CRUCIAL MOMENTS: Hitler's Wolfsschanze When Stalingrad Happened

There are moments in history which may be called turning points. On the Ostfront during WW2, the first turning point was when the Red Army threw back the Germans from the suburbs of Moscow in the winter of 1941. The second was when Hitler decided that the Sixth Army was not to withdraw from Stalingrad as the Russians starting entrapping it.

Hitler at Wolfsschanze Wolf's Lair
Hitler at Wolfsschanze ("Wolf's Lair") in Poland

General Zeitzler
General Zeitzler
General Zeitzler, Chief of Staff of the Army, argued with Hitler for the salvation of the Stalingrad army.

The dramatic discussions took place during the nights of 22/23 and 23/24 November 1942  at Fuehrer Headquarters, the Wolfschanze, near Rastenburg. Zeitzler reported on this in an article that contains his memoirs of the battle of Stalingrad and was published in book form in English in 1956 under the title The Fatal Decisions.

Hitler insisted. I will not leave the Volga!' I said in a loud voice, 'My Fuhrer! It would be a  crime to leave Sixth Army in Stalingrad. That would mean the death or capture of a quarter of a million men. Any hope of freeing them would be in vain. The loss of this army would break the back of the eastern front.'

'Since the operations proposed for the relief of Sixth Army cannot be successful, it is decisive that orders for a break-out be issued. This must be done at once. The last possible  moment has arrived.'

While I was speaking, Hitler was visibly growing more and more angry. He had repeatedly  tried to interrupt me but I had not permitted this because I knew this to be my last chance  and I could not stay silent. When I was finally finished, he screamed, 'Sixth Army will stay where it is! It is the garrison of a fortress and it is the duty of garrisons to withstand sieges.  If necessary they will hold out all winter and I will relieve them by an offensive in the spring.'

This was pure fantasy. I added, 'Stalingrad is not a fortress. There is no way to supply  Sixth Army.'

Hitler became even more enraged and shouted louder than ever: 'Reichsmarschall Goring  has said that he can supply the army by air.' Now I too shouted 'That is crazy!'

Hitler insisted. I will not leave the Volga!' I said in a loud voice, 'My Fuhrer! It would be a  crime to leave Sixth Army in Stalingrad. That would mean the death or capture of a quarter of a million men. Any hope of freeing them would be in vain. The loss of this army would break the back of the eastern front.'

Hitler grew very pale, but did not say anything. He looked at me with an icy expression and  pushed the bell button on his desk. When an orderly officer of the SS appeared he ordered,  'Go fetch Field Marshal Keitel and General Jodl.'

Wolfsschanze 1944
Wolfsschanze in 1944

Not a word passed between us until they both appeared. They were here in a minute and had doubtlessly been waiting in the next room. If that had been the case, then they must have heard our loud exchange through the thin walls of the map room. And they would not have had any mistaken ideas about the nature of the noise. Keitel and Jodl saluted formally.  Hitler remained standing with a serious expression on his face. He was still very pale but  outwardly calm. He said, I am faced with a very difficult decision. Before I decide, I would like to hear your opinions. Should I give up Stalingrad or not ? What are your thoughts
on the matter ?'

And then something began to unfold that one could almost call a council of war, an  occurrence such as Hitler had never practised before. Keitel, who was standing at attention,  said with flashing eyes, 'My Fuehrer! Stay on the Volga!'

Jodl spoke calmly and factually. He weighed his words before saying, 'My Fuehrer, it is indeed a difficult decision you must take. If we withdraw from the Volga, this means giving  up a good part of the territories we won at such great sacrifices during the summer offensive.  On the other hand, if we do not withdraw Sixth Army the situation may become grave.  The operations planned for its relief may be successful, but they may also fail. Until we see the results of these operations, my opinion is that we hold out on the Volga.'

'Now it is your turn,' Hitler said to me. He was obviously hoping that the words of the other  two generals had caused me to change my mind. Even though it was Hitler who took the decisions, he was anxious to obtain the agreement, if only pro forma, of his professional  advisers. I now came to attention myself and said with all the formality I could muster. 'My Fuhrer! My opinion has not changed. In my view it would be a crime to leave Sixth  Army where it is. We can neither relieve it nor supply it. It would simply be sacrificed and  that would be senseless.'

Outwardly Hitler remained calm and self-controlled even though he was boiling mad inside.  He said to me, 'You see General that I am not alone in my opinion. It is shared by these two  officers here, both of whom are senior to you. I will therefore remain with my previousdecision.' He bowed stiffly and we were dismissed.

The second discussion I would like to describe took place the following night.

Despite Hitler's harsh rejection of my reasoning, I did not want to give up my struggle for the  salvation of Sixth Army under any circumstances. By experience I knew that I now had to approach the problem from a different direction. Hitler's decision, which appeared to be final and unalterable, was based on strategic considerations. There was no sense in trying  to re-open the discussion on these grounds during the next few days. He would simply refuse to listen. But this did not apply to questions of supply. My thought was that where strategic arguments had failed, maybe matters of supply could carry the day. Maybe I would  be able to bring him over to my way of thinking if I showed him the details of Sixth Army's  supply situation and was able to prove to him on the basis of accurate facts and figures that  an air lift for the army was impossible. Hitler always tended to be impressed by statistics.

The facts were put together by my staff in easily readable tables of numbers. As soon as  these were ready, I again asked for a private audience with Hitler.  He again chose a time late at night. Because of our discussion of yesterday, the  reception was very cool. However, I succeeded in awakening his interest in the figures I
showed him and he permitted me to finish the explanations that were required to understand the statistics. I closed with the following words. 'After I have studied the facts in detail there is  only one possible conclusion; it is not possible to supply Sixth Army by air for a longer period of time.' Hitler's demeanour became icy. He said, 'The Reichsmarschall has  assured me that it is possible.' I repeated, that that was not true. Hitler continued, 'Well  then, let him tell you himself.'

He had the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe brought in and asked. Goring,  'Can you supply Sixth Army by air?'

Goring raised his right arm and solemnly pronounced, 'My .Fuehrer I assure you that the Luftwaffe can supply Sixth Army.' Hitler threw me a triumphant look, but I simply said,  'The Luftwaffe can do no such thing.' The Reichsmarschall looked black and said, 'You are not in a position to presume an opinion on that.' I turned to Hitler and asked, 'My Fuhrer,  may I be permitted to ask the Reichsmarschall a question?' 'Yes, you may.'

'Does the Reichsmarschall know', I asked, 'the tonnage that must be flown in each day? ' Goring grew visibly embarrassed and wrinkled his brow. He answered, I do not, but the officers on my staff will.' On this I continued, if one takes the actual stock of Sixth Army into  consideration, the absolute minimum requirement, and all sorts of emergencies, then Sixth  Army will need a daily delivery of 300 tonnes. But since not every day is good for flying  as I know from my experiences on the front last winter, this means 500 tonnes each actual day of flying, if the average minimum is to be maintained.'

Goring answered, I can do that!' With this, I lost my self-control and cried, 'My Fuhrer, that  is a lie!' An icy silence descended on the three of us. Goring was white with rage. Hitler  looked from one to the other and was obviously confused and astonished. Finally he said  to me, 'The Reichsmarschall has made his report and I have no choice but to believe him.  Therefore I will stay with my original decision.' I now said, I would like to make one further request.' Hitler asked, 'And what is that?' I answered, 'May I give you, my Fuhrer, a
daily report that accurately lists the supply tonnage flown in to Sixth Army during the  preceding 24 hours?' Goring objected and claimed that this was none of my business.  But Hitler rejected him and I was given permission to present this daily report.  With that, the discussion was over.

Once again it had been to no avail. The only thing I had achieved was the enmity of the  Reichsmarschall. I would like to point out here that many staff officers and commanders  of the Luftwaffe shared my opinion from the beginning. A number of them put their doubts  down in writing. They were not able to convince their Commander-in-Chief. He simply  locked their reports away and made sure they did not reach Hitler's desk...'

Zeitzler's report on the downfall of Sixth Army ends with the following sentences: I had struggled for months to make Hitler see reason and take the right decisions. I had tailed. I therefore drew some conclusions as to my own position as Chief of Staff. I went to Hitler and tendered my resignation. He was angry and brusquely said, 'A general does not have the right to leave his post.'

Source : Joel S. A. Hayward, STOPPED AT STALINGRAD: THE LUFTWAFFE AND HITLER'S DEFEAT IN THE EAST 1942-1943. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Second ed 2001. ISBN: 0-7006-1146-0.

Stopped at Stalingrad Joel Hayward
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