As I write this, my last surviving uncle is dying. I don’t know how long he will survive, but it sounds rather immanent. He is in Iowa and I am in Georgia, so I won’t be there for his passing. He is, however, surrounded by family that he has loved so much for so long. That is how we all would wish to go when the time comes.
My mother was an only child but my dad had five sisters and three brothers (one of whom died in infancy). All my life, my dad’s family was “the family” that I grew to love. Out of the eight siblings who lived to adulthood and married, only four of their spouses and none of the original brothers and sisters are left…and soon there will be only three of the sixteen total. It’s rather sobering, this inexorable marching of the years, one generation yielding to the succeeding one. There is nothing one can do to stop it…nor, I suspect, should we if we could.
I was reminded the other day by the leaves that have been falling all over the place where we live that even trees have to find rest. The science books and teachers describe the falling of the leaves as a time for the trees to rest and recover. I wonder: do they have a sense of resting? Do trees ponder how long they may yet stand? And if so, do they fear falling as humans dread the footsteps of the Grim Reaper?
I don’t know, but this photo that I shot this past Saturday was taken because as I saw the tree driving past it, I thought to myself, “It’s almost gone.” And so is my last remaining male from my father’s generation. He shall be deeply missed.
ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1942, the Soviet Army under General Georgi Zhukov launched Operation Uranus, the great Soviet counteroffensive that turned the tide in the Battle of Stalingrad.
On June 22, 1941, despite the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Nazi Germany launched a massive invasion against the USSR. Aided by its vastly superior air force, the German army raced across Russia, inflicting terrible casualties on the army and populace. With the assistance their Axis allies, the Germans, by mid October had Leningrad and Moscow under siege. However, the Soviets held on, and the coming of winter forced the German offensive to pause.
For the 1942 summer offensive, Hitler ordered his Sixth Army, under General Friedrich von Paulus, to take Stalingrad in the south, an industrial center and obstacle to Nazi control of the precious Caucasus oil wells. In August, the Sixth Army made advances across the Volga while the German Fourth Air Fleet reduced Stalingrad to burning rubble, killing more than 40,000 civilians. In early September, Paulus ordered the first offensives into Stalingrad, estimating that it would take his army about 10 days to capture the city. Thus began one of the most horrific battles of World War II and arguably the most important because it was the turning point in the war between Germany and the USSR.
In their attempt to take Stalingrad, the Sixth Army faced General Zhukov leading a bitter Red Army employing the ruined city to their advantage. In a method of fighting the Germans called Rattenkrieg, or “Rat’s War,” the opposing armies broke into squads eight or 10 strong and fought for every house and yard of territory. The battle saw rapid advances in street-fighting technology, such as a German machine gun that shot around corners and a light Russian plane that glided silently over German positions at night, dropping bombs without warning. However, both sides lacked necessary food, water, or medical supplies, and tens of thousands perished every week.
Joseph Stalin, determined to liberate the city named after him, in November he ordered massive reinforcements to the area. On November 19, General Zhukov launched a counteroffensive out of the rubble of Stalingrad. German command underestimated counterattack, and the Sixth Army was quickly overwhelmed by the offensive, which involved 500,000 Soviet troops, 900 tanks, and 1,400 aircraft. Within three days, the entire German force of more than 200,000 men was encircled.
Italian and Romanian troops at Stalingrad surrendered, but the Germans hung on, receiving supplies by air and waiting for reinforcements. Hitler ordered Von Paulus to stay put and promoted him to field marshal, as no Nazi field marshal had ever surrendered. Starvation and the Russian winter took as many lives as the Soviet troops, and on January 21, 1943, the last of the airports held by the Germans fell to the Soviets, cutting off the Germans from supplies. On January 31, Von Paulus began surrendering his forces. By February 2, only 90,000 German soldiers were still alive, and of these only 5,000 troops would survive the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps and make it back to Germany.
The Battle of Stalingrad turned the tide of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. General Zhukov later led the Soviet drive on Berlin. On May 1, 1945, he personally accepted Berlin’s surrender. Von Paulus, meanwhile, agitated against Adolf Hitler among the German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union and in 1946 provided testimony at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. After his release by the Soviets in 1953, he settled in East Germany.
TRIVIA FOR TODAY: The term “G-string” does not derive from the fourth string on the violin (G string). Rather, as linguist Robert Hendrickson suggests, the “G” in G-string or (“geestring”) stands for “groin.” (Now, aren’t you glad you know how it got its name?)