Chapter Fifteen

On November 15, the newspaper Das Reich carried an article by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, that signalled a significant shift in thinking. Goebbels had decided to prepare the German people for any eventuality—including disaster in Russia.

“We have thrown the national existence into the balance,” he wrote. “There is no turning back now.”

Meanwhile, Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky shuttled back and forth between Moscow and the Stalingrad fronts. They walked the terrain, spotted artillery targets and German troop concentrations for special attention, and met with their generals to refine tactics.

During Zhukov’s visit to General Vatutin’s command post north of the Don River bridgeheads at Serafimovich and Kletskaya, Stalin reached him with an important telegram:

November 15, 1942

Comrade Konstantinov:


You can set the moving date for Federov and Ivanov [the offensives by Vatutin and Yeremenko] as you see fit, and let me know when you come back to Moscow. If you think it necessary that either one or the other move one or two days earlier or later, I empower you to decide that question according to your own best judgment.

Vasilyev [Stalin’s code name]

Zhukov and Vasilevsky checked their preparations on both fronts and agreed to begin the counterattack in the northern sector on November 19, and on the southern front a day later. Stalin approved the plan without comment.

Operation Uranus would commence within ninety-six hours.

From the Obersalzburg, where he had been resting since the Beer Hall Speech, Adolf Hitler radioed a message to Sixth Army Headquarters on the steppe:

I know about the difficulties of the battle for Stalingrad and about the loss of troops. With the ice drifting on the Volga, however, the difficulties are even greater for the Russians. Making use of this [time] span we will avoid a bloodbath later on. I expect therefore that the Supreme Command, with all its repeatedly proven energy, and the troops, with their courage often demonstrated, will do their utmost to break through to the Volga at the metallurgical works and at the gun factory and occupy these parts of town.

In accordance with Hitler’s orders, the pioneers turned right and left along the Volga and tried to roll up the fanatical defense behind the Barrikady. The battle lasted all day and on that night, two Soviet biplanes came up the river at only a fifty-foot altitude and hovered over Lyudnikov’s position. A circle of bonfires lit by the trapped Russians illuminated the small area in which it was safe to drop supplies. But as the pilots prepared to unload bales of food from their open cockpits, the Germans lit another chain of bonfires to confuse them. Since the pilots were unable to gauge the extent of Lyudnikov’s territory, most of the supplies they dropped fell into German lines or sank in the Volga.

At a field kitchen in the rear, west of the Barrikady, cook Wilhelm Giebeler waited for news of his 336th Battalion. Ever since the battle for the factory district began, a friend, a dispatch runner, had kept him informed of the action at the front. The first day, he had come back and told him everything was going well; the next he had returned with snapshots, letters, and other personal effects of men Giebeler had known well. He told the cook to send them on to their next of kin. By now Giebeler had hundreds of small bundles to mail back to Germany.

Listening to the symphony of shells and grenades exploding to the east, he thumbed through the letters and pictures and waited for his friend to make his nightly visit. But the man did not appear. Giebeler never saw him again—nor any other soldiers of the 336th Battalion.

General von Richthofen had not given up his feud with Sixth Army Headquarters. In a telephone conversation with Chief of Staff Kurt Zeitzler at Rastenburg on the night of November 16, the outspoken Luftwaffe commander exploded:

“Both the command and the troops are so listless… we shall get nowhere…. Let us either fight or abandon the attack altogether. If we can’t clear up the situation now, when the Volga is blocked and the Russians are in real difficulty, we shall never be able to. The days are getting shorter and the weather worse.”

Zeitzler agreed.

The weather, indeed, was getting worse. It had changed dramatically, as it always does on the steppe, which knows only one extreme or the other: light or dark, abundance or famine, cruel heat or numbing cold, life or death—everything or nothing.

Warm weather had lasted through October, then it turned cold overnight. At first, drizzles drenched the plains. Then snow flurries whipped the barren land. The steppe grass turned brown, and wilted. Men caught in the open turned their collars up to ward off the chill. The sky no longer blazed with iridescent hues; it was sullen, gray, menacing. It whispered of winter.

The quartermasters of Sixth Army had learned bitter lessons from the previous year and had already dug into the many balkas cutting across the plain. In the sides of these deep ravines, they had stockpiled food and ammunition, and thousands of bunkers had been constructed to shield the soldiers from the icy winds. Determined not to be caught again without proper clothing and other necessities, the quartermasters requisitioned additional reserves from the German pipeline stretching back to Kharkov, nearly four hundred miles away.

Along the railroads leading to Stalingrad, ten depots had laid in stocks for both Sixth Army and the German panzer groups bogged down in the Caucasus. But moving the supplies east was difficult, for Russian partisans had received orders to impede enemy traffic to the Don and Volga. As bridges and track blew up in fiery explosions, the supply line from Kharkov to Stalingrad clogged, cleared, and clogged again.

Fortunately, the warehouses at Chir, a railhead only sixty miles west of Stalingrad bulged with appropriate items and as the first frosts touched the steppe in early November, some units of the Sixth Army received warm clothing. Convoys of trucks trailed back and forth across the steppe, bringing winter gear to German soldiers. Other convoys managed to get through with badly needed replacements for infantry regiments and battalions.

Pvt. Ekkehart Brunnert had boarded a troop train at the town of Boblingen in Germany, waved farewell to his wife, Irene, and watched her out of sight. Surrounded by fourteen comrades, the private quickly adjusted to the camaraderie of soldierly life. The train rolled eastward for endless days and, as it moved through the Ukraine, signs of war multiplied. Brunnert saw burned-out villages and railroad cars reduced to skeletal wrecks. He and his comrades decided to post guards at night, but the partisans never attacked and, weeks after leaving Boblingen, the unit arrived at Chir. There, Brunnert pitched a tent and when he got up in the morning, he saw everything covered with frost. He also saw thousands of Russian refugees headed toward Germany and labor camps. They lay in clusters on flatcars. Most wore rags; some munched sunflower seeds, their only food. In the fields around the tracks other Russians picked through garbage heaps for bits of decaying food. Brunnert was shocked at the sight.

He waited at Chir until he got orders to join a truckload of twenty-four men headed toward the front line. On all sides there was only dreary steppe country. On the eastern horizon, a deep and steady roar made the earth tremble.

To most Sixth Army soldiers, the persistent rumbling on the horizon was their only contact , with the horror on the banks of the Volga. For the more than two hundred thousand men in the rear echelons, the killing was just a peripheral event they viewed in brief agonizing moments: the wounded screaming as they were manhandled out of ambulances, the stained and torn uniforms that piled up in grotesque mounds outside surgeons’ tents, the thousands of crosses in regimental graveyards on the desolate prairie.

At Peskavotka Depot, forty miles northwest of Stalingrad, Karl Englehardt distributed equipment and food. He also supervised twenty Hiwis (Hilfsfreiwilliger), or “work volunteers,” the name given to Russian defectors. Understandably, Red Army soldiers particularly hated these Hiwis, and invariably shot any that they caught. Englehardt, a lean, sallow-faced veteran, had collected the laborers through his kindness to their leader, a peasant named Peter, whom he had found cowering in a schoolhouse. Incredibly filthy and frightened for his life, Peter had turned to Englehardt as a savior when the German gave him a tin of water and some hot soup. From then on Peter worshipped the paymaster.

He brought other Russians in from the steppe and offered their services to Englehardt, who dressed them in German uniforms, fed them the same rations as Wehrmacht soldiers, and paid them for their labor.

Friedrich Breining went out with his unit to search abandoned dwellings for extra food, firewood, and anything else of value. When they came to a wrecked house, Breining went up,to the front door and pushed it open. On the floor lay a woman, and beside her a child, a little girl. Both bodies had partially decomposed, but Breining could tell that the mother had once been quite pretty. Neither corpse bore any visible marks.

Other soldiers asked him what was wrong and the former schoolteacher pointed wordlessly to the gruesome sight on the floor. No one made a move to enter. Breining closed the door softly and left.

Veterinarian Herbert Rentsch was making plans to send another four hundred horses back to the Ukraine for rest. He had also begun substituting small Russian horses, panjes, for the big Belgian draft animals. Rentsch knew the native panjes would work better in the approaching winter.

The doctor still found time to canter his own horse, Lore, over the steppe. The mare was sleek and well groomed and Rentsch rode her every day. He found the exercise exhilarating.

Fifty miles northwest of Stalingrad, Sgt. Gottlieb Slotta returned to the 113th Division after confinement in a hospital. Weeks before, when he had spotted Russian tanks bearing down on his gun battery, he had screamed a warning to his friends. But one of them laughed derisively and yelled back: “Slotta, whenever the Russians shoot, you’re afraid.”

With the T-34 tanks chasing him, Slotta had run toward his comrades to urge them to take cover. The Russian shells got there first and Slotta saw his companions blown apart. Sobbing bitterly, he fell to the ground and went into shock. Unable to speak, he was taken to the rear, where he spent weeks trying to forget that nightmarish day when no one listened to him. In time, he was returned to his job as an artillery observer and now, as the chill Arctic winds tugged at him, Slotta resumed his watch for more Russian tanks.

Emil Metzger also worried about Russian tanks. Despite the lieutenant’s disdain for rumors, he had begun to pay close attention to the pilots of the artillery spotter planes, who spoke to him each day. These veteran reconnaissance men told him that they had seen hundreds of Russian T-34 tanks moving along roads above the river toward the area of Kletskaya, seventy miles northwest. The aviators’ genuine alarm about the enemy buildup caused Metzger to temper his optimism about a quick end to the battle and a trip home to Kaethe.

To maintain morale, Sixth Army had established a precise schedule for furloughs of twenty days, with two extra days for travel contingencies. Pvt. Franz Deifel had just finished a trip to Stuttgart, revisiting the Porsche plant where he had been a master upholsterer. His former supervisor told him that papers had already been filed to release him from the army for civilian employment. Richer by two hundred Reich marks given him by fellow workers at the factory, the elated Deifel passed through Kharkov and headed toward Chir at the Don.

Capt. Gerhard Meunch was also returning to the front. During the short visit with his wife, he had tried to forget the slaughter around the U-shaped house in the center of Stalingrad. But it was impossible, and just before leaving home, Meunch told his wife he had an insurance policy for her in case he failed to return this time from the Volga.

Under forty feet of solid earth, Gen. Vassili Chuikov still maintained his precarious hold on ten percent of Stalingrad. Behind him, ice floes made the Volga impassable and Chuikov was happy he had requisitioned twelve tons of chocolate for just such an emergency. If the Volga failed to freeze over soon, he figured a ration of half a bar a day for each man could mean their holding out two weeks longer.

While his army tried to ride out the crisis caused by the cutting of the regular supply lines, the soldiers of Batyuk’s 284th Division around Mamaev Hill witnessed an extraordinary miniwar over some of those supplies. Every Russian soldier received a daily ration of one hundred grams of vodka. Most waited for it eagerly; only a few refused it. But Senior Lt. Ivan Bezditko, “Ivan the Terrible” to his men, had an incredible taste for vodka and found a way to keep a plentiful supply on hand. When troops from his mortar battalion died, Ivan reported them “present and accounted for,” and pirated their daily vodka rations. In a short time, the thirsty officer amassed many gallons, which he carefully stored in his own dugout.

In a warehouse at the Volga shore, a supply officer, Major Malygin, checked his records and noticed that Bezditko’s unit had borne up extremely well under weeks of bombardment. Suspicious, Malygin pursued the matter and discovered that the mortar section had actually suffered heavy casualties. He called Bezditko, told him he had exposed his petty scheme, and was going to report him to Front Headquarters. Then he added, “Your vodka ration is being canceled.”

The supply officer had gone too far. Bezditko screamed, “If I don’t get it, you’ll get it.”

Malygin hung up on him, relayed news of the crime to headquarters and shut off Ivan’s liquor rations.

Enraged, Bezditko contacted the firing point for his .122-millimeter batteries, issued a precise set of coordinates, and gave the order to shoot. Three rounds dropped squarely on top of Malygin’s warehouse at the riverbank, and out of the smoke and debris tottered the shaken major. Behind him hundreds of bottles of vodka had broken and spilled onto the floor. Malygin staggered to a phone and asked for headquarters. His anger rising, he shouted out what he knew to be true: Ivan the Terrible had gotten him.

The voice on the other end was patient but unsympathetic, “Next time give him his vodka. He just got the Order of the Red Star, so give it to him.”

The incredulous Malygin stormed back to his warehouse and stood helplessly in the midst of the shattered rows of spirits. Within hours, Lieutenant Bezditko’s liquor ration resumed and Malygin never again interfered with Ivan the Terrible’s larceny.

The story went round the trenches and brought chuckles from most Russians. To them, the quest for liquor was a serious pursuit, one which sometimes assumed even more disastrous proportions. Only recently, soldiers of the 284th Division lines had found several cisterns filled with alcohol. After draining them, the Russians found one more cistern brimming with more spirits. Again they drank the well dry, but this time it was wood alcohol. Four men died and countless others went blind.

The tragedy failed to daunt the appetite of the other troops, some of whom began drinking cologne to ease the terror of living under the brow of Mamaev Hill.

Other 284th Division troops found diversion with two Russian women who had set up light housekeeping on the battlefield. The only entrance to their cellar was through a door that had to be lifted up from the ground. Beneath was a room, twelve by twelve feet square, lit by a kerosene lamp. A mattress lay on the floor with fifteen or twenty pillows ranged about it. One of the girls, a thirty-year-old brunette, had managed to find bright red lipstick, which she wore all the time. The younger one, a blonde, seemed pale and sickly.

The girls had an old gramophone in the corner and several records. The one they played for visiting soldiers was an Argentine tango and everyone who came to the cellar learned it by heart. Some soldiers found the women offensive. One was heard to say: “Those bitches are just waiting for the Germans to arrive.” But in the meantime, the girls played their Argentinian tango and entertained lines of men, who ignored shells and bullets to spend a few minutes with them.

Just a mile west of the cellar bordello, two other Russian women fought to stay alive. Natasha Kornilov and her crippled mother had been trapped in their backyard storehouse behind German lines for nearly seven weeks. Every morning the eleven-year-old girl scrounged garbage from German field kitchens. Every night she combed her mother’s hair and sang lullabies to her.

Natasha’s cheeks were sunken in from hunger. Her eyes bulged, and she moved slowly, heavily. But she always smiled at her mother, who lay on the concrete floor and prayed for deliverance. Mercifully, the German soldiers left the Kornilovs alone. That was the only reprieve granted the starving women.

In Dar Goya, two miles south of the Kornilov’s grim hovel, another Russian youth, fifteen-year-old Sacha Fillipov, continued his dual life. Going from office to office, barracks to barracks, the young master cobbler mended hundreds of pairs of German boots. He also stole documents from officers’ desks and carried them through the lines to Russian intelligence officers. Otherwise, in the hours he was not working, Sacha played hopscotch in the streets. The Germans never connected the frail boy’s presence with grenade explosions that blew down soldiers’ billets.

Several nights a week Sacha left home to report enemy troop movements. He always returned safely, and went to bed without giving his parents any details. Though they knew he worked for the Red Army, the Fillipovs never pressed their son for information.

One night he rushed home to warn them to get out of the house by dawn. They followed his instructions and in the morning, Russian artillery shells rained down on a German staff headquarters only a few doors away. Sacha had given his superiors the exact coordinates.

In the Beketovka Bulge, five miles south of Stalingrad, a dramatic buildup of Soviet troops and equipment had been completed. These were the southern strike armies requisitioned by Zhukov for Operation Uranus, and a small percentage of the troops had come from the holocaust in Stalingrad.

One of them was Lt. Hersch Gurewicz. He had finally left the factory area with its ceaseless noise and filth, and gone to the far shore where he ate Spam from America and for the first time, got a glimmer of hope. While munching the canned food, he realized that help was coming from outside Russia and that the “senseless” holding operation around the factories might have some meaning after all. Counting the ranks of his antitank unit, he hoped this was true. Of his one hundred men, eighty had perished in Stalingrad.

Instead of a rest period of two weeks, the lieutenant received new orders. With his company’s ranks refilled, he went south on the eastern shore of the Volga and then across to the area of Beketovka. While no one mentioned an offensive, the feeling of it was in the air.

After his orgy of killing on the streets of Latashanka in September, Sgt. Alexei Petrov had returned to his .122-millimeter gun and lived in a shellhole three hundred yards west of the Volga cliff.

Like his batterymates, Petrov never washed or changed his uniform. He was infested with lice. The gray bugs nested all over his body, even in the seams of his trousers. His only diversion was lining them up on the ground on a bet to see who could field the largest army of parasites. A rumor that he was being relieved turned into a joyful reality, and Petrov crossed the Volga to a rest camp where, for days, he luxuriated in hot baths and suffered the delousing process without protest.

Refitted with winter clothing, including a white parka and valenki (fur boots), he was propelled back into the war. Sent south of Stalingrad, the sergeant taught a new gun crew the rudiments of firing a heavy-caliber fleldpiece, while the ever-present political officers harangued them on the need for determination against the Fascists.

Petrov listened to the politrook and thought often about his family, somewhere beyond the western horizon. He had never received a clue to their whereabouts, and the burden of not knowing the truth preyed on his mind.

Nikita Khrushchev also appeared in the Beketovka Bulge. Clothed in a fur coat and hat, the commissar went from camp to camp, joking with soldiers and asking about their gripes. He was in an excellent mood.

His comrade, Gen. Andrei Yeremenko was not. Fidgeting at his new headquarters on the western side of the Volga, Yeremenko worried about his part in Operation Uranus. He also seethed over the slight he had experienced when Marshal Rokossovsky assumed defense of the city. Yeremenko felt he deserved better from Stalin.

The hours to Uranus rushed by, but in Stalingrad the Germans ignored reality.

Satisfied that the 48th Panzer Corps was strong enough to hold the left flank, Paulus obeyed Hitler’s edict to hit the Russians hard while the river ice interrupted Chuikov’s supply lines. North of the captured tractor factory, the 16th Panzer Division attempted once again to seize the suburb of Rynok, which the panzers first had entered on that lovely summer afternoon in August.

From north and south the 16th Panzers attacked, only to find the town bristling with Russian guns, a labryinth of trenches, hidden stationary tanks, and bazookas. But the German soldiers methodically moved down the streets, blowing up bunkers and pillboxes. Russian and German corpses left a ghastly trail.

A battalion led by Captain Mues cleared the area south of town, reached the Volga, and turned north. It was Mues’s intention to shake hands in the center of Rynok with German units cutting into it from other directions. Fog and a light snow began to obscure vision but the aggressive Mues pushed on. Fearless, revered by his men as “immortal,” he was tracked by a Soviet sniper, who put a bullet in his brain. The attack stopped abruptly as Mues’s troops gathered around the stricken officer, now unconscious and near death. They ignored the bullets and cried over the man they loved.

An officer from another regiment finally came, lifted Mues in his arms and staggered away with the heavy burden. Soldiers who had fought with the captain through Russia broke down and collapsed. Others became fearful and timid as news of his death spread like a bushfire.

The Russians continued to hold Rynok. The 16th Panzer Division was inside the suburb, but in twenty-four hours, it had occupied only five blocks.

With Uranus less than thirty-six hours away, Joseph Stalin got cold feet. Behind the blacked-out windows in his Kremlin apartment, he paced the floor, alternately sucking his pipe and running its mouthpiece through his mustache, listening all the while to Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky. Both men had received urgent summonses to come to the Kremlin. On the eve of H-hour, when they were most needed at the front lines, neither marshal had expected he would have to debate the merits of the operation.

But they had reckoned without the “insubordination” of one of their field commanders, Gen. Viktor T. Volsky, whose 4th Mechanized Corps was to act as right flank for the southern prong of the offensive. From his headquarters near the Tzatza lakes, south of Stalingrad, the depressed general had written a personal letter to Stalin, warning him “as an honest Communist” that lack of adequate manpower and material meant disaster for the Red Army in the coming attack.

Stalin acted quickly to protect himself and brought the marshals directly to the capital to answer the charges. Zhukov and Vasilevsky rendered a controlled, dispassionate recital of the facts. Evidently satisfied, the premier went to the phone and called Volsky. Without any show of anger, he reassured the general that the offensive had been properly conceived. While Zhukov and Vasilevsky listened in amazement, Stalin cordially accepted Volsky’s apologies and hung up.

Vasilevsky received permission to fly back immediately to the Don Front, but Stalin kept Zhukov in Moscow, ostensibly to plan a diversionary attack west of the capital to throw the Germans off balance. Near the Tzatza lakes, the chagrined General Volsky tried to recover from his conversation with the premier. Sweating profusely, the pale officer pulled out a handkerchief and coughed into it. Clots of blood stained the cloth as he wiped his mouth.

For weeks Volsky had been hiding the truth from everyone. An old nemesis, tuberculosis of the throat, had returned to ravage his system. Physically and psychologically, the commander of the 4th Tank Corps was unfit to participate in an undertaking of such magnitude, but he refused to give in to the disease and go to a sanitarium. For Volsky, the road to Uranus had been filled, with heartbreak and dogged determination to conquer his affliction. He had spent months in hospitals, resting, reading, and waiting for the doctor’s certificate of good health. Now on the eve of the great counterstroke against the Nazis, he had no intention of relinquishing his command.

But the illness was preying on him. He had lost weight; he drank only tea and nibbled biscuits. Moreover, he suffered fits of melancholia, which tended to affect his judgment. It had been during one of those depressions that he had written his pessimistic letter to Joseph Stalin.

With his own “D day” nearing swiftly, Volsky went to bed to husband his strength.

Darkness came to the steppe before four o’clock on the afternoon of November 18. Gusty winds sprang up and drove soldiers into warm shelters. The rolling thunder of cannon never let up from the eastern horizon where sporadic bursts of flame in the blackness marked the German pioneers’ stubborn attempts to dislodge Lyudnikov’s men from the sandspit. Fireworks crowned the heights of Mamaev Hill; occasional necklaces of tracer bullets wove exotic patterns along the perimeters at the Lazur and Red October plants. As the Germans on the steppe noted, it was a normal night in Stalingrad.

But one hundred miles northwest of the city, along the serpentine glaze of the freezing Don, nothing was normal. Rumanian spotters had begun to phone in reports of hundreds of Soviet tank motors revving up, of the movement of thousands of artillery pieces along roads inside the bridgeheads at Serafimovich and Kletskaya. The observers added that columns of Red Army troops were assembled in marching order behind armor and ordnance.

In his advisory post at Rumanian Army Headquarters, Lt. Gerhard Stock transmitted the ominous details back to Sixth Army Headquarters at Golubinka. StOck, a crew-cut former Olympic medal winner in the javelin, spoke urgently to Capt. Winrich Behr, operations officer under Arthur Schmidt. After each sighting, Behr went to a map and recorded the Russian movements. They added up to what he had heard from a captured Soviet officer who, earlier in the day, had told his interrogators the long-planned offensive would begin within twenty-four hours.

Behr warned Schmidt and Paulus, who seemed extraordinarily calm. Both generals gave orders to alert the 48th Panzer Corps for immediate duty, and expressed confidence in the panzers’ ability to blunt any breakthrough.

Winrich Behr was not so optimistic. He still remembered his conversation with a man he had replaced in October. The officer had taken Behr to the situation map, spread his hands over it and traced where the enemy would attack on both sides of the Sixth Army: “They will meet around here,” he said, and his finger landed on Kalach, forty miles west of Stalingrad. Now, a month later, Behr recalled the prophecy and wondered about the future.

The phone kept ringing with alarming intelligence. Though no shots had been fired, the Russian positions were alive with menacing energy. Radio traffic increased a thousandfold; coded messages filled the air. Captain Behr made notations on his map as rapidly as he could, while outside his office, light snow collected on the ground.

Just before midnight, Vassili Chuikov sat in his cliffside bunker overlooking the Volga and tried to interpret a message from front headquarters requesting him to stand by for an important announcement. Chuikov had no idea what it meant until Kuzma Gurov, his chief political commissar with the Sixty-second Army, suddenly slapped his forehead and shouted: “I know, it’s the order for the big counteroffensive!”

The order came through at midnight. Chuikov felt a tremendous surge of satisfaction as he realized that the last sixty-eight days of fighting in Stalingrad had bought the time needed to prepare the counterattack. And soon he would have his vengeance against the German Sixth Army.