Stalingrad. The word resounded around the world 70 years ago, and is now one of the most significant symbols of heroism and selflessness of the Soviet people. The city on the streets of which events unfolded in the autumn of 1942, and which became a turning point in the Second World War. During Soviet times this momentous page of history was varnished from all sides, as a result of which the entire Stalingrad battle left but a few notions in the general consciousness: Pavlov’s House which was not captured by the enemy, Mamaev Kurgan which passed from hand to hand many times, and the basement of the department store where the German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus unexpectedly met with fighters of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army. In this book, I will try to slightly expand the «geography» of heroic events, and most importantly, to recall those fighters and commanders of the Red Army, thanks to which the word «Stalingrad» became the analogue of «Kuzma's mother» for all uninvited guests from the West, and the eponymous toponym forever registered on the streets and squares of European cities.
At the end of the «training» summer of 1942, not all was clear. The efficient Wehrmacht machine and the elite 6th Army under General of Panzer Troops Friedrich Paulus, captured a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Don, and the next day, August 23, directed the first strike in the direction of Stalingrad. Units of 16th Panzer Division, covered on the flanks by 3rd and 60th Motorized Divisions, reached the Volga River north of Stalingrad in the vicinity of the villages of Latoshinka, Rynok and Spartakovka, cutting the Stalingrad front in two. The German units blocked the Stalingrad-Moscow railway, destroyed an airfield in the Rynok village area, tanks kept the Volga under fire, and traffic in that area became possible only at night.
On the same day, August 23rd, 4th Air Fleet began an intimidation campaign: a carpet bombing of Stalingrad. For several days in a row, the Germans methodically tried to destroy the city and killed the civilian population. The brick «skyscrapers» of the center and factory districts received high-explosive bombs, while numerous quarters of wooden one-story buildings were hit with incendiaries. The maternity and the hospital were on fire, the water supply did not work. Maddened by flames and explosions, women and children rushed to the shore, blocking the already overloaded Army crossings. There, on the shore in the city center, formed a huge cluster of wounded, refugees and surviving residents, who tried to escape from the fire, crossing the Volga. Upstream, burning oil from the destroyed tanks of the refinery flowed to the Volga, and railway cars with Katyusha rocket shells burned and exploded.
The center of Stalingrad was almost completely destroyed and there were hundreds of casualties. The quarters of wooden houses of the Voroshilov district partially burnt out. Only in the workers' villages untouched by fire did the civilians hastily dig cracks and hide the surviving items. Until mid-September, evacuation and rescue of survivors continued whereas the streets of the dead city gradually emptied. A few days later, the burnt structures of buildings in the central sector turned into strongholds and firing points.
Within a month the bloodless 62nd Army retreated to Stalingrad under the assaults of Paulus's 6th Army and Hoth's 4th Panzer Army. On September 5, the Army leadership actually passed from commander Major-General A.I. Lopatin, to chief of staff Major-General N.I. Krylov. On September 8-9, the Germans captured Gorodishche, Aleksandrovka, Verkhnyaya Yelshanka and Sadovaya station.
From the south-west, units of 4th Panzer Army (24th Panzer, 94th Infantry and 29th Motorized Divisions) approached the Voroshilov district of Stalingrad, cutting off the Soviet 62nd Army from Shumilov's 64th in the suburbs of Minina and Kuporosnoe. Luftwaffe aircraft completely dominated the sky, the heights on the outskirts were occupied by German spotters, who had a commanding view of the city stretching along the Volga.
On September 12, the day before the German offensive, the command of the 62nd army was taken by Lieutenant-General Vasily Chuikov. By the evening, having crossed into the city, he arrived at the command post of the Army on Mamaev Kurgan, where he met with the chief of staff N.I. Krylov and the division commissar K.A. Gurov. The meeting of the Military Council of the army went on until late, the commanders dispersed only at three in the morning. But they did not have to sleep for a long time.
On September 13, at 6:45 Moscow time, began the first assault on Stalingrad. Units of 6th Army's LI Army Corps (295th and 71st Infantry Divisions, reinforced with self-propelled artillery «Stugs» from 244th and 245th assault gun battalions (13 kz and 11 lg in total), attacking from the Razgulyaevka and Pytnaia junctions, reached the outskirts of the city west of the center of Stalingrad, with heavy fighting, up to the area of height 112.5 and the complex of buildings of the Stalingrad Aviation School, the so-called Aviagorodok (Air town). Towards the evening, the front of 62nd Army defending the city was broken: the main strike on the first day of the assault was taken by units of 23rd Tank Corps, under Major-General A.F. Popov.
LI Army Corps committed 71st and 295th Infantry Divisions to attack in narrow wedges the enemy fortifications west of Stalingrad along the Tatar Wall. The Russians resisted extremely stubbornly. Bringing up new forces, and with especially strong support of artillery and mortars, they fought to the last man in well-prepared and fortified positions. In the heavy struggle at the Tatar Wall, the height area of the barracks was captured before noon and several Russian counterattacks were repelled. 389th Infantry Division went on the offensive, covering the eastern flank of the attacking wedges, took the railway line 3.5 km southeast of Gorodishche and 1.5 km south of Razgulyaevka station, fighting with a stubbornly defending opponent.
Intelligence reports of LI Army Corps fairly accurately described the composition of the units that occupied positions on the right flank and in the center of defense of the 62 Army:
«remnants of 112th, 315th and 399th Rifle Divisions, 10th NKVD Division, 2nd, 9th, 38th, 115th, 149th Motorized Rifle Brigades, 42nd Rifle Brigade, 6th Tank Brigade, 6th Guards Tank Brigade (formerly facing the right-wing neighbor, replenished with units from 6th Tank Brigade, according to the testimony of the sergeant who defected with a T-34 tank there are 4 more tanks in it)."
The remnants of the armored and motorized rifle brigades of 23rd Tank Corps retreated to the embankment of the Tatar Wall. According to the corps, after a fierce battle, the amount of materiel in the tank brigades was deplorable. In 6th Guards Tank Brigade, by the end of the first day of the German offensive, 4 T-34 tanks remained (which confirms the testimony of the defector), 2 T-70 tanks, the brigade lost 9 vehicles. In 189th Tank Brigade, there were 2 T-34s, 4 T-70s and one T-60 in service, 7 tanks destroyed. 27th Tank Brigade, which was fighting with its twenty “thirty-fours”, T-70 and T-60 dug in the ground lost all of them as the territory was occupied by the Germans. Only 6 “thirty-four” remained in 6th Tank Brigade, which lost 13 tanks.
On the very first day of the German assault was killed Vladimir Petrovich Khazov, company commander in 6th Tank Brigade. The twenty-four-year-old senior lieutenant was a tank ace known throughout the country, his company destroyed 31 German tanks during the June battles, and he personally chalked up 16. His portrait was printed in major newspapers, and in early August he received the brand new “thirty-four” at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory under the lenses of the cameramen. In November, Khazov was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, but by then it turned out that he had perished. The exact date could not be established for a long time: in different sources it was noted either October 13 or November 13. The latter one was stamped on a memorial plate on Mamaev Kurgan. However, the fighting report of the brigade provides a definite answer: Senior Lieutenant Khazov was killed on September 13, 1942. The circumstances are known from the memoirs of a veteran of the brigade, V.I. Egorov. In the morning, during an aerial bombardment, Khazov was seriously wounded by a shrapnel in the thigh. The battalion’s command sent a T-60 for his evacuation. On the way back, the light tank dusting along a wide street of the workers’ village was spotted by nine Junkers Ju 87. Khazov and the medical officer accompanying him were killed by machine gun fire, the T-60 was destroyed by a precisely dropped bomb.
Popov, Commander of 23rd Tank Corps, reported to army headquarters in the evening:
«The enemy continues to push back our units east and southeast… By 17:00 the enemy reached the line of the orchards, Ovrazhnaya grove, Aviagorodok… At 17:00 I had to change the location of the HQ in the absence of answers to my request to the commander of 62nd Army…»
After dark, the command post of the Army also had to be moved, wires were torn from constant shelling and bombing of the Mamaev Kurgan and communication with units was almost lost by the evening. The Air town, located a couple of kilometers from the dugouts of the command post, was captured by the Germans.
Using several cars, circling around funnels, fallen poles and cobwebs of wires, the headquarters moved to a new place: the underground command post at 3, Pushkin Street.
The City Center, where the command post of the 62nd army and the main river crossing area were located, were virtually unprotected. The only defense consisted in the 272nd NKVD Rifle Regiment, deployed in the area of the Komsomol Garden, and the 28th Detachment of Tank Destroyer Dogs in the grove by the Central Railway Station. In the ruins of the station itself and in the railway depot, a few men from the 84th Construction Battalion were hastily preparing firing points. In the area of the main river landing stage (crossing No. 1), 115 cadets of the Ordzhonikidze School and several men from the 79th Border Guards Regiment occupied hastily prepared defense positions. A group of about 45 NKVD troops was also deployed in the area of 9 January Square. An anti-aircraft armored train was running along the Volga coast. Near the monument to pilot Khodzunov at river crossing No. 2, several detachments from the 748th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment were pointing their guns at the sky, which was soon to swarm with German bombers.
These were the only forces defending the center of the city.
A few kilometers south, beyond the small Tsaritsa River, the situation was hardly better: the 35th Guards Rifle Division, 244th Rifle Division, 10th Rifle Brigade, 271st NKVD Regiment and 20th Motorized Rifle Brigade, existed only on the paper of the operational reports and maps. The actual number of troops was only a few hundred «active bayonets», as the Red Army terminology puts it. The only mobile reserve consisted of the 133rd Tank Brigade (11 KV-1 heavy tanks) and was protecting the approaches to the Grain Elevator.
These two sectors, separated by the Tsaritsa River, were the target of the first German offensive in the city. But the day actually began by a hastily performed Soviet spoiling attack.
September 14: The longest day
At 0330 hours on Monday, September 14, 1942, the 272nd NKVD Regiment, one regiment of the 399th Rifle Division and the few remaining tanks of the 6th Tank Brigade tried to recapture the territory lost the day before. They had to attack without reconnaissance, artillery or aircraft support, and without any unit to cover their flanks. Needless to say, this attack was not successful.
Right after this doomed offensive by 62nd Army, the infantry and tank divisions of the two German armies began their advance to the city. Chuikov and his staff knew only too well that they couldn't expect any reinforcements before 13th Guards Rifle Division could reach the battlefield: it was necessary to hold out for a whole day.
62nd Army's entire sector from Mamaev Kurgan to the Central Station was open. At 1030, after aircraft and artillery bombardments, the battalions of the 71st and 295th Infantry Divisions, along with Stug assault guns, moved in. Their task was simple: to reach the Volga in the main crossing area.
One of the three remaining «thirty-fours» of the 6th TBR was the tank of Lieutenant Mikhail Vlasenko. On the eve of ten hours in a row, constantly changing positions between height 112.5 and the airfield village, Vlasenko's crew was fighting. The command of the 6th TBR (command post in the area of Aviagorodka) hastily evacuated to the area of crossings, the brigade's tanks were left without control. Vlasenko's car broke the caterpillar and jammed the tower. Unable to bear the tension of the battle, charging I. E. Makeov left the tank and fled. After repairing the track under fire and maneuvering under bombs, the crew (driver-mechanic I. M. Lyashenko and the radio operator Norkin, initials are not known) of the damaged car left the battle and took a position near the buildings of the Military and political school. The night ended before it began, and early in the morning, the twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant, looking with bloodshot eyes at the diving «Ju-87», thought wistfully that he would not be able to survive the day. The author — the episode of the battle is described in the memoirs of L. I. Tseluiko).
The dust from the bombing had not yet settled down that the forward detachments of 71st Infantry Division reached the railway separating the small wooden houses of the outskirts of Stalingrad from the brick high buildings of the City Center. Similarly, the battalions of 295th Infantry Division advanced along the southern slopes of Mamaev Kurgan and the Dolgy and Krutoy ravines that led directly to the Volga.
Following the reconnaissance battalion in armored personnel carriers and trucks, and supported by self-propelled guns, the main assault groups of the 71st Infantry Division crossed the railway tracks north of the Central Station and continued to move along the empty streets with their shell holes and rubble, heading for the Volga. Skirmishes erupted occasionally with a few defenders of the city, and then the advance froze while the Stukas took care of the targets, marked by the infantry using rocket flares. Along their way the Germans left machine-gun and artillery nests at important intersections, with a wide line of fire through the city streets.
German reconnaissance infiltrated through the porous Soviet positions in the Central Station area and reached the Fallen Fighters Square, near the entrance to 62nd Army's command post on Pushkin Street. The staff personnel and soldiers of the Army detachment opened fire. Without responding, the APCs of the German reconnaissance battalion rushed further on to the Volga, at crossing No. 2. One of the armored vehicles drove right up to the descent to the Astrakhan Bridge across the Tsaritsa River, where it was destroyed by a mine.
The main strike group of the 71st Infantry Division, the 194th Infantry Regiment and the «Stugs» of the 244th Division moved along the Kiev and Kursk streets in the direction of high-rise buildings on the shore: the three «Houses of Specialists» and the building of the State Bank, from which opened a commanding view on the 62nd Army river crossings.
At 1515 hours, the first battalion of the 194th regiment of the 71st infantry division, under the command of Captain Hindelang, reached the Volga in the center of Stalingrad and captured the «houses of specialists» and the State Bank. Then under cover of the buildings, a mortar company was deployed, machine-gun nests were dug in, and artillery spotters were set on the upper floors. Regiment commander Colonel Roske reported by telephone to the division headquarters:
«The 194th Grenadier Regiment reached the Volga at 1515 hours."
This was the first time the Volga was reached inside the city.
Four months later, and not far from this location, the same Colonel Roske was to lead the negotiations with the Soviets on behalf of 6th Army’s Command, for the surrender of the main German pocket of resistance in Stalingrad.
From the reports of the 62nd Army, describing the second day of the German assault known:
«At 14:00 separate groups of gunmen on the beams from a height of 112.5 leaked to the city and around 16:30 went to the station, in the city there are fights…»
Reports of the 79th border regiment, troops which were guarding the pier, much more detailed:
«By 13:00 intelligence reported that the enemy occupied the railway station Stalingrad-I, the machine gunners of the enemy, unopposed, advancing in the direction of the crossings.
By 14:00, second Lieutenant Kukharenko reported: «I joined the battle with the machine gunners, and I am moving back to the positions in the area of crossing No. 1." At 14:30, Lieutenant Kukharenko retired to firing positions.
By this time, up to 25 soldiers and officers of the enemy, firing with machine guns from a distance of 150 meters, were met with fire from the defenders; having lost several people killed, they sat in the ruins of the building, continuing to fire at the defenders. The enemy was pulling up forces, but its desire to advance was reflected by the fire of outposts.
By 16: 30, the second group of submachine gunners began operations against the defenders of crossing No. 2, with up to three PTRs and one large-caliber machine gun installed in the ruins of one of the houses, firing at the defenders and crossing facilities on the river. Only by 18: 00 calculations of the reserve Outpost opened fire on the enemy from mortars, as well as fire from a large-caliber machine gun taken from one of the wagons to be crossed the river.
Throughout the battle, the enemy was waged with unrelenting force. In order to quickly repel the onslaught of the enemy, the military Commissar of the battalion led a group of soldiers defending the crossing number 1, in a counterattack, the counter-attackers retreated to their positions. By 18: 30, a representative of the 13th Guards SD informed the military Commissar of the battalion that at 22:00 parts of this unit would be transferred to the right Bank for actions to destroy the machine gunners.
It was decided that the actions of the outposts should provide a bridgehead for the landing of crossing units. This was accomplished by fighting."
As the first battalion entrenched at the Houses of Specialists, fire exchanges could also be heard in the area of the brewery and the complex of buildings of the NKVD. This area was defended by a composite group of NKVD and Red Army soldiers (90 men), with three Degtiarev machine-guns and about a dozen PPSh submachine guns, led by State Security Lieutenant Ivan Petrakov.
The German machine guns firing from the State Bank pressed the soldiers into the ground, mortar shells began to fall around. The remainders of Petrakov’s group gathered on the shore under cover of the steep bank in the area of Crossing number 1.
Near the brewery, the Germans redeployed the Soviet 7.62-mm gun they just captured and began firing at the crossing.
Frightened civilians were sent down to the Volga with an offer to surrender.
From the area of the captured buildings came a barking speech with three clearly distinguishable words: «schwein», «bul-bul» and «volga». Petrakov’s fighters remained unmoved.
Yet by the evening, the situation as described in German reports seemed somewhat “cloudier”. The situation maps and sketches of the battalions of the 194th Infantry Regiment testified to increasing resistance: red arrows appeared from nowhere in the already cleared areas. In the sector of the station, T-34s and Soviet infantry were spotted. The German bombers called up by radio bombed the building of the central station and the railway tracks nearby. Despite the purple smoke it deployed there, the battalion of Captain Munich suffered casualties from friendly bombing by the Luftwaffe. Another battalion in the area of the market square came under the fire of the «Stalin organs», whose positions were immediately shelled in return by German artillery fire.
But it was nothing compared to what their Soviet opponents faced.
The underground command post of the 62nd Army was crowded. Commander Chuikov, Chief of Staff Krylov and a Commissar Gurov conferred in the open, on the street. From the north, gunfire and violent explosions could be heard, the thunder of the battle approaching. Exhausted messengers reported: German infantry on Mamaev Kurgan, enemy machine gunners at the station, heavy tanks spotted near the «specialist houses» [these were actually Stugs], both river crossings under heavy fire.
The commander of the destroyed 6th Tank Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Khopko, received a blame while reporting to Chuikov: the equipment was lost, the command staff escaped, and the brigade’s HQ was set up on the shore, behind the Army HQ! The only surviving tank of the whole brigade stood on Gogol Street, between the Station and the Square of the Fallen Fighters. Its chassis was damaged, but the gun still worked. The brigade commander received the task to regroup the «horseless» tankmen and recapture the Central Station, using the tank in defense. The tankmen were joined in their attack by the soldiers of the army detachment.
By 1800 hours, the fighters of the consolidated regiment of 112th Rifle Division of Captain Aseev and the 269th NKVD Regiment of Colonel Kapranov, moving warily along the northern slopes of Mamaev Kurgan, approached the hill just captured by the Germans. Water tanks were visible on Height 102, binoculars and stereo tubes shone in torn holes. Yesterday, the command post of the 62nd Army was located here, and now the German infantrymen of the 295th Division were hastily digging in.
A Katyusha volley of rockets from the eastern shore covered the area of the water tanks, dust from explosions enveloped the top of the mound. Aseev gave the signal with a green rocket and the Soviet soldiers ran forward to the German trenches, before the protective shroud of dust settled down. Somewhere to the right, recovering from the rocket fire, the MG-34s woke up but then fell silent again in grenade explosions. The Germans moved away from the tanks, dragging away the wounded, while Junkers appeared in the sky and began methodically bombing the height.
Despite the desperate Soviet counterattacks, it seemed nothing could remove the Germans from the main river crossing areas in the center of Stalingrad: a little more, and the arriving General Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division would simply have nowhere to cross. Rightly assessing this critical moment, Chuikov decided to transfer from the Elevator area to the city center his very last reserve: a battalion of tanks of the 133rd Heavy Tank Brigade.
The KV-1 tanks were met at the Astrakhan bridge by the deputy commander, Major Vainrub, who led three of them right up to the «houses of specialists», whereas the others remained behind to cover the army headquarters and the streets leading to the Volga. The heavy tanks opened fire on the southern «house of specialists," trying to suppress the German machine guns entrenched there. They were assisted by the crews of anti-aircraft guns. From the area of the monument to Kholzunov, long bursts of DShK heavy machine guns extended towards the buildings that rose over the Volga bank.
The auxiliary command post of the 62nd Army located on the shore at Crossing No. 1 was given the task to ensure at all costs the landing of the 13th Guards Division. As it went dark, under the steep bank near the State Bank captured by the Germans, several dozen security officers, policemen and border guards gathered: the detachment of State Security Lieutenant Petrakov.
German rockets took off from the roofs of the coastal buildings, illuminating the bank of the river, pitted with craters. Suddenly, the Germans noticed something, and the black embrasures of the windows of the State Bank flashed with machine gun shots. Tracers stretched from the neighboring «house of specialists» in the direction of the river.
A leap, and Petrakov’s fighters found themselves around the 7.62 mm gun captured by the Germans a few hours ago. A short melee, swearing, wheezing. The remaining Soviet soldiers turned the gun towards the State Bank, Petrakov aimed through the barrel and opened fire.
At 2200 hours the first battalion of the 42nd Rifle Regiment, 13th Guards Division, began crossing to Stalingrad.
To be continued.
Translated by Anton Joly.