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Battle of Stalingrad
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Battle of Stalingrad

Scene from the battle of Stalingrad
Conflict World War II
Date June 28, 1942 - February 2, 1943
Place Stalingrad, USSR
Result Soviet victory
Combatants
USSR Germany
Commanders
Vasily Chuikov
Friedrich Paulus
Strength
600,000+ 250,000 Germans + 250,000 allies
Casualties
1.1 million soldiers
about 100,000 civilian
500,000 Axis (250,000 German, 250,000 allies)

The Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II, and one of the bloodiest battles in human history. 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.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Operation Blue
3 The battle in the city
4 The Soviet counter-attack
5 The Battle Ends
6 Related articles
7 Dramatization
8 Reference

Background

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 stabilised 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. Instead, Army Group South, which had previously conquered the Ukraine, was to rush forward through the southern Russian steppes into the Caucasus, capturing 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, and again relied on Blitzkrieg tactics with a surprise attack, rapid advance and a quick decisive victory.

Operation Blue

Army Group South began its attack into southern Russia on June 28, 1942. 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 Paul von Kleist, was to continue advancing south towards the Caucasus. 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 German offensive started off well. Soviet forces offered little resistance in the vast empty steppes. Hitler again intervened in the military planning by reassigning units to other directions, however, causing traffic jams and considerable delays. The fact that the German offensive was directed against Stalingrad became obvious, and in July 1942 the Soviets began their preparations for the city's defense. 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 defence lines amid the debris, with strongpoints in houses and factories.

Fighting in the city was fierce and desperate. Stalin had authorised execution of retreating troops in serious cases. During the battle security forces arrested, executed or sent to penal battalions for cowardice up to 13,000 Soviet soldiers. 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 inpenetrable 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 Easterm 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. In total Soviet snipers shot well over a thousand German soldiers and officers 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. 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.

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 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 the sycophantic General Kurt Zeitzler.

Meanwhile, fighting inside Stalingrad went on. 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.

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 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".

The Soviet counter-attack

On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed Operation 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 motorised brigades, six cavalry divisions and one antitank brigade. Outnumbered and poorly equipped, the 3rd Romanian Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army, was shattered.

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 300,000 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.

Hitler had declared in a public speech on September 30th that the Germany army would never leave the city. Probably to avoid embarrassment and loss of his credibility Hitler did not order the 6th Army to withdraw quickly but instead accepted the Luftwaffe chief, Marshall Hermann Göring's suggestion that the necessary supplies for the now surrounded army could be delivered by an "air bridge." This would allow the Germans in the city to fight on while a relief force could be assembled. However, supplying the 6th Army would have required 500 tonnes to be delivered each day, and by any count the number of planes needed to achieve this was clearly not available. 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.

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 Operation Neptune, pushing the main front west towards Rostov, away from the pocket of Stalingrad, and attempting to cut off the Germans in the Caucasus. Although von Manstein managed to extract his forces from the Caucasus and restabilise the frontline, Stalingrad was now some 250 km away from the front, 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, but Paulus lacked the courage to disobey Hitler.

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 Field-Marshal 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.

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 labour 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 speech in the sports palace of 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 200 days. More than 100,000 German and Axis troops died during the first phase of the battle in 1942 alone. More than 100,000 Romanians, and 87,000 Italians perished when the Soviets launched their counter-offensive. After that, another 300,000 Germans were killed or captured when the Soviets sealed the ring around the city. Thousands more died in the German attempt to relieve the 6th Army. The Soviet defenders meanwhile suffered up to a total of 1,100,000 casualties during the defence of Stalingrad, the counter-offensive, the defence of the ring and the clearing of the pocket. More than 100,000 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.

Related articles

Dramatization

Reference