Wehrmacht In Action3 December 2014

The Stalingrad Airlift


On the morning of 7 December 1942, the men of KGr.zbv 50, a Luftwaffe transport squadron, woke to another dismal morning on the Russian steppe. The blinding snow of the previous week had been replaced by persistent, chilling rain, and the men had to pick their way across the mud on duckboards. For the last two weeks they had been operating out of Tatinskaya airfield in support of the encircled Sixth Army at Stalingrad, battling to keep their fleet of ageing Ju-52s in the air. The men had spent the night in tents clustered along the northern side of the runway. They were protected from the wind by embankments of snow, but the canvas was still frozen stiff most mornings. As they ate their breakfast in the mess hut, the officers, including their commander Oberstleutnant Otto Baumann, arrived in the truck they had driven over from their marginally better accommodation in the nearby village.

Despite recent setbacks, the officers were optimistic that morning. The weather was depressing and uncomfortable, but promised good flying conditions. There were no gale-force winds, no whiteout snowstorms, and no clouds of blinding ice crystals – all of which had made appearances the previous week. On 3 December, for example, visibility had dropped so low that not a single plane was able to take off.

Having eaten, the men filed out to the flight line with their comrades from the other eight squadrons based at the airfield. Everywhere you could hear the shouts of men and the rumble of engines. These were not the engines of the aircraft – not yet – those were still too cold to turn over, but rather the engines of the hot-air blowers that brought them to life each morning.

Soon the first aircraft were in the air, climbing towards the low ceiling of cloud that hung over the steppe. The mechanics were hard at work on the more stubborn planes, fumbling their tools in thick-gloved hands, swearing profusely whenever a dropped bolt forced them to bend down – a difficult task for a man wearing several overcoats. An hour or so later another flight of Ju-52s was in the air – each carrying around two tonnes of supplies for General Paulus’ encircled men. As the day wore on, the planes made two or three trips to the pocket, returning with stories of clear approaches and little enemy action. Things were going equally well at the other bases involved in the airlift. As the last planes touched down that night the officers tallied up the day’s cargoes, and realised they had set a new record. Feeling that the troubled operation might have finally turned a corner, they rode back to their billets in the village pleased.

On that day the men of Luftflotte 4 managed to land 363 tons of supplies inside the pocket. It was a record that would not be beaten during the remaining 56 days of the airlift. It was also around 200 tons short of what the Sixth Army required.

To understand how the German high command came to make the decision to launch this doomed operation, it is necessary to look back to January 1942 and to the town of Demyansk, some 75 miles (120km) southeast of Novgorod.

It was here that the Germans had their first taste of what it felt like to be encircled. On 8 January, General Georgi Zhukov’s winter counteroffensive trapped more than 100,000 German soldiers around the towns of Demyansk and Kholm. Unable to mount a breakout operation until the winter conditions had eased, the army requested that the Luftwaffe airlift supplies to the beleaguered men. Using a fleet of more than 400 Ju-52 transport aircraft and around 150 fighters and fighter bomber escorts, Luftflotte 1 was able to transport around 65,000 tons of supplies to the encircled troops. This extraordinary feat allowed the trapped divisions to eventually fight their way back to the new German frontline.

On 19 November 1942, when General Zhukov’s great counterattack swept around the city of Stalingrad, encircling the Sixth Army, Hitler again turned to the Luftwaffe. He assumed that the Luftwaffe would be able to repeat the feat it had accomplished at Demyansk, and Göring – speaking from a position of almost complete ignorance – assured him that it could. Despite the furious objections of Wehrmacht chief of staff Kurt Zeitzler, Hitler considered the matter closed, and ordered the operation to go ahead.

What Hitler failed to appreciate was that the Demyansk operation owed its success to a lucky and unique set of circumstances. The airfields used for the earlier airlift were well maintained, secure, and less than 60km apart – allowing fighters and fighter-bombers to sweep the flight paths clear of anti-aircraft defenses and lurking fighters before each trip. Moreover, the operation took place at a time when the VVS (Red Army Air Force) was still recovering from Barbarossa and incapable of putting up any serious resistance.

At Stalingrad, by contrast, the airfields were poorly maintained affairs more than 200km apart; Luftflotte 4 could only muster around 80 operational fighters and even fewer bombers; and the VVS was back on its feet and equipped with powerful new fighters like the La-5 and Yak-9. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Luftflotte 4 had only 195 transport aircraft. The last year had been a hard one for the Luftwaffe’s transport arm, which had sustained crippling losses at the hands of the Royal Air Force over the Mediterranean in addition to the constant attrition on the Eastern front. Even if the Luftwaffe’s entire strategic reserve was committed to the operation – something that was easier said that done as each aircraft would have to be refitted to operate in the Russian winter – the numbers would still fall short of those used at Demyansk.

It is difficult to find exact figures for the tonnage supplied to the Sixth Army. We know roughly how many tons were loaded onto aircraft, but not how many of those aircraft were able to deliver their cargoes intact. Even going on the perhaps optimistic figures provided by Martin Fiebig, commander of the airlift operation, it would seem that the daily deliveries rarely exceeded 150 tons.

Provided with such a meagre lifeline, the men of the Sixth Army starved and froze in their trenches. By the time they surrendered on 2 February 1943 most were too weak to even hold their guns. One of the strongest formations in the Wehrmacht had been reduced to a pitiful remnant, most of whom would not live to see Germany again.

In addition to being a disaster for the German Army, the battle of Stalingrad dealt a terrible blow to the Luftwaffe. Over the course of the 72-day operation, the Luftwaffe lost 266 Ju-52s (around one third of all their transport aircraft), 165 He-111 bombers, and around 60 transport aircraft of various other types.

The airlift suffered its first major blow on 28 November, when a flight of Ju-52 and He-111 aircraft were caught unloading at Gumrak airfield by a squadron of Il-2 ground-attack aircraft. Some 29 aircraft were destroyed on the ground, killing many skilled pilots or stranding them inside the pocket. The worst single-day loss, however, came on 25 December 1942, when the Red Army’s 24th Tank Corps smashed through the Italian Eighth Army’s lines and overran Tatinskaya Airfield. Although the base was soon recaptured, the marauding Soviet tanks destroyed 60 Ju-52s, torched buildings, and wrecked most of the ground crew’s equipment.

To make matters worse for the Luftwaffe, many of the crews brought up from the reserve to fly the armada of transport planes were experienced flight instructors, taken from their posts at the Luftwaffe’s training centres. This decision significantly reduced the quality of new pilots available to the Luftwaffe.

Luftflotte 4’s fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons also took heavy losses. Fighter cover was provided by Jagdgeschwader 3 and by Gruppe II of Jagdgeschwader 52 (the rest of this wing was deployed in the Caucasus). When the battle began these were both strong units, with a complement of 124 and 40 aircraft respectively. Both also boasted some of the highest concentrations of fighter aces of any Luftwaffe formation. The pilots worked themselves to the point of physical collapse during the siege, often flying continuously from dawn to dusk, pausing only to refuel and rearm. Most were based at Morozovskaya airfield, but a small all-volunteer group few from Pitomnik airfield inside the pocket. The most successful of the pilots that flew from inside the pocket – Feldwebel Kurt Ebener – was motivated by a desire to protect his one surviving brother, a junior officer in the Sixth Army. Kurt Ebener accumulated more than 30 claimed kills during the siege, but was not able to save his brother who was killed in action on 10 January.

By mid-January JG-3 was down to only 29 operational fighters, JG-52 Gruppe II was down to 15. Most were lost to landing accidents and strafing attacks. On 16 January, for example, five Bf-109Gs were lost trying to land on the crater-pocked airstrip at Gumrak. Several highly decorated fighter aces were shot down and killed over Stalingrad, the most prominent being Georg Schentke (90 kills), who was lost on 25 December 1942.

The decision to launch the Stalingrad airlift is one of the most baffling military blunders of the war, and a fascinating example of the deeply flawed command structures of the Third Reich. The first and most obvious problem was that Hitler refused to countenance the possibility of withdrawal because he was too proud to admit defeat. In recent speeches he had foolishly made the capture of Stalingrad a matter of personal pride and national prestige, and so he felt that withdrawal was impossible without serious damage to German morale.

The second problem was Göring’s unwillingness to contradict the Führer. Göring made his initial promise based on a very optimistic reading of a rough operational outline drawn up by a junior staff officer, Hans Jerschonnek. A few days later, however, when Jerschonnek realised that his figures were incorrect (he’d made a fundamental error when calculating the cargo capacity of the He-111) Göring refused to change his position, saying that it was “too late now.” Chillingly when the errors in Göring’s original figures were unambiguously exposed by Kurt Zeitzler, the Wehrmacht chief of staff, both Göring and Hitler chose to stick with the fantasy of a successful airlift over the realities of retreat.

The final and most inexplicable failure of command was that of the generals in the field. As Erwin Rommel had demonstrated in North Africa earlier in the year, Hitler would grudgingly accept retreat against his orders if it was presented as a fait accompli. Friedrich Paulus knew better than anyone that the Luftwaffe’s supply efforts were never going to work, yet he was seemingly content to sit and wait for the relief force (that he knew would never arrive) while his men starved to death.