Death on the Volga: The Destruction of Paulus’s 6th Army at Stalingrad

9 Mar


Few times in history has destruction been so cataclysmic, so enormously baleful, as in the circumstances surrounding the infamous, now legendary, battle of Stalingrad. Living on the memories of educators, strategists, tacticians, and the survivors of that brutal battle, the largest urban battle in the history of man, Stalingrad has held a specially reserved recess in the annals of history, not just for its truly epic, near biblical scale, yet for the enormous loss of life it seized, and the sudden changing of hands of the momentum of the most destructive conflict in history.

On June 22nd, 1941, the German Oberkommando des Heer, or Army High Command, launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest land battle in history. Over three million Wehrmacht troops crossed the Polish frontier into Byelorussia and the Ukraine, as well as charging south through the remote wooded landscape of the Finnish frontier, falling upon a throbbing mass of slumbering Soviet troops, the vast majority of whom did not believe a German invasion would be mounted. And many of der Fuerher‘s closest military advisers strongly cautioned against it. Since August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic had been locked into a pact of an uneasy concord, which to the Soviet Premier and General Secretary Josef Stalin entailed the preservation of peace in eastern Europe, yet to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler met the inevitable shelving of offensive operations against the Soviet Union until the defiant British Isles could be subdued, as well as acting as a veritable insurance policy against fighting a war on two fronts, the very same complication plaguing the Kaiser’s armies during the First World War. Hitler wished to avoid a repeat of such a failure to cope with a severe lack of manpower by postponing his invasion of the Soviet Union in favor of not only subduing the British Isles, yet also the whole of Europe, another contingency his advisers strongly disagreed with. In the fall of 1940, the British Isles stood charred and rubble-strewn, yet resistant to the Fuerher‘s constant blows, a preempt to Operation Sea Lion, the planned, yet never utilized, amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom. Following a nearly four month siege, garnering the moniker “the Battle of Britain”, the British Royal Air Force and German Luftwaffe entered a vicious slugging match in the shattered skies over the English Channel, yet the Royal Air Force refused to enter into submission. With the last of the European allies spared from inexorable destruction against the vaunted might of the Nazi juggernaut, the High Command shifted attention away to southeastern Europe, and the scenic, snow-coated slopes and vineyards of sleepy Greece.

Greece had been no stranger to warfare, and was combating marauding Italian troops of the Alpini Corps on the morning of April 9th, 1941, the one year anniversary of the German joint invasion of Norway and Denmark, when German forces surged across the Bulgarian and Albanian border into the Pindus mountains of Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace. Simultaneously, German forces threw a massed assault, supported by Romanian auxiliaries, across the mountainous borders of Yugoslavia, driving with a fierce spearhead across the Dinaride mountains toward the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube, Belgrade, the heart of Yugoslavia. By May, with Yugoslavia long since fallen, the remnants of a battered and decimated British and Greek Hellenic Army had been withdrawn to the largest of the Aegean islands: Crete. In mid-May, the German Fallschirmjaeger under General Karl Student attempted an airborne foray into the island to conquer the last of Allied forces in continental Europe, and after a bitterly contested landing near Heraklion and Maleme, German forces realized the sheer cost it would take to rout out the deeply entrenched defenders, who fought with vigor in their hearts and with their backs pressed with the unwillingness to admit defeat against the sea.

The side campaigns pockmarking early 1941 drew vital German forces away from the Polish frontier, the launchpad for Operation Barbarossa, and mounting international troubles compounded upon the already beleaguered German strategists. In February 1941, after the success of British General Richard O’Connor’s Operation Compass against Italian forces under General Rudolfo Graziani in eastern Libya, General Erwin Rommel was drawn away from Europe and deployed to bolster the poorly equipped and woefully inadequate leadership of the Italian troops in North Africa, taking two armored divisions with him, the sinew of the Wehrmacht. Hitler’s tacticians had warned the German Chancellor fervently of the potential hazards of attempting to launch the operation too late in the year, citing Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous 1812 invasion against Czar Alexander I. Mounted on June 24th, 1812, the invasion reached Moscow by September against minor resistance, and after Russian troops torched the city in response to the French Emperor’s incursion. Following a series of ill-fated negotiations with the reluctant Czar, Napoleon withdrew from the Russian capital just as the first snow began to fall, bringing with it the ominous tidings of the infamous, remorseless Russian winter. As incessant assaults by marauding Cossacks, rampant disease, and severe shortage of food befell Napoleon’s forces, he gradually withdrew his withering Grande Armee through central Europe, past the scorched remains of the Holy Roman Empire, into the open arms of France, who turned her back on him in defeated scorn. The High Command cautioned the German Chancellor against waging this campaign too late in the proper season, yet he forged ahead with ignorant heedlessness, launching campaigns against marginal Allied nations that siphoned desperately needed troops away from an invasion that would no doubt capture the hearts and minds of every German general. With supplies and men needed on a biblical scale to mount such a monstrous invasion, Hitler’s generals realized the sheer magnitude of the operation and its colossal cost of Nazi Germany, both in men and material. They also realized the impregnable vastness of the Soviet Union, as well as its ever-changing geographic and topographic exterior. If a campaign were to be launched too late, it could become wrapped in the impenetrable veil of the Russian winter, and forever lost. On June 22nd, 1941, just two days prior to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, Hitler launched his own, with over three million German troops crossing over the Soviet frontier, bearing down on Stalin’s Russia.

Stalin was incredulous upon learning of the news of the German incursion, and refused to accept it. Yet as Hitler’s forces advanced nearly unopposed into the wheat and corn fields of western Russia, the invasion became all too real. Within two weeks of the initial strike, nearly 2,500,000 Soviet troops had been swept into the maelstrom, with both military and civilian deaths mounting exponentially. Soviet armor was in a fetal stage, and fledgling Soviet tank crews were no match for experienced German tank crewmen, veterans of the invasions of France and the Low Countries, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, or even the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. Many Soviet troops ventured into battle lacking even the most basic of necessities, many being hurled into pitched battles without even the benefit of shoes. Most lacked rifles or ammunition, and Soviet commanders were committed to the blood-sodden tactics of the previous war: throwing massed infantry charges straight into oncoming fire, holding firmly to the belief that numerical superiority would always overcome. It failed to do so. Soviet troops were massacred en masse. By the first snow fall of 1941, the initial surprise of the German strike, as well as the momentum necessary for the stabbing thrust against Moscow, had abandoned the Wehrmacht, yet it was substituted instead by a chronic Soviet incompetence, pregnant with potential German victories. Yet Stalin possessed an ace in the hole, and utilized it just as Hitler made the most colossal mistake of the Russian campaign.

As Army Group Center stood poised to strike with vicious speed and efficiency against Moscow, Hitler chose rather to pull forces away to consolidate Army Group South for an armored drive deep into the wheat-coated heart of the central Ukraine, the veritable “bread basket” of the Soviet Union. If taken, the steppes of the Ukraine, covered in a pelt of grain, could be utilized to starve the people of the Soviet Union in a similar fashion to the great famine of the 1930s, while simultaneously feeding the German armies purging the Soviet populace. Yet this logic was not without drawbacks, incredibly severe and everlasting drawbacks. Redeploying armored divisions from Army Group Center to Army Group South cost Center the majority of its momentum, which relied heavily on an armored spearhead now blunted. In late November, Army Group Center stood outside Moscow, and some commanders reported being capable of seeing the spires of the Kremlin, yet one day prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Red Army, thought by many to be outgunned and beleaguered, struck back with a ferocity unseen, with bayonets fixed and the Russian winter concealing them in an air of invincibility.

Although the stunning success of the Soviet counterattack was relatively short-lived, dying as the first rains of the spring Rasputista fell, it permanently secured the reputation of a commander who had narrowly survived the harrowing purges of the Red Army command waged by Stalin in the 1930s, as well as the hero of the 1939 battle of Khalkhin Gol against the Japanese Kwantung Army in Mongolia. General, later Marshal of the Soviet Union, Georgy Zhukov. Zhukov had been known to be an outspoken commander, an attribute that nearly caused his execution, reeducation, or imprisonment during the Great Purge of the 1930s, in which Stalin removed any traces of moderate Communism of the Red Army Command by slaying or deporting those not completely adherent to the ideology. Zhukov had instead been placed with a marginal command in Siberia, commanding troops along the Mongolian frontier. When fighting broke out in August 1939 between Japanese and Soviet troops at Khalkhin Gol, Zhukov earned a name for himself as a premier commander, defeating the Japanese and not only garnering their respect and admiration, yet also their fear and intimidation. Though successful and proven, Zhukov remained ostracized, training Russian troops in the bitter Siberian wilderness. With German forces plummeting down upon Moscow, Zhukov was ordered back to mount a daring counteroffensive to reverse the tide of the German assault. Considering his forces not only outnumbered those of the Wehrmacht yet were also better equipped for winter warfare, the initial gains were staggering, forcing the German troops back miles from their lines outside the Russian capital, which Stalin had refused, reluctantly, to abandon. With German troops suffering from hypothermia and frostbite due to inadequate supplies of winter clothing, the fight was indeed pitched in the Russians’ favor, yet the victory was short-lived, and soon reversed by German forces surrounding Russian troops at Rzhev and Lyuban, prompting prominent Soviet general Andrey Vlasov to defect to the German military following the Russian abandonment of his troops of the Second Shock Army in the forests and marshes outside Chudovo and Lyuban. By early spring, the front outside Moscow had stabilized, while the fighting in the north remained relatively static with the massive Siege of Leningrad, which sapped men and material into a bitter siege, lasting almost three years. Yet to the south, the front was far more dynamic.

Throughout 1941, Army Group South, under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, had advanced across the prairies and steppes of the Ukraine, the sheer vastness of the country swallowing the German forces whole. Their target were the oil metropolises of Baku and Grozny, in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The strategic reversals in the north had done little to upset the momentum in the south, with German forces seizing Kursk, Kharkov, Orel, Rostov, and pushing on toward Sevastopol and Stalingrad. In early summer 1942, von Rundstedt was ordered replaced by Hitler, due to failing health, although in reality it had been due to his abhorrence to Hitler’s strategic ineptness. In his wake, Hitler placed Erich von Manstein, a man many claim to have been the greatest tactician of the 20th Century. Manstein immediately set about offensive preparations for the summer of 1942, yet not before Hitler could issue his own. Following the reversal of German momentum outside Moscow in 1941, Hitler had chosen to place tactical command of the Army in his hands, rather than that of the High Command, and instead utilizing the High Command in an adversarial capacity. All major decisions would either be made or approved by Hitler, and all strategic responsibility fell upon der Fuehrer, who had served as but a lowly corporal in the First World War, yet found himself amply equipped for the immense task of commanding an army close to ten million men, when at most he commanded but five or six.

The operation was known as Unternehmen Blau, or Operation Blue, and would be launched in early summer 1942 with the aim of pushing hard across the open Ukrainian steppe, fording the rivers Don and Dneiper, and strike hard down the length of the southern Volga into the Caucasus Mountains. Initially, the metropolitan center of Stalingrad would actually remain untouched, yet in amended versions of the plan, Stalingrad would be struck to secure the northern flank of the operation. Beyond Stalingrad lay Asian Russia, and the extremely arid and near-desert steppes of Siberia.

In January 1942, the spearhead of Army Group South, the 6th Army, suffered an immense blow. General Walter von Reichenau, the 6th Army’s commanding officer, experienced a cerebral hemorrhage. During a flight back to Poltava, the aircraft ferrying the ailing commander suffered a mechanical malfunction and crashed, killing nearly all aboard, including Reichenau. In response to his untimely death, a less than prominent officer from the General Staff was flown to southern Russia to replace him. His name was Friedrich Paulus, and although he remained relatively unknown prior to the battle of Stalingrad, his name would garner fame. The whole of Operation Blue fell upon Paulus, as well as General Hermann Hoth, who would command the 4th Panzer Army supporting the 6th Army. Together, the dual armies would drive rapidly across the Ukrainian steppe to Stalingrad, and then on to the Caucasus. Simultaneously, Manstein commenced a siege of the massive port city and naval base of Sevastopol, defended by the men of the Black Sea Fleet. Operation Blue met with extreme success, and throughout the summer of 1942, it charged across the flat, arid steppes toward the river Volga. Yet the immensity of the steppes took a toll all its own. Vehicle engines choked on clouds of dust, forcing constant repairs, and towns and villages were scant, sprinkled throughout miles of plains, making supplies flow into the advancing armies at a trickle. On July 28th, 1942, Stalin issued his Order No. 227, becoming legendary not for its title, yet for the slogan it created: Not One Step Back. Stalin’s order to all Soviet forces facing the might of the German juggernaut was incredibly simple: retreat, and you will be shot. Any commander caught for retreating would be persecuted, facing imprisonment or execution for being a defeatist, coward, or traitor. Yet this order fell upon deaf ears, as Soviet forces continued to retreat in the face of overwhelming German superiority, not numerically, yet Soviet troops were outgunned and constantly outmaneuvered. By August, the spearhead of the 6th Army had reached the Volga, yet another colossal error in judgement had injured the 6th Army’s precarious momentum. Hitler had chosen to splinter the 6th Army from the 4th Panzer Army, forcing the latter south into the Caucasus, leaving the 6th Army to combat the Soviet 62nd Army under General Vasily Chuikov defending Stalingrad. This possessed the similar affect as the removal of armor from Army Group Center in its drive to Moscow the previous year. Yet Paulus’s Army pushed on regardless of this fact, and by late August the first troops had entered the city, devastated by a massive aerial barrage mounted by aircraft under the command of Wolfram von Richthofen, the cousin of the legendary First World War ace Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous “Red Baron”. The assault had caused massive civilian casualties, considering the Red Army had refused to evacuate anyone due to the sheer amount of chaos it could potentially cause, with Red Army troops being ferried across the river Volga daily. As German forces entered the city, they gradually forced their way through the white-washed apartments, through the People’s Dormitory, seizing the notorious tractor factory that had been converted to construct tanks for the Red Army, and finally pushing through Red Square to the banks of the Volga, a massive sheet separating Europe from Asia. Across that sheet, the forces of General Chuikov would attack.

And they did. Chuikov’s men continued to be ferried across the river Volga to confront the German Wehrmacht, crossing in slow boats under extreme artillery and small arms fire, with Stuka dive bombers raining down upon them. Many lacked rifles. Many lacked the common necessities of a soldier, let alone a civilian. As Soviet forces poured incessantly into the city, the sheer volume of Russian troops rapidly overwhelmed the German defenders, who were forced back from the banks of the Volga not by being outmaneuvered, but by being incredibly outnumbered. The fighting took on a more static state as winter set in late October, with the ground freezing and the first snow falling. In another of his fickle fits, Hitler decided to order the 4th Panzer Army to reverse their drive toward the Caucasus and push back toward Stalingrad to bolster the 6th Army, now combating the 62nd Army in a brutal urban conflict. Yet with tight streets and alleyways, tanks were far too cumbersome to be of any real use, and Hoth’s Panzers rested outside the city for the majority of the actual battle. As winter further set in, front lines began to dissipate, and German and Soviet forces occupied the same apartment buildings without knowing the other was in a room just across the hall. Venturing into the open became a risky business, with both Soviet and German snipers clambering through the rumble of the heavily shelled and bombed city, the most famous of which being Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev, depicted in the film Enemy at the Gates, although the film inaccurately portrays the career of Zaytsev. Although the Russian sniper did enter into a nearly three day battle with a German sniper, when he finally defeated the German adversary, he found him to be but a teenager. Fighting remained from house to house, with Soviet forces gradually pushing German forces out of the city. Some buildings changed hands upwards of ten times, some even more, such as Pavlov’s House, a four-story apartment complex named for Junior Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, who took the structure with a group of thirty men, although after a bitter fight and several counterattacks, only six remained. By December, the fighting had gone from masses of Soviet infantry assaulting fixed and entrenched German emplacements to urban conflict and brutal close quarters fighting. Hand-to-hand combat was common, as was the Soviet utilization of the Finnish invention known as the “Molotov cocktail”. Disease ran rampant in such close quarters, with starvation and dehydration adding to German woes. In early January, the Soviet forces pushed the German 6th Army, beleaguered and outnumbered, out of the city and into the steppe, and finally surrounding the battered army by launching Operation Uranus, a double-envelopment possible only due to the armies defending Paulus’s flanks, the 2nd and 3rd Romanian Armies respectively, which collapsed at the first real push by Soviet forces. Paulus and his men were locked in a death grip by the Soviet Union, and with supplies running out, Paulus knew he could only last so long. Reichsmarschall Herman Goering attempted to airlift supplies to the bewildered Army, yet realized the inevitability of the Army’s defeat, issuing the “Death Oration of the 6th Army” in early January. Goering’s aircraft were constantly terrorized by Soviet antiaircraft fire and aircraft, and many supplies were dropped within Soviet lines, rather than German, considering the lines moved almost daily, strangling the 6th Army. Field Marshal von Manstein attempted a counteroffensive to breach the Soviet ring around the German forces, which garnered the moniker of ” der Kessel“, or ” the Cauldron”, yet his Panzers halted just mere miles from the German forces due to lack of fuel, and forced to turn back. In late January, with defeat imminent, Hitler spoke with Paulus over radio, ordering him not to surrender. Paulus informed him that his Army was on the brink of defeat, and the best thing he could do for his men would be to surrender. Hitler reiterated his command, and to ensure that Paulus did not surrender, he promoted him to the rank of field marshal. No German field marshal had ever surrendered. On January 25th, 1943, in blatant disregard to Hitler’s obvious command to commit suicide rather than face humiliation in surrender, Friedrich Paulus marched with his staff to the Soviet lines, surrendering himself and his men. Shortly thereafter, the remnants of the 6th Army, roughly one third of their size at the commencement of the battle, surrendered on February 2nd, ending the bloodiest battle in history.

The casualties stood at 850,000 Axis, consisting of German and eastern European conscripts, compared to 1,150,000 Soviet. Yet the casualties would only continue to rise. The battle of Stalingrad reversed the tide of the German invasion, and turned the momentum against the previously successful German troops. Soviet forces pushed hard in a westerly direction, taking back Kharkov in March, and in summer 1943 defeating the last army-size counterattack at Kursk and Prokhorovka. In the winter of 1943, the overwhelming speed of the Soviet advance ensnared German forces of the Walloon Brigade and 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking at Cherkassy, in the Ukraine, although they managed to escape the pocket. In early 1944, a full-front Soviet counterattack was launched, pushing Army Group North back from Leningrad, relieving the nearly three year siege. Soviet forces launched a series of offensives throughout 1944, including Operation Bagration and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive in the Ukraine and Byelorussia respectively, with Soviet forces entering Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania in the autumn of 1944. In early 1945, Warsaw was liberated, with Budapest falling suit. Soon, Soviet forces forded the river Oder, forming the northeastern border between Germany and Poland, with Russian forces pushing across eastern Germany toward the black heart of the Third Reich, looting, raping, murdering, and burning their way across eastern Germany. Yet the German Wehrmacht had a bit of debt to repay. Something like 26,000,000 dead.


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