Παρασκευή, 3 Δεκεμβρίου 2010


When Field Marshal Manstein launched his relief expedition to Stalin grad on the morning of December 12, he took the Russians completely by surprise. General Yeremenko telephoned Stalin and told him that he feared the Germans would hit the rear of the Russian 57th Army, which was sealing off the southwestern edge of the Stalingrad pocket. If Paulus were to strike from inside the pocket at the same time with his 200,000 fighting troops, there was nothing to prevent his breaking out.
It was only hours before the Russian high command was aware of the Manstein move. Russian Army Chief of Staff Vasilevsky happened to be visiting the headquarters of the 51st Army at Verkhne-Tsarinsk that day along with Commissar Nikita Khrushchev. Vasilevsky telephoned Mar shal Rokossovsky and told him that he wanted to divert the 2nd Guards Army from the Don Front to the Stalingrad Front to stop Manstein. Rokossovsky objected. The matter was referred to Stalin, who refused to make an immediate decision.
Meanwhile, driving along the railroad, the Germans advanced against the Russian 51st Army, which had been greatly weakened in the fighting of November.
The Germans had a sixty-mile march to the southern edge of the pocket. It started very well. The 11th Panzer Regiment of the 6th Panzer Division hit elements of the 51st Army on the first day, and they fell back to the east.
After the first few days of good weather, the skies clouded over, visibility was reduced to a ceiling of five hundred feet, and the Luftwaffe was grounded. When the column reached the Aksai River, Manstein found that the ice on the river was only solid enough to carry foot soldiers, not tanks. But there were two bridges, at Shestakovo and Romashkin, where the railroad from Caucasus crossed the river.
Zhukov had sent 120 tanks and two infantry divisions with tanks and artillery to defend the Aksai River crossings.
With air support from the Luftwaffe, the advance continued rapidly. In three days the Manstein force had advanced 25 miles and then crossed the Aksai. Following conversations with Yeremenko, who continued to air his fears, Stalin demanded that the general hold with whatever he had. He acceded to Vasilevsky's request for the 2nd Guards Army on the morning of December 13, but it was several days before that army could get into action.
While this series of events occurred south of Stalingrad, to the west, on the Don, the Russians on December 16 launched an offensive of their own, aimed at cutting up the force Manstein had assembled at Verkhni-Mamon. Two army groups under Generals Golikov and Vatutin were involved. They moved on a front of thirty miles on both sides of the Don. For a change, the Russians had excellent air support. In the first few days their aircraft flew four thousand missions in support of the troops.
Most of the troops in this area belonged to the Italian 8th Army, with one German division and two battalions of another. The German reserve was the 27th Panzer Division, but it was equipped with repaired tanks for the most part, tanks that had already seen their better days.
The ice on the Don was so thick that the Russian tanks could cross as they wished, and during the daylight hours thick fog covered the battlefield. The Italians were not used to this sort of weather or this sort of fighting, and many units panicked. Five Italian divisions were decimated, as well as a brigade of Black Shirts, Mussolini's counterpart of Hitler's fighting SS. The Italian army of 250,000 men was cut in half.News of this Russian thrust was conveyed to Manstein that night. It was clear that something very serious had occurred. The responsibility was not Manstein's but that of Army Group B, but the threat to his flank was very real, as was the threat to the German forces in the Caucasus.
At the same time the German position on the lower Chir River began to crumble under Russian attack at Nizhne Chirskaya, where the
Russians had thrown in four infantry divisions and driven the Germans back to the west bank.
That night they threw in more troops. The 11th Panzer Division was again called to help, but it was apparent that the whole of the Hollidt detachment was about to be pushed out of the Chir bulge.
The two "Luftwaffe divisions" had turned out to be straw soldiers. This whole idea of infantry of the Luftwaffe was Hermann Goering's, and the Luftwaffe had neither the system nor the officers to conduct proper training for field troops. Thus the Luftwaffe field divisions were nothing more than men with guns, men who did not know how to use their weapons in battle. In this fight they were virtually wiped out.
The good news for Manstein on December 18 was that the 17th Panzer Division had arrived on the fighting front at the Aksai, and the German strength there was considerably greater than the Russian. If the 4th Panzer Army could open the ring, and the 6th Army's eleven divisions came out, the balance of strength would be tipped to the Germans.
The fighting north of the Aksai was as violent as any that had gone before anywhere. The 6th Panzer Division was trying to reach Verkhne-Kumsky. The Russians had prepared a network of rifle pits that made it almost impossible for the tanks to advance.
And the Russians would not surrender. The Germans brought their tanks to the trenches and fired from point-blank range. After a long afternoon Soviet armor arrived, and the Panzers retreated to the village. The Mishkova River was still ahead, and the weather was not helping any. It seemed to be growing colder by the hour, but the Germans were determined to drive northward and they kept going.
Still, Manstein faced difficulties. Hitler had no enthusiasm for the 6th Army breakout, nor did Oberkommando des Heeres, the army high command. Even Paulus, who had earlier talked of breakout, was strangely silent on the subject now that Hitler had ordered him to stand fast.
The general made an inspection tour of the front that day. What he saw at the XIV Panzer Division quarters appalled him. His men moved like robots in the snow. Their faces were red and the cheekbones stuck out. Their eyes were sunken and vacant. This was one of the two best fighting units on the Eastern Front? No one could now believe that. It was questionable in Paulus's mind whether his men had the ability or the will to break out of the pocket.
He went back to the command bunker at Gumrak to await develop merits. Perhaps he would learn something new about Manstein's plans and progress.
That day Manstein sent a message to General Zeitzler at OKH asking him to take immediate action to initiate the breakout of the 6th Army toward the 4th Panzer Army.
That night, December 18, Major Eismann, the intelligence officer of Army Group Don, was sent into the Stalingrad pocket to see General Paulus and tell him what Manstein wanted him to do.
During the night he drove from Novocherkassk to Morosovosk, and there took off from the airfield in a Fieseler Storch reconnaissance plane an hour before dawn. He arrived at Gumrak airfield just before eight o'clock on the morning of December 19 and was taken to Paulus's bunker. Waiting for him were the general, his chief of staff, General Schmidt, two corps commanders, and the chief quartermaster and the chief of operations of the 6th Army.
Major Eismann gave Manstein's views. Paulus now turned evasive. There were many difficulties and risks in an attempt to break out of the pocket, said the general. Then the chief of operations and the quartermaster spoke up. It sounded to Eismann as if he were listening to carefully rehearsed set pieces. But when questioned by Eismann, both officers finally admitted that "in the circumstances it is not only essential to attempt a breakout at the earliest possible moment, but entirely feasible."
After all this, General Schmidt had his say. He was an ardent Nazi, and since Hitler had said "hold," he had no other course in mind.
"It is quite impossible to break out just now," said General Schmidt. "It would be an acknowledgment of disaster. Sixth Army will still be in position at Easter. All you people have to do is supply it."
The discussions continued all day. From time to time gunfire shook the dugout.
During the afternoon a very bad lunch was served, as if to emphasize the truth of what Major Eismann was contending, that time was running out. But General Paulus seemed bent on blaming his troubles on the failure of Manstein to get supplies to him and the failure of the Luftwaffe to bring supplies in by air.
The major offered three alternatives:
1. Break out and link up with the 4th Panzer Army.
2. Break out without linkup.
3. Hold out.
General Paulus said he would think about them, but by the end of the day it was apparent to the major that Paulus was not going to make any effort to break out of Stalingrad.
Major Eismann returned to Manstein to announce that his mission had been a failure. However, Paulus was still of two minds and was, in fact, making preparations for breakout. He assigned one regiment the job of leading the breakthrough and told the men to get ready. He moved armored combat groups into the southwest sector of the perimeter. He called on his combat engineers to plow and keep clear the road network around the pocket. He assigned two road construction battalions to deactivate the minefields when the time came.
Manstein had the news that General Hoth had passed the Aksai line and moved as far as the Mishkova.
That afternoon Manstein telegraphed General Zeitzler: "I now con sider a breakout to the southwest to be the last possible means of preserving at least the bulk of the troops and the still mobile elements of the 6th Army."
By nightfall he had not had an answer. Manstein then sent a message directly to Paulus using a radio circuit that could not be monitored by the Russians. What followed was a teleprinter conversation between generals.
First, Manstein asked for Paulus's comments on the Eismann report. Paulus gave them:
Break out to link up with 4th Panzer Army was possible only with tanks. The infantry did not have the strength. This would take all the armored reserves
1. Break out without linkup. This would result in heavy losses. Before it could be done, the 6th Army must have sufficient food and fuel to improve the condition of the troops. The infantry divisions were almost immobilized because horses were being slaughtered to feed the men.
2. Hold out. This would depend on the Luftwaffe bringing in supplies as promised. The scale of one hundred tons a day was totally inadequate.
Then General Paulus added: "Further holding out on present basis not possible much longer."
Manstein then responded, and Paulus and his staff stood at the teleprinter and read the messages as they came in.
Μ.: When at the earliest could you start alternative 2?
P.: Time needed for preparation three to four days.
M.: How much fuel and food required?
P.: Reduced rations for ten days for 270,000 men.
M.: 4th Panzer Army attack has reached the Mishkova River.
P.: Enemy forces have attacked 6th Army combat groups assembled for breakout, in southwest corner of perimeter.
M.: Stand by to receive an order.
To Sixth Army:
(1) Fourth Panzer Army has defeated the enemy in the Verkhne-Kumsky area with LVII Panzer Corps and reached the Mishkova sector. An attack has been initiated against a strong enemy group in the Kamenka area and north of it. Heavy fighting is to be expected there. The situation on the Chir front does not permit the advance of forces west of the Don towards Stalingrad. The Don bridge at Chirskaya is in enemy hands.
(2) Sixth Army will launch "Winter Storm" as soon as possible. Measures must be taken to establish link-up with LVII Panzer Corps if necessary across the Donskaya Tsaritsa in order to get a convoy through.
(3) Development of the situation may make it imperative to extend instruction for Army to break through to LVII Panzer Corps as far as the Mishkova. Code name: Thunder Clap. In that case the main task will again be the quickest establishment of contact, by means of tanks, with LVII Panzer Corps with a view to getting convoy through. The Army, its flanks having been covered along the lower Karpovka and the Chervlenaya, must then be moved forward toward the Mishkova while the fortress area is evacuated section by section.
Operation Thunder Clap may have to follow directly on attack Winter Storm. Aerial supplies will, on the whole, have to be brought in currently, without major buildup of stores. Airfield of Pitomnik must be held as long as possible.
All arms and artillery that can be moved at all to be taken along, especially the guns needed for the operation, and to be ammuni tioned, but also such weapons and equipment as are difficult to replace. These must be concentrated in the southwestern part of the pocket in good time.
(4) Preparations to be made for (3). Putting into effect only under express order Thunder Clap.
(5) Report day and time of attack. (2).
All day long on December 19 Manstein had been trying to get Hitler's approval of this plan, but Hitler did not reply to his messages.
At 8:30 that night General Friedrich Schultz, chief of staff to Army Group Don, and General Schmidt, chief of staff to 6th Army, were again conversing by teleprinter.
General Schmidt reported that Russian attacks in the southwest were engaging most of the 6th Army tanks and part of its infantry. "Only when these forces have ceased to be tied down in defensive fighting can a breakout be launched. Earliest date, 22 December."
On the morning of December 20 General Paulus visited the crisis centers of the pocket. All day the fighting continued in many sectors. His interest was in the threats to the southwest, where he might break out. He did not go to the Volga, where he knew what was happening: the fighting in the streets was going on and on.
Because he did not go to the Volga, the general was spared a sight that would become more and more common. An officer of the 576th Regiment at the Barrikady gun factory was detached to join a unit west of Stalingrad, and began walking down the road.
It was thirty below zero. He noticed a man sitting on the side of the road in the snow, not moving. He recognized the soldier. It was a man of his regiment. He asked the man if he was tired, and the man nodded. The officer and his orderly helped the soldier stand up and supported him. When they came to an aid station, they took him to a doctor. An hour later he died. Starvation.
Back at the Barrikady gun factory the soldier's comrades were ripping up the wooden flooring of the room they used as barracks, and building tiny fires. The flooring was oil-soaked from years of industrial use, and the fires produced a black greasy smoke that pained the lungs, smoke that turned every man's face to soot.
On that afternoon the chiefs of staff held another teleprinter conver sation.
As a result of losses during the past few days manpower situation on the western front and in Stalingrad is exceedingly tight. Pene trations can be cleared up only by drawing upon the forces earmarked for Winter Storm. In the event of major penetrations, let alone breakthroughs, our Army reserves, in particular the tanks, have to be employed if the fortress is to be held at all. The situation could be viewed somewhat differently if it were certain that Winter Storm would be followed immediately by Thunder Clap. In that event, local penetrations on the remaining fronts could be accepted provided they did not jeopardize the withdrawal of the Army as a whole. In that event we could be considerably stronger for a breakout towards the south, as we could then concentrate in the south numerous reserves from all fronts.
But being a loyal Nazi, General Schmidt had persuaded Paulus not to move until Hitler's permission for the 6th Army breakout—Operation Thunder Clap—had been secured.
General Schultz then appealed to Schmidt:
Dear Schmidt: The field marshal believes that 6th Army must launch Winter Storm as soon as possible. You cannot wait until Hoth has got Buzinovka. We fully realize that your attacking strength for Winter Storm will be limited. That is why the Field Marshal is trying to get approval for Thunder Clap.
He appealed again to 6th Army to get going: There were three thousand tons of supply waiting for them. The 4th Panzer Army would provide towing vehicles. Thirty buses had been laid on to handle the 6th Army wounded. Everything, it seemed, had been considered.
But Hitler would not budge. He would not give permission to evacuate Stalingrad. "I will not leave the Volga," he said over and over again.
And Paulus, chivied by the loyal Nazi Schmidt, would not go against his Fuehrer's orders, even though in Stalingrad real starvation had set in. The men were eating mice and anything else that moved.
The airlift was becoming a fiasco, although the men of the Luftwaffe were sacrificing their lives every day. Thirty percent of the flights to Stalingrad ended in disaster, usually with the loss of the plane and its crew and the supplies that would never be delivered. Russian fighters were taking a greater toll, but the principal enemies were the weather and lack of service to the aircraft. In the intense cold, if a man stuck his hand on a metal part, they welded together, frozen. It was so cold that the bolts and fasteners on aircraft left out overnight would not work. Under these circumstances many planes crashed.
Such was the hurry and the disorganization of the airlift that it was not being supervised at the loading end by trained quartermaster personnel. The planes were loaded with whatever happened to be delivered to the airport. One shipment of condoms, millions of condoms, was delivered. Four tons of spices were delivered. Several thousand right shoes came in, but no left shoes.
Many of the soldiers were now too weak to stand guard. The fighting efficiency of the 6th Army was down to perhaps 25 percent of its strength. There was very little fuel. In fact, General Schmidt, when asked for a figure, told Manstein that the 6th Army had only enough fuel to move twenty miles, and the 4th Panzer Army was thirty miles away.
In a heated discussion with General Zeitzler about the 6th Army, Hitler put his finger on the problem. He had the fuel report in his hand.
"What do you want me to do?" he demanded of Zeitzler. "Paulus can't break out and you know it."

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