On the Eastern Front the Germans believed that the Soviet Army was as exhausted as they were. The German focus was on making the final breakthrough in Stalingrad where they had ‘only’ to dislodge a few small pockets of Russians clinging on to the west bank of the Volga – and they would have won the battle. Everything could then settle down for the remainder of the winter.
Stalingrad lay at the very end of a very long supply line. The wide open spaces of the terrain to the west of the city were nominally under German occupation. In practice they were thinly occupied by the Romanian Army, bolstered by small groups of German troops.
Henry Metelman was amongst these troops, sitting it out in the middle of nowhere. He describes the situation in this quiet sector of the war:
By the middle of November, I think it was the thirteenth, there came the first real snow of winter. Everything looked different now, not so hard, more serene, and sounds carried differently in the air. In a way it also calmed our nerves, it made us more fatalistic, deep in our bones we sensed that we would have to take what was coming to us.
Having been static for several days in a Romanian line of defence, we had dug ourselves a comfortable bunker, with our PAK only a short distance away pointing towards the Russian lines.
Several times we had reported to our Command that during the night we had heard much activity on the other side. We knew what we were talking about when we insisted that the howling engines were those of T-34 tanks, but our officers knew better, they said the Russians were tied down in Stalingrad and on their last legs, and were probably driving the odd T-34 up and down to confuse us.
But then came the night of November the 18th. It was miserably damp and cold, snow flurries had covered most of the ground, and there was no echo in the air. It was about 2.00 a.m. when I crawled out of our bunker to take over guard duty. The night was unusually still and my mate told me that all the irritating Russian movements had stopped about an hour ago.
My rifle over my shoulder, and well protected by my greatcoat, I walked over to the Romanian gun positions. One of their guards told me in a mixture of broken German and Russian that he did not like the silence over there, it was like a stillness before the storm.
I was glad when my time was up at about 4.00 a.m. and I crawled back into the cosy bunker, banked up the fire in our little cannon stove, undressed and stretched out to get some sleep.
The next thing I knew was that all hell had broken loose. The vibrating air blew out the candle and we were trying to sort ourselves out in utter darkness. The whole place trembled, bits of earth fell on to us and the noise was deafening. We were sleep drunk, and kept bumping into each other, mixing up our uniforms, our boots and other equipment, and shouting out loudly to relieve our tension.
Somehow I managed to scramble into my things, realizing only much later when I felt the draught on my backside, that I had put my trousers on the wrong way round. We went out from one bedlam into a much worse one, an inferno of noise and explosions.
We behaved like well-organized robots. Kitt and Balbo jumped forward to man the PaK, while I helped Fritz to supply the ammunition. The sky was lit up all around us, like day at times. Mortar bombs whined through the air, exploding with thuds which made the earth tremble.
Everthing was in utter turmoil and I heard much shouting and crying from the Romanian forward line. And then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped, with an eerie silence enveloping us all. We knew from experience that this had only been the first phase, the overture, and that the real conflict was yet to come.
By now dawn had crept faintly into the eastern sky, the fog had been completely blown away, and my truck further back was in flames. But the five of us were all right, no one was hurt and we signalled ‘thumbs up’ to each other. From now on we could only wait. Some flares were sent up from the Romanian positions, but our eyes were glued to the other side from where, we knew, the Russians would soon be coming. The overture was over.