Stalingrad Grain Elevator

Stalingrad sights

Undoubtedly the most iconic and easily recognised building in Stalingrad is a Grain Elevator.  Built in 1940, it was massive: 90 meter long, 50 meters wide and 35 meters high, and made of steel-reinforced concrete. When Gruppe Edelsheim reached the railway station on 15 September, the Elevator was unoccupied and even though it was in the sector of 94.Inf.Div., they took control of it. Senior –Lieutenant  Polyakov, a battalion commander from 10th Rifle Brigade, took action. Recon discovered that German forces in the Elevator were insignificant but they had light machine-guns , submachine-guns and some mortars. With only 27 soldiers, Polyakov attacked with three groups from the rear and flanks: the first group drew the Germans’ attention upon itself; the second group enveloped the Elevator from rear; the third approached from the flank. The group reached the Elevator and threw grenades through the ground floor windows. The Germans abandoned the ground floor but did not have time to vacate the second floor. On the morning of 16 September, the Germans who remained on the second floor were eliminated. The Soviet then consolidated and covered the exposed flanks by posting a few soldiers in destroyed houses. The top floor of the Elevator was also set up for all-round defense. By  order of 62nd Army staff the remains of 10th Rifle Brigade were subordinated to 35th Guards Rifle Division from 16 September onwards.

In the meantime, elements of 94.Inf.Div. had arrived in the area and set about regaining the monolithic structure. At noon, Inf.Rgt.267 was engaged in fierce combat in the middle of the railway area, but particularly so for its II. Bataillon, which was faced with the fortified Elevator . One of the II. Bataillon’s soldiers, Willhelm Hoffman, recalls: “Our battalion, plus panzers, is attacking the Elevator , from which smoke is pouring – the grain in it is burning , the Russian seem to have set light to it themselves. Barbarism. The battalion is suffering heavy losses. There are not more than sixty men left in each company. The Elevator is occupied not by men but  by devils that no flames  or  bullets can destroy. “ Soviet records state that “at 13.00, enemy submachine-gunners launched an attack on the Elevator but the positions was restored by a counterattack.”

Attacks against the Elevator continued on 17 September. Inf.Rgt.274 had taken over the sector containing the Elevator and immediately launched repeated attacks. In this hard fighting, the experienced commander of I./Inf.Rgt.274, Major Naegele, was killed right next to his command post by a sniper’s bullet to the heart. The mighty bulwark  needed to be eliminated  once and for all. Four assault troops of Inf.Rgt.274 had already been repulsed with bloody loses. The repeated action of heavy weapons (21cm mortar, 8.8cm Flak and Stuka bombs of the heaviest calibers) could not suppers the garrison of the Elevator. At 1430 hours, 94.Inf.Div. informed XXXXVIII Panzerkorps: “We era not able to take Elevator frontally. One battalion is stranded south from the Elevator, one to the north. It is possible to bypass the Elevator from the west. The push will head more to the north-east and the Elevator will be left alone.” This, then, was the German plan. While the Elevator  would be basically left to rot on the vine, pressure would still be applied with artillery and aerial bombardments.

The 92nd Rifle Brigade, consisting of marines from the Northern Fleet, was ferried over the Volga during the night of 16 September. Without allowing the Germans to come to their senses, they rushed into the attack directly from the crossing. In continuous counterattacks, hand-to-hand fighting and fiery duels, the marines  recaptured several streets. One of the officers, Lieutenant Andrei Khozyaynov, would be one of the few Marines to survive.

Over the next four days, the Germans launched attacks on the Elevator several times a day, having brought forward artillery and tanks (including flamethrowers) to fire directly into the windows of the Elevator. Fifty rounds of 88mm Flak were pumped into it but the effect was minimal; a series of small round holes. An artillery battery from Pz.Art.Rgt.89 also fired also with better results. A section of the lower floors collapsed under the steady pounding of the battery’s 10.5cm guns. German infantry, under cover fire, repeatedly stormed the Elevator, but all attempts were smashed by the tenacity of the Soviet defenders. On 19 Septembers, the Elevator was surrounded. The Germans launched two attacks supported by 7 panzers. The Soviet counterattacked and threw them back to their starting positions. About 30 Germans corpses left the walls of the Elevator.

The struggle  for the Elevator grew more bitter. Units of 29.Inf.Div.(mot.) had moved up from the south and formed part of the cordon around the Elevator. The German made repeated request for the Soviet soldiers to lay down their weapons and surrender. Senior-Lieutenant Polyakov recalls one such request: “On 21.09.1942, civilian parliamentaries were sent by Germans with the purpose of persuading the soldiers defending the Elevator to lay down their weapons and surrender. When these truce envoys refused to take up arms and fight with us against German, we shot them.”

On 21 September, the German launched their decisive attack. Bombers hung over the Elevator, mortars and artillery covered the building with dense barrage. The explosions of bombs and shells causes the concrete to shatter and the grain to burn. Dust and smoke made it difficult to breathe. Having moved 16 panzers right up to the Elevator, the Germans opened drum-fire on the windows. The base of the Elevator was whittled away in furious gunfire: that it remained standing was testament to its stout construction. Submachine gunners jumped out from behind the panzers and sprayed the walls of the building. But the Soviet soldiers did not flinch. They shot up the panzers with fire from anti-tank rifles, disabled them with clusters of grenades and Molotov cocktails, repelled infantry with automatic fire, and did not allow them to force entry into the Elevator. Seven attacks were beaten off throughout the day. The Germans pulled back but conditions in the Elevator had deteriorated even further. Ammunition and food had run out  and many of the defenders were dead or wounded. The garrison decided to escape the encirclement at night. They believed they had been cut off since 19 September but official German reports state that a complete encirclement of the Elevator was only attained at 1400 hours on 21 September.

The Elevator was scheduled for destruction on the coming day. However, without informing division or its neighbours, Inf.Rgt.274 prepared a new operation at nightfall against the concrete fortress. From earlier miscarried operations, they knew that the base of the Elevator was girdled by a 2-metre wide concrete trench – which was covered by Soviet machine-guns – into which they had to leap to gain entry. A feint attack heading off east and south-east from the railway station succeeded in distracting the Soviet garrison while another  group rushed into the Elevator from the north-western side. Obergefreiter Schneider climbed up the fire escape and hoisted the German flag. This penetration precipitated an earlier break-out attempt by the Soviet survivors.

 The daily report of 29.Inf.Div.(mot.) at 2005 hours stated: “Reconnaissance carried out for the attack on the Elevator. From 1845 to 1915 hours attempts to break out of the Elevator were repelled and in doing so 20 prisoners were taken.” The ring of encirclement around the Elevator was only 100 meters from the base of the building.

The morning report of 29.Inf.Div.(mot.) sums up the dramatic events of the previous night: “After the break-out attempt from the Elevator, the south-western section of the Elevatorwas captured at 2000 hours and 84 prisoners were taken. At 0400 hours, the Elevator area is free of the enemy. Casualties on 21.9.:1 officer, 29 NCOs and men killed, 1 officers, 72 NCOs and men wounded.” The morning report of 94.Inf.Div.: “At 220 hours on 21.09, an assault group of Inf.Rgt.274 succeeded in raising the swastika flag over the Elevator… Casualties on 21.09: 1 officer, 14 NCO and men killed, 1officer, 88 NCOs and men wounded.”

The garrison commander, Senior-Lieutenant Polyakov, reached  Soviet lines on 24 September, together with 15 other man. Senior-Lieutenant Butenko and a few soldiers reached th river via a gully, quickly improvised some rafts and drifted downstream on the Volga current. Lieutenant Khozyaynov and other were surprised by the Germans during their escape. Khozyaynov was captured but survived the trials of captivity and returned home after the war.

With that, the Elevator was finally in German hands.