Stalingrad: Turning Point of the Eastern Front by Paul Errington

Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s I was brought up on the World at war TV series and Purnell’s History of the Second World War magazine series leading to a lifelong interest in Military history the Western European Theatre but also the Eastern Front, the scale of which fascinated me.

Great Battles in the Cities of Soviet Russia and on the expanses of the Russian Steppes where huge armies clashed in what was the most Titanic struggle of WW2. One place held my interest more than any other, a City where arguably the most destructive and costliest Battle of World War 2, and in fact History, took place and where the momentum of the campaign in the east turned against the Germans: Stalingrad.
Battle of World War 2 - Stalingrad

The Battle symbolizes many things including the clash of the ideologies of Fascism and Communism both of which were brutal regimes which led to the suppression of hundreds of millions, the personal struggle between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, but most of all the savagery of a modern Industrial war fought in an Urban environment where the loss of life was numbered in the 100’s of thousands; a final death figure will probably never be known.

But Stalingrad has also been held as a turning point of the second World War in the east, a place where the German Wehrmacht suffered its greatest
ever disaster in the field and its largest formation the 6
th Army was almost completely wiped out.

After researching the Battle for several years in 2001, I was fortunate to visit for the first time the City now called Volgograd and the surrounding Steppe Battlefields to the west and south of the City where so much remains to be seen. The battle can be viewed and Toured from the first crossing of the Don River to the final surrender by Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus at the Univermag Store in the City Centre, visiting locations relevant to all the phases of the Battle where memorials and original Battle-scarred buildings still stand bearing witness to the ferocious fighting and courage and sacrifice of those from both sides who took part.

One of the places I found the most emotive was the location to the North of the City in the suburbs of Rynok and Lataschinka where the first elements of the 16th Panzer Division, Armoured cars of Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 16 reached the Volga river in the late afternoon of the 23rd August 1942 having made their famous dash across the land bridge between the Don and the Volga. The German troops involved referred to it as overwhelming, or Ein Historisches Augenblick, an Historic moment.

From here high on the west bank of the Volga they could see the mighty river itself, the Asiatic steppe shimmering in the heat haze and extending far into the distance to the east plus the Northern part of the City and the Industrial district where they would soon be involved in brutal fighting. In the distance huge clouds of smoke and fire hung over the
City where over 600 German Bombers had begun their saturation bombing of the City itself, Soviet archives estimate that over 40,000 civilians were killed on that day alone
by the bombing. Looking at the same view you can envisage their feelings of success and exhilaration that now the Volga had been reached the Russian campaign may be
nearing its triumphant conclusion.

Volga Crossing
Volga Crossing

At that moment of Triumph I’m sure not many of them were aware of the scale of battle that was waiting to engulf them and what the fate of themselves and hundreds of thousands of other human beings would be. But the moment and feelings were only fleeting as they began to be engaged by Soviet Anti-Aircraft Guns crewed by young female crews who began firing over open sights at the German Spearhead. As the famous Russian writer Vasily Grossman wrote “This was the first page of the Stalingrad defense”:
the Battle for the City of Stalingrad had begun.

Urban warfare, or Rattenkrieg, in the sewers and underground shops of the factories, the cult of the sniper, the evolution of street fighting tactics, extremes of weather conditions, attack and counter attack, encirclement, starvation and surrender and the final victory of the people of Soviet Russia and the Red Army. This was a turning point in History.

Even in subsequent visits that first sight of the Volga in that historical location left an overwhelming feeling of a moment in history and the beginning of infamous battle that
was to follow.

First view of the Volga
First view of the Volga

The Mamayev Kurgan, the Factory District, Lyudnikovs Island, Pavlovs House, Tsaritsa Gorge, the Railway Station and the Grain Silo etc are all names that will be familiar to those who have studied the fighting to capture the City. But out on the Steppe west of the City are the Airfields of Gumrak and Pitomnik the reconciliation Cemetery complex at Rossoschka including the memorials to the over 100,000 Germans soldiers still missing in action. Soldiers Field, Bald Hill – Memorials to the heroic Soviet defenders, Kalach and the Don River crossing and the area of the German defense lines around the so called Marinovka Nose.

Mamayev Kurgan
Mamayev Kurgan

Grudinin Mill
Grudinin Mill

The Tour we have put together is one that will allow the visitor to understand all the major phases of the Battle , looking at the whole picture from the point of view of both the Axis and Soviet Armies , the senior Commanders and the ordinary soldier, the Civilian experience and the famed resilience of the Red Army soldiers.

The Tour will be led by myself and one of the most knowledgeable and experienced Russian Historians and Guides of the Battle, who first took me to Stalingrad all those years ago: Evgeny Kulichenko. No-one knows the Battle and it’s history as intimately as Zhenya, who is a lifelong resident of the City and who has studied the Battle since being a small boy growing up with the stories and first-hand accounts of the surviving veterans. We look forward to welcoming you on an amazing tour of an incredible battlefield.

The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial Site – Part Two

The abandonment of Soviet prisoners by Stalin and the subsequent re-establishment of the camp as a special Gulag.

The first Soviet prisoners arrived at Sachsenhausen in August 1941. By the end of the year, more than 11,000 of these living skeletons were being held in the camp in appalling conditions. Impossible work conditions, meagre rations and mass executions steadily reduced their numbers.

The most common method of execution was by shooting in the so-called ‘neck shot facility’ located close to the camp crematoria. Here, an estimated 10,000 Soviet prisoners were executed over a ten week period during late 1941. Total estimates of Soviet prisoners murdered in the camp between 1941-45 vary between 11,000 – 18,000.
None of this mattered to Stalin, whose attitude towards captured troops was underlined in his statement that, ‘There are no Soviet prisoners of war. The Soviet soldier fights on until death. If he chooses to become a prisoner, he is automatically excluded from the Russian community’. This attitude even extended to his own son, Lieutenant Yakov Dzhugshvili, following his capture during the Battle of Smolensk on 16 July 1941. Soon after, Stalin ensured that the wife of this ‘Traitor to the Motherland’ was not spared the state’s wrath. Yakov’s wife Julia was subsequently arrested, separated from her three year old daughter and imprisoned in the Gulag for two years.

Stalin and the Son he Abandoned to his Fate

Following the German disaster at Stalingrad in February 1943, Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus was taken prisoner. Soon after, the Germans suggested a prisoner swap, their senior officer for Stalin’s son. Inevitably, Stalin turned the offer down, saying that, ‘I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant’. On 14 April 1943, Yakov was shot and killed. Contemporary reports indicated that he was shot whilst approaching the camp’s prohibited ‘Neutral Zone’ which bordered the electric fence. More recent investigations point to him being killed for refusing to obey an order to return to his barracks. In March 1945, Stalin talked with Marshal Zhukov about his son, whom he believed was still alive and being kept as a hostage. His hard heart began to soften a little towards a son who had once been dismissed by him as ‘a mere cobbler’. When the death of Yakov was later confirmed, Stalin rehabilitated him posthumously in the knowledge that he had died honourably.
Brick Built Baracks in Soviet Special Camp

The liberation of Sachsenhausen on 22 April 1945 came too late for Stalin’s son. Neither did liberation bring comfort to thousands of Soviet prisoners who had effectively been abandoned by the state. For them, there was no hope of rehabilitation, just interrogation by Smersh (Soviet Military Counter Intelligence). Stalin’s assertion that there were no Soviet prisoners of war, just so-called ‘Traitors to the Motherland’ condemned them to imprisonment and hard labour in the Siberian Gulags. Some Russian  prisoners  were held in Sachsenhausen (renamed by the Soviet authorities in August 1945 as Special Camp No.7).
Soviet Prisoner at Sachsenhausen

The arbitrary enmity of the Soviet organs of repression resulted in the convictions (after interrogation and torture) of alleged Nazi collaborators and soldiers who had contracted venereal disease in Germany. By 1946, the camp held approximately 16,000 German and ex-Soviet citizens (including 2000 women prisoners). In 1948, the camp was redesignated as Special Camp no.1. That year, some 5000 German prisoners were granted an amnesty and freed. Another 5,500 German prisoners were freed in early 1950.  More German prisoners were freed shortly before the camp was shut down in the Spring of that year. The few remaining Russian prisoners were transferred to the Gulags on Soviet soil.
For those so-called ‘Traitors to the Motherland’ who somehow survived their harsh treatment and subsequent cold-shouldering by the state, their ordeal was not over. Their rehabilitation did not finally come until after the fall of Communism in 1989. We still tend to associate cruelty and barbarity almost exclusively with Nazism, yet Stalin’s state was also brutal and unforgiving. Learn more about Soviet Special Camp No.1/No.7 on Leger’s ‘The Holocaust Remembered‘ tour.
 
Read part one of David’s Sachsenhausen blog, here.

5 Big Reasons to Visit Eastern Europe

Think of Europe, and we know what would spring to mind, popular holiday and sightseeing destinations, such as the likes of Italy, France, Germany and Portugal, for example. But what about those destinations a little further east?

It may not have the most glamorous reputation, when you have the glitz and glamour of western Europe heavy weights like the French Riviera and the sunny Spanish coast to compare it to, but there’s a lot more to Eastern Europe than stag do’s and a cheap pint.
In fact, we don’t think we’re alone when we say it’s actually one of the most fascinating pockets of Europe.

The view over Budapest from the Fisherman’s Bastion

From the Czech Republic to Russia, there’s plenty to see and do, and if you aren’t mesmerised by it all, we’ll eat our hat! But, as we’re not ones to keep things like this to ourselves, here are our top 5 reasons to enjoy a holiday in Eastern Europe.

History

Eastern Europe has more historical tales than you can shake a stick at. It is complex, it’s gruesome and it’s fascinating. The good, the bad and the downright ugly, from the Red Army to the Iron Curtain, there’s a lot to be learnt. And, you don’t have to be a history buff to be astounded by what can be found here.
Auschwitz, for example, is a place where the word ‘visiting’ simply does not explain the wave of emotion and the feelings that you experience when you are where the most deadly of the concentration camps stood.

Auschwitz

In 2016, a record 2 million visitors, from all over the world, came to Auschwitz. Walking into the site, you’re met with the eerie reality of what happened there, not all that long ago, allowing us to re-live to the darkest echoes of the past.
Budapest offers a unique look at how previously independent communities of Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, have come together to create one of Eastern Europe’s most popular cities.
From medieval castles to memorials built in honour of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi forces, it’s one of many fascinating cities that should be on every European explorer’s wish list.
In Berlin you can still learn about the reality of the segregation, including the Iron curtain that lead to the Cold War.
Brandenburg Gate

With parts of the Berlin Wall still visable, and Brandenburg Gate now one of Berlin’s most popular attractions, the reminders of the past that separated the communist countries of Eastern Europe and capitalist countries of the west are still apparent and give us an interesting opportunity to learn about the history of Europe as a whole.

Variety and Culture

Within a relatively small area of Eastern Europe, you can enjoy a variety of different cultures. From Finland to Russia, the cultural landscape is diverse. You can even cover a whole spectrum of exciting destinations is just a short time, as there are plenty of exciting countries in close proximity to each other.
Even though the east is rapidly becoming more westernised, enjoy the Bohemian lifestyle in the Czech Republic, the rich culture of Russia with its outstanding arts, music, and of course, ballet.
Even cities such as Prague and Krakow are still steeped in fascinating tradition. Cobbled streets, horse and carts and plenty of museums and theatres, you can be sure to get a cultural feast in either of these cities.

Krakow

But, it’s certainly doesn’t end there. With the likes of Vienna, Ljubljana and Dubrovnik, there’s plenty to see for all the culture vulture’s out there.
And, best of all, you’ll get more for your money! In most areas you’ll find a vast difference in costs between Eastern Europe and its western counterpart. A pint of beer a relative steal, and a tasty meal just a snip at what you’d expect to pay, even at home.

Sight-seeing

A real crowd pleaser, Eastern Europe doesn’t fall short when it comes to photo opportunities. Forget about the Eifel Tower, here we’ve got the un-sung heroes that might even top the list when it comes to sightseeing opportunities.
As Winston Churchill once said “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume” – and that’s just the start of what’s on offer! In fact, Vogue called Eastern Europe 2017’s hot travel destination. Ooh, you trendsetter, you!
As we’ve already stopped off there, let’s delve a little deeper into Prague… it is host to a wonderful selection of landmarks, most famously the Astronomical Clock, and of course, Charles Bridge.

Charles Bridge, Prague

In fact, in 1989, the largest number of tourists were recorded at Charles Bridge, coming in at a whopping 1562 people. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Considering the bridge is only 1600 feet in length, and with four lanes of traffic, that’s almost one person per foot!
But, of course, that’s only dipping your toes into this amazing city. There’s also Prague Castle, Petřín Park and Wenceslas square right on your doorstep. Luckily, there’s also a host of fantastic bars, restaurants, and cafes, if you need to take the weight off for a minute or two.
The imperial city of Vienna gives you a chance to see incredible architecture, such as the Hofburg Palace, in all of its glory. And, of course, we have to mention the Giant Wheel.
What better way to see the city than from the top of a 64 metre tall Ferris wheel? It’s also one of the oldest operating wheels in the world, so it has its historical value, too.
Hofburg Palace, Vienna

Whilst in the ‘City of Music’, for all you Musicophiles out there, there’s plenty of sights that sing to your tune, having been home to Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Struas and Brahms, you can even head over to Schoenbrunn Palace where Mozart presented his first concert at the age of six!
And what about the UNESCO world heritage site of Warsaw’s old town? With the Royal Castle and King Zygmunt III Waza Column, there’s plenty to see whilst you’re there.
That’s before we even mention the spectacular sights of western Russia. With plenty to see in Moscow and St. Petersburg from the Kremlin to the Bronze Horseman statue, you will certainly leave with a lasting impression.
Phew! That’s enough to fill any photo book, and that’s just skimming the surface…

Food and Drink

If you’re into hearty and wholesome foods, you’ll be very excited by the Eastern Europe cuisines. You can find and array of traditional and unique dishes in each of the countries you visit, and if local cuisine is your thing, you’re in for a treat when you’re touring the east of the continent.
Soups, meats, fresh fish and vegetables, you’re on a tour of the taste buds as the food in eastern Europe is renowned for its spectacular flavour. A tasty goulash in Hungary, catch of the day on the Dalmatian coast, or maybe a hot or cold borsht in Poland (Beetroot soup, if you were wondering.).

Goulash & Borsht

But, as with many places in relatively close proximity, of course you’ll get some overlap. Stuffed cabbage, stews and even a tasty chicken schnitzel will be on the menu in many Eastern European countries.
And, if you’re not one to turn down the opportunity to try a new tipple, there’s plenty of local spirits to quench a thirst. From Russian Vodka to Polish Wódka, you can get a taste for Schnapps in Austria, Becherovka in the Czech Republic and a Palinka in Hungary.

Geography

From picturesque beaches to stunning mountain scenery, and all that is in between, Eastern Europe has it all.
Heading over to the coast of Croatia is fast becoming one of the top travel plans of many Brits and it’s easy to see why. White, sandy beaches and the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic, it’s far from the dull and dreary scenes we’re so used to at home.

Heading inland, if you’ve got a head for heights, the Tatras Mountains are certainly a good shout. Forming the border between Poland and Slovakia, their granite peaks were formed over 60 million years ago and attract over three million visitors a year!
But, even with the heavy footfall from inquisitive tourists, the mountains have maintained their pristine state and well worth a visit if you want to see nature at its finest.

We’re even treated to some of the most amazing waterways offering some incredible river cruising opportunities along the River Danube. Flowing through Germany, Austria and Hungary, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to embark on possibly some of the most relaxing sightseeing trips in Europe.

 
We could go on for days, but don’t let us just tell you how great Eastern Europe is, let us show you. Take a look at our exciting range of eastern European coach tours, here.
 

David McCormack – The Soviet Treptower Park Memorial: A monument to victory, or propaganda set in metal & stone?

In the autumn of 1946, the Soviet military administration in Berlin sponsored a competition to construct a memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park. The thirty-three entrants were given a design brief which stipulated that the finished monument should symbolise liberation from Fascism, rather than victory over Germany.

The winning entry came from a ‘creative collective’ consisting of the architect Yakov S. Beloposki, the sculptor Yevgeni W. Vuchetich, the painter Alexander A. Gorpenko and the engineer Sarra S. Valerias.
The construction of the memorial was carried out by German labourers, supervised by a unit of Soviet engineer officers. On 8 May 1949, the completed memorial was inaugurated in a solemn ceremony attended by high ranking Soviet officers and German Communist politicians.

The imposing statue of a heroic Soviet soldier cradling a young German girl in his arm formed the centrepiece of the memorial site. In some respects, it follows in the tradition of the ‘Hermann’ monument at Detmold and the ‘Battle of the Nations’ monument at Leipzig.
These German monuments symbolised the heroic struggles of the German peoples against the tyranny of occupying powers. In the same vein, the Soviet monument in Treptower Park portrayed the Red Army and it’s German Communist allies as heroic defenders against an alien Nazi regime.
It has long been assumed that the soldier represented in the statue was Guards Sergeant Nikolai Masalov of the 220th Guards Rifle Regiment. General Vasily Chuikov’s  Fall of Berlin, a chronicle of the advance of 8th Guards Army through Berlin (published in 1968) contained a gripping account of Masalov’s supposed feat of courage in rescuing a three year old German girl during the battle for the Potsdamer Bridge.
Whilst Chuikov’s account added substance to the Masalov story, not everyone remained convinced. In 2009, Pravda journalist Maksim Kondratyev argued that, ‘It cannot be ruled out that the architect simply created a perfect image of the Soviet soldier’. In my own view, the statue is a propaganda piece loosely based an Masalov. Indeed, rumours persist that the soldier who sat for Vuchetich was not Masalov, but Ivan Odartschenko, a Soviet soldier who happened to be blessed with film-star good looks.

As Vuchetich was Stalin’s favourite sculptor, the direct involvement of the Soviet dictator cannot be discounted. Stalin was determined to demonstrate that whilst the capitalist democracies expended their wealth to defeat Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union paid a much higher price in blood. Therefore, the memorial is a means of conveying the massive losses incurred by Soviet forces and civilians during the apocalyptic struggle between the two diametrically opposed regimes.
Moreover, the memorial symbolises the liberation of the German people from Nazism. With this in mind, could it be argued that Chuikov’s account of the incident on the Potsdamer Bridge is no more than a companion piece to the memorial? Could it be, that the young girl, gently and reassuringly held by the humble Soviet soldier featured in the main memorial was no more than a symbolic creation? On our fascinating Rise & Fall of the III Reich tour, we look into these questions, and much, much more.