The Lost Division at Stalingrad

The author of an acclaimed new history tells us about the division that was almost entirely destroyed in the seismic clash with Soviet Russia.
Tank battles on the Eastern Front
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President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send his armed forces into the sovereign state of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis. Almost a quarter of the Ukrainian population (9.8 million) have fled the fighting and key cities such as Mariupol, Kherson and Kharkiv lie in ruins with the historic port of Odessa and the capital Kiev under missile strikes. This conflict has seen an expected speedy Russian victory turn into a bloody war of attrition with Russian forces taking heavy losses as the nimbler western-backed Ukrainian militias and regular units make significant gains as we progress into the winter. Whether he believes it from his lackies, or not, Putin’s dream of restoring the lands of old imperial Russia lies in tatters, alongside the prestige of his armed forces, now tarnished in the west for a generation.

As it was in the Cold War (1948-92) Soviet forces are once again seen as the sadistic and cruel aggressors, only this time magnified ten-fold by 24-hour news and smart phones which bring the horrors of the war to every one of us.

The relationship between this recent Russian history and its preeminent place as the heroic country that suffered catastrophic losses in the Second World War seem to many historians like me a million miles away. The cult of sacrifice is a strong one in Russia, stretching back decades through the Cold War and into the country’s war with Nazi Germany once Adolf Hitler had launched his invasion of the old Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

History’s greatest conflict would ebb and flow, the losses mind boggling for both sides as Joseph Stalin became an ally to the western powers and ‘Uncle Joe’ was voted ‘Man of the Year by Time Magazine. The German juggernaut looked unstoppable, until the winter of 1942 and Hitler’s all-conquering armies were destroyed at a city in southern Russia, 15-miles long and lying like a ribbon along the banks of the country’s greatest river – the Volga. The city names after Russia’s famous dictator – Stalingrad.

There is a passion for the fight for Stalingrad. The industrial Soviet city sat on the edge of Asia is seen by many as the key European battle of the Second World War, the defining campaign when the momentum and invincibility of the German army was firmly halted. Strategically and psychologically, it was the turning point for the Red Army’s fortunes that would end in their capture of Berlin in May 1945.

Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler’s initial grand offensive the previous summer to knock out Russia in a single campaign, had failed. Though suffering over 3 million casualties, the Red Army’s counteroffensive outside the gates of Moscow had driven the Germans back and saved Joseph Stalin’s capital. Weeks of subsequent bitter fighting in freezing conditions had left the Fuhrer stabilizing his own lines, though still deep inside European Russia and pondering his next move. Compounding his desire to strike a fresh decisive blow was Hitler’s rash decision to side with Imperial Japan and declare war on the United States of America in December 1941. He realised what Germany would require maintaining its war machine indefinitely – oil.

Operation Blue would be Hitler’s five-month-long offensive beginning on 28 June 1942 as Hitler’s summer offensive struck south toward Russia’s oil fields in the Caucasus. With more than 1.5 million troops, 3,000 armoured vehicles and over 1,500 aircraft it caught Stalin by surprise, who expected a repeat assault on Moscow. Blue’s goals were ultimately to seize Caucasian oil and control its transportation along the river Volga. In June, Stalingrad, the modern industrial city named after the Soviet dictator that lay on its banks, was only a place on German commander’s operational maps. It held no relevance.

Soviet troops fighting at Stalingrad

However, as Operation Blue began to unravel due to Soviet resistance and Hitler’s own disastrous oversight of his forces, it led him to fixate on capturing the city which bore his adversary’s name. The battle would rage from early September to February 2, 1943. It would end with the annihilation of arguably the Wehrmacht’s most experienced formation, the Sixth Army led by General Friedrich Paulus. This powerful force had been at the vanguard of the conquest of the Low Countries and France in 1940 and the initial invasion of Russia in June 1941.

General Paulus commanded over twenty-four battle-hardened divisions, a mixture of armour and infantry, supported by the Luftwaffe. He had smashed his way eastwards across several-hundred miles of barren countryside Russian’s called the ‘steppe’, tackling fanatical Red Army resistance until his forces by early September looked upon Stalin’s city, which stretched for twenty miles, almost like a ribbon, along the western edges of the Volga. Stalingrad was a mixture of feudal wooden shacks in its south, modern boulevards, parks, and apartment blocks at its center, and three giant factories to its north which had switched from building pre-war farm equipment to becoming a vital center of Soviet tank production. For Hitler, capturing the city and eliminating its population of over 400,000 would inflict a phycological blow to the enemy and give him a platform for offensives the following summer. For these reasons, naturally, Joseph Stalin ordered the city to be defended to the last round. The battle would be the most ferocious of WWII.

At the heart of the fighting was a German formation whom I spent months researching, unearthing reports, diaries, letters and photographs. The 71st Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Alexander von Hartmann, like many others, would be destroyed in the fight for the city as it was ground down by relentless urban combat. A formation that comprised of three infantry regiments of three battalions apiece, supported by artillery and logistical units in support were the backbone of the German Wehrmacht. The ‘Lucky Division’ as it was called hailed from Lower Saxony in southern Germany and had won its spurs in the French campaign of 1940 before surviving its first year on the Eastern Front in 1941/42.  Von Hartmann was a Prussian, a highly experienced and hard-nosed combat leader who had led a regiment in the French campaign and now been promoted to command a division. He carried his Great War (1914-18) service in the form of a limp from a severe leg wound suffered at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, but he drove his men hard and fairly and led by example.

As Germany forces surrounded the city along its length, Paulus reacted to Hitler’s directive that Stalingrad should be taken quickly, the 71st Infantry Division would be in the vanguard to assault the city and attempt to capture its heart of the modern center. The Luftwaffe struck on 23 August, thousands of bomber sorties over the next few weeks focused on terrorizing the population, destroying key buildings, and dominating river traffic. Their destructive prowess however, played against German tactics of mobile warfare, which struggled to navigate a rubble-strewn landscape which now caused a stream of casualties in Paulus’s infantry.

For his initial assault on the city itself on 13 September, the task to quickly capture the central districts, split in two the enemy’s defences was allocated to three veteran units, one of which would be the 71st Infantry Division. It’s supposed strength, however, was only on paper. A division that had been 15,000 -strong now comprised of some battalions no bigger than companies, made worse by a severe lack of experienced combat leaders and NCOs who had been killed or wounded in the campaign thus far. The assault would see bloody fighting for the capture of buildings and locations now famous in the Stalingrad story: the Railway Station No. 1, and the NKVD complex, the Central Ferry Crossing overlooking the Volga, and the highest point of the city, the enormous hill known as the ‘Mamayev Kurgan’.

The first week of fighting would set the tone for what was to come. Intensive German artillery and aerial bombardments met with volleys of deadly Soviet Katyusha rocket salvoes to pave the way for infantry assaults and counterattacks (over 2.9 million shells would eventually land on the city). Then the infantry would close upon one another in a fight to the death for command of the city’s key strategic points. The assault by the 71st Infantry Division that day would see German troops suddenly involved in hand-to-hand fighting for not only streets and buildings, but the floors and rooms within them and the sewers and cellars below them. This was a new style of intimate, primeval combat, fought with machine guns, grenades, flamethrowers, sharpened spades, and knives. Within a few weeks, cynical German troops would dub this ‘Rattenkrieg’ (‘War of the Rats’).

Von Hartmann’s division enjoyed dramatic success early on due to the initiative displayed by one of his regimental commanders – Lieutenant Colonel Fritz Roske, who had addressed his officers prior to the battle:

‘We stand in this phase of the struggle, which is of exceptional importance for the war and especially for the Eastern campaign. The whole world looks at the troops from Stalingrad and besides, the quick and victorious conclusion of the battle with the reaching of the Volga also means a conclusion for the regiment. The troops are to be informed of this. I expect the whole regiment to exert a great deal of strength, which will be worthy of the achievements of IR 194 so far.’

His troops followed him willingly into the maelstrom and by late afternoon had achieved their objectives, much to von Hartmann’s jubilation at divisional headquarters. The Russian response to the catastrophic news that the enemy was now on the banks of their beloved Volga was immediate. General Chuikov ordered an immediate counterattack by reinforcements coming across the Volga.

As September gave way to October and the temperature dropped, the Germans pushed through the city relentlessly, with casualties mounting. Each time Paulus believed he had finally pushed his beleaguered enemy into the Volga, fresh reserves were rushed across the river by Chuikov in the nick of time to stave off defeat and stabilize the shrinking line. On 14 October, Hitler issued Operational Order No. 1 suspending all other operations along the entire Eastern Front, other than Stalingrad. The success of Case Blue now rested on the fight for the city.

By the end of October, the southern and central districts were almost all in German hands, with Chuikov’s defenders holding on to slivers of territory. The 71st combat diary now celebrated its own local victory:

‘At 1200 hours, the German national flag was hoisted over the Theatre and the Party building complex by the commanders of I.R. 211 and 191.’

This signaled to Hitler that the city was captured. He was wrong. The fighting would grow in intensity.

By mid-November, the temperature dropped yet further, bringing a stinging cold wind from the east as the waters of the Volga within a few weeks turned from slush to become floating, drifting ice. The Sixth Army’s final drive to capture the last pockets stalled in exhaustion. Whilst Chuikov tactics were focusing Paulus in the city, miles into the frozen Russian steppe, fresh Soviet armies were massing undercover to strike a killer blow.

Operation Uranus began at 0720 hours on 19 November as the armies of General Georgy Zhukov struck to the north of Stalingrad. The following day, the Red Army attacked to the south. Within days both forces met 50 kilometers behind German lines at the strategic town of Kalach. Paulus’s forces were now encircled with fresh Russian forces arriving to strengthen the new line. German attempts to relieve them by land and air were all doomed to fail as the conditions deteriorated and Russian military strength increased.

The remnants of von Hartmann’s division were firmly ensconced in strong positions within the city, local troops knew it as ‘Hartmannstadt.’ The Axis perimeter that stretched for miles from the city was reduced over the following weeks by Soviet offensives until Paulus’s troops fell back to the city. Outside von Hartmann’s positions the Soviets had parked a truck with a large loudspeaker attached to its roof, broadcasting a clear but brutal message:

‘Every seven seconds a German soldier is dying in Russia. Stalingrad is a mass grave.’ The message was then enhanced by the sound of a clock ticking for seven seconds.

The remnants of the 71st Division now faced south and east, looking across the frozen Volga at a lunar, icy landscape that four months earlier had been a shining river and beautiful green forests.

The end game for the Kessel was fast approaching by 25 January. In the side streets could be heard the familiar rumble of T-34 tanks. Artillery and mortar shells intermittently dropped all around the German bunkers, foxholes and ruins. Casualties were increasing, with nowhere left to house or treat them. The lucky ones bled, froze, or starved to death in temporary field hospitals set up in bunkers or cellars. Hitler’s order to defend Stalingrad to the last man, the last bullet, was more than carried out. Defeat was in sight.

The previous evening, over dim candlelight, von Hartmann had decided what needed to be done as he took a final drink with fellow senior commanders. His division had now been reduced to less than two hundred fighting men and a few artillery pieces, but he himself would not surrender:

‘An officer has to die in battle. I shan’t shoot myself, but I’ll sell my skin for the highest possible price.’

Through the morning mist, German sentries lying in their foxholes squinted into the sun at the outline of five figures trudged towards them from the rear, seemingly oblivious to the thump of Russian mortar rounds landing in the distance. The first lieutenant on duty, crouched with his men in their positions in the snow, was astonished to now realize it was von Hartmann, accompanied by five senior officers with carbines slung over their shoulders as if it was just another day on their divisional shooting range back home in Lower Saxony.

Hartmann greeted his junior officer, who continued to lie prone on the ground, squinting his eyes to focus on his commander. The young officer gave him the situational report. The general thanked him and gestured that he remain lying on the ground. He then unslung his rifle. He stared across at the enemy positions. The Russians were becoming agitated at the movement in the German lines; activity could be seen in the Russian positions. The sound of more mortars rounds landing was heard behind the German forward positions as the morning peace was shattered. Shots suddenly zipped past von Hartmann’s group, kicking up spurts of snow near his feet. He took up a shooting stance with his front foot perched on the snow hillock the officer lay behind, and chambered a round. His companions soon joined in the engagement.

Though eyewitnesses claim he did wound several of the enemy, a Soviet marksman managed to get into position and kill him instantly with a shot to the right temple. Von Hartmann’s troops dragged their fallen commander’s body back from the front line and buried him in a foxhole dug into the frozen earth of the railway embankment. As the news spread, many of the men admired the fact that their leader had taken an ‘honest bullet.’ Many other German officers would take such a route, too, rather than be captured.

The Sixth Army would surrender a few days later with Field Marshal Paulus (now promoted by Hitler in the knowledge that he needed to follow von Hartmann’s fate) walking into captivity along with 90,000 Axis troops and so bringing an end to WWII’s greatest battle. Only 5,000 men of those who trapsed across the wintry steppe that day would make it home in by the mid-1950s. The cream of the German Wehrmacht, including the 71st Division was laid to rest by the Volga; destroyed by their Fuhrer’s hubris, the tenacity of the Red Army and the Russian winter.

Iain MacGregor is the bestselling author of The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle.