There are few names quite as evocative and which paint such a harrowing image of war as Stalingrad. Quite simply, there have been few battles throughout history that can match the brutality and scale of what happened in and around the city, now called Volgograd, which lies on the Volga River 970 km (602 miles) southeast of Moscow.
When fighting drew close to the Soviet city in August 1942, the Red Army was in disarray and it seemed only a matter of time until Stalingrad fell. Historians love to throw out sweeping statements about events that helped to alter the course of conflicts, but what came next in Stalingrad very much changed the course of World War II.
Before Adolf Hitler sent his troops streaming across the border of the Soviet Union in 1941 as Operation Barbarossa began, the two countries had shared a non-aggression pact, an agreement between the two ideologically opposed tyrants in control that saw eastern Europe shared between them during the early stages of the war.
Shockingly, Hitler was not a man of his word and after steamrolling much of Europe, the German leader turned his attention to the beast in the east. Attacking the Soviet Union is widely regarded as the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler, who until that point had enjoyed unprecedented success on the battlefield. But as Napoleon had found 129 years before him, invading the Russian homeland came with unprecedented problems.
Operation Barbarossa commenced on 22nd June 1941 with the largest land invasion in history. An extraordinary 3 million men and 600,000 motor vehicles poured across the border along a 2,900 km (1,801 miles) front.
The first month saw little good news for the Soviets. Not only had they been taken completely by surprise, but it quickly became apparent that there was a huge gap in standards between the Wehrmacht and Red Army. Stalin’s purges of the army had left it badly lacking experienced officers and the first weeks of the conflict were little more than a walkover for the German Panzers.
But things gradually changed as the German supply lines began to get further and further stretched. To give you an idea of distances, the German line began near the city of Brest in modern Belarus and it’s just over 1000 km (612 miles) from that point to Moscow. While the early Panzer thrusts were able to smash into the Soviet Union with relative ease, the trucks, horses and men bringing up the supplies took considerably longer.
By October 1941, the Germans were nearing Moscow and on 2nd December, the lead units came within 24 km (15 miles) of the city – close enough that one German commander claimed that they could now see the spires of the Kremlin. Surely it was only a matter of time until the Soviet capital fell.
But as you would have it, Soviet reinforcements arrived just in time, not in the form of men or tanks, but the weather. As the famously brutal Russian winter descended, the German advance began to flounder and a Soviet counteroffensive started to roll the Germans backwards. It was the closest the Germans would even come to Moscow.
Race to the Oilfields
If the invasion of the Soviet Union was a turning point in World War II, then Hitler’s decision to ease up on the attempts to take Moscow and instead focus on Stalingrad and the oilfields around Baku, was another huge turning point.
The reasons behind this were quite clear. Stalingrad was an important industrial city located on the strategically important Volga River, a waterway that connected the Caspian Sea and vast swaths of the country. Hitler reasoned that by taking control of the Soviet oil fields near Baku, not only would the Germans greatly benefit from a commodity that was becoming worryingly rare to them, they could effectively strangle the Soviet Union economically by cutting off its major oil supplies.
And no doubt Hitler would have been delighted to raise the German swastika above the city that held the Soviet leader’s name. Considering Soviet defences had wobbled desperately on several occasions, the German leader was eager to deliver a knockout blow – both economically and in terms of morale.
The offensive had been planned for May 1942, but delays in taking Sevastopol and Kharkov to the east meant that German troops didn’t arrive on the outskirts of Stalingrad until August.
Before we dive headlong into the apocalyptical hell that Stalingrad would eventually become, let’s just set the scene. The city lies along the banks of the Volga River and at that point had a population of around 400,000. First named Tsaritsyn, it was renamed in honour of the Soviet leader in 1925. Officially as a way of honouring both Joseph Stalin and the city for their roles in defeating the ‘Whites’ – an anti-communist group that operated during the Russian Civil War. Unofficially, I have no doubt it was done to swell the pride of the Soviet leader.
In 1961, after Stalin’s death, the city was renamed yet again, this time as Volgograd, which has stuck, although there has been consistent murmuring about reverting to its original name, Tsaritsyn, at some point.
Anyway, Stalingrad was a hugely important industrial city that also became a centre for transhipment, with rail and river routes leading in several directions. The Baku oil fields lay southeast, while other major cities located on the Volga River meant that Staligrand became a vital city that had to be held at all costs.
To give you a rough idea of the layout, the city predominantly lies on the northern bank of the Volga River, close to where the Don River also meets. Immediately east of Stalingrad is a large expanse of wooded area where countless small rivers and tributaries crisscross. I’m sure it’s great for a fishing trip but would be suicidal to try and retreat through.
As the German troops neared the city, they outnumbered their Soviet enemy by at least 80,000 men and this was mirrored in just about every aspect. The Germans had more men, tanks, aircraft and pieces of artillery, while arguably being better trained and equipped. When we look at the German advance in the context of what had already happened during World War II, things didn’t look good for the Soviet city.
The inhabitants were ordered to remain in the city, even as grain and cattle were withdrawn from it. This is important, because, as we’ll see, the Germans were only part of the nightmare that was about to begin. Time and time again, Stalin proved himself to be a man with a truly psychopathic disregard for human life and the decision to keep the civilians in the city in the hope that it would encourage greater resistance from its defenders was a perfect example of this.
On August 23rd 1942 the German Luftwaffe began pounding the city. It was led by the Luftflotte 4, one of the primary divisions within the airforce and at that time considered the single most powerful air formation in the world. What began in the late August heat was frenzied, with over 1,000 tons of bombs dropped on the city in just 48 hours.
The ferocity of the early bombing raids pulverised the city and huge sections were almost entirely destroyed. The Soviet air force could do little to withstand the onslaught and it suffered terribly as the Luftwaffe took control of the skies. Over the next week, the German army pushed closer to the city and by the end of August had entered Stalingrad itself.
Much has been said about the Soviet resistance at Stalingrad, both from the heavy propaganda coming from the Soviets themselves and foreign historians. While the Soviets no doubt added an extra layer of heroism to just about everything, the stories of those who defended Stalingrad are nothing short of extraordinary.
We’ll start with the 1077th anti-aircraft regiment, composed mainly of teenage female volunteers, many only recently out of school. Poorly trained and undersupplied – like every other anti-aircraft regiment it must be said – the 1077th distinguished themselves during the battle with remarkable bravery. The anti-aircraft guns that had been firing up at the Luftwaffe during the early raids, were now lowered to begin attacking the Panzer tanks as they streamed towards the city.
An attack of such force at this point in the lines hadn’t been expected, so no foot soldiers were present in the area. Instead, the responsibility of defending their sector fell solely to the 1077th who fought ferociously for 2 days before being relieved, having destroyed 83 tanks.
This was not an isolated story however, all around Stalingrad, soldiers and civilians, often placed in loose militias, fought on valiantly even as the Germans began to push them back towards the Volga River. But let’s be very honest here, they didn’t have much of a choice. Stalin’s Order No. 227, which had been issued on 28th July 1942, and known for its famous line, “Not a step back!”, decreed that units must create blocking detachments located at the rear that would shoot anybody retreating.
Even if you weren’t executed on the spot, your actions could land you a place in the penal battalions, groups of disgraced troops placed together in the most dangerous sections of the line – as close to a death sentence as you get without actually being lined up with your back to a wall. Make no mistake about it, Soviet tactics in limiting desertion and panic mongering were savage but almost certainly meant that the city held on.
At the beginning of the battle, it’s thought that there were around 75,000 women or girls in the city who had completed their military or medical training and all of which took part in the battle. Many manned the anti-aircraft guns or mortars, while others served as snipers, telephone operators and scouts. Some even drove tanks and it’s thought that three female tank drivers were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for their actions at Stalingrad.
The Rat War
By mid-September, the fighting had evolved into vicious house to house combat. One factor that made this particularly chaotic was the Soviet tactic of staying as close to German lines as possible, which limited the German use of air support and heavy artillery – this came to be known as ‘hugging the Germans’.
Fighting was taking place in the streets, in abandoned apartments, factories, and even in the sewer system below the city. It’s hardly surprising that the German called this kind of warfare, Rattenkrieg – Rat War. It was bloody fighting where 10s of metres might be gained over several days only for a swift counter-attack to send you back to square one. The train station was a perfect example of this, which is said to have changed hands 14 times over just six hours.
One of the most famous tales to come out of the Battle Stalingrad was that of Pavlov’s House, a four-storey building in the centre of the city. It was here that between 30 and 50 Soviet soldiers held on for two months and repulsed daily German attacks by foot soldiers, artillery and tanks. With painfully little food and ammunition, the small band of resistors, led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov caused enormous damage to the German army laying siege to the area. Pavlov’s House became such a thorn in the side of the Germans, they began to refer to it on maps as Festung (Fortress).
Snipers also played a huge role in the defence of the city. The most famous of which, Vasily Zaitsev, killed 225 enemy soldiers during the battle and was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union as a result.
After three months of chaotic fighting, the Germans reached the river banks. Intensive aerial bombardment had destroyed much of the city and the Germans now controlled roughly 90% of its smouldering wreck. The Soviet force had now been split and pushed into two narrow strips along the river. They were still clinging on, but only just.
The Soviets poured reinforcements into the area, but these were not well-equipped battle-hardened forces. Those stepping off the boats coming down the Volga were young conscripts rushed into action, many of whom with little to no battlefield experience. There is an often repeated myth that many Soviet soldiers didn’t even have guns when they advanced on the German lines and instead had to wait until one of the comrades were killed. While there may have been evidence of this in the early weeks of the war, it seems as if this never happened in Stalingrad to any great degree.
As winter again began to set in, thick ice set across the Volga, preventing further reinforcement boats from arriving. Soviet numbers were dwindling and in an awful condition, but the Germans were in an equally precarious position. Just as the year before, on the steps of Moscow, the German forces were badly prepared for the horrific Russian winter. To make matters worse, their attention had been so focused on the centre of the city, they had failed to properly reinforce their flanks.
Considering that Stalingrad was teetering on the edge, what came next must rank as one of the most astonishing 180s in military history. On 19th November 1942, the Soviet’s launched a do or die counteroffensive that would either save the city or consign it as just another footnote in annals of the Third Reich.
Operation Uranus called for two powerful thrusts to push around on both German flanks before meeting behind, where they would effectively encircle the German Sixth Army still involved in the street fighting in Stalingrad. Poor weather prevented any German air support and the tenacity and strength of the Soviet pincers took the Germans by surprise. Much of the German flanks were composed of foreign soldiers from its allies, Romania, Italy and Croatia, and these forces were quickly overwhelmed. The two sections of the pincer met the following day and all of a sudden, the tables had turned. The German Sixth Army, made up of 260,000 men, were now entirely surrounded.
There was now a short window of time to think about a possible breakout, but for a wide variety of reasons, Hitler decided against it. He had been advised by one of his top commanders that the Sixth Army would be able to successfully counter-attack, while Hermann Göring, had promised that the Luftwaffe would be able to keep the encircled army well supplied with regular supply drops. Neither of these assumptions proved to be correct and caused the deaths of many thousands as a result.
The supply drops had been a ludicrous plan from the get-go. The units within the pocket needed roughly 750 tons of food and ammunition daily to keep up the fight, but the Luftwaffe was at best able to drop 105 tons in a day – and that didn’t happen every day.
The conditions inside what the Germans came to call the Kessel – the cauldron – was rapidly deteriorating. As 1943 began, and with frantic pleas to Hitler to order a surrender or a breakout going unheeded, it became clear that there would be no rescue of the German Sixth Army. This was in part down to the need to cover the retreat of other forces from the Caucasus but must have seemed little more than sacrificial lambs to the slaughter for those on the ground.
Throughout January 1943, numerous attempts were made to try and convince the German commanders still in Stalingrad to surrender, but to no avail. The Germans were gradually pushed deep and deeper into the hellish ruins of the city. The irony of the besieging army now frantically defending the rubble it had created just months before was certainly not lost.
By the end of January, the cauldron had been split into three separate pockets, with as many as 50,000 wounded men remaining inside. With ammunition running out, the destruction of the Sixth Army was almost complete. Over the course of three days at the beginning of February, all three pockets surrendered or fought on to the death. The Battle of Stalingrad was over.
The numbers relating to this cataclysmic struggle are difficult to get your head around. Around 91,000 German soldiers were taken captive at the end of the battle, almost all in the most pitiful of conditions. An estimated 400,000 German, or other axis soldiers, had been killed or wounded during the conflict.
The numbers on the other side are even starker. The Soviets place their total casualty figure close to 1.2 million, with nearly half a million men and women killed in action. On top of this was roughly 40,000 civilians who perished during the sixth-month battle. Many through bombs and bullets, but sadly many through starvation and illness.
I mentioned earlier in the video that this was a key turning point during World War II. It was the first large-scale defeat Germany had experienced during the war and almost immediately the aura of invincibility began to slip. It would be another two and a half years until the guns in Europe finally fell silent, but what happened in Stalingrad certainly puts the wheels in motion.
Today, the largest statue in Europe, the 85 metres (279 ft) figure of a woman with a raised sword known as the Motherland is Calling, stands imperiously overlooking the city. 200 steps, symbolising the length of days the battle raged for, lead up to the base of the colossal monument where Marshal of the Soviet Union Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who was instrumental in the city’s defence, and famed sniper Vasily Zaytsev are buried. In a city that had been almost entirely rebuilt and with a new name, it stands as a permanent reminder of one of the most hellish battles the world has ever seen.