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Stalingrad - City on Fire
A new account of the Red Army's desperate attempts to reinforce their foothold on the west bank of the Volga
Despite everything written about Stalingrad it is apparent that there is still new material to be found. This new study by Alexey V. Isaev - Stalingrad - City on Fire (published 2019) - makes extensive use of previously unreleased Soviet archives.
He has combined official accounts and orders with the recollections of soldiers to build a very detailed account of the battle. Since the Red Army also captured substantial quantities of contemporaneous German records he has been able to integrate these alongside the Russian perspective.
The result is a remarkable, blow by blow, new history of the struggle for Stalingrad. Those wanting a full understanding of the battle will find this work invaluable. It is fully referenced and has a selection of useful schematic charts showing how the front line shifted over time, along with a series of tables summarising the relative strengths of the two armies.
The following excerpt describes the Red Army’s operation to land troops in the Latashanka area of the city at the end of October 1942:
The assumption that the capabilities of the 16th Panzer Division, both offensive and defensive, had declined seemed quite logical and corresponded to reality. The ‘trench strength’ over 7km of front of Strehlke’s combat group (an engineer battalion from the 16th Panzer Division named after the battalion commander, Major Ernst-Gunther Strehlke), which occupied positions in the area of Latashanka, was three officers, 23 NCOs and 163 enlisted men. The greater part of them was located in positions along a 4km southern front facing toward Stalingrad. In Latashanka itself there were three scattered strongpoints, the garrisons of which together numbered fifty men.
The Soviet plan called for the preliminary destruction by artillery from the eastern bank of the wooden and earthen pillboxes on the bank, which had been designated as ‘buried tanks’.
The detachment was divided into two groups with different boarding sites for the boats, with the battalion from Afonin’s division in the area of Shadrin Creek and a company from the Volga Military Flotilla in Akhtuba. In its turn, the landing of the detachment was to be split into two trips, with the reinforcement equipment (the 45mm and 37mm guns) being landed together with the horses (!) during the second trip. Reconnaissance identified the most convenient sector for the approach to the bank - 250m north of the railway dead end. There were neither minefields, nor barbed wire or other obstacles.
During the second half of the day on 30 October the detachment was concentrating in the woods near Shadrin Creek. The boarding of the first echelon (the battalion, minus a mortar company, the detachment of automatic riflemen, a medical detachment and a battery of 37mm guns) began at 23.00 and was completed within a hour.
The boarding on the ships and boats was carried out in such a manner that the subunit on each cutter could fight independently following the landing. The first echelon boarded the Revolutionary (with a capacity of 75 men), Labour Discipline (270 men) and Ruilka (75 men) The 8th Air Army was also drawn into the operation: five U-2 aircraft circled the Latashanka area from midnight to 02.00, masking the movement across the river with the noise of their engines.
But the boats were spotted by the enemy after they had covered two-thirds of the river’s main channel. It should be pointed out that it was precisely the most powerful enemy - the tanks from Strehlke’s group - that spotted them. Despite the shelling, all of the vessels reached the bank and within five minutes had disgorged their cargo of men and weaponry.
By 01.00 on 31 October the first echelon had passed the jumping-off point (the mouth of Shadrin Creek) and in 15 minutes had crossed the Volga. But the boats were spotted by the enemy after they had covered two-thirds of the river’s main channel. It should be pointed out that it was precisely the most powerful enemy - the tanks from Strehlke’s group - that spotted them. Despite the shelling, all of the vessels reached the bank and within five minutes had disgorged their cargo of men and weaponry. The Revolutionary was damaged and the Ruilka was sunk on the return journey. The Labour Discipline suffered ten direct hits, but was not put out of action. The barge was secured by the engineers on the right bank of the Volga as an improvised dock.
The boarding of the second echelon (an anti-tank rifle platoon, an engineer platoon, a mortar company and a battery of 45mm guns) began at 02.30 and by 03.45 armoured cutters No. 11 and No. 13 and the Labour Discipline, towing barges, had passed the jumping-off point. However, this time the mortar and artillery fire was so heavy that only the armoured cutters with the engineer platoon and anti-tank rifles could reach the shore. The report by the engineers attached to the landing paints a horrible picture of what happened: ‘Mortar shells exploded on the barge’s deck. Dead horses and people fell overboard and cases of ammunition caught fire.’
In the end, it was not possible to land the battery of 45mm guns and the mortar company (82mm mortars) under fire from German tanks from the bank. The Volga Military Flotilla’s landing company attempted to land from armoured cutter No. 23, but lost up to a quarter of its strength and fell back to Shadrin Creek. In all, they managed to land about 600 men (150 men on the armoured cutters and 450 by other means). In the report by Strehlke’s group the support for the landing by artillery on the eastern bank of the river was singled out. In the 16th Panzer Division’s history it was noted that ‘The Russians supported their landing from the opposite bank with all of their barrels’.
As was later determined by questioning the soldiers and commanders who returned, the landing party' landed without losses.V.F. Bylda, the battalion commander, attacked the centre of Latashanka with a group of automatic riflemen. The battalion commander’s decision to lead the attack was allowable at the tactical level, but led to the loss of command and control of the companies. In the end, the attack proceeded in an uncoordinated fashion and the battalion broke up into three groups: along the northern outskirts, in the centre, and on the south-western outskirts of Latashanka.
All four 37mm guns from the fortified area and a radio were lost on the first day. The loss of the radio immediately complicated coordination with the artillery on the left bank of the Volga. Overall, the matter of communications had become a major problem for the landing. In this regard, there is this note in the report by Strehlke’s group on the results of the fighting in Latashanka: ‘There are obviously capable and intelligent officers among the prisoners. However, their influence on the troops who had lost coordination was weak. The absence of command and control was very closely linked to a shortage of communications equipment.’
However, the landing party was not rapidly eliminated. As was noted in the XIV Panzer Corps’ report, the counter-attack against the landing began only at 16.00, ‘following the arrival of the corps reserve. Sevearl companies from the motorcycle units from the 3rd Motorised and 16th Panzer Divisions, as well as a company of tanks and artillery with artillery forward observers, were included among the reserves.
The Germans real achievement on the first day was holding their positions, which enabled them to rake the river with fire and prevent the arrival of the landing’s second echelon. The situation appeared uncertain from the Soviet side. There were no communications with the landing party and the radio did not reply.
The Germans real achievement on the first day was holding their positions, which enabled them to rake the river with fire and prevent the arrival of the landing’s second echelon. The situation appeared uncertain from the Soviet side. There were no communications with the landing party and the radio did not reply. During the day on 31 October a signals officer was dispatched to the shore on an armoured cutter, who found a detachment of 114 men fighting along the north-eastern outskirts of Latashanka. The location of the remainder remained unknown.
In light of the absence of communications with the landed units, they dispatched the first deputy chief of staff (PNSh-1) of the 1049th Rifle Regiment, Senior Lieutenant Sokov, to the landing party. At 12.30 on 31 October he reached armoured cutter No. 13 together with a landing company (sixty-eight men, plus five men from a reconnaissance company).
As Petty Officer P.N. Oleinik, the assistant to the commander of No. 13, recalled, the conditions for a landing were not favourable: ‘It was the middle of the night, and the night was lit up by the moon, when we, while cursing it, left for the right bank.’ Despite the hurricane of fire from the bank, including from tanks, the cutter docked at the bank and unloaded. As Oleinik recalled, they managed to wait for the proper moment on the squat armoured cutter in the dead zone ‘beyond the sunken trolley car’, which had been sunk earlier in August or October, and the Rudka, which the current had carried downstream. At the same time, the armoured cutter picked up wounded from the shore.
At 05.00 Sokov reported by radio that he had found the first company and had organized an all-round defence together with the landing company that had arrived with it.
A German counterblow with tanks followed during the day of 1 November, which finally cut the landing party off from the shore. The only choice in this situation was to break through in order to link up with friendly forces.
This excerpt from Stalingrad - City on Fire appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.