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Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad


The battle of Stalingrad, fought between Stalin’s Red Army and Hitler’s forces from 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943, is considered one of the major confrontations of World War II. The failure of intelligence officers on both sides to influence their leadership, combined with Hitler’s denial and belligerence, resulted in untold slaughter, destruction and defeat for Hitler.  

The Red Army broke through to the Volga in the area of the Mamayev Kurgan on 26 January, splitting German resistance and creating two smaller kessels, in the north and south of the city. German forces under General Paulus were then further isolated in three small pockets by the 28th. Just two days later, it was the tenth anniversary of the Nazis coming to power.

Paulus’ divisional commanders did everything they could. General von Hartmann, commanding the 71st Infantry Division, was shot in the head during the bitter close-quarter fighting. Other generals took their own lives or were overrun and captured. The commander of the 297th Infantry Division, General von Drebber was taken in his command post. In desperation, Paulus signalled Hitler:

Troops are without ammunition and food. We have contact with some elements of six divisions only. There are signs of disintegration on the southern, western and northern fronts. Unified command is no longer possible. Little change on the eastern side. We have 18,000 wounded who are without any kind of bandages or medicines at all. […] Collapse is inevitable. The Army requests permission to surrender so as to save the lives of those that remain.

A few desperate bands of German soldiers attempted to escape their fate. Breaking west, they were swiftly killed or captured. Deputy Chief Quartermaster Karl Binder from the 305th Infantry Division managed to get 30 miles to the west of Stalingrad before his group was caught by the Red Army at Karpovka. Binder, who was photographed on Christmas Eve, at that stage looked far from malnourished. During the second week of January, he had managed to secure two and half weeks’ worth of rations for his division from the last airfield before it was overrun, it had done them no good.

German commander Von Manstein’s efforts to break through to the beleaguered 6th Army were nullified by Hitler’s stubborn refusal to allow them to break out. It was a cruel death sentence. Newly promoted Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered on 31 January 1943, and the 6th Army ceased to exist after the loss 60,000 - 100,000 dead and 120,000 starving, frostbitten POWs. Stalin signalled General Rokossovsky to say, ‘I congratulate you and the troops of the Don Front on the successful completion of the annihilation of the enemy forces surrounded at Stalingrad’.

News of Hitler’s humiliation spread quickly. In Bucharest, Iosif Hechter recorded in his journal:

The Battle of Stalingrad is over. General Paulus, appointed marshal yesterday, has ended all resistance today. A stunning chapter of the war is drawing to a close. No one in September would have ventured to consider today’s epilogue as a faint possibility, let alone to predict it.

Interestingly, nowhere in his preceding diary entries did he mention the two Romanian armies that had been almost entirely destroyed. Hechter was reliant on German communiques for information. He did mourn the loss of his long-term friend Lieutenant Emil Gulian, who had been captured in November, but of the fate of tens of thousands of other Romanian troops, he knew nothing.

Walter Kerr was there at the very end:

I saw Paulus on Thursday, 4 February. He came out of a peasant’s hut followed by [Chief of Staff General Arthur] Schmidt and [Colonel Wilhelm] Adam, the adjutant of the Army. Paulus was six feet four, Schmidt short and stocky, Adam of medium height with a boyish face. They stood there in silence in the snow before the doorway, Paulus wearing a hat of grey rabbit fur and a long grey overcoat without medal, decorations, or service ribbons. His insignia were those of a colonel general, the rank to which he was promoted at the end of November.

Alexander Werth was also there, enduring the -20°C temperature to interview the captured German generals. He wrote:

One thing was astonishing about these generals. They had been captured only a couple of days before – and yet they looked healthy and not at all undernourished. Clearly, throughout the agony of Stalingrad, when their soldiers were dying of hunger, they continued to have more or less regular meals. There could be no other explanation for their normal, or almost normal, weight and appearance. The only man who looked in a poor shape was Paulus himself. We weren’t allowed to speak to him … Paulus looked pale and sick, and had a nervous twitch in his left cheek. He had a more natural dignity than the others, and wore only one or two decorations.

Afterwards, Major General Moritz von Drebber was asked, ‘What do you think of the Red Army?’

‘It has fought well,’ he replied.

‘What happened to the 6th Army?’

He gestured with his right hand and said, ‘The Russians came in from the north. The Russians came in from the south. We were in the middle. We were cut off. We had no ammunition, no food. We lost our last airfield.’

His interrogators asked, ‘Did Hitler order you to keep on fighting?’

General Drebber shook his head, ‘No. But we had orders from von Paulus to stop fighting when we were forced to abandon certain lines of resistance.’

‘Could the encircled army have fought its way out if it had received the order in time?’

‘We could have fought our way out, but we never received the order.’

Drebber blamed Paulus, but it was Hitler who had played into Stalin and Zhukov’s hands. They anticipated he would do exactly the same when reacting to Operation Bagration two years later.

The privations suffered by the 6th Army at Stalingrad were truly appalling, although in many cases were no worse than those endured across the Eastern Front. Photographic evidence of soldiers going into captivity showed that some remained tolerably well fed and in reasonable health. These men, if they had been given the chance, probably had the strength to fight their way out. Photographs of the officers corroborate Werth’s observations. The famous photo of a defeated Paulus shows a gaunt ghost of a man; in contrast, General Arthur Schmidt and Colonel Wilhelm Adam who accompanied him, while dirty and unkempt, do look like they had not missed too many meals.

Hitler was furious about the surrender, but seemed more perturbed by Paulus’ failure to take his own life rather than the needless loss of a quarter of a million men. Zeitzler remarked to the Fuhrer, ‘It’s quite impossible to explain how this happened’. He knew only too well how it had happened.

The effect of this defeat on Hitler’s Eastern Front allies was catastrophic. Zhukov noted astutely:

Because of the rout of the German, Italian, and Romanian armies in the Volga and the Don area and later of the Hungarian armies in the Ostrogozh-Rossosh operation, Germany’s influence on its allies declined drastically. Discord and friction set in when the allies lost faith in Hitler’s leadership and wanted to break out of the web of war in which he had enmeshed these countries.

Despite it being all his own fault, the Fuhrer took the loss of Stalingrad and the 6th Army extremely badly. ‘Before the disaster at Stalingrad … Hitler would organise an evening of record music from time to time,’ recalled his secretary, Christa Schroeder, ‘His favourites were Beethoven symphonies, extracts from Wagner operas … After Stalingrad, Hitler could no longer relax to music.’ Instead, he bored his staff with interminable rambling monologues.

Hitler had refused to heed the warnings about Stalin massing his reserves on the Volga and paid the price. His generals might have hoped he had learned from this and perhaps step back from micromanaging the war as Stalin had done. In the wake of the disaster on the Don, Hitler was shortly to taste defeat again – this time at Kursk.

Extracted from Slaughter on the Eastern Front: Hitler and Stalin’s War 1941-1945 by Anthony Tucker-Jones

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