Breaking Out of Stalingrad Encirclement

The following fragment is our translation of the account given by Tudor Greceanu and published in the collection of studies entitled “Veteranii pe drumul onoarei și jertfei. 1941 – 1945” (The Veterans’ Way: Honour and Sacrifice. 1941 – 1945)[1]. This and other accounts of the same event given by Tudor Greceanu on various occasions and to various publications were all edited and published under the same chapter Breaking Out of Stalingrad Encirclement[2].

Colonel (r) av.[3] Tudor Greceanu, pilot in the 1st Fighter Flotilla remembers: “We departed for war on September 28, 1942, in tight formations, squadrons and patrols on the following route: Galaţi – Nikolaev – Melitopol – Rostov – Tuzov. On October 1 we were landing in Tuzov, approximately 80 km [50 miles] west of Stalingrad. An echelon of our mechanics was waiting on the airfield. They had arrived a few days earlier, carried by a Ju 52. The motor vehicles arrived by rail only next day and they were accompanied by gasoline, tents, food etc. The Romanian Air Corps was set in Morozovsk, at about 200 km [125 miles] west of Stalingrad, a place where the bombardment and reconnaissance groups as well as the medical aviation were located.”

On the field in Tuzov the 8th Fighter Group, with IAR 81 airplanes, and Squadron 113 were located.  We stayed in Tuzov only one week during which we conducted escort missions, ground attacks, reconnaissance flights and free hunt over Stalingrad – Volga, north and south. As soon as the soviets discovered our airfield, we were frequently attacked by the assault and fighter aviation (which did not inflict great losses). As a consequence, the Romanian Air Corps was forced to break up certain units: Group 7 was sent to Karpovka, 30 km [19 miles] west of Stalingrad. We were not the only Romanians on the Karpovka field. Personnel of two anti-aircraft defence batteries were there, too: a battery of 75 mm Vickers guns under the command of Colonel Șerbu and a battery of 37 mm Rheinmetall under the command of Lieutenant Romeo Apostolescu, in direct protection. On the same campaign field there were a German group of Stukas and an observation squadron. The Germans supplied us with subsistence, petrol and ammunition.

We were ordered to build shelters on this airfield, as it was where we would spend the winter; the average daily temperature was already below zero Celsius. The needed materials came from the city of Stalingrad which had been destroyed by artillery and air bombardments. It took us approximately two weeks to build the shelters.

The missions went on in a steady rhythm, as the enemy attacked both the town (Karpovka) and its neighbourhood on a daily basis. Captain av. Alexandru Manoliu was shot down here and the command of Squadron 57 was taken over by Captain av. Alexandru Șerbănescu.

The weather had deteriorated, snow and frost covered everything.  Each of us flew 4 – 5 missions per day, as we were close to the enemy and we flew at low altitude (depending on the cloud ceiling) and most of our missions consisted in ground attacks of the troops and armoured cars, provided that we were able to discover them, as the Russians were very skilful in the art of camouflage. Being dependent on the Germans for subsistence, we felt alone and abandoned at Karpovka. We had just a vague operational dependence link with the Romanian Air Corps and we only communicated by radio, as we were too far away for telephone communication. We were using the western field named Gumrak as our working field. Its concrete runway was completely pierced by bombs and projectiles. I made a forced landing there once, having a hit radiator and I spent a horrible night in the sewer canals of Stalingrad.

Starting with October the weather had gotten worse, the temperature reached – 15 to – 20 Celsius, harsh winds blew 30 to 60 miles an hour and the cloud ceiling was so low that we were forced to fly very close to the earth to be able to intervene, if needed. On November 10, 1942, we received an order coming directly from the 4th German Flotilla, and afterwards retransmitted by the Air Corps, informing us that our mission had changed. We were informed that the Russians had broken through the front line at approximately 6 miles north of Stalingrad and that they had established a “small” bridgehead over Volga River that would “certainly, be quickly destroyed”. There was also another “small” bridgehead at approximately 30 miles south, in the sector of the 5th Romanian Cavalry Division.

Despite low visibility, we executed daily up to 10 sorties per aircraft per pilot, during which we were supplied only with ammunition, as we were able to conduct 2-3 missions without refuelling; with the armament on board, we shot anything that moved behind the enemy line. But nothing moved during the day. At dawn we found that the front line had advanced and grew larger at the two bridgeheads. The armoured vehicles moved only by night, and remained under camouflage, hidden inside buildings, during the day. When the night fell they set off again. All the fighting resources, men and technique, were painted in white  and therefore difficult to spot, especially at our aircraft speed.

Very soon we realized that they were attempting to encircle our troops, the German and Italian troops. The German opposition was certainly strong, but with too few forces, therefore on November 20, 1942, we saw that the encirclement was nearly complete, and Karpovka airfield had also been encircled.

The Air Corps instructed us to continue executing escort missions and ground attacks, and to send our materials, luggage and troops on motor vehicles, keeping only the bare essentials for the operations. But the column came back the same day (November 20); the only road to Tatsinskaya, where the Air Corps had relocated, had been intercepted by the enemy.

We reported that we were in a dramatic situation and after a short while we received the following radiogram: “Subordinate yourselves to the German units on the airfield and receive subsistence from them; there is nothing we can do for you. May God protect you.”

To our surprise, on November 20, in the afternoon, two Savoia-Marchetti aircraft piloted by Commander Udriski and Major Spuză landed on the airfield. As a sign of comradeship, they flew to us to evacuate the injured men (my fellow pilot, Adjutant Ioan Panait, seriously wounded, refused to leave), the pilots left without aircraft and as many technicians and luggage as possible. They took off at dusk, after we thanked them and embraced them; they were convinced that they would not see us again. Lieutenant (r) Vintilă Brătianu who was at the end of his career as a very skilled fighter pilot, an excellent fighter and good Romanian also left.

We were alone; we got in touch with the Stukas unit, subordinated ourselves to Major Barnhelm and cooperated with them in the next days. They assured us that they would give the order to evacuate in due time.

On November 21 and 22 we escorted the Stukas formations and we attacked together the encirclement wall. In the evening of November 22 the Stukas flew a “mission” for which they did not require our presence, and they didn’t come back on Karpovka airfield. We were once again alone, with no food, only with petrol and ammunition.

The Russians’ pressure had intensified to the point that we could hear the duels of the artillery, machine guns and the rattling specific to tank tracks day and night. Because of the frost, we had sentinel shifts of one hour and we doubled them. The anti-aircraft defence batteries were brought on the airfield. We were expecting an attack any time now. On November 23, all flight became impossible due to a terrible blizzard which however did not stop the Soviet tanks. As a consequence, by 4 p.m. when it got dark, the noise of tanks coming from south, where the railroad was located, grew very loud and we were expecting them to discover us during the night. We positioned sentinels and patrols under officers’ commandment on the south side, the batteries of Șerbu and Apostolescu in front of the aircraft, the gun barrels aiming south and we waited for the night. We were to ask by radio for an approval to evacuate the airfield, for four heavy transport aircraft to be sent for our people and, should the weather permit, for the approval to take off with the 30 aircraft that were available (our mechanics were making self-sacrificing efforts to repair them).

We were preparing to send the radiogram when the attack started, around 8 or 9 p.m. A loud sound of tank tracks announced that the Soviets had made up their mind. The watchmen on the railroad ran back to warn us that a lot of T34 tanks had stopped beyond the railroad, surrounded by foot soldiers. They stopped, lighted fires and were preparing to attack towards north. Our loaded motor vehicles served as a camouflage on the south-east side. Around 9 p.m. the first tanks emerged on the railway embankment; their silhouette projected against the background illuminated by the fires behind.

The blizzard had calmed down. Șerbu and Apostolescu opened artillery fire. The tanks retreated leaving behind a damaged one on the railroad. A respite of approximately one hour ensued, during which the Soviets certainly deliberated on how to proceed, not knowing what forces they were confronting.

We had an officers’ council meeting on our airfield. Firstly, we decided to order all the soldiers to bring the aircraft with their tails on the oil barrels, in a position that allowed the on board cannons and guns to shoot horizontally. While this order was executed under Sergeants’ and Non-Commissioned Officers’ supervision, we continued the meeting and decided to have one pilot in each aircraft. Fire should be opened only on order of Captain av. Alexandru Șerbănescu.

A new attack occurred by 10 p.m. This time with a lot of tanks firing on the move. Captain av. Alexandru Șerbănescu gave the order to open fire. Then hell broke loose. For a second time, the Soviets withdrew behind the railway, taken by surprise by the intensity and the type of fire they received. In fact, they were infantry and it was possible that they could not identify an airfield.

After a short break a dreadful attack began: from beneath the railway tens of tanks opened fire over the whole airfield. Aircraft were destroyed or set on fire, tens of dead bodies were torn to pieces, arms and legs were flying in the air. We were striving to carry the wounded to the huts and often, in the light, we realized that we had carried a dead body or a piece of a body. We were covered in blood, smoke and dust, resembling wild bears in our fur-lined overalls. We were desperate. At a certain point, Adjutant av. Tiberiu Vinca addressed these words to Captain av. Alexandru Șerbănescu: “Sir, since we are anyway going to be shot, it would be more natural if we tried to take off.”  Without a hint of hesitation, Șerbănescu agreed. In fact, our unit existed only by virtue of our aircraft. Even if only one of us succeeded, he would tell what happened here and, who knows, maybe he would be able to ask for help for eventual survivors. A decision was taken to identify the aircraft still fit for takeoff; sixteen were found.

Vinca said that he would carry another comrade who would have to lie down in the fuselage; to do this he would take out the radio, the oxygen installation and the armour of the petrol tank. We all agreed. I told Adjutant av. Ioan Panait, who was wounded, that I would take him with me, but he declined my offer and said he would fly as a pilot. I took Adjutant av. Zaverdeanu instead. When Șerbănescu launched the red starting flare to signal takeoff, everything went crazy. Let’s not forget that it was a pitch-dark night and the only light came from the fires, projectiles and all colour tracers. The airfield was completely pierced by bombs. When we started our engines the Soviet tankers finally realized who they were dealing with. They resumed their movement to the airfield, shooting on the move. Upon takeoff, Sub-lieutenants av. Naghirneac and Rozariu collided, both aircraft caught fire and were burning at approximately 50 meters distance one from the other.[4] Adjutant av. Nicolae Iolu who carried in his arms Lieutenant Mechanic Gheorghe Simoneta was fully hit by a bomb. Simoneta died and Iolu, seriously wounded, suffered injuries to his head and stayed there (it was a miracle that he was evacuated to a hospital in Germany; he is alive today and has a silver prosthesis on his skull). When I saw this madness, I told Panait (who had never flown by night) that we should wait and take off at the same time and I would be assuming responsibility for the navigation to Tatsinskaya.

The last image that I remember was that of the Soviet tanks crushing the anti-aircraft defence batteries of Apostolescu and Șerbu who were shooting with all the cannons. I had great difficulty to take off, as I had Zaverdeanu laying down in the fuselage, near me, and I had to pay attention to the red lights of Panait’s aircraft. There were no landmarks, the night was deep dark and frosty and I was at the mercy of a whimsical magnetic compass. Nonetheless, with a watch and with this magnetic compass (that I mastered to perfection) we got to Tatsinskaya. Note that it was generally known and even mentioned in the aircraft instructions that Messerschmitt 109 E7 was not equipped for night flight or radio navigation.

The next day the Romanian Air Corps sent two transport aircraft Junkers 52 to Karpovka. The poor survivors took them by assault before they even completed the landing. They were quickly fully loaded with people and material and took off immediately. In the depths of despair, two soldiers managed to cling to a tail strut; only one of them reached his destination, but he was frozen to the point where they had to use a lever to detach him.

After three days we were ordered to move to Morozovsk where all the fighter units of the Romanian Air Corps were stationed. Our aircraft looked like plane wrecks reminiscent of inglorious times.

After approximately one month, a group of survivors from Karpovka arrived in Tatsinskaya; approximately 200 people under the command of Sub-Lieutenant Drăgan (reserve officer) and of Sergeant Mechanic Marin Bâscă had marched approximately 250 km [160 miles] in the enemy territory, only by night, armed with Manlicher rifles (1893 model), feeding on roots and snow, ghosts in rags that crossed the front line to finally arrive in our territory.

One week later we were ordered to move to Novocherkassk, north of Rostov where we would be alone on the airfield but with our same unusable plane wrecks…

[1] Collection of studies authored by the National Association of War Veterans

[2] Pages 90 – 97 of the book “Road of the Few: Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot”

[3] Aviator

[4] Both pilots were saved

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