The 23rd of August, 1942, is a significant date in history. Seventy years ago, the German Sixth Army began its assault on a remote, obscure city in southern Russia called Stalingrad. This battle - begun as a mere sideshow to a grander attempt to cut off Russia's supplies of oil - proved the most significant turning point of the war and became - arguably - the most famous single battle of the conflict. Two totalitarian superpowers clashed for control of a city bearing the name of one of their leaders, fighting a gruelling battle lasting six months and costing over one and a half million lives.
Russian Katyusha rocket batteries during the Red Army's counter-attack at Stalingrad.
As related in my article on Barbarossa last year, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union on 21 June, 1941. They attacked on a vast scale, using over three million troops and thousands of tanks and aircraft. By the autumn they had taken or besieged most of Russia's major cities but Hitler proved uncharacteristically timid when the time came to advance on Moscow (likely due to Hitler's obsession with the story of Napoleon's defeat in Russia). By the time he finally authorised the attack it was too late in the year, and the German armies were finally halted by freezing temperatures. An unexpected Russian counter-attack in December threw the Germans back almost a hundred miles from Moscow, the first significant tactical defeat suffered by the Germans in the war, but failed to rout them. A new front was stabilised, and both armies reinforced and prepared for a resumption of hostilities in the spring.
As 1942 opened, the Russians anticipated a renewed offensive on Moscow and concentrated a significant portion of their resources on defending the city. However, Hitler believed that Moscow was, in itself, not a strategically worthwhile target. With the Red Army focused in the north, Hitler believed an opportunity existed for a stunning victory in the south. He divided the former Army Group South into two forces, Army Group A and B, and planned for them to advance eastwards, along the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the basin between the rivers Don and Volga, one group would turn south into the Caucasus Mountains with the objective of capturing almost all of Russia's major oil fields, in what is now Chechnya and Armenia. The other would turn north and take and hold the city of Stalingrad, to be used to secure the German flanks against a possible counter-attack.
It was an impressive plan, concentrating the Germans' offensive power against the weakest part of the Russian line and designed to cut off the Red Army from the source of its fuel. If the Germans could pull one more rabbit out of the hat, they might simply starve the Russians into surrender due to a lack of supplies, rather than face a battle of attrition that the numerically superior Russians could win.
The plan - Operation Blue - began unexpectedly early on 19 May 1942. Marshal Timoshenko of the Red Army launched an offensive designed to recapture the city of Kharkov, but in doing so exposed his flank and was comprehensively defeated, losing a quarter of a million men in the process. Maintaining the momentum of the counter-attack, the Germans advanced eastwards. On 23 July the city of Rostov fell, allowing the Germans to advance swiftly eastwards towards the Volga.
The task of taking Stalingrad fell to the Sixth Army under General von Paulus, a notable formation which had already won impressive victories in France and the initial invasion of the USSR. In accordance with blitzkrieg doctrine, which required an overwhelming aerial bombardment to soften up the target ahead of an infantry and armoured attack, the German Luftwaffe launched a massive bombing raid on Stalingrad on 23 August, 1942. The attack flattened a large portion of the city, killing upwards of 40,000 civilians. Elements of the Sixth Army entered the city's suburbs on the same day, marking the beginning of the battle.
The Sixth Army Advances
Reducing the city to rubble proved to be a costly error. The closed-in streets of the city had now been turned into a bewildering warren of collapsed walls, bombed-out streets and half-fallen buildings. The Germans found it almost impossible to deploy their tanks with any effectiveness, whilst the close nature of the fighting restricted the use of both air power and heavy artillery. They were also confounded by the unusual layout of the city.
Stalingrad - formerly Tsaritsyn and today called Volgograd - was only about two miles wide, but extended along the Volga's shores for about seventeen miles. The German plan for taking the city involved multiple incursions from the suburbs to the river, reducing the city to several small pockets of resistance which could then be eliminated in detail. The problem was that the Volga - almost two miles wide at Stalingrad - proved a straightforward (if extremely hazardous) way of reinforcing the city. Red Army troops would pour across the river on a daily basis, braving aerial and artillery bombardment to reinforce the troops already in the city. The Germans found it difficult to seal off each pocket from reinforcements, especially the core of the city where the bulk of the 62nd Army, commanded by the formidable General Chuikov was concentrated. Chuikov was a charismatic commander who would allegedly break off from key radio conferences with his commanders to run outside his bunker and personally drive back German assaults with a machine gun before nonchalantly rejoining the conversation (although sadly this is probably apocryphal).
As a result of the ferocious Russian defence, the Battle of Stalingrad descended into a grinding battle of attrition, something the Germans had purposely avoided in WWII up to this point. Their key weapons of blitzkrieg, speed and movement were denied to them by the terrain and by Hitler's insistence that the city had to be captured and fortified, rather than simply razed. In addition, the Sixth Army found itself at the end of a very long, very tenuous supply chain (Stalingrad was 1,380 miles from Berlin), with every bullet, can of fuel and replacement soldier having to travel a long way to reach the troops. Russian reinforcements were able to enter the city almost at will, however.
The result of this was a gruelling infantry battle, with some buildings being captured, recaptured, bombed and then reoccupied multiple times during the same day. On both sides snipers wreaked havoc on enemy morale, with several of them becoming extremely famous (Vasily Zaitsev - the main character in the movie Enemy at the Gates - is the most famous, although his famous 'sniper duel' with a German counterpart appears to be apocryphal). To the Germans' shock, a significant number of the Russian soldiers they faced were women: more than 75,000 women fought at Stalingrad, as medics, snipers, pilots and (despite official policy to the contrary) as front-line combat troops. A large number of civilians who'd been trapped in the city during the battle were also pressed into military service. Bolstered by such factors, the Russian defence was tenacious and impressive, but still the defenders gave ground. By the start of October over 80% of the city was in German hands.
However, Stalin and his most skilled general, Marshal Zhukov, had concocted an utterly audacious scheme to defeat the Germans. Rather than flood the city with reinforcements, as they could have done, they only sent in enough men to hold the city and pin the Germans in place. At the same time, they assembled two immense formations, one to the north and the other to the south, of Stalingrad. As von Paulus became more desperate for victory, he reassigned all of his elite units into the city itself, leaving the flanks of the Sixth Army to be guarded by allied troops: Hungarian, Italian and Romanian forces supplied by Hitler's erstwhile allies to help make good Germany's lack of manpower (at least compared to the USSR). Unfortunately, these troops were known to be of inferior quality to the German soldiers, lacking their training and equipment.
On 19 November 1942 - the day the Second World War apparently spun on a dime - the Red Army hit the demoralised, under-equipped Hungarian and Romanian forces on the flanks of the Sixth Army with everything they had. In less than two days the Russians shattered the flanks and overran them, sweeping around the Sixth Army in two huge waves which met at the town of Kalach, the main river crossing over the River Don directly on the Sixth Army's line of retreat. The Sixth Army was completely surrounded, and the besiegers had suddenly become the besieged.
The Sixth Army Besieged
Immediate efforts were launched to relive the Sixth Army, but the German armies operating in the Caucasus were too far away to immediately respond. The Sixth Army itself was massively outnumbered - by at least three-to-one, not counting the Russian troops inside Stalingrad itself - and could make no headway. Initially there was panic at the German high command about how the Sixth Army could feed itself, leading Goering to declare that he could keep the entire army fed and resupplied by the air. In the event, the Luftwaffe never managed to deliver enough supplies to keep even half the Sixth Army fed for one day.
The only hope was for a German army to relieve Stalingrad. Field Marshal Manstein led three Panzer divisions in a relief effort which got to within 30 miles of the city, but suddenly had to abandon the attack when the Russians set in motion an even larger operation, this time designed to retake Rostov and trap the entirety of the former Army Group South in the Caucasus. This would have been a catastrophe of unprecedented scale for the German army, but the Russian effort was thwarted and the German forces in the Caucasus were able to escape the trap before it could be sprung. However, this now put the German armies hundreds of miles to the west of Stalingrad, unable to offer even a glimmer of hope for the besieged Sixth Army.
Despite this, Hitler refused to permit the Sixth Army to surrender. He encouraged von Paulus and his men to fight on to the bitter end and die gloriously in the name of the Reich. He even promoted Paulus to Field Marshal, noting that no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered or been take alive, a subtle hint as to how he hoped Paulus would comport himself. Paulus declined to die a 'heroic' death, however. On 1 February 1943 he offered unconditional surrender. Somewhere between 90,000 and 110,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner and the Sixth Army ceased to exist, the first time an entire German field army had been completely destroyed during the Second World War. Less than 6,000 of those troops would survive to see home again, the majority dying of disease in Soviet gulags. As the defeated soldiers were marched out of the ruined city, Russian soldiers and civilians jeered at them and the prescient insult of, "This is how Berlin will soon look!" was commonly made.
The defeat shocked the Germans. The size of the calamity could not be covered up, and unusually pessimistic Nazi leaders such as Goebbels took to the airways to warn German citizens that they would now face 'total war'. For the Russians, it was a morale boost on an unprecedented scale. It passed the strategic initiative in the war to them and it also showed the value of planning long. Stalin's insistence on constant attacks was now replaced by patient planning, something that paid off just a few months later in the Battle of Kursk (a victory for the Russians as great, if not moreso, as Stalingrad's).
Stalingrad was a significant defeat for the Germans. It wasn't their first major defeat in the war (they'd been beaten by the British at El Alamein in October 1942 and at Moscow in December 1941) but it was the first time an entire German field army had been comprehensively destroyed. Whilst the destruction of the Sixth Army was impressive, it was more significant in forcing the hasty German evacuation of the entirety of southern Russia, ending the threat to Russia's oilfields, without which the Soviet Union could not stay in the fight. It also restored faith and hope to the Allies that the Russians could prevail: even after the Russian victory at Moscow, expectations that the Russians could win the conflict had still been low in London and Washington. The battle became a symbol of Russian defiance, and even during the Cold War when the USSR's role in Hitler's defeat was underplayed in the West, the name of Stalingrad was still infamous.