It was in November, 1942.
On the Stalingrad front, the news spread one day like wildfire from trench
to trench, from man to man, that our 6th Army had been ordered to stay
after the takeover of the city and prepare for winter occupation.
Our several-month-long engagement under extremely severe conditions had
brought the soldiers stationed at the front to the edge of exhaustion,
and there had been a particularly tenacious rumor floating about that the
regiment would be pulled out and sent to France. Naturally, in this
new order to stay, many men saw a ray of hope that they would be able to
find some rest after their great exertions. Perhaps, through
some felicitous transfers of position, some of them might even be allowed
to take a leave. Anyone who was ever a soldier in similar conditions
should be able to understand the effect of these orders.
As for me, accountant for one of the tank units, I had received orders to prepare winter quarters approximately 150 kilometers in back of the front line; in a tiny, quiet village on the lower Don River.
In the early morning hours on November 17, however, I was disturbed by a faraway rumbling and rustling, like the sound of thunder before a mighty storm. Volleys of shots from neighboring commando troops in close proximity and in broad daylight convinced me that I should call my soldiers to the barracks. My unrest was strengthened by the simultaneous occurrence of another foreboding situation: the Russian partisans, of whom there were always plenty, were going about their activities with heretofore unknown intensity. It never failed to astonish me that they could receive special orders from their Russian Headquarters by radio. Even though the German army had gained control of two large portions of Eastern Russia, the freedom-loving civilians continued their resistance behind the German front lines until the Allies arrived. They were always in radio contact with Moscow, even if only via airplanes flying through the immeasurably huge forests. The Russian villagers, on the other hand, maintained a passive attitude.
The next morning, premonitions of battle became even stronger, and I decided to take a party to 'M' town to pick up the weapons and munitions which would be necessary for our safety and self-defense. About 20 kilometers from "M", however, I was met by over a hundred German tanks, headed towards the Don River in the direction of "K". One sergeant gave me a brief explanation for the observations of the past few days: "The Russians unexpectedly broke through one of our Romanian divisions on the south front through the Kalmuck steppes, and are also advancing from the north at the great Don River bend. We have orders to stop them at the Don Hoehenstrasse." We picked up our pace, continuing our trip on the dusty Rollbahn and reaching our unit at nightfall.
Upon returning, we found everything in a high state of confusion. The company chief had left hours earlier to obtain fuel for the tanks, and had not yet returned. He had been expected back much sooner, and a palpable excitement reigned in the unit.
Later I was to discover that he had become entangled in a heavy battle with Russian troops in German tanks, and several of his machines had been shot into flames. The Russians had very cleverly disguised the front line of their advance unit with captured German tanks, which had naturally greatly confused the supply units in the back of the theater.
Early the next day, I had
planned to follow my orders to return to my old barracks, but was not able
to proceed any further. Every road heading to the west was fully
jammed with vehicles of all kinds.
The situation was one of indescribable confusion. Supply units were supposed to bring munitions to the front, but could not, as they had to make way for returning troops. Medical trucks, command vehicles and messengers all made their way forward laboriously, some on the Rollbahn, some next to it. There was continuous fire in several areas, especially at road intersections, which were already within reach of the oncoming Russian heavy artillery. Russian fighter and bomber planes continually hindered the retreat with bombs and weapon fire. I could move forward no longer. I had to return, unavoidably, through the death mill of the battlefield, from which no one knew whether he would return alive.
In the following hours, I experienced a strong inner transformation. I knew in those moments that my personal fate was completely given over to the hands of God. Those who have been in similar situations may perhaps be able to understand my feelings. At home, my family was waiting; friends, acquaintances, life. But here, there was only uncertainty, and perhaps even death.
The news of the breakthrough of the Red Army at Stalingrad had already reached my homeland by radio, but in the wake of the citizens' own troubles, the "fall" was registered with a mere shrug of the shoulders, and the news turned towards more daily affairs. The Fuhrer would take care of it, most people thought at that time.
For myself, however, the news was a question of life and death, of detachment from everything I knew, perhaps for ever. Even so, there continued a small hope that we would be successful in extracting ourselves as had so often happened before.
But my fears that the entire 6th Army would be cut off in the rear would soon prove to be confirmed. When I returned to my post, I discovered that the Russian army advancing from the north and south had come together at "K", completing their scissors action and closing the ring around the 6th Army. We were now completely encircled, and people spoke of us as the "Stalingrad pocket."
The news of the encirclement carried
a strong feeling of despondency to every trench up to the front of the
Volga River. Everything suddenly seemed to come to a standstill.
No one knew the diameter of the ring of Russian soldiers which encircled
us. A ceasefire continued for two days, as the front lines collectively
held their breaths. There was an incredibly nerve-pinching
quiet, full of impatient danger. No one could guess when or where
the opponent would strike.
News from the Stalingrad city front indicated that there, too, was quiet. Only along the north ring trenches between the Don and the Volga rivers was there still extremely bitter fighting.
We had to move great numbers of troops within the encirclement in order to create fronts on every side in the fastest manner possible. With feverish haste, day and night, new trenches were dug in. On the third day, an order arrived significantly decreasing our food rations. There were only enough supplies to provide 200 grams of bread and 30 grams of lard or sausage each.
At about this time, Hermann Goering announced in Germany that he would maintain supply provisions to the 6th Army by air. In a long Tagesordnung, the Fuhrer assured the public that a timely rescue would be undertaken. At first, this news served to raise our spirits. But soon -- all too soon -- we were to realize how much we had been betrayed, and how much we would continue to be betrayed.
Another few days passed. Then the Russians advanced, firing from all sides. A massive extermination attack began from guns positioned in unbelievably widespread areas. Soviet bomber units pelted command posts and supply lines day and night in unbroken sorties, while Soviet artillery continuously held the trenches in fire.
The air supply of provisions was still working. Endless sorties of German planes landed at both airfields "K" and "P", carrying food supplies, munitions and fuel, and taking the wounded back with them.
The Red Cross hastily removed all the women and children from the one military hospital in the encirclement, and later the whole hospital was gradually cleared out. The number of wounded increased continually -- so quickly that it soon became no longer possible to lift them all out by air. Enormous tents were hastily set up as medical emergency centers near airfield "P".
But the unfortunate placement of this emergency center near the airport would soon prove to have dire consequences. Russian aircraft were attacking with ever increasing ferocity, and their bombs and other air weapons reaped devastating losses among the wounded. Doctors and medical personnel were few and far between, and injured men received less and less attention as time went on. Only soldiers with the most serious life-threatening wounds had any hopes of being airlifted to the exterior.
Airfield "M" had lain under heavy artillery fire for days, and finally had to be abandoned in the beginning of December. German troops had ceased their attacks on the Stalingrad city from within the encirclement, but air raids were still continuing insofar as possible from airfields positioned outside the encirclement.
The aircraft remaining on our fields made every attempt possible to disable the ever stronger Russian attack units, in order to facilitate the provision of air supplies. Huge searchlights guided German planes to the landing areas.
In spite of all our efforts, our supply of provisions were running out. Every attempt was made to preserve our own stocks within the encirclement but, despite our extreme frugality, they continued to shrink daily.
Shortly before Christmas came the news that a strong combat squad had set out to rescue us. An attempt to free the 6th Army was to be made before the holidays! There were rumors of a 30-kilometer wide ring surrounding the pocket. The weapons and munitions still available to us were, as we all believed then, sufficient to secure the breakthrough. A massive tank unit was at the edge of the encirclement, ready for assault.
Again, a sigh of relief went through the trenches. The Division was prepared to give its utmost in order to ensure the success of the reported breakthrough and thereby put an end to the now unbearable situation. There was a good mood all around. The expectation that we would surely be rescued from this hopeless situation and our lives returned to us made each soldier determined to fight to the end. It was like a reawakening, like a last blossoming of hope of finding a way out of sure defeat and into freedom. Everyone hoped for the best.
Then, like a bolt of lightning from heaven came the rebuff. A command from the headquarters of the Fuhrer stated that Stalingrad was to be defended to the end, under all circumstances.
Which meant the end of all hope.
Christmas 1942 arrived.
Within just a few days it became bitterly cold. The promised winter
clothing did not arrive; naturally, it was impossible to arrange
such a delivery under the circumstances.
One late afternoon the week before Christmas, I was on my way to pick up fuel for the tanks. A heavy blizzard began shortly after my departure and grew steadily stronger, becoming so severe that at my arrival it literally became impossible to see even the back of my hand.
In spite of the unusually heavy snowstorm, however, the German airplanes were still landing under extremely dangerous conditions. A Junker had just unloaded and was making the necessary preparations for the return flight. Severely wounded soldiers were brought out of the unheated emergency tents which served as dressing stations, and were accommodated inside the plane so as to take up as little room as possible. From all sides, by the hundreds, came those who could walk; both those with slight and severe wounds. They surrounded the airplane, begging and pleading to be taken away. The pilot tried to explain the hopelessness of their actions, saying, "The plane is already overfull, and it is highly unlikely that I will even be able to land at my own airfield on a pitch-black night like this. Besides, danger of being shot down has grown tremendously."
Heart-rending scenes were played out. Crying and pleading, the wounded clambered up with their last ounces of energy onto the wings, onto the long tail-end of the plane. Others held letters with final Christmas greetings in their trembling hands.
These tragic scenes were soon replaced by even more hideous ones, as an enemy bomber attack set in just before the plane was to depart and claimed many victims. What occurred then was so terrible, so gruesome, that I will never be able to forget it.
Heavily, the great black bird lifted off in the deep dark night, leaving hundreds of disappointed and spiritually broken soldiers behind. Many collapsed completely, powerless. The continuous hunger, the bitterly inhuman cold, and most of all, the thought that as wounded men in this hopeless situation they had been handed over to a fate of certain destruction, left these pitiable creatures without a spark of life force.
"K" fell two days before Christmas. The bridge over the Don river was blown up, and our strategic high point on the Don Hoehenstrasse was lost. The front line was forced to retreat, and our pocket shrunk considerably. Huge stocks of supplies were destroyed or left behind, and large amounts of food fell into the hands of the Russians.
It was about this time that pamphlets were distributed from Russian aircraft, appealing to the German soldiers to give up the senseless battle. Loudspeakers surrounding the pocket described the successes of the Russian troops. Names on captured Christmas packages and letters were read off with the invitation to "come over to us and pick up your Christmas mail!"
But we were far from cards and presents. Instead, our life became one of the hardest circumstances imaginable. Neither tree nor bush could be seen anywhere in the immense snow-covered steppes where we were stranded. The few remaining barracks were reserved for the unit staff, and the few bunker heaters never once had enough fuel to burn. As long as gasoline was available, supply trucks were driven from time to time into the center of Stalingrad to gather firewood from wherever it could be found. Many of these commandos never came back; their machines would become stuck in the snow and they froze to death miserably. Or they would receive direct hits or be caught in artillery crossfire in the city, which was constantly under attack.
I too once took part in one of these commando drives into the city. On the way, to the right and left of the highway, I saw bodies of soldiers lying here and there, either frozen to death or hit by air attack. Others, in trying to drag themselves wearily from Stalingrad to the dressing-station, had fallen exhausted on the way, stiff and white, just like the uncannily sinister steppes in those days. In their rigid faces could be seen the whole drama and pain of their last lonesome struggles with death.
Before I tell of Christmas Eve, the most tragic evening of the year 1942, I want to describe one last event which shook me violently and upset me to the very core of my being. The previous day, I had, after searching for many hours, discovered a small forest of spruce trees directly at the edge of the burning city. There I wanted to pick out a Christmas tree, just a tiny modest one, for myself and my friends. When I got there, however, I found that the sparse woods was being painfully guarded by horse-cart units, who were using the few needled twigs left as the only feed available for their horses. I could do nothing there.
On the way back, disappointed as I was, I suddenly met with a scene so full of misery that it terrified me deeply. A sled convoy coming from Stalingrad was making its laborious way through wind and snow to the general dressing-station. With his last bit of energy, a driver with a weary, exhausted face and burning eyes lying deep in their sockets drove two valiantly struggling horses. I had assumed that this was a band of wounded soldiers. But upon coming closer to them, I recoiled in horror as I realized that many of the men were already rigid and dead. They had simply frozen during the long transport. Wounded and dead, mixed up together; a gruesome, horrifying picture.
At just this moment I recognized a good friend on one of the sleds, whom I had not seen for quite some time. How he had changed! His face had become thin and contorted with pain, and he already showed the fatal signs of death. He could no longer speak, but still he recognized me. For a few seconds, a tiny smile, deeply moving and melancholy, crossed his lips. I understood him....it was the last wish of a dying soldier to his homeland, the last greeting to his loved ones, which I was to convey in his name. I silently pressed his hand.
He had no more need of assistance. With his right hand in mine, he was released from his pain for all time. I however carried the image of his countenance all the way back home with me -- his horrifying face deeply furrowed with misery. I made my way back, following a path marked by a thin trail of blood from the sled convoy -- flecks of red in the almost completely untouched snow.