Podcast by Des Latham
Episode 34 - The Battle of Stalingrad ends and the world changes
25:32This 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
22:20General 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
22:24These 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
19:26The 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
19:59This 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
24:00On 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…”
Episode 28 - Tatsinskaya airfield overrun and Manstein turns around on Christmas eve
26:19Manstein’s attempted break-in to Stalingrad has ground to a halt. He needs Paulus to push back from the inside and the Sixth Army commander is like a bunny in the headlights – waiting for Adolf Hitler to give him permission. But the Führer has long decided that its death or glory in Stalingrad, no retreat, despite the Sixth Army being surrounded by the Russians after the Operation Uranus success. We concentrated last week on the push to try and dent the iron ring around Paulus and 249 000 Germans trapped in the Kessel. The other battle as historian and secret agent Ronald Seth noted, was the condition of the Germans in the city. They were more fortunate than their comrades in the steppes, at least they had the shelter of broken buildings and the luxury of snugger basements to protect them against the -35º Centigrade arctic winds, the plate-glass ice and the thick silent snow. This was the only advantage however, except for the rats feeding on corpses. The German comforts were two and a half ounces of bread and a pint of muddy water which was described as soup, a sliver of horse-meat if they were lucky. The rats were hunted for their own coarse rancid flesh despite they’d obviously been gorging on dead Germans and Russians. A sick cycle of life based on the dead. How they hung on even now, at Christmas 1942, none could say later. One thing had changed by Christmas, the Russians had slackened off on the pressure inside the city, but only slightly. The Red Army sometimes based in the same house had thick woolen underwear, fleecy-lined felt boots, skin caps with ear muffs, sheepskin lined coats and white camouflage capes with hoods. They merged with the snow and ate their two hot meals a day where ever they were, enough food to keep them warm and quiet and comfortable. They also had their shots of vodka every day to help dissolve depression and chase away the cold. As a military ops paramedic instructor I know that alcohol given to folks who are suffering the effects of exposure is tantamount to shooting them in the head – but it’s a great additive if you’re already warm. The soviet High Command had only reinforced General Chuikov’s 62nd Army in the city in sufficient numbers to prevent the Germans from taking Stalingrad centre. The Sixth Army had been driven back so many times from the shores of the Volga by the Russians it was so superhuman it was supernatural. And by now it was known by the Soviet top brass that Hitler had developed a Stalingrad-complex and that even if his armies on the steppe were destroyed he’d still demand that General Paulus and his troops should fight until the last man dropped dead. That greatly assisted Yeremenko and Zhukov in their strategy and once the vast mass of the Sixth Army was surrounded, both turned their attentions back to the city once more.
Episode 27 - Little Saturn steamrolls the Italian 8th Army
19:34General Hoths’ 6th Panzer division is about to roll into Myshkova where he would be joined by the 17th Panzer Division. They had started Operation Winter Storm on the 12th December in a last ditch push to save the Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad and by the 14th had made good progress. The Russian force guarding the approach route was the 51st Army but it had been reduced to about half its strength since the break-through in November where they’d been part of the Red Army that had enveloped General Paulus and at least 200 000 men inside the Kessel – to the west of Stalingrad. He was surrounded and Field Marshal Manstein was trying to help him break out by breaking in. The problem was, Manstein had no means of knowing what was in Paulus’ mind. At some point he hoped the trapped General would order the Sixth Army to move towards him and crush the Russians between their two pinces, allowing, hopefully most of the Germans to escape West. But Paulus was awaiting Hitler’s order – and Hitler was determined the Sixth Army was going nowhere. So by the 14th the Panzers were making good progress = the ground was hard and although tanks slip and slid, it wasn’t the cruel thick mud they were facing but sub-zero conditions which made the going easier. At first sight the steppe to the south west of the Kessel appeared flat, but that was deceptive. It was criss-crossed by a network of both deep and shallow gullies, a bit like the wadis of north Africa, or part of the veld in South Africa. The snow had drifted into these gullies and the Russians were lying in wait here. Sometimes up to a battalion in strength and with a full component of heavy weapons. The Russian cavalry kept its horses in these gullies during the day, sheltered from the freezing winds and rode out at night when the air was still to harass the German flanks along with mortar and machine-gun fire. At times, most likely at night or at dawn, isolated groups of T-34s would attack the columns forcing a halt for a few hours. The sky was iron-grey and the overcast ceiling was five hundred feet, effectively grounding von Richthofen’s Luftwaffe. In the rear of this approaching army were the engineers struggling to keep up – it was a soft tail of around 800 trucks, lagging behind its armoured carapace as historian Alan Clarke put it. After four days of fighting Manstein’s soldiers were still on the way to Stalingrad but the attack slowed to a snail’s pace. Around the village of Sogotskot for example, the 6th Panzer had been forced turn west in an attempt to out-flank the enemy. The Russians had prepared a vast network of rifle pits that made it impossible for the tanks to advance. After point-blank firing into these pits, panzers were put to flight by T-34s which arrived at twilight. On the 16th December a hard and bitter wind began to blow from the north east. Everything was rimmed with frost, telegraph lines, stunted trees, the debris of war, corpses, burned out tanks, shattered trucks, horse carcasses. The ground froze so hard that footsteps began to sound like soldiers were walking on metal. The sunset that night was described as intensely beautiful, a vivid red while the white landscape turned a kind of arctic blue. IN Stalingrad late that afternoon every Russian along the Volga shore that day had heard a wonderous sound – a crashing noise that led to 62nd Army commander Vassili Chuikov bolting from his cave to witness a glorious sight. An enormous wave of ice was pushing down past Zaitsevski Island, smashing everything in its path.
Episode 26 - Operation Winter Storm begins but Zhukov has other plans
18:45This is episode 26 and Field Marshal Manstein is saddling up with a view to saving the Sixth Army and General Paulus trapped inside the Kessel or cauldron in an operation called Winter Storm. Russian General Zhukov has a surprise of his own and its called Operation little Saturn. With all these operations going on, we’ll need to do a little historical surgery to make sure it’s not too confusing. What was apparent to Field Marshal Manstein as he took charge of the remnants of the Axis forces outside the Kessel was that there were none capable of serious resistance if the Russians decided to change direction and focus their attention westwards instead of the trapped Sixth Army. Still more perilous was the situation in the south towards the Sea of Azov and across the communications of the extended Army Group A. The notion of “recapturing positions previously held by us” which was Hitler’s order was an absurdity. The German units outside the Kessel were little more than the fighting strength of a corps, and they were spread over two hundred miles. Manstein’s first task was to collect sufficient strength to give him tactical options. The disorganized state of the railway system and the fact that Partisan activity had made large stretches of the line unusable prolonged any journey. By now the Russians had moved 34 divisions across the Don River – twelve from Beketonskaya bridgehead and 22 divisions from Kremenskaya. The 48th panzer corps had been defeated by Russian tank units, and now the Red Army infantry turned eastwards and began building an iron-clad ring around the trapped Sixth Army.
Episode 25 - The Kessel forms as the Sixth Army receives a Last Tango in Stalingrad
19:43Already Field Marshal Manstein is planning to use the Fourth Panzer Army, the remnants of the Axis forces such as the Italians, Romanians, Hungarians and others into a semblance of a powerful force to smash into the Russians west of Stalingrad in an attempt to free Paulus and his men. Adolf Hitler had already denied Paulus permission to try to break out so by the 24th November the Sixth Army commander and General Schmidt flew back to their new headquarters at Gumrack inside the Kessel or cauldron as it was known, and eight miles to the west of Stalingrad. Paulus brought along a supply of good red wine and Veuve-Cliquot champagne – a strange choice for someone supposed to be planning action. Even more symbolic, Veuve-Cliquot means Widow -Cliquot. While Hitler was ordering a battening down of the hatches, all the German generals in Stalingrad were of the opinion that a break-out was necessary. The most outspoken was General von Seydlitz whose headquarters were only a hundred yards away from Paulus’. On the same day, Reichsmarshall Herman Goering back in Berlin heard that the Fuhrer wanted the Sixth Army to stay inside Stalingrad and so summoned a meeting of his transport officers. Goering told them that 500 tonnes needed to flown into Stalingrad daily, while the real figure was 700 tonnes. The transport officers replied that 350 tonnes would be the maximum and then again, not consistently. It was more like a hundred and on bad days – none. Goering then informed Hitler with what Antony Beever calls “Breathtaking irresponsibility” – that the Luftwaffe could maintain the Sixth Army in its present position by air. It was a big lie. Goebbels the propaganda minister had said the big lies are always believed and this was another. The problem is when leaders lie constantly the real world eventually catches up. Hitler sent another message to General Paulus where he used the phrase “Fortress Stalingrad” which was the final death message for nearly 300 000 men squeezed into the Kessel – and worse Hitler was intimating that the Volga bank must be held whatever the circumstances. Luftwaffe commander in the Stalingrad sector, General Richthofen, was beyond disgusted. He wrote in his diary that the officers had become little more than “highly paid NCOs…”