Saturday 11 January 2020

The Battle of Stalingrad (Jul 1942 to Feb 1943) - Final Part - Pitomnik Airfield

During the night of the 15th/16th January the German 6th Army 'air bridge' in Festung Stalingrad was dealt a fatal blow when the Red Army retook the airfield at Pitomnik. When I visited the site in 2002 it was, on first appearances, a featureless field - miles from the nearest habitation and very difficult to find.

Military earthworks on the site of Pitomnik Airfield, Stalingrad (Volgograd)

The BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, toured the Stalingrad battlefield at the invitation of the  Soviet authorities shortly after the city had been liberated. In his excellent book The Year of Stalingrad, Werth recorded an eye-witness account of a visit to Pitomnik on the previous day from a "gruff Red Army captain with a drooping moustache".

It's not much of a place; you could put the whole village on a five-kopec piece. But when you drive up to it now, it looks like a big town. Thousands and thousands of lorries are accumulated there, and over an area of six square kilometres the Germans had piled up pontoon parts, and you think all this is so many houses when you look from a distance, and it looks like the town has factory chimneys - with all those ack-ack guns of theirs pointing upwards. Before the war there was a wonderful fruit-tree nursery at Pitomnik; the highest grade apple, pears and cherry trees were grown there; but all this has been destroyed.

Pitomnik - as shown on the Volgograd Panorama

The 'gruff Red Army captain' went on to describe the fight for the airfield in the final days of the 6th Army pocket.

The fight for Pitomnik was a very stiff one; the Germans had an enormous concentration of firing-points, but in the end, with an intensive artillery and Katyusha barrage, we smashed them all. The place is now littered with thousands of dead frozen Fritzes. Our guns also smashed all the planes on the Pitomnik airfield; several JU52's among them.

Concrete walkway on the Pitomnik battlefield site

After the fight had ended, the men of the Soviet 65th Army who had taken Pitomnik found many of their Red Army comrades - PoWs - in a pitiful state. Again, Werth quotes the captain.

Close by, we found an open-air concentration camp for Russian prisoners; it was dreadful. They could sleep on rough bunks dug into the slope - the sleeping spaces were only twelve square metres, and here seventy or eighty men were supposed to sleep. Each of these 'dormitories' had barbed wire around it, and so had the camp as a whole. There were 1,400 men there whom the Germans had forced to work on fortifications. Only 102 survived. You might say that the Germans had nothing themselves to eat; but the starving of prisoners began even before the encirclement. And it was bad luck: for finding these unfortunate people lying there among the frozen corpses of the others, our men started to feed them bread and sausage. Many died as a result.

Luftwaffe Tool Tags - Pitomnik Airfield

When I visited the site in 2002 with a small group of friends there were areas of ground which had been disturbed - possibly by animals but more likely by 'black' diggers looking for artefacts. From the spoil I picked up a couple of Luftwaffe tool tags - one red and one yellow. I was told later, by a local historian, that in the final days these tags were 'repurposed' for the prioritisation of casualties being evacuated from the kessel. If this is true that I have in my possession a couple of pieces of pressed metal that would have determined life or death during those desperate days during the winter of 1942/43. The red one would presumably have been a 'ticket out'.