24 June 2012

Stalingrad

Last week I finished a book that has been on my reading shelf for a very long time, Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. It’s an account of the epic and tragic siege of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in World War II.

The book opens with a gripping overview of Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which launched in June 1941. The Wehrmacht quickly overwhelmed the unprepared Soviet defenses and their tank armies rolled across the steppe in present day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia over the next few months.

Beevor’s skill is in tying the narrative of the campaign’s progress in with the personal writings and opinions of individuals involved in it:

In the first few days of Barbarossa, German generals saw little to change their low opinion of Soviet commanders, especially on the central part of the front. General Heinz Guderian, like most of his colleagues was struck by the readiness of Red Army commanders to waste the lives of their men in prodigious quantities. He also noted in a memorandum that they were severely hampered by the ‘political demands of the state leadership’, and suffered a ‘basic fear of responsibility’. … All this was true, but Guderian and his colleagues underestimated the desire within the Red Army to learn from its mistakes.

Very soon into the book though, the reader is faced with stories from the grim reality of war on the eastern front:

Contrary to all rules of war, surrender did not guarantee the lives of Red Army soldiers. On the third day of the invasion of the Ukraine, August von Kageneck, a reconnaissance troop commander with 9th Panzer Division, saw from the turret of his reconnaissance vehicle, ‘dead men lying in a neat row under the tree alongside a country lane, all in the same position – face down’. They had clearly not been killed in combat. …

Officers with traditional values were even more appalled when they heard of soldiers taking pot-shots at the columns of Soviet prisoners trudging to the rear. These endless columns of defeated men, hungry and above all thirsty in the summer heat, their brown uniforms and fore-and-aft pilotka caps covered in dust, were seen as little better than herds of animals.

Of course, there are equally awful stories of atrocities on both sides. After dealing with the background of Barbarossa and Operation Blue, the situation at Stalingrad starts to pan out.

Beevor’s detail here is helped by “a wide range of new material, especially from archives in Russia”, as he describes the situation in the city under siege:

‘The fighting assumed monstrous proportions beyond all possibility of measurement,’ wrote one of Chuikov’s officers. ‘The men in the communication trenches stumbled and fell as if on a ship’s deck during a storm.’ …

‘It was a terrible, exhausting battle’, wrote an officer in 14th Panzer Division, ‘on and below the ground, in ruins, cellars, and factory sewers. Tanks climbed mounds of rubble and scrap, and crept screeching through chaotically destroyed workshops and fired at point-blank range in narrow yards. Many of the tanks shook or exploded from the force of an exploding enemy mine.’ Shells striking solid iron installations in the factory workshops produced showers of sparks visible through the dust and smoke.

Despite ultimately only controlling only a narrow strip of land next to the Volga river, Chuikov’s 62nd Army managed to resist granting Stalingrad to the Germans. While the Germans’ attention was focused on claiming the prize of Stalingrad — the city bearing Stalin’s name — Soviet commanders Zhukov and Vasilevsky coordinated a massive counterattack and encirclement of the entire German Sixth Army, called Operation Uranus.

Again here, Beevor’s level of detail around happenings in Moscow and in the lead-up to Operation Uranus are impressive. He also has chilling anecdotes about the willful ignorance of the Nazi leadership:

During the summer, when Germany was producing approximately 500 tanks a month, General Halder had told Hitler that the Soviet Union was producing 1,200 a month. The Führer had slammed the table and said that is was simply not possible. Yet even this figure was far too low. In 1942, Soviet tank production was rising from 11,000 during the first six months to 13,600 during the second half of the year, an average of over 2,200 a month.

The German leadership’s ignorance of conditions on the ground proves to be its downfall, with strategic mishaps and miscommunications allowing the Soviet Union to strike back.

The Soviet armies easily overpowered the weak units on the flanks of the Sixth Army, and completely surrounded them around Stalingrad. The region containing the trapped army was called the Kessel, German for cauldron, and consisted of a staggering number of troops:

The Russians, despite all the air activity over the Kessel, still did not realise how large a force they had surrounded. Colonel Vinogradov, the chief of Red Army intelligence at Don Front headquarters, estimated that Operation Uranus had trapped around 86,000 men. The probably figure … was nearly three and a half times greater: close to 290,000 men.

Operation Uranus started in late November 1942, and by the time the Sixth Army was surrounded, it was in the depths of the Russian winter. The army was ravaged by the freezing weather, plunging to minus thirty degrees Celsius, as infrequent airlifts of supplies failed to provide the necessary amount of supplies to keep the men fed:

The bread ration was now down to under 200 grams per day, and often little more than 100 grams. The horseflesh added to ‘Wassersuppe’ came from local supplies. The carcasses were kept fresh by the cold, but the temperature was so low that meat could not be sliced from them with knives. Only a pioneer saw was strong enough.

The combination of cold and starvation meant that soldiers, when not on sentry, just lay in their dugouts, conserving energy. … In many cases, however, the lack of food led not to apathy but to crazed illusions, like those of ancient mystics who heard voices through malnutrition.

It is impossible to assess the numbers of suicides or deaths resulting from battle stress. Examples in other armies … rise dramatically when soldiers are cut off, and no army was more beleaguered than the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Men raved wildly in their bunks, some lay there howling. Many, during a manic burst of activity, had to be overpowered or knocked senseless by their comrades.

The story is so powerful because it is real. From the Soviet prisoners of war left to starve in labour camps, to the anonymous wounded soldiers who are held back from departing planes by the sub-machine guns of the Feldgendarmerie, each page of this book reveals more from this awful chapter of humanity. It’s a story that must not be forgotten if it is to remain unrepeated.

I strongly recommend reading Stalingrad. It’s an epic and tragic story, but one that makes you appreciate the peace and safety that we enjoy today.

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