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Survivors of Stalingrad
Eyewitness Accounts from the 6th Army, 1942–1943
This week’s excerpt comes from a collection that was first published in Germany in 2012. Many of the thirty-nine accounts had been previously published individually, in veteran’s newsletters for example. The one connecting thread between all the accounts here is that the men involved were incredibly lucky simply to survive. Some were luckier than others - they got flown out, albeit wounded. Others suffered as POWS and were still amongst the lucky minority to survive and return to Germany.
Survivors of Stalingrad provides vivid insights into the appalling conditions in which so many men fought and held on. Taken together these accounts give a rounded picture of the last terrible days inside the Kessel.
Andreas Engel was a Staff Sergeant with the 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. In mid-November 1942 they were posted some 60 kilometres from Stalingrad. When the Red Army began their push for encirclement on the 19th there was much confused fighting. Engels was ordered forward into what had become No Man’s Land to try to locate other Wehrmacht units:
Suddenly two fighter aircraft approached at low level. I thought they were German by the black crosses. We were therefore flabbergasted when they opened fire on us. I was hit in the upper left thigh: instinctively I left myself drop free of the vehicle.
My colleague Michels had been hit in the heel and he also lay on the Rollbahn. The terrain was sloping and fortunately our vehicle came to a stop about 100 metres away. As we observed with relief, the ammunition was undamaged.
From ahead a disorderly mob of soldiers in earth-brown uniforms was approaching. Our assumption that these were Russians was happily disproved: they were Romanians, deserting. They applied emergency dressings and drove our vehicle back to us. Only the radiator and tyres had been shot up. At our request they lifted us back into the motor and we set off back, stopping every 50 metres, and so reached our baggage-train.
My colleague Wetzlar, lorry-section leader, drove me to the nearest dressing station. After two hours this was hastily abandoned: we were to be transported out from Kalatch. We never got there, for the Russians had taken it and cut off our way to the west. The ambulance driver turned about and delivered us in the middle of the night to the Army Casualty Collection Centre.
Scarcely had I been bedded down on straw than I heard MG fire. Whoever could still walk fled this inhospitable place. There were only a few of us who seemed to have been left to an uncertain fate. We had a sergeant, who had taken over the protection of the collection centre with a platoon, to thank that we got out of there. He stopped some fleeing vehicles at gunpoint, had them load us aboard and head back eastwards.
I was delivered to the dressing station of 100th Jager Division and here I lay until Christmas in a primitive, cold shack. I was not doing well: the wound had not been treated properly and a phlegmone (a suppurating infection of the soft areas) had set in. Every day the rations were reduced: a slice of bread and now and again some horsemeat broth. Morale was at rock-bottom.
After Christmas I crept out in the hope of convincing a passing vehicle of our Division to take me out of this desolate place. If I was going to die, then better amongst the colleagues of my unit! When a vehicle appeared I dragged myself on to the roadway, forcing it to stop: it was an anti-aircraft signals truck.
An officer made us undertake to say nothing about our experiences and the situation in the Pocket - this was a Fuhrer-order!
I did not like it, but it did not interest me particularly, for the great fortune to be out of it outweighed everything.
The squad leader, a sergeant, brought me to the nearest airfield. The crowd here was unimaginable! My hopes sank to zero. Next morning an aircraft came: at gunpoint the crew stopped the machine from being stormed. As a wounded man unable to walk I had the great fortune to secure a place and be flown out.
A little later our machine landed on a military air strip. We heaved a sigh of relief, for we were beyond Russian AA guns and fighters. The Stalingrad Pocket lay like a chaotic nightmare behind us. The crew left the aircraft: medical personnel appeared and freed us from the paper sacks in which we had been wrapped. A nearby stone barracks took us in.
An officer made us undertake to say nothing about our experiences and the situation in the Pocket - this was a Fuhrer-order! I did not like it, but it did not interest me particularly, for the great fortune to be out of it outweighed everything.
Eat, sleep and not freeze anymore — that is what we wanted! We did not have to wait long for food. I weighed only 89 pounds and had no time to lose. My stomach was unable to retain the ‘chicken and rice’ which I gobbled up and the doctor quickly sent for ‘had a very loud conversation’ with the orderly who had apparently served it to me against medical instructions.
A few hours later we made a journey to a Luftwaffe field hospital. The luxury was inconceivable for an infantryman —I thought I must be in heaven! Deloused, a snow-white bed and rations which got better with every passing day. I could have stayed here for months but the front was getting closer and we were moved to Stalino.
Here a doctor decided I was not fit to be transported. This made me unhappy, for to be on the safe side I wanted to ‘gain territory’.
With the help of a nurse, who had the fullest understanding of my situation, I arranged to be put aboard a provisional hospital train two days later. This was composed of goods wagons converted for the purpose.
Plank-beds had been installed, in the centre was a round iron stove into which coal lying around had to be shovelled. One could not stay on the plank-beds long, the warmth from the stove did not extend that far. Whoever was able, therefore, laid his bed on the heap of coals. Soon we were all as black as the ace of spades-but who cared?
How long it took us to get to Kiev I cannot say. Many a good comrade was unloaded on the way: his earthly journey ended.
This excerpt from Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the 6th Army, 1942–1943 appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.