The Battle of Stalingrad
Patriotism soaked in the blood of thousands
It was a battle which signalled a changing of the tides in WW2 and pushed human beings to their limit. The Battle of Stalingrad was a gruelling, attrition-based chapter in the Second World War which highlighted weakness and stubbornness within the Nazi leadership and was a symbolic victory for the Red Army.
Stalingrad, now Volgograd, was a vital oil passage for the USSR. Capturing it would mean the Germans would cripple the Red Army, push further into Russia and capture the oilfields and, ultimately, Moscow. As well as the practical and logistical victories, capturing Stalingrad would have been a great propaganda victory due to it sharing the name of the leader of the USSR.
The offensive began on June 28th 1942, with some early victories for the Germans. Things changed on July 9th when Hitler launched a huge attack to take both Moscow and the remaining oil fields in the Caucasus in one move. The Southern Army Group, as a result, was split into two. Group A under Field Marshal Wilhelm List made lots of progress into the Caucasus whilst Group B, commanded by Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, slowly headed towards Stalingrad.
In response to the German offensive, Stalin constructed the Stalingrad with the Eight, Twenty-First, Sixty-second, Sixty-third, and Sixty-fourth Armies with Marshal Semyon Timoshenko in command.
Despite early, organised withdrawal, the 27th July saw Stalin call for resilience. The Russian leader issued order 227, decreeing that Russian soldiers would ‘not take one step back’. He also refused to evacuate Stalingrad, reasoning that his soldiers will fight harder knowing that they have civilians to defend.
Hitler had a record of continuing to intervene with his generals and by the time August came around he had told General Hermann Hoth to take his troops south towards Stalingrad. The fourth and sixth armies made their way towards the city, a total over 330,000 men. A resistance from the Red Army, however, inflicted heavy casualties on the sixth army. The battle of attrition around Stalingrad was on.
Late September and October saw some of the hardest hand to hand fighting of the war. Heavy incendiary bombing from the Luftwaffe had destroyed much of the wooden houses in the city. the Soviets had been pushed back to within the city limits, but the turning point in the battle was soon to come.
Between the 19–23rd November, the Soviets launched a counter-manoeuvre which the Germans did not anticipate. The attack was focused on the weaker flanks of the German lines rather than the main bulk of 250,000 men and the sixth Panzer division.
These flanks were defended by unenthusiastic and underprepared Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian soldiers. The Red Army quickly penetrated through these flanks and completed the task of surrounding the German forces. Despite being urged by his generals to allow an attempted break through and retreat, Hitler was determined to keep his men fighting.
The forces grew weaker as the grip of the Red army tightened its grip.
With supplies getting through to the struggling German soldiers less and less, Hitler ordered one of the most-talented German commanders, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, to form a special army corps to rescue General Friedrich Paulus’s forces by fighting its way eastward (Operation Winter Tempest).
The most fatal decision was made by Hitler during mid-December. Paulus wanted to join up with Manstein, yet Hitler refused. This led to Mansteins troops being woefully thin on the ground and being overrun by the Red Army. The Sixth Army became trapped in Stalingrad and with the harsh Russian winter setting in, the soldiers began to starve and freeze.
German troops were neither prepared or accustomed to fight in the icy winter months and once efforts from the German high command to rescue the trapped forces from within the city were abandoned, the end was nigh.
By February 1943, Stalingrad was back in Russian hands. Almost 100,000 German soldiers were captured but the number of casualties throughout the months was much higher.
Around 800,000 Axis soldiers died during the battle, with 250,000 bodies being recovered by the Russians on the outskirts of the city. Over 1.1 million soldiers of the Red army died in and around Stalingrad, as well as an estimated 40,000 civilians.
The battle was a turning point in the war. The Nazi war machine had swept across Europe but since crossing into Russia, Hitler had underestimated the weather and resilience of the Soviet Union. The defeat was demoralising as well as crushing.
Germany lost many of its best men trying to defend a city which the Red Army could not lose. It was the first major defeat in Europe for the Germans and just over a year later the allied liberation of Europe would begin.
The sacrifice of civilians by Stalin was attempted to be justified. Whether the Russian soldiers fought harder or not knowing there were civilians in the city is irrelevant. Thousands were killed in their homes and their own ruthless Soviet leaders were as much to blame as the attacking Germans.
Stalingrad was symbolic for the Soviet Union and it helped to shift the tide of the war. At the cost of nearly 2 million men, women and children. The horrific meat grinder of the Eastern Front had not seen the last of the blood shed.