Battle of Stalingrad
Germany and its allies are defeated by Russia at Stalingrad
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
The Battle of Stalingrad, modern-day Volgograd, took place between the Soviet Union and the Axis forces. The battle is often cited as one of the turning points of the war.
The Battle of Stalingrad, modern-day Volgograd, took place between the Soviet Union and the Axis forces. The battle is often cited as one of the turning points of the war. The fighting took place in three major stages: the German assault of the city, the battle inside the city, and the Soviet counter-offensive. The last phase captured and destroyed the 6th German army in the city.

Hitler and the Wehrmacht High Command were forced to take several factors into account when they chose their objectives for the campaign of the summer of 1942. The losses suffered by the German army during the Moscow campaign constituted the principal factor. At the end of the Soviet counter-offensive, the German army had around 162 divisions on the eastern front, of which only 8 could fulfil offensive missions. The armored units were not in a good situation, since the 16 armored divisions had only 140 functioning tanks.

In order to support a long war, Germany urgently needed consistent economic resources, especially oil. “Black gold” is indispensable for carrying out modern warfare, in which tanks and planes occupy pole position. The Reich was repeatedly confronted with perspectives of depleted oil supplies, in spite of deliveries from Romania.

The attention of the OKW, and implicitly of Hitler, turned towards the rich oil deposits in the Caucasus. If he could conquer them, his needs would be satisfied, and his enemy would be deprived of a source of fuel vital for the continuation of the war. The Soviet Union would also lose the rich basin of the Don river. Furthermore, a victory would offer the Germans the possibility of occupying Iraq and eliminating the British presence in the Middle East.

In this stage of the war, the Red Army was much less capable of carrying out mobile operations than the Wehrmacht. It was only the perspective of an urban war that reduced the Russian disadvantage compared with the German forces. This kind of war was dominated by artillery and infantry battles to the detriment of mechanized tactics.

After the defeat in Moscow, during the spring of 1942, the German forces stabilized the front. They began to be confident that they could defeat the Red Army as soon as the cold weather passed. The Central Army Group was involved in tough battles during the winter campaign, however 65% of the infantry of this group did not take part in the fighting, so the soldiers were rested and re-equipped. This was what gave the Germans confidence.

From a military perspective, the capture of Stalingrad was important to Hitler for two reasons. First of all, it was a major industrial city on the Volga river, a vital transport route between the Caspian Sea and northern Russia. In the second place, capturing the city would ensure the safety of the left flank of the German armies. Thus, he could advance towards the rich oil fields of the Caucasus region. At the same time, the capture of this city could be used for propaganda purposes. Aware of all these things, Stalin ordered general mobilization. Everyone who could hold a weapon was sent to defend the city.

The Germans’ desire to conquer the important industrial city of Stalingrad was understandable. Once the city was conquered, the oil terminal at Astrahan was at their fingertips. The Russians would no longer be able to use the Volga for transport. Further, the Army Group A in the Caucasus would be sheltered from another Soviet winter offensive. In these conditions, attacks from the north could begin again. At that moment, the conquering of the city seemed to be justified from a military perspective.

The Army Group Center was chosen to advance in the Caucasus region and capture the oil resources in that area. The plan for this summer offensive was called Fall Blau or Case Blue. The plan included elements from the 6th Army, 17th Army, 4th Panzer Army and 1st Panzer Army. Hitler ordered the Army Group South to be divided into two. The Army Group South ‘A’, under the command of Wilhelm List, had the task of advancing south, towards the Caucasus region. Group ‘B’, made up of the 6th Army of Friedrich von Paulus and the 4th Panzer Army, advanced towards Volga with Stalingrad as their objective.

Some German and Romanian units which were to participate in Fall Blau were still caught up in the siege of Sevastopol. Thus, the start of operations was postponed by approx. one month. After the end of operations in this sector, the Axis units were redirected towards the objectives of Case Blue. In the initial plans of Operation Barbarossa, the city of Stalingrad was not even mentioned. However, Moscow and Leningrad were still resisting, and the Soviets had launched a counteroffensive. As a consequence, Stalingrad began to take form in Hitler’s plans

Hitler’s strategic concepts, also sent to the OKW, were concretized in the famous Directive No. 41 which defined the objectives of the German campaign. This document occupies a special place in the history of World War II. Directive No. 41 was at the foundation of the Wehrmacht’s involvement in the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the entire war. The document foresaw retaking the strategic initiative lost after the battle for Moscow and beginning an offensive in the southern sector of the front.

The goal of the German offensive was to “wipe out the entire defense potential remaining to the Soviets, and to cut them off, as far as possible, from their most important centers of war industry.” Due to the losses suffered in the previous winter’s campaign, the Wehrmacht was forced to limit its offensive effort to the southern sector of the eastern front. There, the German forces would be concentrated with the mission of “destroying the enemy before the Don, in order to secure the Caucasian oilfields and the passes through the Caucasus mountains themselves.”

The plan elaborated by the OKW, based on the directive, foresaw the execution of two parallel blows. The first would be carried out in the Kharkov sector, along the right-hand bank of the Don River towards Stalingrad; the second in the Rostov direction. Later, after crossing the Don, the offensive would continue in the direction of the Caucasus. A fundamental principle concerning the planned operations was their execution in successive stages.

Directive No. 41 foresaw the carrying out of two preliminary operations with the goal of ensuring the safety of the flanks of the groups attacking in the Caucasus. The conquest of Crimea and the capture of Sevastopol were carried out with the goal of ensuring the safety of the western flank. For the security of the eastern flank, it was necessary to occupy Voronezh and go down the Don, and also attack Stalingrad.

The main objective of the campaign was the Caucasus with its oil fields, according to the analysis of the directive. Stalingrad was initially just a secondary objective, however the evolution of hostilities transformed it into a principal one. The German plan had two fundamental errors. In the first place, the OKW didn’t take account of the obvious disproportion between their objectives and their available means. Secondly, the main objective, the Caucasus, was outside the center of the front. As a consequence, the front line became excessively long, and thus the Wehrmacht’s attack capability was weakened.

The plan did not meet with unanimity in the German Command. During debates in the OKW, several military commanders spoke for giving up the idea of starting a new offensive campaign in the USSR. These men insisted that the existing front line must be maintained and even shortened. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt requested a retreat in Poland, and General Franz Halder proposed “rectification” of the front line. This would allow the German army to consolidate the positions attained and create a moving force able to repel any attack.

While the OKW was defining the campaign strategy and objectives, the Soviet High Command was elaborating the Red Army’s strategy for the summer of that year. Understanding the German army’s strategic superiority, the Soviet High Command considered that enemy offensives would be carried out in the central directions, and perhaps the south. Stalin feared an attack against Moscow. Thus, he organized an active strategic defence with the main effort in Moscow, at the same time starting offensive operations with limited goals.

Stavka, the Soviet High Command, and especially Stalin, believed a German attack would be made against Moscow. For this reason, most of the armed reserves were placed around the Soviet capital. Thus, the southern sector of the front was neglected.

To this tactical mistake made by the Soviets was added the inefficiency of the Soviet intelligence service, which had grave repercussions. In support of this theory, the messages sent to the ‘Center’ of Soviet spy networks in Europe have been brought up, especially the message sent by the group “Rote Kapelle” in November 1941. This information does not agree with Soviet evidence. In reality, the first true information about the Blau operation came from the plans for the first stage of the offensive. These plans were captured after a German airplane crashed behind Soviet lines, nine days before the start of the operation.

The information obtained from Soviet espionage did not convince the Soviet decision-makers. Stalin was suspicious and declared at the end of June that he would not believe a word of the Blue operation. He denounced the involvement of espionage forces in what he considered an “obvious disinformation”. Up until the Battle of Stalingrad, the spies of the G.R.U. had not managed to offer any useful information to the Soviet armies. Thus, Stalin and Stavka didn’t realise where the next German attack would come.

In the winter, the Soviet army’s attacks, carried out along a line starting in Finland and continuing as far as Crimea, were marked with notable success. Although Leningrad and Sevastopol hadn’t been freed, nor Kharkov re-conquered, still, Rostov had been won back. The imminent threat to Moscow had been removed, through recovering the towns of Kalinin and Kaluga and through blocking the German advance towards the city. Up until the total freeze, the Russians advanced with the front towards the west, 193 km towards Rostov and 240 km towards the north, taking it close to Smolensk.

Initially, the British and Americans didn’t believe the Russians could resist Operation Barbarossa. After the Germans were pushed back from the gates of Moscow, the western Allies understood that they could offer priceless help to the Russians by routing the German units. Stalin underlined this aspect in the meetings he held with Churchill in Moscow. The Soviet leader did not hide his anger, generated by the fact that a second front was not expected to be opened up very soon. Churchill would offer, at most, an insignificant amphibian attack on the French port of Dieppe, from the English Channel.

General Marshall wanted to launch a major invasion of Europe as soon as possible. President Roosevelt, Churchill and General Alan Brooke believed that a rushed return to the continent could mean pure suicide.

The attack on Dieppe was not consistent enough to rout the German troops from the Eastern front. However, the scale of the failure was a serious blow for the 5,100 Canadian soldiers and 1,000 soldiers from the British and American commando troops mobilized. Supported by 252 ships and 59 squadrons of airplanes, Operation Jubilee was not sufficient to obtain a notable victory. However, this operation was significant enough to be detected in the Channel by a German coastal convoy.

The support offered by the secret services was inadequate. The planning, led by Lord Mountbatten, director of Combined Operations, was defective, leading to grave results. Six hours after the landing, three-quarters of the Canadian soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, and all six battalion commanders were wounded. Also, the British and American commando troops suffered heavy losses.

Then and later, efforts were made to present the Dieppe raid as having offered the Allies a valuable lesson in the way to attack the French coast. This lesson was extremely useful later during the Normandy landings. The plan at Dieppe was wrong from the start. The tanks could not climb up the stony beaches, since the cliffs were too tall. Strong naval and air support was necessary, but the element of surprise was essential.

The strategic situation of the Red Army was aggravated by two preliminary military operations. On the one hand, the 11th German Army launched an offensive in Crimea, and on the other hand, the Soviets began a counter-offensive in the direction of Kharkov.

The German-Romanian forces, commanded by General Erich von Manstein, began operation Trappenfang, to take Crimea. Well prepared, the operation won back the Kerch peninsula and captured almost all the Soviet forces making up the Crimean front. This amazing victory was due, in large part, to the military genius shown by General Erich von Manstein. At the beginning of July, after a difficult siege, Sevastopol also fell. With the fall of this fort, the conquest of Crimea was over.

The decisive element which favored the German campaign was the Soviet counter-offensive launched in May. This counter-offensive, in the opinion of British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart, was a “premature effort”. The Soviet army was exposed to a mortal retaliation which didn’t delay in coming from the Germans. Causes of the defeat were a lack of preparation and the drive to obtain goals disproportionate to available means. As a consequence, two Soviet armies were surrounded, together with elements from two others, leading to the capture of 240,000 people, at the end of May.

Case Blue began with the success of the German forces which pushed the Soviets towards the east, along the Russian steppes. Thus, two large pockets were formed, where the Soviet forces were destroyed. The first pocket was formed to the north-west of Kharkov, at the beginning of July, and the second in the Rostov region a week later. Also, the Hungarian army and the 4th Panzer Army captured the city of Voronezh at the beginning of July.

Military operations progressed satisfactorily in the first two weeks of the offensive. During this time, German troops managed to reach the Don, but they did not succeed in surrounding and destroying the Soviet armies lying to the west of the river. The battles which broke out for the occupation of Voronezh provoked the first crises in the OKW. In the middle of July, after Hitler’s personal intervention, the commander of the ‘B’ army group, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, was replaced by General Maximilian von Weichs.

Army Group B, according to its mission, continued its advance towards Stalingrad. Initially, only the 6th German Army had operated in this direction. The 62nd Soviet Army was defending this action zone. The advance of the 6th army towards Stalingrad, which was promising at first, was slowed because Hitler took several units from the Army Group B. He especially took armored units, which were transferred to Army Group A. This was done to put greater pressure on Soviet troops in the Caucasus.

Despite resistance put up by the Soviet armies, the German troops were getting closer to reaching their objectives. Hitler issued Directive No. 4528. Most specialists consider this directive to have been a fatal error, which eventually determined the failure of this campaign. Hitler estimated that the German troops had fulfilled their objectives after three weeks of the campaign. However, the weakened Soviet forces had managed to escape the encirclement. Hitler ordered the simultaneous conquest of Stalingrad - Army Group B - and the Caucasus - Army Group A.

The decision for a simultaneous attack meant the forces would be dispersed, and also involved the betrayal of a classic principal in the conduct of a war: successive conquests of goals. Even so, the USSR’s strategic situation on the southern flank of the front continued to get worse. The German forces making up Army Group A continued to advance towards the Caucasus. They occupied Maikop at the beginning of August and reached the Terek River. At the beginning of September, the Caucasus mountain passes were taken.

Due to the strategy he adopted, Hitler had to detach the 4th Panzer Army from Army Group A. This unit was given the mission of attacking from the south-west, towards Stalingrad. The action reinvigorated the Stalingrad offensive, but, paradoxically, it weakened Army Group A.

The order given by Hitler to Field Marshal Wilhelm List, to take Tuapse and Suhumi and to deprive the Soviet fleet of its last base in the Black Sea, could not be carried out. The German troops gained other notable successes, including taking Elbrus, the highest peak of the Caucasus mountains. However, exhausted, without fresh troops and confronted with stronger and stronger resistance, they had to go on the defensive. In these conditions, at the beginning of September, Field Marshal List was fired, and Hitler personally took command of Army Group A.

In August, the attack of the German troops was carried out at a sustained pace, due to the convergent action of the two large units towards Stalingrad. In the direction of the main drive, the ratio of forces continued to be favorable for the Germans. Thanks to this superiority, the large units of tanks from the 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army went along the Volga. At Stalingrad, they surrounded the 62nd and 64th Soviet armies.

The Soviet command realized the German danger and concentrated its attention on addressing the strategic situation. Three more armies from the strategic reserve were sent to Stalingrad. Four defensive buffer zones were organized, which managed to slow the German advance. Even so, the Stalingrad situation was still very serious for the Soviet forces.

Weakened by the losses they had suffered, the German troops gradually lost their initial operative capacity. This forced the OKW to transfer forces from other sectors which were being sent to Stalingrad. These forces were taken from the flanks of Army Group B, being replaced by troops from their allies: Hungarian, Italian and Romanian troops. This decision was a new error of the German leadership, since these troops had a combat value much below the level of the German divisions. Thus, the flanks of the 6th Army were exposed to enormous risks, in case of a Soviet attack on these points.

Russian civilians, including women and children, were forced to build a system of trenches and fortifications, in preparation for the attack. As payback, at the end of August a massive German bombing raid killed thousands of civilians and transformed Stalingrad into a desolate landscape of burning ruins. Before the Germans arrived, Stalingrad was not sufficiently fortified. Chuikov observed that the barricades outside the city could be breached by a truck. K.A. Gurov, Chief Commissioner of the 62nd Soviet Army, and General N.I. Krylov, his leader, agreed that the barricades were “ridiculous”.

Today, anyone visiting Volgograd and observing its topography can understand the scale of the problems met with by the Germans during the assault. Towards the north are three huge factories - the Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory, the Barrikady Weaponry Factory and the Red October Factory. In the center rises the Mamayev Kurgan, the tallest hill in the city. The southern edges of the city are dominated by enormous armored concrete silos, controlled by the Russians all through the siege, linked by ditches and trenches to the Volga.

During the Battle of Stalingrad, the NKVD shot around 13,500 Soviet soldiers, as many as an entire division. They were shot for treason, cowardice, desertion, drunkenness and ‘anti-Soviet agitation’. The condemned men were ordered to undress before execution. Thus, their uniforms could be reused, “without too many off-putting bullet holes”.

Several lines of narrow and deep ditches were built, which can still be seen today, lying at right angles to the Volga. For the control of these ditches, bitter battles were fought, since they offered good protection both for those defending and for the attackers. Many lives were lost there.

Before the Wehrmacht could arrive in town, the Luftwaffe forces carried out an intense campaign to attack the Volga. This was to prevent Soviet ships from bringing fresh provisions or troops. The actual battle began with a huge bombing raid, during which around 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, turning it into ruins. The entire responsibility for the defence of Stalingrad was given to General Gheorghi Jukov. Decisive, tough, energetic, courageous, sometimes merciless, Jukov was a meticulous organizer and always had full confidence in ultimate victory.

The Soviet Air Forces - Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily - were outranked by the German Luftwaffe, and were unable to defend the city. The VVS lost 201 airplanes in only eight days. In spite of receiving backup, they only had 192 functioning airplanes, of which only 57 were fighter planes. The initial tactic of the Luftwaffe, bombing the city, proved in the end to be favorable for the Soviets. The ruins had to be conquered brick by brick, which was an advantage for the Soviet army, which was much more numerous, but poorly equipped.

The Germans bombed the city’s oil tanks, setting light to huge stocks of oil. The oil burned for over a week, with thick smoke visible over the entire region. At one point, a leak meant that the Volga River itself was overtaken by flames. The Commander of the Soviet forces in the city, General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, reminisced that “clouds of thick black smoke hung over us. The ash and soot fell on us, and, as if on command, everything became black and looked black.” The Luftwaffe didn’t just launch bombs, but also random metal objects - anything which could produce damage.

The Chief of General Staff of the German Army, Franz Halder, repeatedly warned about Hitler’s absolute self-confidence. He called attention to the presence of Russian divisions which had not existed the previous autumn. Halder predicted the disaster of the 6th Army in the attack against Stalingrad. Halder confessed to General-Lieutenant Kurt Dittmar, from the High Command of the German Army - OKH - telling him that Hitler was “a mystic, with a tendency to stray from all rules of strategy, even when taking them into account.”

At the end of August, Army Group South B reached the Volga River, north of Stalingrad. Thus, a new advance along the river, south of the city, began. From the 1st of September, the Soviets could no longer send provisions and backup to their own forces trapped in the city without resorting to dangerous crossings of the River Volga. After arriving at the railway station on the left bank, the Soviet forces sent during the battle crossed the Volga in boats, an action which was harshly punished by the Luftwaffe. Most crossings took place after nightfall, when the Stuka aircraft could no longer fly.

The burden of the initial defence of the city fell on the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment. This was a unit formed of young volunteer women who had no training in infantry fighting. In spite of this, the unit kept to its position and met the German Panzers. However, they didn’t last long against the German steel monsters. Also, at the beginning, the Soviets depended on a militia made up of factory workers from the city who were not directly involved in war production. For a short time, tanks were still being produced and sent straight to the front line, without even being painted.

Hitler fired Halder from the leadership of the General Staff. In his place, he appointed the recently promoted Brigadier General, Kurt Zeitzler. “All that summer, we argued daily,” Halder later said, at Nuremberg, about his relationship with Hitler.

In order to alleviate the pressure on the city, the Red Army organized a counterattack against the Panzer corps at the beginning of September. German airplanes helped the tanks repel the offensive, submitting the Soviet artillery positions to a heavy attack. The Soviets were forced to retreat after only a few hours, losing 30 out of the 120 tanks they had attacked with.

The Soviet troops of the 62nd and 64th armies concentrated their defence inside the buildings of the destroyed city. Battles were fought desperately by both sides. The life expectancy of a Soviet soldier after arriving in the city fell to less than 24 hours, whereas the life expectancy of an officer was three days. In July, Stalin gave Order No. 227 which stipulated that all officers who ordered the unauthorised retreat of their troops would be subject to court martial. “Not a step back!” was the new slogan of Soviet propaganda, a slogan which led to the loss of many lives on both sides.

In order to counteract the mobile military doctrine of the Germans, Soviet officers tried to keep the front lines as close to each other as possible. This forced the German infantry either to fight alone, or to risk losses caused by its own support fire. Thus, hard battles were fought for each street, factory, house, basement and stairwell. The Germans called this type of urban war ‘rattenkrieg’ or Rat War.

The battles on Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill over the town, were savage, with positions falling first to one side, then to the other. Today, graves of 35,000 soldiers from both sides are found there. Also, at the Grain Silo in town, the battles and positions of the combatants were so close that sometimes, when it was quiet, the voices of the enemy could be heard. Fights there lasted for weeks on end

In another part of town, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov transformed a former complex of apartments into an impenetrable fortress. The building, later named ‘Pavlov’s House’, overlooked a market in the center of the city. Russian soldiers surrounded the building with mines, placed machine gun nests at the windows and broke down the basement walls to allow better communication. Remarkable acts of courage were acknowledged, going beyond the war and propaganda from the Cold War. This is true for both sides involved in the conflict.

The Germans didn’t send troops beyond the Volga, which allowed the Soviets to establish a large number of artillery cannons there. The Soviet artillery bombed the German positions, the resulting ruins being used by the Soviets to establish new defensive positions. In these conditions, German tanks were useless, and when they were able to advance they were subjected to anti-tank fire from the Soviet tank destroyers, hidden in the ruins of Stalingrad.

The Soviet snipers, using the old Mosin Nagant rifle, hidden in the ruins, inflicted casualties on the Axis forces. The most famous sniper, made into a Hero of the Soviet Union, was Vasily Zaytsev. He was credited with killing 225 enemy soldiers and officers, including 11 German snipers. The level to which the Soviet propaganda machine exaggerated the actions of the snipers can not be determined, but acts of courage, such as those of Zaytsev, raised the morale of the troops. Women were also good snipers. Tania Chernova, from the 28th Siberian division, claimed that she killed 80 enemies in three months.

The 71st German Infantry Division created a breach up to the center of the city. Later, the main railway station was won, lost and won again five times in a single day. The station was, in turn, in the possession of the Soviets and Germans 13 times in the following three days.

Up until the middle of October, the Luftwaffe intensified its efforts to eliminate Soviet positions on the western bank of the Volga. The 62nd Soviet Army had its supply lines paralyzed due to constant attacks. Once the Soviets were blocked into an area of only 910 square meters, over 1,208 missions were carried out by Stuka planes, with the goal of wiping the Soviets out. In spite of the heavy bombing, the Russian soldiers remained in their positions.

Determined to crush the resistance of the Soviets, the Stuka fighter planes attacked the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory. The Soviets suffered heavy losses. Several regiments were exterminated, and the entire staff of 339 Infantry Regiment were killed. The Luftwaffe remained in air control until the beginning of November, and after three months of carnage the Germans arrived on the bank of the Volga.

Up until the beginning of November, the Germans had almost complete control of the city, trapping the remains of the Soviet forces in two pockets. Even so, fighting continued as heavily as ever, especially in the region of the Mamayev Kurgan hill and in the northern part of the city, where there were several factories. The battles at the Red October steel factory and the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory became famous worldwide after the war for their brutality. The fate of the battle was decided the following month, when Operation Uranus was launched.

The 39th Infantry Guard Division, led by Major-General Stiepan Guniev, crossed the Volga to defend the Red October factory. The situation in Chuikov’s general headquarters, was so bad that: “Steam, smoke: we couldn’t breathe. Shells and bombs were exploding everywhere around us. The noise was so loud that, even if you screamed, no one could hear you… Many times, radio operators were killed with their microphones in their hands.” When the main headquarters of the front line asked them where they were, commander Chuikov replied: “We’re in the place with the most fire and smoke.”

A harsh offensive of the 6th Army followed, through which Paulus tried to push the 62nd Army back from the right-hand bank of the Volga. Three whole infantry divisions and over 300 tanks were mobilized against the industrial zone. Chuikov sent all the women and wounded to the other side of Volga. After a day of fighting, many of the 3,500 wounded had to crawl to the first aid centers. There were not enough stretcher-bearers or stretchers to carry them.

At one of the ferry points, called Crossing Point 62, situated close to the industrial zone, one building was conserved in the state thai it was during the battle. Almost every single brick bears the print of bullets or shells. The 138th Rifle Division ‘Red Flag’ was pushed into an area of 640 square metres on the bank of the Volga, and surrounded on three sides by Germans in the crossing point. This was one of the key moments of the battle during the 40 days, when the division of Colonel-General Lyudnikov heroically defended the Barrikady area.

In Stalingrad, women served in the front line or close to it. They were doctors, nurses from as young as 15, telephonists, radio operators, marines in the Volga Flotilla, anti-aircraft operators, and pilots. Added to this, many of them were also blood donors. Stalingrad proved to be a veritable abattoir, however it was one based on equality of chances between men and women. It is said that the graduates of the Central School of Women for Snipers killed 12,000 Germans. Three regiments of the 221st Aviation Corps were made up of women, with 33 of these decorated as heroes of the Soviet Union.

One act of heroism was that of the navy rifleman Mikhail Panikakha. He was about to throw a Molotov cocktail into a tank, when he was hit by a bullet, and set alight by the burning fuel. “The soldier was burning like a living torch,” wrote Chuikov. “In spite of terrible pain, he didn’t pass out. He picked up a second bottle. The tank had come closer. Everyone saw a man in flames jumping from the trench, running straight towards the German tank, smashing the bottle on the grill of the engine cover. A second later, an enormous curtain of fire and smoke consumed the fuel tank and the hero who had destroyed it.”

During the autumn, Generals Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Vasilevsky and Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov concentrated huge numbers of troops in the northern and southern parts of the city. The two generals were responsible for strategic planning in that area. The northern German front was especially very vulnerable because it was defended by Italian, Romanian and Hungarian troops. These troops were insufficiently trained and had vastly inferior equipment than their German allies. This weakness was known and exploited by the Soviets. The plan was simple: breaking the German flanks and capturing the German troops inside the ruined city.

For the counter-offensive, three Soviet armies were brought in. The South-Western Front was under the command of General Vatutin, the Don Front under General Rokossovsky and the Stalingrad Front under General Eremenko. Stavka thus took measures to concentrate forces capable of breaking through the enemy lines of defence.

In November, the 3rd Romanian Army was to the left of the 6th German Army, arranged on a front approx. 170 km in length. The 4th Romanian Army was to the south of Stalingrad, on a sector approx. 350 km long. The Romanian troops were on a front that was stretched out, without deep defensive lines and without heavy weaponry. In the sector belonging to the 3rd Romanian Army, there was an enemy bridgehead in Serafimovich, which was the ideal starting point for a Soviet attack. This fact further aggravated the situation of the Romanian troops.

The German attack managed to reach the Volga, along a front 550 metres long. Even though Paulus’ 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army ruled three quarters of the city, Chuikov’s 62nd Army still held the right-hand bank. It received strong reinforcements, so the Germans decided to bring more troops into town from the Don and from southern Russia. Their place was taken by the 3rd Romanian Army, the 7th Italian Army and the 4th Romanian Army. These maneuvers offered the Russians their great chance.

Well prepared, benefitting from an overwhelming superiority in artillery and armored vehicles, especially in the areas they breached, the Soviet attack took the German command by surprise. In the first day of the counter-offensive, the troops of the South-Western Front and the Don Front began to attack in the strip belonging to the 3rd Romanian Army, succeeding in making great advances from the first day. Thus, the connections between the 3rd Romanian Army and the 6th German Army were interrupted. As a consequence of these advances, five Romanian divisions were surrounded and forced to surrender. The next day, the troops making up the Stalingrad Front also attacked.

In spite of all efforts made and the categoric orders of Hitler to stop the advance of the Soviet armies at any cost, the German troops could not handle the situation. This led, at the end of November, to a complete encirclement, made by joining the Southwestern Front units with those from the Stalingrad Front, in Kalaci. After the attack, approx. 330,000 German and Romanian soldiers were surrounded, together with the Russian civilians caught in the town. The Soviet forces strengthened their positions around Stalingrad, then began heavy fighting to decrease the size of the pocket in which the Axis forces were now found.

The commander of the 6th German army, General von Paulus, realised that the Soviet offensive had, as its goal, the destruction of the German forces. As a consequence, he requested permission to withdraw the German troops from Stalingrad. Hitler refused, arguing that, once they withdrew from the Volga, the German troops would never be able to retake the position. Hitler’s fears were perfectly founded, but a retreat was the only solution left available to the German commander, to save his troops. The 6th Army remained in Stalingrad and was assisted by the intervention of the aviation combined with a relief operation of the armies stuck in the city.

In preparation for Operation Wintergewitter - Winter Storm, Hitler recalled Field Marshal Erich von Manstein from the north. He was appointed to lead the newly constituted ‘Don’ Army Group, with the mission of freeing the 6th Army. The operation, launched in the middle of December, failed, although at one point Manstein’s group was only 45km away from the 6th Army. The failure was caused by the Soviet troops’ resistance, and by von Paulus’ indecision in breaking through the encirclement. Von Paulus’ indecision was motivated by his lack of fuel, since he only had enough supplies for a 30km march.

There was an evident contradiction between von Manstein’s intentions and those of Hitler. Manstein spoke out for creating a corridor up to the 6th Army, through which these troops could retreat. This would mean, in effect, abandoning the city. Hitler wanted Manstein’s troops to break the encirclement and reinforce the 6th Army’s resistance in Stalingrad.

The situation of the ‘Don’ Army Group became even more critical after the offensive launched by the Soviets in the Italian 8th Army’s sector. The positions held by the Italian troops were scattered, with over 100,000 soldiers killed, wounded and missing. Through this disaster suffered by the Italian troops, the German position was opened up even more. Thus, all chances for saving the 6th army were lost.

In this period, the Russian winter set in. The Volga froze over completely, which allowed the Soviets to send supplies to their soldiers more easily. In contrast, the situation of the 6th Army got worse and worse. Without ammunition or food, decimated by cold and disease, the fate awaiting the troops was plain to see. The German leadership took measures to supply the besieged troops by air. This was a responsibility given to Field Marshal Milch. He received orders from Hitler that all available air forces be used to assist the 6th Army.

The measures taken to send supplies by air to the German troops caught in the city proved to be too late. Unfavorable weather conditions hindered the construction of an air bridge which could satisfactorily resolve the needs of the surrounded troops. Out of the 500 tons of supplies promised daily by the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, only 100 could be supplied. Germans in the Stalingrad pocket began to retreat from the suburbs towards the center of the city. The loss of airports in January meant the end of the receipt of new provisions by air and the evacuation of the wounded.

The lack of fuel meant that the German tanks were held behind the infantry. The result was that, when the Russians attacked, the German counter-attacks were lacking in energy. Since it was too cold to be able to wash, the troops were full of lice. Sentinels who fell asleep at their posts didn’t wake up. At the Pitomnik airport, terrible scenes happened. Junkers airplanes tried to transport the wounded and other soldiers away from the front, to safety. Soldiers who ran to get on planes without the right documents were shot.

On Christmas day, the Germans were routed from the Tractor Factory. An ingenious method was used to get them out of the main building of the Red October Factory. The assault group from the division of General-Lieutenant V.P. Sokolov took dismembered howitzers to the factory, piece by piece, and then reassembled them inside. After a few short and intense exchanges of gunfire, the German garrison in the factory ceased to exist. A German soldier, Wilhelm Hoffman, wrote on the last page of his journal: “We have already eaten the horses. I’d like to eat a cat; I’ve heard that cat meat is tasty. Curse this war…”

At the beginning of January 1943, the Soviet command issued an ultimatum. It asked for the surrender of the German troops commanded by von Paulus. Hitler forbade surrender of any kind, with troops receiving the absurd order to fight to the last man and the last bullet. As a result of the refusal to surrender, two days after giving the ultimatum, the Soviet troops began the last phase of the battle - annihilation of the surrounded troops.

The Commander of the Front on the Don, General Konstantin Rokossovsky, offered the Germans an honorable surrender, communicating his offer by throwing leaflets out of planes. They were also offered sufficient rations, care for the wounded and repatriation to Germany after the war. This came with the condition that their military equipment be surrendered intact. The German soldiers continued fighting out of fear that if they surrendered, they would be executed. The Russian civilians fighting for the Germans had no illusions concerning their own fate if captured. Thus, a bloody urban war broke out again, this time with the Germans being pushed towards the Volga.

General Rokossovsky initiated a major offensive, code-named Operation Ring, against the western and southern areas of the perimeter. “The grave is near” was the correct presentiment of Colonel Selle in that moment, which is why many Germans committed suicide. Paulus was forced to emit an order forbidding suicide, under the consideration that it was a dishonor in such circumstances. When the south-western area of the front was attacked by the Russians, some German soldiers realized that their fingers were so swollen by frostbite that they couldn’t pull their triggers.

Faced with the predictable end of the 6th Army, the head of Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels initiated an ample propagandistic campaign with the goal of glorifying the sacrifice of the German soldiers. Goebels affirmed: “In our vocabulary, there is no word for surrender.” Concerning this aspect, historian Alan Bullock judged that the legend of Stalingrad and the German soldiers fighting to the death was “Hitler’s response to the unconditional surrender clause imposed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca.”

In spite of Hitler’s urges to resist to the last man, the German troops began to surrender en masse at the end of January. Field Marshal von Paulus, promoted to this rank one day earlier in the hope that he would choose suicide instead of surrender, was taken prisoner by the Soviets together with his general staff.

The last German resistance at Stalingrad ended at the beginning of February. In total, Soviet troops captured 24 generals, 2,800 officers and 92,000 soldiers. On hearing the news about von Paulus’ surrender, Hitler was overtaken by a terrible fury: “If I had known, I wouldn’t have promoted him to Field Marshal. He didn’t have the will to become immortal.”

It’s not known how many Russians, knows as Hiwis, shortened from Hilfswillige, volunteer helpers, fought for the Germans. No less than 150,000 served during the war in the SS alone. After the war, this was a delicate subject for the Soviet authorities. Thus, information regarding the service of the Hiwis was scarce. It’s estimated that over 20,000 of these soldiers surrendered or were captured at Stalingrad. It is not yet known what the NKVD did with them, although there are testimonies saying that some were exploited to the death in Soviet camps. Others were beaten to death, not shot, so as to save ammunition.

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind, with the loss of over 1.5 million lives.

A total of 20 German divisions were lost by the Wehrmacht. Also lost were two Romanian divisions, a Croatian regiment, supply troops and members of a German construction unit, known as the Todt Organization. Historian Nigel Nicholson considered that the defeat at Stalingrad was “even more serious than the one in 1812 when Napoleon’s army was at least able to retreat: nobody retreated from Stalingrad. A more fitting comparison could be the case of the British Expeditionary Corps, annihilated at Dunkerque.”

During the Stalingrad campaign, the Soviets lost 479,000 soldiers, killed or captured, while another 651,000 fell ill or were wounded. Thus, a total of 1.13 million people were affected. “Stalingrad had become a symbol of resistance, unequalled in the history of mankind,” wrote Chuikov. Elderly soldiers often use this kind of hyperbole when talking about their past escapades. But, in this case, there are no exaggerations.

Superlatives are inevitable when describing the fighting at Stalingrad. The simple fact of remaining alive during that harsh winter was a great accomplishment. The two giant armies fought one-on-one, house by house, during the entire battle, with a desperation and at an intensity unheard of in the annals of war. Around 1.1 million people died in the battle, from both sides. At the end, out of the half a million civilians living in Stalingrad before the war, only a few thousand were left.

The disaster at Stalingrad was a hard defeat for Germany and her allies, with important consequences on psychological, political and military levels. For the Soviets, from a psychological point of view, Stalingrad was the most important victory of the war. It took away the inhibition which existed amongst Soviet leadership concerning the invincibility of the German army. This inhibition was especially accentuated after the disasters suffered by the Soviets before Stalingrad. The victory at Stalingrad gave the Soviets back their confidence in their own strength.

The victory at Stalingrad also took away the westerners’ lack of faith in the capabilities of the Red Army. In western circles, a conviction had taken root that the Red Army was not a serious military power. This happened after Stalin’s bloody purges, the weak performances in the war with Finland and the disasters suffered during Operation Barbarossa. Stalingrad forced them to review their perspective.

From a political point of view, the disasters suffered by the allies of Germany at Stalingrad - Romania, Hungary and Italy - aggravated existing relationships between these countries and Germany. Factors of decision in the leadership of these countries understood that Germany could no longer win the war, and as such, saw themselves forced to enter into talks with the Allies concerning leaving the Axis. In other words, the ‘military solution’ which had more weight before Stalingrad, gave way to the ‘political solution’, that of negotiations with the western Allies in the hope of avoiding Soviet occupation.

From a military point of view, Stalingrad was not solely responsible for the final fate of the German-Soviet war. The long-lasting resistance of the 6th Army allowed for the salvation of Army Group A. By withdrawing this group of armies from the Caucasus, the Wehrmacht’s base could not be destroyed. This operation allowed the Germans to strengthen their positions.

Only 6,000 of the 92,000 prisoners of war survived detention in the Soviet Union and returned home. Although they were weakened by disease, hunger and lack of medical attention, most of them were sent to the Soviet Union’s work camps. There, most died of hunger and exhaustion. A few leading officers were sent to Moscow for propaganda purposes. Some of them, including Paulus, signed an anti-Hitler declaration which was then distributed to German troops. The last survivors were repatriated in 1955.

For Germany, the shock of defeat was very hard. German public opinion was super-saturated by Nazi propaganda with slogans about the invincibility of the German army. It was not ready to accept that the iron divisions created by Hitler, which up until then had spread terror in Europe, could be defeated by the armies of an ‘inferior’ race. Hitler’s attempt to redress the morale of the population could not hide the painful truth of the catastrophic defeat suffered on the Volga. He made this attempt by almost deifying the German soldiers’ resistance and spirit of sacrifice.

The stabilization of the front of Army Group A led to the resumption of strategic initiative on the eastern front, by retaking Kharkov and Belgorod, when spring came. The failure at Stalingrad was perfected through the battle at Kursk, after which Germany definitively lost the strategic initiative in the east, which, in the end, meant the loss of the war. The Battle of Stalingrad, lasting 199 days, was one of the greatest battles in the history of humanity and one of the watershed moments of the 20th century. After the war, in 1945, in honor of the Soviet defenders, the city received the title Hero City.

General von Paulus took part in the Nuremberg trials after the war, as an accusing witness. He remained in the Soviet Union until 1952, when he returned to East Germany and settled in Dresden. There he lived until his death in 1957.