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Battle of Stalingrad
The Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II, and is considered the bloodiest battle in human history and arguably one of the greatest come-backs in military history. The battle was marked by the brutality and disregard for civilian casualties on both sides. The battle is taken to include the German siege of the southern Russian city of Stalingrad (today Volgograd), the battle inside the city, and the Soviet counter-offensive which eventually trapped and destroyed the German and other Axis forces in and around the city. Total casualties are estimated at between 1 and 2 million. The Axis powers lost about a quarter of their total manpower on the Eastern Front, and never recovered from the defeat. For the Soviets, who lost well over one million soldiers and civilians during the battle, the victory at Stalingrad marked the start of the liberation of the Soviet Union, leading to eventual victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
On 22 June 1941 Germany and its Axis allies invaded the Soviet Union, quickly advancing deep into Soviet territory. Having suffered defeat after defeat during the summer and autumn of 1941, Soviet forces counter-attacked on a large scale at the gates of the Soviet capital in the Battle of Moscow, in December 1941. The Germans, exhausted, ill-equipped for winter warfare and with overstretched supply lines, were driven back out of reach of Moscow.
The Germans stabilized their front by spring 1942. Plans to launch another offensive against Moscow were discarded, however, as Army Group Centre had been too heavily weakened for an attack. Moreover such an attack would be "too obvious", as the key to Blitzkrieg was attacking where the enemy least expected it, so rapid gains could be made before a defense could be set up. For this reason new offensives in the north and south were considered. Along with this, the German high command knew that time was running out for them as the United States had been pulled into WWII following the Japanese attack in December 1941. Germany needed to end the fighting on the Eastern Front or at least subdue it to a minimum before they could open up a new front with America. A drive into southern Russia would secure control of the oil-rich Caucasia, as well as seize control of the Volga River, a major backbone of Soviet transportation from central Asia. The victory in southern Russia would greatly destroy the Soviet war machine and its economy.
In the end, Army Group South, which had previously conquered Ukraine, was selected for a rush forward through the southern Russian steppes into the Caucasus to capture vital Soviet oil fields. This summer offensive was code-named "Fall Blau" ("Case Blue"). It was to include the 6th and 17th Armies and the 4th and 7th Panzer Armies.
Hitler intervened, however, in the strategic planning, ordering the Army Group to be split in two. Army Group South (A),under the command of Erich von Manstein and Ewald von Kleist, was to continue advancing south towards the Caucasus as planned. Army Group South (B), including Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army and Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, was to move east towards the river Volga and the city of Stalingrad.
The capture of Stalingrad was important to Hitler for several reasons. It was a major industrial city, located on the river Volga which was a vital transport route between the Caspian Sea and northern Russia. Its capture would secure the left flank of the German armies as they advanced into the Caucasus. Finally, the fact that the city bore the name of Hitler's arch enemy, Joseph Stalin, made the city's capture also an ideological and propaganda coup. It would turn out that Stalin was thinking along the same lines.
The start of Operation Blau had been planned for late May 1942. However a number of German and Romanian units that were involved in Blau were currently in the process of besieging Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Delays in ending the siege pushed back the start date for Blau several times, and the city did not fall until the end of June. A smaller action was taken in the meantime, pinching off a Soviet salient in the Second Battle of Kharkov, which resulted in the pocketing of large Soviet force on May 22nd.
Blau finally opened as Army Group South began its attack into southern Russia on June 28, 1942. The German offensive started off well. Soviet forces offered little resistance in the vast empty steppes, and started streaming eastward in disarray. Several attempts to form defensive lines failed when other German units would continue around them, and two major pockets were formed and destroyed, the first northeast of Kharkov on June 2nd, a second around Millerovo , Rostov Oblast a week later.
The initial advance of the 6th Army was so successful that Hitler intervened, and ordered the 4th Panzer Army to join Army Group South (A) to the south. A massive traffic jam resulted when the 4th Army caught up to the 6th on the few roads in the area, and both armies were stopped dead while they attempted to clear the resulting mess of thousands of vehicles. The delay was astonishingly long, it is thought that it cost the advance at least one week. With the advance now slowed, Hitler changed his mind and re-assigned the 4th Panzer back to the attack on Stalingrad.
By the end of July the Germans had pushed the Soviets across the Don River, setting up defensive lines using their allied Italian, Hungarian and Romanian armies. The 6th Army was only a few dozen kilometers from Stalingrad, and the 4th Panzer, now to their south, turned northward once again to help take the city. To their south, Group A was pushing far into the Caucasus, but their advance slowed with their forces still arrayed far to the south and without a line back to Group B.
By this point the German intentions had become clear to the Soviet commanders, and in July plans were made to start a defense in Stalingrad. Troops still moving eastward in front of the Germans were ordered into the city, while additional units were brought up on the far side of the Volga. The newly formed 62nd Army under the command of Vasily Chuikov was to defend the city at all costs.
The battle in the city
By the end of August, Army Group South (B) had finally reached the Volga to the north of Stalingrad. Another advance to the river south of the city followed. By 1 September, 1942, the Soviets could only supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga. A massive German air bombardment on 23 August had caused a firestorm in the city, killing thousands of civilians and turning the city into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Eighty percent of the living space in the city was destroyed. The Soviet 62nd Army formed defense lines amid the debris, with strongpoints situated in houses and factories. One example of this destruction's source is that in the month of September alone the Germans expended 25,000,000 rounds of small arms fire in Stalingrad.
Fighting in the city was fierce and desperate. Stalin had authorized execution of his own troops if they retreated. "Not a step back!" was the slogan. During the battle, Soviet security forces arrested, executed or sent 13,000 of their own troops to penal battalions for "cowardice". As many as 300,000 were returned to their units or used to reman other units. The Germans meanwhile pushed forward at all costs, also suffering heavy casualties. Soviet reinforcements were shipped across the river Volga from the eastern bank, constantly attacked by German artillery and air raids. The life expectancy of a newly arrived Soviet soldier in the city dropped to a few hours. Bitter fighting raged for every street, every factory, every house, basement and staircase. The Germans, calling this unseen urban warfare Rattenkrieg ("rat-war"), bitterly joked about having captured the kitchen but still fighting for the living-room.
Fighting on Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent blood-soaked hill above the city, was particularly merciless. The height changed hands several times. At one of their counter-assaults to recapture it, the Soviets lost an entire division of 10,000 men in one day. Meanwhile, close combat inside the Grain Elevator, a huge silo where Soviet and German soldiers were so close that they could hear each other breathe, went on for weeks. In another part of the city, an apartment building defended by a Soviet platoon under the command of Yakov Pavlov was turned into an impenetrable fortress. The building, later called "Pavlov's House", oversaw a square in the city centre. The soldiers surrounded it with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows, and breached the walls in the basement for better communications.
With no end to the fighting in sight, the Germans started transferring increasingly heavy artillery to the city, eventually several gigantic 600mm mortars. Soviet artillery kept taking German positions under fire from the Eastern bank of the Volga. The Soviet defenders continued using the resulting ruins as defensive positions. Soviet snipers also successfully used the ruins to hide in. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. (The highest scorer only identified as "Zikan", being credited with 224 kills by November 20, 1942, and Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev being credited with 149 kills during the battle). German tanks meanwhile became useless in heaps of rubble up to 8 m high. If they still were able to move forward, they were taken under Soviet anti-tank fire from the roof tops.
For both Stalin and for Hitler, the battle of Stalingrad became a question of life and death. Soviet command moved the Red Army's strategic reserves from the Moscow area to the lower Volga, and transferred all available aircraft from the entire country to Stalingrad. The strain on both military commanders was immense: Paulus developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, while Chuikov experienced an outbreak of eczema that required him to bandage his hands completely.
In November, after three months of carnage and slow and costly advance, the Germans finally reached the river banks, capturing 90% of the ruined city and splitting the remaining Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. In addition, ice-floes on the Volga now prevented boats and tugs from supplying the Soviet defenders across the river. Nevertheless the fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area in the northern part of the city, continued as fiercely as ever. The battles for the Red October tractor factory and the Barrikady factory became world famous. While Soviet soldiers defended their positions and took the Germans under fire, factory workers repaired damaged Soviet tanks and other weapons in the direct vicinity of the battlefield, sometimes on the battlefield itself.
The Soviet counter-attack
Throughout the siege, German, Hungarian, and Romanian commanders had pressed their headquarters for support in firming up the line on the Don. For example the 2nd Hungarian Army (consisting of mainly ill-equipped and ill-trained units) were given the task of defending a 200km section of the front north to Stalingrad. This resulted in a very thin line of defense with some parts where 1-2km stretches were being guarded by a single platoon. Soviet forces held several points on the south bank of the river, and any competent commander would have considered them to be a serious threat. However, Hitler was so focused on the city itself that all such requests were refused. The chief of the German army general staff OKW, Franz Halder, expressed concerns about Hitler's preoccupation with the city, pointing at the Germans' weak flanks. Hitler replaced Halder in mid-October with General Kurt Zeitzler.
As the fighting in the city went on during the autumn, the Soviet general Georgy Zhukov, who had taken charge of strategic planning in the Stalingrad area, started concentrating massive Soviet forces in the steppes to the north and south of the city. The northern flank was particularly vulnerable, since it was defended by Hungarian and Romanian units which suffered from inferior equipment and low morale. Zhukov's plan was to keep pinning the Germans down in the city, and then to punch through the overstretched and weakly defended German flanks and to surround the Germans inside Stalingrad. The operation was code-named "Uranus" and launched in conjunction with Operation Mars, which was directed at Army Group Center.
On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed Uranus. The attacking Soviet units under the command of General Nikolai Vatutin consisted of three complete armies, the 1st Guard, 5th Tank and 21st Army, including a total of 18 infantry divisions, eight tank brigades, two motorized brigades, six cavalry divisions and one antitank brigade. The preparations for the attack could be heard by the Romanians, who continued to push for re-enforcements, only to be refused again. Outnumbered and poorly equipped, the 3rd Romanian Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army, was shattered after an almost miraculous one-day defense.
On November 20, a second Soviet offensive was launched to the south of Stalingrad, against points held by the Romanian 4th Army. The army, made up primarily of cavalry, collapsed almost immediately. Soviet forces raced West in a pincer movement, and met near the town of Kalach two days later, sealing the ring around Stalingrad. About 250,000 German, Romanian and Italian soldiers, as well as some Croatian units and volunteer subsidiary troops found themselves trapped inside the resulting pocket, along with the surviving Soviet civilians and several thousands of Soviet soldiers whom the Germans had taken captive during the battle. Not all German soldiers were trapped: 50.000 were brushed aside outside the pocket.
Hitler had declared in a public speech on September 30th that the German army would never leave the city. When considering what to do about this problem, the army chiefs pushed for an immediate breakout to a new line on the west of the Don. Hermann Göring instead claimed that the Luftwaffe could supply the 6th Army with an "air bridge." This would allow the Germans in the city to fight on while a relief force could be assembled, a plan that had been used successfully a year earlier at Demiansk pocket, on a much smaller scale, with an army corps, not an entire army. In addition, the German sixth army was the largest unit of this type in the world, almost twice as large as a regular one, and trapped in the "pocket" was also a corps of the fourth panzer army. However, it was clear to everyone that this was essentially impossible: the Luftwaffe's carrying capacity after the Battle of Crete had never been made up, and the 300 tonnes they could deliver a day would be less than the 500 needed by the army. However, the claim, once stated, could not be withdrawn, and Hitler backed Göring's plan and re-iterated his order of "no surrender" to his trapped armies.
The supply mission failed almost immediately. Harsh winter weather and heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire made maintaining the air bridge almost impossible. In general only 10 percent of the needed supplies could be delivered. Those transport planes which made it would evacuate the sick and wounded when taking off from the besieged enclave. The 6th Army slowly starved, and late in the battle pilots were shocked to find the troops assigned to offloading the planes were too tired and hungry to even help unload food.
Soviet forces could meanwhile consolidate their positions around Stalingrad, and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket started. An attack by a German battlegroup formed to relieve the trapped armies from the South, Operation Wintergewitter ("Winter Storm") was successfully fended off in December. The ring around Stalingrad was unbroken. At the same time the full impact of the harsh Russian winter set in. The Volga froze solid, allowing the Soviets to supply their forces in the city more easily. The trapped Germans rapidly ran out of heating fuel and medical supplies, and thousands started dying of frostbite, malnutrition and disease.
In January the Soviets launched a second offensive, Operation Saturn, attempting to punch through the Italian army on the Don and take Rostov. This would trap the remainder of Army Group South in the Caucasus, a complete disaster. However the Germans set up a "mobile defense" in which small units would hold towns until armor could arrive to help out. While the Soviets never got close to Rostov, the fighting nevertheless forced von Manstein to extract his forces from the Caucasus and restabilize the frontline some 250 km away from the city, and the 6th Army definitely out of German reach. The German troops in Stalingrad were not told this, however, and continued to believe that reinforcements were on their way. Some of Paulus's officers requested to defy Hitler's orders to stand fast, and to attempt to break out of the Stalingrad pocket. Paulus, though, was a committed military man; the thought of disobeying orders was abhorrent to him.
The battle ends
Soon the Germans inside the pocket retreated from the suburbs of Stalingrad to the city itself. The loss of the two airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak meant an end to air supplies and to the evacuation of the wounded. The Germans were now literally starving, and running out of ammunition. Nevertheless they continued to resist stubbornly, partly because they believed the Soviets would execute those who surrendered. The Soviets, in turn, were initially surprised by the large number of German forces they had trapped, and had to reinforce their encirclement ring to gain territory. Again, bloody urban warfare began in Stalingrad, but this time it was the Germans who were pushed back to the banks of the Volga.
Hitler promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall on January 30, 1943. Since no German Field Marshal had ever been taken alive, he assumed that Paulus would fight on or take his own life. Nevertheless, when Soviet forces closed in on Paulus' headquarters in a ruined department store, he gave up. The remnants of the German forces in Stalingrad surrendered on February 2, 1943. 91,000 tired and starving Germans were taken captive. To the delight of the Soviet forces and the dismay of the Reich these prisoners included 22 generals.
Only 6,000 of the 91,000 German prisoners of war survived their captivity by the Soviets and returned home. Already weakened by disease, starvation and lack of medical care during the encirclement, they were sent to labor camps all over the Soviet Union, where most of them died of overwork and malnutrition. A handful of senior officers were taken to Moscow and used for propaganda purposes. Some, including Paulus, signed anti-Hitler statements for broadcasting to German troops. General Walter von Seydlitz-Kurzbach , offered to raise an anti-Hitler army from the Stalingrad survivors, but the Soviets did not accept this offer. It was not until 1955 that the last of the handful of survivors were repatriated.
The German public had not been told anything officially of the disaster until February 3, 1943. However, already in the weeks prior to the announcement, positive reports in the German propaganda media about the battle had stopped. Though it was not the first major setback of the German military, their crushing defeat at Stalingrad was hitherto unmatched in scale. On February 18 the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, held his famous Sportpalast speech in Berlin, encouraging the Germans to accept a total war which would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population.
By any measure the battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest, arguably the largest single battle in human history. It raged for 199 days. Casualties for the Axis totalled at around 850,000. Among those lost were 400,000 Germans, 200,000 Romanians, 130,000 Italians and 120,000 Hungarians. Soviet military losses totalled at 750,000. More than 40,000 Soviet civilians died in Stalingrad and its suburbs.
For the heroism of the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad, the city was awarded the title Hero City in 1945. After the War, in the 1960s, a colossal monument of "Mother Russia" was erected on Mamayev Kurgan, the hill overseeing today's Volgograd. The statue forms part of a memorial complex which includes ruined walls deliberately left the way they were after the battle. The Grain Elevator, as well as Pavlov's House, the apartment building whose defenders eventually held out for two months until they were relieved, can still be visited. One may today even find bones and rusty metal splinters on Mamayev Kurgan, symbol of both the human suffering during the battle and the successful yet costly resistance against the German invasion.
- Volgograd State panoramic museum Stalingrad Battle, official homepage (in Russian, English, German).
- Stalingrad Battle (in Russian). This site is sponsored by the main historical and culture organizations of Volgograd.
- Stalingrad (in English and German). Many photos and various information on the battle.
- (Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben?), a 1958 West German film directed by Frank Wisbar
- Stalingrad, a 1993 German film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier
- Enemy at the Gates, a 2001 American film which dramatized and in some cases fictionalized elements of real exploits by sniper Vasily Zaitsev. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Jude Law, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz
- Antony Beevor (1998), , Viking, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0670870951; paperback, 1999, ISBN 0140284583
- William Craig (1973), Enemy at the Gates: the Battle for Stalingrad. New York, Penguin Books. ISBN 0142000000
- Joachim Wieder et al, Stalingrad - Memories and Reassessments, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1998. ISBN 1854094602
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