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Rambler's Top100

3

The Catastrophe on Volga (overview) Print E-mail

The Catastrophe on Volga (overview)



Soviet advance. (RGAKFD)

In the spring of 1942 Marshal Tymoshenko undertook a poorly prepared offensive on Kharkov. It was swallowed by a German counteroffensive. As a result - over 20 Soviet divisions had been encircled and destroyed. All Russian reserves had been concentrated to protect Moscow where the Stavka expected the new German offensive. The Germans took him by surprise. On June 28, 1942, German forces began a major offensive in the south, aiming at the Caucasian oilfields and Stalingrad. By July 5 Germans were already near Voronezh. The situation had become critical for the Red Army.

On July 20 Hitler told his Chief of Staff: "The war in Russia is finished!" The German 6th Army, the conqueror of Paris in 1940, was the spearhead of the Stalingrad offensive. The Red Army was retreating . Stalin issued his famous order #227, "Not one step back."

On August 23, 1942, precisely at 6:00 PM, one thousand airplanes began to drop incendiary bombs on Stalingrad. In that city of 600,000 people there were many wooden buildings, gas tanks and fuel tanks for industries. Stalingrad was heavily hit by more air attacks; one raid of 600 planes started vast fires and killed 40,000 citizens.

By August 23, the Wehrmacht was in the Stalingrad suburbs, German tanks had reached the Volga river. At that time, the Soviet 62nd Army was not in the city yet. The first attacks of the German panzers were met by a single division of NKVD and some workers from the city tractor factory.


Stalingrad. Street fightind. (RGAKFD)

When the Germans entered Stalingrad, they saw nothing but ruins. But surprisingly, there was life in those ruins, and that life didn't even think about surrender. The word "surrender" was not even in the vocabulary of Russian soldiers and civilians trapped in the city. Thousands of micro battles erupted all over the streets of what used to be a city just weeks earlier. Everybody was fighting, everything was exploding, everywhere was death. The Wehrmacht met the toughest resistance in those ruins, and Stalingrad came into the history of WWII as one of the worst experiences for the German army.

"The Germans obviously thought that the fate of the city had been settled, "wrote Vasily Chuikov, the Russian commander. "We saw drunken Germans jumping down from their trucks, playing mouth organs, shouting like madmen and dancing on the pavement". They penetrated to within two hundred metres of his command post.

Hitler was already claiming total and impending victory (as did Napoleon in 1812). It looked like it was over... But it was not. Germans met rugged resistance in the streets of Stalingrad. They had to fight for every house, for every stone. A German general said: "The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard..."

General Chuikov, the commander of Soviet 62nd Army, threw in every last reserve. Everything that could shoot was on the streets, everything that could fly was in the sky. But his troops were outnumbered and could not stop the German advancement. By the end of November the Wehrmacht cut through Stalingrad, slicing the 62nd Army into two parts. But that still didn't mean the end of it. Shrinking and weakening, the Red Army was still stubbornly fighting. Particularly severe clashes took place over the Mamaev Mound. The hill changed hands at least 8 times.


General V.I.Chuikov

One house in Stalingrad was defended by the single platoon of Sergeant Jakob Pavlov. That house, known as "Pavlov's House," became a symbol of the determination of Russians to hold the city no matter what. Completely surrounded by Germans, Pavlov's men held the beseiged house until relief came-- fifty nine days later!

In many books on Stalingrad one can find the same quote over and over again. It is a record from a diary of the 62nd Army, describing the intensity of fighting for the Central Railstation in Stalingrad, which changed hands fifteen times: "08:00 Station in enemy hands. 08:40 Station recaptured. 09:40 Station retaken by enemy. 10:40 enemy... 600 metres from Army command post... 13:20 Station in our hands". And so on.

At the Central Station, a battalion of Soviet Guardsmen dug in behind smashed railroad cars and platforms. Bombed and shelled, "the station buildings were on fire, the walls burst apart, the iron buckled." The survivors moved to a nearby ruin where, tormented by thirst, they fired at drainpipes to see if any water would drip out. During the night, German sappers blew up the wall separating the Russians from the German-held part of the building and threw in grenades. An attack cut the battalion in two and the headquarters staff was trapped inside the Univermag department store where the battalion commander was killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The last forty men of the battalion pulled back to a building on the Volga. They set up a heavy machine-gun in the basement and broke down the walls at the top of the building to prepare lumps of stone and wood to hurl at the Germans.

They had no water and only a few pounds of scorched grain to eat. "After five days," a survivor wrote, "the basement was full of wounded; only twelve men were still able to fight." The battalion nurse was dying of a chest wound. A German tank ground forward and a Russian slipped out with the last anti-tank rifle rounds to deal with it. He was captured by German tommygunners. Apparently, he persuaded his captors that the Russians had run out of ammunition, because the Germans "came impudently out of their shelter, standing up and shouting." The last belt of machine-gun cartridges was fired into them and "an hour later they led our anti-tank rifleman onto a heap of ruins and shot him in front of our eyes." More squat German tanks appeared and reduced the building with point-blank fire. At night, six survivors of the battalion freed themselves from the rubble and struggled to the Volga.


Stalingrad. Street fighting. (RGAKFD)

The German air force, the Luftwaffe, was making up to 3000 sorties a day. Germans were superior in airpower and artillery. To counter it, General Chuikov directed his troops to "hug" the Germans, to remain in close combat so that German commanders could not use airstrikes without endangering their own men. (It's very symbolic that General Chuikov, later Marshal, the hero of the Stalingrad defense, became later, in 1945, a conqueror of Berlin...).

The city was practically on its own. The Red Army could not even help with replenishments, they just weren't reaching the city. They would have to cross the Volga River under German fire. The survivors of those crossings said some days the river was red with blood. The whole battle was a complete nightmare for both sides.

Fighting never stopped. It could slow down at times, and then erupt with new energy, any time of the day. With all the technology and equipment involved, there were hand-to-hand fights all over Stalingrad. Russians waged night attacks on the isolated German units. They would use knives and bayonets in close combat. None of the armies of WWII were really trained for knife fights, nobody expected that kind of warfare, neither Germans nor Russians. Perhaps, that type of fighting suited fatalistic Russians better then Germans. Germans who fought on the Eastern Front remarked often that Russians found some inspiration in close combat, and in desperate situations fought with abandon. And Stalingrad definitely seemed to be a desperate situation for Russians surrounded and outnumbered in the ruins of what used to be a city.

The intensity of fighting can be seen from what one Wehrmacht lieutenant wrote: "We have fought fifteen days for a single house. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors... From story to story, faces black with sweat, we bombard each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke, heaps of mortar, floods of blood, fragments of furniture and human beings... The street is no longer measured by metres but by corpses... Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure."

On November 19, a Russian counter-offensive began (code-named "Operation Uranis." The Wehrmacht was taken by surprise and could not hold the front. On Novermber 23, two arms of the Red Army met. The German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army, about 300,000 men, were trapped in a pocket 35 miles wide and 20 miles from north to south. On February 2, Field Marshal Paulus surrendered, with 23 generals, 2500 other officers and 90,000 privates.

The second eastern winter, the second defeat. Even before Stalingrad, German casualties on the Eastern front were over 1.5 million... Paulus' army of 330,000 men had been squandered at Stalingrad. The spirit of the German Army was broken, while Russians realized that they could beat the "invincible" German Army.





, 501- (s.Pz.Abt.501) 10- 1942 . 7- . 6- 1943 . , 1943 . 9- 1943 . 1944 ( ), " " . , , . , 27 1944 , 424- XXIV- , 101- 501-.


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