August 1942 began poorly for the powerful Sixth Army, heading across flat steppes in scorching heat towards Stalingrad. On the first of the month, Generaloberst Halder bitterly complained in his diary (as he had several times in the last two weeks): “Our attack can’t proceed because of fuel and ammunition shortages”. The following day, von Richthofen, whose air transport units relieved some of those shortages, noted in his own diary that Sixth Army sat “bogged down” in front of Stalingrad, partly because of stiff opposition but mainly because of acute logistical problems. Unlike the ever-pessimistic army chief, the latter remained confident, adding light-heartedly that “the enemy attempts to fling troops from every point of the compass into the Stalingrad sector. He’s hell-bent on holding the city. This means that, when the city falls, Stalin will have to sue for peace. Well, well!” He was not the only senior commander to believe that the fali of the city was the key to German success in the east. Three days earlier, Jodi had trumpeted (with a prophetic resonance that would later haunt him): “the fate of the Caucasus will be decided at Stalingrad”.
During the first weeks of August, Sixth Army advanced fitfully, frequently crippled by fuel and ammunition shortages. As noted earlier, von Richthofen did everything possible to improve the army’s supply situation. He requested the OKL to send additional Ju 52 groups, transferred north most of Pflugbeil’s (and his road transport companies), created a special Stalingrad “transport region”, and ordered immediate increases in transportation levels through intensified effort and improved procedures. The army undertook its own measures to improve its supply situation. The efforts of both service branches bore fruit, particularly those of the Luftwaffe, which continued flying forward large amounts of ammunition and provisions and smaller amounts of fuel (dangerous and difficult to airlift because of its flammability and huge volume). By the third week of August, Sixth Army began receiving sufficient supplies for it to carry out most of its missions without hardship.
Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII, meanwhile, provided the army with effective air support. It struck enemy troops, vehicles, guns and fortified positions on the battlefield, as well as logistics and mobilization centres and road, rail and river traffic behind the front. The guns of Genera/major Pickert’s 9th Flak Division smashed field fortifications and enemy vehicles and generally kept the airspace above Sixth Army free of the enemy fighters and Shturmoviks that frequently eluded Fiebig’s own fighters. The division’s actions did not pass unnoticed.
On 8 August Pickert personally received Paulus’ “praise … for the close co-operation between the army and the flak teams”. On 6 August, Hitler ordered von Richthofen to support Sixth Army’s renewed attack across the Don at Kalach, due to start the following day. The air chief immediately flew to Paulus’ command post, where he found the army commander “confident”, and then to Army Group B’s headquarters, where he found an equally-optimistic von Weichs furiously raging about the lethargic efforts of his Italian and Hungarian components. They discussed their plans for the coming weeks and carefully co-ordinated a joint Schwerpunkt at Kalach, which, the air leader noted in his diary, “we’re going to hit tomorrow with all our forces”.
Schwerpunktbildung-the creation of individual points of maximum effort-had not been possible throughout most of July, when widely-dispersed army formations advanced at different rates in different directions with different objectives. Moreover, von Richthofen lacked sufficient aircraft to concentrate substantial numbers in support of all those formations. Instead, he had to dissipate his forces by deploying smaller numbers alternately in support of various army efforts, sometimes in two or three separate regions at a time. Things were now different. His fleet was still divided-one air corps supported the drive to Stalingrad, the other the drive to the Caucasus oilfields-but at least he could create a single Schwerpunkt at the Kalach bridgehead for Fiebig’s entire close-support force.
Early on 7 August, Paulus’ Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps sliced into that bridgehead from north and south, their armoured vanguards receiving massive support from Fiebig’s air corps and elements of Pflugbeil’s, Late in the afternoon, the pincers clamped tight near the west bank of the Don, opposite Kalach, trapping the main body of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army. Joined by the Fifty-First Army Corps, the Panzer corps began methodically cleaning out the pocket. Hitler was ecstatic; he had envisaged a series of classic double envelopments like this when planning Blau, but this was the first encirclement of any significance actually accomplished so far. His booty was impressive, as von Richthofen privately noted on 10 August: “Fliegerkorps VIII finally clears out the Kalach pocket in conjunction with Sixth Army, capturing 50,000 prisoners and 1,100 tanks.”
Throughout this period, Fiebig’s dive bombers and ground attack units encountered steady, but rarely powerful, VVS opposition as they smashed troops, vehicles and field positions in the pocket. Bombers, escorted by fighters, also encountered little air opposition as they pounded trains and railway installations south of Stalingrad and airfields south” west of the city (claiming the destruction of 20 enemy aircraft on the ground on 10 August alone). General T. T. Khriukin’s Eighth Air Army had done all it could in recent weeks to stem the German advance, but its strength had been drastically reduced in savage air combat and its valiant efforts against Fiebig’s technically and numerically superior force achieved nothing. The Stavka dispatched a constant stream of reinforcements to Khriukin’s force-447 aircraft between 20 July and 17 August-but the vastly “outclassed and still” outnumbered Eighth Air Army failed to prevent a steady deterioration of the situation around beleaguered Stalingrad. In fact, the air army’s attrition rate ran almost as high as the reinforcement rate, so little improvement in strength occurred.
On 5 August, the Stavka substantially bolstered the VVS’s local strength when it split the Stalingrad Front into two separate commands: the Southeastern Front, supported by Eighth Air Army, and a new Stalingrad Front, supported by General P. S. Stepanov’s hastily formed Sixteenth Air Army. Both air armies received a steady flow of reinforcements, including Yak-1s, Yak 7-bs, Il-2s, Pe-2s and other newer models. However, most units arrived at the front well below strength. The 228th Shturmovik Air Division, for example, commenced combat operations with only one-third of its prescribed complement. Most units also arrived with inexperienced aircrew-no match for their German counterparts as well as poor logistical networks and dismal army-air communication and liaison systems. Prematurely assigned to frontline airfields, these units began reconnaissance and combat operations immediately. As a result, they suffered severe losses and failed to rob the Luftwaffe of its overwhelming air supremacy. For instance, if its daily reports are accurate, Fliegerkorps VIII suffered no losses as it destroyed 25 of the 26 Soviet aircraft that attacked German airfields on 12 August It destroyed 35 out of 45 the following day, again for no losses.
With much of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army now marching westwards into captivity, Paulus struck for Stalingrad. He did not choose the most direct route, due east from Kalach. That route was criss-crossed by deep gullies that would provide the enemy splendid defensive opportunities and frequently force tanks to make lengthy detours. Instead, the army commander decided to send his two Panzer corps to the “northeast corner” of the great Don bend, where they would establish bridgeheads for the advance on Stalingrad.
The loss of 50,000 troops and a thousand tanks, coupled with the collapse of the Kalach bulwark, which he prayed would hold back the rising Axis tide, threw Stalin into panic. He cast more reserves into the region and, on 13 August, placed both the Stalingrad and the Southeastern Fronts under the authority of one of his most trusted field commanders, Colonel-General Yeremenko. Directing the actions of two Fronts was, the latter once remarked, “an extremely heavy burden”, especially as it involved conducting operations through two deputies, two chiefs of staff and two staffs.
Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, meanwhile, had made excellent progress in the last two weeks. Its drive northwards from the Caucasus brought its right-flank vanguards up to Abganerovo Station on the railway 70 kilometres south of Stalingrad. The VVS had unsuccessfully tried to blunt its advance by diverting the bulk of its combat forces south, but ‘frantically had to rush it back to the Don bend when Sixth Army began its attack across the Kletskaya-Peskovatka line on 15 August. In two days, Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps cleared the entire Don bend and Eighth Army Corps captured two small bridgeheads near Trekhostrovskaya, at the bend’s easternmost point. Unfortunately for Paulus, the marshy terrain in this sector proved unsuitable for tanks and Yeremenko threw First Guards Army into the battle. By 18 August, it had pushed divisions westwards across the Don and re-established a 35-kilometre-long bridgehead from Kremenskaya to Sirotinskaya.
Unwilling to waste time and suffer unnecessary losses in a prolonged contest for the Don bend, an uncharacteristically-daring Paulus thrust Fifty-First Army Corps across the Don towards Vertyachiy on 21 August. Although this attack left his left flank dangerously exposed, it succeeded brilliantly. Surprised by their enemy’s daring, the Soviet defenders fell back helplessly. By next morning, Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ tanks were rolling over two massive bridges thrown across the Don by German engineers.
These were favourable days for Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII. It deployed most of its bombers against Black Sea ports and shipping and its powerful ground attack and dive bomber groups against the Soviet formations resisting both Paulus’ advance across the Don and Hoth’s drive on Stalingrad from the south. The air corps notched up excellent tallies of enemy aircraft: it claimed 139 victims in 3 days. It also inflicted heavy damage on enemy troops and armour contesting the battlefield. On 21 August, for instance, von Richthofen flew over the Don bend north of Kalach and found himself staring down at “extraordinarily many knocked-out tanks and dead [Russians]”. Later that day, Ju 88s of K. G. 76 massacred two reserve divisions caught in the open 150 kilometres east of Stalingrad, prompting the delighted air fleet commander to scrawl excitedly in his diary: “Blood flowed!” (Von Richthofen’s original text says “Blut gerühlt!’, not “beautiful bloodbath!”
(toiles Blutbad) as both Williamson Murray and Richard Muller assert, basing their statements on the few subjectively-edited and frequently-inaccurate diary extracts found in the “Karlsruhe Collection”. Two days later-while Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army barely moved in the south because of acute shortages of fuel and ammunition-General der Panzeltruppen von Wietersheim’s Fourteenth Panzer Corps surged across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers, reaching the latter in Stalingrad’s northern suburbs at 1600 hours. Generalleutnant Hans Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, the corps’ mailed fist, smashed more than thirty artillery batteries in those suburbs. The enemy gunfire was woefully inaccurate. After the one-armed Hube’s men closed in on the wrecked batteries, they learned why: the guns had been “manned” by hastily-deployed and totally-untrained civilians, mostly women, now lying dead in their blood-stained cotton dresses.
Von Wietersheim’s corps accomplished its remarkable advance (which deeply shocked the Soviet leadership) by moving up closely behind a deluge of shrapnel and high explosives rained down on enemy positions by Fliegerkorps VIII, now permanently reinforced by units stripped from Fliegerkorps IV. “Since early morning we were constantly over the Panzer Spearheads, helping them forward with our bombs and machine-guns,” recalled Hauptmann Herbert Pabst, commander of a Stuka squadron. “We landed, refuelled, received bombs and ammunition, and immediately took off again. It was ‘all go’ and splendid advances. As we took off, others landed. And so it went.” During 1,600 nonstop sorties, Fiebig’s units dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the enemy troops and defensive positions in the corps’ advance path, destroying all opposition (as von Richthofen wrote, “totally paralyzing the Russians”). Apparently suffering only three losses the entire day (certainly not 90, as several post-war Soviet accounts absurdly maintain), they also ravaged VVS forces desperately trying to destroy Don crossings and halt von Wietersheim’s advance. They claimed 91 aircraft destroyed in what even the Soviets acknowledged were “fierce battles”.
Von Richthofen was delighted (as Hitler was, when informed that day), but did not stop there. Late in the afternoon, Fiebig’s corps carried out what the fleet chief called his “second great attack of the day”: an immense raid on Stalingrad itself. Bombers smashed buildings to rubble with high explosives and torched various residential areas with incendiaries, leaving houses, schools and factories wildly burning. In some suburbs, the only structures left standing were the blackened brick chimneys of incinerated wooden houses. “Never before in the entire war had the enemy attacked in such strength from the air”, wrote Lieutenant-General Vasili Chuikov with pardonable exaggeration, not having witnessed the even-heavier annihilation raids on Sevastopol. The abrasive but talented commander of the Sixty-Second Army was not exaggerating at all, however, when he added that “the huge city, stretching for nearly thirty-five miles along the Volga, was enveloped in flames. Everything was blazing, collapsing. Death and disaster descended on thousands of families.”
Estimating fatalities is difficult because of a paucity of reliable statistical data. Yet this hellish attack caused at least as many deaths as similar-sized Allied raids on German cities. For example, it certainly claimed as many victims as the Allied attack on Darmstadt during the night of 11 and 12 September 1944, when the Royal Air Force unloaded almost 900 tons of bombs and killed over 12,300 citizens. The Stalingrad death total may, in fact, have been twice that of Darmstadt, due to tile fact that the Russian city was poorly provided with air-raid shelters. Recent popular accounts have advanced a figure of around 40,000, although this seems extravagant when compared to the death tolls in German cities hit by similar bomb tonnages. The post-war official Soviet history merely states: “In one day, scores of thousands of families lost a member, and thousands of children, their mothers and fathers.”
Raids continued almost without pause for another two days, although with steadily decreasing intensity. Von Richthofen flew over Stalingrad on the morning of 25 August, in order to watch that day’s “great fire-attack”. The city, he later noted in his diary, was “destroyed, and without any further worthwhile targets”. He then landed at the forward airfield of one of his bomber units, 25 kilometres from the ruined metropolis. The sky was full of “thick, black fire-clouds reaching all the way from the city.” After another heavy bombing attack in the afternoon, he added, the dense volcano-like clouds climbed 3,500 metres into the sky. The level of destruction was impressive (except, of course, to the tormented souls who tied the holocaust and now huddled in deep ravines outside the city). Flames leapt from huge oil storage containers and fuel tankers on the Volga, across the surface of which spilled oil burned. That evening, Generalmajor Pickert, head of the 9th Flak Division, recorded his own impressions in his diary: “At dusk I went on another 14 kilometres, then spent the night in the open … against a backdrop of magnificent smoke and flames, with Stalingrad burning and Russian searchlights blazing. A fantastic picture in the moonlight.”
Aside from these massive raids, the Axis advance on Stalingrad stalled for several days. Hube’s troops encountered stiff resistance from the Soviet Sixty-Second Army and the citizens’ militia. Their morale intact despite Fliegerkorps VIII’s best efforts, these courageous defenders refused to allow Germans to bulldoze through the rubble-strewn streets of Rynok, Stalingrad’s northern-most suburb, into the Spartakovka industrial region. Powerful Soviet attacks inflicted punishing blows on Hube’s division. It had raced to the Volga with such speed that it now found itself stranded at the river, separated from other German divisions by over 20 kilometres and surrounded by enraged enemy forces seeking revenge for the destruction of their city. On 26 August, a particularly strong attack sliced a chunk off Fourteenth Panzer Corp’s northern flank in the Kremenskaya region. This, and Hube’s constant panicky requests for supplies and reinforcements, prompted von Wietersheim to request that his corps withdraw from the Volga. Paulus refused, but frantically directed Fifty-First and Eighth Army Corps to close the gap between themselves and von Wietersheim’s corps, bolster the vulnerable northern flank and push supplies forward to Hube’s encircled division, still suffering heavy losses as it clung to the Volga. Fliegerkorps V/IJ effectively supported these endeavours, pinning down enemy troops assailing Hube’s division and repelling repeated Soviet attempts to stab into Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ exposed northern flank from the Kremenskaya bridgehead. In its brief daily report on air operations, the German Naval Staff’s war diary for 28 August was unusually generous in its praise of Fiebig’s units: “The supply road for our forces which reached the Volga River was freed and attacks against it were repulsed, thanks to the splendid support of the Air Force. Tank attacks south of Kremen[skaya] were repulsed with particularly severe losses.”
Von Richthofen, always aggressive and prepared to take risks-unlike Paulus, whom the air chief accurately described two weeks later as “worthy but uninspiring” -insisted that the army could take Stalingrad even now if it launched an all-out assault. Losses would be high, but, in the present circumstances, acceptable. He was disgusted by what he called the army’s lack of fighting spirit and its unwillingness to suffer losses to obtain major goals. He had made similar complaints during the assault on Sevastopol. On 22 June, he had grumbled in his diary: “I wish that everyone would just push a little more energetically. The view that advancing cautiously avoids losses is simply not correct, because small losses each day SOOI1 mount up the longer it takes.” History, he now believed, was clearly repeating itself. Therefore, on 27 August, he sent his operations officer, Oberst Karl-Heinz Schulz, to express in no uncertain terms to Goring and Jeschonnek his intense frustration “at the army’s weakness in nerves and leadership”. Schulz returned the next day, informing von Richthofen that Goring had responded sympathetically to his views. In fact, both the Reichsmarschall and the Fuhrer had expressed anger at the army’s slow progress and granted von Richthofen permission, as a “morale booster’, expressly to “request” it to act more aggressively.
The following day, this “morale booster” flew to Hoth’s command post to pass on the Fuhrer’s sentiments and, hopefully, to spur him on in a friendly manner. Hoth, meanwhile, had heard from the army group that even he had been included in von Richthofen’s self-righteous accusations to the High Command. The Panzer commander was outraged that he, of all people, whose army frequently sat idle for want of fuel, not courage, should be accused of lacking fighting spirit. He confronted von Richthofen immediately. Shocked by the Panzer leader’s anger, the airman emphatically denied that he had mentioned him to the High Command. This should be taken with a large measure of salt, given that the previous month he had privately described Hoth as “ageing and doubtless weary” and only a few days earlier had commented harshly that Fourth Panzer Army had “worn-out leadership and feeble troops”. Highly embarrassed, he blamed Goring for “twisting” his complaints about army leadership and even unfairly bawled out Jeschonnek on the telephone. Hoth was apparently satisfied; at least von Richthofen believed so. This was the first open clash between the arrogant airman and his army colleagues; it would not be the last.
As it happened, Hoth’s army surged forward that very day, in an operation that clearly demonstrated his courage and ability. For the last week or so, his army had been stuck halfway between Tinguta and Kransarmeysk, unable to advance past a line of heavily fortified hills guarding Stalingrad’s southern approaches. His Panzers and guns hammered away at those positions and the Soviet Sixty-Fourth Army’s constantly-attacking troops and armour. The loss of thousands of men and scores of tanks for only minor gains proved to Hoth that he could not advance on Stalingrad from his present position. He had to regroup and strike towards the city from a sector held less tightly by the enemy. as Under cover of darkness and light but steady attacks by Fiebig’s Stukas and ground attack aircraft, he slowly pulled the bulk of his tanks and other mobile units from the front, replacing them with infantry formations (including numerous elements of the Rumanian Sixth Army Corps) to camouflage his actions. Regrouping his armoured units behind Tinguta, almost fifty kilometres behind their earlier positions, he prepared them for their new drive to Stalingrad. Assisted by a strong concentration of aircraft, they raced forward on 29 August, sweeping northwest for 20 kilometres before wheeling northeast towards the city with considerable momentum. Flanking the strongly-defended hills that had cost them dear in lives and time, they smashed through the surprised enemy forces vainly trying to block their path. Late that day they reached the Karpovka river. The next day-as von Wietersheim finally opened the pocket in which Hube’s division lay trapped and pushed forward supplies-they crossed the Karpovka and took a bridgehead at GavriIovka, less than thirty kilometres southwest of Stalingrad. The Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, rightly fearing encirclement, withdrew to the suburbs and hastily erected new positions amongst surviving buildings and piles of rubble. The former prepared to defend the ruined metropolis from attack against its northern and northwestern suburbs, whilst the latter guarded its southern precincts.
“Everything’s going well,” von Richthofen excitedly wrote on 30 August, momentarily forgetting his recent bout of bitter frustration. Believing Stalingrad’s capture to be imminent, and determined to shatter the enemy’s will to resist-an unrealistic goal, as his experiences at Sevastopol should have shown-he ordered fresh terror attacks on the city. Throughout that day and the next, Fiebig’s corps struck the city with everything available, diverting aircraft only occasionally to smash enemy airfields east of the Volga.
The army, meanwhile, made pleasing progress. When Fourth Panzer Army pushed forward from the Karpovka river on 31 August, von Weichs ordered Hoth to meet Paulus’ Sixth Army at Pitomnik (fifteen kilometres east of the city), having crushed the enemy forces currently between them. From Pitomnik, they would together drive into the centre of Stalingrad, roughly following the line of the Tsaritsa river. However, Hoth reported on 2 September that virtually no enemy forces lay between his army and Voroponovo Station (only ten kilometres from Stalingrad), prompting von Weichs to instruct the Panzer commander to swing east into the city without waiting for Paulus. Determined to provide them with maximum support, von Richthofen had Fiebig pound enemy positions in and around Stalingrad with his entire corps. The latter responded with characteristic gusto, launching a 24-hour, relentless raid against the already-ruined city on 3 September (which Hermann Plocher wrongly claimed was the “first heavy air raid on the city”). This crushing attack, similar in scale to that of 23 August, destroyed Sixty-Second Army’s command centre and almost killed Chuikov, its commander. As he vividly recalled:
The enemy’s air reconnaissance must have detected our command post and promptly sent in bombers…. After sitting like this [in a tiny earth bunker] under bombardment for several hours, we began to grow accustomed to it and took no notice of the roar of engines and the explosive of bombs. Suddenly our dug-out seemed to be thrown into the air. There was a deafening explosion. Abramov [the Member of the Military Council] and I found ourselves on the floor, together with the overturned desks and stools. Above us was the sky, choked with dust. Lumps of earth and stone were flying about, and around us people were crying out and groaning. When the dust had settled a little, we saw an enormous crater some six to ten yards from our dug-out. Round it lay a number of mutilated bodies, and scattered about were overturned trucks and our radio transmitter, now out of action. Our telephone communications had also been destroyed.
Behind the Luftwaffe’s downpour of steel, which pinned the Soviets to the ground and temporarily ended their resistance, Fourth Panzer Army established contact with Sixth Army at Gonchary, near Voroponovo. Paulus and von Richthofen-the hatchet apparently buried after recent tension over the latter’s accusations to the High Command-studied the burning ruins through field glasses from the relative safety of an infantry command post. Despite the fact that the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies had escaped capture and withdrawn into the city (where they would later offer tenacious resistance), both commanders concluded that victory at Stalingrad was only days away. Back in his Ukrainian headquarters, the Fuhrer, whose own concerns about progress evaporated as soon as his troops reached the city’s outskirts, also claimed that Stalingrad was as good as won. The entire male population, he informed a disgusted Halder, would have to be “disposed of” as soon as possible, because it constituted a dangerous, fanatical Communist element.
Stalin, meanwhile, also believed that the city would fall at any moment, unless he could organize an immediate counter-offensive. On 3 August, during the height of the Stalingrad blitz, he sent an urgent message to General Georgi Zhukov, who had arrived in the burning city only two days earlier to take over its seemingly-impossible defence. “The situation at Stalingrad has deteriorated further,” he told Zhukov, recently promoted to Soviet Deputy Supreme Commander. “The enemy stands two miles from the city. Stalingrad may fall today or tomorrow if the northern group of forces [First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies] does not give immediate assistance…. No delay can be tolerated. To delay now is tantamount to a crime. Throw all your airpower to the aid of Stalingrad.” Zhukov winced when he read his chief’s order, knowing that ammunition had not yet reached the armies ear-marked for the counter-offensive. He immediately telephoned Stalin, stating that he would indeed attack, but could not do so until 5 September, by which time sufficient ammunition should have arrived and effective inter service co-operation would be arranged. In the meantime, he added, he would order his air forces to pound the Axis troops with all their strength. Stalin reluctantly agreed, but insisted that “if the enemy begins a general offensive against the city, attack immediately. Do not wait for the troops to be completely ready. Your main job is to keep the Germans from taking Stalingrad and, if possible, to eliminate the German corridor separating the Stalingrad and Southeast fronts.”
After a day of small gains by Paulus’ army, Zhukov’s counter-offensive north of Stalingrad started at dawn on 5 September. First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies drove forward after a joint air and artillery barrage. The barrage was too weak to damage German forces substantially or even pin them down for long. Zhukov watched the action from an observation post at the front, and “could tell from the enemy’s counterfire that our artillery bombardment had not been effective and that no deep penetration by our forces was to be expected”. Indeed, within two hours the already-disappointed Soviet commander learned from combat reports that German troops had thrown back their advance and were themselves counter-attacking with infantry and armour. Zhukov’s only consolation was that he had forced Paulus to cancel a major thrust into the city planned for that day and divert forces north to hold back the Soviet advance. Although still disappointed by his army’s poor showing that day, Stalin was also consoled by this news. The diversion of German forces gave his armies time to strengthen the city’s inner defensive positions.
Throughout 5 September, Fliegerkorps VIII’s bombers and dive-bombers inflicted heavy losses on Soviet troops and armour. That night, Hauptmann Pabst described in his diary the operations of his Stuka squadron: “The Russians throw in everything. Always masses of huge tanks. Then we come, circle, search and dive. They camouflage their tanks fabulously, digging them in to protect them from blasts, sparing no effort. But we find and smash most of them.” The Luftwaffe certainly contributed significantly to Axis defensive battles that day, as the German Naval Staff’s war diary testifies: “Massed enemy attacks from the north, which were launched after an intensive artillery barrage, were dispersed with the assistance of strong air forces formations.” Similarly, Zhukov informed Stalin that when his troops attacked, “the enemy was able to stop them with his fire and counter-attacks. In addition, enemy planes had superiority in the air and bombed our positions all day.” That night, Soviet air units managed partially to restore their pride, bombing Axis positions along the front. Combat groups of the still-understrength Eighth and Sixteenth Air Armies carried out the bulk of these missions. They were joined on many attacks by bombers of Lieutenant-General Golovanov’s long-range bombing force, divisions of which had been operating in the Stalingrad region since mid-August.
For the next five days or so, intense fighting continued around Stalingrad, with both sides suffering heavy losses for slight Axis gains. Only on 10 September did Hoth’s Panzers manage to drive a wedge between Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, tighten the noose around the city and isolate Sixty-Second Army inside the suburbs. Hoth immediately ordered General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf, commander of the Forty Eighth Panzer Corps, to bulldoze into the southern suburbs the following day, taking them “piece by piece”. Now disgusted again by the army’s failure to exploit recent opportunities or quicken the offensive’s tempo, the exasperated von Richthofen complained in his diary of the city’s “slow strangulation”. Even when German troops finally entered the city on 13 September and began clearing it street by street, the air chief remained unhappy. In the last days of August, he claimed (rightly so, in the present writer’s opinion), Fourth Panzer and Sixth Armies had blown their chance of encircling the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies in the city’s outer defensive zones; instead, they permitted those enemy formations to withdraw into the ruined suburbs, where the former had since fought fanatically for every street (having been isolated from the latter, the remnants of which fought south of the city). To capture Stalingrad was now going to take a great deal of time and cost many lives, and the inevitable close proximity of opposing forces was already making air attacks extremely difficult.