Enemy At The Gates - William Craig (Preperation and Execution of Operation Uranus)

On November 15, Nazi propaganda newspaper Das Reich carried an article by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, that signalled a significant shift in thinking. Goebbels had decided to prepare the German people for any eventuality—including disaster in Russia. “We have thrown the national existence into the balance,” he wrote. “There is no turning back now.”

Meanwhile, Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky shuttled back and forth between Moscow and the Stalingrad fronts. They walked the terrain, spotted artillery targets and German troop concentrations for special attention, and met with their generals to refine tactics.

During Zhukov’s visit to General Vatutin’s command post north of the Don River bridgeheads at Serafimovich and Kletskaya, Stalin reached him with an important telegram:

November 15, 1942

*Comrade Konstantinov: Personal *

You can set the moving date for Federov and Ivanov [the offensives by Vatutin and Yeremenko] as you see fit, and let me know when you come back to Moscow. If you think it necessary that either one or the other move one or two days earlier or later, I empower you to decide that question according to your own best judgment. Vasilyev [Stalin’s code name]

Zhukov and Vasilevsky checked their preparations on both fronts and agreed to begin the counterattack in the northern sector on November 19, and on the southern front a day later. Stalin approved the plan without comment. Operation Uranus would commence within ninety-six hours.


From the Obersalzburg, where he had been resting since the Beer Hall Speech, Adolf Hitler radioed a message to Sixth Army Headquarters on the steppe:

"I know about the difficulties of the battle for Stalingrad and about the loss of troops. With the ice drifting on the Volga, however, the difficulties are even greater for the Russians. Making use of this [time] span we will avoid a bloodbath later on. I expect therefore that the Supreme Command, with all its repeatedly proven energy, and the troops, with their courage often demonstrated, will do their utmost to break through to the Volga at the metallurgical works and at the gun factory and occupy these parts of town. "

In accordance with Hitler’s orders, the pioneers turned right and left along the Volga and tried to roll up the fanatical defense behind the Barrikady. The battle lasted all day and on that night, two Soviet biplanes came up the river at only a fifty-foot altitude and hovered over Lyudnikov’s position. A circle of bonfires lit by the trapped Russians illuminated illuminated the small area in which it was safe to drop supplies. But as the pilots prepared to unload bales of food from their open cockpits, the Germans lit another chain of bonfires to confuse them. Since the pilots were unable to gauge the extent of Lyudnikov’s territory, most of the supplies they dropped fell into German lines or sank in the Volga.

General von Richthofen had not given up his feud with Sixth Army Headquarters. In a telephone conversation with Chief of Staff Kurt Zeitzler at Rastenburg on the night of November 16, the outspoken Luftwaffe commander exploded: “Both the command and the troops are so listless … we shall get nowhere.… Let us either fight or abandon the attack altogether. If we can’t clear up the situation now, when the Volga is blocked and the Russians are in real difficulty, we shall never be able to. The days are getting shorter and the weather worse.”

Zeitzler agreed.

The weather, indeed, was getting worse. It had changed dramatically, as it always does on the steppe, which knows only one extreme or the other: light or dark, abundance or famine, cruel heat or numbing cold, life or death—everything or nothing. Warm weather had lasted through October, then it turned cold overnight. At first, drizzles drenched the plains. Then snow flurries whipped the barren land. The steppe grass turned brown, and wilted. Men caught in the open turned their collars up to ward off the chill. The sky no longer blazed with iridescent hues; it was sullen, gray, menacing. It whispered of winter.

The quartermasters of Sixth Army had learned bitter lessons from the previous year and had already dug into the many balkas cutting across the plain. In the sides of these deep ravines, they had stockpiled food and ammunition, and thousands of bunkers had been constructed to shield the soldiers from the icy winds. Determined not to be caught again without proper clothing and other necessities, the quartermasters requisitioned additional reserves from the German pipeline stretching back to Kharkov, nearly four hundred miles away.

Along the railroads leading to Stalingrad, ten depots had laid in stocks for both Sixth Army and the German panzer groups bogged down in the Caucasus. But moving the supplies east was difficult, for Russian partisans had received orders to impede enemy traffic to the Don and Volga. As bridges and track blew up in fiery explosions, the supply line from Kharkov to Stalingrad clogged, cleared, and clogged again.

Fortunately, the warehouses at Chir, a railhead only sixty miles west of Stalingrad bulged with appropriate items and as the first frosts touched the steppe in early November, some units of the Sixth Army received warm clothing. Convoys of trucks trailed back and forth across the steppe, bringing winter gear to German soldiers. Other convoys managed to get through with badly needed replacements for infantry regiments and battalions.

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Pvt. Ekkehart Brunnert had boarded a troop train at the town of Boblingen in Germany, waved farewell to his wife, Irene, and watched her out of sight. Surrounded by fourteen comrades, the private quickly adjusted to the camaraderie of soldierly life. The train rolled eastward for endless days and, as it moved through the Ukraine, signs of war multiplied. Brunnert saw burned-out villages and railroad cars reduced to skeletal wrecks. He and his comrades decided to post guards at night, but the partisans never attacked and, weeks after leaving Boblingen, the unit arrived at Chir. There, Brunnert pitched a tent and when he got up in the morning, he saw everything covered with frost. He also saw thousands of Russian refugees headed toward Germany and labor camps. They lay in clusters on flatcars. Most wore rags; some munched sunflower seeds, their only food. In the fields around the tracks other Russians picked through garbage heaps for bits of decaying food. Brunnert was shocked at the sight.

He waited at Chir until he got orders to join a truckload of twenty-four men headed toward the front line. On all sides there was only dreary steppe country. On the eastern horizon, a deep and steady roar made the earth tremble.

To most Sixth Army soldiers, the persistent rumbling on the horizon was their only contact with the horror on the banks of the Volga. For the more than two hundred thousand men in the rear echelons, the killing was just a peripheral event they viewed in brief agonizing moments: the wounded screaming as they were manhandled out of ambulances, the stained and torn uniforms that piled up in grotesque mounds outside surgeons’ tents, the thousands of crosses in regimental graveyards on the desolate prairie.

Sgt. Friedrich Breining who was a former scholmaster in Germany , went out with his unit to search abandoned dwellings for extra food, firewood, and anything else of value in southern ruins of Stalingrad. When they came to a wrecked house, Breining went up to the front door and pushed it open. On the floor lay a woman, and beside her a child, a little girl. Both bodies had partially decomposed, but Breining could tell that the mother had once been quite pretty. Neither corpse bore any, visible marks. Other soldiers asked him what was wrong and the former schoolteacher pointed wordlessly to the gruesome sight on the floor. No one made a move to enter. Breining closed the door softly and left.

German Army veterinarian Herbert Rentsch was making plans to send another four hundred horses back to the Ukraine for rest. He had also begun substituting small Russian horses, panjes, for the big Belgian draft animals. Rentsch knew the native panjes would work better in the approaching winter. The doctor still found time to canter his own horse, Lore, over the steppe. The mare was sleek and well groomed and Rentsch rode her every day. He found the exercise exhilarating.

Fifty miles northwest of Stalingrad, Sgt. Gottlieb Slotta returned to the 113th German Infantry Division after confinement in a hospital. Weeks before, when he had spotted Russian tanks bearing down on his gun battery, he had screamed a warning to his friends. But one of them laughed derisively and yelled back: “Slotta, whenever the Russians shoot, you’re afraid.”

With the T-34 tanks chasing him, Slotta had run toward his comrades to urge them to take cover. The Russian shells got there first and Slotta saw his companions blown apart. Sobbing bitterly, he fell to the ground and went into shock. Unable to speak, he was taken to the rear, where he spent weeks trying to forget that nightmarish day when no one listened to him. In time, he was returned to his job as an artillery observer and now, as the chill Arctic winds tugged at him, Slotta resumed his watch for more Russian tanks.

German artillery Lt. Emil Metzger also worried about Russian tanks. Despite the lieutenant’s disdain for rumors, he had begun to pay close attention to the pilots of the artillery spotter planes, who spoke to him each day. These veteran reconnaissance men told him that they had seen hundreds of Russian T-34 tanks moving along roads above the river toward the area of Kletskaya, seventy miles northwest. The aviators’ genuine alarm about the enemy buildup caused Metzger to temper his optimism about a quick end to the battle and a trip home to his home and Kaethe.

To maintain morale, Sixth Army had established a precise schedule for furloughs of twenty days, with two extra days for travel contingencies. Pvt. Franz Deifel had just finished a trip to Stuttgart, revisiting the Porsche plant where he had been a master upholsterer. His former supervisor told him that papers had already been filed to release him from the army for civilian employment. Richer by two hundred Reich marks given him by fellow workers at the factory, the elated Deifel passed through Kharkov and headed toward Chir at the Don.

Under forty feet of solid earth, Gen. Vassili Chuikov still maintained his precarious hold on ten percent of Stalingrad. Behind him, ice floes made the Volga impassable and Chuikov was happy he had requisitioned twelve tons of chocolate for just such an emergency. If the Volga failed to freeze over soon, he figured a ration of half a bar a day for each man could mean their holding out two weeks longer.

While his army tried to ride out the crisis caused by the cutting of the regular supply lines, the soldiers of Batyuk’s 284th Soviet Division around Mamaev Hill witnessed an extraordinary mini-war over some of those supplies. Every Russian soldier received received a daily ration of one hundred grams of vodka. Most waited for it eagerly; only a few refused it. But Senior Lt. Ivan Bezditko, “Ivan the Terrible” to his men, had an incredible taste for vodka and found a way to keep a plentiful supply on hand. When troops from his mortar battalion died, Ivan reported them “present and accounted for,” and pirated their daily vodka rations. In a short time, the thirsty officer amassed many gallons, which he carefully stored in his own dugout.

In a warehouse at the Volga shore, a supply officer, Major Malygin, checked his records and noticed that Bezditko’s unit had borne up extremely well under weeks of bombardment. Suspicious, Malygin pursued the matter and discovered that the mortar section had actually suffered heavy casualties. He called Bezditko, told him he had exposed his petty scheme, and was going to report him to Front Headquarters. Then he added, “Your vodka ration is being canceled.”

The supply officer had gone too far. Bezditko screamed, “If I don’t get it, you’ll get it.”

Malygin hung up on him, relayed news of the crime to headquarters and shut off Ivan’s liquor rations. Enraged, Bezditko contacted the firing point for his .122-millimeter batteries, issued a precise set of coordinates, and gave the order to shoot. Three rounds dropped squarely on top of Malygin’s warehouse at the riverbank, and out of the smoke and debris tottered the shaken major. Behind him hundreds of bottles of vodka had broken and spilled onto the floor. Malygin staggered to a phone and asked for headquarters. His anger rising, he shouted out what he knew to be true: Ivan the Terrible had gotten him.

The voice on the other end was patient but unsympathetic, “Next time give him his vodka. He just got the Order of the Red Star, so give it to him.”

The incredulous Malygin stormed back to his warehouse and stood helplessly in the midst of the shattered rows of spirits. Within hours, Lieutenant Bezditko’s liquor ration resumed and Malygin never again interfered with Ivan the Terrible’s larceny.

The story went round the trenches and brought chuckles from most Russians. To them, the quest for liquor was a serious pursuit, one which sometimes assumed even more disastrous proportions. Only recently, soldiers of the 284th Division lines had found several cisterns filled with alcohol. After draining them, the Russians found one more cistern brimming with more spirits. Again they drank the well dry, but this time it was wood alcohol. Four men died and countless others went blind. The tragedy failed to daunt the appetite of the other troops, some of whom began drinking cologne to ease the terror of living under the brow of Mamaev Hill.

Meanwhile two other Russian women fought to stay alive. Natasha Kornilov and her crippled mother had been trapped in their backyard storehouse behind German lines for nearly seven weeks. Every morning the eleven-year-old girl scrounged garbage from German field kitchens. Every night she combed her mother’s hair and sang lullabies to her. Natasha’s cheeks were sunken in from hunger. Her eyes bulged, and she moved slowly, heavily. But she always smiled at her mother, who lay on the concrete floor and prayed for deliverance. Mercifully, the German soldiers left the Kornilovs alone. That was the only reprieve granted the starving women.

In Dar Gova, two miles south of the Kornilov’s grim hovel, another Russian youth, fifteen-year-old Sacha Fillipov, continued his dual life. Going from office to office, barracks to barracks, the young master cobbler mended hundreds of pairs of German boots. He also stole documents from officers’ desks and carried them through the lines to Russian intelligence officers. Otherwise, in the hours he was not working, Sacha played hopscotch in the streets. The Germans never connected the frail boy’s presence with grenade explosions that blew down soldiers’ billets. Several nights a week Sacha left home to report enemy troop movements. He always returned safely, and went to bed without giving his parents any details. Though they knew he worked for the Red Army, the Fillipovs never pressed their son for information. One night he rushed home to warn them to get out of the house by dawn. They followed his instructions and in the morning, Russian artillery shells rained down on a German staff headquarters only a few doors away. Sacha had given his superiors the exact coordinates.

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In the Beketovka Bulge, five miles south of Stalingrad, a dramatic buildup of Soviet troops and equipment had been completed. These were the southern strike armies requisitioned by Zhukov for Operation Uranus, and a small percentage of the troops had come from the holocaust in Stalingrad. One of them was Lt. Hersch Gurewicz. He had finally left the factory area with its ceaseless noise and filth, and gone to the far shore where he ate Spam from America and for the first time, got a glimmer of hope. While munching the canned food, he realized that help was coming from outside Russia and that the “senseless” holding operation around the factories might have some meaning after all. Counting the ranks of his antitank unit, he hoped this was true. Of his one hundred men, eighty had perished in Stalingrad.

Instead of a rest period of two weeks, the lieutenant received new orders. With his company’s ranks refilled, he went south on the eastern shore of the Volga and then across to the area of Beketovka. While no one mentioned an offensive, the feeling of it was in the air.

Nikita Khrushchev also appeared in the Beketovka Bulge. Clothed in a fur coat and hat, the commissar went from camp to camp, joking with soldiers and asking about their gripes. He was in an excellent mood. His comrade, Gen. Andrei Yeremenko was not. Fidgeting at his new headquarters on the western side of the Volga, Yeremenko worried about his part in Operation Uranus. He also seethed over the slight he had experienced when Marshal Rokossovsky assumed defense of the city. Yeremenko felt he deserved better from Stalin.

The hours to Uranus rushed by, but in Stalingrad the Germans ignored reality. Satisfied that the 48th Panzer Corps was strong enough to hold the left flank, Paulus obeyed Hitler’s edict to hit the Russians hard while the river ice interrupted Chuikov’s supply lines. North of the captured tractor factory, the 16th Panzer Division attempted once again to seize the suburb of Rynok, which the panzers first had entered on that lovely summer afternoon in August.

From north and south the 16th Panzer Division attacked, only to find the town bristling with Russian guns, a labryinth of trenches, hidden stationary tanks, and bazookas. But the German soldiers methodically moved down the streets, blowing up bunkers and pillboxes. Russian and German corpses left a ghastly trail.

A battalion led by Captain Mues cleared the area south of town, reached the Volga, and turned north. It was Mues’s intention to shake hands in the center of Rynok with German units cutting into it from other directions. Fog and a light snow began to obscure vision but the aggressive Mues pushed on. Fearless, revered by his men as “immortal,” he was tracked by a Soviet sniper, who put a bullet in his brain. The attack stopped abruptly as Mues’s troops gathered around the stricken officer, now unconscious and near death. They ignored the bullets and cried over the man they loved. An officer from another regiment finally came, lifted Mues in his arms and staggered away with the heavy burden. Soldiers who had fought with the captain through Russia broke down and collapsed. Others became fearful and timid as news of his death spread like a bushfire. The Russians continued to hold Rynok. The 16th Panzer Division was inside the suburb, but in twenty-four hours, it had occupied only five blocks.

With Uranus less than thirty-six hours away, Joseph Stalin got cold feet. Behind the blacked-out windows in his Kremlin apartment, he paced the floor, alternately sucking his pipe and running its mouthpiece through his mustache, listening all the while to Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky. Both men had received urgent summonses to come to the Kremlin. On the eve of H-hour, when they were most needed at the front lines, neither marshal had expected he would have to debate the merits of the operation.

But they had reckoned without the “insubordination” of one of their field commanders, Gen. Viktor T. Volsky, whose 4th Soviet Mechanized Corps was to act as right flank for the southern prong of the offensive. From his headquarters near the Tzatza lakes, south of Stalingrad, the depressed general had written a personal letter to Stalin, warning him “as an honest Communist” that lack of adequate manpower and material meant disaster for the Red Army in the coming attack.

Stalin acted quickly to protect himself and brought the marshals directly to the capital to answer the charges. Zhukov and Vasilevsky rendered a controlled, dispassionate recital of the facts. Evidently satisfied, the premier went to the phone and called Volsky. Without any show of anger, he reassured the general that the offensive had been properly conceived. While Zhukov and Vasilevsky listened in amazement, Stalin cordially accepted Volsky’s apologies and hung up.

Darkness came to the steppe before four o’clock on the afternoon of November 18. Gusty winds sprang up and drove soldiers into warm shelters. The rolling thunder of cannon never let up from the eastern horizon where sporadic bursts of flame in the blackness marked the German pioneers’ stubborn attempts to dislodge Lyudnikov’s men from the sandspit. Fireworks crowned the heights of Mamaev Hill; occasional necklaces of tracer bullets wove exotic patterns along the perimeters at the Lazur and Red October plants. As the Germans on the steppe noted, it was a normal night in Stalingrad.

But one hundred miles northwest of the city, along the serpentine glaze of the freezing Don, nothing was normal. Rumanian spotters had begun to phone in reports of hundreds of Soviet tank motors revving up, of the movement of thousands of artillery pieces along roads inside the bridgeheads at Serafimovich and Kletskaya. The observers added that columns of Red Army troops were assembled in marching order behind armor and ordnance.

In his advisory post at Rumanian Army Headquarters, German Lt. Gerhard Stöck transmitted the ominous details back to Sixth Army Headquarters at Golubinka. Stöck, a crew-cut former Olympic medal winner in the javelin, spoke urgently to Capt. Winrich Behr, operations officer under Arthur Schmidt. After each sighting, Behr went to a map and recorded the Russian movements. They added up to what he had heard from a captured Soviet officer who, earlier in the day, had told his interrogators the long-planned offensive would begin within twenty-four hours. Behr warned Schmidt and Paulus, who seemed extraordinarily calm. Both generals gave orders to alert the 48th Panzer Corps for immediate duty, and expressed confidence in the panzers’ ability to blunt any breakthrough.

Winrich Behr was not so optimistic. He still remembered his conversation with a man he had replaced in October. The officer had taken Behr to the situation map, spread his hands over it and traced where the enemy would attack on both sides of the Sixth Army: “They will meet around here,” he said, and his finger landed on Kalach, forty miles west of Stalingrad. Now, a month later, Behr recalled the prophecy and wondered about the future.

The phone kept ringing with alarming intelligence. Though no shots had been fired, the Russian positions were alive with menacing energy. Radio traffic increased a thousandfold; coded messages filled the air. Captain Behr made notations on his map as rapidly as he could, while outside his office, light snow collected on the ground.

Just before midnight, Vassili Chuikov sat in his cliffside bunker overlooking the Volga and tried to interpret a message from front headquarters requesting him to stand by for an important announcement. Chuikov had no idea what it meant until Kuzma Gurov, his chief political commissar with the Sixty-second Army, suddenly slapped his forehead and shouted: “I know, it’s the order for the big counteroffensive!”

The order came through at midnight. Chuikov felt a tremendous surge of satisfaction as he realized that the last sixty-eight days of fighting in Stalingrad had bought the time needed to prepare the counterattack. And soon he would have his vengeance against the German Sixth Army.


Chapter 16

In the natural land bridge between the Don and the Volga to the west of Stalingrad, Paulus had concentrated practically all of his combat divisions for the purpose of capturing the city. But he had stationed most of the supply dumps needed to maintain those divisions on the far side of the Don, to the west where it makes a gigantic loop before curving southward toward the Sea of Azov. And it was this vulnerable rear area that the Russian High Command had pinpointed as a priority target for the first phase of Operation Uranus.

At 6:30 A.M. on November 19, the predawn darkness between Serafimovich and Kletskaya became a brilliant blaze of orange and red flame as thirty-five hundred Russian guns heralded the attack.

Trapped in straw-lined trenches, soldiers of the Rumanian Third Army watched the artillery bursts march precisely up and down their lines. Bunkers collapsed, suffocating hundreds; shell-shocked men screamed in fear and blocked their ears to escape the terrifying noise. When the cannonade finally stopped, the Rumanians heard the ominous sound of tank motors as the Russian Fifth and Twenty-first Tank armies burst forth from their bridgeheads.

The T-34s stormed through clinging fog and snow into the lines of bewildered Rumanians. Most succumbed to “tank fright,” leapt from cover, and ran. Only a few stayed to duel the armor.

Eight miles to the south, a German weather observer, Sgt. Wolf Pelikan, stirred fitfully in his warm cot as he tried to ignore the rolling gunfire intruding on his sleep. It continued, so Pelikan slipped out of bed and dressed. Dirt cascaded on him from the ceiling and he swore as he brushed off his uniform. When the noise suddenly ceased, he finished dressing in a more leisurely manner, and his thoughts turned to breakfast and the pancakes he liked so well.

A shout brought him to the door and he recognized a company messenger, pointing frantically to the north.

“The Ivans are here! The Ivans are here!” he kept saying.

Pelikan hollered back, “You’re crazy.”

The commotion awakened his comrades, who poured from the bunker to laugh at the messenger. Someone even threw a shoe at him, but he kept pointing, wordlessly now, to the north.

Pelikan looked in that direction and froze. A wind had blown away the fog and he saw them clearly, huge black tanks, sitting motionless on a rise about a mile off. Pelikan’s stomach churned. At that moment the first hysterical Rumanians appeared. Weaponless, screaming, they never paused in their flight. When one of them yelled that Russian troops were right behind, the news destroyed any semblance of order in the German ranks.

Pelikan and the others forgot all discipline. Orders rang out and were as quickly countermanded. Men swept belongings into trucks, which started sluggishly in the freezing weather. The commanding officer scurried to a light plane and took off to the south.

With Russian tanks still hovering on the slope, the rest of the German unit jumped into vehicles and roared away. Bouncing along in a bakery truck, Pelikan silently thanked God for the chance to survive.

At Golubinka, fifty miles to the southeast, Capt. Winrich Behr heard the details of the Soviet attack from Lt. Gerhard Stöck, the liaison officer posted to the Rumanian Third Army at Kletskaya. Stöck told him the Third Army had been torn apart, was running toward Golubinka, and Behr rushed to tell Paulus and Schmidt, who took the dreadful report calmly. Amazed and pleased at their composure, Behr waited while the generals analyzed the situation. Schmidt suddenly exclaimed: “We can hold!” Paulus agreed and ordered the 48th Panzer Corps to head north, into the breach along the Don.

Thirteen hundred miles to the west of Sixth Army Headquarters, Hitler slept soundly at the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps. The Führer had been there for nearly two weeks, dallying in his mountain retreat. But the problems he refused to acknowledge during the past summer and fall had pursued him. In Africa, the Allies were moving to trap Rommel’s legions; in Russia, his Soviet Union Intelligence expert, Col. Reinhard Gehlen, had just warned him of the extreme likelihood of a Russian counteroffensive behind Sixth Army.

Despite these reports, Hitler remained convinced that his Third Reich would endure. He was incredibly proud of the fact that his armies ruled more than three hundred million people: from the Atlantic coastline in France to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, from the northern capes of Norway to the bleached sands of Libya. He had reached an apogee of power. But on November 19, when the Red Army launched its massive counterattack at the Don, his Nazi empire bgan to wither imperceptibly. And though more than two years would pass before it finally collapsed, the decline would prove irreversible.

In a quiet conference room, Hitler peered intently at the latest battle maps and examined the terrain on the left flank of the Sixth Army. He showed no undue concern as he asked about the weather and Luftwaffe groups operating in the region. Unhurried, controlled, Hitler weighed the options and issued an order. It was the first of many fatal decisions he would make in the coming weeks.

That order reached Gen. Ferdinand Heim at 11:30 A.M., as he was leading his 48th Panzer Corps out to challenge the Russian Twenty-first Army rampaging south of the Don. It instructed him to change direction and speed to the sector around Blinov, where the Soviet Fifth Army had also made a serious
penetration. Irritated by the confusing orders, the general skidded to a halt and redirected his columns toward the new target almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction. When the 48th Panzer Corps clumsily started up again, it was inundated with remnants of Rumanian divisions, running across the snowfields. Heim absorbed as many of these troops as he could and kept going toward his new target.

No planes interfered with the drama on the steppe, for both air forces had been grounded by the foul weather. As a result, General von Richthofen had flown south to the Caucasus, where excellent conditions permitted strikes against the Red Army. Absorbed with bombing runs along the Terek riverfront, he was stunned to hear of the massive Soviet offensive at his rear. Unable to dispatch aircraft north into the storm along the Don, he excused his impotence by saying, “once again the Russians have made masterly use of the bad weather.”

That bad weather had almost caused Marshal Vasilevsky to postpone Operation Uranus. Frantic phone calls with Generals Vatutin, Christiakov, Romanenko and STAVKA in Moscow had preceded the attack. Deprived of close air support, and fearful of sending tanks into a blinding cover of fog and snow on the exposed steppe, the Russians launched Uranus with a premonition of catastrophe. But the first hours had already brought incredible success. Masses of Rumanian prisoners swarmed into Soviet lines. Red Army tank patrols quickly penetrated twenty miles southward, and by afternoon were within firing range of German Sixth Army’s supply dumps.

At the town of Bolshe Nabatoff, thirty miles south of Kletskaya, German Quartermaster Colonel Karl Binder was trying desperately to save his carefully hoarded rations. He had collected eight hundred cattle to feed his division during the winter and now, fearful of Russian tanks, he acted to shift his ponderous burden eastward, across the winding Don before the enemy seized the bridge at Akimovski. As he issued instructions to eight herdsmen, the first Russian shells whined into the compound and the cattle broke in terror. The herdsmen managed to turn the mass which stampeded, snorting and lowing, toward the Don miles away.

After the cattle had gone, Binder began heaving huge sacks of flour into trucks while his men filled other vehicles with bread, clothing, and blankets. Retreating Rumanian troops helped themselves to as much food as they could carry and for once, no German officer demanded receipts.

Enemy fire increased, buildings began burning furiously. Convinced he had salvaged all he could, Binder led his convoy out of Bolshe Nabatoff while behind him, the depot burned like a bright red torch.

All day long, teams of Russian tanks roamed the white steppe, shooting into headquarters detachments, supply dumps, communications centers, and then pulling back into the mist to strike again miles away. Their tactics confused and demoralized the Germans. Radio reports flooding into Golubinka placed the Russians forty miles south of the Don, then fifty miles southeast of the Don—everywhere! Hysteria marked the voices that begged Sixth Army for reinforcements and advice. Discipline broke; unit commanders arbitrarily ordered their men to the east, toward Stalingrad. Their troops had become fearful, sullen and were openly hostile to their superiors, who ran about screaming threats of courts-martial to maintain order.

In this bedlam, German Lt. Hermann Kästle shepherded his mortars to the Don. He pushed ahead on the congested roads, and held his place against repeated attempts by other officers to jockey men and equipment in front of him. Panic frequently replaced reason, and Kästle saw several arguments degenerate into fist fights as soldiers stood in the snow and smashed each other over trivial slights.

In late afternoon, Kästle neared a bridge crossing the Don. Suddenly another lieutenant appeared, waved a Luger pistol in his face, and told him his tank held priority over Kästle’s mortars. When Kästle said his guns were equally important, the lieutenant pointed the pistol at his head and told him to back away. Kästle searched the officer’s eyes, and knew he faced death if he refused. Shaking his head in disbelief, he pulled the mortars aside and watched passively as the tank commander jumped onto his machine and rode triumphantly over the river.

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At Sixth Army Headquarters, Captain Behr kept the lines to Gerhard Stöck open throughout the day. Stöck had proved to be the most reliable witness to the unfolding chaos. He kept reporting the defection of Rumanian officers, who left thousands of soldiers to wander the steppe, and his account of the tragedy was distressingly accurate. On his own maps, Behr had also watched the slow progress of General Heim’s relief force. The 48th Panzer Corps finally reached Blinov in the afternoon. But the Russians had come and gone, hitting and running across the flatlands. General Heim took his panzers out of town again, seeking the elusive enemy, who was avoiding direct engagement.

In Stalingrad, ninety miles east of the fluid battleground, the city had again assumed its familiar crown of explosions and tracer bullets chasing each other through the darkening sky. On the edge of the Volga, Russian Col. Ivan Lyudnikov’s trapped division still clung to its “island” under the cliff behind the Barrikady Gun Factory. Up above, German pioneers had spent another day trying to destroy them, but again they failed. Inside the Barrikady itself, Maj. Eugen Rettenmaier learned of the Russian counterattack back at the Don and sank into a deep depression. Unable to understand how his leaders had failed to prepare for the blow, he knew the situation at Stalingrad had become hopeless.

North of the Barrikady, past the shattered tractor works, the 16th Panzer Division had spent another torturous day on the outskirts of Rynok. But after dark, they received orders to turn their backs on the Volga. Mechanics labored hurriedly over tanks and trucks; soldiers received extra rations and ammunition. Then they filed out of their deep balkas, where they had lived since August, and went to shore up the gap in the line along the Don, ninety miles to the rear.

The weather was turning worse; a strong wind blew snow into the faces of the tankers and infantrymen. Masses of people wandered past them: Rumanians clutching their belongings, human flotsam from an unseen debacle beyond the western horizon.

At Golubinka, General Schmidt read the latest dispatches and tried to gauge the extent of the Russian penetration. Scattered rumors merged with verified reports to form a kaleidoscope of tank sightings, making it impossible to pinpoint the enemy’s whereabouts. At 10:30 P.M., Schmidt suddenly announced: “I am going to bed now,” and disappeared into his quarters. As he went back to the phone and Gerhard Stöck, Captain Behr marveled again at Schmidt’s coolness, a blessing in the face of the long day’s discouragement.

South of Stalingrad, more Russian forces waited through the bitterly cold night to begin the second part of Operation Uranus. From the suburb of Beketovka down to the shores of the salt lakes, Sarpa, Tzatza, and Barmantsak, the Sixty-fourth, Fifty-seventh, and Fifty-first armies were massed along a 125-mile front. Confronting them was the vastly overextended Fourth Rumanian Army, stretched thin across the wintry steppe to protect the German Sixth Army’s right flank. It was the Russian High Command’s intention to punch quickly through the Rumanian positions and race northwest toward the Russian armies descending from the Don.

In the early hours of November 20, shivering Red Army soldiers cleaned their weapons again, and wrote last letters to relatives in unoccupied Russia. Sgt. Alexei Petrov had no one to write; Lt. Hersch Gurewicz thought wistfully of his father and brother, but had no idea where they were.

At his headquarters cottage, General Yeremenko could not sleep. Convinced that the southern-front attack should be delayed until all the German reserves had been drawn north to meet the first phase of the Soviet offensive along the Don, he had spent hours arguing his case with STAVKA in Moscow. But STAVKA had refused his plea, and now Yeremenko brooded about the possibility of failure.

At dawn he had more worries. The weather had not changed, and a thick fog, mixed with snow, shrouded his armies. Troops had great difficulty forming into assault groups. Tanks ran into each other. Airplanes poised to the east, across the Volga, sat helplessly on runways.

Yeremenko delayed H-hour. From Moscow, STAVKA demanded the reason and Yeremenko sat at his desk and patiently explained his decision. STAVKA was not happy, but Yeremenko held his ground. For more than two hours, past nine o’clock, he waited for the weather to clear. As STAVKA came back on the BODO line to plague him, his meteorologists promised sunlight within minutes.

At 10:00 A.M., Yeremenko’s artillery commenced firing and the soldiers of the Rumanian Fourth Army fled wildly in every direction. Within a few hours, the astonished Yeremenko excitedly called STAVKA to say that ten thousand prisoners had already been processed. STAVKA demanded he recheck his figures. They were correct.

Pvt. Abraham Spitkovsky had seen the prisoners coming almost as soon as the bombardment ceased. Rising from his hole when the “Urrahs” from his comrades sounded the charge, he plunged through the snow toward hundreds of black figures walking toward him with hands raised over their heads. Up and down the front beside him, Russian soldiers shot blindly into the ragged ranks and when Spitkovsky thought of the weeks and months of running, of cringing among the corpses, and of lice he, too, brought up his machine pistol and fired long bursts into their columns. While Spitkovsky paused to reload his gun, he looked down at the rows of dead men and was completely unmoved.

One hundred twenty miles northwest of General Yeremenko’s almost effortless breakthrough, the Germans were still trying to contain the Russian forces moving down from Serafimovich and Klatskaya.

At the village of Peschanyy, thirty miles south of Serafimovich, General Heim’s 48th Panzer Corps finally met the enemy. His 22nd Panzer Division plunged into a firefight with T-34s, but the 22nd was already crippled; its mouse-eaten wiring had reduced tank strength to twenty.

Antitank guns acting as support helped explode twenty-six Russian tanks, but that was not enough. The Soviet armor broke away and the Germans hobbled after it. By the afternoon, the panzers were surrounded by new Russian formations and fighting for survival.

The steppe battleground resembled islands in a sea. Trapped units retreated into hedgehog defenses and lashed back at the enemy closing in around them. The Rumanians who continued to fight were almost totally isolated. A meteorological officer in the 6th Division kept a diary, later captured by the Russians:

"November 20 In morning enemy opened heavy artillery fire at sector held by 13th Pruth Division.… Division wiped out.… No communication with higher command.… Currently encircled by enemy troops. In pocket are the 5th, 6th and 15th divisions and remnants of the 13th Division. The report spoke for the entire “puppet army.”

During the night, German Quartermaster Karl Binder had crossed and recrossed the Don, bringing out food and clothing for his 305th Division. Back again on the western side of the frozen river, he found that his old supply depot at Bolshe Nabatoff still remained in German hands. The Russian tanks had merely burned some of the buildings before racing off again into the fog. Binder collected what equipment he could from the ruins, then returned to the bridge at Akimovski to wait for his cattle. Lost somewhere in the near blizzard of the previous night, the herd had not been seen by anyone.

On a bluff overlooking the town, Binder stared west into the vast steppe. Close by him, two Russian prisoners were being interrogated by a German officer, who suddenly shouted something and waved a pistol. When one of the Russians bolted, the German shot him in the back of the head.

Horrified, Binder rushed over and begged the officer to spare the other prisoner’s life. He said he could use him as a driver. The officer shrugged disdainfully and holstered his weapon. Binder led the Russian back to his car, where the prisoner poured out a torrent of thanks in fluent German. The young man explained that he had learned the language while studying medicine in Moscow.

Russian shelling increased; dead bodies lined the roads, and wounded men called for help. A Rumanian officer waved feebly from a clump of bushes, and Binder and his new friend went to him. The man had wounds in an arm and his right leg. After Binder cut open his trousers, the Russian medical student took his knife and skillfully picked pieces of shrapnel from the lacerations. The Rumanian fainted.

Binder heard his cattle coming long before they showed on the horizon. With shells bursting intermittently in the town of Akimovski, he stood patiently at the bridge and listened to the sound of hooves hitting the ground. Then they appeared, a mass of animals, raising a huge cloud of snow as they ran ahead of the shouting herdsmen. Their noses dripping icicles, their eyes caked with ice and snow, they passed over the bridge into corrals in the deep balkas between the Don and Volga. Satisfied with his coup, Binder dropped the Russian and wounded Rumanian officer at a dispensary and started setting up new depots for his division on the east side of the Don.

Only a few miles away, Gen. Arthur Schmidt was briefing Friedrich von Paulus at Sixth Army headquarters about the deteriorating situation. After announcing that the 24th Panzer Division was having difficulty negotiating immense snowdrifts on the way from Stalingrad to defend the vital bridge at Kalach, he added that a Russian tank column had just been reported within range of Golubinka itself.

Paulus abruptly terminated the discussion. “Well, Schmidt, I will no longer stay here. We will have to move.…”

Paulus suddenly seemed agitated and even Schmidt lost some of his calm. The two men said a curt good-bye to their staff and went out to pack.

They took off a short time later and flew first to Gumrak Airport, five miles west of Stalingrad. After a brief conversation there with General Seydlitz-Kurzbach, they flew southwest to the communications center of Chir, from where Paulus hoped to maintain reliable radio contact with higher headquarters.

In the meantime he acted quickly to smash the second stage of the Soviet counterattack by sending the 29th Motorized Division into battle south of Stalingrad. On alert to join General Heim’s 48th Panzer Corps west of the Don, the 29th was able to move swiftly through rolling fog on the right flank of the Russian Fifty-seventh Army, which was pushing past negligible resistance from Rumanian outposts. The counterattack stunned the Russians.

Both sides suffered losses as the first tanks opened fire, and, when mounted infantry clashed, the full battle was joined. The fog lifted and German observers saw a Soviet armored train passing by to the west. Behind it several other freight trains had stopped to disgorge Red Army foot soldiers. German panzers sighted on these inviting targets and poured hundreds of shells into the packed boxcars.

Through binoculars, the gunners watched countless Russian bodies cartwheeling into the air and down onto the snow. On either side of the railroad embankment, Soviet tanks milled about, ramming each other and firing aimlessly. German batteries shot point-blank into these vehicles and the Russian 13th Mechanized Corps, ninety tanks strong, began to blaze and explode. Sensing a chance to completely seal the Russian breakthrough on the southern flank, 29th Division commander, Gen. Ernst Leyser, prepared to annihilate the burning enemy force. But as he did so an order reached him from Army Group B, more than two hundred miles away at Starobelsk, to pull back and guard the Sixth Army’s rear at the Don. In the fading afternoon light of November 21, the frustrated Leyser reluctantly broke contact and rode off to the northwest. From nearby fields, tanks started to fire over his car at unseen targets. The general suddenly had no idea whether they were friends or foes.

General Leyser’s temporary victory brought a brief dividend to Paulus. News of the bloody defeat of the Russian 13th Corps quickly filtered back to Gen. Viktor Volsky’s 4th Tank Corps and Volsky (who was suffering tuberculosis at this stage) slowed his drive, now aiming for Kalach on the Don. Still spitting phlegm into his handkerchief, the cautious officer refused to go on and insisted on reinforcements against renewed German assaults. But the Germans had gone.

Agonizing over the rupture of both his flanks, General Paulus made up his mind about the future. He authorized a dispatch to Army Group B at Starobelsk and recommended the obvious: withdrawal of the Sixth Army from the Volga and Stalingrad to positions more than a hundred miles to the southwest, at the lower Don and Chir rivers.

Army Group B commander, Freiherr von Weichs, forwarded the recommendation to OKW headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia, with a strong endorsement. He shared Paulus’s conviction that an immediate withdrawal was the only alternative to total disaster.

And disaster was close at hand. South of Stalingrad, General Yeremenko’s units, after crushing the Rumanians, split “Papa” Hoth’s Fourth German Tank Army in two. At a weather-beaten farmhouse outside Businovka, “Papa” Hoth sat besieged. Outside, the wind howled at the windows which were boarded over and stuffed with bits of paper and cloth. Inside, flickering candles shone on a band of weary staff officers, trying to keep in touch with their scattered combat groups on the steppe.

Messengers arrived in a stream with pleas from trapped regiments. At a solitary telephone, an officer scribbled down final words from decimated formations as they fell under Russian armor. Hoth was helpless. With the Rumanian forces destroyed, he had too few guns and tanks to stop the enemy. It had also become apparent that the Soviet plan was breathtaking in scope. Colored arrows on the battle maps already showed a distinct arc to the northwest, around his pitiful forces, toward Kalach and its bridge over the Don. If the bridge should fall before Sixth Army pulled back from the Volga, Hoth foresaw a mass grave for the Germans in Stalingrad.

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Excellent posts as usual !

Naaah Russian Winters as usual as well, interesting to read that the Soviets also hesitated because of the bad weather. The Germans should have prepared for the bad weather as usual.

I can see why the Rumanians wanted to get out of there, they were on a badly defended position out in the cold without the Air Superiority. Also some Rumanians told me the Germans looked down upon them anyway as they don’t speak a “Western European” language. Hence they were not to eager to fight to the death for the fuhrer and another peoples fatherland.