Sixth army POWS
Prisoners faced a bleak future as they were herded together
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.
“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
“FOUR HOURS OF DESPERATE FIGHTING RESULTED IN A SOVIET BREAKTHROUGH WITH SUPPORT FROM THE RED AIR FORCE AS THE MORNING MIST ROSE”
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
“THE ROMANIAN ARMOUR RAN INTO THE T34S OF XXVI TANK CORPS AND NARROWLY ESCAPED COMPLETE DESTRUCTION”
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.
“STALINGRAD, THE ‘BIG POCKET’, SEEMED TO OFFER SECURITY, ORDER AND THE CHANCE TO SURVIVE””
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
“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”
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.
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