Uranus and Saturn
by Mike Yoder
With his army trapped inside a ring of Soviet armor, Paulus informed Hitler
that he only had 6 days of food for his troops. Similar shortages of fuel,
ammunition, clothing and all other materiel needed to sustain an army in the
field were now building to a crisis. Morale remained fairly high among the
Germans, and they nick-named their position "Der Kessel" - The Kettle. What the
world would soon know as "The Stalingrad Cauldron" was no laughing matter. One
of the finest armies in history was about to die from starvation, disease and
Hitler promised to re-supply the 6th Army from the air, and Gen. Wolfram von
Richthofen, commanding Luftflotte 4, worked to keep that promise. He knew from
the outset that it was a hopeless task. Paulus needed a minimum of 500 tons of
supplies flown in daily. This would merely sustain the 6th Army in a defensive
posture and only prolong the efforts of the Russians to liquidate the pocket.
Hitler did concede that this figure was beyond the capability of the Luftwaffe
transport fleet and a daily target of 350 tons was set for the airmen of
Luftflotte 4 to deliver to Paulus and his troops.
The work-horse of the Luftwaffe transport fleet was the Junkers Ju-52 trimotor.
To meet the supply requirements of the 6th Army, von Richthofen's aircrews
would be required to fly some 250 aircraft on 4 sorties per plane every day.
Luftflotte 4 didn't have that many aircraft on hand and a good portion of what
they did have was down for maintenance. Much of what was still flying was
over-due for a major engine overhaul and pilots had already been pushed to the
limits of endurance.
After losing some 100 Ju-52s during the invasion of Crete, the Luftwaffe simply
did not have the inventory to supplement the airlift. With 150 serviceable
Ju-52s on hand, Von Richthofen pressed He-111 bombers into service as
transports and struggled to maintain what effort he could. Soviet fighters now
controlled the corridors his planes used to approach Stalingrad and the daily
toll of aircraft was mounting. The severity of the Russian winter made flying
impossible on some days and nothing would reach Paulus' forces. Quite often a
transport would crash while attempting to land and the wreckage would block the
airstrip from being used by other aircraft. Outgoing transports would be
delayed and incoming flights diverted back to their home base while the runway
was cleared. In spite of these setbacks, the Luftwaffe did manage on one day to
set down 300 tons of materiel at the Gumrak airstrip.
Despite von Richthofen's best efforts, the airlift never had a remote chance of
success. The shortage of aircraft, horrible flying weather and the distances
involved doomed it from the outset. Richthofen's appeals for more aircraft and
crews did prompt Hitler to prod Goering and Jeschonnek to scrounge every
available airplane in Germany and the occupied countries and dragoon them into
service for the airlift. The 4 engine Focke-Wulf Condor was withdrawn from
maritime patrols in the North Atlantic, along with a squadron training with the
He-117, a big, cumbersome bomber which was being developed as the Luftwaffe's
answer to the B-17. The FW-200 Condor was totally unsuited as a transport and
the shortage of trained aircrew adept at handling the big aircraft under
adverse conditions merely accelerated their losses. Similarly, the He-117 had
never reached full operational status due to sorting out problems. The odd
tandem engine arrangement in its design made the plane prone to in-flight
engine fires which raised severe difficulties in training conditions, let alone
under hostile fire deep in Soviet territory and with the onset of the Russian
winter at hand.
Pilot fatigue, improperly trained aircrew, ice and Soviet fighters soon left a
trail of downed aircraft strewn across the steppe on the approaches to
Stalingrad. Compounding Paulus' supply problems was interservice rivalry.
Luftwaffe loadmasters refused to let Army quartermasters prioritize the loading
of material on the outbound flights. As a result, some rather absurd and
totally useless items showed up in the planes which managed to land safely at
Gumrak and Pitomnik. Crates of cellophane grenade covers but no grenades, along
with condoms for the troops contributed absolutely nothing to the fighting
ability of 6th Army. A shipment of wine for Christmas festivities arrived, but
after having been frozen the bottles had shattered, leaving a rather
unappetizing sludge which did nothing to alleviate the growing hunger of the
starving soldiers of 6th Army.
Neither man nor machine received any respite from the grinding attempt at
supplying Stalingrad by air. An aircraft engine shut down for servicing would
never be restarted under the intense cold. Refueling turned into a long,
torturous process because gasoline stored out in the cold would start to freeze
in the drums. In the final analysis, it's no surprise that the airlift
ultimately failed. But it is amazing that it succeeded to the extent that it
did in the circumstances under which Luftflotte 4 was forced to operate. It
speaks volumes of the skill and bravery of the ground crew and airmen of von
Richthofen's command that they continued to soldier on in a futile effort to
save the men of 6th Army.
As the airlift sputtered on, Paulus cut his troops rations in an effort to
conserve food. Some troops surviving the annihilation of their units found
themselves written out of the order of battle, legally unable to receive any
sustenance whatsoever. As ammunition stockpiles were depleted, 6th Army's
capacity to resist dwindled. One sergeant commanding a howitzer desperately
fended off a Russian attack. Although successful, his reward was an official
reprimand for unnecessary expenditure of ammunition. Orders went out to return
fire only when essential and to take only "sure shots".
German morale received a boost when word spread that Hitler had ordered von
Manstein to mount a relief operation and open a supply corridor to Paulus. Von
Manstein would launch Operation "Wintergewitter" (Winter storm) from the
southwest under the most improbable of circumstances. A relief column
consisting of elements from XIV Panzer Corps would attempt to punch a hole in
the encirclement and link up with a 6th Army detachment driving from the
Southwest of Stalingrad. Manstein's relief column was as hopeless an effort as
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the German dictator's orders were
becoming more absurd and self-contradictory. Hitler left von Manstein with the
impression that opening this corridor would be simultaneous with Paulus
evacuating the Stalingrad pocket. On the other hand, Paulus was given firm
instructions to hold Stalingrad at all costs. Between the two commanders,
Manstein and Paulus had worked out a pre-arranged code word, "Donnerschlag"
(Thunderbolt). Von Manstein's understanding was that upon issuing the
"Donnerschlag" order, Paulus would simultaneously drive for a link-up with
Manstein's force and begin evacuating the 6th Army from Stalingrad. Paulus fell
victim to his own indecisiveness by refusing to comply with "Donnerschlag"
without express orders from Hitler. Those orders would never come.
Manstein launched "Wintergewitter" on schedule on Dec. 16, 1942. The German
panzers did penetrate the outer ring of Soviet forces in spite of a severe
blizzard. But Russian resistance stiffened while German supply problems mounted
the further they pushed into territory held by the Red Army. It must have been
obvious to von Manstein that his Division sized force had no hope of
accomplishing what the combined efforts of 4th Panzer and 6th Army had been
unable to do - punch through the ring of Red Army artillery and armor.
Further complicating the rescue effort was the fact that communications between
Paulus and von Manstein had been reduced to a single teletype. It has been
asserted that verbal communication between the two might have cleared up some
misunderstandings about how Paulus was to proceed once the "Donnerschlag" order
had been issued. Manstein was of the belief that "Donnerschag" implied
evacuation of the pocket and the only possible option considering the
difficulties of maintaining the supply corridor for any length of time. But
considering the difficulties involved it is unlikely that a face to face
meeting between the two Generals could have satisfactorily resolved Paulus'
Although there was a dispute between the two men about whether or not
"Donnerschlag" was ever issued, let alone acknowledged, Paulus was in no
position to comply in any event. The 6th Army's fuel and ammunition situation
had deteriorated to the extent that most heavy equipment, trucks and armor
would have had to be abandoned. Whatever the case, Paulus was not about to
proceed with an evacuation without Hitlers permission. Hitler steadfastly
refused to consider the withdrawal of 6th Army from Stalingrad, saying that
without their heavy guns and armor such a retreat could only have a "Napoleonic
As Christmas of 1942 approached, the situation of 6th Army was becoming
increasingly desperate. Manstein's relief column had been forced to retreat,
supplies arriving by air were diminishing and starvation began to cull the
ranks of the men inside the pocket. With no fodder avialable for their horses,
the Germans had started slaughtering the animals for food shortly after the Red
Army closed the ring around Stalingrad. On Christmas Eve, Paulus ordered that
the last of the beasts be killed to provide a makeshift Christmas dinner for
his men. But on the following day he ordered another cut in the soldiers
rations. The daily food allotment for each man was now a bowl of thin soup and
100 grams of bread per day.
Along with shortages of food and ammunition, doctors were forced to cope with
an increasing number of wounded men and diminishing stocks of medicine with
which to care for them. Although the wounded were given priority for evacuation
on the outbound transport planes, Wehrmacht doctors were now forced to give
first choice to wounded soldiers who stood the best chance of recovering and
being returned to battle. A triage was set up at the airport to sort out the
hopeless cases and to remove any cases of self-inflicted wounds, which were
becoming more prevalent with each passing day. As the siege wore on, Army aid
stations became overwhelmed with wounded soldiers who might have stood a chance
of survival under normal conditions. But with the lack of supplies and the
sheer weight of their numbers many of these men died and manpower for proper
disposal of the bodies was inadequate. As a result, many of these aid stations
were swamped with corpses which remained in place for lack of enough able
bodied men to transfer them to graves registration units.
In the meantime, Rokkosovsky and Yeremenko tightened the noose around 6th Army.
The perimeter which Paulus had to defend shrank every day. On Jan. 10, 1943,
Rokkosovsky issued a call for Paulus to surrender. He pointed out that their
position was hopeless, that the main German front was being pushed further back
each day and that the worst of the Russian winter had not even yet begun. He
made a very generous offer for all units which gave up, promising food and
medical treatment for all of the men and allowing all officers to retain their
badges of rank and decorations. He also promised utter annihilation if this
offer wasn't accepted. Paulus radioed Hitler, asking for permission to
surrender and attempt to at least save the lives of his remaining men. Hitler
refused, ordering Paulus to stand and fight where he was, down to the last man
and last bullet.
Hitler did dispatch Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch to the Stalingrad
front to try and revive the flagging airlift. Milch was a former executive of
Lufthansa with a reputation for working wonders with air transport, but not
even he was capable of providing the miracle which the Fuehrer had ordered him
to conjure up. Milch arrived at the forward airfields in Russia brimming with
enthusiasm, but was soon jolted into reality and appalled by what he found
there. In spite of the fact that Goering and Jeschonnek had sucked replacement
aircraft from every theater of operations, von Richthofen's total fleet was now
down to 100 machines of all types. In addition, Soviet bombers were now
cratering the runways and hammering the supply depots at the forward airfields
from which the airlift operated.
Milch returned to Germany and amazingly managed to scrape together an
assortment of some 300 aircraft, including Lufthansa mail planes and anything
still left in Germany's civil air transport inventory. But not even Milch could
figure out how to staunch the bleeding caused by the worsening winter weather
and the dominance of Soviet fighters who now controlled the air around
Copyright © 2003 Mike Yoder.
Written by Mike Yoder. If you have questions or comments on this
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Published online: 02/04/2003.
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