Hitler had now declared Stalingrad to be a “fortress” and was pinning his hopes on Goering’s resupply promises, and the prospect that a relief attack might be made through the Russian lines. But for the men on the ground conditions were rapidly deteriorating.
On the 1st December Generalleutnant Schmidt reported to the Fuhrer HQ:
Now we have our ardent all-round defence. I have enough weapons but little ammunition, little bread and spirit, no wood for burning or building materials to go below ground and keep warm, and the men, who remain astonishingly confident of victory, are daily losing their strength.
Conditions for the Red Army soldiers surrounding Stalingrad were little better but they knew that they held the advantage and there was no way they would lose their grip on it. Mansul Abdullin had arrived on the battlefield in early November, he was still adjusting to life on the front line. In late November they were ordered to dig in and now they were living in holes in the ground:
We had to gauge out a 1.5m [5 feet] lump of frozen earth, then dig a burrow at the bottom of the trench. Since these burrows were made to fit a particular individual, they differed in size and form. Sometimes, one burrow would shelter two or three people: it was warmer that way.
Meanwhile, the frozen ground above protected us almost as well as concrete. One might assume that as soon as we had completed work on a trench, and dug our burrows, we would simply have crawled inside and slept till ordered to fight.
But this was not the case. We wanted our dwellings to be comfortable, so we would make a niche for our grenades, another for our cartridges, and a third for our sub-machine guns. Then we would make a niche for our mess tins, and so on. Thus we made our trenches more and more cosy, all the time getting more and more attached to them.
In fact, the order, ‘Load the mortars! Forward!’ was often accompanied by feelings of sadness and regret, at having to part with a piece of ground that had become a kind of home. As for leaving your trench to the enemy, that was totally out of the question!
Our mortarmen saw to it that the enemy did not sleep at night. By day, we would zero in on a ravine, where various Nazi service units were concentrated, and make a detailed plan of their positions. Then, as soon as darkness fell, we would begin firing at regular five-minute intervals. This was called ‘wearing out the enemy.’
The Germans were shelled all night long, but we managed to get some sleep at least: each crew worked for an hour, firing some 100 bombs, before scurrying back to burrows, kept warm by sleeping comrades.
For some reason the Nazis did not dig any trenches. Maybe they expected to make a successful breakout? Or maybe our frozen ground at Stalingrad proved a bit too much for them? I don’t know.
Instead, they made their defences from frozen corpses. They would build a wall consisting of two or three layers of dead bodies, cover it with snow, and thus have something to protect themselves from our fire. In this way, the frozen remains of dead Germans defended those still alive from bullets and splinters.
But I did not envy the Fritzes when a sudden thaw took place! Besides, such measures were no match for our 76mm guns.
They were getting regular food, occasionally supplemented by food drops from the Germans that fell outside the perimeter. Yet by the end of a month living like this Abdullin was suffering from lice and had become almost incontinent from an infection that affected many men.
They were living out in the open in sub zero temperatures, deprived of sleep and drinking melted snow water that was often dirty, engaged in heavy physical work. Their morale was high – they knew that the German troops were much worse off.