Stalingrad and other WWII stories

stalingradThis year is the seventieth anniversary of the end of the decisive battle at Stalingrad which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and left over a million dead from both armies and countless casualties and deaths amongst the civilian population. The total devastation of the City, the horrors of fighting at close quarters in the ruin and rubble, the uninterrupted shelling and bombardment, the deprivation and wholesale slaughter must make Stalingrad the closest man has come to creating hell on earth in the history of human warfare.

Although the price of victory at Stalingrad by the Red Army was high, the reward was the capitulation of the German sixth army and the continuous retreat of the Wehrmacht from Soviet territory from that moment onwards culminating in the final defeat in Berlin in 1945. Those of us lucky enough to have been born afterwards must stop for a moment to reflect on this and what it must have meant for our seniors living through those times.

warMy father was of that generation and wanted me to take him to Stalingrad. I had to remind him that it had been renamed Volgograd in 1961 and rebuilt in Brezhnev-era style with some post-Soviet modern high-rise apartment blocks and a lot of bad roads. A few of the destroyed buildings are ‘preserved’ as reminders of the destruction and there are imposing socialist-realist war memorials to look at. It is not exactly the tourist attraction you would travel half way round the world to see. “Ah, but I want to pay my respects”, he said. “It was the turning point of the War!” He was in his late eighties at the time and, knowing his Yorkshire grit, despite his somewhat decrepit physical state, he was up for making the trip from where he lived in Cincinnati for the last twenty years of his life. Unfortunately, his second wife, an American lady, was not of the same opinion and discouraged me from the attempt. It remains for me to do it one day for him on my own, something I promised him that I would do.

My father was only in the British Army for six weeks, but he was no slouch for the war effort and, despite not fighting, did his bit. He was called up for army training in 1941 and, having not learnt very much about how to fight Hitler’s Wehrmacht, was returned gratefully to civilian life to make steel for the war effort. Having been born near Huddersfield, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, he remarkably avoided being sent down the coal mine like his father and brother before him and at seventeen enrolled as an apprentice at Samuel Fox and Company, Stocksbridge, an important steel works in those days, about 10 miles north west of Sheffield. He earned his degree in metallurgy at Sheffield University by studying in his spare time and attending night school three times a week, walking the ten miles to the city, there and back, to save money on the bus fare. Some of those night school excursions were not without event. On 12th and 15th December 1940 Heinkel, Junker and Dornier bombers in several waves dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs on the City in an attempt to destroy the steel-making capabilities for which Sheffield was then renowned. Apart from destroying the Marples Hotel, a popular pub, the C&A store and some unsightly nineteenth century housing there was relatively little damage to the steelworks themselves and they continued to work almost uninterruptedly throughout the War.

pid1cI remember as a nipper in the fifties being taken on shopping trips to Sheffield by my Mum when the City centre was still in parts in bomb ruins. The High Street was still a blackened, windowless front and the back-end of the Cathedral was annihilated. When I look at the photos of the destruction of Stalingrad, I am reminded of those images from my early life. I  imagine what it must have been like to be in that bloody mayhem on the Volga, not on the Don. But no matter how awesome it must have been in Sheffield in those nights of the Blitz, it was not Stalingrad. There were no German soldiers firing at you from 30 yards from the debris of C&A; there were no panzers blasting at you coming up Pond Street. Just a few thousand tons of bombs dropping fairly randomly out of the December night sky. In Stalingrad there was no Uncle Albert knocking back a sneaky pint in the Marples before the night shift and not making it back home to Auntie Vera’s for his egg and chips! There was no ‘hugging the enemy’ tactics employed by the Soviets to discourage the German artillery from hitting their own troops. There was no Pavlov house to withstand a 59-day relentless onslaught by the Nazis near Victoria Station. There were just six hundred and sixty dead from those two nights of the Blitz. In Stalingrad, as many as forty thousand civilians and almost half a million Soviet soldiers died, equivalent to the entire population of Sheffield today!

1pi1cSamuel Fox steelworks, apart from one minor but quirky incident, was never hit by German bombers, although by all accounts they had been desperately trying to locate it as a target. Dad was wire department manager throughout the rest of the War and had cooked up a steel alloy to draw the rods used to make the armour-piercing bullets for the Spitfire which had been very successful in knocking out German tanks. This must have been a source of annoyance to the enemy and a good reason to want to find and destroy the production facility. Being quite well hidden in the upper Don valley, the Stocksbridge works was obviously difficult to find, made more confusing by the fact that the British boffins had built a replica of Sheffield somewhere on the top of the Pennines on the way to Manchester. This false town actually got bombed several times with happily no loss of life, except perhaps for a few sheep.

Bringing the action back to Russia, I overheard a conversation once at the bar in Silver’s pub when a young English expat was describing to a couple of his incredulous drinking mates a war-time experience related to him by his grand-father. The relative in question was working the night shift during the War in number two melting shop at Samuel Foxes when one night a lone Dornier, perhaps lost on an abortive sortie to find a suitable target, dumped a stick of bombs over the steelworks. Some of the explosives dropped in the goods-yard killing a guy who was late for work and the others went through the roof where the open-hearth furnaces were working, dropping one by one into the molten steel of each furnace with nothing more than a plop and a thud. If they had missed the furnaces full of steel and landed in open space, there could have been significant damage and loss of life.

w2eThe amazing coincidence of hearing this account told independently in a Moscow bar was that the same story had been told to me by my father who, during this incident, was in the wire mill next door producing his rods for the Spitfire bullets! Small world!

Another minor coincidence resulted in the fact that I exist at all. There was, in the year following the blitz, a day-light bombing raid on Sheffield which very nearly killed my mother. She worked as a shoe-shop assistant in the centre of town and, as the manager was busy, was asked to take the day’s takings to deposit in the bank across the road. As she was queuing in the Midland Bank, a German bomb obliterated Saxone’s shoe shop and killed everyone in the building. Having literally lost her job, she found another in her home town of Stocksbridge polishing steel samples in the lab at Foxes where she met the young head of the wire department. The rest is, of course, history! For this we have to thank the immense sacrifice made at Stalingrad, and a bit of Sheffield steel!