Volume 10 in the “Through Enemy Eyes” series is unique, because it covers the cataclysmic Battle of Stalingrad, the final Axis defeat in North Africa, and Germany’s loss of the war at sea. As such, the first five months of 1943 represented the most significant battlefield turning points of World War Two. Volume 10’s newsreels documenting the accompanying action are framed by these major events.
They were filmed by dozens of cameramen cited at the beginning of each Wochenschau. One of them was among Germany’s greatest cinematographers, Walter Frentz, who played a vital role (some believe a more important role than the more famous producer Leni Riefenstahl herself) in the classic films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia. At the outbreak of war, Frentz was old enough to avoid the military draft, and could have remained home side in a cushy job at the propaganda ministry, but chose instead to throw himself repeatedly into the front lines, where he captured some of the most brilliant images of the conflict. He belonged to Hitler’s closed circle of comrades at the very end of the conflict, remaining in the Fuehrer’s Berlin bunker until all hope was lost, and Frentz was ordered to save himself by leaving on 24 April 1945. He passed away just a few years ago, in July 2004, in his 96th year.
Frentz had nothing to do, however, with the opening scenes of Disk One’s 10 December 1942 newsreel, which were shot by Japanese cameramen during the invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Outstanding are low level raids carried out by U.S. aircraft. Surrounded by exploding flak, the left engine of a PBY Catalina trail smoke, while another torpedo bomber is completely consumed in flames and crashes into the sea. The action switches to the other side of the Pacific, where airfields at Australia’s Port Darwin are attacked from high altitude by Mitsubishi Ki-21s, twin-engine heavy bombers known to the Americans as “Sally”. Below, capital ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy fire broadsides at the enemy. Exposed details of these aircraft and battleships will doubtless prove especially valuable for model builders and historians.
The December 21st Wochenschau follows Axis forces in holding the line against a Soviet offensive launched the previous month. The German 6th Army, together with a Croat regiment, are surrounded and cut off inside Stalingrad, furiously resisting all attacks. The North African Campaign was simultaneously disintegrating, as the massive flight of Luftwaffe transports skimming the waves of the Mediterranean Sea shown here exemplify.
For the previous half-year, Allied code-breaking increasingly enabled RAF fighters to make mince meat of such large-scale formations, choking off almost all supplies to Italo-German forces, who continued to successfully, if desperately resist. We see a Lockheed P-38 twin-engine heavy fighter downed by flak, followed by the first captured American G.I.s. The newsreel ends with scenes of improvised Yuletide celebrations about a u-boat far out at sea. Its crew had good reason to celebrate, because Kriegsmarine submarines were still winning the war for the Third Reich, and would continue to do so far into the next year. Details of the Type IX u-boat’s interior are particularly interesting.
While audiences were watching the Wochenschau for 27 January 1943, their men surrounded at Stalingrad were just four days from defeat. The awful situation is apparent in coverage of infantry combat under extremely difficult conditions amid ferocious blizzard and an outnumbering opponent. The disaster occasioned two of the most memorable speeches of the period, both excerpted in Volume 10. Herrman Goering’s ranking of the Battle of Stalingrad with the Germanic Nibelungen Saga is shown just as delivered in Berlin, followed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ Total War address at the Sportspalast. The newsreels do not shrink from realistically following the Wehrmacht’s long retreat from Stalingrad, but just as accurately portray the immense losses in men and tanks suffered by the Soviets, including aircraft, one of which, a Mig-3, as typical specimen, is blasted to scattering pieces at exceptionally close range.
Traumatic as Stalingrad was for the Germans, it was not synonymous for their loss of the war. Immediately after the battle, they stabilized the front and re-launched an offensive that re-captured Kharkov and Belgorad, and put up a stubborn defense at the Kuban bridgehead that virtually broke the back of the Red Air Force. These smashing victories were in part possible because Stalin felt he could win without further recourse to his spies and German traitors in Hitler’s General Staff. This is the historical background upon which the March Wochenschauen are played out.
We see, for example, how German ground troops used medium and even heavy artillery as close support during street fighting for the city. The truly distressful conditions under which Luftwaffe crews had to operate become clear in scenes of Stuka dive-bomber maintenance in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. Weather unabated, the squadron lifts off from icy runways to somehow locate and attack Soviet truck convoys. Especially interesting are close-ups of the redoubtable, if lesser known Focke-Wulf-189 twin-engine reconnaissance plane, and an all-white Fieseler Storch on skies. The Campaign’s international nature becomes apparent in the awarding of a Dutch SS gunner for his exceptional number of tank “kills”, and a parade of Ukrainian volunteers.
The battlefield around Kharkov is choked with literally bunches of brewed-up Soviet T-34s and heaps of dead Reds, many of them victims of Oberleutnant Niggermann, who receives the Knight’s Cross for his anti-tank skills. By the close of Disk 2, a mood of genuine self-confidence among troops, even in the voice of Harry Wiese, the newsreels’ narrator, is apparent. It seems darkly contrasted by the facial expressions of the Reich’s top leaders, as they listen to the somber strains of Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony during the annual Heroes’ Memorial Day. Despite the high ceremony and pageantry of the occasion, their eyes mirror an inner uncertainty suggesting dread. Not without cause.
On May 6th, half a dozen u-boats were lost trying to attack an Allied convoy protected by a code-breaking network that would lose the war not only for the Kriegsmarine, but Germany, as well. Just two days later, the North African Campaign was lost with nearly a quarter of a million Italians and Germans made prisoner by the Allies.
Volume 10’s last Wochenschau of 9 June 1943 shows German arms production going into high gear, while Axis forces re-conquer lost territories and position themselves for Hitler’s final major offensive on the Eastern Front at Kursk.
German-held Kuban bridgehead, situated along the Taman peninsula, was an area of extreme importance to both sides. The Germans saw the region as essential to protecting the eastern approaches to the Crimea , whereas the Soviets viewed the bridgehead as a launch-point for another possible German offensive into the northern Caucasus.
The Third Battle of Kharkov was a series of offensive operations in the European Theatre of World War II, undertaken by the German Army Group South against the Red Army, around the city of Kharkov (Russian: Харьков; Ukrainian: Харків), between 19 February and 15 March 1943. Known to the Germans as the Donets Campaign, and to the Soviets as the Donbas and Kharkov operations, the German counterstrike led to the destruction of approximately 52 Soviet divisions and the recapture of the cities of Kharkov and Belgorod.
As the German Sixth Army was encircled in Stalingrad, the Red Army undertook a series of wider offensives against the rest of Army Group South. These culminated on 2 January 1943, when the Soviets launched Operation Star, which between January and early February broke German defenses and led to the Soviet recapture of Kharkov, Belgorod and Kursk. The Soviet offensive was successful, but caused participating Soviet units to over-extend themselves. Freed on 2 February by the surrender of the German Sixth Army, the Red Army's Central Front turned its attention west and on 25 February expanded its offensive against both Army Group South and Army Group Center. However, months of continuous operations had taken a heavy toll on the Soviets and some divisions were reduced to 1,0002,000 combat effective soldiers. On 19 February, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein took the opportunity to launch his Kharkov counterstrike, using the fresh SS Panzer Corps and two panzer armies.
Although the Germans were also understrength, the Wehrmacht successfully flanked, encircled and defeated the Red Army's armored spearheads south of Kharkov. This enabled von Manstein to renew his offensive against the city of Kharkov proper, which began on 7 March. Despite orders to encircle Kharkov from the north, the SS Panzer Corps instead decided to directly engage Kharkov on 11 March. This led to four days of house-to-house fighting before Kharkov was finally recaptured by the 1st SS Panzer ("Leibstandarte") Division on 15 March. Two days later, the Germans also recaptured Belgorod, creating the salient which in July 1943 would lead to the Battle of Kursk. The German offensive cost the Red Army an estimated 70,000 casualties but the house-to-house fighting in Kharkov was also particularly bloody for the German SS Panzer Corps, which had lost approximately 44% of its strength by the time operations ended in late March.
Of the fifty-five hours of Third Reich newsreels (Die Deutsche Wochenschau) compiled in the “Through Enemy Eyes” series, Volume 9 brackets the Second World War’s most decisive battles. German audiences watching Disk I’s opening coverage for 29 July 1942 were bolstered in their already high morale by scenes of Sevastopol, Russia’s strongest fortified city, crushed by their armies. By then, the world’s most powerful citadels --- Holland’s Eben Emael, North Africa’s Tobruk, and Asia’s Singapore --- had all fallen to Axis forces. After their triumph at Sevastopol, German, Italian, Rumanian, Slovakian and Hungarian armies are shown sprinting after the demoralized enemy across the Don, where river and railroad contacts are severed, isolating Moscow from Stalingrad --- the first time this fateful name is mentioned by Die Deutsche Wochenschau narrator, Harry Giese.
Next to fall is Rostov, an industrial megalopolis larger by far than anything of its kind in Europe or America. Luftwaffe over-flights of this and other Soviet cities reveal their immense extent, thereby assisting viewers, then and now, to appreciate the huge task confronting their conquest. Among them was Leningrad, where General Munoz Grande commanding Spanish volunteers is showcased in Hitler’s headquarters. Victory at Rostov resulted in the capture of 100,000 Red Army troops, the destruction of 1,000 enemy tanks and 540 aircraft. No other nation on Earth could have absorbed such stupendous losses without collapsing long before, and they convinced the outside world that the USSR was doomed.
The Fuehrer’s successful strategy, as demonstrated in this newsreel, was to hold the northern sector of the Eastern Front, make steady advances in the middle, but concentrate the bulk of his campaign in depriving the Soviets of their most vital war production resources (particularly oil) and industries, most of which lay in the south.
A stout defense put up by the Russian defenders is repeatedly emphasized by the German newsreels. The courage of Red Air Force pilots is shown in very low-level raids carried out by some ancient double-deckers quickly brought down, and lumbering Stromovik ground-attackers, which Axis ack-ack rounds found almost impenetrable. Luftwaffe Stukas --- new D models --- join the lesser-seen Henschel-123, a biplane veteran of the Spanish Civil War, field-modified for East Front service with increased armor and 20-mm cannons. Some of the best footage ever taken of Soviet tanks being “brewed up” is featured here.
Disk I skips August to open on 8 September with the state funeral of Stephan von Horthy, son of the Hungarian regent, who died as a fighter pilot on the Eastern Front. The elaborate, solemn ceremonies seem to have belonged more to the Middle Ages than the 20th Century. The mood switches to an Italian convoy speeding across the Mediterranean Sea toward Libya. By this time, traitors in the German Army and particularly military intelligence (the Abwehr) were funneling the most sensitive, even crucial Wehrmacht data to the Allies, enabling them to break Axis codes with the so-called “Ultra secret”, now that their nemesis, Reinhard Heydrich, was dead (see “Through Enemy Eyes”, Volume 8).
Among the first to feel the effects of this code breaking was the lifeline of sea- and air-transports that supplied Italo-German forces in North Africa. Shown are unescorted Junkers -52 and Italian Savoia-Marchetti-82 tri-motors, easy pickings for RAF interceptors, who were nonetheless awestruck by the Campaign’s greatest pilot, Hans-Joachim Marseille. He appears landing his famous Messerschmitt, and emerging to receive personal congratulations from Rommel on the occasion of the airman’s 152nd kill. The ace would go on to dispatch another thirty-three enemy aircraft in the next eighteen days to die undefeated in an accident, when he bailed out of his malfunctioning ME-109, striking his head on its tail. Rommel is later seen conferring with Ugo Cavallero, the incompetently optimistic and ultimately duplicitous commander of Italian forces in North Africa, and Ettore Bastico, a far better general, the governor of Libya, admired by the Desert Fox for his superior command performance.
The September 8th newsreel is singularly historic, because it documents the opening phase in the Battle of Stalingrad. The same kind of inexorable advance against dogged, house-to-house resistance that inevitably reduced Rostov moves toward a repetition of earlier Axis victories. The camera action here is remarkably realistic, with no emphasis on heroics of any kind. Instead, viewers will appreciate the grime, uncertainty and lurking danger encountered by the first German troops picking their way through the streets of already ruinous city.
The September 23rd Wochenschau highlights a serious defeat suffered ten days before by enemy forces in their overly ambitious Operation Agreement, aimed at killing or capturing Rommel and destroying Axis-held harbors and airfields. Italian defenders repulsed the attack, which the Deutsche Afrika Korps rolled up, depriving the Allies of any success. British losses in aircraft, prisoners and even ships at sea were staggering, as evidenced by a U.S. munitions ship blown sky high by an Italian torpedo-bomber.
September 30’s newsreel documents air combat on the Eastern Front, where the rear-gunner aboard a twin-engine Messerschmitt-110 scores some flaming hits on the belly of a Red Air Force Rata fighter that ventured too near. Particularly interesting is close-up coverage of a Focke-Wulf-189 operation, among the finest reconnaissance planes of the war, followed by the visit of an enormous Japanese submarine to occupied France, with fascinating inter-action between the Japanese and German crews.
The October 7th Wochenschau follows the fear but efficiency and ferocity of very young workers in a labor battalion surprised by a much larger Soviet force. A Red Army T-34 gets off one round before its turret gets blown off at point-blank range, part of the slaughter the enemy endures before collapsing in surrender. Back in Berlin, the Third Reich pulls out all the stops to welcome Rommel home on leave in the kind of pageantry associated with the era.
Disk-2 runs from 14 October to 2 December, a period when supplies to the Axis in North Africa were increasingly pinched off, as shown in remarkable footage of a very close-in attack on Italian freighters by RAF torpedo-bombers.
If turning-points were being reached on the Eastern Front and in North Africa, the Kriegsmarine was still winning the war in the Atlantic, even though the u-boat offensive along the U.S. coast had been the first to feel the harmful influences let loose by Heydrich’s assassination. The October 21st newsreel shows how submarine aces, such Reinhard "Teddy" Suhren, were enthusiastically welcomed home after their on-going victories at sea. He received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords for sinking eighteen freighters, plus a destroyer, and damaging four other vessels, accounting for a total of 28,907 registered tons of enemy shipping. Suhren survived the war, unlike his mother, father and sister, who committed suicide as murdering, raping Red Army hordes were about to enter their Sudetenland home.
In sharp contrast to the type of u-boats he commanded, an Italian submarine is given extensive coverage. Its interior configuration, even the counter-rotating periscope, is entirely different from German designs. The showcased boat was the Regia Marina’s Barbarigo, the only Axis warship in the vicinity of the disabled battleship Bismarck, surrounded by the enemy. Although dangerously low on fuel, Captain Ghiglieri made a desperate attempt to intercept the British warships, but exceptionally high seas prevented his torpedoes from hitting their targets.
The Wochenschau narration incorrectly claims the Barbarino sank a pair of American battleships. In reality, her new commander, Enzo Grossi, misidentified a cruiser, the U.S.S. Milwaukee, and later, the British corvette, HMS Petunia, in wretched weather conditions. The Barbarino made up for these disappointments by sinking seven Allied merchant vessels, severely damaging another four, and escaping many encounters with the enemy, even shooting down a Sunderland flying-boat. On 16 June 1943, she sailed out of Bordeaux for reassignment in the Far East, but vanished without a trace; cause unknown.
Our November 2nd newsreel shows Rommel’s preparations for and early stages of the pivotal Battle of El Alamein, which German audiences knew had been lost by the time they saw this edition of the Wochenschau. November 4th shows how Italy celebrated her 20th anniversary of the March on Rome that brought Mussolini to power. The pomp and circumstance of 1942 coincidentally marked the high-water mark of his influence. Just five days later, the Duce’s North African armies would be in retreat from El Alamein.
The December 2nd Wochenschau concludes Volume 9 with a discernible air of desperation in some of the most furious artillery action and street fighting ever filmed amid the blazing ruins of Stalingrad.
Reviewer’s note: While purchasing all fourteen volumes of “Through Enemy Eyes” may be too sizeable an investment for most students of World War Two, they will find nowhere else --- in either the written or spoken word --- original source material that will provide them with a broader, more profound understanding of and appreciation for that seminal conflict. To watch it every day, from first to last newsreel, is a life-changing experience, comparable to seeing and hearing Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Whatever viewers bring with them to this collection will be expanded a thousandfold. In short, the “Through Enemy Eyes” series is by far the most important, single document to have emerged from the Second World War, bar none.
- Marc Roland
Trouble with viewing all these Wochenschau newsreels, I get so excited, I always feel like looking for a recruitment office somewhere. - Marc Roland