Authors: William Craig
Only then did he leave what remained of his friend. Bleeding heavily from his own shrapnel wounds, he went on to Sety for first aid and then rode an ambulance through Stalingrad to a recuperation center across the Volga. As his back healed slowly, he began to badger doctors about releasing him to active duty. They told him to be patient. The summons would some soon enough.
To save his southern flank, Yeremenko ordered his retreating soldiers to hold at Abganerovo, while he reinforced them with whatever fresh troops he could find. The last antitank guns that he could locate on August 9 were ordered to dig into the hills overlooking the highway and the railroad; fifty-nine tanks were sent on a suicidal attack. It was not much of a holding action, Yeremenko knew, but it might at least buy a day's time.
Meanwhile, along his Don River flank to the west of Stalingrad, the bridge at Kalach was the key to the situation. Thus, Col. Pyotr Ilyin received orders directly from Yeremenko to hold or destroy the bridge. The men of Ilyin's 20th Motorized Brigade were hollow-eyed with fatigue. Running low on both guns and ammunition, they dug in at an orchard on the outskirts of Kalach and listened quietly as Ilyin explained that they were to be a rear guard. Ilyin tried to assure them that other Russian divisions would protect their flanks, that with this added support they could hold their position on the river. Few men in the brigade believed
and he was thankful that none of them deserted that first night.
Across the Don all was silent. From their positions on the low, flat east bank, Russian soldiers could not see past the lip of the three-hundred-foot bluff across the river that was controlled by the Germans. Ilyin sent scouts across the river where they trained binoculars on enemy troop concentrations, and for several days an uneasy quiet descended on that part of the steppe. Ilyin took advantage of the situation to carefully dig in his few artillery pieces and the last of his machine guns at strategic points. Then he waited.
On the morning of August 15, the scouts tumbled back down the palisades on the far shore and screamed: "They're coming!" Behind them, German soldiers suddenly lined the cliff. On Ilyin's orders, sappers blew the explosive charges they had placed under the bridge. It heaved into the air with a shattering roar. When the smoke cleared, the western section had fallen into the river and the eastern part was on fire. Ilyin had gained some time.
Behind the protection of the high bluffs on the opposite shore, the Germans plotted new tactics and twenty-eight-year-old Capt. Gerhard Meunch made the rounds among his men. Recently made a battalion commander in the 71st Division, an extraordinary promotion for one so young, Meunch wanted to make sure his troops understood that he cared about them. He listened patiently as they griped about the heat, the food, and the lack of mail. Finally satisfied that they appreciated his interest, he went to an observation post at the edge of the Don cliff. Below lay Kalach, a cluster of old houses with an apple orchard on the outskirts. Beyond it, in the hazy distance, Meunch could see almost to Stalingrad.
In the apple orchard across the river, Colonel Ilyin had just learned that the other Russian divisions protecting his flanks had melted away, and he was left alone to hold the German Sixth Army at bay. To complicate matters, Ilyin was unable to raise anyone in Stalingrad headquarters by radio for instructions.
As if sensing his dilemma, the Germans came for him right away. At point-blank range, Ilyin's gunners blew apart their fleet of rubber boats. But more than twenty-five miles upstream, Sixth Army engineers under Maj. Joseph Linden, a bookish-looking technician from Wiesbaden, had thrown two pontoon bridges across the Don. Faced only by scattered resistance, the engineers quickly secured a bridgehead on the eastern shore, and Paulus ordered three divisions toward the three-hundred-foot spans. Hundreds of tanks plowed up the roads and fields on their way to the river. They stopped on the western side of the Don while the cautious Paulus tidied up his lines, refitted his armor, demanded more quartermaster supplies, and coordinated more Luftwaffe bomber support from improvised steppe airfields.
Filling their mess tins at field kitchens, German troops now spoke openly about furloughs back in Germany and civilian jobs awaiting them after a final thrust to the Volga. Their mood was jubilant, their expectations heady.
On the evening of August 22, two men stood in a garden near the German bridgehead and talked urgently of the next day's work. One of them was Gen. Hans Hube, of the 16th Panzer Division. A courier handed him a dispatch. Hube read it quickly and said, "The balloon goes up at 0430 hours tomorrow, Sickenius."
Colonel Sickenius acknowledged the news and Hube dismissed him.
"Till tomorrow, Sickenius."
"Till tomorrow, Herr General."
Hube paused, touched his only hand to his cap, and remarked, "Tomorrow night in Stalingrad!"
Forty miles to the east, signs had been posted on trees throughout Stalingrad exhorting the citizens. "Death to the Invader!", they read. But few civilians knew exactly where the enemy was. In the Tsaritsa Gorge, Andrei Yeremenko agonized over the obvious buildup going on in Paulus's sector. Intelligence showed that the Germans were planning another classic pincer movement with Sixth Army acting as the left arm and Hoth's Fourth Panzers as the right. And though he had been able to stall Hoth temporarily in the hills around Abganerovo, Yeremenko knew he had too few reserves available to cope with such a combined attack.
On the political front, at least, he had scored an impressive victory. A new-found friend, Commissar Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, had proven a reliable ally in recent days as Yeremenko argued about the dual command problem with STAVKA on the BODO line, the direct telephone link to the Kremlin. Khrushchev was Stalin's political emissary to the military council in the Tsaritsa command post, and he had backed Yeremenko fully in his campaign to realign divisions of authority. Finally, on August 13, Stalin had given Yeremenko supreme responsibility for both fronts and demoted the irascible General Gordov.*
Now in complete charge of Stalingrad's defense, Yeremenko had to cope immediately with another unexpected problem; the city's garrison commander had disappeared, leaving chaos behind. Without a local leader, the city's forces floundered. Their confused state was most noticeable in the streets. Military vehicles were getting lost and accidents proliferated at intersections as drivers jockeyed for the right of way and drove far faster than regulations allowed. Since discipline was broken, hundreds of Russian garrison troops were beginning to desert to the far side of the Volga.
With all his problems out on the steppe, General Yeremenko struggled to restore order within his own house.
The thunder of tank motors shattered the early morning darkness of August 23, and from the steppe, lines of German panzers moved awkwardly to the bridges that crossed the Don. They maneuvered carefully onto the pontoon tracks and gingerly picked their way to the far side. Trucks followed, carrying infantry, ammunition, food, medicine, and fuel. The movement attracted the attention of the Russians, who fired artillery in the general direction of the noise. But their aim was erratic, and the panzers and support troops quickly assembled into three fan-shaped combat groups on the eastern side of the river. At a signal, they roared across the steppe, beneath a stunning, sudden dawn. The sky was gray, then brilliantly orange and red and violet, and finally a yellow gleam that seared the tankers' eyes, and made them marvel at the beauty of the Russian prairie.
Lt. Hans Oettl was ecstatic as he saw the sky turn into an azure blue, untrammeled by clouds. For Oettl, a twenty-two-yearold former city employee in Munich, the Sunday morning was absolutely perfect. Even the enemy was cooperating. Only sporadic gunfire intruded from the flanks as the tank column headed toward the Volga. He watched in fascination as Stukas dove on unseen positions to silence the opposition. When the planes returned, the lieutenant waved gaily at them, and they responded by sounding their sirens in acknowledgment. Marveling at the technical cooperation within his army, Oettl patted his pet goat in satisfaction. He had found Maedi wandering alone on the steppe, put a red ribbon around her neck, and kept her ever since as an affectionate friend. Now Maedi stood beside her master while his tank column whirled by through dense clouds of dust.
Wheels and treads loosed billowing clouds of grime. Most men tied handkerchiefs over their mouths and wore goggles. At the tip of the spearhead, radio operators of the 16th Panzer Division kept Sixth Army Headquarters informed of each kilometer they clicked off.
At Golubinka, Sixth Army's new command center on the west bank of the Don, General Paulus read a dispatch: "9:45
Russians seem surprised about attack and not too strong between Rossoshka and Don. . . . In north we count on heavy resistance…."
But resistance in the north, on the tank group's left flank, was almost nonexistent. The panzers pushed ahead easily and Hans Oettl continued to relish the beauty around him. It was the most beautiful day he had seen during the war.
Noon passed and the panzers kept driving eastward into the haze. The sun turned from its zenith and dropped behind tank commanders standing in their turrets. Their faces were caked with dirt but they were happy; within a short time they expected to see the Volga. Some officers reminded themselves that the river was more than one thousand miles from Germany.
Behind the 16th Panzers, the 3rd Motorized Division tried desperately to keep pace, but slowly fell behind as the dust clouds blinded the drivers. Further to the rear, the 60th Motorized Division was in a hopeless snarl, with horns honking and tempers flaring. A man stepped from the side of the road and faced a column of trucks. Pointing a pistol directly at the first vehicle, he yelled, "If you don't let us through, you'll get it right in the tires!"
The astonished soldier pulled over to give Dr. Ottmar Kohler the right-of-way. Kohler, a brilliant, acerbic surgeon, had served with the division since its formation in Danzig in 1939. He was fed up with delays. He believed his place was up front with the wounded. For months he had been promoting a plan whereby doctors could treat seriously wounded men within minutes of their being hit instead of sending them far to the rear for aid. In so doing, Kohler had gone against Wehrmacht traditions, but he was convinced he was right. That attitude was indicative of his personality, which now brought him to the middle of the road with a drawn gun. Impatient with incompetence, he acted without hesitation to correct the situation.
Kohler waited until his unit reentered the line, then jumped into a motorcycle sidecar and waved his driver on. Blinded by the sun, the man drove straight into a hole. Kohler smashed his head against the driver's helmet, felt something in his face pop and cringed in agony. Feeling his mouth, he diagnosed the ailment immediately: a broken upper jaw. Nauseated from the pain, he swigged down some cognac and ordered the driver to catch up with the rest of the medical detachment.
At Golubinka, a clerk made a notation in the war diary of the Sixth Army: "1:00
Still further confirmed the enemy was surprised...."
The advance continued into the afternoon. Tank commanders tensed when they saw church steeples and white houses on the horizon. Clutching their throat microphones, they told their crews: "On the right is Stalingrad." The men clambered up for a look at a montage of homes,
and smokestacks that passed beside them, and cheers echoed along the column. Then shells erupted around the lead tanks and they buttoned up for a fight.
The Stukas came back and tanks fired point-blank into gun emplacements. Tankers who dismounted and stood over the blasted holes saw bits of calico and cotton dresses, arms and legs, and female torsos tossed carelessly about. They went back to their vehicles and told everyone that the Russians had sent women to fight them. The march to the Volga continued. Some of the tankers were sick to their stomachs.
The sun was low in the west when the first German tank came to a halt at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the Volga. Lt. Gottfried Ademeit, the son of a minister, stared in awe across the river. He could see almost a hundred miles into the mysterious flat land on the other side. As he put it, he "was looking into the heartland of Asia."
When Hans Oettl arrived, he hopped down from his vehicle and joined the rush to bathe in the river while his goat, Maedi, feasted on the lush vegetables in the fields. German soldiers, officers and men, stripped and plunged into the cold water. Afterwards, recalling the scene, Oettl wondered openly why it had to be that war was the only way he could see such a magnificent natural wonder.
Behind the main column, late-arriving soldiers entered the suburbs of Rynok, just north of Stalingrad, and followed tramcars down the trolley tracks. When passengers looked back and saw troops dressed in strange uniforms, they panicked and jumped off the trains. The Germans laughed and left the Russians alone for the time being.
, the German Sixth Army held a small stretch of the Volga north of Stalingrad. Hundreds of trucks and tanks moved up in support while radio operators of the 16th Panzer Division transmitted the news back to headquarters. It had been another fantastic day for General Paulus.
* During this period, Stalin was entertaining British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had flown to Moscow with depressing news: the Allies would not be able to launch a cross-channel invasion in 1942. On hearing this, Stalin was furious, but he was mollified somewhat when Churchill, accompanied by Averell Harriman, disclosed plans for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), which was scheduled for that coming November.