Revisiting the Battle of Stalingrad through German Letters

Battle of Stalingrad, seen as the bloodiest fights in WWII, and perhaps, in whole history of war.
Battle of Stalingrad, seen as the bloodiest fights in WWII, and perhaps, in whole history of war.
Battle of Stalingrad, seen as the bloodiest fights in WWII, and perhaps, in whole history of war.

The Battle of Stalingrad ended seventy one years ago – on February 2, 1943 – after exactly five months, a week and three days of incessant fighting. The retreat of the Nazis in that particular battle is seen by many historians as the turning point of WWII.

“It is pure hell here.”

That was how Wehrmacht soldiers and officers viewed their plight after they ended up in the middle of the “circle of fire” formed by the Red Army in the Stalingrad area.

Trapped inside this “crucible” were the 22 divisions and over 160 different units of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army, numbering to about 330,000 soldiers. After the defeat of the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets counted among their trophies the former’s large field post office along with the diaries and other writings of the captured German troops. Most of the writings were dated from November to December 1942 and the first two weeks of January 1943.

Letters containing the most information were published by the the military publishing house of the People’s Commissariat of the Defense of the USSR in 1944 – the released volume was condensed bearing the title “The Defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad. Confessions of the Enemy.”

The print run was not detailed, the book printed using the simplest of papers and released as a paperback – clearly it was not meant to be kept for a long time. the said book became an antiquity in bibliography.

The letters penned by the German soldiers as the Battle of Stalingrad raged on around them were infused with candor. The stash showed how they tried to communicate their impressions to their loved ones, how they wanted them to see their situations as they fought in the Stalingrad region and how they see the Red Army.

The letters and diary entries were direct and animated testimonials of the Battle of Stalingrad from the front lines, a long way off from the trenches and the bunkers.

Excerpt from a letter of Private First Class Walter Oppermann, no. 44111, dated November 18, 1942 to his brother:

 “. . . 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 meters, in the evening the Russians throw us backward. . . .” 

Part of Heinrich Malchus’ letter, a soldier, no. 17189, dated November 13, 1942 to Private First Class Karl Weitzel:

 “ . . . 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. . . .”

Portion of a letter from Senior Lance Corporal Joseph Tzimach, no. 27800, dated November 20, 1942 to his parents:

 “ . . . 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… .” 

Diary entries of Field Gendarmerie Sergeant Helmut Megenburg:

“ . . . 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. . . .”

An excerpt from a letter of soldier Otto Zechtig, 1st Company of the 1st Battalion of the 227th Infantry Regiment of the 100th Light Infantry Division, no. 10521 V, dated December 29, 1942 to Hetti Kaminskaya:

 “ . . . 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. . . .”

Entries from the diary of Officer F. P. of the 8th Light Small-Arms Force of the 212th Regiment:

“ . . . 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. . . .”

Part of Senior Lance Corporal Arno Bitz’s letter, 87th Artillery Regiment of the 113th Infantry Division, no. 28329 D, dated December 29, 1942 to his fiancée:

 “ . . . 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. . . .”

Portion of 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:

“ . . . 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. . . .

 Quoted 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:

 “ . . . 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. . . .” 

Fragment of Lieutenant General Alexander von Daniel’s testimony, commander of the German 376th Infantry Division:

 “. . . 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. . . .”

These fragments from letters, diary entries and testimonials were first published in File.rf in Russian.

Still from the Russian 3D movie "Stalingrad" based on the Battle of Stalingrad.
Still from the Russian 3D movie “Stalingrad” based on the Battle of Stalingrad.

By the end of February, Stalingrad, the Russian 3D film which became Russia’s box-office holder for 2013 and grossed $66 million in its one-and-a-half run, will be shown in US theaters for a week.

– Russia Beyond the Headlines reports