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Battle of Stalingrad
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Battle of Stalingrad
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 exposure.

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 the airlift.

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' predicament.

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 ending".

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 Stalingrad.

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Copyright © 2003 Mike Yoder.

Written by Mike Yoder. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Mike Yoder at:
mikeyzinaz@hotmail.com.

About the author:
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Published online: 02/04/2003.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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