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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.