In the first of two blog posts, author Robert Forsyth explains why he embarked upon To Save An Army, his account of the dramatic Stalingrad airlift of late 1942–early 1943.

Concurrent to the Wehrmacht’s campaigns throughout the Second World War, the Luftwaffe rendered considerable offensive and defensive support to the German armies on the ground. In the early years of the war, this support manifested itself in close, offensive cooperation on the battlefield, as a key component of Blitzkrieg – such as in the campaigns in Poland, the West in 1940, in the Balkans and in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa. These operations are widely symbolized in post-war media by formations of Ju 87 dive-bombers howling from the skies as they bombed targets in the enemy rear to pave the way for the Panzers.

But, from late 1942, as the German war effort became slowly but surely stretched by fighting on two massive fronts – in the East and in North Africa and the Mediterranean – as well asby dealing with the threat from Allied air power over the occupied territories and the Reich itself, so the Luftwaffe found itself adapting to becoming a ‘fire brigade’. This was not just in terms of organizing offensive operations where fighter, ground-attack and bomber Gruppen were shifted quickly from one flare-up crisis to another, but also of moving urgently needed supplies such as food, fuel and ammunition, to theatres such as North Africa where squadrons of Ju 52/3m transports faced making the dangerous, long-haul flight from Greece or Italy across to airfields in Libya and Tunisia in support of Rommel’s forces. They also evacuated thousands of wounded and sick soldiers.

Snowy scene, horse and people in the foreground. A plane is landing in the background.

A Ju 52/3m makes its approach during a supply flight on the Eastern Front in early 1942 (Author’s Collection)

But in late 1942, as Operation Blau, the long, heady advance into southern Russia which formed the powerful but uncertain German summer offensive, stuttered and then stopped, there was a new crisis, and possibly the greatest crisis of all. Adolf Hitler cajoled and pressed his commanders to push east towards the Volga, ‘reaching’ for the city of Stalingrad that sprawled along the west bank of the river. But while intransigent, his instructions were vague and offered little long-term strategy. Not only that, but as is well known, in late July, based on the erroneous assumption that his objectives in southern Russia had ‘largely been achieved’, Hitler took what is considered to be the strategically flawed decision to split Army Group South’s offensive momentum into two divergent thrusts towards the Volga and into the Caucasus. This would have the effect of extending the length of the front from 800km at the beginning of the summer to 4,100km at the eventual completion of operations.

And so began the epic and catastrophic advance of General Paulus’ Sixth Army towards Stalingrad, moving ever eastwards towards the Volga as if sucked in by some great vortex but with no clear aim.

A Ju 87 Stuka banks over Stalingrad towards the west and away from the Volga RiverA Ju 87 Stuka banks over Stalingrad towards the west and away from the Volga River (EN Archive)

The story of Sixth Army’s advance into the city and its subsequent entrapment and isolation amidst the most horrific conditions is well known. The battle of Stalingrad has gone down in history as one of the most infamous ever fought. The loss of Sixth Army was perceived by the German public not only as a military defeat but also as an act of abandonment; it had a devastating effect on the nation’s morale. Stalingrad could not be hidden, forgiven, or justified militarily, or morally – even by Joseph Goebbels and the Reich ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. It was the first time a Prussian or German field army had been encircled and effectively destroyed since 1806. Of around 364,000 German soldiers who approached Stalingrad at the height of Blau in the summer of 1942, only some 91,000 starving and sick survivors limped into Soviet captivity in the final three days of the battle.

Understandably, the historiography has focused on the ground war, but there has been an aspect of the battle which, in that historiography, has, at worst, been relegated to a footnote or at best taken second place to von Manstein’s relief effort. In fact, the Luftwaffe’s relief effort demonstrated far greater commitment than von Manstein’s Wintergewitter operation to try to reach Stalingrad from the south. The Luftwaffe committed hundreds of aircraft and lost 488 of them, mostly Ju 52s, but also He 111s, Ju 86s, Fw 200s, He 177s and even a Ju 290, as well as around 1,000 aircrew.

The transport and bomber units of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4 had done their utmost to supply Sixth Army. Between 24 November 1942 and 3 February 1943 they flew 8,350 tons of supplies into the pocket, or an average of 116 tons per day, including 1,648cbm of fuel, 1,122 tons of ammunition, 2,020 tons of rations and 129 tons of miscellaneous supplies. The peak delivery (reached on 7 December) was 362.6 tons. An estimated 24,900 wounded and sick men were evacuated.

But still the Stalingrad airlift is regarded in some way as merely a ‘passive’ operation. Unlike tales of fighter combat, there were no ‘aces’, no gripping air battles, no guns blazing.

What, then, intrigued me about the airlift sufficiently to embark upon a book? Well, it stemmed from my ongoing research into the life of Generalfeldmarschall von Richthofen, whose diaries and private papers I have consulted. During my study into his career, I came across the diaries of other Luftwaffe commanders such as Martin Fiebig and Wolfgang Pickert and I began to recognise the total tactical, physical and emotional commitment these men made to try to rescue their comrades.

I realised there were three dynamics. Firstly, the ‘ticking clock’: the Germans knew the Russians would counter-attack at some point and there would be a colossal fight for the city. Secondly, the appalling terrain and weather: the men of the Sixth Army, as well as their Soviet opponents, fought in the filth and claustrophobic ruins of the bomb-shattered city (so called Rattenkrieg – a ‘rat’s war’) amidst sub-zero temperatures, often weakened by lack of food and ammunition. And thirdly, the clash of strong personalities such as Hitler, Göring, Halder, Jodl, Zeitzler, Richthofen, Manstein and others in the senior German leadership, which resulted in disagreement, mismanagement and ultimately, catastrophe from which there would be no recovery.

I have studied the aircraft, personalities, campaigns and units of the Luftwaffe for many years, but there is nothing else in its history that matches the drama of the Stalingrad airlift.

In the next blog post, Robert Forsyth will be selecting a passage from his book.