Dietrich’s Autumn Mist

In late September 1944 the Allies became aware that Hitler was withdrawing his armour from the front in order to build up a very large panzer reserve. Alarmingly his tank strength on the Western Front steadily expanded to 2,600 tanks compared to 1,500 on the Eastern Front. Signals intelligence indicated that the 1st SS, 2nd SS, 9th SS and 12th SS Panzer divisions, along with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier division, were being refitted for renewed combat. Most notably, the two SS Panzer Corps were swiftly rebuilt as the strike force of SS-Oberstgruppenführer ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s powerful 6th SS Panzer Army. The 6th Panzer Army is best noted for its leading role in the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945). On April 2, 1945, it was transferred to the Waffen-SS. The 6th Panzer Army then became known as 6th SS Panzer Army (6. SS-Panzerarmee).

Although it didn’t receive the SS designation until after the Battle of the Bulge, the SS designation came into general use in military history literature after the Second World War for the formation as assembled prior to that campaign. After the Ardennes Offensive, the 6th SS Panzer Army was transferred to Hungary, where it fought against the advancing Soviet Army.

The two panzer divisions of SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess’ 1st SS Panzer Corps were each brought up to about 22,000 men; the 1st SS Panzer division was supplemented with Tiger tanks of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 502; and the 12th SS, now under SS-Brigadeführer Hugo Krass, was rebuilt, though it lacked experienced junior officers. The 2nd SS, reassigned to SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Lammerding, and the 9th SS, reassigned to SS-Brigadeführer Sylvester Stadler, of SS-Obergruppenführer willi Bittrich’s 2nd SS Panzer Corps were similarly rebuilt with better than average recruits, though the 9th SS lacked transport.

Up until the end of the year the 2nd SS and 10th SS Panzer divisions helped hold the Siegfried Line while Hitler built up his counter-attack force for the Ardennes offensive, which had been in preparation from October. This was initially codenamed watch on the Rhine (Wacht am Rhein) to imply a purely defensive operation, but subsequently became Autumn Mist (Herbstnebel). Planning was entrusted to Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B and he was allocated the very last of Germany’s reserves – some ten panzer and fourteen infantry divisions.

After three months the Americans had been unable to punch through the Siegfried Line between Geilenkirchen and Aachen. on 12/13 November the weak 17th SS and 21st Panzer divisions counter-attacked at Sanry-sur-nied, driving the Americans back, although they were forced to withdraw for fear of encirclement. The 17th SS was ordered to retreat and escaped being trapped in Metz, which finally fell on 17 November. By the beginning of December the division was down to just 4,000 men and twenty tanks and was no longer available for the Ardennes offensive.

Hitler’s massed armed forces included Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army, with the 1st SS, 2nd SS, 9th SS and 12th SS Panzer divisions, 501 and 506 Heavy Panzer Battalions, plus seven army divisions equipped with a total of 450 tanks, assault guns and self-propelled guns; von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army with nine divisions included about 350 armoured fighting vehicles. The 7th Army, with a similar number of divisions under General Erich Brandenberger, had a few battalions of tanks and assault guns. Antwerp was their goal; 6th SS Panzer Army was to break out between Liège and Aachen and 5th Panzer Army between Namur and Liège.

In the past Himmler had accepted SS divisions coming under army corps commanders and SS army corps and SS armoured groups coming under army commanders, but the Ardennes was a subordination of a completely different magnitude. For the first time a whole army was placed under the command of an SS general with the minority of his command consisting of SS units. This general, though, was under an army field marshal. Furthermore, the Waffen-SS was completely reliant on the army’s newly raised Volksgrenadier divisions and Luftwaffe parachute units fighting as infantry to first seize the ground over which their panzers were to advance.

On 10 December 1944 Hitler found a convenient way to avoid Himmler being involved in the forthcoming Ardennes offensive. The Reichsführer-SS was appointed commander-in-chief of Army Group Upper Rhine, far from the centre of action. This meant he could not meddle in Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s control of the 6th SS Panzer Army. Rundstedt as C-in-C west had been particularly irked by Himmler styling himself ‘Supreme Commander, Westmark’. It also forced Himmler to commit his replacement Army to the front; in particular, he plugged a gap in the defences of the German frontier south of Karlsruhe, which was independent of Rundstedt’s command.

Although the Ardennes was the first time an SS army took to the field, only four of ‘Sepp’ Dietrich’s six panzer divisions actually belonged to the Waffen-SS and two of them were soon detached from the right flank to bolster the 15th Army; they were replaced by the inadequate Volksgrenadier divisions of Himmler’s replacement Army. Dietrich, who nominally answered to von Rundstedt, was flabbergasted at the scope of the proposed operation:

Reach the Meuse in two days, cross it, take Brussels, go on and then take Antwerp? Simple. As if my tanks could advance in a bog. And this little programme is to be executed in the depths of winter in a region where there are nine chances out of ten that we will have snow up to our middles. do you call that serious?

He hoped to reason with Hitler but the Führer would not see him. Dietrich was acutely aware that although the SS panzer divisions had been rebuilt, they were not what they had once been, bitterly observing: ‘out of all the original Adolf Hitler division there are only thirty men today who are not dead or prisoners. Now I have recreated a new panzer army and I am a general and not an undertaker.’

Perhaps not surprisingly after its losses in Normandy, the 12th SS was only able to field one mixed tank battalion for the Ardennes offensive, consisting of two companies of Panzer IVs and two companies of Panthers. The other battalion remained in Germany, where it was being reconstituted. The division also committed its two panzergrenadier regiments and its anti-tank battalion. Kampfgruppe Peiper, drawn from the 1st SS, consisted of a hundred Panzer IVs and Panthers, forty-two formidable King Tigers and twenty-five assault guns.

Elements of the 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer divisions conducted the 6th SS Panzer Army’s main attacks to the north along the line St Vith–Vielsalm on 16 December 1944. They did so under dense cloud, thereby avoiding the unwanted attentions of the Allies’ troublesome fighter-bombers.

Unfortunately for Dietrich, SS-Obersturmbannführer Peiper, whose forces were desperately short of fuel, turned north to seize 50,000 gallons of American gasoline at Bullingen, instead of pushing west. His force was eventually surrounded and destroyed, leaving forty-five tanks and sixty self-propelled guns north of the Ambleve River.

The 12th SS, following-up the Kampfgruppe, was unable to dislodge the Americans from the Elsenborn ridge and had to swing left, nor was Panzer Lehr able to get to Bastogne before the Americans reinforced the town. on the northern shoulder of the advance the 9th SS headed northward after breaking through the Losheim Gap; frustratingly only the artillery regiment and reconnaissance battalion were committed, although once St Vith was captured the rest of the division was brought in. On 18 December the troops of the 9th SS reached their official start line and fought their way towards Manhay and Trois Ponts before being replaced by the 12th Volksgrenadier division. They got as far as Salmchateau, less than halfway to the Meuse.

Meanwhile 116th Panzer drove between Bastogne and St Vith, but the Americans holding out in Bastogne delayed 2nd Panzer. Crucially, the failure to take Bastogne greatly slowed Manteufell’s drive on the Meuse. St Vith fell on 21 December, though American artillery fire forced the 6th SS Panzer Army to become entangled with the 5th Panzer Army. Hitler felt that even if Antwerp were not taken, keeping his panzers in the hard-won bulge created in the front line would slow the Allies’ push on the vital Ruhr. To secure the bulge, Bastogne had to be taken and the 12th SS was shifted south to help capture the town.

By 22 December the 9th SS had been committed to the southern flank of the 1st SS, but could not reach Kampfgruppe Peiper. At the end of the month the 9th SS was replaced by the 12th Infantry division and also moved south to help with the assault on Bastogne. However, once the weather cleared Allied fighter-bombers began to attack the exposed panzers in a repeat of the Falaise battle. Exposed on the snow-covered landscape, many were easy targets. Lacking fuel, 2nd Panzer got as far as Celles, just 4 miles short of the river Meuse, before American armour moved in. American tanks also halted the 2nd SS, while 116th and Panzer Lehr were stopped short of Marche.

Even in the face of defeat, the 2nd SS continued to inflict heavy losses on the Americans. Normandy survivor Untersturmführer Fritz Langanke took his Panther tank into battle just before Christmas:

Thanks to our preparations, we knocked out the first five Sherman tanks in quick succession, despite the poor visibility. They moved at a steep angle to us, down the slope, half-right. The firing distance between us was 500 and 700 metres. The other tanks then turned around and drove back. Thereafter it was quiet and dusk set in soon.

The US 6th Armored division launched an attack near Bastogne on 2 January 1945. Although the tanks were driven off, American infantry broke through the positions of the 26th Volksgrenadier division, reaching Michamps. Under Normandy survivor von Ribbentrop, the 12th SS Escort company and the 1st Battalion, SS Panzer regiment 12, were sent to counter-attack. They recaptured Michamps and Obourcy, and along with the fighting at Arlencourt the 12th SS accounted for twenty-four American tanks. The 12th SS was then thrown at the northeast outskirts of Bastogne on the 4th, but the Americans turned back every attack. Shortly afterwards the 12th SS was withdrawn to Cologne. By now the 9th and 12th SS Panzer divisions only had fifty-five tanks left between them.

During the New Year Dietrich was dismayed that his SS panzer divisions had been handed over to the army to help take Bastogne. First Leibstandarte then the whole of the 1st SS Panzer Corps were assigned to Manteuffel. By 4 January Hohenstaufen had also been reassigned, leaving Dietrich with just Das Reich as his sole armoured unit. within four days both generals were in full retreat, heading back to their start line. Rundstedt counselled Hitler to withdraw the two battered panzer armies east of Bastogne ready for the inevitable Allied counter-attack. On 8 January Hitler finally ordered a partial withdrawal. The 6th SS Panzer Army was now needed on the eastern Front following a major Soviet offensive.

Meanwhile Himmler, with his first combat command, wanted to launch a major offensive across the Rhine. In order to distract attention from the Ardennes, he conducted operation Northwind (Nordwind) to the south in Alsace, involving ten divisions, including the Normandy veterans 10th SS Panzer and 17th SS Panzergrenadier on 31 December. It was simply too late to have any bearing on the fighting in the Ardennes.

Undoubtedly for Himmler this was a matter of SS prestige over the army. While the Army High Command had floundered on the Ardennes battlefield, Himmler believed he could be the conqueror of Alsace if he could retake Strasbourg. He wanted to be the civilian who had won a victory defending Germany while the army had failed. This conveniently avoided the embarrassing truth that ‘Sepp’ Dietrich and the 6th SS Panzer Army had also failed, even if it had been under the direction of the army.

Himmler’s planning was flawed from the start, because his offensive was to comprise three generally unrelated local offensives that could be contained piecemeal. His SS staff dominating Army Group Upper Rhine proposed a swift advance to the Saverne Gap by three panzer divisions, including the 10th SS supported by Volksgrenadier divisions to the north and south. This would cut the US 7th Army in two, the southern portion of which would then be destroyed, allowing Himmler’s offensive to sweep the French Army out of Strasbourg.

Along with the 36th Volksgrenadier division, the 17th SS Panzergrenadiers attacked the US 44th and 100th Infantry divisions near Rimlingen on 1 January 1945. within a week they had been thrown back and the Americans recaptured Rimlingen on the 13th. It was only after the Americans had withdrawn in good order towards the river Moder south of the Forêt de Haguenau that Himmler launched his secondary attacks in the centre around Gambsheim and to the south around Erstein.

The 10th SS achieved some success in its attack from Offendorf to Herlisheim on 17 January. Although this lost momentum, Obersturmführer Bachmann, adjutant of the 1st Battalion, SS Panzer regiment 10, remembered:

Everything went according to plan. The two-panzer crew cooperated in a first-rate fashion. Panzer 2 opened fire while Panzer 1 raced into the junction and knocked out the first Sherman. More US tanks were knocked out, and a white flag appeared….

The total was twelve captured Sherman tanks and sixty prisoners. I deployed my own two Panthers forward to the edge of Herlisheim. From there they covered in the direction of Drusenheim and knocked out two Shermans on their way to Herlisheim. Thus my two Panthers achieved nine kills.

Bachmann’s tanks crews were rewarded with Iron Crosses, with Bachmann himself gaining the Knight’s Cross. This success posed a threat to Strasbourg, forcing the Allies to counter-attack and clear the Germans from the west bank of the Rhine. Although Himmler’s Operation Northwind caused a small crisis for the Allies, it also wasted away Hitler’s already meagre reserves.

By the end of January, Hitler’s Ardennes bulge had gone for the loss of 100,000 casualties and most of their armour; the 5th Panzer Army and the 6th SS Panzer Army lost up to 600 tanks. Hitler’s great gamble had not paid off, although in five weeks of fighting twenty-seven American divisions suffered 59,000 casualties thanks to his reconstituted panzer divisions.

However, Hitler had achieved what Falaise had failed to do: the near-total destruction of the panzer forces in the west. This time there could be no miraculous recovery. Rundstedt did all he could to make the Waffen-SS shoulder the blame for the failure of the Ardennes offensive: ‘I received few reports from “Sepp” Dietrich of the 6th [SS] Panzer Army and what I did receive was generally a pack of lies. If the SS had any problems, they reported them directly to the Führer.’

In late January 1945 Himmler was posted to the Eastern Front to command Army Group Vistula. General Westphal, one of Himmler’s bitterest critics, regarded his organisational abilities as a shambles. Upon Himmler’s departure, ‘There was naturally no question of an orderly transfer,’ wrote Westphal, as the Reichsführer-SS left behind ‘a laundry-basket full of unsorted orders and reports.’

Paul Hausser assumed command of the Upper Rhine, which came under Rundstedt as C-in-C west. Hausser found himself with the unenviable task of holding the Colmar pocket with much-depleted forces. Himmler took with him General Lammerding as his Chief of Staff. Lammerding, former commander of the 2nd SS Das Reich, had blood of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre and the Tulle executions on his hands. Himmler did not care.

This footage, taken by an SS war correspondent shows the lead elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper’s heavy tank battalion moving through the town of Tondorf on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 1944.

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Seelow Heights

Note: these are combat troop strengths.

On 20 March a desperate Colonel General Heinz Guderian, Chief of Staff of the Army, convinced Himmler to give up command of the Army Group Vistula, arguing that his multiple responsibilities left him overtaxed. Hitler reluctantly agreed and, at Guderian’s suggestion, appointed Colonel General Gotthard Heinrici as the new commander. The 58- year-old Heinrici was a German officer of the old school. The son of a Protestant minister, he read his Bible daily and insisted on Sunday church parades for his troops, none of which sat very well with the Nazi authorities. But Heinrici was one of Germany’s most brilliant defensive tacticians. His unglamourous job was to take over when things were going wrong, to hold the line for as long as possible, and then to manage the retreat. In January 1942, he had been given command of the remnants of the Fourth Army after the assault on Moscow had faltered. The Fourth held the key position, directly facing Moscow. Ordered to hold the line at all costs in anticipation of the next assault which ‘would surely take the city’, they lasted for nearly 10 weeks in the brutal Russian Winter, which claimed nearly as many of Heinrici’s soldiers as the Red Army did, before beginning the long, staggered retreat back to Poland. The slight Heinrici, nicknamed ‘unser Gijtzwerg (literally, ‘our poisonous dwarf’) by enemies and admirers alike, was a tough, stubborn commander, but he had the respect of his troops. He was known to be a crafty and creative defender and to stand for no nonsense from either his troops or ‘the Nazi court jesters’.

Before the Vistula-Oder operation, strong forward defence had generally been the Germans’ preferred philosophy, but during the Vistula-Oder offensive, which saw the Germans lose some 450km (280 miles) of ground in three weeks, the Soviets had consistently managed to shatter both the Germans’ front lines and their mobile reserves with fierce opening artillery and air bombardments, before punching through with armoured units and overrunning the rear defences. In response, the OKH now adopted the defence-in-depth philosophy for which Heinrici was already known. The main idea was to construct multiple consecutive defensive ‘strips’ and to pull back the troops from the forward-most line just before the enemy’s initial barrage. Heinrici, who had used the technique to great effect in the retreat from Moscow, described the effect as causing the enemy to waste their artillery barrage on empty positions, ‘like hitting an empty bag’, after which the unharmed troops could reoccupy their front-line positions and offer fresh resistance to the attempted advance. On 30 March, Hitler approved the new tac tic with a detailed order. Additional orders from Heinrici placed special attention on the preparation of alternate and dummy artillery positions, in addition to the primary positions.

Under these guidelines, Army Group Vistula’s defensive preparations came to comprise three sep arate ‘defensive strips’, each consisting of a number of ‘defensive lines’ of fortified locations and barrier zones, extending to a depth of 40km (24 miles). The first one, the ‘Forward Combat Zone’ was, despite the intention to abandon part of it during the opening bombardment, a formidable defensive complex. It was located on the western bank of the Oder, just below the Seelow Heights, a chain of steep bluffs rising 40-50m (130-165ft) up from the floor of the Oder valley, approximately 12-15km (7-9 miles) from the river and stretching roughly 20km (12 miles) in front of the attackers. In the boggy zone between the heights and the river, Heinrici directed the construction of three defensive lines, each 1-3km (0.6-1.8 miles) deep for a total depth of 8-1Okm (4.8-6 miles). Twelve divisions of troops manned the extensive networks of concealed trenches and machine-gun nests in the Forward Combat Zone, and they were supported by a number of fortified points, including the Frankfurt ‘Fortress-City’, which sported a number of tank turrets in its fortifications.

The Second Defensive Strip, in keeping with the new defence philosophy, was accorded the same importance and resources as the first position; indeed, as the ‘Main Combat Zone’, it was possibly considered even more important. This zone took maximum advantage of the natural benefit provided by the terrain to the defenders. Much of the Seelow escarpment was too steep for the tanks, and the numerous draws and ravines were ideal for concealed gun positions with a commanding view over the river and valley floor.

The forward line of this Second Position, called the ‘Hardenberg-Stellung’ (Hardenberg Position), ran along the lip of the bluffs and the Alte Oder and again consisted of between two and three lines of concealed trenches reinforced by machine-gun nests. The town of Seelow became another fortified city, with a battalion-sized garrison blocking the highway to Berlin. Artillery positions were dug in on the reverse slopes, providing effective cover even as they provided excellent field of fire and observation.

While the first two ‘strips’ were intended to be the main theatre of the battle, a Third Defensive Strip was constructed along a line from the western edge of Scharmutzel Lake, near Buckow, to the eastern edge of Furstenwalde, generally no more than 30km (18 miles) east of Berlin. This was the ‘Wotan Stellung’ and consisted of a string of heavily fortified towns (most importantly Furstenwalde, Muncheberg, Sternebeck, and Eberswalde) linked by anti-tank barricades and fields of fire. From this position, if necessary, artillery, tanks, SPGs, and tank-hunters would be able to coordinate their fire and so prevent a breakout by Soviet armour. In between the last two strips, blocking positions were constructed to cover both the Kustrin-Berlin and Frankfurt-Berlin Autobahnen (motorways).

Though this was an enviably strong position, aided by the natural obstacles presented by the flooding Oder and Seelow escarpment, General Busse was concerned by his shortfall in heavy weaponry, particularly artillery, and the woeful shortage of military manpower. Of the 137,000 reserve troops so eagerly promised by Goring, Himmler, and Donitz, only 30,000 completely unequipped and inexperienced men ever materialised, for whom, as it turned out, only 1000 rifles could be found by Army Group Vistula. The Ninth Army was partially filled out with replacements and reinforcements from sundry depot, guard, and training units and by a number of Volkssturm battalions raised in Berlin, Potsdam, Stettin, and elsewhere. The civilian population also lent a hand. Civilians had been evacuated from the most forward area back in February, although all healthy adult males were expected to remain to participate in the defence preparations. The villages and towns in the Second and Third Defensive Strips, however, seem to have remained fully inhabited right up until the attack.

By the eve of the battle, Ninth Army consisted of four corps and an army reserve division, totalling about 200,000 men, as well as 512 operational tanks, SPGs, and tank-hunters, and 658 artillery and flak batteries with 2625 guns with scant ammunition. There was also a sort of bizarre, jury-rigged armoured train – the ‘Berlin’ – which consisted of five flatcars carrying tanks for which there was no fuel. This ‘Zug-Panzer’ ran back and forth out of the Seelow station. The Army could also count on some air support from the Fourth Air Division of the Sixth Air Fleet. The division’s 300 aircraft (of a total of some 3000 left to the Germans over the whole of the eastern front) were allocated exclusively to Army Group Vistula. But the critical shortage of fuel and the dwindling number of serviceable airfields seriously reduced the number of sorties which could be mounted at anyone time.

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Rather than the typical frontal penetration assault which had characterised the Soviet offensives since ‘Operation Bagration’ in the summer of 1944, Berlin was to be taken with a series of flanking attacks. First Belorussian’s right flank would sweep around north and north-west, while First Ukrainian’s right flank would swing around and up from the south. At the same time, the left flank of First Belorussian would strike at the bulk of the defending army in the south ern suburbs. If successful, the plan would not only split the German defence up into manageable pieces, but would also cut off the bulk of the regular Wehrmacht units – the Ninth Army and Fourth and Third Panzer Armies – from the fighting in the city proper. The total number of resources commit ted to the planned offensive were 2.06 million Soviet combat troops, 155,900 Polish troops, 6250 tanks and self-propelled guns, 41,600 field artillery pieces and mortars, and 7500 combat aircraft. They would be opposed by an estimated 766,750 regular German front-line troops, 1159 tanks and assault guns, 9303 guns and mortars, and at least two million civilians, many of whom would fight alongside the army.

The plan was agreeable to the two main field commanders, but it presented them with a logistical nightmare. In only 14 days, they would have to develop detailed unit plans and brief their officers; they would also have to undertake gargantuan resupply, reinforcement, and redeployment operations. None of the three fronts involved were at their full operational strength. Reinforcements were forth coming, but they would have to be properly deployed and integrated into the command and supply structure, and many of them were still quite distant. Two of the armies which Konev was counting on to deliver his promised strike at Berlin – the 28th and 31st from the Third Belorussian Front – couldn’t possibly reach the staging area by the beginning of the offensive, and would have to be thrown cold into the progressing battle as soon as they arrived. The existing units also had to be brought back up to strength after the long winter of fighting. Although in better shape than Germany, after over three and a half years of war, the Soviet Union was close to reaching its limits in manpower. For the first time, repatriated prisoners of war were being rearmed and distributed back into the front lines. Huge amounts of equipment, ammunition, food, and medical supplies also had to be repaired, overhauled, and stockpiled. The fuel requirements were enormous: in addition to the tanks and aircraft, ‘Operation Berlin’ was to involve 85,000 trucks and 10,000 towing vehicles, also requiring fuel. As for artillery ammunition, the planners expected to use over one million shells out of a stockpile of just over seven million on the first day alone. In the event, 1.23 million shells (98,000 tons, delivered in 2450 railway wagon loads) were hurled at the Germans as the offensive opened. Zhukov commented about the logistical operation:

‘The nature of the operation required a steady stream of ammunition from front depots to the troops, bypassing the intermediate links such as army and divisional depots. The railway line was converted to the Russian gauge and ammunition was brought up almost to the very bank of the Oder. To picture the scale of these transport operations it suffices to say that if the trains used to carry these supplies were stretched out buffer to buffer they would have extended over a distance exceeding 1200 km [746 miles].’

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General Heinrici knew which his enemy had well. incorporated Despite the few innovations which Zhukov had incorporated into his plans for this, his greatest battle, he was basically following a well-tried Red Army attack plan. The Voyenniie razvedky (reconnaissances-in-force) tactic of probing the enemy’s front lines for the emplacement and combat readiness of their defences was a Soviet favourite; it signalled to the savvy defender that a full-bore assault could be expected within the next 48 hours. All day on Saturday 14 April, reinforced rifle battalions of Zhukov’s main forward-strike force – the 47th, Third Shock, Fifth Shock, and Eighth Guards Armies – had been making test feints into Ninth Army’s positions. Supported by a few tanks, and covered by artillery fire, the units pushed towards Seelow, in places as far as 5km (3 miles). The reconnaissance forays succeeded in charting a number of minefields and creating some havoc with the German fire system. But they ‘failed’, in the judgement of historian John Erickson, inasmuch as neither Zhukov nor his sub ordinate commanders recognised that the second line of German defences was the crucial one. It was here at which the opening bombardment would have to be directed if the initial assault was not to be seriously stymied. In any event, the Germans were not misled by the Soviet feints; captured German soldiers con fessed to their Soviet interrogators that their commanders had told them that the main assault would not come for another day or two.

Though the Battle of Berlin is usually portrayed as having begun in the early-morning hours of 16 April, it could be said to have actually begun the evening before. Early on the night of the 15th, aircraft of the Fourth and 16th Air Armies began to pound the Germans’ first defensive strip. By then, however Heinrici had already decided that the proper moment had arrived. Shortly after 2030 hours, the commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula suddenly ceased his pacing at his field HQ. ‘It was as though he had suddenly sniffed the very air,’ said an aide. ‘I believe the attack will take place in the early hours, tomorrow,’ Heinrici told his staff, and issued a brief order to General Busse, commander of the Ninth Army: ‘Move back and take up positions on the second line of defence.’ Not all of his generals were pleased with the order to give up their front-line positions; to many it felt like they were retreating before the battle even began. To such complaints the Giftzwerg responded brusquely that in a steel mill one doesn’t leave one’s head under the trip hammer; one pulls it back in time. Under cover of darkness, the pull-back went off remarkably well. Only a handful of troops were left in well-fortified positions on the front line, many unaware that the bulk of their army was withdrawing to secondary positions.

Meanwhile, the Soviet troops were gathering for their customary last-minute pep-talks. In passionate speeches, genuinely emotional political officers mixed their traditional anti-fascist Party rhetoric with good old-fashioned patriotism and appeals to military camaraderie. At the end, the Red Army soldiers took turns swearing on oath on their red flags to fight with bravery and honour. In the words of Eighth Guards commander Colonel General Vassiliy Chuikov, ‘Lenin’s face looked down as if alive from the scarlet banners on the soldier-liberators, as if summoning them to be resolute in the last fight with the hateful foe.’

In the pre-dawn darkness everyone waited tensely. At the stroke of 0400 hours, as Zhukov had ordered, over 40,000 field guns, mortars, and Katyusha rocket-launchers thundered into life. In a ferocious barrage unlike anything seen before in the war, over a million shells and rockets (over 100,000 tonnes) were spewed into the German positions. Eyewitnesses have described the deafening din and terrifying convulsions of the ground as forests and villages as far away as 8km (5 miles) burst into flame and disintegrated under the storm of steel and explosives. The bombardment, joined by hundreds of sorties by the Red Army’s air forces, continued for half an hour. A few minutes before it ended, thousands of green and red flares illuminated the dark night sky. On that signal, the women soldiers operating the searchlights snapped on their huge instruments, instantly flooding the night with an artificial day of a hundred billion candlelight. The starkly lit up scene of the Seelow Heights being blown to bits in front of them was, Zhukov wrote later, ‘an immensely fascinating and impressive sight, and never before in my life had I felt anything like what I felt then’. Captain Sergei Golbov, a front-line correspondent for the Red Army press, reported that the massive bombardment released a huge rush of pent-up energy and emotion in the Soviet troops. All around he saw ‘troops cheering as though they were fighting the Germans hand-to-hand and everywhere men were firing whatever weapons they had even though they could see no target’.

As the aerial and artillery bombardment continued, shifting their range deeper into the German positions, the mechanised and infantry units were given the order to begin the assault. Cheering and yelling wildly, hundreds of thousands of men and machines charged across the Oder and towards the Seelow bluffs. The numbers still on the eastern bank of the river were so high, and the fighting spirit of the Soviet troops so great, that in many places, frustrated by the long waits to get across the clogged bridges and ferries, soldiers commandeered anything they could find – boats, barrels, pieces of wood, tree limbs – to paddle across the river, or simply threw themselves into the water, fully loaded down with weapons and gear, to swim across. Captain Golbov recalled seeing the regimental doctor, ‘a huge man named Nicolaieff, running down the river bank dragging behind him a ridiculously small boat’. As a physician, Nicolaieff was ‘supposed to stay behind the lines at the field hospital, but there he was in this tiny boat, rowing like hell’.

The Germans hardly fired back at all; only a few scattered machine-guns could be discerned from the other side. At first the assault made good progress. When the opening bombardment ended after 30 minutes and the first radio-phone reports began coming in, Chuikov could report that ‘the first objectives have been taken’ by his Eighth Guards Army. Zhukov, who had been observing the opening of the attack from Chuikov’s command post with a perfect view of the Kustrin bridgehead, congratulated his subordinate warmly.

The Marshal’s relief quickly gave way to frustration and anger, however, as the attack swiftly bogged down after just a couple kilometres on the approach to the Seelow Heights. Although in his memoirs Zhukov himself recounted no difficulties with them, part of the problem was the searchlights. Several of his sub-commanders reported that the lights hindered at least as much as they helped the advancing troops. Chuikov wrote in his own memoirs that, blinded and confused by the powerful beams, the troops in many sectors simply ‘came to a halt in front of the streams and canals running across the Oder valley, waiting for the light of dawn to show them clearly the obstacles they had to overcome’. General Andreia Getman, corps commander in Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army, had complained to Lieutenant General Nikolai Popiel, a member of Zhukov’s general staff and a military historian, that, ‘they didn’t blind the main forces of the enemy. But I’ll tell you what they did do – they absolutely spot lighted our tanks and infantry for the German gunners.’ In other sectors, the searchlight operators were given orders to turn the lights off, only to have the orders almost immediately countermanded by higher-ups, resulting in a surreal strobe-light effect over the terrifying battlefield.

But other, more serious problems also slowed the attack. The marshy, boggy terrain, criss-crossed by flooded streams and irrigation canals, proved even more difficult than expected. Many of the SPGs and mechanised vehicles were mired down and started to lag behind, adding to the already chaotic traffic problem. Helplessly churning their wheels and tracks in the mud and water, the bogged-down vehicles were irresistible targets to the German artillery, which now began pounding the Soviets, completely destroying several tanks. The biggest obstacle was the Hauptkanal (Main Canal), located just before the Seelow Heights. The few bridges were under direct German artillery fire, and the banks were too steep for the vehicles to ford the canal which was too swollen by the spring thaw to be manoeuvrable. Here Chuikov’s main axis of assault came to a dead stop, roughly 1.5km (1600yds) from its starting point.

Zhukov, not a commander known for gentleness or diplomacy, was furious. When informed by Chuikov that the advance had stalled, the commander of the First Belorussian Front exploded: ‘What the hell do you mean – your troops are pinned down?’ As the unflapped Chuikov explained what had happened, according to Popiel, Zhukov let loose with ‘a stream of extremely forceful expressions’ – no doubt a decided understatement of the earthy language of this peasant’s son. Zhukov knew well that the attack would not be easy and that they were working under a preposterously short timetable for the conquest of a city the size of Berlin. He was under huge pressure from Stavka, and his leadership style had always been to keep the pressure on his subordinate commanders. But this outburst was clearly more than just a motivational tool: he hadn’t anticipated such immediate difficulties. Zhukov and most of his general staff had fully expected the initial artillery and air bombardment to demolish the primary line of German defences, enabling them to gain the Heights and puncture the forward positions before the Germans had a chance to organise any kind of effective resistance. It was now becoming clear that the Germans had divined their intentions and pulled back most of their forces in time to escape the barrage; they were still almost entirely intact. ‘Our artillery fire hit everything but the enemy,’ was the bitter comment of the commander of the Third Shock Army, General Vasili Kuznetsov. ‘As usual, we stuck to the book, and by now the Germans know our methods.’

At the same time, however, Heinrici knew he was in no position for self-congratulatory gloating. He went over the reports from the front with Busse, commander of the Ninth. Army, in Army Group Vistula’s command post in’ the Schonewalde forest north of Berlin. Though Busse had known what to expect, the opening bombardment had been truly terrifying; in his words, ‘the worst ever’. After the first reports from the front, many in the command post assumed that their forward defences had been total ly annihilated. But the Giftzwergs plan had worked well. At Frankfurt, defenders had even managed to repel the Soviets, throwing them back from their starting positions. But it had all cost the hard-strapped Germans significantly. Some of the Ninth’s commanders reported that they were outnumbered ten to one. One of Busse’s division commanders reported: ‘They come at us in hordes, in wave after wave, without regard to loss of life. We fire our machine guns, often at point-blank range, until they turn red hot. My men are fighting until they run out of ammunition. Then they are simply wiped out or completely overrun. How long this can continue I don’t know.’ Heinrici knew that it was just a matter of time. He had neither the men nor the weapons to hold off the vast numbers of the enemy. And while Zhukov’s assault was, for the moment, pinned down, he wondered what Konev to the south and Rokossovsky in the north were up to. The answer was not long in coming.

GERMAN PARATROOPERS ON SICILY

A German Fallschirmjäger Regiment in Sicily August 1943.

Oberstleutnant Heilmann in Sicily.

It was not until noon on 11 July that Student received orders to move the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division to Italy that afternoon. Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, the division commander, flew with his battle staff to the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief South at Frascati, near Rome.

A short while later, Oberstleutnant Heilmann’s FJR 3 started out from Avignon and Tarascon for Italy. The second lift consisted of the airborne machine-gun battalion and the division’s airborne engineers. The third lift was Oberst Walther’s FJR 4 and the division’s antitank battalion. The final lift was composed of FJR 1 and the airborne artillery battalion.

When FJR 3 approached the airfield at Rome to land, Generalleutnant Heidrich was already there. He greeted Oberst Heilmann with a powerful hand shake: “Good to see you, Heilmann. Despite the delay, I still think it’s possible to throw the enemy back into the sea.”

Heidrich then turned to the commander of the signals company, who had just landed with his men, and briefed him on the necessity of establishing a command and control apparatus on Sicily in the shortest time possible.

On the morning of 12 July, as the paratroopers of FJR 3 were in the process of loading their weapons and equipment on the He 111’s, an advance party was already flying to the island. It consisted of Hauptmann Stangenberg, an officer on the divisional staff, Oberst i.G. Beelitz, the operations officer at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief South, and Hauptmann Specht, the division’s logistics officer.

While that He 111 flew directly to Sicily, the He 111’s of the paratroopers had to make an intermediate stop at Pompligiano near Naples for refueling. The refueling mission there was not without its problems. The day before, the airfield had been bombed and transformed into a wasteland. The refueling was delayed by hours and the regiment was unable to continue its flight to Sicily until the afternoon.

It was exactly 1815 hours, when the first jump horns sounded in the aircraft. Oberstleutnant Heilmann leapt out of the aircraft with determination and soon more than 1,400 parachutes could be seen deployed over the broad wheat fields at Catania. The regiment landed without enemy interference to the south of a line running from Stazione di Passo to Martino. Due to the heavy breeze that was blowing, there were some jump injuries. The regiment was able to jump so close together that Heilmann was able to assemble his regiment in the space of 45 minutes.

Heilmann ordered his men to head south to link up with the vehicles that were waiting for them.

They marched in the direction of Lentini and established contact there at 2000 hours with Kampfgruppe Schmalz of the “Hermann Göring” Division. Oberst Schmalz briefed the senior commanders of the paratroopers on the situation. That night, Heilmann had his men take up positions in a line running between Carlentini and the Mediterranean. The II./FJR 3 was sent by Heilmann to Francofonte, where it was to close the gap between Kampfgruppe Schmalz and its parent division.

While all that was happening, the situation on the island had reached crisis proportions.

While the defensive fighting was raging in the sector of the three paratrooper battalions that had been inserted and Kampfgruppe Schmalz, the airborne division’s machine-gun battalion had landed at Catania during the afternoon of 13 July. Major Schmid, the commander, immediately went to Schmalz’s command post. At the same time, Hauptmann Laun led the battalion towards Primasole, where it rested in an orange tree orchard, taking up concealed positions from the air.

Also landing at the airfield at Catania was the division’s antitank battalion. Two of the aircraft that had just landed fell victim to a bombing run by Flying Fortresses. The Gigant transporters were destroyed, along with all of the equipment and weapons they had on board, decisively weakening the division’s antitank forces.

The division’s signals company, under the command of Oberleutnant Fassel, was dispatched to safeguard Catania’s harbor as soon as it landed, since the Italian garrison had disappeared.

Panzer Division Kampfgruppe Counterattack 1943

ARMORED BATTLE GROUPS

As the war continued, antitank defenses increased and it became increasingly important to react more flexibly to developing situations. Large maneuver elements were often not in a position to do that. Combat-ready tanks (at times without concern for what company they belonged to) were assembled into a “gepanzerte Gruppe” (armored group) and reinforced with SPW-Kompanien (armored-personnel carrier companies). These then formed so called “Panzerkampfgruppen.” Panzerpionier and artillery forces were generally assigned to support them. Depending on the situation, the Panzeraufklärungsabteilung might also be involved. In this case, however, it was frequently employed more in the role of a (light) Panzergrenadierbataillon than for reconnaissance purposes. Divisions that had two Panzerabteilungen could also form two Kampfgruppen, though one of the battalions would have to work with a towed artillery battalion supporting it.

This combination of armored forces proved to be the most successful organization of troops. Only the “purebred” combination that was the Panzerkampfgruppe constituted a team of combined arms. It could work together in ideal fashion due to its armor and comparable operational and tactical mobility. None of the different branches had to exert undue concern for the other or employ it in a situation that endangered it.

The non-armored portion of the division served as the reserve, guarded areas or acted as normal positional troops in defense. That often caused logistical problems, since the Schwerpunkt (point of main effort) usually had to be with the Panzerkampfgruppe. Additional problems arose because no staff for the Kampfgruppe was permanently organized. Instead, it had to be formed by arbitrarily taking people from the parent organization. It would have been more proficient to have a permanent personnel organized for it. Armored battalions were also not given the logistical capacity to operate separately.

The organization and equipment of the Panzeraufklärungsabteilung also did not prove successful. Rather, it left the regiments and battalions lacking their own efficient reconnaissance elements. As for the Panzerjägerabteilung was concerned, it was increasingly proposed to integrate it by companies into the infantry regiments or even into the Panzergrenadierbataillone, since the antitank battalion was only suitable for limited separate employment anyway.

The Panzerkampfgruppe as an organization was not officially introduced during the war. Instead existing organizations were improved incrementally, such as by the formation of supply companies. Inadequate to the end were the numbers and the outfitting of the Panzergrenadiere, the latter due to the lack of adequate production of SPW’s. Most were only motorized and, in fact, really only infantry, since they had to perform all assignments dismounted.

Stalingrad Airlift

Addendum

Ju 86s participating in the airlift operation:

The Ju 86s that were sent to the Eastern Front to participate in the Stalingrad airlift operation, formed KGrzbV 21 and KGrzbV 22. They were subordinated to Oberst Hans Förster, who commanded the Ju 52s at Tatsinskaya.The Ju 86 “RB+NI” piloted by KGrzbV 22’s Unteroffizier Erlbeck the first Ju 86 be lost in the Stalingrad area on December 12, 1942. This Ju 86 was shot down en route from Tatsinskaya to Pitomnik probably by 9 GIAP’s Starshiy Leytenant Arkadiy Kovachevich, who filed this “rare bird” as a “Do 215” (also a twin-boom aircraft).

The city of Stalingrad was not one of Germany’s military goals when Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched its summer offensive in Russia in June of 1942. The goal was to capture the Caucasus, which accounted for 70 percent of Russia’s oil production, and 65 percent of its natural gas. The assault on Stalingrad began on 13 September; the Russians were forced to retreat into the heart of the city, where the battle degenerated into house-to-house fighting. After a protracted period of heavy fighting within the city, the Russians launched a massive counteroffensive northwest of Stalingrad on 19 November. The Rumanian Army on the Don was shattered and retreated. The next day the Russians breached the Axis flank south of Stalingrad, threatening to encircle the Fourth Panzer and the Sixth Armies in two giant pincer movements.

Hitler organized the Army Group Don, under the command of Field Marshal von Manstein, to launch a relief effort. He asked Colonel-General Hans Jeschonnek, chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, if the air force could assist in attempted breakout or relief operations of the Sixth Army. Jeschonnek, who apparently understood that Sixth Army’s encirclement would be a short-term situation, assured Hitler that if transport and bomber aircraft were used, and if adequate airfields inside and outside the encircled area were available, the Luftwaffe could airlift adequate supplies to the army (Hayward, 1998:235). On 22 November, the Russian pincers closed the ring near Kalach, thereby encircling Sixth Army in the land bridge between the Volga and the Don (Jukes, 1985:107). Some 250,000 German soldiers were trapped.

The re-supply effort would require the air force to deliver 750 tons of supplies per day (a figure soon reduced to 500 tons per day). Lieutenant-General Martin Fiebig, commander of Fliegerkorps VIII, the Luftwaffe corps responsible for air operations in the Stalingrad sector, warned Major-General Schmidt, Sixth Army’s chief of staff, that supplying an entire army by air was impossible, particularly when most transport aircraft were already heavily committed in North Africa. Fiebig’s superior, Colonel-General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, agreed that the idea was infeasible, and tried to convince the German leadership that the necessary transport resources were not available (Hayward, 1998: 236). Many army and air force officers advocated that the Sixth Army attempt to break out of the Russian ring as soon as possible.

Jeschonnek quickly realized that adequate logistical support of Sixth Army by air would not be possible, even with favorable weather and no interference from the Russian air force. The standard “250kg” and “1000kg” air-supply containers on which he had based his original airlift calculations actually carried only approximately two-thirds of those loads; the weight categories were derived solely from the size of the bombs they replaced on the racks, not from the weight of the payload they could carry (Hayward, 1998: 240-1). When Jeschonnek tried to explain to Hitler that his earlier assessment had been made in haste, Hitler informed him that Reichsmarschall Goring had given his personal assurance that the air force could meet the army’s needs. In addition, Hitler had publicly announced on 8 November that he was “master of Stalingrad,” a statement that became his policy: to hold on to Stalingrad (Hayward, 1998: 215).

The necessary aircraft and crews for the Stalingrad airlift were assembled on short notice from the advanced flight training schools, using mostly Ju-52 and He-111 aircraft (Boog, 1978: 142). The Ju-52 carried about two and a half tons of cargo, and the He-111 could carry only two tons. Von Richthofen began airlift operations as ordered on 24 November. Approximately 320 Ju-52 and Ju-86 transports located at Tazinskaya and approximately 190 He-111 bombers at Morosovskaya were available to conduct the airlift. Neither transport type could trade much fuel for freight, because the distance from Tazinskaya to Pitomik, the main airfield at Stalingrad, was 140 miles (Whiting, 1978: 114). The primary load delivered to Stalingrad was ammunition, which the Germans desperately needed to withstand the Russian attacks. The Germans had previously agreed to slaughter and eat the horses that had carried their supplies when they first arrived in Stalingrad. But eventually even the horses were gone.

Fortunately for the Germans, the Russian air force only sporadically interfered with the airlift effort (Whiting, 1978: 113). The Russian Army continued to widen the corridor over which the German transports had to fly, and installed increasing numbers of anti-aircraft guns in it. A greater problem than the Russian aircraft and anti-aircraft fire, however, was the winter weather; the aircraft had to stand down for days, as temperatures reached 30 degrees below zero. In such appalling weather, the crews delivered only ninety-four tons daily (Mason, 1973: 367). The high point of the airlift occurred when 700 tons was delivered between 19 and 21 December—that is, 700 tons for all three days combined (Whiting, 1978: 114).

The supply airfields at Tazinskaya [24th DEC] and Morosovskaya fell into Russian hands on 22 December, increasing the distance the transports had to fly from 140 to 200 miles.

Tatsinskaya:

A total of 124 transport planes—108 Ju 52s and 16 Ju 86s were able to take off and escape destruction at Tatsinskaya when General-Mayor Badanov’s 24th Tank Corps reached that place in the early morning hours of December 24, 1942. At least 50 aircraft were run over by Badanov’s tank troops at Tatsinskaya – 24 Ju 86s, 22 Ju 52s, 2 I./KG 51 Ju 88s, and 2 planes from 3.(F)/10. The Soviets also captured hundreds of tons of supplies — including 300 tons of gasoline and oil, and five complete ammunition stores, according to Soviet accounts – and valuable equipment such as engine-warming wagons, and tank trucks.

Manstein gave up hope of relieving Stalingrad on 23 December (Jukes, 1985: 125). Pitomik airfield was overrun on 16 January, and the smaller auxiliary airfield at Gumrak was seized on 21 January (Whiting, 1978: 115). The Sixth Army was split into two pockets by the Russian Army, with no hope of relief or resupply. Paulus, in the southern pocket, surrendered on 31 January, but the German troops in the northern pocket held out for two more days. German radio reported the fall of Stalingrad on 3 February.

As a result of the defeat, the German Army lost enough material to equip a quarter of the German Army. There were approximately 150,000 dead, and another 90,000 taken prisoner, including 24 generals and 2,000 officers. Of these, only about 6,000 returned home. The Luftwaffe lost approximately 488 aircraft and 1,000 air crew (which includes only transport losses) during the Stalingrad airlift (Mason,1973: 367; Hayward, 1998: 310). The decision to support Stalingrad by airlift was a costly one, and it proved to be a turning point in the war.

On 14 January 1943 Pitomnik airfield was captured by the Russians. This had been a vital base for the Stalingrad airlift, so many supplies had to be parachuted in. The last 40,000 German troops surrendered on 2 February. The German losses at Stalingrad had been 110,500 killed, 50,000 wounded and 107,500 taken prisoner. The Russians lost 750,000 troops and 250,000 civilians killed. The Luftwaffe lost 266 Ju52s, 165 He111s, 42 Ju86s, 9 FW200s, 5 He177s and a single Ju290 in the air lift. KG55 lost 59 aircraft, but evacuated 9,161 troops from November to the fall of Stalingrad.

November 29 ’42 – Feb 3 ’43

Total sorties: 2,566

Effective sorties: 2,260 (91%)

Deliveries:

Provisions: 1,541.4

Ammunition: 767.50

Misc.: 99.16

Total 2,407.80 tons

Fuel in cubicm

B 4 609.07

“Otto” 459.35

Diesel 42.60

1,111.02 cubicm = 887.00 tons

Grand Total: 3,294.80 tons

Return flights of transports carried out of the pocket:

  • 9,208 Officers and Other ranks
  • Empty containers 2,369
  • Sacks of Mail 533

From a report of Transport Command 1 commanded by Colonel Ernst Kühl. He was responsible only for He 111 formations. Ju 52 and other formations were under command of Transport Commander 2.

On November 28 3 Yak-1s of 287th fighter regiment shoot down 4 Ju 52 transports, two days later five more Ju 52s and a Me 109 are downed by the 283rd fighter division out of 17 transport planes and four Me 109 escorts. December the 2nd saw 17 transports destroyed on the ground while unloading supplies. Eight La-5s and nine Yak-1s attack 16 Ju 52s escorted by four Me 109s on December 11th scoring nine kills.

At the end 109 Ju 52s and 16 Ju 86s managed to escape from Tazi (Tatsinkaya) as shells from Soviet tanks rained down on the field. 60 wrecked transports remained at Tatsinkaya.

Total losses in this desperate attempt at supplying 6th army from the air amounted to 266 Ju 52s, 165 He 111s, 42 Ju 86s, 9 Fw 200s, seven He 177s and one Ju 290.

Twenty-Fourth Tank Corps of 1st Guards Army in the Tatsinskaya Raid, December 1942

Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part I

August began poorly for the powerful Sixth Army, heading across flat steppes in scorching heat towards Stalingrad. On the first of the month, Generaloberst Halder bitterly complained in his diary (as he had several times in the last two weeks): “Our attack can’t proceed because of fuel and ammunition shortages”. The following day, von Richthofen, whose air transport units relieved some of those shortages, noted in his own diary that Sixth Army sat “bogged down” in front of Stalingrad, partly because of stiff opposition but mainly because of acute logistical problems. Unlike the ever-pessimistic army chief, the latter remained confident, adding light-heartedly that “the enemy attempts to fling troops from every point of the compass into the Stalingrad sector. He’s hell-bent on holding the city. This means that, when the city falls, Stalin will have to sue for peace. Well, well!” He was not the only senior commander to believe that the fali of the city was the key to German success in the east. Three days earlier, Jodi had trumpeted (with a prophetic resonance that would later haunt him): “the fate of the Caucasus will be decided at Stalingrad”.

During the first weeks of August, Sixth Army advanced fitfully, frequently crippled by fuel and ammunition shortages. As noted earlier, von Richthofen did everything possible to improve the army’s supply situation. He requested the OKL to send additional Ju 52 groups, transferred north most of Pflugbeil’s (and his road transport companies), created a special Stalingrad “transport region”, and ordered immediate increases in transportation levels through intensified effort and improved procedures. The army undertook its own measures to improve its supply situation. The efforts of both service branches bore fruit, particularly those of the Luftwaffe, which continued flying forward large amounts of ammunition and provisions and smaller amounts of fuel (dangerous and difficult to airlift because of its flammability and huge volume). By the third week of August, Sixth Army began receiving sufficient supplies for it to carry out most of its missions without hardship.

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. The guns of Genera/major Pickert’s 9th Flak Division smashed field fortifications and enemy vehicles and generally kept the airspace above Sixth Army free of the enemy fighters and Shturmoviks that frequently eluded Fiebig’s own fighters. The division’s actions did not pass unnoticed.

On 8 August Pickert personally received Paulus’ “praise … for the close co-operation between the army and the flak teams”. On 6 August, Hitler ordered von Richthofen to support Sixth Army’s renewed attack across the Don at Kalach, due to start the following day. The air chief immediately flew to Paulus’ command post, where he found the army commander “confident”, and then to Army Group B’s headquarters, where he found an equally-optimistic von Weichs furiously raging about the lethargic efforts of his Italian and Hungarian components. They discussed their plans for the coming weeks and carefully co-ordinated a joint Schwerpunkt at Kalach, which, the air leader noted in his diary, “we’re going to hit tomorrow with all our forces”.

Schwerpunktbildung-the creation of individual points of maximum effort-had not been possible throughout most of July, when widely-dispersed army formations advanced at different rates in different directions with different objectives. Moreover, von Richthofen lacked sufficient aircraft to concentrate substantial numbers in support of all those formations. Instead, he had to dissipate his forces by deploying smaller numbers alternately in support of various army efforts, sometimes in two or three separate regions at a time. Things were now different. His fleet was still divided-one air corps supported the drive to Stalingrad, the other the drive to the Caucasus oilfields-but at least he could create a single Schwerpunkt at the Kalach bridgehead for Fiebig’s entire close-support force.

Early on 7 August, Paulus’ Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps sliced into that bridgehead from north and south, their armoured vanguards receiving massive support from Fiebig’s air corps and elements of Pflugbeil’s, Late in the afternoon, the pincers clamped tight near the west bank of the Don, opposite Kalach, trapping the main body of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army. Joined by the Fifty-First Army Corps, the Panzer corps began methodically cleaning out the pocket. Hitler was ecstatic; he had envisaged a series of classic double envelopments like this when planning Blau, but this was the first encirclement of any significance actually accomplished so far. His booty was impressive, as von Richthofen privately noted on 10 August: “Fliegerkorps VIII finally clears out the Kalach pocket in conjunction with Sixth Army, capturing 50,000 prisoners and 1,100 tanks.”

Throughout this period, Fiebig’s dive bombers and ground attack units encountered steady, but rarely powerful, VVS opposition as they smashed troops, vehicles and field positions in the pocket. Bombers, escorted by fighters, also encountered little air opposition as they pounded trains and railway installations south of Stalingrad and airfields south” west of the city (claiming the destruction of 20 enemy aircraft on the ground on 10 August alone). General T. T. Khriukin’s Eighth Air Army had done all it could in recent weeks to stem the German advance, but its strength had been drastically reduced in savage air combat and its valiant efforts against Fiebig’s technically and numerically superior force achieved nothing. The Stavka dispatched a constant stream of reinforcements to Khriukin’s force-447 aircraft between 20 July and 17 August-but the vastly “outclassed and still” outnumbered Eighth Air Army failed to prevent a steady deterioration of the situation around beleaguered Stalingrad. In fact, the air army’s attrition rate ran almost as high as the reinforcement rate, so little improvement in strength occurred.

On 5 August, the Stavka substantially bolstered the VVS’s local strength when it split the Stalingrad Front into two separate commands: the Southeastern Front, supported by Eighth Air Army, and a new Stalingrad Front, supported by General P. S. Stepanov’s hastily formed Sixteenth Air Army. Both air armies received a steady flow of reinforcements, including Yak-1s, Yak 7-bs, Il-2s, Pe-2s and other newer models. However, most units arrived at the front well below strength. The 228th Shturmovik Air Division, for example, commenced combat operations with only one-third of its prescribed complement. Most units also arrived with inexperienced aircrew-no match for their German counterparts as well as poor logistical networks and dismal army-air communication and liaison systems. Prematurely assigned to frontline airfields, these units began reconnaissance and combat operations immediately. As a result, they suffered severe losses and failed to rob the Luftwaffe of its overwhelming air supremacy. For instance, if its daily reports are accurate, Fliegerkorps VIII suffered no losses as it destroyed 25 of the 26 Soviet aircraft that attacked German airfields on 12 August It destroyed 35 out of 45 the following day, again for no losses.

With much of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army now marching westwards into captivity, Paulus struck for Stalingrad. He did not choose the most direct route, due east from Kalach. That route was criss-crossed by deep gullies that would provide the enemy splendid defensive opportunities and frequently force tanks to make lengthy detours. Instead, the army commander decided to send his two Panzer corps to the “northeast corner” of the great Don bend, where they would establish bridgeheads for the advance on Stalingrad.

The loss of 50,000 troops and a thousand tanks, coupled with the collapse of the Kalach bulwark, which he prayed would hold back the rising Axis tide, threw Stalin into panic. He cast more reserves into the region and, on 13 August, placed both the Stalingrad and the Southeastern Fronts under the authority of one of his most trusted field commanders, Colonel-General Yeremenko. Directing the actions of two Fronts was, the latter once remarked, “an extremely heavy burden”, especially as it involved conducting operations through two deputies, two chiefs of staff and two staffs.

Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, meanwhile, had made excellent progress in the last two weeks. Its drive northwards from the Caucasus brought its right-flank vanguards up to Abganerovo Station on the railway 70 kilometres south of Stalingrad. The VVS had unsuccessfully tried to blunt its advance by diverting the bulk of its combat forces south, but ‘frantically had to rush it back to the Don bend when Sixth Army began its attack across the Kletskaya-Peskovatka line on 15 August. In two days, Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps cleared the entire Don bend and Eighth Army Corps captured two small bridgeheads near Trekhostrovskaya, at the bend’s easternmost point. Unfortunately for Paulus, the marshy terrain in this sector proved unsuitable for tanks and Yeremenko threw First Guards Army into the battle. By 18 August, it had pushed divisions westwards across the Don and re-established a 35-kilometre-long bridgehead from Kremenskaya to Sirotinskaya.

Unwilling to waste time and suffer unnecessary losses in a prolonged contest for the Don bend, an uncharacteristically-daring Paulus thrust Fifty-First Army Corps across the Don towards Vertyachiy on 21 August. Although this attack left his left flank dangerously exposed, it succeeded brilliantly. Surprised by their enemy’s daring, the Soviet defenders fell back helplessly. By next morning, Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ tanks were rolling over two massive bridges thrown across the Don by German engineers.

These were favourable days for Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII. It deployed most of its bombers against Black Sea ports and shipping and its powerful ground attack and dive bomber groups against the Soviet formations resisting both Paulus’ advance across the Don and Hoth’s drive on Stalingrad from the south. The air corps notched up excellent tallies of enemy aircraft: it claimed 139 victims in 3 days. It also inflicted heavy damage on enemy troops and armour contesting the battlefield. On 21 August, for instance, von Richthofen flew over the Don bend north of Kalach and found himself staring down at “extraordinarily many knocked-out tanks and dead [Russians]”. Later that day, Ju 88s of K. G. 76 massacred two reserve divisions caught in the open 150 kilometres east of Stalingrad, prompting the delighted air fleet commander to scrawl excitedly in his diary: “Blood flowed!” (Von Richthofen’s original text says “Blut gerühlt!’, not “beautiful bloodbath!”

(toiles Blutbad) as both Williamson Murray and Richard Muller assert, basing their statements on the few subjectively-edited and frequently-inaccurate diary extracts found in the “Karlsruhe Collection”. Two days later-while Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army barely moved in the south because of acute shortages of fuel and ammunition-General der Panzeltruppen von Wietersheim’s Fourteenth Panzer Corps surged across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers, reaching the latter in Stalingrad’s northern suburbs at 1600 hours. Generalleutnant Hans Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, the corps’ mailed fist, smashed more than thirty artillery batteries in those suburbs. The enemy gunfire was woefully inaccurate. After the one-armed Hube’s men closed in on the wrecked batteries, they learned why: the guns had been “manned” by hastily-deployed and totally-untrained civilians, mostly women, now lying dead in their blood-stained cotton dresses.

Von Wietersheim’s corps accomplished its remarkable advance (which deeply shocked the Soviet leadership) by moving up closely behind a deluge of shrapnel and high explosives rained down on enemy positions by Fliegerkorps VIII, now permanently reinforced by units stripped from Fliegerkorps IV. “Since early morning we were constantly over the Panzer Spearheads, helping them forward with our bombs and machine-guns,” recalled Hauptmann Herbert Pabst, commander of a Stuka squadron. “We landed, refuelled, received bombs and ammunition, and immediately took off again. It was ‘all go’ and splendid advances. As we took off, others landed. And so it went.” During 1,600 nonstop sorties, Fiebig’s units dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the enemy troops and defensive positions in the corps’ advance path, destroying all opposition (as von Richthofen wrote, “totally paralyzing the Russians”). Apparently suffering only three losses the entire day (certainly not 90, as several post-war Soviet accounts absurdly maintain), they also ravaged VVS forces desperately trying to destroy Don crossings and halt von Wietersheim’s advance. They claimed 91 aircraft destroyed in what even the Soviets acknowledged were “fierce battles”.

Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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