Stalingrad – The Death of the Wehrmacht’s 6th Army

6th Army To Stalingrad

On 12 September 1942 German troops were within four kilometres from the centre of Stalingrad – a big city, industrial centre and an important communication node on the Volga, in the place where the river changes its stream from south-west to south-east and down to the Caspian Sea. German artillery and air forces incessantly harassed the city. It was held by two Soviet armies, the 62nd and the 64th, which had very few troops as they were substantially whipped in the previous fights. On 13 September the bulk of the advancing German forces commenced a general assault on the city. Six divisions were designated to take the Mamai Hill, mounting over the vicinity, as well as the city railway station. General Vasiliy Chuikov, who had just assumed the command of the 62nd Army deployed on the Mamai Hill, remembered the gloomy sight that was Stalingrad on those days:

“The streets of the city are dead. There is not a single green branch on the trees: everything has perished in the fires. Wooden houses have turned into ashes with chimneys sticking out of them. The many stone houses are burnt out, their doors and windows missing and roofs caved in. Now and then, a building that is still standing collapses. People are running about in the ruins, pulling out bundles, samovars and crockery, and carrying everything to the landing-stage.”

Soviet troops brought from the left bank of the Volga threw the enemy from the Mamai Hill. Heavy fights for that important position lasted ten days; eventually the Germans held only few positions on the slopes. Before 27 September they also managed to take most of the southern part of the city, or rather what remained of it, stretched along the Volga, including the railway station, which changed hands several times. The defenders though held the centre and the northern districts, and, what is more important, ferry lines linking the city with the supply bases on the east bank of Volga, including the most important of them, Krasnaya Sloboda.

Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler was firmly convinced that the final seizure of Stalingrad by the forces of the German 6th Army, and their crossing to the east side of the Volga, was just a matter of time. And that is why Colonel Wilhelm Adam, the aide-de-camp of the commander of the 6th Army, Gen. Friedrich von Paulus, made a very interesting record in his memoirs regarding those days:

“On one of those days some Colonel reported to my headquarters. I was ordered to bring him in. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht has directed me to the 6th Army as the military commandant of Stalingrad, he said. After reporting to the commander of the Army I would like to assume my duties as soon as possible.

I barely could refrain from bursting in laughter: You will have to wait a little. Our divisions are fighting yet in the outskirts of the city.

Well, it cannot take much time, can it?

Try to understand… Taking of one single house can take days here. Our tanks, indeed, made a thrust to Volga on 23 September, but it does not mean that we have taken the city. After fourteen days of fights we are still in the outskirts. In the meantime you may report to the Army chief of staff, General Schmidt. He will explain even better than I, what is going on here.

The hitlerite commandant of Stalingrad had never done his job. He lost it just like those before him lost their jobs in Berlin-appointed commandants of London, Moscow and Cairo. But what exactly happened in Stalingrad – the city massacred by perpetual air and artillery bombardment, the city, where no structure was left intact with the exception of a fountain in the middle of the city? Well, it happened that those structures turned into forts, which had to be stormed for weeks until levelled or blown up together with their defenders. General von Paulus himself understood the situation very well, as he explained to his aide-de-camp:

“You know very well that our divisions have melted to the size of regiments. But it is not the only reason. The resistance of the Red Armies in the past days stiffened so much that we did not expect it. Today no soldier or officer speaks with contempt about the “Ivan” as it used to be not so long ago. The soldiers of the Red Army every day master more and more hand-to-hand fights, street fights, camouflage… Our artillery and Luftwaffe literally plough through the terrain before each attack, and yet, when our infantry comes out in open, it falls under hell of a fire. If by day we gain a success in some sectors, by night Russians counter-attack and push us back, often as far as to the initial positions.

Also, the Russian command has become better taught. We have got an impression that they want to hold their positions on the west bank of the Volga at any price. The strip they occupy in some places is barely 100 to 200 metres wide. According to the prisoners, even the commanding post of their 62nd Army is in a dug-out on the steep west bank slopes. Reportedly, since mid-September a General Tschuikow is in charge of the Army. Every now and then he manages to bring fresh divisions in across the Volga. His combat strength grows, ours is dropping. Those five engineers battalions, that were airlifted here, sustained such casualties in the attacks on the northern part of the city that we had to pull them out.”

Without any doubt, the invaders had met unforeseen troubles. They clashed with the people fighting in defence of their home, literally with the back to the wall, and with the genuine determination of the soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives. But what were the defenders’ forces, what could they engage in the battle with the enemy confident in his victory? After all they were fighting on the positions, to which they retreated after heavy, exhausting and lost fights. Gen. Chuikov gives us a full account:

“The number of divisions and brigades which made up the 62nd Army does not give an accurate and full picture of its numerical strength. For example, on the morning of September 14, one armoured brigade had only one tank; two other armoured brigades had no tanks at all and were soon moved across to the left bank to be re-formed. The composite regiment of Glazkov’s division on the evening of September 14 had about a hundred infantry, that is, less than a normal company; the total number of men in the next division to his was not more than 1,500, and the number of infantry in the division was not more than a normal battalion. The motorized infantry brigade had 666 men, including no more than 200 infantrymen; the Guards Division of Colonel Dubyanski on the left flank had no more than 250 infantrymen. Only one division, that of Colonel Sarayev, and two infantry brigades, were more or less up to strength.

The 62nd Army had no integrated communications with neighbours to left and right. Both our flanks were anchored at the Volga. While the Germans were able to fly up to three thousand sorties a day, our air force could not retaliate with even a tenth of that number.”

On 4 October German troops wedged into the industrial complex in the northern part of Stalingrad. There they fought for many days for each block, each storage, each workshop and each machine-tool. On 14 October the Germans launched a general advance with the forces of eight infantry divisions. It had to bring them the final victory. Next day they took the tractor works, one of the key defence positions, and consolidated their defences along the factory’s perimeter. From there they could see Volga. But going to wash their boots in its waters would come with a great risk.

On 17 October the 62nd Army, fighting in the defence of Stalingrad, was reinforced by the 138th Infantry Division ferried across the river on the small boats of the Volga River Flotilla. Two days later the forces of the Don Front, commanded by Gen. Konstantin Rokossovskiy, struck from the north and engaged substantial enemy forces. Chuikov’s neighbour in the south, the 64th Army, at the same time counter-attacked in the vicinity of the river port and village Kuporosnoye. The success was limited, the troops moved forward less than four kilometres, but it was a pivotal point of the battle – the Soviet troops started counter-attacking, while the hitlerites lacked reserves to reinforce their defences.

On 11 November von Paulus sent his divisions for the last assault. They managed to cut the 138th Division from the main forces of the 62nd Army, and once again had a close look at the Volga – the event widely published in the media in Germany and throughout occupied Europe. They did not know that from that perspective they were watching the river for the last time. Meanwhile Berlin was celebrating an impending victory, and appropriate authorities decided that the participants of the battle for Stalingrad should have a special badge commemorating such an event, just like it was done after the battles of Narvik and Crimea. The headquarters of the 6th Army received the order to have the draft of the badge prepared before 25 November. If only hitlerite strategists could have foreseen what would hapen in Stalingrad on 25 November.

Already in September a German Corporal called Walter was writing to his mother: “Stalingrad is hell on earth. It is Verdun, bloody Verdun, with new weapons. We attack every day. If we capture twenty yards in the morning the Russians throw us back again in the evening.” The hell on earth was bound to become even hotter in October and November. The Soviet command was receiving intelligence information monitoring the steady exhaustion of the enemy. According to Chuikov:

“Paulus could not repeat an attack on the scale of the one on October 14. To do that he would have had to have a lengthy breathing-space of ten to fifteen days in order to bring up large quantities of shells, bombs and tanks. We knew, however, that in the region of Gumrak and Voroponovo there were two enemy reserve divisions which could be brought into action. We reckoned that it would take between three and five days for these divisions also to spend themselves, and Paulus would have to relax his pressure. We would then be able to pull ourselves together, regroup our forces and consolidate our positions. But how were we going to survive those three to five days, when we had such small forces at our disposal? The 37th, 308th and 193rd Divisions existed in reality only as numbers – they had only a few hundred infantrymen left between them. After holding off the enemy’s most powerful attack we were so weak that we doubted whether we would be able to beat off attacks by fresh enemy reserves, but everyone, as before, was prepared to fight to the last man and the last round. Our fighting spirit was higher than ever. If anyone had offered us for some reason or other to leave the city, all of us, soldiers, officers, generals, would have treated the order as a fake or as a betrayal and would not have crossed the Volga.”

The commander of the Don Front, General and future Marshal of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovskiy, noted in his memoirs that one could sense that the enemy had exhausted his offensive possibilities. The flanks of his main group between the two rivers and Stalingrad were poorly protected, and he did not have enough reserves to organise adequate defences in the occupied area. His communications were vulnerable over a vast territory.

Paulus realised the hopeless situation of his army, which could not make a single step forward, hazarded into dire miles of the wide, empty and hostile steppes. He contemplated the necessity to withdraw his forces, especially when the intelligence started to alarm him with reports of a possible major Soviet counter-offensive. After all, even the dullest Corporal could deduce such a danger just from a single look at the map. But in Hitler’s headquarters nobody believed in such a possibility. “They figure, Paulus complained to his aide-de-camp, that from the distance of more than two thousand kilometres they are able to evaluate the situation on the front better than us. Absurd! Such disregard of the enemy is unheard of. If the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht doesn’t take quick steps to secure our wings, it will face the perspective of losing the whole army.” And that moment was indeed coming. It was prepared with the utmost mobilization of the resources of the whole Soviet Union. It came before the headquarters of the 6th Army had the Stalingrad badge ready.

The case studies of a great counter-offensive in the vicinity of Stalingrad were initiated in the Supreme Command (Stavka) and then passed to the General Staff already towards the end of September 1942, still during the mounting enemy advance. The Russians had learned from previous failures, especially the lack of concentration of their forces and weak co-operation between fronts. Here is how Rokossovskiy outlined the whole plan:

“The plan of the offensive involved the armies of three fronts. The Stalingrad Front was to strike with its left flank from the neighbourhood of the Sarpa lakes. The Don Front was to pin down as many enemy troops as possible in the Volga-Don country and at the same time strike on its right flank in close co-operation with its neighbour on the right, the newly organised Southwestern Front, which was to deal the main blow from the bridgeheads on the southern bank of the Don. The idea thus was to deal two powerful blows at the flanks of the enemy’s Stalingrad group and surround it.

The General Staff and the GHQ must be given the credit for their excellent timing. We were in a position to create a superiority in manpower and materiel on the main lines of attack. The essential thing was to prevent the enemy from organising the defence and withdrawing troops from the Volga-Don area for building up reserves.

We all realised that there was no time to waste. The General Staff realised this too, and preparations for the operation went ahead swiftly.

On November 3, I was invited with a group of staff officers to attend a conference in the zone of the 21st Army, now under the Southwestern Front. The meeting, presided over by Zhukov, was attended by all army commanders and the commanders of the divisions assigned to the main effort. Special attention was given to co-ordination between neighbours at Front boundaries.

Later we heard that a similar meeting was held on the Stalingrad Front as well.

The command of the fronts was entrusted to Generals Nikolay Vatutin (South-West), Konstantin Rokossovskiy (Don) and Andrei Yeremenko (Stalingrad). Co-ordination of the operations of the three fronts was entrusted to the Stavka’s envoy, formerly chief of the General Staff, Alexander Vasilevskiy. The German supreme command remained oblivious to the pending catastrophe and the factors that conditioned it. According to John Frederic Charles Fuller:

“The first was that the Russians were increasingly becoming war experienced soldiers, and the second that their factories beyond the Volga and the Urals were increasingly approaching full production.”

Despite of mounting troubles, caused by German occupation of vast areas, including some major industrial centres, the Soviet command managed to concentrate, for the pending battle on the Volga, a huge amount of the troops and arm them with modern combat equipment.

In short, the Red Army had rebuilt its combat capacities and the Germans lost their overwhelming strategic superiority. Joachim Wieder, aide-de-camp of the operations division in the headquarters of the VIII Silesian Corps of the German 6th Army thus remembers the day 19 November 1942:

“The nineteenth of November will live in my memory as a day of black disaster. At the break of dawn on this gloomy, foggy day in late autumn, during which lashing snowstorms were soon to appear, there began, simultaneously with the onset of an extraordinarily hard eastern winter, the catastrophe on the most rashly advanced sector of our German front in the east that had been feared and anxiously anticipated by many. With devastating force, the Russian offensive first struck the neighbouring Romanian formations on the left flank of the army of Stalingrad. This took place in the big bend of the Don south of Kremenskaya.

The fateful day of 19 November 1942 began at 7:30, in the shade of a winter morning, with the salvoes of a powerful artillery barrage. Then the South-Western and Don Fronts started to advance in the northern sector, instantly breaking the first line of the enemy defences. There the core of the Romanian V Corps was annihilated; also annihilated was the Romanian 1st Armoured Division who’d been armed with captured French and Czechoslovak tanks. Next day the forces of the Stalingrad Front started the advance in the southern sector to a complete surprise of the German troops concentrated between Volga and Don:

Stunned, we stared at our situation maps, on which menacing thick red lines of encirclement and arrows showed the enemy attacks, penetrations and directions of advance. We had never imagined a catastrophe of such proportions to be possible!”

The abstract map pictures soon gained life and colour from the reports and stories of many men on the run from the north and west bringing with them tales of disaster. They came from Kalach, where on 21 November, the sudden materialisation of Soviet tanks had created such a panic in the peaceful quiet of the rear echelons that even the strategically important bridge over the Don had fallen into enemy hands.

The advance of the Stalingrad Front, hastening to meet the fronts advancing from the north, broke through the defences of the Romanian 4th and 4th Armoured Armies. “We found ourselves in deep trouble, noted Colonel Adam. The Soviet command was closing the ring. We tried to counter-attack with the elements of the XIV and XLVIII Armoured Corps. But what if it failed? What if our armoured forces were inadequate? Then the enemy would tighten the noose, and the 6th Army would fall in trap.”

And indeed it fell, and terribly quickly on top of that. It happened on 23 November, when the Soviet troops coming towards each other met in the vicinity of Kalach on Don. The ring was closed. It encircled 22 divisions of the 6th Army and elements of the 4th Armoured Army, as well as an AA artillery division, 12 engineers battalions, a dozen regiments of artillery and mortars, elements of a Romanian cavalry division and loose groups of crushed units for example the so-called regiment of Croatian infantry. Altogether it made up to 300,000 Germans and about 30,000 of their Romanian and Croatian satellites. After that gigantic “cauldron” was closed, Paulus received from Hitler a categoric order to hold on the Volga and organize defences with reversed front. New forces had to come to aid the encirclement.

Indeed, the supreme German command did not lose time to organize them. On 28 November Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein assumed command of the newly created Army Group Don, with the task to break through to the 6th Army and release it from the encirclement. Manstein received all the forces that escaped encirclement, namely so-called Armoured Group Hoth – reinforced remnants of the crushed 4th Armoured Army – scattered remnants of the Romanian 4th and 3rd Armies, reinforced German infantry division called Army Detachment Hollidt, from the name of its commander, and the Italian 8th Army. More infantry divisions were most hastily moved from other sectors of the front and from West Europe. Altogether he had collected thirty divisions. He struck on 12 December from the vicinity of village Kotelnikovskiy, located some 150km south-west from Stalingrad. Having mounted local superiority in forces, Manstein gained some ground on the first days of his offensive. By 15 December he had covered 50km, which was quite an achievement in view of ardent Soviet defence, and difficult terrain and weather conditions. General Hermann Hoth was already broadcasting to the encircled 6th Army:

Hold on, we are coming! Hold on, the Führer will get you out!

On 19 December Hoth’s group summoned its whole strength and approached to within 40km of Stalingrad. Later Manstein noted melancholically in his memoirs that his troops already had seen on the horizon the glow of the battle of Stalingrad. But that was about it. Paulus’ troops tried yet to fight a way through to the south-west, but at the same time the Soviet command made an immediate decision to introduce into the fight the 2nd Army of Guards (Gen. Rodion Malinovskiy). Hoth’s troops were halted; Paulus’ troops did not break out of the “cauldron”. And there started their final agony.

Paulus’ staff started burning archives. Apart from the design of the Stalingrad badge, they also burnt the paper that recorded Hitler’s order received some time earlier:

Sixth Army has been temporarily encircled by Russian forces. The army may rest assured that I will do everything to supply it accordingly and to relieve it in time.

When the land forces failed to relieve the 6th Army, all hopes were put in the airlift that was supposed to be provided under personal supervision of the boastful commander of the air forces, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. But the airlift was out of question too. The Soviet air forces were wrestling superiority in the air away from the Luftwaffe, and on top of that the Luftwaffe did not possess enough transport planes to shift all the supplies necessary to keep a field army operational. So, soon the 6th Army resorted to eating its own horses.

The command of the 6th Army seemed to ripen for capitulation. Neither von Paulus nor his officers believed in the possibility of a successful defence, and the commander of the defence sectors in the north and along the Volga, General Walther von Seydlitz und Kurzbach, openly spoke against the orders to hold the “cauldron” at any price. But still they obeyed the orders. They did not ripen for the decisions they made later in the captivity.

On 24 December a powerful Soviet grouping made up of the 2nd Army of Guards, 5th Assault Army, 51st Army, an armoured corps and two mechanized corps went on a new offensive at Kotelnikovskiy, which was subsequently taken on 29 December. Hoth’s group was routed, and Manstein fled from to Taganrog, 200km westward. The first line of German defences was running now some 150km from the encircled 6th Army. Nothing could save it, not even the German propaganda, which had christened the Stalingrad “cauldron” the Festung Stalingrad (Fortress Stalingrad).

On 8 January the Soviet command presented Paulus an ultimatum calling upon him to spare the misery of his troops and surrender. Paulus fully understood the hopeless situation of his army, but lacked the guts to make a decision. He transmitted the text of the ultimatum to Berlin awaiting further orders. Predictably, Hitler’s stance remained unchanged:

Capitulation is out of the question. Sixth Army is fulfilling its historic obligation by its staunch resistance, to facilitate the creation of a new front at Rostov and the withdrawal of the Caucasian Army Group.

Hitler had invented a new idea: to use the Army Group A, being pulled out of the Caucasus, to improve the situation. But the German commanders in the Caucasus were already thinking how they would save their own arses. On 11 January, the 48th Army launched a counter-offensive in the area of Neftyegorsk and Maikop. It was followed by the 18th Army, which drove the enemy to the north-west, and on 16 January struck the 56th Army (Gen. Andrei Grechko), which within a week, crushed the German defence and reached Krasnodar and river Kuban.

Meanwhile in the Stalingrad “cauldron”, on 25 January the commander of the 297th Infantry Division, Gen. Moritz Drebber, surrendered his troops to the Russians. Thus the 6th Army started falling apart. Later, Gen. Alexander von Hartmann was killed, and General Richard Stempel, the commander of the 371st Infantry Division committed suicide, and their troops began an uncontrolled surrender. A new Soviet offensive reduced the “cauldron” in size, and deprived it of the last airfield near Pitomnik. Air communication with the main German forces, by then deployed some 350km away, became a matter of luck. Joachim Wieder wrote about the situation in the second half of January:

“On all sides the Russians had pressed forward to the edge of the Stalingrad suburbs. The iron ring of destruction tightened ever closer around the place where the horrible fate of the doomed army was drawing to a close. The stage set of its downfall was eerie and ghostly. It was the gigantic pile of ruins and debris of Stalingrad that stretched for more than twenty kilometres along the high right bank of the Volga: a desolate city that had bled and died from a thousand wounds.”

Over the ruins of Stalingrad fell an almost unceasing barrage of artillery and mortar-fire. This, together with the repeated air attacks, continued to cause new casualties among the human masses of the dying army which had flooded into the city centre and were experiencing hell on earth during the last days of January.

The army of sick and wounded rapidly assumed horrifying dimensions.

On 26 January the inflexible 62nd Army met in the vicinity of the Mamai Hill the soviet troops advancing from the west. The “cauldron” was dissected. General Seydlitz und Kurzbach assumed command of the northern group, while Paulus commanded in the south from his headquarters. Outside it continued the merciless struggle. Colonel Adam noted that every hour harvested new victims. Nobody counted them. I had not received any detailed casualties reports for days. They only contained general information – the 76th Infantry Division had heavy casualties on 27 January, the 44th Infantry Division completely destroyed, 371st, 305th and 376th Infantry Divisions lost, the 3rd Infantry Division (Motorized) only had weak scattered combat groups, and the communication with the 29th Infantry Division (Motorized) was lost. How many soldiers were still alive there? How many able men did we have? How many sick and wounded were there in the cauldron? The doctors I met on those days were speaking of 40,000 to 50,000.

On 30 January, the anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power, Paulus sent Hitler a radio message, which said “the swastika flag still flies over Stalingrad.” In reply the Führer spoke about “unforgettable contribution to the salvation of the Western World.” Adam made a sober comment to those words “the command of the army could not make a bigger favour to the Reich’s minister for propaganda, Dr. Goebbels. Radio messages enabled praising the senseless death.” On 31 January von Paulus received a radio message that informed him about promotion to the rank of the Field-Marshal. “It must be an invitation to commit a suicide, said then Paulus to his aide-de-camp, but I will not do him this favour.”

It was early morning 1 February, when the chief of staff of the 6th Army and a fanatical supporter of “holding out to the extreme”, Gen. Artur Schmidt, was making a daily report. He finished saying:

Finally, I report that the Russians are outside the door.

When Colonel Adam went outside, he saw there Soviet and German soldiers, who used to shoot one another just several hours earlier, now standing calmly together in the square, their arms at hand or flung over the shoulder. But what a shocking difference between them! German soldiers ragged, in worn-out greatcoats over their fatigued uniforms, thin, deadly exhausted, unshaven, and with sunken cheeks. Soviet soldiers: well-fed, cheerful, and wearing excellent winter clothes.

The capitulation of the “cauldron” at once was not possible. It took time before all the units were notified and laid down their arms. The catastrophe of the German army at Stalingrad came to an end on 2 February 1943. The most powerful of the German armies, the 6th Army commanded by General von Paulus, ceased to exist. After the war, Gen. Siegfried Westphal wrote in his memoirs, that the Stalingrad defeat came as a deep shock to both the German nation and their army. Never before in all of Germany’s history had there been so fearful, an end of so large a force.

6th Army away from Stalingrad