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Enemy at the Gates
The Battle for Stalingrad
By William Craig
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 William Craig
All rights reserved.
Parched by the blazing sun of summer, the grassy plain of the steppe country is light brown in hue. From the vicinity of Lugansk in the west to Kazakhstan in the east, the barren tableland stretches more than six hundred miles across southern Russia. Only a few rectangular patches of cultivated farmland, kolkhozi, relieve the desolation and, from them, ribbons of road run straight to the horizon.
Two majestic rivers, running roughly north to south, scour the land. The erratic Don gouges a convulsive path to the city of Rostov on the Sea of Azov. Farther east, the mighty Volga bends more gently on its way to a rendezvous with the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan. Only at one place do the rivers run parallel to each other, and here they are forty miles apart. After that brief attempt at union, they flow relentlessly on their lonely journeys to different destinations, giving but brief respite to the harsh terrain. Otherwise, the suffocating heat of the region cracks the ground and paralyzes life.
It has been that way for centuries on the steppe. But on August 5, 1942, a malevolent presence intruded on the timeless scene. From the west, from the far-off Ukraine, came giant pillars of dust. The whirling clouds advanced fitfully across the prairie, slowing only for short periods before moving on toward the east and the Don River barrier. From a distance they resembled tornadoes, those natural phenomena that plague the open areas of the earth. But these spiraling clouds hid the German Sixth Army, an elite legion dispatched by Adolf Hitler to destroy the Soviet Army and the Communist state led by Joseph Stalin. Its men were supremely confident; during three years of warfare, they had never suffered defeat.
In Poland, the Sixth Army had made the word blitzkrieg ("lightning war") a synonym for Nazi omnipotence. At Dunkirk, it helped cripple the British Expeditionary Force, sending the Tommies back to England without rifles or artillery. Chosen to spearhead the cross-channel invasion, the Sixth Army practiced amphibious landings until Hitler lost enthusiasm for the assault and sent it instead to Yugoslavia, which it conquered in a matter of weeks.
Then, in the summer of 1941, the Sixth Army began its Russian campaign and completely mastered the enemy. It quickly "liberated" several million square miles of the Ukraine and attained a level of professional excellence unmatched in modern warfare. Increasingly arrogant about their successes on the battlefield, its soldiers reached the conclusion that "Russland ist kaputt." This conviction was buttressed by propaganda emanating from the Führerhauptquartier (Field Headquarters of the OKW). For with the unleashing in late June 1942 of Operation Blue, the knockout blow, Adolf Hitler had promised his soldiers an end to the war.
Most Germans on the steppe agreed with their Führer's prophecies of triumph, especially when they noted the slackening resistance of the Red Army. Now, on this stifling August morning, the Sixth Army prepared to spring another trap. Two battered Soviet armies, the First Tank and the Sixty-second Infantry, lay penned up against the cliffs that dominate the western bank of the Don.
Fingers of steel had already reached out on either side of the Russians. Packs of German Mark III and Mark IV tanks, coated with dust, roamed the land. From hundreds of turrets, tank commanders issued curt orders to gunners who swiveled their weapons around to fire on targets of opportunity.
Terrified Russian soldiers, lacking faith in their officers and in the Red Army itself, rushed to join a swelling throng of deserters. The Germans herded them into ragged columns that marched west, away from the sounds of war. The Russians were happy. Capture meant they had survived.
The Germans had little time to care for their prisoners. In regimental and divisional command posts, senior officers drew new lines on maps, wrote out new directives and gave them to couriers who gunned their motorcycles past jammed lines of trucks moving men and supplies ever closer to the Don River. Inside the transports, infantrymen tied handkerchiefs over their faces to ward off the clouds of dirt that engulfed them. Their gray green uniforms were coated with steppe soil; their eyes were bloodshot. They were miserable, but since they were winning, morale was high. Strident marching songs drifted out from the lorries as the motorcyclists roared by.
When the couriers reached the main line of resistance, they handed messages to weary battalion and company commanders, some of whom had not rested for more than thirty days. Their appearance reflected the strain of constant combat: faces were pinched, their once-neat uniforms stuck to their bodies and held the accumulated grime of the steppe. Helmets were a monstrous hindrance, a magnet for the sun that beat on them and sent perspiration pouring down inside their collars.
Still the officers shrugged off the discomfort and shouted new commands to their bedraggled men. The landsers stubbed out cigarettes, shouldered rifles and machine pistols, and fell into the inevitable columns pointing east, always east into the heartland of the Soviet Union.
Contrary to popular belief at the time, German armies were far from total mechanization. In Sixth Army alone, more than twenty-five thousand horses moved guns and supplies. They were everywhere: huge Belgian draft horses, small Russian panjes, not much bigger than donkeys and native to the steppe. Their flanks heaved from exertion, and their eyes rolled as they bucked in fear at sudden explosions. The marching soldiers stepped in the manure and cursed violently at this additional affront to their sensibilities.
But they marched on and quickly reached the edge of no-man's-land where burned and gutted tanks stood mute, their treads twisted crazily and gun barrels snapped off. Amidst this desolation, the troops dug shallow foxholes and waited for the signal to attack.
Russian shrapnel sprayed the newly arrived; human debris collected quickly. Medics loaded the wounded into ambulances, which raced toward field hospitals located safely in the rear. Trucks, tanks, and motorcycles pulled to the roadside to let the "meat wagons" pass, while inside, attendants bent over mutilated bodies strapped tightly onto stretchers.
At the field hospitals, the atmosphere was almost tranquil. Only the gravediggers disturbed the hushed quiet as, behind the hospital tents, they methodically lowered one coffin after another into the ground. Army chaplains intoned appropriate prayers, then an honor guard fired quick volleys into the air. Moments later, a team of men began hammering wooden crosses into the ground at the head of each grave, marking by name, rank, and unit, the soldier who was now buried beneath foreign soil. A passing courier noticed that groups of cemeteries were spreading across the steppe like clumps of wild mushrooms.
Three miles from the front, a battery of 150-millimeter nebelwerfers, those fearsomely squat, six-barreled mortars mounted on rubber-tired gun carriages, was strangely silent. Throughout the morning, as the gun crews huddled in slit trenches to escape the terrible back blast of their weapons, the mortars had spat series of 78-pound high-explosive shells toward an unseen foe. Now out of ammunition, the men were relaxing and their commander, Lt. Emil Metzger, squatted in the shade of a truck. Taking a pad of paper from his jacket pocket, he began to scribble a message to his wife in Frankfurt: "Liebe Kaethe...."
How could he break the news that he had decided to give up his first furlough in two years so that one of his friends could go home in his place and get married? As he pondered the question, Emil paused to rub the stubble of his three-day-old beard. He was proud of what he had accomplished since that day back in 1933 when he had first joined the fledgling Reichswehr for a twelve-year hitch, because he "wanted to do something for the Fatherland." During the invasion of Poland in 1939, Metzger's aggressiveness, his gymnast's quickness and ability to withstand physical hardship, had earned him promotion to sergeant. The next year he and his men had fought across France and were hardened by the horrors they saw on the roads surrounding Dunkirk. He now wore the Iron Cross Second Class, and was an officer. It was a far cry from the apprenticeship that he had been supposed to serve while learning the career of master butcher. Patriotism had not been his only reason for joining the army. His other reason for enlisting was that he was sickened by the killing of animals.
Emil wondered if he should confide in his letter that his curly black hair was suddenly touched with gray. His brown eyes crinkled at the corners as he recalled the dance at which he had met Kaethe Bausch. They had married shortly afterward, in a brief span of time between fighting in 1940, and they had spent only four nights together before he had gone off again to battle. It was difficult to find the proper, soothing words to explain why he was not coming home, but he was sure Kaethe would understand. There was no reason for her to worry. According to the latest rumors the war was nearly over. The Soviet Army had been routed; one more battle should end the killing. In closing, he said, "I should be home for Christmas."
He sealed the letter and handed it to an orderly to mail just as the supply truck pulled up with a fresh stock of shells. Tying a handkerchief across his nose and mouth, the lieutenant ordered the battery to join the line of march. They were headed, Emil had been told, for a place on the Volga River called Stalingrad.
Other men shared Emil Metzger's optimism. At Sixth Army Field Headquarters, thirty miles west of the fluid front, officers read maps and mentally subtracted two more armies from the Russian Order of Battle. It was obvious that when the German tanks linked up, the last escape route to the Don would close and the rabble trapped within the pincers would cease to exist. Now what concerned the strategists was the plotting for the next phase of the offensive: fording the Don and moving forty miles further east to the Volga.
The original plans for Operation Blue did not call for the capture of Stalingrad. In fact, the city was not even a primary target for attack. As originally conceived, the strike force was to consist of two groups of armies, A and B. Army Group A, under the command of Field Marshal List, included the Seventeenth and First Panzer armies; Army Group B, under Fedor von Bock, boasted the Fourth Panzer and Sixth armies, which were to be aided by the Hungarians in support of their rear echelons. The army groups were to move eastward on a broad front to the line of the Volga River "in the area of" the city of Stalingrad. After "neutralizing" Russian war production in that region by bombing and artillery fire, and after cutting the vital transportation line on the Volga, both army groups were to turn south and drive on the oil fields of the Caucasus.
But in July, the Führer himself had subtly altered the scope of the campaign after German intelligence reported that the Russians had few reliable divisions on the west bank of the Volga. Boat traffic on the river had not increased, which indicated that theSoviet High Command was not yet pouring reinforcements into the city from the Urals or Siberia. Furthermore, the Armed Forces High Command (OKW) determined that the defense lines between the Don and Volga were primitive at best, though it appeared that some Russian work battalions were out on the steppe, throwing up hasty antitank fortifications. Thus, Hitler concluded, the Red Army was not about to make a major stand at Stalingrad, and he ordered Sixth Army to seize the city by force as soon as possible.
In his cramped, field-gray tent, the commander of the Sixth Army, Col. Gen. Friedrich von Paulus, was rejoicing quietly. A cautious man, who disdained public emotion, he relaxed for a few moments by listening to Beethoven on a gramophone. Music was the best catalyst for his moody, introspective personality. Tall and darkly handsome, the fifty-two-year-old general was the classic example of a German General Staff officer. Apolitical, trained only to do his job in the army, he left diplomacy to the party in power. He thought Adolf Hitler an excellent leader for the German people, a man who had contributed greatly to the development of the state. After watching him evolve the strategies that conquered Poland, France, and most of Europe, Paulus was awed by Hitler's grasp of the technical aspects of warfare. He considered him a genius.
His wife did not share his beliefs. The former Elena Constance Rosetti-Solescu, Coca to her friends, a descendant of one of Rumania's royal houses, had married Paulus in 1912 and borne him a daughter and twin sons. Both boys now served in the army. She detested the Nazi regime and told her husband he was far too good for the likes of men such as Keitel and the other "lackeys" who surrounded Hitler. When Germany attacked Poland, she vehemently condemned it as an unjust act. Paulus did not argue with her. Content with his role, he merely carried out orders. When, in the fall of 1940, he brought home maps and other memoranda related to the planned invasion of Russia, Coca found them and confronted Paulus, saying a war against the Soviet Union was completely unjustified. He tried to avoid discussing the matter with her, but she persisted.
"What will become of us all? Who will survive to the end?" she asked.
Attempting to calm her fears, Paulus had said the war with Russia would be over in about six weeks' time. She was not appeased. Just as she had feared, the new campaign dragged on past the six-week deadline and into the awful winter of 1941 on the Moscow front. Yet despite the setbacks, despite the horrendous losses suffered by the German Army because of the climate and ferocious Russian resistance, Paulus retained one unshakable belief: Hitler was invincible.
In January 1942, when his superior, Field Marshal Reichenau died suddenly, Paulus finally got his life's desire: command of an army in the field. The two men could not have been more dissimilar. Reichenau, an ardent Nazi, had been coarse in manner and unkempt in appearance. Paulus was impeccably groomed at all times. He even wore gloves in the field because he abhorred dirt; he bathed and changed his uniforms twice a day.
Despite such glaring differences, Paulus had sublimated his retiring manner to the volatile Reichenau. A master of detail, fascinated with figures and grand strategy, he handled the administration of the Sixth Army while Reichenau led charges at the front. In return, Reichenau treated Paulus like a son and always trusted his judgment. The two men agreed on all but one important policy. It marked the great gulf between them in heritage and philosophy.
Reichenau had been a ruthless believer in Hitler's thesis of racial supremacy and had supported the Führer's infamous "Commissar Order," which ordained the killing of all captured Russian political officers without benefit of trial. He even went a step further by introducing within Sixth Army Command what came to be known as the "Severity Order." It read in part:
... The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization.... In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception.... For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry....
Reichenau's insistence on "retribution" had resulted in monstrous crimes. After the front-line troops of Sixth Army divisions passed through towns, a motley collection of homicidal maniacs came in their wake and systematically tried to eliminate the Jewish population.
Divided into four Einsatzgruppen (special extermination squads) across Russia, they numbered approximately three thousand sadists, who had been recruited mostly from the ranks of Himmler's police forces, the Schutzstaffeln, or SS (Elite Guard) and Sicherheitsdienst, or SD (Security Service). Others wandered in from punishment battalions and psychiatric hospitals. At a training center in Saxony they had been taught to use the rifle and machine pistol and told explicitly what to do with them in the Soviet Union. Dressed in black uniforms, they traveled by truck convoy, and terrified villagers soon referred to them as the "Black Crows."
Excerpted from Enemy at the Gates by William Craig. Copyright © 1973 William Craig. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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