During the siege of Stalingrad, something like 300,000 Axis soldiers were killed, wounded and captured. There was an airlift to bring ammunition and other supplies to the trapped forces. According to this source, something like 9,200 soldiers were flown out of the "kessel" on the return trips (more were boarded but didn't make it to safety).

How were men chosen for these outbound flights? (My understanding is that priority was given to the wounded, and to "specialists" with highly technical skills in e.g. aviation, tanks, or artillery.) Of interest to me is the fact that the Germans left something like 24 generals in the pocket, while Rommel was flown out of Tunisia early in 1943. Why were so many generals left behind at Stalingrad?

  • It would certainly have made cold sense to remove from the siege everyone possible who was eating food but not fighting.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 17 at 12:40
  • @T.E.D.: My guess was that "9200" was close to the maximum that could be flown out, especially after counting the ones that didn't make it. But I did wonder why there were so few generals among them. One may also wonder that if the original evacuation estimate of "45,000" of Dunkirk was close to the mark, who would have been left behind.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 17 at 14:18

For the morale purposes

Big part of Third Reich ethos and National-Socialist ideology was sense of duty. To put it simply, Volk und Vaterland were above everything. It was expected from everybody to do its utmost to defend them, even sacrificing its own life.

Third Reich has been proud to be based on Führerprinzip, i.e. on the idea that certain gifted people are born to lead. This "born leaders" theoretically should be best of the best, true meritocracy and aristocracy. It was expected from this elite to be able to inspire men under their command, in this case troops in the field. And since commanders demanded unquestionable loyalty and obedience, they too had to share fate of their troops. In the end, this even applied to the Hitler himself, as he also chose to remain in Berlin till the end and commit suicide, rather than let's say attempt to flee to South America.

Germans indeed often ridiculed generals of enemy armies that abandoned their troops. One such example was MacArthur's escape from Philippines . Goebbels mocked this by calling him a "fleeing general", for Mussolini he was a coward. From German generals it was expected something entirely different - even surrender was somewhat shameful. Paulus was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall with implicit expectation he would commit suicide, since no German field marshal was ever captured alive before that.

In this particular case (Stalingrad), a lot has been written about what Germans could have done. Was breakout possible, how much would it cost, were they sacrificed for vain prestige of holding Stalingrad, or by tying up Soviet troops they saved retreating Army Group A etc ... Without going into debate over this, it could be said that German aerial effort had both morale and practical purpose. Germans were striving to evacuate wounded, those who already did their duty to fatherland but were practically unable to fight anymore. Specialists who were no longer unable to do their duty (for example tank crews without tanks), at least not to the fullest, were also sometimes flown out. Generals who still had troops to command were not flown out, for already mentioned morale reasons, and because they still could function inside the pocket. Of course, as always, there were exception to these rules, with chaos on the ground and people simply abandoning high morale principles to save their own skin.

As for Rommel, he was actually relived of command on March 9th 1943, before complete Axis collapse in North Africa. His successor von Arnim did remain with the troops and surrendered to the British on May 12th 1943. It was speculated that Rommel was purposefully removed from command as situation was getting dire to avoid another incident like with Paulus, which happened only few months ago. Rommel was much better known and liked in Germany than Paulus, so his capture would be even heavier blow for the morale.


The German high command (i.e. Hitler) first refused to believe that Stalingrad would fall and then grasped at straws that this would be a favorable loss ratio and hence worthwhile. The official radio broadcast was "the sacrifice of this army was not futile."

But German propaganda did not admit that many troops surrendered. The official line was that the army "died fighting to the last breath." The promotion of General Paulus to Generaldfeldmarschall was understood as a sign that he should commit suicide since a German Generalfeldmarschall being captured was considered impossible. He didn't take the hint.

A few casualties (genuine and fake) got out. For a general, it would have been difficult to get reassigned in an administrative sleight of hand. They were too visible.

  • 1
    "Administrative" reasons seem to make sense for the abandonment of the generals in Stalingrad. Rommel was extracted because he was "the man" in North Africa. No one at Stalingrad stood head and shoulders above the rest.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 17 at 14:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.