|THE GERMAN DEBACLE OF STALINGRAD.
Taken from the Military Review - Volume XXXVII -
August 1957 - number 5
Oberst Herbert Selle, German Army, Retired
Translated and adapted by Mr. Karl T. Marx
Archive Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
a powerful offensive north of Kalach and on both sides of Vertyachiy and
Peskovatka ( Figure 1) the German Sixth Army, on 22 and 23 August 1942 carried
the fight forward and crossed the Don River. Without interruption. the divisions
of the LI Army Corps (Von Seydlitz) and the panzers of the XIV Panzer Army Corps
(General von Wietersheim, later General Hube) forged, ahead and across the two
heavy, enginieer-built bridges, fanning out and lining up for a concentrated
attack on Stalingrad.
Paragraph two of the Army Order, dated 19 August 1942, stated: The Sixth Army
takes possession of the land bridge between the Don and Volga Rivers north of
the railroad Kalach-Stalingrad and secures them toward east and north. The army
will cross the Don River between Peskovatka and Ostrovski, constantly covering
itself in a northerly direction.
The motorized units will then strike toward the hills between the Rossoshka
River and the, Bolzhaya Karanaya headwaters to the Volga River novth of
Stalingrad. Other units will develop from the northwest and capture Stalingrad.
This stroke will be accompanied by troops advancing on the southern flank and
across the middle course of the Rossoshka River and will make contact southwest
of Sta-lingrad with the motorized units from the
neighboring armg pushing up from the south.
On the evening of 23 August 1942 General Hube and his Panzers took Rynok, the
northernmost suburb of Stalingrad. German reconnoitering parties reached the
steep western banks of the Volga, surveying the vast, melancholy countryside.
The Army was full of hope, although Hube’s units had to overcome many critical
situations during the following days. I met General ( Friedrich ) Paulus who
told me that the Russian artillery commander of the Sixty-second Army was among
the prisoners and that he was very depressed and concerned not only about the
fate of Stalingrad but also of the entire southern army group commanded by
My eyes met those of Paulus—questioning, almost unbelieving, for since 1941 we
had been told too often that the Russians had reached the end of their rope, too
often to believe it now without serious doubts. Did we not remember the boastful,
“highsounding phrases of the “all highest” order to start the final battle of
annihilation of the Russian armies, allegedly writhing in their death throes?
All combat soldiers, without difference in rank or command, laughed at the time
(late fall of 1941 ) about the unrealistic “appraisal of an enemy who was
fighting stubbornly for his native soil and country.
How criminal such false judgment proved was demonstrated a few weeks later when
the German dead and debris piled up in front of Kalinin, Moscow, Tula, and Tver.
While all these military and human tragedies occurred, (Goebbels pronounced in,
grand style-far from any danger—that the Berezina had proved Napoleon’s downfall,
but that the Fuhrer’s
talent and military genius would be as surance that nothing of the kind or even
remotely similar could befall the German Army.
High Expectations Fade.
The next few days passed amidst high tension and expectations. The 71st Division
(Lieutenant General von Hartmann) succeeded, without great losses, in crossing
the Don River near Kalach, and by force fully pushing along the Karpovka valley
on 24 and 25 August 1942, reached the southern section of Stalingrad. However,
the final stroke, the end result of all the maneuvering—the capture of the city—did
Throughout the summer of 1942, ever since the battle of annihilation waged by
von Kleist’s First Panzer Army and the Sixth Army against the divisions of
Timoschenko west southwest of Kharkov (12-27 May 1942), the Russians had shown
only token resistance. They only changed these delaying tactics when they
crossed the Don River , near Kalach, then suddenly turned and faced the oncoming
German Sixth Army. The result was the near annihilation of the First Russian
Panzer Army and the Sixty-second Army; leaving hundreds of burned out tanks in a
narrow area near the Don river.
In view of this there was some reason to assume that Staingrad would fall
without too much opposition, and that the serious Russian resistance would
“begin only on the east bank of the Volga.
This hope proved false. It is true we succeeded in capturing more than half of
the city area, and in a rather short time at that. Slowly, however, ”Russian
resistance stiffened. Red reinforcements reached the city from the railhead at
Kotluban and the northern sector was soon the scene of heavy Russian
counterattacks. This northern front connected the right wing of the German
divisions and halted at the Don River (partially utilizing portions of the
Tartar Wall) with the forces that had to secure Stalingrad against the north.
Against this land bridge, generally running in a west-easterly direction, the
Russians launched numerous attacks, it became clear that a breakthrough or even
a deep penetration at this point would force the German troops to yield toward
the south, a wove which would seriously, if not decisively, affect the fate of
However, the attacks against the “land bridge” failed. During the last days of
September 1942 the Russian dared one more large-scale attack, employing many
hundreds of tanks and gaining considerable ground which caused us great worry.
Only a determined counterattack righted the German position, inflicting heavy
losses on the enemy, to include 98 tanks.
The northern sector again was secure thanks to the soldierly qualities of
General Hube and his motorized and tank divisions of the XIV Panzer Army Corps.
Every House a Fortress.
At the same tine, the inner city of StaIingrad was the scene of the most
sanguine fighting. Every house, hut, skyscraper, factory, and silo-everything
became a bristling fortress spewing death and destruction.
Extreme heroism on both sides became a standard performance. Attack and defense,
rushes and counterrushes, fires, excited yelling, mortar and artillery fire, and
flamethrowers-Stalingrad became the living hell for which it is remembered.
Rubble became fortresses; destroyed factories harbored deadly sharpshooters;
behind every lathe and every machine tool lurked swift death. Every corner and
every cranny threatened a sudden burst of automatic rifle tire and tumbling
bodies. Every foot of ground had to be literally torn from the defenders. The
heroism of Stalingrad, whether Russian or German, long will be remembered.
German losses were alarmingly heavy. Slowly our divisions burned out and
replacements had slowed down to a trickle -completely insufficient considering
the losses we took daily. The supply and reinforcement problem became still more
acute when partisans, more often than we could prevent, interrupted or seriously
damaged our only railroad line, a rickety, single
track affair ending at Verkhne Chirskaya on the west bank of the Don. From this
terminal point onward our trucks brought the supplies forward, using a 24-ton
bridge across the river. Now this means of supply started to fall apart, not so
much because of Russian attacks as lack of spare parts. The nearest central
supply depot was at Kharkov and word reached us that they were almost “sold
out’’—fewer and fewer parts were available. As ,a consequence the quartermaster
general of the Sixth Army was forced to fly out Ju 52’s (Junkers transport
planes) to bring in the most needed parts and supplies from far away Germany.
Thus it was with the Sixth German Army, an army in the midst of the most
decisive fighting of the war, an army Germany and the whole world watched—for
many different reasons.
Stalingrad a Caldron.
Gradually the fighting for the land bridge ceased. The Russians realized the
impossibility of breaking through at this front in order to outflank the German
Army from a northerly direction. The city itself however, never was quiet. Time
and again bitter fighting broke out; Entire rows of houses disappeared in dust
and ashes when screaming shells and mines tore into them. Fires raged
irmeseantly, creating a deathly shroud of smoke over the doomed city. Giant
construction girders were torn and bent into strange shapes and forms. Only in
cellars and bunkers was there life. There, troops and command posts huddled
precariously, often in a state of near-asphyxiation when shells ricocheted into
entrances, sending down showers of debris and fiery, searing blasts of air.
Then too there were Russian civilians living like hunted animals in these
warmade holes and cellars. Somehow they had managed to evade evacuation; somehow
they hung on amidst the horrible maelstrom of destruction that raged all around
them and slowly reduced their home city to rubble and smoldering debris. What
else could they do? To try and reach the hinterland over endless steppes,
without food or water, in blinding snowstorms was impossible.
Give Valuable Ground.
At the point where the left wing of the land bridge touched the Don River in a
northwesterly direction, the German main lines ran along the western bank of the
Don. In order to shorten the lines within the Kremenskaya loop of the Don River
it became necessary toward the end of Auguet 1942 to pull back the XI Army Corps
(General Strecker) with its left flank anchored at Melo-Melovskiy and its right
wing touching the Don River at Sirotinskaya.
This was a serious retrograde movement. The commanders were-fully aware
of the advantages thus gained by the Russian forces which, with one stroke,
had quickly and without loss gained not, only a great deal of territory but a
strategically important bridgehead south of the Don River loop.
However, the German withdrawal could not be prevented, for the divisions in this
sector had been in Ihe froritlines for fully 18 months, with no relief,
dwindling supplies, and practically no replacements. The troops were tired,
deadly tired, and the German lines dangerously thin as long as they had to
follow the contours of the Don loop.
The XI German Army Corps—the left wing of the Sixth Army—neighbored on
the 1st Romanian Cavalry Division which in turn was the right wing of the IV
Romanian Army Corps. Next to this Rornanian unit, in the direction of Voronezh,
followed Italian and Hungarian units.
The Hungarians, hereditary enemies of Romanians, wisely were separated from the,
Romanians by the interposed Italian troops. The Italians were forever eying the
hinterland and never were quite sure whose commands carried the most weight –the
Royalist commanding general or the Fascist division commanders. The Hungarians,
light units without rear echelons, fought only spasmodically. Their best
divisions stood, arms ready, not in Russia but in their own province of
Siebenbuergen, facing not Russians but their “allies,” the Rumanians. (In World
War Ithe Germans tried successfully to put some fight and backbone into wavering
allied units by inserting “Korsettstangen” (corset stays) —seasoned and
determined German troops. During the campaign in Russia this proved impossible,
largely because there were not enough German troops for such tasks.
Southward from Stalingrad the Fourth German Panzer Army (consisting largely of
Romanian infantry divisions) under Colonel General Hoth was too far drawn out to
be of help to its northerly units and, moreover, it had to keep contact with the
First German Panzer Army far toward the south on the Terek River.
Beginning in early October were unmistakable signs of buildup in the easily
gained 1942 there a Russian bridgehead area of the Don loop. Extensive, dense
forests east of the Don permitted good camouflage, while two good railroad lines
between the Don and Volga enabled the enemy to resupply and reinforce his troops.
Lack of air support made it impossible for our troops to interfere successfully
with these ominous trends. It became more and more clear that the expected
Russian thrust would aim at the left and right flanks of the Sixth Army
simultaneously, with the push from the north pointing in a south southwesterly
direction and reaching for’s junction with a southern thrust northwestward into
the Chirskaya area, thus closing the ring of steel and fire around the German
Strangely, the Sixth Army was under the direct command of Hitler—safely and
securely tucked away in his headquarters at Angerburgin East Prussia, about
l,OOO miles from this most critical point of the Eastern Front. Hitler ignored
all reports and warnings General Paulus submitted about the Russian in entions
in front of the left and right wings of his army.
Somehow the “greatest” strategist of all times could not be swerved from his
wishful thinking and his famous intuitions. General Paulus was reprimanded
severely for his pessimistic evaluation and predictions and he could consider
himself lucky that his strictly military reports were not interpreted as plain
defeatism—something that many a German general had to face, aswitness Field
Marshal von Bock who had opposed the Stalingrad offensive and was promptly
replaced by the more accommodating Colonel General von Weichs.
General Paulus had pleaded for more troops, especially for the left flank of his
threatened army, to act as combat reserves if and when the’Russians struck at
this very vulnerable point-and all signs pointed toward such a thrust: Hitler
declined the request and added insult to injury by ordering three or four tank
and motorized divisions to be heid unreadiness for an assault on Astrakhan. We
joked a great deal about this “caviar expedition.”
In the same year Hitler wanted to capture Murmansk and Leningrad, while the
First Tank Army and the Seventeenth Army were scheduled to take Baku with its
coveted and much needed oilfields. The “oil brigades” were held in readiness,
and superheavy mortars aIrdady were rolling northward from Sevastopol for the
assault on Leningrad. Strategy toward elimination of danger ,points was
something Hitler no longer believed in—like a dream walker he moved about,
oblivious of realities, forever clinging to wishful thinking.
Hitler Listened Too Late.
Under the pressure of the increasing news on the hostile offensive preparations
Hitler agreed—too late—on 15 November that the 1st Romanian Panzer Division and
the seriously mauled German 22d Panzer Division be held in readiness under
Lieutenant General Heim in the area southwest of Kletskaya. From there they
could deploy as an operational reserve north or westward in case of a Russian
breakthrough. The 1st Romanian Panzer Division consisted of a mixture of
captured French and Czech tanks, the crews of which were in the process of their
Romanian troops, touching on the German left flank, could not be obtained—first,
because there were not enough to go around, and second, because they were only
lightly equipped. They had no tank defense weapon to speak of and all their
proved valor would come to nought once Russian T-84’s faced Romanian cavalry
lances—as had happened once before. (I found out later at Hitler’s headquarters
that the Romanians had pleaded for heavy antitank guns. They had been promised
but were never delivered and a gallant ally suffered grievously because of this
Sometime during October 1942 a general of engineers arrived at our headquarters
with a rash of regimental staffs —somethingwe needed least. He did, however,
bring a company of fortress engineers, troops especially trained for preparing
tank traps, dugouts, gun pits, and other fortifications. We all smiled when our
newly arrived guest, with his many staffs and so pitifully few engineer troops,
told usabout hisspecial task. He was supposed to build concrete
fortifications-of all places here where there was no gravel at all, with the
nearest pits hundreds of miles away. Cement could be had only from Germany. The
poor general looked very much dejected when. he found that out, but he dared not
tell Hitler’s headquarters about this fiasco.
Waning Spirit Is Felt.
At about the time this quixotic event took place the 395th Division in the
Stalingrad city area had orders to take Russian points of resistance in the
northern district. Combat engineers were to precede them, preparing the way, to
assist in the task of taking the strongpoints and then of pushing on toward the
Volga River, there by cutting a Russian resistance pocket in half. Initial
success was all that was gained. Somehow the interplay between combat engineqrs
and succeeding infantry failed. -General Paulus was rightly indignant, for the
elements of success had been at hand. This failure showed a sagging combat
spirit, lack of will, a sense of defeatism—something that would slowiy engulf
the entire doomed Sixth Army when the quartermaster general, Lieutenant General
Wagner, came to us to see for himself about, supply and replacement problems lie
told us about a typical incident with the “greatest commander of all times”:
During the summer of 1942 it becams evident that our eupply of gasoline for all
types of locomotion had been depleted to a point where we had to wait for
supplies from day to dug productionThis woeful fact had to be considered by any
sane commander” for any planned campaign did he not want to risk a complete
breakdown in aviation as well as transport on land and sea, not to speak of the
most vital weapon at the time, the all powerful and decisive tank arm. Wagner
told us that he spoke earnestly to the chief of the general staff, Colonel
General Halder, about this situation, and asked him to bring the matter to the
attention of Hitler himself. Halder agreed but streseed that he would have to
wait for an auspicious moment and for a chance when Hitler would be in a
receptive mood or else he would only be showered with epithete and would have to
endure the wrath and finally Wagner took it upon himself to tell Hitler about
Hitler was growing more impatient by the minute as Wagner spoke to him and
finally and impetuously snapped: ‘Yes, and. . . ? Wagner replied: ‘It meant, my
Fuhrer, that the gasoline and oil situation will have to be seriously considered
in any planned campaign or action.’
This factwal report caused Hitler to breome very sarcastic. Somehow, he no
longer considered anything impossible; artything he wanted or dared was possible,
solely becane he said or thonght so. He skipped over matters of supply,
replacements, distances, losses. Only his will was the limit of the range of
possibilities. He snapped his answer to General Wagner:
‘I did not expect another answer from my generals, thank you. . .’ That was all.
And General Wagner? He shot himself after 20 July 1944-to escape death by
strangulation, as so many officers suffered when Hitler escaped the attempt on
his life and then struck back like a crazed tiger, remembering every little
incident, every honest attempt to make him face facts and not fancy. They were
The scrapers, the yessers, the liars, they were his comrades in arms—and finally
Fuhrer’s Big Promises.
On 9 November 1942 Hitler spoke to his old cronies at the Burgerbrau in Munich.
In front of Stalingrad we sat around our shortwave army radios and listened
incredulously as Hitler yelled amidst deafening roars of approval:
Stalingrad will be taken and I, and only I, will set the time. We shall employ
entirely new shock troop tactics and will thus capture the remainder of the
We sat around our receiving set in stunned silence. I dropped my head and simply
stared ahead of me. ln my opinion something dangerous had happened. A purely
military situation had been reduced to the level of politics, nay, to the level
of two contending political rivals, Hitler and Stalin.
Strategic facts and consideration, human suffering and endurance, supplies,
losses and replacements —all these and many other factors were reduced to an
ugly quarrel between two dictators. The troops, the facts of military life no
longer mattered. Hitler, the man of iron, will tell us when, wherebut will he
tell us how? He never did, never in a sane, workable way. He dreamed up armies,
situations, chances for success —and he and we lost.
I remembered his speech of 1 October 1942 at Berlin:
Now it is our special task to capture Stalingrad. I assure you, once that is
done, nobody will ever be able to wrest that city from us again.
The day after Hitler’s speech at the Burgerbrau in Munich I met General Paulus.
He greeted me with the words:
“Well, what have you got to say about yesterday’s speech?” I answered: “I think
about it exactly the way you do, General.” He left my bunker without another
Bitter Fighting Continues.
In the meantime, fighting in Stalingrad itself continued unabated, especially in
the northern part. Of particular severity was the fighting in the slaughterhouse
area and in and about Spartakovka Settlement, with only limited results. One day
the area would be ours and the next day the Russians would chase us out again.
Toward the close of October 1942 we succeeded, after many tries, in capturing
the tractor works Dshershinski, the gun factory “Red Barricade,” and the “Krasny
Oktyabr’ Works.” Our losses were heavy, irreplaceable, and useless. At the same
time, Russian attacks against the “land bridge” started again without success,
and south of Stalingrad Russian onslaughts mounted in tenacity and power.
Five engineer battalions now reached us by air, among them the 50th of which I
had been commander during peacetime. These five battalions were Hitler’s answer
to the Stalingrad problem; they were the “new” tactics which would change
everything-from bad to good in and around Stalingrad. It must be said in honor
of the troops that they did succeed in breaking down a number of Russian
resistance nests in Stalingrad, but their limited success
changed nothing. The Russian threat around the town, around the perimeter,
remained as before. In a few days these five German battalions were nothing but
cinders—burned out, killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners. I wrote to my wife
at that time: “He is to be blessed, who did not order this senseless slaughter.”
Until late fall we experienced mild weather. Almost overnight, however, heat
gave way to cold, bitter cold. There is no gradual change of seasons, no
compromise; today, tropical heat, tomorrow, snow and more snow.
Great Russian Offensive.
The various commanders had pleaded and warned continuously; but in vain. On 19
November 1942 at about 0400 Russian artillery opened up in a wild, screaming,
screeching crescendo of fury and sound. Before much time passed, long, powerful
columns of Russian tanks, starting from the areas of Kremenskaya and
Serafimovich, ground their way southward and sonthwestward toward the Liska
valley—ground their way through and over the dazed Romanian divisions. A wild
melee ensued. Romanian troops retreated, exposing the left wing of the German
Sixth Army, the XI Army Corps, to the dangers of complete envelopment.
In vain did the XI Corps stand its ground. Its left flank reached into
nothingness and it was only a matter of time before the Russian pinchers would
snap closed. A quick decision was necessary, and ,XI corps plus a part of VIII
Corps had to rose to the east bank of the Don river. The chief of staff, Major
General Schmidt, called me inquiring about possible reserves to seal of
I had nothing, not a single company to throw into the breach.
The operational reserves. the 1st Romanian and 22d German Panzer Divisions,
tried to right matters but failed. They were too weak to counteract Russian
weight in steel and men. But Hitler had found a scapegoat. Lieutenant General
Heim, who was responsible for these two divisions, was arrested and taken to
Moabit in Germany for trial. He was accused of starting his counteroffensive too
late. Among the officer corps this arrest. caused widespread, hostile comment.
Opposition to the “greatest general of all times” grew by leaps and bounds.
An Army Encircled.
By 20 November 1942, only 24 hours later, the Russian push down the Liska valley
had reached Gureyev and its tremendous momentum kept it going south without much
opposition. The thrust from the Beketovka area near the Volga River, carried out
with cavalry divisions, already had started, with the result that General Paulus
wae forced to transfer his headquarters from place to place with Russian
reconnoitering parties only an hour behind him. At Kalach the two Red pinchers
finally snapped shut. The ring had been
forged. Preceding all this tragedy was confusion, alarm, rows of disabled tanks,
stalled transport vehicles, and wounded soldiers hobbling along, not knowing
where to go or what to do. In all this turmoil the German-built bridge over the
Don River at Kalach fell into Russian hands. Russian tanks soon were to surge
over that bridge to unite with the forces from the area of Beketovka.
The debacle meant the closing of tight ring around the Sixth German Army between
the Don and Volga. About 350,000 Germans, and a few thousand Romanians and Hiwis
(Russians in the German Army) now were cut off from any supply lines or direct
contact with other German units. I had lost contact with headquarters and when
my party reached Nizhne-Chirskaya we found that General Paulus and his staff
already had flown into the kessel (ring).
Being outside of the kessel I received instructions from the German chief of
staff of the Fourth Romanian Army, Colonel Wenck, to collect as many troops as
possible and with them try to stem a Russian push toward the south in the
direction of Rostov. In this we succeeded after hard fighting.
After Christmas 1942 I reported to the army group commander von Manstein at
Novocherkassk. There I met my old friend Colonel Busse who told me about
Manstein “If I had not pleaded with him many, many times, he ( Manstein) would
have thrown up his job long ago. He stayed because of his troops, not because of
No Help for Sixth Army.
When I talked to Colonel Busse about the encircled Sixth Army, he told me that
whatever reinforcements they had obtained could not be diverted to Stalingrad.
They were used to stem several Russian breakthroughs at other places. He said
that too many weak points had developed along the f rents, and that f requently
the same divisions had to be rushed from danger point to danger point in order
to stop a Russian attack. That sounded ominous for the sixth Army. I could not
bring myself to believe that any commander in chief would dare the ignominious
lees of such an army of so many tried and proved fighting men. I was wrong.
At engineer headquarters the mood was rather divided. Some held out hope; some
did not. It was different with the staff of the quartermaster corps. There my
old, friend Colonel Finkh held sway. He was rather reserved in hk opinion. An
older general etaff officer denounced Hitler and his cohorts loudly and
vehemently. It was dangerous talk as he and Colonel Finkh found out. Both were
hanged after the attempts on Hitler’s life had failed.
A short time later I received orders to fly into the kessel, accompanied by my
adjutant, Captain Fricke, a newlywed, and my orderly, Otto Blueher. Instead of
75 minutes the flight from Manstein’s headquarters to the Stalingrad
encirclement took fully three hours. We hit blinding, howling snowstorms and had
to climb to more than 14,000 feet. without oxygen
masks. We suffered from terrible earaches and a deadly, tired feeling. Looking
for the airfield at Pitomnik—always watchful of Russian fighter planes—we
finally found it and had to descend so rapidly and steeply that we almost
crashed. Here at this emergency airfield numerous wrecked airplanes dotted the
field, with two giant Condors standing out among the rest of the crippled and
Everybody at Sixth Army Headquarters was cheered by my arrival. I had come from
the “outside’’-from where there were food, warmth, troops, and supplies.
Everybody had expected me to tell them about relief measures-of the number of
divisions on the march toward Stalingrad and how long it would take them to get
there. There were officers who had enterted high hopes and who expected a long
recital of countermeasures taken by
Hitler to relieve “Fortress Stalingrad.”
General Shmidt was perplexed when I told him the truth, yet he controlled
himself and Only said with a show of feigned belief: “We shall not lower our
flag, my friend.” And I, knowing better but eager to soothe his and the other
officers’ feelings, replied with similar aplomb: “Certainly not, Sir, as long as
there is a spark of hope left”! But deep inside of me I no longer believed it.
In order to reach my new headquarters we had to drive over the Volga steppes, an
endless, depressing snow desert with rows of wrecked German vehicles laying by
the roadside, embedded in the snow, sometimes only little mountains indicating
that under that heap of snow a truck, car, or tank rotted away with no hope of
salvage or use. Massengrab-Stalingrad-Massengab-Stalingrad-I repeated to myself
inwardly over and over again. Mass grave and Stalingrad in German have a
So far the Reds had not attacked the kessel itself. They were trying for a
breakthrough between the Don and Donets Rivers. That they were biding their time
and bringing up material and reserves we had no doubt. -We were trapped—unless.