The bloodiest war in history turned on this point.
Name: The Battle of Stalingrad
The War: Second World War
When: July 1942 -February 1943
Where: The city of Stalingrad (today Volgograd) and its surrounding environs, southern USSR (today Russian Federation)
Forces/Commanders: Over a million soldiers of Nazi Germany and its allies, with circa 10’000 artillery pieces, 700 tanks and 700 airplanes under numerous Generals (Friedrich Paulus being the most well-known) against over a million soldiers of the Soviet Union with circa 13’000 artillery pieces, 900 tanks and over a thousand aircraft under numerous generals (Gerogy Zhukov, Vasily Chuikov and Aleksander Vasilefsky being the most well known).
…Not one step back!…It is necessary to defend each position, each meter of our territory, up to the last drop of blood, to cling for each plot of Soviet land and to defend it as long as possible…
-Soviet Union Order No. 227
“I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.”
-Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, shortly before his surrender.
“At the bottom of the trenches there lay frozen green Germans and frozen grey Russians and frozen fragments of human shapes, and there were helmets, Russian and German, lying among the brick debris…How anyone could have survived was hard to imagine. But now everything was silent in this fossilized hell, as though a raving lunatic had suddenly died of heart failure.”
It was always going to be Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Fascism and Communism. The two extreme ends of the political scale, made nationally incarnate, on either side of each other. It was always going to end in war.
Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s great gamble. Could his to-that-point unbeatable armed forces defeat the Communists before winter came? Despite numerical inferiority?
It was a massive operation. Commencing 22 June 1941, the Germans achieved rapid success, covering hundreds upon hundreds of miles of territory in just a few weeks. Their combination of infantry, aerial and armor assault – commonly called Blitzkreig, though this term is somewhat inaccurate – was devastating to the poorly trained, poorly led Red Army. It was only in December of that year that the Soviets were able to halt the tide, stopping the German advance at the Battle of Moscow.
The Germans dug in to wait out the winter months while the Soviets undertook a massive reorganisation of their industrial capability, moving entire factories to the other side of the Ural mountains, while getting as many able-bodied men into the army as they could.
As the spring came and the weather cleared, Germany prepared to attack again. Hitler was besieging Leningrad in the north and the fronts in the centre were stable. He decided his main thrust would be southwards towards the Don and Volga rivers, the aim to be the southern Russian steppes and the oilfields located there.
The operation, Fall Blau (Case Blue), to be carried out by Army Group South, was due to start May 1942. Hitler ordered the Army to be split into two groups: A, to advance from the Ukraine towards the Caucasus, and B, to head towards the Volga River and the main city there: Stalingrad.
Stalingrad, formally Tsaritsyn, had immense importance to the Soviets. It was a transport hub, being the nodal point for the main roads in the area and the waterway down the Volga that lead to the Caspian Sea. Its position meant it would guard the flank of any German advance on Baku, the oil-rich city that provided much of the Red Army’s fuel. Moreover, it bore the name of the Soviet leader (he had fought there during the Russian Civil War) so its capture would be an ideological and morale breaking blow.
The beginning of Case Blue was delayed for a few crucial weeks due to continuing operations against the city of Sevastopol and in the area around Kharkov. As a result, the offensive did not being until June was nearly at an end, the Germans beginning their second year in the Soviet Union.
Much like Barbarossa, the assault had huge initial success. The empty steppe lands were ideal for the typical German assault and a number of large Russian units were surrounded and captured. The Red Army was unable to establish a new defensive line due to the speed of the German attack, and were compelled to retreat continuesly.
At this point, Hitler intervened, to the detriment of the operation (not the last time he would do so). He ordered the 4th Panzer Army to switch from “B” to “A” to help exploit the larger advance “A” had made. But the switch was counterproductive: forced to share the limited amounts of roads, the 4th and 6th Panzer armies created a huge traffic build-up stalling the offensive for up to a week. Following the delay, Hitler moved the 4th back to “B” and switched the focus of the entire attack to Stalingrad.
By the end of July the Germans had reached the banks of the Don River. Reestablishing supply bases here, they crossed and continued on towards the Volga. The Germans began using other Axis Armies – Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, Croatians – to guard their left flank during the advance. As the Germans neared Stalingrad, they began to converge all of their forces on the city from every side – except the east, where the Soviets were marshalling what forces they had for the defence.
Future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Marshal Andrey Yeryomenko were tasked with the defence of the city by Stalin. The units assembling on the eastern bank of the Volga were reorganised into the 62nd Army, under the command of Vasiliy Chuikov with its mission to defend Stalingrad at all cost. They were under orders to do so, as Stalin had decreed that any further retreat would be punishable by death, epitomised by the statement “Not one step backwards!” The Germans did seem to be in the ascendency, but they were already sowing the seeds of their own downfall – they had moved far from their supply base, and the “A” and “B” sections of Army Group South were too far apart now to help each other if one got into trouble. It was early September.
The Luftwaffe had already been attacking the city for weeks, doing extensive damage. Over a thousand tonnes of bombs were dropped on the city largely reducing it to rubble. The Soviet Air Force in the area was all but non-existent so the Germans had full control of the skies. A firestorm on the August 23rd was especially damaging.
The Red Army was largely absent from the city itself, its forces marshalling on the eastern bank of the Volga. As a result, the initial defence of the city fell into the hands of workers militia, made up of civilians that were left in the city. Many of these units, nearly all of them under trained and undergunned, were entirely female, much to the shock of the advancing German troops.
With the city surrounded on the western bank, the Soviets could only re-supply over the river, a perilous task due to the legions of Stuka dive-bombers operating in the area, a state of affairs that lasted until the end of the year. German troops had begun entering the city’s outskirts on the 3rd of September; several Soviet counter-attacks were stopped due to Luftwaffe intervention.
Now the battle began in earnest as what forces the Red Army has mustered began to engage the Germans inside the city. Their commanders knew that their only chance was in “hugging” tactics: keeping the frontlines as close as possible. In the packed urban environment of Stalingrad, this prevented the German from using their favoured combined arms tactics. Infantry was forced to go forward alone, with Panzer units unable to effect the battle to a great degree.
The Soviets made defence lines in every last place that they could. Every house, office, factory, apartment block, street, warehouse and sewer tunnel became a battleground. Fortifying any building that they could, the Soviets turned the German advance to a crawl, one that had brutal casualties for both sides. Using mines, machine guns, barbed wires and motors, the Red Army could turn an ordinary building into a fortress, while small mobile teams of five to ten men, made up of snipers, grenadiers and sub-machine gunners, engaged the Germans across the city.
Actually lines soon ceased to exist as fighting raged throughout the city, Certain positions became favored battlegrounds: places like the Mamayev Kurgan hill, Railway Station No. 1, the Tractor Factory and Pavlov’s House changed hands constantly as Germans and Russians attacked and counter-attacked. The Railway Station changed hands 14 times in one six hour period. Pavlov’s house, the nickname given to an apartment building in the city centre, became a bastion of resistance, that was defended successfully by a platoon of the Red Army, led by a Sgt Yakov Pavlov, for over two months, beating off attack after attack.
House by house, room by room, basement by basement, the Germans pushed the Soviets back towards the river. The mounting piles of rubble soon made the use of tanks impossible, though a Russian factory in the city continued to churn them out for a time. Both sides began to blast the other with artillery. The Soviets were able to do so more successfully, with their batteries located on the other side of the river, away from harm. Sniper squads roamed the city picking off targets on each side: Russian Vasily Zaytsev achieved huge fame for his 225 kills during the fight.
The German forces were now being directed by Paulus inside the city, though the strain of the fighting had given him a nervous tick. As September turned to October and the advance was still moving slowly, the Luftwaffe intensified its efforts. Entire units of the Red Army were being wiped out in the rapid, deadly engagements, but their efforts were still considered a success if they took as many Germans with them. Soviet Commisars were given orders to insure that all the troops under their command fought to the last, with authority to execute any who retreated or ran. The occurence of such incidents was probably exaggerated after the battle, with many historians noting that the Red Army fought with a bravery that cannot be explained by terror alone.
As the fighting continued into November, the Soviets still held the east bank of the Volga, but were confined to a 1’000 yard strip of land on the west. This area was able to hold out, despite constant attack from the air, from artillery and from the German infantry assaults. However, the Luftwaffe, after nearly 18 months of dominance, was finally being challenged by the Soviet Air Force, which was out-manufacturing the Nazis in factories located thousands of miles away. Furthermore, the months of combat had resulted in staggered attrition losses, and Allied operations in North Africa had forced Hitler to re-divert air resources there.
American supplies, of clothes, vehicles, steel and fuel were also beginning to positively effect the Soviet war effort.
Three months of fighting had brought the Germans to the Volga riverbank. They controlled 90% of the city, but that was merely a collection of rubble and ruined buildings. The German supply situation was dire, the Soviets having relocated what material they could from the city before the battle had started, the rest being destroyed. Numerous outposts within the city limits were still being fought over.
The German position was precarious. With their supply line stretched and meaningful reinforcements hundreds of miles way, they were extremely vulnerable to a Soviet counter-attack. It came on the 19th November.
The Axis flanks outside the city to the north and south were being guarded by troops from Italian, Hungarian and Romanian divisions. Stretched incredibly thin and facing an obvious Soviet military build-up opposite their lines, they pleaded for reinforcements but Hitler refused, his focus being maintained on capturing Stalingrad and little else. When the Soviet offensive began, Operation Uranus, these under-trained and poorly equipped forces were swept aside. Five full armies that had been assembled to the east and on several beachheads to the west of the Volga encircled the city from the north and south. A small proportion of the German 6th Army was pushed back outside the encirclement. The rest, along with the 4th Panzer Army, were trapped in the city they had spent three months occupying. The Soviet offensive lasted just over two weeks and had reversed the strategic situation entirely.
250’000 Axis soldiers, 10’000 civilians and thousands of Russian prisoners were now trapped inside Stalingrad, with the nations winter now in full swing. Hitler refused to order the forces there to attempt a breakout. Instead, he decided to rely on the Luftwaffe to supply the troops while a relief force was organised. Herman Goering, the head of the air force, promised that his planes could provide an “air bridge” to keep Paulus’ forces going.
Despite huge misgivings by people like William von Richthofen, the head of Lufflotte 4, the plan went ahead. It was a total failure. The Luftwaffe was able to air-drop in only 1/8th of the total supplies needed to keep the German forces operating effectively, and over half of the aircraft involved in the operation -495 planes – were lost due to technical failures, the appalling weather, the increase in Soviet fighters engaged in the area and more anti-aircraft guns firing from the ground before the battle had ended. The supplies that were delivered successfully were often useless, given the Germans current situation (summer clothing and black pepper for example). Planes carried wounded out of the city on return trips, eventually evacuating some 42’000 men. Soviet offensives and raids captured or neutralised many of the air-fields that the Germans were using, further damaging the air-drop operation.
Conditions within Stalingrad deteriorated rapidly. Trapped inside the “Kessel” (German for “cauldron”), the German’s began to suffer from frostbite due to the extreme cold and malnutrition from the lack of food supplies. Disease became rampant. The German’s were now stuck in the same situation as the Soviet’s were before, being forced gradually back into the city, with every building being a battleground. Running low on ammunition, the German’s only hope of salvation was from outside reinforcements, as they lacked the strength or the fuel to attempt a breakout once December had finished.
This possibility soon vanished as Operation Little Saturn, a Soviet offensive launched in mid-December, succeeded in forcing the Germans in the Caucasus area to withdraw back to the city of Rostov. Heavily outnumbered, the Axis forces were now much too far away to have a direct impact on the fighting in the city.
The 6th Army continued to hold out, with Hitler refusing to even continence surrender. The loss of further airfields meant that the last vestiges of supply stopped on 22 January. Not only running short on food, medicine and clean water, the German forces now began to run out of ammunition as the deadly urban fighting continued. Factories and apartment blocks became vicious battlegrounds once again as the Germans clung on as tenaciously as the Soviets had in 1942. With no fuel to power them, the Panzer’s in the city became little more than stationary artillery while the Soviets, stunned by how many German troops they had encircled, were forced to call up their own reinforcements to keep the fight going.
Paulus was on a desperate position – surrounded, with no supply, with an army that was barely clinging to life in the Russian snow. Soviet forces began calling on him to surrender. He initially refused, as ordered by Hitler. But the situation could not continue. His army, through the course of the previous six weeks of encirclement, had taken massive casualties, reduced to just over 90’000 in number.
Paulus was infamously promoted to the rank of Field Marshal on the 30th of January, a clear message from the Führer: no German Field Marshal had ever been captured so he was expected to either kill himself or die fighting. Paulus wasn’t interested (see “Quotes” above).
With the Soviets nearing his HQ in a ruined department store, Paulus finally surrendered on the 31st January 1943. He, 22 Generals, 3’000 Romanians, and 91’000 Germans marched into captivity. Over 11’000 German troops refused to surrender with Paulus and continued to hold out, in basements and sewers, until mid-March, forcing the Soviets to continue military operations in the city.
The debate on casualty figures is extensive, as scholars disagree over just want to count as part of the battle – the bombing casualties, the fighting outside the city, Operation Little Saturn, the captives etc. At its worst, Stalingrad and the fighting there was responsible for 841’000 German casualties and over 1.1 million Soviet casualties, either killed, wounded, missing or captured. As such, it is generally considered to be the bloodiest battle in human history.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Following the Battle of Britain and El Alamein, it was the third major defeat that Nazi Germany suffered and the first of its Russian campaign. The loss of an entire army (and a major armoured unit) had a devastating effect on the German war effort, with even the highly censored news services forced to acknowledge the loss. The succesful defence of Stalingrad was a huge morale boost to the Soviets, who finally inflicted a decisive defeat on the fascist foe, defending the city that bore the name of their leader.
From Stalingrad on, the “Great Patriotic War” changed. From then, the overstretched Germans were almost continuously on the defensive as the Red Army pushed them out of the Soviet Union, inch by painful inch. Hitler’s continuing refusal to consider strategic withdrawals meant that the Wehrmacht found itself in situations akin to Stalingrad again and again during the long retreat back into Germany.
The battle’s result further emboldened the Allies, who were beginning to advance on the Axis on all fronts. Germany’s armies were not all-powerful, its tanks and its planes were not invincible.
Just over two years since the victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army attacked Berlin, in a battle that brought the carnage, the rubble, the urban combat of Stalingrad to the capital of the Third Reich itself. The Soviet victory over the Nazi’s began at Stalingrad.
More directly, of the 91’000 German troops who surrendered, only 6’000 would survive long enough in Soviet captivity to make it home, 10 years after the war had ended.
Urban combat was not something that was especially well-known to armies, but the Soviet’s became experts in it at Stalingrad. Knowing how to fight through civilian environments, through basements and cellars, knowing the best way to get past German wire fences, the effective use of sniper and sub-machine squads, it was all stuff that the Red Army would go on to use again and again. The Germans were unable to adapt to the environment as well as the Red Army had, and paid for it.
The German Air Force was also shown up by the battle. The strategic bombing tactics employed in the early stages failed totally, and the air-drop was a complete disaster, losing an astonishing amount of aircraft in exchange for the successful transport of a minimal amount of supplies. The Allies would perfect air-drop in Berlin in the fifties, but only when they weren’t being opposed in the skies. The rapid rise in power of the Soviet air force is a brilliant example of the power of Russian industrial capacity and the success of their relocation of factories beyond the Urals.
The Soviet tactics on encirclement were a death-blow to the German positions. Hitler was so focused on taking the city, he failed to adequately prepare for any counter-attack. The Russians specifically targeted the weaker forces of the Axis puppet states just as the Western Allies preferred to target Italian, rather than German, forces in North Africa.
The battle also illustrated the weaknesses of armor. On the steppes and the plains of Russia, they were in the ascendency, but in the tight confines of Stalingrad, they were actually an impediment to operations. The Soviets wisely kept their armor to the outskirts and surrounding areas where its mobility would be better used.
Huge amounts of female soldiers fought for the Red Army in the battle, something that would be repeated again and again for the rest of the war. Nearly the entirety of Soviet anti-aircraft units were female. Three female soldiers won the “Hero of the Soviet Union” decoration during the fighting. The Soviet Union was the first country to use female recruits in a combat role, en masse, in the modern era.
Very hard to tell, but potentially massive. If the Germans had taken the city faster (hard to see how), if they had ignored it, if they had placed a much bigger focus on the “A” section of the attack?
Well, the Germans may have been able to access the oil fields of the Caucasus and Baku. Would that have captured them intact? I would deem it unlikely. The Soviets still had huge manpower, huge industrial capacity miles away, still had General Winter on their side.
If the Germans had captured those oil reserves, they would have had a huge amount of fuel to drive their war machine forward, but I am not completely convinced that would have reversed the course of the war. They would have stood a better chance of success but so many variables were still against the Nazi’s – the Americans, the British, the stretched frontlines, the extended supply chains, the manufacturing capacity of the Allies – that defeat could only have been deferred by victory at Stalingrad.
If the Germans trapped inside the city had been able to breakout, all that the Germans would have gained was time. Hitler’s attitude towards the taking of enemy cities and the pressing of the offensive ensured that the Wehrmacht could not possibly have succeeded in the Second World War.
In National Consciousness
Stalingrad was the most important moment in Soviet history up to that point. It became a legend, a rallying cry, an example for the rest of the “motherland” to follow. Troops were still shouting the city’s name as they entered the Reichstag in Berlin. It was the subject of propaganda for years afterward. For Nazi Germany, it was a death knell.
A gigantic statue of a winged woman bearing a sword “The Motherland Calls”, commemorates the battle on the top of Mamayev Kurgan, with bits of remains and war material still being found there to this day. Vasily Chuikov and Vasily Zaytsev are buried next to it. Crucial areas, such as Pavlov’s House have been preserved as they were at the battles ending and can be visited today.
Stalingrad has its place in the arts, being the focus of numerous amounts of fiction and non-fiction writing. Perhaps most notable is the titular Stalingrad, by famed military historian Anthony Beevor, which is generally considered the foremost text on the battle today. Many movies have included the battle in some fashion, most famous being the 1993 German work Stalingrad and the 2001 Enemy at the Gates, a somewhat fictional adaptation of the story of Vasily Zaytsev.
Some haunting orchestral pieces have been inspired by the fighting and Stalingrad has adapted into many video games (over the past 10 years especially).
Stalingrad carries a deep-seeded fascination for people. It is a landmark of military suffering, a story of death and winter, of two armies slaughtering each other in gigantic numbers in the urban hell of a rubble-strewn city. The Russians earned their place in history through their dogged defence and successful counter-attack, sacrificing their lives for ruined buildings that would be lost within minutes. The Germans, especially those who clung in the kessel, have their own version of immortality, remembered for their discipline, their doggedness and their refusal to give in for as long as they could be expected to resist, coming to epitomise the high quality of the Wehrmacht. Some thoughts also must be given to the respective air forces, fighting nearly 24/7, mirroring the slaughter going on beneath them.
Stalingrad deserves its place here, for its loss of life, for the effect on the war, for the very human story of bravery, comradeship and a fight to the death in the cold, ruined, Russian streets. The name of the city may have changed, but the realty of what happened there that winter never can.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.