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Adolf Hitler was vacationing at his retreat near Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, when a phone call on the afternoon of November 19, 1942, abruptly shattered his reverie. General Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the Army General Staff, was in a panic because hundreds of Soviet tanks had just smashed through the Romanian Third Army’s lines northeast of Stalingrad, threatening communication and supply lines to the German Sixth Army. The next day brought even worse news: A second Soviet juggernaut had burst open the positions held by the Romanian VI Corps and the 18th Infantry Division southwest of Stalingrad. The trap was set. General Friedrich Paulus and the quarter-million men in the Sixth Army would soon be surrounded.

At a hastily summoned meeting at Berchtesgaden on the 20th, Hitler described the situation to Colonel General Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe’s chief of staff. He explained that a just-created army group led by General Erich von Manstein would launch a counteroffensive intended to break the encirclement and asked Jeschonnek if he was confident the Luftwaffe could keep the Sixth Army supplied in the interim. With little information and little time to prepare, Jeschonnek told Hitler that the Luftwaffe could perform the necessary flights, provided that adequate airfields existed and that every available transport plane was drafted into use. Jeschonnek’s endorsement of the airlift idea reassured Hitler because it confirmed a decision he had already made: to order the Sixth Army to hold in place until help arrived.

Although the meeting was seemingly routine, it set into motion a series of events that doomed the Sixth Army and, ultimately, led to the downfall of the Third Reich. Virtually every Luftwaffe officer in the field believed that the Sixth Army’s only possible option was for it to break through its encirclement and retreat. Supplying an entire army by airlift was not only folly, they reasoned, but out-and-out impossible. In the days to come, however, no one in Hitler’s inner circle challenged the airlift plan, and he became increasingly resolute in his decision. Meanwhile, chaos reigned at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, as well as in the field, and an avalanche of wrong-headed decisions followed.

Historians have traditionally fingered Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s commander in chief, as chief villain in what would become the greatest German fiasco of the war. But by the time Göring arrived in Berchtesgaden on November 22, Hitler had already put the plan in motion. As Göring later recalled, Hitler said: “‘Listen here, Göring: If the Luftwaffe cannot carry this through, then Sixth Army is lost!’ He had me firmly by the sword knot. I could do nothing but agree, otherwise the air force and I would be left with the blame for the loss of the army. So I had to reply: ‘Mein Führer, we’ll do the job!’” Having comforted his master, the Luftwaffe chief then set out by train for Paris, where he planned on enjoying a shopping spree.

After his initial meeting sent a telegram to General Paulus, reassuring him that help was on the way and that, “despite the danger of temporary encirclement,” he was to hold his positions with Jeschonnek, Hitler at all cost. Details of the aerial supply effort would follow.

The air fleet tasked with keeping the Sixth Army alive was told that it would need to supply the trapped army with a minimum of 300 tons of food, fuel and munitions per day. Prior to its encirclement, the Sixth Army had consumed at least 750 tons per day. But meeting even the minimum needs of the Sixth Army would stretch an already overburdened air transport fleet to the breaking point.

The Junkers Ju-52/3m, the workhorse of Germany’s air transport fleet, could carry 2.5 tons of supplies per mission. It would take some 120 sorties per day, requiring at least 300 operational planes, to meet the minimum requirements. It was fantasy to assume that enough aircraft could even be organized to attempt such a feat. At the time the Luftwaffe received the first news of the mission, the daily in-commission rate for the transport fleet in the Stalingrad area was a mere 33 to 40 percent of available aircraft. And there were only 500 transport aircraft on the whole Russian Front.

Even if the necessary aircraft could be found, Luftwaffe personnel were still at the mercy of one of Josef Stalin’s most formidable assets, the weather. Wind, snow and bitter cold closed available airfields one out of three days. Of the six airfields within the 15-mile perimeter of Der Kessel—“the Cauldron”—containing the trapped army, only two were equipped with the radio beacons that would allow for a nonvisual approach and only one of these—Pitomnik—could be used at night and had facilities for large-scale maintenance and loading operations. Those planes lucky enough to land had to deal with snow and ice. Additionally, all aircraft surfaces and runways had to be cleared manually or with crudely improvised equipment. The average temperature at the time was 18 degrees Fahrenheit. But on many days temperatures would drop 10 or 20 degrees and wind would increase to 50 knots. Special heating ovens that blew hot air often had to be used to start aircraft engines and thaw fuel and hydraulic lines and switches.

Maintenance was a constant struggle, and even the simplest repairs were a test of skill and endurance. Much of the work had to be done outside, or in large metal hangars that cut the wind, but did little to provide warmth. Personnel working on the aircraft had to be careful not to touch metal pieces with bare skin lest they risk having it freeze to the plane. Transport aircraft had to be loaded and unloaded by hand because of the small doors on the Ju-52’s fuselage. Flights in and out took, on average, an hour each. In periods of bad weather or congestion the turnaround time was even longer.

None of this took into account the growing strength of the Soviet air force. Jeschonnek was initially confident that the airlift would work because of the success of an operation a year earlier in which the Luftwaffe’s transports had supplied 100,000 men trapped at Demyansk, south of Leningrad, for several months. At the time, Soviet aircraft had offered virtually no threat to the Luftwaffe. Now, the situation had changed. New, more up-to-date Russian fighters were making much more frequent appearances over the battlefield and contesting the Luftwaffe’s previously unquestioned air superiority over the battlefields of the Eastern Front.

The Luftwaffe officers who would be most responsible for carrying out the mission were well aware of the magnitude of the task they had been given—and they were terrified by it. After receiving word of the airlift, Lt. Gen. Martin Fiebig, the commander of the VIII Fliegerkorps in the Stalingrad sector, contacted Maj. Gen. Arthur Schmidt, Sixth Army’s chief of staff, to discuss the operation. Paulus listened in.

Schmidt told Fiebig that pursuant to the Führer’s orders, the Sixth Army planned to form an all-around defensive perimeter and hold out until supplies arrived by air. Fiebig was stunned. “Supplying an army by air was impossible, particularly when our transport aircraft were already heavily committed in North Africa,” he later recollected. (Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, had opened up a second front and was already having an impact on the number of military assets available to stabilize the situation around Stalingrad.) “I warned him against exaggerated expectations….I stressed to him again that, based on my experience and knowledge of the means available, supplying Sixth Army by air was simply not feasible.”

Fiebig was not alone in his opposition to the scheme. As soon as he was made aware of the plan, General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the commander of all Luftwaffe forces in southern Russia and an officer with impeccable National Socialist credentials, judged the idea “sheer madness”—and told this to Göring, Zeitzler, Jeschonnek and almost anybody else who would listen.

When Schmidt briefed Maj. Gen. Wolfgang Pickert, the senior Luftwaffe officer in the Stalingrad pocket, about the Sixth Army’s aerial lifeline, Pickert was flabbergasted: “Supply an entire army by the air? Absolutely impossible!” he declared. “It simply cannot be done, especially in this weather.”

Incredibly, none of this seemed to concern those Wehrmacht commanders whose very survival depended on the Luftwaffe’s ability to keep them supplied. On November 22, Pickert attended a meeting of senior officers within Der Kessel to discuss the situation and available options. With each passing day, the Russians were tightening their grip on the city as well as pushing German troops outside the perimeter farther and farther away from the Volga River. When Pickert urged that the Sixth Army attempt a breakout while it still had the strength to do so and before Soviet lines solidified even further, Schmidt replied that Hitler had ordered the army to stand fast. It was a decision with which he concurred. Moreover, he believed the troops in the pocket already lacked sufficient strength to attempt a breakout. “It [the airlift] simply has to be done,” was all the Sixth Army’s chief of staff could say.

Having been rebuffed by those officers who had it within their means to launch an immediate breakout attempt, Luftwaffe officers searched elsewhere for someone who would listen to their concerns. Thorough professionals, Zeitzler and General Maximilian von Weichs, the commander of Army Group B, were easily convinced. On the afternoon of November 22, following a conversation with Richthofen, Weichs telegraphed the army high command with the warning that “the supply by air of the twenty divisions that constitute this army is not possible. With the air transport available, and in favorable weather conditions, it is possible to carry in only one-tenth of their essential daily requirements.”

None of this, however, could shake Paulus and his chief of staff out of their lethargy. Flying in the face of reason, the two men continued to believe that an airlift was the only option; this when every senior Luftwaffe commander and increasing numbers of Wehrmacht officers outside the pocket were saying otherwise. Torn between the reality facing his army and his desire to please the Führer, Paulus vacillated.

Late on the evening of the 22nd, Paulus asked Hitler for “freedom of action.” Lest he be accused of a lack of fortitude, he qualified the request by adding that as long as he could “receive ample airborne supplies,” he would continue to hold “Fortress Stalingrad.” But he must have had a sleepless night, because early the next morning he recanted and asked Hitler for permission to attempt a breakout. It was too late. Like a giant boa constrictor, Soviet forces had completely encircled the city and could now begin the strangulation of the Sixth Army.

Almost entirely out of the picture for days, Hitler finally arrived back at his Wolf’s Lair head- quarters in East Prussia on the morning of the 24th. Briefed on the growing opposition to the airlift among two crucial top Luftwaffe officers and, by now, a handful of senior Wehrmacht generals as well, Hitler nonetheless forbade Paulus from breaking out, saying instead that “air supply by a hundred or more Junkers is getting underway.”

This decision was no irrational boast on the Führer’s part, but one based on what he had been told in Berchtesgaden two days earlier. Since then, Hitler had been relatively isolated from events during the train ride from Bavaria to East Prussia. Interestingly none of the senior Luftwaffe commanders, including Richthofen, Pickert or Fiebig, spoke to Hitler as he rode the rails. His chief counselors on the trip had been Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, both of whom advocated that Sixth Army hold out until spring if necessary, with Keitel asserting, “the Volga must be held…Sixth Army must hold out!”

And even though Manstein, the general charged with leading the counteroffensive into Stalingrad, would later pillory Göring and the Luftwaffe for the airlift’s failure, he sang a different tune prior to its commencement. As late as the 24th—the day the operation was to finally begin—Manstein telegraphed the high command and stressed that he believed it would be possible for the Sixth Army to hold out so long as things got moving by early December. Ironically, it was only Jeschonnek who, upon further review of the details of the operation and the changing nature of the tactical situation, revised his endorsement and suggested caution. To a man like Hitler, however, such a change of opinion was merely a demonstration of a lack of will and served only to diminish his faith in Jeschonnek and what he had to say.

Hitler and his cronies, however, were far removed from the reality of events at the front. On the 24th, transport planes began heading for Der Kessel. Twenty-four hours later, the day’s results provided an ominous portent of the future. Only 22 of 47 Ju-52s made it into the pocket. The next day was little better, with 30 making the trip. At the end of the first five days of the airlift, only 60 tons had been delivered to Stalingrad, a small fraction of the 1,750 tons that should have made it up to that point. Even so, the Sixth Army continued to sit tight within Stalingrad.

His shopping spree now over, Göring reluctantly left the City of Light and headed to Wolf’s Lair to see how his Luftwaffe was doing. He arrived on the 27th and almost immediately found himself clashing with Zeitzler. The disagreement between the two men quickly devolved into a shouting match, with the Wehrmacht general berating the Luftwaffe chief for ever claiming that his pilots could keep Sixth Army alive.

The verbal joust was going back and forth and the volume and tempers were rising when Hitler walked in. Zeitzler then turned to Hitler and bluntly stated that the Luftwaffe could not keep Sixth Army supplied. “You are not in a position to give an opinion on that,” Göring shot back. Unwilling to back down, Zeitzler asked, “You know what tonnage has to be flown in every day?” All the usually bombastic Luftwaffe chief could manage was a feeble, “I don’t know, but my staff officers do.”

The general, however, was not finished. “Allowing for all the stocks at present with Sixth Army,” he told Hitler, “allowing for absolute minimum needs and the taking of all possible emergency measures, the Sixth Army will require delivery of three hundred tons per day. But since not every day is suitable for flying…this means that about 500 tons will have to be carried to Sixth Army on each and every flying day if the irreducible minimum average is to be maintained.”

Unwilling to lose face, Göring said he could do that, at which an incredulous Zeitzler shouted back: “Mein Führer! That is a lie.” Hitler was now in a trap of his own invention. Having already backed the idea of a resupply mission and wired news of its start to Paulus, Hitler could hardly back down; to do so would have been a public admission of fallibility. It would also undermine Göring, who was second only to Hitler in the Reich’s hierarchy. Unwilling to allow either to happen, Hitler said: “The Reichsmarschall has made his report to me, which I have no choice but to believe. I therefore abide by my original decision.”

Meanwhile, the situation within Stalingrad continued to deteriorate. From December 1 to 9, the daily average total was 117 tons. Paulus’ men were now on half rations, and  the first cases of death by starvation were being reported. Painfully aware that it was now committed to a losing proposition with little or no hope of success, the Luftwaffe scoured the Reich for obsolete bombers, civilian airliners and just about anything else that could fly in an effort to alleviate the increasing shortfall of supplies within Der Kessel.

Many of the aircraft were flown to Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya airfields. Tatsinskaya was the primary base for the Ju-52s, Morozovskaya for the Heinkel He-111 bombers that had been pressed into service as transports. Although these additional aircraft helped, bad weather frequently grounded flights and there were days when nothing at all reached Stalingrad.

As the conditions of the soldiers within the perimeter worsened, their ability to fight the Russians and the weather diminished as well. Pilots arriving within the pocket were shocked to discover that it was taking longer and longer to unload aircraft because ground crews were becoming increasingly weak from malnutrition.

The situation had been dire for weeks, but because of poor planning, late movements and the unforeseen necessity to divert badly needed resources to counter Allied moves in North Africa, it was not until December 12 that Manstein’s offensive in support of the Sixth Army was launched. Worse, the attack was far weaker than had been promised. Only two of the 11 expected panzer divisions were available to begin the offensive. Predictably, the relief effort quickly came to a stop well short of its goal. The arrival of a third panzer division helped push the Germans to within 30 miles of Stalingrad by December 19, but that was as far as they would get.

Believing that an attack from two directions, however weak, offered some prospect of success, Manstein urged Paulus to launch an attack of his own from within the perimeter. The Sixth Army commander, however, refused to begin such an action until he received express orders from Hitler.

All the while, the Luftwaffe airmen continued to try to supply their trapped comrades. In purely logistical terms, what they accomplished was a miracle. Despite the shortage of aircraft and facilities, dismal weather and enemy opposition, by mid-December the transport pilots and their crews were bringing upward of 250 tons of supplies a day into the perimeter. As impressive an achievement as that was, however, it was not enough.

Weakened by fatigue and hunger, Paulus’ men found it more and more difficult to maintain their positions. Some airfields had been lost to the Soviets, and worsening weather frequently closed those still in German hands.

Hoping to bring the siege to an end, the Red Army launched a renewed offensive, further deteriorating the situation within Stalingrad and threatening the survival of Manstein’s relief column. Having no desire to share the likely fate of the Sixth Army, and with Hitler breathing down his neck, Manstein bluntly told Paulus that his final chances for a breakout were rapidly disappearing, and that the time had come for critical action.

The Sixth Army’s vacillating commander, however, again refused to undertake such an attempt without Hitler’s permission and continued to enumerate several impractical or impossible preconditions before he could do so. The fate of the Reich hung in the balance—but Hitler could not admit to himself, or others, that he should reconsider the airlift. Instead, he remained silent.

By December 23, Manstein had been stalled for four days and, with his own army group under threat, began to pull out some of his forces. On Christmas Eve, Soviet tanks overran the main airfield at Tatsinskaya, destroying 56 irreplaceable aircraft.

A week later, the Soviet offensive pushed Manstein farther back, and the Luftwaffe’s airfields outside the perimeter were now at least 100 miles away from the city. Rations inside Der Kessel had been reduced to one-third, and deaths due to starvation were commonplace.

Ten days into the new year, the Soviets had gotten close enough to the runway at Pitomnik to shell it. Russian antiaircraft batteries were now set up directly beneath the air corridors into the city, and Red Army soldiers pushed to take the airfield. By January 15, they succeeded.

Desperate, Paulus’ starving men worked to upgrade the facilities at the airfield at Gumrak. By improvising a lighting system from tank and vehicle lights and installing a radio beacon, they made the airfield available for night landings, but by this point aircrews would more often than not airdrop supplies so as to avoid the risk of attempting to land amid a hail of enemy antiaircraft fire. On January 22, Gumrak was lost—and with it, any way of getting in, or out, of the city. Four days later, the Red Army split what remained of the Sixth Army in two and German doctors were told to stop providing rations to the 25,000 wounded soldiers. On the 30th, 10 years after the Nazi seizure of power, Paulus and his staff surrendered.

Stalingrad ranks as the bloodiest single battle in military history. Although estimates vary, it is generally accepted that the Axis armies suffered 740,000 killed or wounded. Of the 110,000 taken into captivity, only 6,000 would ever see home again. The Red Army lost 750,000 killed, wounded or captured, and at least 40,000 civilians were killed.

As bad as the defeat was in purely military terms, the blow to the ordinary German people was worse. As historian Gordon Craig has pointed out, the defeat was “a mind-paralyzing calamity to a nation that believed it was the master race.” Never again would Hitler be able to launch a military offensive of any serious consequence. Dreams of Lebensraum in the East were lost forever along the Volga.

What had gone wrong? How had the once unstoppable Wehrmacht been so decisively beaten? Clearly, Jeschonnek must share some of the blame for first asserting that the Luftwaffe could supply the Sixth Army. Paulus and Schmidt, both highly trained and experienced professional soldiers, must be taken to task for their willingness to bury their heads in the sand about the true situation and passively await a decision from the Führer. Göring, of course, must share some responsibility, if not the lion’s share historians have tended to assign him. Not only was he unprepared to give Hitler an accurate assessment of the situation, but he was also one of the few who might have been able to change Hitler’s mind when the facts became clear. Typically left out of the rogues’ gallery are senior-level Wehrmacht generals such as Manstein, Jodl and Keitel who thought aerial resupply was a terrific idea…until it failed.

Ultimately, however, responsibility for the failure of the airlift and the Sixth Army’s eventual demise rests firmly on Hitler’s shoulders. At almost any point after the encirclement he could have ordered his troops within Der Kessel to attempt a breakout while they were still able. Had it succeeded, a reinforced Sixth Army could have renewed its offensive in the spring, crossing the Volga at other places and bypassing Stalingrad in favor of open country more suitable to its mechanized columns.

Convinced of his own infallibility, Hitler instead created a state in which the rational decision-making process required in the high stakes game of world war was completely lacking. Nazi Germany was never the monolithic totalitarian state of legend, but a hodgepodge of special interests and competing personalities. For it to be otherwise would have required Hitler not to be Hitler.

Bill Barry is a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and Vietnam veteran. A career Air Force officer, Barry is working on a memoir of his Vietnam service and a history of tactical airlift from World War II to the present. For further reading, see Stalingrad, by Antony Beevor.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.