On the morning of August 4, 1942, General Yeremenko arrived at Stalingrad. As his aircraft came in and circled to land, he looked down on the city, sitting like a long worm on the west bank of the Volga. Stalingrad. Sixteen miles of factories and defense effort for the Soviet Union, its factories still belching smoke even as the enemy approached the gate.
The general was met by a car sent from headquarters by his political commissar, Lieutenant General Nikita Khrushchev. After greetings, Yeremenko settled in to work in the command post, an underground installation near the western shore of the Volga, in a deep canyon called Tsaritsa Gorge. The bunker had two entries, one at the bottom of the gorge anaVfhe other at the top, leading into Pushkinskaya Street. Inside, the bunker was protected by heavy doors and staggered reinforced partitions.
Yeremenko's first task was to learn what he had to work with. His appointment had been as head of the Southeast Front, which adjoined the Stalingrad Front. The command was divided between the two fronts. It was one of those impossible situations that Stalin kept creating by insisting on acting on his own intuition rather than on the advice of his generals. The Stalingrad Front had been established first and was commanded this week by General Gordov. That front ran from the town of Kalach, forty miles to the west in the Don River basin, to this H;, command post. The new front ran south of that line.
Yeremenko looked at the map to the west.It was farm country ,which had been harvested of wheat in the past few weeks and sent east in thousands ol freight cars, even though German planes had machinegunned the harvesters as they worked .And from the farms most of the livestock had been pul across the rivei to safety, as well .is thousands of tractors, threshing machines, and combines manufactured at the Stalingrad tractor plant.
His firsl task was to slow the Germans down. There was little manpower, but Yeremenko managed to assemble a foree of tanks, antitank guns, and katyusha roeket launehers, which was dispatched to Abganerovo to fight off General Hoth's 4th German Panzer Army. A handful of roeket launehers, a handful of antitank guns, and fifty-nine tanks were supposed to fight off the 4th Panzer Army. Miraculously they enjoyed some success. Hoth was slowed down between Abganerovo and the Sarpa Lakes. The Russians found that the Germans were very sluggish. They did not put their tanks into operation without infantry and in support. They were cautious and indecisive, the Russians noted, and the German infantry showed no resolution in its attacks.
There was reason for this attitude, and it showed in the letters home of the German soldiers. The Germans were suffering from a surge of overconfidence.
"The company commander says that the Russian troops are completely broken," said one letter. "To reach the Volga and take Stalingrad is not so difficult for us. Victory is not far away."
"Our company is tearing ahead," wrote another German soldier. "Today I wrote Else "We shall soon see each other. All of us feel that the end. Victory, is near.'"
In this atmosphere who wanted to get killed unnecessarily? No one. So the company commanders relaxed and the soldiers relaxed, and the drive slacked off, until the army commanders suddenly cracked down with disciplinary measures.
Yeremenko recognized that Kalach, directly west of Stalingrad on the Don, was the key to the city. He ordered the 20th Brigade to hold there or destroy the big Don River bridge.
So much for the moment, but almost immediately there were other troubles. With the news that the Germans were coming, the people of Stalingrad panicked, and the city had to be put under martial law.
Then, on August 7, General Paulus's XIV Panzer Corps broke through the 62nd Army of the Stalingrad Front, immediately to Yeremenko's right, when General Lopatin fried i counterattack with three divisions, The Russians wen surrounded on three sides, The 62nd Army head quarters panicked and deserted the troops to rush hack to the safety ol Stalingrad. Pari ol the army managed to escape only with heavy losses. Paulus had scored a great victory, taking fifty-seven thousand prisoners and one thousand tanks. The only bright note for the Russians was that the German advance stopped on the right bank of the Don. The situation was critical. Yeremenko could get no cooperation from Gordov. He reported this to the Military Commission in Moscow. Obviously the Military Commission convinced Stalin that this situation was in error, for on August 13 Yeremenko learned that he had this top-heavy command with both fronts and two deputies.
On August 15 the Germans attacked to take the Don River bridge at Kalach. The 20th Motorized Brigade engineers blew the bridge. A little more time was gained.
Hitler was growing restless. Paulus's victory over the 62nd Army only whetted his appetite. He wanted Stalingrad and he wanted it in a hurry. On August 19 Paulus issued orders for the capture of the city. The attack was to begin August 23, led by the XVI Panzer and the 3rd and 60th Motorized divisions commanded by Lieutenant General Hans Hube. They would make a path across the corridor from the Don to the Volga. When they reached the northern suburbs of Spartakovka, Rynok, and Latashinka, they would then move south into the city. Forces behind them would mop up and widen the corridor. The 4th Panzer Army would come up from the south after the 6th Army had sealed it off on the north. The LI Corps would head east from Kalach to Stalingrad at the junction between^the Russian 62nd and 64th armies.
The Germans on the Stalingrad Front were of two minds about the Russians. In the order of attack, Paulus speculated. On the one hand, he said, the Russians were expected to defend the Stalingrad area stubbornly. On the other hand, "It is possible that the destructive blows of recent weeks have deprived the Russians of the strength for a decisive resistance."
There was evidence to support each point of view. In the outskirts of Stalingrad citizens had put up crude signs on the trees: Death to the Invader. But in Stalingrad on the night before the German attack, the garrison commander disappeared, fled to the east, leaving his command in utter confusion .Military vehicles got lost and accidents began to pile up on the roads. Garrison troops begun to make their way across the rivei to escape.
There was only one way to find out whethci 01 mil the Russians would fight, and at 4:30 on the morning of August 23 (ieneral Richrn'ofen's 4th Luftflotte opened the attack with a thousand Ions ol bombs laid down ahead of the panzers and on the north side of Stalingrad. The Russian destruction of the bridge at Kalach had no more than discommoded the Germans. The engineers had built several bridges across the Don farther downriver, and on this morning of August 23 they screeched and rumbled beneath the weight of the panzers crossing.
Stalingrad was sleeping as the German columns toward the city headed up the road from Kalach. In the Dsherzhinsky Tractor Works, which was the formal name of the Stalingrad tractor factory, production was on a twenty-four-hour basis as it had been for months, and sixty T-34 tanks were being put together that night. At five o'clock in the morning someone rushed in with news of an enemy breakthrough at Kalach. The production line clanked to a halt.
The supervisors called a meeting to organize defenses of the factory.
At the Tsaritsa Gorge command posts, General Yeremenko was awakened by a duty officer. The Germans had broken through and the panzers were on their way, he was told. He began routing out his staff officers while he waited for his breakfast.
A few hundred yards away at Red Square the public loudspeakers warned the people of air raids, but since there had not been any air raids recently, no one paid much attention. The Stalingrad Soviet had decided not to tell the public about the tank attack that was developing. It might cause a panic.
So work in the city began as usual. Women workers dropped their small children at the public nurseries and went to work as they did every weekday. Anyone who had listened to the air raid warnings seriously in the morning was quickly disabused. No raids came. The sun rose in the sky, bright and hot. It was just another summer's day in Stalingrad.
But in the command post the noise and excitement increased by the hour as units reported in. Officers and soldiers passed in and out of the bunker. General Yeremenko was anchored to the telephone, taking call after call. The commander of the 8th Air Force reported a battle at Rossoshka, with two columns of tanks followed by trucks and infantry moving along the road.