The Battle of Stalingrad was the first turning point for the Eastern Front of World War II. Coming on the heels of Operation Barbarossa, the five-month battle allowed the Soviet Union to turn the tide of the war against Nazi Germany. At the time, however, the outcome was less than certain. The Nazi war machine had captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners during the its invasion of the USSR and the Red Army was on the brink of collapse.
In the streets of the city and surrounding it, the German troops fighting the battle had little knowledge of what was happening at the strategic level. Before Stalingrad, they and the German wehrmacht had seen massive successes all along the Eastern Front. As the battle raged for months, they were even allowed to go home on leave, contrary to what many might think.
As they fought the battle, soldiers spoke about what they would do for civilian work when the war ended. According to author William Craigs in his book “Enemy at the Gates: the Battle for Stalingrad,” they thought the Red Army was as close to collapse as it really was and that the war might be over soon.
The German 6th Army allowed for 20 days of leave per man, and most were forward thinking at the start of the fight for Stalingrad. Many even believed that the battle would be over before they returned. They were wrong, of course. Upon coming back to the front, many of the men they left behind would be dead by the time their leave ended.
Official German instructions for soldiers going on leave were: “You are under military law, and you are still subject to punishment. Don’t speak about weapons, tactics or losses. Don’t speak about bad rations or injustice. The intelligence service of the enemy is ready to exploit it.”
Like most soldiers at war, the Germans returning to visit their families had a strict set of guidelines they had to follow. Naturally, they used a soldier’s dark humor to cope with the battlefield conditions they would be sent back into.
In his book “Stalingrad,” Anthony Beevor noted the jocular set of instructions German soldiers lived by while away from the Eastern Front.
“You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those to which you have become accustomed. You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much,” Beevor wrote.
Instructions include not tearing up the floors in Germany to look for potatoes, which are kept elsewhere, not opening locked doors with grenades, “Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union,” and not killing civilians because they might be partisans.
Even after the German 6th Army was completely surrounded at Stalingrad, the army was still granting leave to its soldiers to visit Germany. The ones that were able to get out were considered the luckiest of the 210,000 Germans there. 105,000 surrendered to the Red Army, 35,000 left by air, 10,000 escaped and 60,000 were killed in the pocket.
After the encirclement many Germans who were supposed to go back found ways to delay their departure, knowing full well what they would be returning to. A handful of German soldiers returned anyway, meeting the fate that would befall them.