The battle of Stalingrad: a German officer's account of WW2's bloodiest battle
In September 1942, German lieutenant colonel Friedrich Roske declared himself “the master of the centre of Stalingrad” after his troops had smashed their way into the heart of the city. But with thousands of Soviet guardsmen poised to launch a furious counter-attack, his triumph was to be short-lived. Iain MacGregor reveal previously unpublished testimonies from Roske's diary, and the grim fate of the German troops holed up in Stalingrad as the Red Army began to tighten its grip…
Winters in Russia can be brutal. By November 1942, temperatures along the Volga river had plummeted towards –20°C. And the remaining troops of the German Sixth Army, pinned down by Soviet forces in and around Stalingrad (now Volgograd) amid the fractured ruins, factories and other buildings they’d captured earlier that autumn, were experiencing the worst of the conditions.
“The men carry on in their duty day and night without protection in this hell,” reported Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich “Fritz” Roske, writing home to his wife in Düsseldorf. “Food is poor, [and there’s] no time or possibility of rest. Last night I brought chocolates and cigarettes for everyone with me… which I had saved for when the situation might become more desperate… All night, the Russians attempted to work around our positions and capture [it].”
Roske penned this letter days after 19 November 1942, when Soviet armies commanded by General Georgy Zhukov had launched a massive counter-attack on the weakened Axis flanks, and had soon encircled the Sixth Army in a move that would help change the course of the war on the eastern front. As Roske recognised: “He [Zhukov] definitely had to take it – and we had to hold on to what we had.”
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Roske’s letter is one of a number of previously unpublished testimonies of the struggle between two opposing units: the Sixth Army’s 71st Infantry Division, in which he served, and the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division, led by Major General Alexander Rodimtsev. As a front-line commander, Roske witnessed the savage fighting in Stalingrad, German and Soviet soldiers alike offering no quarter as they struggled to capture buildings floor by floor and sometimes even room by room.
Roske’s diaries and letters home, as well as his 1955 memoir (all of which I was fortunate to be given access to by his family) offer a unique commentary on the deteriorating conditions, the morale of his men and the fighting they encountered. They also provide startling new insights into the surrender of the German Sixth Army under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.
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Born in 1897, Fritz Roske fought in the First World War and then worked in New York for an architecture practice in the 1920s. He re-enlisted in 1934 as Germany re-armed under Adolf Hitler; by the outbreak of the Second World War, he had been promoted to the rank of major, and fought in the campaign for France in 1940.
Soviets on the precipice of disaster
The following June, Roske led an infantry regiment during the initial Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. But he was transferred to the officer reserve pool in France where, bored with his duties teaching tactics, he volunteered to command in a new offensive in southern Russia. That push, codenamed Case Blue, began on 28 June 1942.
By late summer, Stalin’s Soviet Union teetered on the precipice of disaster. The 1.5 million men and armoured columns of Hitler’s Army Group South stormed across the Russian steppe, aiming to capture vital oil depots in the Caucasus, while following a strategy to push eastwards towards the Volga to protect the German flank.
Having been convinced that the Germans would repeat their advance on Moscow, Joseph Stalin now had to scramble to send reinforcements south to shore up his front there. But by now, Axis forces were deep in the Caucasus, and some German motorised units were already parked on the banks of the Volga north of Stalingrad. So in September 1942, the scene was set for a titanic clash, resulting in more than 2 million casualties and marking the turning point in the Third Reich’s fortunes.
Timeline: seven months that turned the tide of WWII
28 June 1942
Germany launches the offensive codenamed Case Blue in southern Russia.
Hitler orders simultaneous offensives aimed at Stalingrad and the Caucasus.
Stalin demands that Soviet troops retreating across the steppe should take “Not One Step Back!”
The Luftwaffe begins carpet-bombing Stalingrad, and German forces enter the city’s northern suburbs.
The battle for Stalingrad city centre begins.
Hitler announces in Munich that Stalingrad is in his hands.
The Soviets launch a counter-offensive that encircles the Sixth Army and its Axis allies. Hitler orders German forces to stand and fight.
The Luftwaffe launches an airlift to supply besieged German forces in Stalingrad.
The Germans launch Operation Winter Storm, dispatching the Fourth Panzer Army to rescue the Sixth Army. The operation is called off after nine days of intense fighting.
8–25 January 1943
The Soviets issue three ultimatums demanding the surrender of the Sixth Army. All are refused.
Hitler promotes General Friedrich Paulus, commander of German forces in Stalingrad, to field marshal in an attempt to ensure he resists surrender.
Field Marshal Paulus surrenders to the Soviets; nearly 91,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army are taken prisoner. The battle of Stalingrad is over.
As German forces progressed towards Stalingrad, casualty numbers among frontline officers surged, and in early September 1942 Fritz Roske was dropped in to command Infantry Regiment 194 of the 71st Infantry Division. “We stand in this phase of the struggle, which is of exceptional importance for the war and especially for the eastern campaign,” he wrote to his officers that month. “The whole world looks at the troops from Stalingrad… The troops are to be informed of this.”
At that point, the infantry divisions of the Sixth Army were still in good order – on paper, at least. Paulus, supported by Fourth Panzer Army to his south, had 24 divisions. However, concerned about increasing Soviet counter-attacks to the north of Stalingrad, he used less than half of these divisions to assault the city along its 40-kilometre front, pitting 170,000 men and hundreds of tanks, assault guns and artillery pieces against the shattered, demoralised remnants of the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies. The decisive factor that initially tipped the balance in favour of the Germans was air power: for much of the battle, the Luftwaffe ruled the skies over Stalingrad.
Commanded by Lieutenant General Vasily I Chuikov, the 62nd Army defended the heart of Stalingrad and the Factory District in the north. Like Roske, Chuikov had recently arrived to lead a battered, albeit larger command and, also like the German officer, his performance during the five months of fighting would be superb amid horrific conditions.
Infantry Regiment 194 had been ravaged by several weeks of fighting; in some cases, companies were reduced to a few dozen combatants led by junior officers or non-commissioned officers
Before Chuikov could scramble together his defence to block the Sixth Army’s progression, Roske had set about reorganising what remained of his infantry regiment. By then, Infantry Regiment 194 had been ravaged by several weeks of fighting; in some cases, companies were reduced to a few dozen combatants led by junior officers or non-commissioned officers – shortages replicated across the divisions tasked with capturing Stalingrad.
Roske reconfigured the regiment as best he could in order to assault the city quickly. Taking his three existing weakened battalions, he created two stronger ones augmented with extra reinforcements from support and supply units.
Achieving the impossible... for now
By 13 September, as other German regiments toiled their way through the dense suburbs, Roske ordered his two battalions to advance as shock columns, supported by mobile artillery and Luftwaffe ground support, and smash their way into the heart of the city. He intended to seize the embankment of the Volga and split the Soviet defence in two, destroying their supplies coming across the Volga from the east and driving them into the river.
Despite heavy losses, including a disastrous “friendly fire” aerial attack from Stukas that wiped out one of his companies, Roske achieved the seemingly impossible. In just a few hours, his two battalions surged towards the river and captured buildings overlooking the Central Landing Pier.
Having reached this key objective, Roske recorded his admiration of his regiment’s performance. “Being able to achieve this success despite being bombed by our own side and facing a determined enemy was a superb performance by both battalions,” he wrote. “Only the survivors who experienced such a firestorm can appreciate what the men did. We managed to avert a mass panic, and the men retained their good spirits… I was the master of the centre of Stalingrad!”
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Within 24 hours, though, Roske’s unit was fighting for its life after Chuikov ordered Major General Alexander Rodimtsev’s 10,000-strong division across the Volga to retake the city centre that evening. Roske’s men attempted to stop the Soviet assault, directing a hail of fire and mortar rounds at the guardsmen speeding across the Volga in armoured boats and fighting their way up the embankment.
By 26 September, Chuikov changed his tactics to negate the German’s superior artillery and air support. From now on his men would “hug the enemy”, establishing their front line within a few metres of German forces. He ordered his commanders “not to carry out operations in battle by whole units like companies and battalions”. Instead, “The offensive should be organised chiefly on the basis of small groups, with tommy guns, hand grenades, bottles of incendiary mixture and anti-tank rifles.”
Thus the Red Army created the “Storm Group”, an urban warfare tactic that would become legendary. Instead of frontal attacks by massed troops, the Soviets employed teams of between four and eight men, armed with grenades, a PPSh-41 submachine gun, explosives and, where necessary, a flamethrower. Each unit was able to take a building and hold onto it, enabling an “active defence” – Chuikov’s strategy to bleed the Sixth Army of reinforcements.
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The fighting was intense, as one German officer from Roske’s division testified: “The Russians doggedly held on to the ruins of the city with a stubbornness that was beyond their already impressive fighting spirit and morale. They did this so effectively that we could barely make any further headway.”
Over the remaining four months, Germans and Soviets battled for the city’s heartland in house-to-house fighting. As losses mounted, both sides increasingly sent in reinforcements unused to urban combat. Roske’s men were in the thick of the action, as he described in a letter home to his wife, Barbara: “We used hand grenades continuously… We threw 5kg loads of explosive through the windows. When this still didn’t work as we’d hoped… [we blasted] holes through the adjoining walls and attacked that way.
“It was almost impossible to protect the artilleryman, whom we had quickly tried to train in our assault tactics,” he added. “They couldn’t keep up and didn’t fully under stand the situation; it was difficult to instil strength and maintain their morale with all the blood and death around us.”
Fortress Stalingrad holds out
Through October the Russians clung to their bridge head, and the fighting continued till Georgy Zhukov’s 19 November counter-attack encircled the Sixth Army. During January Soviet armour and intense massed infantry assaults drove the Axis forces back into the city, the air relief promised by Hitler delivering a fraction of the supplies his men needed.
Tens of thousands of freezing and emaciated German stragglers flooded into what Hitler called “Fortress Stalingrad”, hoping for protection from both the Soviets and the weather. In cellars, sewers and bunkers dug into the frozen ground, they huddled together and awaited the end game. Many flocked to the central district where the 71st Infantry Division, the one fortified unit still holding out in strength, was positioned.
Even in such hopeless times, Roske remained intent on doing his duty. “For us, the priority now was to bind the enemy down for as long and as much as possible – until we died of hunger or cold, or were shot dead,” he wrote. Thousands were killed as the Red Army pulverised the remaining German pockets of resistance.
Roske remained intent on doing his duty. “For us, the priority now was to bind the enemy down for as long and as much as possible – until we died of hunger or cold, or were shot dead,” he wrote
The central pocket, which housed Paulus’s headquarters, was protected by the 71st Division – now commanded by Roske after his superior officer, General Alexander von Hartmann, was picked off by a sniper on 26 January. Roske now shared his divisional headquarters with Paulus and his staff in the cellars of the Univermag Department Store, which was continually raked by enemy machine-gun fire and pounded by Russian mortar and artillery rounds.
The German perimeter was constantly being probed for weak points. Roske noted: “If [the Soviets] found a gap in the defence… they immediately rushed there and had to be beaten back out with a counter-attack. Usually no one slept at night; during the day they slept in turns – one hour to sleep, one hour to watch.”
Forced into close proximity, Paulus and Roske – now promoted to major general – established a close bond. Just before the final surrender, the former brought Roske news of the birth of his fifth child – a son. The stress and fatigue of the months of fighting, the loss of comrades, the pressure of commanding the final redoubt, now the joyous news of the birth of his son – it was too much, and Roske was briefly overwhelmed by emotion: “I turned away from him and went into the pitch-black corridor, so that my tears would not be seen.”
The battle of Stalingrad: in numbers
15 – the length of the city of Stalingrad in miles, stretched along the banks of the river Volga.
More than 41,000 – houses and buildings reduced to rubble in Stalingrad during the battle.
25 million – rounds of small arms ammunition fired by the Sixth Army in just one month, when it also expended 500,000 anti-tank rounds, 752,000 artillery shells and 178,000 hand grenades.
More than 1.1 million – Red Army casualties of the battle, which also saw the loss of 4,300 Soviet tanks, 15,728 artillery pieces and 2,769 aircraft.
187 – the number of combat-worthy men left standing in the 71st Infantry Division by the surrender on 31 January 1943. More than 15,000 had marched into the Soviet Union at the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.
5,000 – men of the Sixth Army who returned to Germany from Soviet captivity by 1955 – of 91,000 captured in 1943, from an original complement of more than 330,000.
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The end of the battle came on 31 January. Roske’s unpublished memoir reveals that it was he who initiated and then led the meeting with the Soviets that confirmed the German surrender. The last lines from his final letter to his wife summed up his quality as a combat leader: “The spirit within our regiment is quite marvellous. We are so very proud to be able to be in such a community of true men in Stalingrad.”
Marched off into captivity, Roske was tried as a war criminal, serving 12 years of confinement in camps across Siberia, the Urals and the Caucasus. He was among the last batch of German PoWs to return home, arriving back in Düsseldorf in 1955. For several months he busied himself as a civilian in his hometown, finding out which of his comrades had survived and getting to know his family again.
In the months after his return to Germany, Roske wrote the initial draft of a mini-memoir. Then, on Christmas Day 1956, he took his own life, leaving behind a wife and five children.
We don’t know what Roske went through during his captivity, and why he chose to kill himself. But the letters, diaries and memoirs he penned describing his experiences in Stalingrad shed new light on the suffering that he and many thousands endured in one of the most brutal battles in history.
- Listen | Learn more about the unpublished memoirs of Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Roske in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast with Iain MacGregor
Iain MacGregor is a historian and author. His latest book is The Light house of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle (Constable, 2022)
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine