Forsaken Army

By Scott Parrino 30 Oct 2003 0

Forsaken Army

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the greatest battles of World War II, but also one of the saddest. While I do not wish to argue that civilians did not suffer in this war, one must remember that every side has a story and therefore a perception to bring to bear on a subject. The war on the Eastern Front in 1942 and early 1943 was turned to a nondescript 30-mile-long city on the west bank of the Volga River, located in the middle of endless, treeless steppe that just happened to bear the name of the Soviet Union's most powerful resident.

To recap the battle itself: after the disaster before Moscow in late 1941 and early 1942, Hitler decided that the Caucasus and its vast, rich oil fields would be the key to strangling the Soviet Union and enriching Germany's economy at the same time. While this may be true, Hitler and the OKW conveniently overlooked that the German Army had suffered some 900,000 casualties in approximately eight months of continuous battle in the East, and didn't nearly have the strength to mount such an assault and hold the line while conquering the Caucasus.

As the summer of 1942 came on, the Germans steamrollered there way through southern Russia while the Soviets caved in before them. Very few realized that this was not actually a result of imminent German victory, but more of the Soviets drawing them into a trap. Most of the Soviet strength at the time lay in and around Moscow, as Stalin was utterly convinced the Germans would try for the capital again. Only after several weeks of campaigning in the south did it dawn on him that Moscow was safe, enabling the high command (STAVKA) to release troops. The Germans, meanwhile, cut their way into the heart of Stalingrad, while the other part of Army Group South pushed closer and closer to the oilfields far to the south.

In late November, 1942, the Soviets launched Operations Uranus and Gallop, which cut off the German Sixth Army as it was still trying to hammer the city into submission. Not only was all of the Sixth Army trapped, but several sub-units and Kampfgruppe that were providing desperately needed infantry support in the death field that was Stalingrad. When the Soviet forces closed the ring days later, nearly three hundred thousand German and Rumanian troops were trapped in a vast cauldron. Hitler promised relief, Goering promised supplies, but neither materialized; in the end, the Sixth Army slowly strangled to death within the ever-tightening noose of Soviet steel and overwhelming manpower.

Into this cauldron Forsaken Army's author, Heinrich Gerlach, brings us rather suddenly. Not only did this man survive every day in the cauldron, but he also survived years of captivity afterwards and lived to tell his tale. Considering that from 300,000 at the start of the siege, German manpower dropped to about 90,000 on the day of surrender - essentially, every two out of three soldiers died and so the odds were in his favor. But that's nothing when one considers that less than 5,000 soldiers of these 90,000 returned to Germany after the war. As one of these lucky survivors, he almost immediately began seeking the stories of his fellow survivors from generals down to privates, in the hopes of one day letting the world know what exactly happened.

History has, of course, provided us with a plethora of documentation, books, analysis, and even a film or two on the topic of Stalingrad. This book, however, is unique in that it is not told in the cold, analytical manner of a battle analysis (i.e., "The 245th Panzergrenadier Regiment assaulted the Tractor Factory and suffered 45% losses"); instead, it is told from the perspective of the soldiers. The interviews that Heinrich Gerlach conducted during his years of captivity were meticulously recorded; this becomes apparent in the pages of his book, with fine details down to the gaunt faces, the hospitals, the war-torn streets of Stalingrad, and elsewhere. One wonders from these notes, though, if he has written himself into the book; the reader spends more time with Lieutenant Braun than any other character, but this does not lessen the impact of the other characters. In fact, it is the variety of these characters - which only seems possible due to the plethora of men he was able to speak to in captivity - that almost overshadows Braun himself. The characters that stand out do not necessarily equate to those that survive, for one could surmise that any character of great detail must have been one of the survivors that Gerlach spoke to. The reader, though, will never be certain which character will live and which will die in this book, which heightens the tension.

The tension this creates is further exasperated by the skill from which the author writes; his characters, based on real people, are believable and act in understandable ways. I do believe that one would have to experience such a thing as Stalingrad in order to truly understand, but the author's writing ability helps bring the reader into their horrific world: starvation, filthy, maggot-infested wounds, and bone-numbing cold. The jubilations of finding an extra slice of bread or a small piece of meat, taken completely for granted by most anyone whom reads this book, will nearly bring tears to the reader's eyes.

These manuscripts were, unfortunately, confiscated by the Soviets nearer to the end of his captivity, and upon his release he pieced what he could together from the few survivors that saw Germany again as well as his memory. Since this book is written in a novel format, the author can take great license to write as he sees fit, but the descriptions are too vivid to be anything other than actual experience rather than the product of an active imagination.

Throughout Forsaken Army, the author makes very few references to the battle itself from a larger standpoint. The reader is then tied to the fate of the soldiers in the pocket, sharing their uncertainty, feeling their pain, and experiencing their hardships.

The characters themselves are very believable; the reader will think right along with them at the start of the novel that the war is virtually won and they'll be earning a much-needed Christmas leave soon. The desperation never really sets in, since their Fuhrer promises them help and they believe it. Some believe it to the end, others do not, and the resulting chaos added by a lack of supplies and the methodical Soviet efforts to reduce the western part of the cauldron passes the anxieties of the characters off onto the reader. Ultimately, Hitler goes from savior to criminal in the minds of most of the soldiers, especially given his complete lack of respect for the quarter of a million men packed into the cauldron. This is made even more evident by the last paragraph of Forsaken Army, which tells of how in 1943 that the first letters from the POW's from Stalingrad were arriving in Germany through neutral Turkey. Hitler said, "The duty of the men of Stalingrad is to be dead." Most of them performed that duty to satisfaction.

The book cover.

Additional Reading and Viewing

Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History by Geoffrey Roberts

Stalingrad (DVD)

Stalingrad - Dogs, do you want to live forever? (DVD)

About the Author

Michael Eckenfels is the Director of Review and Preview Production at The Wargamer, a sometime technical writer, and full-time gamer living in the urban mosquito sprawl known as Houston, Texas. He is a contributor to Games Unplugged and Campaign Magazines, and Eagle Games' line of products. When not driving Kubelwagons at breakneck speed in Battlefield 1942 or playing any one of a collection of over a hundred board-style wargames, Michael spends a few moments of peace with his family.

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