Sixth Army was surely to be cut off and left with two alternatives: stand and fight or attempt a fighting retreat towards Kotelnikovo or Nizhne Chirsk. Both options posed separate, distinct problems for the tactical air forces. Hitler chose to emulate the success of the previous winter at Demyansk and form a hedgehog. To understand how he arrived at this decision despite almost every subordinate commander's objections, we must look back briefly to the Demyansk airlift and the role tactical airpower played in its success….
After the strategic rebuff Hitler and the Wehrmacht received by the Siberian divisions in December 1941, the German 2d Army Corps of over 100,000 men at Demysansk plus a smaller contingent of 3500 men at Kholm were entirely cut off and encircled. In a stupendous effort the Luftwaffe was able to keep an "air umbilical" open to the trapped men despite severe difficulties. During this operation the Luftwaffe continued to enjoy advantages in numbers of aircraft, skills of aircrewmen, and a distinct technological edge with their equipment. Jagdgeschwader 51 and III/JG 3 routinely escorted the lumbering Junkers Ju-52s into the pocket. The average one-way trip for the escorting Messerschmitt Bf-109s vas a mere 60 miles. Additionally, the Red Air Force had virtually ceased to exist at this stage of the war. The incredible losses they had suffered in the summer and fall of 1941 had two important results, however. First, the glaring inadequacies of the Red Air Forces spurred the Novikov reforms of 1942 which would turn the tables at Stalingrad. Secondly, the severe losses the Germans inflicted on Russia both on the ground and in the air during 1941 ushered in an insidious kind of complacency at the highest levels of the German government, namely Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Goering. Their frame of reference for judging the effect of seeming death blows to the Red Army and Air Force culturally blinded them to the danger ahead. They simply were not mentally prepared for the remarkable recuperative powers of the Russians.
To supply the trapped corps at Demyansk the Luftwaffe faced two major obstacles: the Russian winter and enemy opposition. The material requirements to keep the pocket open were intimidating. The 100,000 men required 300 tons of food and material daily, and given the low serviceability of aircraft in winter operations, the Luftwaffe needed 500 JU-52s dedicated to the airlift to ensure 150 operational aircraft (17:81). Each aircraft loaded with two tons of cargo could meet the 300 tons-per-day requirement (17:81). An absolute prerequisite for the success of such an operation was suitable airfields within the pocket. Fortunately, these airfields existed at Demyansk and Peski. Between January 1942 and the Russian withdrawal in early 1943, the Luftwaffe flew 64,844 tons of supplies to the beleaguered 2d Corps. The anemic Red Air Force rarely contested the skies over Demyansk. German fighters made sweeps over the approach and return flight paths of the trans- ports and were able to ensure their return. Both the Germans and Russians learned lessons from Demyansk and as Von Hardesty so aptly observed:
￼The Luftwaffe victory--once disembodied from its accompanying high costs--became an illusory model for subsequent German airlift operations. With the advent of Stalingrad, Hitler and the German High Command turned to this precedent to bolster their contention that a large encircled army grouping could be resupplied effectively by air
The problem with this deduction is that it had been taken out of context when it was applied to Stalingrad. By the start of the Russian counteroffensive on 19 November 1942, conditions had radically changed. The Red Air Force was resurgent and actively challenged the best of the Luftwaffe for command of the skies over Stalingrad. The airfields that were a prerequisite for success in any aerial resupply were extant but couldn't be maintained throughout the encirclement. German tactical air forces were stretched far too thin by commitments in the Middle East, the West, and North Africa. If all these preconditions couldn't be met, then how did Germany's decisionmakers decide on a hedgehog position at Stalingrad?…
[T]he Luftwaffe had become essentially long-range artillery; much of the Wehrmacht success depended on the Luftwaffe and vice versa. Thus, when von Paulus appealed to Hitler for direction on 23 November 1942, the "Fuhrerbefehl" he received to hold at all costs seemed perfectly plausible because he had already made that leap of logic. It had been done before at Demyansk, why not now at Stalingrad? What both von Paulus and Hitler failed to appreciate was that Stalingrad was not, and could not be, another Demyanak. Events had overtaken the Germans; they simply failed to recognize it…. During this year-long defense of Demyansk, the 2nd Corps required 302 tons of supplies per day. It doesn't take a mathematical grnius to figure that the minimum daily requirement for resupplying 300,000 men at Stalingrad would require at least 900 tons per day…. Demyansk was located Just south of Lake Ilmen in North central Russia. Large tracts of forests and swamps &bound in this area, and provided the raw material for building shelters and firewood for keeping men warm. In stark contrast at Stalingrad, where the area west of the city is reminiscent of certain parts of the midwestern United States, the terrain is absolutely devoid of trees and undergrowth. ￼The terrain on both sides of the Don is one vast endless steppe, broken occasionally by deep valleys,in which villages are tucked away. The landscape recalled the North African desert, but with snow instead of sand. .hat debilitating cold that often reached -20 F….
General Freiherr von Richthofen, Commanding General of VIII Air Force Corps committed in the Stalingrad area, suggested to the Fuhrer that the Sixth Army should first conduct a withdrawal towards the west and resume the attack at a later time. However, the Fuhrer bluntly rejected this suggestion…. Cajus Bekker in The Luftwalfe War Diaries is able to shed more light by describing a confrontation between General Zeitzler, the Army Chief of Staff, and Hermann Goering:
'My Fuhrer, I announce that the Luftwaffe will supply the 6th Army from the air.' 'The Luftwaffe just can't do it,' answered Zeitzler. 'Are you aware, Herr Riechsmarschall, how many daily sorties the Army in Stalingrad will need?' 'Not personally,'Goering admitted with some embarrassment, 'but my staff know.'
￼Zeitzler stuck to his guns, calculating the necessary tonnage. The Army: he said requires 700 tons every day. Even assuming that every horse in the encirlement area was slaughtered, it would still leave 500 tons. 'Every day 500 tons landed from the air!' he repeated. 'I can manage that,' Goering assured Zeitzler lost all control. 'It's a lie!' he shouted…. Hitler's voice intervened. He said coldly, 'The Reichmarschall has made his announcement, and I am obliged to believe him. The decision is up to me'.
The reaction of the men directly committed by Hitler's decision closely paralleled Zeitzler's. In a memorandum written on 25 November 1942, General von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, Commander of 51st Corps in Stalingrad, clearly states:
The Army is faced with a clear either--or: Breakthrough to the southwest in the general direction of Kotelnikovo or annihilation within a few days. This assessment is based on a sober evaluation of the actual situation.
Both General Martin Fiebig, Commander of Fiiegrkorps VIII which would be tasked with an airlift, and his superior, General Wolfram von Richthofen, supported Seydlitz….
Why didn't Goering fully consult with his commanders it, the field before making his impossible boast, and Why were von Paulus and Schmidt so predisposed to sit tight and let the Luftwaffe resupply and protect them?…
[W]hat motivated Goering was his continued prestige in Hitler's eyes. In effect, Hitler presented Goering with a fait accompli when he privately took him aside and said 'Listen, Goering, if the Luftwaffe cannot supply the 6th Army, the whole Army is lost.' Goering's reaction was predictable: 'There was thus nothing I could do but agree, otherwise I and the Luftwaffe would be blamed from the start. I could only say: 'Certainly, my Fuhrer, we will do the job!'
The answer to the second question is intriguing and critical…. [T}he reason Schmidt and von Paulus preferred to sit and defend iq that they and their army were already morally and mentally defeated. They had come so close to that elusive victory that when the awful truth came crashing down around them in late November, they seemed resigned to inactivity…. [T]he men of Sixth Army experienced an evolutionary change of heart as they rode the emotional rollercoaster from triumphant conqueror in August to "condemned man" in October.
September 1st: " Are the Russians really going to fight on the very bank of the Volga? It's madness." September 8th: "...insane stubbornness."
September 11th: "...Fanatics."
September 13th: "...wild beasts."
September 16th: "Barbarism ... [they are] not men but devils."
September 26th: "...Barbarians, they use gangster methods."
October 27th: "...The Russians are not men, but some kind of cast-iron creature; they never get tired and are not afraid of fire."
October 28th: "Every soldier sees himself as a condemned man"
Subordinate commanders who sensed the disintegration of the army and had some prescience of Russian intentions tried to warn the High Command. Hitler merely brushed aside their suggestions, relieved them as defeatist, or shouted them down….