Authors: William Craig
When patrolling Russian guards shouted,
("Hurry up!"), the prisoners tried to walk a little faster. But their pace was still slow, and the men groaned constantly as the biting cold froze fingers and toes.
Felice Brazzi walked in the middle of this ragged line. He staggered on, like an automaton, one foot in front of the other, again and again. Almost unconscious from the cold, he barely heard the hoarse commands of the guards and the grim croaking of black ravens that circled overhead. One sound always brought Bracci out of his reverie: single rifle shots, which cracked loudly in the clear air as guards shot men who stumbled out of the column to seek rest. For two days, Bracci had listened to this symphony of murder. And on the trail from Kalmikov, both sides of the path were now marked by two irregular patterns of corpses. Bracci had figured out that the Italians were marching north toward the Don, because evidence of harsh fighting was everywhere. Pieces of uniforms, cases of unused bullets, submachine guns, 210-millimeter artillery, arms, legs, the wreckage of his Eighth Army littered the steppe.
Another heavy snow began to fall and it slashed the faces of the bearded soldiers and froze on their eyebrows and chins. His head tucked in like a turtle, Bracci walked on toward a village sitting precariously on the crest of a hill. He hoped the Russians would stop there to feed their captives, none of whom had eaten in at least forty-eight hours.
At dusk the Russians did halt the column, and Bracci crawled into a stable to find a place to sleep. Across the room several Italians smashed their countrymen aside in order to lie in a feeding trough filled with fresh hay.
Other remnants of the Italian Army were trying to escape through a valley near the town of Abrusovka thirty miles to the west. But on the surrounding slopes, Russian gunners had installed the awesome
rockets, which whooshed thousands of rounds of high explosives into the writhing gray masses on the valley floor.
A small German detachment trapped at one end of the culde- sac managed somehow to commandeer several trucks and enough fuel to make a run through the gauntlet. A few Italian soldiers attempted to jump on the running boards, but the Germans shot them. Other Italians who clung desperately to door handles had their fingers smashed by rifle butts. Having driven their allies back, the frantic Germans pulled away and disappeared in a southerly direction.
Dr. Cristoforo Capone had been running for several days. When he came to the valley, he saw mobs of Italians rushing back and forth at the bottom of the deep gorge. Behind Capone, a Russian tank fired into the crowd, and an officer beside him suddenly gurgled as a rifle bullet went through his neck.
Capone broke away but had no place to hide as machine guns and artillery raked the valley floor. Soldiers toppled, blew into fragments, or stood resignedly, awaiting the impact of a bullet. Some officers and men raised their hands in surrender. Others refused. A surgeon Capone recognized, screamed: "They're going to kill all of us!" and ran at a Russian machine gun that cut him to pieces. For a fleeting moment, Capone thought of doing the same thing, but to his right, another group of Italians suddenly put up their hands. He joined them, and while he watched the enemy approach, several officers in the line changed their minds, pulled out pistols and shot themselves.
Another tense conversation had started between Erich von Manstein and Friedrich von Paulus on the impersonal keys of the teleprinters:
23 Dec 42, 1740 hrs. to 1820 hrs.
Good evening, Paulus—Last night you submitted for the Supreme Command of the Army a report on available fuel that would permit a 20-km advance. Zeitzler requests that you check up on that again. I personally would like to say this: It appears that the enemy [south of the
has constantly received reinforcements so that Hoth is forced to take defensive measures. Moreover, the situation on the left flank of the Army Group [the Italian front] makes it necessary to withdraw forces from Hoth….You will be able to draw your own conclusions as to how this will affect you. I would ask you therefore to examine whether,
if there should be no other possibility,
you are prepared for Thunderclap, [complete withdrawal of the
provided it is possible to bring in a limited supply of fuel and provisions during the next few days. If you don't want to give me an answer right away, let's have another conversation at 2100 hrs. I must point out to you too, that an adequate supply of the Army is a very difficult problem, in particular in view of the development of the situation on the left flank of the Army Group. Please reply.
Paulus quickly pointed out the awful danger of his position:
+++ [Thunderclap] has become difficult, since for several days the enemy has dug in opposite our southwest and south front and, according to radio information, six armored brigades are drawn up behind this defensive front. I estimate we now need a preparatory period of six days for Thunderclap....
From here, of course, I can't tell whether there's the slightest chance of the Army being relieved in the fairly near future, or whether we shall have to try
Thunderclap. If the latter—the sooner the better.
But it must be clearly realized that it will be a very difficult operation, unless Hoth manages to tie down really strong enemy forces outside.
Am I to take it that I am now authorized to initiate Operation Thunderclap?
Once it's launched, there'll be no turning back.
The climax had been reached. Paulus was asking Manstein to give the code word that would send Sixth Army on its way to freedom—or oblivion. Acutely aware that Adolf Hitler had not actually granted permission to leave the
Paulus now placed his own career and the lives of thousands of his men directly into Erich von Manstein's hands. He was begging Manstein to relieve him of the onus of such a decision.
But Manstein brushed aside the plea. Unwilling to take responsibility for initiating Operation Thunderclap against Hitler's express orders, he gave an indirect answer:
I can't give you full authority today.
But I hope to get permission tomorrow. The main point is—are you confident that Sixth Army could fight its way out [to the south] and through to Hoth…if we come to the conclusion that adequate supplies over a long period could not be gotten to you? What do you think? Over.
[Paulus replied:] +++
In that case, I'd have no option
but to try.
Question—is the envisaged withdrawal of forces from
area [the 6th Panzer Division at the Mishkova bridgehead south of the
going to take place? Over.
How much fuel and supplies would you require before launching Thunderclap and on the assumption that once the action began, further supplies to meet day-to-day requirements would reach you? Over.
[Paulus:] +++ 1,000 cubic meters [nearly 250,000 gallons of fuel] and 500 tons of food. If we get that, all my armor and motor vehicles will have enough….[the fuel he needed was almost ten times what the airlift had brought him so far].
[Manstein:] +++ Well, that's the lot. Good luck, Paulus.
[Paulus:] +++ Thank you, sir. And good luck to you, too.
Only a few hours later, the tanks of the 6th Panzer Division holding the bridgehead at Vassilevska wheeled about and began to recross the Mishkova River.
Hardbitten panzer crews brushed tears from their eyes as they turned their backs on countrymen waiting for them at Stalingrad. One officer stood in his turret hatch facing the northern horizon, snapped his right hand to his cap in salute, then ducked inside the Mark IV as it rumbled off to a new battle. By midnight the last panzer had left to try and save the Italian Army and stabilize Manstein's left flank.
Meanwhile, German soldiers at the southern perimeter of the
were straining to hear and see the vanguards of Manstein's relief force. But the darkness remained impenetrable. The trapped troops shivered in their snowholes and tried to still the nagging fear that Manstein might never arrive.
Called to a meeting of 297th Division noncommissioned officers along the southern perimeter of the
Sgt. Albert Pfltiger walked gingerly along an icy path. As he neared the command bunker, he suddenly sensed a dark form off to the right and then a rifle shot sounded. The bullet smashed into his right arm and broke it.
Knocked to the ground, Pflüger gasped, "Oh, mama, now they've got me." Then he passed out.
Another NCO came along, wrapped him in a poncho, and started dragging him along the bumpy path. Regaining consciousness, Pflüger insisted on walking and staggered to an aid station, where a doctor quickly bandaged the wound and sent him on to a base hospital.
On this day, December 23, the sergeant was just one of 686 Germans killed or wounded while waiting for Hitler to approve Thunderclap.
At dawn on December 24, the great German airfield at Tatsinskaya, 180 miles west of Gumrak, came under artillery fire from the Soviet Third Guards Army. The attack had been expected ever since the Italian Army had dissolved along the Don. All week long, Generals Martin Fiebig and Freiherr von Richthofen implored Hitler for permission to move the transport planes stationed at the field out of danger. But he refused, telling them that German reserves in the area could contain the enemy.
The Führer had been wrong again, and now on this misty morning, Fiebig stood in the control tower and watched in horror as two Ju-52s blew up from enemy shellfire.
A colonel beside him begged: "Herr General, you must take action. You must give permission to take off."
But Fiebig answered: "For that I need
authority. In any case, it's impossible to take off in this fog."
Standing at rigid attention, the ashen-faced colonel replied: "Either you take that risk or every unit on the field will be wiped out. All the transport units for Stalingrad, Herr General. The last hope of the surrounded Sixth Army."
When another officer agreed, that was enough for General Fiebig. With Russian shells slamming through the fog onto the runways, he ordered an immediate evacuations
At 0530 hours, only ten minutes after the attack began, the first lumbering Ju-52s roared to life and scrambled for the sky. Incredible confusion resulted. Planes took off from all directions; two Ju-52s collided in midfield and exploded. Others ripped off their wings and tails. In the midst of this holocaust, Russian tanks appeared on the runways as twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, and more planes skimmed low over them and climbed painfully into the murky sky.
When a Russian T-34 drove past Fiebig's control tower, it prompted an aide to say: "Herr, General, it is time to go."
But he was transfixed as he watched the terrible panorama outside the window, where the last Junkers were rolling down the field, crashing against other wreckage, skidding to a halt and catching fire.
At 0607, a German tank commander rushed in to say that the enemy had completely overrun Tatsinskaya and, eight minutes later, at 0615, the dejected Fiebig's own plane lifted off the airfield and headed for Rostov.
On the ground below, fifty-six aircraft sorely needed for the Stalingrad shuttle, burned brightly through the haze. Only 124 of the airlift planes had gotten away safely.
Sixty miles north of the wreckage of Fiebig's airfleet, Lt. Felice Bracci stirred in his stable and rose to the shouts of
from impatient Russian guards. Behind Bracci, in the feed trough packed with straw, some of the men who had fought for space in its warmth ignored the guttural demands. They were dead, turned marble-like from the cold.
Still without food, the huge column of prisoners stumbled into another freezing morning. On the horizon, a lifeless sun peeped out at the Italians. A strange sun, Bracci thought, for those who came from a warm country. His breath quickly congealed on his overcoat collar and turned into tiny, white crystals. Above the column a cloud of vapor floated along with the soldiers, as though they were chain-smoking cigarettes.
The march continued through the morning. Bracci and another officer, Franco Fusco from Naples, walked side-by-side, saying nothing. Men fell out, rifles cracked and bodies dropped into the snow; the two found comfort in each other's presence.
In early afternoon, Bracci saw a church belfry, then a few huts. He walked over a bridge; the river s underneath it had disappeared in countless snow storms. Someone called out that they had reached Boguchar, a former German headquarters, now a central assembly point for Russian divisions. Soviet cars and trucks careened past the prisoners, who halted abruptly before a large barracks. With the cold so intense that the Italians could not stand still, they jumped up and down and begged to be let inside. While they complained, a sullen crowd of Russian civilians gathered. Young, old, they muttered threats and spat on Bracci and his comrades. Some of them made gestures of beheading and strangling, then suddenly closed in and pounced on the prisoners. Like crazed wolves, the Russians stripped them of overcoats, shoes, caps, and blankets. Bracci was lucky when the Russians rejected his worn boots and ragged leggings in disgust.
The guards finally drove the villagers away, then called all doctors inside the building. Bracci was envious. He assumed the doctors' miseries had ended and they would now take care of sick and wounded in more pleasant surroundings. He wished he had studied medicine at the university.
The doctors reappeared shortly, stripped of all medical supplies and warm clothing. After a lieutenant from Rome protested their treatment, the Russians took him inside, beat him viciously and threw him back into the street. Even then his misery had not ended. When his puppy, which had faithfully trotted beside him on the march, went to nuzzle the prostrate man, the Russians kicked it to death as he watched.