Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Beginning, Middle, and End

I will cover three aspects of the battle; as noted in the title, the beginning, middle, and end.

In the Line of the Main Drive

To the soldier, the phrase “in the line of the main drive” carries dread.  No words are more terrifying in war.

This is the title of an article published during the battle in Red Star, and written by Vasily Grossman.  The article describes the destruction brought on by the invading German army, and the feeling of those who were “in the line of the main drive.”

The regiments that formed Colonel Gurtyev’s Siberian division took up their positions at night….Yes – behind them was the ice-covered Volga, behind them lay the fate of Russia.  The decision was to fight to the death.

The Siberian division had one mission: to defend a factory – a factory no longer operating, of course; it was a stronghold on the map.  They stood in the line of the main drive: what was spread over two fronts in 1914 – 1918, and in this war was previously spread over a 3000 kilometer front, was now focused on Stalingrad and the Caucasus.

It is easy to point to the threats made against Soviet troops that was used to motivate them to fight to the death; perhaps it should not be diminished that they also recognized that they knew were fighting for the fate of Russia and that this was important to many of the soldiers.

The German history in this war until now was one of advance, measured in several kilometers per day; the Soviets clawed back, when they could, in much smaller chunks:

Only in Stalingrad does one know what a kilometer truly means: one thousand meters, one hundred thousand centimeters.

Artillery, enemy bombers, concentrated fire, day after day, week after week.  In one month, the Germans launched 117 assaults on this Siberian unit; in one fateful day, the Germans attacked twenty-three times.  The Germans felt that their assault was beyond the ability of a human to withstand; yet, there the Siberians withstood.

After weeks of such assaults, the Germans launched their decisive attack against the factory: eighty hours of pounding brought on by German airplanes, heavy mortars and artillery.  The Germans broke through.  In their victory, the Germans sowed seeds of their defeat.  Every trench and foxhole now became a Soviet stronghold, each with its own command and control.  Urban guerilla warfare.

The Siberian division did not leave the line, nor did they even once look back; for they knew that behind them was the Volga and the fate of their country.

The Sound of Music

Just as all seemed lost….From Major Vasily Georgievich Belugin:

And then it started.  The thundering of the first artillery salvo.  Where was it coming from?  And why?  It was odd, unbelievable that this powerful salvo was coming from the east, from the east banks of the Volga.  There was a second and third salvo, and then they began firing at will.

A thousand guns fired for forty minutes.  Finally, the Soviet artillery was working for the defenders of Stalingrad.  The relief for the defenders was noticeable: during the barrage, they were able to sit down for dinner.  After the barrage, silence; not a single shot in return from the Germans.

After the battle, the captured Germans would offer that it was the Russian artillery and mortars (and not the aircraft or crudely crafted propaganda) that was decisive.  Once these were brought to bear, the tide turned; once these were brought to bear, morale changed sides.  From Ernst Eichhorn:

All of the officers in the 24th Panzer Regiment think highly of the Russian artillery.  They’re accurate and don’t scrimp on shells.  If there hadn’t been any artillery at Stalingrad, and it was just infantry attacking the surrounding forces, then the Germans could have easily fought them off and resisted longer.

The Russian T-34 tank also took praise from this German officer, “an excellent piece of machinery.”


The Russians encircled the Germans; from now on, it was merely a matter of time – albeit, still months of fighting lay ahead.  Once surrounded, German general Friedrich Paulus issued his order, ending with the words “Hold on.  The Führer will get you out!”  It didn’t quite go that way.

As the Russians entered one building after another, they found Germans huddled in the dark – sometimes a thousand or more at a time.  The stench was overwhelming; human waste, the dead and injured; smoke.

On January 31, Paulus was promoted to Field Marshall.  The message from Hitler to Paulus was clear: no German Field Marshall had ever been taken alive.  Paulus was to fight to the death or commit suicide.  Paulus decided not to agree.  He declared himself a private citizen, thus considering himself not responsible for the German surrender.

When the Soviets entered the basement, they found [Paulus] lying in a bed next to Roske’s room, where other German officers were negotiating the terms of surrender.

Fritz Roske became divisional commander when his predecessor, General Alexander von Hartmann had sought a hero’s death.  On January 26 – just a few days earlier – he walked up to the line, standing.  He took a bullet in the head.

Roske’s first words made clear: he was not negotiating on behalf of the Field Marshall.  The surrender was complete.  Nikita Khrushchev arrived the next day; he was overjoyed.


Senior Lieutenant Alexander Shapsovich was wounded and hungry; he was also days outside of friendly lines.  He was crawling his way back to Russian-controlled territory.  He was 150 meters away when he decided he would not make it.  Then, good fortune:

…this old man and his daughter picked me up and carried me to their home in Stalingrad.  The daughter dressed my wounds and gave me some milk to drink.  Her name was Zoya.  Later I was sent across the Volga.  I kissed the man and his daughter good-bye.  He cried for me like I was his own son.  After that I was in the hospital.

Paulus survived in Russian captivity during the war.  After the war, he settled in Dresden, East Germany.  He died fourteen years and one day after his surrender; his body was transferred from the east to the west and buried in Baden Baden, next to the body of his wife. 

He had not seen her since he left for war in 1942.

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