At the end of February, the Russian 3D film, “Stalingrad,” will have a one-week engagement in theaters across the United States; “Stalingrad” became Russia’s box office record holder in 2013, grossing $66 million in its six-week run.
Seventy-one year ago, February 2, 1943, the The Battle of Stalingrad, finally ended. After five months of unrelenting battle, the retreat of the Nazis became the turning point of World War II.
“It is pure hell here.” This is how soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht characterized their situation after they ended up in the ring formed by the Red Army in the Stalingrad region.
In this “cauldron,” 22 divisions and more than 160 separate units of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army — amounting to 330,000 people — were trapped. Among the trophies of the Soviet troops was an enormous field post office of the adversary, along with diaries and other writings by captured soldiers. The majority of the writings date from November and December of 1942 and the first half of January 1943.
The most informative letters were published in 1944 by the military publishing house of the People’s Commissariat of the Defence of the USSR in a compact volume titled “The Defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad. Confessions of the Enemy.” The print run was not specified, and the book was printed on the simplest paper and released as a paperback not meant to be kept for a long time. The book became a bibliographic rarity.
The letters of the German soldiers are imbued with frankness, an effort to communicate impressions to relatives, an effort to share the truth about the combats in the Stalingrad region, and soldiers’ assessment of the strength of the Red Army. These letters and diaries are lively and direct testimonials about the war by those who were on the front line, beyond the trenches and bunkers.
“. . . Stalingrad is hell on earth—Verdun, beautiful Verdun, with new weapons. We attack on a daily basis. If in the morning we manage to advance 20 metres, in the evening the Russians throw us backward. . . .”
From a letter from Private First Class Walter Oppermann, no. 44111, to his brother, November 18, 1942.
“ . . . When we got to Stalingrad, there were 140 of us, but by September 1, after two weeks of battle, only 16 remained. All the rest were wounded and killed. We don’t have a single officer, and the non-commissioned officer had to take over the command of the division. Up to a thousand wounded soldiers a day are taken back to the rear from Stalingrad. . . .”
From a letter from soldier Heinrich Malchus, no. 17189, to Private First Class Karl Weitzel, November 13, 1942.
“ . . . It is pure hell here. There are barely 30 men in the company. We have never been through anything like this. Unfortunately, I can’t write everything to you. If fate allows it, someday I will tell you about it. Stalingrad is a grave for the German soldiers. The number of soldiers’ cemeteries is growing... .”
From a letter from Senior Lance Corporal Joseph Tzimach, no. 27800, to his parents, November 20, 1942.
“ . . . November 19. If we lose this war, they’ll take revenge on us for everything we did. We killed thousands of Russians and Jews with wives and children around Kiev and Kharkov. This is simply unbelievable. But it is for precisely this reason that we need to exert all our strength in order to win the war.
December 6. The weather is getting worse and worse. Clothing freezes on our bodies. We haven’t eaten or slept in three days. Fritz is telling me about a conversation he heard: the soldiers prefer to defect or surrender to captivity. . . .”
From the diary of Field Gendarmerie Sergeant Helmut Megenburg.
“ . . . Yesterday we got vodka. At that time we actually cut up a dog, and the vodka really came in handy. Hetti, I have already cut up four dogs, yet my comrades can’t eat their fill. One day I shot a magpie and cooked it. . . .”
From a letter from soldier Otto Zechtig, 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 227th Infantry Regiment of the 100th Light Infantry Division, no. 10521 V, to Hetti Kaminskaya, December 29, 1942.
“ . . . January 5. Our division has a cemetery near Stalingrad where more than 1,000 people are buried. It’s just terrible. People who are now sent from transport units to the infantry are as good as sentenced to death.
January 15. There is no way out, nor will there be a way out, of the cauldron. From time to time mines explode around us. . . .”
From the diary of Officer F. P. of the 8th Light Small-Arms Force of the 212th Regiment.
“ . . . How wonderfully we could live if it weren’t for this damned war! But now we have to roam around this horrible Russia, and for what? When I think about this, I’m ready to howl from annoyance and rage. . . .”
From a letter from Senior Lance Corporal Arno Bitz of the 87th Artillery Regiment of the 113th Infantry Division, no. 28329 D, to his fiancée, December 29, 1942.
“ . . . January 15. . . . In just the last two days, our battalion has lost 60 killed, injured and frostbitten men; more than 30 men have escaped; there is only enough ammunition to last until evening; the soldiers have not eaten at all in three days, and many of them have frostbitten feet. A question looms before us: what should be done? On the morning of January 10 we read a pamphlet that contained an ultimatum. This could not fail to influence our decision. We decided to give ourselves up to capture in order to save our soldiers’ lives. . . .”
From the testimony of captured Captain Kurt Mandelhelm, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 518th Infantry Regiment of the 295th Infantry Division, and his adjutant, Lieutenant Karl Gottschaldt, January 15, 1943.
“ . . . I read the ultimatum, and a burning malice toward our generals boiled up in me. They evidently decided to bury us in this hellish place once and for all. Let the generals and officers fight the war themselves. I’m sick of this. I’ve had my fill. . . .”
From the testimony of captured Private First Class Joseph Schwarz, 10th Company of the 131st Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division, January 2, 1943.
“. . . The operation to surround and liquidate the German 6th Army is a strategic masterpiece. The defeat of the German troops in the vicinity of Stalingrad will have a major influence on how the war proceeds. Making up for colossal losses in people, equipment and ammunition sustained by the German armed forces as a result of the perishing of the 6th Army will require huge effort and a lot of time. . . .”
From the testimony of Lieutenant General Alexander von Daniel, commander of the German 376th Infantry Division.
First published in Russian in File.rf.