Exclusive extract

Winter had sent out its reconnaissance parties into the brown steppe between the Volga and the Don. The unseasonal warmth of the first days of November had, by the sixth, given way to a snowless frost that froze the mud on the endless tracks as hard as asphalt. Along this pleasingly smooth, firm new surface sped a small grey car, lively as a colt that had bolted from its stable. It was coming from the great depression to the south, where the general staffs and the supply trains for the German units fighting to take Stalingrad had dug in, and heading for the railway station at Kotluban. The driver, so heavily muffled in winter clothing that all one could see of him were a pair of crafty eyes gazing out at the world and a red snub nose, gave the little vehicle free rein. Despite having a very poor view of the road ahead through the iced-up windscreen, he’d even occasionally take his hands off the wheel and quickly tug off his thick hopsack mittens to rub his cramped fingers. In peacetime, he’d been a long-distance lorry driver, adept at handling six- or eight-tonners, so he felt entitled to take liberties with this dinky little Volkswagen saloon.
 
The officer in the front passenger seat was also feeling the cold, even through his padded greatcoat and two rugs. He drummed his feet in alternating rhythms on the floor of the car and against the metal door panel.
 
‘Christ, it’s cold!’ he muttered through his teeth, which were clenched on a cigar. ‘You could freeze to death in this crate.’
 
‘That’s the fault of the rear engine, Lieutenant,’ the driver replied through his woollen balaclava. ‘The civilian version’s much better. The exhaust gases warm it up inside.’
 
‘Ha, that’s cold comfort right now!’ laughed his passenger. ‘Try lighting up this nose-warmer, then,’ he said, fishing a cigar from the recesses of his multiple layers of clothes and shoving it into his travelling companion’s mouth. ‘Its exhaust gases aren’t to be sneezed at either! Besides, we shouldn’t be so ungrateful. At least, I don’t know how I’d have made it through the quagmire of the Ukraine or the Kalmyk Desert if I hadn’t been bucketing about in this friendly old jalopy. Bet its manufacturers couldn’t have imagined we’d still be needing it in the Russian winter, that’s for sure.’
 
‘Them and us both, Lieutenant – and this is the second winter already.’
 
‘And hopefully the last, Lakosch! Even Ivan’s bound to run out of steam sometime.’
 
The driver, Lakosch, took a long drag on his cigar and squinted at the officer sitting beside him, sizing him up. First Lieutenant Breuer, 
a reservist and third general staff officer who had only come to head up Section Ic – the Intelligence Unit – a few weeks ago, was certainly more approachable than his predecessor, a regular army captain who’d been a stickler for non-fraternization between officers and men. Even so, they still barely knew one another, so best tread care­fully. Lakosch liked what he saw; the man had a pleasant air about him. So he hazarded a question that had been bothering him for days:
 
‘Is it really true, Lieutenant, that the division’s about to be stood down?’
 
If you’re cooped up in the same car day after day, bumbling through enemy territory avoiding any pitfalls, and if you’re sharing the same filthy dugout and eating from the same mess tin, then there’s not much room for secrets any more, even those officially stamped ‘confidential’. The officer looked at Lakosch out of the corner of his eye for a while and then burst out laughing.
 
‘Trust you to get wind of that, you smart alec! Yeah, it’s true all right. As soon as we’ve completed our new assignment up in the Don River elbow, we’re off to winter quarters in Millerovo. But don’t go shooting your mouth off about it beforehand, d’you hear?’
 
‘Then surely we’ll get some more home leave too?’
 
Breuer tightened the scarf round his neck and said nothing. Leave… He hadn’t seen his wife and children in over a year. The field hospital where he’d spent more than six weeks fasting while recovering from dysentery had put in an urgent request that he be granted a spell of home leave to recuperate.
 
‘No chance, Breuer!’ the general had told him. ‘Right now we need every last man, maybe even over Christmas. Go and lie down in your bunker and try to take it easy!’
 
As if taking it easy was even an option around Stalingrad! After a long series of battles in which they sustained heavy casualties, the two grenadier regiments had finally managed to capture the tractor factory and had pushed forward almost to the banks of 
the Volga. Now the companies, which by this time were uniformly only eight to fifteen men strong and bereft of almost all their officers, were strung out in a thin line along the crest of the steep riverbank. Crawling with lice and caked with filth, freezing and utterly exhausted, they’d already waited for weeks to be relieved, exposed to constant bombard­ment by Russian artillery and mortars. And the few poorly trained replacements they’d been sent were picked off like flies by snipers. Down at the foot of the bluffs, the Russians were clinging on like barnacles; not even repeated dive-bombing by Stukas could dislodge them. Night after night, they received reinforcements from across the river and kept launching counter-attacks, which inflicted even more losses on the crippled German division. What was it Hitler had once said? ‘I’d rather hold Stalin­grad with a few small combat patrols!’ Yeah, small combat patrols – that was about all that was left now! Take it easy, pah! And where was he supposed to do that? In Stalingrad, which was daily being steadily reduced to a pile of rubble by a hail of bombs and artillery salvos, or maybe at the POW assembly points behind the lines, or among the regimental and battalion staffs who were holed up in some basement or other, never seeing the light of day? Only the incessant nights of bombing in that foxhole in Gorodishche had been worse… Well, at least that was now in the past. The division had been withdrawn from there. The tank regiment, artillery and other units were already on the move, and the grenadier regi­ments were shortly due to follow. Off to winter quarters! Then, and only then, might there be some point in speculating about 
home leave.
 
But there still remained this new assignment up in the Don River elbow… A short-term operation, by all accounts. It wouldn’t be long before he got some more gen about it.
 
A sudden jerk as the car’s brakes were slammed on jolted Breuer from his reverie. Lakosch opened his door and looked out.
 
‘A crossroads!’ he announced. ‘Should we carry straight on?’
 
‘I think this is where we have to turn left. Wait here a mo, though, and wipe some petrol over the windscreen so we can see where we’re going at last!’
The first lieutenant clambered out of the car and, after shaking and stretching his frozen legs a few times, walked over to the weather-beaten signpost. With some difficulty, he was finally able to decipher, on the arm pointing west, Russian letters spelling out the name ‘Vertyachi’.
 
‘Left it is!’ he called out to the driver. ‘Still twenty-five kilometres to the Don!’
 
The well-worn track to Vertyachi was as smooth as a properly metalled road, and with virtually no traffic. The small car shot west­ward like an arrow, away from the Volga and Stalingrad and towards the Don.
 
‘Seems like you’re in a real hurry to get away from the place,’ Breuer remarked jovially.
 
‘Oh, you know, Lieutenant – bloody Stalingrad!’
 
‘Now, now, Lakosch. We should be happy that we’re actually in the city. And hopefully we can dig in there. Capturing it could decide the outcome of the war. You can’t go counting the sacrifices in those circumstances, especially not your personal ones.’
 
Lakosch had his own thoughts on that subject, but kept them to himself. Breuer fell silent too. After the relentless monotony of the last few days and weeks, their sudden departure today had profoundly agitated him and he couldn’t stop his mind from churning. He felt that his last words had not been entirely honest. Didn’t he also increasingly feel the urge to just get away from Stalingrad? And hadn’t he found himself thinking much more of late about leave and his wife and children at home than about the poor devils up at the front on the Volga? How egotistical people had become over these three years of war! It took a Herculean effort to suppress the selfish bastard that lurked inside everybody. Breuer felt duty-bound to feel sick to the stomach that they’d left Stalingrad, but he couldn’t help but experience a feeling of liberation all the same. Sure, Stalingrad had to be held at all costs, and so it would be: no question. Hitler’s words from the speech he’d delivered at the opening of the fourth annual Winter War Relief Programme, which he’d heard broadcast over the tannoy at the hospital, were still ringing in his ears.
 
‘No ships come up the Volga any more. Our key objective must now be to take Stalingrad… And once we’ve achieved that goal you can be sure no one will ever dislodge us.’
 
The wounded men crowded into the hospital vestibule that day, crouching or sitting packed like sardines on the floor, listened in silence and stared dull-eyed into the middle distance. Of course they all recognized full well the military importance of the battle for Stalingrad. But the sheer crushing difficulty of the struggle weighed down on them, and everyone present in that room felt that they, at least, had now sacrificed enough for that miserable heap of ruins on the Volga, and that others should now be brought in to do their bit. That was why they kept quiet – Breuer’s own division had suffered enough too. They deserved to be relieved. They should be happy!
 
‘There it is!’
 
The lieutenant gave a start.
 
‘Who, what?’
 
‘There: the Don!’
 
They both leaned forward to get a better view. The road dropped away gradually and at the foot of the slope stood a small settlement, behind which the silver-grey ribbon of the river lay spread out. Small, dark patches of woodland, the like of which they’d only seen in their dreams the past few months, stood large as life on the far bank. The car rolled slowly through the almost deserted village, then turned onto a corduroy road that ended in the bare wooden planks of a pontoon bridge.
 
They could clearly hear machine-gun fire now, interspersed with occasional more powerful explosions. The fortified line to the north sealing off this area from Stalingrad was not that far away. Near the bridge there was clear water, but in the distance they could see broken floes of matt-grey ice. Flat meadows and sparse scrubland surrounded the river at this point.
 
The Don! Breuer couldn’t help but recall the day he’d crossed it for the first time. It had been at the end of July, far to the south of here. The sun was blazing down, and thick clouds of dust were being kicked up on the roads along which the army was advancing, turning foliage and grass, vehicles and men alike a yellowish brown. Back then he’d still been a company commander in a motorized infantry division. In a rapid thrust, the unit had forced its way across the river at the wine-growing village of Zymlyanskaya. A brief rest stop there had given the sweat-caked, dust-covered troops an opportunity to take a dip in the fast-flowing waters of the river, which lay there peacefully before them like some sleeping giant from mythology. The Cossacks called it the ‘quiet’ Don. Certainly, an aura of silence and secrecy lay over the wooded banks there, and over the vineyards and the shabby wooden shacks poking up here and there out of the verdant landscape. Even the dead Russian pilot lying prone, with one waxen hand pointing skyward, on a shining sandbank midstream, next to the wreckage of his plane (half of which had already been carried away by the wind), couldn’t disturb the peace of the scene. But the strong current, against which the swimming soldiers could make no headway, hinted at the restrained power that lay dormant in this giant.
 
A few days later, all the hopes they had nurtured of pushing on to the Caucasus and seeing the palm groves on the shores of the Black Sea had run into the sand. The division was ordered to swing northeast, and that was when Breuer heard for the first time the name that to him had an uneasy, ominous ring about it right from the start – Stalingrad. There ensued a rapid march across the desolate Kalmyk steppe, whose fine-grained sand penetrated every crack and joint and destroyed the engines of vehicles, followed by a series of expensive and fruitless battles in the south, until they finally managed to execute a flanking manoeuvre and enter the city from the west. And that was just the beginning! There followed intense street battles, in which possession of every house, every cellar, every wall and every heap of rubble was bitterly contested, hand-to-hand fighting that cost the lives of untold numbers and caused the German divisions to melt away like April snow in the sun. Throughout the whole course of the war, there had never been anything like it. And even though three months had passed, this struggle was still going on…
 
But for him, at least, it was all over now. With a feeling of quiet elation, he took in the view of the hilly landscape with its copses and villages, a sight he had not seen for so long. It was like emerging from a nightmare. And now the Don was behind him. He would not be crossing it for a third time. Next spring, once the division was refreshed and rested and had entered the fray once more, the battle for Stalingrad would be decided once and for all.
Breakout at Stalingrad is available now in hardback and ebook