Frank Ellis. Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army. Modern War Studies Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. 512 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1901-6.
Reviewed by Robert Ehlers (Angelo State University)
Published on H-War (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In this exhaustive study of events and conditions in the Stalingrad cauldron (Kessel), Frank Ellis gives the reader a detailed and enlightening look at the German 6th Army’s tenacious but doomed resistance. Ellis uses a wide range of newly uncovered German and Russian sources to weave a strong narrative about the complex and often misunderstood context within which the 6th Army fought and died in and around Stalingrad. This work, while exceptionally detailed and focused clearly on scholars and “buffs” of the eastern front, gives all military historians much useful information.
Ellis divides his work into several major sections, beginning with a strong look at how the sources now available to scholars, including a number unearthed by Ellis himself, change our understanding not just of the siege, but also of the 1942 summer campaign leading up to it. He then shares, in their entirety, the staff histories of three German divisions in the Kessel, bringing home with great clarity how effectively these units fought against overwhelming odds, but how hopeless their efforts were given logistical and other factors. Ellis’s chapters on snipers, the German recruitment and impressment of civilians and Red Army personnel from various ethnic groups, intelligence and counterintelligence activities, and the fate of German prisoners of war (POWs) round out the effort.
Ellis begins with a brief review of the German 1942 summer campaign, emphasizing that many of the problems the Germans experienced in the Kessel had their genesis in the larger offensive. Most important, German logistics failed badly to keep soldiers well provisioned. By the time they arrived at Stalingrad, most were malnourished. By the time the Red Army encircled the 6th Army, they were extremely weak and unable to receive more than the barest minimum of supplies. Ellis recounts how this cumulative exhaustion hampered the defense but also how German discipline and toughness kept the troops fighting even as many died from malnutrition and exhaustion, often at their posts. Ironically, German soldiers intended to hold out through the winter, as they had in many places after Red Army counterattacks and encirclements of German forces in late 1941. However, the sheer size of the isolated army and the deplorable state of logistics and nutrition precluded a winter-long resistance, in large part because air-transport assets were utterly inadequate to the enormity of the resupply effort.
While the Germans could not hold out until spring, they inflicted immense losses on the Red Army. The unit histories of the 16th Panzer Division, 94th Infantry Division, and 76th Berlin-Brandenburg Infantry Division bring us face-to-face with the Herculean defense that these units and others like them conducted. The steady attrition they suffered from enemy action and malnutrition led to an increasing pull of replacement manpower from every available source, whether unit staffs, the Luftwaffe, or even the most trustworthy categories of Red Army defectors. Still, this proved too little to turn the tide. The only drawback in Ellis’s approach here was to print the unit histories in their entirety, down to the level of daily “nothing significant to report” entries. He could have provided abridged versions of these three chapters and delivered the same insights.
Ellis’s discussion of snipers is useful in helping the reader to understand how these specialized troops, often lauded by Soviet propaganda, made the battle even more vicious than previously understood. Ellis reminds us that the Germans had to rebuild a sniper capability that had been superb in World War I but withered with the development of Bewegungskrieg, while the Russians poured manpower into this effective component of static warfare from the outset. Duels between snipers were the most dramatic aspect of this chapter but not the most important. That distinction goes to the casualties that Red Army snipers inflicted on German troops during the entire Stalingrad campaign, which approached ten thousand confirmed kills according to newly released sources. There is no indication of the casualties German snipers inflicted, but as the Wehrmacht moved to the defensive here and for the rest of the war, these specialized troops killed many Grand Alliance troops.
If the Russians held an advantage in snipers, the Germans profited throughout the 1942 summer campaign and at Stalingrad from civilian and Red Army volunteers and POWs. Collectively, these Hilfswillige (“willing helpers”), who were often of non-Russian ethnicity and loathed the Soviet regime more than they disliked the Germans, aided the advance to Stalingrad and then helped the Germans to hold out in the Kessel. The Wehrmacht and its Nazi bosses developed an elaborate scheme for classifying Hilfwillige by ethnic background, demonstrated loyalty, dislike of the Soviet regime, combat effectiveness, and other factors. Despite convoluted and often contradictory regulations, the number of Hilfswillige actually increased during the siege while the number of Zugeteilte (a different category of “helpers” composed mostly of POWs) decreased due to overwork and malnourishment. Nonetheless, on November 13, 1942, there were 30,765 Hilfswillige and another 21,015 Zugeteilte on the German rolls. Most of these met their end either before or immediately after the surrender, but many slipped through the lines to rejoin German forces to the south and west. Ellis attributes this to Joseph Stalin’s publication of a series of harsh orders regarding punishment of deserters, cowards, and “counter-revolutionaries,” including Order No. 270 of August 16, 1941, and Order No. 227 of July 28, 1942 (the latter containing the exhortation “Not one step back!”), which gave the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) broad authority to deal with anyone not measuring up to the standards for loyalty set forth in these orders. They had the ironic effect of souring even more (mostly non-Russian) troops on the Soviet system and causing their defection. The even greater paranoia within the Soviet regime as a result of this dynamic was part and parcel of the many internal contradictions within the Soviet system and its stunningly repressive policies before and during the war.
Ellis’s chapter on intelligence and counterintelligence (“espionage” and “counter-espionage”) is enlightening because it demonstrates the advantages German commanders derived from the information that human-intelligence sources delivered. Ironically, they squandered much of this advantage because they dismissed indications that the Red Army was nowhere near the bottom of its manpower pool. Equally clear is the almost overriding focus of Soviet efforts on finding and punishing “traitors,” real and imagined, which drew them away from anything but relatively occasional and often ineffective intelligence collection against German units. Although Soviet intelligence capabilities improved over time and German ones did not (with a few notable exceptions), neither side did a creditable job during this phase of the war.
The book’s final chapters give the reader a stark look at the fate of prisoners captured at Stalingrad, while reminding the reader that Red Army POWs fared even worse than their Axis counterparts. After long marches to train stations where they embarked for Siberia, Germans who did not die of starvation or exposure after Red Army troops and Russian civilians took most of their outer garments and even their boots and socks looked forward to hard labor, continuing malnutrition, and “reeducation” as the Soviets sought to bring them over to the Communist cause. Because so many of the German prisoners were already severely malnourished when they went into the labor camps, they suffered a high mortality rate. Many surviving 6th Army veterans were also among the last released, as late as 1956.
While The Stalingrad Cauldron is a must-read for dedicated scholars of the war on the eastern front, it is also quite detailed and at times disjointed in its approach. The former makes it less useful for military historians with a more general focus, while the latter pulls the reader from one topic to the next without any sense of continuity or deeper order. The level of detail, whether relating to every daily report from the three divisional histories, specific numbers of Soviet agents and cells working in the Stalingrad area and further afield, or some other topic, becomes something of a challenge for the reader. Only the most dedicated scholars and students of the eastern front will find this work to be a real page-turner.
If the extraordinary detail in this work is its principal shortcoming, it is also, paradoxically, the thing that undergirds the book’s strengths. The most important of these is the wealth of new perspectives that Ellis brings to the battle for the Kessel. These include a much better appreciation for the logistical and operational realities that hampered German efforts and the parallel war the Soviet regime fought against disaffected Russians and non-Russian ethnic minorities even as it grappled with the Germans. This is not a book to be bought or read lightly, but it is well worth the journey for those with a serious interest in the Stalingrad campaign and the larger war on the eastern front.
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Robert Ehlers. Review of Ellis, Frank, Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army.
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