Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Lost Soldiers of Stalingrad

     The greatest battle in history was certainly the Battle of Stalingrad, fought at the city of that name on the Volga between August 1942 and February 1943, and which became the turning point on the Eastern Front. The fundamental details can be summarised briefly. The German 6th Army under Field Marshall Paulus forced its way across the river into the city, fighting street by exhausting street and house by exhausting house. Eventually, the Soviet forces counterattacked, hemmed in the Germans and their allies and, when the river froze, surrounded them. The Germans now found themselves ground between a relentless enemy and a relentless winter, while their Commander-in-Chief, Hitler refused any permission to withdraw, for all his life he had triumphed by the principle that anything can be achieved if you set your mind to it. Finally, Field Marshall Paulus surrendered in order to save what remained of his troops. It was a vain hope, for most of them perished in captivity.
     According to Heinz Schröter, the official German historian, 220,000 German and allied troops perished, and 123,000, including 24 generals, capitulated, of which only 5,000 came home alive. The Soviet casualties were similarly horrendous, and the civilian deaths numbered in the five figures. There were four million stories in the Battle of Stalingrad. This is just one of them.

     On 26 January 1943 fifty-six men decided they would ignore orders and attempt a breakout. They did so because they had no other choice. Their heavy weaponry was exhausted, and their officers dead, except for a single lieutenant. Indeed, they possessed no regimental structure at all, for all that was left was a motley collection of signalers, gunners, infantrymen from several different units, and two pilots who had crashed the day before. With their machine gun ammunition finished, they left it in the snow, along with helmets, belts, knapsacks, and everything else except boots, coats, blankets, a few letters or photographs, and as much food as each could carry.
     60 miles was the estimated distance to the German front; in fact, it was more like 150. Their leaders simply trudged off without formality, and the others trudged behind with the steps of zombies. After the first ten miles, the first two dropped off, but no-one had time or strength to think about them. As long as there was someone in front to follow, that was all that mattered.
     The railway was crossed south of Krasnov, exactly at the spot where the 371st Infantry Division had held the line a few days before. Zybenko and Rogachev are fifteen miles apart as the crow flies but they are fifteen miles of snow-covered steppe. Moreover, the Karpovka makes a hundred turns between the two places, and each bend was several hundred yards long. 
     Finding their way between the camp fires of the Red Army, they crossed a railway line, and some men halted to rest in some abandoned stables. The rest forced their way on, and crossed the frozen Don.  About 11 am on January 28 ie the second day after their departure, they saw a German reconnaissance aircraft and fired Very lights to alert it. Returning to base, the pilot reported his find, upon which a fighter plane was dispatched and dropped a message to the effect that they should adopt the shape of a swastika the next time a German plane approached.
     On 29 January some food, ammunition, and maps were dropped for them, and acknowledged by two Very lights. The following day, a reconnaissance pilot reported that about 25 of them were left. That was the last time the Luftwaffe discovered any trace of them. The men themselves were involved in a  fight with Russian supply troops. Then six more men fell out. The rest staggered on. Soon there were only four. Struggling down roads and through snow, at one point that walked straight through the middle of a Russian column. Two of the four had now had enough; they surrendered to a Russian ambulance unit.
     Now only two men were left of the original fifty-six: a mailman of the Army Postal Service, and a Corporal Nieweg of the 4th Anti-Aircraft Battery. At a place called Veluiki, the mailman, crippled by frostbite, fell out. Nieweg surrendered. They brought him to Kharkov as a prisoner, but he still had some spirit left. When a supply truck brought rations to the Russian troops, Nieweg got hold of it and made a bolt into no-man's land. Somehow he reached the German lines.
     On 3rd March, by which time the 6th Army had surrendered and the rest of the German forces were being driven back, he was picked up. In an outpost west of the Donetz, he blurted out his account of those terrible five weeks. It filled two pages of a report. But, weak, starved, and utterly exhausted, he could not go on. He said he would continue the story the next day or the day after.
     But he didn't. He was killed by a mortar bomb the day after his return.

Reference: Stalingrad, by Heinz Schröter. Originally written 1943, translated by Michael Joseph Ltd 1958, pages 265 - 270 of the 1960 Pan edition cited.

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