As the Soviet army sought to exploit its victory at Stalingrad, von Manstein was working hard to restore order to the German lines. German troops were forced onto the retreat in many areas as the Red Army maintained the pressure.
Even during this retreat Hans Roth was able to keep some notes in his diary, which he was later able to build into a fuller account. Even so the days surrounding this episode of the retreat all merge into one, which was only slightly less desperate than that endured by many Italians:
We can’t stop now. Charkow has been abandoned due to pressure from the enemy. The large depots and buildings have been blown up; the beautiful mansions dating back to the days of the czar have been burned down.
Stalingard-Rostow-Charkow: the big triangle is now in the hands of the Reds and lost for us. We desperately cling to every village and city. But the enemy is too strong. We have to retreat after a few hours of bitter fighting. Our faces are grey; bitter desperation settles in our hearts as our toughest enemy.
It is -40° C; the snow level is as high as our bodies. The steaming, agitated and exhausted horses can’t even pull the empty sleds anymore. Our small group becomes smaller and smaller, only half of them are still able to fight. Injured soldiers, many with frostbite, load their carbines and shoot. They lumber through the snow; their faces are contorted with pain. In the midst of the blizzard, some fall behind and lose their group, which was supposed to support them.
The tanks of the Reds arrive everywhere. All of a sudden silhouettes can be seen on both sides of the road. Our Stukas always arrive on time to get us out of this mess. We continue to rush through the snow. Everything is so totally useless! The icy cold numbs us so much that we are losing the will to survive. Who cares about the shrapnel of the tankshells and ricocheting bullets from the enemy carbines? We are tired, incredibly tired.
After the relatively mild weather of yesterday and the day before – temperatures ranged between -15° and -29° degrees C – a sudden change in the weather. A whistling, piercing wind sweeps through, pushing ahead the dry snow in wide sheets. A dirty, grey sky, in which the sun is glued on it like a lemon yellow, starts to fade.
We have met up with other retreating troops that have suffered equal losses and are now forcing our way together as a considerable fighting power toward the northeast. During the day we take turns fighting or sleeping in snowdrifts. At night we sneak past villages that are occupied by the enemy. Provisions and ammunition are scarce but the mood is better, because here and there we keep hearing about new divisions that are supposed to be attacking from the south.
A thin sickle of a moon is hanging in the ink dark night. With the fall of darkness we have moved away from the enemy. At first the road is blocked by a snowdrift. Then there is hissing rifle fire and loud thuds in the snow from exploding shells. Assault troops are filing along the waves of the snowy desert. Corpses are lying around everywhere, there were many fatalities. And we continue to march, a forever lasting and painful rush though the deep snow.
See Eastern Inferno