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Mike Yoder Articles
Battle of Stalingrad
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Battle of Stalingrad
Annihilation and Aftermath
by Mike Yoder

As the attempt at resupply by air gradually faded away, the proud army that Paulus had marched to the edge of the Volga was disintegrating. The elite men of the German 6th Army were now a tattered collection of emaciated walking skeletons. Although the famous discipline of the Wehrmacht still remained largely intact, it too was starting to fade away as starvation, disease and despair stalked the German soldiers. Desertions, unauthorized surrenders and even an occasional mutiny further diminished their capacity for organized resistance as the Red Army relentlessly closed the ring around the city.

After his demand for surrender had been rebuffed, Rokkosovsky stepped up the pressure on the Stalingrad pocket. By mid-January 1943, the remnant of Paulus' command had shrunk to an area roughly 10 miles square. The Staff officers at OKW had tacitly admitted to themselves that 6th Army was lost and they tried to salvage what they could of technicians and specialists while abandoning the ordinary Landsers to their fate. They stepped up evacuation of officers with rare skills and ability, giving them priority on flights out of the pocket even in front of the wounded. Gen. Hans Hube, the one-armed commander of the 16th Armored division who had first reached the Volga at Rynok was one such officer. Ordered to abandon his command and fly out, Hube refused. He was flown out after a squad of Gestapo men were sent to the city with orders to remove him forcibly.

Many others needed no such prompting. With a sense of urgency spurred on by the knowledge that each departing aircraft from Gumrak or Pitomnik might be the last, desperate soldiers overwhelmed the guards and clung to the outside of transports making their take-off run. Many still clung to the wings as the planes gained speed and became airborne, but all eventually lost their grip and fell onto the snowy steppe. Among those departing these final flights were a number of men with self-inflicted wounds who had managed to deceive the triage doctors who were determined to bar such men from evacuation. They had managed to hide the tell-tale marks of gunpowder burns by shooting themselves through thick blankets. Rather than inflicting an obvious wound such as shooting themselves in the hand or foot, many of them shot themselves in the chest or abdomen. Such acts were indicative of the level of desperation that drove many to try and escape the frozen Hell of Stalingrad at any cost.

In an attempt at dissuading Hitler from his insistence upon fighting to the bitter end, Paulus dispatched an aide, Major Coelestine von Witzewitz, to speak directly to Hitler and give him a first hand account of the dire situation of the men in the pocket. Although von Witzewitz was warmly welcomed by the Fuehrer, his attempt at recounting the horrors facing the soldiers of 6th Army was met with attempts to change the subject. Hitler spluttered nonsense about how the soldiers should hang on until relief arrived and that 6th Army's ordeal was tying down Soviet forces which might otherwise prevent the evacuation of the Army Group in the Caucasus.

With Hitler trying to evade the issue and Keitel glaring a warning at him not to take this any further, von Witzewitz was undeterred. With a temerity few higher ranking officers dared to display to the German dictator, von Witzewitz countered Hitler's instructions to fight to the last man and bullet by saying, "Mein Fuehrer, I can state that these men can no longer fight to the last bullet because they no longer have a last bullet!" Hitler mumbled something to the effect that, "Man recovers very quickly". With that statement the young officer was dismissed.

Airlift operations struggled on until Jan. 24, 1943. Two Ju-52s managed to lumber off the runway at Pitomnik airfield, littering the surrounding countryside with an assortment of desperate men who tried to escape by clinging to the wings of the transport. Along with a handful of wounded and a few key staff officers, the last transport carried the War Diary of the 6th Army, Paulus' Last Will and Testament and a few personal keepsakes for his family. A short time after these planes left, a Soviet T-34 tank broke through the outer defense ring of the airfield and started shooting up the control tower and the makeshift airport facilities. Supported by more tanks and a horde of Russian infantry which soon followed, Pitomnik was now in the hands of the Red Army and the airlift came abruptly to a halt.

With all hope of relief or rescue now gone, Paulus radioed Hitler yet again, asking for permission to surrender and save what he could of his army. "The troops are out of ammunition and food, effective command is no longer possible. There are 18,000 wounded without any supplies, dressings or drugs....Further defense senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests permission to surrender in order to save the lives of remaining troops".

Hitler gave the same response that he did to all similar requests for a humane ending to the now futile struggle. "Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and last round and by their heroic resistance make an unforgettable contribution towards the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world". For once there was a measure of truth in one of Hitler's statements. Each day that 6th Army held out tied up Soviet forces which might be diverted from their push towards Rostov, on the mouth of the Don River. With disaster looming at Stalingrad, Hitler finally recognized the mortal danger to the Army Group in the Caucasus. If the Red Army could seize Rostov before the Caucasus could be evacuated, the Wehrmacht faced an even larger entrapment of forces in the region. Hitler had resigned himself to the loss of 6th Army, but he balked at the prospect of losing an even larger force and thus authorized the evacuation.

If Hitler had communicated in private to Paulus his determination to continue the fight to the bitter end, his fat Deputy Goering now proceeded to make this known to the ordinary soldier and to do it very much in public. On Jan 30, 1943, in a radio broadcast marking the anniversary of Hitler's rise to power , Goering stated that, "A thousand years hence Germans will speak of this battle with reverence and awe, and that in spite of everything Gemany's ultimate victory was decided there... In years to come it will be said of the heroic battle on the Volga: When you come to Germany, say you have seen us lying at Stalingrad, as our honor and our leaders ordained that we should, for the greater glory of Germany!"

Apart from this bombastic tripe, Hitler had only one thing left to offer the doomed men of 6th Army. With an unprecedented show of generosity, he presented dozens of senior officers of 6th Army with promotions in rank, most notably a Field Marshal's baton for Friedrich Paulus. There was a cynical method to his madness, as Hitler mentioned to Gen. Zeitzler that in the entire history of the German Army no Field Marshal had ever surrendered or been captured alive. If he couldn't have the prize of the city that bore Stalin's name, he was determined to have a dead Field Marshal to offer up as a hero to the German Reich.

Paulus was not so accommodating as to throw himself on his own funeral pyre. The very next day, Soviet forces closed in on his last command post, a cellar in the bombed out ruins of the Univermag Department Store in downtown Stalingrad. Unshaven, dirty and close to a state of collapse, Friedrich Paulus offered his surrender to an obscure Russian Lieutenant named Fyodor Yelchenko, who promptly marched the new Field Marshal and his staff off to his superiors. Of the nearly 350,000 men who had followed him to Stalingrad, only 90,000 survived to surrender to the Soviets.

Stalin and Stavka waited a day until surrender arrangements were secure and it could be confirmed that Paulus was alive and in custody before the Soviet government proudly announced their incredible victory to an astonished world. With the Russian announcement of Paulus' surrender on Feb 1, Goebbels and his propaganda machine could no longer hide the truth. The following day, the German people were informed of the loss of the entire German 6th Army and a three day period of national mourning. Theaters, restaurants and all forms of entertainment in Germany were shut down as Hitler's subjects contemplated the reality that one of their elite armies had died in the field.

A sense of foreboding fell over the Reich as Goebbels indefatigable propaganda apparatus prepared them for the worst, including ultimate disaster in Russia. "We have thrown the national existence into the balance. There is no turning back". Adolf Hitler was a little more expressive, only much more private. At his Headquarters the apoplectic dictator raged to Gen. Zeitzler about the lack of character in the "Weakling" he had promoted to Field Marshal but who had failed to take the hint and commit suicide, as was only fitting. Hitler also speculated that Paulus might actually be dead in the ruins of the city someplace and that the Russians were lying about having captured him.

At that moment, Paulus was actually in warm and comfortable quarters in a suburb of Moscow, where he would remain until the end of the war. The soldiers of 6th Army who had been promised food and shelter by the Russians were not so fortunate. The Russians kept about 20,000 of them to remain as forced labor in Stalingrad to work at rebuilding the city they destroyed. The rest were dispatched to numerous POW camps scattered from Siberia to Soviet Central Asia. Many died shortly after the surrender from a Typhus epidemic brought about by Lice and the unsanitary conditions experienced during the battle. Many more died of malnutrition, disease and neglect in the various prison camps run by the Soviets. Of the 90,000 who surrendered with Paulus, only 5,000 men survived to return home to Germany. Many of these men were held captive the longest by the Russians, as their release wasn't finally secured by W. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer until 1955.

Gen. Vasily Chuikov was deprived of the honor of taking Paulus into custody, and in fact the two principal adversaries of Stalingrad never had a chance to meet. But Chuikov and his 62nd Army received the highest honors the Red Army could bestow upon their soldiers. Renamed the 8th Guards Army for their heroic defense of the city, Chuikov led his men on a march across Europe which ultimately led to Berlin. His troops had the honor of capturing the Reichstag and planting the Hammer and Sickle flag on top of the building in the capitol of the Third Reich. After the war, Chuikov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union. He commanded the prestigious Kiev Military District and later became a candidate member of the Politburo. Chuikov died in 1982.

Apart from going to Nuremberg to testify at the trial of the top German Generals, Paulus spent his last years in the Soviet occupation zone of E. Germany. He was given a house, aides, the honorific of being addressed as "Herr Generalfeldmarschall" and all deference in consideration of his rank while he was the permanent "guest" of the E. German Security Service. He never saw his wife Coco again. She had been arrested by the Nazis after he started making anti-Hitler broadcasts to Germany on behalf of the Soviet propaganda apparatus. She died in Bavaria in 1948. His son Alexander was killed in action at Anzio in 1944. Paulus spent much of his time writing long and rambling rebuttals to those who blamed him for the disaster at Stalingrad. He died in Dresden, E. Germany in 1957.

The city of Stalingrad itself rose to the highest level in the Soviet Pantheon in the years following the "Great Patriotic War". As head political officer for the greater Stalingrad Front, Nikita Khrushchev eventually became General Secretary of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union and Stalin's ultimate heir. In the years that followed, men such as Brezhnev, Malinowsky and Rokkosovsky achieved high rank in both the military and the Communist Party by virtue of having served in the battle.

From the Soviet perspective, the significance of the struggle for Stalingrad carried implications far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. It defined the major turning point of World War II in Europe. By halting the advance of one of Germany's elite armies and ultimately defeating it, the Russians proved that the Wehrmacht was not invincible. It gave the Soviet armed forces the confidence they would need and the skills required to ultimately defeat Nazi Germany. From beyond the horizons of European Russia, the road to the Soviet Union's claim as a legitimate Superpower began at the banks of the Volga.

Stalingrad also shattered the myth of Hitler's infallibility among the Germans themselves. Although it cannot be properly said that Stalingrad was the beginning of the German defeat in Russia, it certainly marked the end of German victories. After they comprehended the scope and scale of the disaster, several German officers were prompted to calculate exactly how they might bring and end to Hitler's rule. The nucleus of the Bomb Plot of July 20, 1944 was hatched in the ruins of the city by the Volga.

The monumental scale of the battle lived on in the ruins of the shattered city for years. A panel of the Supreme Soviet assessed the damage and determined that it would be far easier to abandon the city and build a new one someplace else. Only the ego and determination of Stalin brought about the ultimate reconstruction of the city. But buried among the ruins was the truth of the horrendous price the Russians paid for their victory.

How many people ultimately died at Stalingrad? Nobody really knows. Right up until its final collapse the Soviet Government never did release accurate casualty figures from the war . Some post-Soviet Russians have stated that Chuikov spent over one million soldiers lives to hold the city, but that claim is almost certainly exaggerated. Also exaggerated is the claim that Stalingrad was the bloodiest "battle" in world history. When you consider the size and scope of military operations as well as the time frame, Stalingrad could more accurately be described as a "campaign". But the blood-letting was appalling, no matter what kind of label is attached to it.

When you tally the figures for the German 6th Army and its allied auxiliaries which supported the march to the Volga, the numbers are both impressive and distressing. The Germans lost about 350,000 men, the Italians, Hungarians and Romanians about 100,000 men apiece. The Red Army also must have lost at least 500,000 men in Stalingrad and the surrounding areas which were adjunct to the battle. But the most horrendous toll must have been on the innocent civilians who formerly lived in the city. Stalingrad was estimated to have had 850,000 residents in 1940. It isn't known how many of them may have escaped the carnage and vanished into the interior of Russia. But after 1945, a census showed only 1500 of these people remained in the pile of rubble that had once been 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:

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Published online: 02/04/2003.

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