August 1942. The vanguards of the German Sixth Army are coming in sight of the river Volga. Here, nearby, the huge and fascinating river is flowing calm and magnificent. The Saxon , Bavarian tank-drivers feel euphoric : they are on the threshold of an unknown and mysterious world, beyond which new horizons are about to open for them. An unimaginable world , till some time before. But now, that world is here, close at hand. They go down from their powerful armoured tanks, make comments, take pictures. Some of those pictures will be collected among the official Sixth Army’ s documents under the words: “The Volga has been reached”.
The Volga has been reached. Will be Stalingrad reached?
On June 22nd , shortly before the dawn, Hitler had opened the door to “Unternehmen Barbarossa” ( Operation Barbarossa), the invasion of Soviet Russia. To the Germany and to whole world he had justified the invasion declaring: I attack first to prevent a Stalin’s assault on the West.
For Hitler, there was a lot at stake: the conquer of Lebensraum (“living space”), perhaps the peace with Great Britain. He was sure he would have won. To Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, he had said: “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down”.
And, in effect, the German kick was heavy. Preceded by a heavy artillery fire, three Army Groups smashed across the borders and headed Leningrad ( Army Group North, Field Marshall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb), Moscow ( Army Group Centre, Field Marshall Fedor von Bock), Ukraine and Caucasus (Army Group South, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt).
The Red Army was unready and did not know how to react( the Soviets troops had received the order to avoid every provocation!); means, trained soldiers, fortifications lacked; Stalin did not believe, he did not want to believe in those events and, despite his frenzy of activity shown in those first, dramatic hours, he was in complete and utter confusion . The soviet Air Force had been destroyed in flight or on the ground and now it did not almost exist; the tanks of Manstein, Guderian, Hoth closed whole armies into huge pockets and the soviet cities fell one after the other.
Hitler was right: the soviet structure was rotten. The Stalin’s regime was based on the terror; it was a dictatorial regime with devastating consequences. An example? In the first hours of the invasion, the soviet officers– and not only those who had survived the “Great Purge” ( also known as Great Terror) in the 1930s- – was almost paralyzed , unable to take decision, terrified by the fear to fall into disfavour with “the Chief”.
And however, despite Stalin’s reign of terror, after the first sudden victories , the German divisions met a fierce– and in some way unexpected– resistance. It was not still the resistance planned by the Staffs, but the spontaneous resistance of the individual soldiers, of the single units, of the single regiments. Useless– although heroic– resistance, but always resistance. Some German soldiers were flabbergasted, when, got the better of a AA battery, saw that the gun crews were women. All fallen on their battle quarters. The “structure” did not crush down; on the contrary, it seemed become stronger and stronger day after day.
And against all odds, the structure withstood. Got over his depression, Stalin renounced to Marxist slogans and evoked , always more often, the “ Patriotic War”; he re-established honours dedicated to Kutusov and Suvorov ( both tsarist generals who had fought against Napoleon Bonaparte); he celebrated the deeds of Alexander Newskij; he forbade the soldiers to leave their positions; he ordered that heavy industries were dismantled and reassembled beyond the Urals.
On the day of the October Revolution’s anniversary , he made parade the troops on the Red Square, as if nothing had happened, as the Germans were not close to Moscow and he delivered a speech , perhaps a conventional speech, but suitable with the situation. We will win, was the meaning, we are right and we will win. Do you remember Napoleon? But the merit if the Soviets held on was not his , or better it was not only his. Also Hitler did his part.
He, the proponent of the “kick in the door”, made a lot of mistakes and caused unspeakable horrors. One greater than another, one more terrible than another. Hitler point of view was the following: the confrontation with Soviet Union was not only a struggle between two armies or between two ideologically opposing nations, but between two races: the first – the German race- destined for nature and for destiny to dominate the whole world; the latter – the Slave race- doomed to be subdued and to serve.
He underestimated Stalin, perhaps underestimated the Red Army, surely he underestimated the Russian soldier. Has Russia enormous spaces and a large amount of natural resources? Can Russia deploy a endless army, formed by millions of men? All this was without importance. What was important was the “Willing” of victory. His, of German people, of German army. For this reason, no winter uniforms for his soldiers launched beyond the border: the Russians were inferior beings and they would not have withstood, they would not have been able to withstand.
“In less than four months, the war will be ended”, a German officers told his soldiers.
War of extermination.
For the Nazis, the war against Soviet Russia was not a common war. And Hitler had spoken clearly. Right from the beginning. He ordered: all the soviet political commissars ( or political officers , Politruk) taken prisoners had to be eliminated immediately because they were ” criminals” , enemies of the German people and of the National Socialism. It was, after all, an invitation to a indiscriminate murder of the POWs ( prisoners of war) . Who would have been able to determinate who were political commissar or not? Not satisfied, through the Field Marshal Keitel, he added to it: every soldier who, in action, kills some armed or unarmed civilian, will not be pursued, provided he have received a specific order by an officer.
Both Hitler’s directive and Keitel’s order were hard to swallow by the militaries. Some Wehrmacht officers — very few, in truth — ignored them; others pretended to get indignant, but enforced them. The most of Generals followed instructions to the letter, not few followed them in their more extensive meaning. Who has a shaven head , also if he wore no uniform, was surely a partisan, perhaps a politruk: he had to be eliminated. And what about the Sonderkommando or the Einsatztruppen? They followed the armoured division with the task to put in practice, soon and in a brutal way, that concept of racial superiority about which their Fuehrer had spoken: to exterminate the Jews, killing the civilians – women and children included – to raze to the ground villages and towns.
The Russians who had welcome the Germans with flowers, bread and salt ( as in Ukraine, for instance), had to change their mind: if they had to die, it was better dying with the weapons in hand and, if not just for the Socialist fatherland, at least for their land and for their families.
Short time and poor weather.
By acting like conquerors, in the more brutal meaning of the term, the Germans concurred to make sturdy the Soviet rotten structure. It has been told and written: if Hitler had not been compelled to invade Balkans because of the Mussolini’s impulsive attack on Greece, the Germans would have been able to invade Soviet Russia a month before and perhaps they would have won.
Certainly, the Balkan situation influenced the Barbarossa‘s deferment, but it was not decisive, according to some modern scholars. Just before the Yugoslavian coup, Hitler, fearing a British landing in Thrace, had planned to conquer the Greek territory between Thessaloniki and Adrianopol. Thus, neither the Mussolini’s troubles in Greece nor the coup of General Simovic in Yugoslavia changed the beginning of Barbarossa( planned on May 15th): the rasputitza, the spring thaw, the “time of no roads”, followed, that year, by persistent rains, was what changed the beginning of Barbarossa. In Russia, during the spring months, the roads became muddy torrents along which every marching was nearly impossible. On this terrain, would the armoured German divisions have been able to exploit their whole power and their speed? In other terms: would they have been able to win?
However, the first overwhelming victories made Hitler and his entourage euphoric. Then, little by little, the atmosphere turned in worst. And into the “Wolfschanze“( literally, “den of the wolf” ), the Hitler’s Headquarter, the grumblings became more frequent, the fits of anger increased, and also the criticisms against this or that German commander increased. What had happened? Under command of a young and brilliant general , Georghij Zhukov, the Soviets had withstood around Leningrad and von Leeb had been compelled to stop, when he was a stone throw from the centre of the city.
In the centre, Marshal von Bock, who was marching at full speed toward Moscow, was deprived, in the crucial moment, of the Guderian’s divisions (sent by Hitler southward for helping von Rundstedt) and of the Hoth’s divisions, sent northward, for helping von Leeb. When, on late September, those divisions were given back to von Bock, two months had gone by, the soviet defences around Moscow had been finished and the weather was turning.
In the South the things had gone better for the Germans and Kiev, despite the brave resistance of General Michail Kirponos– the first to understand how to counter-attack the German panzers– was conquered by von Rundstedt. Zhukov had advised Stalin to withdraw the Soviet divisions from Kiev before it were too late: not only he was not heard, but he had been replaced.
The Wehrmacht was heading Moscow with a pincer movement and some German officers had time to see, through their binoculars, the domes of the Kremlin, which had been camouflaged by black paint. Then, suddenly, the first Soviet counter-offensive fell on the German troops, dangerously close to the capital city. The defences built by order of Zhukov — appointed in the meanwhile, Supreme Deputy Commander– and a poor weather ( rain and mud at first, then snow, ice, cold), slowed down the advance of the German tanks ; the Siberian riflemen, called back from the Eastern Front when became clear that Japan would have attacked the USA, did the rest. They arrived silent and deadly. Before their attack, only a grim noise was heard: the rustle of their skis on the snow and on the ice.
Under the Red Army’s pressure, the Germans withdrew and only the peremptory Hitler’s order to stop and the weakening of the Soviet attack avoided the worst.( Some scholars claim that the Hitler’s order was a wrong order, because it caused needlessly thousands of casualties among the German experienced troops). Without winter uniforms, the withdrawal turned in a hell for the Landser. They covered themselves up as they could: with newspapers, with the uniforms taken out to the fallen enemies, with rags. A lot of them died by cold, many had the limbs frozen. In the Soviet newspapers appeared the caricature of a German soldier with a runny nose — the Winter Fritz, as he was called– covered with dresses.
In Moscow, Stalin, seeing the Germans withdrawing, wanted to launch some big offensives, convinced of having the victory at hand. But these offensives were impossible. The Soviet army was not still ready and had had heavy losses. Finally, the front stabilized: the Soviets, however, had been able to trap into some salients( that one around Demijansk, for instance) a lot of German troops.
The offensives planned for the summer 1942, in Hitler opinion, would have ought to fix it. In the meanwhile, on the frontline, it was spring. It often rained and, standing still under the rain, both armies were licking their wounds. The Wehrmacht had lost less soldiers, less means than the Russians, but it was in trouble to replace them. It was in trouble to replace the tanks, to replace the fighting strength of its divisions. For carrying weapons, ammunitions and even guns, it was depended on the horses. In short, the panzer, if refuelled, ran with lightning speed, all the rest advanced at a snail’s pace. And , however, also in the summer of 1942, the winter uniforms were kept on mothballs in the warehouses behind the lines.
Moscow was not the main objective. Hitler had big ideas – and big dreams- now. He looked at Caucasus and at its oil fields, at Persia and at Mesopotamia, he was seeing his armies joining with Rommel’s divisions, coming from Egypt. And so, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kerch Peninsula and to force Sebastopol –which was being besieged, but not still conquered– to surrender; the salients of Izjum and Demijansk had to be redimensioned; the tanks of von Bock – who has replaced Field Marshal Walther Reichenau , dead by a hearth attack, at the head of Group Army South- would have been to conquer the city of Voronezh. Once got rid of these obstacles, the German armies would have gone southward, along the Don river, at first towards Stalingrad, then towards Caucasus and its oil. And, once destroyed the Soviet forces and cut Russia in half, the German armies would have been able to reach Persia and Iraq.
In the spring 1942, Sevastopol was occupied by Manstein, a soviet offensive from Kharkov failed, Voronezh fell and a German Army, the Sixth, with the support of the 4th Army ( General Hoth) which had conquered Voronezh, was sent toward Stalingrad.
The grim appeal of the snake.
It was commanded by a brilliant officer: Friedrich Wilhelm Paulus. He came from the ranks of the Staff officers, not from combatant units and , before then, he had not commanded divisions or armies, but only a small unit, when he was young. He lacked, in other words, combat experience. He was neither a Junker nor could to put before his own surname the “von”. His father has begun as a clerk in a young offenders’ institution, but then he had become the chief treasurer of Hesse- Nassau.
The young Friedrich had tried to be accepted as cadet in the German Navy, but unsuccessfully. In the Army he had had better luck, and once appointed officer, he soon drew the attention to oneself. Tall, slim, elegant, clever, friendly, good talker, scrupulous, almost fussy, hard worker, he had had a main role in the planning of Barbarossa. His wife – Elena Rosetti-Solescu, married in the 1912- belonged to the minor Romanian aristocracy, and, unlike her husband, she was no crazy about the Nazism. When, before the deadly heart attack, Field Marshal von Reichenau was appointed commander of the Army Group South, he said to Hitler he would not been able to fill both the commands – that one of the Army Group South and that one of the Sixth Army – and he proposed Paulus as commander of the Sixth Army. Hitler agreed.
Man with several qualities, “Der Lord “, as he was called, had, however, a flaw: he was unwilling to take an initiative in contrast to received orders. In front of Hitler he felt, as a German General said , like ” a rabbit in front of a snake”. And in Hitler’s presence, his nervous twitch on the left cheek became more pronounced.
The running of the hare.
On the frontline, in the meanwhile, something strange was happening. In the corridor between the Don and the Donetz, in the endless steppe, the Wehrmacht –when it could — went flat out , trying to outflank and to destroy the Soviet divisions. And up to here , nothing new. The new fact was that , most times, the German pincer failed. The Russians were become shrewd: from bears they had turned into hares. They held as most as possible, then when they were about to be outflanked, did not wait the coup of grace: they withdrew, re-formed and began to fight again. By pursuing them, the Germans went away more and more from their supply lines and, most times, the panzers clattered freely.
But they advanced. Rostov, the Caucasus sentry, was conquered; General Ewald von Kleist and his First Panzer Army, spearhead of Wilhelm List’s Army Group operating in Caucasus sector, reached Majkop- the oil fields of which had been set on fire by the Russians – and some German mountain troops planted the swastika flag on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
Symbolic victories, nothing more. And , in fact, Hitler was yelling: our flag on Elbrus Mount? But where are the panzers? Have they advanced? Have they reached Groznij? Have they reached Baku? Are they beyond the passes?
The passes of the Caucasus, that was the problem. The Germans was still on this side of the Caucasus passes and, in addition, they were exhausted. The supplies were in delay; the harbour of Tuapse on the Black Sea, essential to supply the troops operating in Caucasus, had been not conquered, not still, at least; the Soviets were holding around the town of Mozdok( actually in Northern Ossetia), blocking the way to Groznij; the most of the Soviet troops had escaped the outflanking and it was gathering in the mountains now; the weather was getting worse; the Caucasian populations, despite the promises and the flattery of the occupants, had no intentions to pass bag and baggage with the Germans; List was doubting about the victory, as he said to General Jodl, sent in Caucasus by a more and more worried Hitler to assess the situation. General von Richtofen, in command of German Luftwaffe in Caucasus, was assuring and re-assuring: my aircraft will open the way for the land troops. But doing it was difficult: the fuel lacked, the supply lines lengthen more and more and the opened fronts were too many and too wide.
Because of the poor victories, List was replaced and Hitler himself- a more and more nervous Hitler- took the command of the operations.
But on August 1942, who was to two steps away from the Volga, had no inkling of that. Stalingrad had to be conquered also for protecting the flank of the divisions directed toward the oil fields of Caucasus and, irony of fate, in Caucasus, things were not going well. But, despite this fact, Stalingrad , according to the orders, was to be conquered.
Stalingrad sprawled for around thirty kilometres on the western bank of the Volga , with its wooden houses ( in particular in its outskirts), its modern buildings, its factories, its industries. In the centre of the city rose the Mamaev Kurgan , a hillock high around hundred meters, a Tartar burial mound erected in ancient times and turned, in modern times, into a meeting place for the inhabitants of Stalingrad. The city had been surrounded by mine-fields, trenches, fortified lines. Stalin had spoken clearly: not one step backward. “. “There is no land for us beyond the Volga” will soon become the watchword for the city defenders.
From the eastern bank of the river where General Nikolaj Voronov had placed his guns, some boats, travelling back and forth, would have supplied the combatants and evacuated the wounded.
 Stalin expected a German attack, but not so soon. His strategy was to postpone it for as long as possible.
Antony Beevor, Stalingrad, Wiking Press, 1998
Chris Bellamy, Absolute war, Knopf, 2007
Vasilij Chuikov, The battle for Stalingrad, Rineharth and Winston, 1964
William Craig, Enemy at the gates, Konecky Konecky, 1973
John Erickson, The road to Stalingrad, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975
Martin Gilbert, The Second World War. A complete history, Holt & C, 2004
Vasilij Grossman, Life and Fate, New York Revue of books, 2006
Basil Liddel Hart, History of the Second World War, Da Capo, 1999
John Luckas, Hitler and Stalin, YaleUniversity, 2006
John Keegan, The Second World War, Penguin Books,1989
Richard Overy, Russia’s war, Penguin Books, 1999
Ronald Seth, Operation Barbarossa, Blond, 1964
Alexander Werth, Russia at war, Basic Books, 1999
The events at a glance.
June, 22 1942: the fortress of Sevastopol, in Crimea, is attacked by the von Manstein’s divisions.
June 28 : on the eastern front, between the Donets and the Don, the Germans launch Fall Blau ( Operation Blue): the Soviets , or because they are forced to do it or because they do it on purpose, withdraw.
July 2: Sevastopol falls. Von Manstein was appointed Field Marshal.
July 6: operation Marsh Flower begins, in order to reclaim large areas of the eastern front occupied by Soviet partisans.
July 7: the Soviet city of Voronezh is occupied by the Germans. The 6th German Army moves south, towards Stalingrad.
From 10 to 11 July: German troops reach the east bank of the river Don and the location of Lisiciansk on the river Donets.
July 11: Hitler issues the guidelines of the Operation Bluecher: final destination, the Caucasus and its oil fields.
July 23: the city of Rostov, on the river Don, the “sentry of the Caucasus” – falls into German hands. Unusually, however, this time the Soviets disengage and escape encirclement.
August 3: German troops reach Stavropol in the Caucasus. The same day, the 6th Army of Paulus is less than a hundred kilometres from Stalingrad.
August 12: on the day of the Savoy victorious cavalry charge at Izbusenskij, German units reach the western bank of the Volga near Rynok, the northern district of the city.
August 19: alpine German troops plant the swastika flag on Mount Elbrus at 5663 meters above sea level. Hitler does not take it well: we must defeat the Russians, not conquer mountains, he exclaims. He has reason to worry: in the Caucasus the German pressure has lost vigour, the supplies come slowly, the Soviets give no respite. Grozny, the city symbol of the Caucasus will never be reached.
Automatic translation from Italian. Excuse the mistakes.