The Scene of Adolf Hitler's Greatest Defeat
|The Barmaley Fountain in Stalingrad|
(For more from Bill Downs, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports)
February 8, 1943
I have just had a look at history—history that is still warm from the heat of almost a million men bent on killing each other in one of the world's most bloody and ferocious battles.
I returned today from the scene of Adolf Hitler's greatest defeat—the wounded city of Stalingrad.
Unexploded mines and bombs still shatter the sudden quiet of Stalingrad's ruined streets tonight. Red Army men standing sentry over the piles of frozen German bodies remark to each other how deathly quiet it is. Only ten days ago the roar of the battle shattered water glasses standing on the tables in Soviet headquarters simply by noise alone.
There are sights and sounds and smells in and around Stalingrad that make you want to weep, and make you want to shout and make you just plain sick to your stomach.
The sad things are the utter, complete and absolute amount of devastation. Try and imagine what four and a half months of bombing would do to a city the size of Providence, RI or Minneapolis or Oklahoma City or Oakland, California. Hitler some days put 2,500 planes over Stalingrad.
There literally is not one single building left in an area of some fifty square miles. Stalingrad is a super-Coventry, only many times more so. London, which I have seen after Britain's heaviest bombings, has nothing to compare with it. Today Stalingrad is simply a pile of bricks and rubble. There are some walls still standing, but what the German bombs missed in Stalingrad, the six-barreled mortars and artillery finished off.
Most of the German dead have been cleaned up. Still, only six days after the last Nazi group was silenced, I still ran into frozen Nazis lying where they were killed behind barricades, in doorways or simply stacked out of the way until details can get around to bury them.
(The people of Stalingrad who now are trying to re-establish their shattered homes don't pay any attention to the bodies anymore. Death has been sitting at their front door too long.)
(The only live Germans now left in the city of Stalingrad itself are in a hospital in the basement of a building which their own planes had ruined. There are two hundred of them, dirty, thin, and suffering from frostbite and malnutrition.)
I talked with a German prisoner, Corporal Helmut Lenz, a 21-year-old youth from Darmstadt, in Central Germany. He rode in to Stalingrad on a German tank as part of Hitler's crack 14th Tank Corps. This German prisoner was so beaten that it was useless to ask him questions. He shifted from one foot to another and looked at the ground. You could almost feel pity for him—until you took another look at what this Nazi and all other Nazis had done to the city.
But that is part of the distasteful side of Russia's great victory at Stalingrad. Here's something more pleasant. The Russian colonel who was conducting us over the battlefield took us to a little peasant village stuck out on the steps fifty miles west of the city. (From a distance, the village looked all the world like a farm village on the plains of South Dakota or in the Texas panhandle.) The colonel said we might be interested in taking a look inside one of the small frame houses.
We walked inside, and there sitting around a couple of tables was the fanciest array of German generals in captivity.
Altogether in this village there were something like a dozen German generals, two Romanian generals, and best of all, the only Nazi field marshal ever to be made a prisoner of war, Friedrich Paulus, the one-time head of Germany's Sixth Army, the conqueror of Poland and Belgium (and frustrated conqueror of Russia.)
Paulus is struggling to maintain a dignity as cold as the Russian winter in his greatest disgrace. His Red Army guards say he doesn't talk to anyone very much, not even his generals. (And although German propaganda has tried to make a martyr out of him, Paulus has not taken Hitler's long-distance hint to commit suicide for National Socialism.) Outside of a rather sad, hang-dog look, the Field Marshal is doing very nicely. And the Russians are taking good care of him and his staff.
One officer explained to me that the Soviet Union is collecting Axis generals, especially field marshals. "You see," he said, "We have an atrocity commission now at work, just like the other Allies. We are investigating atrocities in the Ukraine. Field Marshal Paulus came through the Ukraine. We probably will want to ask him about that later."
However, none of these German generals had lost any of their plumage. In contrast to the German soldiers, these officers were fat and sleek and dressed in new uniforms. They looked a little bit like peacocks in a hen-yard, standing there in those simple farm huts. (Every one of them had on a new uniform and wore all the decorations in full view.)
I asked Lieutenant General Moritz von Drebber, former commander of the 297th Infantry Division, (an obvious question. I asked him what he was doing there. Von Drebber, who looks more like a college professor than a military man, replied very calmly that he surrendered because his units were cut off with no munitions and no food.)
("You see," he said, "the Russians came down from the north and up from the south and we were in the middle.")
(We asked Von Drebber) if Hitler had given him permission to surrender. When Hitler's name was mentioned, one of the generals in the background standing behind the door managed a feeble "heil." It definitely was not a Berlin Sportpalast "heil."
Von Drebber didn't pay any attention to this and explained that he had been ordered by Field Marhsal Paulus to fight until he was pushed back to a certain line. "When I reached that point, I surrendered," he said.
(Von Drebber said that at one time it had been possible for the German Sixth Army to break the Russian encirclement to the west. When we asked him why this was not done, the white-haired Nazi general replied: "On such questions of strategy, you must ask Paulus.")
(However, later the Chief of Staff of Russia's 62nd Army, Lieutenant General Malinin, said that Hitler at first refused to attempt to break the encirclement from the inside because of the loss of prestige. "When the situation became desperate," General Malinin said, "the Germans had lost the vital time factor. The front was then so far away that they had neither supplies nor petrol to establish a break.")
(Thus it would appear that Hitler's prestige—which has caused so much bloodshed and sorrow in the world—is now leading him to defeat.)
Back in Stalingrad after a busy day, I asked one of the Red Army women in charge of the headquarters kitchen if I might have a drink of water.
She went and got me a tin-cup full. It tasted good, and I told her so. "Your vodka and wine is swell," I said, "but this water is the best of all."
She threw back her head and answered: "That water ought to be good. It's Volga water—it has Russian blood in it."
|"Soviet officers pass by German prisoners of war as the battle enters its endgame in January 1943" (source)|
February 9, 1943
The war that is being fought in Russia tonight (while being the most terrible and devastating conflict in military history) is in many ways like any other war. The viewpoint of the ordinary Russian private towards the fighting around Kursk and Kharkov and Rostov tonight is much the same as any American soldier.
The soldiers with whom I spoke in Stalingrad (last Sunday had the soldier's avid interest in food, in women, in getting leave, and seeing his side win, as any buck private in the rear ranks of the United States Army. The Russian private doesn't) don't like the idea of dying any more or less than any other soldier—and consequently they don't talk too much about it. (You talk to them about their battle experiences, and like all good soldiers they don't say a word about their own exploits.) To hear them talk, the tremendous Battle of Stalingrad is merely a collection of little incidents which finally ended up in a German defeat.
For example, one of the crack non-commissioned officers in a Red Army Guards regiment, (a tough youngster whose friends said he had killed at least three Nazis in a hand-to-hand encounter,) would only talk about the way German soldiers admired the Red Army's fur caps. (This soldier was fighting in a factory building in the Red October plant that formed the Russian line in this part of Stalingrad. The German trenches were in front of another building only twelve yards away. I stood atop these German positions and you could throw a stone between two lines.)
At one point in the Stalingrad line, the German and Russian soldiers used to amuse themselves by shouting insults back and forth to each other. My Russian friend said that one German soldier shouted across the lines and offered to exchange his automatic rifle for a Red Army fur cap.
I asked the Russian soldier what his answer was.
"Oh, I answered all right," he said. "I told them to bring along a tank and I would bargain with them."
Then there was the time near the end of the Stalingrad fighting when the Germans were very, very hungry. Only a month before, the Germans had been razzing the Soviet forces, saying the end of the Red Army was in sight. Now the situation was reversed and the Russian soldiers devised their own fun. To show starving German troops how well Soviet kitchens were working, they put whole loaves of bread on the ends of their bayonets and stuck them above the trenches. The German answer was to riddle those loaves of bread with Tommy gun bullets.
These are the stories which will mark themselves in the minds of ordinary soldiers.