by Mike Yoder
With the German 6th Army in control of 90 percent of Stalingrad, Chuikov's army struggled to maintain its precarious foothold. Their backs now to the Volga, the Russians contested the very sewers of the city. Prolonged street fighting and the utter destruction of Stalingrad had reduced men to a primitive level of existence. The Germans had a name for this - Rattenkrieg - War of the Rats. A German infantryman wrote to his family, "Animals flee this burning hell of a city...the hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure."
Chuikov sought to minimize the German advantage in firepower by instructing his men to close with the enemy and seek hand to hand combat at every opportunity. The Wehrmacht would then be unable to call in airstrikes or artillery without hitting their own men. The Blitzkrieg tactics which had enabled them to conquer much of Europe were useless, and the battle for the city was now reduced to hundreds of small unit actions.
Attrition was now the key to the outcome. If Paulus could bleed the 62nd Army to death before the Volga froze over, Stalingrad would fall before the onset of the Russian winter. But Paulus's casualty lists were mounting far beyond what anyone had ever anticipated. Booby traps, snipers, and Soviet artillery exacted an unrelenting toll of his men. However, if Paulus's casualties were enormous, the Russian losses were staggering. Estimates run as high as 80,000 Red Army soldiers killed by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle had probably cost a quarter of a million lives by this point. The worst was yet to come.
The Germans now controlled the summit of Mamaev Kurgan, the southern residential suburbs, and had broken through to the Volga north of downtown Stalingrad. With his command split, Chuikov still held downtown Stalingrad, the ferry landing, the Barrikady Metal Works, and contested much of the Krasny
Oktyabr plant, all now in ruins. Back in Germany, newspaper editors had prepared special editions with headlines proclaiming "Stalingrad Verfallen!", but Reich Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Goebbels withheld permission to release them.
At one point, the Germans pushed to within 200 yards of Chuikov's command bunker, and the battle hung in the balance. But isolated Russian strongholds continued to thwart the final German conquest of Stalingrad. A platoon of the 42nd Guards had taken possession of a 3 story building in the downtown area, commanding all approaches to the river. With their officers killed or incapacitated from the onset, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov assumed command of the unit, holding the building for 59 days before being relieved. This building became famous as "Pavlov's House", and its burned out shell remains standing in downtown Volgograd as a grim reminder of the battle.
Pavlov discovered early on that an anti-tank rifle mounted on the roof was able to pick off the Panzers with impunity. A tank approaching the building was unable to elevate its barrel high enough to hit it. Pavlov's House, bristling with machine guns, mortars, and snipers, remained a dangerous threat for any German in the proximity. Sgt Yakov Pavlov became a Hero of the Soviet Union for his stand at Stalingrad. Pavlov discovered his God somewhere in this devastation and bloodshed, as he joined the Russian Orthodox priesthood after the war. He lived out the rest of his life in peace as the Archmandriate Kyrill, a man of God determined to kill no more.
Tanya Chernova, nineteen years old, had once dreamed of becoming a ballerina. But after serving as a partisan in her native Belarus, she made her way to Stalingrad, grimly determined to kill as many Germans as possible. The bitter warfare and the savage German reprisals had led her to totally dehumanize her enemy. She no longer thought of the Germans as enemy soldiers, but referred to them as "sticks", fit only for breaking.
Tanya and her companions found themselves evading the Germans by maneuvering through the sewer system of Stalingrad, intent upon joining a Red Army unit. Utterly lost in the maze of tunnels, they emerged from their foul passage through the city well behind German lines. Hiding their weapons, they brazenly joined the chow line at a Wehrmacht field kitchen, hoping to get a bowl of soup. Fresh from the sewers, their pungent aroma attracted attention in very short order. One German exclaimed, "What is that horrible smell?" Tanya and her friends were saved by a Russian collaborator who claimed that they were working for him.
Despite his help, Tanya made no attempt to hide her loathing for him or for any other Hiwi (Hilfsfreiwilliger, or volunteer) who worked for the Germans. She wolfed down the bread and soup he gave them, and quietly determined to kill this man at the first opportunity. To her, he was worse than the "sticks" she was intent on breaking. Tanya eventually became a student at the special school for snipers conducted by Lt. Vasily Zaitsev. She continued her vendetta against the Germans remorselessly, until she herself was wounded. She awoke in a field hospital, recovering from surgery for an abdominal wound which left her unable to bear children.
Lt. Vasily Zaitsev was the leading figure among the Soviet snipers who prowled the ruins of Stalingrad, spreading fear among the Germans. A skilled hunter who had learned stealth and marksmanship hunting deer near his home in the Ural mountains, Zaitsev was trumpeted as a hero by the Soviet press. From hundreds of yards away, he would lie in wait for the inevitable moment when a German soldier would get careless. Only then would he dispatch another enemy with a single shot.
A rather improbable legend has been built around Zaitsev and his exploits. The publicity arising from his shooting skills allegedly prompted the Germans to send a Super-sniper of their own to kill him. By some accounts, this man was a Major named Koenig. By others, an SS Obersturmbannfuehrer by the name of Heinz Thorwald. In either event, a classic 3 day duel between Zaitsev and his opponent results in the same outcome. Zaitsev puts a bullet between the Germans eyes, killing him instantly.
This story does not seem to be supported by either German or Soviet archives. Reports concerning sniper actions by the 62nd Army contain no mention of this classic legend. German muster rolls of the Wehrmacht and SS reveal no officer by the name of Koenig or Thorwald posted to Stalingrad. In all probability, this account was a fabrication of some apparatchik in the Soviet propaganda bureau. Zaitsev did single-handedly shoot well over 140 German soldiers before his career was ended by the explosion of a land mine in Jan. of 1943, which permanently blinded him.
The exploits of Pavlov, Chernova, and Zaitsev were certainly memorable, but they were also typical of the individual acts of heroism on the part of countless Russian soldiers. Their stories are part of the mosaic which presents the larger picture of the stubborn and fanatical resistance of the 62nd Army. On starvation rations, hounded by thirst, and partly numbed by Vodka, Chuikov's soldiers fought on in conditions of human misery and filth unmatched even by the trenches of the First World War.
Chuikov also faced another threat to his army. With the Russian winter looming ahead, he faced problems of re-supply which could be insurmountable. Once the Volga was frozen over and able to bear heavy traffic, his logistical problems would be simplified. But for nearly three weeks, starting in the middle of November, drifting ice floes would make the river impassable for boat traffic. He stockpiled ammunition, husbanded his reserves, and warehoused 12 tons of chocolate bars for the coming crisis. In the weeks ahead, one half of one chocolate bar would be the daily ration for a Russian soldier fighting in Stalingrad. Chuikov complained that such measures were "cruel economies" to be imposed upon his army.
Paulus had no illusions about the prospects of maintaining his army through the winter in a devastated city still contested by a determined enemy. It was imperative to put an end to the battle, and quickly. He asked for, and received, several battalions of elite combat engineers, experts in demolition and street fighting, who were known as Pioneers. These tough, battle-savvy soldiers represented the best possibility of putting a final end to the battle.
One unit of Pioneers, assembled in the ruins of the Krasny Oktyabr plant, were awaiting their jump-off time when a booby trap exploded. With scores of men killed before even entering combat, the Pioneers were somber and chastened. This might prove more difficult than expected. One survivor of the fighting for the Krasny
Oktyabr plant described it as "A ghastly place for a battle...heavy metal panels creaking in the wind", with walls and supporting columns on the verge of collapse.
The Pioneers would spearhead the last attempt by Paulus to capture Stalingrad. In a furious attack upon the burrowing Russians, they poured precious gasoline down into the sewers and ignited it. Ripping up floorboards, they flung satchel charges into cellars to root out the defenders. One group actually reached the bluffs over-looking the Volga, and lowered charges on wires attempting to entomb the defenders dug in below. The Russians cut the wires, and the charges exploded harmlessly in the river.
On November 11, Paulus followed through with an attack by 5 divisions on the factory district. The breach in the Russian lines was expanded, and Chuikov's command was now split into three parts. Still the Russians held on in spite of heavy casualties. The Germans, spent and exhausted, regrouped as Paulus pondered what to do next.
Ice had started flowing on the Volga, and by Nov. 14, boat traffic had ceased, as the river was now impassable. Efforts were made to air-drop supplies to the 62nd Army. But with the Russian foothold reduced to such a narrow margin, most of the material fell into German hands. Chuikov was now in a race against time, and it was problematical about whether he could hold the city until relief arrived.
German reconnaissance planes and intelligence reports had been detecting signs of a huge Soviet buildup to the Northwest of Stalingrad. The exposed left flank which had so concerned Halder was now showing unmistakable signs of being the target of a Soviet counter-attack. Paulus added this to his growing list of problems, and ordered the 48th Panzer Corps of Gen. Ferdinand Heim to reinforce the Rumanian 3rd Army, charged with holding his left flank.
Adolf Hitler was also informed of the Soviet build-up, and his response to it was in keeping with his belief in maintaining an offensive posture. In a message to Paulus, he stated that he understood the difficulties involved in erasing the last vestige of Russian resistance. The full text of his dispatch, dated Nov. 17, 1942 , reads:
"I know about the difficulties of the battle for Stalingrad and about the loss of troops. With the ice drifting on the Volga, however, the difficulties are even greater for the Russians. Making use of this (time) span we will avoid a bloodbath later on. I expect therefore that the Supreme Command, with all its repeatedly proven energy, and the troops, with their courage often demonstrated, will do their utmost to break through to the Volga at the metallurgical works and at the gun factory and occupy these parts of town."
Paulus dutifully circulated this exhortation among all his unit commanders, but none of them ever had the opportunity to act upon it. In the early morning hours of Nov. 19th, 1942, the rumble of artillery from the northwest could be heard across the steppe. These guns were the opening salvos of a well prepared and overwhelming counter-attack which would seal the fate of Paulus and his men. Russians refer to their artillery as the "Great Soviet God of War". On that morning, the thunder of this God would sound the death knell for the German 6th Army in Stalingrad.
Copyright © 2003 Mike Yoder.
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Published online: 02/04/2003.
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