there was no chance to escape. As always in such hopeless situations, all we could do was take care of what was at hand. So we knocked out a third, then a fourth T-34, from distances of less than thirty meters.

The Panzer IV we were using carried about eighteen to twenty rounds of ammunition within immediate reach of the loader, of which the majority was high explosive. The rest were armor-piercing.

Soon my loader shouted: ‘No AP left!’

All of our immediately available armor-piercing ammunition had been expended. Further ammunition had to be passed to the loader by the gunner, radio operator and driver. At this point remaining stationary was the surest means of being spotted and destroyed by the Russian tanks. Our only hope was to get back behind the slope again, even though the Russians had already crossed it. Our chances of escaping there were better than in our present exposed position.

We turned in the midst of a mass of Russian tanks, rolled back about fifty meters and reached the reverse slope of the first rise. There we turned to face the enemy again, now in somewhat better cover.

Just then a T-34 halted about thirty meters off to our right. I saw the tank rock slightly on its suspension and traverse its turret in our direction. I was looking right down the muzzle of its gun. We were unable to fire immediately, as the gunner had just passed the loader a fresh round.

‘Step on it, now!’ I shouted into the microphone. My driver Schueler was the best driver in the battalion. He had already put the tank in gear, and the lumbering Panzer IV set itself in motion. We moved past the T-34 at a distance of about five meters. The Russian tried to turn his turret to follow us, but was unable to do so. We halted ten meters behind the stationary T-34 and turned. My gunner scored a direct hit on the Russian’s turret. The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun. While all this was going on, other T-34s with mounted infantry were rolling past us.

In the meantime, I tried to pull in the Swastika flag that was lying across the box on the rear of the tank. The flag’s purpose was to let our pilots know where we were. I only half succeeded in this, with the result that the flag then fluttered in the wind. One of the Russian commanders or gunners would have to notice it sometime. It was only a question of time until we received the fatal hit.

We had only slim chance: We had to remain constantly in motion. A stationary tank would immediately be recognized by the foe as an enemy and fired upon, because all the Russian tanks were rolling at high speed across the terrain.

We then faced the additional challenge of being destroyed by one of our own tanks, which were sitting below at the anti-tank ditch by the railway embankment in a wide line. They had begun firing at the approaching enemy tanks. On the smoke- and dust-shrouded battlefield, looking into the sun, it would be impossible for our crews to distinguish us from a Russian tank. I repeatedly broadcast our code-name: ‘All stations: This is Kunibert! We are in the middle of the Russian tanks! Don’t fire at us!’

I received no answer. In the meantime, the Russians had set several vehicles on fire as they rolled through Peiper’s battalion and our artillery battalion. But by then the fire of our two remaining tank companies was beginning to have an effect. The artillery’s battalion of self-propelled guns and Peiper’s Panzergrenadiers – the latter with close-range weapons – were also taking a toll of the Russian tanks and pinning down the Russian infantry, which had jumped down from the T-34s and were attempting to advance on foot.

The entire battlefield lay under a thick pall of smoke and dust. Fresh groups of Russian tanks continued to roll out of this inferno. They were knocked out on the broad slope by our tanks.

It was an indescribable jumble of wrecked tanks and vehicles. This undoubtedly contributed to our salvation, in that the Russians did not recognize us.

The first to encounter the Germans’ anti-tank defenses on the outskirts of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and on Hill 252.2 were two companies from the 32nd Tank Brigade’s 2nd Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain A. E. Vakulenko. Under their covering fire, the commander of this tank brigade’s 1st Tank Battalion, Major P. S. Ivanov, directed his tanks across the railway embankment, in order to bypass the State Farm. The 15 T-34s, concealed by a belt of woods, found a seam in the German line, dashed at full speed past the most dangerous points of Hills 242.5 and Hill 241.6, where German anti-tank gun batteries and self-propelled guns were positioned, and broke into the southern outskirts of the Komsomolets State Farm from the rear, some 5 kilometers into the depth of the enemy’s defenses. Motorized riflemen of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade, which managed to slip through the enemy’s defenses in the wake of the tanks, reinforced the tankers’ sudden and unexpected advance. However, this local breakthrough had no effect on the tenacity of the defense at the Oktiabr’skii State Farm, which was SS Leibstandarte’s focal point of resistance. Even an hour after the start of the 5th Guards Army’s follow-on attack, the State Farm remained in the hands of Obersturmbannführer H. Krass’ 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, although individual T-34 tanks, having broken through to the crest of Hill 252.2, were already battling its anti-tank defenses and the tanks of SS Sturmbannführer M. Gross’ II/1st SS Panzer Regiment, positioned behind the anti-tank ditch.

Prokhorovka Melee II

It was becoming clear that the offensive was not going according to plan. Observing the battlefield and listening over the radio to the transmissions and reports from the corps commanders, Rotmistrov understood that his army had collided with a strong, well-organized enemy anti-tank defense, bristling with a significant quantity of artillery.

It is impossible for one person to see the entire course of such a massive event as this clash between two powerful groupings, the Prokhorovka tank engagement. Each person views it as he saw it from the place where he was at that time. However, the recollections of eyewitnesses are invaluable, since this is a piece of the events, refracted through the consciousness and disposition of a real person. The greater the number of such pieces, the more clear and distinct is the resulting picture of what occurred. The excerpt of the army commander’s [Rotmistrov’s] memoirs, cited above, is the impression of a man who was standing on the pinnacle of an army’s pyramid and observing everything as if from this summit. But what was happening inside the battle? Here are the stories of two participants, who were directly located in the first ranks of the attackers. All the events that they describe occurred in the epicenter of the engagement – in the vicinity of Hill 252.2 –within the first hour of the attack.

Gunner-radio operator Sergeant Savelii Baase of the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade remembers:

I recall that from our jumping-off positions, which were in a shallow depression in the area of the brick factory, we drove onto a hillock, from which point a level field spread before us, covered with either ripened wheat or barley. On our left were a railroad and a planted forest; on the right, in the distance beyond the field, was a cluster of buildings. I was told that the Oktiabr’skii State Farm was over there. Soon shells exploded nearby, and in front of us there were flashes, tanks and dust. Even though our tank was not in the first line, we were also firing our main guns at clusters of tanks and individual targets, which were moving toward us. The range closed quickly. Soon tanks began to burn, both ours and the Germans’. I remember how we were firing at a Tiger, but our shells were ricocheting off its thick armor, until someone managed first to knock off a track, and then to plant a shell in its flank. But the tank didn’t blaze up, and its crew began to leap out of opened hatches. We shot them up with our machine gun. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled …

Lieutenant I. M. Fomichev, the commander of the 1st Rifle Company’s 1st Rifle Platoon in the 23rd Guards Airborne Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion, remembers:

At dawn on 12 July, we rose and went into the attack without artillery preparation. My platoon and I were moving to the right of the railway. Two Messerschmitts appeared from the enemy’s direction, which flew along the combat formation of our regiment, strafing as they went, before disappearing in the distance. We emerged onto an open field, and the Germans immediately blanketed us with artillery fire. Killed and wounded appeared. Without much understanding of what was going on amid the continuous crash of explosions and the cries of the wounded, I crawled along the platoon’s line and bandaged the wounded. The fingers of my hands were sticky with blood.

After some time (I wasn’t wearing a watch), I watched as a wave of our tanks passed through the regiment’s positions. I prepared to move out after them, but the order ‘Forward!’ never came. A second wave of our tanks passed through our lines, and still there was no order to advance. A third wave of tanks passed through, carrying mounted submachine gunners, and only after this did they give the order: ‘Forward!’

Later I learned that before our tank attack, there had been an artillery barrage and a salvo of Guards’ mortars [Katiusha rockets] on the enemy positions, but I didn’t see or hear them. Perhaps they coincided with an enemy artillery barrage on our forces.

My platoon and I were running behind the tanks. We reached a trench and leaped into it. At the entrance to a bunker, I saw the body of a senior lieutenant, whose uniform had been mostly burned off (only the collar with three bars on the shoulder boards remained), lying on top of an anti-tank rifle. I glanced into the bunker and spotted an ammunition drum for a PPSh submachine gun, so I grabbed it. It was fully loaded with cartridges.

We ran on ahead. In the dense smoke and dust, we could not see our neighbors on the right or the left … As they had trained us in the specialist school, we tried to take cover from enemy fire behind the hulls of the tanks. Moving along the platoon’s line, I took cover behind one of the knocked-out tanks, and when I raised my head to take a look around, I saw crosses on the armor. I realized that my platoon and I were in the thick of a tank battle. This was between the railroad and the Oktiabr’skii State Farm.

Moving on, we ran up to another trench. I hopped into it and almost collided with a German. His hand were upraised. I was stunned by the surprise and lost my head, because this was the first living German soldier I’d ever seen. One of the men from my platoon, who leaped into the trench right behind me, shouted: ‘Lieutenant, shoot him, what are you looking at!’ At that moment, a burning tank nearby suddenly exploded; the German flinched and turned his head, and in my fright I squeezed my trigger and fired a long burst into the back of his head.

Just beyond the trench, I met a colonel who had been wounded in the shoulder. He said he was the deputy commander of our division, Grachev, and ordered me to escort him to the nearest aid station. While we moved toward an aid station, Messerschmitts dove on us three times and strafed us with their machine guns. On the third pass, the plane flew so low that I couldn’t stand it and I fired at it with my submachine gun; of course, I didn’t do it any damage. Colonel Grachev, apparently from the loss of blood, seemed indifferent to what was happening all around him, and leaned on me heavily. I supported him with difficulty.

My platoon was accompanying us. We crossed the rail line in the area of Hill 252.2, and found ourselves in the middle of the 26th Regiment’s offensive.

Here, to the left of the railway, we spotted a group of soldiers lying in the field, apparently without any commanding officers. Grachev told me he could reach the aid station by himself, and ordered me to take command of these soldiers and get them moving forward. The soldiers responded to my order and started moving, but once we had passed through a wheat field and emerged into an open area, I saw that a few of the soldiers had lagged behind. Apparently, they didn’t want to follow an unknown commander.

Reaching the trench line where I had bumped into the colonel, I first saw a senior lieutenant, who said he was the commander of a machine gun company. He had nine Maxim heavy machine guns. I decided to reinforce the machine gun company’s defensive position. Here in the trench I ran into Junior Lieutenant Gerasimenko, with whom I had trained together back at the specialist school. We exchanged impressions. The Germans began to outflank our position on both sides. The company commander made the decision to fall back through the wheat field. My platoon and I pulled back together with him. While retreating, my messenger Private Odintsov was wounded. The bullet entered his shoulder from behind and buried itself there. We pulled back beyond the wheat field and occupied the first trench line we had passed, where we dug-in again.

The combat that took place on Hill 252.2 had no equal in its drama and intensity. Immediately after 1000, at the moment when the second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade) entered the battle, the Germans began an intensified bombardment of the assault wedges of both our tank corps east of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. The VIII Air Corps headquarters sent the following message to the II SS Panzer Corps: “Two gruppen of dive bombers have been assigned to operate against the enemy group, [and are] moving from Petrovka to the southwest.”

The situation in the 31st Tank Brigade at the start of the attack received only a brief description in combat documents: “The pace of the offensive has slackened; the brigade has begun to mark time in place.” The tankers didn’t succeed in giving fresh impetus to the attack. Chronologically, the start of the attack began as follows.

The movement of the 32nd Tank Brigade from its line of deployment (in the area of the brick factory) began at approximately 0840-0845; approximately an hour later, the battalions of the 31st Tank Brigade moved out, and tanks from both brigades neared the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm at approximately 1030. I repeat: they didn’t break into the State Farm at that time – this didn’t occur until 1300 – but they closed to within firing range of the State Farm, approximately 500 meters from its outskirts, where antitank guns of Leibstandarte’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment were dug-in. Moreover, this division’s panzer regiment had already deployed at a distance approximately 0.5 to 1 kilometer from the State Farm, and behind it – east of Hill 241.6 – its artillery regiment, consisting of 105mm and 155mm howitzers, Nebelwerfers, and Hummel, Wespe and Brummbär self-propelled artillery vehicles. Thus, the first echelon of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps ran into a wall of fire. For the next two hours of the attack, the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades advanced approximately 1.2 to 1.5 kilometers. How can one speak of any “pace of the offensive” here!

The foe’s artillerymen took advantage of the moment, and fired their guns both intensively and with deadly accuracy. This beaten zone east of Hill 252.2 and Oktiabr’skii State Farm, bordered on the north and east with gullies, and on the south by the railroad embankment, became a genuine graveyard for the tank battalions of these brigades. They suffered their greatest losses here, at the start of the attack.

Reports from the corps headquarters and the brigades of the 29th Tank Corps speak to the nature and intensity of the fighting:

… Despite the heavy fire put up by the enemy, the 32nd Tank Brigade, maintaining the organization in its combat formations in cooperation with the 25th Tank Brigade, moved forward, while opening a concentrated fire from its tanks. Upon the approach to the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Stalinskoe Branch of the [Oktiabr’skii] State Farm, they came under artillery and mortar fire and were compelled to dig in on the line they had reached, gather strength for a resumption of the offensive, and prepare to repulse enemy attacks.

Separate elements, penetrating even as far as the Komsomolets State Farm and suffering heavy losses from artillery fire and fire from tanks in ambush positions, fell back to the line occupied by the fire support forces [author’s note: as stated in the text].

… a) The 32nd Tank Brigade: At 0830 12.07.43 without working over the enemy’s forward edge of defense with artillery and aviation [author’s emphasis], lacking accurate information about the enemy’s fire means, the brigade in two echelons attacked the enemy in the direction … along the railroad line in a sector up to 900 meters wide. On this (main) axis, the enemy concentrated a large number of Panzer VI tanks, Ferdinand self-propelled guns [there were no Ferdinands with the Fourth Panzer Army], and other anti-tank means.

… The attack of the 32nd Tank Brigade flowed at an exclusively rapid pace. All the tanks went into the attack, and there was not a single case of indecisiveness or refusal to fight. By 1200 12.07.43 the tank battalions reached the area of the enemy’s artillery positions. [Enemy] Infantry began to run away in panic. … The enemy hurled up to 150 aircraft at the forward edge of defense, which suppressed the infantry of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (following behind the tanks) and knocked out several tanks. The 32nd Tank Brigade began to falter …. The adversary noticed that the pace of the attack had slackened, and brought up fresh tank reserves and infantry. By this time the brigade had lost up to 40 tanks and 350 men and was compelled to stop.

  1. b) The 31st Tank Brigade: At 0830 following the signal (the rocket artillery salvo), the attack of the tanks and infantry began without artillery preparation or air cover [author’s emphasis]. Groups of 8 to 37 Me 110 and Ju 87 were conducting attacks.

The tanks suffered heavy losses from the enemy’s artillery fire and aviation. … At 1030 the tanks reached the border of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. Further advance was stopped by the ceaseless influence [author: as in text] of the enemy’s aviation.

Air cover for the attacking tanks was absent until 1300. At 1300, cover was provided by groups of 2 to 10 fighters.

The 31st Tank Brigade’s chief of the political department Colonel Povolotsky reported:

The large losses, especially in equipment, and the insufficiently active advance of our brigade are explained by the strong influence of the enemy’s aviation given our aviation’s lack of support for the offensive, and the enemy’s strong artillery and mortar fire, in contrast to our very weak artillery preparation at the moment of attack. The long presence of the tanks and personnel in their starting positions (eight hours) allowed the enemy to reorganize his defense in order to repulse the attack [author’s emphasis].

As we see, there is little resemblance here to a meeting engagement involving hundreds of tanks. Moreover, there is also nothing that corroborates the assertion that “on 12 July of this year occurred the greatest tank battle in the history of the Great Patriotic War, in which up to 1500 tanks of both sides met in a head-on attack” (from the 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of combat operations at Prokhorovka).

In the 29th Tank Corps, 199 tanks took part in the attack, in the 18th Tank Corps – 149 tanks; altogether 348 tanks, which moreover were echeloned in depth. On the enemy’s side (SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte’s 1st Panzer Regiment, and elements of Totenkopf ’s and Das Reich’s panzer regiments), approximately 140 to 150 tanks participated in this battle. Altogether on 12 July 1943, a combined maximum of up to 500 tanks from both sides could have participated in the battle southwest of Prokhorovka.

The battle of several hundred armored vehicles disintegrated into separate duels between groups of tanks, over which unified command and control was lost. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled. Radio became the only possible means of communication in the companies and platoons. However, while all the German tanks were equipped with two-way radios, the Soviet T-34 tanks, not to mention the T-70 tanks, lacked radio communications in all but the commanders’ tanks.

According to the testimony of veteran tankers, the 5th Guards Tank Army, which from the beginning had been formed as a Guards army, was in a more advantageous situation in this respect than other formations. Down to the platoon level, commanders’ tanks were equipped with radios, while even some non-command tanks had radio receivers, in order to receive orders from the commander. In other formations, even these were entirely lacking. Only commanders at the company level and higher had full communications in their tanks. All other tanks operated following the example of the commander’s tank, according to the principle “Do whatever I’m doing.” Under the conditions of limited visibility and given the concentration of a large number of armored vehicles on a relatively narrow sector, this left the crews practically without any communications.

Knowing this detail, the Germans took advantage of it in full measure. German tanks, assault guns and anti-tank guns concentrated all their fire first of all on those Red Army tanks with antennas. In addition, our radio sets were not reliable. As M. Dovbysh, a veteran of the 18th Tank Corps told me that only one or two solid hits on a tank that failed to penetrate were enough to cause the radio to quit working due to the concussive impact. The summary report of the 29th Tank Corps command also testifies to this; in it there is a statement that radios on the Su-152 would stop operating after five to eight shots from its own gun. All of this prevented the company or platoon commander from smoothly directing the tanks under his command in battle, concentrating their fire or strength in a certain direction (or on specific targets).

In such circumstances, the training and experience of the crew commander and the driver-mechanic played a special role. In the battle on the fields of Prokhorovka, the “birth defect” of the T-34 manifested itself in full measure. In the years before the war, trying to decrease the size of the tank, designers had removed the position of the fifth crew member, the gun layer, and turned his functions over to the commander. This meant that with the start of a battle, the tank crew was practically left without a commander, since he could not physically carry out two duties at the same time. All his attention was concentrated on gunnery. That is why the actions of the crew were fettered, and its attention focused more on self-preservation than common action. These problems substantially increased tank losses.

The 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of the battle points to the critical problems caused by the failures in intelligence, information and communication: “The enemy aviation reigned supreme in the sky – up to 200 individual sorties. The absence of reconnaissance, as well as the lack of fire direction, had an immediate effect on the process of the fighting, and choked the attack.”

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.

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’.

Blood on the Volga

By the time General Vasily Chuikov, the previous deputy commander of the 64th Army positioned south of Stalingrad, was appointed as commander of the 62nd Army, the 62nd Army had lost half of its men. For some, the Volga appeared to be the best means of escaping certain death. Chuikov knew that the situation was desperate and that the only options for him and his men were to save Stalingrad or die in the attempt. Defeat or surrender was not even to be considered.

The city’s defenders learned that secret police were stationed all along the Volga; anyone who attempted to cross the river without permission would be shot on sight. But the Volga was also bringing reinforcements of fresh troops and elite units. Crossing the river under German fire meant that the crossing itself was a death sentence—the typical life expectancy of a soldier arriving to reinforce the city was twenty-four hours—but the carnage allowed Chuikov to maintain a hold on part of the city.

The elite 13th Guard Division saw 30% of its 10,000 men killed in the first twenty-four of arrival, with a mere 320 surviving the battle for a 97% death rate. The risk of death was so imminent that even Chuikov was obliged to keep moving his command post from place to place at the last minute, to avoid being a casualty of the intense fighting that saw attacks staged along a front line that was sometimes less than a mile wide.

But the deadly dimensions of the battle were part of Chuikov’s strategy. By keeping the gap between Russian and German positions as narrow as possible, Chuikov reasoned that the German air campaign had to exercise caution in their bombing or risk killing their men when they dropped bombs on the Soviet line.

Starving soldiers are desperate men and because crossing the Volga was so dangerous, food was not entering the city, only more soldiers. The Russians weren’t the only ones suffering the lack of food, an issue which would become a dominant factor for the Germans as the battle continued. The fighting took its toll on the Germans, as they saw their initial advantage with their tanks and dive bombers come to be matched by Russian artillery reinforcements and anti-aircraft guns from east of the Volga River, out of range of the German tanks and the Stuka dive bombers. With trial-by-fire training, the Russian Air Force was able to be more offensive in its attacks, thanks to its increased aircraft.

Life in Stalingrad was a nightmare for the soldiers and civilians as the city was reduced to rubble. Bodies rotted, and the smell of decomposing corpses hung over the city. Disease became rampant. The noise from the Stuka dive bombers and Katyusha rockets created a grim orchestra of war. It was a scenario that challenged the stamina and even the sanity of all who endured it because there was no escaping the daunting consequences.

Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII, meanwhile, provided the army with effective air support. It struck enemy troops, vehicles, guns and fortified positions on the battlefield, as well as logistics and mobilization centres and road, rail and river traffic behind the front.

Throughout September, Fiebig’s corps directed most of its attacks against Stalingrad itself, the main targets being the Lazur chemical factory inside the “tennis racket” (a huge rail loop), the Krasnyi Oktyabr (Red October) metallurgical works, the Barrikady (Barricade) gun factory and the Dzherzhinski tractor factory. The corps pounded those targets most days, except when aircraft were urgently needed to support an Axis advance or stem a Soviet counter-attack in the region north of the city. On 18 September, for example, Lieutenant-General Chuikov noticed that the German aircraft crowding the sky above Stalingrad suddenly departed, giving Sixty-Second Army a much-needed “breathing space”. Fiebig had hastily called them away, he realized, in order to deploy them in the region north of the city, where they were urgently needed to counter a surprise attack by the Stalingrad Front. Six hours later, Chuikov noted with disappointment, “it was clear that the [Soviet] attack was over: hundreds of Junkers had reappeared.”

Chuikov quickly noticed that the Luftwaffe carried out surprisingly few raids at night. He could not work out, therefore, why the Stalingrad Front attempted its attacks during the day, “when we had no way of neutralizing or compensating for the enemy’s superiority in the air, and not at night (when the Luftwaffe did not operate with any strength).” The city’s defenders did not make the same mistake, he added later in his memoirs: “The enemy could not fight at night, but we learned to do so out of bitter necessity; by day the enemy’s planes hung over our troops, preventing them from raising their heads. At night we need have no fear of the Luftwaffe”. This was certainly true: at Stalingrad, as at Sevastopol, the Luftwaffe conducted almost no night missions to speak of. Its aircraft lacked the specialized night navigation and bomb-aiming equipment necessary for situations like this, when opposing forces battled in close proximity. Also, its airfields, with a few exceptions, were poorly equipped for night operations.

Fiebig’s air corps also bombed and strafed any Soviet forces seen among the broken buildings and piles of rubble. Chuikov recalled that “the Luftwaffe literally hammered anything they saw in the streets into the ground”. In his detailed memoirs, he also quotes the situation report of a young lieutenant, whose company came under severe air attacks on 18 September. “From morning till noon,” Lieutenant A. Kuzmich Dragan wrote,

clusters of German planes hung in the sky over the city. Some of them would break away from their formations, dive and riddle the streets and ruins of houses with bullets from ground level; others would fly over the city with sirens wailing, in an attempt to sow panic. They dropped high explosives and incendiaries. The city was in flames.

Determined to support German troops now fighting for every house and building by stopping the steady trickle of Soviet reinforcements entering the city from the eastern bank of the kilometre-wide Volga river, Fiebig’s corps also directed attacks against the river crossing facilities. Rear-Admiral Rogachev’s Volga Fleet used numerous crossing points, but mainly “Crossing 62”, its moorings at the Krasnyi Oktyabr and Barrikady factories. The small fleet ferried substantial numbers of men and large quantities of rations and ammunition across the river to the desperate Sixty-Second Army. These courageous sailors, Chuikov maintained, “rendered an incalculable service…. Every trip across the Volga involved a tremendous risk, but no boat or steamer ever lingered with its cargo on the other bank.” Had it not been for them, he concluded, the Sixty-Second Army would almost certainly have perished in September.

Alan Clark, British author of a now-outdated popular account of the war in Russia, maintained that, if the Luftwaffe “had been employed with single-minded persistence in an “interdiction” role … the Volga ferries might have been knocked out.” Clark was clearly unaware of Luftflotte IV’s poor state when he wrote these words. Von Richthofen had no aircraft available for a proper interdiction campaign against the Volga crossings. As noted above, by 20 September his air fleet had already lost half its total strength and, because of a drop in serviceability levels, had a mere 516 air-worthy planes (when Blau began, it had 1,155). Moreover, 120 of those were reconnaissance and sea planes, leaving him with only 396 operational combat aircraft. With this small force, he was already extremely hard-pressed to fulfil his army-support obligations. Having stripped Pflugbeil’s Fliegerkorps IV to the bones in order to concentrate an acceptable number of aircraft at Stalingrad, he had left the two German armies in the Caucasus with very little air support and could only increase it during times of crisis by returning units temporarily from the Stalingrad region. Thus, he could spare no aircraft for a systematic interdiction campaign against Volga crossings.

Fliegerkorps VIII did not ignore the crossings, of course. Both Fiebig and von Richthofen realized that, if Paulus’ men were going to destroy the enemy troops fighting fanatically in the ruined city, they had to sever their supply and reinforcement lines. Although they lacked aircraft for a proper interdiction campaign, they continually threw as many bombers and dive-bombers as they could spare each day against the railway lines carrying men and materiel to the eastern bank of the Volga, against the exposed and poorly-defended loading and landing platforms and against any barges and steamers seen crossing the river. Fiebig often managed to keep aircraft continuously above the crossing points. As Chuikov remembered: “From dawn till dusk enemy dive-bombers circled over the Volga” Likewise, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimirov noted in 1943:

The enemy bombers, operating in groups of 10 to 50, ceaselessly bombed our troops, the eastern part of the city and the crossings on the Volga…. The Germans relied on their aircraft to crush the fire system of our defence [that is, the artillery], paralyze our organization, prevent the arrival of reinforcements, and disrupt the movements of supplies.

German aircraft hunted down each boat and barge, but, as the discussion of air attacks on Black Sea shipping revealed, sinking ships from the air was extremely difficult. The relatively small size of Volga barges and ferries made them difficult targets. As a result, Fiebig’s dive-bombers proved far more successful against rail-heads and ferry landing platforms than they did against the vessels themselves.

The doomed Germans soldiers fought on bravely as best they could given their weakened physical conditions and lack of supplies; they had little choice. The Soviet offensive named Operation Saturn got underway on December 16 1942 with the purpose of bringing the final stage of the battle to its conclusion as relief efforts were made impossible and the trapped Germans were contained in a shrinking position. General Winter had frozen the Volga River allowing soldiers and supplies to travel over the ice into the city.

20160510 Grau – River Flotillas in Support of Defensive Ground Operations The Soviet Experience