Sixth army POWS

Pris­on­ers faced a bleak fu­ture as they were herded to­gether

History of War - - ELIZABETHAN WARS -

It had taken the Sovi­ets some time to re­alise the numbers trapped in the Stal­in­grad pocket. Con­se­quently there was a de­gree of con­fu­sion over the numbers ac­tu­ally cap­tured. There is no doubt that many Axis troops were sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted dur­ing the fight­ing as a re­ac­tion to the con­di­tions many Soviet troops had seen their own men kept in as POWS. Fur­ther­more, of the large num­ber of Hi­wis, many at­tempted to melt into the chaos. A fig­ure that is gen­er­ally ac­cepted for Axis POWS is 91,000.

As Paulus un­der­went in­ter­ro­ga­tion and had his staff car con­fis­cated, his hun­gry, ex­hausted and sick men stum­bled across the river they had bled to reach. Thou­sands died of mal­nu­tri­tion, frost­bite and mercy shots as they were herded east­wards to camps that they were of­ten ex­pected to build for them­selves. As their for­mer com­man­ders bick­ered and took po­si­tions that ei­ther damned or sup­ported their gov­ern­ment, their men con­tin­ued to die.

The POWS were di­vided by na­tion­al­ity, and the non-ger­mans were treated marginally bet­ter and placed in po­si­tions of power over their for­mer al­lies. In­evitably there was dis­sent. Of the 45,000 who sur­vived into the spring and sum­mer, work was the only way to en­sure some hope of a re­turn home. Those with build­ing skills were set to re­build towns and cities ru­ined by the war or for party ap­pa­ratchiks in Moscow, where their work was highly val­ued. In 1955 only 5,000 Stal­in­grad veterans re­turned to Ger­many.


Hoth, com­mand­ing Fourth Panzer Army – which in­cluded XXXXVIII Panzer Corps and VI Ro­ma­nian Corps – voiced his con­cerns about the Soviet con­cen­tra­tions de­vel­op­ing op­po­site VI Corps, he too was ig­nored. Hoth’s five Ro­ma­nian in­fantry divi­sions cov­ered the line south from Stal­in­grad to Ro­ma­nian Fourth Army’s po­si­tion. Again, to soothe his ally’s nerves, Hitler sanc­tioned the is­sue of a small num­ber of anti-tank guns and mines to Ro­ma­nian Fourth Army.

Op­er­a­tion Uranus (North)

The build-up of Soviet forces for Op­er­a­tion Uranus took longer than an­tic­i­pated, so Zhukov asked for a post­pone­ment of the at­tack and was granted ten days. On 18 Novem­ber Chuikov was in­formed of the at­tack, and for his 62nd Army it came just in time, as the Volga was al­most frozen to the point where it was too dif­fi­cult for ships but too weak for foot sol­diers or ve­hi­cles to cross.

As the ice floes ground down­stream to their rear, Stal­in­grad’s de­fend­ers had been split into three groups – two small pock­ets and the main one, which ran from the Red Oc­to­ber steel works to the south­ern sub­urbs. When the fron­toviki (front line men) heard the gun­fire to the north dur­ing the morn­ing of 19 Novem­ber they did not be­lieve the ru­moured coun­terof­fen­sive was un­der­way. It was only when ar­tillery fire was heard com­ing from the south 24 hours later that they let them­selves be­lieve it was true.

The first vic­tim of Op­er­a­tion Uranus was Third Ro­ma­nian Army. At 8.50am Fifth Tank Army (South­west­ern Front) struck at the junc­tion of the Romanians’ left flank, where it abut­ted the Ital­ian Eighth Army. To the Soviet right, First Guards Army was po­si­tioned to prevent any Ital­ian coun­ter­at­tacks. Four hours of des­per­ate fight­ing re­sulted in a Soviet break­through with sup­port from the Red Air Force as the morn­ing mist rose. Alerted to the Soviet at­tack, Paulus’s HQ was nev­er­the­less un­aware of its se­ri­ous­ness un­til later in the day. By then Soviet tanks of IV Tank Corps sup­ported by III Guards Cavalry Corps were through IV Ro­ma­nian Corps de­fences, sup­ported to their right by Fifth Tank Army, which was re­duc­ing Ro­ma­nian II Corps to a state of con­fu­sion. At Army Group B’s HQ, We­ichs or­dered Paulus to halt op­er­a­tions in Stal­in­grad, “with the ob­jec­tive of mov­ing forces to cover the rear [left] flank of Sixth Army and se­cure lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion”.

Con­vinced that Don Front’s at­tack was the main threat, We­ichs had or­dered XXXXVIII Panzer Corps to drive to the Romanians’ res­cue. In ef­fect We­ichs was try­ing to as­sem­ble a mobile strik­ing force to hold the Soviet ar­mour, util­is­ing vir­tu­ally all of Sixth Army’s Panzer and mo­torised divi­sions. How­ever,

16th and 22nd Panzer Divi­sions were not ready to move, as their units were scat­tered and poorly sup­plied with am­mu­ni­tion and fuel. Con­se­quently First Ro­ma­nian Ar­moured Divi­sion’s ob­so­lete Skoda tanks were al­most the only ve­hi­cles im­me­di­ately avail­able.

The Ro­ma­nian ar­mour ran into the T34s of XXVI Tank Corps and nar­rowly es­caped com­plete de­struc­tion. Soviet ar­mour and cavalry forces were un­der strict or­ders to avoid se­ri­ous com­bat, their pri­mary ob­jec­tive be­ing to en­cir­cle Sixth Army, so they pushed ahead, leav­ing dis­or­gan­ised groups of Ro­ma­nian de­fend­ers to be dealt with by the sup­port­ing in­fantry. The Ger­man in­fantry divi­sions north of Stal­in­grad were now forced to re­align them­selves west­wards to cover their flanks and rear. Ger­man 376th In­fantry Divi­sion was clos­est to the Romanians and be­gan to bend to its left, as did the Ger­man 44th In­fantry Divi­sion but, due to fuel short­ages, this was a prob­lem­atic ma­noeu­vre and equip­ment had to be aban­doned. Dur­ing the next 24 hours


these for­ma­tions and 384th In­fantry Divi­sion pulled back to the south­west and the Don. South of these units, 14th Panzer Divi­sion was at­tempt­ing to de­ter­mine the di­rec­tion of the Soviet thrust while 22nd Panzer Divi­sion was fall­ing back in the face of I Tank Corps.

To fur­ther com­pli­cate Army Group B’s dif­fi­cul­ties was the fronts their flank­ing divi­sions were try­ing to hold. In the case of Ro­ma­nian Third Army this was 20-24 kilo­me­tres (12-15 miles). To the south, Ro­ma­nian Fourth Army’s right flank was pa­trolled by Eighth Cavalry Divi­sion, which was at­tempt­ing to mon­i­tor a 150-kilo­me­tre (93-mile) line.

Op­er­a­tion Uranus (South)

Sixth Army HQ was sit­u­ated 20 kilo­me­tres (12 miles) north of Kalach – the pro­posed Soviet junc­tion point – at Gol­u­bin­sky, un­aware that Soviet tanks were within 30 kilo­me­tres (19 miles) of their po­si­tion. Dur­ing the course of 21 Novem­ber it was de­cided to re­lo­cate to the rail junc­tion of Gum­rak, just west of Stal­in­grad, where there was also an air­field. How­ever, dur­ing this move­ment a mes­sage came through or­der­ing Sixth Army to “stand firm in spite of dan­ger of tem­po­rary en­cir­clement”, but was over­looked. Paulus’s staff were not fully aware of the threat mov­ing towards them from the south­ern pin­cer.

Stal­in­grad Front, un­der Colonel Gen­eral

A. I. Yere­menko, pre­ceded its at­tack with a


45-minute bom­bard­ment on 20 Novem­ber. As the gun­fire died away the in­fantry rushed for­ward at 10.45am, sup­ported by tanks of XIII Mech­a­nised Corps. Soviet re­ports of the break­through sug­gested a mix of stolid Ro­ma­nian de­fence and ab­ject sur­ren­der, while nearby Ger­man ob­servers noted that “masses of Soviet tanks… in quan­ti­ties never seen be­fore” were pour­ing across the snow into Fourth Ro­ma­nian Army’s po­si­tions.

The Soviet break­through came speed­ily: after only two hours Ro­ma­nian VI Corps was ap­proach­ing near col­lapse. The timely in­ter­ven­tion of Ger­man 29th Mo­torised In­fantry Divi­sion sta­bilised the sit­u­a­tion briefly, but it was or­dered to with­draw in or­der to pro­tect Sixth Army’s south­ern flank, leav­ing the bat­tered Romanians to their own de­vices. By this point, vir­tu­ally no or­gan­ised de­fence lay be­tween Stal­in­grad Front’s ar­mour and Kalach: only the prob­lem of re­fu­elling the Soviet T34s could slow their rapid progress.

The bridge at Kalach crossed the Don

River roughly 75 kilo­me­tres (47 miles) from Stal­in­grad, but its gar­ri­son only dis­cov­ered they were un­der threat on 21 Novem­ber and re­mained un­aware that XIII Mech­a­nised Corps was within 50 kilo­me­tres (30 miles) of their po­si­tion. The units in and around Kalach con­sisted of some Luft­waffe anti-air­craft guns, a va­ri­ety of sup­ply and sup­port troops plus some field po­lice and labour­ers of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion Todt. Most of the flak pieces were po­si­tioned on the higher western bank over­look­ing the bridge and the vil­lage of

Kalach on the eastern bank, where an ad hoc bat­tle­group was form­ing.

The Soviet XXVI Tank Corps ap­proach­ing from the north­west was in a hurry to close the trap and al­lo­cated sev­eral cap­tured Ger­man ve­hi­cles to an ar­moured group that, after three hours of con­fused fight­ing, cap­tured the bridge in­tact and lib­er­ated the vil­lage. Al­though the Sovi­ets claimed 1,500 POWS, other ac­counts noted that Ger­man troops man­aged to drive away and head for Stal­in­grad, hav­ing de­stroyed sup­ply and re­pair fa­cil­i­ties. The fol­low­ing day troops of the south­ern pin­cer, IV Mech­a­nised Corps, ar­rived at Kalach. Stal­in­grad was, at least ten­u­ously, sur­rounded.

As the Ger­mans ap­proached the Don bridges, queues be­gan form­ing to make the cross­ing. Pri­or­ity was given to Ger­mans, and many Romanians were pushed aside with the butt of a feldgendarme’s ma­chine pis­tol. Ru­mours of Soviet at­tacks only fu­elled the in­creas­ing sense of con­fu­sion that was slip­ping in­ex­orably towards chaos. Once across the river there seems to have been lit­tle sense of any­thing but a per­va­sive de­sire to reach the haven they be­lieved Stal­in­grad to be. The ques­tion on ev­ery man’s lips was summed up in one di­ary en­try: “Will we get through to the big pocket?”

Else­where other pock­ets of re­sis­tance, such as that of the Romanians com­manded by Gen­eral Mi­hail Las­car from the re­mains of V Army Corps, were crum­bling un­der Soviet pres­sure. Stal­in­grad, the ‘big pocket’, seemed to of­fer se­cu­rity, or­der and the chance to sur­vive, whereas the snow-blown steppe was a frozen, fea­ture­less waste­land where Soviet cavalry roamed at will scoop­ing up strag­glers. The men of the Ger­man army in the east, al­most to a man, be­lieved the Red Army rarely both­ered to keep POWS alive. By 26 Novem­ber the only or­gan­ised groups of Ger­man troops left on the west bank of the Don were 16th Panzer Divi­sion and el­e­ments of 44th In­fantry divi­sion. They crossed the Luchin­sky bridge that evening, blow­ing it after the last man had crossed.

The Sovi­ets now be­gan to de­velop their in­ner and outer rings of en­clo­sure as Paulus and his staff strug­gled to bring some sort of or­der to Sixth Army. On 23 Novem­ber, in what Hitler called ‘Fortress Stal­in­grad’, Paulus was to carry out his or­der to “adopt hedge­hog [all-round] de­fence, present Volga line and north­ern front to be held at all costs [as] sup­plies com­ing by air”. Fur­ther­more the Fuhrer cre­ated a new com­mand, Army Group Don, un­der the com­mand of Field Mar­shal Erich von Manstein, on 20 Novem­ber to re­store the sit­u­a­tion in south­ern Rus­sia, de­spite his other con­cerns, such as the An­glo-amer­i­can in­va­sion of North Africa and the oc­cu­pa­tion of Vichy France.

Within the fluid 200-kilo­me­tre (124-mile) perime­ter that en­closed Fortress Stal­in­grad were some 22 divi­sions, num­ber­ing roughly 240,000 men – in­clud­ing much of Ro­ma­nian 20th In­fantry Divi­sion, a group of Ital­ians look­ing for build­ing ma­te­ri­als and the en­tire Croa­t­ian 369th Re­in­forced In­fantry Reg­i­ment fight­ing in the fac­tory district. There were also up to 50,000 Rus­sian vol­un­teers work­ing for or fight­ing along­side the Ger­mans. Known as Hi­wis (short for Hil­f­swilliger or vol­un­tary as­sis­tant) they were of­ten POWS col­lab­o­rat­ing to avoid a dire fate or anti-soviet groups such as the lo­cal Kalmyks and Don Cos­sacks. These men and women would be a par­tic­u­lar tar­get for the NKVD, who were tasked with root­ing out all col­lab­o­ra­tors. Sur­round­ing them as the in­ner cor­don were seven Soviet ar­mies that in­cluded both the Don and Stal­in­grad Fronts, along with 21st Army from South­west­ern Front and 62nd Army in the city it­self.


The ex­ter­nal cor­don fol­lowed the Chir, Don and Ak­say rivers for 322 kilo­me­tres (200 miles). Fourth Panzer Army had man­aged to hold onto a bridge­head across the Chir at Kotel­nikovo to the south­west while 16th Mo­torised In­fantry Divi­sion cov­ered the empty, in­hos­pitable Kalmyk Steppe be­tween Army Group Don and Army Group A far away to the south in the Cau­ca­sus. This lat­ter for­ma­tion was now in grave dan­ger of iso­la­tion – very lit­tle cov­ered its lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tions to the west through Ros­tov, and it was naked be­fore the Red Army. The ob­vi­ous ques­tion now was what should Sixth Army do? Should it at­tempt to break out, or stand firm and trust Hitler’s prom­ise of an air bridge?

Op­er­a­tion Win­ter Storm

As the Red Army or­gan­ised it­self around the city, es­tab­lished sup­ply lines and caught its breath, Manstein fran­ti­cally pre­pared what was pro­claimed to be a re­lief mis­sion for Sixth Army. How­ever, the mat­ter of a break­out pro­voked con­tro­versy from the mo­ment of en­cir­clement. Manstein was al­lo­cated three in­fantry divi­sions and three Panzer divi­sions, only one of which was im­me­di­ately avail­able. Hitler was only pre­pared to sanc­tion a thrust to Stal­in­grad that would en­able its re­sup­ply and en­sure that the city would not fall, but re­served the right to al­low a break­out. How­ever, Manstein lacked the re­sources to ac­com­plish this and reestab­lish the front to cover Army Group A in the Cau­ca­sus. Nor had the Sovi­ets called a halt to their of­fen­sive as the con­tin­u­a­tion of Op­er­a­tion Uranus, Op­er­a­tion Saturn, was timed to start on 10 De­cem­ber.

Saturn was a far more am­bi­tious en­vel­op­ment of­fen­sive that was to break the Ital­ian Eighth Army, which was po­si­tioned to the left of Ro­ma­nian Fourth Army’s for­mer po­si­tion north of Stal­in­grad, and then push on to Ros­tov, thus iso­lat­ing Army Group A. In prepa­ra­tion for the op­er­a­tion, Vasilevsky in­structed Don and Stal­in­grad Fronts to squeeze Sixth Army’s perime­ter and link up at Gum­rak. Fight­ing be­gan dur­ing the first week of De­cem­ber but rapidly ground to a halt in the face of a fierce, wellor­gan­ised de­fence, which demon­strated that Moscow had un­der­es­ti­mated the power and size of Sixth Army. The Sovi­ets were con­vinced they had trapped a mere 100,000 men with lit­tle com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity. Con­se­quently, Stalin or­dered Rokossovsky to draw up a plan for a more con­sid­ered of­fen­sive against the Stal­in­grad pocket, which was code-named Op­er­a­tion Ring.

As Manstein’s forces gath­ered at Kotel­nikov bridge­head, Vasilevsky at­tempted a spoil­ing at­tack, which failed but obliged Manstein to al­ter his line of at­tack. Now it would take a longer route across ter­rain that in­volved cross­ing the Ak­say and Myshkova rivers. The at­tack caused the Soviet forces of the in­ner perime­ter to con­cen­trate on pre­vent­ing any break­out. It also led to Op­er­a­tion ‘Lit­tle’ Saturn that would de­feat Manstein’s thrust.

Op­er­a­tion Saturn proper was re­duced and was now in­tended to sim­ply break into the rear of Army Group Don via the Ital­ian po­si­tion. Its start date was to be 16 De­cem­ber. As Manstein’s ar­mour reached the Myshkova – the sec­ond river it faced – Soviet Sixth and First Guards Ar­mies tore into the Ital­ian po­si­tions, which caved in after 48 hours of hard fight­ing. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’s line west of the Don along the Chir River be­gan to crum­ble. To crown ev­ery­thing, Stal­in­grad Front coun­ter­at­tacked along the Myshkova River, push­ing Army Group Don’s ar­mour back to its start line over the course of the next three days. On 28 De­cem­ber a much shaken Hitler agreed to pull Army Group A out of the Cau­ca­sus and or­dered Manstein to es­tab­lish a de­fence line 240 kilo­me­tres (150 miles) west of Stal­in­grad.

Paulus and Sixth Army were on their own. With the Volga frozen, Chuikov’s 62nd Army


was sup­plied with rel­a­tive ease as their en­emy slaugh­tered horses and stared at the skies for the very few air­craft and para­chutes that ap­peared. Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions were muted as the morale of Sixth Army grad­u­ally eroded, worn down by lack of food and lit­tle hope of re­lief. The Sovi­ets hus­banded their re­sources in prepa­ra­tion for Op­er­a­tion Ring.

Op­er­a­tion Ring

The start date for Ring was 6 Jan­uary but was de­layed by four days. The whole op­er­a­tion was to be car­ried out by Don Front with hold­ing at­tacks to be mounted by 62nd and 64th ar­mies. The pocket was to be sliced up with an ini­tial at­tack to cut off the ‘nose’ that poked west­wards from the city.

The at­tack be­gan at 9am. 62nd Army’s as­sault groups took the Ma­mayev Kur­gan and the Red Oc­to­ber fac­tory, while out on the steppe three Soviet ar­mies ham­mered the perime­ter lines, de­stroy­ing 44th and 376th in­fantry and 29th Mo­torised Divi­sions, whose troops scat­tered towards the built up ar­eas to the east. Paus­ing briefly to re­group, the next phase of Rokossovsky’s at­tack re­duced Sixth Army by a fur­ther five divi­sions and forced Paulus to move his HQ into the cel­lars of the Univer­mag depart­ment store in the city cen­tre.

When on 26 Jan­uary men of Don Front met up with troops of Chuikov’s com­mand, the pocket was split into two, north and south.

Five days later Paulus was pro­moted to Field Mar­shall to stiffen his will to fight on, but to no avail. At 7.45am on 31 Jan­uary the south­ern pocket and Paulus an­nounced their in­ten­tion to sur­ren­der. The north­ern pocket con­tin­ued to fight on un­der the lead­er­ship of Ma­jor Gen­eral Karl Strecker, who sur­ren­dered on 2 Fe­bru­ary.

As the se­nior of­fi­cers were driven off to a rel­a­tively civilised con­fine­ment, the lower ranks shuf­fled towards the Volga River and a ver­i­ta­ble death march to the east.

The legacy of Stal­in­grad: Axis corpses await burial on the out­skirts of the city

POWS cross­ing the frozen wa­ters of the Volga

In the city pa­trolling con­tin­ued. A nicely posed shot of Ger­mans mov­ing cau­tiously through the Red Oc­to­ber steel works pro­vided the me­dia at home with op­ti­mistic pro­pa­ganda for civil­ian con­sump­tion

BE­LOW: The dis­per­sal of Ger­man ar­moured for­ma­tions and the use of Panzer crews as in­fantry­men in Stal­in­grad con­trib­uted to the slow re­sponse to Soviet break­throughs. Fuel and am­mu­ni­tion were to be col­lected from de­pots in the rear, which were of­ten ei­ther cap­tured or de­stroyed by their flee­ing de­fend­ers

BE­LOW: Other bridges, such as that at Verty­achy, were still in Ger­man hands, and it was for these that the Axis forces west of Stal­in­grad headed. How­ever, a short­age of horses meant that a lot of equip­ment had to be aban­doned

BE­LOW: Men and of­fi­cers cel­e­brate the link-up of Stal­in­grad and South­west­ern Fronts at Sovi­et­sky Farm 15 kilo­me­tres (nine miles) closer to Stal­in­grad on 23 Novem­ber

A Soviet 76mm in­fantry sup­port gun pre­pares to fire. Pock­ets of re­sis­tance were left to be mopped up by fol­low-up units. Food and other sup­plies were sac­ri­ficed for fuel and am­mu­ni­tion

As the Sovi­ets ad­vanced into the city they were amazed at how many civil­ians emerged from hid­ing to greet them. These peo­ple were not so lucky. It is likely they were killed by the Ger­mans for their warm cloth­ing As­sault guns move up to their start lines for Op­er­a­tion Win­ter Storm, which be­gan on 12 De­cem­ber

Soviet in­fantry at­tack the out­skirts of a vil­lage dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Win­ter Storm. This of­fen­sive caused the post­pone­ment of Op­er­a­tion Ring

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.