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Stalingrad and Responsibility: God is Not Always With Us

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tomorrow I will be taking part in a commemoration of the seventy-sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It will be a special occasion and I will write about it tomorrow evening.

However tonight I took the time to watch the German film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believe in God and the Soviets do not, and he calls attentional their belt buckles which are embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us. I am a Chaplain and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film.

The second one is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-six and a half years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the third most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Capt. Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Capt. Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003I had misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there. I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for someone else in 2006 but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war even as he holds the professional military in contempt seems to be angling for war in both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. I have no doubt that War is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it, but I have to remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die. The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all to many nationalists have done in the past. I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that manner when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th 2001. Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war.

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders. Honestly, I dread what may befall us.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Madonna of Stalingrad: A Portrait of Hope in Hell

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

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Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Stalingrad at 73

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Sunday the 31st of January marked 73rd anniversary of  the surrender of the remnants of the German 6th Army to the Soviets at Stalingrad. The focus of this article is on how the Germans and Russians fought the Stalingrad campaign. In particular it is an analysis of the way the governments and military’s of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union planned and executed strategy during the course of the campaign adjusted to the situation and how the campaign ended. It is also a reminder of the price that ordinary soldiers can pay when a country commits them to war. In all nearly two million Axis and Soviet personnel, including civilians were killed, wounded, or captured during the campaign.

That being said, it is a reminder to all of us of the consequences of how xenophobic and racist politics of self-anointed leaders, and their followers can lead nations into disaster.

Peace 

Padre Steve+

Stalingrad: Primary or Secondary Objective

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The mistakes began early in the planning and conduct of the operation

Following the Soviet winter offensive and the near disaster in front of Moscow the German High Command was faced with the strategic decision of what to do in the 1942 campaign.  Several options were considered and it was decided to seize the Caucasus oilfields and capture or neutralize the city of Stalingrad on the Volga.  However, the German High Command was divided on the actual objective of the campaign.

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The Oberkommando des Heer or the OKH (Army High Command) under the guidance of General Franz Halder assumed that Stalingrad was the objective and the advance into the Caucasus was a blocking effort.[i] Hitler and Oberkommando des Wehrmacht or the OKW planned to capture the Caucasus oil fields and capture or neutralize Stalingrad to secure the left flank.[ii] Both OKH and OKW considered Stalingrad significant but “German commanders initially regarded it as a weigh station en route to the Caucasus oil fields.” [iii] The conflict echoed in the ambiguity of Directive No. 41, which “included the ‘seizure of the oil region of the Caucasus’ in the preamble concerning the general aim of the campaign, yet made no mention of this in the main plan of operations.” [iv] At the planning conference held at Army Group South in early June “Hitler hardly mentioned Stalingrad. As far as his Generals were concerned it was little more than a name on the map. His obsession was with the oil fields of the Caucasus.” [v] Manstein noted, “Hitler’s strategic objectives were governed chiefly by the needs of his war economy….” [vi] Historian Anthony Beevor noted that at this stage of planning “the only interest in Stalingrad was to eliminate the armaments factories there and secure a position on the Volga. The capture of the city was not considered necessary.” [vii] German planners “expected that the Soviets would again accept decisive battle to defend these regions.” [viii]

In Moscow Stalin and his Generals attempted to guess the direction of the impending German offensive.  “Stalin was convinced that Moscow remained the principle German objective…Most of the Red Army’s strategic reserves…were therefore held in the Moscow region.” [ix] The Soviet High Command, Stavka attempted to disrupt the German offensive and to recover Kharkov by launching three offensives three offensives of their own. The largest of these, an attack on Kharkov was defeated by the Germans between the 12th to the 22nd of May, with the loss of most of the armor in southern Russia. This disaster was accompanied by an equally disastrous defeat of Red Army forces in Crimea by Erich Von Manstein’s 11th Army, and the combination meant that the Red Army would face the Germans in a severely weakened condition. [x]

Operation Blau: Opening Moves and Divergent Objectives

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Panzers cross the Don

The German offensive began on 28 June under the command of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. Von Bock’s command included two separate army groups, Army Group B under General Maximilian Von Weichs with 2nd Army, 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army operated in the northern part of the operational area. Army Group A under Field Marshall Wilhelm List was to the south with 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army, with the goal of driving into the Caucasus. [xi] Army Group B provided the main effort for the offensive and its forces quickly smashed through the defending Soviet armies and by the 20th Hitler believed that “the Russian is finished.” [xii] One reason for the German success in the south was that until July 7th Stalin believed that Moscow was still the primary objective for any German summer offensive. [xiii] Despite his success, Hitler prevented Von Bock from destroying the Soviet formations that had been left behind and was relieved of command by Hitler. This enabled many of those units to escape the German onslaught. For his trouble Von Bock was replaced by Von Weichs, which created a difficult command and control problem.  Manstein noted that this created a “grotesque chain of command on the German southern wing” with the result that Army Group A had “no commander of its own whatever” and Army Group B had “no few than seven armies under command including four allied ones.” [xiv]

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Destroyed Soviet T-34s

This decisions made next proved fateful.  Hitler’s decided to redirect the advance of the 4th Panzer Army to support an early passage of the lower Don, diverting it from its drive on Stalingrad.  Additionally the army groups became independent of each other when Bock was relieved of command.  They were “assigned independent-and diverging-objectives” under the terms of Directive No.45. [xv] This combination of events had a decisive impact on the campaign.  Hitler’s decision prevented a quick seizure of Stalingrad by 4th Panzer Army followed by a hand over to 6th Army to establish the “block” as described by Directive No.41.  Kleist noted that he didn’t need 4th Panzer Army’s help to accomplish his objectives and that it could have “taken Stalingrad without a fight at the end of July….” [xvi]

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Field Marshall Von Paulus

The result was damning. The Luftwaffe air support and fuel needed by Army Group A was transferred to 6th Army, denuding Army Group A of the resources that it needed to conclude its conquest of the Caucasus. [xvii] At the same time it denied Army Group B of the Panzer Army that could have seized Stalingrad when it was still possible to do so.  Anthony Beevor called Hitler’s decision a disastrous compromise, [xviii] while Halder believed that Hitler’s decision underestimated the enemy and was “both ludicrous and dangerous.” [xix]

Focus on Stalingrad

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Sturmgeschutz Battalion Advancing toward Stalingrad

On July 22nd as the Wehrmacht ran short on fuel and divisions to commit to the Caucasus, and 6th Army fought for control of Voronezh the Soviets created the Stalingrad Front. Stavka moved an NKVD Division to the city [xx] and rapidly filled the new front with formations transferred from the Moscow Front. [xxi] Stalin then issued Stavka Order 227, better known as “No Step Back” on July 28th. The order mandated that commanders and political officers who retreated would be assigned to Penal battalions[xxii] and each field army was to form three to five special units of about 200 men each as a second line “to shoot any man who ran away.” [xxiii] Russian resistance west of the Don slowed the German advance. German commanders were astonished “at the profligacy of Russian commanders with their men’s lives.” [xxiv] Von Kleist compared the stubbornness of Russians in his area to those of the previous year and wrote that they were local troops who fought more stubbornly because they were fighting to defend their homes.” [xxv] Additionally, Stalin changed his commanders frequently in the “vain hope that a ruthless new leader could galvanize resistance and transform the situation.” [xxvi] General Chuikov brought the 64th Army into the Stalingrad Front in mid-July to hold the Germans west of the Don.[xxvii]

The OKW further weakened the German offensive by transferring several key SS Panzer Divisions and the Grossdeutschland Panzer Division to France. The Hungarian, Italian and Romanian armies that were part of the army group lacked motorization; modern armored and anti-tank units, and were unable to fulfill the gaps left by the loss of the experienced German divisions that had been transferred and the expectations of Hitler. [xxviii] The German 6th Army was virtually immobilized for 10 days due to lack of supplies allowing the Russians to establish a defense on the Don Bend. [xxix]

To the south the Germans were held up by lack of fuel and increased Soviet resistance including the introduction of a force of 800 bombers, which took away the total domination of the air that the Germans had previously enjoyed.[xxx] David Glantz and House note that after the fall of Rostov on July 23rd “Hitler abruptly focused on the industrial and symbolic value of Stalingrad.” [xxxi] Hitler was undeterred by warnings from Halder that fresh Russian formations were massing east of the Volga and those of Quartermaster General Erich Wagner, who guaranteed that he could supply either the thrust to the Caucasus or Stalingrad but not both operations simultaneously. [xxxii] Again frustrated by the slow progress to take Stalingrad, Hitler reverted to the original plan for the 4th Panzer Army to assist the 6th Army at Stalingrad, but the cost in time and fuel to move that army from the Caucasus to Stalingrad were significant to the operation and the question was whether “they could make up for Hitler’s changes in plan.” [xxxiii]

Strategic Implications

The changes in the German plan had distinct ramifications for both sides.  Friedrich Von Mellenthin wrote, “the diversion of effort between the Caucasus and Stalingrad ruined our whole campaign.” [xxxiv] The Germans could not secure the Caucasus oil fields that Hitler considered vital to the German war effort.  The Germans advanced deep into the region and captured the Maikop oil fields, though the drilling and refining facilities were almost completely destroyed by the retreating Russians when they withdrew.[xxxv] Due to the lack of fuel and increased Soviet resistance Army Group A was halted along the crests of the Caucasus on August 28th. [xxxvi] This setback left Hitler deeply “dissatisfied with the situation of Army Group A.” [xxxvii] Kleist and others attributed much of the failure to a lack of fuel [xxxviii] while Gunther Blumentritt observed that Mountain divisions that could have made the breakthrough were employed along the Black Sea coast in secondary operations. [xxxix]

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JU-87 Stuka over Stalingrad

Meanwhile on the Stalingrad front, fuel and supply shortages hampered 6th Army’s advance while Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army was needlessly shuttled between Rostov and Stalingrad. By the time the 4th Panzer Army resumed its advance the Russian forces around Stalingrad “had sufficiently recovered to check its advance.” [xl] As the 6th Army advanced into Stalingrad the “protection of Army Group B’s ever-extending northern flank was taken over by the 3rd Rumanian, the 2nd Hungarian and the newly formed 8th Italian Army.” [xli] The allied armies had to occupy overextended fronts, and these formations were neither trained equipped for the Russian campaign, nor well motivated to die for Germany. [xlii] The supply shortage in both German army groups was not helped by a logistics bottleneck. All supplies for both army groups had to transit over a single crossing on the Dnieper River, which Manstein noted, also prevented swift movement of troops from one area to another. [xliii]

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Reconnaissance Battalion of 24th Panzer Division near Stalingrad

Von Paulus’ 6th Army attempted to capture Stalingrad with a swift attack between the 25th and 29th of July, even as Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army milled about on the lower Don.  However, Paulus’s piecemeal commitment of his divisions and failure to concentrate in the face of unexpectedly strong Soviet resistance caused the attacks to fail.  Paulus then halted the 6th Army on the Don so it could concentrate its forces and build its logistics base, [xliv] and to allow Hoth’s army to come up from the south. This further delay allowed the Russians to build up even more forces west of Stalingrad, to reinforce the Stalingrad front, and to strengthen the defenses of the city. [xlv] Likewise, due to the distances involved it now was easier for the Russians to reinforce the Stalingrad front than it was for the Germans. [xlvi] As they strengthened their positions, the Soviets filled a number of key leadership positions with competent and tough Generals who would skillfully fight the coming battle for the city.[xlvii]

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Hitler now focused on the capture of Stalingrad despite the fact that “as a city Stalingrad was of no strategic importance.” [xlviii] Strategically, its capture would cut Soviet supply lines to the Caucasus, [xlix] but this could be achieved without its capture. The check of the German advance in the Caucasus “began to give Stalingrad a moral importance-enhanced by its name-which came to outweigh its strategic value.” [l] To Hitler Stalingrad would gain “a mystic significance” [li] and along with Leningrad became “not only military but also psychological objectives.” [lii]

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Red Army Armored troops using Lend-Lease American M3 Stuart and M3 Grant tanks

Despite the risks the Germans now mounted a frontal assault using the 6th Army and elements of 4th Panzer Army despite having intelligence reports supported by airiel reconnaissance that “the Russians are throwing forces from all directions at Stalingrad.” [liii] Friedrich von Paulus as the senior General was in charge of the advance, with Hoth subordinated to him, but the attack had to wait until Hoth’s army could fight its way up from the south. [liv] Von Mellenthin comments rightly, “when Stalingrad was not taken on the first rush, it would have been better to mask it….” [lv] Such a decision would have enabled the Germans to strengthen their lines and prepare for the inevitable Soviet counter-offensive. In retrospect it is clear that the German advance had actually reached its culminating point with the failure of the advance into the Caucasus and Paulus’s initial setback on the Don, but it was not yet apparent to many involved. [lvi] The proper course of action would have been to halt and build up the front and create mobile reserve to parry any Russian offensive along northern flank while reinforcing success in the Caucasus. Manstein wrote, “by failing to take appropriate action after his offensive had petered out without achieving anything definite, he [Hitler] paved the way to the tragedy of Stalingrad!” [lvii]

Transfixed by Stalingrad

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German Stug III at Stalingrad

On August 19th Paulus launched a concentric attack against the Russian 62nd and 64th Armies.  The attack ran into problems, especially in Hoth’s sector. [lviii] Yet, on the 22nd the 14th Panzer Corps of 6th Army “forced a very narrow breach in the Russian perimeter at Vertyachi and fought their way across the northern suburbs of Stalingrad,” [lix] reaching the Volga on the 23rd. That day 4th Air Fleet launched some 1600 sorties against the city dropping over 1,000 tons of bombs. [lx] The breakthrough by the 6th Army imperiled the Soviet position as they had concentrated their strongest forces against Hoth. [lxi] For the moment the Germans held air superiority and continued heavy bombing attacks.  During the last days of August 6th Army “moved steadily forward into the suburbs of the city, setting the stage for battle.” [lxii] As the Soviets reacted to Paulus, Hoth’s army achieved a breakthrough in the south that threatened the Russian position.  However the 6th Army was unable to disengage its mobile forces from inside Stalingrad to link up with the 4th Panzer Army and another opportunity to defeat major Soviet forces in the area and secure the city was missed. [lxiii]

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German unit crossing the Don

As the 6th Army moved into the city General Yeremenko ordered attacks against General Hube’s 16th Panzer Division. Soviet resistance increased as more formations arrived the Germans suffered one of their heaviest casualty rates. [lxiv] Though unsuccessful the Soviet counterattacks “managed to deflect Paulus’s reserves at the most critical moment.” [lxv] The Germans remained confident the first week of September as 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army linked up, but Yeremenko saved his forces by withdrawing and avoided encirclement west of the city, retiring to an improvised line closer to the Stalingrad. [lxvi] On September 12th Vasily Chuikov was appointed to command 62nd Army in Stalingrad.  Chuikov understood that for the Soviets in Stalingrad there “was only one way to hold on. They had to pay in lives. ‘Time is blood,’ as Chuikov put it later.” [lxvii] Stalin sent Nikita Khrushchev to the front “with orders to inspire the Armies and civilian population to fight to the end.” [lxviii] In the next few days the 13th Guards Rifle Division arrived and saved the Volga landings, which allowed the Soviets to continue to resupply Stalingrad, but the division last 30% of its troops as casualties in its first 24 hours of combat. [lxix]

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T-34 in Stalingrad

An NKVD regiment and other units held the strategically sited Mamaev Kurgan, keeping German guns from controlling the Volga.[lxx] The defenders contucted a house to house and block by block fight, and the Red Army and NKVD units were reinforced by Naval Infantry.  Chuikov conducted the defense with a brutal ferocity, relieving senior commanders who showed a lack of fight and by sending many officers to penal units.  Chuikov’s defensive plan was masterful; he funneled German attacks into “breakwaters” where the panzers and infantry could be separated from each other causing heavy German casualties. [lxxi]

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Now for Hitler the “city became a prestige item, its capture ‘urgently necessary for psychological reasons,’ as Hitler declared on October 2. A week later he declared that Communism must be ‘deprived of its shrine.’” [lxxii] The Germans continued to gain ground in the city, but slowly and at great cost, especially among their infantry, so much so that decimated companies had to be combined to form combat effective units.

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Chuikov used his artillery to interdict the Germans from the far side of the Volga while assault squads with incredible ferocity fought the fight in the city.   The close-quarters combat in the city was dubbed, “Rattenkrieg by German soldiers.” [lxxiii] Paulus continued to bring more units into the city, further thinning his flanks, but his troops continued to slowly drive the Russians back against the river, and by early October Chuikov wondered if he would be able to hold. [lxxiv] It appeared that the Germans might finally capture Stalingrad, and by November Chuikov “was altogether holding only one-tenth of Stalingrad – a few factory buildings and a few miles of river bank.” [lxxv] Paulus now expected “to capture the entire city by 10 November,” [lxxvi] despite the fact that many of his units were fought out. The causalities had been massive; an analysis by 6th Army determined that 42% of the battalions of 51st Corps were fought out. [lxxvii] Even so on November 9th, a confident Hitler declared “No power on earth will force us out of Stalingrad again!” [lxxviii] However, that boast was misplaced.

Soviet Counteroffensive: Disaster on the Flanks

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soviet infantry attacking

Soviet Forces Advancing

As 6th Army fought its way into Stalingrad some officers in the German High Command attempted to warn Hitler of the danger. Hitler now tolerated no interference, and on September 24th he relieved Halder for persisting to explain, “what would happen when new Russian reserve armies attacked the over-extended flank that ran out to Stalingrad.” [lxxix] Many on others the German side recognized the danger. Blumentritt said, “The danger to the long-stretched flank of our advance developed gradually, but it became clear early enough for anyone to perceive it who was not willfully blind.” [lxxx] Rumanian Marshall Antonescu, and the staffs of both Army Group B and Paulus’s 6th Army warned Hitler too, [lxxxi] but Hitler was transfixed on Stalingrad.  By their sole focus on Stalingrad the Germans gave up the advantage of uncertainty and once the German “aim became obvious…the Russian Command could commit its reserves with assurance.” [lxxxii]

person_chuikov4

Chuikov and his staff

Despite Stalin’s concern about Stalingrad the Stavka planners never lost sight of their goal to resume large-scale offensive operations and destroy at least one German Army Group. [lxxxiii] Unlike Hitler, the ever suspicious Stalin had begun to trust his Generals and Stavka under the direction of Marshal Vasilevsky produced a concept in September to cut off the “German spearhead at Stalingrad by attacking the weak Rumanian forces on its flanks.” [lxxxiv] At first Stalin “showed little enthusiasm” for the attack, fearing that Stalingrad might be lost, but on 13 September he gave his full backing to the proposal [lxxxv] which Marshals Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Vatutin developed into a plan involving three operations; Operation Uranus, to destroy the German and allied forces at Stalingrad, and Operation Saturn to destroy all the German forces in the south, and a supporting attack to fix German forces in the north, Operation Mars aimed at Army Group Center. [lxxxvi]

Russian-Ground-Mount-Rocket

Soviet Katusha Rockets

To accomplish the destruction of 6th Army and at least a part of 4th Panzer Army around Stalingrad the Stavka planners employed over 60% of the “whole tank strength of the Red Army.” [lxxxvii] Strict secrecy combined with numerous acts of deception was used by the Red Army to disguise the operation. [lxxxviii] The plan involved an attack against 3rd Romanian Army on the northern flank by the Soviet 5th Tank Army and two infantry armies and their supporting units. [lxxxix] In the south another force of over 160,000 men and 430 tanks were deployed against 4th Rumanian Army and weak element of 4th Panzer Army. [xc] Despite warnings from his Intelligence Officer, Paulus did not expect a deep offensive into his flanks and rear and made no plans to prepare to face the threat. [xci] Other senior officers believed that the attack would take place against Army Group Center. [xcii] Walter Warlimont who served at OKW noted that there was a “deceptive confidence in German Supreme Headquarters.” [xciii]

 ju-52 stalingrad

Luftwaffe JU-52s made many resupply runs into the pocket but suffered great losses

The storm broke on 19 November as Soviet forces attacked rapidly crushing Romanian armies to the north and the south of Stalingrad [xciv] linking up to encircle the Germans in the city on the 23rd. [xcv] The German 48th Panzer Corps supporting the Romanians was weakened by the exhausting campaign and had few operational tanks. [xcvi] It attempted a counterattack but was “cut to pieces” in an engagement against the 5th Tank Army. [xcvii] A promising attempt by the German 29th Motorized division against the flank of the southern Russian pincer was halted by the Army Group and the division was ordered to defensive positions south of Stalingrad. [xcviii] To compound German problems the Luftwaffe was neutralized by bad weather. [xcix] Inside the city Paulus continued to do nothing as since the attacks were outside of his area of responsibility and rather than taking the initiative to extricate his forces, waited for instructions. [c] As a result the 6th Army’s 16th and 24th Panzer Divisions that could have assisted matters to the west remained “bogged down in street-fighting in Stalingrad.” [ci] Without support of the army’s Panzer formations, the 6th Army units west of Stalingrad were forced back in horrific conditions.  By the 23rd of November the 6th Army was cut off along with one corps of the 4th Panzer Army and assorted Romanian units, over 330,000 men.  Though they had the Germans surrounded, the entrapped force would require the Soviets to use seven rifle armies and much staff attention to eliminate. [cii]

von Paulus surrenders to the Soviets

Paulus Surrenders

Hitler ordered Von Manstein to form a new, composite, Army Group Don, to relieve Stalingrad. Hitler would not countenance a break out by the encircled forces and wanted Manstein to break through and relieve the 6th Army.[ciii] Hitler refused a request by Paulus on 23 November to move troops to prepare for a possible a break out attempt, and assured him that he would be relieved. [civ] Albert Speer noted that General Kurt Zeitzler who replaced Halder at OKW insisted that the Sixth Army “must break out to the west.” [cv] Hitler, completely obsessed with capturing Stalingrad told Zeitzler, “We should under no circumstances give this up. We won’t get it back once it’s lost.” [cvi] The ever boastful Herman Goering promised that his Luftwaffe would be able to meet the re-supply needs of 6th Army by air, even though his own Generals knew that it was impossible with the number of transport aircraft available. [cvii] However, Hitler took his Luftwaffe chief at his word and exclaimed “Stalingrad can be held! It is foolish to go on talking any more about a breakout by Sixth Army…” [cviii] Hitler then issued a Führer decree ordering that the front be held at all costs. [cix] Walter Goerlitz stated, “Hitler was incapable of conceiving that the 6th Army should do anything but fight where it stood.” [cx] Likewise Manstein had precious few troops with which to counterattack, as he also had to protect the flank of Army Group A, which was still deep in the Caucasus.

hungarian withdraw

hungarian dead stalingrad

Hungarian Dead and Wounded

Manstein’s “army group” was only corps strength and was spread across a 200 mile front. [cxi] Any relief attempt had to wait for more troops, especially Panzers.  Manstein believed that the best chance for a breakout had passed and that it was a serious error for Paulus to put the request to withdraw through to Hitler rather than the Army Group or act on his own [cxii] and many soldiers, long conditioned to believe in the promises of their Hitler were optimistic that Hitler would get them out of the caldron. [cxiii] Other German generals like Guderian, Reichenau, Heinrici, Hoeppner, or even the Waffen SS General Sepp Dietrich might have acted to save their army, but Paulus, surrounded in the city, was knew nothing but obedience.[cxiv]

pows stalingrad

German POWs only 5000 of some 90,000 would see home again

Operation Saturn began on 7 December destroying the Italian 8th Army and forcing the Germans to parry the threat.[cxv] A relief attempt by 57th Panzer Corps under Hoth on 12 December made some headway until a massive Soviet counterattack on 24 December drove it back.[cxvi] This attack was hampered by OKW’s refusal to allocate the 17th Panzer and 16th Motorized divisions to Manstein,[cxvii] and by 6th Army not attacking out to link with the relief force.[cxviii]By 6 January Paulus signaled OKW: Army starving and frozen, have no ammunition and cannot move tanks anymore.”[cxix] On 10 January the Soviets launched Operation Ring to eliminate the pocket and despite all odds German troops fought on. On the 16th Paulus requested that battle worthy units be allowed to break out, but the request was not replied to.[cxx] On the 22nd the last airfield had been overrun and on 31 January Paulus surrendered.[cxxi]

Analysis: What Went Wrong

Stalingrad had drawn the attention Hitler and Stalin and the lives of their soldiers into a giant vortex of death. However, the Soviet Stavka, even when facing disaster never lost sight of their primary objectives during the campaign. The Germans on the other hand committed numerous unforced errors mostly caused by Hitler and or von Paulus. The German mistakes began early in their planning process and continued throughout the campaign. Overconfident, they failed to follow up success, and allowed the Soviets to regroup and then smash their forces at Stalingrad.

Russland-Nord, Erich von Manstein, Brandenberger

Von Manstein

After the fall of Stalingrad as the Soviets attempted to follow up their success by attempting to cut off Army Group “A.” Manstein, with the meager forces at hand was permitted by Hitler to wage a mobile defense while Von Kleist managed to withdraw his army group with few losses. [cxxii] The superior generalship of Manstein and Von Kleist prevented the wholesale destruction of German forces in southern Russia and Manstein’s counter offensive inflicted a severe defeat on the Soviets, showing them that the German army, though wounded was not without the power to fight back.

But the German Army had suffered a massive defeat.  The seeds of defeat were laid early, the failure to destroy bypassed Soviet formations in July, the diversion of 4th Panzer Army from Stalingrad, and the divergent objectives of trying to capture the Caucasus and Stalingrad at the same time.  This diluted both offensives ensuring that neither succeeded.  Likewise the failure to recognize the culminating point when it was reached and to adjust operations accordingly was disastrous for the Germans. The failure create a mobile reserve to meet possible Russian counter offensives, and the fixation on Stalingrad took the German focus off of the critical yet weakly held flanks.

The hubris of Hitler and OKW to believe that the Russians were incapable of conducting major mobile operations even as Stavka commenced massive offensive operations on the thinly held flanks all contributed to the defeat.  Alan Clark notes these facts but adds that the Germans “were simply attempting too much.” [cxxiii] Likewise, the Soviet advantage in numbers allowed them to wear down the Germans even early in the campaign when they were suffering defeat after defeat. [cxxiv] Stalin, whose decisions had nearly lost the war in 1941 gave his commanders a chance to revive the mobile doctrine of deep operations with mechanized and shock armies that he had discredited in the 1930s. [cxxv] All through the campaign Zhukov and other commanders maintained both their nerve even when it appeared that Stalingrad was all but lost. They never lost sight of their goal of destroying major German formations though they failed to entrap Army Group A with 6th Army.

Notes

[i] Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict: 1941-45. Perennial Books, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965. p.191

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titan’s Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. The University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS, 1995. p.111

[iv] Ibid. Clark. p.191

[v] Beevor, Anthony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. Penguin Books, New York NY 1998. p.69

[vi] Manstein, Erich von. Forward by B.H. Liddle Hart, Introduction by Martin Blumenson. Lost victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General. Zenith Press, St Paul MN 2004. First Published 1955 as Verlorene Siege, English Translation 1958 by Methuen Company. p.291 This opinion is not isolated, Beevor Quotes Paulus “If we don’t take Maikop and Gronzy…then I must put an end to the war.” (Beevor pp. 69-70)  Halder on the other hand believed that Hitler emphasized that the objective was “the River Volga at Stalingrad. (Clark. p.190)

[vii] Ibid. Beevor. p.70.

[viii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.106

[ix] Ibid. p.105-106

[x] Ibid. Clark. p.203.  The offensive did impose a delay on the German offensive.

[xi] Ibid. Clark. p.191 Each group also contained allied armies.

[xii] Ibid. p.209.

[xiii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.119

[xiv] Ibid. Manstein. p.292.

[xv] Ibid. Clark. p.209

[xvi] Ibid. Clark.  p.211

[xvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.120. There is a good discussion of the impact of this decision here as 6th Army’s advance was given priority for both air support and fuel.

[xviii] Ibid. Beevor. p.74

[xix] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964. p.249

[xx] Ibid. Beevor. p.75 This was the 10th NKVD Division and it took control of all local militia, NKVD, and river traffic, and established armored trains and armor training schools.

[xxi] Ibid. Clark. p.212

[xxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.121

[xxiii] Ibid. Beevor. p.85

[xxiv] Ibid. p.89

[xxv] Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishers, New York, NY 1979. Originally published by the author in 1948. p.202

[xxvi] Ibid. Beevor. p.88

[xxvii] Ibid. Beevor. p.90

[xxviii] Ibid. Beevor. p.81

[xxix] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.121

[xxx] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.202

[xxxi] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.120

[xxxii] Goerlitz, Walter. History of the German General Staff. Westview Press, Frederick A. Praeger Publisher, Boulder, CO. 1985 p.416

[xxxiii] Ibid. Beevor. pp.95-96.

[xxxiv] Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated H. Betzler, Edited by L.C.F. Turner. Oklahoma University Press 1956, Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1971. p.193

[xxxv] Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960. p.914

[xxxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.122

[xxxvii] Ibid. Warlimont. p.256

[xxxviii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. p.203

[xxxix] Ibid. p.204

[xl] Ibid. Shirer. p.914

[xli] Ibid. Goerlitz. p.416

[xlii] Ibid. Goerlitz. p.416

[xliii] Ibid. Manstein. p.293

[xliv] Ibid. Clark. p.214

[xlv] Ibid. Beevor. pp.97-99. The mobilization included military, political, civilian and industrial elements.

[xlvi] Liddell-Hart, B.H. Strategy. A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY. 1974, Originally Published by Faber and Faber Ltd., London. 1954 & 1967. p.250

[xlvii] Ibid. Beevor. p.99.  Two key commanders arrived during this time frame, Colonel General Andrei Yeremenko, who would command the Stalingrad Front  and General Chuikov commander of 64th Army who would conduct the defense of the city.

[xlviii] Carell, Paul Hitler Moves East: 1941-1943. Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, German Edition published 1963. p.581

[xlix] Ibid. Shirer.  p.909.

[l] Ibid. Liddell-Hart, Strategy. p.250

[li] Wheeler-Bennett, John W. The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1954.  p.531

[lii] Ibid. Wheeler-Bennett. p.531

[liii] Ibid. Beevor. p.96

[liv] Ibid. Clark. p.216.

[lv] Ibid. Von Mellenthin. P.193

[lvi] See Von Mellinthin pp.193-194.  Von Mellinthin quotes Colonel Dinger, the Operations Officer of 3rd Motorized Division at Stalingrad until a few days before its fall. Dingler noted that the Germans on reaching Stalingrad “had reached the end of their power. Their offensive strength was inadequate to complete the victory, nor could they replace the losses they had suffered.” (p.193) He believed that the facts were sufficient “not only to justify a withdrawal, but compel a retreat.” (p.194)

[lvii] Ibid. Manstein. p.294

[lviii] Ibid. Clark. p.216

[lix] Ibid. Clark. p.217

[lx] Ibid. Beevor. p.107

[lxi] Ibid. Beevor. p.107

[lxii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.122

[lxiii] Ibid. Carell. P.601

[lxiv] Ibid. Beevor. p.118

[lxv] Ibid. Beevor. p.118

[lxvi] Ibid. Carell. p.602

[lxvii] Ibid. Beevor. p.128

[lxviii] Ibid. Carell. p.603

[lxix] Ibid. Beevor. p.134

[lxx] Ibid. Beevor. pp.136-137

[lxxi] Ibid. Beevor. p.149

[lxxii] Fest, Joachim. Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishers, San Diego, New York, London. 1974. p.661

[lxxiii] Ibid. Beevor. pp. 149-150

[lxxiv] Ibid. Beevor. p.164

[lxxv] Ibid. Carell. p.618

[lxxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.123

[lxxvii] Ibid. Beevor. p.218

[lxxviii] Ibid. Carell. p.623

[lxxix] Ibid. Goerlitz. p.418

[lxxx] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. The German Generals Talk. p.207

[lxxxi] Ibid. Manstein. p292

[lxxxii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. History of the Second World War. p.258

[lxxxiii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.129

[lxxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.130

[lxxxv] Ibid. Beevor. pp.221-222 Glantz and House say that Stalin gave his backing in mid-October but this seems less likely due to the amount of planning and movement of troops involved to begin the operation in November.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.130

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Beevor. p.226

[lxxxviii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.132

[lxxxix] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.130

[xc] Ibid. Beevor. p.227

[xci] Ibid. Beevor. p.228

[xcii] Ibid. Clark. p.235

[xciii] Ibid. Warlimont. p.274

[xciv] Ibid, Carell. p.627 3rd Rumanian Army lost 75,000 men in three days.

[xcv] Ibid. Clark.pp.247-248

[xcvi] The condition of the few German Panzer Divisions in position to support the flanks was very poor, the 22nd had suffered from a lack of fuel and maintenance and this many of its tanks were inoperative. Most of the armor strength of the 48th Panzer Corps was provided by a Rumanian armored division equipped with obsolete Czech 38t tanks provided by the Germans.

[xcvii] Ibid. Clark. pp.251-252. The designation of 2nd Guards Tank Army by Clark has to be wrong and it is the 5th Tank Army as 2nd Guards Tank was not involved in Operation Uranus.  Carell, Beevor and Glantz properly identify the unit.

[xcviii] Ibid. Carell. p.630

[xcix] Ibid. Beevor. p.244

[c] Ibid. Beevor. p.247

[ci] Ibid. Beevor. p.245

[cii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.134

[ciii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.134

[civ] Ibid. Clark. p.256

[cv] Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970. p.248

[cvi] Heiber, Helmut and Glantz, David M. Editors. Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945. Enigma Books, New York, NY 2002-2003.  Originally published as Hitlers Lagebsprechungen: Die Protokollfragmente seiner militärischen Konferenzen 1942-1945. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt GmbH, Stuttgart, 1962. p.27

[cvii] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.135 Glantz and House note that the amount of aircraft estimated to successfully carry out the re-supply operation in the operational conditions was over 1,000.  The amount needed daily was over 600 tons of which the daily reached only 300 tons only one occasion.

[cviii] Ibid. Speer. p.249

[cix] Ibid. Carell. p.636

[cx] Ibid. Goerlitz. p.426

[cxi] Ibid. Clark. p.252

[cxii] Ibid. Manstein. p.303

[cxiii] Ibid. Beevor. p.276

[cxiv] Ibid. Carell. p.640

[cxv] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.140

[cxvi] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.140

[cxvii] Ibid. Clark. p.264

[cxviii] Ibid. Manstein. p.337

[cxix] Ibid. Beevor. p320

[cxx] Ibid. Beevor. p.365

[cxxi] Of the approximately 330,000 in the pocket about 91,000 surrendered, another 45,000 had been evacuated.  22 German divisions were destroyed.

[cxxii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart. The German Generals Talk. p.211

[cxxiii] Ibid. Clark. p.250

[cxxiv] Ibid. Glantz and House. p.124

[cxxv] Ibid. Beevor. p.221

 

Bibliography

Beevor, Anthony. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. Penguin Books, New York NY 1998

Carell, Paul Hitler Moves East: 1941-1943. Ballantine Books, New York, NY 1971, German Edition published 1963.

Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict:1941-45. Perennial Books, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 1965.

Fest, Joachim. Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishers, San Diego, New York, London. 1974

Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titan’s Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. The University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS, 1995.

Goerlitz, Walter. History of the German General Staff. Westview Press, Frederick A. Praeger Publisher, Boulder, CO. 1985

Heiber, Helmut and Glantz, David M. Editors. Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945. Enigma Books, New York, NY 2002-2003.  Originally published as Hitlers Lagebsprechungen: Die Protokollfragmente seiner militärischen Konferenzen 1942-1945. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt GmbH, Stuttgart, 1962.

Liddell-Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Quill Publishers, New York, NY 1979. Originally Published by the author in 1948.

Liddell-Hart, B.H. Strategy. A Signet Book, the New American Library, New York, NY. 1974, Originally Published by Faber and Faber Ltd., London. 1954 & 1967

Manstein, Erich von. Forward by B.H. Liddle Hart, Introduction by Martin Blumenson. Lost victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General. Zenith Press, St Paul MN 2004. First Published 1955 as Verlorene Siege, English Translation 1958 by Methuen Company

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1981, Copyright 1959 and 1960

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970.

Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War. Translated H. Betzler, Edited by L.C.F. Turner. Oklahoma University Press 1956, Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 1971.

Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45. Translated by R.H. Berry, Presido Press, Novato CA, 1964.

Wheeler-Bennett, John W. The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1954

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Light, Life, Love: The Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

k_reuberl

As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

drkrop

As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

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I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

295_26912092058_3949_n

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

dien-bien-phu6

When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

french-chaplain-and-soldiers-2

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

377

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

legion-algeria1

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

frenchforeignlegionairevtnamdod-2

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

legion-indo-china

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

french-at-dien-bien-phu

The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

943043_10151694525692059_632653331_n

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

madonna-of-stalingrad-2

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, ministry, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Christmas in the Cauldron: Kurt Reuber and the The Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Kurt Rueber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor. A friend of Albert Schweitzer he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army at the beginning of the war. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stlaingrad. When that division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut of from most supply and without real hope of relief he continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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A Self Portrait 

However that care also included spiritual matters. Rueber was also an artist and pastor and as such he reflected on the desparation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

As the seige continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froeliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battlaion commander.  The officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket.

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German POWs walking out of Stalingrad

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his  Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

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drkrdr

Reuber operating on a wounded soldier above and drawing below

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home. 

prisoner's madonna

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad  to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin when its ruins were restored as a symbol of hope and reconcilliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgagrad, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel. 

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, Religion, world war two in europe

God in the Empty Places: Four Years Later

Four years ago I was leaving Iraq for Kuwait, the first stop in the process of coming home.  At that point I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to go either. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time. I am reposting article here tonight.  

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me.  I feel s special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there.  

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

There are no new edits to the article. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days. Today was a day of reflection.  As I walked my little dog Molly down the street tonight to the beach I looked up at the moonlit sky and I was as I have been thinking lately about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow that sight now comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run there.  

Anyway. Here is is.

God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq