Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sixth Army’s Gotterdammerung I

Hitler had no reason to be hopeful on that New Year's Day. Along the northern half of the battle front, running 600 miles from Leningrad to Orel on the Oka, his armies had been tied up in holding operations for nearly a year. Far to the south, the possibility of future encirclement hung over his Army Group A in the Caucasus; it was vastly overextended. The situation in front of Stalingrad was merely Hitler's most pressing problem.

So far, the Russians had been content to contain the Sixth Army within a steel ring nearly 40 miles deep in places. But that task required the efforts of no fewer than seven Soviet armies, and Stalin needed those armies elsewhere. The time had clearly come to erase the Sixth Army from the battle maps, and the Germans knew it. During the first days of January 1943, German observation posts reported ominous evidence of Soviet build-ups, especially in artillery, along the perimeter of the Stalingrad pocket.

In fact, General Nikolai Nikolayevich Voronov, chief of the Red Army artillery, was in the process of assembling 7,000 guns, more than enough to blast open Paulus' hedge- hog. But General Chuikov, still locked with the enemy inside the ruins of Stalingrad, was also to play a key part in the renewed Russian effort.

Chuikov had lately been feeling better about his situation. The pressure on Stalingrad's defenders had of course been eased by the encirclement of the Sixth Army. Beyond that, after a full month in which drifting ice had virtually shut down traffic on the Volga, Chuikov was getting supplies more regularly. Not long ago, in his bunker on the river's west bank, he had heard a thunderous noise. Rushing outside, lie had seen a gigantic crest of ice. "Smashing everything in its path, it crushed and pulverized small and large ice floes alike, and broke logs like matchwood." As Chuikov watched, the great ice wave slowed-and stopped. The Volga was at last frozen solid, and Chuikov's supply ordeal was over since supplies could cross by sled.

Now, to explain Chuikov's role in the new Soviet offensive he commanded, Major General Konstantin Rokossovsky paid a visit to the Volga bunker. During the assaults on Paulus' perimeter, Rokossovsky said, Chuikov's Sixty- second Army must attract more enemy forces in its direction, keeping them heavily engaged. Could Chuikov do the job? Before Chuikov could answer, his aide broke in : "If in the summer and autumn all Paulus' forces were unable to drive us into the Volga, then the hungry and frozen Germans won't even move six steps eastward." As promised, Chuikov's battered little army made work for those German units that chose to fight toward the east.

After talking to Chuikov and before beginning his bombardment, Rokossovsky made an attempt to take the Sixth Army out of action without firing a shot. On January 8, a Soviet captain bearing a white flag appeared at a German position on the western nose of Paulus' hedgehog and handed the local commander a letter offering surrender terms. News of the offer crackled throughout the Sixth Army and, even before the document reached him, Paulus sent out orders forbidding anyone to enter into surrender negotiations of any sort. When he did receive the letter, Paulus flatly turned it down and suppressed the contents.

Next day the Russians showered the entire Sixth Army defense zone with air-dropped leaflets giving their terms along with the warning that "anyone resisting will be mercilessly wiped out." The wretched German troops must have thought the surrender offer more than generous:
"We guarantee the safety of all officers and men who cease to resist, and their return at the end of the war to Germany or to any other country to which these prisoners of war may wish to go.
"All personnel of units which surrender may retain their military uniforms, badges of rank, decorations, personal belongings and valuables and, in the case of high-ranking officers, their swords.
"All officers, non-commissioned officers and men who lay down their arms will immediately be given normal rations.
"All those who are wounded, sick or frostbitten will be given medical treatment.
"Your reply is to be given in writing by 3 p .m., Moscow time, 9 January, 1943 ."

The appeal for Paulus' surrender was useless; he would obey his Fuhrer. In so doing, he would pin down Soviet forces that would otherwise be used against the German armies in the Caucasus. And then on the morning of January 10, the day after the ultimatum ran out, Voronov's guns began to boom.

Above the barrage swarmed Soviet planes, and surging through deep snow, came tides of tanks and infantry, red flags flapping. Huge holes in the German lines were almost instantly ripped open. But the German forces closed the gaps and doggedly fought a controlled retreat, maintaining a solid perimeter for nearly a week.

In the west, the Austrian 44th Division held on gallantly. One of its battalions, defending the approaches to the airstrip at Pitomnik, was under the command of a major named Pohl, who had recently received from Paulus a Knight's Cross, accompanied by a more useful reward: a loaf of bread and a can of herring in tomato sauce. Pohl was determined to hold the line at all costs, and so was the sergeant in charge of the battalion's last heavy machine gun, who had told Pohl, "No one's going to shift me from here, Herr Major." But suddenly Pohl saw Soviet soldiers leaping into the firing pits; the sergeant was killed and Pohl joined the retreat. By January 22, the Austrians, along with the rest of the Sixth Army, were fleeing headlong into the city of Stalingrad. There they joined German units that were battling Chuikov's troops.

Just outside the city at the Gumrak airfield, Paulus was still insisting that the Luftwaffe supply his army even though the wreckage of 13 planes scattered across the runways supported the Luftwaffe's contention that Gumrak was no longer operable. Paulus was in a pitiable state; the tic that had afflicted one eye now extended from brow to jaw. A Luftwaffe liaison officer bore the brunt of Paulus' despair. "If your aircraft cannot land, my army is doomed," Paulus shouted. "It is four days since they have had anything to eat. The last horses have been eaten up."

One of Paulus' officers joined in. "Can you imagine," he asked the hapless Luftwaffe man, "what it is like to see soldiers fall on an old carcass, beat open the head and swallow the brains raw?"

Paulus continued, "What should I, as the commander in chief of an army, say when a simple soldier comes up to me and begs, 'Herr General, can you spare me one piece of bread'?" Paulus could not stop. "Why on earth did the Luftwaffe ever promise to keep us supplied? Who is the man responsible for declaring that it was possible? Had someone told me it was not possible, I should not have held it against the Luftwaffe. I could have broken out. When I was strong enough to do so. Now it is too late."

It was indeed. Gumrak fell to the Russians, who soon drove Paulus back to the place where his troubles began: Stalingrad. He moved into a new headquarters in a basement warehouse beneath the shell of the Univermag Department Store on Red Square. There he shared with his troops the onslaught of an old enemy, Chuikov, and a new one: hordes of lice that covered the emaciated bodies of the German men with angry red welts.

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