Soon after five in the morning, on Thursday, 19 November (1942), the telephone rang in the Sixth Army headquarters. The operations staff were housed in Golubinsky, a large Cossack village on the right bank of the Don. Outside, it had started to snow, which, combined with freezing fog, prevented sentries from seeing more than a few yards.

The call was from Lieutenant Gerhard Stock, the javelin gold-medallist with the Romanian IV Corps on the Kletskaya sector. His message was logged in the war diary: ‘According to the statement of a Russian officer captured in the area of the 1st Romanian Cavalry Division, the expected attack should start today at five o’clock’. Since there was still no other sign of the offensive starting, and it was after five, the duty officer did not wake up the Army Chief of Staff. From: Stalingrad- The Fateful Seige: 1942-1943 by Antony Beever, Viking (1998).

At 5:20 am, the Soviets opened up their first barrage of artillery and mortar fire. Operation Uranus was underway and the tide of World War Two had suddenly turned irrevocably against the German Empire.

The Germans had been laying siege to Stalingrad since August 23rd, the ‘day which never be forgotten’. Luftwaffe aircraft dropped hundreds of incendiary bombs, burning nearly all the wooden structures to the ground and leaving thousands buried in rubble. But, in the intervening three months, the Germans had been unable to dislodge the dogged defenders of the city and force them to retreat across the Volga.

Meanwhile Stalin had been quietly building up his forces for a counterattack. The Soviets charged into the German lines south of Stalingrad and into the Romanian lines that were stretched out to the West along the River Don. Soon the entire Sixth Army of the Third Reich was encircled in a Kessel. Over a quarter million Axis soldiers were cut off from their land supply routes and winter was setting in.

What followed was one of the worst catastrophes in military history, and an example of human suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.

The Axis forces were spread out on the Steppe where very few trees grow. The ground soon froze so solidly that even raging fires could not soften the ground enough to dig bunkers or foxholes for shelter against the whipping winds and protection against artillery fire and aerial bombardment.

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Many soldiers had still not received proper winter clothing before the encirclement, so they resorted to improvisation with varying degrees of success…a steel helmet became like a freezer compartment, so they wore puttees, scarves, and even Russian foot bandages wrapped round their heads as insulation. Their desperation for fur gloves led them to kill stray dogs and skin them.

’Miserably frozen at night’ (an) artillery officer who had withdrawn across the Don wrote in his diary, ‘How long are we expected to sleep in the open? The body won’t stand it much more. On top of that the filth and the lice!!!’.

Infections spread rapidly. Dysentery soon had debilitating and demoralizing effect…

Kurt Reuber was a doctor/pastor attached to the 16th Panzer Division. He is most famous for drawing the ‘Madonna of Stalingrad’ (at right)on the back of map of Russia.

In a letter home, he wrote, “We squat together in a hole dug out of the side of a gully in the steppe. The most meagre and badly equipped dugout. Dirt and clay. Nothing can be made of it…We’re surrounded by a sad landscape, monotonous and melancholic. Winter weather in varying degrees of cold. Snow, heavy rain, frost then sudden thaw. At night you get mice running across your face.”

Reuber’s situation was tragic. We had returned to his unit just two days before the Kessel had closed, and he would later die in a Russian gulag.

The Battle of Stalingrad stands for many things: heroic resistance, the turning of tide, the brutality of man against man. But what really struck me when reading Beevor’s book was the uniquely human ways the participants strove to make sense of a world crashing down upon them:

The commanding officer of Dr. Kurt Reuber…had a particularly large bunker dug so he could fit a piano inside, which had been abandoned by another division. And there, underground, unheard above and muffled by the earth walls, he played Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. His interpretation was beautiful, but also, it seems, obsessive. ‘The commanding officer played on, even when the walls trembled from bombardments and soil trickled down.’ He even continued to play when officers came in to report on the fighting outside.”

For me, there is something haunting and, yet, comforting about that.

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