Dedicated with love and affection to my dear Uncle Kevin, who we lost on Thursday November 14th 2019, aged 51. Loved by all who knew him and leaves a gap that that will never be filled, reunited with Grandad and Great Uncle Joe, Requiscat En Pace.
I have been thinking about what to write this past week with great overwhelming sadness and a sense of overwhelming loss, I have lost an Uncle, my Father has lost a brother, my Auntie has lost her husband, my Grandmother has lost her son. How could this happen? Why did this sudden blow come to us five weeks before Christmas, to a man who gave so much love, laughter and overwhelming kindness to so many. He leaves so much behind when he still had so very much to give. In many ways one of the great cornerstones of my family has gone beyond the horizon of our sight. He will be sorely missed. His legacy will remain in our thoughts and prayers for many years to come.
In June 1942 on the steppes of Russia, Lieutenant Vladimir Antokolosky of the Red Army was killed defending his homeland against the threat of Nazi occupation. His father Pavel, absolutely devastated and distraught wrote a poem dedicated to him the following year later. His powerful poem resonated around the country that had lost over twenty million men, women and children. It is a passage that never fails to move me. It is a piece of literature that many people have never read before. It is a poem of Soviet propaganda designed to aid the war against their their bitterest ideological rival Nazi Germany. But is also a poem of heartbreak, torment and unprecedented loss, the memories shared, and the future memories cruelly taken away. But also it is a poem of reluctant acceptance that his Son died for a noble cause and that the fight for victory must continue. It is quite a long poem so i will give you a few quotations.
“Do not call me, father, do not seek me, Do not call me, do not wish me back.
Will there be a rendezvous? I know not. I only know we still must fight. We are sandgrains in infinity, never to meet, never more see light. Farewell my Son, farewell my conscience. My youth and my solace my one and my only.
And let this farewell be the end of the story, of solitude vast and which none is more lonely. In which you remain, barred forever and ever, From Light and from Air, with your death pangs untold. Untold and un soothed, not to be resurrected. Forever and ever, an 18 year old.
Farewell then, no trains come from those regions scheduled or unscheduled, no aeroplanes fly there. farewell then my son, for no miracles happen, as in this world dreams do not come true.
The earth where so many lie buried. This song to my son. is come to its close”
The German invasion of Russia in late June 1941 was the beginning of the greatest land battle of the Second World War, and arguably the defining military campaign of the twentieth century. Hitler and the Wehrmacht had achieved astonishing success in its objective of conquering vast swathes of the European continent, the Low Countries, Poland, Norway, the Balkans and France was now subjugated under the Nazi jackboot. Because Britain had maintained and successfully defended its airspace in the summer of 1940, it prevented a German assault over the English Channel. Britain although not beaten was not in a position to attempt an invasion of the continent and switched its focus to fighting on the ground in the western desert and to conduct bombing raids over German airspace. Hitler, his generals and his army who were greedy for more victories turned towards the Soviet Union.
In 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact had guaranteed Poland’s dual subjugation under the two ideological countries. When the 2 armies met up in occupied Poland, the German forward units had noted that their Soviet allies were very poorly equipped and led. This led to Hitler, who had written in his book “Mein Kampf” believing in creating new “Land space” for the German people by invading the Soviet Union and increasing Germany’s wealth in food and raw materials, something that Germany critically lacked. The Soviet Union and its Red Army was in Hitler’s view rotten and that it “Would only need a kick in the door and the whole structure would come crashing down”. The Slavic race would be sent to work in German factories as slave workers, the Jewish race would be exterminated in the concentration camps. The Jewish Bolshevik disease completely eradicated from existence.
In the winter of 1941-42 the German panzers were stopped at the gates of Moscow, the Russian winter and fresh divisions from Siberia halted the Germans progress although great swathes of Soviet territory had been seized. The winter had hampered the Germans as it had done to Napoleon’s Grand Armee in 1812. In late July 1942, Hitler made the decision to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus. Hitler’s 6th army under General Von Paulus, victorious in France in 1940 was sent on its own to attack the city of Stalingrad, with a precarious supply line, and no reinforcement if anything went wrong. Stalingrad bore the name of Hitler’s ideological rival and it became an obsession for him. It had to be taken.
Stalin was also aware of the city’s significance, and contrary to his rival Hitler allowed his Generals to take control the situation that was developing in Stalingrad. The fighting was of a savagery almost reminiscent of the medieval age, houses, rooms and cellars were fought to the death. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers were sacrificed in suicidal attacks designed to consume German ammunition stocks. The Red Army fought under the slogan of an order of their commander in chief Stalin, “not one step back”. General Zhukov during the autumn of 1942 created Operation Uranus, which was a counterattack designed to cut off the 6th Army from its supply line and encircle it. The 6th Army was fighting desperately in a attempt to take the city before the Russian winter would wreak havoc again. General Chuikov, who was commanding the Red Army soldiers in the city was just about hanging on to the west bank of the Volga, with a trickle of reinforcements coming over the river by boat into the city which were constantly harassed by German aircraft. Whilst vast reserves of men, tanks and heavy artillery were saved north and south of the city for the counter attack.
Paulus saw the oncoming threat of encirclement and asked to evacuate the city, Hitler refused believing that one more attack would see Stalingrad would fall into his hands. Hitler was warned by his Generals and chiefs of staff of the precarious position of the 6th Army. These concerns were ignored. In late November the Soviet counteroffensive began and the 6th army was surrounded in the snow covered ruins of the city. Hitler believed that the 6th Army could be supplied by the Luftwaffe, and had been reassured by its Commander Hermann Goering that they could do it with the aircraft they had, whilst General Manstein would try to reach the army trapped in Stalingrad by a counter attack. The relief was a complete disaster, the air supply brought a tenth of the supplies that the 6th army needed to sustain its operations. Manstein’s counter offensive was successfully repelled.
Knowing that Hitler and his Generals couldn’t save the soldiers trapped in Stalingrad, the Soviets started to squeeze the pocket that had been created. The German soldiers fought bitterly and desperately in an attempt to survive, horses and dogs were eaten in a attempt to stay alive. The Russians were determined to recover the city of their leader, whatever the human cost. In February 1943. General Paulus and over 90,000 freezing and starving German Soldiers surrendered to the Soviet forces. Paulus who had been made a field marshal, was the first German field marshal to ever have been taken alive. Hitler had expected him to commit suicide and retain his honour.
The defeat of Stalingrad and to an extent the defeat of the Afrika Korps at El Alamein in 1942-43 cannot be underestimated. The German defeat at Stalingrad was a complete catastrophe for Hitler and his ambitions in Soviet Russia, the Red Army had slowly, and at great cost had finally learned how to break the Wehrmacht, it was an absolutely astonishing victory and signalled the eventual and total defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, when the red flag was flown high above the Reichstag in Berlin. King George VI presented Stalin with the Sword of Stalingrad in recognition of his triumph, and further enhanced Stalin’s reputation as the leader of the Soviet Union. His ideological rival had been comprehensively defeated. A shadow would slowly emerge and develop over Eastern Europe that would last for nearly 50 years.
Hitler’s decision making militarily would lead to more catastrophes at Tunisia and at the Falaise pocket in Normandy, where yet thousands of more prisoners were taken by the western Allies. Of the 91.000 German Prisoners of Stalingrad, only 5,000 men came home from the gulags in Siberia over a decade later. Many soldiers died of malnutrition, lack of medical treatment and brutal treatment by their Soviet masters. The Geneva convention on prisoners of war was irrelevant in a total ideological war.
After Stalingrad was over Hitler said “What is life? Life is the nation, the individual must die anyway, but beyond the life of the individual is the Nation”.
Hitler was beaten and the slow disintegration of his Third Reich was achieved by the Red Army at Stalingrad but the cost of victory for Russia was so huge and far beyond our imagination. We remember our Soldiers who fought on Normandy, Arnhem and in the desert and Burma, but we must recognize the huge contribution that the men of Soviet Russia made in the pursuit of freedom, regardless of the ideological differences.
And the Earth Abideth forever
Rest In Peace Uncle Kevin