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The Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad was known as Tsaritsyn until 1925 and as Volgograd since 1961. The results of these operations are often cited as one of the turning points of the war in the European Theater and was one of the the bloodiest battles in human history, with combined casualties estimated to be above 1.5 million. The battle was marked by brutality and disregard for military and civilian casualties by both sides. The battle of Stalingrad was fought between the invading forces of Nazi Germany and the forces of Soviet Union who were defending the city. The battle was fought from August 1942 to February of 1943.

Stalingrad city harbour in Summer 1942

In May of 1942, Hitler began operation BLUE whose objective was to capture southern oil fields. Later in May Stalin began to allow his troops to retreat which overrided his famous earlier order, “Not one step back!” Also by this point the Russian soldiers heard of the horrible POW camps and now preferred to die in battle than be captured. Both of these factors reduced the number of Russian soldiers that were captured during the war. In July the German 6th Army, led by Paulus, advanced toward Stalingrad. At the same time Russian General Chuikov also moved toward Stalingrad to help General Zhukov who was in charge of the defenses of Stalingrad. Despite the German army’s huge losses Hitler was determined to take Stalingrad. Stalin did not want to let it fall especially because it was named after himself. Hitler wanted the city not only because it dominated the Caucasus and its oil fields, but also for its symbolic and propaganda value. He also believed that if he took Stalingrad it would eventually lead to the destruction of the Soviet Union.

German soldier behind a disable Soviet tank
The battle of Stalingrad began on August 23, 1942 at 6:00 P.M. when one thousand German planes dropped incendiary bombs on the city. Air raids such as these were very destructive especially since many buildings were made out of wood. One raid of 600 planes killed an estimated 40,000 civilians. That same day the German army arrived in the suburbs of Stalingrad. The first attacks by the German panzers were taken by a single division of troops and some workers from a nearby factory. When the German soldiers entered the city they found the ruins from their bombings. They were surprised to find any life left in the city. Many small battles erupted soon afterwards. The German army encountered fierce resistance from not only the determined soldiers of the Red Army, but also from the patriotic civilians as well. Hitler had already claimed victory just as Napoleon had in 1812, but this battle was far from over.
A burning city from left bank of Volga
Fighting was harsh and neither side made many gains. Even with the great efforts of the Soviet forces they were losing ground. The fighting was still severe even though the Russians were out numbered. A hill known as Mamaev’s Mound changed sides at least eight times during the battle. Battles were even fought in the sewers. Many of the tense battles were fought near the Central Train Station were Soviet guardsmen barricaded the train cars against German attackers. The German Luftwaffe was making thousands of attacks a day and their artillery bombarded the city so to neutralize this, General Chuikov ordered his forces to remain very close to the German troops so that German airstrikes would endanger their own forces. The city was surrounded by German forces. For Russian reinforcements to arrive they would have to cross the Volga river while under German fire. Witnesses said that on some days the river would turn red with the blood of the dead soldiers. Fighting was continual and never stopped. Sometimes it might slow down, but minutes later it would start again with new energy.

Street fighting in Stalingrad.
The overpowered Soviets had been driven back and Germany occupied 80% of the city. Because often the two sides would be very close to each other, hand to hand fighting was very common. Many battles were fought with knives and bayonets. Bodies piled up in the streets and the city became a hellhole as one German lieutenant said, “Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames...Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”. The battles were dominated by infantry because tanks had a difficult time maneuvering through the ruins. The deployment of tanks in the city was a serious error as they were virtually useless and they would not be available as a reserve force in case of a Soviet counterattack.

Soviet soldiers heading to the front lines.

After a few months of fighting, several events put pressure on Germany in Africa. On November 5th 1942 the German General Rommel had been defeated at El Alamein in Egypt, and on the 8th the Allies had landed in Morocco and Algeria which threatened the Axis on a new front. These two events coincided with General Zhukov’s plan to unleash a reserve force. Secretly being built up was a force of a million men, 14,000 heavy guns, 1,000 tanks, and 1,350 aircraft. The flanks of the German force were guarded by inferior allied divisions. These forces were weaker and they didn’t have anti-tank defenses or armored units. The Russians planned to exploit this weakness in an offensive known as Operation Uranus. The Soviets did an excellent job of concealing their plans and the Axis forces were caught totally off guard. Only Romanian units suspected anything but the German command ignored them.

Soviet anti tank team.
On November 19th 1942 a massive Russian attack surprised and overran the Romanian Third army which exposed the left flank of the German Sixth Army. A day later another attack destroyed a mixed force composed of Germans and Romanians, that protected the right flank of the German Sixth Army. Four days later Russian assault groups joined up and now General Paulus and his army, the same one that had taken Paris in 1940, was cut off from supply lines. 280,000 German troops had been surrounded by the Russians in only a few days. The German Army High Command begged Hitler to allow Paulus to retreat while he still could. The Luftwaffe Chief Herman Goering claimed that he could fly in 500 tons of supplies a day to the surrounded Sixth Army, which would be enough to keep it going. Hitler agreed to this and on November 22nd 1942 he ordered Paulus to fortify his position and wait for reinforcements to arrive. General Manstein arrived with reinforcements and told Paulus to join up with him. Paulus refused because he didn’t have a direct order from Hitler to do so. Manstein’s force was driven off and now Paulus and his army were alone, surrounded, and at the mercy of the Russians and the cold winter.

Bloodly attack.

Since Hitler had believed that this offensive would not take too long, and since it was started in the summer the soldiers were not provided with winter clothes. They were running low on supplies thanks to the lack of supplies being delivered by the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe could only fly in about 100 tons a day while they needed over 500. Only one day did the airlift provide enough supplies. The planes brought wounded soldiers home and they also brought mail from the soldiers bidding farewell to the people they knew in Germany because they knew they would die. When General Paulus saw the miserable conditions his soldiers were in, he sent someone to plead with Hitler. In response Hitler told him to hold out and that reinforcements would arrive. Conditions were miserable. Temperatures dropped to negative 30 degrees Celsius. Because of the lack of supplies the daily ration for soldiers was dropped from an already low 100 grams of bread a day, to 50 grams a day. German soldiers had to slaughter their horses for food and then later they had to dig up the horses bones to eat.

German tank on fire

On January 8th 1943 the Russians demanded that the Germans surrender, but they refused and two days later the Russians attacked. Paulus radioed to Hitler that it was hopeless, but Hitler insisted that Paulus would not surrender. By the 25th of January 1943, the Russians took the last German airfield thus totally cutting off the flow of supplies. By this point the German army was almost out of food and ammunition. Thousands of soldiers were wounded but couldn’t be helped because there were no medical supplies.

Attack on a factory in Stalingrad.

On January 31st, 1943 Hitler promoted Paulus to field marshal and reminded Paulus that never in Germany’ s history had a field marshal surrendered. Hitler urged Paulus to commit suicide to
avoid the dishonor of having to surrender from happening, but instead Paulus finally surrendered on February 2nd, 1943. The Russians took over 110,000 prisoners including 24 generals. In the whole battle of Stalingrad over 400,000 German soldiers died. The defeat at Stalingrad went further than casualties and captured soldiers, but it also ended the German campaign in Russia. It also showed that the Germans could be beaten at their own game.

Soviet soldiers lead German POWs past the famous Stalingrad Grain Silo in February 1943

The aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad
The 85-meter-tall statue of Mother Motherland crowns the Mamayev Kurgan

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