Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas from 1942 Stalingrad

At dawn on December 24, the great German airfield at Tatsinskaya came under artillery fire from the Soviet Third Guards Army.  "All the transport units for Stalingrad, Herr General.  The last hope for the surrounded Sixth Army."  At 0530 hours, only ten minutes after the attack began, the first lumbering German Ju-52s roared to life and scrambled for the sky.  When a Russian T-34 drove past Fiebig's control tower, it prompted an aide to say: "Herr, General, it's time to go."  At 0607, a German tank commander rushed in to say that the enemy had completely overrun Tatsinskaya and, eight minutes later, at 0615, the dejected Fiebig's own plane lifted off the airfield.
Twelve hours later and 180 miles to the east at Stalingrad:
"O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blatter..." almost every German bunker rang with the melody until suddenly the night was torn apart by the simultaneous explosions of thousands of multi-colored flares that flashed across the sky.  The brilliant fireworks lasted for several minutes.  Underneath the dazzling lights, German soldiers shielded their eyes and marveled at the beauty surrounding them.  It was their salute to the Holy Season, a joyous time for every German, and for several days, German officers and men alike had prepared feverishly for the celebration.
In a garage near the Red October Plant a Christmas tree, carved from wood, adorned one corner of the cavernous room.  In groups of thirty, Capt. Gerhard Meunch's infantrymen appeared to sit around him as he welcomed them and distributed cigarettes, wine, or tea with rum, a piece of bread, and a slice of horse meat.  Relaxed by the liquor, the men listened attentively while Meunch spoke quietly of the need for keeping up the fight against the Russians.  The pep talk seemed to appeal to the troops, who all joined in singing "Stille Nact" with him.  Meunch noticed that in mid chorus, a number of men were so choked with emotion they had to stop singing and wipe tears from their eyes.
In thousands of bunkers in the sides of the balkas, in concrete pillboxes at the edge of no-man's-land, German soldiers snatched a few brief hours from the horrors of the encirclement. Despite the absence of trees on the steppe, creative minds had cleverly improvised a semblance of the Christmas spirit.  Iron bars, drilled with holes and filled with slivers of wood, stood as centerpieces on dirt floors; puffs of cotton snatched from medical aid stations served as ornamental bulbs.  Stars made from colored paper adorned metal treetops.
On his way to a church service, Quartermaster Karl Binder had seen mounds of unburied bodies lining the roads.  Shocked by the breakdown of army organization, he brooded about it for hours until he wrote a letter to his family:  "...we have never been more grateful for the Christmas Gospel than in these hours of hardship.  Deep in one's heart one lives with the idea of Christmas, the meaning of Christmas.  It is a feast of love, salvation and pity on mankind.  We have nothing else here but the thought of Christmas... I have not received any mail from you for some time.  There is a terrible longing for some dear words from home at Christmas..."
Lt. Emil Metzger sat reading a letter from his wife, Kaethe.  It was the best Christmas present he had ever received.  Under a bower of brilliant stars he paced back and forth, ignoring the Russians and the war.  Concentrating intensely on Kaethe, Emil relived their life together: the first dance when they fell in love, the exhilarating hikes through the cathedral hush of forests, the four brief days of honeymoon they shared before he rushed back to duty.  For over an hour, Emil held a spiritual communion with Kaethe beneath a thousand miles of stars.  It was the only gift he could give her.
While German soldiers sought escape in celebration, their generals were discussing the diminishing prospects of Sixth Army's salvation.
The Stalingrad front remained alarmingly quiet on the night of Christams Eve.  Little was herd from the Russians, except the squawking of the loudspeaker urging the Germans to lay down their arms and come over for good food, shelter, and friendly Tartar girls.
In the early hours of Christmas Day, a violent blizzard broke over the Kessel.  Visibility dropped to less than ten yards; fifty mile-an-hour gusts howled across the balkas, and the men of the Sixth Army slept off the effects of wine, cognac, and rum.
At 0500 hours, the Katyusha rockets screamed in a multitudinous cadence as thousands of flaming missiles soared from beyond the perimeter of the Kessel.  Heavy-throated mortars and artillery also overwhelmed the moaning wind.  The ground heaved and trembled under the ferocious cannonade.  "And then, out of the gray white, appeared tank after tank and, in between, trucks crowded with infantry."
In the sector held by the 16th Panzer Division, groggy soldiers climbed from their bunkers to fight.  The attack had came too fast and Russian tanks and soldiers were suddenly among them in the swirling mist of snow.  Opposing infantry fired at shadows indiscriminately; dead men heaped in front of field guns.
The battle blazed on into the afternoon as, on the other flanks, Russians smashed against the reeling but well-dug-in Sixth Army.  The entire Kessel reverberated to the terrifying sounds of big and small-caliber weapons.
At his overcrowded hospital, Dr. Kurt Reuber paused in his treatment of patients to conduct friends to the door of his private quarters.  On the gray wall facing the door, a lamp illuminated a picture of the Virgin and Child.  Reuber had labored secretly for days on his surprise.  Remembering a verse from Saint John about light, life, and love gave the doctor the ideal image, the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who best symbolized those qualities in him.  The doctor created the Madonna and the Child of Stalingrad on the back of a captured Russian map.  Now, as fellow officers maintained a hushed vigil in front of the drawing, Kurt Reuber drank with his friends from his last bottle of champagne.  While toasting each other, a series of triple-hammer explosives rocked the room and Reuder rushed outsides to the cries of dying men.  In minutes his "chapel" became a first aid station.  One of the officers who had just left Reuber's party after singing the carol "O du Froliche" was brought in with massive wounds.  He died under the picture of the Mother and Child.
On Chritmas Day, 1,280 German soldiers died in the Kessel.
The entry in Sixth Army's War Diary for December 25, 1942:  "Forty-eight hours without food supplies.  Food and fuel near their end... the strength of the men is rapidly decreasing because of the biting cold... we hope for food soon... No decision as yet on battle plan for the Sixth Army..."
Lonely German soldiers spent the last hours of Christams twirling radio dials to pick up shortwave broadcasts from back home.  On Christmas Eve many had listened to the popular singer, Lale Anderson, as she sang special requests from the troops. Now, on Christmas night, the men of Stalingrad were treated to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels's "Ring Broadcast," aimed primarily at the civilian population.  While Goebbels chanted the names of conquered cities, the German people toured the battlefronts.  "And now from Narvik," he announced grandly amid a rising chorus of male singers stationed at that Norwegian port.  "And in Tunisia," brought forth another strident rendition, this time of "Stille Nacht, Heilge Nact,"  from soldiers holding American and British troops away from Bizerte and Tunis.  "And from Stalingrad!" Goebbels suddenly said.  While thousands of soldiers inside the Kessel stared at each other in disbelief, a joyous melody burst forth from the radio to assure the homefront that all was well at the Volga River.