Podcast by Des Latham
The Battle of Stalingrad Des Latham
Podcast by Des Latham
Episode 34 - The Battle of Stalingrad ends and the world changes
This is episode 34 – the final in this series. A big thank you to my listeners who have posted reviews as well as comments over the past 9 months.
And those who have sent me email and twitter notices of support thank you so much too.
So to the story at hand.
Last episode you remember that Field Marshal Paulus surrendered with the men in the southern pocket inside Stalingrad. That was not the end of it all. We left off with Russian Generals Voronov and Rokossovsky interrogating Paulus.
Before we continue with their attempts at getting Paulus to order the Germans in the northern pocket in Stalingrad to surrender, we must quickly return to the Wolf’s Lair in east Prussia.
Hitler took the news of the surrender far more calmly than most would have forecast. Sitting in front of a huge map of Russia in the main conference room, he spoke with Zeitzler, Keitel and others about the debacle.
The Wolf’s Lair in the middle of the Prussian forest was once described by General Jodl as a cross between a monastery and a Concentration Camp. Hitler didn’t bother banging the table or conducting his usual screaming and haranguing technique this time. He seemed resigned.
“They have surrendered there formally and absolutely. Otherwise they would have closed ranks, formed a hedgehog and shot themselves with their last bullet…”
“That Schmidt will sign anything..” Hitler was referring to the ardent Nazi and Paulus chief of staff.
“A man who doesn’t have the courage in such a time to take the road that every man has to take sometimes, doesn’t have the strength to withstand that sort of thing …” he droned on
“he will suffer torture in his soul…”
Hitler was disgusted. Zeitzler was his usual toadying self - coddling Hitler’s ego …
“I still think … the Russians are only claiming to have captured them all ..”
“No ..” Hitler shouted “In this war no more Field Marshals will be made. I won’t go on counting my chickens before they are hatched..”
The Führer kept returning to the fact that Paulus failed to kill himself. In his mind he’d built up the moment as one of heroic courage, something he could draw on to rally his Reich.
Nobody was more shocked than the Japanese. When their military officials were shown a Soviet propaganda film featuring Paulus and the other captured generals, they wondered why all had not committed suicide rather than be paraded like common criminals.
The final number of casualties on the Russian side topped 1.1 million, with a similar number on the German side.
Episode 33 - Field Marshal Paulus surrenders but the northern pocket fights on
General Paulus had moved his headquarters right into the city as we heard last episode, setting them up in the basement of Stalingrad’s department store called Univermag. That was a multi-story building that overlooked the Square of the Fallen Soviet Heroes.
By the late afternoon of the 25th January 1943, the Russians had driven a wedge through the middle of the German pocket.
At dawn on the 26th January ranks of the 21st Army met up with Rodimtsev’s 13 Guards Rifle Division north of the Mamaev Kurgan, near the Red October workers’ settlements. The scenes were emotional, especially for Chuikov’s 62nd Army which had been fighting on its own for five months. Bottles of Vodka were passed back and forth as usual.
The Kessel was now split in two, with Paulus and his senior officers bottled up in the smaller southern pocket and General Streckers 11 corps in the northern part of the city around the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.
Strecker had one radio left and had no intention of surrendering.
At the central military hospital a mile north of the Univermag, three thousand German wounded lay under a merciless wind that whipped through the building’s shattered walls. There was no medicine so doctors placed the most gravely wounded on the perimeter so they would die first and quickly and then their bodies would shelter the others.
Around all four sides of the building was a stack of bodies six feet high a macabre kind of frozen human windbreak.
Soldiers who arrived from other sectors earned food by stacking newly dead on top, almost like railway sleepers. There was a quota to stack before the cook splashed watery soup in their outstretched mess tins. Such is life when all around is death.
The Russians spotted this infirmary from hell – and decided to mortar the building with incendiaries. The spotters were extremely accurate and the bombs landed directly on the block.
As medics screamed to the wounded to run, the flames were fanned by the high winter wind and raced through the hallways. Wounded hobbled away on fire, then lay dying on the snow sizzling.
Episode 32 - Goebbels declares “Total War” as crows peck at the eyeballs of the dead
These are the last days of the men trapped inside the frozen city, starving and out of ammunition.
General Paulus had finally realized the futility of trusting Goering and Hitler – far too late for his men. While the initial figure trapped had been close to 250 000, many had died or been taken prisoner – by the 25th January there were more like 100 000 men inside the final tomb of the Sixth Army.
The wounded alone numbered more than 20 000 and most were not being treated at all, they lay in the cold until hyperthermia killed them.
IF there ever was an advertisement for ending war, the last days of Stalingrad would be the opening and closing scenes. Some of the stories I’m going to relate are beyond comprehension, beyond anything dreamed up by the most creative sadists or the most bloody-minded novelists.
There is something of the inhuman, the monster, about this saga. After Pitomnik Airfield had been abandoned by the Germans, great suffering took place. The wounded had been concentrated there awaiting airlifts but those who could not walk or missed the last truck out of the airfield. The Red Army was upon them.
A single doctor and medical orderly joined them. Most of these would be killed by the Russians out of hand. An eye for an eye.
The rest limped or crawled away, others were placed in large sledges and dragged behind the few trucks that had a few litres of fuel. All were on their way to Gumrak Airfield which was a scant eight miles east through the ice and snow.
Then the clouds cleared at times, blinding the men, at night the shadows turned steel blue while the sun itself set in an abnormal orange glow. It was as though they had already arrived at Hades with the conditions of a nightmare prevailing.
The condition of all the men, not just the wounded, was pitiful in the extreme. Their hands, feet and faces frostbitten, lips cracked open, faces pale and waxy and corpse-like. Hundreds slumped in the snow never to rise again. As they died, others would strip them as frozen corpses were impossible to undress.
And of course, stalking these dying figures were the Russians. A soviet journalist by the name of Grossman who I mentioned before was in the vanguard of the units approaching Pitomnik.
“There are frozen Germans their bodies undamaged along the road we follow. It wasn’t us who killed them, it was the cold. They have bad boots and bad coats. Their tunics are thin and look like paper..”
The crows circled then landed and then pecked out the eyes of the corpses as Grossman watched. The Russian infantry approached Pitomnik following the T34s – but just before they arrived Soviet officers were confused by what looked like a village.
Episode 31 - Pitomnik Airfield overrun and Major Thiel talks to dead men at Gumrak
The Russians had launched Operation Koltso or Ring on the 10th January which was aimed at ending the saga, but the Germans were still determined to fight on despite running out of ammunition, food and reinforcements.
Zhukov’s plan was to punch a hole through the Kessel and to split the Stalingrad city area from those German units out on the Steppe. While they drove the Germans from the nose of the Kessel as we heard last episode, they stalled initially in the main aim of splitting up the pocket.
This sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? After all, the Sixth Army was on the run eastwards towards the city and scenes of utter chaos were reported across the Steppe. Yet the Russians also found the going difficult at times as German defences were unbroken in some sectors.
Many thousands of Germans and Romanians, Italians, Hungarians and other axis troops, fell to the Russians after the 10th January. 25 000 in all. But the number of German prisoners taken by the Russians was actually quite small, around 7 000, the rest of the divisions managed to withdraw to the East.
However, other units had disappeared – the German 297th Infantry Division for example which was smashed beyond regrouping. By the early hours of the 11th January a message came through from the German High Command or OKH which demonstrated only too clearly how ignorant they were of conditions in the pocket.
“Every possible step,” read the OKH coded message “were to be taken to prevent Pitomkin from falling into Russian hands..”
On January 12th, a single Russian T-34 tank had somehow pierced the Pitomnik airfield defences and was ambling about around the runway, firing at will at medical tents, aircraft and men who were running in all directions.
Before the Germans could recover, the tank disappeared into the morning mist. The airfield had no chance of fighting off a single tank, as soon as the Russians gathered their force once more to launch a proper assault, it was doomed.
At 09h40 on the same day Army Group Radio reported that the enemy had broken through on a wide portion of the line. That night at 7pm Sixth Army reported to Manstein that
“deep penetration east of Zybenko more than six kilometers wide. Our own losses were considerable. Resistance of the troops is diminishing quickly because of insufficient ammunition, extreme frost and a lack of coverage against heaviest enemy fire…”
Missing from these reports were the number of desertions. German soldiers were running over to the other side in large numbers. Many officers in the field had now lost their will to lead and men had blankets over their heads as they slept in sentry posts. Worse, the mighty Wehrmacht had no tanks to fight off the T-34s.
Episode 30 - Voronov’s “God of War” turns the melody of the front into a real-world Goya nightmare
This is episode 30 and we’re dealing with the events starting in the first week of January 1943, through to the end of the second week.
The Sixth Army is surrounded in Stalingrad and faces another major assault planned by the Russians.
Before they go ahead, however, Joseph Stalin wants to give the Germans a chance to surrender. There is no escape for the 249 000 men despite their prayers for a miracle and Stalin and Stalin’s generals want done with the Sixth Army so they can focus on the south where the German 1st Panzer Army is trying to escape from the Caucuses.
West of the Mamaev Kurgan or hill, at Gumrak Airfield, General Paulus was in his HQ when heard that three Red Army representatives were asking for permission to enter German lines. They had an ultimatum for the Sixth Army.
While a rendezvous was called for 10am Moscow Time on January 8th, Paulus refused to attend. But he did send Captain Willig from his HQ. At the appointed hour three Russian parliamentarians walked under white flag into German lines and delivered General Rokossovsky’s offer to the Captain Willig.
What was being offered was certainly enticing. Rokossovsky said there would be guarantees of safety to all who ceased to resist, and they would be returned to Germany at the end of the war.
The Russians said all personnel could keep their belongings and valuables. But probably the most tempting argument was food. The Germans were starving to death and General Rokossovsky said in his personal message that all officers and men who surrender would immediately receive normal rations.
Even if that was true, the Russians had no idea about the exact number of Germans in the Kessel. They estimated it was around 86 000 whereas as we know it was around 249 000. There would not have been enough food available at that very moment to honour the offer of normal rations.
Episode 29 - The noose tightens and Hoth’s elastic withdrawal delays the Russian attack on Rostov
On the 28th December 1942 Joseph Stalin was fuming back in Moscow. There were at least seven Russian armies tied down trying to defeat General Paulus and they had still not taken the city back from the Germans. He was also growing very tired of hearing the mostly exaggerated reports from his field commanders including impossible boasts such as “3 250 tanks captured and 1 800 aircraft destroyed”.
The Germans didn’t even have 1 800 in the area, let alone three thousand tanks. Stalin seemed to be aware of these discrepancies. The Russian commanders failed to understand that the boasts would lead to Stalin eventually asking a fundamentally logic question – if so many were being taken prisoner and all their equipment was being destroyed, why hadn’t the Sixth Army surrendered?
On the same day that Stalin was pacing about his office, General Vatutin at Soviet Southwest Front headquarters on the upper Don phoned him with news of another overwhelming victory.
“The Italian Eighth Army’s entire right wing had melted away,” warbled Vatutin “ .. sixty thousand prisoners and about the same number killed.. stores seized by our forces.. the pitiful remains .. are not putting up any resistance..”
Stalin listened to Vatutin who was clearly excited and puffed up. The Russian dictator was more worried about the possibility of a German counter-attack and there were signs already.
The main problem was Tatsinkaya airfield, taken by the Russians only four days before and watched by the Luftwaffe 2IC General Martin Fiebig. Last episode we heard how he’d only just managed to make it out flying to Rostov which lay to the South west of Stalingrad.
But a Russian armoured column had ended up being trapped at Tatsinskaya airfield by lead elements of the German Panzers rushed from their aborted relief drive towards Stalingrad.
The major issue he was facing was in the command structure. Remember there were two generals in charge in the south – Rokossovsky and Yeremenko. Field Marshal Zhukov for once said nothing when Stalin asked “Who gets the assignment?”
There was silence a first, then one of those present suggested Lieutenant General Rokossovsky.
“Why don’t you say anything?” Stalin prodded Zhukov. He said either general was capable, sitting very firmly on the fence.
“Yeremenko’s feelings will be hurt, or course…”
I find the podcasts very interesting and very well written. I have read quite a lot of books about the war in the east and I know a bit about it. The five stars are well deserved.