Completely convinced that the Sixth Army's agony was in vain, Field Marshal von Manstein pleaded with Hitler to permit Paulus to surrender. His efforts were wasted. Hitler would not face up to the facts. Instead, he cast about for miracles and found absurdities. On January 23, in a meeting with several high-ranking officers at the Wolf's Lair, the Fuhrer discussed in dead earnest an irrational scheme for forming a battalion of new Panther tanks and using it to carry supplies through enemy lines to Paulus' perimeter.
"I was flabbergasted," said Major Coelestin von Zitzewitz, Hitler's liaison officer with the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. "A single panzer battalion was to launch a successful attack across several hundred miles of strongly held enemy territory when an entire panzer army had been unable to do so. I used the first pause that Hitler made in his presentation to describe the hardships of the Sixth Army; I quoted examples, I read off figures from a slip of paper I had prepared. I spoke about the hunger, the frostbite, the inadequate sup- plies, the sense of having been written off; I spoke of wounded men and lack of medical supplies.
"I concluded with the words: 'My Fuhrer, permit me to state that the troops at Stalingrad can no longer be ordered to fight to their last round because they are no longer physically capable of fighting and because they no longer have a last round.'
"Hitler regarded me with surprise, but I felt he was looking straight through me. Then he said: 'Man recovers very quickly.' With these words I was dismissed."
Hitler's final response to Zitzewitz' argument was to send a radio message to Stalingrad: "Surrender out of the question. Troops will resist to the end."
Next day in Stalingrad a German general officer, depressed by news of his son's death in combat and unwilling to face Siberian captivity, put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Another general, named Hartmann, commander of the skeletonized 71st Infantry Division, put down the book he was reading and observed to a fellow officer: "As seen from Sirius, Goethe's works will be mere dust in a thousand years' time, and the Sixth Army an illegible name, incomprehensible to all." With that, Hartmann went out- side, rounded up a small group of men and led them to a railway embankment. There, standing upright and deliberately exposing himself to the enemy, he shouted, "Commence firing!" He blazed away with his rifle until the Russians cut him down.
On that same day, Sixth Army headquarters sent Manstein a signal that quivered with pain: "Frightful conditions in the city area proper, where about 20,000 unattended wounded are seeking shelter among the ruins. With them are about the same number of starved and frostbitten men, and stragglers, mostly without weapons, which they lost during the fighting. Heavy artillery is pounding the whole city area."
Hitler's reaction: "Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round, and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution towards the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world."
This was the end. On January 30, Hitler notified Paulus that he had been made a field marshal. The dictator's motive was both macabre and transparent: Never before, in any war, had a German field marshal surrendered his command, and Hitler hoped that Paulus would measure up to that proud tradition-either by dying in battle at the head of his men or by committing suicide. To Friedrich Paulus, the textbook soldier, the second alternative was unthinkable; days before, he had issued an order denouncing suicide as a "disciplinary infraction."
At 5:45 a.m. on January 31, 1943, an operator at Sixth Army headquarters sent a final message:
"The Russians stand at the door of our bunker. We are destroying our equipment.
"This station will no longer transmit." Minutes later, a young Soviet tank lieutenant named Fyodor Yelchenko entered the headquarters in the Univermag basement with two other soldiers. From a side room, Paulus stepped out to meet the lieutenant. "Well," said Yelchenko, "that finishes it."
Paulus and his chief of staff Schmidt were placed in a Soviet staff car and driven south past landmarks that had come to have a grisly renown: the Tsaritsa Gorge, the grain elevator, the ruins of Dar Gova. And at a farmhouse in the suburb of Beketovka, Paulus identified himself to General Shurnilov, commander of the Sixty-fourth Army.